It took me a while to figure out how things worked where I grew up in Northern California: using the toilet, chewing gum, tying shoes, tossing a frisbee, using a fork, driving.
Through trial and error, copying, reading, and both being told what to do and doing exactly the opposite of what I was told to do, I shaped a semi-coherent construct of reality and considered myself quite intelligent.
Then, at 57, I moved to Nusajaya, Malaysia.
Oh sure, I can visit our expat neighbor’s home for dinner and have a heated discussion about Trump or the unbelievable waste of plastic bags at markets and coffee shops in Asia. Give me any topic and someone that speaks English and I am erudite indeed.
Just don’t send me to the store to buy an apple.
At Whole Foods, back in California, or any other market in the U.S., the clerk takes the apple, puts in on a scale and looks it up in a book or usually has the PLU code memorized. Once in a while, they won’t recognize a fruit or vegetable you present and will hold it up so the checker at the next register over can see. “You know the code on this?” they’ll ask.
A quick “2578” response will be monotoned back and the checker will dutifully punch it in. Of course, there are the bulk nuts and grains, which require one to obediently write the code onto a special tie that goes around the neck of the plastic or a sticker that one affixes to the paper bag. A certain amount of trust is involved with this practice and I, for one, am often tempted to write the number of a less expensive nut—say, the number for peanuts in place of the number for cashews. Just to see what happens.
But I never did. I complain a lot about the injustice of predatory capitalism but I tend to follow the rules.
In Malaysia, however, one does not just grab a piece of fruit and bring it to the checkout counter. I found this out after waiting through a long line at Mydin Market, and putting my items on the belt that doesn’t convey. After ringing in all the other groceries, the female checker wearing the Hijab, held the apple in front of my face and said, ”mana pelekatnya!”
I thought that she was unfamiliar with what kind of fruit this was which didn’t seem odd to me at all, given all the fruit, vegetables and items I didn’t know enough about to generally categorize. For all I know, an apple might be some weird hybrid fruit to the populace here.
So, I said, slowly, loudly, “Ap-puhl”.
Her bagger helper who seemed proficient, possibly fluent, in English, smirked as if to intimate, “We know it’s an apple, buddy.” Then, politely said, in pretty much the exact tone that I had pronounced “apple”, “NO STICKER!”
Still thinking there might be a recognition problem, since the only sticker I could imagine being on the apple was a sticker that said “Apple”, I again, although with less assuredness, said, “It’s an apple?”
He said, “Yes, apple, but you need to go get a sticker.”
I have traveled extensively through Europe, visited the homes of friends in the Catalan region of Spain, villages in Portugal, towns in Latvia. I have navigated beer halls in Frankfurt, tapas cafes in Barcelona and once managed to fly to Mexico after forgetting my passport and finding a notary public at SFO who had me write on a piece of paper “My name is Todd Lejnieks, I was born on March 7, 1960 and I am a United States citizen”, which the notary then signed (pre-9/11). I pride myself on being able to get around and have often chastised my fellow American travelers for not immersing themselves in the culture in which they travel. They lug their suitcases, wear their hiking shorts with the horrendous socks, flipping through Rick Steve books and often miss the best parts of a city or a culture—the people. And they all-too-often act like entitled bores, surprised that not everyone in the world speaks English and upset when the tour bus is late.
So, blood shame flooded my face and my heart accelerated as I heard myself say, turning to hurry back to the produce section, “It’s not my fault there’s no sticker on the freaking apple!” In one self-loathing moment, I had become what I so-often judge in others: a self-entitled American fool.
“Excuse me?” asked the bagger, who now had somehow transformed into a designated representative of the Malaysian Military rather than a Mydin employee. I decided to pretend I didn’t hear him and made my way past the long line waiting for the “angmo” (white face) to get his act together with the apple. Frantically, I looked for an apple with a sticker on it, found one with a small picture of an apple on it, and hurried back towards the register.
Rachelle met me halfway. “You need to get it weighed and put the price sticker on it back by the apples!” she said. I turned around and there it was: the scale, the attendant dutifully weighing produce as shoppers handed him their loose vegetables and fruits, the bar-coded stickers spitting out of the machine and being slapped on each piece of fruit.
Oh boy, I had simply missed all of that. In my staring at women’s Hijabs and making tsk tsk sounds in my mind, looking at the iced fish lain about, and ruing the abundance of processed food, hi-carb, sugar-laden basketfuls of garbage non-nutrition being pushed around by health-unconscious shoppers and trying to find just one decent sugar-free chocolate bar, I had not seen the obvious way that one gets a price on an apple here.
I thought I had been quietly observing the sheep from the safe distance of my interior monologue.
