Our landlords were being sweet again. They delivered a huge box of fresh mangoes right to our doorstep and left us wondering what we should do with the dozen of bright yellow fruit.
We crowdsourced for ideas and someone commented that we should make mango pomelo dessert. It’s one of my favourite desserts that I miss; of course, I should make that! But it’s never worth the effort to make a tiny bowl of dessert just enough for 2 people. And we had so many mangoes. So we decided to make them for the neighbours that we’ve been wanting to get to know, and some of our friends around the city.
It’s a dessert that originated from Singapore, so I didn’t know if the dessert would suit Thai tastes. It turns out that although the combination of fruit is peculiar to our Thai friends, they all said that it’s surprisingly nice. An idea started to creep into my head. Why don’t we sell the dessert in our estate and use the profits to fund one of our relief projects? During this COVID-19 crisis, we have been setting aside some funds to bless a low-income community near our estate with some food supplies.
It sounds like a simple idea – just make and sell right? But as missionaries who are just starting on their second year in the field, the experience has turned out to be more enriching than we originally thought. Spoiler: We didn’t actually make much revenue in the end. But the dessert business was an interesting answer to quite a few questions and prayers that we had since we landed here in Chiang Mai.
How does blessing look like?
We now know that in Thailand, it’s not usual to combine mango and pomelo in one dessert. We have to give out free samples to the people in our estate to warm them up to the idea. For a few days, we stood outside the gate of our house with a huge sign saying “FREE DESSERT”. We stopped the cars to introduce ourselves, the dessert, and our cause. With the dessert, we gave them the simple flyer that we have printed with our contact details. Their responses are always the same: at the sight of free dessert, they brighten up. They never reject the dessert and they drive away with smiles on their face.
I’m not a business-person. Honestly, maybe giving out no-strings-attached free samples like that might not be the best business decision. But with those smiles, I know that being a blessing was taking a different form for us. In a crisis, it’s instinct to decide to give out essential food rations. Without a doubt, those are life-saving and necessary. We were giving out dessert, a nice-to-have. We are telling people that you can have nice things during a crisis too… Brightening up people’s day like that is an underrated form of blessing. I’m glad we could bless our neighbours like that.
The reason why we could even give out 25 cups of dessert a day under 30 minutes is that we live right next to the entrance of our estate. That means that almost every vehicle going in and out of the estate will have to pass by our house. Sometimes, the heavy traffic is indeed annoying. But now, it has turned into our opportunity.
We were are also well-resourced in other ways: it’s now mango season and 1kg of mango costs roughly SGD 1.50; our kitchen has everything we need for our small-scale enterprise, and because of COVID-19, we have the time to do this.
When we first moved into this house, we didn’t know that it would give us the opportunities that we now realise we have. But God knows, and we want to use these opportunities to do the little that we can do.
For some reason, it has been rather difficult to get acquainted with our immediate neighbours here. Everyone kind of keeps to themselves and do their stuff. Because of the dessert giveaway, we finally got to break the ice with them. We realised that we live in quite an interesting estate! Also, right from the start when we moved in a year ago, we have been building a friendly relationship with the security guards. Thankfully we were not seen as security threats; there were no weird stares exchanged and one of them even gave us a very encouraging smile and thumbs up from afar.
Upon knowing that we are selling the desserts to raise funds for the low-income community, one of the neighbours commented that we are “good people who make good merit”. Most people in Thailand believe that one should do good deeds to accumulate good karma. We accepted the compliment but also politely clarified that we are Christians and that we are doing this not because we believe in good karma but because we believe in God. We don’t plaster on our doors that we are Christians; hopefully, those around us can see Christ in the way we live our lives.
Because of our dessert enterprise, we have been frequent customers at the local market’s fruit stalls. I think the sellers are happy that we are buying so much. We are also happy to buy from them and support their livelihoods in our unique way. It’s great to know that we are not buying out of charity or pity but because we really need the mangoes, pomelos, and other ingredients to do what we doing. It’s also another great way of building relationships with local people.
The day before we started giving out the dessert, I fumbled with Google translate to write something for our flyer in Thai. I’m pretty sure that my text was mostly grammatically correct, but just in case, I sent it to my Thai friend for her to check. She took some minutes to edit it and sent it back. I realised that my draft was embarrassingly first-grade sounding… What would I do without her beautiful editing that helped us to communicate all the relevant information concisely and elegantly?! In blessing the locals, I needed the support of my Thai friend. I can’t think of myself as some kind of foreign superhero and rely only on myself.
We are getting one of our first tastes of garnering local support for local initiatives. The residents in the estate that we live in are mostly Thais, and we are asking them to support us so that we can support people living nearby. We also shared with our landlord about our project and they generously donated a huge bag of mangoes to the cause.
As missionaries, we are always faced with the question of culture. One of the key priorities of most missionaries is to learn the host culture and settle down quickly. It’s no different for us, and we want to feel accepted in the new culture we are in. But how about the own culture that we have? Are we to try to “go native” and leave behind our Singaporean-identity to become Thai? Or reject all Thai ways to keep our own identity? Of course, both options sound ridiculous. Our dessert project requires us to find a balance to this dilemma. We have no qualms about introducing the dessert as a Singaporean dish; it actually excites people and they usually want to find out more: “What’s is it called? What is in this dessert? Wow… It’s from Singapore?!” At the same time, we had to be mindful of Thai etiquette for pleasant interactions. Knowing how to greet politely and express ourselves in Thai helped in creating a good first impression.
Making and selling a Singaporean dessert was a great way to present a gift from our own culture to our neighbours in culturally-appropriate ways. It’ll probably take more years to find a good balance to the culture question but I know we are on our way.
Business in missions
Even though we are missionaries, one of Jason’s passions in life is business, so we are always looking to see how missions and business can come together. The Lausanne Movement, a leader in global missions, has recognised the enormous potential of business: “Business has an innate God-given power to create dignified jobs, to multiply resources, to provide for families and communities, and to push forward innovation and development.” As we put our hands into our small dessert enterprise, we often think of other ways that it could bless local communities should we be able to scale it up in the future, such as job creation and ministry opportunities. We are gaining experience for something bigger that God has in store for us.
After 1 week, we did manage to sell some dessert.
As we paused to take stock of the whole project, we realised that to be able to really sell the dessert and make it profitable, we need to invest a lot of time into researching, marketing, etc. In light of ministry that will eventually resume in a few weeks, we can’t commit the time to the whole process of running a business like this. Regardless, our humble journey of learning will continue as we dare to try new things with faith. We didn’t make tons of money, but perhaps the only regret not coming up with a proper name for the dessert. In the end, our bottom line is to “do so much good (1 Peter 2:12) — that the natives will want to meet our King” (John Piper, 1994).
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–5, 7)