An American Abroad

Archives for June 2014

Classroom Conversation with a Precocious Eleven Year Old

“Where were you?” I asked one of my students in class, looking for an answer along the lines of “I was at the park.” But Paul is a fearless and precocious kid. With him it went like this:

Me: Where have you been?

Paul: I was in the sky.

Me: Why were you in the sky?

Paul: I’m a god.

Me: What were you doing in the sky?

Paul: I was in the toilet.

Me: Do gods use the toilet?

Paul: Of course.

Kuala Lumpur: Final Thoughts

Kuala Lumpur has the kind of mix I love. There are gleaming new buildings and many well-preserved older ones as well. There’s a mix of religions and ethnicities, most notably Malays, Chinese, and Indians. I felt some tension among those groups, but didn’t sense any violent hatred. The public transit system is extensive and easy to use, a mix of elevated trains, subways, and a monorail (which I couldn’t take without thinking of Marge Simpson).

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The city makes some adjustments to Islam, which is the dominant and official religion of Malaysia. Alcohol is available in restaurants, bars and shops, but it is taxed very heavily. A beer costs nearly $10. This definitely minimizes the consumption of spiritus fermenti. My American friends will recognize the graphics from Church’s Chicken in the picture below, but the word “church” has been replaced by “Texas,” presumably so that Muslims can feel more comfortable eating there.

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As in other Asian and some European countries, cigarettes must be sold in packages that graphically illustrate the health hazards of smoking. I didn’t see as much public smoking in Kuala Lumpur as I see here in China.

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The city feels open to the world. Air Asia, a big Malaysian company, is vigorously promoting Taylor Swift, probably not only for her musical talents but also to burnish the company’s international cosmopolitan image.

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There are also other knowing references to American pop culture, such as this sign below. (“MY” is the Malaysian internet domain suffix.)

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I left thinking this is a country I’d like to come back to. I regret that I didn’t have the time to see the less urban parts of the country and to explore the coast and the islands. And I hope I have the chance to do that someday.

Kuala Lumpur: In the City 2

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Kuala Lumpur: In the City 1

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Kuala Lumpur: Brickfields

The Brickfields district of Kuala Lumpur is a primarily Indian neighborhood. Given my enthusiasm for Indian food, I couldn’t stay away.

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I was happy to find this little back alley shrine to Ganesh, my fav Hindu deity. He’s the god of arts and writing, the remover of obstacles, and a well-known trickster.

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Kuala Lumpur: KL Wildstyle

Most of the graffiti I’ve seen in China has been the mobile phone numbers of people selling stuff. I hardly realized how much I missed the real thing til I saw all of this in Kuala Lumpur. There are a lot of Utah Ether tags there — too many, really — but it was still refreshing.

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Kuala Lumpur: Payphones

Mobile phones are rapidly making the payphones of Kuala Lumpur obsolescent. They look lonely now. In five days of walking the city, I never once saw one being used. Their days are numbered. They stand stoically on the streets waiting to be ripped off their moorings and sent to the scrapyard. And so before they are gone for good, I made it my mission to photograph every one I saw and then to reinterpret them as the vital instruments they once were.

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Kuala Lumpur: The Petronas Towers

After walking a circle around the Petronas Towers, I was ready to call them the most beautiful skyscrapers to be built in the last 25 years. Maybe even the last 75. I mentally catalogued the influences I saw in their design. Art Deco and the streamline look from the ’30s. Angkor Wat’s textured, tapering spires. The Chrysler building’s gleaming metal decoration. Steampunk detailing. And yet despite all these themes, the structure is not a hodge-podge of design. It works so well because it looks to the past and the future in equal measure.

The towers can be seen from all over Kuala Lumpur.

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They drew me closer.

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When I finally arrived, I was hamstrung by the scale of the place. How do you take a picture of something that large?

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I found myself appreciating the building by focusing on its details. I could imagine cars from the 1930s pulling up beside these Deco-influenced exteriors.

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The brushed stainless steel (?) exterior is nicely balanced between shiny and matte. It attracted these strange-looking bat-shaped moths.

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And though I didn’t get a picture of it, the building looks terrific at night, when white spotlights make the complex gleam like precious metal.

Inside the towers is a huge mall with high-end Euro-merch on the ground floor and mass market brands on the upper upper floors. I normally don’t venture into such places, but there was a store there I’d read about and had to visit. It did not disappoint. Kinokuniya Books is the biggest and best bookstore I have found so far in Asia. I spent just an hour there, but easily could have made it a day. Sadly, I’m keenly aware how much books weigh and how few I could take back to the States without paying megabucks in overweight baggage fees. But just being in a comprehensive bookstore after more than a year of going without reminded me of how much I both love and hate being confronted with all the books I haven’t read yet.

I was here:

Kuala Lumpur: Chow Kit

My hotel was in the Chow Kit district of Kuala Lumpur. My hotel doesn’t advertise that fact. Some guidebooks and websites suggest that Chow Kit is a seedy and even dangerous place. Maybe those descriptions are out of date. Maybe the people who wrote them were confusing relative poverty with danger and sleaze. Maybe my own urban radar is just out of whack, but I didn’t perceive Chow Kit that way at all.

In fact, I’d say that Chow Kit is my kind of place. Unpretentious. A little out of the way, but hard by the central city. Not paved over with skyscrapers like so much of the rest of Kuala Lumpur, but still possessed of buildings dating back to the 19th century. It’s a neighborhood of small shops, working class people, and friendly street markets behind decaying apartment blocs.

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Children’s Day

In the States we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but in China they celebrate Children’s Day. Shane English Yuxi marked the occasion by cancelling classes last Sunday and having and an offsite party.

The event was held at a hot springs park near Yuxi.

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Considering it was a highly structured event that was put together by an outside firm, I had a surprisingly good time. The games we played were fun and inventive and involved the adults as well as the kids. There was some attempt at moralizing, however, about respecting your parents and keeping yourself “clean.”

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One segment I enjoyed was the sending of wishes into the sky. Each group of a dozen people got a paper hot-air balloon and some traditional Chinese Post-It notes. We wrote our wishes on the Post-Its and stuck them to the balloon. Inside the balloon was a light metal frame, at the base of which was a small square of paraffin. When our wishes were all written, we lit the paraffin on fire. The flame warmed the air inside the balloon. After about five minutes, it was hot enough to fly and we let it go. It rose up into the sky and flew away in the breeze.

There were other people at the hot springs, including a rather ragged troop of what I assume was some kind of JROTC organization. Somehow the plastic guns and the red Converse All-Stars made the junior soldiers look less than fearsome.

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After a shaokao (barbeque) lunch, I excused myself and headed back to town. I had a plane to catch to Kuala Lumpur later that day.