Day 3 – Cultural Borders


We have a lot of non-alcoholic drinks. This is one of the things I miss the most when I am in the UK. Other things I miss:

  • fresh fish
  • loads of dark green veg
  • being able to wear slippers all the time if I want
  • people who move to music freely
  • people who laugh and smile openly
  • being able to eat out all the time, any time of the day
  • seeing people sharing space any time of the day
  • people who don’t really care about getting buzzed or tipsy or obliterating the day with alcohol

Today I ate:

  • char kway teow and chendol
  • canapés. It was very charming how someone had made hummus, a western snack (I know it’s NOT western, but I mean it’s something that has come here from “the West”!) but there was also some sort of cempedak or nangka flavoured cupcake
  • Oh Chien (oyster omelette) and bak chang/what I would call chang
  • Oops. I just popped out and bought two packets of indian mee goreng and 100Plus

I walked across town to Komtar Tower, which, thankfully, is a massive landmark, and I didn’t panic, I found the entrance, and I talked to strangers about what I was trying to find, the Penang House of Music, a music archive/museum. As an aside, until this evening, I haven’t had any more than a twinge of anxiety. Obvs this evening, post-book event and making arrangements and working out lit fest things, I have started feeling a bit tight across the head and short of breathe. I shall see how I feel about things tomorrow. Step by step!

The second edition of Rosalie and Other Love Songs by Saidah Rastam was being launched and we had vocalist Bihzhu singing with the James Boyle Trio. I didn’t know about Jimmy Boyle, James’ late dad. Key figure in Malaysian music history. I wasn’t the only one moved to tears in the room, when James’s trio played classic tunes. Why was I taken aback? I hadn’t realised that I knew these tunes. They were buried in me. I didn’t know that they are why I have a thing for a certain kind of jazz singing and performance style. Additionally, Saidah’s intro to her book smashed away a whole bunch of assumptions I had held about Malayans, Malaysians, Malays, the way people mixed in this country, culture, ordinary PEOPLE. To be honest, this is why I am very glad to be in Penang. It is so very different to my hometown, PJ, which I associate with all the negative ideas I grew up with. Not PJ’s fault! But I am glad that I have grown up a little to be able to question and unpick beliefs and behaviours that are specific to a person or group, and work out the wider landscape and truths out there.

As an aside, it’s amazing to have people treat me like any other person. To hear languages I am not familiar with – various Chinese dialects/languages. When I was in Kuching many years ago, I had a similar experience of being where people were used to not really being able to tell where you were from, and so they didn’t bother with the usual assumptions. There are to many tribes, mixed race folk, languages, people from the region who look like us but who don’t speak like us etc. So we all kinda were a little bit more open to everyone. Or at least, all a bit more even. You got money? Let’s trade. You want to chat? Sure, why not, if I have the time.

I was in a coffee shop today. This means a shop that is open to the street and is usually made up of various hawker stalls which sell different foods and drinks. Anyhow, this one wasn’t halal. And so I thought, hm, here’s a reason why only non-Muslims are hanging out here. But then, I had walked past another place where the food was halal and the massive queue of people included all races and types of folk (different income bands) brought together by good food. It got me thinking that, where we place importance on food, the competition is stiff so that out food is affordable, and it’s cheaper to eat out. So we all eat out, and we see each other, mostly, and we share tables, and the different cuisines tend to cluster and so people of different skin colours and religions and ages and income brackets are held together in some way, in a state of pleasure and sociability, in a space where we are all there to fulfil a fairly basic shared bodily need. Kinda great, no?


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