A strange thing has happened to Sean and I since we’ve been on vacation. When someone speaks English to us, we answer back cheerfully. If we don’t know how to eat roti canal properly, we’re not embarrassed. If someone rushes to show us how to use an English language ticket machine, we’re grateful. All of these things would send us into blind rages in Japan.
In Japan, Sean and I are travelers; expatriates, people trying to be part of Japanese society. We moved there to learn about a new culture from the inside out with the intention of learning the language and as many of its customs as we could train our brains to accept. People who assume we haven’t bothered to learn Japanese insult us. Not knowing how to do something makes us feel like aliens. When we’re treated like ignorant children, it reminds us that we’re not viewed as equals.
In Malaysia, we’re no longer travelers, but tourists. We’re not ashamed to be seen reading a map. I’m wearing a floppy straw hat, flip flops and am trying to convince myself that my badly chipped nail polish looks punk. Normally clean-shaven Sean has transformed into Captain Redbeard. . Our brains are shut off, tired of learning Japanese verbs and grammar – weary of following the rules of Japanese society – and we’ve become the very people who make expatriates’ lives so difficult in Japan. We’re tired. Our real life selves are on vacation. Speak to me in English, I don’t mind; even though I’ve picked up enough vacation Bahasa Malaya by now to get by. I’ll cover my arms. I won’t make a huge show of drinking in public. I’ll take my shoes off at a mosque. I’ll let my mind teem with questions that don’t necessarily need answering just yet – why are only half of the shops open? Is there any significance to the many variations of Muslim head coverings? Why do we never get knives with our table setting? Where are the darn rambutans already? Is English so widespread because it’s a good way for all of the ethnic groups who live here to communicate?
But that Do Not Disturb sign on my brain? Let it be.