Monday, September 12, 2011

The Other Side

"I don't know what you smoke
Or what countries you've been to
If you speak any other languages
Other than your own,
I'd like to meet you"

I Don't Know (2008) by Lisa Hannigan

Rajang Sunset
Sunset over the Sarawak River.

Job #1

The very first job I held down was at the local newly-opened Tesco back in Malacca; a position which Grace of Rainbows obtained on my behalf. I was sixteen at the time, and laboured as a retail assistant for the interest of a company called Travelite, an outfit which had its fingers in the distribution of cheap luggage bags, satchels and suitcases. My supervisor was a large, effeminate Chinese man who had an even larger Australian boyfriend. He was the first openly gay person I knew.

I don't know if you have noticed but our daily lives are criss-crossed with invisible barriers separating the microcosms of our social machine. Behind every uniform, badge or cash counter is a world apart. I realised this on the first day I reported for duty in my red Tesco polo neck. For the first time, I entered a familiar building through a side entryway I never knew existed and emerged into strange new place - except, it was just the same old Tesco I had shopped at dozens of times before. I had walked those aisles as a customer, but something changed radically when I walked them as an employee. You see, I had crossed over to the Other Side.

My job itself was mindless and unexciting. I recall spending major hours of it just sitting around and trying to break the 3-digit combination on the locks of suitcases which pesky, meddlesome brats had changed for a lark, and convincing potential patrons that the bags we sell aren't utter shits. The interesting part comes from exploring all the alien secret spaces tucked away from the eyes of the unititiated; the "unauthorised" - from the greasy employee's cafetaria which served food-like objects to the cavernous, twilit storage annex with its mile-high shelves and lumbering monster forklifts. Once, I had to clamber a whole storey up one of those oversized shelves and lower suitcases down to a waiting colleague below. Back then, I was still young enough to see the real risk of falling and shattering my spine to pieces as an adventure.

Job #2

After my A-levels, while waiting for med school to start, I eased into my second job at then-smalltown Malacca's only cineplex minding the box office and gigging as an usher for three bucks an hour - that's 40 cents less than my old job three years ago, but boy did I loved working there. It was where the tinder of my passion for cinema was ignited. When I'm off-duty (and usually when I'm on-duty as well), I could saunter freely into any of its four modest theatres and watch any movie I wanted - and I watched every new release six or seven times. On weekdays when cinemagoers are thin, I could even find time to catch up on my reading. Of course, I was made to put on a silly waistcoat and a strap-on bowtie, but what job is perfect really?

I had stood behind the concession stand where they popped corn and seen the insides of the box office, the manager's office, and the place where they tuck the mega speakers away (which I had to check nightly in case someone somehow magically managed to carry off one under his or her shirt beneath our notice); but I never had the chance to visit the projectionists' room, which is a microcosm within the cineplex's microcosm. The projectionists were a rather surly species and they didn't want a kid like me mucking about their mini off-world planet. Still, I resolved to make it upstairs someday.

However, I had to resign from that job before I could because I managed to piss off pretty much all my superiors. It's a long story, but the short of it is that I inadvertently started a proto-union and made all the other part-timers feel disgruntled about our slave-grade salary (which they were totally okay with before I pointed it out to them). Shit hit fan the day I trooped into the boss's office with my colleagues in tow, and we all ended up covered in it.

Job #3

I quickly osmosed into my next job at Giordano - purveyors of tasteless apparel - within the same mall. They had an unexpectedly stringent interview process complete with a formal questionaire in which I wass quizzed on my problem-solving skills (e.g. what would you do if a customer asks if a skirt makes her look fat?). I was also asked to name the country which the company originated from, and I hazarded Italy because Giordano sounded Italian (it was Hong Kong).

If I answered honestly, I would have simply said "Fuck me, lady, do I look like I shop here?"

As a former insider, I can attest that the sickeningly saccharine sing-song "Welcooome!" the Giordanoids crooned every time you walk into one of their outlets is a codified company policy. I asked my supervisor if I could just greet customers with a clean, short, polite "Welcome" without dragging it out like a drag queen but she reacted to my suggestion as if I just spat in her newborn child's mouth. The paymasters of Giordano were a lot more generous (almost twice as generous as Golden Screen Cinemas', in fact) but I was expected to slog a whole lot harder. Once, after I've completed all the usual chores, my boss made me go up a stepladder to clean the air-conditioning vents. I'm not kidding you; she eyeballed the entire shop looking for work for me to do. Finding nothing, she had to get creative.

At the back of the shop was a closet-sized stockroom which moonlighted as a seamster's chamber and a staffroom which was just about the right size if Giordano was staffed entirely by Oompa Loompas. It was a cramped social space where I mingled with a very specific demography far removed from my usual circles: women who dropped out of high school because they got knocked up. It frightens me how easily people can settle down comfortably in dead end jobs between their narrow horizons, indulge in catty gossips as their sole pastime while making as much money as they could, and breed like base creatures, leaving behind nothing more than a headstone and halves of their genetic code behind - not that there's really anything wrong with that sort of life. It's just that I wouldn't want to live it.


I am not hardworking person, and I'd even go as far as to say I'm an incurably lazy one. The reason why I kept diving into the labour pool was not because I wanted to contribute to the community or to generate extra pocket money. I was in it for the perspectives; the figurative scenery from the Other Sides. They hold a weird attraction for me I cannot fully express in words.

These days, I'm apparently a doctor, a reality which I still have problems coming to grips with. It's surreal, almost disturbing. Men and women would undress on my command and I could touch them anywhere I wish both outside and (literally) inside their bodies. With a bit of interrogation, they would tell me their deepest, most shameful secrets. They allow me to stick them with needles daily as if they are life-sized voodoo dolls, and let me drain their freaking life blood out for lab tests they do not understand. If I hand them a pill of unknown providence and ask them to swallow it, the only question they have for me is "before or after meal?" I can cut them up, period. It's only possible because my patients have all unwittingly suspended their knowledge that I'm an average human being just like them. Amazing isn't it, how a couple of letters in front your name can change you so thoroughly?

There are few Sides more Other than the one I'm currently on, and I admit that I'm secretly starting to think it's pretty damn cool. Ask me again in a week if I still feel the same.

Sky from HUS
The sky outside the operation hall at the Sarawak General.

Writing from another dimension,
k0k s3n w4i


Glo-w~* said...

I've been to the projection room several times when I was young. My late dad's friend was a projectionist and would often allow my dad to bring his brood over to stare out the small box window while he chatted with him. Jim was his name...I think...I'm glad you are adjusting well^^ don't get too high and mighty now or else someone might have to knock you down. P/S: sometimes look down, there maybe potholes you should be avoiding ;p

Inn Shan said...

just off the topic,
i found out there is a 1 year old plus child in NICU admitted due to hyperIGM syndrome. Freaking admitted and bedridden in NICU for more than one year. Alert and responsive but always intubated.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Glo-w~*: i'm far from being high and mighty. if anything, i find it bizarre just how many cardinal rules of society there is that no longer applies to me. i feel like an alien being.

Inn Shan: that's no life to have - growing up in a hospital. you should be going off-tag soon, right?