I smell a blog!

19 06 2008
Veiled woman in MalaysiaChocolate Museume of CologneCatholic Cathedrale of Cologne Germany

-I smell a blog here Helene. I am sure you are planning to write about this!  Is the first thing Pierre said when I related to him the conversation I had with my colleagues at lunchtime last week.

At the table were my Thai, Taiwanese, New Zealander women colleagues and my Korean, Australian and Canadian (born in Arab countries) male colleagues.  The discussion turned around the fact that in most countries of Asia, the passport and your identity is not a matter of privacy.  In Singapore for instance, your passport and work permit numbers are required for just about everything: buying a phone card, getting your electricity or cable services, opening a bank account and even buying a television.  Anywhere you are interacting to consume, you are likely to be asked to provide these two pieces of information.  Anywhere in Asia they will take away and photocopy your passport when you check-in at a hotel or a resort.  These daily practices are enough to give you goose bumps when you are a North American born and raised in a world of privacy protection.

But in Asia discrimination is not a taboo and asking for your age, nationality, race and religion are standard questions in any forms you fill… even at work.  Are you married or single? How old are you? How much did you pay for this? What is your salary? What is your religion and race? are accepted standard procedures and no one gets offended by it.  Of course, at first, you are completely enraged that everyone practices such intrusion of your private life and if you don’t want to answer the questions, tough luck buddy, you won’t get your service or your goodies.

-I don’t think I can get use to this Helene! Said Pierre the first few times we traveled together.

-Oh!  Yes you will my dear, we all do and, believe it or not, I no longer get offended anymore.  So many people have photocopied my passport that I probably have clones all over the world by now!  And you know what? I really don’t care anymore… so be it.

Yes these sorts of culture clashes are found in your daily life on this side of the planet and you deliberately choose to make sense of it. When you see that the gorgeous girls of Singapore airlines are all under 30 years of age and have perfect figures, you enjoy the perfection part and you wonder what happens to their career when they gain weight, get pregnant or age?

-But Helene, they are the icon and the marketing brand of this fabulous airline company and quite frankly, as a client, it is very enjoyable to see these beautiful girls.  I would not want to be served by an out of shape old lady with an attitude like many airlines in Canada and the USA!

 This comment from my old colleague Patrick (did I mention that there are no women in the leadership team in Australia) made my skin crawl the first time I heard it; until I remembered how badly treated I was for years as a customer of Air Canada and thought perhap he had a point.

 Don’t worry guys, I am not totally brain washed and I still get chills in the spine when I think of discrimination, but I must admit that I do enjoy flying on the wings of the best airline in the world with the most fabulous competent women serving me with a large smile. I have stopped wondering how long they hope to work for the company, how they fit in this made to measure dress every day and how they do their hair buns so perfectly!  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore_Girl

In Asia, you must always remember with what eyes you are looking at things and prioritize in your mind the reasons why they are there or the reasons why you are here!  I am here to learn and discover the wonderful Asian culture, to experience the Asian phenomenon of rapid growth that is about to dominate the planet, to add a valuable international fold to my career and to live winter free.  Quite frankly Singapore and Asia gave me way more than what I bargained for.  It gives me a new outlook to life, it grounds me, calms me and teaches me that things can be accomplished with kindness and dignity; that humility is often more intelligent than boldness. It also taught me that dreams could come true.

But of course you cannot erase your fundamental values and your culture so it is an immediate shock when your profile is laid out to select or eliminate you as a candidate for a job or to get the right price when you purchase something. You are Caucasian, you pay a higher price…. period! On the upside, my negotiation skills have gone way up!

To my amazement, the minute I mentioned at the table that it is completely illegal in Canada to ask such questions openly to people, it is my two women colleagues that gave me an argument:

– But Helene, how do you eliminate the people you don’t want before you meet them?? Why would you select a woman or a gay to be a manager, it is terrible, they would be too emotional to do the job correctly and men would not want to work for them!!!! They could not take rational decisions.  It is good to know in advance if they are Muslim, Jewish, Catholic or Buddhist to know if they can fit with the team!!!!!

– Oh my God! Girls, I cannot believe I hear you say that.  I am an executive in this company and do you think that I cannot make rational business decisions?

-Ya! But you….

 -No ya but me here girls. And you tell me that you ask “single or married” to try to see if people would be gay?? Who cares whom this person sleeps with at night?  If I can do the job, I should be hired regardless of my personal profile. So you tell me that you prefer to work for gays that got married and live a double life so it is acceptable at work. Don’t you think that his (her) chances of being emotional, depressed or unhappy are greater if he (she) cannot be himself? 

Yes I prefer, I could not work for a gay guy or gay women, it would disrupt the team and our work!!!  

My girlfriend from New Zealand barged in and reinforced my thoughts with the fact that this would also be illegal in Australia and New Zealand.  I was glad to hear that but I do not see women in the leadership team in these countries either, so I can only guess that it is an unspoken rule.  At least in Asia, it is “no hiding” the truth!!  More so in a Japanese culture base company. It is not a glass ceiling that you have when you are a woman, it is a solid black roof above your head. Thank God I did not come here in hope of becoming a vice-president because I would slightly be disappointed. Even if I am in Singapore, I work for a Japanese company. When you talk about having women in the leadership team, they start laughing nervously and say “nooooo” cannot! 

