Learning for working

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One trademark sign of a Korean summer is the sight of people outdoors in hordes. Highways are clogged in weekends with families desperate for a brief respite by the sea. Tents come up near the coast and many beaches are dotted with colourful tents, especially where there is a patch of green. Those who prefer to remain in Seoul carve out their own slice of peace at the parks along the Han river. Tents and picnic baskets fill the lawns by the riverside, telling signs that Koreans know how to enjoy. With the harsh winter clearly behind, this is the chance for the young and old to get out of the usual. A summer evening by the riverside can be almost perfect, with a cool breeze every now and then soothing the senses.

I have been thinking about the quality of being gracious. It is a rare quality, often trumped by intelligence and success in a world that gives more value to the latter. Then again, being gracious is so necessary for true leadership that I hold in high esteem even more those who are able to balance their Alpha status with graciousness. Having worked in the government for almost five years and having had the privilege of working with colleagues across the country for programmes large and small, I can say that introspection is in order. I include myself, of course, because I have failed miserably too.

The higher civil service bestows a lot of responsibility and with it comes the privilege of working with different kinds of people from all over the country. The challenge and the beauty in India is the likelihood that a person from the far east could have a person from the far south as a colleague, someone with an entirely different make up. Like in any big organisation, one would be somewhere in the pecking order with plenty of subordinates to manage. The opportunity to truly be of service to another is immense. But fallen humans as we are, we resort to ordering people around and always expect to be served. That feudal mindset still casts a shadow.

True leadership also consists of backing your own staff and taking blows for their slip ups. That builds trust and respect, and most importantly, your staff begin to trust in your leadership. Compare that with someone who is always yelling and blaming others trying to get things done. That kind of behaviour never builds, it only crushes and exposes the shallowness in trying to cover one’s backside. And there’s no better litmus test than emergency situations.

Perhaps I’m trying to remind myself as well. Hypocrite may very well be my middle name. A particular behaviour of another may visibly let me down, while I forget the rashness with which I treat my own. It’s only takes a split second to slip on that road of no control. No amount of self assurance from your designation should satisfy if you know that a same (or better) outcome would have followed a gracious turn.

Character is a sum. That bit of unseen good that one can do simply by being gracious, by pulling back and giving others a bit of respect (especially to subordinates) will keep adding to one’s true profile in the organisation. Licking the boots of influential superiors comes naturally for us humans, but tell me about the boss who graciously cared for the last one on the ladder. Loving others and caring in the truest sense runs counter to our base instincts and it requires effort. It almost always has a multiplier effect not visible in the short run.

Because of these, and many more, being gracious is surely worth it.

Following on

One of the challenges of being far away is to deal with circumstance. The new reality may or may not be what you may have bargained for but thats what reality is. It is there and you can’t escape it, nor can you afford to get lost in nostalgia. Well, nostalgia is like that cupboard that leads to Narnia. Every once in a while I choose to leave behind this new reality and wade beyond that cupboard to find familiar terrain.

I am that boy walking home from school with my little brother, entering the sweet shop with two rupees in hand to escape school and find bliss in a bite of khurma.

I am that boy who found love in a bit of break dance, replete with torn jeans and Michael Jackson on full volume.

I am that boy who awarded himself a red belt in karate and wore it to community gatherings. (My family recently unearthed videos of me demonstrating karate at an event in my ancestral village. They don’t know I bled after being punched on the nose by a junior kid in primary school)

I am that boy who wore cowboy hats and carried fake revolver guns to school.

I am that kid who sang ‘Hotel California’ in a white sweater and pleated trousers.

I am also that kid who danced  after making a three-point shot, as if it was the game winning buzzer beater when we were down 60-15 in a visiting court.

And yes, I am also that boy who came last in short races but massaged his legs as if he’d won.

Don’t ask about the long races.

Finding Saigon

As the plane descended, I looked out of the window and saw a thousand lights brighten the night sky. My love affair with Ho Chi Minh City was going to continue. This was my second call of duty in two years and I thought about the things I could do differently this time around. In my mind, this city somehow seemed small. I figured that was because I thought I had covered a lot of ground walking around the city, sweating profusely on late January afternoons. I remember expecting to waltz into a nice bookstore and find a Lonely Planet on the city, only to wander around with no copy available and feel adventure manual-less. But Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon from those war movies, has a growing population of about 9 million and the surrounding metropolitan area is the largest in Vietnam. I realised I had much more to discover and hope descended as I landed in the city once more.

