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What’s Possible for the American Woman: Adventures in UN Work

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After ten solid months of backpacking in Asia, I was broke, and my traveling experience didn’t feel complete. I had spent the last year doing what I wanted when I wanted, but now I wanted to give back. I wanted to know what it would be like to live in one of these countries. I wanted to be an expatriate and run with the international cool kids. 

I decided to move to Bangkok with the hope of promised work at the United Nations. Working at the UN was something that my Canadian friend, Geoff, had assured would be easy to attain.

After a weeklong interview process bouncing around the different UN agencies, I felt like the beat-up new kid. Since the Americans hadn’t paid their UN dues in decades, they were looked down upon as new hires. But the brief time I had spent writing HTML code for Stanford Medical School paid off. I got a call to design a Web site for the UN.

I decided to be candid with the Japanese Program Officer who interviewed me for the job. “You know, the last Web site I designed was five years ago.” This was how I waved my own red flags. “I’ll have to re-learn some stuff.” 

“Oh, is’okay. You come from Silicon Valley, that’s very good for us. Our current Web master is very Thai, so we need more modern design.” 

By his word choice, “very Thai,” I figured he thought I could come up with something “more American.” On my first day on the job, I had to call in sick, which didn’t really fly in terms of first impressions. Food poisoning, that anomaly I had heard about in India but had amazingly never experienced, had finally crept up on me. As a traveler, when you get sick, you try to trace your steps to figure out where and what you ate that led to your demise. I racked my brain while I hugged my cerulean blue toilet in my bathroom like a druggie going through detox.

When I finally came to, I found myself working between two UN agencies, ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) and UNDCP (United Nations Drug Control Programme). The two had joined efforts to design a Web site called Asian Youth Zone to educate Asian and Pacific youth on drugs, including the one that I had used on weekends dancing in the nightclubs of San Francisco.

To make this Web site happen, I worked seven days a week for three months. Hour-long morning meditations and lazy afternoons contemplating my whereabouts were now a thing of the past. I was officially an expat. The Thai phrase, “Pai Saha Pratachat” (“Go to United Nations”) rolled off the back of my throat to my morning taxi drivers.

During the week, I’d lunch in the cafeteria with UN staff from around the world: Scandinavians, Germans, Aussies, and Irish. The few Americans who worked there always sat at the head of the table, remaining in character as the global power that they spawned from, while I tried to slink down and appear more Canadian. For weeks, I sat at this popular table where everyone talked about foreign affairs that I knew nothing about until I realized that this cushy UN life wasn’t so warm and fuzzy inside its armed doors.

In the elevator, I peered at The World Bank through men in dark suits and questioned the loans they inflicted onto poor, indebted countries. I heard rumors of older staffers who sexually harassed my young female staff friends. The older male “UNers,” as I liked to call them, liked to show off a computer program that used Asian actors depicting Thai drug traffickers to exhibit the body language the traffickers might use. My impression, although withheld, was that it appeared to be another typical case of UN overspending. The actors hammed it up by shifting their eyes back and forth and crinkling their noses, which might mean they had methamphetamines hidden in their pockets.

“Do you think they’ve ever heard of education as prevention?” I whispered to a blonde Swedish intern.

It looked all too familiar, like the culture of San Francisco that I had left behind. A group of men had come into a lot of money and they weren’t really sure how to spend it. The only difference was that here at the UN, these guys were supposed to be saving the world.

As the UN officers took their afternoons off to do lunches, I continued to slave away behind an aged Mac with a 12-inch monitor and learn the Web publishing program, Dreamweaver. When I finally finished, my JPEGs loaded slowly and my color choice was loud.

Once a week, the Japanese guy from UNDCP and a Danish girl in a short skirt from ESCAP would walk up, ask how I was doing, and make sure I was on schedule. They would look over my shoulder and say, “Cooool!” when the logo would flip and turn on the page. Little did they know that every day I would call their perfectly capable Thai Webmaster on the second floor and cover up my lack of technical knowledge with questions like, “How would you do this?” And then respond slyly by saying, “Ah, yes, that’s how I would do it, too.” The Thai guy on Floor Two knew my secret, but being the polite Thai that he was, he would ride the elevator down one floor and take my Asian Youth Zone logo, put it into Flash, and make it spin.

One morning, after flashing our security badges, my Aussie roommate, Nikki, and I rode the escalator to get our cappuccinos and morning pastries. We walked the windowed hallway of the 1970s style building as our heels tapped swiftly against the linoleum floor. The slit in my skirt shifted from side to front as I nervously wound my badge around my neck and whispered.

