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Tale of Two Cities: Bangkok

The Thai hamburger 

By Yvonne Lim. Published in: The Star, 8 Feb 2014

They say that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Meaning to say, that when one steps into foreign country, one is expected to abide by the customs and cultural practices of local society, for the sake of being polite or merely to stay on the right side of the law. 

In Thailand - especially in Bangkok - there is not so much pressure on the visitor to abide by cultural rules. While Thais themselves live by many societal norms, it is also in their tolerant, polite nature to turn a blind eye to the minor misconducts of the uninformed foreigner. 

However when it comes to doing business, understanding and practicing Thai culture may be a matter of life or death (for the company).

Recently, I met with Vinder Balbir, owner of the famous Mrs. Balbir’s Restaurant, a chain of North Indian eateries in Bangkok. 

Vinder is a Malaysian who came to live in Bangkok more than 40 years ago, and has since grown her restaurant business from a small six-table outlet into seven award-winning restaurants, a profitable cooking school and hosts her own cooking show which is in its 16th year running. 

Her secret to success, which includes maintaining a happy, reliable 100-strong staff? 

She tells me that it is by learning how to “deal with Thais according to their culture” when handling issues. A true food enthusiast, Vinder calls this her “no-blame hamburger theory”

She starts with the ‘bun' on the top. “First, you have to praise them, fluff them up a little bit, something along the lines of ‘I like this about you, you’re doing really well in this area and I appreciate the work you have done’.

“Then you come to the ‘meat', which is the real issue. But the trick is to still approach it without putting blame entirely on that person. You say, ‘…but, I think this can be done differently. Are you facing any sort of difficulty, hence why you are unable to perform this task well?’

“And finally, end with the last ‘bun’: How can you and I work on this together so that it does not happen again?”

Not pointing fingers, according to Vinder, a way of showing respect, which to the Thais is most important. “If you do not treat them with respect, they will leave,” Vinder says. 

She adds that she has seen foreign businesses come and go, all because they failed to understand how to work with the Thais. 

I found this theory fascinating. I don’t know if every foreign business owner would agree with Vinder’s theory, but her success sure lends credibility to it. 

I decided to run it by a couple of Thais. 

Boonriti Kulprasutdilok, or Petch, a barista at the Starbucks outlet I frequent, who is also a final-year international business student at a local university, enthusiastically concurred. 

"To Thais, relationships are more important than work success. Therefore, showing respect by not placing blame for instance, is one way of maintaining that relationship,” he said. 

Amarit Charoenphan, 27, who runs a co-working space called Hubba Thailand, says foreign companies who have a very rigid way of working find it difficult to recruit and retain Thai employees. 

“Rigidity, a stern working environment where a superior does not bother to have a personal relationship with his subordinates, but rather simply passes orders down and holds each of his staff accountable for every mistake made, rather than empowering them to be better workers, can be translated by a Thai as ’not giving face’ and that he is not respected.

“In comparison, a typical Thai working environment would be one where colleagues go out for drinks together, and feel like they are part of a family, a team pursuing a common goal, rather than just co-workers. In general, Thai companies have a very high employee retention rate because the working environment encourages people to build strong friendships - which in a large part IS the Thai culture. 

“To put it simply, an all-work-no-play environment which lacks a personal touch, will not fly very well in Thailand,” Amarit explained.

I don’t know about you, but from what I’ve heard, sign me up for a Thai company!


Gloom remains over the land of smiles 

By Yvonne Lim. Published in: The Star, 11 Jan 2014

Today, I am writing this from a Korean coffee franchise, Hollys Coffee, which recently opened in the Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road where I would say, the essence of Bangkok's melting pot lies. 

As I sit here looking out into the streets from the large glass windows, a Thai street food peddler pushes his cart past a couple of stalls selling pashminas and imitation designer handbags. The hawker stops to chat briefly with the South Asian traders manning the stalls, who speak the Thai language as fluently as any other local. 

Caucasian men sit smoking in the al-fresco area of the cafe and I watch as their eyes follow a group of young Thai girls in miniskirts and bleached blond hair strut down the sidewalk in three-inch high heels. 

Voluptuous African women with their braids piled elegantly on their heads saunter past in their confident manner. Tourists who I suspect are Northeast Asians due to their large golf hats, oversized backpacks and huge DSLR cameras slung over their necks wander by with their noses buried in maps, while a Middle Eastern woman in her full black burka stands out in the crowd. 

