Last night I was telling my kids a bedtime story – about how, as an 8-10 year old fledgling horse-rider, I was so proud that I had never fallen off a horse. I was convinced not doing so made me great. Imagine my bruised ego when, from the age of 11 onwards, I began show-jumping and cross-country and soon suffered constant falls and minor injuries! Surely I was no longer the exemplary rider I thought I was! To the contrary – I soon realised that each fall taught me a valuable lesson and made me a much stronger, more seasoned, experienced and confident rider.
As a self-publisher, I never had to suffer a literary rejection. Imagine my dejection then, when I eventually became a contributor to the extremely excellent Public Address who then resoundingly rejected the second piece I ever submitted to them for publishing. Once I got over the initial shock I realised that rejection as a writer is less about the efficacy of what you have written, of your personal testimony, and is much more about the suitability of the work for the audience of the publisher involved. Now, many months later, I re-read the rejected piece and still love and cherish it, and stand by every word. There is no less value in it for having been rejected; and I feel I am a stronger, more seasoned, experienced and confident writer for the experience.
I am now publishing the piece for posterity, as a keepsake; for its grains of wisdom that some others may find their own truth in; and most of all, because all writing that comes from the heart is taonga – a beautiful, sacred gift.
Venturing into the Muslim world for the first time opened my eyes not only to the differences but also to the similarities between our nations.
Similarities that it seems are inconvenient to the Western subtext of Muslim societies as being largely comprised of backwards-looking stuck-in-the-mud civilisations desperately in need of our modernising influence.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Aside from the obvious – that many women in Malaysia wear headscarves, some a full hijab, and just as many women don’t wear either and no one bats an eyelid – I struggled to ascertain exactly where the differences that Western society stresses exist were.
Most profound to me as a woman was that men averted their eyes as I passed, didn’t once ogle me, catcall me or make inappropriate comments about me within earshot, as so often happens in New Zealand and other countries. It was a welcome relief from a common pressure of daily life that many women experience.
In truth all societies have strengths and weaknesses and the more mature and enlightened among us are able to recognise this.
Searching the architectural landscape with my eyes – the modern city sky-rises, the sweeping valleys filled with all of the trappings of modern commerce and civic facilities on a scale not found on Kiwi shores – the most immediately noticable difference was actually the banks and petrol stations.
The brand names were different. The logos were different. I can only assume that the shareholders are different. And it seems that difference in brands and shareholders, may be a big part of why our own governments, despite their facade of diplomacy, are so quick to divorce our peoples politically and culturally.
As with every Western nation, the tallest and most ostentatious buildings still housed the headquarters of banks and oil companies – but these had different brands and logos too. It seems the war on the wider Muslim world (both metaphorical and physical) is one of political pretexts masking the true struggle; that between the financiers and energy profiteers that hand in fist rule this planet.
However, Malaysia isn’t some sordid slum-laden backwards pit from which its citizens should be grateful to one day escape via emigration to Western shores. The city centres are well developed metropolitan zones with modern amenities catering to a melting pot of races, cultures, religions and lifestyles.
Many of the activities are very child-centric and “family-friendly” as big-name travel apps would describe it. The shopping malls have to be seen to believed. One has a roller-coaster inside it (literally). An ice skating rink inside another. While they still have the ubiquitous McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, they have entire floors of proper restaurants, with real tables, wait staff, cuisine, rather than merely featuring cardboard-cutout food courts where every single mall patron is restricted to choosing from one of the same six prefab meal outlets.
It is difficult to imagine the bastardisation that is Western commerce until you witness the overseas alternatives. As one Malaysian friend put it, “in New Zealand if you park for two minutes too long, they’ll punish you with fines or tow your car and charge you hundreds of dollars. Overseas they hire parking attendants to pop extra coins into your meter in case you accidentally run overtime, and help carry your shopping bags to your car for you.”
Why? Because they want to encourage commerce not discourage it. The relaxed attitude of the civic structure towards its locals was evident everywhere. Outside of the spotless commercial zones, there was a huge variation in standard of renovation and upkeep from building to building.
Why? Because there was no one slapping residents with ten thousand regulations and penalties, probing their lives, assets and resources with fervour, wielding compliance documents and imposing ridiculous costs. There was simply no tolerance for such civic micro-management, and no apparent dire consequences resulting from its absence that bureaucrats often warn of to conveniently justify their own existence.
Did the relaxed attitude always extend to English-speaking foreigners? Understandably, no. We had a running joke with our friends that “you need your passport to buy an ice-cream“. While this was a clear exaggeration, life for tourists is a vast departure from that of residents. The upsides? Getting to stay in amazing condominium towers with every mod-con known to mankind. NZD$100 per night bought us the lap of luxury, 120m2 two bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom apartment with full kitchen and laundry, marble floors, balcony and big-screen TV, on a secure site with triple-tiered, tropical swimming facilities replete with mini-KL Tower-shaped fountains, that are the stuff dreams are made of.
Yet with low wage earners on less than NZD$3 an hour this was a housing option largely restricted to foreigners. Some locals opportunistically partially subsidised their income with their own well-honed forms of corruption. At Zoo Negara for example, staff generously tried to sell us our 20MYR (Malaysian Ringgit) tour for 30MYR. Fifty metres into the tour, the driver told us to get out and take photos, then drove off into the sunshine.
Several sweaty hours of walking later, we found him at the back of the park, smoking a pipe behind the Panda enclosure, socialising with other tour drivers who had presumably pulled the same stunt on their unsuspecting passengers.
