And Yolanda has passed..

First, thanks to all who reached out asking if the family back home is okay.  I am thankful to God that they are.  The storm has passed.. Yolanda is off to some other parts.  My brother was in Cebu and my mother was in Sorsogon (in Bicol) at the time the storm hit.  Everyone else was in Manila.  My brother and mother got hit tangentially but did not suffer the indescribable damage that the province of Tacloban had to deal with.  We are blessed.

Secondly, I’m back.

Thanks to JJ for his comment asking me how I have been.  I have been “around”, but the urge to write wasn’t there.  Suffice it to say that I went back to longhand writing in a journal when I could find reason or the inspiration to write.  When I needed to write, I wrote elsewhere.  We all have our secret place — I have mine.  There, I write not as the Pinay New Yorker.. I write as someone who doesn’t have a ‘real’ identity you can walk up to on the street.  There I can be angry or sad without fear of unburdening my heart.  Yes, that’s my secret place.

Third, I can’t believe that autumn is here in it’s full glory.  It’s the season that I find both hopeful and sad.  Hopeful because the leaves change colors into beautiful shades of fire, as if taking a final bow at the end of a fashion show to the applause of a totally captivated audience.  Sad because it’s nature making way for the cold and dark of winter.
Autumn 2013: Central Park

I sought solace in “silence”.  I didn’t think I’d be able to bear writing and editing myself so heavily so I said, why write at all.  Hence, the one month haitus from this space.

But life goes on.  I’m trying to go on.  I have gone through the last month in stops and starts.  I am trying to define my direction, and while I have been accused of wearing my heart on my sleeve and writing about everything and anything happening in my life in this blog, I will not be denied my voice in this space where I reign as Queen.

Yes, that’s me — the Queen.  (That thought made me smile…)  And the Queen has her private space where I need not fear censure.  So here, I can write about what the Pinay New Yorker is all about.  Here, I can try to aim for a sense of normalcy in my now highly abnormal life.  It makes me hopeful that there will be a “normal” again.  It makes me think this, like everything, will pass.

Blogging has always been a means of coping for me.  No matter how I try to edit myself and how I try not be too honest here, I know it comes out.  And I like being able to go back to those times when life was teaching me a lesson so I can reteach myself that lesson.. that is one major function of blogging to me — the account of how my life has gone from day to day eight years ago or yesterday helps me to go forward from today.  When I am in need of courage, I go back to those times when courage was aplenty.  When I need to be cheered up, I go back to the fun times and the good memories I wrote about.  Even this post will one day be a source of  “learning” and reflection for me.

And Yolanda is gone… that makes me hopeful.  I am heartbroken by the devastation she had wrought upon my home country.  I had visited Tacloban once — 20 years ago.  It wasn’t quite as urbanized as it is now, but I remember its people and its sights and sounds.  The people of Tacloban are a kind and happy people — life is a celebration to them.  They are always dancing — they love to party.. they are always full of hope.  It is my hope that even if there is not much cause to celebrate in the midst of their hardship and grief, they will find reason to dance again sometime soon through our help.

The world is watching… and the world is reaching out.  It brings us all back to the innate goodness of man.

Taken from The Huffington Post, here’s how you can help:

World Food Program.  WFP has allocated an immediate $2 million for Haiyan relief, with a greater appeal pending as needs become apparent. The UN organization is sending 40 metric tons of fortified biscuits in the immediate aftermath, as well as working with the government to restore emergency telecommunications in the area. Americans can text the word AID to 27722 to donate $10 or give online.

The Red Cross.   Emergency responders and volunteers throughout the Philippines are providing meals and relief items. Already, thousands of hot meals have been provided to survivors. Red Cross volunteers and staff also helped deliver preliminary emergency warnings and safety tips. Give by donating online or mailing a check to your local American Red Cross chapter.

The Philippine Red Cross has mobilized its 100 local outposts to help with relief efforts.

