The view from my balcony. The Turkish embassy is in the round building. I’m surrounded by embassies.
It’s kind of striking how opposite my life in Malaysia is versus my life in America. In America, the air is mostly clean. Here the air is foul. (It wasn’t when I came to visit in January.) I have heard of the burning season in Thailand which comes in March and April. But here we have other countries’ burning seasons to contend with. The nice thing about being in Kuala Lumpur is that it is central and a travel hub for all of Southeast Asia. But the downside is that it’s surrounded by all of these countries that practice slash and burn agriculture. So right now we’re getting the Sumatra smoke. One hour it will be so smoky (they delicately call it “haze” here) you can’t see a mile away and then the wind shifts or a rain comes and in an hour it’s clear. But mostly it has been smoky since I arrived. My cough is still with me, though abating a tiny bit each day.
In America I ride my bicycle. Here I ride the bus because no one in his right mind rides a bicycle. (Dangerous and no bike lanes.) The bus along Jalan Ampang rumbles like an earthquake and the horn blasts like an elephant and that’s before it has even moved. Then it belches out a thick cloud of black smoke and you are thrust against your seat as it lurches forward about 5 feet before getting stuck in traffic. And you get to enjoy the body odor of the passengers at no extra charge. I find it quite a bargain adventure ride for only 30 cents. And when you’ve have enough, you can get out and walk, inhale some fumes, have a drink, and get back on the same bus still stuck in traffic.
In America, we go go to the grocery store…a sanitized big box with a parking lot, a greeter, and fat aisles full of neatly organized foodstuff. The chicken in America is all neatly packaged, labeled and priced. Here they do have supermarkets, but they’re pricey and just as lacking in personality as America. The real fun and good prices are at the open air market like this one at Chowkit…
Here you can meet some hunky guy with a bunch of chickens he’s proud of. He’s happy to hold them up, toss them around, smile, and shake your hand after you snap a few pictures. (Bring your towelettes and wear covered shoes!) Someone next to him is hacking the heads off and bits of chicken parts are flying in the air so you have to watch where you walk.
Everywhere birds and beasts are being hacked up. Fish are flopping and the smells are intense. I love it. This is the Asia I adore — gritty and raw.
And here you get to pick out some exotic fruits like rambutan, durian, and mangosteen. Some look better than they taste. Some taste better than they smell. Most are heavenly and tickle your fingers, your nose, and tongue in ways it has never known. And all the prices are negotiable. Buy more, pay less and get a little extra thrown in for good measure. Dark skin, low price. White skin, high price unless you smile and haggle. I went with Desmond and Brian and when I wandered off on my own to make a purchase, I would be given one price. But as soon as my Asian buddies would show up, the price was magically reduced. Asian friends are sort of like ambulatory Safeway club cards. When Des and I look for a taxi, I hide behind a bush and then emerge once he has agreed on a price with the driver. My mere presence drives the price up considerably. So, in spite of their self-deprecation, being Asian does has its advantages — if only monetary.
And being white has its advantages. I may pay more for a taxi or a bottle of shampoo, but witness the above interaction. Asian gay men here are extremely gentlemanly and respectful toward white people. I don’t know how they treat each other, but here it’s so touching how helpful and sweet the men are. In America I find gay men to be utterly self absorbed, narcissistic, and ageist. Here it’s like I’ve gone to different planet. Yesterday, two young gay guys pulled up alongside the car and rolled down the window to flirt with me. It was hilarious! All they could do was smile, point, and say, “Zoo!” (I think they were going to the zoo and wanted me to join them. Or maybe they thought I belonged in the zoo?) KL is amazingly gay considering that it’s all being done under the nose of a scornful Mohammed.
Desmond, Tim (British expat) and his partner Ajay and I are having breakfast in Bangsar. The carrot cake was phenomenal, btw. Ajay is a microbiology professor, in case you were wondering.
