About christao408

An expat American who moved to Bangkok in 2005 with his partner (now husband). Life is a grand adventure and each experience is worth having if for no other reason than to remind us that we are alive.

2018 – a year in the air

As 2019 begins, I took a few minutes to look back and see how my travels for 2018 looked. As much as it felt like I was traveling a great deal, my actual number of flights was not much higher than last year and I flew fewer miles by far.

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  • 2018: 54 flights flown – 76,263 miles
  • 2017: 52 flights flown – 94,240 miles
  • 2016: 59 flights flown – 92,234 miles

I had many more short flights to nearby destinations such as Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and fewer long-distance flights: only one Europe trip this past year and no trips to Australia and New Zealand. 

My best flight experience last year included the free, unexpected upgrade on EVA Air from Toronto to Taipei. They moved Tawn and me from Premium Economy to Business Class and for such a long flight, it was greatly appreciated. 

Who knows what this year has in store. As much as I love to travel, it would be okay if the number of flights didn’t increase!


Thinking of Italy

Supposedly these two weeks, the last of 2018 and the first of 2019, are my holiday. Not one for just sleeping all day or lying on a beach, I’m spending a fair amount of time working on different personal projects, one of which is updating my blog and website.

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One of the areas I haven’t yet updated is about our trip to Italy this autumn.  The entry about Austria is finished but the entries about Italy still needs to be written. Let’s see if I can get that finished in the coming week.

Italy is such a fascinating place to visit. While there are plenty of more places I need to visit in Europe, it is my favorite thus far. Italy seems to strike the balance: it has much that is modern and sophisticated while maintaining some rough edges and lots of history. The people are warm and welcoming, distinct in their culture while happy to share it with you. The food is satisfying but not fussy. People seem to have a deep enjoyment of life.

We began our trip in Firenze (Florence) for two nights, visiting my cousin and his family. We then traveled south to the hillside of ancient Matera, stopping in Bari on the way to three nights in Ostuni in Puglia – the “heel” in the boot of Italy. The southern part of Italy makes for a nice contrast with the larger, more popular cities such as Firenze and Milano. (I haven’t been to Rome.) The south has most of the things I like about Italy but without many of the things I do not. In short, it is Italy without the onslaught of tourists!

Stay tuned for more details.

 

The shifting tectonic plates – part two

In my previous post, I shared about the first of two significant changes that rearranged the contours of my life two days after my fourth-cycle birthday. This post focuses on the second, work-related change. As this is work-related, I will endeavor to write about it in a way that is appropriate and does not ruffle any communications policy feathers.

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The morning that I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house, for them to look after as he recovered from his severe allergic reaction to some medication, I headed into work and shortly afterwards a corporate announcement appeared in my inbox:

Ms. CCO (the Chief Commercial Officer, who was also the head of the business unit I support in my role as Director, HR Business Partnering) has left the company over differences in the strategic direction of the business with the CEO.  In the interim, the Mr. CEO will head the business unit as we search for a replacement.

Note that this information was publicly released at the same time, so I am not sharing any proprietary information with this announcement.

The back story is that the CCO had specifically asked me to step from a leadership development role into this HR business partner role six months ago, to help her turn around what has been a financially struggling business unit. This was a leap of faith for me and a challenge that I decided was worth undertaking.

Along the way, I struggled to understand my new role and see how I could best bring value to the CCO and to the organization. In fact, just the week before, I had dinner in Hong Kong with my former boss and another colleague and, discussing this challenge, arrived at the conclusion that I needed to be more up-front in confronting the CCO and bringing my independent voice to her counsel.

No sooner had I returned from Hong Kong, then the following week, the CCO left!

This was a shock to me and as the head of HR for the business unit, I was unsurprisingly the recipient of a flurry of questions. Concerned employees, especially regional ones, wanted to know what was happening, whether their jobs were safe and – oh, by the way – did you know that I would be just great at such-and-such a role in operations?

It was a challenge because nowhere in our HR standard operating procedures describes how to handle the unexpected resignation of your head of business unit. So I charged forward, comforting people, reminding them that we need to focus on what we can control: our reaction, our mindset and what needs to be done.

The weeks that have followed have been interesting – there is no better way to learn than to face crisis and uncertainty – and also frustrating, because you want to help people but you have no real information to share, nothing substantial you can provide. The only thing you have is an empathetic ear, which is maybe the most valuable thing in times like these.

A few weeks later, a second major announcement came: my boss was promoted to be the global head of HR, a role that the CEO (and, previously, the CCO) had held. This would appear to be a good thing – after all, one thing I have appreciated about working at this company is that despite it being a large multinational, I have been able to work directly with our most senior leaders.

