America | Selangor Times
Issue 118


Writer: Lee Lian Kong
Published: Fri, 13 Jan 2012

It had been a 14 hour long flight, after an earlier 6 hours flight. I was flying to Evansville, Indiana, to undertake a one semester study grant by the US Department of State. So there I was, jetlagged and tired but finally, on United States of America soil. It was my first time on a plane and crossing oceans. There was excitement but my tired body was struggling to keep up with it. It didn’t help that at the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport where I was transiting, there was a long line at US Customs. I was not in the best mood.

For the last 24 hours or so, I’ve been in airports and inside airplanes. From KL to Seoul to Atlanta, the airport interiors looked nearly the same. Modern, clean, first world. It was the subtle details that made all the difference. In KLIA it was the kebayas on MAS stewardesses and the announcements in Malay. In Incheon Airport in Seoul, it was the completely new experience of being surrounded by predominantly by Koreans and the unfamiliarly curt Korean speech. Finally in Atlanta, African Americans counting more than their white counterparts and packaged food everywhere. Welcome to America.

Back home, it has been a habit of mine to assess situations, to guess the racial demographics of Ara Damansara or to gauge where that Malay slang is from. It is my home for 21 years and I have picked up these tiny details all my life. I knew how to behave or act in various situations or places.

Now being foreign, anything goes. There is so much you can read that is in actual fact, the total opposite in real life. (Read : Girls, not all the men here look like James Franco. Sorry.) How do I go about without offending someone or how to convey enough gratitude or how to exude just the right amount of ‘cool’.

Okay, the last one was a joke.

It didn’t help that my deepest study of American culture was all 14 seasons of South Park. Though critically acclaimed and lauded as the best satire and most honest television programme to pop out of the US of A, even I knew you don’t just go around making fun of Jews and mimicking a redneck’s slang just for the heck of it. Not until you can assure yourself that South Park really is the real depiction of the United States, anyways.

Through whatever brain juice that was left in my sleep deprived brain, I told myself to just mind my Ps and Qs and just don’t act like a Cartman-like douchebag. In fact, to just keep quiet. With that, I walked from the North Terminal to the South Terminal to catch my last connecting flight to Evansville, Indiana. It was a long, long, long walk. But it was also during this walk that I stumbled upon the highlight of my trip.

They were three soldiers in uniform waiting in a departure lounge. In my head, I got all giddily excited, exclaiming “OMG, they’re wearing urban camouflage uniforms like the ones in Hurt Locker! There are real, actual soldier standing in front of me!”

These were the people I saw on CNN, the people the President of the United States was calling back home, the people who were most affected by 9/11, one of the greatest events of my generation. They carried M16s and faced the possibility of dying everyday just for their country. Scenes from Saving Private Ryan played on repeat in my mind.

I looked down the hallway and there were small groups of them scattered everywhere. Some drinking coffee, some walking about, one on his iPhone talking softly to his wife.

“Are you on your way home?”

An old lady called out to one of the soldiers she passed by.

“Yes, mam. I’m on my way home.”

That was the highlight of my trip. It made the horrendously long flights worthwhile to catch that single exchange of words. After 9 years of conflict, the soldiers finally get to come back home to their wives, mums and dads, girlfriends, brothers, sisters. It was a historic moment and that exchange between the soldier and the old lady was the real and more importantly, the human side of politics and news that TV reports just cannot show. In Malay, there is a word called ‘sebak’ and another, ‘tersentuh’.

In English they would most closely translate to poignant and touching. It was both for me at that moment.

This was America. In retrospect, I believed that, that moment was not just touching, but foreignly so. It was a by-product of a global superpower’s foreign policies, very much unfamiliar to someone from a much smaller and isolated country in the global playing field. Moreover, I had not felt something like that before because my sentiments have thus far been confined to those I have been surrounded with, fellow Malaysians and those I have built relationships with. They were complete strangers to me. Yet the feeling of being touched was strong and genuine.

Was this the real America?

Would I come across such achingly real moments like this?

I certainly hope so.

Lee Lian Kong is already playing Alleycats’ “Senyumlah Kuala Lumpur” on repeat. She welcomes feedback, do email her at


 Selangor Times



Also by Lee Lian Kong:

A Critique on KL : It’s Alive

A 20-something year old girl, dressed in the current trendy look (loose patterned blouse, denim shorts, aviators, brown highlighted hair) walks with her DSLR camera in her hands. She flings it to the sky and the video sweeps into the (as per usual) spectacular aerial view of KL’s cityscape, highway and suburbs.

A man with no shoes

He didn’t have shoes on. A pair of rubber soles with the top part of what used to be a shoe, hanging by a thread or two, hardly count as shoes. On them were his feet, his black feet covered white, only possible through the harshness of the cold, chapping away at skin. I could not take my eyes off them. For three months, I’ve only seen smooth feet, covered in proper shoes or the eye-rolling hipster Toms. Feet and shoes that belonged to the haves.

Music lost on KL

That Kuala Lumpur exists and her beauty lost to so many is beyond me.

Erykah Badu and the free speech paradox

Free speech has its limits. That’s the paradox of the First Amendment.

A Lawyers’ March … Fuh!

Labels – most commonly used by confused hormonal teenagers desperately grappling for an identity; may be manipulated by the media and bitchy, good-looking girls and boys to determine social hierarchy in high school. The thing about labels is that we usually grow out of them when we graduate from high school and discover that there are more pressing things at hand like mortgages and stagnant wages.

Why I don’t enjoy nasi lemak any more

The Auditor General Report 2010. Nasi Lemak 2.0. What do they have in common? Yes, that’s right – our nation is bankrupt.

Our merciless society

Amy Winehouse was a soul singer from a town called Camden in England. Her powerful voice was first discovered by Simon Fuller, found critical acclaim in her first album Frank and phenomenal worldwide success in her breakthrough album Back to Black.

First-class Malaysian sporting heroes

They’re everywhere! Flying, reading minds, attracting metals, smashing buildings into pulp. It’s hero-invasion season now. X-Men: First Class had barely ended before The Green Lantern swooped in, and soon, we will have Captain America.

Girls and subcultures

Don’t accept the old order. Get rid of it.So says Johnny Rotten, vocalist of the Sex Pistols. That’s what subcultures are all about: rejection of mainstream society, whether in the form of music, fashion, visual arts, dance, literature, films, etc. A subculture’s intention is to differentiate itself.

Young and Sarawakian/Malaysian

Good things come in pairs. In my case, they came in threes. They came in the form of three close friends from St Joseph, Kuching, who flew across the pond to pursue their A Levels.

A refuge for the young ones

"We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” - Sean Parker, The Social Network


Let's create more P Ramlees

This song will continue to resonate timelessly. P Ramlee was not a one-hit wonder. His songs spanned decades, from the infectious Bunyi Gitar to the aching Di Mana Kan Ku Cari Ganti. His is a genius sorely missed in today’s creatively barren music industry.

A fun riot, indeed

"We can do what we like, no one can stop us." Early last month, London and a couple of other cities were held hostage by rioters. The English's castles were looted by 14-year- olds in hoodies.

Though this sounds comical, the underlying issues of the youths involved are gritty and not to be taken lightly.











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