Boo! It’s November?

Holy crap, have I been busy. I can’t believe tomorrow is November.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in Malaysian Borneo getting my PADI divemaster certification at Scuba Junkie. At most places, being a DMT (divemaster trainee) is tough work – lugging air tanks around, setting up customers’ gear, rinsing equipment at the end of the day, and generally being a slave. The good thing about SJ so far is that everyone shares the work – there’s no specifically scut work reserved for DMTs. But the hours are *long* – up at 6-6:30 and going nonstop until 8:30-9.

The way SJ structures things, the course will take about 5-6 weeks to complete. It’s a long time, but they make sure you get a lot of experience along the way. Over the past week I have shadowed divemasters (to watch/learn from them as they guide divers) and I’ve assisted three different instructors on Open Water (basic PADI diver certification) and Advanced Open Water courses.

As you’d expect, different instructors have different approaches to things. And the students…wow. Some are enthusiastic and master dive skills quickly, but for many of them I wonder what the hell they’re doing in a dive course. I’ve had people who can barely *swim*, some who show little interest in marine life (Why are they HERE?), and others who I would politely call ADD. Craziness.

My instructor is Rowen, an intense dirty-blond thirty-something Brit (I think?). If he was a character in a John Hughes film, his name would be Blaine and he’d be the slightly arrogant, rich, popular guy who has conflict with the underdog, awkward hero played by John Cusack. Except, since he’s a diver, he is in fact laid back under all his bluster. And he’s very good at his job, too. I think I’ll learn a lot from him, and from all the rest of the Scuba Junkies.

Oy, I have so much more I want to write, but I’m knackered. I did a deep dive today (to 30 meters) while assisting the Advanced course…and that was the day after the Halloween party. I went as a Christmas tree.

OK, off to sleep. I’ll try to be better about writing. Happy Halloween!

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Six months!

Happy anniversary to MEEEEE.
Happy anniversary TO meeee.
Happy anniVERsary to meeeeee.
HAPpy anniversary to meeeeeeeeeee.

Six months! (Officially I left the US 6 months ago yesterday, but I arrived in St. Pete 6 months ago today.)

I left my heart in Melaka

I’m posting this from Semporna, Borneo, where I’ve just signed up to do my divemaster course. Yee haw! More on that later.

In the meantime, Melaka (aka Malacca), the place I just left. It’s a place where it’s easy to get stuck. I arrived on a Monday, thinking I’d spend a few days. A week later I finally left, reluctantly, to catch my flight to Borneo.

There’s no beach to speak of nearby – it suffers the filthy water of most port towns. But Melaka is a popular tourist destination for KLers as well as foreign tourists. I arrived on a Monday and the town was dead – at 7 pm I went out in search of dinner and found very little. But as the weekend closed in the town slowly filled up, peaking on Friday and Saturday nights when the pedestrianized Jonker Walk was wall-to-wall tchotchke-shoppers and there wasn’t a bed to be had in the whole downtown.

Dotted around town are giant, lush trees that serve as a reminder of the virgin rain forest that Parameswara, a Hindu prince and pirate, found when he decided to base his empire there, in the early 15th century. With help and protection from the Chinese, he transformed the small fishing village into *the* place to park your goods-laden ship in the notoriously pirate-infested Straights of Malacca during your trip from China to India to Europe and back again. Which is ironic, since, as I said, Parameswara was a pirate himself.

The town is a colorful mix of cultures that reflect its history. Over the centuries native Malays intermarried with colonial Portuguese (called Kristang), Indian merchants (called Chitty people) and Chinese (called Peranakan or, more colorfully, Baba-Nyonya, meaning father-mother). This multi-culti heritage results in fascinating architecture, Hindu and Buddhist shrines surrounding the large central mosque, and, most importantly, food that’s so good you want to cry.

Overall, it’s a relaxed, happy place that has hit upon just the right mix between tradition and modernity. Its heritage is preserved in museums such as the Baba-Nyonya Museum, but this heritage is also still alive, in a modern way, in the dress and customs of Melakans.

If I go back to Peninsular Malaysia, I’m going to try to go back to Melaka. I like it that much! In fact, I met a sweet Iranian painter and musician who was on his *third* stint there – once for a week, once for 40 days (!) and this time for 30 days. It’s that kind of place.

G’night. S’tight.

Bedbugs.

Bite.

