Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Accidental lessons

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 21 November 2012 and LoyarBurok on 11 December 2012.

It was 1991. My classmates and I were punished for being noisy in class. We were told to stand up and remain silent for the rest of the lesson. The silence was deafening until Cikgu stormed towards the back of the classroom and barked, “Why are you smiling?! Is this supposed to be funny?”

Alarmed, we all turned around to find out who had the misfortune of inciting Cikgu’s sudden outburst. It was Lee, the boy who hardly spoke during lessons. If anything could be said about Lee, he stayed away from trouble and wore a pleasant demeanour on his face.

Cikgu repeated her question. This time with greater force. Puzzled, Lee had no choice but to answer, “Err… no. But, but, but is it a crime to smile?”

I was stunned because I didn’t know Lee had it in him to speak up against a figure of authority.

“Ohhhhh… you think you’re so smart, is it? Stand on your chair now!” Cikgu decided to play the power card. They always did when they had no answers to smart questions.

Lee did as he was told and the smile disappeared from his face.

Many of us still remember this incident and Lee will always be remembered as the guy who got punished simply because he smiled.

Recently, when my husband got into a minor fender-bender with a taxi driver, I was reminded of this story. As the article unfolds, I hope it will serve as a cautionary tale for all.

It’ll serve you well to know that if your car has been hit by a vehicle used for carriage of passengers for hire or reward (or what is commonly known as a taxi, rental car, public bus, school bus and factory bus) to be referred to as “public vehicle” hereafter, you are not entitled to make a No-Fault Own Damage (ODN) or Knock-For-Knock (K-F-K) claims, even if you have a police investigation report proving that the other party is at fault.

The only claims you can make are of your own insurance, which will then affect your No Claim Bonus (NCB) or to claim directly from the perpetrator’s insurance, which can be an insurmountable task if the latter is not co-operative.

Now, this is alarming news to me because I did not know, as I suspect many of you don’t either, about this. It got my husband and I very concerned. How and where can we find out more information? Could this be an explanation why taxi and bus drivers drive as recklessly as they do here?

Dissatisfied with my motor insurance company’s response, I’ve since then made multiple enquiries to different insurance companies, the Road Transport Department, the General Insurance Association of Malaysia (PIAM), Bank Negara and even three motor workshops.

The calls and Internet searches I made generated a lot of frustration and failed to answer satisfactorily why public vehicles are exempted from ODN and K-F-K claims. Only one person came up with a direct response (although not necessarily plausible or reliable) in an online public forum.

According to this person, the measure was taken to discourage people from driving private cars. See it as some form of vice tax, if you like. I’m not entirely sure whether this is indeed the rationale behind this ridiculous policy but at least someone offered an opinion other than just re-iterating what has suddenly become an obvious policy.

The Road Transport Department said that they are not responsible for insurance regulation and referred me to the Ministry of Finance. I did not pursue with the latter.

I had to make four telephone calls to obtain a written policy stating the exemption from AXA Affin Malaysia. The first call was answered by someone whose standard response seemed to be “cannot.” Period.

My husband and I have taken to calling these people Ms/Mr Cannot and they seem to dominate the service industry in Malaysia. Before you can even explain what you’re asking for, they’ll tell you with great certainty and conviction that you cannot.

Kurnia Insurans Malaysia and Etiqa Insurance have the same policy on their websites. AIA Malaysia’s telephone operator said that this should not be true but was unable to confirm. She also said that all motor insurance policy should apply across the board because they are being regulated by Bank Negara. When I called Bank Negara, there was no one who could answer my query. They promised to call me back but they haven’t.

Zurich Insurance Malaysia Berhad informed me that they, too, practise the same policy. According to their officer, the policy is a result of an agreement made by all the insurance companies. Although I was disappointed by the answer, I was pleased that they were helpful enough to explain what I could do instead.

“You can claim third party insurance directly from the taxi. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of doing this, some workshops will help you. You just need to obtain the police investigation reports,” she said.

“How do you make a claim directly from the taxi? I don’t have his insurance details?”

