Category Archives: racism

Why I had to un-friend my favorite aunt on Facebook today

“I don’t understand it, but I accept it.”

Those words would have to rank near the top of my list of the most annoying things straight people say about gay people. What they’re really saying: “You’re sinners, but you’re here and you’re queer, so what choice do we have but to put up with you?”

Despite serious misgivings, I decided to let it go when my Aunt Juliet did the whole song and dance at my brother Jeff’s wedding 11 years ago. I had just introduced her to my then-boyfriend Khleber, and I was so determined not to ruin Jeff’s big day that I let it pass when she started talking about how sad she was that I would miss out on a spouse and kids, all the things that heterosexuality would have supposedly granted me that she herself was living without.

Come to think of it, Jeff’s wedding day wasn’t the best moment to be gay. The stench of homophobia was in the air, and my Uncle Achille, who was performing the ceremony, made an even bigger stink than Juliet.

I was best man, and I was so nervous about getting it right that I totally missed the thing Achille said about two men in the Garden of Eden. Being the fire-and-brimstone Bible thumper I’d always known him to be, he couldn’t just leave a tender moment alone. He had to drop in some judgment, which, in hindsight, I realize was totally for my benefit and for that of my brother Alexi, who is also gay.

He made some crack about how God created Adam and Eve, not “Hemp and Shemp” …or something to that effect. The names are not as relevant as the intended message: God hates you, faggots. Fortunately, both the words and the message went over my head because my head was elsewhere.

Wait, where’s the ring?…Oh, there it is.

When my mother repeated her former brother-in-law’s comment later at the reception, her voice dripping with disgust, she was furious. It was actually my first time hearing it, and I wasn’t sure if her reaction was about what Achille had said or the forum in which he’d chosen to say it. I decided she was angry for me and for Alexi, and I loved her for it.

As for my uncle, I had only one personal encounter with him at the wedding. It was when he walked into the men’s room and caught Khleber and me in a warm embrace. He glared at us but didn’t say a word, not even when I directly addressed him and asked how he was doing. I bit my tongue and let his silent treatment go. He’d always been my least favorite uncle, and I knew I’d probably never see or speak to him again after Jeff’s wedding day.

Now I can say the same thing about Juliet, who today became the first family member ever to be un-friended by me on Facebook. The deal breaker arrived on the morning shortly after I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared gay marriage legal. It was wrapped in big box of hate and re-posted on Facebook:

The post itself isn’t even worth debating. It’s passive-aggressive drivel, hate dressed up in Sunday church clothes. If you think I’m a sinner who is going to hell, if you don’t support me or marriage between my kind, I have absolutely no use for your “love” or “friendship.” As for the alleged name-calling and stereotyping, if you’re going to walk the homophobic walk and talk the talk, be prepared to be taken down for it.

But on a more personal level, why would a woman who has at least three gay nephews spread this message in a place where she knows they’ll likely read it? Was she trying to douse a celebratory occasion with some good old-fashioned negativity, just as my uncle did on my brother’s wedding day?

Here’s the thing about homophobia. Like racism, it doesn’t always carry a pitchfork and twirl its moustache. My Aunt Juliet would probably never openly criticize me or my life. The last time I spoke to her, we had a perfectly pleasant conversation. But at the end of the day, she thinks I’m defective. She can hide behind “love” and the Bible all she wants, but she’s homophobic. I have as much use for homophobes as I do for racists. As the kids say (or at least used to), deuces.

Alexi, who tends to take this sort of thing better than I do, may or may not agree with my reaction to the latest incident of homophobia within our family ranks. But I’m pretty sure he understands and accepts it. That’s a lot more than I ever got from others who have called me family.

I can do better…and I already have.

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Filed under gay, homophobia, racism, religion

African Vs. American, Black Or White: What Difference Does It Make in Thailand?

I wasn’t going to say anything, but then yesterday I found myself talking to Ben, a guy who is a guest at the hotel where I live, and it all came flooding out, everything about that odd question I was asked last week.

