I’ve been here a month (which seems impossible; didn’t I just arrive?) and it’s been quite an emotional roller coaster, which I’m learning just seems to be part of my professional personality.
Most of my radio silence is simply busier days with more to-do’s and wanting to fill my free time with as much fun as possible, but part of it is that I didn’t want to pollute my digital presence with negativity— especially since first impressions aren’t always fair or accurate ones. So I figured I’d give things time to fall into a more permanent place before saying anything that couldn’t be taken back. Turns out this was a good call since I can now recount the last few weeks with honesty but objectivity. It’s funny to look back at the snippets I started writing along the way, starting with this post’s title and original first paragraph; these were essentially a flurry of pre-first day panic and an ode to the agency I’ve been obsessed with (and admittedly kind of groupie-worshipped) for so many years. From there my feelings about the office have spanned every stop in between bewilderment to admiration and back again. As I write now, things are getting better all the time. I’m making friends here and feeling more comfortable. As for the things that aren’t always great, I’m learning to just roll with it without frustration ruining the experience. Even my PC dinosaur-of-a-computer’s constant seizures and spasms are starting to be amusing rather than make me fantasize about throwing it on the ground and demolishing it with a baseball bat Office Space style. Progress, huh? But since I’ve been such a blog slacker and most of you don’t know what’s been going on, I’ll just start at the beginning.
My commute in the morning couldn’t be more different. I used to drag myself out of bed, sleepily get ready, then frantically drive the 10 minutes to the office where I barely made it by 9:30 as one of the last to arrive. While my commute now is much longer with a 45 minute average, I actually enjoy it a lot more. The leisurely 10 minute walk from my apartment to the train station is filled with sounds and smells. Tables of food line the pathway, offering all kinds of sweet and savory temptations (and some im not yet openminded enough to be tempted by) that range from coconut crusted doughnuts to whole curried fish. The restaurant up the hill blares music that could be anything from Indian chanting to an 80’s power ballad. The other people walking include Chinese men in suits, Indian women in saris, Muslim women covered from head to toe and with hijab, Malay men carrying brooms made out of twigs, and more. After a 10ish minute train ride I stop by the stand selling fresh coconut and sugar cane juice, where the two women there have already started leaving my to-go cup of coconut water on the counter for me. Then it's downstairs to wait for the bus. When it arrives (there seems to be no schedule; it just kinda shows up after 5-15 minutes) I spend the next 20-35 minutes crammed shoulder to shoulder until arriving at the stop across the street from my office. But particularly during those first two weeks, getting there was one of the only things I enjoyed more about the job. HonestlyI was pretty miserable, to the point of seriously and repeatedly considering quitting and just getting back on the road. Things were sloooooow for me, I was ignored by my boss for most of the day, and just so utterly booooored... none of these things I was remotely used to. Yet somehow I would spend about 6 hours basically just staring at my computer with headphones on and occasionally getting a small task to take up an hour or two, and then miraculously at around 6:30 some giant thing (which I would have a very tedious and bleh role in) would land and I’d be there anywhere from 10pm-2am. Let me tell you, the hours are intense here with an average night being around 9:30 and late considered 1-3am. The work ethic is unbelievable with little complaining among employees. On top of that, I felt like such an outsider and not at all part of a team. Even when a few meatier assignments were tossed my way it was with practically no background information or direction, then followed by almost no feedback once I passed it off. All of this was compounded by the cultural differences (language is rarely an issue unless I start getting too slangy) which actually present themselves more directly in what you can and can't say/show in advertising than they do in my out-of-office life here. But while these can make me feel like a useless idiot, it's always a fascinating lesson and really great way to quickly learn a lot about local culture. One example is that on alcohol brand pages, in the US we have an age gate, which means you have to enter your birthday and affirm that you are 21+. That happens here too, but there is also a box you have to check promising you aren't Muslim, because drinking is illegal (not just frowned upon) if you are. Another is not being able to show armpits in ads (confused me too). And apparently last year, a special religion enforcement police team raided hotels on Valentine’s Day and arrested over 20 Muslims they found 'celebrating; so when it came to a Valentines Day Facebook post and small engagement, I definitely learned just how limited my options were. More overarching contrasts between working here and at home are that almost everything is controlled and monitored by the government, which is all religiously centered. Freedom of speech does not exist in the way we know it. Neither does safety, as all the cops are corrupt, which means you can pretty much buy your way out of everything... or you won't get any help whatsoever if you don't have money. While I haven't experienced it firsthand yet, every single person I talk to makes sure to warn me that this is a very very dangerous and theft filled city-- no taking the bus after dark, no walking alone after dark, even being really careful with cabs after a certain time.
