Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Surfer Gal

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Wind whips wildly,
Blows history back to me,
Read it, and you’ll see.

We met with Shobee, our host in Butterworth, this morning for brunch. We accidentally slept in, but so did she.

Brunch was an amazing spread of hawker fare; Shobee’s a foodie, too, and not at all shy about it. We stuffed ourselves to the verge of discomfort, sitting back and stretching our stomachs a bit before moving on. She took us for a quick tour of Butterworth, the industrial area facing what she describes as one of the most exciting and liberal place in Malaysia: Georgetown.

It turns out that Panang, the state in which Butterworth and Georgetown exist, is the first state to be ruled by the non-dominant party in some time, and it’s doing very well. It’s begun running a budget surplus, and in some ways it sounds to be turning into a little San Francisco. They have a burgeoning art scene, including art festivals each year, and they’ve even enacted some laws about treatment of transgender people. There’s a “scene” for LGBTQ folks, which is not true in the rest of (pretty conservative) Malaysia.

In the afternoon, Shobee had to do some work. She’s employed by Teach for Malaysia, which is, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, basically a counterpart to Teach for America that happens to be in Malaysia. They send teachers into higher-risk areas to help for a couple years. She supervises 11 of these teachers and has meetings with them to check their progress, both in their class and personally.

So after taking the ferry across with her, Evan and I roamed the city. Georgetown just got its UNESCO designation within the past couple of years, and thus it isn’t obnoxiously touristed yet. They still seem to be getting some things together, but there’s a fair amount of information to be gleaned just from walking around. There’s some interesting street art to see, as well as some cool old buildings and interesting mixed architectures. Like the rest of Malaysia, this area is settled by the Brits, the Chinese, the Indians, and the ethnically Malaysian, so the art and architecture are stunningly different from things you see in North America, or any single one of those countries.

We wandered through town, to the fort, along the seashore, and finally back to the cafe where Shobee was working. We found a couple of English paperbacks on their shelves and absorbed ourselves in them while she finished up, then piled into the car for a ride back to her apartment. She taught us how to make tofu sambal (fried tofu in spicy sauce) and a local soup with “sweet vegetable” (an herb that naturally isn’t found under an English name or in any North American stores outside Chinatowns).

To round out the night, we watched some videos the NGO Shobee used to work for produced that are intended to fight racial hatred—apparently a problem in Malaysia. Although we lacked much of the local cultural context, they were interesting anyway in that they were much more… subtle than American PSAs are. Instead of spouting nonsense like, “this is called ‘racism’, and you shouldn’t do it”, they simply depicted scenes in which someone was hurt by racism, or was careful to avoid it. Culture is fun!