My Summer Vacation, Part III: Flying High With Ms. Biscuit

Manila. We were just cleaning up after one mess, when another fell from the sky. Unless you’ve been vacationing in your fortress of solitude for the past month, you’ve probably heard every bit of news about the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, so I won’t go into it much, except to say that boarding our own flight, prefixed with “MH,” there was a definite chill in the air aside from the blast freezer that is Filipino air conditioning. It was quite apparent that everyone was doing everything they could to think about anything but high-altitude death.

Everyone, that is, except for one woman.

Let me digress for one moment here. Air travel, in general, sucks. Before being allowed anywhere near the aircraft, there are queues, scans, queues, more scans, queues, questions, queues, and, if you happen to be flying in the US, the surrender of dignity and the very real possibility of nudity. And of course, there are more queues.

But once you’re up in the air, flying doesn’t need to be a horrible experience. It’s not the subway, where the accepted method of communicating with your neighbor is keeping your mouth shut and your eyes on the floor or some other inanimate object. In fact, airplanes are one of the few vehicles in which turning to your neighbor and attempting conversation is still almost universally considered not weird.


It was about 20 or 30 minutes into our flight, right around the time when those who were going to try and catch a nap on the four-hour flight were getting comfortable. A loud voice popped my comfortable bubble of pleasure, just as I was settling into a book. It wasn’t the tone that screams danger–just the kind that indicates that the four hours are about to feel like six.

“Rosemary! Rosemary! You have to try these biscuits! My children love them!” the woman crowed from the row behind us.

And so it began. Demands for biscuits and drinks came first, quickly followed by an analysis of the crash of MH17, particularly the fact that many, many AIDS researchers had been on board. If there is one thing that nervous passengers trapped in a flying metal cylinder six miles up do not want to hear, it is an analysis of a recently doomed flight from the same airline. People were turning around, giving her the evil eye, but some part of her brain interpreted “potential angry mob” as “rapt audience.” And in a sense, we were. She was so loud that almost everyone within three rows had their airline-issued headphones on. And even then, we were captive witnesses to her life story, as told to Rosemary from one middle seat, across the aisle, to another middle seat.

She has three kids: two daughters and a son. One daughter is 27 not married, and worked for Microsoft in Singapore, but moved back to the Philippines. Her mother, of course, wants her to get married, but she (or her mother) is having trouble finding someone at her level.

And then, before launching into the story of her own life, she wanted more biscuits.

She got married at 21 in London. “I was born Hindu, but in 2008, God touched me, and I was born again.” I got that part through a loud fight scene in the movie Ip Man, which I’d thrown on because reading was a fool’s errand. The guy next to me turned to me and we shared a moment. No words were spoken, but we both knew what we wanted to ask: “Now show us on this doll: where did God touch you?”

The story of her religious revelation and conversion to Christianity (a marvelous topic on which to crow loudly while on a plane returning to a Muslim country, by the way) continued unabated for as long as the biscuits lasted. Mercifully, they ran out quickly, and she flagged the cabin crew down for another hit.

“We’re sorry, but we have no more biscuits.” No more?! No more. Just three. No more. Okay, just one, then. “Ma’am, we have run out of bisuits?” But couldn’t they go back and check, pretty please. No. Why? There are none left. It took a delegation of cabin crew to confirm that there were, indeed, no more god damned biscuits, so please shut up about them already. Rebuffed, Ms. Biscuit turned to the topic of bodily functions.

Rosemary has knee problems, and so did Ms. Biscuit, until she started taking something called MSN. I may have changed my mind about her if I thought she had been injecting the Internet into her knees. But nope. No NSA geeks tapping her lower extremities. Oh well.

As we descended into Kuala Lumpur, Ms. Biscuit asked Rosemary to look her up in Indonesia because clearly they had a spiritual connection. As did we all–at least with each other. The level of hostility toward this woman was incredibly tempered, considering how long she had held us all captive. On a flight back from Laos, friends of ours (not terribly inclined toward hyperbole) were witness not to Jesus, but to an epic fight between a German woman and a Malay man after the woman politely asked a group of first-time flyers to please stop praying so loud because it was freaking people out. The man took offense and launched into the woman with a tsunami of invective. The crew apparently tried to calm the man down, but he threatened to kick everyone’s asses, and shook his fist in righteous anger. The woman cowered and broke down sobbing, and the two were separated, the woman moved to the front and the man to the back.

