His uniform and the strong sense of purpose with which he came at me caused an instinctual reaction. I no longer roamed freely around an open market in small-town Malaysia. I was back home in South Central, a frightened nappy-headed kid who knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but felt a need to flee anyway. The big kids taught me that fear. They said, don’t argue, just run, so that’s what I did. I ran. The cop ran after me. I hid. The cop never found me. He gave up his search and went away. His abandoned search only proved in my mind that the whole enterprise was bullshit. If I really had done something, then he would have called for reinforcements or set up a dragnet. I slinked home once I heard the cop car drive off. It pulled away in a hurry, probably in pursuit of another scared nappy-headed kid who had done nothing.
I told my mother what happened. She didn’t like that I ran. You don’t run from the police, she said, it makes you look guilty. As she lectured me, I noticed that her face failed to sync with her words. The words said don’t run, while her face said do what you have to do to protect yourself. So that’s the message that really stuck.
Running here, however, had greater consequences than it did that day in South Central. This land was not my land; I am a guest here. Come what may, I had to obey. However, as he got closer, I saw that he wore an official outfit, but not one belonging to the Malaysian police. And the man himself looked foreign, as did I.
He stopped right in front of me, panting. Yes, definitely not Malaysian. I waited. He waited. Did he expect me to say something?
“You were whistling,” he said.
I tried not to smirk, but it was hard. You came rushing up to me to tell me that I was whistling? The gum-chewing offense from Singapore in the 90s came to mind, but this was not Singapore and I wasn’t chewing gum.
More silence. Though it had been a good minute since he stopped running, he still panted. He did not look out of shape. In fact he looked quite trim. So why the panting?
“Yes?” I finally said.
“That tune. I heard you whistling a special tune.”
Truth be told, I had no idea what he was talking about. When he came rushing up to me, my mind concentrated on mangos displayed on the table that stood between us and on the lassis I hoped to make from them. Without thinking my face lapsed into a “huh?” It took him aback. I tried softening my expression. I’m a big, 6’1” black dude, a fact I’m always aware of. While working overseas, I’ve learned to mellow my expressions so that folks don’t get hyped up around me. I call it my puppy-dog look. Earnestness eases many tensions.
“It’s just,” he started to say.
“It’s just that I’ve never heard a foreigner whistle that tune before.”
“What tune is this?”
“When you were over by there,” he said, “by the melons.”
I wanted him to tell me the name of the tune, since he obviously recognized it, but he wouldn’t. I always have some ditty in my head. They fly in like a passing bumblebee, fluttering harmlessly in the space, before retreating again. Seeing the melons made me think how much I missed watermelon, so maybe I had “Watermelon Man” buzzing inside me. But that didn’t seem right.
Then I took a good look at him. He wore a greenish-brown suit with smart buttons trimmed on his shoulder and down the front. He wore a little cap with an insignia that at first I could not recognize, it was so small. But upon closer examination, the depiction began to look very familiar. Then I looked at his face. Yes. Korean. He was Korean. And he was from that Korea. I listened to Voice of Korea on shortwave that morning. At the start of their broadcasts, they play the national anthem. That must have been the bumblebee buzzing through my head while looking at the melons. I didn’t even realize.
I explained my predilection for shortwave and history of listening to North Korea. His eyes grew wide.
“I’m not supposed to listen to it,” he said. “I do not know what they broadcast.”
His face transformed from intense to apologetic. The panting ceased. Where before his body language communicated firm determination, it now displayed retreat. He wanted to chastise me for whistling a sacred tune, for offending Dear Leader, or whatever appellation they’ve applied to the new, younger Kim leading the country now. But all that bluster vanished.
“I just like the tune,” I said, somewhat sheepishly. I went full-on puppy-dog now, trying to soften my large frame to appear less of a threat.
“I’ve never heard a foreigner who knew it,” he said.
“You know the New York Philharmonic played it when they visited Pyongyang a few years ago.”
His eyes grew big again. He did not know. How was it that I knew more about his country than he did?
“Are you here long in Malaysia?” I asked.
“Just another week or so. How about you?”
I was part of a trade group. Meetings. Banquets. Official tours. Logistics. Tedious at times, but interesting. I liked my down time when I get to explore the backwaters that they don’t show on the official tours. I had been in Malaysia for a while, but my home base was Hong Kong.
I squeezed mangos with my hands as we chatted. He stared at them doing this. I could see his breathing changed again. Now I saw why he rushed me. Indignation has no greater fuel then forbidden attraction.
“I plan to make some mango lassis,” I said. “Do you want to try some?”
He surprised me by saying, “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
To be continued. . .
© 2014, gar. All rights reserved.