Approaching the end of our third month in Penang, we celebrated our 15th anniversary last night with Peter and Idy, our awesome neighbors and good friends. Choosing the Penang location of Sushi Tei, a Singaporean chain that was excellent in KL, we perused the 31 page menu but sadly the service and quality was not up to par compared to The Big City. Coming to the end of our third month as Experimental Expats in Penang, the honeymoon phase appears to be over as daily life slowly creeps in. According to everything we’ve read about being expats, most people love the beginning because everything is new and exciting. Usually too busy focusing on what’s new, contemplating what you’ve really done is difficult while figuring out your new surroundings. Having settled in relatively easily, we’re now approaching that dreaded second phase where many expats take a hard look at what they’ve done and begin to crave the comfortable surroundings of their old home. While I’m not remotely ready to pack the bags for California (or Canada), especially since the financial markets shaved a big chunk off our assets since this summer, we are noticing some things that clarify why we’re able to live overseas at one tenth the cost of developed nations.
Citing an example, our internet service usually works but not at the standards we’re used to. Often unable to stream movies during the evening, there’s only one option customers this far out on the island and unfortunately, it’s not the better of the two companies. Providing wifi, land line we never use and a host of useless TV channels that no westerner has any interest in, we installed the bundled service that provides the strongest capacity. At only 8 Mb, you can’t really expect perfection. (Comcast, our old provider in the USA, provides about 30 Mb for the most basic broadband service). Often needing to reboot the modem, the solution to frozen internet service reminds me of my early cubicle life in the 80’s, when the answer to every issue from the IT guy was always “Did you reboot your PC?“. Seeing that a reboot didn’t work one day, we had to call for service. In Malaysia, this means the service guys call you anytime they happen to be around and expect you to drop everything and run home. Scheduling appointments is not really an option and we’ve seen that specific people service “unreasonably far” service areas like ours in Batu Ferringhi. (For the record, our town is 5 kilometers from the more populated parts of the island.)
Arriving two hours after the phone call that said they were already here, the same guy that recently serviced our neighbors wifi showed up with his non-English speaking counterpart. Testing the modem, he determined it was faulty and began a sales pitch to sell me an “off the books” modem for an astronomical price by Malaysian standards. When I wouldn’t bite, he sent his assistant down to the truck for a new modem while he made himself comfortable texting and conversing in my living room. Returning about twenty minutes later, the assistant spoke Malay with the first guy for an unusually long period and finally he told me they have no more modems because “they used them all already”, despite the fact that they knew supposedly already the problem. (Before sending someone, the office people attempted a restart when I phoned to report the trouble and determined the modem was faulty). Providing no alternative or suggestions, he told me the office was “too far” to get another modem that day. Frustrated but remembering everyone’s advice about never arguing with Malays due to the cultural aspect, I explained nicely that I just shelled out 1,075 ringgit as a foreigner’s deposit and really needed something done that day.
Unfazed, he then went to the other rooms to test the signal in various places and it kept dropping every time. Undaunted, he unscrewed the phone box attached to the wall and came up with his next explanation: Not really going into detail, He said “the socket is defective” and of course, “the company is not responsible.” Telling me I need to call the owner and have them replace some circuitry I never heard of, I asked to speak to his supervisor so he promptly called while insisting he was “trying to help”. Reiterating something about the company not being responsible for the connection in the wall, the supervisor also told me I need to call the owner, offering no apologies or explanations why they said the modem was faulty but then conveniently changed the story. Realizing they’re probably not “technicians” that can solve the problem or provide alternatives, l decided to politely thank him (for nothing) and send him on way while thinking I’d get Diane’ s advice later. (She was getting a spa treatment and Peter and I were planning on meeting them for dinner later that day). Although it was already after 4 PM and it seemed he’d exhausted all the possible options, he insisted on “trying something else”, perhaps realizing I might respond negatively to the sixteen text messages they send you after a service appointment. Or perhaps that’s what they do to make sure the work day ends with a certain call. Either way, I agreed to give him 30 minutes more since it was almost time to meet our wives.
