03 March 2013

Making big money

Tonight: morality, safety, and affluence.

Big money

Early last month, Naomi had a cavity and, after finding a dentist online, we headed out to walk to the centre of town. As we were walking, a car pulled up, full of Chinese people from our taman offering us a lift. There were already six people in this small car, but it was hot and I said yes. They let us into the front seat and Naomi sat on my lap while everyone else piled into the back. Four adults, four kids: I strapped Naomi in with me and they took us into town. Today, our neighbours took all five of us to Ikea in Damansara. Again: four adults, five children in an SUV, with all the kids in the back. We drove into KL and around and around all day, and I thought only briefly about the safety of the situation. We probably shouldn't do this, I thought: we wouldn't if it was our own car. But we were doing it.

In the US, seatbelts are a kind of moral responsibility, or at least they were when I left and have been every time I go back. Of course, it's illegal to ride in a car without wearing one, but that's sort of beside the point: there is so much moral stigma that you would be shocked to see someone, particularly a child, not wearing one. You would even tell a stranger to strap a child in--you wouldn't feel any shame about it. You would also scold an adult for smoking around a child; you could even be aggressive about it. But you couldn't, of course, scold the parent of an overweight child, tell them, 'Look, you're killing your kid here.' That would be wrong. 

If living abroad has taught me anything, it's that norms about moral behaviour, what's right and wrong, don't withstand shifts in culture. And norms are often tied to economics.
On Monday, I was paid for the first time, but only about 60% of my salary. Eleven percent of the withholding I knew about, but the other 30% was a mystery. Panicked, I e-mailed people all day. Payroll wrote back to explain it: a new policy was instated to tax all new non-Malaysian staff at a rate of 26% for the first six months, before putting them on the resident rate (closer to 10% and likely less given the pile of dependants I have). Don't worry, I was assured, you'll be able to claim it all back in April 2014

This couldn't have happened at a worse time: on Monday I also decided to buy a car. Thoughts of living on nearly 20% less than I was expecting hung over me all week and left me with an uneasy lock box full of cash. What am I doing, I thought, Financial ruin—this is going to destroy us; I shouldn't get a car now. Still, I sucked it up and told myself the story about my career and stability and quality of life: I'm in this for the medium to long term, and if we're going to be here for more than three months, we need a car. I felt the same pain you do when a tattoo artist makes a stroke with the gun. It hurts, but you've made the decision and there's no going back.

On Friday night, when the agent delivered the car, he counted up all the bills on the dining room table, stuffed them in a couple of envelopes, and left. I felt freedom--freedom to have gotten the money out of the house, freedom of having made a choice with no recourse to go back, and freedom to move freely as a family. We got in the car and left almost immediately, coming up to the stoplight on Jalan Semenyih, the four lane highway that makes walking in Kajang impossible and worrying about nothing: not how much the cab would cost, or if we would be able to get a ride home, or if everything we bought at the store would fit in a taxi. We could take our time: we stood in the parking lot and realised we could see the Petronas Towers in the distance. Kuala Lumpur is not that far after all. 

And then Saturday, we woke and left for the morning market near our house, where people smile when you speak Malay and pinch the girls' cheeks. We had breakfast there, sitting on a concrete wall and counting to five in Malay. Then we drove out to the pool, got lost, then swam. Then drove to a festival in Putrajaya that we had happened upon. Then drove to the university for the Japan festival. The new, used car had no problems: nothing fell off along the way. The girls sat quietly in the back, sleeping in the air conditioning and I thought about peace and the possibilities the car allowed us. 

The kids were, of course, strapped in the whole way. Unlike the times in the Malaysians' cars, I controlled the situation and asserted myself with my typical American paternal fascism: sit the hell down and strap in, or this car isn't going anywhere. But as we pulled up next to a motorbike with a husband and wife, and a baby sat between, the thoughts about class, safety, and morality were there again. The only thing really painful about my car purchase was using a bit of my savings. I had the option to get one and I did. Even with 40% out of my salary, I am rich: ridiculously and famously rich. I feel entitled to more money because I am white and educated (goddamned PhD) and I can get so much more if I go somewhere else. But my god: I'm sitting in an air-conditioned car with a permanent job, a golden parachute above me and a golden net below.

How you keep all this in balance, all these different moralities, I have no clue. When you are better off than 96.25% of the people in the world, can you still say, I'm being treated unjustly? It was so much easier to be self-righteous and indignant when the poor people were on the other side of the world. I feel these sudden bursts of sympathy, the desire to completely empty my wallet for a woman begging, but then, at the same time, I see a white couple at Ikea, their American accents grating on me: sure, I bet they can afford to get anything they want. Must be nice. I'm rich or I'm poor, depending whom I looking at. Things were easier when I never thought about this.