Sunday, November 29, 2009

Americano or Cappuccino?

Latte, closup

Eight years ago, I interned with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in New York. Being in New York City for the first time, I tried to squeeze in every possible thing I could do within the short span of 3 months.

Honestly, I loved the city. I even dreamed of living there until 9/11 happened and living the American dream isn’t quite the same again.

There is still one thing about the country that bugs me, with or without 9/11. It’s the tipping system. If you haven’t been to America, be warned that there’s a fifteen percent tipping policy for services at all food and drink outlets. With this wisdom in mind, hopefully, it’ll spare you the humiliation I went through eight years ago.

I went to a bar in Manhattan (coincidentally situated in one of the World Trade Centre towers) and everything was as how you would have imagined it; chic, classy and the epitome of a Sex-in-the-City lifestyle. The women were all dressed in fashionable outfit, sipping their pink-coloured concoction while they flirted around men who resembled Big in many ways.

I refrained from being another Carrie Bradshaw and ordered a glass of red wine at the bar instead. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but suffice to say, more than enough.

Feeling rather generous, I told the extremely good-looking bartender casually, “Please keep the change.”

He took one look at my money and flashed me a menacing look. With his first and middle fingers still clinging firmly to the neck of the wine glass, he said coldly, “I’m sorry, if you want your drink, you gotta give me more.”

I thought he was joking but he didn’t look amused. Suddenly, he didn’t look that handsome after all.

Feeling flustered and humiliated, I fumbled for my purse, rummaged through it and handed him a five dollar note since it was the smallest denomination I had. It was the first and only tip which I had parted most grudgingly in my life.

I could never really understand the American system when it comes to tipping. I’ve heard many times that such policy is necessary to compensate for the underpaid waiters and waitresses. I can truly sympathise with this since I had worked as a part time waitress and bartender during my university years. I know how unjustifiably disproportionate the pays are compared to the labour put in.

But, my understanding of tipping is somewhat like art.

The price of a piece of art work is often valued by how much it pleases the buyer. Sometimes, you look at a painting and you think to yourself, “Gee, did a clown just pee all over it? And they call this art?!”

The next thing you know, someone has offered to pay one hundred thousand dollars for it. That someone is willing to pay that much money for something you consider trash, because he or she appreciates it and hence, is happy to splurge that kind of money to own it.

So, if I’m really impressed or pleased with a waiter’s hospitality, I am more than willing to tip him generously. If not, I won’t bother because he is already being paid to do a job. Tipping should not be obligatory and it’s not part of my responsibility to pay the waiter, especially when I’m expected to pay for my meal.

Frankly, I would prefer if a restaurant charges more for the food in order to cover its employees’ salary. Some might say, “Oh, but how sure are you that the money will go to the employees?” I would say that it’s really not my problem. I dine at a restaurant for two reasons, to eat and socialise, not to do charity work.

So that’s America. You’re expected to pay for something that is implied but not written. In Italy, they do it the opposite way.

Few years back, I went on a vacation to Siena with my best friend, S. We had a great meal at a restaurant and when the bill came, we habitually scrutinized the items on the bill. (We’ve acquired this habit from our parents who are rather careful when it comes to financial matters. Mind you, thanks to this habit, I’ve once managed to rescue RM1,500 from a miscalculated bill at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, which otherwise would have been happily paid by our party host, still in his drunken stupor.)

Everything looked in order except for one item listed as il corpeto. We were convinced that the restaurant was trying to take advantage of two innocent Asian girls and we were not going to let them get away with it. So, we summoned the waitress to explain the bill for us.

We pointed the item out to the waitress and told her that we did not order it. She looked confused, understandably so since she could hardly speak a word of English.

After a few minutes of creative gestures and a lot of si, she nodded reassuringly and pointed her index finger at our empty plates and glasses. She even took away the napkin from my lap, flipped it wildly and all the time repeating the word il corpeto in that strong Italian accent. “Il corpeto, si? Il corpeto?”

After what seemed like hours of gesticulating back and forth, my very intelligent friend finally understood. She whispered to me, “I think il corpeto means charges for the dining utensils.”

“Are you sure they’re not just charging us for the dish washing?” I offered a second opinion. S looked at me quizzically, trying to figure out whether I was trying to be funny.

We finally relented and paid the bill, much to the waitress’ relief.

So, in Italy, many restaurants will actually itemise your bill so meticulously that you know exactly how much and what you’re paying for. Frankly, as long as I understand what the charges are, I’m happy to pay up. At least, in Italy, they don’t harass you into tipping them.

Feel free to share any similar dining experience in whatever country you have travelled to. We’ll thank you for sparing us from looking like fools.

This article was published at The Malaysian Insider on 28 November under the same title.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A different kind of spirit and intoxication

myConst-final-face3 These days, the right words used to describe me would be, zombie-fied and kelam-kabut.

In the last month, I have been completely engrossed in a project which has inevitably driven me to physical and mental exhaustion. Being sleep deprived, I have unwillingly arrived at work late in a dishevelled state. I’m almost always late for meetings held in-house and above all, I’ve committed one of the biggest and most embarrassing professional crime - giving the wrong name to a very important government minister while drafting a press statement!

