Monday, November 26, 2012

Unexpectedly Amazing (My dinner encounter with Hillary Clinton)

Late last Friday, as I was parking our car in the basement of a nearby mall, about to brave the hazards of shoe shopping with young children on a Friday afternoon, I got a call from Bundit. “I got a fax from the Prime Minister’s office,” he laughed with a hint of incredulity in his voice. “They are inviting us to a dinner on Sunday for Barack Obama.”

Yes, was all I said in reply. Go.

Bundit was hesitant, but I said I was going, with or without him. In the end, after some prodding from me and another call from the PM’s office, he relented and said he would attend.

And boy was he glad he did. We met Hillary!


The definitive highlight of our evening was being introduced to Hillary Clinton and discovering that even when completely exhausted she could be warm, charming, and empathetic. No doubt these abilities account for her success as a politician, and they are impressive.

Imagine - you have just gotten off a plane after having flown (literally) to the other side of the world. As you get off the plane your hair, wardrobe, makeup and jewelry are immediately criticized and analyzed. You are taken directly to a holy site with immense symbolic meaning for its host country where your every move as you sight-see is scrutinized. Then you hold meetings with your counterparts in that nation, discussing matters of great importance to you and to them. You hold a press conference, where once again your every move is dissected. Then you have to go to a formal dinner, where all the guests are watching every smile, every turn of the head for hidden meaning, snapping pics endlessly on their smartphones. And you know your evening won’t be over when the dinner ends! Then you have to go and greet a gymnasium full of embassy employees and their families. And every step of the way you have to be warm, charming and empathetic.

I couldn’t do it. But she did. And she does. All the time. Respect.

We spoke with her for all of 30 seconds, but it was enough to be very impressed. We were introduced by the Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of Commerce, Mr. Kittirat Na Ranong, who happens to be an old acquaintance of ours. He must have told her something of Bundit during dinner, as she had a light of recognition in her eyes when Mr. Kittirat introduced us. We shook her hand, and Bundit told her how I had complimented her appearance when she walked into dinner (I really had, I thought she looked very nice). She laughed and told us that she was completely exhausted. She suggested taking a picture which her aides did for us and then was whisked away to take pictures with the President up on the stage.

Wow.

But the evening’s surprises didn’t end there! There was so much more.

As Bundit and I discussed later, our three major concerns with attending VIP functions like this are as follows:
I hate getting dressed for parties, so we have to document the experience...

1. Formality. I have never been very comfortable at cocktail parties, formal dinners, or fancy social gatherings (the exception being any event hosted at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel. Their food is fantastic!). I prefer to stay home with the kids, reading, watching movies or going swimming. Add to that the fact that functions honoring important people can be as stiff and dull as a plank of wood. I get so worried about offending protocol that I’m scared to say anything or even look at anyone, the result being a deathly dull dinner experience that is compounded by a never-ending stream of courses. Apparently, the more important the VIP, the greater the number of courses. We attended one dinner once that had no fewer than eight courses, and went on for hours and hours, slowly killing my will to live as each second ticked by. Under the pretext of going to the bathroom, Bundit slipped our first, and I followed, claiming I needed to make a phone call. Then we escaped out the back.

But we were delighted with our experience at government house on Sunday night. While there was certainly a sense of seriousness, all the guests nonetheless seemed genuinely excited to be there. Chit-chat among groups around the room as we entered was flourishing and once we sat down to dinner the conversation at our table never suffered from the strain or awkward pauses that frequently punctuate such occasions. We met interesting people who had interesting things to say. Our table included the head of the Thailand Tourism Authority, the CEO of GM Thailand, Executive Director of USAID in Thailand, and an American entrepreneur who runs a medical devices company and is a board member of AmCham, among others. Bundit had a great time sharing Wagner jokes (German music humor) with the gentleman seated next to him (as Viktor Borge used to say, laughter is the shortest distance between two people).
Nearly everyone had their cell phones and were snapping pictures of the head table where Obama and PM Yingluck were chatting animatedly. One of our tablemates was micro-blogging the whole event on FB, and I kept one eye on my Twitter feed where my picture of the menu was widely retweeted (I know, right? The menu? Who knew?)
The Menu...                                                   My place setting

Formal schmormal. People were there to enjoy themselves. Even Obama and Yingluck seemed very relaxed during dinner, while Hillary bobbed her head to the Thai music with gusto. And guess what? The Oriental Hotel provided the food that evening. Win.
My view of the head table...

2. Security. We have attended events where the guests have been told to arrive two hours in advance for the security of the VIPs. Two hours! Just the threat of waiting around for hours and hours has been enough to keep me from attending several special events.

But this time, our invitation said the event would start at 7:15 and that we didn’t need to be early. We arrived at 7:15, and were asked by the secret service to wait outside the metal detectors for just a few short minutes before we were ushered directly into the dining hall where most everyone else was already waiting. The President and PM were holding a press conference in the next room, and as soon as they finished, around 8pm, the dinner would begin. And it all started on time! Impressive. Equally impressive were the secret service agents. They were all exceptionally polite and discrete. Bundit got up halfway through dinner to walk over to my side of the table and one of them started walking towards us - I thought maybe he was going to wrestle Bundit back into his chair - but he walked right past and left Bundit alone. Whew.

3. Entertainment. It seems that the speakers at many restaurants and events in Bangkok only have one volume: ear-splittingly loud. It doesn’t matter the occasion, I come away with my ears ringing, shouting at Bundit that he needs to speak up. Not the case this evening. The entertainment was tastefully chosen and well-performed at a very reasonable volume. There were little hip-hop dancers, three different singers, a jazz combo, several groups of Thai dancers, and an American family who appeared to have moved to Thailand and “gone native.” They performed a Thai song and dance number that was quite charming.

One of the Thai dance numbers...

Commerce Minister Kittirat and Khun Suthichai 

We were among the last to leave that evening. Once the US motorcade had departed with Obama and Hillary, we were introduced to PM Yingluck, who was very relaxed and sweet - she told us how nervous she had been while giving her toast in English (she did an excellent job). We chatted with old acquaintances and new friends, and enjoyed ourselves completely.


My thanks to PM Yingluck’s office for thinking of us, and making our fantastic evening possible! They threw together an outstanding event in a very short amount of time. Thanks to our lovely table-mates, to the dining staff and the chefs, to the security personnel and the performers. You turned this wallflower into a social butterfly, at least for one evening...

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