When I was in college in Manila, three Japanese girls moved into the boardinghouse I lived in. They were exchange students from Tokyo who came to study English, which is the medium of instruction in the Philippines. We found them very exotic, with their prolific bowing and Hello Kitty purses. Unfortunately, the one with the best English also had the most grating personality. She was an acting student who had recently portrayed a Japanese Lady Macbeth. This was hardly a stretch, since she was naturally overbearing and – I kid you not -- an occasional sleepwalker. The other two students tried valiantly to join our conversations, but they only managed a series of disappointed sighs, followed by a memorized sentence apologizing for Japan’s role in World War II.
“So, what do you think is the biggest difference between Japan and the Philippines,” I asked Lady Macbeth.
She gave me a little bow. “Very sorry for World War II. Biggest difference is the door.” She pointed to a red screen door.
“No problem. We’re cool, about the war. We all have Sony Walkmans now. What about the door?”
“That door would not be in Japan never. It is crooked and ugly. In Japan, doors are all straight and pretty.”
I laughed out loud. Japanese sure are picky, I thought. The door kind of works, and there are other more important things in life than doors. She did not respond well to my laughter, which she interpreted correctly as ridicule. She turned beet red, bowed, said sorry for World War II and left the room. I did not sleep well that night, having offended a sleepwalking Japanese Lady Macbeth and seriously considered hiding all the knives in the house.
Years later, I wound up working for Clinique, one of the largest and most successful cosmetics companies on earth. I used to type up my boss’s memos. I once proudly showed a sample letter to my sister, who at the time was temping nearby and met me up for lunch.
“You typed ‘Clinique’ wrong,” she told me. “It says ‘Clinque’.”
“So what? You’re so picky.”
Later at another job, I was transcribing a training manual. On the very first page I had typed, “Let’s all welcome customers with our National Greeting: How Are Your Today?” Several thousand copies of the training manual were printed out and distributed before anyone noticed the error. To my defense, three people had edited the manual, and not one of them noticed the mistake either.
My point in sharing these embarrassing episodes is that during the time I made those mistakes, I exhibited what is commonly known as a bad attitude. Mistakes? No big deal. Life goes on, such a little thing, oh please, you’re so picky.
I also noticed that nobody promoted me or gave me a recommendation when I was applying for a new job. I learned a hard lesson: You don’t get a raise if you don’t give a hoot about making mistakes. I explained away my failures to more pernicious socio-historic reasons they teach you in college, like post neo-colonialism or multinational cultural insensitivies. But the real reason, I am ashamed to admit, was simple: I sucked.
But my bosses were tough. I got reprimanded repeatedly, heard things like “this is unacceptable work,” or “is something bothering you today” or the dreaded, “see me in my office.” Slowly, change I did. I noticed, to the increased annoyance of friends and family, everything that was crooked, sloppy or misspelled. And along with the changes I made, I got raises and promotions, one after the other.
I reached my apex when we laid our mother to rest. I looked at the inscription on her tombstone.
“It’s crooked. And her birth year is wrong.”
“Oh my God,” my brother said. “Must you be so picky? Now?” I was ruining his moment of reverence, which I regret. But as it turns out, I was right. The cemetery director had the tombstone corrected. This newfound perfectionism made me unpalatable to some people, like contractors. I now expect carpentry work to be square and level, unlike the old me that was okay with a crooked screen door. We once hired a contractor to build a brand new shower stall for us. Since he had done good work in the past, we let him build it unsupervised. When we finally checked out his work, not a single angle was 90 degrees, not one surface was level or plumb. I held up a hammer and showed it to Oliver.
“Just say the word.”
I smashed the hammer hard on the brand new tiles, sending shards flying everywhere. We ripped out the shower head, the concrete basin, and the faucets. When the contractor saw what I had done, he angrily walked out on the job. Oliver and I spent days reconstructing the shower stall ourselves, level and square in hand, making sure every corner was plumb and square in all directions. No crooked red screen doors here!
At Flic Spa, we try to make every detail as perfect as we can, every single day. Every bed must look immaculate, with no wrinkles; every bathrobe must look identical, every flower arrangement facing the right way, in the exact same spot. The slightest slip and customers will notice it, never return and tell all their friends. A bad attitude makes for bad business.
But try as I must, nothing is perfect all the time. And that’s OK. We may not always achieve perfection, but we promise to always pursue it. Now 2016 is upon us, and with it come all the resolutions to change for the better, to live a more perfect life, to straighten out the screen doors, shower stalls and tombstones. And so, to Flic Spa’s friends and family, here is my heartfelt message to you all:
HAPPY NEW YORK!