There’s a buzz in the city sometimes resembling Mumbai at night. Over 3 million two-wheelers cover the streets and mark the rush with which the Vietnamese are zipping by. Sometimes I’d cross the road in surprise seeing how two-wheelers would quickly fill up on either side of the road, anxious riders readying for the green light. I remembered that buzz because I took a scooter taxi for a random ride around the city and with ease, I became Vietnamese. At the traffic signals, the locals would look at me and perhaps wonder why I was smiling, wide-eyed. The scooter ride wound along the river Saigon and turned to history, where the vestiges of French colonialism remained. The 19th century Notre Dame cathedral looked a bit like its much older cousin in Paris, but this red brick version missed the strong gray feel of the original and wasn’t as detailed. Beside the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office which functions both as a post office and a tourist attraction. As I walked in, everything turned sepia and I could see soldiers lining up to send letters to their loved ones home. In one corner, a souvenir vendor played a familiar Western hit on the t’rung, the traditional bamboo xylophone. A little further away was the Municipal Theatre, or Opera House, built by the French which was once the home of the South Vietnam’s Lower House assembly. The experience of watching a Vietnamese cultural show in a building with French motifs was something else. Much like Paris, the streets around these monuments were wider than other parts of the city. One was called Rue Catinat, of course.

 

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Central Post Office

Towards evening, young and old Vietnamese can be spotted in the park in front of the famous Reunification Palace. Vendors walk up and down the lanes for their last bit of luck before the end of the day. As I stood on the porch of the famed building, which looked ordinary architecturally, I struggled to imagine the symbol it held for the people of Vietnam. Much has been written about how a North Vietnamese tank rammed through the gates of the Palace as Saigon fell in 1975.

I walked around downtown past the many souvenir shops and the odd French cafes tucked between fancy Vietnamese restaurants. I walked into Hotel Majestic and stepped into the tiny classic elevator. This hotel from history had a lovely rooftop restaurant overlooking the Saigon river. Quite often, local bands would take the stage and play old hits. Just my luck, the local band one night decided to do a rendition of Gangnam Style. The rooftop bar at Rex is more towards the city and quite spacious, also giving a good view of the surroundings. These hotels were still partly stuck in the past with a certain heaviness that came with the lavish decor.

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Notre Dame cathedral

I had had my first pho in Seoul. Determined to have the real thing, I had walked to a local joint with the help of a Vietnamese colleague on my first visit. Language was a barrier but when I said ‘pho’ the locals would smile and quickly guide me to a table. They had more spices and condiments than the ones served in fancy restaurants and I read that different regions of Vietnam had different styles. This popular noodle soup in Vietnamese street joints have been top notch. For those afraid to take risks on the street, the popular open air restaurant Nha Hang Ngon serves good local cuisine. Anything on a hot pot is an instant winner. Ben Thanh market is another place where one could sample local food, including an assortment of indigenous fruit juices.

As one moves away from the heart of the city, nooks and corners begin to look like Assam or Meghalaya. Ho Chi Minh City, of course, is much cleaner. When the paddy fields emerge, I am instantly home except for the conical hats every now and then. I headed to the famed Cu Chi Tunnels north of the city, from where major operations of the Tet offensive was said to have been launched. It wasn’t just a trip to history but to childhood. Strangely, I had been fed with a consistent diet of Vietnam war movies from Hollywood. Most Naga men will know of Vietnamese tunnels and who the Tunnel Rats were. I recall excitedly walking hand in hand with my father to Mayfair, a video library in Kohima, to select the latest war release. Little did I know that many years on, I’d be on location sitting with a smiling Vietnamese soldier who proudly spoke of his people over a tapioca snack.

Wanting to go a little further away from downtown, I ventured to Bin Quoi village in Binh Thanh district on the weekend. This tourist village was located in a riverine island near a bend in the Saigon river and popular among the locals who come in the weekend for games, music and a generous buffet. My colleague and I sat enthralled listening to a live rendition of some Vietnamese songs with classical guitar for accompaniment. These old men were quite good guitarists.

I ate at the restaurant by the river in the village. The adjacent table had a family of six eating together and laughing in between. In the gaps I could hear the occasional gush of the river. Here, fancy streets and high rises were replaced by thatched roofs and occasional canoes on the river.

