Archives for the month of: June, 2011

While most of my journey has been of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along type, I occasionally end up signing for a one-day or half day tour to attractions that require a lot of hassle or a car to get to.

So here I was again at 8 am boarding a minibus to Halong bay. The day was off to a weird start: the driver could not locate me at the agreed meeting point (even though he had my Vietnamese phone number) and once he did find me he went ahead and vented out some of his frustration in Vietnamese. I don’t know how you say `you motherfucking idiot` in Vietnamese but if I listened more attentively I would probably do by now. After we dropped off a couple that had mistakenly been picked up by our company (angry remarks were given in English this time) we were briefed by our guide (Mr Mit 1) about the schedule for the day before introducing us to the other guide (Mr Mit 2) and the driver (Mr Mit 3). If stereotypes are anything to go by, the contrast between this tour and the one I took to My Son (see previous post) proved the stereotypes about Northern Vietnamese and Southern Vietnamese right. Compared to their freewheeling, smiling countrymen in the South, the Northern Vietnamese are less prone to smiling and can be abrupt (being yelled at by a senior Hanoi citizen in the street for not getting out of the way can feel like being shat on by a dinosaur, based on my experience). Compared to our army general turned Chinese opera actor with his salacious jokes about My Son’s phallic statues (see previous post), our guide to Halong acted like a strict Austrian nanny and spoke with the same enthusiasm of an accountant doing your tax audit. Just like for all stereotypes about people from the North and people from the South of many countries (Italy, the US, France etc.), numerous theories have been formulated about the N vs S Vietnam debate ranging from climatic (colder North) to geographic (north’s proximity with China) to historic (contact and or conflict with foreigners) to political (tighter and more entrenched grip of a certain party).

As I was pondering about these various meaningless theories, we stopped at a rest house for the inevitable pee stop with a drive-through souvenir shopping extension (never seen so much lacquerware in my entire life). Looking at the fellow tourists from our minibus and the six others in the parking lot (all Halong-bound), I also realised that the tourists were also a poorly dressed travelling circus of global stereotypes: the chainsmoking Frenchman, the Sandals&Socks Inc. Vikings, English ladies with skin complexions turned red like ham, hyper-accessorised Singaporian and Hong Kongese men with their handbags etc… Perhaps distancing myself from the stereotype of Italian tourist on the loose (or perhaps not), I was sporting an equally dubious garb of Jesus Christ leather sandals (from Jerusalem, circa 2007) and an electric blue wifebeater and jeans short from my Plastic Fantastic in Hong Kong 2011 summer collection.

After the cathartic rituals of the emptying of the bladder were concluded, off we went towards the promised land of Halong bay, our Vietnamese Shepherd and firm believer in the power of tough love guiding his ill-assorted herd of lost souls of the Lonely Planet towards landscapes of astonishing beauty.

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While in Hoi An I booked a half a day tour to the archaeological town of Mi Son.
So there I was, at 8.30 am on a lime green bus surrounded by equally sleepy tourists in shorts and sandals.
As soon as we left, our guide, Mr Dong, introduced himself with military-like demeanour and detailed the schedule for the day, before conducting a head count of us useless people. So that we would not lose people to other groups visiting the site, we will hencefort be referred to as the tiger group and he would be our self-appointed tiger king, Gen. Dong informed us. He proceeded to explain in a martial voice that Mi Son had been established as a trade empire by Javanese merchants well before Angor Wat was built (so much for all that Khmer swagger, Cambodia).
Once arrived at the site, Gen. Dong briefed us in front of the map, his body language a mix of military demeanour and moves from a Chinese Opera.
He informed us that the site, now a world heritage site, was first vandalised by French explorers that cut the heads off all the Hindu statues so that they could be exhibited at the Louvre and then by the Americans that thought that the proximity of My Son to the Saigon trail meant that the Viet Cong were using the ruins as a base (they weren’t). You can see the hole in the ground caused by one of the bombs in the picture below. Not trying to suggest any comparison, but the only other people that cut off head of statues in the region where the Khmer Rouge and Mao’s cultural revolutionaries. A proof that in terms of idiocy our (in)civilisation can be on par with any other.

