Ho Chi Minh City: A Surprise

As the 777-300 taxied, I looked out the window and saw darkness with specks of light scattered along the horizon. I could barely make out the faint shape of a harvested ricefield by the dim light. I did not know what to expect from the airport if the runway was built near a productive ricefield.

Then the big jet made a right turn, and suddenly the terminal building appeared from the right side of the window. It was new and modern. It wasn’t a low, traditional styled building like the 26-year old Jakarta Airport, but very much like Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong.

Before we landed, I asked the purser for an immigration form. “I don’t think you’ll need it, Sir, but to be sure, I’ll check.” He disappeared behind the curtain to the Business Class Section, and in a few seconds returned. “The immigration form is only if you need to declare something. But in general, you don’t need it.” He explained.

I returned a blank expression to him.

“Anything else I could help you with, Sir?”
“So I don’t have to fill out any form, at all?”
“No, Sir.”
“Thank you.”
The purser left to attend to other matters. I could not believe my ears. Ever since the first time I went abroad, filling out an immigration form has been a routine, and having to do without it felt very much out of my comfort zone.

After passing several travelator, and made a quick stop at the restroom, we arrived at the immigration hall. It was a big hall with a long row of checkpoint posts. Very modern, and very efficient, starting from the design of the hall, down to the quick pace of the people at work.

Without saying a word, the immigration officer took my pasport, check it on his computer, stamped and signed it, and returned it to me. It was all in less than a minute. And by not having immigration forms to collect from passengers, they must have saved thousands of man hours of work, and also thousands of trees!

It didn’t take a long wait before my luggage appeared on the carrousel. The custom check was a breeze, and in less than ten minutes we were out of the terminal door. The waiting area was clean and orderly. No taxi solicitors, and all the people who came to pick up passengers waited patiently in a designated area.

As the hotel sedan was making its way along Ho Chi Minh City streets, I marveled at how organized the city was. Including its motorists. There were thousands of motorcycle riders on the street, just like in Jakarta, but they drove carefully.

From my hotel room window I could see a big intersection. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to it because it was just like any other intersection you can expect to find in a city. But on a closer look, I found one peculiarity: there were no traffic lights! Despite of that, the traffic in that intersection worked just fine.

Like Jakarta, there were street vendors selling food along the sidewalks. The big difference is they simply put chairs and short tables, without erecting big tents that took up a lot of pedestrian space.

And in some part of the city, the sidewalks featured stores, cafes, restaurants, clubs, karaokes, with neon signs flashing over well-designed establishments. For a minute, it did bear some resemblance to the night entertainment districts in Jakarta. But with a more tourist and family friendly air about it.

With the weather so fine, it was not a surprise to find people congregating in parks surrounding the Reunification Hall near the city center. To help them quench their thirsts, vending machines were placed in strategic locations, with sufficient number of dustbins to throw empty bottles and cans in.

Opening the desk drawer in my hotel room, I found a pamphlet containing tips for travelers coming to Ho Chi Minh. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

STREET SENSE – in the interest of security and well being, it pays to be security conscious at all times. There are many incidents of pickpockets and motorbike snatchers preying on foreigners especially those carrying handbags, exposed jewellery or money.”

Good to know that. Okay, so Ho Chi Minh City does have some shortcomings, like many cities in the world. But so far, So far, Ho Chi Minh City has exceeded my expectations.

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I Work, Therefore I Am

If you try to engage me in a long conversation about things of which I’m passionate, I might give you a blank stare. I would experience a loss of word so severe that it would take several minutes of self collection before I could speak again.

Of course I’m not serious. But the question still stands as legit. It’s nice to have something that you feel so deeply about that it actually defines you. Painting defines a painter. Music defines a musician. Singing prowess defines a singer.

Some people, like me, defy logical definition of self based on passion. We work day in, day out on things that we do not feel so strongly about. Yet we chose to endure that existence for whatever reasons we think are justifiable. Self preservation, survival, security, you name it.

