A Malaysian Journal:

At Least You Can Say You Were There

(21 February 1998)


© Copyright 1998, D. Crocker, Brandenburg Consulting A series of notes on living and working in Malaysia, during Jackie's Fulbright Fellowship to Universiti Putra Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. Copies may be freely distributed, but must retain this preamble. Previous notes are located at . To subscribe send me a note. /Dave


Selamat Tahun Baru Cina (chee-nah).

This week is the end of my time living in Malaysia. Jackie's appointment at UPM goes until the beginning of April, but I must be away all of March. I'll come back so that we can do a few weeks of additional traveling, but UPM will not be the base. We won't officially be ex-patriots.

Since the beginning of the (European) year, time has suffered intense compression. With only two months remaining for my own time "in country", we tried to do as much sightseeing as possible. The effort has balanced precariously between urgent and compulsive. Jackie and I both wanted to enjoy the experiences, but we felt the pressure of the approaching departure. I found myself remembering some comments and advice. One was from baseball, drawn by a venture capitalist who noted that for an entrepreneur, there are no strikes called. There is no penalty for not swinging or for failing to participate in a good business opportunity. There are always opportunities. You only risk a strike when you swing, so it is essential to make the swing count, rather than worry about missed opportunities. I think it applies equally to traveling. There are always interesting places to go and things to do. Always too many. You cannot do everything, so all that matters is making the opportunities you do take count.

Jackie will resist going to a fancy meal two days in a row. She says she can't enjoy it properly because the experience (and calories) of the previous meal are still too intense. The same applies for traveling, but our time for excursions has been so limited that we've pushed things pretty far. European New Years was Cameron Highlands, north of KL. We did a weekend in Malaka, south of KL, and another in Hong Kong, and one more in Cambodia. (I was astonished and dismayed to see that my first draft of this list left off Cambodia.) Chinese New Years, this past week, was a blitz including a student's kampung (village), and the islands of Langkawi and Penang. The beginning of my March travel is in Singapore, so Jackie will come with me for the weekend. Besides final visits with friends and family there, we hope to acquire some furniture.

I was thinking of titling this piece "If it's Tuesday, this must be Cambodia" after the 1960's movie about hectic travel. About twenty years ago, I was at a dinner with my parents and some of their friends. I had done no international travel and was looking at my first opportunity, with the usual challenges in deciding on the schedule and places to visit. The constraints were proving frustrating, with too much likelihood of not being able to squeeze in all of the desired stops. A friend of the family suggested going ahead and making very short stops. She observed that "at least you can say you were there." I have always cherished this comment. In the absence of learning the hard way, from my own direct experience, it crystallized the issue perfectly for me, forever helping me to be clear about the kind of travel that I did not want to do.

We preceded the Chinese New Years trip with a U.S. President's Day open house. The original plan was to host the event on Christmas Day, but my travel kept me away until Christmas Eve, and we were not sure I'd get back in time. President's Day seemed an amusing alternative, and it was, since no one here knew about it. Jackie and I were constantly explaining that there were two different days, when we were children, one for Washington and one for Lincoln, but that they were combined to make room for a day to honor Martin Luther King.

In Malaysia, they would not have felt so constrained. They would just have added another holiday and kept the existing ones. I keep referring to "European" new years because January 1 is viewed that way here. Yes it's a national holiday but folks do not celebrate it much. At the very fancy hotel we stayed at in Cameron Highlands, all of the New Years Eve guests were white (except a very few spouses of whites), but the next day the mix of guests changed completely. With the Indian Deepavali (festival of lights) in the Fall, the Muslim celebration of the end of Ramadan with Hari Raya (great day), and the Chinese New Year (tahun baru cina) all getting major play in the local culture, it should not be surprising that January 1 is viewed as a relatively minor reference in time. After all whites are an extremely small minority here.

A friend who has lived his adult life away from the U.S. predicted that ten months would not be nearly enough time to get fully immersed in Malaysian culture. He was, of course, correct, particularly for me given my travel schedule. I joke that a flight isn't significant anymore, unless it is at least 11 hours long. Some colleagues do this sort of travel all the time and I will never understand how. After learning and doing most of the established tricks for surviving such travel, I still find myself suffering an underlying discomfort -- I would say "instability" but it would make it too easy for the rejoinder questioning how that differs from my usual state -- for some weeks.

In addition to returning from one of these jaunts just before Christmas, I found myself having to take another one only one week later. No matter how excellent technology gets, it will never eliminate the problem of time zones. High quality teleconferencing will not alter the fact that a global "meeting" gets someone up in the middle of the night. For me, this was brought painfully home the first week of the year when I tried to resolve a business matter that had been pending since August. The company is on the East Coast of the U.S., 13 hours behind Malaysia. I finally stayed up two consecutive nights, trying to resolve things over the telephone, but to no avail. It seemed that the only way I would get adequate attention from the company was to show up on their doorstep. The premise was that my flying 12,000 miles might mean something to them. And it did, but the pain of that trip, coming so close to the one before, made serious work difficult for the rest of the month, never mind the distraction of all the additional sightseeing we did. I marvel at those who function with a schedule regularly including such travel. Marvel, but not envy.

It is premature to draw too many conclusions from our time in Malaysia. I've been disappointed not to find more ways of doing my own work in the area, but it appears to take quite awhile to establish the necessary relationships and the state of the current economy has not helped at all. Still it would have made the experience significantly deeper and more concrete for me to have included more direct involvement with my professional activities. That's not to say that the experience of daily life in a tropical, Muslim, traffic-accident prone culture has not been plenty deep and concrete. Just that it would have been more so. But perhaps that is worrying too much about not having swung?