Here, I felt home.

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Vietnamese families enjoying music and playing games

Seize the day

It’s easy to be a wannabe. It doesn’t take much effort. It’s like active day dreaming, like reading a book or watching a movie and cheering those heroic moments which convince you that you can be a romantic and the brave heart walking through the valley. But it ends there, because a wannabe does nothing more. The thought is grand enough because doing the real thing takes guts and throws that heroic notion out of the window. The brave heart in the valley has no time to think about how grand his act is because he’s fighting off wolves and snakes to stay alive. A wannabe only waits for the next such moment to reappear so he can cheer the loudest and go away with stars in his eyes. A wannabe is so temporary and I sometimes see the wannabe in me. I have always cheered for those who have made the best use of time. I easily share stories about them on dinner tables and coffee shops, but I have often seen such opportunities slip by me. I’ve watched them pass by and I pretend not to notice. I’m too busy pretending.

I recently had the opportunity to spend almost a month with my teenaged brother. It was rare because it was outside home for the first time for a long stretch. We had grown up without realizing, especially because I had been away from home during my school and college years. The collateral for being away is always family first and you have to work doubly hard at keeping relationships alive, or again only praise those who have done it and flagellate yourself for failing. The distance can easily come from behind and make strangers of friends.

Younger people can teach you a lot more than you expect, or even want. So often, the ego comes up as defense and you find it much easier to talk from a higher position than eye to eye. With teenage years marked as the ‘troubled’ years, it’s simpler to give teenagers the-been-there-done-that dress down. Few twenty-something people I’d advised reminded me that the advice I had given them was, with due respect, worthless. And so I tried to work on the relationship instead. I kept reminding myself of my teenage years and tried to be plain honest. I kept fighting the urge to slip into lecturing mode because it’s also an inherent family trait. I took advantage of the foreign land and imagined it as an adventure with my young brother. In a first, I actually showed interest in his life and became interested in it. Along the way I learned that if the relationship is genuine, then working on the harder parts become easier. That if the relationship has a foundation based on trust and mutual respect, there’ll probably be no need to ask too many questions.

My claim is not that I found a formula or that I succeeded. It’s still a work in progress but in understanding my brother I learned more about the value of relationships and in the process, I changed for the better. Most of all, I had the time of my life and felt the freedom of honesty. Pretense is unnecessary burden.

I suppose I could say that I seized the day on this occasion, and it made me see the importance of doing the same for other opportunities that come. One thing I’m confident about is that while working on relationships, a neutral land could be better. Getting away from familiar territory to somewhere new adds a breath of fresh air.

I wish there could be less wannabes and more doers. Maybe then we’ll have a little more courage to step outside.

Homeland

Time is really the thief. Now when I chat online with friends across the globe, they also share stories of their children with videos of them walking or dancing and the like. These kids were born in the distance and to some of them I am the unseen uncle from a land far away. In other words, a figment of their imagination.

As a kid, I would look up at young cousins in their mid-20s and think they knew all about life and the world. In family gatherings I would hover around the older cousins and mimic in earnest whatever they’d do, much to their annoyance. The older men were my heroes. I was the over smart kid with the big head and quick answers.

At over 30 now, I look at my friend’s children and sometimes wonder who pulled a fast one on me. My friend on the computer screen looks younger than ever before with his new haircut, but they say we are all aging. I suppose the distance assists in making one forget that other lives have a timeline too. Here on the Far East, thousands of miles away from the many lives I know, I am on my own timeline. I become my own world, my own hero, my own schedule trumps everything else and I fool myself that am still young for anything serious. I am long past that barrier where a young me would have looked up to me for moral support. I’m not sure I’d really look up to the person I am now.

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A few months ago, I was speaking to a few of my countrymen during a programme held to commemorate a traditional festival. The occasion gave me a chance to bond with a few folks from my hometown and laugh at esoteric jokes. Let me add that as a basic speaker of a foreign language, translated jokes really don’t work and there’s an inexplicable release when laughing at jokes in your native tongue. I shared with them an experience in the run up to the weeks before I left home, older folk would come to give their much coveted wisdom but some of them came to say that they were looking forward to what I could ‘give back’ to my people. Sure, I wanted to give back and I told myself I could not dare forget how unabashedly I told many seniors I was in this to serve. However, what stayed with me through those meetings was the stress given to a particular tribe, the fear that other tribes are leading and the desire to ‘have our say’. That day I shared my conviction on how we needed to shed such a mindset if we really talk about leadership in the first place. That in a place where there is so much of diversity, any form of leadership cannot be talked about without listening to others first and taking them along the road. To be still thinking like tribes in competition is being stuck in a warp zone.

