Orient is the East, of Latin origin and additionally alludes to sunrise. Occident is the West and holds a relationship with sunset. I've always wondered what the 'West' was west of. Rome it turns out. The division of Western Roman Catholicism throughout a mostly rural and Latin speaking part of the world, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches occupying urban lands where Greek was common.
An orienter is someone who assists a newcomer in adjusting to a social situation or local routine. I've had the benefit of local artist Xiang Yi and Singaporean dancer Wei An fulfilling this role for me to some degree in my first week at Rimbun Dahan. Most grateful. Wong Xiang Yi
An Oriental, well that's different. Someone from East of Rome I suppose. But today it sits more closely in my mind alongside terms like Chink as far as words with inferred meaning and negative connotation go. I've never been called an oriental or a Chink, though I got told to go back "home" in intermediate school by an upset friend when the Asian Invasion (see more context here, here and here) by was a topic de jour on Auckland's North Shore in the early 1990's. I remember teasing my full Chinese cousins calling them "Ching Chong Chinaman", it's part of a song which I can't remember. Got a pretty good telling off by my auntie for that one.
Coming here (Malaysia) was always going to get me thinking about cultural identity. Actually coming here was meant to get me thinking about cultural identity, my proposal to the Asia New Zealand Foundation was based on it. So amongst other musings like the one above, I've noticed my "Asian" accent has come back pretty hard. I know there are other phonetic vernacular sympathisers out there. I have discussed this with them. In the linked article just back there the author of the cited study into the human brains unconscious imitation of other peoples speech patterns says this,
"We intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other's mannerisms, postures and facial expressions. We also imitate each other's speech patterns, including inflections, talking speed and speaking time. Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking, leading to embarrassing consequences."
Do, do, yes, do, wait - what embarrassing consequences? Maybe he means my wife's embarrassment when I order dinner or Yum Char at a Chinese restaurant? Shit, even at the food court it happens. So put me in a country that has a healthy representation of a range of Asian people where a confluence of different languages are in use and what happens?
I'm so used to it I don't even notice it. I'm already using lah (probably incorrectly) in sentences just a week in. The thing is, having a Chinese father with Chinese family friends around me growing up, the cadence, the improvised words, the short cuts, it's all very familiar.
The thing that strikes me most about KL is the organic multi-lingual response to multi-culturalism. Those of us from Auckland undoubtedly see our city as a pretty diverse and multi-cultural one, supposedly founded on a bi-cultural foundation. But there is little evidence of that in the monopolistic use of English. Here the native KL people can move between multiple languages within the same conversation, sentence even. In addition to Bahasa Malay and English a number of different Chinese and Indian languages are commonly spoken. Amongst it all my simplified (some would say patronising) broken english seems to do the trick.
The other day I undertook my first serious KL food mission as a guest of my residency mate Sasi. Born in KL, she is an Indian who left Malaysia to attend art school in Australia and stayed there since. Sasi and her primary school friends of 50 odd years ago wanted to lunch in Kajang. Two of the friends caught a train up to near where Rimbun Dahan is based, took a taxi from the train station to us, returned to the train station and took another train that took over an hour to get to Kajang "satay" station, where we met another school friend and the 5 of us piled into a beat up Proton Saga. Was not a comfortable 10 minutes in the back of that taxi but the photo below says a lot about Kuala Lumpur to me. Indian, Chinese, Malay, Bangladeshi, and two Eurasians united in a prolonged quest for food. This outing for lunch took over 4 hours and is unremarkable as far as food missions go in Malaysia. I have heard from a number of different people about lunch trips made from KL to Penang which is a 4 hour drive each way.
On the return leg of our lunch trip I muddled my way through the train system switching lines to get to Ampang to collect a book from the Malaysian Societal Research Institute. From Ampang I headed to Pudu to pick up a lense or my camera and then on to Imbi to track down spraypaint. In navigating the city, the transport system, the languages, the differences, the thing that reorientated me immediately was spraypaint and the culture that exists across it's users.
I'm trying to find District (the spraypaint store which isn't where Google Maps tells you it is) by process of elimination walking up, down and across a few city blocks. Coming towards a carpark I get the scent of Montana 94, a distinct spraypaint aroma immediately recognisable. Round the corner an American writer gives me directions and soon I'm there. Only they're not open, kinda. The roller door is half down but I yell out and the guy inside brings me in. "You paint?"
"B" is super cool, tells me he's shut but I can pick some paint from behind the counter while he works on a miniture car model. Caps, cans, colours, walls, we discuss the same things that would be discussed in a similar shop anywhere in the world.
Re-orient-tation through a shared creative language and a common understanding of a compulsion which makes people want to put paint on walls be they East or West.