For the first time in twenty-five months, Tawn and I are taking an international trip together – and this is only my second international trip since February 2020.
Our routing is rife with opportunities for the advancing Onicron variant of COVID to throw a spanner in the works: it is three separate tickets covering three countries on two continents in three weeks.
The main trip is a round trip from Bangkok to Paris on Austrian airlines, connecting through a country currently under lockdown. Nested within that trip are a round trip from Paris to Kansas City and, after that, from Paris to Lisbon.
I anticipate at least seven more COVID tests along the way. Stay tuned!
Seven weeks after completing my two-week hotel quarantine, imposed after returning from the United States, I find myself staying again in a hotel. This time, however, the stay is voluntary.
In March, when cases in Bangkok were still low but the tourism industry was suffering from borders being shut, hotels promoted special offers to spur domestic tourism. At one travel fair, I purchased vouchers for four different hotels, with expiration dates through the end of September. Tawn and I figured if we couldn’t travel abroad, at least we could get away at home.
In the months that followed, the delta variant arrived and COVID-19 cases in Thailand spiked to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic. Restaurants, gyms, and swimming pools closed and getting away to a hotel seemed pointless. Expiration dates for some of the vouchers were extended but it started to look like we might not get an opportunity to use them.
Thankfully, cases have subsided a bit although are still much higher than they should be. Bowing to pressure from the business lobby, the Thai government has eased restrictions on restaurant dining. So, we decided this weekend would be a good time to use a voucher for a two-night stay at the Hyatt Regency on Sukhumvit Road.
Gyms and pools are still closed, so the hotel requires you to reserve a one-hour slot when these facilities are available for your exclusive use. We checked in Friday afternoon and used the gym for an hour before dinner. It is all very quiet and, to save costs, the air conditioning in the gym is off.
For dinner, we visited the Thai restaurant on property. The staff provided excellent service and great hospitality – and the tables were far apart, making the experience feel quite safe for diners. Plus the ambient music was kept at a reasonable volume, making it much more to my liking as I have reached a point where too much “atmosphere” makes it too difficult to hear the dinner conversation!
The menu is crafted by chef Vichit Mukkura whose one-star Michelin restaurant Khao is located on nearby Ekkamai Road. The presentation was pretty although several of the dishes tasted under-seasoned. The massaman curry was fantastic, though, and full of flavor. With the curfew still in place, staff took last orders at 7:30 and by 8:00 our dinner was winding down.
We will stay for two nights, a bit of a break from our routine. And in doing so, are helping to stimulate the economy a bit, which is sorely needed. The government was indicating that by October 1, more parts of Thailand (including Bangkok) would open to fully-vaccinated tourists without requiring 14-day quarantines. And then last week, they pushed the date back to November 1. Vaccination rates are increasing steadily but are still not at the levels needed to safely open.
At the same time, the business lobby – especially the hospitality sector – is understandably furious at the government for continuing to move the goal posts. Foreign tourists plan in advance – no spontaneous overseas travel – and will by shy to plan travel to Thailand if they feel that there is too much uncertainty. I can’t blame them! I wouldn’t recommend planning a trip to Thailand anytime before the end of the year as there is no telling how things will change.
That said, we are planning a trip overseas for the holidays, gambling that by the time we return, restrictions will have been lifted. We shall see how our gamble plays out.
While my trip back to the US ended a month ago, I haven’t properly taken the time to reflect on the trip and what it meant to me. It was a short trip – just over two weeks – but it was one of the most meaningful trips I have taken. Was it because of being away for almost two years, or because of the number of people I was able to see, or just because as I get older I am more appreciative? I cannot say. But it was a good trip.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was spending time with my grandparents. My grandmother turned 101 this springtime and my grandfather hit the same milestone while I was in town. We had planned a famliy reunion last summer but of course that had to be cancelled. This year, though, everyone was fully vaccinated and it felt worth the risk to make a visit.