All around me in this coffee outlet, I hear chatter in a host of languages, some I don't even recognise, and accents. In this part of town where not only tourists but many foreigners working in Bangkok live, one does not feel like one is in Thailand. Rather, if there was a place where every nationality in the world would congregate, this would probably be it. (In June 2013, Time magazine reported Bangkok as identified as the world's most visited city by the 2013 Global Destination Cities Index)

Indeed advertisements promoting the city, that feature a Thai woman in traditional costume, her hands in a wai (form of greeting or showing respect with palms pressed together) and a friendly smile on her face do justice to the open-arms welcoming nature of Bangkok. A friend who worked at the Thai embassy in KL once told me that Thailand prides itself on three things — "hospitality, openness and freedom".

Sadly, political instability in recent times, particularly in the past four to five years, have posed a threat to the attractiveness of this city. A taxi driver I was chatting with the other day pessimistically responded, after I told him that I think Bangkok is "suai mak" (very beautiful), "Five years ago, Thailand was truly the 'land of smiles'. You would have loved it here even more then. But today Bangkok is in a sad state, and the smiles are fading."

Last week, after about two months of demonstrations, anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced a siege on the city starting January 13. He will lead hundreds of thousands of supporters in marching through the capital, effectively shutting down Bangkok, for at least a month or until the government under Yingluck Shinawatra steps down and an unelected council takes over. 

In an article published on January 5, the Wall Street Journal questioned how long Thailand's tourism industry would be able to withstand the weight of what has been the biggest political protests the country has seen so far. It cited the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's report that the upcoming protests could cost the Thai economy up to 20 billion baht (RM2bil), while Thai Chamber of Commerce vice chairman Pornsil Patcharaintanakul predicts they could cost more if the demonstrations turn violent. 

"Thailand's tourism industry doesn't usually pay attention to this kind of thing. As its nickname "Teflon Thailand" suggests, nothing seems to stick to the country. It continued to thrive despite the coup that ousted Ms. Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. When over 90 people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters on the streets of the capital in 2010, it hardly registered; MasterCard MA -0.40% last year projected that the Thai capital would become the world's most visited city while a Bangkok shopping mall turned out to be the most photographed location on photo-sharing website Instagram, beating rivals such as the Eiffel Tower, Times Square and the Taj Mahal.

"This time the scale of the planned protests suggest things could be different.

"Already, visitors are beginning to give Bangkok a wide berth. Singapore Airlines Sunday [Jan 5] said it would cancel 19 flights to the Thai capital between Jan. 14 and Feb. 25 as demand dwindles. Surapong Techaruvichit at the Thai Hotels Association, meanwhile, anticipates total hotel occupancy in Bangkok to fall to 70% to 75% in the first quarter compared with a more usual 80%.

"Tourism accounts for over 7% of Thailand's economy, and visitor arrivals at Bangkok's international airports fell 15% in the first week of December compared with the same period as last year, although total tourism arrivals were up over 20% in January to November compared with 2012." (Thai Tourism Under Threat; Wall Street Journal; Jan 5)

On a personal basis, some friends who planned to come up here for a holiday in the next two weeks are considering cancelling their trip if the violence escalates, which would be a bummer for me since work commitments will not permit me to go home for the coming Chinese New Year. 

"What side are you on?" I asked my 58-year-old taxi driver friend, whose son, I discovered, is married to a Vietnamese and lives in Ha Noi. "Red shirt or yellow?"

Neither, he replied. I just want it to stop.


No reason to smile
By Yvonne Lim. Published in The Star, 7 Dec 2013 

My closest friend here in Bangkok is my Thai colleague Kwang. Like most Thais, she is very friendly, always willing to help and ready with a smile. 

She loves nothing more than to show off her country to her foreigner friends, and would regularly say to me, "Just let me know if there are any places you want to visit and I'll bring you". But I have not taken her up on her offer, because of my own Malaysian "pai-seh-ness" (not wanting to cause inconvenience). Plus, I have done my share of touristy stuff. 

I have often admired the courtesy and patience shown by Kwang and her fellow Thais. 

