Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #6: Ujangsan

Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #6: Ujangsan

Suburbs

Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.

So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.

Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.

Everything old is new again

After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.

First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.

Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.

Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)

Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.

This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.

Building the future

If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.

We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.

National Music

National Music

Some years ago, a professor invited me to a chamber concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on a Saturday afternoon. Five minutes into the Haydn, he was snoring softly. He was hardly alone. In the half-empty auditorium, I couldn’t see anyone who looked to be under sixty, and much of the audience was nodding off. Even the orchestra seemed to be sleepwalking through their note-perfect renditions of pieces they’d all been playing since middle school.

Why did we all show up for this soporific farce? The audience wasn’t there for the music itself, that was clear. They were part of a generation that felt an obligation to better themselves and their community by patronizing the arts, which meant the classical arts: orchestras, ballet, opera. I was witnessing the dying embers of a kind of Jewish immigrant striving that had put Leonard Bernstein at the center of American middlebrow culture in the mid-twentieth century.

Gugak by Helmut Lang

Something similar (though not so sleepy) was at work during a recent performance — also on a Saturday afternoon — of The Banquet, by the National Dance Company of Korea at the National Theater of Korea, which put dozens of dancers into exquisite costumes and marched them through complex choreography reminiscent of both North Korean mass games and Disney musicals. It was a new piece with lots of modernist trappings, but at its heart it was the same old vocabulary of Korean traditional clothing, stock characters, and dances: the court attendants, the leaping farmers, the women drummers, the upper-class yangban dandies.

With its spare white staging, careful white lighting, and traditional costumes reworked in colors from recent issues of Vogue, a lot of it felt like Korean gugak (tratitional music) by Helmut Lang. Because there were so many dancers on the stage at any one time, it was inevitably more about pretty shapes and stage pictures than about any individual artistry. The precision sometimes lapsed — a wobbly ankle here, an out-of-place dancer there — and it occurred to me that Korea’s very best dancers probably don’t end up as part of this anonymous national corps churning out reheated tradition. The show was never quite boring, and at some moments — especially the farmer’s dance, when individual dancers finally had a chance to show off some acrobatic skill — it was lively. But it was never quite alive. In a Korean sense, you could say that it had no hoheup (breath).

The invention of tradition

As with the Upper West Siders who feel an obligation to sponsor precise renditions of eighteenth-century Hungarian and Austrian music, there are historical and cultural reasons why this particular vocabulary of styles and symbols represents Korean culture, why Koreans enjoy recycling and rewatching these particular cultural artifacts, and why performances with “National” in the title have this zombie quality to them.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary upheaval, much of which took the form of a reckoning with onrushing modernity: the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the forced opening of Japan in 1853, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Ideas of modernity and tradition, reform and reaction, swirled around these conflicts, rarely in straightforward ways. Perhaps no event encapsulates the contradictions of the era as well as the Taiping Rebellion, which took as many as 30 million lives in China between 1850 and 1864. The Taipings were Chinese nationalists who rebelled against the “foreign” Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars a few years earlier. The Taiping leadership was Hakka, an ethnic minority sub-group within the larger Han Chinese identity, and the head of the movement considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.

From this maelstrom, independence movements emerged, and they faced the task of forging national identities, whether for relatively organic nations like Korea or Japan, or for colonially invented polities like Indonesia or Malaysia. In Korea, this process was delayed in some ways by the late date of its opening to the outside. The 1894 Donghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion is an early symptom, but South Korean ideas of national identity really crystalized during the Japanese occupation period, between the World Wars. That’s why the vocabulary of Korean tradition is so specifically that of late-Joseon Dynasty culture, which had ended within living memory. What was being preserved was what the intelligentsia remembered from their youth.

This also has much to do with what made the cut and what didn’t. Palaces are preserved and reconstructed with tax dollars, and national theaters perform the music and dances of both high and low classes because folk was an important concept in the early twentieth century. But most educated people in late Joseon saw Buddhism as retrograde and shamanism as beyond the pale — superstition that needed to be purged if Korean society was to modernize — so there’s relatively little overt Buddhism in Korean traditional performances, while what survives of shamanism in the national vocabulary is usually stripped of ritual power or meaning, and shaman paintings and shrines are almost never given the kind of respect accorded to traditional houses or markets or city gates.

