I politely smiled back at them. Such is the life of a white woman in Malaysia.
As I was gathering up my purchases, my eye skimmed over all the foreign labeling and landed on a package with a very familiar word: Ohio.
Oh! Ohio is the next-door neighbor to my childhood home state, and the land of my in-laws. That name and the place it represents sent a rush of comfort and familiarity to my brain. Of course, I bought the little bag of popcorn thus labeled - I couldn't resist that friendly word.
Soon I made my way to the front counter, where the staring workers - a pair of forty-something men - continued to scrutinize me in a suspicious and unfriendly manner. Whatever.
I turned away from their gaze to take a look at some fellow shoppers standing next to me at the counter. A darling girl and polite boy, maybe 7 and 5 years old, were each purchasing a pack of gum. Their father was staring at me, to be sure, but he had a giant, friendly smile for me.
To my relief, he launched into an English conversation with me, asking where I was from and wondering what had brought me to the outskirts of this ordinary Malaysian town on a random Tuesday morning. "Visiting my Facebook friends," I explained and we both had a good laugh.
The workers, listening in, were still not amused.
Then I commended him on his children, noting their good manners and adorable faces. "Cute," I said. Then I translated my compliment to Malay: "Comel."
The proud papa smiled at that, but I was totally distracted by the response of the store staff. My use of their mother tongue had definitely caught their attention and seemed to earn me their trust. For the rest of my transaction, they were markedly kinder and more friendly to me. When I issued my usual thanks in Malay - "Terima kasih" - they both broke down and smiled.
Well. As I walked out of the store, I was a little bit annoyed that the shopkeepers' opinion of me could be so quickly changed by my use of a single Malay word.
But in an instant, as the sunlight reflected off the plastic bag of Ohio popcorn in my hands, I remembered the power that a single word had held for me.
And I understood, just a little bit better, how those men might have felt.
* * * * *
To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here: