Sunday, June 28, 2009

Serious research

Today I met Lisa's friend Phil and a bunch of his friends for lunch. Lisa and Phil, as you long time readers may recall, are the reason I got the idea to come here in the first place.

So anyway, it was a great big awesome queerfest. I got tons of interesting info for my doc. We're all going out gay clubbing next Friday - for research purposes, of course.

We ate dim sum for lunch, then went to a cafe for cake and coffee. One of the guys decided the waiter was cute. He and his friend gigglingly asked for a comment card so he could write his phone number on it. They didn't have comment cards, but told him he could write a comment on a piece of paper.

The two of them, giggling like schoolgirls, concocted an entire survey. "How was the service? Poor, fair, good, excellent (and hot!), check." They wrote the guy's phone number on it, made a cover out of the place mat (they even bound it with string), and presented it to the baffled waiter, giggling hysterically. Then they proceeded to act mortified and giggle more every time the waiter walked by.

Tragically, I was not running tape. I may have to find another cute waiter and convince them to do it again.

In conclusion, premise of doc confirmed: Despite sodomy charges against opposition politicians and fatwas against tomboyism, gay people are not exactly, shall we say, repressed, fearful and closeted in KL.

Don't get used to me posting every day, by the way: Hilarious things just keep happening to me lately.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Same same but different

A few days ago, I was sent to cover a court case appealing a ban on a book published by Malaysian feminist NGO Sisters in Islam. The case got postponed, and I didn’t even end up doing a story on it. But I did meet Brigitte, a law student from the States who’s doing an internship with SIS.

She invited me to a party last night. I went. It was at a very swanky condo and full of foreigners who were in KL to work or study.

In that sense, it was different from backpacking. In many other senses, it was deja vu all over again.

Everyone’s answer to the question “So how do you know these people?” was, “I don’t!” Seems that everyone got invited in a similar way: they met somebody who knew somebody throwing the party who said “Hey, you’re foreign too, let’s hang out.” This, of course, happens when you’re backpacking all the time: Insta-best friends are made for a day or a week, drinking ensues, and the memory lives on only on Facebook.

The United Nations of Drunks phenomenon was also a throwback. People there were from Tahiti, Thailand, Singapore, and Chicago. All we really had in common was that we were in Malaysia temporarily, and by extension had enough cash to do things like throw dinner parties at condos and go clubbing. Slightly different from backpacking, when the connection was that we had enough cash to buy a plane ticket to the other side of the world but not enough to stay in a hostel with an indoor toilet, but similar.

By the time we coordinated our collective attention spans for long enough to get out the door, it was 2:30. We pushed our way to the centre of the dance floor and danced like obnoxious lushes for approximately 15 minutes before the lights came on.

I had a serious flashback to The Heart of Darkness, a club in Phnom Penh frequented by gangsters and rich Khmers. It had a stage-like platform in the centre. Mega and I used to hop on and start line dancing. I’m still not sure how we learned to line dance, but we broke out the choreography as often as possible.

Dudes would hop on too and try to dance with us, but we’d refuse unless they let us teach them the line dance. Soon we’d have a gaggle of rich Khmer gangsters line dancing on a platform in the middle of Phnom Penh’s most notorious club.

I said Asia blog 2.0 would be more journalism and less gin buckets. It’s possible I lied.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reporter Barbie does Malaysia

This morning, mid-commute, my phone rang.

I answered it, and had the typical "Hello?" "Hello?" "Hello?" conversation that happens every time I try to make communication happen in this country with a combination of zero Malay on my part and limited English on their part.

I deciphered enough to figure out it had something to do with an interview request. I told them I'd call them back when I got to work. Three seconds later I got a text message.

The text message I understood: It said the politician I had requested an interview with days ago was free this afternoon. Was I available to come and meet her at her office at one?

My deadline for that article was the end of the day today. I had finished writing it yesterday - or so I thought.

As far as I was concerned, the chance of that politician calling me back was slim, and the idea she would want to do an in person interview hadn't even crossed my mind. With that in mind, I had come to work in flip flops with wet hair and left my camera at my apartment.

I got to the office and sat down at my computer. I Google mapped the address. It was in another city.

I called my editor, who wasn't in yet.

"Hi, Jacq."

"Hi, Claire."

"So one of the politicians I called wants me to meet her at her office for an interview this afternoon."

"Where's her office?"

"In Selangor."

"Selangor is the state we're in."

"Oh, uh, I knew that. Shah Alam, it's in Shah Alam. How would I get there?"

"There's no transit, you'd have to take a taxi. It would take about 45 minutes"

"Uh, OK. Um, so, should I go?"

