Sympathy and annoyance in equal parts

18 August 2016

I recently spent some time in Kuala Lumpur and used taxis to get around, often taking one cab to go somewhere from the hotel and another to get back. I got very irritated when the fare coming back was double what I had been charged to get there. KL taxi drivers are well-known for their nefarious ways and most have a little towel or cloth that they lower over the meter when a tourist jumps into the car.  However, when they view me as a wealthy Westerner who can afford to pay well over the odds, they are right. Compared to the vast majority of local people and certainly compared to the average taxi driver in Malaysia, I live like royalty. Why then does it irritate me to be overcharged by a poor taxi driver? It’s not as if I go without my evening meal after paying him.

Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, Penguin, 2006) describes this extremely well in her account of a traveller’s experience on arriving at Calcutta’s Dum Dum airport:
“… the distinctive smell of a floor being disinfected with phenyl by a sweeper woman both destitute and with a talent for being exceedingly irritating. Eyes lowered and swatting bare feet with a filthy rag, she introduced some visitors for the first time to that potent mixture of intense sympathy and intense annoyance.”
I often experience both the sympathy and the annoyance in my dealings with people in Malaysia. I get incensed by a shop assistant who completely ignores me, looks blankly at me when I ask a question and takes my money without any attempt at civility. Then I remember that she probably has had very little education, speaks no English and earns only RM250 for a six-day week during which she works 12-hour shifts.

Another situation that has me seething here is the motorcyclist who disobeys every rule of the road – speeding through a red light, pulling out of a side street without so much as a glance to see if there is oncoming traffic, riding the wrong way down a street or parking across the footpath or an entranceway. Worse still are those motorcyclists who do all of the above while transporting children. And then there are the motorists who commit similar traffic offences wearing their own seatbelts while their children are unrestrained and moving around all over the car. One such vehicle lurched into the lane in front of me, narrowly missing the front of my car on the way into a shopping centre, and ended up pulling into the parking next to me. I got out determined to remonstrate with the driver by asking if he was trying to kill his children, but stopped short when I saw him and his family – all small and thin, dressed in cheap clothing – and was undone by a sweet smile from his wife, who got out of the passenger door holding a tiny baby.

At times like these, I think it may be best to either not leave our flat in Ipoh and keep my annoyed self to myself or else return home to New Zealand, where I can get properly annoyed at bad driving or poor customer service without the concomitant stabs of sympathy.