As for the guy who got it out of me, Ben is 32 years old, and he spent the first 18 years of his life in Zimbabwe. Being a white guy who lived half of his life among a predominantly black population (his first language was Afrikaans, his second Swahili, and his third English, which he didn’t learn until he was 16), Ben approached race relations from an interesting angle. We dove right in.

He talked about some of the difficulties he had growing up in Zimbabwe, where his experiences in some ways mirrored mine growing up black in the United States. But it was what he said about the way Thai people react to him that left me somewhat shaken. He told me about how his sister, who lives in Bangkok with her boyfriend, applied for a teaching job here before her arrival, and was asked if she was a white African or a black African. Apparently, black Africans need not apply for teaching jobs with this particular organization, as a black African friend of Ben’s recently found out the hard, direct way.

Ben had experienced this particular brand of discrimination against black Africans firsthand, having had professional contact with people before his arrival who were visibly relieved when they realized that he’s white. According to Ben, “Are you a black African or a white African?” is a standard business question here. If they were afraid to ask, they came up with some excuse not to do business with him and magically changed their minds once they figured out that he is white.

As I listened, I thought about all of the people I’ve met since I’ve been in Thailand. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a country with kinder natives, and I haven’t encountered any overt racism against me here. But I’ve always sensed that there might be another side to Thais, a darker side, one that I’m not privy to because most of my interaction with them is on the level of customer to service provider. People are pretty much paid to be nice to me in Bangkok.

My dealings with the folks who don’t serve me have been mostly positive as well, but on a superficial level. They observe the traditional Thai code of conduct, but I can’t say that they go out of their way to connect with me in any meaningful fashion. Even when I go out and local guys talk to me, I always sense it’s more out of curiosity about the exotic black guy. “Is he really as big as everyone says he is?” I’m basically a piece of dark meat, and white meat is clearly the preference. Most of them save the deeper communication for the European white guys with blue eyes. That’s what they really want.

Certain that he’d understand, perhaps even provide some valuable insight, I told Ben about the misgivings I’d been harboring over a conversation I had last week with a Thai-Chinese guy who works in my hotel who is good friends with a buddy of mine. He and I have known each other casually for months, and we always observe all the perfunctory niceties when we pass each other in the lobby or on the street or when we wind up in the same elevator, but this was the first time we’d had an actual conversation.

“Jeremy, are you from Africa?” he asked halfway into it.

I was shocked. Not because it was an uncalled for assumption but because somehow, astonishingly, I’d never been asked that before. During my six years living abroad, people had always assumed I was from anywhere but the motherland. In Argentina, I got (in the order of frequency) Brazil, Cuba, the UK, France, occasionally even the United States. If only I had a peso for every time I was asked, “Sos Brasilero?” — I’d never have to work again. In Australia, I generally got the United States, with some people actually pinpointing the Caribbean because they were native English speakers, so it was obvious to many of them that my accent places my origins outside the U.S. mainland.

In Thailand, though, people rarely make those assumptions out loud when dealing with me. It’s usually “Where are you from?” without betraying that they have the foggiest idea. So when I was asked if I’m from Africa, I was taken off guard. Not just because I’d never gotten that question before, but also because I couldn’t believe he had no idea. I thought everyone who works at Anantara knew. It’s sort of my thing around here, all anyone ever talks to me about.

“No, I’m from the United States, New York City, to be exact.”

“Can’t you tell by the way he talks?” our mutual friend, also Thai, chimed in. “He has a classic perfect American accent.”

I don’t, but I didn’t feel like arguing that point. I was still focused on the question. I wasn’t 100 percent sure, but I thought I noticed a shift in the guy who’d asked it, one that would have been imperceptible to most naked eyes. There was something about the look in his, the way it changed from one moment to the next, after I revealed the truth about my origins.

“He was raising his opinion of you,” Ben offered, taking the words right out of my mind. “He saw you as being more valuable because you are from the U.S. and not Africa.”

I don’t like to think the worst of people — even people who spend months thinking the worst of me — but somehow I knew that Ben was right. It’s why the conversation had been weighing down the recesses of my mind for the last week, and I felt that since Ben had finally said it, not me, there might be some justification for the way such a seemingly innocent but in reality, terribly loaded, question had made me feel.

