Learn­ing from the in­quis­i­tive driver

Our colum­nist dis­cov­ers a thing or two dur­ing an Uber ride.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LI IVING - Alexan­dra Wong ( www.face­book.com/MadeinMalaysi­a­book ) thinks it’s youth­ful en­thu­si­asm that drives things for­ward.

I’VE Uber- ed many times now and met plenty of in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters – for­mer air stew­ardesses, an un­der­taker, a lawyer, baker, an oil and gas con­sul­tant – but today has to be a first: my Uber driver is a stu­dent!

It be­gins rather un­event­fully, in rel­a­tive si­lence. My driver looks rather young and a lit­tle tense, but I chalk it up to youth. Be­sides, not ev­ery driver is ar­tic­u­late and chatty, though most are.

We’ve stopped at the traf­fic lights book­end­ing Jalan Sepadu when he breaks the si­lence by ask­ing ca­su­ally, “By the way, where are we?”

Oh. The poor lamb is new to the neigh­bour­hood. I tell him.

“OK,” he an­swers. “So is that con­sid­ered part of Pe­tal­ing Jaya or Kuala Lumpur?”

Some­thing about his ques­tion makes me pause. It’s ca­sual but not your cookie- cut­ter ca­sual, know what I mean? Any­way, en­cour­aged, I take it as a cue to con­tinue mak­ing shop talk.

The con­ver­sa­tion in­vari­ably turns to what we do. I tell him I am a writer. “So what do you do?”

I nearly fall out of my seat when he tells me he is an un­der­grad­u­ate at a lo­cal univer­sity and – this is so adorable – point­ing at the space be­tween his seat and door, says, “This is my school­bag.” Cu­ri­ous, I ask, “Why are you do­ing it?” “I have mod­est am­bi­tions,” he says, smil­ing sheep­ishly.

“I don’t aim to earn a lot of money. I just want to earn ex­tra pocket money to cover my ex­penses such as movies and makan.”

“Do you have other school- or univer­sity- go­ing sib­lings?”

“Yes. My par­ents are OK fi­nan­cially, ac­tu­ally. But I want to pay for my own lux­u­ries.”

I nod, my opinion of him im­prov­ing by the sec­ond.

Now that we’ve warmed up, he con­tin­ues ask­ing me ques­tions about my work. I guess he hasn’t picked up many free­lance writ­ers. How do I get cus­tomers? Who pub­lishes my work? How did I break into the in­dus­try?

“Start­ing out must have been re­ally hard, right?” he says thought­fully.

“Yes,” I say. He is re­ally quite per­cip­i­ent for his age.

“So how did you find the will to con­tinue?” he per­sists.

“Well, my jour­ney as a writer has not been a smooth ride. When­ever I wanted to give up, I al­ways looked for a sign. A sim­ple sign that made me go on, just one more time. It could be a new cus­tomer who likes my work, an en­cour­ag­ing let­ter from a reader, any­thing. You may think I’m corny but I read it as a sign from a higher be­ing.”

He nods. I think he un­der­stands what I’m get­ting at.

When we get closer to the venue, he asks me who I’m in­ter­view­ing. A thought leader in her field, I tell him.

“Wow, it must be stress­ful pick­ing the brains of these sub­ject ex­perts. You will have to do a lot of re­search so that you don’t ap­pear ig­no­rant to her, or at least seem knowl­edge­able enough.”

“Wah, you’re a re­ally deep thinker. You ask prob­ing ques­tions too, be­yond the ob­vi­ous. That’s a great qual­ity for a jour­nal­ist, if you ever want to change fields,” I say with a wink.