It seems that most of SE Asia is infested with bedbugs. Here in Melaka I suffered my third attack (Xian, Yangshuo, then here). I changed beds and washed all my stuff. Everything was OK for two nights.

And then, two nights ago, I woke up to the now-unmistakable itch of bedbugs. Gah! It was around 3 or 4 am, so I just grabbed my computer and headed downstairs to the hostel’s common area to write. That’s where I found Winston, from the bed diagonally across from me, watching TV and itching his arm. Bedbugs attack! I smiled, sat down and we compared war stories for hours.

Around 8 am I came back in to the TV room after a bathroom visit and…BASEBALL! Yes, ESPN Asia was showing game 1 of the NLCS. As it turns out, Winston’s a Dodgers fan. So we settled in to watch the game, which lasted until noon local time.

After the game Winston went up to try to nap and I went for a wander in Melaka. In the evening we took a bus to Medan Portugis, a nearby settlement where descendents of Portuguese settlers and their Malay wives still live. We ate a dinner of spicy fresh crab and “devil” chicken curry washed down with cold Jaz beer. The chicken was a bit dry, the beer a bit tasteless, but the crab was excellent – just spicy enough to make you sweat a bit, and just tangy enough to cut the spice.

Winston is a really great guy – a Korean-America TV editor and aspiring writer from LA. When I first saw him I dubbed him Hot Asian Guy II. (Grrlz who attended Lissette/Andy’s wedding will get the reference!) He’s about 3 months into a 5-month motorbiking trip through SE Asia. He started in Vietnam, bought a cheap bike, and has come down through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and now Malaysia. We clearly have a lot in common (travel, baseball, writing) so the conversation was easy and interesting. Dinner felt like a really great (and chaste) first date.

After dinner we taxi’d back to Melaka, which fills up with KL tourists on weekends. Looking for some wine, we instead ran into a few Americans & Canadians from our hostel at the local expat bar. We joined them and they drank beer & I drank Jack-rocks until the place shut down. Back at the hostel, all of a sudden it was 2 am. Game 2 of the NLCS started at 4 am, followed by Game 1 of the ALCS at 7:30. “No point in going to sleep!” I decided. Our friends shook their respective heads and went to bed. Winston and I headed to the local 7-11 for game-watching supplies: caffeine (Diet Coke, chocolate) and food (pretend Doritoes, prawn chips, etc).

So yeah, no sleep for 36 hours. Winston left today – he’s meeting friends in Singapore. I tried writing for about 5 minutes, then gave up and took a 3-hour nap. Sleep is good.

OK, I’m off to find some dinner. More on Melaka tomorrow (I promise!).

Last post about China

I am *so* glad to be out of China. Malaysia is…*friendly*. Polite. Happy. Full of tasty food. In such an atmosphere it’s easy to overlook things like mosquito attacks and sudden, unexplained interruptions of internet service – things I would have railed against in China.

I would love wrap up my feelings about China (something more sophisticated than “I hated it”) into a clever Chinese box, but I don’t think that’s possible. My ignorance of Chinese history robs me of proper context. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up and live in a communist society, so my powers of empathy are limited. And there’s no way to overstate the handicap of the language barrier – few people could speak English, no one could understand my sorry attempts at Mandarin, and most importantly, I couldn’t read signs. All these factors make contemporary China impenetrable to me.

All I can do, as the ever-insightful Henry points out, is report on what I observe from my demanding-critical-skeptical-tightwad-ignorant-western point of view.

I went to China expecting philosophy, ancient architecture, modern hyper-development, great food, and plenty of unexpected stuff.

What I found, I think, is…meanness. Most people were completely uninterested in me. This sounds rather self-centered; what I mean is that people didn’t even try to understand – what I was trying to say, to find, to do. People weren’t curious. With a few notable exceptions, few people went out of their way to be helpful. Tour operators didn’t give a shit if I was happy with what I paid for. I can’t remember anyone ever saying “good morning.”

But this lack of cheerfulness extended beyond my tourist-haze. On the streets, no one smiles. You rarely saw anyone (including Chinese people) strolling, enjoying themselves. I don’t remember many random acts of kindness. In fact, people would barrel right over you on the street, cars and motorbikes would run red lights and almost hit you in the crosswalk. Like Russia and Eastern Europe, communist “collectivism” paradoxically seems to have bred a people who will shove old ladies out of the way to get what’s on offer first.