The point is that it could have been a whole lot worse. The B story of this is that on almost any flight in the US, this woman would have been asked to not shout across the aisle, and if she didn’t stop, would probably have been gagged and bound in a very not-sexy way. So maybe we need more doms working for the airlines. No whips, just good knot work.


Monkey Search: Concluded

My parents have come into town to see where I live and to visit in general, and today, we went out to the Batu Caves. The last time I went, I was not able to get inside because of the massive, cutlery-bedazzled crowd, but this morning, we went super early and arrived before most of the other tourists, so we had a more-or-less peaceful outing, and had the run of the place.

Batu Caves is still an active Hindu temple, so while services were ongoing, I tried to remain as unobtrusive as a tall, camera-wielding white guy can be. But there was work to be done. Monkeys had so far eluded me, save a brief glance during a jungle hike, so I was on a mission to document the local monkey population. Turns out, they can get a bit aggressive. We already knew this going in, but it was still kind of surprising to see how fast they descended on the temple once people began to arrive in quantity. The general guideline is that they will steal or attempt to steal anything not strapped to your body, so food and cameras should be secured. Because they are a menace (or at least can be), some of the locals took to throwing rocks at the monkeys climbing down the cave walls. I interpret it as a show of dominance, since none of the rocks seemed to be aimed to maim, and because the rock throwing petered out once the monkeys outnumbered the humans.

The arrival of the monkeys also brought out bunches of bananas and coconut husks, which the occasional service-goer would hand out to the small, agile creatures. Monkeys love bananas. No joke.

Also milling around the caves was a litter of small puppies, wrestling each other and greeting guests as they arrived. They approached us fearlessly and immediately began tugging on our shoelaces. I must have walked a good twenty paces, tiny, excited puppies hanging off my shoes. It was adorable, but we couldn’t help but feel a little heartbroken, knowing that they are unlikely to find a loving home. I worry more about a monkey getting ahold of one, but more than anything, I try not to think about it.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t post some of the pictures I took. Yes, most of the pictures are of or contain monkeys, but I’ve included the puppy pictures, too.

Batu Caves 1

At the top of the long stairs.


Batu Caves Interior 1

Just past the main temple. More stairs.

Cave Monkey

Monkey #1

Pondering Monkey

Monkey #2

Batu Caves Interior 2

An alternate entrance, if you have wings.

Cave Puppies


Batu Caves Exterior

On the edge of the cave exterior. I’m still trying to figure out how they got out there with the statues.

Roof Monkey

Not Monkey #2, but the next decent-quality picture I got.

Fence Monkeys

Just a couple of monkeys hanging out on the fence.

Monkey Thinking

Deep thoughts on a Friday morning.

For Day 19

Sic Semper Adverbs

Day eight

The moving walkways thrum and squeak with mechanical rhythm, carrying the occasional passengers up and down the terminal. Distant sounds ricochet off the high ceilings at crazy angles, and every once in a while I look up. No one is near, however; the curves and recesses have misdirected the sound, and have confused my ears. A teenager bounds down the terminal with big, loping strides, the soles of his tennis shoes slapping against the polished tile in the rhythm of a waltz. The glass and metal divide and scatter the waltz until it becomes experimental jazz. Every ten minutes, a group of travelers bustles past me toward baggage claim and immigration. Announcements in three different languages ring out, all preceded by a tone in C major.

The middle aged Chinese couple next to me, legs crossed toward each other, mumble in hushed tones. A few people sit for a brief time, and then drag themselves to the toilets, smoking area, or shops. No one stops at the duty-free store. This is not the time of day to buy liquor in an airport. Some dazed passengers’ eyes wander around the terminal and take in their new surroundings. Others focus on a phone or some other communications tool.

I can differentiate between old suitcases an new ones by the way their wheels handle the trip down the terminal. The ball bearings in old suitcases rattle and grind, whereas those in new ones hiss and click in well-oiled precision. My eyes concentrate on the page as I type, but I can tell which people are flight crew and which are passengers by listening to the mileage of their luggage.

A C major pings over the PA, and my boarding announcement echoes through the terminal. I grab my gear and haul myself up. See you on the other side.

A Hopelessly Fruity Post

Today, I’m spending the day bracing myself for the Writing 101 event, so I’m just going to post pictures of tropical fruits available here in Malaysia.