I’m here because we’re here

In country after country, I’ve found similar arts and performances: recreations of Peking Opera in a palace in Beijing, folk ensembles in Luang Prabang, endless repetitions of Mozart in Vienna, dinner buffet dance shows in Siem Reap. (Communist countries tend to produce a socialist-realist version of traditional dance — at some point, ladies will sow seeds and carry water — while capitalist countries are more likely to keep the dance abstract. And Communist performances tend to have brighter and more primary colors in the costumes and lighting, with less deference to the latest Pantone trends.)

Why do people keep showing up to see these same performances, over and over? It has to do with a shared sense of identity and understanding. Koreans can come to a reheated Banquet at the National Theater and nod along, assessing how well or badly the dancers did all the things everyone has been seeing since childhood. It’s art as karaoke: you don’t listen because someone at the bar will sing “I Will Survive” better than Gloria Gaynor, but because you can, as a group, assess the performance against Gloria Gaynor.

And who can engage with Korea’s codified traditions this way? Koreans, of course. That’s where identity comes in. To go to a performance like The Banquet is to reassert both the existence of Korea as a unique cultural entity and your membership in it. That’s why these kinds of performances so rarely innovate or confront: they’re a trip to the folk village, not a trip to the contemporary art museum.

Safety in numbers

Korea does have a traditional music scene that feels alive. The musicians may be playing the old pieces, but they’re bringing personal passion and force to their playing. These performances, though, are usually smaller, without any “National” imprimatur — more downtown theater than Broadway musical. They have hoheup.

Why do they draw smaller audiences? In part, it’s a matter of marketing, budget, and positioning. National theaters have production values, and people show up for that.

But I think there’s something deeper at work too. I have, on several occasions, been moved to tears by Korean traditional music and dance. It happened with So Ra Kim. But being moved and touched can be uncomfortable. It’s raw and real. It’s the equivalent of skipping the folk village, going to an actual village, and reckoning with the ancient, toothless ladies who squat by the side of the road sorting vegetables.

The simulation is tidier, easier. And there’s safety in numbers.

New Old Korea

New Old Korea

Kim So Ra is why I live in Korea.

I discovered her this past Saturday night, after a new friend made a vague invitation to a janggu concert. It was a bitterly cold night, and the concert was in an underdeveloped, industrial section of Seoul called Yeongdeungpo, where the main street is still lined with small machine shops and artificial limb wholesalers. It reminded me of winter excursions to the Lower East Side twenty years ago to see experimental theater productions tucked in between old bra shops. I connected with some friends of friends at a chicken restaurant with an outdoor fire rotisserie and stacks of wood, and then we headed off, eventually finding our way to the Mullae Art Factory Box Theater, a stylish bit of postmodern concrete architecture hidden down an unpromising side street.

I wasn’t expecting much. The theater was small, the audience probably fewer than fifty people, and the theme of the show, “A Sign of Rain,” complete with accompanying video projections, seemed like it might turn into the kind of embarrassing conceit that masks mediocre playing.

But the art scene in Seoul, I’ve discovered, delights more often than it disappoints. Kim So Ra, it turns out, is not only a janggu virtuoso, but also a subtle explorer of world percussion, which she integrated into her playing in startling ways, incorporating everything from pouring water to Tibetan singing bowls (only the xylophone piece fell flat). Her fellow musicians — percussionist Hyeon Seung-hun, O No-eul on piri, Im Ji-hye on gayageum — created a rich, complex range of sounds that put me in mind of the Steve Reich performance I saw at BAM in 2015.

Visual music

Traditional janggu performance is inseparable from the excitement of watching the drummer swing the stick from one side of the hourglass drum to the other, and samulnori music comes fully alive as dance, with colorful costumes and long spinning streamers attached to elaborate hats. Kim So Ra augmented that visual tradition with video projections. At times it felt a little Pink Floyd laser show or nineties screen saver, but at their best, the videos helped to focus our attention on particular details in the music, or brought out themes and feelings, as when the screen behind the stage became a dancing watercolor ink painting, creating a kind of willed synesthesia.

Similarly compelling was a burst of modern dance from Kim Jeong-un, whose expressive face and joyous movement brought the theater to life even before she began spinning plates (which is apparently an old Korean art form that predates Ed Sullivan by some years).

The cleverest effect was a projection onto a white-painted janggu, timed to the rhythm so that drum hits became splashes of water and bursts of color. What could have been a gimmick turned out to be powerful and moving, in no small part because of the general tendency in Korean art to take craft seriously.