One of my best acquaintances in Bangkok is a guy from Liberia, and shockingly, we’ve never even broached the subject of race. Memo to self: Don’t forget to bring it up the next time you see him. Coming from a place where he’s part of the majority to one where he’s among the minority, perhaps he’s not conditioned to over-analyze things the way Ben and I are. When someone asks him if he’s from Africa, maybe he’s genuinely impressed that they’re able to figure it out on their own.

I just hope he’s not looking for work.

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Filed under Australia, Bangkok, black guys, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, racism, Thai people

A Perfect Day?

What does it take to make a brand new day worth waking up for? Not necessarily the promise of great adventure nor the love of a lifetime, though I wouldn’t dream of tossing either out of bed.

Yesterday is hardly a blur, but on paper, it wouldn’t qualify as the most memorable one ever, the greatest one-man show on earth, featuring a very special guest.

So what did I get up to on Thursday, February 9, 2012 — the 40th day of the year — then? Most notably, after nearly an entire week, I broke my non-vow of silence. I had an 8am breakfast in South Melbourne with my friend Kimba, who offered me lots of valuable advice about the book that after three and a half years of blogging, and at the much-appreciated urging of friends and former colleagues, I’m finally getting around to writing.

On the way to Cafe Sweethearts on Coventry Street (if you ever go there, order the scrambled-eggs-and-bacon sandwich), I stopped and asked directions from a good-looking guy working in a car-repair shop.

“Excuse me, sir. Could you tell me where Coventry Street is?”

He looked around, confused. “Coventry Street?”

“Yes.” I was certain it was the road we were on, but there was no visible street sign. “Is this Coventry Road?”

“Ah, yes, yes. I think so. I think we are on Coventry Street.”

I thanked him and walked away. Several meters later, I got my confirmation in the form of a street sign. Idea for a future blog post: people who don’t know the name of the street on which they work.

The rest of the day was business I usual. I went running around Albert Lake. I booked a flight to Sydney, where I will spend eight hours next Tuesday. I worked on my book proposal (which received two thumbs up and some helpful edits from Kimba). And I even completed a chapter, a tale of lust, longing, racism and five hours in lock up in Buenos Aires, which I hope will lure a qualified agent or a publisher willing to take a chance on a literary newbie.

What didn’t I do? I didn’t eat lunch or dinner in a trendy setting (unless the couch in my living space would qualify), see any good movies (though as of yesterday, My Week with Marilyn is now showing in Australia), or spend the day looking forward to a hot weekend date. I haven’t been asked out in forever, and aside from the clueless guy who has no idea where he works, nobody has caught my eye in just as long.

I didn’t indulge in comfort food, get drunk and dance shirtless on a stage, have sex, or kiss anyone. With the exception of Kimba and garage guy (whom I might not even recognize if I wake up next to him tomorrow morning), I can’t recall a single person I saw yesterday. They’re all blurs.

Still, Australian Day aside, it must have been the closest thing I’ve had to a perfect day since I returned to Melbourne five weeks and two days ago. It involved two of my favorite, most-therapeutic things: running and writing. Most importantly, it reinforced an important lesson that I actually learned some time ago but occasionally forget: nice scenery, human and otherwise, is always-appreciated window dressing, but I don’t need the glory of love, nor the comfort of a man, to make my day.

Now there’s an epiphany worth getting out of bed for.

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Filed under Albert Lake, Australia, Australian Day, Buenos Aires, Cafe Sweethearts, Coventry Street, love, lust, My Week with Marilyn, racism, South Melbourne

Notes from a Native Son: Why ‘The Help’ Is Not This Year’s ‘The Blind Side’

Film directors who make historical dramas featuring black characters do so at their own risk. Get the details wrong or whitewash facts — and let’s face it, most of them do — and the criticism pours in. That’s entertainment.

As a black man, I must come clean: I quite enjoyed The Help. That’s not to say I didn’t have some issues with it. It’s been criticized by blacks for the way its black characters speak, and while these characterizations may be somewhat simplified, they’re not entirely inaccurate. People who speak ungrammatically — onscreen and off — frustrate me, but that’s what some people do. Then and now. A couple of years ago, I was watching the daytime soap One Life to Live on my laptop, and a black friend who was in the room asked me if the characters who were talking were black.