In America I have almost no social life. Here I can’t keep up with it all. I don’t have enough hours in the day or days in the week to see everyone who expresses interest in meeting me. So I have to choose who has the best English skills and the most interesting online profiles. I’m not meaning to boast about this bounty, but rather am trying to express how grateful I am considering how desperately lonely I was in America. I simply could not find interesting gay men with manners and a spirit of generosity in Arizona. Here I meet them in spades: pharmacists, nurses, accountants, IT specialists, language professors.
Other things of great contrast: Here wine and spirits are about 4-5 times the cost of America. I’ve switched to cheap local gin. Here health care is about 1/5 the cost and equivalent in the competency of the providers. Internet here is unreliable unless you get fiber optic wired into your home with a 2 year contract. I’m barely surviving on broadband wifi. It’s slow and half the time it doesn’t work for no apparent reason. So I’m slowly becoming out of touch unable to watch or listen to news on the Internet. (Maybe that’s a good thing!) Weather here is pretty consistently hot…not oppressively hot in my opinion. In Tucson the weather is either too hot or too cold. Here it remains mostly just under 90F and is moderately humid all year long. I keep the doors open and the fan on about half the day, if the smoke isn’t bad.
F A B R I C
Now a little bit about one of my big Asian passions: the fabric markets. First of all on the street level, it’s a lot less hectic and chaotic than Thailand. But I have to say, a lot less of an exotic adventure into tropicana fabricana. Here you don’t have to climb through dusty piles of fabric bolts and shimmy through aisles, slipping on remnants on the floor. The stores are very neat, have escalators, air conditioning and are staffed with well-dressed attendants who speak English and will help you select your textiles.
But, you have to contend with the Muslim influence on fashion which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, dreadful. It’s not much better in Thailand, frankly. Outside of Tokyo, Asian fashion design is, to be kind, not my taste.
And the fabric stores are just full of punchy colored amalgamations of reds, pinks and purples. Horrid.
It’s like a bad psychedelic trip in 100% polyester.
And why, in the name of Allah would you subject women to completely covering themselves in full-length polyester in this climate?
Anything resembling subdued or appropriate to a hot climate would perhaps be worn by a man.
To find something tasteful, what you have to do is go into one of these stores and go to the 3rd floor. There, secreted in the back, you can find a beautiful array of imported linens and cottons. Here’s what I bought, a loose weave powder blue Italian linen for a shirt and a nice thick linen piece with matching double pinstripes for some shorts. The cost here is about $22 per meter or 65 Malaysian ringgit. Again, it’s negotiable. Bring your Asian friend and you’ll get a better price.
The fabric prices are slightly more than Thailand, but the selection here in Malaysia is FAR better and so much more organized. If you like a good hunt and like to dig like a dog and then ride home on a rickshaw, Thailand is your place. But if you’re getting too old for that and fear being buried in an avalanche of fabric, then KL is a good place to locate some sweet material in a sane way. As far as tailoring, I’m sticking with the tailors I know and love in Chiang Mai. The price of tailoring here is 2-3 times the cost of Thailand. Here you get better English for sure but considering Thailand is a cheap and quick flight, I’ll save up my fabric and head over the border and return with a suitcase of hand tailored clothes suited to the climate.
Although I’m certain I have had enough of the United States, the big question for me still remains unanswered: Is this where I want to live? I can’t go for a nice quiet walk in the park without being stuck in traffic (if I could find a quiet park). In fact, every experience in KL is bookended with a big fat traffic jam at — any time of day or night. The outdoors are not peaceful, green, or breathable. Life in KL is a life spent indoors — inside malls, restaurants, air-conditioned cars, and apartments. It is a bit chaotic and uncontrolled, which I sort of like. And it is not a dangerous world and an overly regulated society as I am afraid America has become. It is in my opinion too religious…but so is America. Malaysia is a place where I have a social life and feel hopeful about the prospects of friendship and love. Isn’t that what makes a place a home? It’s a question that churns in the background of my mind all the time. Home. Where is it and what makes it?
Malaysia is on the opposite side of the planet from America, a full 12-15 hour time difference. It is in fact the inverse life of mine in the States. But is it going to be MY life?