A city with a population of over 9.3 million, Bangkok is well known for its traffic jams. Photo albums of visits to Bangkok posted on social media often feature at least one picture of the "Bangkok jam" at the Ratchaprasong Intersection, taken from the Siam skywalk. Compared to Bangkok, the daily traffic jams we face in the Klang Valley on a rainy day is a pleasant walk in the park. 

What amazes me most is how "quiet" the jams here are. 

No one likes to be stuck in traffic for hours after a long day at work. Back home, traffic jams are usually accompanied by an orchestra of honking, and sometimes, if the weather permits, a "soloist" would wind down their window to yell out their annoyance at a car that just "cut their line". I have to admit that I too am guilty of driving with my hand ready at the honk, while my father has a whole vocabulary of derogatory names to call other drivers who annoy him - some of them are quite hilarious, if you're not on the receiving end. I used to view driving through the peak hour jam as a daily battle which would leave me worn out and in a bad mood by the time I got home.

But here, even though the jams are twice as long at least, the Thais with their incredible tolerance seem to be able to just brush off any grief they feel with a good-natured "mai pien rai" (meaning never mind). They stop to make way for other drivers and even smile. No one honks impatiently or mouth profanities at each other. 

The same courtesy is exhibited while queuing up to enter a train, or waiting in line at a supermarket check-out counter. 

Anyway, I was shocked when my kind, tolerant, courteous, friend Kwang flared up at our poor unassuming colleague from Laos - and of all things, over his bad habit of clumsily kicking her chair while she was sitting in it as he walked past. To Ek (our Lao colleague)'s defense, he didn't mean to infuriate Kwang. Being a little bit on the tubby side, the spaces between our office cubicles were not wide enough for him. He would kick my chair too, only it didn't annoy me as much. 

Kwang tolerated the chair kicking for a few weeks and told Ek nicely to stop. But for some reason (maybe he did it on purpose, or maybe he just couldn't help it) he didn't stop and one day she lashed out at him while the rest of us watched in horror, and then maintained a cold war with him for some time after. According to Kwang, kicking someone (or in this case, kicking one's chair, and not saying sorry after) is a big cultural no-no among Thais, and that Ek being Lao should have known better because the two countries share a similar culture. 

When reports came that violence had erupted during the protest at Ramkhamhaeng University last Sunday which left at least one dead and a few more injured, I thought about Kwang's flare-up after quietly fuming over Ek's rude habit of kicking her chair for weeks. 

Protests in Bangkok are nothing new - every other week, anti-government protesters would stage demonstrations in open areas such as the pavilion of the Central World shopping mall (which was set on fire by red-shirt Thaksin supporters during the violent 2010 protest against the then Democrat-led government). But they are always peaceful, picketing for a few hours while chanting slogans, and then they would go home. 

So what is it that triggered the frightening rage in these peace-loving Thais, that could potentially put the country in a state of chaos like in 2010?

When The Star online editor Martin Vengedesan asked me about my thoughts on the on-going protests, I told him that I found Thai politics very complicated and am still in the process of understanding it. But from what I have observed in the news, as well as through conversations with taxi drivers, street stall owners and baristas at the coffee outlets I frequent, I sense that beneath the friendly smiles and hospitality, there is great discontent - whether it is with a government they feel is not doing right by them, or with the general state of political unrest that has hindered economic growth.

My favourite question to ask my Thai acquaintances is "Have you been to Malaysia?" (also because this is the only conversation I can carry in Thai, having practiced it many times). So far, the only answer I have gotten is, "I know Malaysia is very near to Thailand. But no, I have not been. No money".  They work very hard, these taxi drivers and street vendors - but what they earn is just enough to feed their families. We may have our weaknesses, but in this sense, I think we Malaysians should count our blessings that most of us are at least able to afford a discounted AirAsia flight to Bangkok. 

I believe that it was the Yingluck-led government's move to pass the amnesty bill behind the backs of the Thais that led to the reaction we are seeing today - it pushed the already disgruntled masses to exclaim like Popeye the Sailor Man, "That's all I can stands! I can't stands it no more!". They've asked nicely, with the peaceful weekly picketing - but it has fallen on deaf ears, and they are tired of "having their chairs kicked". 

As I write this, both the red and yellow shirts are in a three-day ceasefire out of respect for their revered King Bhumipol Adulyadej's birthday. But it is difficult to predict what will happen after the ceasefire is dropped tomorrow (Friday)- the opposition is still determined to overthrow the Pheu Thai-led government, while Yingluck Shinawatra is unyielding.