It’s like they’re hoarding time.

People didn’t even take the time to enjoy simple pleasures such as food – most of the time people shoveled it into their mouths, or slurped it up, as quickly as possible.

No one seemed happy.

That’s why Guilin, full of vacationing families and strolling couples, was such a pleasant surprise. All of a sudden, Chinese people seemed human.

Indeed, the change here in Malaysia further highlights the meanness of China. People smile. There’s gentle music playing in the shops. There’s *street life* – markets, parks, restaurants, bustle. Other than in Kashgar, I can’t remember much street life in China – everyone was too busy rushing around their Levitt-cities.

Malaysia is more human.

I’m sitting in a cafe in Melaka (aka Malacca), on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The wicker chair ain’t too comfortable, but the fans in the high ceilings keep the air moving and the mosquitoes at bay. Chilled-out lounge music is playing on the stereo. On the rough, peeling walls hang a haphazard collection of random B&W photos, art posters and a few paintings. There are just the right number of knickknacks strewn about the bar and tables. Earlier the server came around and offered each guest a fried banana that his friend had brought him in a bag. In fact, I just looked up, caught his eye, and he smiled at me. For no reason.

This place does not, could not exist in China. Outside of hostels, there are no public venues where people linger in China. Even the thousands of malls lack seating.

So the question is: do I love this cafe because it’s what I’m used to, or because it’s just good?

Back to Henry’s observations for a sec: I think he’s wrong that Eastern non-individualist culture precludes having an ideology. AFAIK, Chinese people had ideology/philosophy for most of their history – from religions to communism. The fact that they don’t seem to have one in the post-Deng era is troubling. If you go back and read the quoted dude in the NYT article, you’ll see that even *he* was taken aback when he couldn’t say what China stands for. He struggled, but he came up with an answer, because he knew that you gotta stand for something.

His struggle – and my search – to come up with a guiding ideology outside of economic power and development is telling.

I didn’t look very hard – and couldn’t, given the language barrier – but I don’t know that there is any funk in China. One billion people and no funk (art, personality, etc.). Now that’s troubling.

—–
Sorry – Just two more quick things about China.

First…maybe this is another indication of lack of funk, but everyone dresses in the same drab, ugly manner. The men wear cheap collared shirts tucked in to pleated (pleated!) trousers hiked up and fixed in place by a simple leather belt. On their feet they wear thin white socks and black or brown loafers. It’s *so* ugly. Awful.

Second…a little rant about Chinglish. People think it’s funny, and it can be. The menu translations are hilarious. But when you see Chinglish on sign on a train, in a bus station, in a hotel (fire escape instructions!), or even on a billboard, to me it shows that they just don’t give a shit. It’s inexcusable in the age of the internet, even the one behind the Great Firewall. I mean, even spellcheck would help matters. So yeah – I don’t think Chinglish is funny. I think it’s one more example of Chinese insularity and fundamental lack of interest in anyone but themselves.

OK – no more ranting about China – I’m tapped. From now on, it’s hot, sticky, friendly Malaysia.

Last post from China

Last Saturday night I stepped off the train in Guilin, after a long 27-hour train ride south from Xian, in the center of China. I strolled across the parking lot, enjoying the unexpectedly balmy breeze. As I sat on a concrete planter to await the pick-up from my hostel, I was surprised to see dozens of paper lanterns floating in the sky. It was the “mid-autumn festival” here – the mooncake festival – and the flying lanterns were part of the celebration.

After dumping my bags at my hostel I went for a walk. Tables of merry Chinese tourists sat eating a leisurely dinner along the river. Familes, couples and packs of teenagers poked languidly around the night market. Everyone was smiling, relaxed, happy. It was like the best late-summer night, with back-to-school or back-to-work thoughts temporarily banished.
Southern China is like a different country, one that isn’t as brash and harsh as the China I’ve come to know.

The following day I took a bus to Dazhai, a village of ethnic Yao people situated in the famous Dragonbone Rice Terrace area. My room in a family-run guest house was on the corner, with large windows overlooking the town and the rice terraces beyond. $7/night. Wow.

I ordered lunch – fried rice with chicken – and was served a huge pile of rice with a few scraps of chicken hidden inside. ugh. But within a minute or two, the ancient matriarch invited me to the table where the family was eating their own lunch: fish with vegetables, broiled pumpkin, and other non-fried-rice deliciousness. None of this was on the menu. I don’t understand why there are so many places in the world that won’t put their homemade foods on their menus.

