Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Taking Lumps in Kuala Lumpur

I can finally say that I've worked for Donald Trump! No, I didn't get a job working for the Trump organization or for the US Government - I've just had a boss who is equally as narcissistic and attention deficit. I should back up, I suppose.

This is not going to be a happy post.

In order to change up my little travel routine, I decided to sign up for Workaway while in Bangkok. I found a person in Kuala Lumpur who was willing to host me in exchange for twenty hours of my labor a week. Since it was physical stuff (painting, scraping, assembly), I figured I could work two tens or three sevens and have the rest of a week to go and explore - what's it matter when I work, as long as I get the jobs done? I also hoped that it would give me a different perspective, closer to staying with a friend and doing their dishes than staying in a hostel or hotel.

I'll note here that Workaway has all sorts of different arrangements - the standard trade seems to be twenty hours for a bed and one meal. I suspect when people get more reviews / have talents that are deemed more "valuable" they can ask for different deals. Similarly, hosts can change what they're offering depending on how well they're reviewed and how sought-after the position seems. One of the ones I was hoping for was filling sandbags on a beach - as long as X number were filled, I could stay in their beach bungalow and get a meal with the family.

My first host, Joanne, was (is!) absolutely delightful to hang out with. Our first few days she showed me around, bought me a few meals, and generally took care of me. In exchange, I wasn't really "counting" hours - just working on a task until I felt like I was at a stopping point. I'm not traveling the world in order to fill out a timesheet or show up at nine am or any of that bullshit. I did my work, made sure that I was making progress, and kind-of eyeballed the time ("I know I started before eleven and it's six thirty now, so let's call it seven hours").

My timeline is a little wonky, so I forget when which weeks I was doing what. At some point in the first half of the month I explored around the Petronas Twin Towers and saw the National Museum and stuff. In the second half I wandered around Chinatown (Petaling Street) and actually went on a date (figured why not give it a shot!). A lot of my time was just spent relaxing in the house and, you know, just being happy. There was cheap food around the corner and I had downloaded a lot of books.

Things soured a bit on the second weekend (I think it was the second weekend) when I was asked if I wanted to change things up a bit - a person I had been introduced to (KC) on one of Joanne's group meals ran a hostel / hotel / guesthouse and wanted to know if I wanted to "help out". I asked for details, but these seemed in short supply, which should have clued me in to what was going to happen. But the goal is to see the world, so why not have a long weekend (Friday to Monday) someplace that isn't my host's spot?

The Friday that I showed up, I got my instructions, and met the other two Workaway folks who were at the house. There was going to be an event on Saturday (what I was there to "help out" with) so we needed to clean a bit beforehand. We spent not less than four hours cleaning, scrubbing, mopping, doing dishes, etc - I don't know the exact time as, again, I wasn't counting. It didn't really make sense to go exploring, so we grabbed dinner nearby.

Saturday we were informed that we had to do basically everything again. It's not as if things were dirty - it was just busy work. We had a lunch break and a nap, then all the event stuff started. Preparing tables, setting things up, making sure the cook had everything, running meals, then breaking it all down and cleaning the whole house again. All the stuff caterers have to deal with. As a bonus, the bosses had no idea how to run the event, so I had to organize, plan, and coordinate things so it wasn't an absolute mess (the stupid shit bad bosses never think about - e.g. KC didn't understand that if the tables are touching both walls of a room no one's going to be able to get past, let alone sit down). When the clock hit midnight and we still had shit to get done, well, I wasn't super happy. I worked not less than eleven hours that day - my "reward" was dinner.

The other two Workaway people were told they had the next few days off by a couple of the bosses. As I wasn't under them (again, I'm working for Joanne, who has lent me to the house / KC), I wasn't given direct notes, but figured "hey, my agreement is for 20 hours for seven days - 15 hours for four means I'm in the clear to go explore". You've probably picked up on what happened on Sunday - I received instructions from KC to get to work - this time to uproot and replant an eight foot tree. As a bonus, there was a music video being shot in the house, so any work that I would have to do would involve me working around them (oh, and the crew kept asking me for help with stuff that the owners should have been there to do / tell them about).

Of course, I'm the asshole for saying "no" to KC - apparently I saying I wanted to "help out" meant I wanted to stay in the house and do every task they assigned for the whole four days. As a note, this was a for-profit organization - not an individual like Joanne who just needed a handyman. The bed I stayed in was listed on their website at $5-10 a night, depending on the season (and us Workaway folks were the only ones staying in the whole six? bedroom place). I'd been invited to a birthday party on Sunday evening and used that as an excuse to pack my bag and head back to Joanne's afterward.

