Thursday, 5 May 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 11 - The Cleaner

The cleaner referenced in the title of this blog does not get rid of bodies* nor does she clean up blood spattered crime scenes for the mob like “The Wolf”, the cleaner in Pulp Fiction.  She is actually a rather petite Sri Lankan woman named Josie (not her real name) who comes to clean our house every Tuesday and Friday morning. Josie is actually filling in for her cousin who is currently in Sri Lanka awaiting a new work visa so she can return to Hong Kong to work for us and another family after we convinced her to quit working for the abusive family she had been working for. But that is another story.

Josie’s English is not so great, but it is significantly better than my Sinhala.  Because her vocabulary is somewhat limited, we frequently have communications challenges, and we both sometimes just have to remove all extraneous words from a sentence. To the uninitiated, this can sometimes sound a bit harsh and dictatorial.
Josie - “I Friday come 8:00!”
Josie - “Vacuum broke. You fix!”
Lisa - “Drink tea!”
Lisa - “Where hide bra?”

Josie is a devout Christian and scrupulously honest (not that those two things always go together).  We keep a small bowl of sweets on the sideboard in the dining room. After a couple of weeks, Josie worked up the courage to say “Please I have sweet?”  “Of course, you may have sweet. You don’t need to ask. Help yourself”, I responded. She then proceeded to empty the bowl into her handbag.  I now make sure to buy a bag of sweets for Josie whenever I top up our own.  She clearly needs them more than we do.

Josie struggles to understand many things about our household, in particular our non-conformance to gender stereotypes. As Josie usually comes to the house when I am at work, it is David she typically deals with.  There are times she finds it really difficult to talk to him about important matters like toilet cleaning products.  Instead she will repeatedly batter him with requests such as “Must speak to madam about broken vacuum” or “Is madam happy with my work?”  Regardless of how many times we ask her not to, Josie refers to me as “madam” and David as “sir”. 

Despite the fact that I don’t even know where the vacuum is let alone how to fix it, and that I am happy with anyone’s cleaning work when it means I don’t have to do it myself, Josie still insists on speaking to me rather than David about this stuff. According to her, it is not “man’s work”.   She once caught David emptying the dishwasher, and practically wrestled him to the ground to make him stop.  Last week, she insisted to David that she would come in  on Monday to cook us a curry.  He told her that he would speak to me about it.  She shook her finger at him and said: "You are husband. You decide."  Deciding what to have for dinner clearly falls into the category of "man's work". I suspect that she is worried that if I am not in charge of household cleaning then I probably don't feed my family properly either.  She considers it her duty to compensate for my womanly incompetence. 

It seems that Josie also believes that, in addition to my full time job, I should also do my own ironing. We have a stack of it for her to do every week. Every week, David's shirts are beautifully pressed and hung up.  My clothes remain in an un-ironed heap on the floor.  Sadie's clothes are always in an un-ironed heap on her bedroom floor, but that is nothing to do with Josie and everything to do with Sadie. I have asked David to speak to Josie about the ironing thing, but I think he finds to too amusing to have a serious conversation with her about it.

A few weeks ago, Sadie's dad, Grizz, came to visit her for a few days. We have a very modern family arrangement whereby Grizz stays with us when he visits Sadie.  This not only saves money, but also allows Grizz to be a proper "at home" Dad for a bit i.e. Sadie can challenge someone besides me for a few days. This usually works just fine except when ex-husband, current partner and daughter all gang up on me at once and I have to lie down in a dark room with a cool cloth on my head muttering "sweet Jesus, what have I done?". There is also the occasional time when David and I are sitting on the sofa and Grizz plops himself between us, but David and I have learned over time to find some humour (only a little) in this.   Anyway, we took the decision that Grizz would take the spare bed in Sadie's room as her room is huge, our spare room is tiny and both David and I use the spare room as an office. 

Of course, Josie came to clean whilst Grizz was here. Given the language difficulties coupled with her rather prim approach to family life, we had never explained to her that Sadie isn't David's daughter or that we aren't (gasp!) actually married.  David figured that this was as good a time as any to try to get those difficult points across.  Josie let herself in that Friday to find herself being introduced to Grizz as Sadie's father. Dead silence. Without saying a word, she took herself off  to the kitchen and busied herself by making lots of noise involving plates and pans. Knowing that Josie was upset, David followed her into the kitchen and tried to explain. 

"Grizz is Sadie's father. I am not her father. I am her step-father". It took Josie a few minutes for this to register, and eventually a big smile broke out across her face.  "Ahhhh!", she said. "Grand father!".  She nodded her head, seemed very pleased that she understood and carried on with her work. David walked away wondering if she thought he was sharing a bed with his daughter or daughter-in-law. Whichever, she seemed happy.

* You might find it interesting to know that the apartment complex in which we live was actually home to a famous murder a few years ago.  Ex-pat wife, Nancy Kissell, fed her investment banker husband a spiked strawberry milkshake and then bludgeoned him to death whilst he slept.  She rolled his body up in a carpet (a rather expensive one, so I’m told) and had the building’s maintenance staff carry what must have been the very heavy rug to a basement storage area.  The body was only found after the storage room began to stink.  In her defense, Nancy described her husband as a “work-crazed and controlling husband, who had succumbed to habitual and regular cocaine and alcohol abuse since going on an MBA course”. If the wife of every investment banker who exhibited this behaviour had done what Nancy did, we almost certainly could have avoided the whole financial crisis.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 11 - Team Building

I sometimes struggle to think of an amusing and/or interesting topic for this blog.  Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least reduced humour and surprise. Having said that, I am occasionally handed my topic on a silver platter, and such was the case when I was requested to attend a recent "off-site" for work.