I’m not bringing a stinky durian into this house, so just imagine a cantaloupe that’s covered in spikes and smells like a banana rotting inside a gym bag. It’s a big thing in this country, but almost no one else on the planet likes it. Because of its obnoxious odor, and, presumably, its use as a weapon, it’s banned on the subways in Taipei and Singapore. I tasted it, and had to eat three (3) cloves of garlic to remove the taste from my mouth. Every culture, of course, has some heinous food they consider a delicacy, but which causes most other people to scratch their heads or dry heave. As far as I can tell, durian is the Malaysian answer to Taiwan’s stinky tofu.


_MG_3660Jackfruit looks a lot like a durian, but is slightly larger and more oblong. It’s also crazy sweet and has a slightly fibrous texture. The edible yellow pods have a giant pit in the middle, so one typically eats the fruit by stripping bits of it off like string cheese. This will make your house and refrigerator smell sweet, even weeks after it’s gone. If durian is Jayne Cobb, jackfruit is Kaylee Frye.



_MG_3641We’ve all probably had some sort of passionfruit-flavored this, that or the other at some point. What you may not know is that the actual passionfruit is wonderfully sweet and tart, and has some big black edible seeds that are fine if you eat the fruit with a spoon, but are super annoying when you blend them into a drink. Also weird is that it kind of looks like goblin snot. Pro tip: strain the seeds out before making a beverage out of passionfruit.


Dragon Fruit (Pitahaya)

_MG_3629There are two types of dragon fruit, so far as I can tell: white and red. White is white on the inside, and red is really more of a neon magenta than anything else. Both varieties have black seeds, like those of a kiwi. Also like a kiwi, but to a lesser degree, dragon fruit is tart. The skin (inedible) is waxy, thick and rubbery like a prop for a science fiction movie, but is surprisingly easy to cut with a knife–imagine room temperature butter. One note is that the flesh of the red variety, if eaten in quantity (roughly half or more of one fruit) will stain your insides, and you will be pissing magenta for the rest of the day. It could be a great prank if you have to take a drug test.


_MG_3644I had a post a while back with some pictures of a rambutan tree I found when I stumbled onto an orchard in the jungle. Rambutan (singular and plural), have these thick hairs on their outsides, but they’re almost rubbery like a dragon fruit’s exterior. The inside is white like a peeled grape, and tastes pretty much the same. In the middle of the flesh is an inedible pit the size of an almond, so don’t just chomp into a rambutan unless you’re trying to remove your own teeth.



For scale.


Strawberry-Passionfruit daiquiri: the crunchiest of daiquiris, if you don’t remove the seeds.

X-Men: The Easy Way (Spoilers)

For those of you who have not had a Gold Class movie-going experience, I suggest you stay away. It will ruin all other movie theaters for you forever. But as far as I can tell, these cinemas don’t exist in the US–or at least not in significant numbers–so, for now, the average American is safe.

What is Gold Class? About four or five rows of eight fully reclinable La-Z-Boys in a theater with a standard size movie screen and servers that will deliver a menu’s worth of food, including beer, to your table. And this is for just around the same price ($18-20) of a 3D movie in the States. It’s also important to note that in normal theaters in this part of the world, talking on cell phones, chatting, clipping nails, and all the kinds of annoying behavior that get you kicked out of a theater in the US are fairly normal. So, really, it’s a necessity.

Isn’t this all a little too good to be true? Well … yes and no. It is because movies here are censored. I could probably get deep and dark about the hypocrisy and social dysfunction marked by the censorship of language and romance (yeah, even just a kiss), but not of brutality and violence, but I won’t because it’d just be pissing into the wind. There is something off-putting, though, about going to a luxury theater and experiencing weird jump cuts where characters mildly cursed (X-Men: Days of Future Past is still PG-13) or kissed. On the other hand, you’re drinking a beer in an electrically reclining La-Z-Boy and watching a movie on the big screen. Maybe it’s akin to being paid to look the other way, and show a lazy hypocrisy of my own, but I’ll take that bribe.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

From reading past posts, you may have gathered that my honeymoon period with comic book and superhero movies is pretty much over. There’s something that feels dishonest about the whole enterprise. The movies are very pretty, but they’re not particularly challenging, emotionally or intellectually. They’re cash cows, though, so they’ll keep rolling out.

That said, I actually liked X-Men: DOFP, even if I do have a list of critiques. I always like seeing the Sirs, but felt like Stewart and McKellen, and by extension their characters, were in the movie more as props and canon verification than as anything else. As he was in X-Men: First Class, Michael Fassbender is great as a young Magneto–troubled and apocalyptically sad, but still molded in steel. Likewise, James McAvoy, playing a scared and neurotic Professor X was fun to watch.