They have been inspirations and role models. A video I made for their 90th birthdays captured bits of the story how they met, which is a wonderful story similar to the story of so many people of their generation: a soldier meets a girl at a USO dance and they marry before he is sent overseas. In their 78 years of marriage, they have weathered thick and thin and have maintained consistency of faith and values while being open-minded and always learning.
While there, I had an interesting conversation with them, asking them about how the way they think about their lives and mortality has changed as they get closer to the end of their lives. Their candid and thoughtful answers could be summarized as, live your life as well as you can, be grateful for all you have, and focus on the present rather than the future.
While there, my grandmother said that she wanted to swim again. She was a competitive swimmer in her youth and continued to swim her entire life, up until about seven years ago when she suffered a fall. In fact, she had overseen the Red Cross swimming program in her county for many years and countless hundreds of children learned to swim thanks in part to her instruction.
My aunt loaned her a swimsuit, cap, and goggles and I drove my grandmother over to the pool and my aunt’s housing complex. It was a sunny day and the pool was warm as my grandmother took off her robe and eased her way into the water. And in no time she was swimming laps, especially enjoying the backstroke which she does so gracefully. She did complain afterwards that she wasn’t used to the added buoancy of the salt water – she is famliar with chlorinated water! – but otherwise enjoyed the experience.
Another lesson to learn: don’t give up on the things you love.
While last year’s family reunion was cancelled, another one informally happened this year. All of my cousins bar one arranged to be back, overlapping the weekend before my grandfather’s birthday. They brought their spouses and children with them, with just a few exceptions, and all of my aunts and uncles were there, too. So we had the chance to see nearly everyone and spend good time together.
I am the oldest of my cousins and as I see them grow (and as I see their children grow!), I am increasingly aware of the passage of time and feel a sense of responsibility to collect the stories and keep the connections strong between our generation. If I will not have children of my own, then perhaps what I can bequeath to the next generation is the legacy and history of our family. I work on collecting the stories and memories and look for a good way to share them.
This trip was also the opportunity to stay with my parents in their new home. Some fifty-plus years after leaving the Kansas City area for the San Francisco Bay Area, and then detouring to Indiana some 25 years ago, they have recently moved back to Kansas City. They are just settling in, still unpacking and setting things up.
What is interesting is how the dynamic has changed. Every time I visited Kansas City, they would travel over from Indianapolis. So when I was seeing them, they were also visitors. Now, they live there. I can visit them in their home. It is a different experience and will be interesting to see how this makes visits feel over the coming years. It will certainly be easier to have the family all in one place!
I was also fortunate that on my last evening there, an old Xangan friend, Andy Yang, drove down from Omaha to visit. When Tawn and I married in Council Bluffs, Iowa a dozen years ago (across the river from Omaha), we needed a witness for the marriage license. While we had never met in person, Andy offered to be the witness and invited Tawn and me to stay with him and his now-wife, Sugi, at their place. They have been great friends all these years and have become close to our family. I really appreciate him coming down to see me and love that friendships that came from the days of my Xanga blog have grown such deep roots over time.
There is more from the trip I will write about, but that is the Kansas City portion.
In June, I wrote a post detailing how I decided to fly business class home to the US in July. In this post, I will follow up and share how the experience was – and how I feel about the decision. Hopefully, I will also create a video or two for my YouTube channel. But in the meantime, here’s a start:
My flight departed Bangkok at 7:00 am. I arrived about 5:15 am, giving myself a bit more time than I might otherwise have needed because there is paperwork you need to provide before flying, like a COVID-19 PCR test. The check-in turned out to be quite smooth and security and immigration were, too, because nobody is flying.
The shops were mostly closed and many were boarded up. Those that were open had forelorn employees standing around, looking bored. I walked the long and gloomy concourse to the only THAI Airways lounge that was open, a small, recently rennovated one on concourse E. There were only two other people in the lounge. Food options were limited and all pre-packaged.
About boarding time, I proceeded to gate F5 where I found my ride, an All-Nippon Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in Star Alliance livery. There were perhaps 40 passengers on this 246-seat aircraft, so boarding was quick. To help minimize passenger contact, ANA has changed their boarding zone so, regardless of your status or the cabin you are traveling in, they board from the back of the plane to the front.