The taxi driver had conveniently claimed ignorance when I asked for his insurance details. He said he had to call his company to find out and until today, I haven’t managed to get an answer from him. I was told by several people that this is to be expected.

“I hope you have his registration number. As long as you have it, you can find out from JPJ.”

“Does the workshop charge a fee for this service and if yes, how much?” I asked.

“Yes, I think they charge a fee but I really don’t know how much. What I can do is to give you a contact. You can call them and enquire.”

I called the number and to my great surprise, the lady who answered the phone said they don’t charge anything if I can furnish them with all the relevant documents. If I am unable to do so, they will charge a runner fee of RM150.

I’ve also talked to another workshop recommended by someone else and according to the workshop, as long as I send my car to my insurance panel workshop, I can make a KFK claim.

My insurance panel workshop offered us two solutions: 1) submit a ODN claim but our NCB will be forfeited and our insurance will cover the cost of repair, or 2) submit a third party claim but we’ll have to pay for the NCB adjuster fee and cost of repair first. We may be able to get it reimbursed by the taxi’s insurance later but it is entirely up to the latter’s discretion.

My husband and I haven’t quite decided yet what to do with our car. Although no injuries were inflicted (albeit a huge bruise to our morale), the simple principle of justice remains that we shouldn’t be paying for other people’s mistake. It isn’t just about the cost of repair but the time spent on dealing with it.

In my attempt to find answers, I’ve remained utterly confused and defeated. My French husband has cheekily asked me, “Why didn’t I marry a Swede? Why do you have to be Malaysian? It’s the first time I’ve heard of such stupid policies.”

Just like my friend, Lee, who shouldn’t have smiled, we shouldn’t have rejoiced so quickly with the knowledge that it was someone else’s fault when the accident happened. Just like Lee who asked the question “Is it a crime to smile?” and was then punished without any clear reason whatsoever, we are being punished in a similar fashion.

How safe can you be on the road if the rules do not punish those who inflict damage and injury to others? I can be a responsible and safe driver but it doesn’t protect me against those who aren’t. Something’s clearly wrong and how do we get to the bottom of this?

If you ever encounter an accident with a public vehicle (which I sincerely hope you won’t), it’ll be wise to obtain the vehicle’s insurance information immediately.

Meanwhile, do stay safe on the road.

After this article was posted, I received a private response from an insurance agent, Sandra Shao, who has kindly explained the following.

There are two options in cases like this:

1) File a 3rd party claim. Submit all relevant documents (police investigation report) to the 3rd party insurance. If you do not have the details of the 3rd party’s insurer, you’ll need to run a JPJ search. (If your workshop has experience in dealing with cases like this, they will be able to assist you to run the search). Meantime, you’ll have to pay for all the repair work first.

In the meantime, do hire a Loss Adjustor who will prepare a report on the extent of the damage and he/she will put in a Loss of Use timeframe. Loss of Use is the estimated repair time but does not include any waiting time; i.e. delay in obtaining spare parts, etc. The report will take about seven days depending on various factors.

You can hire a Loss Adjustor directly or through your workshop’s contacts. The fee is based on a schedule. Some may tend to inflate the cost of repair but the Insurer will send a representative to verify the damages claimed.

With this option, your NCB is maintained.

2)  File a Own Damage claim. Bring your car to your panel workshop and your insurance will pay for the damage. However, your NCB will start from 0% again at the time of renewal of your insurance.

Sandra recommends the first option although the procedure is tedious but it’s worth doing as you get to keep your NCB, especially if it’s already at 55%.

According to Sandra, many people choose the easiest way out, with as little inconvenience as possible. Upon discovery that they’ve lost their NCB and asked to pay a higher premium, they often argue that these options were not explained to them. The bottom line is, it is never an easy way to deal with accidents of this nature, but if you handle it properly from the start, it’ll save you from a rude awakening when you renew your insurance.

