Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My new name is Ken Fendi Matsalay Hardy! Part 3 of 3

My Malaysian host Father Aya drove me to my new home for the next few months. I ended up better than poor American Joe who I left in the darkness of night in a hut in some jungle mountain about 45 minutes away. Things appeared better at my home. There was electricity and running water with an indoor bathroom. Sort of. They don’t have toilets (or toilet paper) so the bathroom was a hole that you squat over to do your business and then when you are done there is a bucket of water that you “clean” yourself with and then flush with the leftover water. One of the many splendors of Malaysia. I had other shocking issues to deal with besides the toilet. The house was a three bedroom (small small bedrooms), with a kitchen and one living room home. My host family consisted of Mama, Aya, an Uncle named Semat, and my new little siblings named Jojo, Jiji, Jaja, and Lena (ranging in ages from 2-9). So space was limited. This is a hard thing to deal with when you are a big American who is from Texas and accustomed to lots of space. I was in shock and nervous and felt trapped! Suddenly Joe’s jungle seemed like a lovely place to explore. Everything seemed so stuffy and I had absolutely no privacy. Our house was in a cluster of other “homes”. I hate to say this but it was sort of like what you see those missionaries walking through carrying a child and asking you to sponsor a child for a dollar a day. This was my home village now.

I was given a new name...Fendi...Which took me a while to realize was my new name. My identity was slowly being taken away. Kids were screaming Fendi and everyone would laugh as all the children and their friends would drag me from home to home. They would also call me Matsalay, which of course I was told to expect to hear from my Malaysian instructors and as I was told to do I would always say thank you. For a time I walked around and introduced myself as Ken Fendi Matsalay. The Malays would all laugh and point! I would laugh too because I am sure it sounded crazy but I was desperate to talk and slightly delirious.

I was so hungry and thirsty. Actually I had been hungry since I left LA. I was losing weight fast in Malaysia. This wasn’t hard to do because I came with quite a few extra pounds. The problem was I recognized no food, didn’t know how to ask for food and they just didn’t seem to have any food. There were no pantries filled with food or a big refrigerator filled with goodies like back home. I saw food things for sale on the streets but was not sure what any of it was and how safe it was to eat.

There was also the minnows issue that greatly affected my eating. Now those who know me, know that I DO NOT like fish and I DO NOT like to eat food with bones in it. Well the Malaysians have these dried minnows that they buy by the bag full (and they stink!) and they put them in everything. EVERYTHING! Every meal I was served had minnows in it. Minnows in the curry, minnows in the rice, minnows in the eggs. Vegetables with minnows. Yes, I get it, the minnows provide an important source of protein but they taste like minnows and look horrible. Little eyes and heads and ribs and tails and scales floating in all my food. I hated those minnows! I was vigilant about scooping those minnows out . It would take me about 3 minutes just to form a safe minnow free handful of food. I say handful because they used no silverware. So everyone just scooped out the food on a plate with their right hand. RIGHT HAND ONLY! Know why? Well remember that using water to “clean” yourself bathroom thing? That is what your left hand was reserved for. Anyway by the time I had scooped out the minnow bits in my handful of food and I would be willing to try to get some more the children had destroyed or contaminated it. See we ate on the floor so if you can imagine having 4 young children grabbing at the bowls of food, (some with their LEFT hand)and playing with the food and putting back in the bowl and spitting up and well the point is you had to eat fast to get decent food. There was no time for minnow cleaning. Starvation eventually forced me to just give in and grab the food as quickly as I could... minnows and all!.

I was not only hungry but I was thirsty. So thirsty. The thirst was worse than hunger. Way worse. Malaysia was hot. So HOT! And you can’t drink water unless it is boiled. Can you imagine? You have no idea how difficult it is to wait for hot water to cool when you’re thirsty and it is so hot outside that you are diripping in sweat. Even when you sleep. I was thirsty and I wanted water NOW! And not HOT water dammit! I am a fat spoiled American. I need water! I NEED IT! I admit a few times I did lose it and sobbed/yelled “silla air!” (please water). That was my first Malaysian sentence by they way. Please water. My second sentence was “more, more, please water”. My third sentence was “we need boil many please water” (or something like that). I was thirsty all the time. I considered offering them money to buy a barrel so we could fill it with boiled water but I could not figure out how to say this.

I spent the first few weeks walking around that village with everyone calling me Matsalay, Matsalay, and I as I was told to do I would still smile (even with sore dehydrated cracked lips) and say “thank you...silla air bottle where buy?” and hand mimic drinking. They would just laugh.

