Friday, June 11, 2004

The Many Uses of "Rubber Time"

The Many Uses of "Rubber Time"

It was raining early this morning, Johan, Mike and I decided to take a taxi to our client's office instead of the skytrain. It was big mistake. Our cab got caught in gridlocked traffic in front of the Central World Plaza. For half-an-hour we didn't move an inch. Sensing the hopelessness of the situation, we finally decided to ask the taxi driver turn back and take us to the Rajdamri train station instead.

Luckily the rain had subsided a little bit by then. We thought we were half-an-hour late but fortunately our Thai customers also practise what the Indonesians call jam karet or "rubber time". I'm quite used to that. At least, there's no last minute cancellation--that happens often enough in Indonesia.

It can be very stressful if we are constantly being squeezed by time. Maybe our paradigm here is wrong: Why do we always say we want to "catch up" with friends or spend "quality time" with the family or "chase" after project datelines? Are we implying that the way we go about our daily lives is "slow" and that there are different categories of time--some of "better quality" than others?

Last year, I wrote a blog entry about how different people can perceive time very differently. Yes, time is a precious and limited resource, but we also have to think if some of our modern-day habits are really about using our time productively or more of an addiction to the adrenalin rush that comes with speed. By always being in a hurry, we also subconsciously pander to our need for feeling self-important. "Important" people have no time to lose, because "time is money".

Interestingly there are also certain people who purposely (and sometimes subconsciously) arrive late for appointments to make themselves appear more important, and put other people who are kept waiting, at a psychological disadvantage.

Time, can be experienced and manipulated in so many different ways. Time is indeed like karet (rubber)--it is flexible and can be made into any shape for many different uses. Some people use it like a mask to cover their insecurities, others use it to choke themselves to an asphyxial high.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Emissaries of Materialism

The Emissaries of Materialism

Tiziano Terzani, an Italian journalist, in his travelogue, A Fortune-Teller Told Me, calls the overseas Chinese the "emissaries of materialism". He wrote:
If one day all the Chinese of the region took it into their heads to stay at home, close up shop and not go to work, the Indonesians would have no cars to drive, or cigarettes to smoke, or paper to write on; the Filipinos would have no ships to ferry them between their thousands of islands; the Japanese would have no prawns in their pots. Most of the skyscrapers under construction would remain unfinished. The whole continent would shake in its boots, because it is the Chinese of the diaspora who are the fuel that drives the engine of the Southeast Asian economic micracle. And who are they exactly? Descendants of coolies and merchants, of the poor devils who for decades have emigrated to seek their fortune in the nanyang, the South Seas.
I myself am descended from these coolies and merchants too. Sometimes I wonder if I possess the qualities that make the diaspora Chinese so successful. If I do, then I don't seem to be making full use of them--I'm certainly not a "successful" Chinese!

The prosperity of the overseas Chinese has unfortunately made them easy targets of hate and jealousy everywhere. They are seen as selfish, arrogant and not willing to mingle with the natives but will not hesitate to take advantage of them as cheap sources of labour.

Terzani had this to say about the Chinese in Bangkok:
Here, thanks to the tolerance of the people and to Buddhism, they have found work, married and become citizens with full rights...the Chinese soon amassed huge wealth. The Thais (natives) have little aptitude for war and business; they are playful, always keener on fun than on work..."Mai ping rai" is their favourite expression. It means "Never mind", "It doesn't matter", "Why worry?"...The Chinese, with their innate practicality, have profited enormously from this Thai attitude, and have become masters of the city.
When I was living in Indonesia, I often asked the Javanese, Betawi and Sundanese people sensitive questions like: Are the Chinese people greedy and arrogant? They always answered me without fear or inhibition, because I was seen as a "Malaysian" who did not exhibit any of the characteristics of a "typical Chinese". I enjoyed listening to their frank views.

There are a lot of things about the Chinese that are worthy of emulation--for example, their frugality, hardwork and the high value that they place on education. I'd like to think that I possess these qualities too. At the same time, I am fond of observing fellow members of my race with the dispassionate eye of an antropologist; I find it interesting that such admirable traits, when manifested in the extreme, could also easily veer into the negative: stinginess, greediness, selfishness and kiasu-ism, to name a few.

Are such perceptions--both the positive and the negative ones--fair observations or just plain racial stereotyping? Well, this is an interesting and difficult subject, which I think shall be reserved as the subject of a future blog entry!

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Between Bangkok, Jakarta and KL

Between Bangkok, Jakarta and KL

Bangkok appears to be a lot less polluted than Jakarta. In Jakarta, sometimes it is impossible to walk the streets without being choked by the dust and smog; not to mention the unpleasant smell from those stagnant canals.

Bangkok in contrast boasts of an ultra-modern skytrain system. Taking it can be quite a joy--the elevated station platforms are clean and airy; the train rides, smooth and fast. And this efficient train system is to be complemented by the new subway system which is opening soon.

But is Bangkok a much better place to live in? Well, it depends on what you are looking for. Expatriates are normally shielded from the gritty living conditions of Third World cities; so it doesn't really matter. One service apartment looks exactly the same like any other, whichever country you go to.