Beyond being insecure, bored, frustrated, sad and kind of annoyed, I was also really lonely-- more than I'd been at any point in my travels so far. At home, work was where I was most comfortable. I had so many close friendships and such freedom, plus always felt so involved and respected. Now the office had gone from feeling like my second home to what seemed like a foreign prison. People were nice once we actually spoke but few made any effort to approach me (I dont think it helped that I was barely introduced to anyone and most had no idea what I was doing there. Combine this with a lack of substantial professional role and I missed my old agency like a lost limb. I spent a lot of time watching feedback discussed at nearby desks, brainstorms happening across the room, people laughing together, and longing so much for my Alcone life I wanted to- and sometimes did- cry. Without getting too whiny, I'll end this melodramatic rant by saying excepting the few times people extended a kind and pitying gesture, I was 150% convinced this entire quit my job-pack up my life-see what else is out there decision had been a huge mistake. Then, change quite literally roared in one day, right as the three week Chinese New Year celebrations came to a close. I was on my way to get coffee (from the stand across the street where they brew the most amazing super strong coffee, cool it down with freshly made soy milk, put in in a plastic bag with ice, tie it with a rubber band and shove a straw through) when this really nice guy grabs my arm and tells me to wait because the Lion Dance will be starting soon. Honestly he could have said the Malaysian space aliens were going to be landing and I would've had a better idea of what he was talking about, but I sat back down and about five minutes later thunderous drumming slowly started reverberating down the hall. This goes on for a few minutes and I'm starting to worry that no one else is hearing it quite as loudly as I am, when this massive red, lion-esque head popped out from around the corner. The whole agency started cheering and getting to their feet, drums still pounding away as the head is followed by a long snakelike body composed of eight people under a silk covering with their lower legs and feet covered in gold tassels. For the next 15 minutes an incredible story was performed in dance, somehow moving around the entire open workspace as they weaved around tables in an elaborate series of synchronized movements. Every few minutes the guy next to me would look over at my agape mouth and crack up, causing others to glance over and begin giggling as well. When the spectacle was over and the dragon lion exited as grandly as it arrived, a girl asked me what I thought. Having no filter, the words "I freakin love Chinese New Year" moronically blurted out of my mouth as I immediately internally cringed. Luckily, it seemed to break the ice as everyone laughed and started asking me questions. Upon earning it was my first CNY some seemed very excited for me to participate in the next portion of the festivities, which occurred about an hour later. Everyone was ushered into the main conference room where the table was laid with four huge bowls of Yusheng— a dish of shredded daikon radish, carrots, red pepper ginger, dried oranges, kefir leaves, peanuts, a kumquat paste-plum sauce-sesame oil-rice wine vinegar-five spice dressing and topped with different types of raw fish and/or squid. It’s a really beautiful dish, but the best part is what happens before eating. Everyone grabs chopsticks and clusters around the bowl before simultaneously diving in, then throwing the food as high in the air as possible while saying their wishes for the next year. It was so fun and I so badly wish I had legitimate pictures of the whole thing, but all I got were some crappy iphone ones. This was all followed by a massive lunch buffet of traditional Chinese New Year foods, which is another reason I wish this holiday would go on forever
I’m not sure if it was that day in particular or just the magic of a New Year, but things were different from there on out. People were suddenly talking to me more, both chatting in a friendly way and seeking me out for certain assignments. I started being asked to join various groups at lunch, rounded up for coffee runs, dragged (very willingly) for drinks after work, and even more recently, invited out on weekends for various activities. When we've been out late during the week there's a rush of offers to drive me home or arrange a cab, plus a few in particular have routinely perked up my sorry hungover self the next morning with coffee and even midday cupcakes. Truthfully I still don’t think I’m getting quite as much out of the work part as I thought/would like but I’m really starting to feel like part of the agency, even if it’s currently taking more of a personal form than a professional one. It’s funny how no matter where you are in the world, advertising people and agencies have so much in common. But of the distinctions I do notice, the biggest and best one is the huge diversity of employees. Like a microcosm of KL itself, the 100ish person office represents various ethnicities in addition to a mix of everyone from the very traditional/religious (who I don’t even feel comfortable saying a minor curse word, like crap, in front of) to the totally modern/progressive (who drink like fish and will talk about almost anything). Just in the people I’m friendliest with so far, there’s:
Marlo- Originally from the Phillipines but has been in Malaysia for five years, he's a big brother type who's kept an eye out for me from day one. His personality is one of those rare blends of being really fun to hang out with but also great at meaningful conversations... but only if you can get ahold of him because he's also one of the most stressed and work focused people I’ve ever met.
Kelsey- KL born and bred with a Chinese father and Indian mother (or maybe it's vice-versa). She’s smart, political, bubbly, sweet, a total blast and with her tattoos and penchance for cocktails, doesn’t seem influenced by any religious restrictions whatsoever.
Rohit- Originally from India, he's also lived in Dehli, Berlin, London and Prague. This guy is incredibly intelligent and culturally savvy. He has a Masters with plans to complete his PhD by the time he’s 30 and a total ‘I hate hipsters even though I kinda am one’ type. Him and I go off on music, art, theater, social and political tangents constantly. Out of everyone I know here, he’s the most befuddled by this city and who I feel most connected with.
Mikaela- Super sweet and adorably funny Chinese girl who occasionally makes dirty jokes and goes out to the bars, but seems mostly pretty innocent. She's very family oriented and going through the same thing with her mother that I've experienced for awhile, which gives us an extra bond.I adore her and never leave one of our conversations without a smile on my face.
Givan- Hilarious and high strung Malay guy who isn’t super hardcore religious, but does follow most of the practices. However, he definitely falls into the new generation Muslim, who doesn’t let his beliefs dictate his entire life and personality. For example, he goes to the Mosque to pray most lunch hours, but also swears like a friggin sailor.
Alaya- Some Malay mix I haven't figured out, but you would never guess theMuslim side if you didn’t know better. She’s a really hard worker, hysterically funny and exceptionally sweet— with a super sarcastic streak and tendency to seek out pork in all forms (plus try to recruit as many others as she can convince).
So… this is getting really long and I haven’t even talked about my non-work life (that’s what I get for a taking a month hiatus from blogging, I guess) so I’ll just wrap it up here with some pics, including a lot of food shots, which I've been very negligent with. More soon!