I ended my recent trip to Malaysia in the Bornean city of Kuching, whose name means “cat” in Malay. To be sure, the city is filled with feline paraphernalia, from statues, to street art and, yes, a rather expansive cat museum.
As I exited the exhibition through the mouth of a plaster Siamese, however, it seemed as if I was the featured attraction. A group of municipal employees (the museum shares a building with Kuching City Hall) seated on a sectional couch began to giggle and wave and say flirty things in Bahasa Malaysia as I walked by.
“Terima kasih,” I smiled and thanked them as I walked out onto the terrace, to even more girlish laughter.
I’m not telling you this because I think there’s anything special about me that makes people in Malaysia react to me the way they do—far from it. Rather, as is the case in dozens of countries around the world, my status as a foreigner makes me the subject not of ridicule or suspicion, but of respectful (and sometimes playful) curiosity.
I’ve never written about this before because it’s so commonplace. But in today’s political climate, particularly within my own country, I think it’s important to shine a light on a courtesy I’ve taken for granted for so many years. It makes me sick to think visitors to my own country are being detained, interrogated and made to feel like criminals while I receive VIP treatment abroad.
Of course, the two weeks I just finished up in Malaysia were amazing for reasons above and beyond this, as you’ll see in the photos I’ve posted below. I hope they inspire you to visit Malaysia yourself but also, if you live in a place where outsiders aren’t always treated with respect, to go out of your way to be kind the next time you meet someone who speaks or prays or acts differently than you.