But I was the sheep, still doing things the way sheep do them in my flock back in California. I took refuge from my shame by noting that a) Sam Harris must be right, there really is no such thing as “free will” and b) this moment too would pass. (Apologies to Harris, who I know would counsel me not to use the neurological underpinning of cause and effect to absolve myself of accountability.)
Yes, sheepishly, the Village Idiot handed the apple over to the woman in the Hijab, who rang it up. The lady from the UK, who had explained to Rachelle the proper procedure, said, “Don’t worry, it’s a lesson all the expats learn the hard way. I did it too.” This was compassion as deep and strong as I’ve ever felt and it took some gut clenching not to burst into tears and hug her.
Mr. Critic of All Things Todd Does Stupid still didn’t like that bit because it meant that I was so much like all the others. The other Americans, Brits, Aussies and everyone else that comes here and just don’t know much. Who must often rely on people that are multi-lingual and are used to westerners.
And even if they wear different clothing than me, and are forced to buy food that isn’t the organic awesomeness found at Whole Foods, have the patience and understanding to wait around while the lanky American in the “Love Is My Religion” tee shirt figures out how to buy an apple. I reflect on the news reports of Muslim women or men in the U.S. being spit on, beat up, or worse simply for dressing differently.
There is a strong push in the US to “make America great again”—and reaction against “neo-liberalism” and “American apologists”. I don’t think that those of us born in the United States need be ashamed of our birthplace. But Americans are not unique in our exceptionalism. And we are not so great that we know how to buy apples everywhere we go.
If my thoughts and feelings were only contained inside my skull, they might serve as no more than mere distractions to my own wandering about the earth. But, as exemplified in my interactions with the grocery store checker, the bagger and all the other people in the market that day, my interior mindset has an impact. Maybe the effect is a few moments of irritation, or entertainment, to those around me. Here, I have no power. I am the minority. I don’t have any sway over what a woman chooses to wear or how much sugar or flour is piled on shelf after shelf. Just like where I was born, the majority rules, corporatocratic rule notwithstanding. I recall how I approached and thought of Muslims when I was in the United States. When I was the majority. I can’t say that my thoughts, then or now, are all that inclusive and my compassion is often overwhelmed by my xenophobic mechanisms. My mind still craves “normal” and protects against “alien”. I am still uncomfortable with the Hijab. Or any other form of forced uniformity, including anthem singing and flag saluting.
But along with my powerlessness comes an appreciation for all of us who say, “that’s just the way things are”, my pet peeve of sentences. Along with the way apples are priced, Hijabs are worn and the stench that Durian fruit infuses through the open air marketplace, I am seeing the power of agreed-upon reality and how that certainly can seem to be the way things are.
Shortly after this Mydin Market episode, I watched a documentary about the genealogy of Larry David and Bernie Sanders (SPOILER ALERT: they’re cousins!) Bernie discovers that his great granduncle was a member of the “Judenrat” (Jews appointed administer Nazi policies in Polish ghettos). His uncle refused an order from his Nazi superior to hand over a Jewish citizen for execution.
So they took Bernie’s great grand uncle into the forest just outside of town and shot him in the back of the head. They filmed Bernie as he read about this for the first time.
Bernie: “…the consequences of his refusal you know…we talked earlier about why I get involved in politics and just…it is in order to prevent a descent of humanity into this kind of disgusting behavior. How does it happen how can people do this? And that’s the struggle that we’re all involved in and it just makes us realize how hard we have got to work to not descend into this type of barbarity and to create a world where people can love each other and to do so many wonderful things together…that’s what this reinforces with me.”
Later, Bernie reflects, “Sometimes, it’s just a little bit embarrassing to be a member of the human race.”
Yes, says the guy trying to buy an apple.
Yes it is.
Other things that are different here:
- Plugs and outlets
- Where Outlets are
- When you order a coffee to go (“for takeaway”) it is put in a little plastic bag.
- There are plastic bags everywhere. Coming from San Francisco, where they are illegal, it seems like this is where they were all put in prison. It also appears that the more that are used to bag your groceries, the higher the bonus for the cashiers.
- Disparity of wealth—In the United States, it’s called “trickle down” or “you are what you make of yourself” to excuse how some people shop at Gucci, Hermes and Tiffany while others beg for food. Here, it’s Karma, Caste and more of “that’s just the way things are”. But it is impossible to ignore.
- Taking off shoes before entering a house.
- Burgers, cowboy boots, McDonald’s and the like aren’t “American” here. They’re “western”.
Things for which I am grateful, 29 October 2017
- Hot water showers
- Sparkling water
- Holding hands
My current goal: I am living my dream where home is everywhere and I am always home.