Culture Shock: My Thoughts About Being the ‘Man in Beijing’ on the Malaysia Tour

Action, adventure, the trip of a lifetime! That is what I thought when I was told that I was to be traveling overseas to play the lead role in the intercultural play by Moni Storz, Our Man in Beijing. I was not disappointed. However, I feel I should start where all odysseys start, at the beginning.

I was told by my lovely girlfriend Tegan soon after we started dating that I “…have to meet Auntie Moni.” This in itself confused me, as Tegan told me that Moni was not actually her auntie, as there is no blood tie between them. This was the first of many cultural differences I was to experience but more on that later. So to Auntie Moni’s place we went. Whatever expectations I might have cultivated leading to this meeting with this woman could not have been more wrong. This unassuming 60+ little Chinese Malaysian woman had more energy and spirit than most people I have ever met.

Tegan and I upon arriving at Moni’s house (in Melbourne) were told that there was going to be a reading of her play Our Man in Beijing and almost immediately I met Wolf Heidecker, the director. His first words to me were to ask if I could read the part of the male lead as the actor playing the role could not come that day. Needless to say I obliged. Little did I know at that moment, both Moni and Wolf had pegged me to take on the role later to tour in Malaysia!

It wasn’t long before we were rehearsing, getting ready for scheduled performances. They were “warm-ups” (for lack of a better term) before the big overseas tour. One warm-up performance was held at the Sandy Point café/bistro where optional donations for bushfire victims. At this point I was still in disbelief thinking about our planned journey to Malaysia, even when Moni asked for my passport! Before long the time approached for our flight to Kuala Lumpur and as I was packing, it hit me. I was getting the opportunity to tour another country, one much different from my own, as an actor!

Landing in Kuala Lumpur and stepping off the plane to feel that humidity was like walking into a brick wall. Trying to negotiate our way through customs, securing our ride to the hotel and going to get dinner for the first time, I couldn’t have been more excited to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of a new country! It was almost a sensory overload to be in this place and to see so many cross cultural differences and similarities amongst the ethnic groups who call themselves Malaysians. It didn’t take long for me to realise that here, I was the minority member. Despite being in the minority, in almost every instance I found that people would go out of their way to help and be hospitable to my companions and me. Even then I quickly noticed the three distinct cultures within Malaysia, being the Malay, the Chinese and the Indian. I heard many different stories about how these people interacted with each other and their government.

Malaysians have their own problems with their government as I heard about the instances of corruption that many citizens shared with me. Bribing government officials and police officers were common knowledge and regularly practised. One told me that due to a national holiday coming up, police would pull vehicles over more frequently to collect bribes so that they could afford to take their own families on holiday. While on the topic of road issues, the stereotype of Asian drivers is somewhat perpetuated out here. I saw traffic accidents and some Malaysians’ complete disregard for road rules. Every road displayed this intricate ballet of everyone driving their own way and taking no notice of anyone else. The danger was more evident on highways in which this mentality continued, albeit at higher speeds. In one instance, I saw a truck burnt to the ground, its occupants’ fate unknown. Even one of my fellow actors was nearly ran over by a truck driver who by all intents and purposes looked as though he was planning to drive through him.

I digress. This was not a holiday and I had to work. Immediately we were surveying the theatre we would be using in Kuala Lumpur. I also got to meet my co-star, Siew Yong, and other support staff of the show, so without delay we commenced rehearsing. We had less than a week to go from our first meeting to putting together a cohesive show, a difficult task, but one I rose to. The rehearsals also revealed a cultural difference to me: Wolf, with his western style of directing the actor to bring forth their own meaning from the character was leagues different to how Siew Yong had been trained for the theatre. She informed me that actors are more or less puppets that just do what they’re told. Regardless, we rehearsed hard and soon found ourselves flying to Langkawi, having met up with the rest of the actors that hadn’t been able to come from Australia earlier.

Langkawi is very beautiful, a tropical island paradise, save for the litter problem, another culture shock that I suffered. In Langkawi we performed in a restaurant called ‘Sugar’. I was surprised to see how well the very same play was performed in Melbourne was received in Malaysia, the same jokes made the locals in this country laugh wildly. I was starting to realise what the term intercultural theatre meant. This was a play that transcends seas and countries. It was designed to mingle the two. I already knew that I had many similarities with my character John Williams, in the sense that John and I are both from country towns, had troubled upbringing and both had little knowledge of cultures other than our own. I found this evident when we reached Penang and I was to meet Tegan’s Chinese Malaysian side of her family. So many uncles and aunties, cousins and second cousins did I meet that I was bowled over by names that were so different from western culture, not to mention that in Hokkien (the family’s native dialect) each uncle and auntie has a different title that I was to call them. Being the younger person, out of respect, I am meant to call them uncle and auntie, but according to the kinship hierarchy where Tegan is positioned. For example, Tegan’s mum’s eldest younger brother is called Tua-Ku, which is roughly translated into first uncle in the Hokkien dialect. This title would change depending on what position in the family hierarchy you were, as for example, a child of a different uncle would call Tua-Ku a different title. Needless to say this confused me no end, exacerbated as Tegan’s mother was one of six children. It only got worse the more family members I met. In any case, this culture had blended into Australian culture with Moni being called Auntie when there was no blood relation. It was indeed just a sign of respect and affection to an elder in the community.

I made an attempt to observe and replicate as many local customs as I could, from the Malay modified handshake in which your right hand is just held and then upon release placed across your heart or to not cooking pork/ham products in one of our hosts’ houses due to their maid being Muslim. On the point of religion there were a plethora of different worship centers! In my rural region the most I had seen was the random church. But in Malaysia there were places of worship for all faiths: Hindu, Buddhism, Christianity, Muslim and I believe the list continues. These worship places varied from small plinths to temples built into the side and caverns of mountains. In Langkawi I was woken many times by the Mosque’s 5am call to prayers that were broadcast over loudspeakers to the surrounding areas.

At the end of this journey I find myself writing this article. It is impossible to sum up a country, its people and the experience of working internationally in a few paragraphs. But maybe that’s the point, this snapshot of an adventure is to pique your interest. Maybe one day you’ll ask me about my trip and I’ll regale you with how I accidentally destroyed the water pipes in a Langkawi hostel or maybe the heart stopping moment when there was a critical prop failure on the last show of the tour. Either way I am thankful for the chance to learn about other cultures and perform for an appreciative crowd and I look forward to what else the Australasian Chinese Theatre company will do in the future.

With a thankful bow, I am Ashley Macklin.