The Seminar

 (from ‘The Aggrieved Parties’)

By Mike Guest

The Aggrieved Parties, published by Lexingford Publishing LLC, is Mike Guest’s 2nd novel. It is a tale of revenge, humiliation, deception, betrayal… and trust that spans three countries, Japan, Thailand, and Cambodia.

In this chapter from, adapted the book, we meet Ping-On Tsu, a Taiwanese private detective, who was raised in Japan. Ping-On is attending an education seminar in Fukuoka, hosted by the publishing company Peerman Education Inc. He is there to tail Peerman employee Alder Noren, an Australian expat whose wife has hired Ping-On to monitor him, claiming that her husband is having an affair.

What Ping-On doesn’t know is that Noren has been recently dismissed by Peerman and presenting at this seminar will be his last function for the company. Noren has agreed to attend because the main speaker at the seminar is his guest and friend, Dr. Phany Som, a heritage education expert from Cambodia. He also has some unfinished business up his sleeve…

The Aggrieved Parties can be found here.

Role-playing is Ping-On’s specialty. Crashing events disguised, using a pseudonym – these bring both the greatest challenges and thrills to his job. Recently, his workload has consisted mainly of checking into the backgrounds of suitors in international engagements, both Chinese and Japanese sides wanting to collect data on their offspring’s choice of future spouse.

Today, Peerman is hosting an international educator’s seminar in Fukuoka and Ping-On has registered as ‘Peter Tu’ from the Tienmu International Education Management firm, based in Taipei. Marika, his assistant, has created a set of business cards and a very believable faux-website, complete with built-in ‘history’ and ‘endorsements’ from ‘satisfied clients’.

The program indicates that Alder Noren will be one of the main speakers, preceded by a UNESCO official from Cambodia. If there is anything nefarious happning between Noren and a colleague, particularly this flirtatious Akari Kairada person-of-interest, Ping-On will likely be able to suss it out. More importantly, such events also allow Ping-On to sport some extravagant outfits and shape new hairstyles, preparations that he greatly looks forward to.

For the late afternoon event, he decides on a Dolce & Gabanna royal blue herringbone suit that he has yet to unveil. It sports the requisite shine without being too flamboyant. There is no call for rain until much later, so he decides that a mini Pompadour should give his hairdo maximum visibility. The piece de resistance is a pair of slightly blue-tinted thick-framed goggle-styled glasses. These will mark him as Taiwanese. Chic Taiwanese. An indigo leather satchel bag completes the look.

He goes over some basic educator’s terminology, absorbing the Wikipedia entries on ‘learning constructs’ and ‘planning modules’, deciding that ‘flipped classrooms’, ‘learner autonomy’, and ‘power narratives’ should enter his lexicon for the evening. Marika will be notified to watch Noren if and when he leaves the venue, that is, if Ping-On is somehow incapacitated. She’ll be wearing a trainer.

The 10th floor of the toney New Otani Hotel has been rented for the occasion. Stepping out from the gilded elevator, Ping-On estimates that over a hundred delegates are gathered in the lobby area, lining up for passes, getting briefings, exchanging pleasantries.

The scene is cosmopolitan. The majority of attendees are Japanese but there are pockets of Westerners, a handful of Southeast Asians, plus a few attendees from the Indian subcontinent. Ping-On’s ears also immediately pick up some Chinese as well – Beijing Mandarin and Hong Kong Cantonese, not, thankfully, Taiwanese.

Ping-On immediately identifies Akari Kairada. She is managing the reception desk, providing orientation, handing out bags and various documents. She is, he notes, quite stunningly attractive, with a ready, toothy smile and teasing vixen eyes, exaggerated by her habit of addressing male delegates coyly and playfully, eye contact always initiated from a seductive side angle. Slim but wiry and energetic, she sits cross-legged – not typical Japanese office form – one shoe dangling from her foot which she occasionally shakes enticingly, as if offering a moving target to an excited pet. Her mouth is almost always suggestively agape, tongue partially extended as if conversation should be consumed like food. To be sure, this is a woman who throws red flags at other women.

Not to Ping-On’s surprise at all, she places a great deal of attention to him as he reaches the front of the line. She shifts her shoulders perceptibly and slides her hips side to side in her seat as if trying to suppress an urge to start dancing. Ping-On gifts her with the look he’s known since puberty as he proffers his registration papers. He calls it ‘Za-Ping’.

‘Hi, Akari. Peter Tu. From Taipei.’

‘Peter. Welcome to Japan. How do you know my name?’

He moves his long, slender hand forward slowly, brushing back her hair to reveal the badge half hidden on her chest. She watches his fingers edge her hair apart, making no effort to move them away. She fixes him with an approving smile and a tilt of the head, not removing her dart-like eyes from his.

‘Are you coming to the welcome reception later?’ she asks.