Even backpacker communities look the same everywhere. You see the familiar cheap guest houses, travel agencies, Internet cafes, used-book stores and restaurants serving American breakfast sprouting up wherever these international drifters choose to congregate. Bangkok has Khao San Road; Jakarta has Jalan Jaksa.

The people in both cities are endearingly courteous and graceful. Though I must say, Thailand has a better international image as the Land of Smiles. Indonesia has been doing a lot lately to promote herself as the land where there's "Endless Beauty in Diversity" but people still have a bad perception of the country due to all the negative press reports related to corruption and terorrism.

I can understand why many people are apprehensive about visiting Indonesia. We all have a tendency to exaggerate things a little bit--both on the good and bad side. I like Indonesia because I feel comfortable with the people there and I do not face much of a language problem.

I think if we stay long enough to understand a place, we'll grow to love it. It takes time to correct some of our misperceptions and biases. I'm liking Bangkok a little bit more everyday and am making an attempt to learn its language. Perhaps someday I'll love Bangkok as much as I love Jakarta.

All these foreign cities that we go to--they are like those wild romantic affairs that we occassionally allow ourselves to be embroiled in. We tend to see them as some kind of adventure because we know they are never going to last forever. We believe (mistakenly, sometimes) that we can parachute out safely anytime we find things getting a bit too hot for us to handle.

When we are asked about our own home city--KL for example--we get very mixed feelings. It's like asking a man whether he has any regrets about getting married. Somehow you never seem to be able to get a straight forward and simple answer...

Monday, June 07, 2004

Ole-Ole And Field Reports

Ole-Ole and Field Reports

Besides the interesting nightlife, Bangkok is also a good place for shopping. Unfortunately (or fortunately), shopping doesn't rank high on my list of interests.

I am extremely lazy to shop--especially for things like clothes and shoes. All the shopping that I do whenever I go on a business trips are for other people. In Indonesia, women will never fail to ask you for ole-ole (gifts) whenever you go on a trip--even when you are only making a short day journey to Bandung. Jangan lupa ole-ole ya!.

Sometimes it can be quite a headache trying to figure out what ole-ole to buy. And the list of people you have to keep in mind can be quite a long one: in my case, besides my female colleagues, I also had to think of my "housemates"--Intan (housekeeping), Marlyn (frontdesk) and Wiwik (sales). If you are going to Bandung, you will never go wrong if you come back with their famous brownies.

But sometimes when the trip is a hectic one, you are forced to resort to some last minute foraging at the airport duty free shop. In such situations, chocolates and perfumes will usually do the trick of keeping the women happy.

Male friends will never ask you for ole-ole. They are actually harder to please. They will be more interested in your night activities and you are supposed to fulfill your responsibility by "checking out" certain nightspots on their behalf. And when you come back from your trip, you are obligated to submit a "field report" (FR). These FRs are often shared in conspiratorial tones over cigarettes at the fire-exit stairway or circulated in underground (male only) e-mailing lists. Some of these FRs which I occasionally receive--especially the Indonesian ones in the Betawi dialect--can be quite hilarious reading.

One can never go on a trip with a completely free mind. You always have to think of the people back home and the heavy "responsibility" that you have to fulfill. And good luck to you if you are coming back from a place like Bangkok--you can bet your male colleagues will never let you go with only chocolates and perfumes!

Have Book Will Travel (2)

Have Book Will Travel (2)

Woke up late today to a morning thunderstorm. When it stopped, I sauntered to the Starbucks on Langsuan Road to have my brunch. I'm not exactly a fan of yuppie cafes like Starbucks but it's the nearest place that's comfortably quiet enough to relax with a book. I managed to read some technical papers too, in preparation for my meeting tomorrow.

Reading outdoors is great fun. I've had this habit for as long as I can remember. I recall spending a lot of time reading at Chinese coffeeshops all over PJ and KL. In Jakarta, Phoe Nam cafe on Jalan Wahid Hasyim was my favourite reading spot; when I was working in Singapore, I was the resident bookworm at the foodcourt on Street 22, Bishan.

I've written about this in a previous blog entry--when you do your reading at different places everytime, you tend to remember what you read better. For example, I can still remember reading a particular passage of Albert Camus' A Happy Death at a Malay restaurant in Subang Jaya, Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster at the Chinese coffeeshop opposite the Nouvena MRT station in Singapore, CS Lewis' A Grief Observed at an Indian restaurant in Palo Alto and Chirstopher Wilkins' The Horizontal Instrument at a park in Geneva beside the statue of Rosseau.

I can't imagine ending up at a foreign place without anything to read. Once on a trip to Guangzhou China, I found myself in the dreaded situation of having nothing to read when I finished the book that I brought with me. There I couldn't find a bookshop that sold English books. After scouring the streets for a while without much luck, I had to settle for a miserably outdated guidebook on China in English from the hotel store--it was still better than having nothing to read.

To me reading is an integral part of the travelling experience. Ah, reading and travelling--are these not among the greatest pleasures in life?