Multi-Culture Shock

Filed in Gather Travel Essential by on December 14, 2008 0 Comments

Street Side Food Market At NightIn the last two and a half months I’d forgotten how much of a melting pot Malaysia is. First it was Thailand, a very homogeneous country, aside from the Hill Tribes who don’t have much impact or presence in mainstream Thai culture. Then it was Laos, another very homogeneous country, that was much like a younger, poorer brother to Thailand. Then came Vietnam. Nothing like either one, but still, as nations go, very homogeneous itself. Vietnam was also chaotic, a bit on the dirty side and kind of raw. I loved it. My favorite country in South East Asia so far. Yes, I know, there are the Montagnards/Hmong people, but their presence is hardly noticed, again, by mainstream Vietnamese culture. And finally there was Cambodia, repeat after me: homogeneous. However, the linguistic links between Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, all obvious in hindsight, came as a surprise. What’s even more fascinating is how Vietnamese has evolved to superficially resemble Chinese and yet remains a member of the Thai-Khmer sprachbund. I’d had a linguist tell me this, but didn’t believe her until I actually researched it. Sorry, I digress.

But here in Penang? Turn the corner and it’s hard to know if you are in Cantonese China, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia or somewhere else altogether. I just finished eating this amazing dish of noodles and pork on the street complete with fresh squeezed orange juice all for less than $2. I’m pretty sure I heard at least five different local languages: Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaya and Tamil. A couple blocks down from here is little India, all chappatis and curry all the time. Need a Tari Burger? Look around, you can’t miss a burger stall. Need you some Satay? Go a block and then take a left. Hokkien Mee? We got that too. Iced kachang? Old man Chee has it, right over there. Want some laksa? Just down the street. Or, are you homesick? Need something more traditional? Are you dying for a Whopper or a Big Mac or KFC for that matter? That ain’t far either. And they all have free wi-fi inside. No T-Mobile ‘Hotspots’ here, thank you very much!

Did you miss the call to prayer? The mosque is behind my hotel. Oh, you’re Buddhist you say? Well, the Kuan Yin Temple is half a kilometer from here. Tao of Pooh? It’s here! Methodist? Adventist? Catholic? All here. There’s even a decent sized community of Sikh’s.

Not interested in religion or food? Fine. How about money? How about outsourcing? Computer sales? The best software engineers this side of the Indian Ocean? They are all here. In case you didn’t know, the island of Penang is considered the Silicon Valley of South East Asia. Singapore may be the shipping and banking center of the region but this place is all about tech. What’s more bizarre about it is that it’s kind of like Japanese cyber-punk, gone totally wireless and relentlessly multi-cultural.

It’s not unusual to see a blond ‘Amo’ (generic slang term from Singapore for Westerner), a Muslim Malay (with a nose ring), a Chinese woman (tatooed) and two Indians in those skirt things the men wear, drinking Carlsberg beer discussing routers and hubs or unit sales of laptops and desktops for Dell. (When I was with Solar Winds we poached our best salespeople from Dell here in Penang.) Companies with operations here in Penang? AMD, Motorola, Dell, Hitachi and Intel. Quite a combination, yeah?

To top it all off, everyone is very friendly. The complete opposite of Bangkok. I had a wonderful conversation with an older Chinese gentleman this afternoon over green tea about life. That’s all, just life.

It was the kind of interaction I missed so much in Bangkok and I suppose that’s part of the reason I crashed the way I did. (Not saying it’s over, just better.)

However, I am suffering from a bit of reverse, or convoluted culture shock now.

I remember thinking to myself as I crossed the border from Cambodia to Thailand that it would be nice to finally be in civilization again. A very relative term here in South East Asia, but you get my drift. Well, I realized today–or rather–I was reminded that I need it to be less civilized because I get bored quickly. And Bangkok was the height of boredom. Like I said before, give me a little grit, grime and chaos and I seem to blossom.

Just the opposite happens when things are too sedate.

About the Author ()

I'm taking a year long road trip across the globe. I started in Singapore and will end in Austin, Texas sometime in late 2009. There are only two rules: no flying and I must see Penguins in the Antarctic.

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