One of the most interesting cultures I’ve had to adopt living here in the States is talking to complete strangers.

For example, waiting in a line at a supermarket here in Redmond, the cashier will not only ask if “I found everything okay?” which may be out of professional training or real courtesy, but depending on how many items I have on the checkout (which translates to how long I’ll be standing there), she will also regal me with tales of her horrendous weekend organising a garage sale, for which she got only $200. I may have never met her in my life but what’s a little bitching between strangers?

In Malaysia, not only do the checkout ladies not greet you, they may not even look at you, unless you wear gold chains and/or carry something threatening (so they know when to run). Sometimes, if you’re polite and thank the lady for bagging your goods (but mostly because you’ve had experience living in a foreign country like the States), she gives you a blank look, as if to say, “Do I know you?” or “What you want?”

Contrary to popular belief, Asians – and by that I mean Malaysians – are not the friendliest people. No, we aren’t a rude people like them HongKees. We are, by and large, just a very – how should I say – practical nation.

Speak only when spoken to. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Hostile until proven harmless. That sort of mindset.

However, Westerners visiting our country see a completely different side to Malaysians. We read about it all the time, how we are purportedly the friendliest people in the world. The truth is, we have no qualms whatsoever about greeting or smiling at strangers – only if they’re Caucasian (or Caucasian-looking).

Still, it was awkward at first, for me, to open up my mouth and greet someone I don’t know. I remember this one time, in a supermarket, one of the baggers asked if I needed help going to the car with my bags.

You, want to help me, to the car?

I choked and sputtered out a confused ‘yes’. It was all I could do to stop from giving him a grateful hug.

Walking down a street in Seattle, you get nods, smiles and “how are yous” from people you’ve never met, all the time. Eight months of it and we too, have learned this common courtesy of exchanging niceties with complete strangers, asking about a person’s day or just stopping to give his or her (small) dog a little pat on the head.

Back home, not only do people not talk to each other anymore, nobody walks anywhere because it’s so damn hot and polluted and unsafe. Unless you’re like 70 and would rather risk being robbed over getting killed on the road.

And unless you’re crazy or selling something, never talk to strangers. Try and chances are the person will shake his/her head vigorously, quickening his sidestep in what I like to call the Dance of Disinterest. Persist and you will be treated like a leper.

Except, of course, if the greeter is a foreigner – and only the right type at that.

Caucasians, no problemo. We’ve been bred through colonisation to treat you special while we take your money AND make fun of you behind your backs.

Japanese/Korean? Maaay be a bit of a gamble. Just be sure to speak no English and you’ll be fine.

Indonesian or Thai? Be sure to have your passport with you at all times, and forget about asking for directions. Use a map.

Singaporean? Just pack up and go home.

Just this morning, a little boy of about seven struck a conversation with me at the playground while I was pushing Skyler at the swings.

“You look like someone I know,” he told me.

“Oh yea?” I answered.

“Yes. She’s in my church. You look like her.”

“Okay..,”

One never knows what the appropriate response is to such a statement.

“…except that she is actually a he.”

 

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting cultures I’ve had to adopt living here in the States, is talking to complete strangers.