BLOOD AND WATER
By Andrew Biggs
At my office, we are gearing up for a major new business venture starting May 20.
It’s consumed all our time for the past six months. Luckily I have a core team that’s been diligent and dedicated.
At last Monday’s meeting I made it clear — we were in the final stretch. This was the exciting part. Nobody could take any time off before May 20. Let’s start this project and get it up and running.
Everybody nodded their heads, including my two key staff, Jasmine and San, and my artist, Song.
Jasmine was the first to come in to my office.
“Khun Andrew, I have to … I must … I think I have to go to Samut Sakhon with my family,” she said.
“My parents want me to help them run their business but my older brother says I can’t do it.”
“That sentence made no sense to me,” I said.
“I must go with my family to Samut Songkhram for a family meeting. You know, all the relatives.”
“No I don’t know,” I said.
Jasmine was not making herself clear. So she burst into tears. “My brother says I can’t run the business, and he is pressuring me. And my parents say I can run the business.”
“What business are you talking about?”
She looked up at me, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Fish sauce.”
It’s been a busy day for me. If Jasmine needs to take the afternoon off to go down to Samut Songkhram with her family, then that’s fine. But can’t she just explain it to me in plain English?
“My parents have a fish sauce factory in Samut Songkhram,” she said.
Despite working so closely with Jasmine, this is news to me. I am not surprised —where else would a fish sauce factory be located? Have you ever driven down to Hua Hin, dear reader? You pass the seaside province of Samut Songkhram. It’s famous for two things – the birthplace of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and home to at least a hundred fish sauce factories lining the highway. You probably eat something made with Samut Songkhram fish sauce every day of your Thai experience. A pit stop in Samut Songkhram smells a bit like wandering through a cemetery of rotting fish.
“And when do you intend making this trip?” I asked.
“May 15,” she said.
“Five days before our new project begins! And for how long?”
“A week,” she said.
This is a curveball out of nowhere that absolutely hits me for six and yes, that’s a baseball and cricket analogy in a single sentence.
“Do you parents know that we’re launching this new project in May?” I asked, and she said yes, they did. “Are you aware I can’t have you away at anytime in the near future?”
“So what do you intend to do?”
Jasmine didn’t answer.
“Well you think about that,” I said, “And give me an answer tomorrow.”
Jasmine left my office. Later that day I saw her deep in a conversation with Song the artist.
The next day she came back to my office. At least this time she was lucid.
“My parents want me to run the family business,” she said.
You know what? As shocking as that information may be, at least she explained it in a simple sentence. I daresay that’s what she was trying to tell me yesterday in her own Thai way — that is, indecipherable.
The timing couldn’t be any worse. She had to finish up by the end of May.
“But … you’ve been doing this for so long. Your heart has been in this. How can you give it all up?” I asked. “Also, it would be great for your resume if you follow through on this. It’s a great career move.” As opposed to running your family’s fish sauce business, I wanted to add, but held my tongue.
One hour later – no exaggeration – and it is San’s turn.
“Khun Andrew, I have to go home for a while,” he said.
Jasmine might be a central plains gal, but San is an Isan boy through and through. San’s home is Sri Sa Ket, a province famous for its pickled garlic.
For a split second I wonder if San is about to tell me he has to go run the family picked garlic factory, but I remember his mother – married to a elderly Swede – runs a rice farm just out of the provincial town.
“My step father needs an operation, and he must do it in Sweden,” explains San. “My mother must go with him.”
That leaves his 93-year-old grandfather and 8-year-old kid brother alone on the farm. “My mother wants me to look after the farm while she’s gone.”
“And how long must you be there for?” I imagined his mother leaving Friday night from Suvarnabhumi, spending the weekend in Stockholm then catching the red-eye back to Thailand Monday morning. Three days? Four?
“Three months,” he said.
“Three months!?” I screamed. Nobody needs to be Florence Nightingale for that long! What did she think she could do in Stockholm for three months? There are only so many times one can visit the Abba museum before Dancing Queen fatigue sets in.
“What about your extended family?” I asked. I travelled to Si Sa Ket three years ago for San’s ordination. I swear, his whole village had his last name — God knows how they procreate while avoiding incest charges. The only non-relatives were the hired luk-thong singers on that rickety stage the night before he donned his saffron ones, and even they had suspiciously-similar cranial features.
But seriously … wasn’t there some maiden aunt in the throes of middle age who could look after the farm for that long? Or a dead-beat distant uncle who sat on a mat all day drinking lao khao plotting the murder of his sister’s farang husband?
“When is this operation taking place?” I asked sheepishly.
“May 18,” he said.
I clenched my fists under the table. I made a mental note to burn all my Abba vinyl. Did that Swede time the operation to coincide with our launch?
“You can’t leave on that date.”
“I have to.”
“How can you leave five days before our launch?”
“It’s my family.”
Later that day I spotted San having lunch with Song the artist. They were speaking to each other earnestly.
San and Jasmine are millennials, tech-savvy and in tune with the modern world.
And yet all it takes is an order from Mum and Dad, and they must race home.
I only hear the convoluted story, such as Jasmine’s cryptic tale of a family business and a pushy brother, or San’s sudden requirement to run a farm in Buriram.
There could very well be something else going on. Did Jasmine lose face to another member of the core team? Has San fallen in love with the daughter of a local pickled garlic establishment?
Having been here so long, I no longer jump up and down, demanding to know the exact reason behind abstract tales of fish sauce and overseas operations.
I do know this: As a boss I can throw money at my staff. I can throw them nice-sounding positions to put on their name cards. I can throw them love and affection and justice and mediation. I can give them special privileges. I can shovel all these things onto them as a way of thanks for all their hard work … but it all gets trumped by family.
This morning Song was lurking outside my office.
“Don’t even think of it,” I said.