“Ok guys. Here’s the scoop. Have fun tonight, but just remember… This is business… You are being watched. Don’t get drunk and don’t fall in love!”
I spoke these words very carefully. Would they listen? Was I going to have problems back in California? Was I going to get calls from wives or girlfriends?
A couple of years ago, I had two newly-hired salespeople joining me at a trade show in Singapore. First trip to Asia and our hosts wanted to continue our meetings at one of the higher-end KTV joints. We walk in, and no less than seven naked, young, Vietnamese girls come over and nearly tackle my two salespeople. My Chinese colleagues and I just sort of stood there with knowing smiles on our faces, looking at these two guys who were in a state of utter shock and disbelief. “Welcome to Singapore!”
It’s always the same story… You come ready and able to close the deal, and then…. culture shock. I always try to prepare people unfamiliar with the subtleties and not-so-subtleties of business here. It never works. There is no substitute for experience. I have a saying: “In the States, business is conducted on the golf course. In London, in the board room. In the Middle East, over coffee. In Australia, in the pub. In Asia, in the whorehouse.” The presentation may be made in the office, but the deal is sealed afterwards.
I think that the longer I have done business in this part of the world, I have become somewhat immune to the situation: Nothing really surprises me anymore. From the amusing to the downright depraved… I sort of take it all in stride. It usually happens in China, Thailand, Japan, or with Chinese businessmen.
My job responsibilities include all of Asia and major projects worldwide… Not just the Philippines. In the Philippines, the girlie bars in Manila and Cebu are well-known. But business here is different than in most of the rest of Asia. I normally do not get expectations of outright debauchery from my Filipino colleagues. Normally, here, it is foreigners wanting to be “shown a good time”. Sometimes, that can mean a round of golf. Other times, that can mean “anything goes”. It’s business, in either event. What that means is that you must learn to seek a balance between your personal mores and what is expected from you in business. That is not always as easy as it sounds. I am human, and can be tempted like anyone else. In any event, when a group of Chinese colleagues went to the States and I had to take them out, they were rather disappointed… The “optional activities” there are tame when compared to what they are used to, even in the “wildest” places. In fact, in my opinion, Vegas, “Sin City”, is not even close to real sinning when compared to Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Macau, or Hong Kong.
When I first traveled to Asia, I was like a kid in a candy store. Yes, you know the girls are paid. Yes, it makes you feel like a teenager again having these young girls pay attention to you. And, as always, you are being watched. Will your actions cause your host to lose face if you say “no”? Can you hold your liquor when your glass is being refilled without you even knowing it? Can you live with the consequences of your actions? When someone is treating you like a king, feeding you and giving you all of the wine, women, and song a person could possibly want, can you put on the brakes and resist temptation? In my case, I have learned how to deal with these situations without causing people to lose face. There have been many situations that are amusing, along with some that proved deeply disturbing:
1. I was in Thailand and back in my hotel room, falling asleep. There was a knock at the door, and four young ladies burst into my room, wearing nothing. My host wanted to “surprise” me. (He did!)
2. I was in Malaysia and had the afternoon free. I needed a haircut. This is when I learned that barbershops do not necessarily cut hair. I walk in, and make a scissors motion with my hands. The girl at the counter looks at me in a bewildered manner. She goes into the back, and brings out the manager. I make the same motion, and receive the same look. He then goes in the back, comes out with a pair of office scissors and says, “You want massage? Nice Filipina girl!” Ummmmmmm…. No thank you.
3. I am at a KTV in a meeting. The alcohol is flowing freely, and I go to the toilet. A young lady follows me in and says, “You want date?” I say, “I’m taking a leak…GO!” She says, “I make nice date.” I tell her, “Scram… Let me pee!” She taps me on the shoulder. I turn around, and she is completely naked in this absolutely filthy bathroom. Her dress was on the hook next to another toilet (no dividers here). Unfortunately, trying to hang a silk dress on a metal hook is tricky. Her dress fell into the toilet. She starts to pout, reaches into the toilet, squeezes out the dress, getting covered with water in the process. Then, puts her arms around me to give me a hug and say “I make GOOD DATE!” I said, “Go get a towel.” She says, “But I make date.” I said, “TOWEL!” She then puts the wet dress on, grabs me by the hand, and we go into the KTV room. She is soaked and shivering with the A/C blasting. I tell her, “Have Mami get you a towel.” She says, “Mami be angry.” I said, “Mami, I spilled my drink on her… Can you get her some dry clothes?” Mami leads her away and an hour later, she is back, clean with a new dress. She still couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want a hug in the toilet!
