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.

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.

 

My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Welcome to the year of the dog

The Chinese and other lunar calendars in East Asia are based on a twelve-year cycle, with each year being represented by an animal. This year, which began Feb 16, is the year of the dog. It also represents the completion of my fourth cycle, for I will turn 48 later this year.

A friend who has known me several years was surprised by that information. “You will be 48 this year? Really?” I am not sure if he expected me to be younger or older.

A couple of younger colleagues were commenting that they, too, are born in the year of the dog. I quickly realized they are completing only their second cycle.

Based on my grandparents’ longevity, there is a reasonable chance that I should make it to my eighth cycle, so I am about halfway along this journey.

The being older doesn’t bother me – this is the natural course of things. I do notice that I am increasingly aware of my age: I am conscious that I am working and interacting with people whose reference points are significantly different than mine.

The thing I am most aware of is the realization that the further you travel through life, the more you realize how little you really know. Youth comes with unearned certainty. Age brings experience and a measure of wisdom in the form of humility: What could I know about life? I am still living it.

In any case, I will celebrate this year as a milestone and endeavor to learn as much from it as possible. Happy year of the dog. May it bring you prosperity, good health and great happiness.