I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
People still live here in stilted houses, but with the frequent tourists, there are also plenty of tacky souvenir shops. Wooden walkways led us to what used to be the location of a famous wall mural but it had been scraped off. That’s the thing with street art; because it isn’t sitting in a museum somewhere, everyone’s interpretation is different and some people see it as vandalism. At least it will live eternally on Google.
The end of the pier looked out onto surprisingly turquoise blue water, and small taxi boats ferried people from the mainland. This is where we were approached by one of three smiling German tourists.
“I would like to make a photo with you.”
N put on her stranger danger face and responded, “Uh no.”
When I asked him why, he explained that we looked and “moved” differently from the locals in Southeast Asia. The locals here in Southeast Asia pretty much knew we were foreigners by looking at us, but we were surprised when a non-Asian tourist noticed. I felt bad for the guy who seemed harmless enough, so I donned my sunglasses and “made a photo” with him. We chatted with them a bit about where they were from (Northern Bavaria) and where they were going next (we told them to skip the Cameron Highlands) before we said goodbye and were on our way back to exploring.
There were a few more murals along the way back, and we stopped by each one and took a photo because they’re actually pretty cool. A turn into a smaller street led us to a cafe calling itself “soohungry”, and we ducked inside for refreshments.
There really is something different about the way Asians who grew up in Western countries “move”, and we noticed this immediately in the young woman who was working there. We found out she was an American girl who had quit her job in Denver and was working her way through Southeast Asia for six months. Her stint in Penang was organized through helpx.com — a site we haven’t used yet — and she was getting free lodging in return for six hours of work per day. It was the first time in two months since we ran into another American — there just aren’t many of them traveling around — and we talked into the early evening about work and more importantly, traveling.
Dinner was a-callin’ so we took Lyddie’s advice and went to what the locals claim is the best nasi kandar place in Penang. An older Caucasian gentleman sat smoking over the remains of his plate and called out to us.
“Where are you from?”
“New York. Where are you from?”
“Ah, New Yawk, huh? I’m from Seattle.”
We sat at the table next to him and got to talking to him about how he ended up living in Asia for the past ten years. It was the first time he had met a Japanese person who wasn’t at least second-generation Japanese-American, and that struck me as odd. But then again, being from the Northeast, I rarely meet Japanese-Americans. He told us about how the Japanese-Americans are the whitest Americans you’ll meet — they were the cheerleaders and the student council members in his high school. It’s how Japanese immigrants figured out how to survive; to assimilate into the majority culture as quickly and effectively as possible to ensure success through acceptance.
As we were finishing up our huge nasi kandar, a Tamil man sat down with a bag of bread and margarine. After offering us some, he settled down into his dinner and proceeded to ask N if she was married. He and N did the “Are you gay?” dance, which is necessary in these countries that aren’t especially comfortable with or accepting of gays. They beat around the bush for a while until he finally got to the point and told N that he knew why she wasn’t married and that there were a lot of “tomboys” like us in Indonesia. He also told her that there are places where you can pay to watch two men having sex. I don’t know how N often ends up being the receiving end of these conversations with strangers. Maybe it’s her innocent-looking face.
Right when things were getting to the peak of awkwardness, Lyddie and her Malaysian friend came by and saved us from further embarrassment. We joined them for drinks at a local place, which was pretty much a small liquor store with plastic tables and chairs set up outside. We grabbed some imported beers and sat around talking when two American boys we had briefly met on the ferry over from the mainland ambled past.
These California hipsters were fresh out of school, traveling for a while before their internships. With little mustaches on their baby faces and that slow recognizable California drawl, they seemed lost in the real world of Southeast Asia. They were with a tall, handsome French boy who was staying at the same hostel, and they joined us with their cans of Stol (which I think is Malaysia’s version of PBR). See, hipsters. We’ve gone for days or weeks without meeting people, and this was the most Americans we’ve met in one day since we started traveling. You’ll find hardy Australians in the most remote parts of the world, and friendly Germans almost everywhere you go (if it’s a place worth visiting, they’re there), but you will rarely meet a fellow American seeing the world. I think it has a lot to do with the culture of fear instilled in Americans, that the outside world is a scary and unfamiliar place full of people trying to harm you in one way or another to get at their big stacks of USDs.
We eventually parted ways and walked back through the now dark and empty neighborhood, passing shuttered cafes and crumbling buildings which were still stunning in their own, worn-out way. We passed a large wall mural called “Kung Fu Girl”, a young girl clad in blue doing pull-ups using the awnings of a building’s windows, and we reminded ourselves to come back to take a good photo during the day. We could tell there was going to be a lot to keep us entertained here in this cute little town.
A week later, on our last night in the city, we walked into an outdoor market for local artists. Schoolbuses were parked in the middle of a dark street, decorated both inside and out by the artists using them. It was a great way to wrap up our two weeks in this amazing town.