September 30, 2003
Getting to Know the Locals
Writer's Note: Starting on Monday, I will be participating in a two-week volunteer program with an NGO (non-governmental organization or non-profit) in Thailand. I will be working with a minority hill tribe group called the Akha, whose origin is thought to be Tibetan or Mongolian and who, with other culturally unique hill tribe groups, have settled in the mountainous border areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Hence the early delivery of this week's "Spots of Time." I will do my best to send out next week's column (as a trip into town is scheduled for the weekend). However, for those of you tracking my columns as an indication of the safety of my being, please do not panic if the column does not appear. :) I should be back on track as of Tuesday, October 14, 2003, when I return to the town of Chiang Rai.
“So, do you know where the American Embassy is located?” said Surin, a local Thai man I met in Chiang Mai.
“No,” I said, thinking, hmmm, the restaurant we are going to must be nearby to it.
“What if I was a kidnapper?” he said casually.
“Very funny” I said, my voice light and teasing. “Are you a kidnapper?”
“So you don’t know the phone number of the American Embassy?” he insisted.
“No,” I said. “Are you telling me I should open the car door now and roll out onto the street?”
Though I was laughing, a part of me was thinking – wow – he is right. What if he is a kidnapper? I’d only met him a week earlier and now I was in his car on the way to a restaurant somewhere in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Then I heard a familiar “click” sound – the sound of him automatically locking all the doors. My heard began to beat a little bit faster.
“Now what would you do?” he said.
People who travel always say they want to "get to know the locals" - to have an "authentic" experience. But, in reality, most travelers only get to know other travelers - especially in the backpacking circle. In truth, getting to know other travelers is a hell of a lot easier. Most travelers speak English, are from first world nations, young (or young at heart), and are similarly "fish out of water" - foreigners in a foreign land. Their presence means you have at least one thing in common – travel. That is usually enough to start off a conversation – one that might quickly lead to some kind of friendship.
Getting to know the locals is another story. Language barriers, cultural barriers, uncertainty of local traditions - all these things contribute to most travelers only chatting with tourist-oriented locals - taxi or tuk tuk drivers, guesthouse and restaurant owners, tour guides, etc. While these relationships can sometimes turn into friendships, for the most part they are business-oriented relationships at best.
Getting a big nervous but still MOSTLY sure he was kidding, I continued to laugh it off. “Well, I do have a piece of paper in my purse that say ‘Help! I’m being kidnapped!’ written in Thai,” I said jokingly.
“And pepper spray?” he asked?
“Oh sure – right here,” I said, patting my bag. I was still trying to speak lightly but noticed some tension creeping into my voice. Did I horribly misjudge Surin's overtures of friendship?
There was a pause and the car was silent. “You’re scaring me,” he said, his voice quite serious.
“You’re scaring ME,” I said too quickly, my voice unconsciously raising an octave.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Surin said, with noticeable worry in his voice. “I’m sorry, I didn't’t mean to scare you.”
We were silent for a minute. Both of us were unsure what to say next. Saving face is a huge issue in Thai culture and I didn't want to offend him. At the same time, I was a woman traveling alone in a country as foreign to me as the local's tradition of eating fried bugs as snacks - if I didn't take care of myself, who would?
“You know," I said hesitantly, "It’s just that humor is the hardest thing to convey – especially in another language. They say the true sign of fluency is being able to tease people in another language."
"Yes, yes, I know this," he said. "You must be so careful to not go too far. I hope I did not upset you - I was kidding only."
"Of course, no worries," I said, more confidently. "I just have to be careful you know. A woman traveling alone in a foreign culture - it is easy for misunderstandings to take place."
Surin and I met at the local market, around the corner from my guesthouse. The guesthouse, located on the other side of the river in Chiang Mai, is a bit off the beaten path - purely because of location. A good twenty-minute walk from the Tha Phae Gates, a central point in the city, my "neighborhood" is rarely visited by “farang” – the Thai word for “white foreigner.” Therefore, the local market is not at all tourist oriented. I first visited the market on the morning I arrived in Chiang Mai, following an overnight train from Bangkok. I liked the atmosphere - and the food - so I kept returning.
