Stonesteps sunset

Friday, December 5, 2008

Note from a friend

Hard to understand just one person (I'm married) harder to understand one place. A whole country offers enough contrast and confusion for a lifetime, even for someone as perspicacious and experienced as the Heron Azul. Try three countries in a month, and surprisingly, the sheer shock of difference seems to make the mind search for commonalities. After working 3 weeks in Moscow, bringing spa therapies and service training to a place short of both, it was Bangkok, then the most Muslim part of Malaysia, then back to my island home.
Moscow is cold, dirty, gridlocked, and filled with people shooting you dirty looks. Yet once you are accepted the people are warm (hugs and kisses galore) and are great friends. Getting accepted may not happen for a while, or ever. Russian history has been ferociusly dark for centuries, and suspiciousness is an ingrained survival trait. Surviving often was only possible with help, however, and collusion (in the eyes of whatever authorities existed at the time) or networking (in Americaspeak) has led Russians in the same level and circumstances to look to find allies where they can. In the Soviet days everybody had a little side thing going, and now everybody wants to have their own business. Only the Chinese (in my own limited experience) seem to have more of a drive for entrepreneurship.
Combine this with the commodities (oil and minerals) driven billions flowing into an economy freed from the burden of empire and a population that has only been able to shop for some16 years and the explosion of consumerism is tremendous. Malls are being built like Orange County in the '80s and luxury brand stores are popping up like in Honolulu in the Japanese boom times. I asked our employer (young, rich, brilliant) about the effects of the economic situation on her business and she said it should make it easier to hire staff, salaries had been getting out of hand.
Nobody seemed to be cancelling their foreign vacations, and the Central Asians and provincial Russians were still flooding into the capital looking for work (in the first case) and opportunities (in the second). After a strange trip where we stayed (we called it camping out) in an unopened hotel in a neighborhood so exclusive that the roads were shut down periodically to let 'First Faces' as the Russians call them to blaze by in their motorcades we headed back to friendly Thailand. After warming up and doing a bit more work for a prior client I had to head to the border on a visa run.
This time it was to a little visited corner of Malaysia, Kota Bharu, where the local Thai consulate was known to still be granting the suddenly elusive one year multiple entry visa. I had to leave the country (and still have to leave every 3 months, but just to stamp out and back in) to obtain this, and most other consulates in the region are only giving a single entry visa - leave and you have to get another visa to return. Sounds strange, but still easier than being a foreigner wanting to do similar things in the States. So off to the most conservative part of the 'liberal' Muslim country of Malaysia. I had been to the capital, Kuala Lumper, and the famous (at least to history buffs) island of Penang, but this was the heart of the old Malay, sultans and ceremonial kris bearing part of the country. Turned out to be a very mild 3 days with lots of walking around, trying to find a taxi, and visiting nice small museums. I was well dressed, and people were pleasant and friendly. One Chinese Malaysian lady even gave me a ride as I walking towards where I hoped to find a cab - her daughter lives in New Jersey. Still, it gave me another chance to learn more about the shifting equilibrium of a place built upon racial quotas and institutionalized privilege.
Warning - gross simplifications (at best) follow:
When the British colonialists reluctantly left one of their favorite places, tea plantations and tiger hunts and all that, they left 3 main groups in a place that had been on maritime trade routes for centuries (and some tribal peoples still struggling with the more powerful factions). The Malays, who had controlled the land and had been followers of Islam for some 800 years, the Chinese, who had traded here for longer than that and had also been brought in by the Brits, and the Indians, ditto. A deal was cut to divvy up the political power amongst them enshrining power and pride for the Malays but leaving room for the Chinese and Indians to stay (and not get kicked out or exterminated would be my guess) and the country to prosper. The deal has lasted up to now, partly due to a lot of money from Malaysia's oil boom (soon to run out) and fairly effective industrialization. Now it looks to be fraying at the edges. Foreign companies have quotas of ethnic Malays they have to hire, whether they are effective employees or not. Formerly state owned industries have been privatized and Indians (who started and despite steadfast efforts and high educational aspirations have stayed at the bottom of this triad) especially, who were ensured places in state businesses by constitutional quotas, have been eased out. The Chinese manage it seems to me, to still do their business and make money due to hard work and close knit family and clan bonds, but they are also chafing at the deal as it is playing out now in these modern times.



And then it was back to Thailand, where I was soon to discover, I had been lucky to be able to fly out of cobra swamp airport the week before, and truth really is stranger than fiction.

All of this, I hope, leads up to some (more cogent) thoughts on privilege, power, and an individuals status in law and society, something that might have more resonance in Fallbrook than my travel ramblings..... islandguy

1 comment:

Blue Heron said...

I will tell you the same thing I told our mutual friend - keep that tall head of yours down - Thailand seems quite unstable, with a balance of forces and a king who's lost his mojo - dangerous. A great read - saw it floating around the drafts and fixed it - what do you mean by"first faces"?

And what's this about resonating in Fallbrook? we're global baby...