Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

An American Travelogue

Written by johnleemk on 11:00:04 am Feb 15, 2007.

This past June and July, I made a three-week trip to the United States. It might sound odd, but the event did not strike me as particularly worthy of being written about at the time. I was of course busy in the US, and abhorring short essays, I didn't consider writing brief observations and updates down. When I returned to Malaysia, a number of other things were on my mind - my brother fell ill with dengue, and I had an examination to prepare for. Naturally, being the procrastinator that I am, I ignored this site for the most part.

Now that I am considerably more free, it has occurred to me that I might jot down some random ramblings and observations about America. I have to thank Dr. Lee Say-Chong, a friend of my father's and an avid reader of this site, for suggesting that I write about the trip - otherwise, frankly, I might never have gotten around to penning this piece.

Probably the first thing any visitor to the US notices is the stringent security checks. In freaking Sweden, I couldn't leave anything on the plane when we got off for the stopover because of the security checks (right after Sweden, our next stop was the US). Then when I went through the security, they confiscated a stationery scissors - I probably couldn't even cut myself with that piece of blunt metal.

But anyway, once you arrive, probably the first thing you'll notice is that you have to drive a lot to get anywhere. In Malaysia, we tend to be used to having just about everything within an hour or two away. For Klang Valley residents, there's always a shopping centre a half hour's drive away (at the most), and for a large number of people, there's a shopping centre within walking or cycling distance (although given our lack of facilities for pedestrians, hardly anyone dares to walk to get anywhere). In the US, however, a lot of facilities can be an hour's drive away - and some people have a two-hour commute to work.

Speaking of transport, another thing a Malaysian would notice is the proliferation of roads - the transportation system there is extremely complicated and confusing if you're not a local. In Malaysia, the signage may be terrible, but at least you can have a rough idea of where you are and how to get where you're going. In the US, people actually visit travel websites to print out detailed maps to their destination whenever they need to go some place new.

Another point is that very few roads have tolls. Most highways are free to travel on. When you do get charged a toll, though, it's very steep. A typical toll might be in the vicinity of five to ten US dollars.

Of course, considering that exchange rate, any Malaysian is bound to feel terribly poor in the US (unless you're so fabulously rich that a fourfold decrease in your purchasing power means nothing to you). But it's not just the exchange rate that will bite you in the ass - it's also the simple fact that things are more expensive, even accounting for the exchange rate. A typical McDonald's set meal might set you back five US dollars - that's almost twenty ringgit! For half the price in Malaysia, I could be having a Quarter Pounder with a large fries and large Coke. I probably couldn't even buy a decent breakfast with ten ringgit at a McDonald's in America. Then again, I guess a Malaysian visitor to the US would be glad he's not in the UK, with their even more horrid exchange rate. (My father, who was in the UK around the same time as my American trip, paid about thirty ringgit for the privilege of a sandwich, which he tells me wasn't even good.)

And speaking of food, I was extremely irked and unpleasantly surprised by the lack of chilli sauce in American restaurants. It was ketchup, ketchup, ketchup everywhere, with not a drop of good old chilli sauce in sight. I knew Americans aren't exactly famed for their culinary achievements, but this is an outright crime against humanity.

On a similar note, although Americans are known for their obesity, I thought this to be an overgeneralisation. My father ran into the insanely obese all over California, but in the northeast of the US, I didn't see too many fat people. Most of those I saw seemed, well, normal.

There were some other characteristics of the people I observed that I found interesting, though. One of those was the ethnicity of the people at Niagara Falls. (I visited the American side, which is in New York state.) I mean, for some reason, it was like a Mecca for Indians! Honestly, if I didn't know better, I would have sworn that I had stumbled into an Indian colony or something - there were Indians everywhere at Niagara Falls. Then I visited some local shopping centres (also in the vicinity of the Falls), and it turned out that the Chinese and other orientals had colonised the commercial areas. I don't mean they were the proprietors - even the clientele seemed to be ethnic East Asians.

