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Thursday, February 3, 2011

FnIC profile 2: Hunch of Kuala Lumpur

PREFACE: Growing up the son of Chinese-Malaysians, my occasional summer trips back to Malaysia were family-oriented affairs. Moreover, they were Chinese affairs, meaning that my exposure to the country was somewhat limited. While integration exists at some level here, for the most part, Chinese do not mix much with Malays. Most of the Chinese living in Malaysia moved here in the 1920s and 1930s from southeastern China. The British, who ruled at the time, neatly divided the country's inhabitants into different economic functions, and following independence, things basically remained that way. Chinese here possess their own hospitals, schools, markets, political factions and cemeteries, and until recently, I'd never actually spent time amongst Malays. That was, until Hunch.


Hunch is from the rural state of Pahang in eastern Malaysia. A short, slight man of 37, he is warm and generous, with effortless conversational skills that betray a career in customer service. He works two jobs for Petronas, Malaysia's national oil and gas company. During the day, he works in an office, handling staff travel, and in the evening, part-time as a concert usher. The commute between the two jobs is short; both are located within the Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur's impressive national symbol and previously the world's tallest building.

Coming from homogenous China, one of the most refreshing things about Malaysia, as cliched as it might be, is its multiculturalism. While talk of ethnic voting blocs fills newspaper columns, Hunch is a model of exuberant, all-embracing diversity. In addition to his native Malay and excellent English, he also speaks Cantonese, Hindi and a little Arabic. “It's too bad, you just missed this Indian festival last week,” he lamented, as we walked through Chinatown, looking for a red lantern he was purchasing to give to an American couchsurfer for Chinese New Year. He learned the Cantonese and Hindi from local friends, and his constant rotation of foreign guests mean that he can work on Spanish, his latest linguistic effort.

Hunch's Couchsurfing profile is filled with over a hundred glowing references, and I went into my stay feeling confident that I was in good hands. After picking me up at a nearby hotel, he took me back to his room, located in an older complex in the heart of the city. I was immediately humbled by the size of it. Perhaps 2.5 meters wide and 3.5 meters long, it fit a single bed, a TV, some shelves and a little floor space. His friend Zul has shared the room with him for the last four years. Yet despite this shortage of space, Hunch has hosted--by his estimate--over a thousand travelers here, sleeping on the floor while offering guests the bed. I wonder when was the last time he had the privilege of sleeping in his own bed; his mirror features a crowded list of upcoming guests. Incredibly, at one point he slept six people in the room: himself, Zul and no less than four disparate surfers, two on the bed, four on the floor, body to body. It sounded like some kind of social experiment role-play, with Western middle-class backpackers playing the role of bunched-up migrant squatters.

While he enjoys hosting over surfing, he's done his fair share of the latter too. He's surfed the US and New Zealand, and recently completed all of Southeast Asia. He recently returned from a month-long trip through the Middle East, which encompassed basically every country there, including Iraq, though not Israel (he tried to enter twice, but as Malaysia does not officially recognize Israel's existence, getting a visa can be somewhat tricky). Naturally, I had to ask about the safety of backpacking Baghdad.

“Was it dangerous at all?” I asked him, over tom yam soup at Jalor Alan, a famous street of hawker stalls behind his house.

“It was fine,” he replied. “Funny thing was, there were bomb explosions the week before I came, and also the week after, but none while I was there!”

While I wasn't exactly filled with confidence, he did sell me on the safety of surfing the Middle East. He found his time in the Arab world interesting, staying with both locals and American English teachers in cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. When I asked about religious fundamentalism, Hunch was frank.

“I met some Shi'ites who tried to convert me,” he noted. Malays are almost exclusively Sunni, and moderate ones at that. “They were quite pushy. But if you just listen to them respectfully, there's no conflict.” Hunch has a unique interest in cemeteries, and was amazed upon visiting one in the Middle East in which a great wall separated Sunni and Shi'a graves.

As is commonplace amongst rural communities, Hunch hails from a big family. He boasts no less than six sisters and one brother, most of whom remain in Pahang. When I asked about his childhood, he grew uncharacteristically sober, describing it simply as 'very sad' and 'very poor.' At the age of 18, he moved to Singapore, where he worked odd jobs, including as a bartender. There, local friends introduced him to drugs and nightlife.

“I did a lot of stupid things when I was younger,” he admitted. One night, he took me to a swanky observation bar in a five star hotel to observe the nightly Twin Towers light show. The bar, with its elegant swimming pool, languorous lounges and cocktail-sipping clientele, was achingly hip. I asked him if he ever drinks.

“Not since I was 30,” he told me. “Before then, I used to drink a lot and take drugs. Then my best friend, who used to do drugs with me, died of an overdose. I stopped, became more observant within my religion, and have been a lot happier since.”

Being happy, at this point, is Hunch's primary goal. It's what drives his endless stores of hospitality: helping travelers--and seeing the gratitude with which they receive his generosity--simply makes him happy. On his bedside table lies a large, laminated poster which he designed himself, spelling out his raison d'ĂȘtre: 'I love you because you deserve it!' The other side states simply: 'Free hugs.' Traveling America, he told me, he found locals particularly receptive to the second message.

A man with this big a heart would make a great father, I sense, and unsurprisingly, Hunch says he'd love to have kids. But he's on a flexible, 'If-I-meet-the-right-person' schedule, and at this point is focused on his own contentment. “I'm thinking of changing jobs,” he told me, during our last night together. “Something where I can contribute more to society.” I can think of hundreds of NGOs who could do with his enthusiasm.

The most remarkable thing I found with Hunch is the purity of his passion for hosting. I've spoken with friends who previously hosted intensely through Couchsurfing, only to burn out after a while. Almost invariably, they grow tired of guests who they feel don't give enough back in return, using their home more like a hotel, in contrast to the community's spirit of mutual sharing and cultural exchange. Hunch feels none of that disillusionment.

“The difference,” he explains, “is that I don't expect anything in return.”

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