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.

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