Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, July 3, 2016


I have lived back in the US for five and half years after almost eleven years in Asia. This is my first personal blog post in over six months. For the past year or so I have been writing business related posts on Linked In which gradually seemed to replace my need to write on the personal blog. Blogging really was a “need” when I first started in November of 2010. 

I wrote more than one hundred blog posts over five years. I wanted to capture my memories of life overseas so that I wouldn’t lose them to the the passage of time. I also used writing as therapy to help me deal with the transition back to “normal life” in my home country.

Yeah, I know, we are dealing with first world problems here. Like anyone born in the United States of America, I have a natural advantage over most of the other seven billion people on this planet. Anyone living at what is considered the poverty line in the US is a minimum “five percenter” and closer to a “one percenter” compared to the rest of the world. Ok – you cynics go ahead and check Google before continuing. Better yet, get on a plane and take a walk in rural SE Asia, China, Africa, etc. I write this post from the perspective that I and anyone else reading this are part of the “lucky few” on planet earth.  

My buddy from a floating village in Cambodia  

My wife and I often ruminated about how the US changed during our lengthy sojourn in Asia. For the most part we felt the changes in the US were not positive. Political correctness had swept the land. I was often asked about living in “communist China” and caused more than one raised eyebrow when I would respond that in many ways there is more freedom in China than in the good ole USA. Many Americans have a really hard time with that concept. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love America and didn’t go “native” during my years in Japan and China despite my strong positive feelings for both places but as we learned in “expat training” before we left the for Japan, coming back is often a big adjustment after just three years outside your native country. However, when you stay away more than ten years the degree of re-entry difficulty is multiplied significantly.

My first twenty-two months back in the US were very challenging. During that time period I tried without success to reintegrate into what was often referred to overseas as the “home office” or “HQ”. I knew from day one back in Charlotte that the company and I had both changed too much for me to ever successfully transition. Like any bad marriage, I should have just ended the relationship and moved on but things like two kids in private colleges and being clueless about what “else I would do” enabled the inertia that kept me unhappily wed to my corporate masters.

On Sunday nights, I was like a kid that gets a stomach ache at the thought of going to school on Monday. My first year back I made more trips back to Asia than I really needed to just because the I couldn’t stand being in the US office. I had a steady diet of seemingly endless corporate nonsense. Every meeting I attended started with a “safety share”. I will never forget the safety share about “not taking your shoes off on a plane until you reach cruising altitude”. How did I “safely” get four million frequent flyer miles before I heard that gem of aviation wisdom?” When I had to attend four or five meetings on some days; I often got  “safety share reruns” with immutable wisdom like: “lift heavy objects with your legs and not your back”. You can't hear that too many times in one day. I am all for safety but this was just another seemingly good idea taken past the point of common sense.

Twenty-two months after my return, I was the beneficiary of the “corporate euthanasia” program also known as a RIF (reduction in force). Normally in a RIF there is a certain group or class of employees the company is seeking to cut. For example, a new accounting system could lessen the need for payroll staff and the company might seek to drop the number of clerks from 12 to 8 by offering a package for people to leave. In my case the group was one person – me. Yes, they literally went through the charade of declaring my position to be a group that needed to be reduced. Details of that happy day can be found on a prior blog post.

It has been almost four years since I became corporate “jetsam”.  Only the first few weeks were difficult. Fortunately, my ex-pat package enabled me to save more than 80% of my income for over a decade and the end of my tuition paying years were in sight. I planned as if our savings and modest pension payment from “early retirement” would have to fund our lifestyle going forward because I thought my future prospects as “someone of a certain age” were limited. Fortunately, my wife and many friends had a much more positive spin on my options.

I had worked for over two decades in a global but small market which was about to start a serendipitous boom. Better still, China and Japan, the two countries I lived and worked in as an ex-pat were at the center of the opportunity. Initially my scar tissue from getting fired prevented me from fully “connecting the dots” of the potential laid before me. Fortunately, I had several friends that helped me to figure out how to leverage my suddenly greatly in demand skill set.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of working with a diverse mix of manufacturers, investors, analysts and even a couple governments around the world. I have learned as much in this short time as in any other era of my life. Working for myself means I do not have to waste half of the day in mind numbing meetings with no meaningful agenda or participate in training seminars on topics from office ergonomics to diversity role playing - I think taking a train across Qinghai province China fifteen years ago and drinking “mao tai” with my "new best friends" might been an acceptable substitute for the diversity course.

When you have spent more than a decade traveling to places where people regularly ask to touch your skin or hair and occasionally attempt to touch your eyeball before trying to feed you delicacies that were formerly the internal organs of “some unidentified living thing” – having to attend "corporate training" where a young, white female who has never left North America teaches you about "cultural sensitivity" and "diversity" probably isn’t going to have much of an impact. In my 25 plus year corporate career I was responsible for hiring a many people - less than 5% where white males and that includes fifteen years of being based in the US.

At a time when most of the friends I play golf with on Tuesday mornings are either retired or about to retire, I am more concerned about how to balance my time between work and leisure because there are more interesting opportunities in front of me than at any time in my life. I don’t see any point to “retiring” as long as what I am calling work involves traveling to places I enjoy like Japan, China, Australia, Korea and Argentina; meeting people who are often more friends than business associates and getting paid to do it.

My time as an ex-pat working in one field for so many years has enabled me to work largely on my own terms now. My decision after getting fired in 2012 not to take another “job” with a big company was probably one of the best moves I ever made.

I originally started blogging at the suggestion of a well respected Asia expert who also counsels returning ex-pats. He told me I should write a book about my experiences overseas to help me put my time abroad in perspective. I didn’t feel my experiences were interesting enough to justify a book so a blog was my compromise.

I never wrote the book but my wife turned my blog posts into one
Tomorrow is the 4th of July. I am glad to be back in America and, despite all the problems the country currently faces, I am proud to be an American although the current election “process” certainly has me concerned about the future of our system.

If you made it to the end of my pre-holiday ramble:thank you. It may be awhile before I blog again. The blog did its job helping me transition from my ex-pat experience but now it seems like it makes more sense to focus on spending the next few years on having more interesting experiences than writing about my old ones.