I may live in a plush suburb of Kuala Lumpur, but being a First World transplant in a newly industrialized country, I spend most days simply surviving.
Semi-polished Malaysia is a confusing and paradoxical place, rife with hardscrabble hazards. As an American -- spoiled by a high standard of both development and social contract, balanced by the threat of world-class legal recourse -- I am unprepared.
Every step presents an adventure as civilization unevenly veneers wilderness, the ground itself quicksand.
Consider head to toe casualties of an innocuous invitation to lunch, for example, from ego to footgear.
In a booming land often untroubled by zoning regulations, meeting friends at a prominent equatorial hotel may unexpectedly require a swampy trudge through the mosquito-infested construction site separating the elegant establishment from the main road, strappy suede sandals intended for marble floors providing meager protection.
But perhaps even more startling than the region’s frequent ambushes on both my natural instincts and established convictions is the chronic role I play in this survival game:
I am perpetual prey.
When planning a whimsical, open-ended trip to Southeast Asia from the dream-factory comfort of my home in Los Angeles, I projected with my sterling education and big city experience I would cut through local rustic life like a machete-wielding explorer clearing a path through ancient undergrowth.
There would be culture shock, surely, but nothing perilous.
How could an entire rainforest of a country, sixty-percent untouched wilds and the rest sparsely populated by 20 million people, compare to the gritty intensity of life in that untamed concrete jungle of New York City, a hotspot I’d already survived, if not conquered?
I not only miscalculated the proportion of predators per square kilometer in this mountainous green peninsula, I misjudged my strengths. Instead of useful skills and equipment, the professional and personal properties I brought with me hindered my progress and exposed me to the bitterest situations.
I couldn’t hack through any obstructing foliage with the Bryn Mawr Honor Code.
Once the high-minded “no lying, no cheating, no stealing” system afforded me the freedom to leave my backpack without incident anywhere on the suburban Philadelphia college campus and to complete my exams unsupervised, but it was hardly a weapon – or a shield. Stretches in New York and Los Angeles may have awakened my general security habits, atrophied from collegiate ethics, but I can’t say I’m prepared to face unbridled depredation in the real world.
My classical archaeology degree was no tool of success in a developing nation where the past is swiftly being razed and architectural conservationists fighting for World Heritage status are pests for authorities and property owners aching to level historic and crumbling settlements for profit.
My muscular command of the English language, a skill which had clinched opportunities and pulled me out of tight spots before, won me no particular allies in the Asian tropics nor was it a translation aid in communicating with the natives.
Previous prolonged exposure to professional entertainment media, producing and administrating studio motion pictures, Broadway and television shows didn’t inoculate me against the rabid tradition of amateur hour, otherwise known as karaoke, nor the backward entertainment industry’s endemic third-rate productions and pirated material. Instead, my allergic reaction – symptomized by general irritability and catatonia, lack of enthusiasm while warbling La Bamba into a microphone or pawing through DVDs of the latest Hollywood releases at the pasar malam night markets -- was heightened.
Other personal provisions were stripped from me by force, or discarded as useless.
A Northern California background, values marked by non-conformism and far-left political correctness, was no compass for a conservative landscape where children are segregated and schooled by race and religion, and classified ads for jobs, housing and advanced education baldly specify the race, sex, age and religion of those who can expect to receive preferential treatment.
Here Malays call themselves Bumiputera, or princes of the earth, and Chinese people refer to themselves as ‘Chinamen’. That's a term I would have been disciplined for using as a child and when I type it today, my Pacific Northwest spellchecking program reminds me I am way, way out of line, suggesting I substitute ‘cinnamon.’
Here I am automatically designated "white", upsetting a lifelong resistance to America’s own crude race option of ‘Caucasian’. There is no use for my more nuanced self view of being ‘Indo-European’. Besides, what difference could it make to people who presume I’m exactly the same as every other light-complected person who ever set foot in these latitudes, and more recently, whoever crossed their path.
So along with a new cultural classification, I now hold a fresh history. I wear the mantle of red-haired people, Dutch and British and French colonials, stinking privateers and planters, pompous district officers and butterfly-chasing naturalists, decadent drug-addled Orientalist writers, American expats flush with corporate money, and beer-drinking young backpackers who take their tops off after a few.
And my aesthetic treasure map – arty West Coast upbringing’s penchant for clean Japanese design, natural fibers, sensual incandescent lighting -- did not match the landscape in modern Southeast Asia.
Here ascetic living is rarely a style choice, plastic is the craze, and harsh green fluorescent lighting is preferred over illumination that might generate more heat.