So I tell youngsters and friends from my home town that if education makes us go back down that road, we haven’t really progressed at all. Yes, I am proud of who I am, the tribe I belong to and my roots. But make no mistake, fist-fighting with other tribes for a misplaced cause does not make one any more loyal or patriotic. We have to resolve to stop feeding our children with this mindset of competition between tribes. We have to resolve to stop telling stories where we say ‘he/she was from that tribe’, no matter how innocuous it may seem. So much of bad blood is carried through generations because some people just don’t keep their mouth shut. It’s like that saying, you want to bury the hatchet but remember where you buried the hatchet. We often say we want younger generations to remember and learn from history, but we cloak in so much of bitterness and without a sense of forgiveness that the bad blood is carried in a new host.

Unless we firmly resolve to change the way we have behaved for so long, I’m afraid we’ll either have a hot –blooded generation quick to act but without measured thinking, or we’ll inherit a passive generation with no passion or motive at all. But the key is that balance. We must have young blood infused with considered fresh thinking, the kind of youngsters that would make others sit up and take notice and even doubt- only because it is so unconventional.

I am reminded of how our Lord Jesus ate and drank with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors much to the indignation of the Pharisees. It was so unconventional that the so called holy men of that day just couldn’t take it. We need to go back and sit with those we have called sinners and love them and ask for forgiveness. But that wouldn’t happen when we are prone to only wear our Sunday best and take the front pews to show others how holy we are.

The Korea I see

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One of the fascinating things about Korea, I find, is an ability to create something out of nothing. The more I travel and see the country, the more I realize that when pushed into a corner you’ve got to be creative and forge your path of survival.

Some weeks ago, I drove up north to a place called Pocheon Art Valley. It is an artificial tourist spot carved out of an abandoned granite quarry, complete with a small pond, an amphitheatre and exhibition rooms. There was a long queue for the monorail up to the art valley, most Koreans with kids hand in hand. When I was done surveying the place, I remembered the frustrated time I had searching my way out of a man-made stone maze in Jeju. That, too, was just another recreational space created out of nothing for the fun loving Koreans who needed a place to hold hands and walk into. That I disliked these fake places is another story but I appreciate the effort behind such spaces. And no, I don’t like teddy bear museums.

Further north was the Sanjeong lake. Originally built as a reservoir for water supply in 1925, this lake had a pension of Kim Il-sung when it was briefly in North Korean hands. Apparently one reason was that the lake was shaped like an inverted Korean peninsula which inspired him while making war plans. I felt a bit better seeing the green mountains surrounding the lake even though it was crowded and loud announcements blasted off the speakers in the amusement park. Weekends in Korea can be tricky, with people from the cities and towns ever eager to get more breathing space. So the riverside parks in Seoul, the mountains near Seoul and the nearby touristy places are full of loyal Koreans on weekends.

I recall one trip to Bukhansan National Park, north of Seoul. At one rest point on the way to the summit, I looked around to savor the view and saw people climbing the mountains from all directions. When I reached the summit, I had to jostle for a space to have lunch. On another trip to Seoraksan National Park, I reached at 11 a.m. and was told the reservations for the cable car went till 5:00 pm. The Korean hiking gear is another story.

Without fail, every trip outdoors reminds me of home and I am thankful for that. Imagine my surprise when I first found proper toilets on a hiking trail. Public toilets are ubiquitous in Korea and I’m reminded that it’s a mark of progress. Most places have provisions for the differently-abled too. I suppose it shouldn’t be too difficult to make proper public toilets at least beginning with the many small towns closer home, even on the paid model like the ones in Delhi. It’s so basic and yet taken for granted most of the time.