All-Nippon is a Japanese airline and their onboard experience is distinctly Japanese. The safety video features characters in Kabuki makeup and costumes and is interlaced with illustrations done in the style of traditional airline safety cards but with Japanese characters. Here is the illustration for the importance of not wearing high-heel shoes (or okobo!) when evacuating the aircraft. You might tear the slide. These touches make the experience really special – you feel like you’ve arrived in Japan even before you have left.
We had an on-time departure from runway 1L, heading south over the rice paddies and factories of Samut Prakan province and then turning north towards Hong Kong as we climbed into the cloudy morning skies. I always enjoy flying, but flying early in the morning fills me with a feeling of possibility, like I am embarking on a grand adventure.
I was traveling in ANA’s staggered business class that is technically “old”, because ANA has launched a new product called “The Room” that is even snazzier. This business class that you see was introduced in early 2010. While it is more than a decade old, it really is still a very comfortable and private way to fly. There are two critiques of the layout:
First, they seats are very cubicle-like. A lot of people who fly business class like this layout because it gives you a lot of privacy. And, certainly, during this pandemic it is preferntial to be in a layout that shields you from others. But this layout looks quite boxy and doesn’t quite appeal to me.
Second, there are no adjacent seats. Often, the center seats on some business classes will alternate with two seats close together and, in the next row, two seats far apart. These adjacent seats are great when traveling with someone else. ANA didn’t design their old business class for that. However, the new arrangement will feature this.
Overall, the seat was very comfortable. It offered good storage, reclined into a comfortable relaxation position, and when laying fully flat it made for a comfortable bed. The footwell, in particular, is large enough in all seats that you can sleep on your side and still have room for your feet. The bed comes with a mattress cover, duvet, and a substantial pillow. I was able to sleep well and on my 12-hour return from Chicago to Tokyo, slept eight hours.
The above picture is on the Boeing 777-300er I flew returning from Chicago to Tokyo. It had a few small differences from the 787-9 I was on from Bangkok to Tokyo and return, but you would be hard-pressed to notice them. The tray table mechanism is larger and extends from underneath the monitor in the 777 instead of swinging out from underneath the console next to you. Also, the 777 has a small storage box on the wall to the side of your seat. The seats and comfort were quite similar, though, and the service was the same.
You can also see how lightly loaded the cabin was. On my flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, I was the only person in a 12-person cabin.
ANA has a good reputation for catering. Since it was a morning flight, I opted for the western meal instead of the Japanese option. This may seem foolish, since Japanese food should be the obvious choice! But I saved my Japanese food for my flight out of Tokyo, figuring it would be better there. The food was generous in portion size and tasty enough, although nothing outstanding. With the pandemic, instead of serving food from carts or bringing individual dishses and laying them out on the tablecloth, all your food is served on one tray and plastic or foil covers are on every dish.
The flight to Tokyo lasted about five hours. I slept about two hours on the flight, looked out the window, and watched some Netflix on my iPad. The in-flight entertainment system has a large screen and is responsive. The selection of shows is okay but not as extensive as on some airlines. Since I brought my own device, I just used it instead. We landed in Tokyo Narita Airport about 3:00 pm. Above, a view of the Boeing 787-9 I flew from Bangkok, seen parked at Tokyo Narita Airport. This is really an elegant and comfortable plane!
The conclusion about ANA on this first flight, was that the seats were very comfortable, the food was decent, and the service was spectacular. The flight attendants were friendly, attentive, and organized. They knew from the itinerary that I was continuing on to San Francisco, so they packed me a special goodie bag with lots of ammenity items, some souvenir ANA postcards, and two special items shown in the picture above.
The first was a hand-written note that was personalized, talked about a festival that was going on, and referenced my trip to San Francisco. This was such a great touch. Japan has a culture of aviation enthusiasts, so they also included a postcard (on the right) which provided information about the flight such as plane number, plane type, flight level, etc. Again, these are details that go above and beyond the basic expectations and leave me feeling like ANA is a great way to fly.
