Learning to Be Soft the Hard Way: A Malaysian Woman Makes It In Manhattan

By Tara Moser • Dec 20th, 2010 • Category: People

The phone rings in the midtown Manhattan advertising office and Pudiah Siti’s warm voice answers, “Matthews Media.”  Then the tone sharpens as Siti responds to a well-known, pesky client.


“Martin, I give favor after favor, and you take advantage of the generosity. You either buy ad space or this professional relationship is terminated. Call me back when you have money to spend.”


The phone rings again, and the warm voice answers, “Matthews Media. Can I help you?”


For this 43-year-old, Malaysian-born woman, known for her exotic animal-print outfits and her wild, jet-black hair, making it in America has meant learning to be both hard and soft. Requesting that her real name not be used, her name and the office she works at have been changed.


Arriving in the United States in 2000 with just a few hundred dollars in her pocket after an amicable separation from her husband, Pudiah left Malaysia in order to earn more money for her daughter, Kamila now 16, and her family.


Life in America had to be better than life in Malaysia, she calculated. There her family had few possessions and little to eat in their cramped one-story house. So she drew on the hard life she had faced in Malaysia, determined to make it in a different hard world, and those first few years marked a “dark point” in her life, she says.


Affording a rundown studio apartment she found in Jamaica, Queens forced Pudiah to work 12-hour-plus days handing out flyers on the street, babysitting, stuffing envelopes, and running errands for an elderly neighbor.


Eventually she moved up to work as a retail clerk in a local clothing store. A customer, impressed by Pudiah’s persuasive sales tactics, gave her a secretarial job in a real estate office.


Calling the job “a blessing” she adds, “It was there I learned how to really sell.” But Pudiah still had to stretch her dollars often surviving on one hearty Malaysian rice dish a day.


When thieves plundered her apartment of several hundred dollars, jewelry and electronics it hurt her morale as much as her pocketbook. “I felt like I was starting from scratch,” she said.


Nor did the tension-filled climate in New York post-9/11 make things easier for a dark-skinned woman. After days dotted with rude treatment and muttered slurs, she often found herself crying and pining for the lush oasis of Kluang, Malaysia and her family, especially her Kamila.


Weekly Internet calls to Kamila helped, but she said she still feels the pain of not being there for the last 10 years of her daughter’s growth


“I missed her becoming a young lady,” she says sadly. “It’s one of my few regrets.” Her daughter lives with her ex-husband in Kluang on the weekends and attends a boarding school in the village throughout the week. She hopes to attend college in America.


Pudiah daily calls her parents, who still live in the same village as her husband. She said it particularly pains her to be apart from her father to whom she feels especially close.


Her family has no interest in moving to New York. “They don’t want to leave, and I would never ask them to,” she says. “Malaysia is just a beautiful country, but I have a better life here,” she says. 


Meanwhile, daily Internet calls and annual pilgrimages to Malaysia hold her together, she said.


Using her new sales knowledge Pudiah applied for a job at Matthews Media in 2005 and has been selling ad space in travel magazines ever since.


Pudiah can now afford a new one-bedroom apartment in Astoria and spends her time eating at restaurants with a few close friends and watching romantic comedy movies.


“I’m going to see Eat, Pray, Love this weekend,” she said. “I love Julia Roberts.”  She visited Barcelona for Thanksgiving, considering it her reward for her hard work, and will visit visit Malaysia at year’s end.


As for building closer social connections here, Pudiah says dating isn’t on her radar for now.


“Dating in New York is too much work,” she says, sounding very much the seasoned New York woman. “There are too many men to sort through, and I seem to meet a majority of duds.”


She says she is content with the few friends she has made over the years and is too busy to start a serious relationship.


Earning citizenship is the next step in her process of making the U.S. her home. Pudiah eagerly awaits the final tests of her citizenship and expects to be naturalized by early 2011. Getting her citizenship would mark her proudest moment to date. “I can’t wait to tell my dad when it happens,” she said. “He’ll be so proud.”


After her hard childhood and rough start in New York, Pudiah says she’s ready for pretty much any challenge.


Life has beaten me down so many times, and each time I have risen above it,” she says firmly. “So now I welcome the challenges, knowing that I will make it through.” 

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Tara Moser is Tara Moser is a Media Studies major entering her final semester at Hunter. She enjoys film, television dramas, indie-rock, and people-watching over a cup of coffee at local cafes. Currently interning at various metro-area casting agencies, she hopes one day to become a casting director herself.
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