Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tidak halal: The other white meat

I constantly tell my Muslim friends that they just don’t know what they’re missing by not eating pork. Bacon, ham, sausage, pepperoni, pork tenderloin… some of my favorite foods involve pork, and I can barely imagine a pizza or a sub sandwich without pork on it in some form or fashion. Here, they have this abominable beef-based pepperoni and it’s like, “Really, why did you even bother? Can I just get a cheese pizza, please?” Some things just shouldn’t be altered from what the food gods intended them to be. Tofu meatless balls and beef pepperoni are on that list.

So a couple of days ago, my housemate ("roommate" here would indicate that you're sharing a room) Jamie and I were wandering around the local Tesco hypermarket, which has become by far my first choice for grocery and household shopping. It’s huge, clean, not massively crowded, and they have a great selection of foods and other goodies. Indonesian-style shrimp chips? Check. Daun pandan and daun salam? (These are herbal leaves that are all but impossible to find in the States and completely impossible to find fresh). Check. Smoked garlic cloves? Check. (And they’re amazing.) Wine shop? Check. An approximation of Javanese palm sugar? They had that, too, and just when I thought I’d have to settle for plain brown sugar in my recipes. So I was like a kid in a candy store as I was going through their huge produce section, but the best surprise was saved for the end. We emerged from an aisle and there, isolated in the corner of the store, was a small shop, set apart behind glass and doors with a massive sign overhead that read “Tidak Halal.” Jamie saw my transfixed gaze and said, “Tidak halal means…” but I cut him off. “I know exactly what it means!” I said in a happy stupor and pushed my trolley hypnotically to the entrance. “Halal” is the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish word “kosher.” It simply means food that’s 100% permissible to eat under Muslim law. “Tidak” is the negative, meaning “no” or “not.” You can put it together. To me, it meant one thing: PORK. I wandered in.

It was a pig’s worst nightmare. Fresh sausage links hanging in the finest German tradition. Bacon. Pork chops. Tenderloins. A deli counter with six kinds of ham, along with mortadella and sopressata. I had already resigned myself after three failed attempts elsewhere to find anything resembling lunch meat that sandwiches were more or less a Western convention and I’d just have to live without them, a sad prospect seeing as how a loaf of fresh bread here costs about 35 cents. So I happily ordered up 300 grams of smoked ham (adapting to metrics will take some time – it’s about 2/3rds of a pound), got a package of sukiyaki (very thin-sliced pork loin that I pan-fry and stir into rice and veggie dishes), and left happy.

No pork and no alcohol. What kind of a religion is this? Ha ha. (Actually, many of the Muslims I know happily ignore the “no alcohol” part.) Cheese is almost prohibitively expensive here (the cheapest I've found is a basic white cheddar at about $9/lb.), but at least now I know I can still have bacon and eggs or a nice ham sandwich when I want them. All is well.

I had a job interview Tuesday afternoon. It was in Damansara Perdana, which is a fair distance from where I am in Bukit Antarabangsa… about 30 minutes by car. Jamie ordered a cab for me, and they picked me up here and delivered me to the IKEA store which is near the school. Apparently, IKEA is a huge landmark here because everyone knows it. It’s a trendy European furniture store – we have them in the States, but I think it’s more prevalent in Europe and Asia. So I wandered around there until it was time for my interview. I just wanted to make sure I got there plenty early. Interestingly, unlike the US, free WiFi is available nearly everywhere you go here -- restaurants, all coffee shops, McDonald's, etc. -- it's been very uncommon for me to open up my laptop and not be able to find a free WiFi signal. So I took my laptop and sat at a Starbucks (yes, they're everywhere) and surfed the web while I waited.

The interview went really well. The center is run by an Irish expatriate and his wife, who is a Chinese Malaysian. One thing I've learned rapidly is the difference between ethnicity and nationality. Malaysian here means nationality only: a citizen of Malaysia. Chinese, on the other hand, can mean a citizen of China, or a person of Chinese descent, so the terms used here are either ethnic Chinese or Chinese Malaysian. The word Malay is used to indicate ethnicity.