It has to end one way or another, but may it not cost this beautiful Land of Smiles with its grace and courtesy incomparable to any other nation, too much.


We are not so different
Published in The Star, Nov 16, 2013

Transgender or not, all of us want to be loved and accepted

What Jenny (not her real name) wants is no different from most other 28-year-old women: to marry the man she loves, and to raise a happy, healthy family with him.

However, unlike most women her age, that dream will never come true for Jenny — at least not in Malaysia because Jenny was born a male. While she has accepted this, Jenny says that she does not openly talk about how she had lived as a man until her sex-change operation at age 24. Even her boyfriend does not know, she reveals.

To be honest, if she hadn’t told me herself, I would have gone home suspecting, but not knowing for sure, if she was transgender. Being chubby in the right places, and having very naturally corrected facial features and well-practised tone of voice, there was nothing about her that really gave away her secret.

But she will have to tell him eventually, she says. It will not be fair to keep this a secret from him. Hopefully he will love her enough to accept her for who she is.

Meeting Jenny was a very strange and eye-opening experience for me. I met her when I sat at a table I thought I was sharing with a foreign woman journalist at the Miss International Queen 2013 in Pattaya recently, that was attended by many international media.

Trying to be friendly, I had asked, “Where are you from?”

I was quite delighted, as I always am when I meet Malaysians in Thailand, when she told me that she was from Johor, and that she was not a journalist, but there to support one of the contestants in the international transgender pageant whom I had interviewed earlier.

Now that I knew Jenny was a friend of my interviewee, I began to ask questions about Patricia, the leggy 26-year-old contestant from Sabah who was halfway telling me about the opposition she faced from her family and society for her decision to live as a woman before our interview got cut short by the event organisers, hoping that she would give me more to write about.

But Jenny starts telling me instead about her own struggles (which was how I found out that she was transgender): about how there are no opportunities for transgenders in Malaysia apart from working behind cosmetic counters, or as night-time entertainers, or as so many have been forced to resort to, on the streets.

She tells me that many transgenders misuse drugs and alcohol to deal with their issues, and that “the only way for a transgender to survive is to have money, but at the end of the day, family support mattered the most”.

She says that she is used to people calling her names behind her back, but cannot stand it when they say it loud enough for her to hear.

The decision to undergo a sex-change operation and start a new life as a woman is not one made on a whim, she explains. For her it took many years of considering the consequences, thinking about how her family would handle it, and then finally deciding to go for it because she could not live otherwise.

Life is hard for a transgender in Malaysia, she says with a sigh.

“We are cast aside from society, and people forget that we are also humans who have the same needs: job, family, a home, just like everyone else, and given the opportunity, we can contribute to society and the country.”

As the night progressed, our conversation moved on to other topics — Malaysian politics, beauty tips, TV shows and relationships.

She taught me how to distinguish between a natural woman and a transgender (I still can’t seem to tell many of them apart), and that transgenders in Malaysia have their own slang: “tak pecah lobang” (literally translated to English as “unbroken hole”) is used to describe another transgender who has successfully made herself indistinguishable from a natural woman, and a “fillifalla” is a transgender who is with a man just for his money (a gold-digger).

Meeting and chatting with Jenny was a significant encounter for me because unlike many of my Thai friends who have at least one transgender friend, my own background and lack of exposure had taught me that transgenders are the odd ones who are not really a part of society.

In contrast, transgenders in Thailand are very much accepted as a part of society and many have found successful careers in various sectors, including government service.

As I got to know Jenny, I started to realise that my own preconceptions about the transgender community have been wrong all along, and cruel. It is because like me, much of society views them as “abnormal” and shuns them for being different, that so many are forced into the margins and sadly, onto the streets.

But in reality, Jenny and I are not so different after all, in the sense that we are both people who want to be loved and accepted just as we are.

I cannot claim to understand all the issues concerning the transgender community in Malaysia based on this one conversation with Jenny. Nevertheless, it did leave this thought in my mind: that whatever our moral perspectives about the way other people choose to live their lives, it should not be at the cost of compassion. No one — male or female, transgender or not — deserves to be forced so far into the fringes of society that they are left with no other choice than to work in the lorong to fill their empty stomachs.

The night ended with Jenny giving the writer relationship advice, both adding each other on Facebook, and promises to meet up again whether in Bangkok or back home.