Taxis, which were plentiful and a very cheap and reliable form of transport, featured drivers who were evenly split between dutifully accepting their metered fare, or demanding upfront that tourists agree to pay two or three times what the metered fare would be worth. With children in tow and sometimes caught in the warm tropical rainstorms of monsoon season, I often couldn’t afford to be picky, so instituted my own merit system for dealing with these drivers. If they demanded up front that I pay them 20MYR for a 7MYR fare, I paid it. If they didn’t, and just charged the metered fare, I gave them 30-40MYR. This resulted in many surprised and delighted faces of drivers who couldn’t believe their good fortune – their honesty was being rewarded.
We caught countless taxis during our six weeks in Malaysia but there is one trip that I will never forget. While most drivers treated us like minor celebrities just for our heritage, leaping from their cars to help with our bags and hold doors open for us, one driver was very toxic and I was initially confused as to why he sat in his car unmoving, leaving me alone to load numerous heavy shopping bags and two children, in the pouring rain. He was the embodiment of stone cold silence all the way to our apartment building, then accepted payment with no acknowledgement of us and again no assistance. I was really surprised by his malevolence and complained aloud to our building security, who had treated the children and I like royalty throughout our visit. I was shocked when they later explained to me that they had spoken to the driver and found out why he was so terse. “He is Iraqi, Miss, and he thinks you are American.”
I was dumbfounded. Having advocated for victims of war, covered anti-war actions, and gone out on a limb to make my opposition to the deaths of innocents around the world known, many times, it had not once occurred to me that all this man saw was a middle class white woman shopping with her family in safety while his countrymen had died (and still do) on the streets of their own shopping districts while their homes were mortared, raided and ravaged around them.
By-in-large by white people.
To him, -I- was the war profiteer by racial association and thus he would be damned if he would open a door for me or carry my shopping bags.
This realisation was extremely humbling to me.
It taught me to think extra hard when attempting to view something through the eyes of another because you never know what it is they are seeing. But it also taught me that even we, the peoples of war-mongering Western governments, are victims too. For in their thirst for oil, power and blood, our own reputations die alongside the indigenous peoples who fall victim to colonial conquest and “democracy”, regardless of our individual dissent against the antagonistic political policies that manifest the devastation.
There is so much I will never forget about Malaysia. The cute little chameleon-like house lizards that scramble across the walls and take refuge behind the drapes. The mosquitoes which if you have repellant with at least 40% Deet content aren’t an issue, but if you don’t, are hell on earth. The bright red sun that hangs serenely amongst the fading sky of the late afternoons. The calls to prayer, echoing out across the valleys.
The New York Steakhouse opposite the traditional Malaysian bakery. The popcorn shop that has 50 different flavours. The intimidating chaos of the Batu Caves at Chinese New Year, which we had been warned against visiting at that time due to the throngs of stunningly traditionally-dressed Hindu pilgrims in such a tightly packed and purposeful press that meandering little Kiwis like ourselves who didn’t heed the good advice promptly forgot we were flightless birds and flew straight out of there before we got crushed underfoot. The extravagance of the malls and the humble neighbourhood seafood restaurants. The KL Tower, and the Petronas Towers – magnificent, regal structures that dramatically outshine Auckland’s Sky Tower. The Sunway Lagoon which was a personal favourite – an incredible place featuring theme park rides, water slides and a full-size wildlife park sprawled around a sculptured lagoon packed full of fish, where you are given endless punnets of food to feed to them for free. You can pet giant turtles and stand one pane of glass away from white lions and walk through lush bush packed full of seemingly every exotic bird known to mankind; open air aviaries.
But what I miss the most is Thean Hou Temple – described by a family member as a “kind of Chinese Buddhist Disneyland“, where larger than life sculptures of all the animals of the Chinese zodiac tower above plaques proclaiming their associated characteristics.
The basement level of the temple features a selection of tasty vegetarian restaurants that provide cheap, yummy and hot food and little shops and stalls offer ceramic and jade sculptures of various deities and other ornaments. My favourite shop sold black sesame and honey treats that I am dizzy with delight just thinking about.
On the top level of the temple itself, we had our first experience of a traditional Chinese dragon dance, and while the children were momentarily taken aback by the loud, rhythmic drumming, once it dawned on them that those who poked their heads into the dragon’s mouths got showered in candy, they were grateful participants.
I’d like to close with an amusing anecdote of my own ignorance that also serves as a brilliant example of the perils of assumption when traveling, why my articles only speak to my own direct experiences and interpretations, and should not be taken as gospel or infallible.
With temperatures regularly hovering over 40 degrees celsius, I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been when I discovered the showers in our luxury apartment all ran cold. I continued to shower (and bath!) in cold water for the duration of our trip, often musing to friends and family about the apparent Malaysian preference for bathing in cold water. On check-out, I finally mentioned to the hotel staff that the cold baths and showers had been a bit of a surprise but that I had gotten used to it. They looked at me quizzically and then in horror as the awareness that I had just taken cold showers and baths for six weeks dawned on them, and they stuttered:
“Oh no Miss! We are so sorry you didn’t know! There is a separate switch for the water heater and if you want hot water you have to turn it on.”
Since joining the Occupy Auckland media team in 2011, Suzie Dawson has been a driving force behind many social justice and political movement media campaigns and events, including #GCSB, #NZ4Gaza and #TPPANoWay. Her work has been shared internationally including by RT.com, WikiLeaks and Business Insider. She is currently traveling the world and writing about her experiences. Previous post: ‘Hong Kong and The Matrix‘
Written by Suzie Dawson
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