Role Playing

Day 6, 500 words, 31 days.

The pressure to create is really hitting me now, and I’m not sure if I should take this as a discouraging sign. It isn’t about having an audience, or the lack thereof. Posting these on Facebook has less to do with building a readership, than keeping myself publicly accountable.

But regardless of whether or not an entry makes it to the WordPress page, I’ve committed to write this amount, for this long. And I haven’t yet hit a week.

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Today, one of Shuli’s friends arrived from Thailand. She’s actually Australian but her future in-laws have since retired there and she paid them a visit with her fiancĂ©e. She decided to spend the last leg of her trip abroad here in Malaysia, and so for an evening and a day, we’re hosting.

These past few weeks we’ve actually had quite a number of visitors coming through Penang. It’s been a pleasant surprise, the influx of guests coming over. We probably don’t ever admit it, but some days, it might just be what the emotional doctor ordered – it is healthy for us, having friends. Often, our friends are in the middle or the end of a longer trip in Southeast Asia and we’ve given our friends a little incentive to take a little detour and see us, simply because we’re here.

I’m not certain Penang is quite the destination for our American friends in the way it is for Malaysians looking to take a quick getaway to what’s considered to be a foodie paradise. Some know of the historical significance behind this British outpost and come to see the architectural remnants that harken back to older times. Others consider the island a laid back alternative to the hustle and bustle of bigger cities like Kuala Lumpur.

For us, of course, it is all of these things – but it is also where we now call home.

Unlike our friends that found a nice excuse to take on a new destination while seeing us or local tourists that heard about the hawker food and needed a taste of the Char Kuey Teow for themselves, this is where we’ve decided to stay put – for now.

We’re far from assuming a “local’s” identity – something that if we’re to be truly honest with ourselves, we’ll never attain anyway. Nor would I want to, personally.

For my wife, it is different. Her ties to Malaysia are far deeper, far more intimate. Her formative years were spent in Kuala Lumpur and she’d been longing to return to her homeland ever since.

For me, this is adventure. An unpredictable, indefinite, adventure. There’s nothing about this experience that I could have possibly prepared for, and there’s little that I can brace myself for still. What I am sure of, however, is that I’m no local. And frankly, I hate getting mistaken for one too.

This is the consequence of possessing ambiguous features. And if those features happen to look similar to those of a local – then be prepared for locals insisting to speak to you in Bahasa Malay, or Hokkien, or Cantonese, or something other than English. Even if you answer their first question to you, in unmistakable American English.

So, maybe I’m projecting.

Truth is, I’m also partly to blame. For starters, I hardly ever feel the need to raise my voice when I’m asking for something, so much of what I say gets, literally, lost in translation anyway. Secondly, the moment I make the decision to speak broken English so as to simplify my sentences, then it just gets plain confusing. Worse, when I manage to muster up the confidence to say a few words in Malay – employing the little that I know immediately, invites a much more eager conversation the local I’m interacting with is hoping to have – in Bahasa.

Of course, I’m never ready for this, and I reply with a sheeping grin and say that I don’t know anything. Silly American me. I try not to make any more eye contact, and I lower my head in shame. For what, I don’t know. But the feeling is certainly shame. And then, a mild resentment, as if it was their fault for not sensing my Americanness spill over somewhere in our brief interaction. Couldn’t they just, tell?

No, they couldn’t. Hardly anyone can. Shuli and I truly look the part – minus the odd fact that we’re together – a Chinese woman and a Malay-looking man holding hands on the street probably warrants a few stares in a predominantly Muslim country. Little do they know how absolutely ordinary it is, for us, in America.

For many who don’t know our story, we are a puzzle, indeed. Our pairing, our being here, our moving away from America, our lack of kids, our youthful looks, our strange sounding, American-accented English. All of it is probably, a little strange indeed.

But this is the game we’ve chosen to play. It’s the one where we pretend to blend in, until we’re caught fumbling over a food order and mercifully ask for the locals to speak to us in English. Most days, I’m up for it, but sometimes, it’s just too tiring to play.