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Because they sound black.”

Yes, stereotypes abound on television and in movies, but remember: Stereotypes are based on reality. I see stereotypical behavior ever time I walk out the front door: from the fawning Thai employees in the hotel where I live to the gay men cruising the three levels of DJ Station looking for an ego boost or an easy f**k.

I think The Help would have benefited greatly if Aibileen spoke like Viola Davis does in real life because, you know, then and now, not every black person sounded black. Neither Sidney Poitier nor Beah Richards did in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and as the help in that 1967 film, Isabel Sanford may have struggled with double negatives, but her vocal inflections really weren’t that far removed from Louise “Weezy” Jefferson, the upscale character she’d spend much of the next two decades playing on TV.

But getting back to Aibileen, a viable love interest for her wouldn’t have hurt either, because let’s face it, adorable as Chris Lowell is, as a love interest for Emma Stone’s Skeeter, both his character and the relationship were unnecessary duds. But that’s not to say that some of the other black women in the movie didn’t have loving husbands at home.

There are also detractors, black and white, who think that like To Kill a Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning and The Blind Side, The Help suffers from white-hero syndrome. White man — or in The Blind Side‘s case, white heroine — swoops in and saves the day. I’m pretty sure that Steven Spielberg will face similar criticism when Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln frees the slaves in the upcoming biopic of the 16th U.S. President, though, as far as I know, that actually happened. In the case of The Help, I couldn’t disagree more. (And going slightly off-topic, The Blind Side wouldn’t have gotten the time of day had it not been for Sandra Bullock’s charm. I kept wanting her to show up in Moneyball to make me care about baseball and Brad Pitt.)

Skeeter’s story frames The Help, but the stories she tells — even when it’s her own — focus on black women, the titular “help.” Aibileen is the one who provides the voice over, and she and Octavia Spencer (who plays Minny with the type of scene-stealing sass that guarantees Oscar buzz, while being so much more than comic relief) are the ones who will likely get Academy Award nominations (as was not the case with any of the aforementioned knight-in-shining-white-armor films, whose nominees were all white).

Skeeter is the vessel, but she doesn’t save anyone. These women save themselves. By telling their stories, they risk their lives. But they know what has to be done to open eyes to the inequality that plagued the south in the ’60s, and they do it with great courage and candor.

Is the movie perfect? By no means! As I suggested in my previous post, Emma Stone seems like she time travelled from 2011 to play an aspiring journalist, and some of the characters — especially Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly — are too comically drawn to be threatening. Racism is presented more as an annoyance than a deadly sin. The movie never quite captures how tough it was to be black in the 1960s south. But then, had it gotten too difficult, it probably wouldn’t have made a trillion dollars at the box office.

It also needed more of a black male presence. The preacher isn’t enough. Aibileen’s son is dead, and Leroy, Minny’s violent husband, is never shown. Although the death of Medgar Evers is mentioned almost in passing — and gives Davis a great running scene — it seems thrown in to give the film historical context. It’s like one of those news bulletins that interrupt your favorite daytime soap. Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

But who needs men when the help (note the lowercase: I’m talking about the women, not the movie) are so powerful? Yes, they respect their bosses, but isn’t that what people — black and white — do, even today, if they want to keep their jobs? Aibileen has a nice home, and with her hourly wage of 90-something cents, she doesn’t appear to be struggling financially. Though Minny is abused by her husband — beatings that, thankfully and tastefully, occur off screen — she is still one of the strongest figures in the movie. She makes Hilly eat shit, literally, and she eventually gathers the courage to leave her husband.

Despite her decent digs, Aibileen suffers, and she does so nobly, as Oscar nomination-bound lead actresses must do. But she gets her happy ending. She ultimately stands up to Hilly and she views her firing as a blessing: She has raised her last white baby.

