On Virgins, Thumbdrives and Lemongrass
My head snapped incredulously to the production room, as I heard our office manager, Fon, rushing around asking everyone this rather impertinent question.
Suddenly there were people who had to make urgent phone calls, cups of coffees and trips to the bathroom. The room emptied.
Thinking that this was really not on, I politely inquired as to why on earth Fon felt that she ought to ask our hard working team, in the middle of the day, such a personal question.
“It’s for tonight’s event,” she replied absently as she rushed upstairs, presumably to hassle our aggregation staff with the same question.
Finally Fon, triumphant, returned downstairs with a blushing young thing in hand, and disappeared into the garden.
Curious, I followed and saw the poor recently-exposed virgin being told to kneel down under a tree and stick an upside-down stem of lemongrass into our lawn.
A few prayers were said and Fon declared that our party tonight would be rainless.
In her weekly report, I was almost expecting to see: Tuesday 2 p.m. stopped rain.
This sort of thing goes on quite a lot around here. Last year when a mango tree fell onto our garage, I was rudely awakened one Sunday morning at 10am and dragged to the office where a row of nine monks and about 50 staff members had arrived for an impromptu blessing ceremony.
There were drinks, seating and mats — which were borrowed from the temple —all organised without my knowledge and I was merely handed the bill and informed that our office now enjoyed good karma.
Only last week, our production manager Ja, during a monthly meeting, when asked whether there was AOB, announced that she had something to discuss. We had had a particularly trying meeting, going over pay scales, sick leave, production time and all sorts of tedious business. With a face as straight as a politician’s she announced that she wanted to discuss impending staff discontent. Alarmed, I told her that I thought everyone was quite happy, and was shocked to hear otherwise. Ja cut me off and told me that when she visited her fortune teller the previous weekend, she was told that we would be facing some staff problems over the coming weeks and she thought that we should discuss this and put and in place some preventive actions.
It was hard to be gentle. I am constantly astounded to find superstition so ingrained in the workplace. Over the past eight years at Citylife, we have twice sought out virgins, and once for some reason beyond my ken, a widow (thankfully a widowed virgin wasn’t required) to stick upside-down lemongrass into the lawn pre-party to stop rain.
Sure enough, on all three occasions it didn’t rain, though no one is going to be getting a bonus for engineering the feat anytime soon. In fact, as far as I recall we have never had a Citylife event rained upon. Hmmm.
When we began our night time operation four years ago, all sorts of ghost-appeasement ceremonies were held so that the night staff could wander around the office without fear of inadvertently engaging in conversation with a dead person.
When our accountant passed away a few years back, we had the entire accountant room doused with holy water and painted with religious texts so that she wouldn’t feel compelled to come and visit her work place. My insistence that work would be the last place she, or anyone, would want to visit when dead, fell on stubbornly deaf ears.
When a string of accidents befell our staff— a sales girl ran over and killed a dog on the way to see a client, an editorial assistant broke her arm during a mountain trek a designer had to undergo knee surgery and a programmer’s tyre burst — a full-on parade was organised to take a money tree to the local temple, rousing the entire village into a jubilant jaunt to the wat, complete with dancing and clashing cymbals.
Just to give you a bit of background, the office of Citylife used to be my home, and is where I grew up. My parents tell me that when we first built here nearly thirty years ago, they contacted the local monks to ask whether we should put a spirit-house on the land or not. We were happily informed that the spirits were quite pleased with us and that they didn’t require any further accommodation. So we’ve been a spirit-house free house for as long as I remember, and in spite of my parents’ collection of antiques, and contrary to all village gossip, we spent many years here without once encountering anything more untoward than an occasional snake or burglar.
But in spite of all these assurances, one day I found a small wooden spirit-house tucked away in the back of the garden, overflowing with delicious looking delicacies, flowers and glasses of whiskey. It turns out that a small piggy bank had been kept here by the staff for the past few years and our housekeeper had been making daily trips to this spirit-house to feed our spirits and light incense and candle sticks. My own office now also plays host to an alter, which is similarly fed daily, engulfing me every morning during my morning coffee and email downloads with wafting incense — surprisingly, it has become a pleasant ritual.
While all these incidents are fairly common in Thailand, others are just far out.
I have noticed recently that our programmer, Arm has been looking exceptionally pretty. She is a beautiful girl, but has always been a bit of a plain Jane in her t-shirts and jeans, lack of makeup and limp hair. Well, suddenly she has bloomed and has had her eyelashes extended, her lips are always pouting with gloss and her wardrobe even accommodates one or two lacy tops.
When I complimented her and asked what had brought on this change, she eyed me through a fluttering curtain of lashes and told me that her fortune teller had told her that she needed to put on make up to receive a pay rise.
And the other day, Wan, our news reporter for The Nation, was rushing around like a banshee, most upset that she had lost her thumb-drive. Not only was it expensive, but she had valuable information on it. Two days later she still hadn’t found the thing so, of course, she trotted off to her fortune teller during lunch hour. After work that day, I saw her talking to a rather upset Nan, our customer service girl. Being nosy, I asked what was going on, and was told that Wan’s fortune teller had told her that at two o’clock that day, Wan was to get the youngest staff member to go to her desk where she would miraculously find the errant thumb drive. It turns out that Nan, being the youngest here at 22, was actually a Christian, and was too afraid to do it because she didn’t like to dabble in dark forces and feared being possessed by a spirit. Wan was quite put out that she had lost her opportunity to find her drive and was having a go at an apologetic Nan. While these little incidents are cute, I have had to put my foot down a few times.
Three years ago we assisted a PBS film crew on a documentary about white elephants. So that a cameraman could film elephants bathing underwater, they ordered a large glass box to be made, and when the team left, I asked whether I could keep the box and use it as a fish tank. Most pleased to own such a massive — and free – fish tank, I proceeded to go shopping and bought a wonderful two foot ceramic ship to decorate the tank with. But, according to everyone at work a shipwreck was not good fengshui, so I gave away the ship and returned to the shop to buy a pretty broken pot instead. But no, that didn’t pass muster either, as broken pots apparently symbolise failure. I was told to go to a fengshuied fish tank shop to get proper decorative items, but refused to make a third journey (or spend any more money), so our fish now have to make do with a few rocks and plants, and an occasional funny face peering through the glass, for amusement.
Another demand which was unrequited involves our ceiling. Our second floor is made of beautiful teak wood with large teak beams supporting the planks. These beams are exposed downstairs, leaving a very attractive ceiling of teak. But no, apparently beams are oppressive and cause undue stress — according to yet another fengshui expert from the production room – and I actually received a written request to plaster the ceiling so that the beams wouldn’t be visible. That didn’t happen. Though we did find a compromise, and apparently lots of appropriately situated light fixtures and fans deflect the oppressive chi.
When I told everyone that I had written this story for the April edition, a flood of stories, most of which I had never — thankfully – even been told, were exchanged over the lunch table, many too weird to relate, or, if truth be known, too embarrassing for the company to reveal! Maybe another time…
I just wanted to share these wonderful little anecdotes with you so that you too can marvel in the idiosyncrasies of this incredible country and its people.