Speaking of ethnicity, another thing one might notice is that Americans are quite sensitive to ethnic jokes. Maybe it's just me (I have developed a certain amount of fame for my insensitivity and incredibly thick skin, so it's possible my idea of what constitutes a decent joke differs from others), but I found that Malaysians are actually more open about racial issues than Americans. Oh yeah, we do sweep a lot of issues under the carpet - but overall, we don't think too much of making lighthearted fun of one another's cultures or races. Ethnic humour in the US, however, seems to be quite frowned upon. The only exception is if you're joking about your own ethnic group, in which case, racial jokes become acceptable.

That was a good thing, since I already had something to joke about: my accent. My friends have commented on my extraordinarily weird way of pronouncing words, although I've been told by a couple of Aussies and a Dutch bloke that I sound perfectly normal. At any rate, I've never had any problems communicating - but in the US, it was surprisingly hard for me to communicate with quite a few people. When I was first getting to know people, I had to repeat myself to make myself understood - so this was quite naturally fodder for jokes (which are the best way to cope with a problem when you're getting to know people).

My strange accent aside, it was even harder for me to decipher some American accents. There is, I hope you already know, no single American accent. Most of us are only familiar with the Californian or New Yorker accents, because these are the most populous and developed (and thus most likely to broadcast their culture overseas) states in the US. We might have some vague idea of what a Southern accent would sound like - but trust me, that vague idea is nothing close to reality. Most Americans don't have a Californian or New Yorker accent, but something else entirely. Many of them are understandable, but a lot of them aren't. I had a roommate, an African-American from Tennessee, who I simply could not understand at all. The poor fellow had to repeat himself thrice before I could get the gist of what he was saying - and even after about a couple of weeks of hearing him speak, I still couldn't make out about half of what he was saying. The Southern accent is extremely hard to understand - I ran into people from Virginia and West Virginia and even Pennsylvania whose sentences were completely Greek to me.

Despite these problems, I was really quite impressed by the intelligence of the Americans I came across - at least relative to the average Malaysian. By most conventional means of assessment, I didn't run into a great number of bright people - most of those students I talked with had average grades and test scores. Nevertheless, I would rate their intellectual maturity as much greater than that of the average Malaysian our age.

To cite one example, most American students I talked with were knowledgeable enough about current events such as the Iraq war to casually debate them. I can't think of a single Malaysian in this age group who would be interested enough in current issues to go out and find out about them, let alone debate them for fun. (Okay, that might be an exaggeration - but I'm quite certain the number of Malaysians I've met who are this aware of what's going on in the world can be counted on the fingers of my hands.) Likewise, when I ran out of reading material during my stay, I encountered no difficulty in finding someone I could borrow a book from to read on a long bus ride. The kinds of books that interest me are really impossible to locate in Malaysia outside a library (such are the travails of those who prefer non-fiction to fiction), but it wasn't hard to find people with similar reading interests in the US at all. Many of these people are such avid readers that they even cross-check the claims made by books they read! As for your typical Malaysian - well, last I heard, the average Malaysian reads two books a year. I think at least one of those books is probably some tripe like Harry Potter or chick lit.

That isn't to say all stereotypes about Americans are wrong. I ran into a surprising number of crazy African-American fans of rap (it's a horrid genre of "music" - a word I place in quotation marks because I don't believe rap qualifies as music). And despite my encounters with a surprisingly large number of intelligent Americans, I'm not yet willing to discount the studies which indicate about half of American students can't locate their nation's capital city on a map.

To sum up, I don't think there's much to be said about my trip, really - these are just a bunch of rambling anecdotes which can't really be used to form a picture of America or Americans. They work best when combined with hard data - if the data and the ancedotes corroborate each other, then you can be assured you've got the correct idea. I suppose, then, that the only real solid conclusion to be drawn from this article is that Coke is a terrible rip-off in America. I don't know about you, but I have better things to spend RM7 on than a bottle of carbonated sugar. If there's anything unshakeably proven, it's that you should absolutely not go on a shopping spree in America. We don't know how good we have it here in Malaysia. We may be dumb, we may be crazy, we may be oppressed, but by God, we've got the cheapest food on the planet. Who's up for an RM1.30 teh tarik?

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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