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.

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