We’re maybe half an hour from touching down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport when, while washing my hands in the airplane bathroom, I realize that I’m inappropriately dressed for my first foray into the Muslim world. I look in the mirror and there they are; my bare shoulders and arms, gleaming white under the florescent lights. All the guides I’ve read have warned me against wearing anything too revealing out of respect for the local culture – swimsuits, they said, are too revealing for all but the most touristy beaches. Swim in a T-shirt and shorts, they recommended. Dress conservatively elsewhere, especially in mosques. What was I thinking? Groggy at 7 o’clock on what was a chilly morning in Osaka, I imagined shedding layers to greet a 32-degree tropical paradise. I examine my top – it’s modest enough. It reveals no cleavage and the shoulder straps are 3 inches thick. Nonetheless, there are my shoulders for all the Muslim world to see and since I don’t know exactly how much leeway non-Muslims – even tourists – get, I can’t help but worry.
I make my way back to my seat, where Sean is sipping his second cup of guava juice.
“I think I’m underdressed,” I blurt.
“What do you mean?”
“This shirt shows my shoulders and arms. The guidebooks I read advises women to refrain from wearing anything sleeveless because it will be offensive to Muslims …”
“Why’d you wear it, so?”
“I forgot …”
“Does it really matter?”
“I don’t know but I think I should be careful …”
“Well, then,” says Sean. “I guess you’ll have to wear your jacket.”
The jacket I slung over my shoulders this morning was fit for Osaka in Cherry Blossom Season – a short, cordoruoy belted trenchcoat. It was slightly too thin for this morning’s walk to the airport bus, but it will be unbearable for 32-degree weather. It appears my choices are to be a clueless tourist or brave the blinding sun. Because living as an expatriate in Japan has instilled in me a dread of behaving like an Ugly American, I choose social etiquette. Anything, I figure, has to be better than helping the Cause Against Americans – even wearing a coat in the heat. My coat slides back on and I notice that even in the air conditioned plane, the underarms are already soaked with sweat.
The heat starts to steam my corneas even before we leave the baggage claim but as I look around me and see no bare arms in sight, I’m sure I’ve made the right choice. I notice no hints of collarbones so I wonder if my top is even too low. As I zip up the jacket to my neck, I notice fat drops of sweat trickling down my nose. Wearing a cordoruoy jacket and lugging a suitcase, the heat is almost unbearable. Sean takes charge of my suitcase himself and we head to the monorail, following the directions of two taxi touts. It takes us half an hour of agonized swimming in my shoes to realize they sent us the wrong way.
Up concrete streets, down concrete streets. Up stairs, down stairs. I’m too hot to even take in the new sights, although some exquisite spicy smells waft before me. When I rematerialize from my melted puddle, maybe I’ll consider eating. I wonder if it would really be so awful if I removed my jacket – couldn’t I play clueless tourist for just a few minutes? Isn’t that expected of me, in a way? In Japan, don’t I sometimes allow laziness to override my desire not to embarrass myself? Would it really be so bad if I let myself go for a little bit – it’s 32 degrees for pete’s sake!! Malaysia isn’t even supposed to be as strict as places like Afghanistan – the residents must be used to tourists showing Muslim-inappropriate skin. As it turns out, I am more stubborn than I am susceptible to heat stroke: the jacket stays on. I’m probably more stupid, too.
I’m saved by Times Square shopping center – air-conditioned with escalators and smooth floors. Our guest house is behind it and when we finally arrive, what remains of my flesh sloshes onto the wooden furniture. We are served ice water. We are offered a complimentary Indian breakfast. We are shown to our rooms.
Now I’m clean. Now I’m rested. Now I’m wearing an appropriate tissue-thin but long-sleeved caftan. Now I’m ready to explore those amazing smells. Now that I’m back in solid form, I’m satisfied. I might be a funny-looking tourist but at least when it comes to respecting the dress code, I’m not ugly.