We are in a town in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, notable for its rolling tea plantations in all shades of green and countless souvenir shops, all of which sell plush strawberries the size of a small child. The main street is full of local restaurants: plain walls, plastic chairs, open kitchens and delicious food. There is something of interest to be had in almost every single one of them, and my family and I have spent two full evenings cruising down the same street in pursuit of the very best, cheapest restaurant.
My younger brother and sister are especially delighted when we round a corner and the familiar sight of the Green and White Starbucks siren comes into view. According to those two, a caramal-whipped cream- Frappucino is the best way to get rid of the remnants of our jungle hang-over. This is the type of hang-over you typically get when you’ve spent too much time trekking through the forests in the low lands of South East Asia with a heavy pack on your shoulders and your socks full of bloody leeches, all the while feeling like someone is pressing a hot and very damp towel over your face with malicious intent.
Either way, I admit feeling somewhat relieved as we enter the cool and tidy shop, where the Asian personnel is clearly under instructions to greet all customers with pseudo-American enthusiasm. They are all wearing a pair of brightly coloured sunglasses in their hair, which may or may not be part of the Starbucks uniform. We find ourselves a couch in the back, by the window where fellow tourists pass by.
It has not been five minutes when a large Chinese family comes into the shop, all plainly dressed except for a young woman in a floor-length red dress. The corset is pulled tightly around her slender waist by red bows at the back. She is wearing a tiara in her black hair, beset with fake jewels which glitter in the artificially bright Starbucks lighting. An older woman, presumably her mother, sits her down on a couch across from us, very carefully so she doesn’t wrinkle her dress. From a black bag on the floor she produces a heavy-looking necklace made of the same glass and plastic gems, which she hangs around her daughter’s neck like a mayor’s chain of office. She nervously starts touching up the girl’s already doll-like make-up, while another family member- her sister?- takes out a pair of translucent high-heeled slippers and slips them on her feet, discarding the girl’s worn out flip flops.
In another corner, a photographer is setting up his professional camera and lighting. A family member returns proudly from the counter with the two largest drinks the establishment has to offer, while a young and somewhat lanky man is being helped into a white suit. He looks excited but uncomfortable in the clothes. We exchange a look. Starbucks doesn’t seem the most obvious setting for wedding photos. Perhaps being able to afford American Starbucks is a symbol of status and affluence here (not as unlikely as it sounds, considering the chain’s astronomical prices even by European standards). Maybe the couple simply met each other here.
When they are ready, the man in his suit and the lady in red pose themselves carefully on the wide couch against the wall, holding onto their beverages and each other proudly and beaming at the camera, which has been set up across from them. But there’s a problem. Smack in the middle of the camera man’s view on his subjects stands a small black table with another young couple at it. He is wearing a blue shirt by some expensive chain store, and she’s taking up the commotion around them with a patient toothpaste smile. They are merrily observing the camera man’s attempts to get a least one good picture of the Chinese couple by virtually hanging over their table, the edge pressing into his considerable belly as he grunts and attempts to shoot past their pale elbows. The Chinese lady and her husband are smiling fixedly at the camera, apparently afraid to move much in case their painstakingly arranged costumes slip or crinkle.
“Gosh, I wonder why they’re doing this in Starbucks!” the toothpaste lady says to the blue shirt, and we sink a little deeper into our couch so that the tops of our heads hopefully won’t be so visible. The couple is Dutch like us. “I wonder if we’ll be in the wedding pictures too.”
I glance at my sister, whose cheeks have gone red with embarrassment. The Chinese family has gone silent, but they don’t interfere. It would be an inconceivable breach of good manners. Our coffee’s gone cold in the meantime but nobody takes much notice. Apart from us, the other Dutch, and the Chinese, the shop’s empty. “Shall we go?” my dad suggests after a pause.
When we step outside, we find that it’s raining again. We’re all thinking of the things we should’ve said, but of course no one ever does. It’d be awfully rude.