Despite the age gap, Simon and I had a lot in common.
For one thing, we were both terrified of marriage, relationships or any kind of commitment. Simon’s British passport allowed him to travel and live all over the world without much hassle. As a Bangladeshi, I wasn’t as lucky. There were precious few countries I could visit without a VISA. I was lucky to have a job as an expat in Kuala Lumpur.
In Bangladesh, I wouldn’t be able to speak so freely to someone almost twenty years older than me. But with Simon, that wasn’t an issue. I was only conscious of his age when he brought up his workout routine, or the gout in his legs. He was essentially a teenager trapped in the body of a much older man.
I met Simon in a co-working space, in Sri Petaling. It’s a pretty hip Chinese neighbourhood filled with bubble tea shops, massage parlours, restaurants and pubs.
Co-working spaces were a trendy new concept. It’s where you can rent a desk for a day or a month in a communal workspace. I thought it was much nicer than a regular office, because you got to meet all kinds of people.
On weekdays, it was mostly crowded with students, and a few people who looked like they could be auditors or accountants. But on weekends, it was usually just me and Simon.
This particular weekend, I was determined to finish a task that I have been putting off for quite a while. My immigration application to the Ontario provincial nominee program. They had requested a whole bunch of documents, which were quite painful to consolidate. Especially the ones required as “proof of funds”.
Even though I made a good living, I was never in the habit of saving money. I spent a fortune on all manner of stupid things. Also, the invitation to apply for the provincial nominee program came out of nowhere. I was sure that Canada wouldn’t open their borders until the coronavirus crisis was over. I didn’t have the time to save up for the occasion.
Me and Simon were both worried about finding a place to settle down. Even though he was British, getting permanent residency in another country was still a daunting task for him. You either had to have money, or you had to be skilled in a trade that was in-demand. Simon was 50 something and he hadn’t had a 9-to-5 job in decades. Getting a permanent residency as a skilled worker was a non-option. Besides, he was documentary producer and a video editor. Not classified as a “skilled occupation” in most countries.
He would come to Malaysia on a tourist VISA, stay in KL for 3 months straight, then go back to his hometown in Birmingham. Only to return after a week or so. He referred to these back-and-forth trips as “VISA runs”.
I told him about my immigration plans to Canada. I was dreading filling up a form that they said takes “about three hours” to complete. I’d also have to pay a processing fee of CAD 1500. It was no small sum for me at the time. Worst of all, if my application got refused, I wasn’t going to get that money back.
If it did get approved, I would have to collect police certificates from two different countries, go through a full-blown medical exam to make sure I’m not carrying any diseases, etc. Then wait another few months for them to decide if I was eligible to enter their country or not. I was also worried about having to get vaccinations. I wasn’t sure if that was a requirement for Canada, but my friends who moved to the US had to get them.
“Hah! That sounds pretty demeaning. Like you’re some kind of disease-ridden criminal foreigner that they don’t want in their country,” said Simon. “For me… I got two options; I can immigrate to Malaysia permanently under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. But that costs a fortune and I don’t know how I’m going to get the money for that. Another more affordable option is Elite VISA Programme in Thailand, which starts from USD 16,000. But that only let’s me stay in Thailand for 5 years. After that, I’d have to come up with another sixteen thousand bucks,” he said.
“The second home thing isn’t really a great deal either. I heard you have to renew it every ten years and pay the Malaysian government a large sum of money as a renewal fee,” I told him.
“Hmmm…” replied Simon. He seemed worried. It was obvious that he did not relish the idea of going back home.
I wanted to postpone filling up my immigration forms for as long as possible. So, I offered to accompany Simon to a nearby restaurant where he was supposed to pick-up his pre-ordered lunch.
Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of restaurants no longer allowed dine-in customers. You either had your food delivered, or you could pre-order online and pick it up yourself.
We both walked at a leisurely pace under the blazing Malaysian sun.
“Do you ever think about getting married?” I asked Simon. “Like if you got married to a Malaysian or a Thai person, you could stay in either of those countries indefinitely.”
The thought of marrying someone who was a citizen had crossed my mind before, but it was too much trouble. I imagine your spouse would always have power over you because you were on a spouse VISA. I couldn’t see myself living like that. I did date a Malaysian girl for half a year or so. She was keen on marriage, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t last. I wanted to see if Simon was desperate enough to marry someone just to get out of the VISA hassle.
“Well… Let’s put it this way…. It’s just replacing one set of complications with another…” he replied.
We both laughed as we made our way to the restaurant. It was almost cathartic after our nervous ponderings over VISAs and permits.
Despite our vast cultural, socioeconomic and geopolitical differences, we were both in the same boat.
Uncertain about where we’d end up.
Like floating debris. Going wherever the tides would take us.