"Why wouldn't you?"

"Well, it's a 45 minute taxi ride away. Can I ask if we can do a phone interview?"

"A politician is granting you an in person interview. We are not lazy journalists."

So. I guess I'm going then.

So I put on my suit, which I keep in my drawer, over my flip flops. I scribbled some interview questions. I got in the taxi.

The taxi driver didn't get lost, thank God, although he did charge me an extortionary price. We got there about fifteen minutes early. I handed him a 50 ringgitt bill.

He didn't have change. The taxis next to us didn't have change. The reception counter didn't have change. No one in the city of Shah Alam (which is in the state of Selangor, as I now know) had change.

I have too much pride and too much experience with Southeast Asian taxi drivers trying to rip me off to hand him the bill and tell him it was his lucky day. I made him run - literally run - with me as I looked for the cafeteria in the state government building. I finally found it, bought a gross bag of chips to break my bill, threw the extortionary fee at him, and ran to the elevator.

I arrived breathless and sweaty at the politician's office. Her assistant informed me she was in a meeting and would be late.

The interview went fine. The taxi driver back to the office charged me an even more extortionary price than the first one. I ran up the stairs to the office and conversed with my editor, who decided that given the new information my article should now be a two parter - in other words, I had an entirely new article to write and the first to revise by the end of the day. It was 3 p.m.

I feel that my day highlights a number of key points about my experience in Malaysia so far.

Number one: I am insane. I picked the most complicated country on earth (I really believe this is true, possibly the subject of another blog post), with a language I do not speak a word of, to be a journalist in. Last time I was in Southeast Asia, I thought the language barriers involved in explaining I was a vegetarian were frustrating. Multiply that frustration by a zillion, and that's maybe approaching how it feels to try and interview a police chief about why he's revoked a permit for an opposition party to hold a political dinner.

Number two: I don't know anything about Malaysia. I thought I did. Then I tried to be a journalist here. I routinely do things as stupid as realizing I can't tell the difference between what state and what city I'm in, or thinking honorifics are people's names.

Number three: I am as stubborn as hell. Even though I'm so exhausted I can't move by the time I get home, even though I feel like a stupid baby pretty much every day, I'm determined to make this work. I literally came to the other side of the world, god dammit. I'm going to do what I came here to do.

The people I've met so far are awesome. The organization I work for is awesome. I think I wrote a pretty awesome two-part series of articles today. But there are certain things that can't be solved by awesomeness or stubbornness or journalistic rat-like cunning.

One is that I don't speak Malay, rendering me of limited usefulness to my workplace. Another is that the problems with my visa that cropped up out of nowhere are still following me around. I'm right in the middle of dealing with that extremely complicated loot bag of fun, so I'm not going to get into it, but it's majorly stressful (the worst that would happen is that I'd have to give up my internship, though - I could still stay on a tourist visa and do my MRP).

But I'm hoping that the problems that can be overcome by experience get, well, overcome by experience.

Anyway, I have to go find a cake to take to an expat party.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The ultimate crackpot scheme begins

Oh, hi.

Long time no see. I try to keep myself on a minimum deadline of one post a week, but I've slacked the last couple. I have an excuse though: I've been preparing for the ultimate crackpot scheme. I have taken my blazer and left - the country. I'm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, enjoying a tourist weekend before I start my internship with independent alternative online publication www.TheNutGraph.com and doing research for my radio doc.

I have to admit, my main emotion over the last week or so has not been excitement. It's been sheer panic. It quickly sunk in that I had committed to a gigantic project on the exact opposite side of the world involving the cooperation of people I had met solely on the internet, with extremely high pressure to succeed, and quite frankly, a limited knowledge of the country I was about to report on and zero knowledge of the official language.

This was not helped by a certain friend of mine pointing this out to me: "So wait a minute. You just sent out emails saying you were doing a documentary on an extremely controversial subject and people just showered you with job offers and places to stay? You HAVE been to Asia and know that you have to be careful what you get yourself into, right? You ARE sure these people are who they say they are, right?"

Cue spiral of paranoia.

All of which dissolved once I got out of the taxi and into my lovely new room in a garden view flat, which I share with a very nice married couple who are about to start a film production company. Who yes, offered me a sublet out of nowhere on the internet. The flat is filled with cats and books and music. I love it.

The moral of the story: Always depend on the kindness of strangers (My parents are having a heart attack right now as they read this. Hi, dad).

