Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Get out!

I was rambling on the phone to Anna when we both should have been doing mundane house chores and she reminded me of this one story about my silly brother. You see, he looks like Keanu Reeves's far-removed cousin just in that they share the same Wasian genetic make-up (Ha! How many of you knew that Keanu Reeves is Wasian?) so my brother could pass off as anyone, especially central Asian I guess.

Anyways, the narrative runs thus: My brother and a few of his friends go to this sketchy dark store run by an Afghani. He's been making fun of his friend the whole day so his friend turns to the store keeper and points at my bro and goes "You see this guy? He's Ruski" the storekeeper takes one look at him and says "burrah" and points to the door. My brother laughs like this is a joke, but the storekeeper is still pointing at the door and glaring at him, so he slinks out and has to wait till his friends were done shopping. The moral of the story is that you shouldn't pick on people who can use a little 1970's politics on you, especially if you look the part.

Heehee, my dumbass brother still has to avoid that store :P

*burrah is 'get out' in Arabic

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quoting My Globalization Professor

Peppered through a review of the course material in class are these delightful tidbits of muttered afterthoughts on Globalization. My notes are covered with his/her words of wisdom.
(Obviously the professor wasn't Obama, but I put in that picture because Obama is an adonis).

On resources and changing political structures:
Prof: So which country in the gulf is losing oil--
student: --and adopted democracy?
Prof: *narrows eyes* in the gulf.

On developing countries requesting financial aid:
"Of course developing countries wouldn't reject monetary aid, who have you heard tell the world 'we like 70% illiteracy and a ruined economy, and even a debt of $500billion, who needs money? We're fine!'"

On death tolls:
"How many people died in WWII? 20million, that's crazy! The Middle East didn't have that. Iran-Iraq war, pretty bad, but you're not looking at 20million. The Arab-Israeli war, it was nothing, peanuts really-- no offense!

On information capital:
Prof: So what else about knowledge guys?
Student: Knowledge is power?
Prof: *sigh* yes yes, knowledge is power, power is in the West, and that's why everything is ROTTEN.

On security:
"There are many places in the world where an expat would feel relatively unsafe and insecure, but you lot say you feel quite safe here in Dubai, and I would have to agree. But there is one place where as an expat I do not feel safe at all... the Emirates Road highway, of course."

On companies investing in other countries' industry:
"If Germany wanted a Siemens factory out in Palestine, the Palestinians would accept because unemployment is crazy and they really need jobs, but the only jobs are in Israel, which is a problem in itself."

On woman's rights:
Student: Women are victims of abuse not just in countries that lack women's rights; like Russia has woman's rights but it also has the highest statistics on domestic abuse.
Prof: Perhaps, but Russia also has a problem with it's population being drunk half the time. Don't laugh, I'm not insulting Russia, I said just half!

On Political Sentiments in America:
Prof: To openly say you're a communist- even today- is like kissing any political aspirations you have goodbye
Student: But why? Lots of countries had communist groups. Doesn't America have freedom of speech?
Prof: Yes but even so Communism was regarded as the evil that kills society, all the American politicians made it appear so bad that if you told people you were a communist you might as well admit that you're a pedophile too. *looks around* Please don't write down that pedophile part.

[More to quotes to come, watch this space]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Escapist fantasies

I've been reviewing my current financial and academic situation, and have concluded that within the next five years, my only means of surviving would be to chain myself to both a class and office desk. I have no trust fund, no distant uncles with an obscene amount of inheritance ready to be wired to me upon their death, and no lotto ticket. I am not supremely intelligent, and my skills are limited at best. My previous conclusion of chaining myself to a desk and push pencils is sadly, my best (and only) future option.
Before I become wholly doomed to this frightfully unenviable life, I want to take a few long and indulgent paragraphs to say how utterly fascinating my life would be if my situation were otherwise.

I would know the chill of the Finnish midnight sun, and I'd know the heat of an Australian brush evening. I'd jump with the Maasai in Kenya and laugh with the Dutch in Utrecht. My skin would be freckled and calloused and my home would be packed on my back. My family can only reach me from my satellite phone, as I won't know a proper sheltered building for days on end. My lifestyle would make national geographic look as cozy as the cooking channel in comparison. I would live for every wasted hour I dazed in a class. There wouldn't be a country I haven't seen, a people I haven't met, or a language I haven't mangled. Mountain or desert, river or sea, jungle or forest, I would have climbed, trekked, swam or blazed just because I could.

And when my body begins to buckle, and those mountains are too high and the seas are too strong, I will retire somewhere with soft breezes, and under a shady tree filled with whispering branches, I will lay down and die.