Leaving my apartment, he said he was going downstairs to a little locked room where they store the telecom connection boxes. After 20 more minutes, I was ready to go find him but then he came back and told me he “switched us to one of the unoccupied boxes”. Deciphering this explanation wasn’t easy but I think he said that there’s 90 boxes for internet connections in the building and over 40 are empty. Possibly legitimate since this building is mostly unoccupied despite being 100% sold, this suggested he did have other options and made me seriously wonder why they insisted the problem was something the owner needed to pay for. Perhaps surprised that a foreigner wouldn’t buy his non-company issued modem, maybe they decide how much effort to use based on what’s in it for them. We’ve already learned that everyone in Malaysia “knows a guy” that can help with something and that’s usually the first option, especially if there’s something in it for the employee. And that’s part of the beauty of this place. Everyone knows someone.
Miraculously, the defective modem now somehow worked which means he wasted over three hours of my time, tried to sell me a modem not issued by his company, took apart a piece of my landlord’s phone box and told me it’s defective, claimed they can’t fix the problem, and had me speak with his boss to reiterate that my landlord needs to pay for something unnecessary. And it gets better. He then called a number in Kuala Lumpur, motioned a “shhhhh” sign to me and told me he’s “upgrading us to 10 Mb” even though the official service tops off at 8 Mb according to their website. Sure enough, after testing it, the service appeared to be better. Unsure if he wanted extra cash, I offered none and realized they hold the key since we can’t live without internet service and with no available competition, you play their game or live in the dark ages. Hence the first part of Phase Two which I like to call “the realization phase”. But don’t get me wrong; it still beats the shit out of commuting and cubicles.
And it gets better. Immediately after swapping boxes downstairs, it blew out my neighbor’s Internet connection totally so Peter told him about it about it and back downstairs he went. Another hour went by and we had to leave to pick up our wives for dinner so I went downstairs and knocked on the door of the little room. Inside I found three employees including my guy playing with connections. Promising Peter he’d come back in 20 minutes with a status, his story now changed to “everything is fine” meaning he had no intention of coming back upstairs. He did manage to tell me how he “brought his supervisor” who allowed him to work overtime and fix the problem. Yes, the same problem that could have taken a few minutes. Gotta love it. All’s all that ends well except for one thing. Somewhere in the process, he changed our wifi password which blew out the sixteen free channels of useless TV that come with the broadband package. No really caring, it irritated Diane enough that she asked about it when we went in to pay our bill (We save money by using our USD credit card and we’re always near the office anyway so why not?) Assuring us the original service call came with a “30 day satisfaction guarantee”, Diane called and the same guy said he’d come back right away. This time he only took a half hour to show up after claiming he was already here.
Explaining the issue, Diane told him the password no longer worked for the TV channels. After playing around and asking a bunch of questions, he finally got the TV channels restored (this time they all came back which is what you get free for 30 days when you sign up). And he proceeded to charge 40 ringgit despite the fact that he caused the issue by not completing the job the first time. Annoyed, Diane wanted me to say something but I’ve worked long and hard to learn when to stay silent and I buried my head in the IPad, refusing to say anything. After arguing her case for only a few seconds, our favorite repair guide said “so you don’t want to pay after I do you a favor?”. Knowing we’d probably have no internet later if she said no given the monopoly when it comes to Internet connection choices, she paid him and of course he issued no receipt. Confident he probably puts the cash in his pocket, we reminded ourselves this is the way things work in the “developing world” and simply accepted this as protocol. On the bright side, the Internet works well since then and I’m sure something like this will probably happen again. Chalking it up to education and experience, we consider ourselves inducted ourselves into phase two and hit the food court for dinner where I had Eel Porridge for the first time.
Thanks for reading. Comments are always welcome .
Next: Hiking down Penang Hill the hard way