The House Call

Unlike Trump’s Draconian States of America, not all things from yesteryear are negative. Here in Southeast Asia, sometimes things are strangely backwards but work better than you’d ever expect. Case in point; Early and mid January brought an unseasonably large amount of rain with large thunder claps and impressively beautiful lightning strikes. Normally not caring about swimming in the rain, western culture teaches us all to leave the pool during lightning strikes although I’ve never heard of someone actually being struck by lightning by not adhering the warning. Anyway, during one particular loud thunderstorm, I had our favorite Bay Area radio station playing on IHeartRadio. Utilizing our very shitty internet signal, bluetooth and a Sony soundbar, the radio suddenly stopped. Unfazed since the internet signal in Batu Ferrenghi works as well as AT&T Worldnet Dialup Service circa 1999, I waited a minute since it sometimes just pauses and eventually got up to do one of our sixteen daily reboots.

meer_mouseNoticing a blank screen on the soundbar, my first thought was a loose connection. Having dusted the entire TV console and stand earlier, I’m famous for dislodging cords, wires, outlets and various other things that give our telecommunications expert (Diane) fits. Not seeing anything obvious, I tried unplugging things and changing the batteries in the remote but the power remained off. Having exhausted my technical skills, I patiently waited until Diane finished showering and decided to pretend nothing happened. Not wild about always being blamed for anything that’s wrong with all things electrical, I figured I’d let her turn on the TV later that night and then mention the power loss incident. Deciding to approach it delicately, I mentioned the loud thunderstorm and worked it into the conversation as a defensive mechanism that might explain a possible power surge. Naturally, we only have one surge protector and it guards our ancient computer with the obsolete Windows Vista Operating System, so it’s feasible that a lightning strike that hit the building might have somehow jolted the TV.

As the 8 O’Clock hour approached and our TV time grew near, Diane switched on the soundbar first and of course it turned on normally as I breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, the TV light that’s supposed to turn green when the power is on started blinking red. Accustomed to rebooting the internet modem, we shut everything and tried again with the same result. Eventually, after a few tries, the TV came on briefly but then died again. Unlike me, Diane is a patient person so after briefly explaining the morning dusting and earlier soundbar incident, I sat quietly while her rational brain tried a multitude of options from bringing the TV to a different outlet to using the manual switches. Rarely admitting defeat, she finally gave in which means it’s understood that I should have already read the troubleshooting section in the manual (I had) and then start Googling the model number for possible solutions. As the “financially cautious” one in the relationship, her role is to constantly remind me that western Canadians didn’t grow up “privileged” like us rich New York people so their solution isn’t simply throw something out and replace it.

American consumers in a nutshell

American consumers in a nutshell

Diligently using my Ipad which still freezes despite the diagnosis from an Apple “Genuis” in Edmonton that they can’t freeze after upgrading an operating system, I found several conversations for the model number centering around blinking red lights. Offering nothing positive, the general consensus was “internal damage” to some part I’d never heard of and the solution was “don’t try to fix unless you’re an expert with xxxxxx” (something else I didn’t understand). Suggesting you call a repair technician, I wondered if there actually was such a profession anymore. Having gone the way of telephone operators and rotary phones, western culture kind of eliminated this vocation by convincing us that modern technology never breaks but in the unlikely event it does, just buy a new one. Convincing a debt strapped population of over-consumers that they need the latest greatest version of whatever instead of fixing an obsolete product wasn’t all that difficult so I didn’t even realize there’s such a thing as “TV repairman”.

img_7018And that’s why Asia is such a fun place. Easily the heart of everything new and modern, the latest technology and airports that make American counterparts look like whatever past decade Trump landed everyone in, it’s also a place where innovation still counts. Despite the beautiful office towers of Shanghai and the modern transit systems in Singapore, here in Penang, only a small part of the population is wealthy enough to call themselves over-consumers. People fix things in small mom and pop stores and sometimes they’re genuinely amusing. When our wall clock stopped working, we walked into a little jack of all trades store near the food court that was so cluttered, we had to step over stuff to find the proprietor. Explaining the problem the anciently old Chinese guy told us come back in a week. Picking it up seven days later, we paid him about 15 Ringgit (less than $3 USD). Soon after, it broke again. So we brought it back again and told him it still didn’t work. Determined to satisfy us or perhaps just due to the lost art of pride in workmanship, he tried frantically but couldn’t figure it out.

