Category Archives: malaysia

so, what are you then?

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“The Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral famously sang No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá—“I’m neither from here, nor there.” For the immigrant and second-generation traveler, “where are you from?” is a question loaded with complexity in ways the people who ask it don’t always understand.”

With complete acknowledgement of the privilege and navel-gazing contained in this piece, I think it does speak to a certain group of people who do see their identity as something more complicated than just simply naming a broad category of ethnicity, residence, or nationality, particularly those of us who do get questions or pushback on our responses (“no, where are you *really* from? I mean, where are your parents from?” – a question that raises an even bigger identity crisis when one of your parents has already had his own immigrant birth story).

And even more so, those of who never felt comfortable with any one possible answer – what do you say when you are of an ethnic origin but don’t speak the language (and need a visa to get into that country), when your birth cert/passport comes from a country in which you’ve never lived, when you hesitate at the passport line in your country of residence because the “US passports/All other passports” split doesn’t really encapsulate your current situation (foreign passport, resident alien card)?

When you opened your mouth as a young child and your accent bore the imprint of yet another country (thankfully, that accent got dropped quickly, if painfully, though still every so often certain turns of phrase and pronunciations reveal hints)?

When your skin color marks you as other (even as your accent screams Midwesterner) and gives strangers leave to ask personal questions for which you have no answer (and of course, the inevitable situation of someone trying to speak to you in any one of a 1000 languages from S Asia that you do not speak)?

When college/job/scholarship/fellowship applications requested a copy of your passport to fulfill their citizenship/permission to work requirements, and then requested a copy of your naturalization certificate?

When your classmates conflated all the countries that start with the letter “M” into “Mexico (a cute artefact of childishness that somehow managed to become a long-standing “joke” even when we knew better), so now suddenly you’re from… Mexico?

When I lived and traveled in Asia, my ethnicity was of more interest than my nationality. In Taiwan, I wasn’t just American, I was Indian. In Malaysia, I was one of those emigrés – the ones who always obtained their passports from the embassy, who never actually lived there but claimed to be from there, but who suddenly caused much consternation when it came to light that I lacked a national identity card (a process that requires returning to the city of birth to apply). In India, I’m an overseas citizen/person of Indian origin, who nonetheless pays the foreigner rate at museums, national parks, and heritage sites, and who of course doesn’t speak Hindi because we’re so Americanized. In SE Asian, I was Malaysian, and visa fees were waived.

Here in Ireland, I’m American (except that time a Spaniard was convinced I am Spanish). My ethnic origin doesn’t matter so much as my accent, and even when mentioning my Indian heritage, I’m reminded “but you’re from America, right?” I don’t know if it’s because so many Americans claim to be Irish (despite never having been to Ireland, and not being able to claim an Irish ancestor from less than 3 generations ago), and the Irish in Ireland find that a little frustrating; or possibly because to much of Europe, the US is a vortex that sucks in all nationality and ethnicity and spits out a culture that seems far-removed (and yet misguidedly nostalgic) of the countries of origin of most of its immigrants.

Reflecting on identity naturally requires some navel-gazing, and everyone has their own unique issues of identity (though I certainly don’t claim to be special, and instead think that are parts of my own reflection that would resonate with many others). While anyone from America is American here, I daresay most Irish people would still claim that the Irish-born (and accented) children of Polish immigrants are Polish (because “Irish” is of course, not just natural origin but culture and genetics too, though that last opens a whole other can of worms when raised). American culture is native to America, but it is not independent of all of the immigrant pieces that make it up (as well as others – native Americans, descendants of slaves, etc), even if it is more than the sum of its parts. And yet, even while most Americans would acknowledge this, there is still a misguided dominant narrative that classes “American” as someone of European heritage, reminiscent of a culture that is not even extant in Europe today, and ignoring not only immigration from other parts of the world, but maybe more importantly, 400 years of slavery that essentially built America.