This is the life I would choose, and if opportunity presents itself, it would be the life I lead.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Summer articles and blogs

Well that was quick.

I turned around one day and realized that summer is over and I'm sitting dazed and confused in my classes again. What the hell mah? Wasn't I shopping for batik bags just yesterday?

Although it was too short, (much too short!), I managed to cram in an internship, meeting up with friends and family, and plenty of food into those months. And to show for it, minoritydreams generously hosted a series of articles I co-wrote with Nour on our summer together, as well as an article I wrote about my mom. Following film-maker Yasmin Ahmad's passing, I wrote an op-ed about her for the Malaysian Insider.

So that was a lot more work than I had intended to do, and the minute I was ready to lay back with my starfruit juice and kick back with my Asians, I was packing to leave. Not to sound petulent, but it's sooo unfair. I wasn't ready to go! I was nowhere near tired enough of the food stalls, card games, road trips, mangled Malay-English conversations, family dinners, the Malaysian music scene, wreckless motorcylists, or even the heavy tropical humidity to be on a plane headed towards research papers and SAND. Sand, psh. Woe as me. At least let me take the food stalls with me, gosh.

So that's June/July/and a bit of August for you.

Here's a sexy song from Malaysia's unelected President (whut whut).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Weekend I Loathed Phone Companies

Saturday June 6th

Got up at 9am and hit the pavement to scout out the digs in this Subang neighborhood with Nour and Amani (who slept over since it’s a weekend). We were looking for those SIM cards (or what is delightfully a SIM kad in Malay) that I raved back in Dubai were “so easy to find in any store.” We found a couple convenience stores selling local newspapers, but no kad. We found a 7/11 where the girls working there only sold Celcom SIM kad (we wanted our choice of Maxis or Digi or any other ones that were referred to us). Feeling pressured, as getting a SIM kad was the number one (and incorrectly predicted easiest) task we had failed to do, we asked for two. “Biasa or XL?” one of them asked, and I was like “what’s the difference?” and she said XL had cheaper call rates. Examining the sticker that claimed Celcom XL sukses was the “CHEAPEST” kad in Malaysia, we considered them. “Can we put them straight into the phone and start making calls?” I asked, and they said no. No? “You have to use your IC card to register the number.” Oops. IC cards are national identity cards for Malaysians, used for pretty much anything from social security to student discount cards to, as we were learning, registering phone numbers. “kalau foreigner?” I asked, and they said “passpot nombor lah.” Ah. An obstacle. “But don’ worry, can activate the cards in any kedai phone, no problem” she said, and I asked “are you sure?” and she nodded, and I asked again in case she missed that I was serious, “pasti ke?” and she replied “pastiiiii.” I wasn’t ready to buy a card that would cause me hassle if I could buy one elsewhere, but she seemed sure, and as aforementioned I really wanted to call my mom (wait, that wasn’t mentioned afore), we bought two. Just as that niggling gnome of doubt residing in my gut told me, we never got those cards activated.

After firing a few emails in the cool and cosy atmosphere of an Internet café, surrounded by the sounds of boys playing Counter Strike and DotA (or in one case, watching Korean soaps), we piled into Winnie’s car and she dropped us off at the komuter station. The train tugged us through the forests that skirted the highways and byways and between terrace neighborhoods and schools, until the suburban scene gave way to government buildings and high-rises and we entered the dark bowels of KL Sentral. We transited quickly to the connecting train, coming above ground long enough for Nour to recognize the McDonalds her family and her ate at (“we even have pictures of this very same one!”) and one stop later we unloaded at the Dayabumi building, our future office. Satisfied that we wouldn’t get lost on our first day of work now that we’ve worked out public transport, we called my Malay cousins Iman and Solehah to pick us up and we’ll go eat at the too-chic KLCC mall (the one nestled between the Patronas Towers). My lovely cousins have been impressive overachievers for as long as I’ve known them; jumping grades, entering university early, training to be doctors, currently waiting to become interns as they’ve only delivered ten births each and covered several years of diagnosis study. But they’ve also never quite worked out how to get from A to B without going through E F G X Y Z for as long as I’ve known them, so in between recalling stories of how they got us into another state the last time they gave directions, we managed to find KLCC through teamwork and clever deductive skills (“I see the pointy peak of one of the towers! That way!”).

KLCC on a Saturday during the school break is no picnic, a piece of obvious information that escaped the jetlagged interns and the overworked future-doctors, but it was no matter. Bodies crammed the escalators and flooded the main floor where small demonstrations and shows were going on, and the overpriced food court was crowded with families. “Let’s get these cards activated!” I said once the food was gone so we hit every phone shop. Every kedai said they couldn’t activate our Celcom XL kads, which are actually designed to make cheaper calls to Indonesia. Angry that the kads weren’t the sukses they promised to be, we decided to leave the mall and go visit Iman and Solehah’s family in Cheras (an area in KL). It’s been two years since I last saw their little house with the big yard on the cul-de-sac next to the hospital where my aunt and uncle works, but in that time they have decked it out with a traditional teak Malaysian awning over the garage, a mini waterfall and a small fish pond with real fish in it. Way to bring a friend over to check out the family digs! The rest of the future-doctor cousins were there (ages 12 and up) and we spent the evening catching up. Before dinner we stepped out and bought Digi SIM kads that didn’t require this phone-registration bureaucratic process invented to confuse and delude customers who may or may not be making frequent calls to Indonesia. Peh, pasti she said, can activate in any kedai she said, kepala-otak can activate in any kedai, hrmgphmph…

Dinner was a warm concoction of teasing cousins and angry grandmothers who yelled at Nour to drop the smelly cat that hadn’t been washed in months (Nour, not understanding the Malay being directed at her, hugged the cat tighter). Amani taught Nour how to eat crabs with your hands, which limbs had the most meat and how to break them (she could be a crab mafia member). Dessert was mangoes, mangosteen (what I jokingly referred to as the Polish version of a mango because of the steen), some kuih-muih cakes from the pasar malam (night market), and rambutan (literally ‘hairy-fruit’ with sweet white flesh on the inside). The night ended on a somewhat somber note when we went through the pictures my uncle took from his doctor’s mission in Gaza last Febuary, where he worked at a hospital that received shot, burned and broken victims on an hourly basis. By the time we reached the pictures of victims of white phosphorus I felt that it was time to go, so we loaded into a vehicle for the last time that day and spoke intermittently on the long drive to Subang. Iman and Solehah are going back to the hospital they’re training at after the weekend, but we made plans to see them after their finals. We crawled up the four flights to Winnie’s apartment exhausted but content. Exhausted from the phone hunt, but happy and warm from dinner. That’s what family does to you.

Sunday June 7th

The next day we took it real easy, going out much later to One Utama mall and browsed around, comparing prices to Dubai and the future shopping we’ll be doing at cheaper markets. We ate at this little café called Penang flavours that unfortunately ran out of the right noodles for Nour’s assam laksa which I had been looking forward to showing her since it’s a tamarind soup with a bunch of other yummy unnamable things chopped up and thrown in there. They replaced the original noodles with Bihun (the small thin angel-hair noodles), but where got same effect? We left the failed noodles and told her that no two laksa’s are the same and that they will have better ones at the pasars (markets) later. The mee rebus (yellow noodles in a thick curry with bean curds, tofu, squid, and cauliflower) was good though, so we know one dish that they can make well. This is a lesson to us all: Don’t eat at malls when you can have a cheaper and more exciting option at any mamak stall in the streets if you look in the right places.

At the end of the day we met up with a friend of mine from grade school. Although Jamie and I have branched out to hugely different interest fields now, we both started out in 6th grade converging over favorite L.M. Montgomery books and Nsync songs. That night we exchanged stories about school and professors, and Jamie told me about how last year a good number of students protested against the affirmative action policy that restricts access to her university to Malays only (or Bumiputera). The Malays against the protest and in favor of barring Chinese and Indian Malaysians from entry claim that Malays need to hold together and show a strong united front, semangat melayu, which Jamie found ridiculous (or in her exact words, semangat melayu, kepala-otak semangat melayu!). A lot of Malays like Jamie are against such policies that have favored bumiputeras since the 1960's, and with a diverse population in roughly equal thirds of Malays, Chinese and Indian Malaysians, one would feel a gaping absence in an ethnically homogeneous institution. It's comforting to know there are students like Jamie around to shake things up and call people kepala-otak once in awhile.

Friday, June 5, 2009

From Blistering Expenses to Green Green Green

Friday June 5th

It was a rough and turbulent descent into the lush forests of Kuala Lumpur (KL) where my friend Nour and I stumbled through KLIA’s immigresen and were picked up by my second cousin Winnie and my sister Amani. We somehow managed to squeeze our two large luggage’s, a carry-on, and ourselves into Winnie’s small 4.5 seater perdua by propping the largest luggage in the front passenger seat on the left next to Winnie, and we were on our way. It was only when we got on the British left-side of the road cruising on the highway with our heads grazing the low ceiling of the car with every bump did it hit us that we were finally here: Truly Asia. We grinned foolishly at each other as other little Malaysian-made cars zipped around us towards a long row of tollgates; you got your choices here (unlike Dubai’s monopolizing Salik that rips everyone off 4Dhs indiscriminately). You got the automated drive-thru SmartTag, the card-scanning Touch N Go, or the manual pay window (our choice). Of course, no tollgate than any tollgates would have been the ultimate choice, but it’s nice that we’re given a chance to choose. We hit a roadside food stop and Nour filmed her first meal back to Malaysia since her one-week tourist spree four years ago (she had Nasi Lemak, a meal of rice cooked in coconut milk with sweet chili sauce, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts and a hardboiled egg). We drank in the green surrounding scenery; a welcomed change from the sepia desert we left behind, but it wasn’t long before the heavy humidity weighed down on our shoulders. Perhaps Malaysia is several degrees cooler than the Emirates, but it was a whole lot muggier. We went from an environment of dehydration to one of drowning in one flight, and we couldn’t decide which was worse. At least we don’t have to worry about moisturizing lotion here.

After dumping our bags at the apartment and going through the shower, we went back out for dinner and to shop for the few things we were sure we packed but didn’t (a common traveling phenomena), and came back to the apartment for another round of showers. It’s normal to shower thrice a day in Malaysia, and it looked like we would be until we got a little acclimated and can afford to bring it down to two showers a day.
At dinner, we amused ourselves by teaching Nour the first ten numbers in Malay. Amani, the mnemonics queen, came up with the French “la pain” (bread) for the eight “lapan” in Malay, and 'some-bee-line’ for nine’s “sembilan.” With decreasing trepidation Nour counted up to ten and back, impressing us with her memory but possibly puzzling the other customers in the restaurant who could only here the occasional “one!” “five!” and “seven!” exclamations from our table.

The bill for our two appetizers, four meals and four drinks came to Rm35, reminding us of the most inescapable difference between Dubai and Malaysia: the cost of living. When an average meal would cost someone Dhs35 in Dubai (without drinks), that amount can serve a small but hungry group of people in KL. Four years ago it used to be Dhs0.96 to every Rm1, but with the recession the tables have turned, and it’s Dhs1.17 to every Rm1 now, and it goes so much further in Malaysia. Though I am on a set budget, the prices we’d encounter would spark a curious sense of generosity in me that isn’t usually there in Dubai, and I’d want to sweep away the bill from under reaching fingers and drop an easy 10 or 20 for everyone. With the currencies being so close to each other (give or take 5-15 cents/sens/fils) one can’t help feel hugely ripped off by the Dubai lifestyle when a Dhs100 couldn’t get you through a night but Rm100 can be lived on for a week in KL. My reactions were mixed between jubilancy at paying so little here and outrage at having been forced to pay so much at home. Going back to Dubai in August will be another bout of financial culture shock where I won’t be willing to give up any extra dirham I don’t feel compelled to pay. I’d haggle at Carrefour if I have to, you watch me.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

"I'm melting, melting, oh what a world!"

It's 50'c outside and the gardeners are wilting under the palm trees. It's only 10am but the sun is high and fizzling. The sprinklers intermittently squirt inches of water onto the dry grass and cars driving by do so slowly as their tires attempt to meld with the asphalt. It couldn't be a more typical hot Gulf-state June day, and the windows are fogged up with condensation while I'm sitting on the inside wrapped in an oversized hoodie. The AC men told me to keep the temperature below 15'c or otherwise the system would shut down with the heat, so I sit in my arctic and climate-destroying home while I watch the garderners limply rake through the hard and mud-caked flowerbeds and the water men unenthusiastically roll barrels of water to everyone's door.

Just watching the men working outside made me feel like I was in violation of a few labor laws, and every shiver I gave reminded me of how the AC churning at high voltages was probably in violation of a few environmental (Al Gore) laws too. Though I've commited no outright crime other than living here, I feel as though I'm an accomplice in the mistreatment of the workers and the environment. I want to protest that I'm an innocent bystander, but how innocent are you when every visa stamp into the country is like a loud vote of approval on the way things are run? Every country has its problems, but being limited in how you protest and address these problems can make you feel helpless, and finding no way to solve that, responsible. There are organizations out there working hard to find ways around the stringent and confusing laws to give workers the right to be inside when it's 50'c outside, or the right to keep your papers instead of giving them up to your sponsor, or even the right to retain standards like C98 granted by the ILO. Until the day I can work with these organizations, I'll give out bottles of cold water to the workers outside my house. It doesn't solve any problem of indentured workers in big way, but it stops me from being completely helpless in giving a break to a few guys out in the yard in a small way.