More than fusion

That all of this is happening in Seoul, right now at this moment in history, is a big part of why I’m here. Other than Japan, there’s nowhere else in Asia where artists are bringing together traditional and global ideas not as fusion — a flaccid affair that usually means old instruments and shitty synthesizers — but as serious postmodern art.

And right now, I think Korea’s more vibrant than Japan, or at least a lot newer and fresher at this particular game. It’s only in the past few years that young Koreans have started venturing out into the world, but they’ve gone in droves to the art and fashion institutes in the US, and what they’ve brought back with them is starting to take root. Fashion, music, art: Seoul feels like it’s on the cusp of something. Artists like Kim So Ra are why I’m here now, ready to wander off into weird neighborhoods in the freezing cold to see what’s happening.

Rootless

I don’t live in America.

I live in Korea now. I’ve been out of the US for a while. And there is, pretty clearly, a lot I don’t understand about my country.

This is some of what’s been running through my head the last couple of days. It’s not a balanced analysis or a prediction of the future or a plan of action. I don’t know what America will do next, and I don’t know what Americans should do next. I know I’ve misunderestimated Donald Trump pretty much every step of the way, and I hope I’m misunderestimating him still. I hope he’s a wonderful, beautiful president and in four years I’m totally embarrassed about the fear and dismay I feel now. But I’m not holding my breath.

Are you Jewish?

When I was a teenager, waiting for the bus under the highway at Fourth and Heatherton in San Rafael, California, a dude with a shaved head and a Budweiser tallboy in a paper bag stalked up to me, got right in my face, and barked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I said, too startled to think of lying.

“Whadda you play?”

“Guitar?”

“Oh.” He stomped away, leaving me to my confusion. How did he know I played an instrument? How did he know I was Jewish, and why was he asking? There was something clipped, amped up about the way he spoke. I was wary.

A minute later he turned back to me. “Wanna join a punk band?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not very good.”

“You don’t have to be good. It’s punk.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m not really into punk.”

He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he said, “you prolly don’t wanna join an Aryan punk band anyway.”

I didn’t know the guy, but I knew guys like him. They hung out at a San Rafael club called the Copa, or they drove trucks and hung out in front of the 7-Eleven in Santa Venetia. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that they hung out there, instead of somewhere more pleasant like Denny’s or the pool hall or Caffe Nuvo in San Anselmo, because they had no money, and you can hang out in a parking lot for free.

 

They had crap lives, those guys. They were going nowhere. They had lousy grades and probably got beaten up by the men in their lives. There were probably good reasons for them to be angry. Their resentment had causes. But it wasn’t something I wanted to go explore with them while they were drawing swastikas on their school desks and shooting spit wads at the back of my head. Just because your life is shitty, that doesn’t make it OK to be an asshole.

 

It can happen here

After Trump was elected, I asked my family to make sure they had up-to-date passports for themselves and their children. It’s not that I think the end is nigh, or that America 2016 is Germany 1932. But German Jews in 1932 didn’t think it was going to get that bad either. And if it does get bad enough that my family needs to leave, there’s some chance that the US government might at that point have suspended passport issuance, or just run into endless delays.

Better to be ready.

I grew up Jewish in America, with a sense that I was different. I was taught that the veneer of acceptance was paper thin — that the violence of anti-Semitism could erupt even in what was one of the great safe havens in our history. I sometimes believed that and sometimes didn’t. It irritated me when Rabbi Lipner, the dean of the Hebrew Academy of San Francisco, would rant to us about how our goyische friends weren’t really our friends. But he’d been through the Holocaust, and you had to understand where he was coming from.

Right now I’m thinking that the things that happened in Babylonia and Rome and Persia and Italy and Russia and Spain and Germany and France and Poland and Lithuania and Hungary and Iraq and Egypt and Ethiopia could maybe happen again. Even in America. Now is hardly the moment for that sort of American exceptionalism.

Ask your black friends whether they think America is capable of sustained ethnic violence.

I suppose this is what #blacklivesmatter has been saying all along: that it’s frightening to live in a place where a certain part of the population wants to hurt and humiliate and maybe kill you, and the people in charge don’t seem to mind all that much, and they seem to think that maybe you’ve had it coming. Black people have dealt with that pretty much nonstop for the last hundred fifty-odd years. It was worse before that.