AmeriCares.  The relief organization is sending medical aid for 20,000 survivors, including antibiotics, wound care supplies and pain relievers. AmeriCares is also giving funds to local organizations to purchase supplies.

World Vision.  The organization is providing food, water and hygiene kits at the evacuation centers. World Vision was also still actively responding to last month’s earthquake in Bohol, which luckily was not struck by the eye of the storm.

Salvation Army.  100 percent of all disaster donations will be used for relief efforts and “to immediately meet the specific needs of disaster survivors.” Text TYPHOON to 80888 to Donate $10 or give online.

A must-watch video featuring Atty. Jonathan John O. Sarte

I know I’m biased.  He is one of my dearest friends from way, way back but this is one video worth watching, more so for those with families back home with issues or possible issues regarding succession or inheritance.  Atty. Rod Nepumoceno was also a friend from Ateneo Law.  This is a very enlightening discussion that makes it easy for any lay person to grasp these legal issues.

A bit of inspiration: pistachio caramels or yema?

I really don’t normally count down to Christmas but I find myself doing just that today.  I stayed home to burn more days (almost down to the wire) given the end of the year.  A week to go before Christmas, and between tomorrow’s half day and the three days between Christmas and New Year next week, I should be good.

I’m not really rushing for anything except that I have to get the gifts for the teachers and the usual people we rely on for services all year.  (My mailman reportedly left an envelope with the neighbor across the courtyard but I have scoured my mail and have not found any amongst my envelopes..)  I’ve spent the morning getting a cup of pistachios ready (all shelled and skinned), but I realize now I’m short on caramel.  (Might be because I’ve dipped into the bag for a piece here and there for dessert.)

It’s a cold and rainy afternoon and I’m trying to decide if it’s worth suiting up to grab more caramel, perhaps some some cellophane to wrap the caramel with (although I have enough parchment paper) and coffee filters.  (Which is actually enough reason to head out but I remember I have one more for tomorrow, so that can technically wait.)  Caramels… hmmmm…

I’ve always loved caramels… makes me miss PomPoms which is no longer being produced but which used to top my list of favorite chocolate treats.  Anyone old enough to remember what they were?  They were caramel rounds wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate that would melt in your mouth as the caramel surfaced.  The latter was just chewy enough to make you enjoy every bit of it.  The thought is making me think about dipping into that half a bag of caramels again.. =(

I haven’t quite gotten to that point where I am raring to make my own caramel (have to get a candy thermometer) so I’m cheating by melting some bagged caramel (of the Kraft variety)  and altering the composition a bit by adding some heavy cream and a touch more butter.  Store bought caramel tends to be very sweet for my taste, but with the saltiness of the nuts I’m adding, I’m thinking that would be a good trade.  (Still thinking.)

I’m also trying to decide if I will make a 3-egg or 5-egg yema recipe.  Between the two, I’m thinking the 5 egg would be less sweeter and thicker.  Decisions, decisions.. whatever comes of it, I know my friend Millie would love to get my end product.  Pistachio yema?  LOL… doesn’t sound quite right.  But I just might.

The tyke is coming home in a few minutes.  He might yet end up making the decision for me depending on what he requests for dinner.  He still asks to sit on my lap but he’s gotten so much heavier the last couple of weeks, and he has also obviously grown taller because it’s no longer that easy seeing beyond his shoulders when we sit in front of the TV.  At 8 1/2, he is already as tall as my stepson was when he was 10.

Well, the yema won out, and the 5-egg yolk recipe seems to be a clear winner.  Just a few tweaks — but consistency and taste were as good as the yema from my favorite Chocfull o’nuts.  More later…

Getting to the holidays

I am sending out my first Christmas card today.  It’s not quite my “official” card, but I am back to snail mail which I haven’t done in a while, so I thought I’d start off with a holiday card.  Even just the thought makes me smile.  The holidays always bring me happy thoughts. =)

My own holiday card is coming along quite nicely, and while it is nowhere near being finished, I’m getting there.  I am zentangling a Christmas tree with a smattering of lanterns in the background, “parol” style.  I haven’t quite decided on the message yet nor on the rendering of the message, but I do know I’m putting it inside the silhouette of the tree.  I think I will make my Thanksgiving week mail out as planned.