There’s nothing wrong about it. But can you imagine how mundane life would feel to come home from a job and suddely realize that you just spend a whole day doing things that you’re not really interested to be successful in? Or things that you don’t feel to be the definition of you?

It’s difficult to be true to your calling, to the things that bring excitement and a whisper in your heart. Can you do your job now without feeling that you are wasting your time and talent, or that you are not bringing any meaningful contribution?

I took a hard, hard look at myself, and I realized how fractured and unwhole my being has been. It’s like having a sundry of unrelated spices and ingredients thrown into the mix only to realize that they are not making the taste that you are looking for.

Focus, and discover.

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Finding Balance in Imbalance

My first instinct when waking up in the morning would be to hope for some sort of balance to take place in the day. Day by day I would hold on to that hope. Many times I spent a day convinced that it wasn’t really a true day, that it was just a phase and it would go away soon, replaced by a quiet and balanced time.

It used to be true. After a period of uncertainty, upheaval, and imbalance, a sense of balance would take place. I would feel happy, content, and enjoyed my day.

This started when I was in college. I routinely experienced a feeling of out of rhythm at every start of a semester. New classes, new courses, different classmates, those changes threw me out of balance for a few weeks, before I got “the hang of it” and got back to my rhythm. It was almost like a pendulum that would return to its balance position after a period of swinging from side to side.

Lately, I found that it is getting more and more difficult to return to that point of balance after a swinging period. The balance would remain for shorter and shorter period, and the swinging would remain for longer and longer period.

These days, it seems that the balance has disappeared altogether. I only experience changes, day in, day out. Change of people, change of organization, change of roles. It’s like playing a game in which a different rule applies at every move.

I realized that I could no longer rely on finding a point of balance that remains for a long time. I am a perpetually swinging pendulum. The only point where I am not in a swing is at the farthest end of a swing, or at the farthest of the amplitude, when the pendulum stops for a fraction of a second before it swings back the other way.

Since I established that it will be a virtually uninterrupted swinging period anyway, I would rather be the one who swings the pendulum, instead of being the one being swung on the pendulum. I would rather be the one who decided when it swings, and to what direction.

I would rather be the one who created my own inequilibrium. I would rather be my own distruptor, than be disrupted by the situations. I would not wait for the circumstances to balance, but to create my own balance by disrupting the prevailing balance, at will.

“Live a deliberate life.” – Dale Carnegie

Lessons from the Man of Action

The title on his business card said “Executive President – Asia Pacific.” It was quite intimidating for us, the three young visitors.

For me, it was the first time I had a meeting with a client in which I met the top man himself. No subordinates present, just us and the man. From what the title sounded, he’s not only the boss for the country, but also for the entire Asia-Pacific operation of the company. It did carry a lot of weight.

The broad forehead gave him the appearance of a scientist or an academic faculty member, instead of a corporate executive. His tall build, broad shoulder and tanned demeanor immediately commanded respect. He was there strictly for business.

“I assume you would like an introduction about our company,” I said, several handshakes, introductions and business card exchanges later. He nodded, and I quickly turned my 10.1-inch netbook to face him. I already loaded my presentation, and I meant to present it right from the device.

“Wait, you’ll need a projector,” he said, standing up. I thought he was going reach for the phone and call someone to get it.

Instead, he walked up to a sideboard cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled up a small, black bag. He then proceeded to put the bag on the table, unzipped it, and took a small projector, about the size of a standard Bible. Without a word, he began to connect cables into it.

We were taken by surprise. It was an awkward moment. Should we help him, or not? It was apparent that he was the hands-on type of guy who didn’t mind doing all the work if needed, regardless of his title.

“It’s.. It’s the smallest projector I’ve ever seen..” I blurted weakly. But he didn’t seem to notice. He handed one end of the VGA cable for me to attach to my netbook. No time for small, insignificant talk. It was time to get the show on the road.

