27 April 2009

Girl walks into a 7/11 in Kuala Lumpur, bumps into a development economist...

That's how all good stories start, right?

This is the truly magnificent and disturbing story of how life likes to deal us always the same hand – in different colours. This is how I met L.

So I go into 7/11 for some water and while I am in the queue, a loud guy with a slightly mad look in his eyes and an obvious US-American accent, tells the slightly annoyed but bemused lady at the till how he wants to send his wife/girlfriend some phone credit he just bought. “SHE IS FILIPINO”, he shouts. “SHE'S FROM MINDANAO. SHE'S MUSLIM!”, he adds enthusiastically. The Muslim lady behind he till looks at him, bewildered and takes a defensive step back. L. doesn't notice, his attention was already back to his phone. I look him up and down. Yes, exactly the type to marry a Filipina: Mid-50s to 60s, travel wear, US-American, the aura of a guy who is used to get what he wants. I smirk. The other guy in the shop opens the second till for me. A glance at the newspapers nearby makes me ask him if he can tell me what day the real estate supplement gets published. He doesn't know. I try my broken Malay. It must sound horrible to the poor guy. He still doesn't understand what it is I want from him. The woman tries to help. That catches the American dude's attention. Turns out he's looking for a place too. And quite suddenly, we're in the middle of a conversation and such is his story: He's from Italy but he grew up in California because his father, who had studied at Oxford, wanted him to study in the States so he wouldn't acquire a British accent. So he studied there and did his PhD in Development Economics (and no, at this time I hadn't mentioned anything about myself yet). “Oh my God! That's exactly what I'm doing!”, I exclaim and two second later I have a faint Special Paranoia And Self-defense Mechanism (S.P.A.S.M.) sending shingles up the back of my neck. He says he's an English teacher and fair enough, at first sight he seems like the aged hippie generation expat. He elaborates how he might end up teaching for this school close to the Thai border where he has an offer to teach for RM 8000 (!) a week (probably a month). Wow. WTF? What kind of school is that? He says, he doesn't know, it's a branch of where he teaches at the moment (after seeing an ad today on the LRT, it might be a branch of a University which has branches all over Malaysia, including the city he mentioned).

Suddenly, he looks around suspiciously and in a surprising lower voice confides that he's actually also in the business of importing crude oil for the Saudis. I can't help but gape at him and look at him for the first time. Another S.P.A.S.M. goes off somewhere. So he's one calibre of development economist and one of THOSE kind too, I note with some animosity. He continues that he's exporting the oil to Indonesia. Two female Muslim Indonesian entrepreneurs (he likes to spice his subject clauses with the “Muslim” adjective a lot) ring him up because they own 100 petrol stations each and “BOTH ARE OUT OF PETROL!”. I ask him why he would export to Indonesia of all places, as they actually have oil themselves. (Note: Their sources are more towards the East, actually more towards East Timor... And people living on that end of the archipelago are quite pissed off because they also have some of the poorest provinces while most oil revenue is invested in the centres at the relative expense of the periphery). He has an answer for that: It is Diesel they want and they don't have that in Indonesia.

He rounds off his story by telling me how his family has a vineyard in the Toscana, handed down from the grandfather and big-eyed throws a couple of exorbitant figures at me, the revenue from the wine, trying to impress me with his wealth.

He doesn't ask me a thing about Austria to relate (S.P.A.S.M.) but on that day, I actually welcomed the lack of interest in myself. God knows, I get at least three leery comments/looks by South Asians (Tamil/Bangla etc.) every day (or more after the sun goes down). However, there is sth about him I can't quite put my finger on, that resonates uncomfortably.

Finally, I tell him I gotta go to some embassies before they close. He gives me his number, I give him my email as I would arrange my Malay phone later that day. He says he's on this website called penpals.com “It's not for sex, it's to meet people from all over the world, really” (S.P.A.S.M!!! Another tick on the "Marry a Filipino"-list!) We walk to the station together, he limping behind. An accident while heli-skiing in New Zealand, he explains. He's quite into extreme sports (I tore a tendon too one day playing Volleyball and thank God am still walking straight, how come he with his surely upper class US insurance is limping?! It's an injury a lot of athletes recover from easily). He also did bungee jumping and other stuff. I think of Aike's grandmother. (He once fooled me into believing he nearly died one day while bungee jumping in South America. When he told me another time his grandmother once lived in Indonesia - which is actually true -, I thought that was a joke too and chided, “Oh, was she into bungee jumping too, then?”).

On the way to the LRT, we pass a Chinese bakery. He, having breakfast there every day, says it's been there for 50 years. “THEY DO GREAT SANDWICHES!” (apart from the usual Asian cakes). I inform him I don't like sandwiches, he counters in (mock?) disbelief (or sheer craziness), “BUT THEY'RE REALLY GOOD!” and adds, in just the same Italo-American volume, drawing attention by drawing a wide arc with his arm, “LOOK AT ALL THE CHINESE QUEING UP!” All the Chinese queuing up look at us. The anthropologist in me cringes! The reason why I... was making acquaintance with this guy is probably relief on my part while looking for a place myself before my search has even begun. My fault. He suggests he could let me one of the rooms in the RM 1500/month flat he's looking at and I wouldn't have to pay more than I could. S.P.A.S.M.!!! The last thing I want is a sugar daddy. I tell him right away that that is no option, privately abandoning the idea of moving into any four walls with this guy.