‘Are you?’

‘Only managing the desk.’ She shifts her shoulders again.

‘Then I’ll see you there. Akari.’

‘Thank you. So, I have something for you, Peter. Hope you enjoy it.’ She hands him the collection of pamphlets and badges, her eyes still affixed to his, her mouth still open – tongue ostentatiously positioned as if to lick a candy. Ping-On nods, adding an extra ‘Za-Ping’ as punctuation, collects the items, and moves towards the auditorium. He can feel her eyes following him. Such moments are, for him, one of the great joys of life.

Alder Noren is also spotted almost immediately, checking the computer in the auditorium with technical staff. He looks the very archetype of the aging rock guitarist: spindly, slightly bowlegged, baroque in his movements – a bit too self-assured, Ping-On thinks. His hair is Bohemian-longish, made more obvious due to its greying, the tints clashing with his suit jacket. His nose is hawkish, in fact all his extremities seem too large to fit his torso – although Ping-On admits that this might help win him female attention. This annoys him greatly – if there’s anything he hates its serial philanderers preening with their Alpha male struts.  Particularly so when the suit jacket is a made-to-wear. Apparently satisfied with the arrangements, Noren brushes past Ping-On to the lobby. Ping-On pursues him from a distance.

He watches Noren saunter over to Akari at the reception desk. Upon detecting his presence, Akari’s posture changes noticeably. She uncrosses her legs and adopts her business face, wordlessly handing him a document – studiously avoiding eye contact. This marked behaviour, Ping-On surmises, is very telling indeed. One could read scrolls of history from such interactions: Experience has taught him that if there is an ongoing illicit relationship, the Japanese will respond in public to an opposite extreme – behaving as if their partner barely exists. This behaviour, he surmises, demands a bit more interplay with Ms. Kairada.

There is a murmur of Californian English behind him. He turns around to see a middle-aged Asian woman being introduced to some of the Peerman executive board. This dark-skinned woman is poised and confident, speaks with an educated clarity and authority, and smiles readily, often breaking into laughter during the small talk. This, he assumes, must be the invited Cambodian UNESCO speaker, Dr. Som or something.

Back to Alder Noren, who now moves with great purpose once again into the auditorium as attendees begin to file into their seats. On his way in, he briefly greets the Cambodian speaker, she adding a tiny wave of her hand. They appear to know each other.

Ping-On is checking the program when he feels a softness at his side – the hips of Akari Kairada. He can feel her bare arms against his.

‘Peter,’ she says, ‘I’d like to introduce our invited guest speaker. This is Dr. Phany Som from Cambodia. An art and heritage expert.’ Ping-On notes that the visitor’s name is pronounced more like ‘Panny’ than he had expected. The guest speaker greets him, her eyes lively and warm. Yes, certainly an educated woman, likely a good conversationalist, someone who can dissect complexity with a glance. Akari briefly squeezes his arm against the side of her breast as she leaves the two ‘foreign’ visitors alone.

‘So, you’re from Taiwan? What aspect of education are you involved in?’

‘We’re an independent collective who allocate educational resources to private secondary and tertiary institutions,’ Ping-On recites confidently from his mental cue cards.

‘What’s the specialty? Is it related to heritage education?’

‘Well, we develop constructs that focus upon learner autonomy.’

‘What exactly do you mean?’

‘For learning about heritage we promote – umm, advocate – a flipped classroom approach. Using design modules.’ Ping-On is quickly reaching the end of his lexicon.

Phany hesitates. ‘To help learners put heritage into a general educational perspective? So would this be a particular Taiwanese perspective or one more broadly Chinese?’

Now Ping-On hesitates. ‘The Taiwanese power narrative is stronger – umm, more pronounced.’

Slightly confused by the banter, Phany excuses herself from the discussion, much to Ping-On’s relief, in order to prepare for her presentation. Delegates, presenters, and staff are filling the hall. Ping-On watches Noren amble into the presenter’s seat next to Dr. Som. They exchange pleasantries as the lights dim.

Dr. Som is a very engaging speaker. Ping-On had not expected to listen attentively to the presentation but the UNESCO representative very effectively draws in the local audience by comparing Angkor Wat to Japan’s active maintenance of its architectural heritage – outlining how this policy had helped advance Japan after the war defeat, how it had given the people an inner confidence to develop a modern culture that was not Western. This, she is careful to emphasize, does not endorse a mindless nationalism but rather a sense of belonging to a greater community, establishing continuity between past and present. This is now the struggle that modern Cambodia faces, she says, embodied in the need to preserve its cultural heritage.

During the follow-up discussion session, a Western male in the audience sporting owl-like glasses and blinking furiously, puts forward a question that produces an audible shuffling from among the audience. Ping-On notes that even Dr. Som has adopted a slightly pained expression.

