Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia
It’s only at 5.55 am where one can think of writing in one’s blog, out of a sheer lack of anything else to do. Jet lag affords few options that way. I realize after looking at my previous passages that I had much more to write about my experiences in Pakistan last year, anecdotes and thoughts both trivial and (relatively) large. Unfortunately, those still remain in thin black notebooks for the time being, resigned to stay that way out of a lack of time this year to transcribe them in a more public, Information-Age friendly format.
I write little anyway through much of this year. Lack of time obviously has much to do with that, although the real reason is that travel, or at least the type of travel with many spare moments are the only opportunities where you feel the need to.
This leaves me here I suppose, Christmas Eve in Kuala Lumpur, staying in an admittedly beautiful hotel through the financial kindness of other benefactors. There is a nostalgia here for me. Largely, the past five years have involved me visiting and living in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Pakistan, but I realize this is the first time I’ve been back in this part of Asia since probably the eighties. Whatever sense of place KL gives me right now isn’t simply the location, but the immediate surroundings. There was a time when our family used to spend large spaces of time being spoiled by in hotels like this paid for by a bank that now no longer exists. Hotels like this seem to look the same. Not exactly sterile, but uniform, off-white rooms and marble bathrooms, ebony desks and side-tables with a host of placards advertising every possible service a place like this can provide.
The hospitality you receive is real, perhaps typical of any 5 star hotel chain, but something I always feel is typically Asian, a genuine fawning but dignified cultural warmth, but also something directed towards those higher on the invisible financial hierarchy (in other words, I am treated special because they think I’m rich).
But, as I said, the warmth and politeness is real. I have a strange sense of comfort here. It’s warm and humid without being oppressively uncomfortable. KL is as urbanized as any large “Asian Tiger” economic capital would be, but you can see palm trees sprouting in every spare bit of land not occupied by some ultra-modern edifice. Most of the people I have been seeing and interacting with are a mix of Muslim Malays and Ethnic Chinese. The Muslim population here truly wears their Islam on their sleeves. I mean this slightly literally, as I am seeing many working women in hijab here, but also in the way the Malay population at least opens up to me in such a familial way once they recognize me as a co-religionist. The city, on the surface, is clean, orderly, well-developed, and I can now see why so many other Muslims I know speak in admiration of Malaysia in the way they have moved ahead economically while committing themselves to preserving their cultural and religious roots. There seems to be no reason to emulate North America or Europe to be (at least close to) that standard of living, a standard of living I’m at least seeing seems relatively high.
(This is all to say that this is on the surface. Anyone who knows or write about Malaysia is well aware of the fractious nature of ethnic and identity politics here. There is a surface commitment to preserving the orderly “face” of Malaysia, but ethnic divisions between Malays, Chinese, and Indians are there and seemingly ever-present, although not as balkanized as it could be.)
I’m wondering now if I will have the opportunity to see more than just this surface, orderly aspect of Malaysia. It would be nice to see something equally pleasant but more “real”.
In my mind right now so many people I know will be celebrating Christmas soon. It’s a time that slips my mind because I simply don’t celebrate it, and it has no religious, cultural, familial, or emotional resonance with me. For whatever sentimental reason I’m thinking very warmly of those I know who do have that resonance. I’m not sure if these words (that will probably be read by few) convey that, but seeing this is a journal of sorts I suppose I am obliged to say what I feel, maudlin as it may be.