Thursday, January 29, 2015

3 Reasons Why Couchsurfing is Great for your Career

Most of my friends and colleagues would know that I have been an avid Couchsurfer for years.
It's an amazing way to introduce yourself: "Hi, I am Sebastian and I sleep at strangers' places when I travelFor free." I assure you, 100% of people at the table will jerk up in surprise and start listening. Now you have their attention.
In all seriousness, personal passions don't normally impact your work beyond the usual watercooler chat. I find, though, that Couchsurfing has driven my personal and career development in diverse, significant ways. Here's why:
  • Couchsurfing makes you an Adaptable Chameleon

Travel inherently brings people out of their comfort zone. The new sights and sounds, experiences and people, all make you learn and grow quickly to adapt to the new environment.
Couchsurfing accelerates that, because it takes you one step further, beneath the surface. Each host I have met immerses me into a different, diverse microcosm - that of their own life. In that short period of time, you are initiated to a very personal space, and learn to understand and live comfortably with the host's personality, nuances and norms. If you don't, well, good luck getting any sleep in a 'foreign land'!
In my travels across US, Europe and Australia, I have lived in a spiritual community, mingled with the well-heeled, even shared my couch with the host's pets once! I have enjoyed conversations on geopolitics with Canadians and Russians, learned the cure for cancer from a spiritual guru, and found the meaning of life with a Spanish friend.
My comfort zone with people and places is that much wider now, and I adapt much more easily to any new environment, both personally and at work. (see my experience in China here)
  • Couchsurfing develops your Social Skills and Emotional Intelligence

People often ask me why couchsurfing hosts would let a stranger into their house, disrupt their lives, and stay for free. What do they get in return?
To me, the kneejerk response is the exchange of perspectives in life. Just as you are fascinated by their culture, they in turn are interested in hearing about you, your country, and your experiences. One retired American couple shared that since they had travelled enough in their younger days, they now want to live vicariously through the experiences of their surfers.
All this, of course, requires you to be social, to be a good listener who's open to new perspectives, to be aware of the other party's reactions and keep up a good conversation. You develop cross-cultural sensitivity, comfort with ambiguity, and learn to build relationships quickly. Why pay loads of money for an MBA or EQ training when you can learn through the School of Hard Knocks?
That's why when people see my references sharing how we always have a great time exchanging perspectives on life and culture (and cook a mean Singaporean meal to boot!), they readily invite me in.
  • Couchsurfing builds your Global Network

The world works in strange ways sometimes. You have all heard the stories. A stranger you helped out ten years ago may give you that one big gig that changes your life. Everyone is connected by six degrees of separation. And so on.
When you couchsurf, you meet people whom you may have never met otherwise. You befriend these amazing individuals from diverse backgrounds, share your ideas and knowledge freely, and build close and lasting relationships. Isn't that networking at its best?
So just keeping sharing about your dreams and ambitions with these newfound friends. And perhaps one of these chance connections may bounce off the couch and into the office.
Of course, none of the above is why I do couchsurfing. 
Neither should you either, unless you genuinely enjoy new experiences outside your comfort zone, and bonding with strangers from around the world.
If you do, however, the sky's the limit.
And who knows? Someday we may even share the same couch.
Cover photo:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

3 Key Lessons I Learned Working in China

When the time came for housekeeping end last year, my boss notified me that I had to use my leave before it expired. Then I realized: for almost the entire year of 2013, I hadn't taken a single day of leave.

The first half, I was swamped with an extremely tight site migration project in Bangalore, which we thankfully drove to a perfect success and closure. I barely had a moment to catch my breath though!

The second half of 2013, though, it was different. I was just having so much fun both at work and during the weekends, that I barely needed to take any additional leave to relax myself!

I finally got my dream 'relocation' rotation, a 5 month stint in Guangzhou (plus a week in HK, half a month in Shanghai). I always believed that to live and work in a different place and culture, is an entirely different experience from traveling there. And it was. I truly had a taste of what China culture is all about - and frankly speaking, it is a diaspora of cultures, with every province having its own nuances and personality.

Nevertheless, I felt that I understood invaluable learnings, and matured quickly in this span of time. My Guangzhou manager, in fact, was impressed by how quickly and strongly I adapted into the culture.

LESSON ONE - Always show Strength

That proved I learned my first lesson quickly - always maintain an illusion or 'front' of strength and comfort, rather than being seen to have a weakness. For the ERP implementation project I was thrown into, I had to convince Manufacturing quality managers to switch to our system, while furiously mastering the system myself! There was no room for any errors or risks that may influence their belief in the system - so I resolved any question they raised within the same week, by scouring through documentation or picking my seniors' brains.