‘Isn’t it true that UNESCO Cambodia is partially supported by the Government of Cambodia?’

‘Yes. That’s true.’

 ‘I’d like to point out that the current Cambodian regime has been roundly criticized by Amnesty International and other watchdog organizations for various human rights abuses.’ The discussant appears to be holding up a sheet of paper. ‘If so, isn’t it fair to say then that UNESCO Cambodia is in a sense complicit in these human rights abuses?’

Murmurs and exhalations of either frustration or embarrassment rumble through the room. Ping-On notes that Noren is covering his mouth while looking at his feet. Dr. Som fixes the questioner with a stare. Ping-On himself bristles. If there is anything he hates it’s these smug, finger-pointing Westerners whining about human rights in Asia.

Dr. Som responds. ‘In the West, it’s a popular notion that human rights are derived from a document, that it’s a product of a stamped form stemming from some authority. But this is inaccurate. Human rights emerge from the community – and therefore the notion of human rights will always be variable. As a Cambodian-American I can tell you that the concept of human rights is not the same in both countries, nor, would I presume, is it in Japan…’

‘Mmm hmm, mmm hmm, but…’

‘A more fundamental notion than human rights is that of community stability. Only after some level of political and social stability is established do human rights have any practical meaning. After the Khmer Rouge, what Cambodia needed most was some sense of social stability – and human rights emerge as a mandate of the people only once that stability is achieved. We are still in the process of repair.’

‘Mmm hmm, mmm hmm, but…’

Dr. Som doesn’t allow the questioner to speak further. ‘UNESCO’s role is to preserve and educate about heritage, not to tell governments how to govern. We have to work with governments, so we do not want to alienate them. And, by maintaining a non-adversative relationship, we are better able to exert our influence to produce positive outcomes. It’s much like any working environment, Evan. We may not always agree with what our co-workers believe or do, but it is not always beneficial for individuals or organizations trying to work together to point the finger or act as watchdogs over any and every behaviour that we find questionable.’

‘Mmm hmm, mmm hmm, but…’

‘Next question?’ There is a scattering of applause in the hall as the questioner skulks back to his seat, shaking his head, still blinking like a railway crossing signal.

After a short break, it’s Alder Noren’s turn to speak. Ping-On can immediately sense how much he enjoys the stage, regaling the audience like a seasoned entertainer – becoming fully animated in the spotlight. It also lends credence to his prediction that Noren uses this display of charisma, as well as his guitar skills, to entice and attract women.

Ping-On has always been bored by academic speeches but he finds that even he is drawn into Noren’s energy, being swept along in the flow of the narrative. It is in the closing moments, however, that something unexpected occurs.

Saying that he would politely decline the question and answer session due to time constraints, Noren states that this will be his final presentation on behalf of Peerman. He thanks a ‘Mr. Fukushima’ for ‘his continued leadership, benevolence and guidance’ and then posts a photo of the earlier bespectacled questioner.

‘This is Mr. Evan Surrette, my colleague here at Peerman, who most of you probably noticed in the previous session.’ The photo is entirely unflattering. It highlights Surrette’s agitated, exasperated face while his index finger points accusingly at some unknown object beyond the camera. His glasses have fallen down, somewhat lopsidedly, on to the bridge of his nose.

 Noren continues. ‘It appears that Mr. Surrette will be taking over many of my duties here at Peerman and I would like those whom Peerman deals with to understand that Mr. Surrette is a man of great conviction. He is a man who is very certain about what’s right and wrong and if something wrong he will quickly point it out to you. Of course, we need people like Mr. Surrette to teach us the correct way to interact with others.’ Then the screen changes to display a vintage photo of the Khmer Rouge.

‘Finally, Mr. Surrette is an idealist who has a clear vision as to how we should behave. So I’m sure we can all benefit from his enlightened education, umm, re-education.’ A stinging hush engulfs the air.

Then, once more, the slide changes – this time to an iconic silhouette shot of Angkor Wat. ‘Finally, I would like to show my sincere appreciation to Dr. Phany Som for her wisdom, passion, and kindheartedness in sharing with us, in a very agreeable manner, the importance of understanding heritage, not only our own, but also our collective human heritage, including the values and behaviours of others. This, to me, marks the essence of what it means to be human, and through that, what it means to be an active participant in a humane society. Thank you.’

At first, the applause is scattered, most being aware that Noren has been taking the piss. But his sincere note of appreciation to Dr. Som is clearly echoed by the audience, who eventually begin to applaud more fully.

Ping-On turns off the ‘record’ function of his phone as the MC calls for a twenty-minute intermission. He watches Noren shake Dr. Som’s hand and offer a few words, followed by a simple bow. Then, Noren strides purposefully out a side door without acknowledging anyone around him. Ping-On’s own progress is blocked by a delegate from Korea seated beside him – she wants to talk shop.