Kuala Lumpur is accurately described as unbearably hot on even some of its best weather days, though one can often find sweet respite in any of the overly air-conditioned buildings lining its spider's web of streets.
KL Sentral isn't one of those sanctuaries though.
A cavernous mish mash of steel, glass, concrete, and the heaving masses of humanity, Kuala Lumpur's central train station is likely just too damn big to ever get the crisp Arctic bite that is often a hallmark of indoor spaces in Southeast Asian cities. It's really one of the more perplexing parts of travel in the region - sweating to the edge of heat stroke all while carrying a sweater in your day pack for those moments you head indoors for food, drink, or kitschy trinkets. Cold air still seems to be pumped into KL Sentral, but rather than dropping the temperature to an almost uncomfortably cold level it only seems to drag the digits down to the cusp of boiling.
The last time I walked into KL Sentral was no different. On my way to the airport as I headed off on what I hoped would be a fulfilling jaunt through Nepal, I dragged my luggage behind me as pools of sweat slowly began to form in the nadir of every curve on my body as the stagnant heat began to overwhelm my senses. It reminded me of my childhood when on rare occasions we'd fly from our home in Japan back to my father's hometown in central Illinois during the summer. The sun would beat down with fury, roasting the dew-soaked air into a thick stew of corn stalks and dusty dirt roads. Japan is no paradise in the summer but at least living on the ocean brought in a nice breeze to help cool you off. Central Illinois sits far from any ocean and Lake Michigan could be as far away as Japan for all its usefulness. The land is blanketed in stillness, leaving everything to bake under the Midwestern sky.
I was too young to have clear memories of that time period so it's really just a jigsaw puzzle of sounds, sights, and smells. My grandmother baking pie after a day of garage sale hopping. Throwing apples into the air at dusk while camping in the woods and Grandma giggling with glee as we watched bats snatch them out of the air like leather-winged hawks. And of course there was the endless country music blasting from the radio as my family drove me down county highways through what to a small child felt like a labyrinth of cash crops.
Japan was home for most of my childhood, so I tend to identify much more with my Asian heritage despite what my recent DNA test identifies as a solid 50% "Europe by way of America" ethnic profile coursing through my veins. Yet to this day that part of my heritage is a bit foreign to me, more of an echo in the distance than something tangible in my day to day life. The handful of summers I had with that side of my family are some of the few threads connecting me to this "lost" part of my background.
As an adult my grandmother has sadly passed on and has taken her pies and giggles with her. With all that in the past, it's really country music that takes me back to the happy memories I have of those long lost days. It amuses me when friends find out I have a deep love for country. I suppose a half-Asian gay guy who spends his time traveling the world, is obsessed with Bollywood dance music, and lives in the third most populous city in the US isn't the first person you'd assume loves a twangy dashboard banger, but trust me when I say I can belt out the latest Afro-pop dance hit just as smoothly as I can a sassy Reba McEntire tune or the George Strait songbook. And while some may argue that country music is a musical style that is full of classic Americana vibes, it's hardly held up as the standard of American music overseas. On the road across the globe you're much more likely to hear pop music, hip hop, or even old school disco classics than a country song.
So imagine my surprise as I made my way through the main hallway of KL Sentral to hear the melodic opening notes to one of my all time favorite songs - "When You Say Nothing At All." Not only was the song being played in the middle of a train station in Kuala Lumpur, it was being played live. A Malaysian man in a jaunty fedora stood off to my left strumming his guitar with his case open at his feet and filled with a handful of ringgit notes.
And then the opening line tumbles out of his mouth - "It's amazing how you, can speak right to my heart ......"
His accent was prominent and he struggled slightly with the pronunciation of every other word, but rather than distract from the beauty it actually seemed to bring an element of vulnerability to a song that thrive on just that. I'm normally a very efficiency-minded traveler but suddenly I felt my head turning and my foot fall slowing, petering to a halt as my mind was drawn back to lazy summers in the American Midwest.
"Without saying a word, you can light up the dark ....."
i pivoted and started to make my way toward him, which wasn't an easy task considering my path was suddenly perpendicular to every other person making their way to and from the various train platforms strewn about the station. Still, his voice lit up like a beacon in the dark, calling my ship safely into port.
"Try as I may I could never explain...."
What a weird sensation to be walking through a city 9000 miles from home and suddenly find yourself transported to another time and place in your life. There I was standing like an unwelcomed island in the stream of this Malaysian train station yet in my mind I was back in central Illinois in the front seat of a pickup truck watching row after row of corn flick past the windows that I was barely big enough to see out the bottom of.