Sandra provided insights on the different standards applied to insurance claims for private and public vehicles. According to her, they are both assessed separately. Public vehicles are on the road frequently and hence, the possibility of being involved in an accident is higher. This translates to higher risk which prompted insurance companies to deal with them separately. Likewise, the premiums for both types of vehicles are different.

Another difference is that private vehicles are not required to be inspected by PUSPAKOM annually. It’s easier to renew road tax for private vehicles while public vehicles can only renew their road tax with JPJ, only upon certification from PUSPAKOM. The road tax rate also differs.

Sandra cautioned that an accident with a motorcycle is even more complicated.

The drafting of insurance laws in Malaysia follows those in the United Kingdom. So, Malaysia is not unique in having such regulations. She is unsure whether such law has been amended in the United Kingdom.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Global Bersih: Connecting Malaysians Around the World

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 8 June 2012.

When a work engagement required me to be in Washington DC on April 28, I decided to meet some fellow Malaysians who were involved in Global Bersih 3.0: Washington DC for the purpose of writing this article. I wanted to bring their stories home with me.

Exhausted from a full day of an “unconference” and heavily deprived of sleep from an all-nighter of monitoring “live” tweets on the rally, I waited patiently for my company to arrive. They were going to end their march at the Malaysian Kopitiam, a tradition that started on July 9 last year.

I ordered a glass of “teh tarik” but when it arrived at my table, it was just regular hot tea with milk and sugar served on a small cup and saucer. Not the real thing naturally, but authentic Malaysian cuisine was not why I was there.

While waiting for nearly an hour, I kept myself alert by listening to other people’s conversations with my eyes closed, giving the illusion that I wasn’t eavesdropping. It wasn’t difficult at all since I was close to being brain dead.

Two waitresses, presumably Malaysians, were quizzing each other at the bar on what the rally was all about in Cantonese. Although they were speaking under their breath, I could identify the gossipy tones of a hush-hush conversation between two nosey neighbours across the fence.

They ended their conversation abruptly when a party of eight Americans walked in. One of them shrugged her shoulders and before she left hastily to welcome the party, she ended by sighing, “Haiyah. Who really knows? It has nothing to do with us, right?”

Once the loud conversations ensued at the table, I established that the Americans were probably members of a foodie club of some sort. Their leader began to introduce the dishes, which had been pre-ordered because they were all served shortly after they were seated.

The leader insisted that everyone must absolutely try the curry puff and “popiah.” To reinforce her authority, she continued to share her knowledge of Malaysian food culture and how she thought the food in Penang was one of the best she had ever tried in Asia. The rest nodded in sheer admiration of her worldly wisdom.

As soon as the tiny door to the basement of the building, where the modest restaurant is located, opened, a hyped-up small group of young Asians and two Caucasians in bright yellow T-shirts entered. Unmistakably, they were the company I had been expecting. I recognised Kean and Andrea whom I had met a few days ago and I was quickly introduced to the others.

I was happy to see Andrea again. Behind that quiet and shy demeanour, she’s fondly known as “the slayer” at The Hatchet, a student paper at the George Washington University, where she served as senior editor. We had met at a campus bar at the university where she’ll be finishing her journalism degree soon.

Having interned with an online news portal in Malaysia a few months back, she was fully apprised of the political situation in Malaysia. Coming from a country where a permit for peaceful assembly is often required only to provide the police sufficient time to implement regulatory measures aimed at minimising obstructions to public life, rather than to restrict the right to peaceful assembly per se, she said she was shocked that this should happen in Malaysia.

Like Andrea, Mike, also an American, shared the same sentiment that peaceful assembly is a universal right that should be supported. Before being married to the lovely Grace, he said that he was not aware of the political situation in Malaysia at all.

Now, he’s happy to share this cause with his Malaysian wife who looked radiant in an identical Bersih T-shirt, concealing her protruding belly. They’re expecting their first born soon. The couple had travelled more than one hour to be at the march that day.

Grace holds a green card but is unwilling to revoke her citizenship. She’s been catching up on Malaysian news through an online news portal and is obviously concerned about reports on electoral fraud.