Two days later I trekked along a trail from Dazhai to the more touristy Ping’an, passing through more remote villages along the way. The area is hilly/mountainous – the highest point is about 1200 meters – so for hundreds of years the locals quite ingeniously carved flat terraces up and down the sides of the hills to plant rice and a few vegetables on which they subsist. As a result, the hills have been transformed into lovely scalloped fields of green or, in the autumn, yellow.

Not many tourists undertake such a long trek – it’s about 4 sweaty hours along narrow paths up and down hills along rough stone steps – so for the first time during my nearly two months in China, I found myself utterly alone. The air was sweet, the grasshoppers and birds chirped, the sun was warm on my face, the sky un-smoggy blue. I could hear the wind in my ears and my Tevas slap-slapping on the stone path. Peace.

The next day, October 7, I bussed to Yangshuo via Longshan and Guilin. Yangshuo is hyper-touristy, but it’s worth it – those mystical paintings of green-clad limestone cliffs that are so typical of Chinese art are here, live. I arrived in the late afternoon and had just settled in to write when…hello! Evelina and Ia, Swedish women I had met in Xian, appeared. So much for writing, but a nice surprise!

The following morning we three went for a bike ride with Nick, a British guy; Jessica, another Swede; and A-something, a 59-year-old hippie German guy. We made quite a sight: Nick and the German guy have dreadlocks, Ia is blonde and covered in tattoos, Evelina has a shock of lovely red hair, and Jessica is cute and blonde. I was, by far, the least interesting-looking of the bunch.

Today I’m back in Guilin, and tomorrow morning I catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur. I’ve leaving China behind, probably forever. My first 36 hours in this country were truly awful. My last week here was, I grudgingly admit, quite pleasant. I’m not even going to complain about the second round of bedbug bites that blistered and have rendered my legs absolutely disgusting to look at.

———————

A few random observations:

* Yao women all have well-toned calves since they spend most every day walking up and down the steps of the terraces. Their traditional dress includes thin ankle socks and cloth Mary Janes, a wrap top, and knee-length pleated skirts that swing cheerfully and youthfully as they walk. From behind, even the oldest, most wrinked women look like…well, naughty schoolgirls. The traditional colors are hot pink and black – “fuck-me colors,” as my old friend Joey D. used to say. It’s like a village of Lolitas. Disturbing.

* In most Asian countries I’ve visited, one amusing feature of the buses is the music videos blared on the speakers for your “enjoyment.” But in China this entertainment is typically a sort of variety show that’s a cross between a bad Vegas show and “Chinese Idol.” In one video, an off-key midget (little person?) swooner in a Hawaiian shirt exchanged banter with a large, muscular guy, also in a Hawaiian shirt. The big dude had a military-style flat-top, but with the top of his head shaved…so he looked like a military Friar Tuck. Is this entertainment?

* No matter how many people sit at a restaurant table, the server brings just one menu. Then she stands there waiting for you to order immeditaely. If your friend points at a dish to ask if you’d like to order it – “How about the beef with green bean?” – the server assumes you want that and writes it down. You can imagine the confusion if there are 5 or 6 people at the table. This is considered good service – if you’re left to discuss what to order, it’s considered inattentive service. If you’re alone, you point to what you want – “The chicken and eggplant, please, and a beer” – and she always confirms with her index finger: “One?” I was always tempted to scoff and say, “Of course not! I want ten dishes of chicken and eggplant! Geez.”

* In Russia, the soldiers were dressed sloppily, in uniforms that were too big, threadbare and badly made. But the train attendants wore crisp navy uniforms. In China the opposite is true: the train attendants wear polyester pleated trousers and loose, ugly shirts that are cinched at the waist. But Chinese soldiers are as stiff as their spotless ironed green uniforms. I don’t know what this means, but it must mean something.

That’s what I got. Last post from China. Tomorrow it’s nasi goreng for dinner!

On further reflection…

I keep thinking about the negativity in my past few posts. I’m out here in the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, doing what I love to do! Why all the complaints?

A big part of it is the tourist/traveler tension. In roughest terms, someone on a 2-week holiday is a tourist: You see the sites, eat the local specialties, take lots of photos, and go home happy. Someone on a year-long trip is more of a traveler: You read the history and literature, you learn the language, you get off the beaten track, you have the option to stop and hang out for a while.

