Learning from the inquisitive driver
Our columnist discovers a thing or two during an Uber ride.
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.