So, weighed down with impractical baggage and unschooled in the wily ways of the jungle, from the moment of my arrival I have been fresh meat for stealthy indigenous hunters, a wrong-thinking creature captured unaware and defenseless in alien territory. I even set traps for myself, behavior a terrible tangle: Nerves snap when the situation calls for pliancy, I telegraph approachability when being inscrutable and remote would achieve a better result.
If I had disembarked as an insulated expatriate under the aegis of a multinational company, doubtless palms would have been crossed in advance, maps drawn, guides and porters waiting – and, ensconced in a world geared to my needs, none of this would matter.
Instead, I was a corporate nonentity on a tiny budget, accompanying an ethnic Chinese but Malaysian-born companion who had grown unaccustomed to the country after decades abroad. Along with his mother-tongue, he had forgotten many other crucial details, including that the Chinese are second class citizens in Malay-controlled Malaysia.
My life was to be couched in the local ways without benefit of street savvy. I was about to be eaten alive.
First, enroute from Tokyo, the national airline misplaced my brand new Ping Zing golf clubs and Plop putter, still pristine in their factory boxes. I promptly filed a claim at the Penang airport and trusted the airline bureaucracy to locate the missing equipment.
Instead, the huge corporation slumbered for weeks, deflecting my earnest attempts to follow up at one branch office after another like an elephant brushes off a tenacious fly. Finally, the mailman brought a form letter telling me what I already knew: the clubs were gone. The sensation of blasé victimization mushroomed when I read the airline’s offer of compensation for my loss: Ringgit Malaysia 48 (less than $20USD) per kilo, reducing the worth of my state-of-the-art clubs to their weight in ultra-light graphite composite.
Then my ship came in.
The vessel that carried all my worldly goods over the Pacific Ocean anchored in the Port of Penang, an island state off the northwest coast. In meetings the weeks before, my boastful local freight forwarder, a chain-smoking Chinese character named K.K., clad in Camel cigarette brand khaki safari suits, dismissed my worried-white-woman questions about port procedure and protocol, saying, “Leave it to me, it’s always the same.”
So I don’t begin to know the details but when he failed to show up at the Penang container yard to represent me and my interests, the unattended household container was ransacked by customs officers with the abandon of rampaging chimpanzees, to judge from the scene when I arrived.
After rending boxes from end to end and strewing delicate computer peripherals and precious belongings across the hot tarmac, like mischievous primates they pilfered lightweight shiny trinkets, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Harley Davidson keychains. Later, when my jumbled container was opened in front of my suburban Kuala Lumpur home, family heirlooms skittered into the sludge-filled storm drain.
The silent Tamil moving crew, neon yellow uniforms florid against their dark skin and bloodshot eyes, pretended not to notice. The only woman on the scene, the only foreigner, the only hysterical person, I climbed down to retrieve my things from the muck, not knowing what dank-living creatures I might meet, nor what distress signals I was emitting to the entire zipcode’s blood-thirsty leeches.
Within a few weeks my new pedigreed puppy, romping in the sunshine of my ‘padlocked residential compound’ known in the United States as a gated front yard, was whisked away in the jaws of another predator. A snapping, snarling Rottweiler of eight weeks, the ink on her pedigree papers not yet dry, the Little Brontosaurus Kid’s fearsome promise attracted the marauder she wasn’t mature enough to dissuade.
My Malaysian friends sighed and said it was to be expected, the dog was 'too nice'.Too nice for a trusting milquetoast like me to hang onto.
Later I discovered they were right, it was to be expected. An article in The Malay Mail, a tabloid newspaper specializing in grievances of the common man, reported that a dog theft ring had been operating out of my suburban, not-particularly-criminal neighborhood, stalking RM30,000 worth of well-bred canines in the time I lived there.
Cut-throat dupings and uncivilized endangerments permanently enflamed my pampered sensibilities.
Soon it didn’t matter whether the offense was personal or to my environment, or to society as a whole. The government, the press, the business community! The health care system, the food service industry, the tourism trade! The injustice, the danger, the rudeness!
I squawked and squealed to everyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t. Some local counterparts who had experienced mountains of loss and hazard sympathized, but no one recognized or mirrored my particularly American need for restitution, for justice.
“It happens,” my boisterous neighbor Tuan Tin would sagely explain, nodding and absorbing my bad news. “You can’t do anything,” she’d finally blurt if we talked long enough, quickly daubing her tears as if her tattooed eyeliner would smear.