Next day in the afternoon, bang after I finish my London market research on my PC, he rings me. I'm starving after eight hours of analysing on the screen and we meet up to grab some food. I'm actually furious with him for the last thing I had heard on the phone was a cheery “I love you!”. I wonder if it's one of his eccentricities or just another case of harassment that I've been collecting lately, starting in London a week before I left.

I have some great Nasi Goreng from a road side stall for RM 5.50. It tastes delicious. He wants to eat sth American, claiming upon my snorting that he's eaten Malay for the last few weeks. I sarcastically suggest he should go to a branch of Kenny Rogers over the street. Of course, it turns out he is actually about to export the franchise to Sudan (!), Yemen and two to three other countries. When I tell him annoyed how sad it is that McDo has spread as far as Fiji, he bursts out (missing the point) that Starbucks is really doing great in China, and that in Shanghai they have a Starbucks that can hold 10 000 people. “I don't believe that. Not in any one time.” - YESSS!” Not that it matters to the issue anyway unless all you care about are markets. Hm!
A bit later, he points at the Satay skewers and starts explaining to me (!) what Satay is. I tell him, “Yes, I KNOW.” - “How come you know what Satay is?” - “Because it is a dish famous throughout the world?!” - “So how come you so much about SEA, Third World Girl?”, he asks casually. - “Did you just call me Third World Girl?!?” - “Why, what's wrong with that?” It's so typical for a bloody economist to use the term “Third World” so carelessly, so completely ignorant of its connotations and one-sidedness. He makes me flinch every time he says it! And the patronising arrogance!

On the way back (our hostels are right opposite from each other), I pop into 7/11 again. He gets a call and shouts/speaks agitated into the phone, that he doesn't understand, he doesn't know a girl called M. Out of the shop, I ask him who was on the phone, having a pretty good idea and waiting for it to be confirmed. It was his Filipino wife-to-be-not-anymore who accused him of going out with two other Filipino girls (duh! News travel fast in Filipino networks!). She herself is 23! Now where have I heard that before?!

And suddenly, it all makes click in my head.

After all his exaggerations, I accuse him of being a neo-colonialist when he asks if they have hot water in my hostel because he comes “from a civilised country where they have hot water”. That just did it. I further accuse him of dividing the world into two distinct types: the civilised vs. the “third world”. Then I tell him my opinion on Saudi Arabia. He has nth to say when I confront him about Saudi Arabia having a redistribution problem (money centred around a tiny elite, shockingly low Human Development Index despite economic wealth) and the way they treat their construction workers (frying in the sun with no water). He retorts how the royal family employs some 20 000 people and treat them well. “So what about the other 27m people in the country?!” - He didn't have an answer to that. Instead, he mentions how he employs five people including a driver and how he pays them well, treats them well, even texts his driver from Malaysia a happy birthday. It sounds like a magnomaniac fishing for excuses or maybe fake defeat – or a straight-out lie. When I asked him earlier over dinner what his thesis was on to check him out, he had said he compared three different economies but couldn't tell me why those particular three. Instead, he had said (guess!!!), “Because they're all third world countries!” I WONDER why we didn't go into more detail. Fear of being caught out? And then he defends his black&white dichotomy of the world by bragging how he's negotiating with the Malay president who “wasn't even able to tell me what his economic policy was”. Ergo, Malaysia was a third world country! I'm exasperated at this simplistic, neo-liberalist reasoning!

As I walk home, unable to think about anything else but the annoying discussion, I suddenly remember that Malaysia doesn't have a president but rotating kingship and a PM. Either he projected his American system on the rest of the world or he plainly made up the story. I grin to myself. Gotcha, bastard!

“See you tomorrow” he had said. Whatever.

3 courageous comments!:

Aike said...

Hi dear. I sent you an email, please read! This all sounds a bit too familiar to me...

P.S. I moved to a new weblog, and wrote a long post about xenophobia and trust - please have a look! Will write more in English in the future.

Anonymous said...

Heidi!!!!!! please!!! für dich ist der typ vielleicht ein opi, aber der punkt wo wir umgekehrt kinder waren, ist lang vorbei!!! übrigens ich kenne auch einen derartigen herrn, der angeblich mutter teresa in indien getroffen hat... ja!
pass auf dich auf!!
hug you!!!! muuuuaaaaaaaa

Heidi said...

Hi Martina!

Ja, du hast absolut Recht!!! Selbst wenn ich nicht zwei Generationen juenger waer, ist er ein paedophiles, neoliberales, republikanisches A! Hab viele Neuigkeiten, schreib dir bald mal!!!

Hey Aike,
Will read your email later, first I will blog about sexism. In the course of writing that post up, I also had to think about those issues, or more specifically, the likelihood of getting accused as a racist. We talked about this before, remember? About people who say, "How can you say this as an anthropologist?!". Exactly same thing but of course, our opinion is ever evolving the longer we are exposed to various positive and negative and grey experiences abroad. So I am really looking forward to reading about that! Already peaked at your blog but didn't have the time to read the new post. Now that I know what it's about and currently have access to wifi with my own PC, can finally read at leisure later!