The ending reminds me of the final line in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a fantastic book which I don’t think I’ve ever seen criticized for having period black characters talk ungrammatically (perhaps because, unlike the book on which The Help is based, it was written by a black woman): “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

As Aibileen walks down the street to meet her destiny and the camera backs away from her, it’s clear that for Aibileen and for Viola Davis, greater things lie ahead. It’s Aibileen’s story, Davis’s movie.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Beah Richards, racism, Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side, Uncategorized

Unbelievable Things People Have Actually Said to Me

I apologize in advance. I’m about to get a little bit bitchy.

Yesterday I was talking to an acquaintance in Melbourne via MSN. I owe him the last four months of my life because he was the one who convinced me to book my trip to Bangkok one Saturday night in Melbourne last June. He’d recently returned from two weeks in Singapore, and he had a two-month trek to Bangkok in the works. By the time you finish reading this post, you’ll understand why I saw him only once while he was here.

He’d been back in Melbourne for three days, and he said he was just about to get his certification to teach English.

“Where will you teach?” I asked.

“I don’t know yet. Maybe Tiewen,” he wrote.

Seriously. If you are considering living and teaching there, maybe you should learn how to spell it, I thought to myself. But I put my bitchy impulse to correct him aside and changed the subject to places I’ve never been but really want to visit. Taiwan isn’t one of them. At the top of my list: Seoul.

“Where’s Seoul?”

Seriously.

Thankfully, he’s teaching English, not geography. Though I’d give him a C-minus if I were grading his grasp of his native tongue, and I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t realize “your” is not the same as “you’re,” so, well, those poor students. I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead or the ignorant, but really. How can you be planning on moving to Asia to teach English and not even know where Seoul is?

I’m pretty sure Karsten knows where Seoul is, but he’s got more pressing issues to deal with. He’s German, and he’s been living in Bangkok for 10 years. He teaches, though neither English nor German. He works at a university here in Bangkok, and he did once tell me what he teaches, but it was a subject I’d never heard of, so it pretty much went in one ear and out the other.

One night, a few weeks after we met, I saw him at DJ Station, and he totally ignored me. I wasn’t sure why, but I was having such a good time that it didn’t even register until the next day when he sent me an email.

“Sorry I couldn’t talk to you last night. I was with my boyfriend, and he gets very jealous. My last boyfriend was black, and I recently went to visit him in the U.S. If my current boyfriend saw me talking to a black guy, we’d probably get into a big fight.”

I really don’t want to play the racism card here, but it reminds me of the time I was harassed by a guy in Buenos Aires because he had once been mistreated by a black ex-boyfriend. I wasn’t sure who was more ridiculous: Karsten or his boyfriend? Probably the boyfriend — who, by the way, is Thai — for flirting so dangerously close to racism, but Karsten is the bigger idiot for letting him get away with it. I hope the sex is good because the relationship sounds like it’s not. Just hearing Karsten detail their jealousy and ownership issues made me glad I’m single.

Of course, being single means having to receive messages like the one that popped up in my MSN window from Steve in Adelaide last week. (I have to remember to stayed logged out.) The last time we talked, he told me about a “naughty dream” he’d had with me as his costar, but he didn’t share all the graphic details. This time, he threw caution — and good taste — to the wind. I won’t share here what he shared in this message, but let’s just say it involved genitalia, body fluids and no condom.

I’ve said it before (in this post), and I’ll say it again: Some things are better left unsaid.

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Filed under Adelaide, Asia, Bangkok, black boyfriend, Buenos Aires, condom, DJ Station, geography, jealousy, Melbourne, MSN, racism, Seoul, Singapore, Taiwan, teaching English

ASIAN OR WESTERN?: ALL SEXUAL PREFERENCES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

“I don’t find Asian men attractive.”

I didn’t say it. He did. EJ, the guy from Amsterdam who designs IKEA stores (or something equally cool and IKEA-related) and has been living in Bangkok for 10 years. For some reason, he wanted to know if I am attracted to Asian men (and for the record, I am), and although some things are better left unsaid, he felt the need to tell me that he is not.

My first instinct was to ask him why he would live in a country where he doesn’t find the people attractive, but I’d already met his longtime partner, so I figured that hooking up with the locals wasn’t a priority.