-So! My dear Korean colleague, what is your thought on this?  Last time I was in Korea, I did not see more than 4 women in the office, out of a couple of hundred peoples!  With a shy smile and a very polite tone, the Korean man answered:

-Ohhhh!  In Korea, it is still a very male dominating culture and women are not considered for long time work and are given smaller jobs because they will get married.  A woman’s place is still at home, like in Japan. 

-Would you work for women?

He lowered his eyes and started laughing in a cute shy way.  He did not have to answer the question because I already knew the answer but I wanted to see the cute shy smile. It reminded me of the Japanese marketing manager in Malaysia who reports to a woman.  One night I asked him how he felt when he landed last year and found out he was going to work for a woman?  His answer surprised me because his boss (the she in question) was sitting right next to him when he said “she’s cute”!  I then told him that she was very intelligent as well but he could not admit it and kept on repeating that she is cute and that he talks directly to the managing director above her. 

CULTURAL CLASHHHHHH!  Is what was resounding in my mind and I could see the same thought in the eyes of my Canadian fellow.

Yet Chinese people in Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing treat women and men pretty equally like we would in Canada and we increasingly see women in management positions. They are very entrepreneurial, quick in business and very “go getters” once the trust and relationships are established.  During my recent trip to Shanghai, I was stunned to see how many women were in leading positions (thought it was unique to Singapore) with a bright smile, a witty brain and an affirmative personality.  You go girls!   They speak English, Mandarin and many other Chinese dialects, so I could just imagine what a brilliant future they will shape for themselves.

After lunch, my Thai and Taiwanese colleagues were still shaking their heads saying “they cannot imagine a world where you cannot discriminate to make your choices” and they completely accept this fact with the conscious knowledge that there are other ways.  Quite frankly I am surprised of how I even accept many things and many discriminations that I would have never tolerated while in Canada.

Open discrimination is so much more powerful than you that you stop fighting after a while and adapt.  It is a bit tiring to stay on the wrong side of the road all the time without changing lane.  It is now normal for me to have my photo, my electronic finger and iris prints taken at many customs in airports and it is business as usual to give my passport number to the point where I carry a photocopy of my ID at all time.  How many of you know their passport number by heart and its expire date.  Go ahead, don’t look and say it out loud!

Then I faced my own concept of discrimination.  Last week in Germany I was taking care of a few clients when came this couple from Indonesia.  He was dressed in a traditional Muslim costume and her, completely veiled… you could only see her vivid eyes.  I saw many veiled women in Indonesia and Malaysia before this one, but I never had to spend time and discuss business with them. My past interaction with veiled woman was to watch them walk by and look at them with amazement that someone would be kept in a state of hiding for her entire life. Every veiled woman was to me a sign of repression and domination and I must admit that it is still hard for me to admit that women would be covered and can never live the pleasure of being looked at by anyone else than her husband and immediate family… to get the look that boost our ego and helps us build some of our self-confidence.

I deliberately sat next to her at dinner and to my pleasant surprise, I had the greatest time.  She was a ball of energy, a true businesswoman, sharp, funny and full of self-confidence.  She was very open-minded and I felt with her the same as I would feel with any of you.  My mind was constantly going back and forth fighting my prejudice and at the end of the night, I wished I could spend more time with her.  Walking out of the restaurant we were still laughing while I watched all these eyes staring at us with a puzzled face. You cannot see two greater extremes than me and a veiled Muslim woman walking and almost hugging on the streets of Dusseldorf.  

I had not ask her age but her religion was obvious, I did not know her salary but her nationality was written on the guest list, I did not know her passport number nor her address and yet my Canadian eyes had started to cheat me the minute I saw her and almost discard her prior to even speaking with her.  Then I thought: Discrimination comes in all shapes or forms and perhaps the worst kind is the hidden one; the unspoken one, the one we veil in our daily lives and pretend it does not exist.


Fun facts:  This morning when I was reading the daily newspaper of Singapore, I saw this very “a propos” ad in the classified:

Urgent, for sale, condominium 1000sq feet, 1.8 million, any races accepted  !!!!!!




2 responses

21 06 2008
Michael L. Gooch

Isn’t it great to be an American where these issues of discrimination are being (slowly) addressed. I have seen great strides over the last 30 years in the way managers “think” about the workforce. Like sexual harassment, the true victims rarely report it while the abused suffer in silence. This is a problem. Huge Problem. In my book, Wingtips with Spurs, http://www.amazon.com/Wingtips-Spurs-Michael-L-Gooch/dp/1897326882/
I devote a chapter to discrimination and how it is often over-looked or swept into a dark corner. And yes, it still exists in modern America. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders http://www.michaellgooch.com

5 09 2008
susan mittelman

I know that we all like to think of ourselves as not being prejudiced. I for one being jewish have been friends with many a race and color. Yet I find that when I work at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, and most of the residents are Muslim, I have a bit of a problem with it. The Jewish General, gets the least amount of funding from the government they do their own funding campaigns and are very lucky to be in a position where they get millions of dollars a year from the population of the wealthy jews. They are also known for the best doctors so all medical students starting their residency want to be part of this hospital. There has been fighting in Israel for thousands of years and I’m intelligent enough to know that not all muslims are terrorists, but many are, and I wish I could say that I don,t mind all these muslim residents even though they are excellent doctors, I do
so I guess in some ways I am prejudiced as well.

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