February 18, 2013, by Stephen Pihlaja

Looking at and past

Happy to find this blog, happy to be a new member of the Nottingham community, and happy to do some thinking about the complexity of my presence as a white Westerner (American, but educated in England, with a Japanese wife–we get triple imperial points, I think) in Malaysia.  I will be blogging here intermittently, but you are also welcome to follow my personal blog Take, take, take where I recount more personal anecdotes. I’ve never been good at keeping my personal and professional life separate…

My name is Stephen Pihlaja and I’ve been at UNMC now for almost two months. In brief, I have found the whole experience to be challenging in the best sense of the word. I knew embarrassingly little before packing up my three kids and wife and coming here from the UK. My lack of preconceptions has had its advantages: everyday has been another series of surprises, like last night when I nearly fell out of bed, shocked out of sleep by the sounds of my neighbours setting off firecrackers again.

As an academic, writer, and traveller, I am cautious of truth statements about how things are in one place or another, but I am always aware of the pressure from people back home to hear some report about what Malaysia is like. I feel the need to hedge everything in a story to emphasise that I only deal in and with reports of my own and others’ experiences. I am embedded, deeply embedded, in my own cultural understanding of the world; a kind of frame that I can never remove.

I can illustrate the effect of this frame best by showing you a painting by the American Abstractionist, Mark Rothko.

When I first moved to the UK in 2008, I had wanted badly to see the ‘Rothko Room’ in the Tate Modern Art Museum in London. The room features several of Rothko’s ‘Seagram Murals’, paintings which were commissioned to hang in the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan. Rothko ultimately withdrew the paintings and donated them instead to the Tate. I have heard that they arrived at the museum on the day he committed suicide in New York.

The murals, when I was finally able to see them, made me think of cultural frames and how they impose themselves on our life. As you look at the murals, you want to look past the squares in the foreground, into what feels like the eternity behind them. But once you notice the squares in the foreground, you can never look past them completely. They frame and obscure the background; your eyes are continually drawn back when you try to look around them.

My cultural identity hangs in front of me constantly as I interact with people in Kajang where I’m staying. I am not Malaysian; I am not even British. I am an American, with all the baggage that carries. And when I look at Malaysia and Malaysia looks at me, when I go to the market with my wife and kids and people treat us differently, I can’t avoid the colour of my skin or my passport. My very presence here is constantly subject to a history I don’t even know, but positions me in a particular place, with particular affordances, both advantages and limitations.

My success as an outsider here will be, I suspect, dependent on learning and accepting what my position allows and disallows me.

Dr Stephen Pihlaja is Assistant Professor of Language and Literature in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Posted in Malaysia