It was a no-nonsense meeting. Unlike interactions with fellow Indonesians, this one proceeded seriously. He listened to my presentation, asked questions, and he in turn explained what he wanted.

He had a clear idea what he wanted to see and what he wanted us to do. He knew the kind of people he believed to be capable of giving him the results he was looking for. No doubt, no nonsense. He chose to meet us ourselves instead of delegating the task so he could be sure that we got it fresh and direct from him.

In an hour, the meeting was concluded.

There was much to learn from the experience.
1. Being the boss sometimes mean you have to get down, get your hand dirty and do the job to be sure that it gets done right. Delegation is important, but there are things that you have to do it yourself to get it right.

2. Title is just a title. It shouldn’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Goal oriented action is more important than your job description.

3. Knowing what you want, where you are going, and taking the necessary action to move towards that direction is what leadership is all about. Planning, organizing, directing, and the rest of management are just tools.

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Keeping Customer Feedback System from Backfiring

Customer Feedback is Good Source of Ideas for Improvements
Last night my wife and I went to a sushi restaurant for dinner. We chose a sushi place that is quite popular, located near the business district of the city.

It was a busy evening, and we had to wait a few minutes before we could get two seats in the non-smoking sections. Not unusual for a well-known eatery, so we didn’t mind the wait. We even put it to use by perusing the colorful and illustrated menu.

After a small mishap, where the waiter took us to our seats when those were not ready, we were finally seated. We placed our order, and not long after, the waiter returned with the food.

The food was good and fresh, the wasabi was strong, the service was OK. In general, we didn’t have anything to complaint, save for a fly that alighted on one of the dishes. In Jakarta, it wasn’t a big deal.

We found a customer feedback card on the table. Hoping to get special offers from the restaurant for customers who would give feedbacks, we decided to fill it out.

We paid our check, handed the feedback card to our waiter, and headed for the door.

My attention was drawn to the way the waiter reacted when she received the card. It was like she was getting a bad news. She lost her smile, and her face turned from friendly into concerned. She then went to the bar, gave the card to someone, and whispered something. I could not see how the other person react because I already passed the bar.

It was strange for me. I could only deduce that in that restaurant, feedback cards are synonymous to complaints, and any waiter who gets a card from a customer will be reprimanded.

Purpose of Customer Feedback
A feedback card is created to enable direct communication between customers to management. A feedback relayed through employees may be filtered or watered down, so that when it reached management, it won’t be true to what the customer wants to say.

It is a good source of information on how a company or organization can improve its customer service. It’s like checking for tiny punctures in a tire by putting it into a tub of water and looking for air bubbles: a feedback card helps company to quickly pinpoint weak spots in its service. It can also help company to identify good practices done by its employees that can be standardized throughout the organization.

Like any other monitoring tools, the effectiveness of feedback cards rely heavily on the attitude of the people using it. There are at least three parties involved:
(1) The customer as the source of feedback. The effectiveness of feedback is affected by the motivation behind it. Do customers write it as expression of satisfaction, dissatisfaction with expectation for improvement, or as a mean of getting back at employees whom they don’t like?
(2) The employees whose service may be the subject of the feedback. There may be among employees fear of getting bad-mouthed by customers. This fear may be even stronger when management tends to react strongly to negative feedback.
(3) The management as the recipient of the feedback. If management uses feedback to assign blames, it will render the feedback system useless. Employees may simply throw feedback cards into the trash bins, regardless of what they actually say.

It is therefore important for management to look at feedbacks in the most objective and supportive way.

Three things to mind when receiving feedbacks:
(A) Management must be able to tell the difference between sensible feedbacks, and poisonous ones, in which customers lash anger at employees who may have been just doing their job under difficult situations. When getting such inputs, management must be able to separate the poison from the cure, the customer’s blind emotion from the true circumstances.

