26 February 2013

Save your marriage, buy a car

There's an episode of Seinfeld I was thinking of yesterday, the one where George is working for a company and they mistakenly think he's handicapped, but when they find out he's not, they do everything they can to try to get him to quit. The whole episode is about the company going through extraordinary lengths to stop him from working. He doesn't quit though, continuing to show up and call his boss every morning, reporting to work.

This week has been a disaster, but rather than not blog, I'm going to ignore the stories I can't tell here, and focus on the stories that I can tell.

I was saying all along that getting a car would be the last big thing we need to make our life here. After weeks of hand-wringing about it, going back and forth to car lots, listening to lines like 'I'm a Muslim, I cannot lie' from a man with a lazy eye, on Friday it became clear: we needed to get this done, and we needed to get this done soon, if the Pihlaja family was going to survive our Malaysian misadventure.

Not having a car in Malaysia is certainly doable: everyone who says you need a car here doesn't think creatively enough. You don't need one, but you would be mad, with a wife and three kids living on the edge of the jungle, not to get one if you can afford it. I am mad, certainly, but also eager to keep the peace as much as I can, so Saturday we set out again, into the heat, to give it a go: another round of bad, expensive used cars, all either out of our price range or in terrible shape.

The Malaysian car industry, which I know more about now then I care to, is highly regulated. The government wants you to buy cheaply made Malaysian cars which are over-priced and glued together, and they tax the hell out of imports, discouraging you from looking at anything else. My neighbour has a 1990 Camry which is now on its second engine and which he is extremely proud of. I was shown a 1997 Honda CRV with 250,000kms on it for RM25,000 (USD$7,500). It's insane, it doesn't make any sense, but this is Malaysia and applying American/British/Japanese rules is even more insane. It is the car economy here: take it or leave it.

I had resolved to get a Malaysian car, accepting my fate and thinking, Well, even if it's a shitty car, at least it has a high resale value, but on Sunday, I got a text about a Hyundai Matrix from a woman in Puchong who we had been introduced to by another neighbour and who was treating me well, she said, because I was a friend of Zachi and Ruby (the girls' 'Big Tummy Uncle' and 'Auntie').

On Monday, I called Letchu, our moustachio'd Indian driver, and asked him to take me to Puchong, something like 30 minutes away with no traffic, but more like 90 minutes at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. I had been to the dealership before with Uncle, but never by myself; Letchu quoted me RM70, which seemed reasonable, and picked me up in a downpour, warning that the traffic would be awful.

Letchu has driven us around for the last month and half, but he and I have never been alone, so we naturally got to chatting. Letchu is 54 (three years younger than my dad) and has 5 kids: eldest being 27 and youngest being 12. His father came to Malaysia to be a rubber tree tapper, but died when Letchu was young. I asked him if they ever went back to India as a family, and Letchu said that he had only been once, that he didn't know where his relatives lived. I knew from other conversations that he had worked other jobs, but he told me that he had gone to Australia for a while as a landscaper when he was younger, living all over the country.

Letchu talked about how Australians changed girlfriends all the time and asked me, after hearing that I had married in Japan, 'Do you have a love marriage?' I laughed, thinking it was a odd question and then realising it was, of course, not, and said, 'Yes, yes: of course.' Letchu laughed too, and I asked him if he wanted his kids to have love marriages. He laughed again, doing the universal hand sign for using a smart phone: 'Now they have Facebook and I think it's good: let them choose.'

We got to the dealership and I asked Letchu if he was going to go or wait and he said, 'No, no, I wait; you go; take your time.' I went inside, and waited while Faizah, the dealer, called for the car to be brought. Faizah's young and Malay, but not in a tudong and her daughter was with her, maybe four or five. The car was brought up by Faizah's gent, and when I saw it, I knew it was the right car. I got in it, and the agent sat in the passenger side and as I pulled out of the dealership, Letchu was standing by his cab, watching me like a father.

The car was, of course, perfect: Faizah assured me it was the best price she could get and I trusted her in a way that I haven't felt like I could trust anyone selling me anything yet. I don't think it was a mistake: she said she would buy the car back when I left. I was riding on the good will of Auntie and Uncle, the kind of people who describing as 'good' is a disservice. They have loved and cared for us like parents: don't worry, Stephen, don't you worry. When we left the UK, I wondered who would replace Big Mummy and Big Daddy, but the three girls, smiling, are good karma magnets: middle-aged women and men can't resist.

Letchu drove me home and we laughed and talked the whole way. We talked about the many-armed elephant god, Genesha, and how Letchu and his wife prayed and prayed when their son had been injured in a bike accident last year and was in the ICU. He survived and Letchu's wife and daughter shaved their heads. The same boy is preparing for A-levels. Is he smart? I asked, and Letchu smiled, I think he's smart.

Letchu let me out of his cab in downtown Kajang and I said thank you again and again: he took my money, but almost reluctantly and I said that although I was happy to have a car and it would be good for my family, I would miss him. He agreed and shook my hand vigorously, promising to invite me and the girls over during the next festival: he wanted to give us food, he said.

I went to the bank, withdrew money and then deposited it in the agent's bank account. I called Yoko and said what I had been waiting two months to say, 'I got a car: the right car, from the right person, for the right price.' I had done right, finally: stopped being cheap and petty, けち the Japanese say, Yoko calls me.

Forgive me, I worry: I am worrying about financial ruin when I shouldn't be. I should have faith, I should just give up and go with it. We're surrounded by people that are taking care of us. Another set of Aunties and Uncles, the Chinese ones, had us over on Saturday and gave me beer and the girls candy while we set off fireworks. I looked at Yoko as we watched the Chinese lion dance in the garden of a rich neighbour's house: how amazing is this, how did we get here. This story makes the narrative sound much better than it is right now. I'm not telling you the truth, just the 5% that I want to remember. The other 95%, I am hoping will be worked out. Japan is calling me again, reminding me that it's safer there, easier there, but I keep resisting it. I have a car now, after all: I'm committed, I'm all in. I'm falling back, believing someone is there to catch me. Now, we just have faith.