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Archive for the ‘Blogging with Friends’ Category

#20 of Blogging with Friends

When I moved to Thailand to work in the NZ Embassy for three years, I discovered a nation where the women were impeccably dressed. When I’d been there as a student, I’d lived in my school uniform (it helped to identify me as “local,” someone who was not a rich tourist, someone who could not be ripped off when bargaining for goods!) or jeans and t-shirts. So when I returned as an adult, it was a little shock to the system to see the high standards the Thai women kept. They’d even dress up going out on the weekends, whether meeting for lunch, shopping in a nice mall, having afternoon tea in a 5-star hotel, or going to the beauty salon for a massage. So I felt I needed to maintain similar standards, to represent the Embassy and my country well.

Despite the fact that, ten years on from my student exchange, Bangkok had become quite cosmopolitan, it still catered to the tiny (compared to me) Thai women. So I couldn’t go to stores and buy clothes, and there was zero chance I could buy shoes. I found a tailor, and a shoe-maker. Oh, happy day! For the first time in my life, I had shoes that fit and were comfortable. It was bliss! (I actually got my sister’s wedding shoes made there – she sent an outline of her longer-and-narrower-than-mine foot, and we agreed on the design, et voila!) And I went to the tailor (which the Thai women did quite often too) to get blouses, suits, etc all made to order in my three year term. They were all simple, elegant, but practical, using good quality fabrics. I stayed away from a lot of the synthetics the Thai women wore (contrary to the common fallacy that people in hot countries live in cotton and linen), but took advantage of some of the lovely silks. A purple Thai silk suit was a favourite.

Coming home after three years, I found a different, more interesting, clothing market in New Zealand. My style hadn’t really changed – I still didn’t like fussy clothes, clean lines flattered my body, and with my height, I could carry off length. My return home to NZ saw me gradually put on weight, but my style stayed much the same. Then in the mid-90s, I started working at a new company, and met sometime-commenter Peony. And she introduced me to Penny. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Let me explain.

Penny was a business woman who had run clothing stores in the past. She brought in clothes from selected NZ and Australian designers (and I remember a French brand too), and helped her clients put together a seasonal wardrobe. Appointments were free – she got a commission from the clothes we bought. So they were more expensive than I would usually buy. I thought I knew how to mix and match – frugality teaches you that – but Penny took it to another level. She didn’t have any boring clothes, and she didn’t mix and match them in boring ways. If I cringed at the price, she’d help me put together a group of clothes that could work together in multiple ways. “Throw on a cheap white t-shirt from a chain store,” she would suggest to complement a fabulous jacket, or outrageous skirt. She’d throw my favourite item on the floor, and then show how others would work together with it or with each other. Anything that was insufficiently versatile would be discarded. Unless I adored it. Penny taught me to have fun with clothes.

It helped that business attire at the time was just starting to change. And perhaps more that all my clients lived and worked overseas. So I had a couple of more boring suits that were great for travel and business; they were my “meeting clients” clothes. Most of my fun clothes were kept for NZ. I loved the surprise of asymmetric clothes. (I remember my father looking at an otherwise very simple, asymmetric black coat, saying, “but why?”) I discovered that I loved clothes with a bit of embellishment, a sense of fun or daring, but that weren’t too fussy.

I had a favourite beige cotton jacket that I would wear with black pants or jeans – it had very simple lines, but had pirate (it’s the only way I can describe it) white lace frills at one cuff and under the front panel of one side, and the other side was just plain. My girlfriends loved it. I loved it. My husband and male colleagues all shook their heads in puzzlement. I remember going to the supermarket once after work with my husband. He saw someone he knew, then looked at me, and moaned, “oh no, you’re wearing that jacket!” I could only laugh! That jacket pretty much represented my style in those years. Clean, elegant, but with a fun surprise. I had some great, fun, skirts and shirts, and over the years bought two winter coats that were just not available in most of the shops. Oh, I felt so good in those luscious coats! For about six years, I had fabulous fun with clothes, albeit tinged with guilt at the amount I spent at a single visit. But then I didn’t shop much elsewhere, so it probably all evened out. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I had never before enjoyed clothes so much. Never before felt that I had clothes for every occasion. Never before felt that my clothes presented how I wanted to be in the world. Calm. Sophisticated. Professional. And a little bit daring and fun.

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#18 of Blogging with Friends

“What is the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten?” one of my blogging friends challenged us to answer last week. I assumed she didn’t mean the overcooked schnitzel my husband made once, and so my mind immediately went to Asia. I specifically didn’t eat a bowl of huge (it seemed to me at least), grey, rubbery-looking octopus tentacles in Taiwan, breaking all diplomatic rules by refusing this offering, but delighting the Taiwanese men around me by sharing my uneaten tentacles with them. I also specifically didn’t eat from the buffet of bugs in a Filipino restaurant, when I was taken there by some of my local staff members on a project. The most unordinary thing in the buffet were brains or offal. The bowls of bugs  – big ones, and small ones – were not sufficiently appetising to either me, or Phil, yet we had both spent years living in Asia, and were not usually too squeamish (despite this post) about foreign foods.

