That morning in a guesthouse near Petaling Street, a young Burmese lady shared a part of her life story with me, the American outsider. We were both migrating through the same world, employed in countries other than those of our birth, but otherwise our paths were very different.
“I come from a poor family in Myanmar, but not as poor as some others in our village. When I was younger, many of my friends were less poor than me. They went to parties and had nicer clothes. I couldn’t go to the parties because I couldn’t afford it. But I also had a lot of responsibility. One time I visited my auntie in another village, and she was very poor and not doing very well. So I asked her, ‘How much money do you have?’ She gave me a number, and I said, ‘Give it to me and I’ll make more money out of it.’ So I did. I set up a little bakery shop outside the house and sold bread and pastries on the street. Eventually people in the village started to come regularly and enjoyed what I made. My auntie was very pleased, and I was able to more than double her money. But one day my mother called me and said it was time to come home, that they needed me in the village. I told my auntie I would be leaving, and she begged me to stay. She said, ‘How will I survive without you? Please don’t go!’ But I’d made my decision.”
“If you spent all that time there,” I interrupted, “wouldn’t your auntie and the locals have had time to learn from you, so they could run the business themselves?”
“They didn’t want to learn. They just wanted to eat the bread; they had no interest in learning how to bake it.”
“That seems foolish to me.”
“My auntie told me, ‘When you go to the city and become rich, you remember your poor old auntie.’”
It was an ordinary story that has been told in many ways by so many people, and it was full of painful, hidden truths. The receptionist continued her tale. I leaned on the counter and patiently listened.
“One day in my village I was praying at the lunch table, and someone pulled my pants down. Everyone laughed and asked why I wasn’t angry. Even my best friend was laughing. I just kept my head down and said that I couldn’t be mad at them, it would be unchristian. But really, I was crying in my heart.”
She went on, “My friend and I had a big argument one day. I didn’t agree with her, because she had this girlfriend, and I said it wasn’t right. There are plenty of perfectly fine single men in our village, and why did she have to be with a woman? That’s not how we’re made, it’s wrong! But she didn’t agree, so we fought.”
I really wanted to say something there, but I also wanted to see what else she might say, so she continued, and when we got on the subject of how she ended up in Kuala Lumpur, she told me another familiar anecdote: She moved to the city for work, opportunity, and higher wages. I can’t remember if she’d spent time in college, but her English was good. She asked me whether I had friends in Thailand. “Yeah, I have many.”
“And you have a girlfriend?”
I hesitated, “Yeah, I think so.”
The answer was too grey for her. I saved myself by countering, “What about you? Do you have someone?”
Her tone changed, “No, I’ve stopped looking for anyone. I think there’s someone out there for each of us and God will provide; He will guide them to us and we don’t have to do anything. My responsibility is to take care of my family and marry a man of my country.”
“You don’t want to do your own thing, maybe marry a Malaysian?”
“No, I don’t think it’s right. In your culture it’s normal for people to move out of the family house, get married to whoever they want and be independent. But you also put your parents into rest homes or leave them by themselves. I think that’s so sad, because they dedicate so much time into raising and taking care of us.”
“It’s different in my culture, you’re right. Sometimes our parents are conflicted about it, but we’re pressured to be that way by society. I left the house when I was eighteen.”
“I don’t think it’s right. It’s so sad.”
“But don’t you think you have the right to do what you wish in the world, to follow your dreams?”
“Yes, well,” she was conflicted. “God has a plan for me. You know, I used to have this American friend, he was much older than me, and one day he said I was like his daughter. I don’t know what he meant, but I told him, ‘you can’t say that!’ We’re so different; I’m Burmese and he’s not. We can never be similar people; we’re too different.”
I wanted to change the subject, “What do you really want to do?”
“It’s good money working here in the city, so I’ll stay here as long as I can. And I’ve always wanted to go to America.”
“I’ve just always wanted to.”
We talked about that for a while but she didn’t seem to have any specific reason for wanting to go, and I think it was more of an unconscious desire to experience a place she’d grown up to perceive to be exotic and superior in some way.
“Other than America, what is it that you want to do in life?”
“Well, I told you that I’m a Christian. And I’ve always wanted to be a missionary and spread the gospel in my country. Lots of people there are poor and helpless; I want to help them.”
She wanted to mould the world into something that she could understand. She was oppressed in one spectrum, and liberated in another, and as she grew up, she moved along those scales until becoming who she was that day. There’s a bigger picture, and though I didn’t agree with some of her views, I recognised that this is a complicated world we all live in.
“The friend I told you about before,” the receptionist started, “she’s really poor now, and a farmer. She works the land. I hope that one day I can send her some money.”
I told her that many organisations and universities exist that give grants and scholarships to people with interests like hers. But similar to the lady in the snack shop in Malacca, my outlandish ideas seemed to bounce off of her without much consideration. But then, maybe at some level a hopeful seed was watered.
