Sunday, January 30, 2011

The excuse

Every Malaysian can speak Malay, the national language, as they learn it at school. A good share of the population can also speak English, even if they have never been to any English speaking country. Some of them do it perfectly, others might make a few grammatical and spelling mistakes but they can express themselves fluently and their comprehension skills are good. Depending on the ethnic group which they belong to then, many of them will also know Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien even if they haven't traveled to China, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and Malayalam without having set foot in India. In Malacca there is even a community whose members can speak Portuguese without, of course, having ever lived in Portugal or one of its former colonies.
Italians can speak Italian and...that's it. Sometimes not even that well. Who has learned a foreign language has done it abroad, through the Erasmus program or by working at some restaurant in London, New York or Sydney, on their own accord and using their own funds. The English language lessons at school have turned out to be of little use. Of course Italy cannot be compared with Malaysia, a country with a totally different history and society. Yet it seems that something better could have been - and still can be - done about it.
One of the most widely used excuses to maintain the status quo is that our national language needs to be protected. Protected...from what kind of danger exactly? From the bad examples provided by most of the TV programs? From the increasing impoverishment of the vocabulary used at home, at work or at school? From the widespread habit of using the SMS contracted spelling standard - even when one is not writing a phone message - with the sudden and premature death of vowels and upper-case letters? Not at all...what it really needs protection from is the imaginary but potentially lethal invasion of the English language.
A false pride that the common citizens put on display in order to hide the embarrassment caused by ignorance and the laziness induced by the simple thought of learning a new language. Pride that on the other hand most of those who govern us will resort to in order to hide their lack of talent, creativity, initiative and ideas, but most of all to continue to devote themselves to their favorite hobby - the struggle for power and the accumulation of wealth and privileges - without any additional useless nuisance.
And if all the movies are dubbed and Robert De Niro keeps talking Italian, sometimes with the same voice as Al Pacino, well...who cares. It will not be a perfect solution, we won't be able to fully enjoy the artist's performance, but at least we can still understand the plot. And those fanatics who are interested in the original version can always watch it on a DVD. Or else try to read the actors' lips...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The gesture - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

There is a gesture we make in Italy, with the fingers of one hand pointed upwards, fingertips joined. It can express different things: doubt, confusion, disbilief, disagreement and sometimes even mockery. I found out by chance that in the Arab world they use the same gesture, with a completely different meaning though.
The first time I noticed it I was in Kuala Lumpur, sitting at a Lebanese restaurant, with some Saudi students of mine. While the Egyptian waiter was serving our courses, two of the guests asked him something at the same time. He looked at them while he kept arranging the dishes on the table and then, after saying nothing, as soon as one of his hands was free, he turned towards each one of them making that gesture. I was surprised, I thought it was quite shamefaced of him to use with his clients a sign that might well mean: "What the hell do you want?" I expressed my doubts to my students and they explained to me that in the Middle East they use it to ask somebody to wait a moment, and it is a rather polite expression.
A few days ago, still in Kuala Lumpur, I was standing on a sidewalk, watching people swarming around the bars and clubs of the city center. A Chinese old lady was walking by, begging with a cup. An Arab man stopped her and showed the hand-sign to her face, then he turned towards a friend and asked him some cash. Finally he went back to the lady and put an enormous tip into her cup. He obviously wanted to tell her: "Wait a moment little old lady, you won't regret that". Not as they would have thought in Italy: "Hey you, cranky old witch, what are you doing? Get the hell out of here!"

Friday, January 21, 2011

The wise old man - Bangkok, Thailand

Kashgar market, Xinjiang, China, by Fabio
I'm sitting at an outdoor restaurant with a Japanese girl named Ako (actually after so many years her real name escapes my memory and I've made this one up. Come to think about it, though, it might as well be correct). Ako is sitting opposite me and when we are enjoying our first glass of beer she spots a rat near the curb, right behind my chair. The poor thing doesn't move from that spot and it seems to be breathing deeply and uneasily: it's probably sick or injured and agonizing.
Ako is rather disgusted and invites me to sit close to her, an advice that I am very pleased to accept, regardless of the inappropriate presence of the rat.
After having looked at us for a while, one of those westerners with a self-proclaimed kind of wisdom which emanates directly from days on end spent traveling between airports, taxis and tropical beaches, from the false alternative air that he will shrug off as soon as he gets home, before embarking on a life lived on the edge of a knife that he will steer from the cockpit of an office desk, but most of all from that self-confident look, of one who has seen things that we cannot even imagine, more than the replicant Rutger Hauen in Blade Runner, decides that we need help and finally resolves to give us one of his precious advices.
"Don't worry, you shouldn't be scared of that rat, it's gonna die soon..."
Ako and I look sideways at one another. Once we've managed to fend off the initial avalanche of embarrassment we strive to hold back a tsunamic laugh with an exhausting activity of facial muscles, finally trapping it between nose, eyelids and forehead. It's gonna die soon? Hey wise old man, that's exactly the reason why I changed seat! It was not a cobra or a tiger, only a sewer rat. We were having dinner: we weren't scared, just moved to pity and a little disgusted.

