Sunday, October 23, 2005

10/12: the land of bikinis and hijabs

Yesterday we arrived at the Damai Beach Holiday Inn 45 minutes outside Kuching. Malaysia is technically a developing country, but it seems to be a mixture of living conditions, more along the lines of Mexico than, say, Sub-Saharan Africa. We drove past shacks in the middle of lush green fields, tile-roofed duplexes and a few really opulent mansions. The signs featured lots of cognates: motosikil, insurans, teksi. We passed a school full of very small girls in hijabs. Our cab driver said when they start wearing it depends. A lot seems to be optional for Muslims in this part of the world. Some of the girls wear short sleeves. Ryan said that his Muslim friends told him that if you break your Ramadan fast you can do a make-up day afterward.

There’s a sort of modern-Muslim style I’ve observed on some of the trains in Singapore. One young woman had on this brightly printed turquoise dress over jeans (a style I always dig, no matter what B says), with a brown plaid hijab. They wear them pinned at the chin with a big lump of ponytail in the back. A kind of sexy mix of contemporary and traditional styles. I know some of the point of Muslim girl style is to not be sexy, but unexpected blends—like femmey dresses with combat boots—are always sexy to me. And I think that young people of any culture search for a way to make what’s been passed down to them new and cool.

We watched a little of the Malaysian news on TV last night, then fell asleep at 7:30 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 7:30 this morning. It was nice sleeping somewhere other than Ryan’s couch, which is at least six inches shorter than I am.

At the resort, I don’t even feel like I’m in a foreign country. It’s all very neat, self-contained and packaged. Which is both a nice break and somewhat unsettling. We’re staying in multi-unit, bungalow-style buildings with low-slung, green tile roofs. There’s a pool shaped like a goldfish cracker, a lightning rod on the roof, waves lapping the sand a few feet away, misty green mountains on the other side. And lots of Germans in very small swimsuits. I feel weird wearing my two-piece swimsuit in front of the Malays, even though I’m still doing it. I feel like, of course we are rich, decadent Westerners, of course we are hate-able. But maybe people here understand about those delicate cultural balances. Those tensions that are not quite harmonic, not quite hostile. Maybe they like having a steady job more than they dislike Westerners. Who knows.

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