Monday, May 23, 2011

Not even a waiter - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by Keven Law (CC)
If one looks carefully and keeps the antennas of his sensitivity tuned in, it's possible to pick up some interesting details even in a scene of apparently little importance. I have an example of that right in front of me, at this open air restaurant. That usual sequence of moves of his, studied but carelessly and hastily executed, by instinct, as if he was a hare chased by a pack of wolves: shaking the stool, bowing his head, rolling his eyes, wiping with a wet cloth a corner of the plastic table. It's his coded message for the undecided customer, only weakly encrypted: "eat at our place, sit down here, don't keep on searching, walking past us towards the next restaurant of the huge line that stretches out for the whole length of Jalan Alor. Stay, can't you see how I'm arranging this stool for you and making sure that your table is clean?"
A message that could well be misunderstood, as the customer might spot the grease stains on the cloth and think "if you need to clean that table now it means that it was dirty one second ago, and how about the rest of the surface (the bigger part of it) that you have not wiped yet: will it be dirty because you haven't cleaned it or clean because that filthy rag hasn't touched it yet?" And perhaps he will decide to move on, only to find out that the next restaurant is not better than this one. Actually, all in all, the fact that it is located at the beginning of the street probably makes a better choice of it, if only because stopping here one is spared useless meters of chaos and nuisances, and that's exactly the reason why whenever I am in Kuala Lumpur and I come to eat around here, I choose this place without really thinking about it.
But this baby-doll, this teddy-bear, this racoon cub is absolutely irresistible: so sweet, moving, touching, almost pitiful. With his dark face, the darting, almost terrified look that pours out of those hunted deer eyes, the swift movements and the imploring pout.
You can't even call him a waiter because...well, because he isn't one. He's here just to do what he's doing right now, and that he does every day: the part of a net that the restaurant owner throws on the street to catch the highest possible number of passers-by that are looking for a place where they can eat something simple, genuine and cheap. And maybe to top that up with a beer in the fresh air. He's here to pretend that he's arranging the table and to open a menu with plastic-coated, greased pages in front of the customers. Only to run away soon after that, before someone asks him a question that he wouldn't be able to answer, letting the waiters, the real ones, who can speak English, Malay, Mandarin and two or three other Chinese dialects, take care of that.
Because he's only a poor immigrant, most likely Burmese, one of many who come here and to other countries of the region looking for a better life and that, for a few years at least, will spend thirty days a month shaking stools and wiping tables, cleaning toilets, carrying buckets, breaking roads, rummaging through rubbish. Some of them will be succesful, because they have the money to start some business or the skills required to shoulder their way through the fronds of that jungle of opportunities, corruption, organized anarchy, energy, optimism and inertial thrust that the majority of the Far East is nowadays. Others will go back home, not empty handed though, because the little nest-egg that they have managed to put aside will be worth a minor treasure in their country. This is a win-win situation after all. Especially for one who started from scratch.

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