I had a two-hour layover between flights. Narita was not very busy. Many shops were closed and it was just a shadow of what I usually see when transiting there. I decided to go to the lounge. ANA usually has three lounges in Narita and United Airlines has one. During the pandemic, only one ANA lounge was open and, in fact, they used only the First Class side of their lounge.
The lounge was fairly crowded and attendants were circulating like sharks, checking for mask use when people were not eating or drinking, picking up trays and used dishes, and keeping things in good order. All the foods were pre-packaged but the hot food bar, where you can order noodles or rice and curry, was open. I enjoyed a nice bowl of soba noodles with pork katsu and a glass of draft beer. The views of the tarmac are spectacular and the skies were blue and the grass verdant green. I could have spent all day watching the planes.
All too soon, I had to walk to sattelite four, where United operates its flights. In normal times, they have at least one daily flight to Newark, Washington D.C., Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Guam – and usually two flights to some of the cities. This day, it was down to three flights: Guam, Los Angeles, and my flight to San Francisco. Today’s flight was operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Behind my San Francisco flight was the one of Los Angeles, which left about 30 minutes earlier.
I chose this flight specifically because I wanted to try United’s Polaris business class. United introduced Polaris in 2016 but to this date, some of their long-haul fleet still has not been reconfigured. Specifcially, that Los Angeles flight, which I was rebooked on by United, uses an older 2-2-2 configuration which means if you sit at a window seat, you do not have direct aisle access. You will note that the overall look and feel is similar to ANA’s business class and the blue color scheme is similar. One advantage is that alternating rows of middle seats are placed closer together, perfect for couples.
The seats themselves are thoughtfully designed and similar in space and comfort to the older ANA seats. The Saks Fifth Avenue bedding that you see in the above photo had been modified a bit for my flight. The lightweight blanket was gone, but there were still two sizes of pillos and a duvet. The pajama service, which ostentisbly is available on longer flights, was not available on mine – but that may be because it is only a nine-hour flight.
The seats recline to fully flat and are comfortable. I did find the shoulder space to be a bit narrower than on ANA and I would sometimes run into the long armrest that stretches below the windows. The foot wells can be a narrow in some rows. The bulkhead seats, of which I chose one, have more space and were sufficiently large. I was able to sleep about five hours on the almost nine-hour flight.
Inflight service was not as good as on ANA. There were three flight attendants serving business class, which was about one-quarter full. One of them was brusque and not at all welcoming. The other two were a bit friendlier but just seemed disorganized and forgetful. I had to repeat requests for things and after ordering, one flight attendant told me I couldn’t have my first choice for entree while the other then brought me by first choice. But when I asked about the red wines, one flight attendant brought all three bottles so I could see them, which was a nice touch.
In terms of food, United’s catering is such a disappointment. For dinner, I chose what was ostensibly a filet of beef. It was such a sad, beige looking thing. And the baked side dish, some sort of a truffle-flavored polenta or something, was crusty and forgettable. The roasted beets were nice, because I love beets. The salad was limp and the dessert was some sort of a prepackaged brownie. Just underwhelming. Like ANA, everything was served on a single tray and all the items had plastic or foil covers.
For breakfast, I chose the Japanese option, figuring we had departed Japan so this might be okay. The dish was a tiny piece of mackerel served with the saddest steamed vegetables and a gloppy, sweet sauce. And the muffin, which I hope was meant to be green tea flavored, was this unappetizing greenish color.
The one thing I appreciate is that they didn’t serve breakfast until about an hour before landing. Many airlines will start their pre-landing meal in business class 90-120 minutes before landing, which interrupts your sleep. Especially because they were serving everything on a single tray, dinner was done early and breakfast could be served late, giving passengers more time to rest.
United’s entertainment system is quite a bit better than ANA’s, though. The screen is brighter and easier to see and the selection of entertainment is extensive. If you need to be distracted (which you will be because of the food!), United does that well.