After only two mornings, I was a regular. The only farang in the market – day in and day out – made me a bit of an oddity, though everyone was really friendly. I think Surin and I met the second day. He was the only one who spoke English really well, though Visshit and Waa, the couple who ran the coffee counter, understood enough. We enjoyed chatting – me asking tons of questions about Thailand, and Surin excited to practice his English.
After a few days Surin asked me if I would go to lunch with him. I hesitated for a second, unsure what kind of invitation he was making. “As friends,” he said, quickly. “Ok,” I said, though still a big hesitant. It must have showed, as he then pulled out his wallet and said, “This is my wife and my son.” Looking at the picture a big wave of relief passed over me. I smiled at him and complimented the picture. “My wife is pregnant with our second child,” he said. All of a sudden, Surin wasn't just a random man I met at the market – he was a husband and a father. That afternoon, when we met for lunch, I brought my mini photo album - to show pictures of my family, my friends. I wanted to make sure he saw me as a whole person - a daughter and a sister - and not just a farang traveler.
“You know,” Surin said, once we had arrived at the restaurant and had ordered dinner, “I was so scared what you think when I ask you to lunch that first day."
“I wasn't sure what kind of invitation you were making either,” I admitted. “I wanted to go, but I have to be careful. It made me feel so much better when you showed me the picture of your wife and son. That helped me to understand that you wanted friendship and not more.”
‘That is why I showed you the picture,” he said. “I didn't want you to get the wrong idea.”
We smiled. Understanding was beginning to shed light on what had been a very formal and uncertain relationship.
"Friendship between cultures is a lot harder than most people think," I said. "And, I think that friendship between a man and a woman is even more difficult - there are so many things that can be misunderstood - especially in Thailand." I looked expectantly at him, hoping for understanding.
Thailand has a dark underbelly of prostitution - and pedophilia. It is very common to see foreign men walking around the streets with Thai women, often much younger than the men. Once or twice at the restaurant, I noticed a group of people looking at Surin and I - we were certainly an oddity. While it is very common to see foreign men with Thai women, it is very rare to see foreign women with Thai men. Since my arrival I had tried not to judge these situations by sight alone (in some cases the relationships are legitimate). And, as I could only imagine what our friendship looked like to outsiders, my relationship with Surin helped me to be even less judgmental. That said, I will admit that in most situations I have witnessed, the relationships between Thai women and foreign men appear (at least to me) to be fueled by a monetary flame, not a romantic one.
"This is very true," he said. "That is why I try very hard... (and here he thought for a minute) ...not to cross the line."
"And you haven't," I said quickly. "Even though it is hard, I think it is important to trust people. I think people want to trust people, but most are too afraid and so protect themselves by not opening themselves up to opportunities for friendship." I paused and smiled, "Like this one."
"But you must be careful - not everyone is good - even here in Thailand," he said. "Even monks. Just like anywhere, there are good people and bad people."
Surin's concern for me was touching, but slightly ironic. Our conversation, this dinner, our friendship - wouldn't be possible if I had not decided to open myself up to trusting him. And here he was warning me against doing it again. Still, a new father with a wife only a few years older than I, his concern was understandable. Part of our dinner conversation that night involved him expressing how his life had been changed with the birth of his son. Where all of a sudden he knew what it was to be willing to put his life on the line for someone. I thought silently to my dad and his constant worry and concern about his only daughter undertaking a solo around the world trip. My dad had told me many times that I wouldn't understand his worry until I had children of my own. I mentioned this thought to Surin and he agreed. Apparently his mother had told him the same thing - and only now did he really get it.
We shook hands that night when he dropped me off at my guesthouse. It was my instinct to give him a hug goodbye - what I would have done had I spent a similar evening with another traveler I'd gotten to know. However, I resisted. The evening's conversation had broken down a lot of of the walls of misunderstanding. But, maybe not all of them. The rest of them would take a little more time. Which was ok by me. Some of the best lessons are learned slowly, through trial and error.
You know, like baby steps.
