Expat@Large

The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times.

Posted in AK-47, Bangkok, beggars, capitalism, Dickens, soldiers, work by expatatlarge on October 10, 2010

Every day I walk past where a leather-faced, one-legged woman sits on the footpath. I think of her as old, but she might be my age or she might even be my mother’s age. Her skin is so dark. There are several men in pink/orange vests hanging around nearby, drivers for the motor-cycle taxi “stand” under the steps to the elevated crossway. They hog the shade and chat. She sits on a piece of cloth, next to a phone-booth, in the sun. (I count nine public phone booths in this section of footpath.) Her good leg is tucked underneath and her plastic prosthesis is extended into the path to draw attention, but to not block anyone, well not much. She holds her mug out in the stumps of leprosied fingers. Sometimes I drop some coins, 10 or 15Bht, or maybe a 20Bht note into the cup. No-one else does this that I have seen, not even the Buddhist Thais. I am her target demographic.

I take the SkyTrain down to Asok, change to the MTR underground and head to Silom for a day at Chula Hospital. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms, hard black hats with tight chin-straps, large guns, shiny boots and gaiters. There are security gates, metal detectors. One soldier waves me away from the glass-enclosed entrance foyer. All the doors are blocked, save one in the basement of the car-park. He indicates for me to go around. I say no: I must wait for someone here, but he insists. I too insist though I don’t have a gun to support my argument. There are some chairs near a drinks machine and some soldiers are taking a rest. I indicate that I will join them, wait here. I take a copy of the IHT out of my Samsonite satchel in order to finish the Sudoku puzzle I had started at the breakfast buffet in The Landmark. The resting soldiers smile and nod hello. One moves over a seat to give me room, moves his AK-47, so polite. The soldier who had tried to get me to go to the other door waves to say it’s OK, he smiles. The Royal Niece is upstairs having her goitre removed.

I come back via Siam Station in the early evening, change trains around 6 o’clock. Music plays over a public speaker and thousands of commuters stop, everyone a statue. It seems weird to me, this frozen state, this nationalism.

At the very top of the stairs that I take down from the Nana station is a Sootra juice and herb drinks stall with a display of brightly colored plastic bottles of juices in crushed ice, and more in a refrigerator behind the server. I indicate a bottle of the chilled passion-fruit and beetroot juice, for 20Bht. The server is on her mobile phone, talking. She is only watching me out of the corner of her eye while she places a bottle in a plastic bag and takes the 20Bht note I offer.

At the bottom of the steps another beggar, a much younger woman, is seated. She holds a cup towards me in wai-ing hands and pleads with big eyes. She has a comatose infant draped across her lap. I walk past her, glowering, whatever change I have loose (maybe 20Bht) is still in my pocket. Within a second I feel guilty for my disgust and a second after that, I don’t. I was unjustly accusing her with my glare and no doubt it made her feel bad, or maybe not. I know that while it is not her fault that she is so desperately poor that she has been given this drugged child to hold in order to grab at my sympathies and that post-colonial (not that Thailand was ever colonized) guilt, and that neither she nor the child will never see again any of the money that is placed in her cup.

As I slide past the motorcycle-taxi drivers, I hear a cackling laugh up ahead. The drivers are sauntering, hovering from foot to foot, joking with someone. It seems weird too, like there was stand-up routine and I couldn’t understand the patter. The cackle is coming from the one-legged beggar, still in her place by the phone-booth. She spoons some curry out of a plastic bag into her toothless mouth, grins gleefully back at her friends, the laughing drivers.

We are all in this together, we all have a role to play, we are all doing our jobs in the Dickensian City of Angels.