The flight was smooth and not long after breakfast, we broke through the coastal fog to land in San Francisco. We parked at the international terminal and I was the first person to the baggage claim belt, which was completely desserted. Thankfully, the baggage arrived quickly and my bags were among the first off. If you are curious, immigration was very quick and nobody inquired at all about COVID, although I had shown my COVID test results when checking in at Bangkok and again at the gate in Tokyo.
The international flights both had few passengers and a lot of personal room. This changed for the domestic flights, where both my flight to Denver and the onward flight to Kansas City were completely full. Thankfully, I was in business class for these flights, too, so at least wasn’t completely squeezed in.
The domestic flights were both delayed, the first one by almost an hour with no clear explanation given. And when we landed in Denver, we waited another 15 minutes for our gate to free up, which was especially frustrating as many passengers had very tight connections. I did make it to Kansas City only about 45 minutes late, though, and my parents picked me up shortly after.
So, the question is, was it worth it to fly business class? The two international flights had a premium economy cabin, so I could have saved some money and had seats equivalent to domestic first class. Overall, having more room and more cubicle-like space during this pandemic, made me feel safer. And being able to sleep on the flights seemed to help with my jet lag: I really did not suffer any considerable jet lag on this trip. I would not have slept much, or very well, in premium economy or regular economy.
What I don’t think was worth it, was flying with United. I’m a former United employee and really want the company to succeed, but I was disappointed with the experience – especially domestically. I overheard three of the flight attendant for my San Francisco to Denver flight discussing that this was their first flight back from furlough. On none of my United flights, did I encounter any employees (on the ground or in the air) that really convinced me they genuinely appreciated my business. Compare this to ANA, where I was treated as a unique person, and I think I would try to avoid United as best I can in the future.
Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)
I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.
Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.
Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)
Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.
Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!
“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:
Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).
Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.
Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)
Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.
Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.
After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.
I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.
Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:
Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.
The recurring LAX change
United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.
But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.
My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.
Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.
A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!
At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.
After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.
So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.
I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!
Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.
Friday morning I received my first shot of COVID-19 vaccine, just a few days after I discovered that I was going to get it here in Thailand at all. Let me start by saying how grateful I am that I’ve received the vaccine at all. And let me share a bit of the story:
This being Thailand, the vaccine implementation has been chaotic and unclear, with contradictory messages coming from different persons in the government on a near-daily basis. At one point, vaccines for foreigners wasn’t being considered at all. Then they would be able to get vaccines in a few months, as soon as the Thai registration app was adjusted to work for people who didn’t have a national identification number. Then the government said they would allow private company to buy vaccines. And then they said they wouldn’t. And so on, and so on…
Then, on Monday, I received an email from my company stating they had arranged for all Bangkok-based employees to receive a vaccine. Foreign workers were directed to register at a link on the MedPark Hospital website. On Tuesday, I was informed my vaccine would be available on Friday between mid-morning and early afternoon. We were informed the Sinovac (a Chinese-made vaccine with widely varying reported efficacy) was the only option, which while not ideal, is better than nothing.
When I arrived at the hospital and registered, they asked whether I wanted Astra Zeneca or Sinovac, as they had both available. I chose AZ as the data from AZ appear to more consistently show higher efficacy than Sinovac. And thirty minutes later, I had my first dose in my arm and was on my way.
Side effects: similar to Tawn, who received his first dose earlier that week, I experienced soreness in my upper arm at the injection site (no surprise). By dinner time, I was feeling a general achiness, like the onset of a flu. And by bedtime, I had the chills, which Tawn had also experienced.
Over the night, I experienced the worst headache I have ever had. I think I know perhaps what a migraine headache feels like. I kept waking up and massaging various pressure points, trying to relieve the tension. Finally, near dawn and exhausted from a restless night, I stopped trying to power my way through the symptoms and just took two tablets of paracetamol.
Within thirty minutes, the symptoms largely subsided and I slept for another three hours. The rest of the day was a bit fuzzy, but by dinner time about 32 hours after the shot, I was feeling pretty much back to my normal self.
