Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tent Revival, Tesco Style

So there I was, aimlessly pushing my shopping cart ("trolley") through my local Tesco hypermarket, doing my biweekly grocery shopping. Then, about midway down the milk and cheese aisle (a very expensive aisle indeed, given the price of dairy products here), I stopped dead in my tracks, listening to what sounded like a familiar tune on the store's PA system. Now, as a point of background information, I've found that Asia in general likes old American soft rock and pop music from the 70s and 80s. I clearly remember sitting in a restaurant in Bali once a few years ago, amazed when "I Honestly Love You" by Olivia Newton-John came on the stereo, followed by an early Backstreet Boys song. So I've come to expect this. I was in a store the other day and found myself humming along to Kenny Rogers' old early-80s hit, "Lady." But nothing could have prepared me for this.

I literally stopped my cart (oh look, New Zealand butter is on sale this week!) and listened, thinking, "No, that can't be what I'm hearing." It was the melody of "Blessed Assurance," one of the most popular of Christian hymns. My first thought was that something else had just been set to the tune. But no... they lyrics were in English and then the full choir came in, four-part harmony... "Blessed assurance / Jesus is mine / Oh what a foretaste of glory divine...This is my story / This is my song / Praising my savior / All the day long..." I couldn't believe it and resumed my cart-pushing, chuckling away at the dichotomy of this full-on Christian hymn being played over the PA system in a Malaysian supermarket as dozens of Muslim housewives, all bedecked in their colorful headscarves and accompanied by their husbands, navigated their trolleys through the aisles, blissfully unaware of the irony. Now, even though I've pretty well disavowed myself of any organized religion in my adult years, I grew up in the Methodist church and "Blessed Assurance" was always one of my favorite hymns. I never had an inkling all those years ago that, someday, I'd be living in Malaysia, and certainly never in a million years could have imagined that I'd hear that hymn while wandering through a grocery store here!

Jesus Christ, ladies and gentlemen... brought to you by Tesco.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Written September 24-25, 2009

From seat 61-A… I’m sitting on a 747 at 37,000 feet typing on my new little netbook, en route from Minneapolis to Tokyo. I packed two suitcases just as full as I could pack them (one was exactly at the 50-pound limit) and my mom dropped me off at the airport in Denver this morning and I took the short flight to Minneapolis (this is a shot of the city from the plane) where I got off one plane, walked from one concourse to the next, and immediately boarded my flight to Tokyo. It was a complete breeze, much easier and less stressful than transitioning from domestic to international in the craptacular Los Angeles airport. I didn’t have to go through a second security screening, didn’t have to walk a mile, and didn’t have to leave the building or recheck my bags. Even though it was a smooth (if not leisurely) connection, I can truly say I have not been alone on these planes: The first leg of my trip back to KL was 100% full, and I swear, even on this huge 747 that holds 403 people, I think this one is, too. As we were taxiing into position for our takeoff roll, the captain told us our takeoff weight was 833,000 pounds and we’d hit 190 mph as our rotate (takeoff) speed. I always think it’s cool when airline pilots provide information like that. I figure the vast majority of the flying public doesn’t care, but for some of us, powered flight is still an amazing feat… that a huge vehicle carrying over 400 people and weighing nearly a million pounds can roll down a runway and leave the earth.

Now, in truth, I have to admit that, despite my misgivings and fears, Northwest has redeemed itself pretty well. Not sure if it’s the merger with Delta or what, but even though I do feel like a cattle on its way to slaughter back here in coach class, the service on and timeliness of the flights has been surprisingly good. The only thing keeping the longest of the flights (11-12 hours) from being pretty much on par with the top-tier airlines like Singapore, Malaysia, and Cathay, is the lack of a personal TV monitor in the seatback. On-demand audio and video is a truly wonderful amenity on any long-haul flight. The leg from Tokyo down to Singapore (also long, but a mere 7 hours compared with 12) is on an Airbus A330 which is not only equipped with personal seatback TVs, but also power outlets so you can have limitless laptop time. If and when Delta/Northwest upgrades its 747 fleet for the epic trans-Pacific flights, life will be good!

So concludes a whirlwind ten days back in my home city. The first few days were so enjoyable, but also strange. I felt like a visitor in my own neighborhood. I checked my garage at my house, where all of my things are being stored, along with one of my vehicles. I expected everything to be under a layer of dust and for there to be an apparent sense of the passage of a year. But it was exactly as I had left it and it looked (and felt) like I had just been gone for a weekend vacation, not away for an entire year. It was if time had stood still. Very odd. However, as the days passed, that feeling was replaced by one of belonging and normalcy, and as I slid into the second week of my time in Denver, I found that I had, in many ways, almost forgotten what my life in KL was really like. I have always been a person who largely lives “in the moment” and seldom longs for times past or dreams of a future that may or may not come. And thus it was so here. When I’m in Malaysia, at least after the initial culture shock subsides, it feels just as normal and natural to me as when I’m anywhere in my home country. Yet being back in Colorado, with the warmth of summer quite literally giving way to the cold of winter during my stay, it all felt just as comfortable to me as well. Towards the end of my stay, as much a product of my familiarity with home as anything, I felt like my life and experiences in Malaysia were just a distant memory, not a reality to which I’d be returning in very short order.