I should be fired, but deep down I hope I won’t for two reasons. I’m psyched about what I’m doing and I’m driven by the pool of people working around this project.

A good marriage is really hard to come by these days but this article is not about marriage. It’s about team work and it’s as equally rare. Mom used to tell me this, “If you marry the right man, half of your life’s happiness is secured.”

In the context of a job, I would say that if you get to work with the right team, at least half of your day’s happiness is guaranteed. When combined together, I guess I’m a really happy woman despite the sleep deprivation and long hours of slogging.

Not too long ago, a fellow writer informed me that she doesn’t believe in Committee. She told me that it’s easier to get things done by herself. I do agree with her because there have been many occasions where I end up doing a job on my own simply because it takes too long to wait for others to act, especially if they are unreliable. Also, when there’s more than one person, it usually involves having more than one opinion and this means more time needed to take a collective decision.

In a marriage, it takes two to tango. In a team, it takes a whole troop to perform that awe-inspiring Shaolin acrobatic formation. All members need to lean on each other for support, be willing to take a fall and last but not least to sweat it out together so that their goals can be achieved.

However, these are not just the essential ingredients. It takes much more to become an exceptionally good team.myConst-final-face7

The spirit of team work was first introduced to me when I worked in Afghanistan. My wise Italian friend taught me the first lesson of being in a team: loyalty. Loyalty in his case does not mean to submit to one’s leader blindly and unequivocally. A team needs to be challenged. Otherwise, how would you know that it’s truly a good one when everything works like a bed of roses?

Loyalty here means to sort out disputes fairly and transparently, without backstabbing one another. If things get really difficult, you don’t just jump ship. You stay and work things out together.

I remember when I had just become the newest member of an electoral team in Bamyan, I did not appreciate our Coordinator. We had different working cultures which made it difficult for me to adapt.

Whenever I expressed my dissatisfaction towards the Coordinator, my Italian friend would remain impartial, refusing to partake in any of my personal observations. Instead, he would provide objective views and advised me to communicate my frustration to the Coordinator.

I find this to be a constructive and effective method of solving professional disagreement. If anything, it improves and builds working relationship because of better understanding through open communication.

myConst-final-face6 Secondly, to be a truly good team, it goes beyond showing professional commitment. Since, we’re essentially human beings, we all come with emotional baggage. We all have needs to feel included, appreciated and respected. We don’t just value ourselves as a worker, but also a human being, deserving of respectful and dignified treatment.

Bamyan is one of the coldest districts in Afghanistan. During winter, the temperature often drops to minus 30 degrees celcius. Again, being new, I was unable to adapt to such harsh condition and subsequently fell ill with mild pneumonia. My colleagues quickly took to the task of nursing me back to health.

During this time, my health condition had been brought to the attention of those working in the headquarters. In order not to further jeopardise my health, decisions were quickly made to offer me a transfer to a warmer district in the East of Afghanistan. Resisting the tempting offer, I decided to stay on in Bamyan and it was the right decision I made.

myConst-final-face1 myConst-final-face5 myConst-final-face2

I would eventually brave winter together with a group of colleagues whom by then had become friends. We would huddle together, all wrapped up in thick fleece jackets, scarves and mittens, sharing a simple meal while being fuelled by a solitary burner situated in the middle of a poorly equipped kitchen. Everything else was frozen in the kitchen but our spirits were kept sizzling hot by the solidarity we had for each other.

Last but not least, when the going gets really tough, good team members support each other despite the adversities and risks they have to take, even if it means compromising themselves.

After about six months in Bamyan, we had a shocking but pleasant surprise. A Japanese colleague of ours brought her baby boy from Japan to Bamyan. The whole adventure of how she managed to bring her baby there was a different story altogether. Suffice to say that her act was in breach of the United Nations’ employment contract. As an unaccompanied duty station, all staff were not allowed to bring their partners or children to Afghanistan, unless they were being employed by the UN or other organisations, in the case of their partners.

Being a single mother and combined with other undisclosed reasons, she had to bring her child there. We knew that it was not the best decision made, bringing a child to a war-zone country. However, we understood that whatever reason that had prompted her to do so must had been difficult and perhaps necessary.

In the end, what we did was to support her. We welcomed her baby into our humble home and treated him as if he was a part of the family. We were fully aware that if the baby was discovered by the UN authorities, we would all risk disciplinary action and our Japanese colleague, her job.

It hit upon us that it was difficult trying to conceal a baby in a small district like Bamyan. Eventually, our colleague had to pack her bag and leave the country but the memory of that moment we shared together will continue to stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.myConst-final-face4

Perhaps I would never get to experience such surreal circumstances again but I am fortunate enough to relive the joy of working in a team where all of us grow together and feed on each other’s enthusiasm, strength and encouragement to cross that finishing line.

The writer would like to dedicate this article to those working on the MyConstitution Campaign, as well as those who have been supportive and understanding of her during her moments of zombification and kelam-kabutness.

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 15 November 2009 under the same title.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Differentiating Indifferences

Zohra was 18 when she started to work as an administrative officer with the United Nations. She was bright, innocent, hopeful and idealistic. Her country, unfortunately wasn’t.