This narrative plays out in the media, entertainment, institutions, and even in the day-to-day interactions between people. And while it is easy enough for some to dismiss these crises of identity by suggesting that the response to the question of “where are you from?” should be simply “America”, I think these people fail to recognize that “American” is not so simple a term, and that many of us would love to answer that, if it weren’t for the fact that that answer is indeed questioned. When I was growing up, people who looked like me weren’t the main characters in movies and TV, we didn’t read much literature from outside the US and Western Europe (and the one piece we did read about a person of similar ethnic origin to myself was actually written by a European), we didn’t (as Machado points out her piece) talk about immigrant communities as part of history (in fact, other than some reflection on slavery and Japanese internment, the difficulty of immigrants in integrating was rarely discussed in classes). Over and over, “American” was described in a very specific way, to the point where it is not that we don’t feel like we’re American, but that we are made to feel as though we are not American. In response to the shooting at the gurdwara in WI a couple of years ago, even the President of the US referred to the Sikh community as part of the “broader American family“, a point which in fairness was probably intended to indicate that America is very mixed, but instead just reinforces this sense of “other”.

Even now, living in Ireland, I’m stumped with answering the “where am I from?” question when I travel. My accent marks me as American, my look as Indian (though in parts of Latin America, that is not always the case), but I live in Ireland and that was my airport of departure. This question is usually asked by tour guides and other travelers and not usually locals (unless you are in parts of Asia, where all manner of personal questions are asked without hesitation). bBut sometimes it’s asked (in some form) at immigration and airline counters, despite their having my passport in front of them, suggesting that a passport is really not enough to answer that question at all.

When I flew back from India recently, the person at the airline counter in Delhi perused my passport and asked me if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ireland. I said no, because I had long-term resident status, and also because US passport holders get 90-day entry visa-free. “Huh,” she said, thoughtfully as she flipped through a few more pages. And then she laughed. “So only for India, is it?”

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a lot can happen in a year

I have to get the hang of this posting frequently business.  I thought that I would be lazy on blogging because I had nothing to say.  It turns out, the busier you are and the more you do things, the less often you blog.  I’m not sure if it is because of the time commitment, the attention span, or something else.

A lot has happened since the last post, and since before then too.  In fact, a lot has happened in the past year, which lends credence to the whole “a lot can happen in a year” cliche.  Because, you know, it’s so true.   Let me serve as an example.

This time last year, I was sitting on a beach in Kerala thinking about which book I wanted to read next and whether I’d wake up early enough for morning yoga.  I had a “routine” of sorts: wake up, maybe take yoga, grab a late breakfast (kerala coffee, whole wheat toast with pb, maybe fruit and yogurt, or even an omelette), sit on a terrace, watch the ocean, check some email, window shop, dip my toes in the water, take another yoga class, rinse, repeat.  On March 2nd, I left India for Malaysia, where I spent 3 weeks in Borneo pretty much doing the same thing (minus the yoga, plus more alcohol).

That was my life, basically until late May.  I did return to the US in early April, but, with no job as yet, I headed back to Asia for a couple more weeks – a last hurrah maybe – before finally returning and settling into the 9-5.  And so, right around Memorial Day weekend, I started a job, which, for the second half of 2010, basically consumed my life.

But it wasn’t the only thing – the end of the year was also marked with the entry into a yoga teacher training program, which proceeded to eat up any leftover free time I had (after work sucked most of it).  What a change from counting coconuts in palm trees from the second floor terrace of a beachside hotel.

The beginning of 2011 saw the end of teacher training, which I suppose means I am now a yoga teacher.  It also saw more long work hours, and in a few days, will see the move back into a permanent home of sorts.

And I’m leaving out a couple of trips to Ireland, two other moves, and a gym membership that I definitely do not make the most of…

So, in a year I went from wandering aimlessly for several months around Asia, to taking on an important and intensive work committment, to moving and moving again, to starting and completing yoga teacher training, to the beginning of a nest.

A lot certainly can happen in a year.

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the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others.   In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that.   Do you know what palm oil is?  Most people don’t.  But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form.  It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course.   It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins.  It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers. 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone?  Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods…. and not much in the way of nutritional value.   Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees. 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo.   As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful.   You see palm fruit lying on the ground.  Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  But no undergrowth.  No birds. No monkeys.  No elephants.  In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant. 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery.  Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks?  Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons.   But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

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isle of whims

Wow.  So….  2 weeks since my last post.  I have no really good excuse for that, except that things slowed down a bit (though still just as fun) once I left Sabah.   In Sarawak, I headed straight for Kuching, spent about a day in the city and then booked for the countryside.  