Bangkok, Thailand, December 2001

PS Another western tourist who said a funny thing to me in Bangkok is this one

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Almost worse than him

After having read some excerpts from the phone tapping records of the so called Ruby case investigation (involving Italy's PM Silvio Berlusconi) and having managed to check a few retches, I've tried to put down the sentence that would better summarize the story. Here are my first attempts:

1. One great scoundrel and many little shits

2. A swarm of midges is flying over a big shit

3. Sordid fine dust orbits around the Sun King

4. He who lives by avidity dies by avidity

5. Grasp all, lose all...except this scum

6. Ghastly vultures are nibbling at a putrescent body

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mystic confusion - Siem Reap, Cambodia

No temples today: I've rented a motorbike with a driver who is showing me around the countryside. He's explaining me about the crops, the Khmer Rouge, the river, the villagers. He says that most of them are Buddhist but there are also quite a few Buddhist Muslims. I smile and say nothing. He will repeat that funny expression various times. When he tells me that many Buddhist Muslims live in the village we're driving through I decide to give it a try.
"So you're saying that the Muslim community here is quite large..."
"Yes, very big, many Buddhist Muslims here!"
OK, he didn't take the bait. 
A few minutes later I try with another test.
"In the bigger cities though, like Phnom Penh, there must be many Christians as well..."
Let's see what he's got to say now.
"Yes, a lot, many Buddhist Christians in Phnom Penh."
Buddhist Christians as well...alright my friend, I give up. I'll have to convert to Buddhist laicism then.

Siem Reap, Cambodia, August 2004

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

They are going green - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A sign in a public toilet at the Petronas Towers reads: "We're going green: join us and save paper, please use the (electric) hand dryer" 
Going green? How do they think electricity is mashing with pestle and mortar a mixture of rose petals and dew drops?
The message seems to be: "Kill two birds with one stone: save a tree and help us pollute our air!" 
Ambiguous to say the least...

Friday, January 7, 2011

What if I had been... - Terengganu, Malaysia

Photo by CW Ye (CC)
It's a peaceful morning, like the smile that the luxuriant scenery swelling beyond the bus window has painted on my face. It's been a long journey but finally its last stretch is about to start. The most unconfortable and exciting one, on the rusty boat that will cut a section of the gulf to reach the Perhentian islands. The last kilometers of Terengganu roads - North-East Malaysia - are paved with the flavour of the wait for a prize, not with the effort of the race run to achieve it.
A local man, dressed like all the others - long skirt, long shirt and a hat - but more impudent or angrier than them, draws near me.
"Where do you come from?"
"Italy!" I answer with an enthusiasm which is not really pride for one's homeland but an exhortation of the Let's love one another! type.
It works, but only in part.
"Ah, Italy...good. If it had been America instead...not good!"
Some people look askance at him whereas others nod. As for myself, I get the creeps. I prop up my big smile by calling up the reservists: a troop of muscles that I didn't even know were there. The serenity of the morning is gone, as well as the luxuriant scenary which seems to have been hidden by a haze that turned up on the sly. The last minutes of this trip seem to be longer than the almost sleepless night spent on a shaky train berth.
The same question keeps buzzing in my head: "What if I had been American?" In order to fend it off I try to focus on an alternative concern: hopefully the boat ride won't make me seasick.

Terengganu, Malaysia, Spring 2002

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A devious tendency

Photo by I am marlon (CC)
I'm not a born troublemaker, one of those aggressive types whose body get tensed and whose mind shuts down at the smallest provocation. One of the gifts I've always believed I can count on is to be able to dodge imminent problems with a shrug and an ironic remark muttered with closed lips. I need to admit that sometimes in the cold light of the day I've wondered whether this kind of behavior can be a signal of cowardice. And it didn't help me to clear out doubts being aware that in other circumstances, when facing danger or difficult decisions, I've acted with courage. Or at least with recklessness, which, if it's not courage, can be a good surrogate of it.
A recent conversation with a friend, though, has reminded me of a period of my life when latent tensions, cumulated stress and a slight impatience poured out beyond the level of consciousness, under the shape of losses of temper rarely experienced before. It is well known then that a beer too many on a Saturday night can amplify moods that are already smoldering on the bottom of our soul, pushing up to the surface what we normally manage to hold in - at least partially. And that's how liveliness, sense of humor, fun and friendliness, in that period were replaced by a dark side of myself that I had always ignored. By the way intoxication was only an aggravating circumstance, not the cause of this devious tendency. It could have happened in broad daylight, on a weekday, when I was completely sober. 
I seemed to have lost - at least in part - my capacity to not give a damn in case someone happened to treat me like an ornament, bumping into me and just shoving me apart with an arrogant air. Or if a bully was provoking me with a sharp remark, or yet again if a guy was addressing me in a rude way me without a good reason.
Fortunately that time is gone and has never come back. At the end it was just an anomalous year. I returned to being my old self; actually, owing to a new discovery, I've acquired a different attitude towards my own personality: those suspicions about cowardice that I used to have when my pride failed to be inflamed by a gratuitous attack are nothing in comparison with the certainty that I behaved like an idiot when I actually reacted to provocations.
It's not important, it's not even that much but, if one can content himself with it, it's still a good step ahead.