Second shots here are scheduled for 16 weeks after the first shot, not until early October. Since I will be back in the US in a few weeks, I plan to go ahead and take the J&J single-shot vaccine so I can get full covered more immediately. A search online hasn’t turned up any concerns that should dissuade me from combining two vaccines, but if you know anything you would like to share, please let me know.
If you haven’t received a vaccine yet, I hope you will do so as soon as you possibly can. The best chance we have for getting this pandemic under control is widespread vaccination and good hygiene practices. Stay safe!
Lego, the maker of plastic bricks that fuel hours of imaginative play and pierce bare soles of parental feet around the globe, launched Everyone is Awesome, a set designed to celebrate the diversity of Lego fans. It intentionally features the colors of the rainbow flag associated with the LGBTQI+ community*
I learned of this from a post on LinkedIn, where a Singaporean-based business coach is writing a series of “constructive arguments” posts in which she to provoke thoughtful discussion. It was interesting, although I found she seemed to quickly tire of being challenged, despite claiming she wanted to be engaged.
One commenter raised concern that in Lego’s press release, they seemed to equate “diverse and inclusive” with LGBTQI+ while not acknowledging that there is much more to diversity thank sexual orientation and gender identity. The author responded, “True indeed. Why would a product meant for diversity exclude the largest group of all – heterosexuals? Is it hypocritical of them to do so?”
My response was to ask how Lego is excluding heterosexuals by offering a set that celebrates diversity and highlights groups who are traditionally not represented.
She responded by acknowledging that “exclude” was the wrong word to use. “How about make them feel less important? One could argue that it would be a good thing for them to feel the boot on the other foot. But I wonder if making anyone feel less is the right first step to creating a more inclusive world?”
I remained confused. “I still don’t understand why heterosexuals would feel less important. The messaging of this set is well summed up by the headline: Everyone is Awesome. Would heterosexuals not feel included in ‘Everyone’?”
She responded: “Frankly, I won’t know. But there’s a lot of vitriol here [Singapore] over the rainbow flag and its use. The cause I presume is that by highlighting alternative sexual orientations, heterosexuals are made to feel less in some way. Just like women causes (which I’m passionate about) are never forwarded by making men feel less. I don’t think this debate is helped by making heterosexuals feel less.”
Which confused me further. She kept pushing the idea that this would make heterosexuals feel less, without providing any rationale of what, exactly, would make them feel “less than”. Then it occurred to me – her use of the word “alternative” to describe sexual orientations. That word implies that heterosexual is the “norm” and she is defining other sexual orientations in relation to that perceived norm. And, she had previously described heterosexuals as “the largest group” – which seems to imply that size is what defines normalcy.
(Of course, I want to acknowledge that I don’t know this person other than a few comments on her post, so I am projecting what I think she might be thinking without knowing what her thoughts really are. In reality, I’m sure she is a thoughtful and enlightened individual – otherwise, she wouldn’t have started this series of posts.)
The image that comes to mind is of someone standing beneath a spotlight. In her way of framing this discussion, to shine the spotlight on someone else implies that the spotlight can no longer be on her and thus she will feel left out. What seems to be missing is an awareness that all of us were standing on the stage the whole time. Just because other people get a chance to be seen instead of the spotlight always being on you, doesn’t mean you are “less” – it just means you have to learn not to expect to be the center of the universe all the time.
A related topic came up today in a conversation with a senior leader, a white man, who was feeling bruised by a graphic in a blog entry by Boston Consulting Group titled “Redefining Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion“.
He was not happy with the thumbs-down graphic just above the 90% figure indicating that most Fortune 500 CEOs are straight, white, cisgender men. It sounded like he felt like this was an attack. And I can appreciate why he may have felt that way. And two thoughts occur to me:
First, the efforts to make the world a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place will require us to think and communicate carefully because messages can be misunderstood and people can be easily triggered. Ultimately, I would just as soon have more people on the journey than make people feel unwelcome. We need allies in the march to progress.