She grew up in a politically savvy family in Malaysia and such events are not foreign to her. She certainly didn’t look as if the rally was such a big deal to her as she happily tucked into her fried noodles.

I turned to Lee who was sitting quietly across the table. From her silence, I could sense that she was not too eager to share her “Bersih stories.” This piqued my curiosity even more. After some gentle probing, she confessed that she didn’t want to be visibly seen to support Bersih.

“I just don’t want to get into trouble with the Malaysian embassy, you know. I still rely on them for diplomatic assistance,” she justified herself.

“But why are you here today?” I asked.

She said she attended the march because she was curious but that didn’t eliminate the fear factor for her.

Playing the devil’s advocate, I couldn’t resist asking, “How do you feel though when you see what’s happening today in Malaysia? Hundreds of thousands of people are abandoning their fear to fight for electoral reform. Isn’t that inspirational to you? If they can abandon that fear, why not you?”

She didn’t answer my question immediately. I could see she was weighing my question carefully, possibly not because she didn’t know the answer but how she could respond to me as calmly as possible. Perhaps my question sounded judgmental because when she did finally answer, I could sense tears brimming in her eyes.

I thought I detected a quivering voice when she said, “Malaysians living in Malaysia don’t have to be at the mercy of the government to go on with their livelihood. Not me. I need them to sort out my paperwork here.” A split second later, she quickly added, “I’m living here on my own. What happens if I need the embassy’s help one day? I attend embassy functions occasionally. I know some of the people working there. I, I just don’t want to get into trouble.”

Lee was right. I was being judgmental and as soon as I heard her, I realised that she was conflicted. I thought to myself what kind of a country am I living in when people are afraid of its government even when they are thousands of miles away from it?

“Would you be less fearful if there’s a change in government?” I ventured to ask.

“Yes, yes. I think it would be better,” Lee answered but for now she’s trying her luck to obtain a green card in America.

The conversation soon turned into the green card lottery system, a system that allows 50,000 eligible immigrants to obtain permanent residency annually. Lee then made an announcement that another Malaysian she knows had just recently won the lottery, much to the others’ envy.

Kean changed the conversation by sharing his horror story of the Malaysian consulate in Australia. Married to an Australian, he had gone through hell with the consulate while attempting to sort out the citizenship of his Australian-born child. The consulate had allegedly lost the paperwork and after four years, the process is still pending.

After more than an hour of animated conversation on Lina Joy and what not, I managed to talk to Feng, a post-graduate student, before we left.

“You know, I missed Bersih 1.0. Since then, I told myself I would never miss Bersih 2.0, if it happened again. So, I organised Bersih 2.0 in New York City last year. It was successful and those guys in NYC are really active. They know what to do. Of course, it’s still nothing compared to the students in Australia. They really have guts, courage and passion. More socially active, you know.”

Feng explained that no one from the Bersih Steering Committee had instructed them to start a chapter in New York and Washington DC. It was done independently. The only correspondence ever done with the Bersih Steering Committee was to get the latter to help them with the publicity.

“When [the idea of having a] Global Bersih came up, nobody in the States stepped up. Malaysians who are members of MCA [here] were against it. They said it would tarnish the country’s image. I gave up arguing with them because they wouldn’t listen.”

I asked Feng why those who were present at the march today were mostly of Chinese descent.

“Many Malays are on scholarships. They want to be a part of it but they’re fearful of the repercussions.” He then added quickly: “The same can be asked of Bersih 1.0. Why so few Chinese and Indians? It was mainly the Malays who started Bersih 1.0 but then Bersih 2.0 changed everything. I don’t think it’s valid or fair anymore to ask why only a certain race is fighting for this cause.”

I asked Feng my last question: “Have you ever been asked why you left the country if you love it?”

He laughed at my question and his answer caught me by surprise.

“Who said I love my country? I’m not a patriot. Look at people like Chin Huat and Ambiga. To me, they are the real patriots. They have a choice to leave Malaysia but they didn’t. I’m not a patriot but this seems to be the right thing to do. This is my right and I’m exercising it.”