My balikbayan box left Monday, but with the non-committal time tables from the courrier, I have decided to hang on to the things I really need by Christmas and just bring them myself.  So the box was half full of halloween candy.  Target had them at more than 50% off over the weekend, and I haven’t even visited my neighborhood drugstores who usually put them on sale at up to 70% off after holidays like this.  The candy would’ve been a strain on my 50-lb per piece baggage  allowance, so the best alternative was really to ship it out.

I would’ve gone with my usual door-to-door carrier, Johnny Air Cargo, but even with a pick up first week of November, I couldn’t even get a “maybe” for Christmas delivery.  They were flat out telling me it’ll get to Manila after New Year’s.  My next option was Macro, but again they were non-commital.  I finally tried LBC who, unlike the others who gave a 30-45 day window, gave 40 days max for transit time.  When I spoke with them, they actually gave an allowance of plus 5-7 days given customs delay, but that still put me down squarely for the timeframe I was looking at.  Plus, I’m banking on their name and reputation, so I hope I am not off with my expectation that they have the infrastructure in place to meet their own timetable.

Let us wait and see.

When life throws you a curve ball

That expression comes to mind given the panic I had just been engulfed in the last hour or so after Angelo got home to an empty house.  My mother-in-law (I surmised,) had stepped out and probably forgot the time.   Our “sitter” who picks Angelo  up daily and drives him home was adamant about not leaving him unattended.  So I spoke with the downstairs neighbors and after some back and forth, we agreed they would “watch” over him.  He sat in their living room, our phone in hand.  So Alan rushed home, missing an important meeting he had specifically gone to work for today.  What can we do?

Angelo just called me to say Lola finally got home.  I figured she had gone out to buy Alan a present since it was his birthday.  So that’s a relief, considering I was actually imagining Alan might have to go looking for her if he got home and she was nowhere to be found.  You cannot fault the old lady for wanting to buy her son a present.  I know Alan is simmering inside, but I kept reminding him to keep his cool.

We’re supposed to go out and celebrate his birthday this evening with dinner at one of our favorite restaurants.

At least my mother-in-law got home in one piece, and the drive will hopefully give Alan time to calm down as my own panic subsides.

Always children in our eyes

Last week was a tad bit hectic because I had two “almost pamangkins”  visiting for four days.  (I know, too short a stay.)  I say “almost” pamangkins because although we are not related by blood, their Mom and I have known each other for ages now, and if we had a choice as to who we can call “relatives”, I’d pick them.

I’ve know Phoebe since she was a baby and although I didn’t get to spend as much time with Keoni since he was born two years before I moved to New York from Manila, I have seen him grow through my visits to Manila every now and then.

They have indeed grown.. !

When I see these kids no longer waddling along like they did as toddlers, I feel “dated”.  I can’t help but come to terms with the reality of how I have advanced on in years as I see how much they have grown.

Phoebe is now a young lady — and Keoni, while I had somehow stuck in my head was 15, is actually a 5’5″ 12 year old.  (I might even be selling him short..)  I had wanted to spend more time with them but the schedule and circumstances just didn’t allow it.  I remember her as a chubby cherub-like little girl — and now she is a young lady with a boyfriend in tow and who, despite whatever contrary impressions others may have, has grown with such grace and wisdom.  I do not fault her for her shortcomings or mistakes, because it is through making mistakes that we learn.