"What I hear when you don't say a thing....."
The man continued singing but made eye contact with me. Which wasn't surprising considering I was standing only a few feet away from him, his very attentive and appreciative sole audience member. His lips curled into a smile as he continued to belt the words to a song that holds a very dear place in my heart and I found myself quietly singing as he made his way into the chorus.
"The smile on your face lets me know that you need me,
There's a truth in your eyes sayin' you'll never leave me.
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me if ever I fall....."
It's only been recently that I've come to realize this song reminds me of my grandmother. I do not have any specific memory of us listening to this song together, but the song benchmarks a time in my life when she played a prominent role and the lyrics of love and support call her spirit into my mind. In fact the only musical memory I have of my grandmother is watching the Sound of Music while sitting on the floor of her mobile home and having her belt out "Edelweiss" while making sandwiches for lunch. I cry every Christmas when I inevitably run across the movie on television or "My Favorite Things" comes on the radio.
"You say it best when you say nothing at all."
I only discussed my sexuality with my grandmother one time, a little over a year before she passed away. She casually brought up that she knew I was gay and asked me to bring my boyfriend (now fiance) to visit her and my grandpa "sometime soon". She said it casually but I knew it was difficult for her. She was raised in Arkansas and had spent the majority of her life in a conservative community that frowned upon most things that fell outside of the approved life of an upstanding American Catholic. And yet deep down I knew all she wanted was her family to be happy and she struggled with reconciling her background with her reality.
Her son (my uncle) is also gay, and I owe so much to him and his husband for break down the walls within her mind that may have prevented her from reaching out to me with love and support. It wasn't easy for them, and they still carry the burdens many LGBT people around the world do when they trailblaze personal revolutions within conservative families. Was she perfect? No. But I genuinely felt she tried her hardest to do the right thing when faced with two members of her family that broke the mold.
It would have been easier to simply say that she loved me without actually showing that she did by asking me to bring Zach into her world. A lot of things would have been easier, and so many families take the easy way out when it comes to embracing LGBT family members. Many people think love enters the world through the mouth when really it's through the hands. People can SAY they love you till the day they die, but until they take their two hands and do something to show you it's real, like ask to meet the person you love, then love hasn't entered the world.
Love is one thing you cannot speak into existence.
Sadly she never got to meet Zach. Just a few short weeks after she spoke with me her health started to decline. Grandma had always been the pillar holding up the family, so our lives became unstable metaphorically and in reality when her legs started to give out from underneath her without warning. Months in and out of hospitals turned into months living in a hospital under the constant watch of medical staff. The diagnosis? ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a motor neuron disease that you might know best from the ice bucket challenge that had people laughing a few years back, but I know it best as the disease the robbed my grandmother of the spark that always sparkled behind her eyes.
It all happened so quickly it almost doesn't seem real. One moment she was cooking and laughing and driving my grandpa to and from American Legion meetings and the next I was holding her hand as she breathed through a respirator on Halloween as the very last drops of life left her body. She never got the chance to say it but I know she loved me with all her heart till the very end.
The grandson. The world traveler. The gay guy. Every last bit of me.
"You say it best .... when you say nothing at all."
The man finished the song and took a little bow for me. As the song commanded, I said nothing but reached into my pocket and grabbed every last ringgit I had in my possession and tossed it into his guitar case. I gathered my bags while gathering my emotions and turned back toward the turnstile leading down to the KLIA Ekspres train that would take me back to the airport and on to another adventure somewhere in the world.
My grandmother always loved that I traveled. Whenever we'd see each other she'd always ask me where I had recently been and then we'd sit at the round table that had been apart of her kitchen for as long as I could remember and I'd flick through my iPhone to show her every picture I'd snapped. My grandpa always worried about my safety and said he wished I wouldn't travel so much, but Grandma never did. My sister once told me she'd over heard Grandma telling people that I worked for the government and traveled the world, then slyly hint that she thought I was a secret agent with a laugh. I have a coworker that makes the same joke every time he hears that I'm heading out on the road, but it just doesn't bring me the same smile.
I miss her dearly though I think of her often. She's gone but there are little ways I always feel like she's stopping by to visit without saying a word. She loved red birds, so every time one flits by while I walk to the train or even when I see one staring back at me from an ugly lacy pillow in an antique store it's like she's there. Every coconut cream pie. Every Sound of Music airing. And every twangy country music ballad that sneaks its way into my ear canal.
Even 9000 miles away in a Malaysian train station.