It all started with a very long trip with a stopover in Paris, France, the love capital of the world. Andovar’s Colombian team traveled for 23 hours to get to our biggest production office in Bangkok, Thailand. We packed for the cold weather in Europe and came down from the plane to the intense heat of Bangkok. We were excited but tired. This was a new place, with a completely different culture and language where our English skills seemed kind of irrelevant at times.
The first thing we did once we passed through customs was getting connected. We all rushed to find a good internet package so we could let our loved ones know that we arrived happy and safe. We waited for around 20 minutes for the Andovar driver who would take us to the office. While waiting there, somewhat by accident, we had a chance to meet our colleagues from India who happened to arrive at the same time. We waiting together for our ride, knowing that in the days to come we’d surely have a lot to share.
The driver - who speaks only a few basic words in English - finally arrived. He had our LinkedIn profile photos printed, which served as a reminder that some of us should have updated them more often. We finally got into the famous "Andovan", a cool ride that took us to our new home away from home for the next 30 days.
The weather in Bangkok was unbearable without A/C, so the ride in the van was a pleasant break from the short and hot time spent waiting. The accommodations were great. We were ready to spend day and night together in one place, our little cave where we could speak to each other in our native language.
We had to wait for at least a day to visit the office. Russell, who is Andovar’s VP of Sales advised us to relax for the rest of the day and hit the pool. We were so excited we’d finally put faces to the immeasurable amount of emails we wrote to the Bangkok production team and meet the rest of the sales reps. In short, we wanted to meet in person everyone we had known only as a name on the PC screen and again - from those unreliable LinkedIn profile photos.
We were told by our Human Resources department that we needed to follow certain rules of etiquette. Just before we arrived in Bangkok, the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away at age 89. Black clothing was a must and avoiding any bright colors was appreciated. But if you could not achieve this, you could always wear a black ribbon on your right shoulder or chest, to pay respect to the king. Moreover, the government established 30 days of strict mourning, so all nightlife had to end by midnight.
Once we got to the office, we knew how to behave around the Western staff - a handshake and a smile usually do the trick and you were all set. Thai people are used to bowing as a sign of respect, you put both hands together like in praying gesture, do a little bow and with a smile say "Sawadee Ka" or "Sawadee Krub". This last word of courtesy indicates the gender of the speaker. But here is the tricky part, the Thai language is tonal, which means that it has five phonemic tones. Depending on how short or long are your vowels you could be saying something completely different! But then again, you cannot ruin a simple "hello".
Thai people smile a lot, no matter if they are mad at you or you are mad at them. They would do this out of consideration, but also out of shame. If I had to describe their culture in one word, that word would be "respect." Some of our Thai colleagues had a hard time looking us in the eye, while in Latin American culture it's completely the opposite. Someone that is not capable of looking you in the eye is not trustworthy. This was a challenge for me. When you are focused going through your email, organizing your day ahead, remembering to smile could be the last thing on your mind.
Due to the hot weather and the crazy traffic, working hours and attire in the Bangkok office are more flexible. Although some of our staff wore shirts and dress pants, the humidity and the heat advise differently. Wearing T-shirts and jeans was comfortable, but new for us. Andovar’s Colombian office in Medellin is an office building that belongs to a bank, so our dress code was more business than casual. We are now hoping to establish Bangkok’s office dress code in Colombia too. Just kidding!
Because of the language barrier, Andovar’s driver would take us to the office every day. We could walk, and I admit I did try, however the weather was too merciless even for a 15-minute walk. In Bangkok, because the traffic is a bit hectic at times, there are several means of transportation: taxis, buses (although we never took them), BTS (Skytrain), MRT (subway), the famous tuk-tuks, and a motorbike taxi service. To get to the office, we needed to give them the address, but of course the drivers did not speak English and we had to ask our Thai colleagues for help. We were supposed to say something like “Sukhumvit si sib gao tap sip ha ka” which was the office address: Sukhumvit 49/15.
Another Thai language lesson we received was food-related. Thai people love spicy food, someone even joked about it, saying that they compete to see who is more capable of handling it. We needed to say “mai pet” (not spicy) every time we ordered food, such as at the small food stall nearby the office. It became our little inside joke, but our request never got through to them! Maybe because the amount of chili they used was no spicy at all for them, or because we did not pronounce it correctly. Either way, I can eat spicy food, but not as spicy as what Thai people eat.
Working for a multinational company has its perks. I would say that being able to learn about different cultures and people was one that we experienced during this trip. Yes, we live in a globalized world. Yes, if you have an internet connection, the world is at your fingertips. However, being able to interact daily with our colleagues, have face-to-face conversations with them and goof around together during breaks was priceless. We came back to Colombia more motivated than ever and with a feeling of fulfillment for being even a small part of our organization. Needless to say, these shared memories still come up are in our coffee break conversations at the Colombian office and we cannot wait to go back. The language barrier was not even an issue after the first week. Obviously, we work for a localization company that helped us “make ourselves clear in any language.”