Rehab

It’s my second day at Pertama Complex and my first time attending this course. The crowded classroom seems to cave in every time I enter. Thanks to my mom, she enrolled me into the most dreaded course among KL teenagers – the Interpersonal Communication Course (my virtual friends call it Social Rehab). “It’s just going to be a three-day thing,” she told me coyly. But she failed to warn me that no phones, gadgets or electronic games are allowed during the course.

Just imagine, I have been without my phone and gadget for the past 24 hours. The classes start at 8 a.m and end at 11.30 p.m. Then we all are escorted to Tunes Hotel to rest for the night. The program should be renamed Boot Camp or Drilling Camp. Yesterday was filled with vocal and speech training classes. I haven’t been online for the past 24 hours! My virtual friends must think that something bad had happened to me, or worse – my soul has left my body!

“Sit up straight, hands on your lap and smile!” is the first instruction for the day. I do what the instructor tells us. “You’ll be meeting your first friend,” she says and it makes my heart thump.

Friend? Am I supposed to make friends here? Shit. Now I really regret not reading the full course syllabus.

A girl with high brows and eyelids heavy with blended colors comes to sit in front of me. She puts her hands on the small plastic table between us.

“You are going to get at least five personal info about the person sitting in front of you,” says the female instructor who wants to be known only as Tasha. “You are given 15 minutes, starting now!”

I gaze away from the girl in front of me. She sits still, not smiling, not making any effort to have eye contact with anyone in the room and she doesn’t look like she cares about me. A boy sitting on my right is fidgeting while staring at his white sneakers. It’s the second day of the course, but I still didn’t quite get his name.

A girl sitting on my left, who is called Baby by her parents, looks like she is about to cry. In front of her sits a huge guy with bushy mustache who is wearing a sheer cotton shirt. He is looking at Baby questioningly.

“You have 14 minutes left. Start your conversation now! You can ask any question. If you fail to get any information from the person sitting in front of you, I’m going to fail you.” The instructor is half-shouting at us when she notices that none of us dares to break the ice.

It takes me a few more seconds and then I steal a few glances at the instructor before I gather enough courage to ask the girl in front of me, “What’s your virtual ID?” Her lips curve into a thin smile. “That question is not allowed,” she answers dryly.

Shit. What else can I ask her? Yesterday, the instructor mentioned that we are not supposed to discuss the virtual world here. We can talk about almost anything, but not virtual things.

“Do you have the classic phone installed in your house?” I ask her without looking at her heavily made-up face. Well, her painted face reminds me of one of my virtual friends’ avatar, but I’m not supposed to ask anything related to avatars or anything virtual during this course. Damn!

“No, I don’t,” she answers, not giving away additional information or saying anything to inspire me for the next question.

Baby, who is already in tears, seems like she finally has something to ask the big guy in front of her. “W… why… why you look so frightening?” The big guy looks offended and grimaces before answering, “Maybe because of my big muscle and my weird looking mustache.”

The boy on my right is still staring at his white sneakers. His name is Armin, I think. Or is it Salim? Ah… I can’t remember exactly. I scratch my head as my gaze moves from Armin/Salim’s head to his hands. Then I realize that he is not staring at his white sneakers; his fingers are fiddling with some device on his palm while his eyes are transfixed on it!

“What!!” I exclaim rather loudly and realize it too late when suddenly all eyes in the room are on me.

“That is not a valid question, young lady. And you are not supposed to shout at anyone here,” says  Tasha as she takes long strides towards me. “You can ask ‘What is your name’ or ‘What is your favorite book’ but you can’t just simply ask ‘What’. Get it?” She puts her scrawny fingers on the small plastic desk and drums it a few times.

“Okay,” my voice comes out sounding like an apologetic whisper. The device in Armin/Salim’s hand has disappeared; he must have hidden it. Ignoring my sharp gaze, he starts talking to a young boy sitting in front of him.

“Where is your mother?” I hear Armin/Salim asks.

“In her grave. She’s dead,” the young boy who doesn’t look any older than 12, answers.

“Fuck me,” Armin/Salim replies.

Tasha, who is only a few steps away, spins to face Armin/Salim with red cheeks. “You don’t say ‘fuck’ when you hear about someone’s death or after learning about people’s loss. You should say ‘I’m sorry to hear that’. Get it? And please remember, I don’t want to hear any profanities in this class.” She is breathing rapidly, as if trying to conceal her anger, but her unsteady voice shows how mad she is at such a behavior.

“You’re dead…” I whisper to Armin/Salim without even looking at him.