Yet in my heart I will always hold her as that young little doll, no matter if that time should come when I see her walking the aisle.  Not yet, I begged.  (Looking up to the heavens in prayer!)  I remember her through the years and continue to marvel at how time has flown.  I look at Keoni, still a child at heart, but growing up to be quite a young man.  They are their mother’s treasure — and they will always be my children in a different way, but always special in my heart.

When we are proven wrong

So the Philippines has a new president, but it seems they’re still wrangling over who’s going to be the number two guy in the country.  I was musing about how we were all proven wrong when it seemed to be the popular opinion that Mar Roxas would be a shoo-in for the vice presidency.  I heard about Jejomar Binay making a bid for the same post, but it never occurred to me that he would be the one giving Korina’s hubby a run for the money.   And who would have thought that Erap would give them all a good fight for the presidency?   Strange?  Not in Philippine politics.

But I am  hopeful. 

I am saddened, though, that the talents of Gibo Teodoro have been overshadowed by the reputation of the party leaders he is affiliated with.  I have always been a fan of Dick Gordon — ever since I heard him speak to a group of advertising agency hawks hoping to snag the then much-coveted Subic Bay Freeport Ad campaign contract in the early 90s.

Everyone had an opinion about how things would go — but watching the events unfold 10,000 miles away, I am just amazed at how the results  have proven us wrong.

When you dare to borrow..

I just recently caught up with all the hoopla about Manny Pangilinan’s controversial speech delivered as a commencement address at the Ateneo, primarily because I caught Jimmy Fallon using it as a punchline in his show a few nights ago.  I haven’t been too good with reading up on my local news from Manila, and clicking on the alerts from the New York Times which I get when something or other mentions “Manila” or “the Philippines”.

So my two cents worth on this is coming in rather late, but I felt it was something I had to give my piece on since I used to write speeches for the CEOs of my former companies in Manila.  One thing I’ve always noted is that no matter what one’s writing style is, you must adapt it to the style of the person who will be delivering it. 

As someone who’s part-Atenean, I find it disappointing that this had taken place in such a noble institution but I have to admit I give MPV points for having owned up to the plagiarism that had taken place even if it was committed without his knowledge.  And I suppose that was something he owed everyone, given that there was more than one instance of plagiarism, and from several notable people at that.  We must never underestimate the power of the internet which makes texts of speeches immediately available to the public the moment the applause fades.  Even President Barack Obama’s State of the Nation addresses are immediately available and are dissected and reacted to by all sides right after the first commercial break.

So what were his speechwriters thinking?  I don’t think borrowing the thoughts and words of Oprah and Barack Obama and even JK Rowling was wrong (although I can’t understand why Conan O’Brien was put in the same breath as those distinguished individuals)  — everyone quotes everyone else.  What made it wrong was the absence of giving proper credit to the original author of the words used.  And haven’t they ever heard of paraphrasing?  — and by this I mean not just changing the words slightly, but actually restating the sentence differently to give it some sense of individuality and originality even if borrowed. 

I’d hate to even ask what happened to those speechwriters.  Lesson learned – the hard way.

Call Center Blues

I left Manila in June 2000 when the Call Center Industry was yet in its infancy.  It wasn’t such a big deal  back then because the existing call centers mostly catered to local companies.  In the last 10 years, there has been a lot of changes in this industry, and when you dial a customer service hotline here in the US, your call is most likely to land in 2 other coutries unless you get lucky and find yourself a US helpline.  You will either get India or the Philippines.

While most call center agents in the Philippines think that they can get away with it, the English is good, the accent not as thick, but there is a certain difference in the way spoken English comes across back home and here.  It’s not just the twang, and certainly not just the pronunciation and enunciation of words.  All I  have to do is listen to the opening line introducing the person answering the call and it’s as if a lightbulb lights up in my head saying “Manila here!”.