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I accidentally booked a seat on the 6 sleeper part of the train, instead of the more tourist friendly 4 sleeper part. It would have not been so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that I am claustrophobic and once you lay on the top bed your nose is only 30 cm away from the cieling. As I was contemplating survival strategies for the 17 hour long journey, a boisterous Vietnamese family of 4 arrived.
They were better prepared for their 33 hour journey to Ha Noi, the kids playing on their I phone and portable Play Station, the father on his I Pad and the mother administering a seemingly endless supply of snacks and food.
They were cleary wondering what sort of scam I must have gotten into that sold me over priced second class tickets en lieu of first class. Nonetheless, they were as gracious as only the Vietnamese can be and while we chatted away in broken English, they made sure I partook in the food fest. All of a sudden I remembered long overnight train journeys as a child  with my family in Italy. A continuous supply of rice cakes, spicy dry meat, pickles, cured pork, pop corn, sandwiches, rice porridge, bananas and even wine was offered (I volunteered my cookies).
In the end the journey wasn’t as painful as it could have been, I got the opportunity to spend 17 hours with a boisterous and lovely upper middle class Vietnamese family, got my heart warmed to see their interaction and left with a great memory of the people that are projecting the country head-first into the 21st century.

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One of the reasons behind this trip to South East Asia was to got away from the Middle East for a little bit – As I am sitting in a frozen yogurt cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, I just realised that sometimes you just can’t escape very easily.

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I just came out of an exhibit on the history of Vietnam’s communist party. I went because I figured you don’t get to see propaganda by a ruling communist party a lot these days. In the midst of various memorabilia (silver plate from the Libyan Jamahiryya, Cuban stamps, plate from Turkmenistan etc.), posters of all the communist party congresses, photos of party officials being received by various dignitaries and/or at the ceremony for Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN or the WTO, one document from the 1945 liberation struggle from the French really caught my attention. The pamphlet calls for an end to French aggression in exchange for protection of France’s commercial interests in the country. The second last paragraphs is very militant ‘Français! Réfléchissez! Vous avez appris aux événements de Syrie-Liban`. It reminded me of a different Syrian revolution that once was.

The next stop on the tour was the War Remnants Museum. The museum is an impressive and harrowing tour of the impact of the Vietnam war. It has a bright orange room full of pictures of victims of Napalm and other biological weapons, US army tanks and helicopters parked outside and a ‘requiem’ photo exhibition. The ground floor hosts a collection about the various protests that took place all over the world, including in Aleppo, Syria.
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A lot of thoughts are now racing in my head on imperialism, military intervention, resistance and post-resistance propaganda (brought to you by the `historic truth` part of the museum). Perhaps the loudest one is a reflection on how humans take part in historic events, motivated in part by my non-heroic and passive experience with the Egyptian revolution. This quote has moved me more than anything else in the museum.

Someone may criticise me, a citizen of a third world country for self-burning in protest, but I strongly believe that those who long for the real peace in Vietnam and all over the world will not consider my death as being in vain

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It has been brought to my attention that the way I spend my days here is tipical of a wealthy HK Tai Tai (housewife). My routine consists of sightseeing or acupuncturist in the morning, meeting up with friend over her lunch break, shopping in malls in the afternoon, evening activities such as Chinese opera or fortune teller, dinner and/or drinks. Therefore I am meditating a career shift to become a professional HK trophy husband. I am fully convinced I have the stamina it takes to be a hardcore one. So I am going to place this ad in the personal section of local newspapers:

Hard working NGO professional seeks celibate HK resident with seizeable disposable income and yacht club membership for limited partnership venture. Fluent in 4 languages and with proven track record of charming potential Cantonese in-laws, will trade career for life of outings, eating, shopping and shmoozing. Can also manage philanthropic interests of said HK resident and blend in very well with interior design of duplex apartment overlooking the harbour. Willing to keep silent and look pretty during house receptions. If interested, please send CV, photo, notarised copy of bank accounts’ statements and writing sample (two pages max, single spaced).

