penang

Where East Meets West

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.
         – The Ballad of East and West, Rudyard Kipling

Where does east end, and west begin? Is there a longitudinal equivalent of the equator? You might say The Prime Meridian, but this was very arbitrarily chosen since it was sitting there for other reasons. In no way does it define east and west, those culturally loaded terms, as it merrily zips through a pretty and intellectual (and quintessentially Western) English suburb. The eternal chaos, colour and confusion that is the East is farther away, much farther from the neat and orderly West.

Or is it? Maybe it’s closer than we all thought, the east and west inching slowly towards each other in a glorious way that only evolution can predict.

Straddling the East and West at Greenwich, Apr 2014
Straddling the East and West at Greenwich, UK, Apr 2014

I now have one leg in Penang and the other in Singapore, lucky enough to call both home till I move base. And the last three months here have been an assault on my senses. East has met West like I never imagined, all those stories I’d read but not believed unfolding before me every single day in a cinematic revelation of the world is flat. My brain is going nuts pattern matching between the chaotic Asian parts and the swanky, orderly Western parts; many times I’ve had to stop, close my eyes, take a deep breath and reorient myself. Not kidding.

From non-moving rush hour traffic to 100kmph on four lane highways. From renegade bikers to respectful drivers who stop at zebra crossings to let me cross. From dinky hawker streets to artsy neighbourhoods with eclectic restaurants. From myriad back-road mom-and-pop shops to humongous malls (22 of them on one road). From modest housing board apartments with laundry hung outside to swanky condos where three matchbox condos can fit in one swimming pool. From lazy meandering buses to nifty trains that you can set your watch by. Oh goodness, I could go on.

I’ve also realized that it is the perspective that you see it with. My Indian boss visiting from the USA said it reminded him of India, and my friend visiting from India said that it reminded her of the orderly West. Classic case of matching novelty to novelty. But you could also match novelty to familiarity if your brain so chooses. I’m not entirely sure what I can term my brain’s pattern-matching exercise here, refreshingly confused perhaps?!

Penang and Singapore have the same ethnic cross-section of people, a mind-boggling cultural mix of south Chinese, native Malay and south Indian with a rich and troubled history. Where they differ is in their facilities and infrastructure – Singapore is a nifty, crowded, well-connected financial hub and all the lifestyle perks that come with it, while Penang is a laid-back island with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, rocky beaches and all the perks that come with that!

In spite of all the East-meets-West that my brain is dealing with, it now switches comfortably between Penang and Singapore – looking forward to sweet-sounding Malay words when I step off the plane in Penang, and racing for the train when I land in Singapore. Till I move base for other joys of togetherness, I’m going to sit back, relax, and enjoy this glorious phase!

Bonus: Yang Liu’s minimalist infographic portrait, East Meets West

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