Nov 19th, 2010
The “three year” assignment I accepted back in 1999, ended today. After more than a decade and with too many interesting experiences to number, I fly back to the US tonight. The morning began very early - golf with a colleague, followed by packing at the hotel and lunch with my team at a Sichuan restaurant. Back to the office in the early afternoon to watch the mover’s pack up my office which was well endowed with various memorabilia and gifts from customers and new friends that symbolized life and travel in Asia – calligraphy that I still cannot fully read but expresses concepts that I understand, a thanka from Tibet (a gift from Connie who went back and bought it for me after I could not get the price I wanted from the shopkeeper in Lhasa - a great example of the gift of a wife who understood that leaving the trip of a lifetime to Tibet without something to remember it by was a mistake her husband should not be making), various bottles of Japanese sake and Chinese alcohol that comes in nice display boxes but is not to my liking as a beverage – symbols of friendship. Various commemorative coin sets from the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai World Expo, and plant dedications – symbols of the rise of China that we were fortunate to experience first-hand.
One by one, I spoke with each person in my office – people that I hired over the last five years in Shanghai. Each person special to me, uniquely different – it was a very tough hour. We were not saying “goodbye” we were saying “see you soon”. The group knew what I was feeling having seen me get choked up for the first time ever at the dinner during the goodbye weekend they carefully planned for Connie and me. I knew the hollowness I felt in my heart was a symbol of success – I told each person when I hired them that they were joining a family more than a company or at least that was the goal. Not the stuff found in corporate HR manuals but an aspiration I set for our office. Largely we succeeded.
Feeling like a lost child, I handed my office key to my assistant - said “see you in January” and rushed to the elevator bank determined to make a tearless exit. As I left the building I was confronted again by what I knew would be the hardest challenge – saying goodbye to my friend, adopted little brother and driver – Phillip. I knew I had a few more hours before the actual final goodbye. My flight was not until almost midnight – I still had time to meet a Japanese friend for dinner. In an experience typical of ex-pat life, a Japanese and an American decided to have sushi in Shanghai before I went to the airport to fly home through Munich on a German airline. We met my friend and after a drink at the hotel drove to the restaurant. Philip, as usual, joined the conversation. We spoke in English, Japanese and Chinese – Phillip proudly using the Japanese I had taught him to make a new friend. We went to a small sushi place and had a great dinner but the hardest part of the day was about to begin.
The hour ride to the airport was two old friends talking. I asked Phillip to tell me his memories of the five years. When we met Phillip could speak very limited English. Connie, Erin, Cailin and I (along with countless DVDs) were his English teachers.
Philip had no trouble filling the hour. A skillful raconteur, he held forth, only hesitating to ask if I remembered each example or incident. His love for our family was clear – the kindness and respect he received from “laoban” (Connie), his sadness when Erin cried in the car after a basketball loss, the night he followed Cailin and her boyfriend from afar as they walked the Bund at 2am after a big dance. He was worried that maybe “a short guy from Xinjiang” would try to pick their pockets or harm them but he was very sensitive to Cailin not thinking he was treating her like a child. I was never clear about some of Phillip’s prejudices – in his mind almost all crimes in Shanghai are committed by “short people” from the far western province. The highest compliment came when he said that watching our family taught him to treat his wife differently – less dominant. He was always surprised that I was the boss at the office but had no trouble letting Connie make decisions without “asking for permission”. I explained this as normal in America. Philip and I nicknamed Connie laoban (“boss”) after he worked for us about six months.
Phillip and his wife wanted to have children but were unable. In his heart, he adopted Erin and Cailin. He often said that our dog Yuki was the “luckiest dog in China” born on the street in Shanghai and then being adopted by a family that gave her air con 24/7 and a maid. When Philip spent a couple days trying to find a pet container for Yuki’s flight to the US, he referred to it as Yuki’s “business” seat.
As we pulled in front of the airport, I got my first real words of the hour in – I thanked Phillip for five years of friendship, great service, and a local perspective on the good and bad of his country. My parting words were that the friendship would remain even if he decided to leave our company when his driving assignment became more “normal” as an office driver rather than a family driver. I walked away knowing that our family had changed Phillip’s life and that he had an equal impact on us.
I called Connie from the lounge and put my “travel face” on. Two, more than ten hour flights and a five hour layover would give me plenty of time to process the events of the past few weeks.
I landed in Charlotte and went to customs with a landing card that said “US resident” – it felt strange since the last time that happened was almost 11 years ago.