The observable differences between the two are fewer than most long-trippers would like to admit. “I’m not a tourist,” they sniff. “I’m a traveler.” Whatevah. See you on the shuttle to the local shrine, along with all the other tourists wearing zip-off trouser-to-shorts cargo pants.

The difference is in frenzy. Tourists have little time to see/do everything, so they rush about during frenzied, tightly scheduled days and go to bed exhausted. Travelers have little time to absorb what they see/do; their minds are frenzied. Tourists can reflect on their trip to China in a leisurely fashion back at home, but travelers must try to think deeply about a place in the moment; tomorrow, after all, is a new country, a new culture, a new language.

By this definition, I am a traveler by disposition, and suffer the consequences. But new China doesn’t let people be travelers. Foreigners can’t drive here. Many mountains, lakes and other beautiful places now *charge admission*, the proceeds from which are used to build chairlifts and offer themed rides and other horrors that spoil the very nature we’re being charged to see. No wonder I feel so uncomfortable here.

Following this tangent for a bit: let’s talk about the Disney-fication of China. Most travelers I’ve met have commented on it. The best-known example is of the hutongs in Beijing. These traditional inner-city neighborhoods were the lifeblood of the city…and tourist attractions. But the Chinese government chose to tear them down (for political reasons as well as simple short-sightedness, I’d imagine). Now the government is scrambling to rebuild some – newer! better! cleaner! with tour guides and shopping! But they miss the point: hutongs were interesting to tourists as a glimpse into real life, an older way of life, a different life. They were a chance to get lost, slam into the odor of their public toilets, see old men playing MahJong with their lifelong neighbors, etc.

Here in Xian I met Ben, a native of Taiwan, now an American citizen splitting time between LA and Hong Kong. Like the Chinese-Singaporean I had met on the train to Ulaan Bataar, he was eager to explain and defend many aspects of China which I find distasteful. He said the Chinese government is learning – slowly – that foreign tourists do not (for the most part) want Disney-China. In the past, he says, it created experiences for Chinese tourists. And these Chinese tourists, he continues, are similar to the caricatured Japanese tourists of 25 years ago: They travel in controlled our groups, with cameras, obediently boarding buses and eating buffets on cue. They *want* Disney.

Now the Chinese government is learning, Ben continued, that foreigners don’t want a sanitized, easy-to-digest, manufactured version of the country. I smiled and nodded at him, but I don’t believe it; the senseless destruction of Chinese heritage continues apace. See: Kashgar.

[Please note that I’m not saying that hutong residents shouldn’t get modern plumbing and internet if they want it; in fact, if they want to knock down their homes and replace them with ugly concrete modern high-rises, so be it. But it’s not the residents that choose; it’s the government. And the residents of the “modern” tourist-hutongs are turned into human zoo attractions, forced to put signs on their doors that say, “This is a private residence. Please do not enter. Respect our privacy.”]

Indeed, as China destroys the artifacts of its cultural heritage it has no soul to replace it with. I *thought* I had written an earlier post about my (unsuccessful) search for Chinese funk, but I can’t find it in my archives. Anyway, I had a whole thing about how there’s no FUNK here, how the Chinese artists at the 798 Art Space in Shanghai, and musicians like Carsick Cars (“just like Sonic Youth!” said a promoter at a concert I attended) are the definition of derivative. I’ve seen no originality or uniqueness in the 7-ish weeks I’ve spent here.

Lo and behold, my instincts were dead-on! Read this article in the NYT, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC: “On Day for China Pride, Little Interest in Ideology”.
A short quote:

“…ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values β€” not what his country achieved, but what it stands for β€” and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.

“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, β€œthe diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”

(italics added by me)

I could go on and on here – is it the end of political ideology around the world? After all, America seems to have lost its own centering ideology, its politics having devolved into sniping and mutual obstruction. And remember the Russian business-school administrator I wrote about earlier, who said that her country is also searching for a guiding philosophy.

These are the questions on my mind. They make me want to read more books, by clever people with PhDs in history and/or sharp, witty insights. Instead I’m stuck with what I can scrape together from hostel book-exchanges (trash) and Chinese English-language bookstores (American and British classical literature). I would give my left arm for 30 minutes in Idlewild or a free Malaysian delivery from Amazon.com.