A Malaysian Journal:

Malaysian Moment in Geneva

(16 June 98)

One more day. A tiny flight. A long flight. And then I'm there.

Jackie is a remarkably deceptive person. She looks so easy going, but underneath that facade...

She sent me a note today telling me she has signed us up for classes in Bahasa Malaysia language lessons. The first class is 1.5 hours after I land...

Given the wide range of influences in Geneva, interesting experiences continue not to wait for my arrival in KL. In Amsterdam I came across a couple of bookstores that had English-only books. One of my hosts there claimed that the Dutch have a higher literacy rate in English than the United States does. I believe it.

I found a Malaysia language introduction book and another 'culture' book, the latter called "Malaysian Flavours". The "Journey" book I've mentioned before had a more polished and literary quality to its writing; it was authored by a Bumiputra man with a bit of Portuguese background, the Flavours book is by a woman with a mix of Malaccan Bumiputra and ethnic Chinese background. Also, she's a teacher of English. At times she is greatly technical about one or another grammar issue, but that is only to make sure that we understand she can be formal and precise. Most of the time her writing is quite casual and colloquial -- occasionally even pidgin and not just when trying to demonstrate pidgin -- but she, too, has a nice personal touch. The Journey book is about the social and political course of the country since independence in the late '50s. The Flavours book is a about dealing with people today, as well as introducing you to Malaysian English and Malaysian drivers. (Why should Malaysian English be different from "regular"?

Tell me what "regular" is. American English? English of London's East End? Texan?)

I took the book with me when I wandered out of my Geneva hotel last week, in search of dinner. A couple of random turns and there was a tapas restaurant. Never having been into one I was curious about this Spanish culinary experience. Well, it turned out it was Portuguese, but that took me awhile to figure out. Between my poorly-learned high school Spanish and French, and the usual fallback to English, I could never predict what language my next response to the waiter would be in, even as I was speaking. The staff understood them all, but it was strange to feel so little control over the form of my speech. (The next night was a Japanese yakatori restaurant and the constant mix of Japanese, French and English with the wait-staff was equally disconcerting.)

An Italian (or Swiss Italian) couple sat next to me, chatting amiably with each other throughout their meal, while I ate, reading from Flavours:

"A cross cultural encounter which I found quite charming occurred when my husband and I were in Club Med in Cherating. We sat down to dinner with another Malaysian couple and two Japanese couples, probably honeymooners. When the first course was brought to our table, the two Malaysian gentlemen took it upon themselves to dish out the soup for the rest of us. It was an interesting moment for at the same time the two Japanese wives were just about to do the same. In Japanese culture the women are tradition-bound to serve their husbands. Instead they found themselves being served by the two Malaysian men. They blushed and looked flustered and yet pleasantly surprised. The two Japanese men looked uncomfortable at being served by the other men and not by their wives.

"I was intrigued by the situation. Who would serve the next course? Would it be the Japanese women (to show they haven't forgotten their customers) or should it be the Malaysian women (to show that we also server our menfolk) or should we allow the two Malaysian men to serve us again (to show that it's really nice for such gallantries especially in such a lovely and romantic setting?) It was indeed getting quite complicated and I sat with bated breath waiting for the next course, hoping that it was 'serveable' and that the waiter wouldn't spoil it all by serving the food himself. When the next course arrived, fortunately, the waiter had to move along to the next table. The dish had to be portioned out. Here was the moment I had been waiting for -- Who was to serve next? Which culture or gender would prevail? Whose instincts would overcome the rest?

"What transpired was something I had not expected -- the two Japanese men, looking a little abashed, stood up and served us all! I was taken by surprise for in the culture of the Japanese, women serve their men and not the other way around. Here were two Japanese men who were able to transcend their cultural boundaries and rise to the spirit of the occasion.

But of course, the most surprised and thrilled that night were the two Japanese wives who blushed again and appeared even more flustered this time around."

When I got to the punch line, I laughed out loud. The Japanese men has produced the perfect outcome to remove the discomfort AND establish a degree of control over the situation. Like the author I had not seen it coming and, like the author, was viscerally impressed by it. Unfortunately, the restaurant was rather quiet, so my outburst was disconcerting to the couple at the next table and they interrupted their chatting to look over at me expectantly. So I suddenly moved from the abstraction of cultural disparity, on paper, to a very concrete one of my own creation. Alas there was no way I could generate good enough French (or Spanish, never mind Italian) to explain the reason for my laughter; it was all far too complicated.

The best I could do was pause, to show due understanding of my transgression, make a face expressing a bit of acknowledgement and frustration, shrug, and do a heavily french pardo'n. They smiled and we all moved on.

The restaurant was quite good. I gave in to the spirit of the place and had dessert, though of course far from needing any more to eat. The ordering was in French and I thought that the waiter had meant that it would be a mixture of different fresh citrus fruits in a tarte, but had forgotten the word he used simply meant "lemon". As with so many things, Jackie's been a good influence on me about dessert. I used to order ice cream all the time and almost never anything else. She's brought me far enough along that this didn't even seem like I was being particularly adventuresome.

Well, it was a lovely, large custardy wedge and a great way to end the meal. Halfway through my demolition effort, the waiter came over to the Italian couple and the woman had a quick interaction with the him, including pointing over at my dessert and they reached an agreement. This gave me/us an excuse for some eye contact, smiles and closure, as well as agreement that she had, indeed, chosen well.



Dave Crocker Brandenburg Consulting +1 408 246 8253 dcrocker@bbiw.net 675 Spruce Drive (f) +1 408 273 6464 www.bbiw.net Sunnyvale, CA 94086 USA