September 23, 2003
The Kingdom Of Thailand
You are now in Bangkok, Thailand. 15 degree, 00' North, 100 degrees, 00' East
If you fly along this Latitude in an easterly direction, you will look down on Manila, Philippines; Guam; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Dominica; Dakar, Senegal; Niamey, Niger; Khartoum, Sudan; Asmara, Eritrea; Sanaa, Yemen; Madras, India; Bangkok.
If you fly along this Longitude starting north, you will look down on Dali, China; Bayanhongor, Mongolia; Bratsk, Russia; North Pole; Padang, Indonesia; Bangkok.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the leader of the Kingdom of Thailand, is either a very, very good husband, or a very, very bad husband. There is no other way to explain the countless photographs of his wife, Queen Sirikit, which cover Thailand like rainbow flags during Gay Pride in San Francisco.
When I first arrived in Thailand, I was immediately struck by the enormous larger-than-life images of Queen Sirikit, dozens of which lined the street on either side of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. After a few more days I noticed that her image could be found EVERYWHERE. Hence my theory. If the King is a bad husband, I imagine that each one of these is an "I'm sorry, honey" - done extravagantly, as only royalty can do. If, on the other hand, he is a good husband, then each one of these images is a tribute to his wife - and every woman in his kingdom. How can any Thai woman, young or old, look upon these pictures and think anything but good thoughts of the King?
His Majesty King Bhumibol is the world's longest-reigning living monarch. Born in 1927, in the United States, where his father was studying at Harvard University, the King has been ruling Thailand for over 50 years. Known as Rama IX, King Bhumibol is the ninth ruler in the Chakri dynasty. He is currently 76 years old and said to be in failing health - though no one talks about such things in public. In fact, the average visitor to Thailand might guess the King to be a fit man in his 40s - I know I did. It wasn't entirely my fault. Every photograph I saw of him in my first two weeks in Thailand (and there were many, many photographs) showed a man in the prime of his life.
To give you an idea of the King's popularity, prior to the screening of every movie in Thailand, the entire audience is asked to "stand and pay your respects to the King." The entire audience stands and an instrumental version of the Thai national anthem is played with an assortment of floating circular photographs of the king touring the country, superimposed in front of a lush green Thai landscape. It's actually very touching - propaganda sure, but very well done propaganda. The final picture shows a more mature image of the King - closer to what I presume he looks like now, in his late 70s.
A constitutional monarchy, Thailand is "ruled" by the King, but true governmental power resides with the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was popularly elected a few years ago (voting is compulsory in Thailand). That said, saying the King is nothing more than a figure head in Thailand doesn't seem to be an accurate assessment. The people seem to truly love and respect their monarch, and there are many examples of the King helping to "sway" legislation through his endorsement of matters.
Americans (myself included) have long been fascinated with royalty - probably because we don't have our own with which to gossip and obsess. Princess Diana was particularly popular in America, and I vividly remember where I was when I heard that she had died. Though I once traveled to the United Kingdom, complete with visit to Buckingham Palace and a tour of the Crown Jewels, my arrival to Thailand had me much more obsessed with the concept of a "kingdom." And I would be lying if I said "The King and I" didn't play a role. The first time I watched that movie I developed a romantic notion of what a kingdom was like in the eastern world - royalty riding on elephants, colorfully dressed women and exotic tropical surroundings.
Much of what Americans know about royalty in Thailand is rooted in an exaggerated story about Rama IV, known to the Western world as King Mongkut, that has found its way into popular American culture in the form of the musical and several movies, most recently "Anna and the King." Based on a book written by Anna Leonowens, who was brought to Thailand as an English teacher, the book exaggerates Leonowens's role in the court, her relationship with the king and her influence on social reform in Thailand. In fact, the film "The King and I" so enraged Thai people that it was banned in Thailand.