The biggest success, though, was Jennifer Lawrence ‘s Raven/Mystique character actually being a character with stuff to do and, well, character, instead of set decoration, as she seemed to be in the last installment. It was nice to see that character as something more than just a duplicitous back-stab machine (as demonstrated in the first three movies in the franchise) with no real motivation other than stock bad-guy programming.

Visually, the film is very nicely done. The fight scenes are well choreographed and the color themes in each timeline are put together well. I really liked the look and feel of the sentinels versus the cartoon version–having them smaller and more agile made the sense of physical danger to the characters more real than if they’d gone with the Iron Giant style. A personal favorite moment was the Fun With Portals scene.

Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters (American Horror Story, Kick Ass) was really fun addition. Watching him run around and cause his opponents worlds of trouble was both hilarious and visually interesting. But his presence and subsequent disappearance begged some serious questions, like “why isn’t he on the mission to stop Mystique from shooting Peter Dinklage in the face?” He could have had both those people, and Magneto too, bound to chairs for a cozy little chat before either could bat an eyelash. He could have won this movie blindfolded. It seems as if he kept to the sidelines only out of reverence for plot convenience.

Speaking of which, while I like Fassbender as Magneto, his character in this movie swung a little to far toward Evil Laugh or For the Evulz. We get that he’s a messed up dude because of what happened to him as a kid, but in this movie, he is given a way to fix the entire world without having to spill a drop of blood, and he still goes all murder happy. There’s no real explanation for why he goes nutty, other than valar morghulis, which makes it look like he became a villain again because the movie needed a supervillain. Having Wolverine–or any of the high-powered mutants, for that matter–kick the tar out of an unarmed, unarmored Peter Dinklage (Edit: apparently I got lazy and assumed that Game of Thrones actor = British; Dinklage is from New Jersey, and I’m an asshole; thanks for setting me straight, Art) would be a little tasteless.

The above is my biggest gripe about the movie on a technical level. But there is another inescapable problem, which is the lack of danger. Because these movies and comics are franchised into the next millennium, we know that none of the main characters are in any real danger. As the sentinels are tearing the walls down around Professor X and company, we already know that there’s another film in the series on its way, and that everyone is obviously safe for the next go-round. And Marvel would never let their most iconic figures die–not without the promise of resurrecting/ret-conning/cloning them.

Superhero movies habitually make the mistake of pointing the primary danger toward their heroes rather than toward something that’s actually vulnerable and can be written out of the universe. For all its faults, Thor: The Dark World pointed the primary threat at Earth. The Avengers did the same thing, with New York as the focal point. Obviously, you can’t erase Earth or even New York from the Marvel Universe, but at least they’re vulnerable. Iron Man’s fame, not his armor, keeps him alive. The day that he, Thor, the Hulk, or Captain America become, to quote Falling Down, “not economically viable,” is the day they’ll die for real.

And then if their deaths draw enough attention, the mystical power of money will revive them.

Cautious Observations on Malaysian Politics

I’ve been debating heavily whether to post this or not, but decided that, at the very least, this may be of some interest to people outside of Southeast Asia, particularly in the United States. The caveat, and the thing that’s been keeping this back for so long, is the fact that I’ve only been in Malaysia for a year and until recently, hadn’t been keeping up much with local politics, except by word of mouth. Once I began reading, however, I couldn’t stop. Obviously, I don’t have all the ins and outs, and my scope is limited, but perhaps something can be gained from an outsider’s perspective, even if that something is a recognition that outsiders care about Malaysia, but need to know more.

Some Cliff’s-Notes Background

Malaysia, in its present form, has been around since the 1960s. In 1963, it gained independence from Britain, which had governed as a colonial power since the 18th century, and in 1965 it expelled Singapore due to ethnic violence, after which it has retained its general shape.

On May 13th, 1969, the same ethnic tensions that had led to the expulsion of Singapore boiled over after the election. Race riots ensued, in which hundreds of people were killed, forcing the government to essentially declare martial law until they could restore order. Generally speaking, the violence was primarily between the ethnic Malays and Chinese. With a young communist China in such close proximity and undergoing such social and political upheaval, there were concerns that there was more going on than just racial and religious discord. A Time magazine account of the riots can be found here. Since then, there has been a visible campaign of unity, which seems to have worked.