Suggesting we leave it again, we almost forgot about it but came back next month and picked it up in working order. And no extra charge. Using another example, my flexible watch band broke and required those stupid little delicate pins that i couldn’t put in if my life depended on it. Passing a small watch store where I could’ve easily found a replacement, the even older Chinese guy asked me what happened and I showed him the watch. Prepared to buy a new one, he motioned me and told me to give it to him. Interrupting what looked like a complicated repair as well as blowing off a few Hokkien Chinese customers, he spent the next twenty minutes with a watchmaker’s microscope and some tools from last century. Lo and behold, he fixed the band and believe it or not, it was free of charge. So I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the prospect of a big screen TV repairman in Southeast Asia.

Thai Consulate in Penang

The Thai Consulate in Penang

With plans to leave our condo later this year and hoping to get as much security deposit money back as possible, we thought it best to text the owner and tell her the TV broke. As one of the items on our “wish list” she bought it a few days before we moved in and we weren’t sure about the protocol of who’s responsible but clearly I had no intention of paying for a repair of something I didn’t own. Switching gears a bit from the nice old Hokkien Chinese guy that won’t even take money for fixing something, the flip side of Penang is standing your ground and not getting taken advantage of. Although our relationship with our condo owner is mostly cordial, more prominent Chinese Malaysians sometimes try to take advantage of foreigners. Initially texting back that we need to fix it, we told her it’s her TV, not ours. Responding with a false statement, she claimed we’re supposed to “have insurance” for her things and further explained that we’re responsible for returning everything in working order.

Irritated how they literally just make things up, we re-read the lease top to bottom and found nothing about maintaining or fixing items provided by the owner so I group texted our property manager and the owner and told them to show me in writing something to back up the owner’s statement. Taking it one step further, Diane then sent a group text explaining that she researched this and found you can’t buy renter’s insurance for something you don’t own. In typical Malaysian fashion, when you show them they’re wrong, they respond by not responding until someone makes the next move. Unwilling to go four months with no TV. we contemplated buying our own and started perusing prices. Realizing the owner would probably not not give us most or all of our two month deposit back with a broken TV, our response would be to simply stop the rent payment for at least the last month if that’s what it came to. Thankfully, Diane also mentioned in her text that the TV should be under warranty and that’s when the owner decided to change her story and help.

The last TV a repairman fixed in America

Possibly realizing she can’t outsmart us with phony rental terms, instead she asked us to visit the store where she bought the TV and ask how much the repair might be. Finally arriving at the part of our story where yesteryear comes into play, check this out. In our world, when a consumer buys something, you’re supposed to fill out the warranty within a short window after purchase date, go online and register it and hope that it might actually be of any use should something break. Even if you did want to fix something big like a TV, odds are you’d have to spend hours on a manufacturer’s customers service line for instructions on how to make a claim, pay for shipping and handling and wait who knows how long for the parts. Expecting help from a sales clerk at Best Buy offer would be like asking Trump voters to use their brains. It simply ain’t gonna happen.

So we arrived at the store and explained the situation to the sales clerk. Unlike anything we’d ever seen, the clerk asked us for the owner’s name and national ID card. Since we didn’t know her ID, we gave him the name but nothing came up so when we texted her back, she responded by giving the name of the person who did buy the TV and their national ID #. Instantly, the transaction from July 10, 2015 popped right up and without even trying to sell us something, the clerk confirmed it was under warranty and didn’t question why it broke. (The owner tried originally to weasel out of paying for repair by telling us lightning strikes weren’t covered). Heading back to his desk, the clerk asked for our contact info, spent three minutes at a computer and told us he reported the item to the factory. No customer service lines, no passing the buck to the manufacturer, no shipping charges. In Asia, nobody has time to skip work and drive to UPS so the system works for the consumer the way it once did in America.