It is true that many social reforms and changes took place in Thailand (then Siam) around the time of King Mongkut, but most especially during the the reign of his son, Rama V. Rama V enjoys a popular following in Thailand, like that of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, for his contributions to the country. Educated by European tutors, he is credited with fending off colonization - a major feat during that time period. Thailand is the only country in South East Asia that was not colonized by European powers. He abolished slavery and was the first of the Thai Kings to travel to Europe. While it is said that more land was lost during his reign than of any other monarch, it can also be said that by giving away the minor interests he was able to preserve the major ones - the core of Thailand.
My Thai friend Surin told me that Rama V was the monarch who first introduced eating utensils to Thailand - previously Thai people ate most all food with their hands. The story goes that after eating an elaborate formal meal in Europe, the King determined that of all the dozens of utensils used, only one fork and one spoon were really useful and necessary. To this day, with the exception of noodles (with which they use chopsticks) and sticky rice (with which they still use their hands) most urban Thai's eat their meals with a spoon and a fork - spearing and moving the food with the fork, but eating out of the spoon.
Writer's Note: Much of the above historical data on Thailand comes from my Lonely Planet guidebook for Thailand - whose reputation is excellent but which, like most sources of information, is not completely infallible. Sure Lonely Planet can tell me that modern Thailand, slightly smaller than Texas or about the size of France, is a country of 62 million people, 95% of which are Buddhist. That Thailand offers all of its citizens free education until the age of twelve years old and has the highest literacy rate of all of South East Asia. I won't argue with that. But, the story of King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens reminds me that there are two sides to every story - and that I must be careful what information on Thailand I accept and which information I reject - be that from books, expats, Thais or other travelers. While gathering information is good, I also need to keep my eyes open and judge for myself. As a monk told me during my recent medidation course, "Don't just listen to what I say and take it to be true - do your own research and determine if this is right - if this works for you."
Wise words - pass it on.
September 16, 2003
The Ice Factory
"Are you ok?" the man said. I turned my head away from the airplane window and looked up at him with scared eyes about to say, "actually no, I'm not ok," when I realized he was talking to his three year old son, who was coughing and saying he was feeling sick. I turned back to the window as the dad handed him an airsickness bag. "I know the feeling kid," I wanted to say, staring helplessly at my own airsickness bag. Outside my rain streaked window I saw my first glimpse of "The Kingdom of Thailand" and I was scared.
This was unlike me. I should have been excited. I should have been jumping up and down in my seat, regardless of the stormy weather. The Kingdom of Thailand was opening its doors to me and all I wanted to do was turn around and go back.
I know it sounds insane, but my single biggest fear of traveling is not losing my passport, a break out of civil war, weird food, strange customs, acts of terrorism, or road accidents - it is not being understood. It is not being able to ask directions, order food, or get myself out of a mess. It is opening my mouth and speaking to someone who comprehends my words as little more than gibberish - grown-up baby talk - that might sound cute but has no real meaning to them and no real communication value.
Though my past travels have taken me to four separate continents, I always knew the language of the country in which I was traveling. Spanish took care of me in Spain, Mexico and South America, English took care of me in the UK, Canada and Australia, and Serbo-Croatian took care of me in the former Yugoslavia. Singapore, being a former British colony, still had English as one of the four official languages. Suddenly I was in Thailand, a place that has never been colonized for any length of time, a place where people spoke Thai - a language I wasn't sure I'd ever heard before, much less had any chance of speaking or communicating with to anyone.
I knew I was being irrational. I'd met numerous travelers in South American who spoke little or no Spanish when they arrived, and had traveled successfully for months. I'd met travelers in Australia who could hardly speak English and still they managed to obtain rooms, order food, book tours, and generally have a good time. I was one of the lucky ones - I already spoke English, the unofficial language of the international traveler. Logically, I realized I would be fine. Yet none of that helped to quiet my mind from the plethora of "what if" situations that I could get into because I didn't speak the native language.
My salvation came in the form of a young Italian man named Giacomo. Sitting a few tables away from me at my guesthouse, the Wild Orchid Inn, he was reading a book when I practically accosted him by sitting down and announcing that-it-was-my-first-time-in-Asia-and-that-I-was-freaked-out-and-driving-myself-mad-writing-in-my-journal-and-I-didn't-speak-Thai-and-wasn't-sure-if-I-was-going-to-be-ok-and-would-he-mind-if-I-joined-him-for-a-while-because-I-really-needed-to-talk-to-another-human-being? He was laughing as I sat down, but I didn't care, as he was smiling while he laughed and had clearly understood everything I'd just said.