The mood had shifted back at Joanne's place as several things had conspired against a working relationship on her end. Seeing me refuse the work at the other place, plus a fight with her parents, plus some employment issues had put a lot of stress on her that got taken out on me. I was now to work 9am to 1pm five days a week. So, having completed well over 20 hours the previous week, plus over 15 on the weekend, I get stuck with: having to set an alarm clock, having set hours, and a stressed relationship? Well, if someone wants me to count hours, I can count hours.

Instead of working extra and making sure the task was the priority, I counted. I did nothing related to what needed to be done until 9am, when I texted that I was starting. Then, if I was painting, I started laying out the newspaper, taping up the wall, and stirring the paint - other tasks received similar treatment. When noon rolled around, well, I've made a bit of a mess - I had better clean it all up! Everything got done, I did good work (I'm someone who takes pride in doing good work), and my end of the bargain held up - I worked exactly twenty hours every week and not a minute more.

Let me underscore that Joanne was kind and honest, just stressed. I stand by the work I did in her house and would have gladly done more had I been free to choose my days and times (as I had in the beginning).

In the midst of this, I wanted to find a new spot. I liked Malaysia and KL and wanted to see more, despite these little things. A friend I met through Joanne (Ching Ching) said she could use a handyman and maybe a little help at her nonprofit. She took me for a hike with her daughter and four interns and I saw her house (indeed, fixing a cabinet door on the spot) and office. What I should have picked up on was the fact that her interns (and the past interns and workawayers) all despised her. It was never blatant though, so I didn't catch it.

Joanne warned me before I left her house about an experience with a workawayer who took this same path, but everything was a bit jumbled - he seemed to have his own personal trouble. I'm me! I like to think that I get along well with most folks. I'll give it a shot. She's promised me a room and three meals and agreed with me that it was dumb to count hours - I should just help a bit more since she's providing meals. Easy peasy - three eights or something? No problem!

The first weekend was great! I fixed little things and tried to make her house a better place, generally. There were a couple parties and home cooking and all the good stuff. I even footed the bill for some repair work (about $10 got me a tap, caulk, a caulk gun, and a few other things) and a round of drinks for her and the interns (at a pricier bar). At some point, however, the nice, easy-going (if talkative) Ching Ching was replaced by Donald Trump. Any mistake, real or imagined, became the basis of a thirty minute (minimum) lecture. I'm cheating her. I'm lying to her. I'm not grateful to her for letting me stay in her house and letting me eat her food. And no one is allowed to waste her time - though she doesn't care one whit about wasting yours. She didn't want me counting hours: she wanted me to show up at her nonprofit's office at 9am and work until she left, usually 7 or 8pm.

I was in pretty bad shape emotionally after nine days of this - even sent out a few drunk texts while trying not to cry at a nearby bar. I had two pretty major hurdles I had to mentally overcome. First, I'd done a bad job of fixing a tap. It wasn't my fault - the socket was installed weird - but it was not work I was proud of, which bummed me out. Of course, my failure in that area has made an appearance in every conversation for the whole week - I've either done it on purpose, I've made her buy an expensive part (again, part of the $10 I didn't charge her for), or I was delaying fixing it because I was ungrateful. The second major hurdle is that she runs a nonprofit that is poised to do some really good work that can affect hundreds of people's lives directly and work to mitigate some environmental damage (really - she has a seemingly effective communications tool to help indigenous people collectively fight for their rights and their land in Borneo, which could well lead to the regrowth of one of the largest rainforests in the world). Regardless of her as a person, a grant to make this happen could help a lot of folks!

On the first issue, I decided to take the loss. I gave it another attempt and it's "good enough" - I wish I could do it better, but I'm just not a plumber. The second issue was a little easier to swallow: I realized that if she got the grant for which I was doing the application, she'd be in charge of the project. She can't organize a sock drawer - why in the world should I bend backwards to help her if she's going to waste money that could be better used through another nonprofit. So, I've started counting hours again.

The thing with working for Donald Trump is that she doesn't have more than a five minute attention span. I'll suggest something or get her talking about something and suddenly it's lunchtime or dinnertime. I'll write a draft of something and "wait for her feedback" which will never come because she won't read anything she didn't write (she hasn't even read the instructions for the grant application. She picked one word in the title and decided that the grant was to pay for "governance", despite anything I tried to tell her when I actually gave a shit). She also has no idea how long things take.