“And what right is that?” I asked.

“I don’t want other people to fight for me anymore. I want to fight with them. That’s my right.”

Earlier that week, Kean explained that many of the Malaysian diaspora do feel guilty for living abroad. That sense of abandonment does exist. Global Bersih allows them to redeem their guilt by doing something; either by organising a rally, participating in one or simply just to donate money to the cause.

My conversations with my fellow Malaysians in Washington DC taught me something. Being a Malaysian is not necessarily defined by distance, but by spirit and essence. No amount of national ties can be severed if one continues to care about the people whom they’ve left behind and, in their absence, continue to do what they can for the people. For those who’ve asked what have these Malaysians abroad done for the country, perhaps a more valid question to ask is what are the Malaysians in Malaysia doing instead?

Missing out on Bersih 3.0 was totally unplanned. Although I had been critical of the rally’s impact on real electoral reform, I never doubted its tremendous ability to become a national event in the history of the country.

Attending Bersih 2.0 was to me a life-changing experience as a Malaysian. If anything, I felt more Malaysian than any other day that I’ve lived in the country and it gave me a thought — perhaps the younger generation has more difficulty grasping the concept of unity or “Malaysian-ness” as opposed to Malay, Chinese, Indian and “Yang Lain-Lain” is because we never really had to fight for a common purpose together.

Not until then, the fight has always been about who’s getting a bigger piece of the pie and who’s a “pendatang”? Whether or not Bersih has succeeded to achieve its main objectives, I believe that for many, it has taught us a valuable lesson — it’s not always about “them” and “us” but who we are and what we want together as Malaysians. This, unfortunately, is a lesson our education system has sorely failed to impart and uphold.

For those who have constantly upheld the excuse that Bersih has tarnished the country’s image, I urge them to back their statement up with evidence. During the “unconference” I attended, several participants from different countries actually referred to Malaysia as an authoritarian regime. Clearly, it wasn’t the demonstrators who had embarrassed the nation, but what the government is doing to the demonstrators that gave them that impression. Needless to say, I was embarrassed.

When I came home, I gave the only Bersih 3.0 Washington DC T-shirt I could snag up to a friend’s husband who was in Kuantan for work during the rally. I smiled and thought to myself, that’s how connected we all are.


Saturday, April 7, 2012

When will you wake up?

This post was originally published on The Malaysian Insider on 29 March 2012.

As soon as the digital quacking of ducks pierces the morning silence, it’s time to wake up.

It’s 7am on a Saturday and as usual, I wish for another 30 minutes in bed. While doing so, I deprecate myself for staying up late the night before.

As I drag myself into the kitchen to make a strong pot of coffee, I can’t resist asking, “Why did I sign up for this?”

This early morning scene has become a regular affair. It usually starts with a conversation with myself — mainly made up of questions that can only be answered rationally once I hit the shower.

“Surely I deserve a Saturday off?”

“Why can’t someone else do it?”

“I can always call in sick. It’s not a big deal, is it?”

Driving to the rural areas of Hulu Langat on an early morning is always a welcome change of scenery. The air is fresh, the roads are narrow and winding and the landscape green. The real pleasure though is the people; including those I carpool with. It’s a privileged time when we share conversations about ourselves and, inevitably, of politics and human rights.

It’s always difficult in the beginning when the local residents eye us suspiciously. There’s no doubt that we’re not orang tempatan. We dress, speak and behave differently but I secretly think that it’s the jerseys we wear that really ignite the curiosity in them.

With “UndiMsia!” written in bright orange across our chests, the questions we’re often asked are, “You ni dari gomen ke?”, “Apa ni UndiMalaysia?” “You Pakatankah (or replace this with the other coalition party)?”

It never ceases to amuse me that the word “elect” is always linked to political parties.

First order of the day often involves explaining at length what UndiMsia! does. It’s important to dispel any myth that we’re politically aligned. We’re neither the government, Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Rakyat nor any other political parties that are banned or otherwise. We also need to ensure that the people in Hulu Langat understand the objectives of participating in our Laporan Rakyat project.