But Tuan Tin the Buddhist did think a person could do something. She changed her faith to raise a young son stricken with leukemia, embracing Christianity that offered him a rose-colored future in heaven with the son of God – rather than Buddhism’s projection that if he lost his struggle with this life he might be reincarnated as an ant.
No jungle mother wishes her son to become a lowly ant. And so it is in sink-or-swim Malaysia: certain beliefs offer rosier futures than others.
I had wondered how Malaysians maintained their refreshing naïvete in the face of spirit-crushing jeopardy and now I knew. Benign acceptance of life's treachery is an integral aspect of the sunny Southeast Asian disposition.
My neighbors and friends and strangers I read about in the newspapers seemed to possess a mastery of personal tragedy and disappointment in their fellow man, fortitude in situations of over-exposure and lurking menace.
Over the years, I must have heard it all.
- In the southern state of Johore, just across the causeway from civilized Singapore, massive python nests discovered near residential complexes where children daily played in the tall grasses;
- tiger maulings in remote village kampungs on the Thai border;
- regular outbreaks of water-contaminated typhoid and mosquito-borne dengue fever;
- children in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak perishing in an epidemic of a particularly lethal strain of the Coxsackie virus; expensive apartment towers unsoundly built on spindly legs over a riverbed in Kuala Lumpur collapsing, crooked contractors on the lam;
- suburban elevators that suddenly plummeted, taking high-rise dwellers to their parking-garage demise;
- the densely populated Klang Valley subsisting without running water for weeks during a dry-season drought, while Olympic-size swimming pools were kept filled for the hosting of the splashy Commonwealth Games;
- rare wild cats struck by cars on country roads, hauled off by an unfindable Chinese person before the wildlife officials arrive to take custody, the endangered animals’ organs possessing aphrodisiac qualities;
- monsoon storms uncovering barrels of toxic waste dumped illegally at the expensive island beach resort of Pulau Pangkor, yards from where uninformed foreign vacationers lounged on the sand.
As much as these scandals were reported in the paper or whispered at kopi tiam neighborhood coffee shops, it seemed no one took further issue with the government or their employer, their landlord or their doctor, no one threatened to sue or strike, quit a rubber-tapping job or moved away from the palm oil plantation.
Apparently, being cheated by a merchant or eaten by a tiger or flattened by a speeding bus are legitimate events governed by the preeminent system in these parts, the law of the jungle: Eat or be eaten.
My resilient Chinese acquaintances, sure to point out that their immigrant brothers can be found thriving up the smallest river in the darkest corner of Borneo, have an expression for this zealous phenomenon. They call it kiasu, “afraid to lose” in the Hokkien dialect.
A survival attitude that can seem like a complete lack of generosity or respect for others, the syndrome is in full flower in Malaysia and perhaps most obvious on the roadways.
An attempt to merge into another lane will compel the car behind to speed up, horn blaring, in order to pass first, as if breathing your exhaust is the kiss of death.
Even down south in the land-poor island republic of Singapore where the culture is kindred but the jungle is less immediate a threat, paved over and fenced in, being kiasu is still part of life. It’s shrunk to a vestigial trait – and likenesses of Mr. Kiasu, a grasping self-centered Singaporean comic book character, grace the bumpers of luxury cars on the republic’s orderly one-way boulevards.
But in Malaysia’s rural areas and urban centers, equatorial wilderness is no faded notion, no gimmick for the national tourism board to exploit.
Here in the former Third World the jungle still rules and inhabitants face the endurance game with gusto. I must admire the Malaysian brand of fearlessness, although I cannot help but wonder whether I mean foolishness.
Throwing themselves headlong into traffic circles congested with over-laden, careening lorries and reckless motorcyclists, they navigate situations that give me a vehicular-induced migraine. Faster vehicles bump cyclists and pedestrians into squalid gutters while pedestrians scurry with packages and babies across dusty highways in the blistering heat.
In their neighborhoods they face a gauntlet of hazards while doing errands, going to work and school. In flimsy, open-toed sandals urban jungle-dwellers weave their way through tetanal conditions for which this sissy Westerner considers construction boots sine qua non -- sidewalks blooming with rusty metal stumps of defunct street signs.
But the most consuming phenomenon, at 4 degrees North of the Equator, is the invisible march of the tropics: life and death cycles of spores and microbes, accelerated by a steamy atmosphere.
If they sit in the closet for a week or two, green fungus grows on my leather shoes and ages my handbags, dulling their buckles and imbuing the smell of must.