Several weeks later I finally sat down and attempted to ask my host mother a few questions (My Malaysian was getting better. The need to survive is a powerful motivator.) One of the questions I asked was what exactly Matsalay means. She laughed and then finally explained to me that Matsalay wasn’t exactly a compliment but more of a Malaysian joke that meant white fat duck. Malaysians call overweight white people a White...Fat...Duck...OH MY GOD! I was livid. If I had had the strength I would have run out of there. I would have cried but was too dehydrated. Can you believe that?!? All these Malaysians had been watching me wonder around this village desperately trying to find food and water, suffering and they were mocking me calling me...a WHITE FAT DUCK! And I THANKED every last damn one of them when they did it! I was trying to be a good American and they made a fool of me! I am in hell!!!!!!! My host mother could see this upset me and she tried to tell me “Fendi (Ken) no Matsalay (white fate duck). Fendi (Ken) no lemak (fat) Fendi (Ken) kering (skinny).” I wanted to scream at her “That’s because I AM STARVING!!!!!!!!!!!!!” But she would not have understood and probably would have just laughed. They were always laughing at me and my suffering.

All these difficulties were poured into my first series of letters to my family in Texas. It took a few weeks to get a response but eventually I started getting letters from my family and friends and they were ALL written on toilet paper. I cried when I got it, then immediately hid it. I was not going to share my letters or my toilet paper with these people who were torturing me. Besides the thought of trying to explain to them how to use it was not something I wanted to do. Every time I got a letter I would wait to open it until I had to go to the bathroom. It was my private time. A treat. I would squat, read, cry and wipe! I loved those letters.

I never found bottled water in my village so several times a day you could find me squatting in the kitchen boiling a pot of water, then blowing on it for about fifteen minutes to make it drinkable. One time I was so thirsty that I was blowing so hard and fast that I passed out. (In my defense I was sweaty, squatting, mal nourished and weak.) Usually I would drink the first pot as I was boiling another. I used the second pot to fill a plastic coke bottle I had bought in a nearby city. You would think that finding coke bottles would be easy, right? But not in Malaysia. If you can even find someone selling coke in bottles (either glass or plastic) they won’t give them to you! They want to recycle them. No, the Malaysian are not green…they were doing it for the cash. I wanted that damn bottle but they just would NOT give it to me. C-mom give a Matsalay a break! Instead when you buy a coke they pour it into a plastic sandwich bag and give you a straw (btw straws make good minnow scooping out devices if you have them time to scoop them out.) Eventually I paid a guy double the price for a coke so I could keep the bottle and used it as a canteen. It was my prized procession. Making sure I had drinkable water was a never ending process.

There were a couple other factors that contributed to my Malaysian Weight loss. Walking and squatting. I walked everywhere and was doing about 10,000 squats a day. I would walk in search of food, walk to find bottles, walk to school (which is a whole other blog), walk to entertain myself and see things since there was no T.V. I would walk daily to the post office. All I did was walk! And the squatting….squat for bathroom, squat to eat, squat to boil water, squat to wash clothes, and sometimes just squat outside the front door and watch the alley. I do not know why we did this but that was what they did. Malaysians squat a lot. When I frist arrived I could not squat. It was embarrassing being the Matsalay that would fall over when squatting and gross when it would happen in a bathroom. After a while I became a master squatter. I was developing buns and legs of steel!

Now that I look back on it Malaysia was the best diet I had ever been on and I have been on a lot. A few times I wondered if my parents planned this and it was all a trick. Maybe AFS was not American Field Service but American Fat Students program or something...But that couldn’t be because Joe and the others I arrived with were not fat. Maybe they were teenage juvenial delinquents or they had drug problems and needed to be isolated. Malaysia was the AFS country to send the gluttonous out of control teens of America.

Squatting everyday for hours outside the front door I had a lot of time to ponder my how or why I ended up here in Malaysia.