He laughs. “I’ve al­ways been like that. Like when I an­a­lyse eco­nom­ics, I like to re­search and read charts and un­der­stand the why as well as the what. In fact, my friends some­times com­plain I pester them with too many ques­tions. For ex­am­ple, one of them bought a car and I asked, what’s the year of the make? What’s the en­gine? Why this en­gine and not the other kind of en­gine? My friend got so ex­as­per­ated that he went, ‘ How would I know? I beli aje.’ ”

I laugh along with him, but think in­ward- ly, isn’t that how peo­ple stag­nate? They beli aje. Buat aje. Cin­cai aje. Tidak- apaism.

“So why did you take up eco­nom­ics?” I ask.

“Il­ham datang lam­bat ( in­spi­ra­tion came late),” he sighs. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, so af­ter con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous op­tions, I de­cided that a tech­ni­cal spe­cial­i­sa­tion, like ac­counts, would have good fu­ture ca­reer op­tions.”

“You don’t re­ally have to worry about your spe­cial­i­sa­tion now,” I say re­as­sur­ingly. “What­ever you learn, what­ever you ex­pe­ri­ence, will come back and ben­e­fit your fu­ture.”

We have reached my des­ti­na­tion ... or have we? My mouth falls open at the ex­panse of land­scaped gar­dens and mag­a­zine- wor­thy build­ings in front of us. This is def­i­nitely where the atas folks live.

“Are you sure we’re at the univer­sity?” I say doubt­fully.

“Yup. The univer­sity is at the end of this drive­way. I know be­cause I dropped some­one here yes­ter­day.”

I scan my gen­tri­fied sur­round­ings with a mix of awe and worry. “Hmm, I won­der if it is easy to hail an Uber here,” I won­der aloud.

“Well, yes­ter­day I man­aged to get an­other or­der af­ter drop­ping some­one else off.” “Stu­dents?” “Yeah. I was al­ready out of the univer­sity when I got a ping from some stu­dents. So I turned back. It turned out they only wanted to go to the end of the drive­way! I had to make a long U- turn, pay two tolls, and the fare only came up to RM1.80. Grr.” Then, for the first time dis­play­ing a less- than- se­ri­ous side to him, he says in a growl­ing tone, “If I didn’t have to worry about my rat­ing, I would say, ‘ Get out of my car!’ ”

We both burst out laugh­ing. “That’s ter­ri­ble. RM1.80 ... the dis­tance must have been very short.”

“Yup. The base fare is 90 sen, so the proper fare is only 90 sen.

Such a short dis­tance also can­not walk-kah?”

We roll our eyes in sol­i­dar­ity. I can see my des­ti­na­tion. Some­what re­luc­tantly, I get off but not be­fore say­ing, “Hey, thanks for an en­joy­able ride. You’ll have a bright fu­ture.”

Good deed done for the day, I thought I was go­ing to end on that note, but my sub­se­quent Uber ride has an­other sur­prise wait­ing.

It’s an equally chatty guy and I found my­self shar­ing what had hap­pened be­fore. I ex­pected my driver, a mid­dle- aged man, to sym­pa­thise with my pre­vi­ous driver and slam those “bratty spoiled mil­lenials” in­dig­nantly.

To my sur­prise, he says, “Hmm, the driver must be new. Oth­er­wise he wouldn’t make this new­bie mis­take. If he was ex­pe­ri­enced, he would call the client and tact­fully tell him the situation: that he has to pay two tolls and make a long U- turn. Usu­ally, if the client is un­der­stand­ing, he will can­cel the trip. Be­cause the driver didn’t do this, he lost money be­cause the fee can­not cover his cost.”

There are two ways of look­ing at this. Peo­ple say ex­pe­ri­ence trumps youth. But I am in­clined to think that wis­dom of­ten acts as the brake that tem­pers the ap­proach ( and pre­vent im­petu­ous young ‘ uns from crash­ing into a tree).

We’re all young once. I know how ex­hil­a­rat­ing it is to just jump into a new day and tear through it fear­lessly, just like the brave young man ven­tur­ing into un­charted ter­ri­tory.

He has plenty of time to learn.

Il­lus­tra­tion: ArIF rAFhAN Oth­MAN

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