Microscopic organisms stain the pages of my books with veiny brown splotches, and under the glass of framed artwork, blemish cream-colored matting.
My college diploma now appears to be an antique.
Wood furniture oozes crusty white sap, while piles of sawdust appear on the floor under chairs and couches, microscopic organisms eating everything in their path.
Thick moss grows overnight in the storm drain out front and mildew darkens the exterior of my house, buckling freshly-applied anti-fungal paint.
Whether indication something is dying or something is growing -- or both -- the tropical face rot is world class.
During muggy New York summers I used to suffer from a seasonal outbreak of acne that I theorized sprang from walking the city streets, sweating and accumulating layer after layer of powdery black carbon monoxide. To cheer myself up, I imagined the worst and called it tropical face rot.
But in the perpetual August of Kuala Lumpur, a trip to my local dermatologist for the same condition gets me no respect and no relief.
Statuesque Dr. Singh, a Sikh in pristine lavender turban and smooth olive skin, holds a magnifying glass to my epidermis and assures me I need no medical treatment. He sends me away with oil-dissolving cleanser.
Dr. Singh knows tropical face rot when he sees it, counting among his patients those in rural Kelantan, the northeastern-most state, victims of the flesh-destroying disease leprosy. Once leprosy patients were easier to find near Kuala Lumpur, leper colonies surrounding the city.
Now dwindling leper villages are taken over by a new growth business, plant nurseries for the nouveau riche.
After decades of beating back the jungle, in densely settled areas greening one’s property is a cutting edge practice. Tiling over their compounds for easy cleaning and felling trees since the shady, oxygen-producers attract loud dirty birds and the egg-eating snakes that follow them, suburbanites repopulate properties with greenhouse-grown varieties of docile plants. Favored is the papery-flowered Brazilian vine bougainvillea since it doesn’t attract birds or bees with a scent, drip nectar or soil the walkway with whatever sticky juice more succulent plants spit.
Envisioning myself the great white planter-cum-naturalist in the denuded suburbs, for my small patch of land I yearned to create a sanctuary of bird-friendly fruit trees and night-blooming jasmines, exotica impossible to grow in cooler, drier climates.
I’d be the genius who drew brightly-colored jungle birds and big-winged dragonflies back to the neighborhood.
Capriciously, I planted a mountain banana culled during a four-wheel drive weekend trip into the interior. No sooner was it in the ground than it started attracting trouble.
“Evil spirits live in mountain bananas,” my professional Malay neighbor Khatidja warned through our Cyclone fence. “Better to get rid of it, yah?”
But instead of heeding animist jungle wisdom I dismissed her alarm as lowland, big-city snobbery.
Besides, my Collins Field Guide to birds of Southeast Asia said Arachnothera flavigaster, or spectacled spider-hunters, built their nests on the underside of banana leaves at this elevation and I wanted to encourage that. The three foot stalk grew with ferocity, fruiting faster than I could distribute its petite orange bananas or make breads, cakes and frozen drinks. Sturdy shoots with elephantine fronds may look spectacular on a verdant hill-slope or rimming a muddy river but made my place the neighborhood eyesore, tropical equivalent of a wrecked car up on blocks. Within three months the wild baby banana towered nine feet, overtook the yard with new stalks, required constant pruning of dead leaves, cut the light coming into the house, and had to be uprooted by an itinerant handyman with a pickaxe.
But my quest for butterflies, birds and blooms wasn’t going to be diverted by a rogue mountain banana that may or may not have been haunted, so I consulted the experts. The Malaysian Nature Society’s bird watching group publishes a list of indigenous flowering plants and birds they attract. I settled on the sweet-smelling ylang ylang Cananga odorata but for an unexpressed reason nursery after nursery neglected to cultivate the tree. The five foot tall sapling I later planted was shamefully ripped from its natural place in the first growth rainforest by an enterprising garden supplier.
Armed with binoculars, I was now ready to catch sight of Nectarinia zeylonica, the purple-rumped sunbirds that would materialize just as the spindly white flower buds matured. But on the eve of each flower cluster’s opening, its branch was crudely hacked by an anonymous, superstitious neighbor. Perhaps it was that faceless individual across the street who rings an eerie bell five times a day, shadowy figure illuminated by a lone candle, or the middle-aged yuppie who practices his golf swing on his tiny patio every evening. Regardless, I consider myself a failed planter, and no naturalist in my own neighborhood.
I’m no environmentalist either. I have a limit when it comes to legions of bugs.
