PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY IN MOTION know that the hardest part about starting a thing is, well, starting.
In classic high school Newtonian physics, the coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of kinetic friction. Which means that if you had a mass on a flat surface, for example, you would need less force to push it and keep it moving at a certain velocity if it was already in motion (kinetic) than if, say, it was just sitting there, not moving at all (static). Friction exists. Sure it does. It’s a fact of life. It’s just… Coping with it. If you only have a limited amount of effort you can make, might as well do it where you know that it’s going to have more impact. This is a topic that we are discussing in our current online programme, The Mirror. It’s been quite a few weeks of learning and discovering how to talk more, how to talk more clearly, and how to shape a space in our online forums that, I hope, will continue to seed new inspirations and angles on things, for those of us writing and interconnecting. What would be the map for that kind of quality exchange? How would its arteries be shaped, where would be the high flow channels? (Forgive me, I’m a civil engineer by training… I tend to enjoy things like fluid dynamics and city planning, and building infrastructure for social [ex]change.)
INITIATIVE. Naturally, because of the friction thing, you discover when you are trying out stuff that something new is harder to get going when it’s standing still, or ‘to get it off the ground,’ or to initiate. So much gets in the way. Cloudy headed from your own self-doubt, that’s one, that’s the first hurdle, then there are more and more layers that impede you from moving towards, well, just the starting line. Let’s be honest about it, shall we? Today, I wanted to share a little bit about some people who have inspired me. Specifically, I want to tell you about their work to take an initiative, not just talk, but actually do, to get past blocks, and actually make a thing happen. Two are in Cameron, one is in Melaka. Malaysia. Asia.
So much more to say here about how hard it is to go against the grain of what’s socially acceptable, and what your parents say, and what your peer group is doing, and the general rules about what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing which are so, so hard to get around. None of them knew, at the start, if their venture ‘would work.’ The Cameron story is just a few months old, and the Melaka one a little longer, but the bonus points that I want to give here for the people who are making and doing are there because they are making and doing in Asia. (I can relate. I come from Asian roots. Even in those United States, growing up with the steadfast rules that Asia extends even when its natives go away, far away, breaking out of the boxes is never a cake walk.)
ASIA. Yeah. Here, it’s extra hard, for the handful of reasons I just mentioned, but also because there aren’t a lot of examples of really interesting creative risk taking. On account of maybe government censorship stuff, too, but also, hey, there’re just not a lot (that I can find easily) of the creative class scene (which is difficult to define, but you have a feeling of it when you see it, right?). Understandably. It’s so hard to get a thing that is new and different to be valued: much simpler to follow the lines that have already been painted for you, go through the motions, live within the boundaries instead of breaking out of the margins. Starting a business and doing it for yourself is hard, everywhere. But it’s multiply difficult to do it, in my opinion, if you are young and taking the chance, and going against what’s accepted in these parts of the world, where enterprise isn’t seen as cool and edgy, but a risk that might embarrass not just you, but those who are near to you. And saving face is such a big part of everything, here, that the whole ‘fail early, fail fast’ rah-rah stuff that the US West Coasters like to run around in cities of Asia touting as the way forward just simply doesn’t blend in with the native program. Does it make sense? With that background, what I’m sharing next, to me, seems extra impressive. Here are the two businesses I wanted to talk about today…
Map Travelodge, Cameron Highlands
UP IN CAMERON HIGHLANDS, known locally as just ‘Cameron,’ I met a pair of cousins who started their own venture, and what struck me about it, was that, through dialogue and casual conversation over the course of four days, then ten, then, at the time of this writing, an embarrassingly lengthy perhaps 20, because once I find a place I like I tend to stick around, well, in the chats and learning I got to see that there are still people who are trying things, even when they don’t know what’s going to happen. Doing it on their own, doing it with their own gumption, and doing what they know a teensy bit about how is what Aaron Goh 吴秉洛 and Peter Goh 吴秉腾 are up to, in Cameron, their native town in the hills here in Malaysia, where I’m writing from at this moment. I wanted to come to the higher country and put down some thoughts about space, about geometry, about systems and emergence, but all of that is sitting in a pile of notes while I write today’s thing, which is about deciding to want to change.