As a student in Thailand, I went out with my host family to restaurants quite a lot. (I should note that before I went to Thailand I was not a particularly adventurous eater – mainly perhaps because I simply never got the opportunity to eat a variety of food. And I was quite picky too. I lost that almost as soon as I joined my host family and fell in love with Thai food.) My Thai father, in particular, liked Chinese food, Bangkok was renowned for having great Chinese food, and I suspect there was an elevated status in being able to eat at and host meals at these restaurants. Even when we coincidentally were in London at the same time about 30 years later, we met at a Chinese restaurant. So we had either bird’s (or is it birds’?) nest or shark’s (sharks’?) fin soup, and always Peking duck (my favourite, and that of my Thai host siblings), and other stuff. I discovered then that if you don’t know what you’re eating, it is always best not to ask. The black slimy stuff on your plate? Just eat it! At a different seafood restaurant once, instead of the copious numbers of prawns the siblings and I always devoured, I was given sample after sample of food I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to. One of the dishes was sea urchin. The others shall remain unknown. And that’s fine by me.

But probably the most adventurous and scariest thing I ever ate was at a party in Thailand with a big bunch of other AFS exchange students. Nicki, a fellow kiwi AFS friend, and her school, hosted an AFS Weekend. A large group of us converged on her remote town in north-eastern Thailand for several days of fun, and after a long bus trip to get there, we were billeted out with different families. It was a poor town – few cars, or telephones amongst the 3000 inhabitants. Nicki’s host family was a single mother who survived by making kanom (sweets) to sell at the markets, and her older sister. So the arrival of a group of conspicuously foreign teenagers was a big event for them.

On our last evening, the local Police Chief – who had, I think, been hosting one of the students – put on a farewell party for us. The highlight of the meal was the wok filled with stir-fried grasshoppers (or were they crickets? I’m not sure). It was compulsory, our host declared, to eat at least one. They had a large wok heated over hot coals, and it was full of these large insects (about 5-6 cms long) which they stir-friend quickly. I don’t remember who ate the first one. I know for certain it wasn’t me! But my friends tried them and declared they were okay, and I knew there was no backing out. I didn’t want to be the last to eat either, so I took one. The key was to pull off the scratchy back legs, which would rip up the inside of our mouths, before eating. I dreaded the squish of the body between my teeth; it’s one of the things I don’t like about sultanas, the way their little bodies (well, that’s what they feel like) burst in my mouth! But there was no “squish”. They were crunchy, and tasted of oil, and were not at all offensive, if you forgot what you were eating. I don’t really recall any other flavour. In the end, the reality of eating the grasshopper/cricket was a lot less scary than the idea of it.

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#17 of Blogging with Friends: Something about a job you have done that other people don’t (or didn’t) understand

For about 11 years, I was on the Board of Directors of a government-owned subsidiary company. For much of that time, I was Chair of the Board. (I didn’t like Chairman or Chairperson, and I thought Chairwoman sounded awkward, so I became the Chair!) Our shareholders were government entities, and a number of their CEOs sat on the Board. Needless perhaps to say, I was the only woman on the Board, although we had women in the senior management group, and I was one of only two company directors who had direct experience working in the same field and with some of the same clients as the company.

It was a small company, with great growth potential – and in fact, great growth during my time in the position. That meant that I worked very closely in supporting the company’s CEO and senior management, at a level of detail that would not have been possible in a much larger company. I had already done the same work as many of the staff members and contractors, had managed client relationships, and reported on risk and business development and growth. I was now on the other side of that, in a governance role, checking on financial and other risks, and was the employer of the CEO. I learned a huge amount about the differences between management and governance, about when it was appropriate to step in, and when I needed to step back and not interfere. It was an interesting and rewarding role, especially seeing my inputs bear fruit.

Friends saw me working on the board a few days a week, and thought it was an ideal, post-full-time-career role. I think they thought it was well paid. It was not well paid at all! But that’s not the topic of this post. What they didn’t think about was that, in New Zealand (as I am sure many other countries), company directors have legal responsibilities under the Companies Act. We were/are required to act honestly, in the best interests of their company, and with reasonable care at all times. If we ignored these duties, didn’t ask the right questions, or behaved recklessly, we could be personally liable and face prosecution. Therein lies the aspect of this job that my friends and family, and many other people, don’t think about. Fear.

Even when I knew we were dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, that we were financially rigorous about risk, and that we were taking every possible care for our staff and contractors’ health and safety (we were sending people to work in Asia during the first SARs and swine flu outbreaks), I occasionally (perhaps more often than occasionally) felt fear. It didn’t help that, unlike some high profile prosecutions around the time I was chairing the board, our company did not take or use the public’s money (unlike, for example, financial institutions), and – unusually for many businesses – we were not even in debt. So the prosecutions of directors that were in the news could not even have applied to us. Still, that fear was always there. Maybe it was a result of a lack of confidence, or a form of fraud syndrome? Maybe it was simply my level of diligence in the role? I don’t know. But I felt it regularly.

When I stepped down as Chair after six years, I felt some relief, though legally I was still just as responsible for my actions and decisions and, perhaps most importantly, my questions as I had been when I was chairing the board. A year or so later I resigned from the company to go overseas, and the relief was palpable. And not because I no longer had to deal with egotistical men who liked the sound of their own voices and had been promoted beyond their capabilities! Finally, that fear that came from such a level of responsibility was lifted. Even if the directorships boys’ clubs shutting me out of future roles were not still in operation, I admit that I would not be in a rush to invite that fear back into my life.

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