The reaction we receive from the people invariably ranges from skepticism and fearful to indifference and encouraging. It’s certainly not an easy task to walk into a random restaurant and expect people to score their state assemblyman and member of Parliament’s performances, not especially when most people we have met have no inkling who their elected representatives are.

While some volunteers faced the disappointment of being turned away like a leper, I’ve had very positive experiences with many people. Sure, I’ve had my share of disappointment but in general the locals have been more than friendly, sympathetic and welcoming.

There are times when I receive warm invitations to share a meal or a drink with them. They always insist on paying. It gets difficult by the third cup of teh tarik that is often never kurang manis but a gracious acceptance is always the courteous thing to do.

There was an occasion when I approached two young women in a mamak restaurant during lunch time. After giving my customary greeting and explanation of the project, they turned down my invitation to conduct the survey on them. It was noon and I was desperate to achieve my quota for the day. They were hungry and couldn’t wait to dig into their lunches that were turning cold on the table.

I resorted to appeal to their sympathy. I told them that I would get into serious trouble with my employer if I didn’t achieve my quota for that day. Their tone of voice softened immediately and they invited me to sit on the table with them. “OK, we’ll answer but please, first order something to eat. It’s lunch time. You must be hungry. We eat together and you can ask us the questions.”

We had the most interesting conversation that day. It was beyond politics and governance. I learned that they have been friends since primary school and they’re renting a house together. According to one of them, they have been inseparable since they’ve known each other.

On another occasion, I had approached a table with five elderly men sharing a drink and banter together. One of them stopped me in mid-sentence, “Amoi, you boleh cakap Melayu atau Cina kah?” Having identified him as of Chinese descent, I informed him that I am able to speak Melayu and Hokkien. He then proceeded to speak in Mandarin and in a childish fashion, nudged the man sitting next to him and said in Malay, “Ahhh… ini Melayu ya. Nampak itu kulit hitam sikit.” They all burst out laughing.

Feeling encouraged, the same man pointed to

another elderly man sitting at the front and said in Mandarin, “He’s an indigenous person living far from here. Eighty-years-old already!” The man flashed me an infectious toothless grin.

As I talked to them in broken Malay and Mandarin, I learned that they’ve all grown up together in this small village.

In answering the first question I ask myself in the morning, these are the motivations that help me leave the comfort of my bed on a Saturday morning. It always ends on a high note.

A few weeks ago when news reached us that a flood had hit Hulu Langat, a team of volunteers led a small relief operation to help some of the victims. Some of the locals have expressed their disappointment at how help has been mobilised too slowly by their local leaders. Many also lamented that nothing much has been done to prevent the flood from recurring from year to year. Another common grievance we heard was how aid from a certain political party has only reached those who support the said party.

The disaster that hit Hulu Langat has reinforced the key messages that UndiMsia! is trying to impart; good governance and citizen actions on housing issues, amongst other things.

On March 31, UndiMsia! is launching a photo competition and exhibition in Hulu Langat. Photographs taken by local youths and some of our volunteers will be exhibited. It is hoped that this humble event will draw the local leaders and community together to discuss housing issues affecting the people in Hulu Langat.

Those who have volunteered for the Laporan Rakyat project will share the sentiments of UndiMsia! There’s much to be done in terms of civic education. More than half of the youths of voting age I’ve met do not know who their elected representatives are or what they’ve done for their community. Even fewer know what they can do as a citizen to improve their lives.

When do you think we, as Malaysians, will finally wake up from our deep slumber?

For more information on UndiMsia!’s Hangatkan Langat! Photo Competition and Exhibition, please click here and for other UndiMsia! projects, please click here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Public Bath 101

This article was originally published on The Malaysian Insider on 12 February 2012.

Japan was not at the top of my “must-see” list but when I found cheap tickets to Tokyo recently, my friend Sally and I put together a travel plan quickly. In addition to a long list of temples, shrines, Zen gardens, ramen restaurants and eccentric Tokyoite cultural scenes, we were told that a visit to the onsen (public bath) was essential. 