You know, they could have continued doing their jobs: Aaron was working in a big hotel in Penang for six years. He’s now 26. His cousin, Peter, loves traveling and has tons and tons of beautiful photographs (and if you know me, you know I don’t just offer compliments easily, especially on photography). Based on his own travels, Peter told me he wanted to create a ‘backpacker’s home.’ He wanted it to have all the things you would want, if you were living out of a bag and being on the road somewhere. Cafe. Warm reception. Laundry. Food. Privacy in your own space, that sort of thing, And it does, this place, that the two of them co-founded. It’s called Map Travelodge, there’s a humongous wall map that you just can’t not look at for a long time, and I guess seeing that, straightaway, along with the rack of postcards that I found out only later were all taken by Peter himself (no Instagram, no big sign saying ‘look at my beautiful pictures,’ so rare and refreshing in the era of narcissistic exhibitionism. Taken together, to me these things add up to authenticity and being good. Speaking of which, I asked Peter what makes a photograph ‘good.’ He said it is about timing. Then he went and got a postcard with some lions. Their eyes really popped out, so deep and penetrating, and so did the azure of the background sky. Timing, he said, makes the difference. (The same could be said about relationships, how they develop. You watch you learn, you wait. It takes time to grow towards a thing, to feel yourself connecting with it. Right?）
Gastro Coffee Bar, Melaka
IN THE MIDST OF MY STAY IN CAMERON, I took a break to go down to Melaka, to see what my favorite cousin calls ‘hoopla.’ Touristy stuff. There, I discovered despite all the attractions and heritage stuff and people around taking pictures, that I only wanted to take one shot. It’s weird, doing this ‘just one shot’ in a place thing. In the past I was a freelance photographer full time. So that seems odd, but it’s what it is. These days, I only share them with people in DK’s online community, S P A C E. The cheapening of people and places through over documentation, the lack of attention to detail and relating to the people who are experiencing the detail, subverting qualify for something superficial and ‘sexy’, like food porn (?), or insta friendship… These are the sorts of things I got talking about with the owner and proprietor of Gastro Coffee Bar. It’s in a quieter street, not like you’d run into it if you stuck to the main one-day tour route. It took me a few days to warm up to talking about real things, but we did, and in depth, and I wanted to mention her here in this little note on the web about cool people, smart and talented, doing their best to make something out of scratch, despite the odds. (And frowns, from Society, and general I articulated but highly present, palpable dismissiveness, from The West.) Tough subjects!… But why avoid them? I got to meet the incredible Nisa Aziz, owner and proprietor, and the resident cat in her space, and to tell them that I don’t publish the most intimate pieces I write. Why? Relating. Takes time to work up to. A getting to know you. (Japanese-speaking friends might appreciate it put this way: a kaiwa that hazumu-s.) Well, yeah. Of course you want to relate. You want to feel your way towards knowing, a little, and being known is nice, if and when it happens, too. So you wait. Is there going to be a connection? That only time can tell. Or the lions, in the case of Peter Goh’s timing and photography. Letting themselves be seen, at last. Fully, fully naked, but only to the eye that has built the trust with them, a rapport. Relating. And now, let me return to Cameron, and complete the story there.
Being who you are
DOING THEIR OWN THING really impresses me, watching Gastro. And Map, and its day-to-day, and meeting the new staff who’ve come on since my return. Dealing with people, the front desk reception, isn’t easy work, especially when you have girls in the dorm who start obsessing arbitrarily about bed bugs, which I watched unfold one evening at about 1AM in a conference that, really, wow, to watch it… There weren’t any, bugs that is, there were just paranoid people who were taking pictures of flies or whatever and screaming away as they cross-referenced them with the Internet.
