Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown, Malaysia. Initial thoughts.
As I left San Francisco my friend Bryan gave me some timely advice: As soon as you leave a town the set changes. In my absence things keep moving forward and in my absence the niches I once filled get filled by someone new.
It’s tempting to look back on memories of San Francisco and wish to have it back. I miss the security of seeing the same people, visiting the same shops, and eating the same food. But it’s important to know that those are truly only memories now. San Francisco is not the town I left. Friends I never thought would meet each other recently went on their first date, my boss from my old job quit, and someone else now sleeps in my apartment. The set in San Francsico has already changed and it will keep going through random little changes completely independent of me. I’ll always be able to recognize it when I visit but San Francisco will be different when I go back.
In Japan the people dress mostly the same as the United States. There is so much Japanese influence in San Francsico that from first appearances Japan is not very exotic. That’s probably why my writing about Japan focused on the culture instead of the environment.
Malaysia is a shock compared to Japan. In Malaysia many more of the people look outwardly different than what I’m used to in the United States. It’s also a difficult place to be physically: there are few sidewalks, it’s very humid, and some people have been openly hostile. In Japan I never got a bad reaction when taking someone’s picture. In Penang, Malaysia I had a cabbie pull over to the side of the road, make me delete the picture, and tell at me me “I usually like white people but I hate you!”. Later I realized how creepy it must be to have someone take your picture while you’re driving them so I won’t take pictures of cabbies without permission anymore. We got out of the cab and walked the rest of the way.
One thing that has surprised me being on the road in the “developing” country of Malaysia is how much it can feel like home. When we capture photographs of countries we tend to capture what is different, not what’s the same. We edit those pictures to show the different aspects of the country and then we look at those photos for years. It can lead us to think that countries like Malaysia are stuck in the past and more different from home than they actually are.
Malaysia is not stuck in the past. I’m writing this from a cafe in Georgetown run by ethnically Chinese locals who have probably been here 2-3 generations. The cafe has all the comforts of a cafe in San Francisco: hipster drip coffee, wifi, and classy modern interior design with leather seats, succulents, and reclaimed wood. The people I’ve met in Malaysia sell crafts on Etsy and they put their photos on Instagram just like Americans and they shop at the same stores as Americans.
I’m trying to be conscious of tendencies for bias in reporting. I want to show you the Malaysia I am actually experiencing and not the one that’s in tourist books. It’s easy to show what looks different, but the unbiased truth is that this is a fairly modern country. The streets in Georgetown streets are dirty, the people eat at crazy outdoor markets and everything is very colorful. But Georgetown is a UNSECO World Heritage site intentionally stuck in the past as a tourist attraction. As far as intellectual and cultural development what else I’ve seen of Malaysia feels close to the western world.
Some things are bound to the past because they are hard to change. Some people here wear traditional clothing but you can see the younger generation already taking it off. The older houses look very different from the United States but new construction looks the same as the West.
Just like the set changes in San Francisco, the set keeps changing abroad. I’ve never been to Malaysia before but I think if I come back in 5 years I’ll notice another cultural shift. If I go back to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico ten years after my last visit it won’t be the same town stuck in my photographs. Locals will be Instagramming, Etsying, and VSCOing their way through life just like we are in the United States.