In the last year of my life I have become a slightly anti-social person. I haven’t enjoyed shopping, commercial music, clubbing, hanging out with friends and a regular social life as a necessary counterbalance for my working life. I didn’t have a working life at all and I was comfortable in my humble routine with few loyal friends, some good musicians and my girlfriend. My entertainment was music, which is a form of social interaction in a way, and ‘chatting’ was as scarce in digital life as it was in real the real world.
My Malaysian journey started in a very ‘socially active’ way and put myself out of my comfort zone. I decided to couchsurf to save some money and I found myself in a reality that I never expected to be part of.
My facebook wall is now full of pictures with ‘new friends’ and I attended events organised through social media groups with the specific aim of getting people together to know each other and chat. In Kuala Lumpur I went to a dinner with a bunch of people that call themselves the MWF, Media Writing Focus. A group of young professionals that keep in touch on facebook and on a whatsapp group and meet up on a regular basis in restaurants or bars. Some of them are also part of the Couchsurfing community that connects people in a similar way. CS in Kuala Lumpur is not only a way of getting travelers to know locals but a strong network that connects people within the city and allows them to take part in events and reunions. To my eyes this looks surreal and unfamiliar but incredibly impressive at the same time. It is the first time that I see the digital interaction become real, I guess it’s the same principle of online dating but friendship is at stake here instead of love. I prefer the traditional way whereby you meet a person first and lately you continue the interaction through the internet if both parties are willing to. Anyway, I am not in the position to judge.
One night, for instance, I crashed at a ‘pool side party’ in a wealthy area of KL. This was organised in a very rigorous way, everyone had to bring some food and dress up either in red or green to take part in games. The attendance had to be confirmed through facebook and everyone had to bring a present worth 5-10 Ringgit. I was wearing black, had no food nor present and my name was not on the list. I didn’t give a shit because I was in the position of being an outsider but my couchsurfing host, Nick, who had been invited by a friend and was not aware of this rules, was clearly embarrassed and isolated himself in a corner. He is very active in the community and told me that he was feeling under pressure and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t blame him, we decided to leave and went to drink a beer at the Reggae Bar.
This way of socializing is awkward to me but I am sure that some of the individuals that take part to this meetings can be very generous and nice. My host, Nick, for example was a great person. He took me around the city with his car for two days, showed me the best street food in town and welcomed me with incredibly generous hospitality. Still this was not where I wanted to go. KL is a big metropolis where different cultures Chinese, Indians, Malaysians, Europeans, Muslims, Christians and Buddhist seem to melt together under a bigger modern culture that incorporate them all. The culture of cars, smartphones, connectivity, trips to the shopping mall listening commercial music, restaurants and fancy looking nightclubs. Something that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I left Europe in search of something exotic and strange and I have found myself in another version of my world where the similarities are far more than the differences. I can’t blame anyone for this, they have all the right to carry out this lifestyle but I start to think that modernity goes hand in hand with the homogenization of culture. Everywhere you’ll go in the world you’ll feel at home, spot the same kind of shops and lifestyle. Good or bad? I don’t know, but it’s hard for those like me who sometimes have the need to feel away from home.
Attempting to run away from this I decided to cancel my trip to Langkawi Island –a touristic hub on the west coast of Malaysia- and accepted a couchsurfing request from a guy in KL who was travelling back to his home town in Kuala Krai, north east of the country on the border with Thailand. “Great visit to a small village”, was the subject of his message, “You will experience traditional culture” he promised me.
It was 50% true. Kuala Krai is a small village but I did not find the traditional culture I was looking for. A very interesting place indeed, I was fascinated by the story of his family. Up here live his grandpa and grandma, they look after his father who suffered of a stroke and lost his ability to move the right part of his body. He has an incredible will power and moves independently carrying around his dead arm and leg. He picked us up from the airport in a brand new white Toyota with automatic gear and leather seats. During my stay I had the chance to see happening under my nose all I was sensing in KL and my facebook profile filled up with portraits of me with members of the family and friends.
Grandma and Grandpa are Chinese Bhuddist, don’t speak any English and have a little temple in the house with colorful lights. They are witnessing their culture being blown away by something they are not sure of. Do they like modernity? I don’t know. Grandpa, a very funny looking man with only one tooth in his mouth, has to sleep on a chair in the living room because he doesn’t like the air-conditioned that his grandson keeps on all night in the only room of the house with five sleeping surfaces.
My host here once told me “I have to respect my grandma, she is Buddhist. But I will remove this temple as soon as she dies. I am a Christian now and I converted my father.” In the house the traditional Chinese decorations are suffocated by the framed pictures of strangers from around the world that come here through couchsurfing and save money on hostels while travelling. A friend of mine once told me that couchsurfing is one of the byproducts of post-modernity. In the postmodern world life is fluid, there is no traditions or culture, anything is possible, anything can happen. You can be anyone.
All of this have been taking place under the name of ‘friendship’ but now I wonder, can this be real friendship of more a form of opportunism? All I know is that I have met someone who took me around with his car and forced me to listen to Rihanna and all of that lot for almost 4 hours a day with air-con straight on my neck. The best I could do was sleeping to numb my senses and forget those catchy songs “shine bright like a diamond!”. On the other hand he showed me the beautiful places of his childhood; the rainforest, the waterfall in Latarek, the border with Thailand and a serious amount of delicious food. I used to think that this was probably the only irremovable pillar of Malay culture but I had to reconsidered myself when I came to know that eating and using food as a form of entertainment and celebration is a result of the influence of the materialist Chinese culture that has spread across the country.
Few weeks ago I was talking to a friend and she told me that she loves cities with a great spirit, she was talking specifically about Istanbul but it was meant as a general statement. To me KL is just like London. It feels quite dry, with no soul. At the time of writing I am in the living room of the house near the Chinese temple. it’s Christmas and I am happy to be leaving this place soon. My head feels like exploding and I am glad I shared this experience with another couchsurfer from France. A brilliant guy, two years younger than me, biologist, dancer, painter and willing to discuss all of this.
Soon I will be in Ipoh after a 7 hours bus ride, from there I will catch another bus that will take me to Cameron Highlands. Some fresh air is about to come.