People are a little zany, at times. One girl talked for like 4 hours about it. There was an expert, a 22-year old who’d been talking with me quite calmly moments before about Love and Art, but subjects those are, too, and she came in to share everything she knew from having just experienced this, like how to cope with these things, yeah. She came in from another room, and started to give a mini lecture. This was what happened. Big-eyed people were shooting questions at her, and she happily replied in detail. ‘They look like this… you seem let me describe this, or wait, see, how this would be, the shape is this. Their feet look like this… They grow like this… The light changes it, they aren’t going to come out if there’s light… This is how to cope, and then… Make sure you… warm water… Don’t forget that these things are also good to know… And when that happens, this is what you can expect next…’ While all this went on, a dozen heads poked out, you had to open your curtain to hear, and we all leaned out, watching her. She lit up on that stage, expanding in long form about how bed bugs move around, reproduce, grow, and are eradicated. People jumped in with their burning questions. ‘Can they walk across the floor? Is my bag okay there? Have you seen one here?! Can they go through zippers? Can they eat clothing? Can they reproduce inside your sheets? Can they stay alive for days?’ I couldn’t help it. I just went, ‘Can they apparate?’…
All kinds of ways to try a thing
A BUNCH OF PEOPLE would be gone the next day, as happens in a place like this that rotates clientele regularly. They’d go and more would come, and you’d hear the same exact stories every time. ‘We just got here. We’re going to figure out what trail or tour we’re going to do tomorrow, then we’re going to go for dinner.’ There are card games, or chess, in the common room, which is nice to see. Wifi is spotty so you just have to wing it, and it’s kind of refreshing to see people talking talking instead of just zoning out doing what I’m doing right now (typing into a device).
These things make me happy. People who are making things, sharing things. Doing things. Not because they have to, but because they want to. They’re not in this because they want to make a ton of money, that much is clear. They’re making a space. Just like us, here at DK. To host people. To give you a place to stop in, for a while. Make sure you’re comfortable, that the space you’re in is safe, and clean. How much more could you ask, when you’re on the road for a while, far from home? Yeah, it would be neat to share this coliving experience with friends or family, one day, but my friends and family aren’t about to hop on a plane to Asia and stop in to a hostel with me for a while!… Ludicrous!
I guess there’s just a stigma around pushing out of your zone, challenging your static friction coefficient, in a way, and going and doing whatever you bloody well feel like doing. It’s a luxury and privilege, I recognize, to be able to do this moving forth and generally meandering thing, but now that I look back on the last five years, I realize it’s more than that. It’s wanting it. Change starts there. With wanting it. You can go and stay where you are and wish and hope and talk about things, but you don’t really go and do them not because you can’t, but because, deep down, you don’t really want to. Me? I’m not interested in turning this blog into a ‘how we did it’ thing. That’s just dumb. I’m interested in sharing tools and tips and resources with people like Nisa, Peter, and Aaron, who are young and on their way. They’re already experiencing the ups and downs that will continue to befall them, there’s no going around it, you just have to go through. But you teach yourself so much when you do… Go through.
Like business, like travel, like starting new chapters, change is the thing that has to come from within, from wanting it. Not for everyone. And to return to that question of what makes a thing good, I’ll love to tell you more about that, if you become part of S P A C E in March or April, where the theme is Quality. (Sharing, for me, has to start with relating, and I just can’t do that on the public Internet, these days. Not for everyone.)
LUXURY OF TIME. The space to create. These are things that a lot of people I’m reconnecting with, so far, this year have said they really wish they could have, and seem to think that I have, and therefore there is a sense of… How can I say to them, it’s not about having it. It’s about designing for it. What you want. That’s just not a popular viewpoint. But, so? It’s mine. And apparently, with the new people I’ve met and written about above… it’s theirs, too.
Proceed with caution. But don’t stop.
This story was underwritten by members of S P A C E. Join us.