Giacomo and I talked for hours - about Thailand and travel, about his work as a freelance photographer, his travels to Asia (one or two trips every year for the past seven years), and my insecurities about not being able to communicate with people because of language. When he told me about his first experience traveling in hill tribe villages without a guide, I asked him how he communicated his needs. He mimed putting something into his mouth - "food" - and then mimed falling asleep - "bed." Right. It was that simple - yet I was trying to make it into something complicated.
His easy going attitude, his kind smile and his confirmed experience comforted me, but the single best thing he did for me that night - what I will always remember - is our visit to the ice factory.
Just a few blocks from the techno beat and neon lights of backpacker activity on Ko San Road, in a place where the river and the canal meet in the old part of the city, stands a building dedicated to making ice. Here tubes of ice and blocks of ice are made for the city, and groups of mainly teenage boys work in the cooler evening hours loading the ice into bags, sliding coffee table-sized blocks of ice into a cold room, and making deliveries on their motorbikes.
Giacomo and I walked to the ice factory and I watched as he walked right up to the boys and wandered around their workspace, checking out what they were doing, joking with them about the bags of ice and their weight, and walking straight into the cold room to have a look around. Before I knew what was happening, I was helping to unload bags of ice and posing for pictures, commenting how strong the boys were and how heavy the bags of ice were, standing inside the enormous cold room while slabs of ice came sliding down a ramp from the truck that had just delivered them, slamming into the back wall and then being perfectly stacked with the others. The boys did not speak English and I did not speak Thai. But we understood each other perfectly, and they laughed as I showed them the pictures and we all smiled and waved as we walked back to the guesthouse.
Giacomo calmed the panic inside of me and opened a door into the ease of communication - from that one conversation and that one trip to the ice factory. He made me realize there was nothing to fear from Asia, language barrier or not. He made me remember something I had been taught years earlier - that non-verbal communication was 90% of all communication - and now I had the chance to not only test the theory, but to put it into practice. Because not only did I not speak Thai, but I didn't speak Lao or Vietnamese or Burmese or Khmer - the official languages of the other countries I planned to visit while in South-East Asia.
Giacomo's last night in Bangkok was my first, and our meeting completed a traveler's circle - a circle of beginnings and endings, of starts and finishes - a revolving door of comings and goings. Two paths colliding - one leaving, full of bittersweet memories and confident experience, the other arriving, an empty slate ready to be bombarded with a new world of adventures and unknowns.
It is too soon for me to think about the end of my circle of Asia, but when it comes, I am sure that there will be someone ready to take my place - naive and eager, excited and scared, and ready to pass through the revolving door, with little more than a guidebook and some advice from a veteran on their way to somewhere new.
Next week: The Kingdom of Thailand
September 09, 2003
Asia For Beginners
You are now in Singapore. 1 degree, 20' North, 103 degrees, 50' East
If you fly along this Latitude in an easterly direction, you will look down on Tarawa, Kiribati; Christmas Island; Ibarra, Ecuador; Macapa, Brazil; Libreville, Gabon; Kisangani, Zaire; Kampala, Uganda; Singapore.
If you fly along this Longitude starting north, you will look down on Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Hanoi, Vietnam; Ulaaanbaatar, Mongolia; Irkutsk, Russia; North Pole; Jakarta, Indonesia; Singapore.
Tuesday, September 9, 2003
I was not ready to squat – yet. With a choice of options, I was not yet ready to give up the familiarity of the Western toilet for the ubiquitous ness of the Asian squat toilet. The fact that Lonely Planet said squat toilets were considered more hygienic and people who use them were less likely to develop hemorrhoids did nothing to sway me. I had not been too concerned with hemorrhoids up until this point, and I didn't’t think an obsession with them would coincide with my travels in South East Asia.
