Six Malaysian sceptic liberals on tour in China (Part 1)

We turned heads because we were an inquisitive, opinionated group of multi-ethnic Malaysian women

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In April, six of us women, all in our sixties and early seventies, schooled in English and imbibed with Western liberal values, embarked on a journey of discovery of China. 

We planned to travel from Beijing, Xi’an, DunHuang, Turpan, Urumqi and finally to Kashgar to retrace the Silk Road. 

Only later did the full impact of the uncertainties of travelling in China hit us. 

We wondered how we would survive 13 days in a country that was not just a socialist entity but also an enigma of so many ‘unknowables’! 

There were all kinds of concerns, including possible scams, safety and health issues, Covid, the nature of public toilets, internet access, language, currency and even the complexity of managing digital transactions in a cashless society. 

To us, this trip had the magnitude of a perilous expedition into outer space! Yet, we resolved to be mindlessly bold. 

When we landed in Beijing, we were met by a chilling scene not unlike that in an Orwellian movie – of a platoon of soulless machines, tasked to take the prints of all our 10 fingers and a biometric scan of our faces.

But when some of those machines refused to comply with their programmes, we felt instantly at home! After all, machines that do not always work are pretty much a familiar Malaysian signature.  

Apart from those slow kiosks and a defiant skytrain that had decided to retire early for the night, the following 13 days left us in awe of how safe China was and how efficiently things worked there. 

With a population of about 1.4 billion people, it was a wonder that systems did not crash into sheer chaos. Traffic ran smoothly for the most part. Planes, trains and buses left on the dot – unless forces of nature intervened, as we found out later the hard way. 

The sense of security too was reassuring. One of our local guides proudly declared she could stake her life on the fact that no traveller would ever lose his or her luggage or property. 

We were duly impressed! But certainly, this level of confidence cannot come free, the ‘reflecting sceptical liberals’ in us pondered.

Even when the country seemed extremely efficient and ‘customer focused’, the sceptics in us constantly wondered about the ‘optics of propaganda’. 

READ MORE:  US can't compete with China's technology, so it wages economic war

Everyone – from the police personnel and the train guards to the restaurant waiters we bumped into – was courteous and helpful. It was almost as if they were all drilled on some customer or guest satisfaction survey index. 

Yet, we never had to fill out any questionnaire, not even once, for all the courtesy heaped upon us. 

And so, we wondered – always sceptical – if the Chinese were indeed genuinely polite and if China was really safe.

At almost every street and corner, the liberals in us noted the cameras. Big Brother was always watching. We realised there was a trade-off between the sense of security we felt and the degree of surveillance the country had.

As we coursed through the labyrinth of city streets, underground inner-city walkways, through bazaars and ancient settlements, hopping onto trains or tourist sites, we were almost always subjected to X-ray scanners and sometimes even a thorough patting down by security officers. 

Did we think that this was too much surveillance? 

We need only to understand the US’ definition of ‘liberties’ interpreted through its lax gun controls and the incidents of gun violence in the country, to understand China’s current position on this. 

With that in mind, we thought that some surveillance may not really be a bad thing. 

With China’s own conflicts with the Uyghur minorities, none of us had any desire to be an incidental statistic in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, as we had seen in Paris, London, Boston and even Mumbai.

We were impressed also by the consistency and the attention to detail given by the officers who managed security concerns. Accountability was not just a big word; it was a lifestyle value. 

Passports and identity documents had to be presented, not only at airports, but at train stations and provincial borders. 

Once again, we were sceptical, wondering if there was a secret cyber ‘network’ keeping tabs on everyone’s movements.

When the bullet train we had booked to travel from DunHuang to Turpan was cancelled due to a dust storm, our travel agent managed to get us the last few remaining tickets on the slow night train instead. 

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A dusty dawn in Turpan, China – ALIRAN

During the train ride, the train guards ‘knew’ where each of the six Malaysian women were berthed, even though we were spread across several different coaches. 

Our passports were checked more than once and photographed. Whether this was a security procedure or whether we were just an unusual curiosity, we will never know. 

Did we mind any of this scrutiny? Not at all. We felt safer for it. 

After all, we knew we had nothing to hide or fear? We were not illegals nor wanted criminals, and we certainly were not Malaysian spies masquerading as a benign bunch of middle-aged women. 

However, what we really minded was to find ourselves, ticketed in the upper berth in private train cabins meant for two, with a stranger of the opposite sex in the lower berth! My conservative 88-year-old mother would have had a heart attack. Why, I almost had one myself! 

It took me some time to understand that in China, one’s gender was not at all a concern in such circumstances.

Managing to get a ticket for a comfortable berth to travel from point A to point B in a very populated country during a dust storm, when other trains were cancelled, was a definite priority over the gender of one’s cabin mate. 

It seemed to us that we were definitely overthinking this! 

And so, we did as the ‘Romans’ did: we ‘slept’ with strangers. After that, we all agreed we had never felt safer in any other country as we did in China. 

This level of confidence in security and personal safety was mind blowing and began to erode some of our scepticism. 

At many points during our journey, we realised our trip was not only about China. It was also about rediscovering ourselves and our own identity as Malaysians. 

Clambering up a never-ending spiral staircase – ALIRAN

Wherever we went, we turned heads. It was certainly not for our ‘exceptionally’ good looks, as we would have wanted. Nor was it for the extraordinary zeal we displayed in walking up slopes to get to the Great Wall. Nor for climbing the dizzying spiral staircases of towering pagodas or scaling slippery sand dunes on rope ladders. Nor even for sitting astride camels.

READ MORE:  Six Malaysian sceptic liberals on tour in China (Part 2)
Astride camels in Dunhuang – ALIRAN

We did not turn heads, even when we behaved like a band of starved barbarians caught in an eating frenzy, stabbing our chopsticks, like swords, into all kinds of mouth-watering local cuisine. 

Nor was it for our readiness to lug our heavy suitcases up and down slippery sandy staircases at train stations, looking like ghostly apparitions emerging from a sandstorm.

We turned heads simply because we were a close-knit group of women of different ethnicities, who chatted passionately and loudly in English (and often code-switching into Malay), wherever we were.

We were an oddity in a predominantly mono-ethnic country, with all six of us in our glorious shades of yellow and brown. We turned heads because we were an inquisitive, opinionated group of Malaysian women.

We could not help but feel great pride in our own multi-ethnicity, in our personalities, our bond and friendship across ethnicities. We looked out for each other and felt so aligned as friends and as people of our country. 

Like the time when we were overcome by sheer anxiety upon realising we had accidentally lost one of our flock, to find her later with such euphoric relief, glad she was still well, whole and alive. 

It is only in Malaysia that some see the diversity we have as a liability and are unable to see the wealth in our different ethnicities, of languages, religions and ideologies.

From time to time, as happens with women, it was inevitable for sparks to flare, like when we disagreed passionately at a fork, over which road to take, or what to eat, where to eat and even … when to eat. 

These incidents were few, in the context of other bigger brighter sparks that we bounced off each other, through our joint wonder and exaltation of our discovery of China (see Part 2 for these sparks), enriching our experience. 

By the end, our journey felt like we had visited many different countries instead of just one.

Yet, despite China’s complexities, we did not at all feel like we had gone into ‘outer space’. We found it surprisingly refreshing and very manageable even for six sceptic liberals.

Read Part 2 here

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9 Jun 2024 4.26pm

Liberals that are very explicitly okay with oversurveillance and who believe that Malaysia’s multiethnicity is working well (not to mention that it is something rare to find in other countries) … oookay … I expected something different when I came across this “progressive” website.