This describes me

This describes me

Being a few days from Chinese New Year, we expected to wait at least three or four weeks before hearing anything because despite being only one-third of the population, the Chinese control everything related to business, supply chain and logistics in Malaysia. And unlike North America with its “money at all costs, never take time off” attitude, nothing happens in Malaysia for at least five to seven straight days around Chinese New Year. That means the Malay markets have mostly old produce, there’s no fresh meat or fish in any supermarket and forget about things like pharmacies, retail mall stores and eating out for a while. So think how surprised we were when the cell phone rang the next day. Out walking, I missed the call but the service guy told Diane “This is Sharp service. Are you home? I’m at the airport and can be there in an hour”.

Are you kidding me? Like a doctor making a house call in 1956, the manufacturer, a multi national large conglomeration billion dollar greedy company, (Sharp) voluntarily sent  an old-fashioned TV repair man to our condo less than 24 hours after reporting a broken TV under warranty at no charge to us.


Sure enough he showed up about 90 minutes later, sat down and went to work. Taking apart the back of the TV like they used to do in my childhood, he removed what looked like a motherboard (actually, I have no idea what it was and that’s the only technical sounding word I know). Screwing in some wires and tweaking some connections, it took about 15 minutes and before I even came back, the TV was good to go. Diane asked him what the problem was but like most working class technicians in Malaysia, their English revolves around a few sentences and so the closest answer we could get was “chip”.

housecallEither way, we signed a form and he was on his way. Except for the cable installation guy and one air conditioning call for routine service, it’s the first time I’ve seen any kind of service call for a small appliance since my childhood days in Brooklyn. Refreshingly strange and almost surreal, Asia never stops surprising us and if your TV breaks in Penang, my advice is resist the North American consumer urge, visit the store where the owner bought it and wait for a blast from the past. Once known as a house call, the good ol’ days are alive and well here in Malaysia where time travel remains viable without a Constitutional Crisis and passports from all countries are perfectly welcome.

Cheers from tolerant Malaysia where there’s no chaos at our airport despite the Muslim population. Comments and refugees always welcome.

1 thought on “The House Call

  1. Rob Culbertson

    Hi guys,
    Loads of laughs for your penetrating observations on lifestyles of middle class Norte Americanos on the ‘Far Side’. As one of your ‘alert readers’ (I think Dave Berry coined that term), I bore down on IHeartRadio which you posed as a favorite cultural artifact from this side of the pond. As a devoted ‘musicologist’ – meaning, I cant play an instrument but have a scrupulous interest in the vibratory world, I was anxious to see if I could relate to your favorite ‘Bay Area’ music feed since I too suffer from music deprivation on my self imposed island of isolation. Plus, I am a Bay Area guy! Meaning to me all things liberal and zen-like or as we used to say -“groovy”!
    Sadly, my search at wikipedia turned up the unsettling realization that IHeart was a spin off or perhaps more precisely the one and same progenitor – the evil right wing “Clear Channel” propaganda chamber/empire! Clear Channel has had as its unstated mission the co-option of vintage American counter culture music (I’m talking completely black listable artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash) – you know the very essential subversives the right wing would like to purge at any given time (especially now!). Instead, you will get a superfluidity of their (our?) supposed “icons” in ‘heavy rotation’ – such as the ‘edgy’ Tommy Petty (who won’t back down…), the very pleasant pop/rock Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater (occasionally), Jim Croce (yeah, he’s still dead) etc. (not Bad People mind you), just very insipid bubblegum ‘muzak’ posing as frothy rock entertainment bent on keeping you and I in our own unconscious consumer oriented bubbles (the real bedrock of Americana some us are still trying to avoid). Am I wrong? Tell me why without getting into the weeds of too many pet musical prejudices. Yeah, I’ve got a few…
    And back to main track, yes the consolation of living in a place where personal service abounds despite the communication handicaps does seem like a place in a far away time and is very heart warming. (Nice shot of the electronics high-tech troubleshooter in bare feet). P.S., I also greatly enjoy your other graphic elements sprinkled through the stories! Do you read the “Tom Tomorrow” comic strips?



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