And no, I don’t think anyone’s coming for the Jews first. It’s queerfolk (also me), people of color, Hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, the vaguely Muslimlike who should be most afraid. (The Jews weren’t first on Niemöller‘s list either.) I expect that there will be ugly abuses in the immigrant roundups. People will end up dead. People will disappear. Courts will say that no one is at fault, that rights don’t extend to non-citizens, that mistakes are inevitable. That, I think, is much more likely than any sustained reign of anti-Semitism.

Cold comfort.

Rootless cosmopolitanism

The night Trump was elected, I had dinner with a black woman from Brooklyn. We ate kebabs in Gangnam and talked about not fitting in. I told her that I realized a while ago that I live in foreign countries because I feel like I don’t belong, rather than feeling like I don’t belong because I’m living in foreign countries.

My friend is looking for somewhere outside the United States to live, maybe find a husband and start a family. But in much of the world blackness is something to appropriate before discarding the actual people. Koreans love hip-hop but don’t necessarily love black girls.

She wondered if I knew what it was like to have your culture endlessly appropriated while you yourself are devalued. I explained that that’s what Christianity is for Jews: we’ve been beaten up with our own holy scriptures for two thousand years now. Jesus was a hero to most…

We Jews get accused a lot of disloyalty to whatever country we happen to be in. Often the result has been expulsion or internal exile. That happens enough times, and everywhere begins to seem provisional. It’s not an accident that some Jews have a tradition of wearing shoes and dressing for travel at the Passover seder. The story of our people begins with a violent expulsion.

The places I belong are the places where the wanderers intermingle, where cultures blend: big world capitals, backpacker havens, university campuses, international corporations. They’re often elitist places. They’re not salt-of-the-earth places. My people have mostly not been allowed to own land or be salt of the earth. We live on trade, exchange, ideas, intangibles. We invented an incorporeal God, and we’ve been in on some pretty serious abstract thinking, whether it’s psychology or relativity or Communism or third-order financial derivatives.

Abstract ideas are both difficult to grasp and enraging. It’s actually true that unseen forces control people’s lives: viruses and quantum mechanics, yes, and also the opaque machinery of international finance and trade, and invisible gases that change the climate. And if you’re not happy with your life, you get mad at those unseen forces, and at the people who seem to be in control of them.

This election — yes, I’m still talking about that, somehow or other — was a repudiation of all the thinky, abstract people on both sides, as much a smackdown of Paul Ryan and Bill Kristol as of the left. It turns out the angry mob doesn’t care that much about supply-side economics or constitutional originalism. They want insults and cruelty.

The center does not hold

There are moments in history when the center does not hold. Are we at one of those moments? It’s hard to know. It isn’t 1914 or 1939. But these moments creep up on us. As of January, the three largest countries in the world will be run by a shadowy Communist regime, a Hindu nationalist, and whatever Trump is. Europe seems to be in the process of dismantling the economic arrangements that have made continental war impossible. Marie Le Pen and Frauke Petry are ascendant. The Philippines has elected a goon. Being a moderate is not in style.

Here in Korea, the inept daughter of the old dictator was elected president in a spasm of nostalgia for authoritarianism, and a lot of people here felt the way a lot of Americans feel right now. She’s currently embroiled in a bizarre scandal that has left her with an approval rating of 5 percent and left South Korea with no functioning leadership.

I’m not sure right now how I feel about democracy.

(As has happened so often in world history, the Persians were ahead of the curve and get no credit: the Iranian revolution might be the first great spasm of the nativism and tribalism and nationalism and fundamentalism that is seizing the world.)

Requiem for a forgotten dream

In 2000, Al Gore was elected president after a campaign that didn’t get caught up in the question of why he once wore a brown suit and in which a third-party candidate was not able to convince any significant portion of the electorate that the two major parties were basically the same.

Al Gore became president, and his administration kept up the pressure on Osama Bin Laden’s obscure terrorist organization, occasionally firing cruise missiles into faraway places, which kindhearted liberals like me tended to find shameful. FBI and CIA monitoring quietly disrupted a plan to hijack some planes.

The Gore administration put global warming at the center of its agenda, and America used its considerable economic weight to push China to join a global carbon trading regime.

Rudy Giuliani retired quietly at the end of a tumultuous two terms as mayor of New York, and his nastiness came to seem sort of charming as he became a fixture on NY1, arguing with Al Sharpton.