My second instinct was to ask him what exactly he finds attractive then. If I had lined up every guy in the room and arranged them from the ones I found most attractive down, starting at the bar, his boyfriend might have ended up somewhere near the bathroom. I know that’s not a very nice thing to say, but that’s just my taste.

Which was exactly EJ’s response when I suggested that his attitude has more than a hint of racism in it. Like most men with the no-Asians dating and f**king policy, EJ hid behind the old “That’s just my preference” excuse. He actually compared his not having a “preference” for Asians to his preferring men over women. I let that one slide because it was too ridiculous to argue with. I think I prefer when they say it’s like digging brunettes over blondes, but both arguments are irrelevant. Hair color and sexuality have nothing to do with racism. There’s already a term in use for guys who prefer men over women (and for many, being labeled that word makes you as worthy of contempt as being racist), and if there were one for blond chasers, I’d use it.

But I did consider his words carefully. He hadn’t said, “I would never date or sleep with an Asian guy” (though I’m sure he would have had I probed). He’d simply made a blanket statement regarding sexual preference, which is in the same neighborhood but on a different street. EJ seemed like a smart, decent guy, and I gave him extra credit for getting the reference when I mentioned EJ DiMera on Days of Our Lives. I certainly didn’t mean to offend him when I called his attitude racist any more than he meant to offend me when he expressed said attitude, but the battle lines were drawn.

He wasn’t entirely unsuccessful in his attempt to defend himself. He did make me think that perhaps I should cut him and all of the guys who have made similar comments over the last few months a little bit of slack. God knows I’ve taken them to task enough in various blog posts. Maybe it’s not so important whether what they say is racist. Most of us harbor some form of casual racism or prejudice without even realizing it, but because the term conjures images of lynching and angry men in white robes burning crosses, no one wants to be associated with it.

More importantly, EJ’s comment was misguided. It’s basically saying that all Asian men are created physically equal with little variation. One undesirable physical quality fits all. I’ll put them in a box and remove them from my dating pool. The highly evolved modern man thinks outside of boxes and beyond ethnicities and doesn’t limit himself to only what he prefers. “Sorry, I just don’t find them attractive,” with no interest in self-reflection to determine why, is such a cop out. No matter how people might want to spin it, being rejected because you’re of a certain race stings so much more than being overlooked because of your hair or eye color, or even your gender.

One might imagine that someone who has been living in Asia for a decade would realize that the contents of the Asian box are as varied as those of the white, black or Latino ones. But guys like EJ are too busy using their “preferences” as an excuse to exclude an entire continent of people from the list of guys they would sleep with.

I’d become accustomed to that attitude in Australia. In fact, I’d come to expect it. In Asia, I’d anticipated more enlightenment, but it’s actually worse here. I told EJ that I find comments like his particularly offensive because I’d spent most of my life hearing the same sentiment in the United States, only they were usually aimed at black men.

Being black in Argentina, in Australia and in Asia works more in my favor than it does in the U.S., black President and black leading Republican Presidential candidate or not. Everybody wants you. Not always because of you; sometimes because of the color of your skin (what an ironic expatriate twist). Or because they’re dying to know if it’s true what they say about black men. You’re everyone’s fantasia — as they say in Argentina, unfortunately.

“You know, I’ve never been with a black guy, and I never even really thought about it until I met you.” 

Last week, a guy (American, of course) actually said that to me as if he expected me to jump for joy right into his open arms. I pretended I hadn’t heard him, but I’m very sad to say that it wasn’t the first time someone had said something like that to me.

On the plus side, it’s nice to not be invisible. When I go out outside of the United States, guys actually see me. If only I didn’t have to hear what most of them are saying.

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Filed under Amsterdam, Argentina, Asia, Asian men, Australia, Bangkok, black men, Days of Our Lives, EJ DiMera, IKEA, racism, sexual preference, United States

KUALA LUMPUR IS PLAYING HARD TO GET

When it comes to me and great cities, I fall fast and hard. It’s often love at first sight. By the time I’ve checked into my hotel, I’m picking out china and planning our future together.