When planning our itinerary, I was happy to take charge of the places to see in Tokyo while Sally did Kyoto. I was unfazed by the idea of entering a sleazy sex shop, checking in a love hotel or slotting coins into a used-schoolgirl-panties vending machine (which by the way, has been outlawed by the local authorities) but the idea of being naked in front of a bunch of people and in particular, Sally, freaked me out completely. 

I was reminded of what Mom used to say, “I can’t understand these Japanese. They’re so polite, modest and conservative and yet they’re unashamed of taking a bath together.”  (Mom obviously didn’t know that the concept of bathing in private only began in the 16th century.) Mom’s prudishness came as no surprise as she saw to it that even the woman who gave birth to me should not see me naked past the age of puberty. 

So naturally, I had many questions to ask when Sally’s Japanese friend, Rei, wrote, “It’s definitely worth parading in your birthday suit after a long walk in chilly Kyoto” in her email from Tokyo. 

Priding myself as a curious and adventurous traveller, I vowed that I would give it a go even if I had to exhibit all the insecurities I have about my body. In order to be mentally prepared, I decided that I had to do some homework about this. I talked to a friend who had been to an onsen in Hakone and she gave the same assurance as Rei that I would get past the initial shyness once I got into the hot bath. 

Rei gave us a quick run-through on the basics of bathing etiquette when we met up in Tokyo. All she said was not to stare at the other women (and men, if it’s a mixed onsen), not to immerse our heads beneath the water and not to have any item of clothing on us. Our guidebook also said that we should be seen washing and scrubbing ourselves furiously at the communal shower area before entering the bath. This would reassure fellow bathers of our cleanliness. 

Would the whole place be fogged up by steam and hence help to blur one’s vision? No, not really it seems. 

Could I bring along a towel with me? Yes, I could but the towel must remain out of the water at all times and even then, it is usually the size of a “Good Morning” towel. 

The 101 tutorial didn’t answer the rest of the burning questions I had. For example, I wanted to find out whether we would have our own individual changing room. If yes, how far would the changing room be from the locker and how far would the locker be from the actual bath? I needed to know how much of walking in the nude I would be doing. 

Right, so I knew more about how to behave in an onsen and frankly not so much about what to expect since one onsen apparently differs from another, there was still the issue of getting past being naked in front of Sally. I knew we had to hatch a plan quickly. 

Sally generally indulged my paranoia (borderline obsession) but any saint would have lost it when I gently suggested that she should not wear her contact lens. She screamed and accused me of being crazy. She claimed that without them, she could potentially trip and fall flat on the floor. She said the idea was for us to keep a low profile, not to draw attention. I guess she had a point there. 

We finally agreed that I would enter the onsen 10 minutes ahead of her. This would allow me time to hide away from her. 

Just when I thought I had everything covered, we had to abandon our plan because the actual event went like this: 

When the automatic sliding door opened at the entrance of the women’s onsen, the first thing we saw was a group of women changing in front of two rows of back-to-back lockers situated right in the middle of the entrance. It took a split second for me to realise that there was not going to be any changing room, and that there was a whole lot of nakedness in one small space. 

Sally and I were forced to undress next to each other since our lockers were side by side. While I was still strategising on what to do next, Sally unilaterally decided that she would be the first to go. While she stripped, I pretended as if I had never seen a locker in my entire life. It suddenly became the most interesting thing in the world. I stared and fiddled with it until I heard Sally’s voice signalling her departure. 

I think it probably took me about 10 minutes to take off the layers and layers of winter clothing on me. I prayed that I would never end up in jail because this must be how the inmates wash and change every day. 

What went through my mind as I walked to the bathing area, while clinging onto my rented Good Morning-sized towel for the price of 260 yen (about RM10) was, “Just follow what she’s doing.” And so, I followed whoever was in front of me and mirrored every action she took. 