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Don’t get me wrong, I am all for gender-blender type things but I am worried I am slowly acquiring a reputation for being HK’s most timid and clumsiest crossdresser.
Sometimes I seek refuge from the heat and humidity in shopping malls, indulging in window shopping and the occasional purchase. The experience inevitably goes wrong circa 3 minutes into the forey, when a shop assistant inevitably creeps in on me to let me know I have been looking into the woman section of the shop all along. The worst part of it is that by the third minute I have usually fished out an item of clothing (for instance a pair of micro shorts) that clearly belongs to the woman section as opposed to the usual stripy and tight pink top I have learnt are a respectable thing for Asian men to wear.

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The Hong Kong government is running a campaign aimed at getting citizens’ feedback about the HK airport (which has won multiple prizes for being the most functional in the world). The rationale is that they see the airport as a key to keep HK competitive so they are asking citizens for their views on how the 2030 expansion plan should look like (foresight, anyone?).
Seeing the ads on the MTR (the underground) prompted me to ask my friend about HK politics. While the city has an active local politics that is free and fair, she complains that HK people are rather disengaged from politics. To be honest I do not find it hard to believe. After months of discussions about why the military has put so and so on military trial for protesting in Egypt and a 5-week stint in Libya where everyone is happy to walk about with guns and fire them in celebration in the midst of crowds, I am quite happy to let consumerism embrace me and put my political self to sleep.
My friend agreed that in a society where efficiency is the norm (and with the comparison of mainland China next door), citizens become more like very empowered customers rather than politically engaged citizens.
My friend told me that while HK people can be quite vocal (those stereotypes about the Cantonese must come from somewhere) and happy to take a protest to the streets, politics is not on the radar of most youth. A few weeks ago it was the anniversary of the Tienammen square events. During a discussion one of my friend’s friend admitted that until recently she did not know that the portrait hanging on the square was of Chairman Mao.
Maybe she thought it was the portrait of China’s next top model?

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My friend and I went out for brunch this Sunday in Soho, a very trendy neighborhood in Hong Kong. We were sitting by the window, so in addition to enjoying some great eggs benedicts with salmon, we also got to do some great people watching.

What I realised thanks to this gastro-anthropological experiment is that (male) expats in Hong Kong tend to be of the fit, groomed and anglosaxon variety, walking about passionatly in love with their significant other or worn by their Hong Kongese girlfriends (or occasionally boyfriends) almost like a status quo accessory.

While my friend told me that the expats of the ‘sleezball I have drunk all of my free-lance money’ persuasion tend to hang out in the cheaper bars in a different part of town, she also agreed that the expats in HK tend to be of the `eye candy` sort and she confessed than when she was a child she thought all white people were beautiful (she has since then lived for long periods in Europe and America so she has been disabused quickly of this stereotype). I also thought about how I usually take care of my appearance in Cairo when going for brunch  (let’s say casual-not-so-chic).

All of the sudden I felt terribly under-dressed and made a mental note that once back in the West I need to step up my game, go to the gym, lose the anarchic hair cut end and the whole mumbo jumbo if I am ever to get a date again. Last time I felt like this was a year ago in a gay club in Beirut – and I thought none could outdo the gays and the Beirutis with their dress-to-impress psychosis. Well, I had forgotten about Asia I guess.

Also, on the subject of natural and man-made beauty: this is the view of Hong Kong’s eponimous fragrant harbour at night from the Peak.

I took advantage of a three-hour layover in Bangkok to get a nice shoulder massage. At the cost of 18$ for 50 minutes it is perhaps the best investment I have made during the fiscal year 2011.
I came to realise two things: first Thai masseuses, skinny and tiny as they may be, have more muscle power than a ukrainian weight-lifter or an Egyptian lion-tamer. Secondly, after 50 mins of gracious and uninterrupted chat, I realised that they have the small talk stamina of a New York professional socialite.

