plus ça change, plus c’est la différents chose

     I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the last post (but don’t be surprised if this one is poorly written as well…), I’ve been getting a maximum of five hours of sleep a night for the last two weeks (and 3 and 1/2 or 4 hours hasn’t been uncommon). Therefore, after a day full of maths, chemistry, physics, and biology (in the same freaking day) I can’t think in any manner conducive to halfway decent writing. 

     At any rate, I promised that I would post about school, so here goes. I am currently attending SMK St. John, one of the oldest schools in Kuala Lumpur, a British catholic school founded with the intent to educate (read convert) the children of KL. Now the school is mostly government funded so the whole catholic thing has faded away like the flavor in a piece of gum (although the teachers are still entirely free to talk about religion).  

     As per the title, the differences between school in Malaysia and the US are manifold (for those of you ill versed in famous quotes, the title is a play on “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” meaning “the more that things change the more they stay the same”. The modified version in the title says “The more things change, the more they are different”). First of all, the teachers change classes instead of the students. While it is nice that one gets to be with the same people for all of one’s classes, this system tends to waste time and isn’t very well regimented. Secondly, teachers are given an almost undue amount of reverence. Upon a teacher’s arrival or departure from the class, all the students must stand up and say in unison “good morning teacher” or “thank you teacher” respectively. Furthermore, a specially designated student must at any given time go to the white board and clean it off while the teacher is standing not two feet from the eraser. Given that the teachers also cane students for misbehavior (on the bright side, no ISS) I can’t help but think of Deleuze and Guattari’s evisceration of family as “the first unit of fascism” because it “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us”. Thirdly, there is a prefect system (yeah, I thought the same thing, “cool! Just like Harry Potter!”), but this has perhaps been the most intriguing aspect of school. Prefects are essentially trained tattletales who get to wear a special uniform and be the principal’s proxy in the classroom (I would however like to say that the prefects in my class are really laid back and tend to egregiously break the sillier rules themselves). Having students who swear their loyalty to the principal (there was a “swearing-in” a couple of days ago) watching you at every possible moment is a little unsettling. 

     The best difference is that the social dynamic is much more accepting and kind. In the States it has occurred to me that most often, the “popular kid” is the most arrogant jerk in the school. However, congruent with my experiences with Malaysians being some of the most hospitable and kind people I have ever met, students act in much the same way. As such, not only do the kinder souls tend to be more popular, most of the students seem to be operating on a similar social strata (although I have observed some slight indications of social classism when it comes to students behave in a rather strange or awkward manner). I have reveled in my discovery of an oasis of social inclusion in a society where extreme socio-economic stratification is the standard. 

     On a much lighter note, I have henceforth observed the duplication of a female psychological phenomenon which I had initially assumed was unique to the US (or at least Lydia Berns). This phenomenon can be summed up thusly, “OMG FOREIGN BOY, HAWT”. For those readers familiar with my physical appearance it should come as no shock that I’m not exactly a “hot item” back home. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure how to deal with my new found chick-magnetism. Putting myself in a Malaysian boy’s shoes, I think I would be quite jealous that a 16 year old American came into a class full of 18 and 19 year olds and instantly attracted the undivided attention of all the females. 

     On a different topic, I stopped fasting on September 2nd. The students in my class invited me for lunch (none of the students in my class are Muslims since the government sponsors the Malays, who make up 98% of the muslim population, to go to university a grade early so all the ethnic chinese and indians are stuck in Form 6) and I didn’t feel like refusing (and on top of it, I was hungry darnit!), so now eating lunch at school or out afterwords has become the norm.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 9:01 AM  Comments (6)  
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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)  
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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  
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