It’s clear that we are the intruders in insects’ lives and on insects’ turf, our mouths, eyes, noses just new realms to explore but instead of embracing the flying and crawling wildlife, I try to keep them out of my vicinity.
When I was a California girl I pored over green ways to clean, the awful details of toxic paint, EMFs and sick buildings, but now I contract an exterminator to spray a deadly malathion solution around my house and garden on a regular basis to combat ants and termites, aphids and cockroaches. The fact that the sprayer has three thumbs, a birth defect, serves as a monthly reminder to me of the world I am fostering.
Sometimes the peril for me lies not in being devoured but in finding my own daily sustenance.
Insects and microbes rule so jungle guts have grown as hardy as jungle soles.
No one sends back to the kitchen a bowl of soup with a fly in it.
Squeamishness could sound a person’s death knell, whether by over-excitement or starvation or both. Detection of the dreaded rat urine-borne Hantavirus at one of the capital’s major food courts did not affect its popularity nor require it to be closed for extermination and testing purposes. Intrepid jungle-dwellers scarf down dishes prepared by sidewalk hawkers who operate without the benefit of soap and running water, without refrigeration, without covering food from the elements – like the concrete dust drifting over from the construction site next door.
Sometimes I wonder if I am overreacting like a prissy Puritan when I cannot finish my meal after a trip to a particularly bad restaurant bathroom, a bare room with a concrete floor and a bucket of water which, when poured on the floor, snakes in an open drain past the cooking area. Or am I simply the insomniac product of alarmist U.S. media?
As an American I admit that I am burdened with an E. coli information overload, but I am not sure if all this science-based survival information shields me from danger any more than the ignorance of it protects the unconcerned people around me.
Despite outstanding questions, I have survived five long years as fresh meat for the elements, the mosquitoes and the microbes, my endurance fueled by the desire to overcome local life’s obstacles, and falling short of that, being mired in the fatalism of the forest.
Every day I undergo a battery of wilderness precautions, slathering on repellents and sun-blocks, strapping on serious head- and footgear. Making sure I'm carrying enough water, towels, extra supplies, I scurry along suburban walls like a rodent, avoiding the midday heat and blistering rays. On trips abroad I trawl through adventure stores for the latest in jungle trekking equipment, floatable sunhats and collapsible canteens.
In this oldest rainforest in the world, untouched by the Ice Age, specialized jungle gear is not for sale since the natives don’t need it. But fragile foreigners like me do, just to survive the suburbs.
And, like most of the world’s vulnerable creatures eventually do, I’ve developed a prickly exoskeleton to shield my soft innards. I’ve earned my special place in the ecosystem, striking hard and fast at the first sign of trouble from landlords and airlines and resort-operators. I put my counter-attack in writing and raise the alarm, sending a copy to the paper of public grievance, The Malay Mail. Casting a spotlight stuns the predator and slows the plundering, but I have not found a way to completely stop the human depredation, nor accept it.
So while nature’s laws have gained my full respect, man-made cataclysms still have not.
Walking around the shops one sun-drenched noon I slipped into a typically uncovered monsoon drain, substandard concrete returning to its slippery component of sand under foot. Just another victim of the country’s noxious civil engineering, there was nothing to be done and no one to call, except perhaps a friend to drive me to the nearest medical klinik.
“Everyone falls in, don’t you worry,” the Dr. Azreena assured me as she cleaned my exotic-looking but painfully pedestrian gash. She's probably right since ungrated three- to ten-foot deep drains surround residential and business blocks like steep-sided concrete moats, separating people from everything they need to do.
As I rub on vitamin A oil to speed healing of the five inch wide rectangular wound, I fantasize about a conquering tribe that will cut the swath through this jungle that I will never be able to.
A tribe that survives and grows strong on folly like uncovered drains and plummeting elevators, improper food handling and toxic dumping: lawyers. Not like the Malaysian breeds, bogged down in insipid real estate rental agreements or stalking around British courtrooms in powdered wigs and black batrobes, but the hungry, late-night television-advertising ambulance-chasing strain from the U.S. Malaysia is a paradise of prime litigation just waiting for a new rule of law.
In the meantime, when my friends in the States -- who picture me a wild adventuress in a pith helmet regardless of what information to the contrary I reveal about my life -- notice the huge indented mark on my leg, I have the option of glamorizing its far-flung cause: it does look a lot like a shark bite.
In fact, I'm lucky to be alive.
+++ Variations of this appeared in The Expat magazine in Singapore, Men's Review magazine, and Agora web portal for international living and studying.