I broke away from the conversation, and found myself in another one. Sitting at the table by the exit was a young taxi driver. He was waiting there for some of his customers who were absent at the moment, and the receptionist was in a conflict over whether the driver would “keep his word” about something. Rather than quiz him about it, I asked instead about life as a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur. I mentioned Uber, and he’d already done a bit of research. Recently Uber drivers had got into a bloody fight with traditional taxi drivers in the city. They were trying to bar Uber from dominating the market. The driver told me that the same thing was happening with Redcab — the local equivalent of Uber — and he had made some headway in getting himself a position with them.
I said something about the inevitability of change, but the young driver wasn’t so confident. “The problem is the gang of grandfathers who control all the areas of taxi service here. I’m having problems with them myself, right here around Chinatown. They don’t like us young drivers entering the market; they say we don’t deserve it.”
“The Old Guard always protects itself by keeping out the new,” I said. It was too cryptic for him, but he gathered that I understood his point of view.
I learned that the driver owed someone money, probably whoever he bought his vehicle from, and he was pressed for time. He was about to be pushed out of service, and he was looking for money. That’s the main reason he was speaking with me, the foreigner. He knew I had money, and he’d imagined a kind of tour around the region. All he needed to do was round up a few of us and collect the money, and we’d be on our way to the countryside. I didn’t trust his touring expertise one bit, but it didn’t seem to cross his mind that his attitude of desperation also made him seem untrustworthy. Again I got to talking about alternative solutions, about ways he could beat the market, but he seemed unwilling to think outside the box. “I’ve tried everything and it’s impossible” was his general response. I ended that conversation by taking his business card, said farewell to the receptionist, and was on my way to the Cameron Highlands.
Nine days remaining in Malaysia. How much of this trip was spent in transit? I measured it by degrees of madness.
On the train to Bandar Tasik Selatan, I was distracted by a Chinese man with a fat face. He looked as if he was puffing up, like a balloon. It was the way he strained to open his eyes, the way his lips seemed to inflate when he finished sentences, how he seemed to eat his words, and the expressions that followed which hinted at exhaustion or indigestion. I watched the inflating man while haunted with flashbacks of a dream from the previous night, of a great wave of moving earth that swallowed up, buried and drowned everything and everyone. I saw a past lover in that dream, she had asked me, “Who are you, really? Can you ever answer that?” She asked me about the nature of reality, and a rooster laid an egg, and the pig-men were busy building mechanical chickens. I snapped out of it and the Chinese man was still puffing up, eating his words.
I wondered how such thoughts and sights came to be normal for me, while the train closed in on the place where I would change vehicles to make my way north.
The public spaces were occupied by both veiled and unveiled women in saris (or something like a sari). Some women dressed conservatively, others exposed their legs, backs, or shoulders. It was such a mix of styles and colours and purpose. The womens’ hair was long, and many wore colourful contact lenses. The younger men all had some variation of the Beckham hairstyle. They preferred black aviators and graphic T-shirts, and almost everyone was wearing blue jeans.
I must have been a peculiar sight. I travelled light for a backpacker, carrying only my day pack and a big blue plastic bag that I used for my hiking boots and dirty clothes. I slung the bag over my shoulder when I trekked, and it always made a bunch of noise.
I boarded the coach and was northbound, watching the landscape. I saw crumbling European-styled shophouses, concrete Hindu temples and unimposing mosques nestled into beautiful avenues with courtyards, parklands, schools, government buildings, and flower shops. There were enormous hotels and skyscrapers. I jotted down some of the names on the buildings; Hilton, Deutsch Shell, CIMB, the titles all positioned high up on the structures, like the sigil of a king.
We passed a huge billboard commemorating the twenty-seventh ASEAN summit. The Ipo Klang highway was bordered by manicured, grassy shoulders alongside wild patches of jungle. It was a six-lane highway stuffed bumper to bumper, millions of personal cars and thousands of trucks loaded with plumbing, machines, crates with tin-foiled packages. The trucks were all of a different make, origin, size, year and colour. They were made with a mixture of wood and steel, such improvised things.
The highways crossed over and underneath us like knit-work, and there was a skytrain high overhead. As we skimmed through all that fortified concrete and tarmac, with the gardens and suburban sprawls, all air-conditioned and electrified, I thought of how enormous cities have become. It was incomprehensible to me that someone was responsible for planning and directing all of it. Kuala Lumpur, and the urbanised claws around it, was a booming metropolis. The city was on a man-hunt; they needed full lots of staff, including graphic designers, marketing specialists, and managers. The stereos in the bus stations and the markets sounded with tongas, flutes, and harsh male-female duets auto-toned for the new age, and that was mixed with the sad, romantic swooning of Middle-Eastern music. It made me think of sultans and of deserts. It was like the saddest Indian music.
