Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, November 16, 2012


Two years ago this weekend, I turned in my Chinese resident documents at Shanghai  immigration and returned to the US. Before I departed Shanghai, I signed a two year contract extension for my driver, Philip, to ensure he would not be suddenly let go by the new management coming in from corporate HQ.

This morning when I checked my phone, I saw a text message from Philip. Exactly two years after I signed his contract he was told his services were no longer needed. I immediately put in a Facetime call to Phillip hoping he was in a place that had Wi-Fi. A few seconds later Philip’s smiling face appeared on my IPhone. He looked me in the eye from 7,500 miles away and said “don’t worry about me, it doesn’t matter”. He then gave me the details of how he was told - he was being replaced by a less expensive driver who doesn’t speak English and then moved on – wanting to know how my wife, daughters and dog, Yuki,  were doing.   

I spent many hours in the seat next to Philip - he still drives me any time I am in Shanghai
Philip was in a crowded room at a friend’s house with a lively mahjong game going on in the background. Not a drinker himself, I asked Philip if his friends were drinking – he smiled and said with typical clarity “no, you drink, you lose mahjong”.

Never one to dwell on his problems, Philip turned to politics – “how about the election”? “Which one?” I replied,  since China’s leader changed in the past week.  “The Obama one”; “You know Romney don’t like China” After spending five years together in the car, Philip did not have to ask who I voted for but he did need to comment just to gently remind me that my guy lost. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about China’s new leader, Philip was quick to say, “I hope he is good” and the political discussion was over.

We talked about our “China work team” for a few minutes and Philip gave me his evaluation of how everyone was doing. Philip was always insightful but pretty blunt evaluating people. From the company CEO whom he didn’t care for (“he thinks I am part of the car”) to customers (“he may be Japanese but he is still a good guy”). Philip understood I loved Japan so he treated all my Japanese customers with respect but he made the "official" China postion on Japan clear.

 I always asked one more question after the original comment Philip made about somebody and usually there was much more to his comment but sometimes not. Being American, my favorite comment was in response to the question about why he didn’t like our CEO. He looked at me like I was from Mars and said “Laoban, he is French, isn’t he”.

Philip’s face turned serious  – “when do you come to Shanghai”? “You know, nothing has changed, I will meet you anytime”. “You have any problem, you call me”.  “I want to see you in Shanghai”. From most people, I would pass this off as meaningless courtesy but from Philip I knew it was sincere.  I told him I would see him in early 2013 and, changing subjects yet again, asked him if the company offered him severance.  Always one step ahead of me, he told me he had already spoken to “the legal guy” and it seemed he would get 6 months’ pay. While Philip and I talked, my wife was on Facebook and other websites letting her ex-pat network know that a great driver was on the market. Philip was pretty well known in the ex-pat community. We often got calls from friends who were having trouble communicating with their drivers. Philip was always happy to translate and tell drivers how they should behave. He knew that he had a special status in the ex-pat community but he didn’t exploit it.

Convinced Philip was doing ok, I wound the conversation down. I have no doubt I will see Philip again. The little brother I never had was more to my family than a driver.

Philip with Miss USA on July 4th, 2010