Postcard - America
By Jim Benning, 6/1/2001
Ever since the September 11 terrorist attack, I've been reading about Americans lashing out at innocent Muslims around the U.S. The news saddens me. I wish some of those Americans had the chance encounter I had in Malaysia, in a small town that serves as a gateway to the tangled jungles of Taman Negara National Park.
Early one evening, a couple of months ago, I passed an open-air restaurant. Inside, sitting around a table, were several Muslim Malay men with dark hair, dark eyes and dark moustaches and beards. They were loud and boisterous and vaguely intimidating. One of them stood, waved his arm in a grand gesture and invited me in. I reluctantly joined them, wondering what I might be in for. I felt that odd mix of aprehension and excitement that makes travel so addictive.
He told me I could call him Kenny, of all things, and demanded to know where I was from. I told him I was American, fearing his response. His eyes brightened.
"A-mer-i-ca," he said slowly, marveling at the thought of such a place. "I love America."
Kenny looked to be about fifty. He was full of questions.
"You know who you look like?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Like that American actor, that kung fu fighter, what is his name?"
"Chuck Norris?" I suggested.
"Yes!" Kenny said. "Chuck Norris. Chuck Norris is a fine man. I like him very much. And I like you."
I wasn't too sure about the resemblance, but I thanked Kenny and told him the feeling was mutual.
Kenny wanted to discuss Bill Clinton.
"Who was that woman he was with? Megan something?"
"Monica Lewinsky?" I said.
"Yes!" Kenny said, shaking his head. "I like Bill Clinton. I could not understand any of that. Why the big deal? Bill Clinton is a man. She is a woman. These things happen."
I told Kenny that I thought he made a lot of sense. And I thought privately how wrong I'd been to expect a less urbane perspective.
By the time I left half an hour later, Kenny had scrawled his phone number on a scrap of paper and insisted I call him anytime. As I walked back to my hotel, I wondered how many Americans would be so generous.
I've thought about my encounter with him many times in the days since the attack. I've also thought about the power of travel. I'm not quite sure why I was reluctant to sit down with Kenny, but I'm glad I did. Kenny reminded me, like so many others I've met on the road, that people are far more complicated than their faith or appearance might suggest.
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