Don’t get me wrong — for the most part, I’m proud that our call centers have bagged such clients as Dell, IBM, Chase, Citibank, Siemens, Disney Shopping Online and American Express to name a few.  My Fortune 50 company is seriously considering looking at Manila as a possible outsourcing resource although we have a full-blown unit handling certain areas of our international and stateside operations in India.  I usually play along and just let the conversation go until I am about to say goodbye and surprise the other person on the line by saying “Salamat” or else hitting them pointblank with “I”m calling Manila, right?”

The first give away is always the greeting which, more often than not starts with a “Thank you (pronounced “thane-k you”) for calling… xxx”.  Then there’s the name of the call center agent answering (Maribel, Bel, Daisy, May– and a slew of other common Pinoy nicknames.).  As the conversation progresses, you hear a “gonna” and a “wanna” here and there which, even when I was barely 10, I was told was a no-no for educated or business conversation.  Sure, you hear it in the movies in regular conversation, but in business oriented communication, you are more likely to hear “going to” or “goin’ to” rather than “gonna” which even here is considered slang.

For all the training being given back home to disguise the accent and make it sound like someone here in the US is actually answering, there is still much to be done in terms of acquiring the conversational rhythm and dynamics that would normally take place if the call were answered by someone on this side of the world.  We are so used to going straight to the point back home that when a customer service hotline picks up your call, they go straight to asking what the problem is and getting to the nitty-gritty of it. 

Let’s just say I am calling Juana in another department on another floor in our spacious offices in Makati to follow up on a document or report I was waiting for.  The conversation would go something like this:

“Hello, Juana — it’s Pinay.  Do you have the report on what the boss ordered for lunch the last six months ready?  Can you please send it over?”

“Sure.  I’m just formatting the spreadsheet.  I’ll send it to you in 15 minutes.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Now  let’s bring Juana to New York where she would be Jane —

“Hi, Jane — it’s Pinay.. how are you?”

“Oh, I’m doing great, Pinay — and you?”

“Just doing fine here.. we finally get some sun!”

“I know, can you believe that?  It’s about time..!”

“You’re telling me.  Anyway, the reason I’m calling is because I was wondering if that report on what the boss ordered for lunch the last six months is already done.  Would you mind sending it over to me please?”

“Oh, sure — I’m just reformatting the spreadsheet.  Give me another 15 minutes and I’ll shoot it over via e-mail.  Does that work?”

“Sure thing.  I’d really appreciate that.  Thanks, Jane!”

“You’re welcome.. talk to you later, Pinay!”.

I don’t think the difference needs any explaining.  It’s the conversational tone which I have noticed revolves heavily around the cultural nuances of those talking.  Could it be a prevalent fear of being answered in the negative when you ask someone who calls into a customer service hotline how they’re doing that prevents us from asking?  I remember that in most every hotel we’ve gone to in the US and overseas, it had been customary for the front desk personnel to ask as we check out how our stay was or how we enjoyed our stay.  Whenever we get the chance to, we try to spend a few days in a local hotel in Manila if we can get a good rate, and we have never been asked this question.  We happened to ask someone I knew who worked the front desk in one of the hotels we stayed in (Edsa Shangri-la) back in 2002 why they didn’t ask the question, and she timidly told me it was because they were afraid the customer would actually respond with a complaint about something in the hotel.)  Given that frame of mind, could it be the reason why we are often not asked by our Manila call center agents “How are you today?” because they’re afraid the person calling is simmering with anger and is ready to scream at them from thousands of miles away?  It’s a valid fear, but it’s also the very point of a customer service hotline.  You’re supposed to be there to provide customer service and to placate the unhappy ones and answer the questions of those seeking information.  There have been a few notable exceptions — but it seems to be just that: an exception, rather than being the norm.  Right there and then you know you’re not talking to someone here in the US — and one barrier goes up to more effective communication.