And, at the very same time, I don’t feel it is any out group’s responsibility to pamper the feelings of people in the in group. Learning and growth only happen outside of the comfort zone – and being in the comfort zone is the very definition of privilege.
As a man, I have work to do to understand women and the challenges they face. As a white person, I have work to do to understand how people of color are discriminated against. And along the way, I am going to feel uncomfortable, say and do the wrong things, and have to learn many lessons in how to create a world where the light shines on all of us.
As someone who is gay, I continue to be in the position where I face challenges and where I am discriminated against because of my sexual orientation. And this is where the best way I can work for equity and inclusion is to push back when people who are in the numerical majority define me as an “alternative” or want me to protect their feelings lest they perceive that they are, for once, “excluded”.
This is an interesting topic for me, as I’ve been charged with creating and implementing my organization’s diversity program. With 35,000 employees across 36 countries, there are plenty of things we do well and plenty of areas where we can do better. And I’d like to figure out how to bring everyone along on this journey to greater equity and inclusion – while also helping people get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What are your thoughts?
*what we used to call the “gay and lesbian community” but which now reflects a broader diversity of the sexual orientation and gender identity. It stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and others”.
Despite being married to a fashion designer, I am not much of a fashionista. There are many reasons for this from having a practical bent to have a body shape and size that doesn’t lend itself to the skinny lines of most men’s fashion. So I generally do not enjoy clothes shopping. But the exception to this is shopping at UNIQLO.
The fourth biggest fashion brand globally, Uniqlo (pronounced “uni-glow”) is a Japanese casual wear chain wholly owned by Fast Retailing Co. Ltd. The experience I get shopping at Uniqlo reminds me of what I enjoyed about The Gap in the mid-1990s. So it was no surprised to learn that the brand, with a history that goes back only to 1984, specifically set out to emulate elements of The Gap in the late 1990s.
While their presence in the United States and Canada is limited to the largest cities, Uniqlo operates more than 2,200 stores globally with the largest presence in East and Southeast Asia. The clothing is moderately priced, well-constructed, on-trend but not to the point where something you buy will look out of date in a year. The range of outfits and styles is limited, so you don’t feel overwhelmed with choices.
What I like best, though, is that even here in Thailand, they offer clothes I can fit in. In Asia, sizes run smaller. What might be a size L in the United States is often a 2XL in Thailand and is often not available at all. At Uniqlo, for all except their skinny-fit pants (I am never going to be a skinny fit), I fit into an XL. I was pleasantly surprised to find some summer shorts this weekend that not only fit, but fit quite comfortably.
Here’s to the joy of finding clothes that fit, that you feel comfortable in, and that you feel are at least reasonably fashionable! Are you familiar with Uniqlo? What has your experience with them been like?
Wave three of COVID-19 has arrived in Thailand. Our infection and death rates per million are significantly below many other nations, but after the B.1.617 variant (the so called “Indian variant”) reached Thailand despite our borders ostensibly being closed, our earlier good fortune of few infections gave way to the realization that Thais are susceptible to COVID after all.
While generally compliant with mask mandates, many let their guard down after a year and ill-advised gatherings at illicit pubs and “entertainment venues” in the hi-so Thong Lor neighborhood were super-spreader events that ushered in wave three, just before the Songkran holiday in mid-April. The government, perhaps loath to cancel the Songkran for a second consecutive year, thousands of Bangkok’s upper crust traveled to Phuket, Chiang Mai and other holiday destinations. Large, mostly unmasked gatherings there helped spread the virus across the kingdom and then, the newly infected returned to spread the virus further across Bangkok.
A month and a half later, we are in a partial lockdown. Restaurants operate at one-quarter capacity with only one guest to be seated at each table. They close early for dine-in and no alcohol is served. The borders are still closed except for those with Certificates of Entry from the Thai government (in addition to visas and other paperwork) who undergo a 15-night quarantine regardless of their vaccination status. I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post.