“Fuck you…” he whispers back.

“Fuck your mother…” I hiss at him as he turns a deaf ear.

Tasha is at the other end of the class, so she doesn’t hear us. “You have 10 minutes left. I hope you have managed to get at least two pieces of information from the person in front of you,” she announces and points at the big clock above the white board.

Shit. I only know that the girl in front of me doesn’t have a classic phone installed in her house. What else can I ask her? I can’t think about something that is not related to the virtual world. I only know about computer games, online social media, automated house equipment, ultra smart cars and entertainment. Yes! I think I found it!

Entertainment!

Those singers in the music videos, they do exist in real world, right? They exist in physical forms. Well at least most of them. I know some models in the videos are computer-generated.

The girl with the high brows starts to yawn. I try to look straight into her eyes, although the thick black lashes look rather terrifying.

“Uh… so… who is your favorite singer?” I ask. She suddenly brightens up. I am getting her attention, at least.

“Taylor Swift!” she squeals; both hands on her chest. “God, she’s awesome!”

“Duh! She’s old. She’s like a thousand years old now….” It’s pretty obvious that I don’t like this particular singer.

“But she writes the best love songs ever…” she says annoyingly and then makes the ‘loser’ sign using her thumb and index finger.

“That’s because she never moves on.” It’s my turn to show her the ‘loser’ sign.

Oh my! This feels like virtual bitching already! I’m glad Tasha is not nearby.

I am about to ask the girl in front of me about Australia, whether she has been there to see the kangaroos, when Tasha presses the buzzer telling us that time is up.

“If you managed to get three or more pieces of info about your partner, I will give you 60%. For those who got fewer than three, I’m sorry, I’ll have to fail you,” explains Tasha as she brings in a portable white board. No personal computers or projectors are used during this course. Everyone must speak and everyone must write using white board markers. Tasha told us yesterday that we should be thankful that we’re not writing with chalk on green board. Most of our jaws dropped as we’ve never heard of those things.

“This is the list of questions you should have asked the person sitting in front of you.” Tasha points her index finger to at least 20 questions written in black, green and red marker on the white board. I read them, one by one.

What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? What is your hobby? What is your favorite food? Who is your favorite teacher? Do you have a pet?

Shit. Why can’t I come up with those questions?


 
You see, this is why we – the KL teenagers – hate and dread this course so much. We thought we need to gather really important information, yet the expectation is much lower; some are just so trivial. Oh, come on, does anyone care if the stranger in front of you likes to draw or collect pictures? What difference does it make to your life? I still don’t get why my mom is willing to fork out so much money for me to come here and talk to strangers. Why can’t I just stay at home and chat with my virtual friends?

Urgh…. This is really killing me, and it’s only day two. How am I going to survive another 30 hours?

Tasha is writing a few words on the white board. Her long bias skirt becomes stretched at the rear as she stoops to write the last line. “Alright, class. Now let’s move on to our next exercise,” she announces after adjusting the white board, so that all of us get a good view. “The people in front of you will move one chair to the right, so you will be talking to a new person.” The girl in front of me stands up eagerly before Tasha finishes her explanation.

“I have assigned each of you a topic.” Tasha points to the writing on the white board. “You are going to discuss the topic with the person sitting in front of you. The conversation will be recorded.”

I stare at the topic written next to my name on the white board in disbelief. I’m supposed to discuss ‘The Weather’ with the person in front of me.

“Hi!” says the big guy with bushy mustache who was Baby’s partner a few minutes ago. He sits comfortably with folded arms, revealing a rose tattoo on his right bicep. I think he is smiling at me, but I can’t tell the difference as his lips are half hidden by the mustache.

“Hi! Weather…. Hot? Humid?” I am unsure of how a conversation about the weather should begin, and how to turn it into an interesting discussion. Duh! It’s the weather. We don’t discuss it anymore, we just curse it.

“Ah… the weather sucks. It always has,” he says with an unbelievably sweet voice that makes my heart flutter.

“At least now I know someone here who agrees with me!” I throw my hands in the air, announcing a victory. The big guy, whose name I learn later is Adrian, smiles and claps his hands. This invites funny looks from the whole class.

My mom comes a few minutes after the last class ends. I start telling her about the weird exercises we had to do and the things we had to talk about. Mom looks at me with knitted brows and pursed lips. “Sayang, you okay?” she asks.

“Why? I’m perfectly fine!” I show her my palms and my wide eyes.

Happy tears start rolling down her creased cheeks. “You haven’t spoken a word for two years, sayang.”