The result: A QA team that now believes in our system, and currently realizes a more reliable QA process that saves up to 100 manual errors and 150 man-hours per year.

LESSON TWO - Be Streetsmart

The biggest difference between PRC Chinese and Singaporeans, I believe, is Street smarts. I can imagine, how you have to be flexible and work around the edges, to survive amid the chaos of rules that don't always apply. I have had my jaw drop in varied situations on and off work, at how 'things actually work around here'. Your choices will never look the same as A, B, C or D ever again.

Being streetsmart, and 'thinking outside the rules', may not be the closest to creativity and 'thinking outside the box'...  but I'll bet, it's a good first step to start.

LESSON THREE - Build Relationships

I know this is in every 'DOING BUSINESS IN CHINA FOR DUMMIES' book out there - yet it really did strike me as the most important lesson I had to learn. I feel a great deal more conscious, more aware of my relationships with people now, simply because of how important they were in China, how they were magnified and scrutinized.

I am extremely glad that I was lucky enough to forge close bonds with the amazing people over there. I know they have done incredible things for me - pulling strings, putting in a good word, helping out my projects. Building relationships with Chinese is the most important investment you could ever make with them.


This half-year stint in China has been my best working experience so far, and reinforces my core belief: the more you stretch yourself outside your comfort circle, the faster and further you grow as a person. Here's to more good years ahead.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Life Changing Journey

What does it mean when we say, this journey will be life changing?

Do we expect to be uplifted as a person, to emerge rejuvenated, almost in an instant, automatic process? Do we feel that, out of the mundane everyday set, here is where we can finally direct our life's masterwork?  As simple as swiping out a credit card for that ready made package of vivid sights and cityscapes, interesting people and tales.

Yet life experiences can never be bought or negotiated with. Nor will it respond to your expectations, no matter how wild. There can be no trip that promises you anything beyond the itinerary. Look in the fine print.

You see what you see.

But oh, how one's vision differs from the next! Values. Intentions. Prejudices. They reshape the world around you like a spinning kaleidoscope, twisting to your perspective, your inner self.

In that sense, do we ever really change? Or are we simply reliving in a different time and place, the same actors on a different set?

Yet after all these years, I still bear this same foolish hope. The hope that, despite who I am, in spite of who I am, I will be changed. I will be happy, fulfilled. Free. Released in a final catharsis, the proverbial butterfly from the cocoon.

I never believed, only hoped. Who could?

Then I met her.

And I felt something then. Besides the usual fluttering, I mean. I felt a distinct click. Like a puzzle with a missing piece. The most marvelous feeling in the world.


What does it mean when we say, this will be a life changing journey?

Why do we travel?

Because we are open. Because we are passionate for life. Because we dream, and we hope.

And because we never know where that missing piece may lie.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hullabaloo in Bengaluru

The skyline of bustling Bangalore

It's been a month since I came back from Bangalore, and I still feel like, Ah... it feels so good to be back home.

Don't get me wrong. I will always remember and treasure this first working trip, one whole month in the Silicon Valley of India. Thoroughly challenging yet adrenaline-pumping, pressure-packed with a good dose of fun and warm moments... it just makes me feel so alive, every moment there, to be jumping off the bed every morning and keeping up a grin to face the day ahead.

And boy, that grin sure wasn't easy.

But it was necessary. In this foreign land, venturing each morning to the new research center we had built and were now setting up the IT for... every day I felt I had to show that energy, that positive attitude to others. I was from Singapore, I was given this huge opportunity, and I had to do good here. Didn't help that I was the only Chinese-looking in like miles around either!

I thought wearing this would let me blend in better...

I needed this energy, anyway. I had my fair share of 'challenges', first I had diarrhoea for a week adapting to the food and water over there. Next one of my team members left and I had to jump in to fill the gap. Then I got exclusively named by a manager (whom I helped and impressed) to handle the IT needs of an entire block of users, with them swarming me at every turn to resolve their issues. A hundred researchers knew me by name by the first day. Not necessarily a good thing.

The occasional coconut with my colleagues kept me going.

Well, it wasn't all work and no play. I loved getting to know all these new friends and colleagues, having great conversations and learning about their work, their culture, their lives.