Not staring became a non-option as I had to look in order to follow. When the woman finally walked towards one of the tubs, I stepped quickly into the closest one. I felt an instant relief when my body sunk into the bubbling water; all private parts finally concealed. 

The woman sitting next to me was watching a programme in Japanese on a flat-screen TV by the tub with one knee up. Those who came in with a towel had them folded neatly and placed on top of their heads. 

I followed like a good student and in the course of doing so, I discovered to my horror that Sally was soaking in the same tub just a few feet away. I caught her turning her head away as soon as I looked at her. We pretended as if we didn’t know each other for the rest of our remaining time at the onsen. 

I spent about an hour just surreptitiously watching the women around me. Honestly, there was really nothing else to do but watch and I swore that the other women reciprocated as well. 

It felt like being in a crowded train where fully-clothed people are forced to sit or stand close to each other. There is eye contact and some sort of tacit acknowledgment of each other’s existence but yet you don’t speak to each other. 

Of course, those who came together bar Sally and I, were seen interacting comfortably. Mothers were scrubbing their young daughters and friends or possibly sisters, chatting as if it was just a regular spa day together. 

After an hour, I felt dizzy. The digital thermometer on the wall showed 43 degrees Celsius. By then, Sally had already left. I was ready to check out the al fresco bath. 

It was at the outdoor area when I finally enjoyed the bath. There was nothing more wonderful and soothing than feeling the fresh cold air on my face and being delightfully warm throughout the rest of my body. I could easily live in the bath for the rest of my life. 

I watched an old woman lying flat on the stone floor just a couple of feet away. She poured the highly therapeutic hot spring water all over her body with a plastic scoop over and over again. 

There were girls and women from different ages, shapes and sizes (but only one skin tone) entering and leaving the outdoor bath area. By then, I was comfortable enough to sit up and let the cold air caress my upper body. The show was over. It was time to kick back and enjoy. 

I left Japan with the onsen as my second most favourite highlight. For just 1000 yen (RM40), it was the best spa experience I have ever had and would never hesitate to try it again. And if anyone asks, a Brazilian wax is not needed at all.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

How to kill a guilinggao?

During lunch one day, my French husband, V, and I dined at one of his favourite duck restaurants in Bangsar. After finishing our meals, I requested to have dessert. He politely declined after scanning through the dessert menu, which is often rare for his sweet tooth.

Despite living in Malaysia for a considerable amount of time, V is still unable to get past the idea of eating local desserts. To his unaccustomed French palate, the ais kacang, red bean soup, cendol, sago gula melaka, etc. are not what he would categorise as dessert.

As French, he has a whole list of rules about dessert. Shaved ice is what children eat out of natural snow during the winter. Legumes of any sorts are meant for savoury stew or soup. Don’t even get him started on cheese cake, which is not typically Malaysian but nevertheless very popular here. According to him, cheese is meant to be smelly and dessert in essence, should never ever be made out of something that could potentially smell like athlete’s foot.

So when I ordered the guilinggao, V was naturally curious.

I described to him that guilinggao is a dessert made out of black jelly and is eaten cold. It has a bitter taste and that’s why it’s accompanied with honey and longan. I explained that the combination of bitterness and sweetness is rather interesting and tasty.

He looked at me with a confused and bewildered look.

To further convince him, I went on to explain the nutritious properties of the guilinggao and how it benefits the skin and health. I thought when I said it also serves as a natural cooling system for the body, it would win him over since he complains about the heat all the time.

He gave me a sheepish smile and a mocking “hmmmm” when I finished explaining.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

"No, it’s interesting.”

“What’s interesting?” I asked again.

“Well, it’s interesting because in France, a dessert is usually sinful. You know, sugary, rich, creamy, sweet, fattening and if I may also add, appealing to the eyes. The colour, texture, shape, smell. They are all designed to entice you,” he said.

He paused and declared, “What you’ve just described to me is not dessert. It’s medicine. Black? Bitter?” *Snort*

When my “dessert” finally arrived, it didn’t look as appetising anymore.