I thought about Joe. I had not forgotten about him. I finally figured out how to ask if I could go visit Joe. They gave me directions on how to take a bus to see him and my host Grandparents. It was a frightening bus journey. The bus was filled to capacity with people and fruits and chickens. I was the only Matsalay as usual and got lots of looks and giggles as I sat there nervous, sweating and clasping my beat up water filled coke bottle. The bus was very loud and old and seemed as though one wrong move and the thing would just crumble to pieces. This is not a good thing to be thinking as your driving up the sides of hills in the jungle. I panicked a few times but I made it to what appeared to be the base of the mountain trail that leads to Joe’s house. Actually my host mother wrote it on a paper for me to hand to the driver. He yelled out “Matsalay…you go!” I jumped up and pushed my way through as several Malaysians giggled. I just kept telling myself that my Malaysian Mom told me I am not Matsalay anymore so they can just shut up. Ignore them Ken. And DO NOT drop your coke bottle. DO NOT drop your bottle!

Now I had to hike my way up to see Joe. I had no idea where Joes shack was. I only had my visions of the one night I was here. I saw many other shacks that I thought were Joes and I would ask people “Joe, American Joe, Nene, and Kaklela?” And they kept pointing up. This better not be a damn joke! A few people called me Matsalay as they would point me to keep going uphill to my destination. After a while I noticed I had a small crowd of Malaysians following me on my pilgrimage up the mountain. I guess they were wondering if I would make it. People would all come out of there huts as I would make my way up. It was as if they could tell something was happening. A freak was here! The Circus has come to town. Come out and look at the suffering, sweaty, lost, white fat duck, talking to himself, looking for his friend (who was probably dead) Joe. I was talking to myself. I admit it. I was panting, possibly lost, in the jungles of Malaysia and all I had to comfort me were the voices in my head. The jungle heat will do that to you. I finally found the shack that was Joe’s home. I recognized the one light bulb they had by the door. There were of course lots of goats and chickens about, but I saw no one. I peaked in the front hole of the dwelling and all I saw was darkness. As my eyes began to adjust I began to make out a figure, off in the distance, on the floor in the corner. It was Joe and he was sitting on some sort of straw mat. With a few pictures, a pen and some paper scattered around him. He must have been trying to write a letter. Could he even mail it form here I wondered? He was wearing a very dirty I-zod shirt and a sarong (Malaysian sheet dress) (I had one too but only wore it to sleep in.) He had a bamboo leaf type fan in his hand. I could see beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. His glasses were all smeared and dusty. I am not sure he even heard me peek in. “Joe” I said softly, “Joe?” He slowly turned to me. I saw a fly on his chin. I was concerned he might be incoherent, “Joe it’s me Ken” (I was going to say Fendi, my new Malaysian name, but I thought that might be too much for him right now.) “Are you okay Joe?” I crossed over to him and swatted the fly away. It came right back. Malaysian flies are quick, fearless and aggressive. “You okay Joe? How are things here for you? Are you having fun?” Joe’s eyes finally met mine; I noticed his lips were so cracked. He wasn’t boiling enough water. I thought about giving him some of mine but I needed it to get home.

“Ken” he said “I wanted to go to Italy.”

I spent the next hour listening to him talk about Italian food and Italian art. How he loved art. How Italy was where he dreamed of going. I made him a glass of hot water (and filled my bottle) and revived him.

We spent the next month and a half going back and forth seeing each other and meeting up in places. The stories of these adventures would have to be in a book or something. Like when we ran away for a week to Singapore. (We got in a lot of trouble for that one.) The weekend Joe came to sell curried BBQ chicken with my family at some festival and we found bottled water. Or the day we were allowed to eat beef (Muslims don’t eat beef except on Holidays). We got so sick. Our toilet paper runs to a McDonalds a few cities away. My attempt to go to a dentist etc etc.

Now that it is all said and done though I have to tell you that I loved, loved, loved my summer in Malaysia. I cried when I left. I came back to the states thin and in shape. My parents seemed curiously proud and satisfied about this. Hmmmmm....


  1. i do remember you telling me the mcdonalds toilet paper story.. funny!!!

  2. What an amazing experience! It's funny to read but I'm sure it was incredible.

  3. Great! I can relate just a bit, I had to do an Outward-bound course when I was 18, spelunking, going up and down rockfaces etc to find food using map coordinates in the Yorkshire dales in the middle of winter, thought it was a huge joke imposed on me by my then employer (lets knock the gay out of him) but I cried like a baby when it was time to go home. Sometimes those experiences that seem so hateful in the moment turn out to be lifetime great memories. Yours puts mine to shame but best of all, your pain is now a great source of amusement for the rest of us.

  4. A great example of "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger". Ultimately, what a fantastic experience to have!

    (blogger hates me today and won't let me post as oranjeflamingo; let's see if Google will at least let me post)