4. I have had a 12 year-old sent to my hotel room without my knowledge. I made her put her clothes on. I fed her, and told her to go back home. She started crying and unloaded on me. I let her tell me her problems. Told her I wasn’t going to do anything. Bought her some food, gave her some money, and told Mami I would get the police over… I did, and Mami had a problem. This incident has literally given me nighmares on occasion. I sometimes wonder if that little girl was alright. This happened when I first came to Asia… It all stopped being a joke and game after that. This happened a second time with a 16 year-old… and I did exactly the same thing.
5. In Thailand, there is a place called the “No Hands Restaurant”. Essentially, a pretty girl sits on your lap and feeds you. So, I am at my colleagues’ office, and his secretary asks about dinner. He tells her that WE want to go to “No Hands” (I was sort of indifferent…). She says, “Ohhhhhhh…..So you big baby? Someone have to FEED you?” She makes the reservation. Now, part of learning to feed yourself is developing your aim… It’s really difficult to have someone feed you. On top of this, Mamasan walks around the table making erotic origami out of the napkins. I missed on a chopstick full of rice, catching it with my hand. Mami sees this, grabs my hand, shoves it up her blouse, and says, “You want use hand, use on this!!!!!” I had 70-year old boob in my hand. I jerked my hand out, quickly, and went looking for a place that I could disinfect. After many, many baht in “tips” on the way to and from the toilet, the auction, of the girls, began… Highest bidder had first choice.
I could write a book on my experiences alone… and there are many others. But what I’ve written makes my point. I sometimes reflect on these situations and realize why it can sometimes be difficult. Part of it is cultural… Sex is simply viewed differently in the West. Part of it is simply that I view the girls as people, with feelings just like anyone else, rather than as objects or currency. I am also very aware of the poverty that usually drives these girls to this profession. I have become somewhat vocal and less tolerant when I hear people running at the mouth about Filipinas and bar girls and so on… Been there, done that, move on. When you throw in the added constraints of business, it can be tricky. Two ways on how I keep my own morality while allowing my hosts to save face:
1. If I am alone with the girl, I ask for only a foot massage. Within the safety limits of Rebecca’s guidelines, and, as long as I tip her, she keeps quiet. Usually, the host will smile and say, “Ohhhhh…You have good time?!!?” I’ll say, “Yeah, good time.”
2. I make a play for Mamasan… This kills the mood on her part (usually). Last year, I was with regular clients at their joint. We walk in and Mami says, “Hi John… I no see you long time. I get you nice Vietnam girl.”
“I don’t want Vietnam girl, Mami.”, I say.
She says, “You no feel good? Vietnam girl make you good.”
I respond, “No, Mami, I don’t want Vietnam girl… I want Mami.”
She says, “Mami no good.”
I say, “Mami very good.”
She says, “Mami very old.”
I say, “Mami very experienced.”
She says, “Mami very dry.”
I say, “Mami very wet… OK Mami. I’ll make you a bet. I’ll bet I can find your spot in ten seconds.”
She says, “Mami no have spot.”
I say, “MAMI HAS SPOT AND I FIND QUICK!”
She says, “OK.”
I then go up to Mami, lift up her hair, and kiss her behind her ear, at the top of her neck. She shivers like a 6 richter scale earthquake. She smiles, and gives me a bottle of Cutty Sark (She lost the bet). At the end of the night, my colleagues were up around $1,000 gambling with Mami, and she was asleep next to me on the sofa in the bar, drooling away and snoring.
In Asia, business, like life itself, is a question of balance. You want the deal. How far are you prepared to go in order to get the deal? Usually, after dealing with these situations many times before, I can hold my head up high. I have also seen many marriages trashed from this sort of thing, including one of mine, and I have seen careers ruined because people thought it was a free-for-all. They lost sight of the fact that the “entertainment” was business. Hospitality extended to a guest, a celebration of a deal, a test of honesty or integrity, a chance to get acquainted with colleagues. All of the events I wrote about above were one or all of these things.
Here in the Philippines, I rarely am faced with these situations, despite the occasional wild reputation in Manila. Normally, when I hear of foreigners in trouble here, it is usually related to a bar, a girl, a drunken night out, or something similar. My Asian colleagues sometimes cannot believe how tame my life here is, at times. To them, with the prices, Manila should be a non-stop party. So, when foreign colleagues visit me here, I usually point them in a relatively safe direction, and just tell them to be careful. I stay out of it…. Besides, I live here. I don’t need to be bumping into bar girls while shopping at SM or something.