On the Third Day of Ramadan my True Love Gave to Me… An Acute Sociological Observation.

     If the State Department realized the wealth of cultural information available from a few days’ television viewing, they could have saved a couple thousand dollars by setting up a Malaysian Hulu instead of having to deal with all this unnecessary travel, orientation, and host family business. 

      If you read the title (which I hope you did because I go through Frederich Nietzsche-style title agony every time I post) you might be expecting me to wax eloquent about something sociological; and further given the above paragraph you might expect that this “acute sociological observation” came from viewing television. However, I now find the above paragraph a bit misleading; my sociological epiphany came not from a standard television program, but rather from a series of cosmetic advertisements.

     So I noticed my first or second day with my host family that there were a lot of women’s cosmetic product advertisements on the television. In a few more days, with greater understanding of malay and the occasional english commercial I noticed something curious about the majority of these advertisements. They all were for creams that touted their power to increase “fairness”, and a few ads for companies that I assume have no taste for or knowledge of marketing euphemisms boasted of the cream’s “whitening” abilities. Well, at first I assumed that perhaps Malaysians have retained what was once the western cultural norm of tanness (I think I just made up a word) being undesirable. However, I now believe that this is not the case and instead there is a much deeper and more troubling causality at play.

     About a week or so into my “experience” here I began noticing the amazing similarities between Malaysia and the United States. With a few exceptions, these major cultural similarities seemed to some extent forced or adopted, not natural components of the Malaysian culture. I did not connect at first the observation of adopted culture to the whitening creams, but then today (well it was 1am but that counts) it hit me.

     Politics of the matter aside, the United States of America is an empire. There is no denying this, especially given U.S. Foreign policy since WWII. The literally stated goal of US deterrence policy in the Cold War was often to “fight fire with fire”. The USSR was probably the best demonstration of a modern imperial nation-state, and in many cases the US government felt that it was combating Soviet Imperialism (see Domino Theory). So in order to stave off the threat of an expanding communist sphere, we happened to create our own empire. Like just about any other concept, object, or otherwise, when the US adopts something it is changed such that it becomes uniquely “American”. As such, what was understood to be imperialism was taken and changed. Instead of adopting the rigid framework of empire that proved utterly incompatible with the twentieth century nation-state, we rebuilt the framework entirely thus ensuring our success(?) in the international game and securing(?) our long-term hegemony. What we created was a cultural empire that allowed the United States to have a de facto empire without all the busy-work of direct governmental administration. In fact, this cultural empire was not created by the government (although the government for better of worse was and is certainly complicit in its creation and maintenance) but by individual American corporations seeking profits overseas. What we as Americans are presented with today is a network of KFCs, McDonalds, and Starbucks that wield more international influence than the Pentagon or CIA could dream of. As a result, the more affected regions of the globe have undergone dramatic cultural transformation. Asia is probably the best example of this.

      This all brings me back to the skin whitening crams. As the “west” has corporately coaxed the “rest” to warm up to their cultures, there has evolved an intriguing desire (that I have observed here) to be more like the “west” (keep in mind that with the marginalization of europe excepting Britain in the geopolitical game that the US is effectively the “west”). Not only do Malaysians want to eat our food, wear our clothes, and live like us but they also want to be physically like us as expressed through the desire to be white. I don’t know how to treat this nugget of cultural understanding. It is sad that so many parts of the world are losing their cultural identities (which I believe has led to the rise of “islamic extremism”), but at the same time virtually nothing can be done to reverse the tide.

     In closing (finally!), I find it humorous that the United States has accomplished almost by accident what great European empires who fought tooth-and-nail failed to do:

Turn the world white.



Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 4:21 PM  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,

The Temptress. Otherwise known as a glass of iced tea.

     So Ramadan is going swimmingly. I’ve decided to fast for two reasons. First, I feel that it will (and is) aiding in cultural immersion and understanding; and second I feel that I should fast out of courtesy for my host family. I think it would be very rude indeed to eat or drink in front of them while they are fasting. Besides, I have discovered that is pretty easy to fast and abstain from liquids. Well, easy save for a few excruciating hours today.