(B) Management must take responsibility to make improvements as the feedbacks suggest. It will do no good to only penalize employees who got bad reviews from customers. Management must see any feedback in a bigger picture than just the mistake of one person. Could it be that there has been insufficient training for the employees? Could there be better way to help employees serve customers better?

(C) Even if after a careful and thorough investigation it is found that a bad feedback is genuinely a result of the mistake of an employee, management must take a wise approach in dealing with the situation. It must be seen as an opportunity for improvement instead as a hanging. The employee should be helped (a) to see how it is his or her responsibility to improve, (b) to know what improvements are expected from him or her, and (c) to see how he or she could achieve the improvements. From here, further feedback from management would be most useful and valuable so the employee could tell whether he or she has hit the target.

Any feedback is always beneficial. But what really matters is what is done about it.

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Pain, Pleasure and the Big Durian

I don’t do it so often, and I felt like I was ready to snap at anyone over the tiniest thing. I wonder how could thousands of people stand that, day in and day out?

I’m talking about driving in Jakarta’s rush hour. There is no rushing in rush hour in Jakarta, or the Big Durian as some call it after the prickly and smelly fruit popular in the South East Asia region. Everyone moves so slowly, it normally takes twice as long to drive the same distance as in normal traffic. That is if you’re lucky. If not, like when it’s raining hard with thunderstorm, then make it three times as long. Or ten times as long if it’s your downtrodden unlucky day, like when there’s a big flooding in the city.

Some calculated that the traffic jams cost the city about 550 million dollars annually. Enough to build about several hundred new school buildings.

So far there is no immediate nor long term solution. The government tried to get car drivers to take public transportation. But it may take years before that could happen.

I am humbly thanking God that I live only 5 minutes away from my office. But even that is not forever.

Time is becoming more and more precious for Jakarta people. You get less and less things done in a day. And the less things done are not at the office. It’s at home. Less time to rest, less time to spend with family, less time to do your passion.

Everything so mixed up here in Jakarta. Like I said, the people here have a love and hate relationship with the city. We love the high standard of living (at least compared to most regions in Indonesia), but hate the jams, and hate having to lose time in traffic.

What to do, then? For now, some take the attitude of “just enjoy it,” after a recent tagline in a cigarette commercial. Some focus on the love, some focus on the hate. And some just numb their souls and stop caring. Just going through the motion, and pretending as if it doesn’t cause any pain. Some others party and dance the pain away into the night.

For me, I would say I’m focusing on the love part about the city. I keep reminding myself to be thankful for all the good things the city provides. I am trying to keep myself from blaming and cursing, which, to be honest, are not easy to do.

How about you? What is your take and attitude about the place you live in?

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Believe in Your Dreams

This is an experience that I have kept to myself for over two years. In a selling skills class that I recently co-facilitated, I thought it would make a good illustration for a point that I was getting across, so I shared it for the first time.

I suppose I might as well share it here.

It was in 2008. I was on a trip to the Dale Carnegie & Associates Annual International Convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Before leaving for the trip, I made quite an extensive research on Vancouver and its surrounding areas, fully intending to make the best of the trip.

I noticed that Vancouver was not so far away from a winter vacation village of Whistler. I heard about the village during my network marketing days from my diamond uplines. In motivational meetings for the independent business owners in their network, they shared their experiences enjoying award trips to Whistler. They spoke about snow, skiing, dining in Whistler in great details that I became pretty curious about the place.

I once watched an episode about yam cha tradition in Hong Kong. It is a custom of Hong Kong people that is somewhat similar to English high tea. While in England it is customary for people to have tea and bite sized snacks and cakes in afternoons, in Hong Kong people have tea and dim sum, whenever they feel like hanging out in tea houses. The program was so interesting, I could not help wanting to have yam cha in Hong Kong. Of course you can get a decent serving of dim sum almost anywhere in the world. But there is something special about having it in a Hong Kong yam cha.