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Two years ago in Rangoon, I met a toothpick-thin, boisterous young Burmese man called Somerset. He had conferred this nickname on himself at age sixteen, after renting a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham from one of the bookstalls on Pansodan Road. By memorizing sentences from the collection, Somerset taught himself a somewhat formal and archaic English. Then he moved on to Charles Dickens. His identification with the works of these long-dead British writers was total. “All of those characters are me,” Somerset explained. “Neither a British nor American young man living in the twenty-first century can understand a Dickens as well as I can. I am living in a Dickens atmosphere. Our country is at least one or two centuries behind the Western world. My neighborhood—bleak, poor, with small domestic industries, children playing on the street, the parents are fighting with each other, some are with great debt, everyone is dirty. That is Dickens. In that Dickens atmosphere I grew up. I am more equipped to understand Dickens than modern novels. I don’t know what is air conditioning, what is subway, what is fingerprint exam.” Dickens In Lagos – Lapham’s Quarterly

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E@L

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Smaller Is Beautifuller

Posted in beer, capitalism, economics, stuff I should shutup about, vegemite, work by expatatlarge on April 4, 2010

There was great show about the decline of British industry on BBC TV just a minute ago, but on their website they say something else was broadcast. Did I really see it? Did it makes a noise? It certainly did.

The final concept on the show, after all the gloom of walking through the empty shells of extinct (read gone overseas) industries, was ‘sustainable capitalism’, supposedly based on the lessons of nature!?

It ended with interviews with the managers of several small companies in West Wales (that hub of business innovation) which work towards the optimization of profit and the flexibility that offers, rather than trying to screw everybody tight in order to maximize profits, i.e. to become uber-rich through shares and fantastic bonuses while everyone else becomes unemployed. They say that this latter goal gives big companies no room to move and, it goes without saying (though I’ll say it), destroys familiar social standards.

How? One major culprit in this fragmentation, but by no means the only one, is the effects of the global labour pool, of which I too am a participant. Because of this traditional jobs and career paths fall away and the family unit is broken apart when the breadwinners have to move around continually to find work. Not to mention the boom in coolie Asian or East European labour (though I’ll mention it).

And then there is the destruction of the environment which is never factored in to these companies’ bottom-line equations, and the bringing on of the end of the world as we know it, resulting the bleak choking post-apocalyptic death of our grandchildren (if the No.1 son and GF ever get a move on).

No, it is not communism. It is common sense.

And it’s not new. Small IS beautiful.

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It seems true to me anyway.

Until our uber-rich bonus-bloated aging CEO of the company that was my first expat posting stood to receive $35m in the deal, enough to fund his retirement home in the penthouse of the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, allowed it to be swallowed by the K-Mart of medical giants Philips, the first small(ish) company that I worked for was brilliant, apart from the traitorous CEO obviously. Everyone knew everybody (except the CEO); it was a casual Seattle-based environment; paperwork was minimal; unhelpful “management trainings” were eschewed; things got done through casual requests to the key people; employees stayed in their chosen roles for as long as they wished and therefore maintained a high level of expertise and then thy moved up if they wanted to, through their skill and experience and (for those who could find him) sucking up to the CEO.

Other companies called it “the farm” because of its laid-back attitude.

Everything in Philips was, by contrast, all glass and blue steel, formal and impersonal: they never knew what my skills actually were – REAL manager in an area I knew nothing about? no fucking way! – and the back-stabbing (including by the CEO) and politics was claustrophobic. The only benefit I gained from Philips was that I met some wonderful people, many of whom are still great friends, despite my move to Singapore.

But my current role in this small(er than Philips) Japanese company is much like I had in the farm. Apart from the games I play on my business card (I managed [ho! I must be a manager after all] to get away with claiming a bullshit “manager” role last time), nothing much happens formally except as one would expect within the structural anachronism of the Japanese company; paperwork is non-existent to minimal; they respect my actual skills and try to leverage them and I hope to have this low-stress job for as long as I want it (and the Yen eventually comes down). If my company goes under, it will be because it over-reaches itself in tough markets like Australia and the US, where Philips reigns due to its median-level pricing and the good technologies (all from one great [French Canadian] engineer, actually] that were inherited from my previous company.

It is in the lunge to get bigger that most smaller business fail.

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Or maybe, in the interest of destroying the global labour market from within, I should go back home now, give up my low-stress job and my *immense* salary (no shares, no bonuses) and tax benefits so I can be marginally employed, watch the five channels of Australian free-to-air television, wash down my vegemite sandwiches with VB, pick fights in pubs and argue with the neighbours, in the great Aussie social tradition?

At least they speak English there (depending upon my choice of suburb).

E@L