So anyway, the three of us talked for awhile, I got a tour of the facility, and they offered me a full-time post teaching there. The pay is not fantastic, but more than enough to live on here. I wouldn't go in until 10 a.m., which is nice because I can avoid the early morning traffic here. There are no benefits, but healthcare here isn't the nightmare that it is in the States. The wife told me she was recently sick and went to the doctor and the entire visit -- office visit, transport, and her prescription -- was under US$20. She said something about a ride or transport, so I guess they fetched her and then took her back home, but I'll need to clarify that. Or maybe she meant it was a house call, which is probably more likely. Malaysia is a developed nation, and healthcare here, although not as advanced as it is in Singapore (which sets the standard for all of SE Asia), is still quite good. So I'm not too fussed about having "no insurance." It's just not the same mentality as back home... you get sick, you go to the doctor. If you get really sick, or injured, you go to the hospital and they'll treat you. There is plenty of time off -- about seven weeks a year built into the schedule, including a nice three-week block in mid-December through early January, and personal/vacation time off as well.

Interestingly, the work visa choice is up to me. I've talked to expat teachers here who have lived and worked here for years without ever getting a work permit. A social visa here in Malaysia is granted on entry for 90 days and, unlike the visas of many countries, work is not specifically prohibited by its terms of issue. So they just work and get paid "under the table," and make "visa runs" every 90 days, typically scooting down to Singapore or up to Thailand and then reentering Malaysia. So you're not breaking any rules, not violating the terms of the social visa, and you're free from paying income tax. The downside for me would be that, although I'd be paid in tax-free cash, I'd still have to figure out a way to get some of it back to my stateside bank account. One option would be to just squirrel money away and then go to a local bank periodically (say, every two months) and give them the cash and do an ACH wire transfer to my US bank account. The charge is fairly minimal -- about US$5 or so. I told the directors at the center that I'd let them know (about accepting their employment offer or not) by the end of the week.

I have also taken advantage of an opportunity to do some tutoring for a Korean student who is trying to get into an international school here. Students have to be at a certain proficiency level in English before they are accepted into these prestigious schools (which have exorbitant tuitions and also happen to be the best paymasters for English teachers), so wealthy Asian families tend to pay quite well to have their kids tutored privately. (Tutoring about five hours a week will pay me more than enough to meet my housing expense here.)

I am going to meet with the student and his father early this evening, and start the lessons. After the kid begins at his new school, I will still stay on as his tutor, meeting with him three times a week. They live in a condo with his dad in KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre, where the Petronas Towers are), which is about 15-20 minutes from me. It seems increasingly apparent that I’m either going to need to move to a place convenient to public transit lines or get a car. KL, unlike most Asian cities, is exceptionally car-dependent. They have a very good public transit system – light rail, a monorail, buses, etc. – but it’s not comprehensive beyond a certain area.

I've also been given a contact at one of the local colleges here in the suburb of Subang Jaya. They're looking for an EFL teacher and since I have a personal contact, it makes it that much easier to get in the door. I'll be calling them today.

Finally, I have a chance to get on board with a “grass-roots” style English learning center headed up by an American woman who has lived here in KL for six years. She has more students than she has teachers to handle them, so I’ll be meeting with her next Monday, but her background is in special education, and I think her students are special-needs kids, which isn't really my strong suit at all, so I seriously doubt I'll pursue that. All the same, though doors continue to open here, and nearly everything is done on a personal basis, it seems. People know someone who knows someone else who is acquainted with a person looking for an English teacher, or something like that. I’ve looked at job sites, but all of these opportunities, as well as the one offer I got from a university here (and didn’t accept), have come from personal contacts.

Next step: Get a car!!


::.. amy d ..:: said...

Lol. I agrre with you on living without non-halal foods and on Tesco. And ya, apparently we have too many to mention races in Malaysia that we just had to classify them with ethnicity, which is sad because I always think that things would be better off if we just name ourselves Malaysian and nothing else. Oh well.

p/s: Interesting life you have. Keep posting. I guess that since I accidentally got to your blog, I'll just continue reading your posts. Cheers!

Chad M. said...

Thanks for the nice comment. Glad you found my blog by accident!