The Warrior of Light knows that no one is stupid and that life teaches everyone – however long that may take.
-Manual of the Warrior of Light (Paulo Coelho)
Today I met a Malaysian man that made me think about a lot of things, mainly Asians and how I interact with them as a white traveler. It all started in the market, a place where nothing usually occurs except trading your hard earned money for junk to fill up liters of your bag. I had a delicious strawberry lassi that I had purchased from a smiling Indian woman and was heading for the sandal area. I cut around a group of people and headed down an alley, and that’s when we met.
“I always take the shortcut,” a short Malaysian man in glasses said.
“Nice,” I replied half-assedly and walked faster. My stride must have said something along the lines of, ‘Fuck off,’ but the man persisted.
“Where are you going?”
“Going to get some sandals, man,” I replied. Great, I thought. Here’s another dude that wants to small-talk and practice his English. I’m not in the mood for the six-step now. Still he continued.
“Where are you from?”
“California,” I said with the man-cent (a heavy implacable voice that terrifies the weary and forces the small to shrink back).
“Really, American?” he asked.
I break the narration to point out that when a foreigner says ‘American’ as a question, they either love you like ‘Chanel’ (as I later found out) or they think you’re personally responsible for everything terrible in the world. Most of the time, such reactions come from Asians and Europeans. Which do you think hate and love? Most of the time, it’s that easy to tell.
Anyways . . .
“Ya, bud, I’m American,” I said loudly.
That’s when the fun started. He turned on his heels and followed behind me. From then on, it got interesting. He started to ask me questions, a lot of questions. And they weren’t regular. They were curveballs, starting with “What do you think of how Asian people treat you?”
“What?” I said rather startled.
That’s when he spilled all over the market, talking like a castaway that just got off Crazy Island. He told me that he was writing a book . . . about how differently white people are treated in Asia than Asian travelers. He went off. White people are like Chanel, and their shit is Gucci. His words, not mine. Who the hell do I have in my company?-was all I could think from the beginning.
He asked me how my experiences were in Korea. “Korea’s weird,” I said as I usually do. “A lot of Koreans are pretty damn racist against white people, actually.” Not my finest moment, I can see now. A slip that too obvious to be Freudian and too general to be knowledge.
“It depends on the age,” he responded.
“Do you talk to a lot of Asian people?” he continued to probe.
“Ya. I do,” I said with a rather arrogant tone.
“It’s fake,” he spouted.
“Anytime you ever have a conversation with an Asian, they just smile and nod. You are all superstars to them.”
“Now, now, now,” I responded. “It’s not fake. I think that’s a bit narrow-minded to say that it’s all fake. Not everybody has a complex in Asia that dictates loving white people. You can’t just stereotype everybody, man. That’s pretty narrow-minded.”
He looked at me. The smile was gone. Way to go, I thought. Two minutes into the conversation and I’m already attacking the guy. It had been a while since I had a real conversation with a local. “Think,” he said. “Give me an example of one conversation you have had with an Asian in your travels that was real. One.” Then he started to whistle like an asshole.
I looked at him. I’ll play your game, you son of a bitch, I thought and started the journey to remember one. It was hard. I started to sweat, and he continued to whistle. “Don’t make up one now,” he said. Fuck off, I thought, and continued. His manner got to me, and in my foggy state, I couldn’t remember anything.
I’ve got to. I started to trace countries: Vietnam . . . women that wanted to bang and be seen with a white guy, Laos . . . locals that stay in groups, Cambodia . . . women that just wanted to get out, any way they could . . . Thailand, no locals left; Just white people. Fuck. For some reason, I forgot to think of my whole year spent in Korea. It was probably because I felt beaten from the start by his arrogance. Chalk it up to something to work on for the future.
“It’s ok,” he said after a minute or so.
He looked at me. He wasn’t smiling though, like I thought he would be. He looked kind of sad, like a man that figures his wife is cheating and then catches her lover on the voice-mail. We were silent for a while, and then I asked his opinion. “Why can’t I remember anything? There had be something?”
“Asian people think white people are better. It’s not your fault. It’s ours. We kiss your feet before you see our faces.”
He rattled me. He was generalizing so much. But I couldn’t do anything. I felt like he got me. After all, I couldn’t recall a real conversation. (The real question is – What constitutes a real conversation?–as my friend later pointed out to me.) I felt so frustrated by his extreme cynicism. He stated a problem and gave no solution. It felt like a scene straight out of 1984. The fog hit me, and I reacted.
“So what’s the point of writing the book?” I asked harshly.
“I want people to see it.”
“What audience are you aiming for?”
“I’m writing it for backpackers.”
“White or Asian?”
“Why? You said that white people know it’s fake. Why don’t you write the book for Asians?”
“Asians know. They love it. They’re slaves to it. White people are the problem. They know, but they try to stay ignorant to it. They don’t get the glamour in non-Asian countries, so when they get it here, they love it.”
“Aww,” I whined. But it’s not like they’re trying to be ignorant. No one wants a fake conversation, but when you’re in a new setting with new people, you’re top priority is to make friends.”
“Yes, yes, I understand, but they should be aware of the fact so that they can find Asian people that don’t perpetuate the stereotype.”
“What, like you?” I asked. He grinned.
“I’m not like most Asians.” I couldn’t agree more.
“But what will it be, a summary of this idea?”
“Are you planning on offering some kind of solution?”
“There is no solution to it.” I was silent. He continued. “Every Asian wants to adopt a white person. ‘Come and meet my family. Be a part of my life. It’s like a market and everyone’s just trying to grab a white man while they’re on sale.”
“Jesus, man. You make Asians sound like a bunch of cattle herding around for the best grass.”
