I’m standing on the threshold of the guesthouse this morning drinking a cup of hot water, while speaking with an Indian woman from Singapore about the diabolical system of transportation in KL. In between words of our conversation, I hear snippets from a familiar tune coming from somewhere nearby – but the sound is muffled so I can’t quite place it. Only when our discussion comes to a close do I look up to where the music is coming from. It takes only a second or two to realize that the voices belong to children at the Chinese school across the road – and they are singing My Favorite Things from Sound of Music.
The other day, I am walking along the terrace of the famed E & O Hotel on the banks of the Straits of Malacca. A group of tourists gathers to watch a scene being filmed on the back lawn adjoining the outdoor restaurant. When I approach, I watch two women – in full Malay dress, including headscarves – being filmed while seated at a table; from the dialogue I deduce that they are shooting a spot for Mother’s Day. (Do Muslims celebrate too?)
After the group breaks up and the sun sets, I decide to meander around until I stumble across the hotel boutique, overflowing with high-quality and overpriced souvenirs and collectibles. A foreigner leaves with her purchases just as I enter, so the supervisor greets me warmly and launches into a conversation – more of a monologue.
Merlene, a Penang-born recently-retired Malay woman in her 50s, shares problems she is experiencing with her new daughter-in-law. But as a deeply religious woman, she believes that her faith will see her through her troubles. In due time, Merlene confides that she is a Pentecostal Christian and spends her Sundays praying and singing… at the local Gospel Hall. I love Hallelujah!, she exclaims. Where, I asked, do you attend church? Right here, she replies, in Penang. Then, with a skip in her step, she glides over to a counter nearby and presses down on a tape deck placed inconspicuously off to the side; gospel music rings out as Merlene begins to sway joyfully to the music, while I watch, only slightly dumbfounded. But really, why not?
Every day I am surprised anew by the signs and juxtapositions of peaceful co-existence in this jewel called Georgetown: Tibetan prayer flags next to Chinese lanterns. Chinese Catholics. Five-year-old girls wrapped in headscarves. Women fully shielded, head to toe, in black chador – with only their eyes and the bridge of their nose visible – shop in a Western-style supermarket, their husbands strolling alongside in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.
An Indian vegetarian restaurant next door to a Hokkien Chinese restaurant serving pork specialties. A mosque next to a travelers’ guesthouse, next to a café, next to a mechanic, next to a bakery, next to a bank, next to who-knows-what.
May Penang’s wonders of cross-cultural laissez-faire never cease.