Roughly 50 million people live in South Korea, with about 15 million in Seoul and Busan combined. Korea is only slightly larger than the state of Bihar in my country area wise, so one can drive from the west coast to the east coast in about five hours or less. I took a drive to the Gangneung on the east coast via Daegwallyeong and Odaesan National Park. It’s a beautiful drive up through the mountains of Gangwon-do and down as the valley gives way to the sea. I had to stand in queue to see the famous touristy sheep farm along the way. The sea from Gyeongpo beach was serene, beautiful and almost full of promises. It wasn’t July so it was less crowded but I got the peace and quiet I wanted, away from the city. The beach front was clean and the restaurants filled with customers even though it wasn’t peak season. These people knew how to enjoy. This is the same spirit that runs across the country – whether it’s a beachfront seafood joint, a quaint café in a corner somewhere, the streets in Itaewon and Gangnam, makgeolli on a mountain top, acoustics on a Hongdae street, silence beside the Han, the list goes on. Koreans know how to enjoy and this translates into various efforts both at personal and government level. At many places, I have been handed down two or three maps to a place. One would be a standard map of the city, another would depict famous restaurants and hotels, and still another map would be a cartoon sketch showing the famous places in and around the city. I even like how, on a hike, am handed a map on entry showing various trails and routes to take. There’s no question of getting lost.

To welcome tourists, the basic things need to get covered and Korea does that well. From seemingly small things like maps to communication to accommodation to transportation to advertisements, Korea gives insights on how to sell even if there may not be much. After all, the country has had an increasing rate of foreign tourists with over 11 million inbound tourists in 2012.

I wish more politicians and policy makers would come and observe Korea a little more, between meetings and short forays into Namdaemun and Insadong. On a recent visit by a lawmaker from the North-east, I desperately made my pitch on how we can learn and sell our beautiful country better. Because it’s no secret, India does have the goods and I can’t help but beam as I compare when I travel abroad. But we need to do so much more, and here we can take a leaf out of the Korean book. They do extremely well with less. The problem is we don’t know how much we have. It’s a problem of gratefulness.

Sojourn II

I am home walking the familiar streets where I grew up. A year is nothing in the time scale and this is not the first time I have been away from home for a year. Yet it’s a bit different. Adaptability is always something that I have taken pride in, given the fact that I have been in and out of home since fourteen. But my father tells me, adaptability is not only being able to go out and mingle in different places with people from different nationalities. He says it is also the ability to come back to your roots and realize that you have come home. That no matter what I have seen and done, I should go back to my town without feeling uneasy and be able to laugh with the old man from my village when he laughs.

The change is drastic. Seoul has its high rises, automated everything and busy traffic on its good roads. One of the larger metropolitan cities of the OECD world, over 10 million people move around the city and the energy can be felt daily. The city draws Koreans and expats to restaurants, bars and pubs weekend after weekend, and it is quite true that one can be in Seoul for years and know nothing more of Korea besides Seoul. I am one of the nagging voices, having tried to convince my friends that the Korea I love is outside the metropolis and that the adventure lies beyond. I am scared that I might become one of the many who have been sucked into the city life with no desire to breathe the cool mint-fresh air of the mountains and the countryside. You’ll get used to it, they all say.

I took a walk with my brother down memory lane to the first house I remember. It still stands, not too far from the house we live in now. We walk to the front of the house and laugh, instantly recalling things we did. The cricket pitch now looks very small and what I thought was a big garden wasn’t really big. In fact, there’s a big building both in front and back, hemming in the small government quarters I once called home. As I meet my uncles, aunts and cousins, I feel the impact of time and that one year has done quite a bit to relationships. I wouldn’t want me to slide from laughter to a formal smile to just a nod. I know the onus is on me to keep relationships alive and well. Life is about relationships after all, and that firm relationships give a sense of confidence and add to one’s identity.

I wander around Kohima with gratefulness in my heart- that after years of being out of home, I can still come back and not feel like a stranger, that I can meet an old friend in the street and laugh at old jokes, that I am equally at home even if I don’t have the comforts of Seoul, that I can visit old neighbours and talk with them over tea in steel cups of old. Most of all, I am grateful there’s no pretense. I suppose that in writing this, I am trying to remind myself again that it is I who must make that extra effort to seize each day, each moment.

After a year in the metropolis, I have come to admire simplicity even more. I am convinced that the true measure of a person can be seen when the comforts of this world don’t disable the ability to live meaningfully with less. Having more may not be bad but wanting more, forgetting others who have less or who don’t have is surely the edge of the cliff. These visits home remind of that. It reminds me of my roots and what we didn’t have so that I can be grateful for what I have now, without holding on to it because it really isn’t mine to hold.

“…for apart from me, you can do nothing.” John 15:5