She could maintain her feeling of hope and sense of idealism because she spent nine waking hours of her life with foreigners who told her that human rights is for everyone, even if she’s a woman.

One day, she received a fully-funded scholarship to study in the United States. I remember her smiling shyly as she approached me humbly to look at her scholarship application a few months ago. I thought to myself, how proud and confident she must be, now that she had been accepted to study abroad.

On the contrary, she was forced to turn down the scholarship because her family refused to allow her to travel alone, unaccompanied by a close relative. Losing her would also mean losing a huge income for her family since she was earning more than any other average Afghan men.

No reward for chivalry

Afewark and I became friends when I took a trip to Bahir Dar in Ethiopia two years ago. We met in a rambunctious local bar playing live traditional music. He was there celebrating with his best friend who had just graduated from the local university.

Perhaps it was his age, or perhaps it was mine. Either way, he came across as a young, vibrant and idealistic man. He was well-mannered, polite and engaging, all the essential criteria which gained my trust to meet up with him again the next day.

While we were walking along a busy but dimly lit alley in between two strips of restaurants, bars and clubs, a dark figure grabbed my mobile phone from the back and disappeared into the darkness. While I remained immobile and speechless, like the rest of the unperturbed spectators watching from a close distance, Afewark made a quick dash after the culprit (no wonder Ethiopians are famed for their physical endurance in long distance running).

After about five minutes, Afewark appeared crest-fallen and ashamed for not being able to rescue my phone and most importantly for me to experience such an unfortunate incident in his country.

When we reported this to two policemen who were patrolling within the vicinity, they accused Afewark of masterminding the whole crime. He argued with them but they insisted that he plotted with the snatch thief since it was uncommon to see a local man with a foreign woman. By then, not only was he ashamed, he was also defeated.

No pride and a lot of prejudices

Walking into Tom Dy Centre in Phnom Penh, I was confronted by a lush garden and an extremely clean and neat environment. So clean that it was difficult to imagine I was in Phnom Penh. Inside, there are about 60 girls from the age of 16 to 25, faces and names I no longer remember because there are so many of them and each one looks the same as the other — long jet-black hair, dark skinned and petite.

While the environment surrounding them looked and felt clean, the girls don’t. In fact, most of them carried a vacant expression on their faces, which also explains why I find it difficult to distinguish or remember them. In conclusion, they looked as if their spirit had abandoned them.

These girls are rescued victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Most of them have been sold by their own families as sexual slaves. With their innocence, trust and dignity robbed away at such a young age, what’s left are their bodies. Some have even died from AIDS. I often wonder, how many of them still have hope in them as they hang on to each day of blatant uncertainty and a life-long of undeserved stigmatisation.

Pause, rewind and play

I’ve started work again in Kuala Lumpur recently. Being used to working in the fields of Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia, I must confess that this is a huge shift for me. My current work pace is nonetheless hectic and demanding, more so than in all my previous jobs. I am confronted by a different kind of challenge, more bureaucratic and professionally driven in nature — one which I would have to subsequently learn to deal with.

I spent my first week relearning how to operate technologically advanced office machines, something many of us have taken for granted. When I informed the chief executive officer that my work performance is somehow hampered by my ineptness to operate such sophisticated equipment, he quipped, “You know, we have had this machine since three years ago. It’s not sophisticated. I think it’s you since you’ve worked in countries like….” Point taken.

Then, I’ve had disgruntled office members who are not pleased with my “slow” performance while I try to deal with 10 other priorities. I try to handle all of them as calmly as I can, sometimes more calmly than others would like me to be.

I’ve sat in meetings and observed discussions and debates about issues, what makes people upset and what causes such urgency. Sometimes, I do get riled up, but often I don’t.

When my friends look away uncomfortably at a beggar standing by our dining table, I look at them in the eyes and smile politely before turning them away.

If I don’t get upset when someone screams at me unjustly or when I don’t seem to be moved by the ugliness of my surrounding, does that mean I’m heartless? Does it mean I don’t care when I don’t get frustrated with what others feel as an urgency?

It may seem that way but it’s not, because at the end of the day, I’m able to sit back and think about the countries where I’ve been, where there are real people with real problems. The pressure we’re succumbing to in our daily professional environment is driven mainly by the notion of cost and benefit.

Do I use this as an excuse not to take action for every single request I’ve received? I hope not because I do go to bed soundly every night, feeling satisfied that I have done what I can and to the best of my ability. Trying to behave like a martyr when I’m not is not my style.

Today, my best friend who works in Afghanistan text-messaged me. It says: “Just to let you know I’m OK. I’m still in Sri Lanka on holidays.”

Six UN staff have been reported dead after a Taliban shoot-out and bombing in Kabul. It could have been her. It could have been me five years ago.

Whenever I feel the urge to dramatise my life unnecessarily, I pause for a moment and think about what I can achieve today, instead of worrying about what I can’t. Then, I’m being reminded by people like Zohra, Afewark and the Tom Dy girls how easy and blessed my life has been compared to theirs.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals mentioned in this article.

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 31 October 2009 under the same title.