Two years ago I was under pressure to buy a new phone. The choices were astonishing, but all I wanted was a cell phone to replace the small flip-phone that was going south on me. I'm not a big data guy. I don't need to be connected 24/7 to my email server. I don't listen to music or watch YouTube on my phone. I needed a phone not a pocket rocket computer. I wanted to make and receive calls when I was away from home. That's all I was looking for - an emergency line for necessary calls. It was almost impossible to find one, and what was available was almost as expensive as the tricked out ones with bells and whistles. Why not, I said, and caved for an iPhone on the family plan - 2 phones and a bill that wasn't much different than what we were paying for 2 phones and 2 different plans.
The iPhone is very seductive. I've never had a Blackberry or a Droid or any of the other hi-tech devices, but now I know what the iPhone hype is all about. I can make calls. That's why I wanted a phone in the first place, right? But, now I just pull up the Contact or look at my Favorites, touch the screen and Apple does the rest. Every day I synch my phone with my PC's Outlook calendar and contacts as well as getting a direct feed from my email server. If I'm anywhere near a wi-fi network, and they're everywhere, my email is updated in real time. If I want to know what the market is doing I touch the Stocks app, and if I'm worried about the weather here or someplace else I check the Weather app. I use the Clock's alarm every morning and I have Seattle, Saigon, and Sun Valley/Salt Lake City tabbed in the time zone feature in case I have a brain cramp and can't remember the 14 or 15 hour time differences. In fact, the phone knows what time zone I'm in even if I don't. I read the NY Times when I'm in the back of a taxi and I use the calculator to convert US dollars to Vietnam Dong. I check out what my kids, grandkids, and friends are doing on Facebook and use Google Maps and the GPS app to figure out the best way to get somewhere. I make almost free calls from Vietnam to the US using Skype, and when Marilynn and I argue over who starred in what movie, we Google it and settle the dispute. I do sometimes listen to my music, as long as it's there, on airplanes and I just spent time with a friend who is starting to download books to hers. I never imagined how dependent I would become or how useful this thing is.
You can imagine how I felt 10 days ago when I was getting ready to set the alarm and couldn't find the phone. I still can't believe it's gone, but gone it is. I reached into my jeans pocket to get money to pay the cabbie that night, and the phone must have slipped out of my pocket onto the back seat. By the time I called my own number the sim card had been removed and I got a "temporarily out of service" message. My guess is that within and hour it had been resold. These things are very expensive in Vietnam - roughly 5 times the US price and very desirable. It felt like my lifeline had been cut. It didn't help that Marilynn's phone had some kind of meltdown the same week. Here we are in Saigon without phones - and everyone does business here by text, call, or email. We opted for the beach and stuck our heads in the sand. We hired a car from a friend in the travel business, got him to give us a loaner phone, and went to MuiNe for a long weekend. It worked.
On Monday when we got back I charged the old Model A type phone I bought when we first got here. I got a new sim card and now I can at least call or text people. Marilynn's phone is up and running, so we're back in business. Marilynn's assistant in Seattle bought me a refurbished 3GS iPhone and it's on its way by FedEx. It's really quite amazing to lose your phone, look into the abyss, and have to admit that it really is your lifeline. I don't want to go through this again, but since I lost it almost everyone I've talked to has told me their story about losing a phone - some have lost 2 or 3. Right now I'm thinking about having it surgically implanted. I don't want to go through this again.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
A little more than a year ago a friend wrote to tell me that he thought I had found the secret to retirement - a really great new job. I think he's right, although there are moments when stress, conflict, or just plain fatigue makes me want to pack it all in and veg on some tropical beach with a no-brain thriller.
We've been back in Vietnam for two weeks now, and there has been plenty of stress, jet-lag, conflict and fatigue. We've been busy reestablishing relationships, going to meetings, attending to a 4 day staff retreat in central Vietnam, and spending a couple of days with the President of the foundation reviewing local operations and looking at budgets. These two weeks have been unusually busy but there is an exciting buzz to being back and some remarkably good things to look back on.
We have a small office in Saigon. When I arrived a year ago there were three of us, and our mission was to explore the fundraising potential here in the business center of Vietnam. We're still around, but we have added four more staff in the last six months. They are working on clean water projects for villages in the Mekong delta funded by a large Australian government grant. Two of the four on the water team were in place before I went to the US in June - the project leader, a Vietnamese woman, named Binh, with lots of experience in this area and Gary, an Australian engineer on loan for a year from Engineers Without Borders. While I was away Binh hired two more engineers, both young and both with Master's degrees from universities in Thailand. An is a handsome, confident, kid with excellent English and interpersonal skills and Ha Chau is a shyly beautiful equally talented young woman.
Since our work doesn't really intersect and because we work in a tall narrow Vietnamese house with four levels, we don't have a lot of interaction in the office. The trip to Quy Nhon and the three days at the staff retreat gave me a chance to get to know them.
I am so impressed with the quiet grace and generosity of the Vietnamese people. There is a tradition here that mandates that a new friend or guest be given special treatment at mealtime. I've experienced this twice. The first time I didn't really understand it. This time it was explained to me.
Almost all Vietnamese meals are communal. The food comes in bowls or platters and everyone shares. As we sat down for our first meal together, An and Ha Chau sat beside me and as the food and beer arrived they served me first. I accepted this as a normal courtesy and didn't pay much attention until I noticed that each time I took a sip of beer or bite of something from my bowl of rice the glass or the bowl were instantly replenished. And each time a new dish arrived and a new dipping sauce appeared they served me and then explained what it was and how to eat it. Eventually, I understood that as long as I kept eating or drinking my glass and bowl would be filled. This is a lovely tradition and it continued throughout the three days. Each time we ate together and something new appeared I was served first and given a little tutorial about it. They paid me great respect and in turn it gave me a warm appreciation for them and their tradition.
I'm not a big fan of team building retreats, but I learned a lot at this one. Not only did I get to know these two young colleagues who work in my office, but I also learned that the Vietnamese are different from Americans in other ways. They love group activities and hi-jinks. Like children they enthusiastically embrace the games and exercises. Maybe I thought I was too cool for these things, but they wouldn't let me miss out. On the second night of the retreat there was a EMW Idol or EMW's Got Talent kind of show with a series of funny skits and some very talented singing and dancing by staff members. My office brought costumes and performed a looney skit that had me dressed up as a traditional Mandarin. A few beers helped me get over being cool, and once our skit was over I gave in to the simple pleasure of watching their pleasure.
This experience demonstrates once again that even with significant differences, there are also remarkable similarities. We are learning from each other and working together to help the poor and disadvantaged people of Vietnam. This job is a great gift for me.