One of my favs, Vis, even invited me back to his place for a great family dinner and chillout session! We browsed his wedding photos, had great snacks and traditional Tamil food, and had his son dance to 'Oppa Gangnam style' hehe.

It reminded me so much of couchsurfing... this feeling of immersing myself in a different culture, getting so close to the heart of it all.

And in India, the family truly is the heart of everything.

Vis' really cute son and his family!

Still, I definitely wished I could take some days off to travel and experience more of this exotic, beautiful country. The project timeline was so excruciatingly tight that one month since then, I still hadn't been able to clear the off-in-lieu we earned working weekends and on CNY. Yes, I missed out on half the angbaos this year!

We'll see. I am still having a blast of a time doing what I do, and look forward to more fun stuff coming up next rotation too. Till my next hullabaloo in Bengaluru... phir milenge, India!

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Update

Merry, merry Xmas!!

Well, it's been some time since my last update. I'm nearing the end of my first rotation, and looking forward to some exciting things coming up! Next month I'll be heading to Bangalore, India, for the mega project I'm on, plus I'm raring to fight for my next rotation, be it in Shanghai or Saudi Arabia!

It seems time really flies when you're busy, and that's what I have been doing so far, keeping myself occupied with work, community service, and meeting up with friends. Work-wise, I have had some great opportunities come my way, such as taking over a project leadership role from my best bud Rich, who just returned to the States.

Will definitely miss him as a friend and a mentor...

Work life has been a blast for me so far. Every so often, there's something interesting brewing up. A couple of examples...

Brought a couple of Japanese colleagues out to Geylang for supper during company training!

Dressed up as Elvis in a very, very entertaining DnD 
Being part of the yearly stocktake @ raw materials warehouse

As usual, I have been whiling away free time on weekends with various community work groups, trying out everything from environmentalism to family service centers.

 @ Bottletree park doing farmwork and nature meditation with Ground-up Initiative

Bringing a lively family out to Jurong Birds Park for a Family Day treat
I am still searching for a 'sanctuary' where I'd feel that I truly belong. A cause that resonates with my beliefs, and calls me passionately to action. Still, I am enjoying every step of the journey, immersing myself within the different silos of society and understanding the world around me better, one experience at a time.

Being out of uni means extra effort to stay in touch with valued friends... and that's something I try to work on too.

Plus I have been hanging out with our camp rainbow group, who have been helping me out on many areas..
e.g. doing a looks makeover, having sleepovers @ mau's place, a batam trip etc..

And of course, in a two-weeks long trip to the US early this Sept, I squeezed in a couchsurfing trip in Chicago, attended GS' wedding as a groomsman, and even drove up near New York to my company's US Office to spend the day networking and exploring the facilities! Lemme see if I can work out a detailed post later on.

Regardless, the world didn't end on 21st Dec 2012, and life moves on as usual. I'm looking forward to fresh experiences, new insights and everything life has to offer next year.

Till then, it's Merry Christmas ~
“Christmas, my child, is love in action."
― Dale Evans Rogers

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My First Month as a Saudi Govt Official

When, halfway through a company anti-bribery/corruption talk, the presenter comments that we are all Saudi arabian govt officials, I thought to myself, 'Shit just got serious'. Haha just kidding.

It's my first month in the ITEC program, and i'm getting into the heat of things, taking on project roles e,g, in a Bangalore project (going next month!), knowing the people and culture, and basically learning and growing every single day. I have been really lucky that the progam really delivers on what it promised, with investment in training, meaningful work experiences and more importantly, connecting me to a mentor, a program supervisor, and a assignment leader, all valuable ties to kickstart my developmental journey. Not forgetting, of course, that I had one-to-one chats with managers from IT, Finance, HR, even the ex-CIO.

It turned out that the program was inherited from GE, and I had Rich (from the US and program alumni) share with me about his journey and tips on moving forward. We talked about everything under the sun, from his experiences and advice to Singaporean culture. I like that he's so open about sharing, and manages to communicate everything in a crystal-clear way, be it a tutorial or an opinion - something I'd really need to learn! Right now he's probably lounging on a dreamlike beach resort somewhere with his friends in Phuket, enjoying a well-deserved break :)

Best Bud @ work!!
Work has been fun and stimulating so far, with varied projects across processes, IT infrastructure and project mgmt. I do a lot of self-initiating and planning, thinking about what resources and information I need, who to get it from, and how to leverage my connections... with generous hints from my mentor of course :) Oh and I've already started stressing about making a presentation to a bunch of IT managers next week! Haha.