My bathroom dilemma took place in the Singapore airport, moments after I passed through the “radiation-free temperature check point" (a continued SARS precaution) in a place I never planned to fly through, much less visit. Singapore, (an island/nation/city/state all known by the same name) located at the southern tip of mainland Malaysia and surrounded by the islands of Indonesia, is most famous as a shopping mecca and the Asian home of many Western businesses. Used frequently as a stop-over for long distance flights, it didn't have much in the way of its own culture. At least, that is what I once thought - boy, was I wrong.
I spent my first evening sweating in Chinatown. Food laden tray in hand, I surveyed my seating options. To my right, two backpackers. To my left, two twenty-something Singaporean women. If I went right, I could guess what would happen – we would go through the formalities of where we were from, where we had been traveling and where we were going. If I went left there were no guarantees. I might spend the evening quite alone, or I might actually meet some locals. I went left.
Two hours later I was walking around Chinatown with Kelly and Samantha, the two Singaporean women, who actually turned out to be Malaysian-born Chinese, and having a great time.
A fusion of mostly Chinese, but with significant populations of Malay and Indian, the Singaporean people seem to live quite harmoniously together despite significant religious and cultural differences. Instead of each group being a puzzle piece that fits in with another, only touching but not overlapping, Singapore is more like a collage, with each piece of culture, of religion, of people, overlapping with the next to form a beautiful pattern of harmonious differences. For example, the largest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman, is located right in the middle of Chinatown. But then, The Temple of 1000 Lights, a famous Buddhist temple, is located in Little India. There are many more such examples.
Once part of the Great British Empire, Singapore changed hands many times before becoming its own independent nation in the 1965. A country without much in the way of natural resources (it must import 100% of all its food and energy), one of Singapore's biggest draws has been the ease at which Western companies could set up their Asia bases here - without the huge culture shock associated with other Asian countries. You see, while there are four official languages in Singapore, most everyone speaks English, which is taught in all the schools.
Maybe that's why I've heard Singapore referred to as "Asia for Beginners" by frequent travelers or expats living in the region. Or, perhaps its because in the space of one small island, you can experience a taste of Asia - without feeling like you have left the western world.
For those who want to feel like they are in the United States or Europe, Orchard Road is like a Western shopping mecca - offering everything from the all inclusive Dairy Queen and Burger King to the exclusive Cartier and Gucci. For those wanting to travel to India, colorful saris, marigold flower vendors and the intoxicating scents of curry and incense are all possible in Little India. More interested in China? Head to Chinatown where you'll find red paper shops, hundreds of yummy hawker stands and traditional Chinese temples. And, there is no safer place for an American to visit a Mosque and experience Muslim culture and food than Arab Street.
In the same neighborhood you are likely to see turbaned Sikh men wearing sweater vests, you will also see blond haired ballerinas holding their mum's hands, Indian woman dressed in traditional saris, and Singaporean youth in blue jeans and designer T-shirts. And, not only are differences tolerated, they seem to be happily accepted.
The next afternoon I met Samantha, a devout Buddhist, at a gorgeous and famous Buddhist monastery, a place she went every Saturday, to work and to chant. I walked through the temple with her as she paid her respects to the no less than 10 Buddha images, bowing deeply, with hands pressed palms together between her forehead and her heart. In-between Buddha, I asked her endless questions about Buddhism - from this specific temple's design (traditionally Chinese) to why Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads (Kelly said that the stress and the worries of the world can be found in your hair - hmmm, and I thought that was just the grey ones!). I also asked her if it was considered appropriate for non-Buddhists to bow to Buddha images when touring temples. She said it was, and that Buddhists saw it as a way of paying respect for their religion, even if it wasn't your own. As we continued our rounds of the Buddha, I joined her in paying my respects, peaking out of the corner of my eye to see if anyone thought it odd to see a white Westerner bowing to a Buddha. No one appeared to even notice.
