When in Rome

By: Suhail Bindra

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The weekend had passed, niceties had been exchanged, and Johnny and I were comfortable in our village home. It was time to get to business.

In third gear, the miniscule 200cc engine of the tricycle whimpered as it clambered up the hillock, dragging with it a payload of nine and a half passengers. The child, although at law recognized as a full person, was only half a person to the engine. It had lived well beyond its years and I feared it would submit a letter of resignation with immediate effect at some point during the journey. It was a sunny day. The waters were calm. I was tempted to attempt conversation with my business partner, Eunice, but that temptation fell away as the driver changed gears and the engine screeched as a child does when faced with an unreasonable task. I was unsure whether it was the engine or my eardrums that deserved the greatest sympathy. I was glad that I was unable to engage in small talk with Eunice, for small talk is a safe haven for people who don’t have anything interesting or worthwhile to say. I did not want to be that person.

Our professor, Beau, had arranged for us to meet the businesses in the Municipal Hall of Jagna. It was an old white building that had a colonial feel about it. Just opposite were tennis courts. I could easily imagine colonists having a leisurely game of tennis there, followed by high tea prepared by unnamed servants. The courts now belong to a local tennis association. The colonists have since left, but their influence persists. I could hear a familiar American pop song in the distance, but was unable to place it.

After briefly exploring the town, I sauntered into the building and navigated my way to a large air-conditioned room. My colleagues were glued to their phones. A few engaged in light conversation that didn’t interest me. Although the meeting was set for 1 PM, the clients started to trickle in at 1:15. This was my first experience running on ‘Filipino time’, where it was socially acceptable to show up 15 to 30 minutes late for any engagement. I was further distressed, although I hid it very well, when I was told that my client, Graymon, would not be attending the introductory meeting. I normally like things to run according to plan and as scheduled well in advance. Nothing about this project would go as planned.

Before meeting with Graymon, Eunice and I had spent over an hour preparing all the questions we would ask him. We wanted to know everything about the business as quickly as possible, which would allow us to move on to the analysis & recommendation stages later on in the first week. We would be quick to ask him about his customers, marketing initiatives, accounting system, services and expectations for the future. Bright eyed, we set off for the salon.

As we walked over from Municipal Hall, I could faintly see a light green sign with “Graym’s Salon” written on it. On the right of his salon was a shop selling tin pots & pans, and on the left there was a youthful group sipping on what I hoped was chilled beer in the afternoon heat. Graymon opened the door and we were greeted by the coolness of the air conditioning along with the rather pungent smell of the chemicals used to straighten hair. We would later learn that this process was known as a ‘hair rebond’.

A man of around 5’4, Graymon shyly smiled at me as I introduced myself and thrust my hand forward expecting a firm handshake. He shook my hand softly and we exchanged pleasantries. After speaking with Eunice, we also met his two assistants, Ana and Analyn. Analyn greeted us with a warm smile. Ana was stone-faced and slightly reserved. Graymon beckoned us to take a seat and our discussion began.

I was fascinated to hear that Graymon believes his homosexuality makes him a superior hairdresser. He claims that ‘gay hairdressers’ are more creative and widely known to set the latest trending hairstyles. I’m not sure whether his customers share this perception and I wouldn’t dare ask, considering the conservative nature of this society. I was surprised to find that whenever I told people in town that I was assisting Graymon, the first thing they mentioned was the fact that he was gay. They consistently brought it up, almost as a friendly disclaimer in casual conversation. Fortunately, people not only recognize Graymon for his homosexuality but also due to the immense skill that he possesses in his field.

There is a lack of formality in the way Graymon runs his business. For example, he only records the revenues generated by the work that Ana and Analyn do for the purpose of calculating the commission that he would have to pay out to them at the end of the day. All of the services that he offers do not appear on his price list and he gives discretionary discounts to his friends. I was amused to find that one day he purchased mangoes from his friend and was selling them kilo-by-kilo to customers in his salon. He attempted to launch another salon in Garcia through an oral agreement with a partner, but that failed due to a lack of cooperation between them. I think the breakdown in the relationship was due to misunderstandings that arose as a result of minimal planning. If the agreement was written, issues were anticipated and contingency plans were agreed upon, I think the outcome would have been different.

Other examples include not recording the costs that he incurs in buying hair products, or recording how much he spends on electricity. He also buys snacks for his assistants and does not record how much he spends everyday. He runs his business with two books, the ‘real’ one and the ‘official’ one, with the latter being fabricated for tax purposes. I remember the look of astonishment on his face when I told him about the penalties for tax evasion and false accounting in Hong Kong. But things here are different.

I also find that there is no vision for expansion or growth. Graymon runs his business to support himself and his family. He is happy and content with what he already has. On average, he estimates that he makes around 60,000 pesos every month. After further discussions and some simple arithmetic, we discovered that launching a new branch costs shy of 70,000 pesos. It is easily within his means to expand. I’ve yet to understand why he hasn’t done so. Perhaps he is worried about losing money, is scared of taking risks, or simply enjoys spending his income in other ways. I have no clue. I should ask him.

These were the thoughts that ran through my mind during the discussion, while I politely nodded and smiled as Graymon answered all of our questions. His cordial mannerisms and generosity made it easy to speak to him. We were offered snacks and treated to drinks. With my stomach yearning for something more substantial, I left the salon for my lunch meeting with my colleagues 20 minutes late, now running on Filipino time.

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