Lunch is being served… let’s see what’s on the menu and I’ll resume writing after I eat…

Hmm… well it wasn’t that great, but not awful. There was a shrimp cocktail with three good-sized shrimp (with lemon and cocktail sauce, even!) and that was good, but the little dish masquerading as a salad was just tragic. A few scraps of wilted Romaine lettuce, a single piece of radish, and three sad, sad slices of tiny cucumber. Only the packet of Ranch dressing saved it from being a complete failure. You can put Ranch on anything and make it taste better. The entrĂ©e I chose was some sort of chicken thing with rice and cooked carrots. It was alright. I had some chardonnay and green tea with the meal. I feel better having eaten, but that was certainly no gourmet meal.

So during my somewhat short stay in the U.S., I ate Mexican food a couple of times, had some terrific margaritas, took a drive into the mountains to see the fall colors, ate pizza with real pepperoni (sorry, Malaysia… beef pepperoni just doesn’t cut it), went to a party, spent time with friends and family, reconnected with my Amazon parrot, Shiloh, went to two baseball games, wandered around a weekend Italian culinary and cultural festival, and witnessed a typical Colorado drastic change in weather. This past Sunday, it was 85°F/28°C in Denver with lots of sunshine. The next day, it was about 45°F/8°C (as a daytime high, mind you) with rain, snow, and general gloom and despair. This sort of mind-boggling weather change is common in Colorado. The last three days made me almost miss the perpetual warmth of KL!

Really, the only thing that kept my trip back home from being entirely enjoyable was having to deal with the former tenant who was renting my house. Although she had moved almost all of her belongings out of my house, enough was left behind to cause difficulty with cleaning and getting things ready to try to rent the house out again to a new tenant. After several days of her not returning my messages, not taking my calls, and missing meetings we had scheduled to finalize her move-out, I was under enough time constraints to have no choice but to consider the house abandoned and remove what was left in the house. Needless to say, after that, my former tenant became very interested in communicating with me, but of course, it was too late at that point. I also had to screen and hire a new property manager to handle things with the next tenant, as well as do a few other things I had on my list to do before heading back to Malaysia. My last four days in Denver were incredibly stressful and almost wholly unenjoyable, compounded by the miserable weather. When I left KL, my friends there all wished me a “good holiday” and such, but I told them that, because of the house rental situation, as well as some other financial and business matters to which I had to attend, it wasn’t really what one would think of as a quintessential holiday. There were definitely pockets of fun and enjoyment, though, but if anything, it was a working vacation.

But for now, currently flying high over the Canadian Rockies on a track that will see Alaska and the Arctic, it’s back to the relatively simple life I lead in Malaysia. Back to my students and my friends, my culinary adventures, and my traveling, photography, and writing. I will say this, though… my trip back to Denver suggests to me that I won’t have any real problem re-acclimating to my American life when I do move back. I’ve read books written by expatriates that claim the move back to the U.S. is more difficult than the initial move abroad. I can certainly see why, and I’m not saying it would be effortless for me. I know I’ll miss my life in KL… the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had… I’ll be reflective and introspective for a long time after I return, I’m sure. But I think I’ll adapt and get back into my American mindset and routine with not too much difficulty. I’ll be a changed person though, presumably for the better. I wish more people could experience life outside their own comfortable routine, if only for awhile. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me so far, and I know I’ll look back on my life overseas without a scrap of regret.

Well, it’s now 5:30 pm in Denver, 6:30 pm in Minneapolis, 8:30 am tomorrow in Tokyo, and 7:30 am in KL. I’ve logged about four cumulative hours of flight so far, and I’ll arrive at KLIA in just about 24 hours (that includes a short connection in Tokyo and a lengthy layover in Singapore). When I’m in Singapore’s excellent airport, I plan to avail myself of the transit hotel and club facilities so I can arrive back in KL at least somewhat rested and refreshed on Saturday morning.

I’m going to try to get some shut-eye now… I didn’t sleep well at all last night, nor very long, so my eyes are getting droopy. Thanks for reading! More from the other side of the world later.

Seven hours later…

I think we’re perhaps three hours or so from Tokyo, maybe even a bit less. I slept a bit, had a snack which was pretty good (a small cucumber-and-egg sandwich with fresh fruit and a couple of cookies), and watched two movies on the overhead screen. It feels like nighttime of course (half past midnight back in Denver), but when I lift the shade, it’s still daylight outside. I’m not sure exactly where we are now, but I believe it's somewhere north of the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. I can smell food, so I’m guessing the flight attendants are heating up our final meal of this long flight. I’ll have scrambled eggs with sausage and potatoes, along with orange juice and fresh fruit.

Later still…

Greetings from seat 12-A en route to Singapore. I have no seatmate this time, so I have a bit more elbow room, hooray! It’s now September 25th, 4:15 am in Denver, 7:15 pm in Tokyo. For the first time, I’ve had absolutely no downtime at all on this multi-segment flight. When I arrived in Minneapolis, I immediately went to the gate for the flight to Tokyo and the boarding was already well underway. Similarly, once we landed in Tokyo, I had to go directly to the gate with no time to sit or wander or anything. As before, the flight was already boarding when I arrived. None of the connections have been so tight that I’ve had to hurry, but it’s unusual to not have any sort of layover so far. That will change in Singapore, where I’ll basically stay overnight for a six-hour layover before catching a very early Malaysia Airlines flight to KL. The next entry will be from home!