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'Tis the season for sales folly... and the telephone keeps ringing

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaChristmas nears and sales calls, automated mail and spam present a mountain to climb. What you really need is Mannix the Engine, and perhaps a friend named Chlorophyll.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Christmas 2022

The inimitable Gary Larson's cheeky humour has cows thawing out and dancing while Santa figures out whether this will be the year for a bold new Christmas colour.

CHRISTMAS and New Year are almost upon us and those robot calls are on the rise. Living in Hong Kong this is par for the course and no one seems to find it out of the ordinary. Calls are politely dealt with the way people swat flies in Manila, as a patient, mechanical reflex, like a horse twitching its ribcage.

Occasionally there's someone at the end of the line. "Do you speak Chinese?" "No," I respond. Click. Rrrring. "Do you want to borrow money?" "Nope." Click. Rrrring. The best friend approach: "Hello, and how are you today?" "Fine." "Good, that's very good…" "Goodbye." Oftentimes I've thought it might work better if I responded: "Thanks so much for calling. I've got this ringing tinnitus you see and a frozen elbow… oh they've run out of shrimp wonton at PARKnSHOP… and by the way, that was an amazing sunrise today?… or was that a sunset?… or was it my ceiling lamp…?" Click.

It's almost as fake as some faceless binary bot on Facebook, cooing, "Vijay we care about your memories so… please repost it to bore friends who will spend their Sunday guiltily re-clicking on your stuff instead of spending useful time with their kids, mum, dad, dog, favourite sheep, therapist or postman paramour, while we make oodles of advertising dollars."

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Rrrring. This time I bark, "How can I help you?" Silence. "Sorry wrong number." Click. Better. The Marriott Vacation Club timeshare calls and emails have subsided fortunately.

I block all sales calls and errant numbers and am told by Apple that these numbers do indeed get blocked. This actually means they get sent to voice mail. That doesn't really help if you're on a trip and don't want to miss important calls or an emergency. Salespeople get more ingenious by the day and cleverly masked spam calls come in supposedly from USA, the UK, Australia and the Philippines. It appears during the course of this past year, Chinese has taken over as the national language in all these countries (hurrah for that), a bit like suspicious Scottish accents emanating from Indian data back-offices.

{It appears Chinese has taken over as the national language in all these countries, a bit like odd Scottish accents emanating from India...

I am reminded of a South Indian friend called Chidambaram (greatly abbreviated) who encountered novel problems when he first moved to Hong Kong. "Hello, what's your name?" "Chidambaram." "Sorry, how you spell?" "C for Charlie, H for Harry, A for Apple…" "Excuse me, how you spell Charlie?" Clearly, this could go on for days or weeks.

I shortened my first name to VJ as Vijay (vih-je as in jelly) has proved too much for some. In the US of course I would simply be Bob. It always does the trick. Yet, bold and imaginative names are not unusual in a city like Hong Kong where people assume random monikers early in school, sometimes picked by a teacher, or a feng shui master. Western first names are a handy social lubricant. One colleague confessed she found her name on a scrap of paper in her classroom desk. Names may be mash-ups or random picks. "It's Vanus," a neighbour informed me softly, "V plus Anus." Oh dear. Or try Mannix Lux, Champagne, Ice, Harmony, Kinky, Chrysanthemum, Money, Chlorophyll, Magnum, and Omelette. To this boisterous bunch we can add Veejay.

Meanwhile the Christmas onslaught continues. It may help to inform gonzo salesmen that no one actually knows when Jesus was born as the Bible makes no mention of it. Conventional wisdom has it that the festival gradually got associated with pagan rites for the winter solstice and the 'nativity' (or birth) of the sun that was celebrated around the 25th of December on the Julian calendar. This would make for a profound and moving conversation.

Robot calls and automation are taking over our lives. Standard letters can be sophisticated at times, and extraordinarily thoughtful. After a school holiday in Sabah, where my son had shared a room with a bearded cricketing buddy at a tony resort, he received a polite note: "In a world of choices we are indeed honoured to have been chosen to celebrate your union together. Thank you for choosing us to celebrate your honeymoon."

The kids had a good laugh as did their friends who had also shared rooms at the same resort but failed to pique the hotel's interest. They received no mail. My son replied politely: "We did not get married and celebrate our honeymoon together… [but] we did have a great stay at your resort. Keep up the good work." This exchange had echoes of the hilarious Henry Root Letters, which had me in stitches for years until someone borrowed it and exasperatingly failed to return the book, always a sign of excellence in literature. I myself had borrowed that book from a colleague and it became a prized possession… There, I have confessed.

At PARKnSHOP I am politely asked, "Memershee?" This is my cue to whip out my membership card. At a haute couture shop in Pacific Place I was introduced to 'vegan' shoes and at home I have played host to mysterious gentlemen from Panasonic, including one who buzzed my intercom from downstairs to inform me, "I am your engine". I asked him if he would like to talk to his "college". He did. Eventually the engineer and his colleague were united and cool air flowed into my clammy living room once again.

Sometimes when I'm lost for words, I call a friend in Cape Town. "Hello Vijay," she laughs, "you want to speak English?" YES, Yes, yesssss!

Happy Christmas and a terrific New Year to all.

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