The Here and Now

That unity has eroded somewhat in the past months. The national election of 2013 saw the ruling party, the Barisan Nasional (BN), lose a sizable percentage of its power, despite keeping its majority share in the government. The ruling party since independence, the BN won less than half of the popular vote, but kept a majority share of its parliamentary seats. While this sparked some controversy, the real and probably lasting effect is the fracturing of the power base. The seats BN lost, it lost to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Both the BN and PR are coalitions of smaller, localized political parties (imagine if each state in the US had its own distinct parties, which were then grouped together under the umbrellas of the Democrats or Republicans), but as far as I can tell, the BN’s member parties are more or less unified, goal-wise. The PR appears to be comprised of groups with ideologies and goals that differ significantly. Some claim to be secular, while others, like the PAS, are ardently Islamic.

As the firm grip of the status quo has given way, these smaller groups have carved out their own slice of the pie. While it’s not a complete power vacuum, the ceded space has opened up space for more radical groups, like the ultra right-wing Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) and Perkasa, that while non-governmental, have recently been flexing their political muscle.

The head of ISMA, Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, ruffled a lot of feathers across the board recently, when, among other things, he called the ethnic Chinese “trespassers”:

If they want to remain as citizens of this country, they must pledge loyalty to the Agong and accept the position of Islam as the official religion and the sovereign rights of Malays.

Standing in the way of Malay ambition and denying Malays their right in determining the future of the nation is a challenge and an act of overstepping by a foreign race. ¹

He goes on to blame Zionist and Jewish proxies for trying to subvert Islam. So there’s that. If you speak Bahasa, enjoy:

The response to this, and to recent pushes to install hudud (a subset of limits and punishments in sharia law) as applicable to non-Muslims, has been overwhelmingly negative. While you can see some support for it, many seem to dismiss it out of hand as an impossibility in such an historically multicultural society. But the fear still lingers. Objectively, alienating and disenfranchising 40% of your population, not to mention possibly taking half (the female half) of your workforce away, is economic and political suicide. Current goals for the nation to reach Developed status by 2020 would have to be scrapped, and trade deals with foreign investors would be strained.

Malaysia’s constitution provides freedom of religion, while at the same time sets Islam as the state religion. This means that laws and customs are made according to the letter or the spirit of Islamic law. Sharia law has so far only applied to Muslims, and even then seems limited in its enforcement. Almost all Muslims I have interacted with here are self-governing in regard to how conservatively they interpret these laws and tradition, but certain things, like rules governing food, drink and family are, almost universally followed without threat of enforcement.

For the non-Muslim Malaysians and foreigners, there is almost no interference from religious law, except for certain de facto limitations on speech and the press, often in the form of self-censorship. Honestly, after a while here, one hardly notices the difference, but for someone fresh off the plane from the States, it can be a bit jarring. It’s a little like tasting a soup, realizing it needs something, but not being able to put your finger on what.

What is clear is that the vast majority of people are proud to be Malaysian and proud of the progress their country has made toward becoming a world-recognized developed country. While some see hudud and other more conservative alterations to Malaysian society as necessary to overcome crime, many see it as a step back socially and as a cheap way to avoid dealing with the causes of crime in a developing nation.

Every country that is now considered developed went through the same struggles. The great nations are the ones that remain true to their vision throughout the Great Experiment.

Phone Monkey: Trifecta

Before I begin this post in earnest, I should probably make it clear that the vast majority of customers are decent and generally know what they’re doing. Online ordering can be tricky, but most people understand the general requirements of doing business on the Internet.

The Holy Trinity of Online Ordering:

  1. Read: Read all of the instructions, and if you’re going to use a coupon, read the fine print. Terms and conditions always apply. The safety and comfort of your home does not excuse laziness.
  2. Double Check: Always, always, always look through your order to make sure you have put down the correct contact information, billing information, and that you’ve ordered what you think you ordered. You wouldn’t rush through booking an airplane flight. Why would you rush through an order for something that you’re going to put in your body.
  3. Be Cool: If something does go wrong, start at #1 and work your way back. If there is still something wrong, your Phone Monkey will be there to help. Accidents happen, and it’s our job to pick up the pieces. Very, very rarely, does anything blatantly malicious ever happen (a fry cook spitting in food, a driver calling a customer a whore, etc), but when it does, we actually have genetically engineered weasels that we can set upon unscrupulous restaurants.

Of course, we rarely hear from people who are satisfied with the service–after all, we’re the complaints department. Still, most people are reasonable, or at least not belligerent. There are people, of course, who are always impossible to deal with, and generally make our workdays a living hell. Almost all of them are unable to grasp #3 in the Trinity. As I mentioned in a previous Phone Monkey post, I attribute most of this to the anonymity of the Internet allowing people to remove the barrier of decency between their brain and their fingers or mouth (email/phone).