“White people don’t like to talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable.”
My silence was a testament to that. This type of conversation certainly wasn’t on the ballad for the night, and here I was, talking to a guy that stereotyped every conversation between a white man and an Asian. What did he think of our conversation then?
“What about a white person that marries a Malaysian? That’s not real either?” This is it, I thought. What could he do, say that love between white people and Asians was impossible? Now it will get narrowed even further.
“Sometimes, but usually it’s difficult. White culture ends up superseding Asian culture. One has to give way. It’s ok for a Malaysian though. If they divorce, the kids are like gold. They have the strength, the ‘aura of the white-man.’ They don’t need to sell. They can sell all by themselves. Look around Kuala Lumpur. All the billboards show only three types of people, mixed malay-white, white, or pure Malaysian. In all cases, the models look white. They get surgery, wear contacts, get highlights. That’s what Malaysian women want, the white life, or white kids. Asian people want to copy. That’s the difference between white people that come to Asia and Asians that come to America. White people are curious of Asian culture, but they don’t try to copy. They know who they are. Asians spend two weeks in America and forget where they come from. They just want to assimilate.”
By this point, I had more or less stopped talking. For all intents and purposes, I thought this guy was an ass. But it didn’t matter to me then. I had nothing to do for the next couple of hours and this was the first Malaysian Muslim I had spoken to since I came to Kuala Lumpur. And to make things even stranger, he handed me his number and contact info and told me he wanted to meet the next day.
“So how do you think it is for an Asian-American that visits Asia? In terms of interacting with an Asian, is it like a white person coming here?”
“Ask the cab drivers.” Alright, I thought. This is going to be a trip. He continued. “So I asked cab drivers who they disliked the most out of all foreigners in their car. After all, they meet hundreds of people every day. They said that Asians from white countries were predominately the loudest and most arrogant, trying to show that they are from a Western society. The Western Asian is born in two cultures, the ‘household culture,’ and the surrounding culture. At home, they are Asian. Out and about in their country, they act white. And in Asia, they act superior, which translates to white. The mind always tries to one up the rest of the population. White culture is at the top. It’s like Prada shoes.”
“Alright, man.” I smiled. “Let’s talk about something else.”
He lightened the conversation a bit, and decided to focus on me. I told him that I was an aspiring writer and he almost exploded in excitement. Then he started to probe with the hard questions, as he did. What do you like about yourself? What do you dislike? Are you happy here? It seems like people that have been traveling for as long as you have problems at home . . . He didn’t ask me about my family, though. I think he could predict by my reactions that I didn’t want to open that door. And he didn’t ask me about my religion. “It doesn’t matter,” he said.
The question that stuck out the most was when he asked me what I thought of myself on the whole. I told him that I thought I was sort of arrogant and opinionated at times. “That’s interesting,” he said, “to speak of your vices first.”
“Well I gotta work on it,” was my response.
I even managed to surprise myself. When he asked me what I sensed other people thought of me, I told him that I thought most people loved me at the beginning and hated me at the end, an idea of mine that I keep buried away from everyone (Until right now, I guess). He didn’t miss a beat either, but probed and probed after why I thought so. I told him. “They just want me to be consistent,” I admitted after a moment of silence. “That’s the thing. I’m not. My opinions change ever goddamned second. One minute, I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, the next I’m dancing at a rave trippin’ my balls off. I can’t stay put, even if I tried.”
Then, after a while, he got all affectionate. “I like you,” he said blushing. “You’re very open-minded.”
“Thanks,” I said. In the back of my head, a voice was saying, Fuck . . . When the devil calls you an angel, what are you?
But that was the catch. He wasn’t totally a doosh, but he was definitely rude, and loved to stereotype. But he admitted that he was rude. I didn’t know what to think.
We talked until his bus came. He invited me to come to his home-town and stay for a few days. As his bus pulled up, he kissed me on the cheek ‘italian-style’ and gave me a big hug. Good guy, I thought and waved goodbye.
Thinking about our conversation now, I realize that I could have made a lot of counter-arguments. Particularly, I have meaningful conversations with people every day because they listen to me and I to them. Well, most of the time. But you do have a different barometer when travelling so much. You do not have enough time in one place, nor do you know where to look for a good conversation. So when you find someone, you force things sometimes, like friendships and deep conversations. I guess that’s when it can be fake. The language barrier is another problem as well. But I didn’t argue with the man. From the way the conversation played out, it looked in a lot of ways like I agreed with him, or at least felt beaten down by his arrogance (burying the phrase from you, Tim) I just chewed on what he said and nodded. I guess I was a little like the Asians he spoke of that put their opinions aside to the white man’s and smile. I don’t agree with a lot of his ideas, but it’s ok. We have different opinions. I recall something that he said that made a lot of sense, “An open-minded person can argue with someone and still remain friends after.” I’ll have to remember that.
It’s funny. As the months go by in my travels, there have been times when I felt comfortable falling back into quiet introspection. I start to avoid people that smile too readily, thinking that they just want to attach themselves to me. It all makes me feel scared and lonely. I begin to stay by my hostel and talk with the old timers that have nothing better to do than chronicle their entire lives for me. But it’s is at these times a voice within me shouts like a horn, Get up and move! Go outside! Talk to that random bum sitting on the sidewalk. And if there’s one thing I learned from my encounter with the rude Malaysian named Ris, it is that there are real conversations out there; raw and discomforting at times, but real. You just have to get up and find them. I always have to remind myself though, not to judge a man too harshly, for it’s impossible not to judge. Until I reach enlightenment, my brain will continue to make assumptions, hate, and fear some things. But as a follower of The Manual of the Warrior of the Light, I must remember to carry faith, hope and love wherever I go.