Overheard in: Penang

I try not to judge other travelers. I really do. But people are just so funny sometimes. There are some people who, for whatever reason, think that being a tourist gives them carte blanche to behave however they like. This is especially a problem in Asia. I think it’s because the culture is so different from Western culture, it’s intimidating and scary and weird, so people don’t even try to abide by local rules. Just look at the number of Western women wearing low-cut tank tops, or Western guys without their shirts on. (Locals definitely don’t dress like that.) And don’t even get me started on public displays of affection. There are a lot of travelers behaving badly out there.

Another issue is the language barrier. English is the lingua franca around this region, but it’s very appreciated if you can learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. I know that it’s not very efficient to try to learn a foreign language if you’re only going to be spending a week or two in a foreign country. Even though we’re now been through Indonesian, Malaysia, and Thailand, I know only a handful of words in Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, and Thai. When good tourism infrastructure exists in a country, you can be sure you’ll also find English speakers. Speaking Thai would allow me to have more conversations with local people, and allow us to get off the beaten path, but I’ve decided instead to focus my energy on learning some Mandarin. I can’t learn every language in the world, and neither can anyone else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

That being said, I just have one plea to travelers reading this: when talking to someone whose English is not that great, speak a little more slowly, clearly, and use small words! Don’t insult their intelligence, but if you can use simpler words, DO. Also, be as specific as possible. And don’t take it for granted that locals can understand every word you say. You are not in America/ Australia/ England, you are in Asia. Finally, engage your listening skills. The local accent may be hard to understand at first, but if you try, you’ll probably be able to understand.

The following is an exchange I overheard at Khoo Kongsi (a Chinese clan house) in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia; between an older male British tourist and a security guard.

Khoo Kongsi (Khoo Clan House)

British tourist: How old is this building?

Security guard: 105 years old. It was built in 1906.

BT: Was it ever anywhere else first?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: Is it new, here?

SG: No, not new.

BT: So it was somewhere in China and then brought here? It’s older, isn’t it?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: It was somewhere else, in China, and they took it apart, and brought it here, and put it together… piece by piece… like a puzzle. They took it from China and brought it here? It looks older.

SG: No, no! It was built here, in 1906.

BT: So it’s new.

SG: (sighing) It’s new.

BT: Oh. (disappointed) I thought it was older.

The poor security guard. I think I saw her roll her eyes as the man walked away.


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