The Unholy Trifecta of Customer Service
1. Lawyers, Law Students, and Pedants

We are definitely not ones to holler, “Kill all the lawyers!” from the bell towers. As I mentioned in a pervious post, they keep us safe from you, and the other way around. As a rule, we’re not opposed to dealing with anyone because they come from any specific social group. But when we see an email addressed To Whom It May Concern, there is much muttering and sighing. One time out of a thousand, we’re surprised, and what follows is courteous. All of the other times, the email is a terse demand, usually for “restitution” and almost always employing the words “rendered,” “pursuant,” and “forthwith.” All they’re missing is the “Good day, sir!” at the end.

Why is this not OK? I understand where this comes from. You’re dealing with someone you’ve never met and probably will never meet, and doing so over the Internet, so the temptation is to come in hard and no-nonsense–make known your intentions. But what it actually turns out to be is bullying. In a meat-space service environment, the people who cause the most stress are the ones who can come into the store or office and physically intimidate. When we’re in the realm of black-on-white, we’re like Neo in the Matrix–muscles don’t mean a damn. As a result, those with command of language are at a huge advantage, which is why your phone monkey is likely to be someone who thought they could make a living as a writer, got a master’s degree, and then fell into a deep dark hole of debt, failure, and regret. And while we wind our way through complaints with tact and grace, the cynics come and present the black-on-white version of a gun. Loaded or not, we have to treat it like one, which means that instead of having a cordial service experience, you’re going to be treated like a menace, and we’re going to hate you for it. Working under duress sucks, especially when it’s the calculated threat of legal action. Be cool, not cold.

2. The Atom Bomb

Some of you may know what a chargeback is. For those who don’t, a chargeback is the result of a financial institution reversing a charge made to a credit card. This can be a great thing for the consumer, as anyone who’s ever had their cards or card numbers stolen can tell you. I can attest that our company would never want to keep a charge from someone whose identity was stolen. Unfortunately, this tool, like any tool, can be and is regularly used for evil. On a daily basis, customers use the threat of a chargeback to get their way from us or our vendors. Sometimes, it’s for major things, like food not delivered, but some days, like today, we have people tell us that they will be asking their bank to reverse the charge on the whole order because nachos and guacamole had clearly been fraternizing. But shouldn’t they? Tsk tsk … come now.

Why is this not OK? It should be obvious. As with the legalese, this is again us working under duress and treating the customer like a threat. But it goes a little deeper than that. Even if the bank denies the chargeback, it’s a pain in the neck for us, labor wise. It can also be hard on some of the small businesses we work with, as frivolous and opportunistic chargebacks can put undue strain on an already uncertain financial situation. By letting customers file chargebacks as freely as they do, we’ve essentially given the keys to a financial atom bomb to people (mostly college students) already in debt to their necks.

3. The Righteous Clueless

You’re home late from work, and all you want to do is sit, relax and order some delivery. Maybe you’ll crochet a sweater with cats on it for your friend. You get on the computer and pop in an order for some Chinese food from the best place in town. The thought of dumplings and roasted meats makes your mouth water. Forty-five minutes later, the doorbell rings and you pay and tip your driver, because you’re happy as a clam. As you unpack the bag, the steam fills your nostrils and you tear open the lid to your dumplings and chomp into one. And that’s when it hits you: you’re kosher/halal/vegetarian/vegan/pescetarian/breathairian! How dare the Chinese restaurant give you pork! Get thee to the Better Business Bureau!

Why is this not OK? This mistake happens far more often than it has any right to. After living abroad for some time now, I’ve come to realize that Americans generally don’t have any clue what other people around the world eat. There’s the old dismissal that Chinese food in the States isn’t really Chinese, and to the extent that it’s been molded to an American palate, that’s valid. (You might be surprised, though.) The real concern here is an ignorance of what kinds of things people eat. The quick-and-dirty explanation we got when we came to Malaysia about party etiquette was, “The Muslims don’t eat pork and don’t drink alcohol, so don’t offer them. The Hindus don’t eat beef, so don’t offer it. And the Chinese eat pretty much anything, so go hog wild.” In the States, more people need that kind of brief education before leaving home. That’s not to say that my education in this matter is finished. In Taipei I learned that pork is a vegetable. True fact. So if you’re ordering from the pretty-much-anything restaurant, expect the unexpected.

Above all, be cool.