Early in Gore’s second term, a hurricane hit New Orleans, and everyone agreed that it was a good thing the Army Corps of Engineers had repaired the levees. And an administration undistracted by foreign war hiked interest rates sharply in 2006 and began investigating the shady practice of bundling subprime mortgages as investment vehicles.

And the center held.

And there were no pulverized bodies raining down on New York or floating bloated in the streets of New Orleans, and there were no hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and there were no CIA torture sites spread around the world, and there were trillions of dollars that weren’t spent on fruitless wars, and ISIS didn’t emerge from the chaos of those wars, and our police weren’t militarized with the surplus gear and PTSD from those wars, and revanchist fascism didn’t become the new normal around the world.

 

Ah, Singapore

Little girl said Chinese dumplings taste so good
And the tourists take pictures of
The phoenix all around the town
Singapore, ah, Singapore
Many tall skyscrapers standing all in a row
In this Asian country just north of the equator
Singapore, ah, Singapore

You can’t buy chewing gum anywhere in Singapore
But you can buy peppermint candy
Cause you eat it til it’s gone
Singapore, ah, Singapore

 

Hanoi Lecture on Jewish Childhood

Hanoi Lecture on Jewish Childhood

Bangkok, Thailand

For those of you who have asked, here it is: video of my lecture in Hanoi. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, it might be slow going, but you get to experience it pretty much as I did.

I’m grateful to Catherine Yen Pham for the opportunity to share positive aspects of Jewish culture with the Vietnamese community. Catherine is doing extraordinary work to reimagine what childhood education can be in Vietnam — to bring compassion and creativity and peace to a new generation — and I am glad to be able to contribute to her efforts.

The videos are below, and here’s the full playlist.

You Can Never Leave

Nong Khiaw, Laos

When Glenn Frey checked out, on January 18, my Facebook news feed was still full of tributes and encomiums to David Bowie, who had died eight days earlier. Frey got hardly a mention. Bowie’s career was long, varied, and complex in a way that Frey’s was not, and Frey was just one member of a group. Still, it was a notable silence, especially if you happen to be traveling anywhere in the world that isn’t England or America.

Wherever I go in the world, I hear Frey’s music. Specifically, I hear “Hotel California.” I’ve heard it sung with Afro-French accents on the banks of the Seine. The Filipino bar band in Yangon played it. Today a Lao trekking guide was noodling around on his guitar at a local restaurant in Nong Khiaw, and inevitably he wandered into “Hotel California.” You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave “Hotel California” for long.

I know we’re all supposed to hate the Eagles, for countercultural reasons long forgotten and because The Dude hates the Eagles, but admit it: you know the words to “Hotel California,” and chances are you’ve hollered along to it at a karaoke night or when it was played by some cover band somewhere in the world. For better or worse, it’s the song that everyone everywhere knows. You can stab it with your steely knives, but you just can’t kill that beast of a song.

Like a Bowl of Laksa

Like a Bowl of Laksa

Da Nang, Vietnam

Once you get beyond Kuala Lumpur, peninsular Malaysia offers tourists three things: mountain highlands, beaches, and historical trade cities. I opted for the latter. There are beaches and mountains elsewhere in the region — I’d just spent a good bit of time on both — but what’s unique to Malaysia is the melange of cultures created by its strategic geographical location and its history. Like a bowl of laksa, Malaysia is a mix of cultural influences that can sometimes be a bit sour or strange, but is worth tasting.

Melaka and Penang

In my brief visit to Malaysia, I visited just two destinations beyond Kuala Lumpur: Melaka City, the capital of Melaka State, and George Town, on the island of Penang. Each is a historic trading city that has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and each is a mixture of European, Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences, with the Baba Nyonya — the local term for the Malaysian Chinese — leaving the strongest mark in each place.

Melaka (Malacca) (photos) is the smaller of the two, an old Dutch trading port whose importance has long since faded. The old city has been restored and decked out in murals, but there are traces of earlier, less heritage-driven attempts to drum up tourism: a defunct monorail, an abandoned pirate-themed amusement park, an unfortunate thing of overdecorated trishaws — cycle rickshaws — done up in LED lights and Hello Kitty or Doraemon and blasting music. George Town, on the island of Penang, is larger and more vibrant, and there’s still a major working port on the mainland nearby, in Butterworth. But Georgetown, too, shows signs of misguided early development: the highest building, just beyond the heritage area, is a soaring tower, now in a state of disrepair, whose lower floors house one of the most depressing malls I have ever been to.