The buildings of Kuala Lumpur were sometimes beautiful, sometimes harsh, as if shaken by an earthquake. Others were crystal-white and almost palace-like with sky bridges in between and gardens on top. Some had ten stories of penthouses with pearly, smooth wraparound balconies.
As we departed the claws of the metropolis, I finally saw mountains peeking through a hot, white film of smog. There were terraced hills with tightly packed suburbs of dwellings with beige and terracotta rooftops. There were villas with pleasant colour palettes rising from the hills and valleys, and high atop the shoulder of one of the hills was a mosque with a golden dome and white minarets. I imagined the people of that town climbing the hill to the mosque together, and in the evenings all turning to face the same direction as the sun set.
Further north the land flattened and we passed a hillside quarry, stained old shophouses and palm plantations. We passed through a mid-sized town with lots of farmland and bare fields, and a barely perceptible mountain range in the distance. Most of the dwellings in the town were bungalows and shacks, a few made totally of brown and badly tacked-together planks. Some of the shingles on the bungalows were so large and harsh that they could have been dragon scales. Other dwellings had crude patios or attached garages covered by a sheet of tin and a layer of forest debris.
We passed a cleared field where people were building a mass of shophouses altogether. It was like one structure, and all that was presently exposed was the bare white skeleton of it. There were idling yellow construction machines around the lot. It was bizarre; I’d never seen an entire town being built all at once.
The landscape was divided up by great swaths of palms, until the whole countryside was swallowed up by it. Nothing but palms for a hundred or more kilometres. A friend of mine said he’d seen it from an airplane window once, and he described it to me as a “work of art”. Palm oil is Malaysia’s main export, so I’m told. That and oil siphoned offshore. Personally, I have trouble interpreting this particular work of art.
At a point the driver pulled over at a roadside eatery to have lunch. The manager of the restaurant shadowed me as I browsed the fridge, and finally left me once I ordered some watermelon juice. The juice was served in a plastic bag of ice cubes, with a straw and a rubber band to hold it together. I laughed at the strangeness, and asked the manager where he was from. “Tamil Nadu,” he said, and was surprised that I knew where that was.
Holding up the bag of juice, I said to the manager, “In my country, we use these to bring home goldfish.”
The small towns along the way had schools, but they didn’t reveal any character (they were more like prisons) until we reached the edge of the Highlands. Up there the schools had murals painted by the students themselves, and the campuses held playgrounds and colourful banners showing off the school spirit.
I noticed a lot of variety of foliage in the wooded areas, but we weren’t out of the palms until we entered the Cameron Highlands proper. The road became thin, sharp, winding, and it climbed up and through the mountains, among forests of stunted banana trees, bamboo tufts, hanging vines and air-plants, and so many ferns.
I noticed that water was pumped uphill in rubber tubes that laid like fat snakes on the shoulder of the road. There were stilted shanties on the edge of the jungle, where farmers lived. The wood of those dwellings looked wet and rotten. Whenever we passed the entrance to a village, there were children and mothers crowded around, and the children would all wave at us.
The water tubes led up to a plantation house of the victorian style, surrounded by a tarpaulin that stretched from the edge of the road all the way to the front door of the building. They were growing something underneath the tarpaulin, but I couldn’t identify it. We had to skirt to the edge of the road to allow a ‘sekolah’ (school) bus pass, that was carrying children to their homes downhill. It was a yellow and almost perfectly rectangular machine, different yet similar to those I grew up with in America.
Villagers with shirts on their heads idled on a road that split from the main and climbed the hill, and our driver honked a warning as we passed. Sometimes I saw riders relaxing on boulders off of the road where the water was flowing, their motorbikes parked off to the side somewhere.
I had a momentary view beyond the jungle of a deep valley and a river. There were thin trees with white bark growing through the centre of the valley. They were very tall and looked beaten back by something. I could also see a great strip of cleared space that cut all the way over the mountain. Tall, harsh pylons were strewn over the clearing. I don’t know where they came from, or where they went, and I doubted that they were of much help to those that lived in the shanties we’d passed on the way there. That was only an assumption, but such an ugly sight of deforestation and steel monstrosities never makes me think of benign things. I took a note to ask someone about them later. As a side, I did notice a few solar panels in the small villages as we climbed, which was a good sign. But I also saw satellite dishes on many of those rustic dwellings, and the sight of them gave me conflicting thoughts, to say little.
Half an hour before teaching our last stop, we passed by a pretty waterfall. A market had built up around it, and I saw many strange fruit and vegetables hanging from the shop windows. And so the stage was set for a pleasant hill station with British tea houses and strawberry plantations, all of which I could barely see a silhouette, as we pulled to a final stop in the whispering neon and incandescence of Tanah Rata at dusk.