KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — I guess the appeal of working and texting is universal, because even here, in this world-class capital overflowing in riches, you see that men and women under 30 are tethered to their iPhones.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have been surprised had I gone to Malaysia with more research behind me. Instead, I played the clueless traveler; I jumped aboard a Delta flight and let it whisk me to this Asian city with high expectations but no reason for them.
Had I done a little research, I might have discovered Black people don’t have Malaysia on the top of their places-to-visit list. Unlike neighbors Thailand or Vietnam, Malaysia has no deep connection – or affection, so I now know – for folks who look like me.
I won’t ever forget the uneasiness I felt here.
At first, I thought I might have misread Malaysians. I mean, you spend a short amount of time anywhere and you cannot expect to come away with any clarity about what makes its community tick. But, looking back on my time here, whatever Spiderman’s tingling I got in my limbs proved an accurate gauge of Malaysia.
In fact, a former student from my teaching days at Ohio University pointed that fact out to me while he and his girlfriend were chaperoning me around some of the street festivals in their homeland.
The student, a friend really, asked had I felt the coldness that greeted Black travelers like me here. I told him I had, although I couldn’t point to one incident where I felt disrespected or fearful.
More than anything else, I’d compare the feeling to how author Ralph Ellison wrote about the college-bound narrator in his poignant novel “Invisible Man”: People looked through me but not at me.
I found that discomforting, enough so that I was left to ponder whether I had perhaps stepped foot on a cultural holy ground of some sort, an expectation I knew nothing of.
It might have been easy to see my invisibility as a fiction of my mind if what I can call the Malaysian chill hadn’t been so Antarctic-like. In a place that routinely runs 90 degrees or hotter, I couldn’t escape what amounted to a socio-cultural deep freeze. I stuck out there like a sumo wrestler trying to wiggle into a coach seat on a Delta Air Line flight. People around him can’t but ask themselves: Is the man going to fit?
The answer, doubtless, is “no.”
In all my travels, Malaysia, in general, and Kuala Lumpur, in particular, have been peculiar. While Panama City, Medellin and Havana had their warts too, all the people there seemed more at peace with color than Kuala Lumpurians did.
I’m not trying to slap Malaysians around for not accommodating me, because as a stranger to their land, I should have done more to embrace their world. They ought not worry about whether this man with dark skin belonged among them; they didn’t worry either – not even a bit.
As I continue my post-professor sojourn, I’ll likely encounter other cities (and countries) as unwelcoming as Kuala Lumpur. When I do, I should do what I didn’t do there, which was rebook my airplane ticket and head back to the United States pronto.
For I see no purpose in stretching out a dreadful, 9,351-mile ordeal anywhere; it brings more headaches than joy. Malaysia has plenty to pride itself in, but in being a community the people can call a melting pot, it fails in a close-minded way of its own making.