Here's my current trade-off: I get three meals a day on the days I work and a bed in her house. In exchange, I do about two hours of work a day, though I have to stay at a desk and listen to her lectures. I'm still proud of my work - I might use the concept paper I've written as part of a work portfolio in the future - I just do less of it.

  • I spent less than two hours chopping up audio for an instructional video. Ching Ching said it took the last intern something like two weeks to get this done. She was surprised it only took me a whole day (reddit and a stupid personal project [mp3] were the other hours). As a reminder, even though I saved her nine work days, I'm the ungrateful one.
  • When her daughter came in and showed me how she wanted to polish the audio files so they synched up with some prerecorded video, I took another hour or so to do that. Erm, I mean day. Assuming the same ratio (one hour of my audio/visual work is equal to five work days of interns), I saved Ching Ching another four days. Again, I'm the ungrateful one.
  • I wrote the concept paper she doesn't need for the grant I hope she doesn't get in four hours. I gave half of it to her yesterday and spent the remainder of my time typing on personal projects. I'll give the other half to her at the end of today and am currently at... 2,285 words on this blog post (don't bother actually checking - I need to go back and edit stuff) [edit: ~3,650 by the time I'm hitting "Publish" - might add a few stories before it goes live].
    • She's started to read the concept paper (I gave her half on Tuesday and half on Wednesday so she could review it on Thursday and send it out on Friday. It's Saturday). She is angrily confused after four hundred words - the first three hundred or so were an introduction / summary (one paragraph on challenges, one on the proposed solution) of the whole paper and the next section (challenges, 996 words) starts "repeating" what was laid out in the introduction. I don't think she's even scrolled down to see the final section (proposal, 712 words) yet.
    • Bonus: she keeps harping on the fact that this paper can only be five pages and that I've written too much. I wrote four pages in Calibri 12pt (about 2,000 words). The proposal's five page limit is specifically supposed to be Arial 10pt - that's, what, over 4,000 words? Yes, I intentionally set the font wrong - she's not ever going to read those instructions.
      • "does not exceed 5 pages (A4 size) of Arial 10 characters with 2 cm margins, single line spacing; provides the information requested under the headings below, in the order requested, and in proportion to its relative importance"
    • Another update: she hates it. She wanted me to include all her thrown at the wall bullshit in the thing and thinks I've made it too repetitive (e.g. when I mention something in the "challenge" section, I repeat how it's going to be addressed in the "proposal" section).
    • Another update: apparently it's too wordy (again: ~2,000 words). Her partner NPOs are dealing with life and death issues here and they don't have time to read that much. God forbid she ever talks to them for two hours straight like she did to me at lunch (about how China is the best and the US/EU are too concerned with human rights to actually accomplish anything).
  • When manual work is assigned (e.g. caulking holes), I just ask her to make sure I'm doing it right / it looks good. Instead of letting me work, she'll go off on one of her long rants about whatever's on her mind while I just nod along.
  • This morning I didn't hear my alarm and didn't come in until after noon. It's hard to hear an alarm you don't set. Bonus level: I've been mentioning how tired I am for a week now because, well, I'm really tired.

I'm sure I'll have more examples as I stick out the next few days. I'm going to leave on Monday and head to a hotel or hostel - after which I get to meet up with RC, who's flying over from the US. Until then, how about a bag of mixed nuts:

  • KC, the hostel/hotel/house owner from earlier is a super closeted gay man (or, at least, all the non-Malaysian people I've met think so). This would have been less obvious if he didn't start every conversation with a new person making fun of or deriding gay people to see how the new person reacted. This is the only non-Ching Ching entry.
    • He's also a bit of a racist (I'm getting a sense that casual racism is pretty prevalent here) and big into believing conspiracy theories, which is a prominent part of any conversation with him. Or, you know, how terrible America is.
    • Despite enjoying dominating conversations, I saw KC at the birthday party after I objected to doing more work and he didn't speak a single word to anyone for two or so hours due, I suspect, to his bruised ego (quoth a friend: oh shit he's salty!).
  • Ching Ching, in Donald Trump mode, doesn't like to attribute whatever mean or untrue thing she's thinking to herself. Instead, she'll tell you that:
    • "X heard your air conditioning running all night." (note: it wasn't)
    • "Y complained to me that you take an hour to drink coffee." (wut?)
    • "Z told me I should stop trusting people so much." (she never started)
  • I mentioned early on that my decision to stay with her wasn't motivated by money - I could easily get a room in a hostel for $5/night and limit myself to $5/day in food (both very true - it's super cheap here) - rather I wanted to help and rest and see Kuala Lumpur from a non-tourist perspective! Unfortunately, that's too many words for her - she heard the $5 figures and decided I was, well, ungrateful to think she could be replaced by a hostel because she was letting me see Kuala Lumpur from a non-tourist perspective.
    • I'm definitely getting the non-tourist perspective here though, stuck going to an office nearly every day, where I sit until she lets me out. I don't have a key and they keep the door locked (I know where the key is, but that's not the point).
    • As part of one of these rants, she brought up that she's been taking me to restaurants that cost $12-$20 a person and she's been really treating me every meal. One day I was given a potato - a literal single potato - for breakfast. That's not to mention I can read the posted menus (written in English!) and see we're going to the same $2-$5 places I would have chosen.
  • Part of the non-tourist perspective was to go help and film an organic farmer out in the exurbs. Guess what she kept having trouble "organizing" - the effusive "apologies" ("it's so hard to plan around your schedule!" - my schedule was "do whatever she says") got so annoying I "agreed" with her that it must be so hard to plan, so maybe it would be better if I stayed in the office (and wrote things like this).
  • Once, some time ago, she came across some racist Spaniards. She showed me their messages about the white race being the best and stuff. She's extremely hurt that they called Malaysia a "shit hole". This is brought up every other day.
    • Totally unrelated, every time she mentions China as an example of something, she starts telling me about how degenerate the US is and how Asia (China) is on the rise. I mean, I have issues with the US. Lots of issues. Don't pretend that makes it okay to shit talk a someone's home country. This is also brought up every other day.
    • Racism bonus round: Malaysia has this whole thing where Muslims and ethnic Malays, who make up the majority of the population (people of Chinese and Indian descent round things out), are provided with government benefits (at least this is what I am led to believe). This is brought up at least once a day.
  • Her four recent interns all have two or three stories attached to each of them. Usually regarding food, how violent their cultures are, and what terrible workers they are. Maybe someday I'll get to hear the two or three stories about me.
    • Oh, remember how I said this was a Workaway? She doesn't have a Workaway account anymore, so I'm not even going to get a review... not that I want one now that I know.
  • She is constantly surprised that I like food. Also surprised that I like spicy food. We're talking almost every meal.
  • I tried a new tactic of just looking as absolutely defeated as I could when she tried to pull another modification of my schedule on me. To this she responded: "If you don't want to help, you can always say no." I'll take sitting and writing my own stuff to taking the verbal abuse any day of the week.
    • She then tried to bribe me with a nice, expensive meal if I came in and worked on one of the few off days I negotiated. If I wanted to exchange labor for money / nice things, I would have (1) stayed in Philadelphia and (2) worked for someplace that paid me more than a non-profit.
  • She keeps talking about how it's important to come and see a place for a few weeks or months and how I shouldn't go, take pictures, and get on the next plane. You've (hopefully) been reading this blog. While Canada was a bit of a whirlwind, do you get the sense that I'm hopping in and out of cities? I've been in Kuala Lumpur for six weeks now and was in Bangkok for three.
  • The issue of me sleeping in has come up several times over the past few hours (it's a daily thing, but the frequency increased recently). I quit an absolutely wonderful job because I wanted to spend a few years where setting an alarm was an exception - just a nice, natural wake-up whenever possible. Of course, this means I'm lazy.
  • A big part of her life story is that she promotes "work-life balance". This is part of every website, document, and banner one might come across. As with Donald Trump, it's almost like she does the opposite of whatever she says - demanding long hours from her subordinates, demanding they join her in whatever "relaxing" activity she thinks isn't work because they're not sitting in front of a computer (and, of course, if you prefer to relax with a book, podcasts, or something she doesn't understand, that can't possibly be a valid form of finding balance), and demanding your attention whenever she's speaking to you about one of the dozen topics she repeats ad nauseum
    • Which reminds me, I should use some of my time to write a Meditations-style life story. Maybe on my other blog. Hoss has been using it for autobiographical stuff, so maybe I should too.
  • When I agreed to work for her, she told me she "just didn't know how to do handyman stuff around the house", which I thought was fine. It turns out she knows literally everything - or at least you'd think so, because when I get one minute into starting a project she will start barking orders at me. Writing, plumbing, electrical - hell, even cutting a branch off a tree. It's weird that she's such an expert on all of these things when she doesn't have any of the correct tools in her house.
Alright, I'm setting this post to go up on Christmas, when I'm in Singapore. Sorry for such a downer of a post, but welcome to the ups and downs of travel, I suppose.

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