Two days after the second announcement, a third announcement came: a restructuring in HR, in which my former boss (the one I had dinner with in Hong Kong) and three of her team members were cut. This was personally devastating for me, as these are people who are colleagues and also friends. Only six months ago, I was part of that team and the most compelling reason I chose to join this company was because of the connection I made with my former boss when she interviewed me. This was someone whose vision I believed in and whose balance of high standards and high nurturance created the robust environment in which I could thrive.

A fact of life in businesses is that restructurings happen. People, through no fault of their own, are cut from a company. Their work, which is often a large part of their personal identity, is taken away. And in my new role as an HR business partner, the last few weeks have given me a lot to think about, in terms of how that process is done. How best can we conduct an inherently inhumane event in a humane way that esteems and treats with dignity the people who are being let go?

As a manager several years ago, I had to deliver this difficult news to scores of people as my company went through two rounds of layoffs. And I have been on the receiving end of a layoff when my previous employer wanted me to stop working remotely from Thailand and return to the United States. Based on those experiences, I have some idea how layoffs can be done with dignity.

Just as the tectonic shift in my relationship with my father-in-law has changed the landscape surrounding my marriage, this tectonic shift in my organization has changed the landscape surrounding my job.

My reflection is that there are two ways to go: I could give in to cynicism and start to look for a way out of the turbulence, seeking something more certain and stable. Many friends have encouraged me to take this route. Alternately, I could follow the advice given by a few other friends: choose to stick with the challenging route through the rearranged landscape, because it is in these challenging times that the opportunity to make a difference is greatest.

As with all earthquakes, there is a risk of aftershocks. We do not know when they will come, nor what their severity will be. But in the meanwhile, I think the best route forward is through the rubble. There are people in need of direction and support and there is rebuilding to be done.

 

The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

Finishing the fourth cycle

A bit late, but last month I celebrated my fourth-cycle birthday. For those who may not know, a “cycle” refers to the twelve years in the Chinese calendar*, each represented by a different animal. With any luck, this fourth cycle represents the mid-point of my life and has served as an opportunity to reflect on what I have accomplished so far and what I can hope to accomplish with the time that remains.

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One lesson I learned from my great-grandfather, is that we are each responsible to reach our full potential. I also learned from my family that we are called to help others reach their full potential, too. My family is full of teachers, nurses, soldiers and others called to serve the communities around them in their own ways.

For the 32 years I have worked, regardless of what my job role has been, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and grow and to help others learn and grow, too.

The lessons learned thus far could fill a book (and, I hope, one day will) and started even before my first real job, when I worked a newspaper delivery route in the mornings before school. Understanding how to manage my time, throw papers so they were easy for customers to retrieve, and make collections at month’s end as painless as possible, were early lessons that have proved valuable countless times.

The opportunities to help others grow have been abundant, too: from teaching new ushers the proper way to quickly clean a theatre before the next show began, to having to manage two people who had wanted the first managerial job I was promoted to, to guiding “new generation leaders” as a leadership development consultant, I have found fulfillment in helping others grow and, with modesty, hope that I have had some success.

It may sound corny, but I do have a strong sense of purpose in my life: to help others reach their full potential and, in doing so, to reach my own potential. One commitment I made to myself, is that I will regularly assess whether my current circumstance is allowing me to progress on both halves of my purpose. If not, it will be time for a change.

Looking at the lives of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents – as well as so many mentors, colleagues, and friends – I have an abundance of role models whose examples I can follow.

And this is an important element of my purpose. You see, I seek to fulfill this purpose because it is part of a larger, longer legacy than myself. And it is something that, I hope, will run through me and live on in the lives and actions of others.

If four cycles are all I have, I am satisfied that I have lived my purpose. I hope, though, that I have many more cycles left because I don’t feel nearly finished.

*Also celebrated in many other East Asian cultures

Barcelona review

As part of my trip to Europe last month, I spent a week in Barcelona. This was my second trip, both times for work, and this time I was able to see a bit more of the city. Coincidentally, a few friends have asked me for recommendations so I have taken the time to update my “Spain” page on my website.

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and it is easy to see why. It is also easy to get a sense that the city is overrun with tourists: I saw many signs and graffiti decrying the infestation.

The good news is there are plenty of places to go in Barcelona to enjoy the city without falling into all the usual tourist traps. In fact, I would argue you could largely bypass the big attractions and still find the city utterly charming.

 

Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.