So I call a customer service hotline with a problem or question in mind and Manila picks up.  It’s always been standard to ask “How can I help you today?” — lately, I noticed that some call center agents will ask “Who do I have on the line please?”  (And I say, “Pinay New Yorker”).  And a rather awkward but not totally inappropriate question follows: ” Can I call you by your first name, is that okay?”  (And I say, “Uhm, sure, go ahead.”)  Uhm.. awkward with a capital A.  Of course I’ll say go ahead — it doesn’t put me at ease — it puts the customer service agent at ease.  Now if I were terribly upset at something, I’d have a good mind to say “Of course your may not!” — but I have a soft spot for Filipino call center agents, so I let it slide.

Then there’s the giggling and jokes and tomfoolery you hear in the background which gives the actual locale of the call center away, even if the call center agent manages to convince the caller it’s an American answering the phone.  There were even times when the call center agent would break out into a giggle in the middle of what is obviously a scripted spiel, probably because some clown in front or around her is trying to break her composure.  Cute, sure.  And in the boredom of staying awake when all of Metro Manila is sleeping soundly and the United States is abuzz and trying to keep our call centers in business, I’m sure our call center agents have had to resort to all sorts of gimmicks to entertain themselves.  I can live with that — except when my blood is curdling due to frustration and I hear snickering in the background and worse, my call center agent breaks into a guffaw or a giggle unmindful of my seething anger.  Totally unprofessional.  I’ve had many customer service calls answered by India — and struggle as I might to understand them beyond the accent, I have never had a call center agent from India break out into a giggle as if someone was tickling him on the other line like it has happened when Manila answers.  Again, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to pull down Juan de la Cruz the call center agent here — I’m just trying to point out where we need to pull our act together.  I’m actually saddened by the lack of professionalism this smacks of, because even among the bosses here in New York, they know hands down, the Filipinos do better as call center agents than their other counterparts around the world because of their command of the English language.

I even go out of my way to be helpful when I know a Filipino is calling to inquire about the proper business contact in my company to sell their business ideas or services to.  Where I would normally just give the basic information in as perfunctory a manner as I can, always hurrying to get off the line — when I know it’s Manila calling, I make it worth their time and effort.  So it’s really disconcerting when I get a research company (or one purporting to be such) doing a compensation study asking for contact information for certain department heads, and then in the middle of the exchange, “Bel” suddenly starts laughing and the line is cut.  Bel, obviously, decided to just hang up rather than break out in loud laughter at the risk of irritating the other person on the line.  I put the phone down in disbelief and disgust.  But that isn’t the end of it.  Bel calls again.

So I try to put one over her and talk to her in straight Tagalog: “Meron ng tumawag kanina dito na tinatanong din yung mga tinanong niyo. Kayo rin ba yon?”  And I do catch her offgaurd and she pretends she doesn’t understand what the heck I am saying because she starts mumbling an “Excuse me, I didn’t understand what you said…” — and totally pissed off me just tells her she can pretend as much as she wants but I know I’m talking to Manila.  Then she hangs up.

Totally unprofessional.  Totally sad.  And we think the only reason we’re losing out to other countries in the call center market is because they are selling their labor cheaper.  That just doesn’t cut it when we know we are and can do better.   More than anything else, we need to take this business seriously because it’s something we can be truly good at.

In a business environment where even here in the US, accents and language differences are pronounced and easily tolerated as borders disappear — you find that it’s not even so much the difference between how you say “Thank you” here and back home.  Sure, that counts, too — but more than that, it’s the professionalism and quality of work in general.  I have seen additional frustration creeping in when people on my side of the world realize they are being answered by an outsourced customer service hotline, and the person on the other end of the line doesn’t seem to know anything beyond the proforma spiels being read from a manual you can hear them leafing through  as you ask your question.

Is it lack of training?  Lack of supervision?  One bad call can put a call center company to shame even as they count a hundred excellent customer service conversations.  It only takes one “Bel” for me to call the other admins who will answer a similar query to warn them not to deal with this vendor calling.   In the meantime, here’s keeping my fingers crossed my next call being picked up by a call center in Manila turns out to be one of the “better” ones.