I am writing this post on the topic of the minimum wage at the request of a friend (not sure what this says about my personal life :)).

The Egyptian government recently announced a plan to increase the minimum wage first to 700 Egyptian pounds and then to 1,200 EGP (200 USD) for some 1.9 million public sector workers. The plan was detailed in the economic programme released by the Egyptian government which was the subject of a previous blog post:

The government is committed to provide a fairer wage structure. To honor this commitment, we will introduce lump sum wage increases in entities with low levels of remuneration, to achieve a minimum gross wage of LE 700 per month for all workers in the public sector in 2011/12. It is our objective to increase this wage level gradually in the coming years to reach LE 1,200 by mid-2015. The partial wage increase in 2011/12 is expected to benefit some 1.9 million employees (about one third of the total public sector work force), mostly municipal workers. It will increase the effective wage bill by around 6 percent and cost the budget about LE 7 billion. Workers earning wages above this minimum in non-targeted entities will receive their standard annual increases to contain the growth in the wage bill while maintaining incentives for progression and skill differentiation.

So this is overall good news: 1.9 million people (and their families) will supposedly received a better salary soon.

However, like in many other countries including developed ones, the issue of minimum wage becomes a highly political one (for a good overview, check this). While public sector employment is a life-time guarantee (although this has proven not to be true for those workers in publicly owned manufacturing industries that have been privatised in the past decade), a large number of  workers are employed in the private sector where the minimum wage does not apply. Actually, make it the private sector where hardly any labour law is really applied. In my personal experience, with the exception of few friends who work for large Egyptian or foreign companies (e.g. companies that are listed on the stock exchange, multinationals etc…), most Egyptians do not have a work contract. And the few who do, are often asked to sign a dateless resignation letter in case their employer decides to lay them off at some point in the future. So, it’s clear that even if a minimum wage became mandatory for private sector employees, it will probably not be applied.

So how could the Egyptian government improve the wages of the million workers in the private sector? The labour market situation requires overall restructuring in Egypt, if nothing because the informal sector, while providing employment for a large share of the workforce, is also the sector where abuses such as withholding of wages, lay offs without compensation, lack of insurance and pension rights are hardly ever addressed.

My argument is going to be that trade unions could be part of the solution (but not the only solution) to the problem of low wages in Egypt. This paper details the impact of trade unions on wage of workers. The subject is at the centre of a long and complex debate but in a nutshell, the more unionised workers are there, the more unions have bargaining power over wages and benefits. This creates a ‘Trade Union Wage Premium‘ (for more info check here). The paper mentioned above shows that the difference in wages between (similar) unionised and non-unionised workers averages around 15-20% with peaks of 34% in places like Brazil.

There are also a lot of other issues when unions come into play, including creating a situation where those who are not unionised basically represent a pool of workers that can be employed informally to avoid paying higher wages to unionised workers etc… The paper linked above does a good job of explaining the various caveats.

The point I am making here is that the discussion around the minimum wage should not only be centred around public sector wages or declaring a minimum wage also for the private sector that will not be enforced just like most of labour laws in Egypt.

Giving workers the right of assembly, the right to be a part of independent unions (with different political affiliations) could do a lot more for Egypt’s workers by increasing their bargaining power, somehow going against the patronising idea that the state gives its citizens rights as concessions as opposed to empowering them to demand, campaign and hopefully obtain what they think is best for them. Of course empowering trade unions will also require an industrial policy that is based on consultation and dialogue between employers, workers and the state – perhaps an even harder cultural shift from the current dynamics.

On the subject of labour rights, a little bonus track material on corporations and interns:
The Corporate Social Irresponsibility of the Internship Phenomenon
– aka “the highly competitive race to the bottom of the corporate ladder”