On a lighter side, I thoroughly enjoy the myriad of org activities we've had, from lunch treats and townhalls down to our paintball teambuilding event today :) It really gets people bonded together and enjoying their work much, much more.

Once I've gotten a better grasp of the company culture, I'll write about it, and share about some of the most interesting moments i've had.

Meanwhile, it looks like being a Saudi govt official... ain't that bad after all :)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Philin' Good about e Philippines 2

It got too comfortable.

Us in Manila, lounging around in the house, eating family dinners, entertaining lil Sachi, watching the strangest reality tv shows.

Too cute!! No wonder we can't leave xD
And that's when you know it's time to go. So we went.

We took the night bus up to Tuguegarao, and crashed Uncle Freddy's place (and life). We went spelunking up at Callao Caves, then drove up to the northern coastal town of Aparri to catch the sunset along the sea. There we bunked in at Uncle Freddy's friend's home (who in the great fashion of filipino hospitality vacated his entire house for us to stay), bought fish from the local market and cooked it for a nice beer-and-dinner.

Midway we dropped by Aunt Naknak et al's farms, and had tons of fun in the 'shoes', i.e. barefeet of a wet rice farmer. We bathed naked in a passing river, planted a disarray of rice seedlings knee-deep in mud, harvested coconuts from a bat colony, ploughed through maize plantations, and, of course, i got thrown off a carabao. So what else is new?

This is a case you were wondering.
The lowlands didn't satisfy our appetite for adventure. We bus-ed up and up long winding roads, across undulating hills and into the deep mountains. Banaue, a little village tucked neatly on a mountain where rows of rice terraces grew, with native bridges running across the river valley, tin-crusted houses hanging for dear life onto cliffsides, and a slow peaceful atmosphere to soothe our hearts.

It reminded me of Sapa, perhaps just without the ubiquitous ethnic tribal costumes. But you still fall in love with the town easily, and I regret not having the luxury to explore every nook and cranny of this rustic hamlet.

Ever had an entire town black out for the whole night, with a candle to keep us company? All it takes is to rain, and Banaue cuts off all electricity, blanketing the village in complete darkness while the moon hides behind mountain peaks.

Yet that was the most refreshing sleep I had for awhile, possibly due to the fresh air and quiet night.

When morning came, it was accompanied by the cacophony of a gazillion dogs, pigs and cockerels, ringing loud through the valley. We washed up and rode over to a nearby mountain, where we'd embark hours on foot, up into the clouds and then down towards the greatest of the UNESCO rice terraces, Batad.

No mean feat, btw. I'd advise good shoes, light baggage and a healthy heart. But it was well worth the hike.

A hidden emerald in the valley
Walking along the rice terraces, feeling the beads of richly yellow wheat, you can't help but feel that you don't love rice as much as it really deserves. Eons of carving steps and building mud foundations, just to grow little strips of rice and corn - food truly is the essence of life. Some of these villagers really have been living the same way their ancestors lived, with nary a modern comfort but the sole immersion in a life within a mountain valley...

We climbed across the terraces, for we searched for another famous hotspot - the Tappia Waterfall. Honestly, I never thought much of waterfalls. Seen a couple here and there in my travels, meh. But, no. This one really stunned me. It was so beautifully carved, right snuck above a field of rocks, and it begged to be swam to. Which is really dangerous due to the undercurrents, of course. Still, when we saw it roaring above our heads, we promptly stripped down and dived into the racing river, till we stood right in front of it, a torrential stream of water. A stream of beauty, actually.

Will post pics up from Karl. But we lounged lazily on the rocky riverbed before the time creeped on us - we had to get back to our initial hiking point in 2-3 hours to catch the tricycle back! And I acutely realized my lack of fitness as we did a more exhausting climb back to Batad, and then across the mountains again. Whew! 6-7 full hours of rough hiking got us really, really bushed by the end of the day. We retreated into a coach for a long overnight haul back down towards Manila.

I thought I'd really miss the serenity, the halcyon calm of these hidden hamlets. And I still do, badly, but two weeks had flown by, and we drew close to the end of our trip.

Though much of Luzon still remained unexplored, I think I'd satisfied my wanderlust for now! It has been a thoroughly refreshing trip of brand new experiences, and makes me count the Philippines as one of my fav in Southeast Asia now, alongside Vietnam. I'd love to come back again and enjoy the blend of nature and civilization, the rich culture, the great hospitability of the people...

What do you know? It's more fun in the Philippines! :)