I enjoyed my time in both cities. In Melaka, it was thrilling just to gaze out at the sea and realize I was looking across one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The old city is beautiful and evocative, and it came alive with the Friday night market on Jonker Street. And I met fascinating people, like the Chinese Eurasian proprietor of a restored Dutch heritage house, who told me about Catholics he knows with Jewish surnames like Menasseh, and also seemed to believe that though you can’t come into Malaysia on an Israeli passport, there are secretly Israeli advisors at the highest levels of government.

In Penang (photos), I stayed in an elegant bed and breakfast, You Le Yuen, in a restored building on Love Lane, supposedly so called because that’s where the rich Chinese merchants kept their mistresses (I stayed in the North Studio Suite). My arrival happened to be the night of the Chingay Parade, which centered on teams that carried great banners on enormous bamboo poles, which they would toss or kick into the air so that one member of the team could catch the pole on his forehead and run with it for a while.

Penang is known for its food, and everyone says to go to the hawker stalls, so I did. The food was good, and varied, and often delicious, but I’m not sure it’s travel-across-the-world delicious.

Penang is also where I had my most extensive interactions with someone who was Malay, as opposed to Indian or Chinese, which is mostly who I ended up talking to in Malaysia. It was at the mosque, where a young man beside a banner about Muslims respecting Jesus roped me into a theological discussion involving several faiths I don’t believe in. He was gracious if passionate — at one point, he tried to inspire me by beginning a recitation of the Koran — and invited me into the mosque at prayer time. I watched him wash, but when he invited me to pray with him, I declined.

Fruitful misunderstandings

On Christmas, I went on my own to watch a movie (the new Star Wars!) and eat some Chinese food, as is the way of my people. Then, in the evening, my Indian friend took me to his brother’s Christian “open house” gathering, under some party tents in a vacant lot between a highway overpass and an elevated rail line. We ate Indian food that was too spicy even for the Indians, and then dessert was some sort of porridgey thing with noodles and beans, served in a cup. My hosts asked me what I thought of it.

“At first it was weird,” I said. “Then it was OK in the middle, and now that it’s gone, I kind of want more.”

The same could be said for my visit to Malaysia. After the warmth and ease of Thailand, Malaysia was prickly, strange, difficult. But it was difficult in a way that I found compelling on some level. I think Malaysia will stick in my mind. It’s an awkward country, cobbled together out of disparate cultures and in grave danger of exploding, yet it’s wealthier than most of its neighbors. It’s an oil state, and also a palm oil state — so much oil palm is planted that Malaysia has to import coconuts from Thailand — but it has the potential to be much more. Unlike Thailand or Vietnam, it has no real ancient roots; it was created as British and Dutch tin mines and rubber plantations, and its peoples and cultures are immigrants. It’s complex and messy enough that I could imagine staying interested in it, the way I stayed interested in Korea — which I also didn’t love after my first experience there. I wouldn’t put Malaysia at the top of your tourist list, but I wouldn’t put Korea there either, and I plan to live there.

My host told me the story of a Chinese Malaysian woman who got set up with an Australian man for a dinner date. As they were ordering, the woman asked, “Do you like me?” It was a forward question, but the man answered, “Yes, I suppose I do.” Eventually they married.

Except that she was asking, “Do you like mee?” — noodles. Malaysia feels like a country built out of such misunderstandings, a country where the locals have trouble talking to each other but muddle through anyway.

Bonus: What Malaysia gets right that the world gets wrong

At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you check in, drop off your bags, and then go to the departure gates — and not through security. Instead, your security screening happens at the gate, when the flight is just about ready for boarding. You then wait in a sort of holding pen, for just a few minutes, between security screening and actual boarding.

This system means you’re not on a security line with everyone else coming to the airport, regardless of when their flights are and when yours is. It means that there’s far less time between your security check and your boarding — and far fewer opportunities to, say, slip into the back of a restaurant and get a knife. Your security line is just a part of your boarding process, not a separate waiting period.

Other airports should do it this way. It might require extra security staff, and it definitely requires the construction of secure holding areas by each gate. Not every airport has the capacity. But new airports should adopt the KLIA model.