Unequalled tastes of home

Published in The Star on Oct 12, 2013

Discovering what the world has to offer only makes a Malaysian’s cravings for banana leaf meals and other local delights stronger

IN the past couple of weeks, I found myself shuttling between three different cities. The time had come to take that long-planned trip to Kerala, India, and I had to travel home from Bangkok first to join my friends for our flight to the South Indian state from LCCT airport in Sepang.

I used the short transit period I had back home in Petaling Jaya (only 12 hours) to spend some quality time with loved ones, and catch up — in typical Malaysian style, over a good makan.

Prior to my flight home, my dad had texted to ask, “What do you want to eat when you’re here?”

“Banana leaf rice,” I answered without hesitation.

“OK, I’ll take you to this new place in SS3,” came his reply.

The first thing most Malaysians living overseas (regardless of which part of the world) would talk about when asked what they miss most about home is Malaysian food.

While nasi lemak ayam goreng, char kuey teow, durian, curry mee and cendol usually come up top on the list, I always crave for banana leaf rice or Indian food.

I am addicted to the heavy sleep-inducing meal served on a banana leaf, as well as as much of papadam, deep-fried bittergourd and mutton varuval as my stomach would permit.

And I suffer from withdrawal symptoms when deprived of it in Bangkok.

“Bangkok no Indian food, meh?” is a question I am usually asked in response to my rants about my food cravings.

The only place I have found here that serves anything close to what we have back home, is a restaurant located in the “touristy” part of central Bangkok, which I hear is owned by a Malaysian.

Sadly, the authenticity of the dishes have been altered to suit Westeners’ tastebuds, leaving my Malaysian one unsatisfied.

The other response I normally get when I talk about how much I miss Malaysian food is, “You’re in Thailand. You can have all the tomyam and other delicious Thai food you want.”

To be honest, there is only so much Thai food a Malaysian can survive on before he/she starts to miss assam laksa, roti telur, pan mee, and the good ol’ Hainanese chicken rice.

Anyway, while watching me wolf down my dhal-drenched lunch at the Kashmir Cafe in SS3, Petaling Jaya, my dad commented, “Aren’t you going to South India? You can have this every day there. Why not eat something else here?”

What can I say? I really enjoy my banana leaf.

Kerala was indeed a land flowing with dhal and chutney, and my travel companions and I had our fill of idli, puree, thali meals and paneer (cottage cheese) dishes.

Even though it was the “real deal” authentic cuisine, an Indian food enthusiast like me should appreciate, I found myself constantly comparing between mouthfuls.

“This vadai is almost as good as Uncle Naga’s”, “The dhal at Uma’s near the PJ old town market is better”, “The Bru coffee bancuh by the mamak uncle at Menara Star cafeteria is so much more satisfying”, “Why no rasam and fried bittergourd?”

Nevertheless, we truly enjoyed ourselves in Kerala, discovering ancient culture well-preserved and still practised through the arts, architecture and every day life.

We also found ourselves to be quite an attraction to the locals.

Maybe it was our South-East Asian looks, or maybe it was the way we dressed (men and women in Kerala typically wore traditional dhotis and sarees, while we tourists pranced around town in our “Western” jeans and Bermuda shorts), that locals openly stared at us wherever we went, some even going to the extent of taking photos with their mobile phones.

I personally had a great time spending those six days in India catching up with friends whom I used to see every day when we used to work together.

Before flying back to Bangkok, I got to indulge in a breakfast of char kuey teow and teh ais. Not to be overly melodramatic, but really it did feel like a “last real meal”.

While waiting in the LCCT departure lounge to catch my flight back to Thailand, I pondered upon my recent travels (Kerala, and Hanoi a few months earlier), and about living in Bangkok, and how much being away helped me appreciate home all the more.

I enjoy nothing more than to travel to unknown lands, experience new things, people, food and cultures. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that nothing quite compares to home.

To borrow a profound line from a Facebook post by my good friend Terence Toh, who had travelled to Kerala with me, “I love travelling, not just because it allows me to discover new cultures; rather, it allows me to discover myself.”

As it turns out, the more of the world I see, the more I discover how much I love Malaysia and being Malaysian.

The writer and Terence Toh got to sit on a real-life camel on Allepey beach, and eat falooda (Indian fruit sundaes) after.


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