To top it off, among the restrictions has been the closure of gyms (understandable) and public parks (less so). This means my running, my preferred form of exercise, is now done on the sois of Bangkok in the pre-dawn darkness.
As the sky gradually lightens, I run in the street as it is still a bit safer than running on the footpaths, which are inconsistently leveled and often have obstacles (tree stumps, anyone?) and loose pavers that will give way and twist your ankle.
I take different routes, exploring familiar corners of the neighborhood I pass by frequently in a car as well as hidden troks, the narrow lanes that weave behind temples, along canals, and in areas not accessible to vehicles with four wheels. It is a chance to see more about the neighborhoods along the middle of Sukhumvit Road.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this part of Bangkok is its socioeconomic diversity. To be clear, the part of Sukhumvit Road stretching from Asoke (Sukhumvit 21) to Pridi Banomyong (Sukhumvit 71) – a five-kilometer stretch – is the wealthiest section of Bangkok. But behind the malls, high-rise luxury condos, nightclubs, Michelin-starred restaurants, and import car dealerships, you find these pockets of everything from modest 1960s-era apartments to slums and cramped construction worker shacks, the last of which have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.
The four-story shop houses, which were the staple of the main streets, continue to give way to 30-, 40- and 50-story condo towers, many of which have prices starting at US$6,000 per square meter (10 square feet) and going much, much higher. In the past two years, the government finally instituted an annual property tax, although they are giving a 90% discount off the already low tax rate. Under-utilized land is taxed at a higher rate so, as you see in the picture above, vacant land is being planted with lime or banana trees, to be classified as an agricultural use while the owners await the opportunity to otherwise develop it.
One recent addition on Ekkamai Road, a hot spot for nightlife, is the addition of a privately-run multi-story car park, the first I recall seeing in this area. Given how car-centric Bangkok is, this is probably a good idea and may perhaps some of the annoying parking that clogs narrow sois and alleys.
There are pockets of culture to be found. This narrow khlong that cuts through the back part of the neighborhood between Thong Lor and Ekkamai roads, has provided a canvas for graffiti artists, something that was rare when I moved here in 2005 but now seems more common and, frankly, in many cases quite sophisticated. The water, though, is dreadful and I can imagine that the neighbors keep their windows closed even when the weather turns a bit more pleasant in the winter.
Hidden next to the 150-year old khlong Saen Saeb, one of the oldest canals in Bangkok, is the charming Wat Pasi (or “tax temple”). It is popular with locals and has unique square-shaped main building that looks much more like a mosque than the typically steeply-pitched red tiled roof on a Buddhist temple. The temple is actually very close to a large Muslim population and about five minutes along the canal, you will find Khlongtan Central Mosque or Masjid Jamiah al-Islam, a prominent mosque in this area.
Interestingly, in the last few years, Wat Pasi has undergone this redecoration with this tree trunks (real trees!) shipped here and set up to create a faux-forest scene. I’m unclear why the trees needed to be cut down instead of new trees being planted.
Anyhow, the chance to run around the neighborhood helps me see more of the area, appreciate the range of lives and lifestyles that are here, many of which are largely invisible to me unless I go looking for them.
In the middle of the pandemic, I think a lot of people are counting their blessings and feel fortunate just to be employed. I’d like to take it a step further and appreciate just how fortunate I am to have not only a job, but also a good workplace and a great team of colleagues.
What make for a great team of colleagues? The diversity of the team is one aspect – they span more than thirty years of experience and come from a range of generations, backgrounds and experiences. They also bring different strengths and expertise to the team.
What really makes it a great team goes beyond just diversity: it is their mindset. Each member of the team cares about what they are doing and takes pride in doing it well. They also are curious to learn and grow: each of them seeks out feedback and actively works to get better at what they do; nobody is complacent. Finally, each of them works to build strong relationships with each other: they open up and share about themselves and they seek to learn about, and understand, the other team members.
These days, we are all working remotely most of the time and only occasionally do we cross paths in the office at the same time. Still, I feel that we have a good connection and work well together as a team. And in a time when the world seems to be troubled, this is something really special.