Based on my research, I found that Whistler was about 2-3 hour bus ride from Vancouver. That means it would take 4-6 hours just for travel time, not including exploring the area. No matter how dying I was to see Whistler, it was not the practical choice of sightseeing.

Since our flight from Jakarta to Vancouver transited in Hong Kong, I was hoping that we could spend a few hours in the City, to enjoy a yam cha. Unlucky for me, our itineraries only allowed a short time in Hong Kong, not enough for a short trip to the city.

Here’s when things got strange.

Since our flight would not leave until midnight, and the entire convention was scheduled to be concluded the night before, we had an entire Saturday free. We planned to use it for a long tour. In lieu of visiting Whistler, Adam, my colleague and travel companion, suggested that we took a tour to a nearby destination, about an hour drive from Vancouver. I was all up to it, and we reserved two seats in the tour.

The day before the tour was supposed to take place, Adam got a call from the organizer. Due to low number of participants, the tour was cancelled! Since we had hours to kill, we decided to take the Whistler tour. So I got to see Whistler after all!

Adam (left) and I on the Peak to Peak Cable Car station in Whistler

We returned to Vancouver from Whistler at dusk. After a few hours of rest, we did a final packing of our luggage, and checked out. When we emerged from the hotel lobby into the street, we found that it was snowing. The snow was heavy enough to line the roads with thin ice, making them very slippery and dangerous to travel on.

It was already difficult to find a cab that was willing to brave the elements and take us to the airport. It was even worse because at the same time, we were competing for taxis with people who were leaving a party at the Convention Center across the street.

With the help of the hotel doorman, we finally got a cab. After piling our luggage into the trunk, giving a generous tip to the doorman, we got into the cab and started to the airport.

A few minutes into the drive we could see cars, SUVs, jeeps, that were slipping off the icy road into the ditch. Our cabbie was visibly upset. “This is dangerous. It’s wasting my time. I had better take you back to the hotel,” he said.

Adam and I had this sinking feeling inside us. “Please, sir, we need to get to the airport. We will pay you extra,” Adam persuaded. Still grumbling, the cabbie turned the dial on his radio to check for clear routes to the airport. He took the Prius off the main road into residential areas.

After a few minutes of darkness, the cab returned to the main road, and a few minutes later, we could see the airport! I was dancing gleefully inside. In gratitude we paid the cabbie more than double the fare.

We made good time, and we still had time to grab a bite at Burger King, the only outlet that was still open in the airport food court at that hour. We boarded the plane on time, but the aircraft had to sit for an hour or so on the apron to wait for the snow to lessen, and to give the ground crew the chance to de-ice the plane.

Nearing Hong Kong, the pilot announced that the flight would arrive late, and missed all the connecting flights. The passengers were advised to contact ground crew for change of flights.

Getting off the airplane, we found a row of tables where passengers could get new boarding passes to replace the one for the missed flights, and hotel vouchers to clean up and rest. When we checked our flight, it was still hours away. Adam called his friend in Hong Kong, and it turned out that there was a shopping mall halfway between the airport and down town Hong Kong where we could find a dim sum restaurant!

We cleared immigration, took the high speed train and arrived in the shopping mall that Adam’s friend told us. We found the dim sum restaurant. After a few minutes of figuring out the menu and how to place an order (since nobody in the restaurant could speak English), we had the precious dim sum served on our table, along with a pot of tea. We commenced our yam cha.

Ready for yam cha!

I could not believe it! I already gave up hope of ever seeing Whistler, and somehow the circumstances changed that gave us, or actually forced us, to detour to Whistler!

I thought we would not get the opportunity to enjoy a yam cha in Hong Kong due to the very short conneting time between flights. Thanks to the snow storm in Vancouver, we missed our connecting flight to Jakarta, and got extra time to have dim sum!

Providence? Divine intervention?

Looking back to this experience, I learned two important lessons:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. When plans don’t work out, sometimes better things may come out.

Keep believing!