Studying in England, I of course see white people all the time. But rarely have I had the pleasure of walking WITH one in the streets of my beloved Malaysia. It's definitely far more entertaining that walking with them in England, and sometimes even profitable, as I recently discovered.
The following story takes place in Kinta City Shopping Centre, Ipoh. A friend of a friend from New Zealand called Auana Hobson was down for a week, and Anand and I, being good friends and fiercely insistent that our hometown of Ipoh is every bit as interesting and exciting a KL (albeit without the parang-happy addicts around every corner), we decided to take her around the city. I got my first heads-up that this would be an interesting trip when we walked into the local mamak restaurant. Immediately the South Asian tablehands sitting around jumped to their feet and mobilised into an army of well-trained immaculately groomed five-star-restaurant-quality waiters. A manager, dressed in suitably better clothing than his scruffier underlings, materialised at our table and personally took our orders, despite having a battalion of Jeeveses standing by to do it for him. What a great guy. They couldn't serve the food quickly enough, either, as Auana's maggi goreng was practically teleported straight from the wok to the table in a blur of mamaks and rapid-fire Tamil. (Ours arrived only slightly later. Anand, having bleached hair and numerous, uh, fashion accessories pinned to his face, could easily pass for a British-born Indian, and I by sheer coincidence was wearing a Borneo t-shirt. Very touristy, I was told.)
Then we decided to cross the road and enter Kinta City. It was 10pm and everything was about to close, when I decided I wanted this book from Popular Bookstore. So in we walk, with the lights dimmed, one last customer at the till, and the entire store's worth of salesgirls emptying the cash registers, and everyone looks up. Then they freeze. (Had you been standing in the room, you'd swear you could HEAR, as I did, the voices in their heads go "Aiya! Ang moh la!") then BOOM. With speed any Japanese salesman would envy, they all snapped to attention, all wide smiles, and we get our own personal chaperone. The manager materialises (they must teach them that at manager school) and jabbers in rapid-fire Cantonese at the unfortunate salesgirl who happens to be closest to the cash register when I put the book on the counter. She picks it up, takes one look at it and immediately, for no apparent reason, offers me a 20% discount. Now here I look around for the catch, cos I don't have a membership card, nor am I gonna buy anything else, but I don't see anything, and I'm no idiot (at least not most of the time), so I say yes please. She bags it, and I turn around to walk out of the store only to find my own mini-guard-of-honour standing at attention near the exit. The girls bow and chorus a well-rehearsed "Thank you, come again" as we walk out of the store, me trying to hide my bewilderment behind a nonchalant-affluent-Westerner expression.
20% discount just for being with a foreigner! You'd expect a price hike, not a discount, but hey, whatever makes them happy. Me? I'm going to start a homestay program for Western tourists. Free board and lodging, in return for accompanying me to do my shopping. Who'd guess racism had its upside as well?