“Nikki, they think I know what I’m doing. And they keep giving me more money. It’s strange. It’s like no one wants to believe that perhaps I wasn’t the right person for hire. I mean, their Thai Webmaster is perfectly capable.”

She smiled as if my secret were common knowledge. “Amanda, if I had a dollar for every incapable Westerner that I worked with here, I’d be a rich woman.”

She went on to explain her unethical experiences, how the head of her agency basically got paid to not be there, how work was prolonged and inefficient, which allowed for extensions to her contract, and how she made three times the amount of any Thai or Philippino in the building: “Basically, there is this belief that Western staff has more experience and can do a better job than anyone locally. We’re more educated, we’re smarter, we’re just better. I’m not certain that this is true, but it’s how the UN works. But I do like getting paid in US dollars.”

This was true. Dollars stretched our Baht living. It allowed for nice brunches in the expat quarter along Sukhumvit Road and weekend trips to our favorite island, Ko Chang. But as my concern grew about the UN and its inner workings, I wondered how my dilapidated Web site and my conscience would fare.

I met Geoff, the one I had to thank for my laminated badge and job, on that Friday at the UN bar on the first floor. It was a mix between a frequent flyers airport lounge and the men’s grill at my parent’s country club.

“So we’ve decided we’re going to launch in the UN auditorium instead of at Siam Center.” A smile crossed my face. I had had nightmares of teenage shoppers and international diplomats standing confused at the outdoor mall while we stood hitting the malfunctioning Function and F8 keys to try to project the Web site on a screen as high as Bangkok’s skyscrapers.

A week later, I walked into the auditorium where the launch—to be announced by Miss Thailand 2000—was to be held in two hours. Geoff stood at the front of the room and ordered people around like a campy wedding coordinator.

“Okay, so Miss Thailand is going to stand here,” he said to the crew running around to get it all set up in time. He ran up to the podium and put his mouth at the microphone, “Testing…testing…I need more on the mic.”

I stood looking around the massive circular room that was straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.” I recognized it from the national news back home, on the rare occasion that America reported on the United Nations. Long, black tables sat curved in half moon shapes with boardroom chairs, microphones, and nameplates for every country in Asia and the Pacific: Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Fiji, Azerbaijan. Where was Azerbaijan?

An hour later, the room filled with distinguished diplomats, Asian teenagers, UN representatives, and the varied international press that were loaded down with recording equipment and cameras. It was standing room only and so I took my place at the back and nestled myself between two expats I knew from the popular table in the cafeteria.

“Congratulations,” they whispered.

“Thanks,” I said back, surprised that they knew I was to blame.

The Director of UNDCP, an Italian man, stood at the podium while the double doors in the back swung open.

“I’d like to introduce our featured guest for today’s launch of Asian Youth Zone, Miss Thailand 2000, Panadda Wongphudee.”

There she was, in all of her glory. Cameras snapped, flashes blew, and everyone stood as if we were welcoming the Thai Queen. A long, sequined dress hung from her small, boyish figure while her crown glistened atop her head from the snapping lights.

I stood dumbfounded with my 35mm hanging around my neck.

“Go up there!” said one expat. I ran up to the press crouched down in rows of three and took my place among them.

“I’m happy to be here to launch this site for education and for Asian Youth. A site for their well-being, a site for their future…Asian Youth Zone!”

She pressed the button and “Asian Youth Zone” rolled in bubble letters on the big screen. I heard the crowd “Ooh” and “Aah” while I snapped away. The fruit of my efforts was twisting and turning without a glitch, and we sat watching Miss Thailand click though the site. The fanfare I had worried about was directed at Miss Thailand, not at me.

Later in the week, I packed up my little desk and said goodbye to the Thais and Filipinos. I thanked the Thai Webmaster and told him I couldn’t have done it without him and that he was very talented. He smiled as if it were the first time a Westerner at the UN had told him such a thing.

Nikki and I went over to Gina and Geoff’s that night to celebrate. I picked up some Pad Thai from my guy who had probably given me my food poisoning. We grabbed some Heinekens to share and sat down for another night of “Survivor” under their ceiling fan. Geoff turned toward me, using his familiar bubbly tone. “You know, they say that it’s the best Web site the UN has ever had.”

I wanted to say it had glitches, and that I knew I had made mistakes, but instead I sat back, sipped my beer, and cherished what was possible for the American woman in Asia.


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