And then, as abruptly as it started, it was over. Back on board Singapore Airlines, flying toward Bangkok, my 48 hour visit to Singapore seemed like a cheap one night stand - especially in comparison to my 9.5 month love affair with Australia. "Asia for Beginners" was over - in only two hours I would be in The Kingdom of Thailand and my biggest fear of travel would become a reality - how would I manage when I entered a place where I couldn't speak the local language?
Oh, and for those of you who are weirdly curious, the opportunity to use a squat toilet did present it self again – and this time I took it. No further detail shall be provided, than you very much. ;)
**The above was taken from James A. Michener's book, "The Drifters" (1971) and customized for the author. The formula will continue to be borrowed, as needed, in future columns as the author thinks it is a brilliant way of pinpointing her location in this big crazy world.
Next week: Bangkok, Thailand
September 02, 2003
Escape From Australia
Immigration raided the Sydney offices of the American company I worked for just one week before I was due to leave the country. To say the experience shook a former coworker of mine (also American) would be an understatement. But, hey, maybe he was overreacting? What IS the proper way to respond to the news that six Australian immigration officers, asking after your company, are in the lobby and blocking all the exits to the building?
To recap for those of you who missed Part One, the start-up I worked for in Sydney and its American partner dissolved ties, closing offices in Singapore, India, China, New Zealand and Australia and letting go all but four employees (including the CEO). Due to a paperwork snafu, the company refused to pay me for my last invoice, a total of several thousand Australian dollars. My attempts to reason with the venture firm controlling the funds were fruitless. I was advised and cautioned by most involved to let the matter drop and move on with my travels - and well, I almost did.
Instead, I hired a lawyer.
You see, the situation became bigger than just the money. There was principle behind it. A company that advertises its mission statement as "Our Word is Our Bond" and then tries to get out of paying money rightfully earned, with its CEO lying to my face and playing dirty, well, that is just wrong. And, though I realized I had an uphill battle to fight, I knew that win or lose, at least this way I will know that I did everything I could and didn't just cower in the corner, another victim of the system.
The battle started with a letter which lead to some phone calls and after a few weeks my lawyer informed me that the company was now trying to get money out of me! Wait a minute - they owe me money and they expect me to pay? Unsure of what to do, I asked for his advice. In his perfect South African accent he said:
"Melanie, I would advice you to leave Australia as soon as possible."
"Once you are gone I can get more aggressive, but if you are here the company can make a lot of trouble for you - they have already threatened to call immigration and the taxation board."
So, here I sit in a guesthouse in Bangkok, mulling over the nine months, one week and five days I spent in the land Down Under. Don't get my wrong - Bangkok and Asia were part of the travel plan - but I had rather hoped to leave of my own accord as opposed to rushing for fear of immigration detainment.
Before I left, an Aussie friend said to me, "It's a shame that this experience has tainted your time in Australia." I agreed with her, but later wondered - had it really?
Sure, being legally advised to leave the country wasn't EXACTLY how I pictured moving on, and potentially entering into a legal suit also wasn't on my list of "Things To Do In Oz." But, at the same time, I never thought I would do corporate work in Sydney, go to Darwin or the Top End, see two koala bears duking it out in a tree, camp next to a crocodile-infested billabong, get hit on by my surf instructor and about 500 other things that weren't part of my original "plan."
So, while I'll admit that I'm not sure I have much of a chance of getting back my money, I've decided not to stress or worry about it - and DEFINATELY not let it affect the wonderful memories I have of my time living, working and traveling in Australia. As a sign in the MRT (subway) in Singapore said:
"If you cannot help but worry, understand that worrying can not help you either." Pretty good advice in my book.
Oh, and regarding the immigration raid in Sydney? Well, after rightfully freaking out, my co-worker set up a meeting with one of the immigration officers. A nightmare of inaction on the part of the American company, they finally put him in touch with two lawyers, both of whom accompanied him to the meeting. The officer looked a bit surprised to see my co-worker flanked with representation and reiterated that their meeting was "simply an educational forum to update your company on the Australian policies of hiring non-resident workers." An educational forum huh? Oh, well that makes sense - OF COURSE you would need to send six officers after one person - for the sake of EDUCATION.
Next week: "Asia for Beginners"