I ended up at a little place in a village called Santubong, right on the South China Sea.   It’s really quite astonishing to go from living in a land-locked country to seeing so much water.   I’ve pretty much spent the past 2 months near (or right on) the ocean, and I’m still overwhelmed by the vastness.   In Santubong I stayed in a cute little retreat, far away from the real world and quite idyllic.  It was the perfect getaway and soooo relaxing after running around Sabah.

Then it was off to Mulu Caves to meet my cousin.  Mulu is a World Heritage site, and while it’s something to see, it’s not quite as phenomenal as I was expecting.  Partly, it’s been built up for tourism, so you feel a bit like cattled being herded through the caves.  I realize, of course, that you can get off the beaten path (go to the Pinnacles for example), but it’s kind of a lot of effort.   And since Borneo is such an easy place to travel, and perfect for the lazy traveler, it’s a bit hard to muster the energy to attempt a trek through the jungle.  And yes, I realize how silly that sounds.  The whole point of going to Borneo is to trek through the jungle, but since when have I been the typical traveler?

So I did the spa tour of Borneo instead.  Starting in Mulu, heading to Miri, and then Bandar Seri Begawan.  The hotels are beautiful, the ocean views gorgeous, the beds enormous, the sunsets fantastic, the spas blissful.   Nothing like a scrub/soak/massage/facial extravaganza to make life goooood. 

This is the nice part of traveling (not-so-nice part:  so sick of my clothes!) – being able to change up your plans and, on a whim, check into a fancy-schmancy hotel (with a movie theatre!!) and eat nachos by an 11000 sq m pool.  

In Seoul now.   More spas.  But sadly, it’s cold.  I miss the warmth of Borneo already.

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malaysia, truly asia

So a week in Borneo, and I’m finally getting around to an update here.  It’s been pretty hectic – we really packed it in this time, mostly because my friend is only here for the week.  And I want to spend more time in Sarawak, so we planned back-t0-back adventures here in sabah.

And adventures they were.  First, we climbed Mt Kinabalu, all 4000+ meters of it.  As usual, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and the 2 am ascent to summit before sunrise was a bit of a surprise for me.  But totally doable, because we were just coming off a full moon so the landscape was lit up beautifully (once we cleared the jungle and were on the bare granite).  It was not the easiest climb, but coming back down was much much harder (still waiting for that bionic knee surgery….).The sunrise was stunning.  I got a few decent pictures, tried not to freeze, and generally just enjoyed being on top of the world (or, at least, Sabah).

Then back to KK, in time to pack, drop off laundry, and get some sleep before an early wake-up to head to the airport to fly to Sandakan.  In Sandakan, bleary-eyed and quite sore, we cabbed to Sepilok, and Uncle Tan’s B&B, where we dropped our bags and headed out to see the orangutans at the sanctuary.

My little secret:  I LOVE LOVE LOVE orangutans.  They are absolutely adorable, like little orange grumpy old men.  If they wore clothes, you know it would be golf pants pulled waaaaay up.  Too cute.  Got a couple good pix, and then headed back to Uncle Tan’s for some lunch, and our transfer out to the Sungai Kinabatangan.

The Kinabatangan is the largest river in Sabah, and used to be deep in the jungle.  Nowadays it’s more like deep in the palm plantations (let me take this minute to note: palm oil = bad!  stop buying it!).  Still you really feel like you are far away from civilization, sitting in a jungle camp in the middle of nowhere next to a muddy river.

But Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp likes to make you feel like home.  Though sometimes, I felt a bit like I was back in UB, what with the karaoke singalong.  Minus the absurd humidity.  And heat.  And bugs.  And water.  And, ok, not like UB at all.

It’s a lot like summer camp, in that the guys that work there act a lot like camp counselors – singing songs, taking you on nature walks, boating around running into sandbars, and cooking some pretty freakin’ awesome food.   Also, they told me I look like Preity Zinta, and who doesn’t love a guy who says things like that?

We saw lots of wildlife, and got really lucky on our expeditions.  Plus my group of “elephants” was pretty damn cool.

Tomorrow…. Kuching!  Goodbye Sabah!

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bliss

Two weeks.  Beach.  Lots of yoga. Yummy food.  Nice people.  It doesn’t get better than this.   Here’s to India, and my 5 weeks here.  Yogashala was a fabulous place, and I am so happy to have met Padma and spent time in her glowing presence.  She is a wonderful person and a great teacher.  My practice has deepened so much.

Tomorrow, Kota Kinabalu and the mountains and jungles of Borneo.

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