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Tony Gentry

Malaysia: 21 impressions

Updated: May 17

I’ve been home a month from the Fulbright fellowship to Malaysia (focus on assistive technology for autism), yet still reflecting on that dazzling experience. Sharing here 21 snapshot impressions:

Somehow had lived past retirement age having never visited a Muslim country. Immediately impressed by a sense of contentment and centeredness amongst my hosts, along with a hospitality that seems to flow naturally from their equipoise.

And with that, a disarming candor. Upon meeting a new person, one of the first questions asked, “How old are you?” Then, having noted my wedding ring, “How many children?” Then, “Are you well? Any medical problems?” Somehow, these questions prove liberating, and lead to rich discussions, after all, having gone this far, what’s to hide?

Hotel overlooking a bedraggled amusement park, stained and chipped cartoon statues, unintentionally spooky, trees strung with lights, rusty bumper cars, a rudimentary water park, and yet this magnificent ferris wheel, lights pulsing in spirals along its spokes, and an underground attraction, a playroom with manufactured snow.

So many people can tell you about their complex familial heritage across generations of ethnic inter-marriage and travel in this finger of land that has been an international crossroads from time immemorial.

Every town has its own dish, often a variant of stew (laksa) or curry with rice or noodles, and everyone has their favorite of these. All are delightfully piquant, tongue ping-ponging with flavors, mouth tingling happily for long minutes after your meal.

I am given a key to an empty office at the university, and go there while my Muslim hosts attend to their prayers.

So easy to tell the major ethnic groups apart by dress alone. Muslim women wearing hijab, Indians in saris, Chinese in Western fashion. Not so easy distinguishing among the men, all of whom tend to wear jeans and t-shirts in the malls. But for weddings and other celebrations, just a parade of exotic traditional dress!

An Indian father and his teenaged daughter, who sits with us chanting, “playground, playground, playground.” With pleading eyes, he asks, “Will she ever be normal?”

Five-year old autistic triplets shrieking as they navigate a sensory gym, their mom in a moment of respite, sitting quietly, hands clasped at her lap, on a swing hung from the center of the ceiling.

A plastic baggie of soup, swiftly knotted by the night market vendor, a second bag of veggies and noodles; back at my hotel room, dump it all in a bowl, this fragrant seafood repast, the scent and flavor of all the ocean, mouth surprised as if stung by nettles.

Fiercely air-conditioned shopping malls all built on a circular pattern, multiple floors rising to a mosque-like dome; the custom, slipping in to get out of the heat for a moment.

No one on the streets all day, then at sunset, when the temperature drops a few degrees, the amusement park opens, the food stalls, too, and at last the neighborhood comes alive.

The Blue Mosque in Shah Alam: spare, modernist white walls and a blueberry blue aluminum dome, the interior vast, the same reverent quiet shared by cathedrals, on the white marble floors pasted paired foot prints at six meter intervals, remains of the covid era.

The Putra Mosque: built of rose-tinted granite, swirlingly patterned, the minaret like a rocket on a launch pad, all overlooking a broad lake, another mosque in the distance. The women emerge from their prayers, find their shoes and some shade, sit quietly in pastel gowns and hijabs, the day warm but the sky clear.

Eventually, the tall, ornately carved wooden doors on the men’s side open, and their husbands come out. The couples drift together, wordlessly, through the marbled gate to the parking lot, one prayer of five on that day completed.

Palm oil plantations. Think of this next time you eat a candy bar. My host Zamir says it’s grueling work. Walk the unruly fields in tropical heat, at your feet deadly cobras (and king cobras!), knock down the palm fruit (each fruit weighs around 50 pounds) from the tall trees with long-hooked poles, haul those spiky fruits to a truck and go back for more all day long for little pay. He says Malaysians no longer care for that work; it’s the immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, who live in urban hovels and send their earnings home, who do it.

The students called me “Prof Tony”, which I kinda like. Behind my back, pretty sure they used the term reserved for old farts: “uncle.”

Autism was defined in the DSM in 1980, just 43 years ago. Therapies since have focused on forcing autistic people to behave in line with civic norms. The expansive notion of “neurodivergence” so important now. How do we adapt environments to better fit people whose brains work differently? That’s how assistive technology can help, providing tools that support communication, learning, and engagement in line with the ways autistic people experience the world.

Fascinating, too, how social media highlights autistic preferences in all of us. For instance, who cold calls on the phone anymore? We prefer the distance and brevity of a text to the imposition of a human voice, right up in our ear, in the moment.

Everyone I know who has flown of late has come home sick. On the way back from the other side of the globe, three long-haul flights (economy) and four airports over 33 hours = chest cold that’s lasted a month (and which I passed on, kindly, to my wife).

I want to go back, to see the touristy things I missed. To visit a beach, a rainforest, the highlands, Petang Island, but mostly to see my new friends, Prof Liza, Prof Suni, Prof Zamid, all of whom are so committed to the good work they do.

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