Monday, April 30, 2007

Hi, I'm a Stereotype!

Before we moved to KL, I felt like I was fairly culturally sensitive. I may not have been the most worldly person, but I was sensitive to other cultures and somewhat aware of how my "Americanism" was perceived by many people outside the U.S. Therefore, I've always strived to combat the perception of the obnoxious, rude American expat at every turn.

That's why it drives me nuts when I act like one.

See, ever since we moved to KL, my number one stress trigger has been shifty cab drivers. Specifically:

1) KL cab drivers essentially get to interview you and decide whether or not they want to take you where you want to go.
2) The meter rate is a foreign concept to them. Some of them "forget" to turn it on, and then some just outright refuse to when you ask them.
3) The reasons for not using the meter vary - "It's raining" is a popular one. In fact, forget getting a cab at all if it's raining, but if you are lucky, you can get one and only be charged double or triple. Other reasons include, "Bad traffic" or "It's Tuesday" (or fill in the blank with whatever day of the week it is).
4) Back to being interviewed...some cabs will drive by the cab stands and ask people where they are going and then pick the one that is going where they want to go or who they think they can charge the most to. It doesn't matter where you are in the queue. Still others will queue up in front of restaurants and smoke while calling out "You need a cab?". Then the negotiation starts and he decides what to charge you. If you say no, then that's fine, he will choose to continue to sit by the side of the road and make no money rather than agree to what we consider to be a reasonable rate (and still more than the meter).
5) Most of them drive like a bat out of hell and some don't even have seat belts, so you are paying a premium price for one crazy ass ride.

This happens to locals as well as expats, however, I feel that it happens to expats more often. In fact, when we are with one of our local friends, she will usually hail the cab for us, just so we can get the meter rate.

Let me say, there are some cab drivers who don't do any of these things. Some of them are very nice people and we keep their cards and try to use them whenever possible. So no hate mail, okay? If someone gives us the meter rate, we usually tip extra because we are so grateful not to be cheated. So if your husband, brother, cousin, etc. is a KL cab driver who goes by the meter, don't yell at me. Send me their number and we'll gladly use them at every turn.

So...we were walking up the street after our spa afternoon and managed to hail a cab. This was good, because it looked like it was about to rain, I had on a white T-shirt and we had no umbrellas. Good so far. He turns on the meter. Good again. We needed him to take us by the grocery store, wait for about 5-10 minutes and then take us home.

Now, cabs have two meter rates, a "driving" rate and a "waiting" rate. The waiting rate is less. We got to the store, and the driver said "Five extra to wait", to which Matt said okay. I love these arbitrary negotiations. I was surprised that Matt said yes, because it would have been less than half that had he gone by the meter rate. We figured that he meant a flat fee of five to wait, RATHER than the waiting meter rate. We got back in the cab, and he had kept the meter going, so he was going to charge us five extra PLUS the meter waiting rate.

Okay, please let me say - This is not about the money. I repeat, this is soooo not about the money. This is about our frustration with the treatment we have gotten from most cab drivers ever since we moved here. This is about the principle of the matter.

So Matt told him (nicely, I might add) that we could go by meter rate or the flat five to wait, but not both. So pick one or the other. I'll spare you the gory details, but this pissed the driver off and things escalated pretty quickly. Much yelling was done by all three of us while we are driving down the road. At one point, he pulled over and we were just going to walk. He told us that we needed to read the taxi laws and that it was just one or two ringgit and did we think they they are all just shit, he always uses the meter (hello?) and on and on it went.

We finally struck a deal, which I think ended up being more than if we had just kept our mouths shut. Yes, I will cut off my nose to spite my face for the principle of a matter almost every time. Not about the money. About the principle. But we finally made it home.

Matt and I realized when we got home that it was really probably a misunderstanding. He thought we agreed to five ringgit PLUS meter waiting rate, and we thought that it was five ringgit instead of the meter waiting rate. So of course we felt like giant American turds who raised hell over two ringgit. But it's the principle!!! I would gladly support an increase of taxi rates throughout KL. I have no problem paying more. As long as everyone pays the same amount for the same journey.

So even though the misunderstanding was due, in part, to the lack of clarity about exactly HOW he was going to screw us over, the fact remain that he was going to screw us over. Still, I can't help but feel like a total obnoxious American expat stereotype. Like America needs any help with being unpopular right now...

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At May 1, 2007 at 5:40 PM , Anonymous said...

You foreigners with your strange foreign ways...


Stop trying to influence us with your yellow, imperialistic cultural norms.

At May 2, 2007 at 10:36 PM , Anonymous jen-i-foo-foo said...

is this guy for real, or do you know him and he is just giving you crap?

At May 2, 2007 at 10:39 PM , Anonymous jen-i-foo-foo said...

and remember: manufactery is not a word.

At May 3, 2007 at 12:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kind Sir,

Are you from the US, or somewhere else?


A Curious Citizen

At May 3, 2007 at 5:57 PM , Blogger trailingspouse said...

I fully understand your frustration and bewilderment, with this whole issue of price structure and tipping. It is so foreign to us westerners. It was finally explained to me in Egypt where the price always depends on who you are and EVERYONE expects a little baksheesh (tip), even the counter clerk at the phone company expected ME to tip HIM for taking MY money!

I was told (by an Egyptian) that because there was no real social security or restribution of income through taxes, they considered it appropriate that a rich person should pay more than a poor person. So a middle class Egyptian paid more than a working class one, a rich Egyptian paid more yet, and of course the expats paid most of all. Same with the tips. It was just a way to be courteous - an additional "thank you".

It still frustrates me when I buy things with no fixed prices. I ALWAYS feel like I'm being ripped off. But I just try to take a deep breath and recognize that the extra I'm paying will go to support someone's family (or at least I hope it does).

Don't beat yourself up, it's something we all struggle with.

PS: Nice blog! You have an interesting place to write about.

At May 5, 2007 at 2:51 PM , Anonymous reese said...

I think trailingspouse makes some good points. It's super frustrating for westerners to understand, especially when there's such inconsistencies, but it's true--there are different expectations depending on how you are perceived.

I know that my own experiences in Malaysia differ when I'm on my own versus when I am with husband and his family. When with the latter, there is a certain 'local' comraderie that occurs and I think we don't get as inflated prices, etc. Also, his mom is a great negotiator. lol.

When I was on my own, I was treated strangely at times. Sometimes I was treated almost rudely (even in high-end stores)--like completely ignored, or in one clothing store, was followed and told with each dress I looked at "don't have in your size." Great customer service there.

The inconsistencies drive me nuts. I hate the bartering, etc. I just want to know what I'm getting myself into and not have that change each time (e.g. with the taxis).

I don't think you're the obnoxious American stereotype at all. It's not like you moved to KL and expected everything to be like it was in the states. The cab situation was really over the top.

At May 5, 2007 at 7:56 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Thanks Trailing Spouse and Reese for your encouragement and understanding. I feel that I typically do okay, but as a chick who is all about the principle of things, I've found that the taxi thing is just the one thing here that "sticks in my craw" sometimes.

I guess what ultimately bothered me about the whole thing is, it may sound funny, but I really do feel like I'm a representative of the US, I'm a guest in another country, and I try to fight stereotypes by (usually) being on my most polite behavior. When things that the taxi incident happen, I feel that I am reinforcing the stereotype and adding a tiny amount of fuel to the anti-American sentiment, when in actuality all I want to do is try to break down stereotypes and generalities - even if it's in my own little way. That being said though, thanks for putting it in the terms of helping to support someone's family. Maybe that's not always the case, but it helps me to think it, so think it I will!


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