The flight was terrible. There were eight screaming babies in my part of the airplane on the flight to Hong Kong, and I sat in the middle seat by an ancient man who smelled funny and needed to be helped up every time I got up to use the bathroom. Also, the recycled air triggered my allergies (my assmar!) and everyone probably thought I had swine flu as I sneezed continuously. Also, I'd say about 15% of the people on the plane and in the Toronto airport were wearing swine flu masks. At least I'm not the only one indulging in a spiral of paranoia.

But Kuala Lumpur is great. I've got deja vu in the best possible way. Today I had a sugar cane juice, rode a monorail, and had weird garbage water fall on me like, five times. Asia, I love you.

The biggest deja vu trigger is the smell. I was trying to figure out what exactly that distinctive Asia smell is composed of. I settled on mosquito coils, cigarette smoke, motorbike exhaust, and miscellaneous rotting garbage piles. You know, the smell of progress.

Seriously though, KL is super interesting, amazingly multicultural, with a cool Muslim twist. I was tempted to buy a knock-off Coach logo tudong today (the Malaysian version of a hijab). Maybe some other time.

After this, I visit the rainforest in the middle of the city (you read that correctly), then head to the mall to attempt to buy an outlet converter for all my rechargeable electronices (if I can't find one I'm seriously screwed), then meet up with my roommate/landlord to go to an art show where I will apparently meet a lot of people I'll be working with at TNG.

Asia blog 2.0 begins. This time with less buckets of gin and more journalism.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The news this week was totally gay.

Today, I was on the online news desk, meaning it was my job to rewrite stories for the web that came in from TV and radio reporters or on the wires. I was told to prepare myself for a busy day of six to eight stories.

It was a slow news day. I got two. Luckily, both were really interesting - one was about American prisons cutting back on meals for inmates to save money, and the other one was about gay penguins who adopted an abandoned egg in a German zoo.

As this blog entry goes to press, there are 238 comments on the gay penguin story. That's a lot of comments.

I got kind of mesmerized scrolling through them all today. I found two categories the most interesting. Category one is people denying the penguins are gay. How do we know, they ask. Maybe they're brothers. Maybe they're just into hanging out. Can't two men, erm, penguins, live together and raise a child without being gay?

My understanding (this is a wire lift, so it's not like I have been to this zoo myself) is that the penguins definitely get it on. Maybe I should have made that more clear and perhaps embedded a video. But moving on.

The other category, which covers the vast majority of the comments, was people saying something to this effect: Hooray! Homosexuality occurs in nature, and now we have proof! Debate over! Queers win!

While it's kind of awesome that people think a story about two gay German penguins definitively destroys all homophobic arguments, it's also kind of disturbing. To me, anyway.

What I want to know is: Why do we need to prove that homosexuality is "natural" for it to be socially acceptable?

It reminds me a bit too much of your mom telling you not to stare at the girl with buck teeth because she can't help it. She was born that way. Of course, if she could have chosen, she would have had nice straight teeth like the rest of the kids. But the Good Lord in his wisdom decided to make her crooked. So be nice to her.

I think the same attitude is behind the unwritten journalistic code of not outing gay politicians. I watched a documentary called Outrage that outed a number of closeted American politicians who support anti-gay policies. The argument was that it's in the public interest to know this information, because it concerns public policy.

Another example cited in the documentary was a politician who was dating one of his staffers and charging his expense account to fly said staffer around the world with him. The media did not report this, because it would have violated the "no outing" principle.

The media drags straight people through the mud for their carryings-on all the time. It's not always done tastefully. But the general guiding principle is that, if it's in the public interest to know, report it. By saying queers get held to a different standard, the media is basically saying that their queerness is so unfortunate, so potentially damaging, that they're willing to hold back their duty to report to the public if it would out them. And this is doing them a favour?

The other story from this week I have to mention is the lesbian axe murder acquital. This is a predictable response, but if it was a straight couple, would the headline be "Accused in heterosexual axe murder trial acquitted?" Sexuality did play a role in the axe-murder trial, so it makes sense to mention it, but putting it in the headline is sensationalizing.

This isn't hard: When someone's sexuality is in the public interest, report it. When it isn't, don't. And think hard about the philosophy underlying all supposedly good intentions.

I say it isn't hard, but it is. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I picked an MRP topic with the maximum number of potential ways to offend various groups of people... an MRP about LGBT/queer people when I can't use the terms LGBT or queer (CP style), and how their lives are affected by the state and society they live in although I have to make sure no one interprets that as "a backwards country like all them Muslim countries" (because that's definitely not what I mean), and how life is definitely hard and they definitely experience oppression but not nearly as much as Canadians might think they do.

So that's good.