For those of you who are not corporate whores, an off-site can be anything from a formal, highly structured, ultra-professional meeting to an alcohol fuelled, demented invitation to a sexual harassment party. The invitation to this particular off site provided no clue as to which part of the spectrum on which the even would sit.  It just said "Please join Irene Tam (Head of the division) for a one day off-site at the Ocean View Hotel"  It provided further details around start/end times, transportation and other logistics, but no agenda, pre-reading requirements or other topical information.  Given the many organisational changes that were taking place in the bank, I made the assumption that this would be the sort of off-site where the participants watched senior managers stand up at a podium and tell us stuff that we already knew.  We would then ask non-confrontational questions to which they would give bland, non answers and then we would all go home.  I was glad that I had remembered my i-phone and grateful to Sadie for having downloaded the Angry Birds app. At least I'd have something to do.

The invitation also told us that the dress was "smart casual". Smart casual is a term that used to cause my palms to sweat as soon as I read it.  There is a smart casual uniform for guys--chinos and a button down shirt. Some blokes even go really outrageous and wear a shirt in a rebellious colour, maybe even hot pink if they are 100% sure of their own masculinity.  Some women can also get away with wearing the male smart casual uniform.  These women are usually very thin and have no breasts.  The uniform can look really good on them. Unfortunately for those of us fuller figure girls, chinos and a button down make us look like new recruits at butch girl boot camp.   We could go with nice black trousers and a suitable blouse, but this is veering very close to professional work wear, and we could then be perceived as uptight and unable to relax and be part of the gang (which, of course, would be true).  Smart casual is a very, very tricky thing to get right, and I have spent many, many years working on my own uniform.  In summer, this typically involves  a simple, unlined sleeveless linen dress that comes to  just below my knees, bare legs and either strappy sandals or ballet pumps.  I always bring a little cardigan to go over it in case I get cold or (god forbid) everyone else ignored the dress code and went a little more formal.  This uniform has generally served me well, and I trust it. Well, I did until recently.

As instructed, I met up with my colleagues at the designated location for us to pile into the coach hired to drive us to the hotel.  The first think I noticed is that in Hong Kong, smart casual means jeans and trainers. The second thing I noticed is that I was the only person on the coach NOT in jeans and trainers.  "That's OK", I sniffed. "I'm one of the more senior people here.  I'll just set a good example of professional grooming".

We pulled up at the hotel, and we all piled out of the coach and into the conference centre. It looked pretty much like every other conference facility for every other off-site I had ever attended. I queued up for coffee, and that was pretty much like every other off-site I had ever attended. So far, so familiar. Then, after the coffee, where one normally picks up a little breakfast, there was nothing. Not a croissant, a mini danish or even a cookie that looks/tastes like cardboard.  Very disappointing.

It was soon time to meander into the auditorium, where I took a seat next to some of my colleagues.  We still hadn't seen an agenda so I had no idea who our guest speakers would be. Then two young, very chirpy and cheerful people introduced themselves as our facilitators and started to explain how the day would pan out. As they continued to talk, my heart began to pound. Waves of nausea swept over me. I felt dizzy and faint. The realisation hit me.....yes, this was a team building day.

I cannot even begin to describe the depth of my loathing for these sorts of events. In my experience, they are filled with a false bonhomie, and they never accomplish anything more than re-enforcing all of your pre-conceived notions of people.   In my 25 years of corporate life, I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed a team building workshop nor have I learned anything or had one contribute to any greater good. My worst fears were confirmed when they revealed that not only was the a team building workshop, but it was a PHYSICAL team building workshop. I have had to endure many of these things in the past, involving everything from mountain climbing to raft building, fire walking and hand standing.  These should not be called team building events.  They should be called humiliation events. Or breathtakingly scary events. Or events where your moron boss gets to show off that his pectoral muscles are bigger than his IQ.

I was highly conspicuous, and there was no place to hide. I had to grit my teeth and get on with it. The first exercise was the old favourite, "dollars and cents".  Every man is worth $1.00. Every woman is worth 50 cents.  No, I am not making this up.  The facilitator shouts out an amount, say $6.50.  You quickly have to form groups of people (teams?) that equal that amount. Anyone left over is out. Insulted by the lesser value, I herded all the women together. This wasn't difficult as there weren't many of us.  That way we could form our own groups without the use of the guys.  Soon, the guys  resorted to physically dragging us away into their groups like cavemen at a prehistoric orgy. It wasn't pretty. Those guys who got out were made to select a piece of paper from a box.  On the paper was a question that they had to answer.  The questions included "who is the person you most respect at HSBC" and "tell us a secret".  OK, please keep in mind we are in Hong Kong with about 100 Chinese people.  How do you think they are going to answer those questions? Are they going to say the most respected person is their secretary because she is hot? Are they hell. This might happen in the UK (not in the US where you might get sued). Without exception, the most feared respected person was always named as Irien Tam.  What a surprise. Were the secrets things like "I am a ladyboy" or "I have an opium addiction" What do you think? The most exciting secret we heard is that it was someone's birthday the previous week. Wow. Those Chinese guys really lead a wild and crazy life.

The next activity is too difficult to describe in detail.  Let it suffice to say that it involved four colleagues holding on to various parts of my body whilst I leaned over to grab a coloured ball that was about 4 feet away. For the life of me, I can not imagine a scenario at work where I  am standing on one leg, someone in my team is holding me around the waist whilst another person is holding my other leg up in the air. While I am wearing a dress. I have experienced security alerts, massive cock-ups, epileptic fits and power outages, but in 25 years,  I have never experienced anything in a bank in that required me to shave my legs and ensure that I had on nice panties.  This was a first.

Many other similar events followed, and I have to say that my colleagues appeared to be having a blast. I could  feel teams being built with every humiliating stunt. Maybe there is something to these events after all that mimics real life at work.