Kuala Lumpur was different. As soon as the train pulled into Sentral Kuala Lumpur rail station, I knew that I’d be spending more than the allotted 48 hours in Malaysia’s capital city. It was love, or something like it. Four days later, I was still infatuated, taking it all in with my jaw nearly at ground level, but I also was asking myself the same question that my mother asked me years ago when she visited me in New York City for the first time: “How do people live here?”

Don’t get me wrong: I still love KL. It’s bold and beautiful, exciting, energetic and endlessly fascinating. But it’s playing hard to get (as in, Dear KL, I cram to understand U). Every time I leave my hotel, it’s a crapshoot whether I’ll make it back. I’ve put away my map because it’s pretty useless in helping me to negotiate the network of traffic-jammed streets and buildings without visible street numbers. And the cars and motorcycles whizzing by at literally break-neck speed mean you cross the roads here at your own risk.

But what’s life without a little bit of daring? No (possible) pain, no gain, right?

Or maybe I’m just being a total wimp, wilting in the humidity and 90°F heat. Since my arrival, I’ve met expatriates from China, from Australia, from Sweden, from New Mexico, people who came here on holiday and never went back home. The streets of central KL are filled with other tourists, none of whom appear to be as sensitive to the noise and heat, or as confused by the city’s interior design as I am.

Why the big turnout? It’s not just that this weekend is a Middle Eastern holiday, which means a spike in visitors and totally booked hotels all over town. Despite its relatively low profile among international metropolises (out of all my friends, only one that I know of, an Australian, has ever even been here), Kuala Lumpur was the world’s fourth most-visited city in the world in 2009, according to Euromonitor International’s most recent Top City Destinations Ranking, from January 2011, with some 9.4 million arrivals. (That’s up 5.2 per cent from 2008, when it was No. 5.) Only London, Bangkok and Singapore attracted more visitors.

Unlike Bangkok (No. 2) and Singapore (No. 3), which, during my recent stints in both cities, seemed to be filled with people on holiday from Europe and Australia, Kuala Lumpur doesn’t appear to be a huge Western draw. Still, it’s a melting pot of ethnicities and skin tones, and the relatively large number of Africans I’ve seen means that I don’t stick out here the way I did in Bangkok, Singapore, and pretty much every city I’ve stepped foot in during the last year or so. I’m still not completely blending in either: They may not stare at me as much here when I walk down the street as they do elsewhere, but last night at dinner, the hot topic was racism — in Sweden, of all places!

The PR machine here will have its work cut out for it, though, if KL’s profile in the U.S. is ever to ascend to the heights of Buenos Aires’. Despite its lowish ranking on Euromonitor’s list (No. 51, with 2.1 million visitors in 2009, down 11.5 per cent), BA is still South America’s second-most buzzed-about city (after Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, No. 38) and as popular as ever with American expats.

Interestingly, for reasons I’ve yet to fully comprehend, KL reminds me a lot of BA when we first met. (Incidentally, it took me a full week to fall for Argentina’s capital.) There’s no real physical resemblance, but like BA circa 2005, there’s an abundance of big leafy trees, a 3:1 exchange rate (3 Malaysian ringgits equal about 1 U.S. dollar), and relatively cheap prices, which, sadly, don’t include booze. A pint of beer will set you back about RM30 (or $10), which, as someone explained to me, is due to a high alcohol tax, which, in turn, is due to the teetotaling influence of Islam, the dominant and official religion in Malaysia.

But who needs to get wasted when there’s so much to see and experience with a clear head? Four days in, I’ve been to two dinner parties (as an invitee of a KL-based stand-up comedienne, whom I met through my aforementioned Australian friend), but I’ve yet to hit the nightlife hard, which is generally what seals my connection to any new city. So my affection for KL isn’t set in stone: It still could be swayed in the opposite direction.

Yet I’m already thinking about our next hook up. The future may hold no solid commitment, or the whispering of “You’re beautiful, I love you” while gazing up at the Petronas Twin Towers after dark. But sometimes the best relationships, with places as with people, are the casual ones with no expectations and no strings attached.

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Filed under Australia, Bangkok, China, Euromonitor International, Islam, Kuala Lumpur, London, Malaysia, New Mexico, New York City, Petronas Twin Towers, racism, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Sweden