      For breaking-of-the-fast my family decided to eat at a restaurant in a mall. We went to the mall about two and a half hours before Maghrib which is the second-to-last call to prayer that occurs at dusk (During Ramadan the Maghrib Azan is permission to begin eating and drinking again), in order to shop and play around. While my host mom and sister were shopping for clothes my host brothers and I went to a small arcade in a department store (I know this is a very odd location for an arcade). Here we made the mistake of playing the physically intensive games; a downhill biking game where you had to pedal, DDR, etc. This turned out to be a very bad decision given that the three of us had not drank anything for 14 hours and could not drink for another 2. It was a horrible feeling and it was hard to maintain discipline especially since I have no real obligation to abstain from anything. Then we made another unintentional bad decision. We went to the restaurant about 30 minutes early. Unfortunately for me (and I assume my host brothers too, but I can’t speak to their inner thoughts) our drinks arrived at our table ten minutes before Maghrib. 

      Dear Readers, you may never experience the psychological pain of having an ice cold glass of teh tarik ais (cold tea mixed with sweetened condensed milk) sitting in front of you while you are in utterly painful thirst yet unable to drink the beverage. But let me tell you, it was probably the most testing, tempting, excruciating, painful, and long ten minutes of my life. However, I held fast for ten whole minutes until Maghrib and then I drank (or more appropriately attacked) the tea with such violent chugs that a frat boy would have been impressed with the time it took for me to down the drink.

     My motto for the (lunar) month: Serenity through Discipline.


Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 4:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Heil Hetero: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Phallocentric Heteronormativiy

I’m terribly sorry about the length of time between my blog posts. I have had scarce any measure of privacy for using the internet until yesterday when I got the internet to work on my laptop. Anyhow, a few days ago I definitely hit the very bottom of the culture shock curve. I got home from KLCC and my family was watching television, which is pretty standard. However, this particular television program was one of the most deeply offensive things I have seen in my life. Every fiber of my being was utterly repulsed by its content. It was an “investigative journalism” (think Dateline, 20/20, etc.) where homosexuals were tracked down with hidden cameras and then arrested for their “crime”. Not only did the program feature this, but it also included much cheerleading from “man on the street” interviews with people discussing how homosexuality is “damaging to society”, “immoral”, etc. To further compound my emotional and ethical situation, my host family was making off-the-cuff patently homophobic statements. 

That night I cried for the first time in a long time. I don’t know how to cope with this kind of culture; one where all of the media is a mouthpiece for the government (case in point, every TV station has several ads and dedicated programming for that “Satu Malaysia” BS), where the people are perfectly OK with the lack of freedom of speech and press (in fact, I could be arrested for sedition for posting this, but I don’t care!), and there is such ingrained hatred across the country towards certain groups of people. I think I am getting a little better now that I am a few days out from that experience. I keep trying to apply that AFS catchphrase “it’s not good or bad, just different” but I don’t see fascism as “different” I see this way of living as abjectly wrong. I guess that’s something I have to work on… 

So far, I feel like I am living in a more indirect capitalist version of 1984. No Joke.


-Tyler Smith

Published in: on August 21, 2009 at 8:34 AM  Comments (4)  

Orientation, Orientation, and more… ugh… Orientation.

Don’t misunderstand the above title, I am fully cognizant of the purpose and value of an orientation. But four days? And to be going over things we should already know. Stupid/incompetent people ruin everything… (please regard the previous statement as nothing but brilliant satire). Tomorrow should be better though, we are basically spending the entire day in D.C. proper at embassies and the State Department. And then is the big day, Tuesday.

But an interesting thing that happened today. Our fearless leaders called upon us to write down our thoughts when we considered the concept of “poverty”. I carefully inscribed the following on my notepad, “The human injustices inherent in the capitalist system” fully expecting equally profound and well-thought out answers from my… well I don’t know what to call them… colleagues? Anyhow, other answers ranged from the simple, “minimum wage” to the slightly ignorant; “drugs”, “dirtiness”, etc. As students studying abroad, I feel it is imperative that we be searching for causes and foundations for the events, systems, beliefs, and paradigms that we encounter. It is simply unacceptable as a scholar to only be able to describe the results or effects of a given concept. 

Anyways… that’s my two cents.


Published in: on August 10, 2009 at 2:59 AM  Comments (1)