The Long Farewell: Part One
As the words first came off his lips, they hurt so badly that I instinctively went in a semi-coma and heard the rest of his statement with my mind semi-detached from my body. “You go home, now” he said with a conviction well practiced from having yes-sir drones working for him for many years. Yet, as hard as this statement hit me, it was not unexpected. When I had arranged to meet my director in Tokyo, traveling via Beijing from my office in Singapore, I wanted to talk about extending my ex-pat package for another two years. I was prepared with a long list of my accomplishments from the previous two years but in the back of my mind, something did not seem right. In making this list, I realized how much of what I had been doing would come as a surprise to him. One minute into our meeting, before I had a chance to say one word, he uttered that gut-punching sentence. After he spoke he stood up abruptly. Looking down at the body, my mind instructed it to stand also and to bow halfway. My director returned the bow then turned his back to me and sat at his computer terminal. My mind told the body to leave and after a couple of minutes, they merged again in the long elevator ride to the first floor. The full shock of my situation hit me and I muttered “Now what the fuck am I going to do”; my exhortation generated little notice by my fellow passengers.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Almost two years ago, I had been traveling to Asia on business to do various customer visits and marketing events. In Singapore, I was the 2nd keynote speaker at a crowded customer conference. After all the sessions and meetings were over, I was invited by the local team to dinner and drinks. There I met Michael, the managing director of our Asia-Pacific operations, who invited me to coffee the next day. At 10 AM the following day, his beautiful Chinese assistant brought ornate cups of coffee and cookies into his office. Michael got right to the point, “Would you consider a position with us here in Singapore?”
The immediate answer was “yes” but not because I was in love with Asia. Michael, a gregarious Brit, had started our company’s presence in Asia 10 years with himself, a technical guy, and a secretary. The office at that time had an ornate reception area that shielded a large room with two small desks and some ugly desktop computers. When customers would come to visit, Michael would suggest they go to the coffee shop on the first floor as “the back office was so busy”. In fact, it was empty except for the bored technical guy who was usually sleeping. From those humble beginnings, he now had over two hundred people working for him from Japan to Australia. Michael was renowned in our company and for me to have a chance to work directly with him was too good to be true. As I had recently separated from my wife, I was looking for a new beginning. Michael explained the standard ex-pat package to me, which was generous to a fault, and we agreed to a date two months hence that I would report.
On my way back home from that fateful trip, it occurred to me that I had accepted a position without knowing my specific responsibilities. But almost as soon as I arrived home, Michael was sending me emails in which he explained what the job was and what was expected of me. Basically, I was to improve the quality of our technical sales staff, which Michael felt was not properly acquainted with the newer products and services our company offered. With his typical bombast, he told me during a call I was to work myself out of a job as our staff became more competent. “What happens next?” I asked squeamishly.
“No worries” said Michael, “if you do good work and learn how to do business in Asia, I’ll make you the CTO or something and then you can travel around Asia working with the teams you trained, helping them to close large deals. What do you think?”
Thinking back, it was a brilliant plan; fill a need for today with a nice transition to help with future needs. Although I had foolishly accepted an offer without vetting it properly, Michael’s explanation of my role calmed my fears such that I knew with all my heart that was something I wanted to be part of. But as most of us know, man makes plans and God laughs; there were unforeseen events about to occur that would completely change our plans.
It wasn’t long before I was calling the east coast of Singapore my new home, with a high-rent condo and a spectacular view of the port of Singapore. Michael put me right to work researching the needs of our technical sales staff and designing enablement plans. I put an ad in the newspaper and started to interview potential new staff members. When not at work or working out in the excellent American Club, I started to discover the delights of Orchard Tower. I became a Saturday night regular in the Top Ten Club, where the most beautiful Thai working girls hung out. I would normally find the best looking girl in the club and after a quick drink, I would suggest we make our way to my condo. Usually, she would stay the whole night, with our date ending the next day in Golden Mile shopping complex having a nice Thai lunch. During the week, I would party with the staff, mostly Aussies with a few Indians, in local clubs where we would often meet very pretty Singaporean girls. With meaningful work and great compensation, plus a full social calendar of local girls and Thai whores, I felt on top of the world.
Then one day, Michael said that we were about to lose a large deal with a large bank in Bangkok because the local team had bungled the account so badly. He asked me drop what I was doing and get to Bangkok to straighten the situation out. The next day I was in the city of angels for the second time and I stayed there for the next three weeks, where I shuttled between our office and the customer trying to undo the mess our local team created. They were a nice enough lot but clearly they were more acquainted with Thai business protocol than closing a complex technical sales opportunity. A few times they took me to a first-rate Thai fishbowl and laughed at my broad smile when I came downstairs. But on Saturday nights, I would venture out alone and discover the wonders of Patpong and Nana Plaza. On my last Saturday night in Bangkok, after we had inked the new deal with the bank, I decided to take the advice of a westerner I met in the gogo bars and try the Hard Rock Café in Siam Square, as it was supposed to convert to a pretty good disco at night. There I met a stunningly beautiful girl whose smile could light up a black hole. She stayed the night with me and the next day I bought her an airline ticket for Singapore for the following weekend. Had I known what would follow, I would have fled the disco screaming at first sight of her.
Nong was wonderful girl; quiet, shy, with that gigantic smile and a natural performer in bed. Those two weeks when she stayed with me in my condo in Singapore were bliss; me working, her shopping for dinner, then the slow exotic nights that only the orient can offer. I should have suspected something when she was easily able to take off “work” for two weeks to visit, but life was moving too fast then to notice details. In fact, so much so, during Nong’s visit I failed to grasp the significance of our company being purchased by a much larger corporation.
Life continued on it this fast-paced way for the next few weeks when out of the blue Michael unexpectedly called me into his office. His face was dour so I thought he was handing me another unpleasant assignment. Instead, in his straight-forward way he came right to the point. “I’m leaving the company this Friday, probably around noon.”
I asked why and he responded after a good 30 seconds of silence. “I have just returned from a meeting in Tokyo which is where this lot is headquartered. They want me to stay on as General Manager but they have pulled all control I had over the budget and how we should spend money to be successful. In other words, the bean-counters will run our operations from now on. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
He paused again as I tried to understand his words. He continued, “I built this entire organization using my own intelligence, experience, and hard work, and now they want me to work as a bureaucrat overseeing a sales operation designed on a spreadsheet.”
Ever the dramatist which I always appreciated, he paused again, then slapped his knees with his open hands and said, “Well, that’s it then, I’m off to a new start-up company here in Singapore as their CEO with complete control of the company.”
With that, he stood up, shook my hand vigorously, mumbled something about having enjoyed working with me, and then turned his back to me as he looked out of his large window. I knew it was time to go. As I exited, I glanced over at his secretary. She looked like she was wiping tears from her eyes. I walked quickly to my office and sat down at my desk and tried to understand what was happening and what effect it would on my new life. I told myself that these things happen in this industry and not to worry. But when half the managers quit in the next three weeks, many to go work with Michael, I started to feel a little lonely and insecure. As I would say to myself more than a year later, I muttered, “Now what the fuck am I going to?”
Stories of expat life in Asia with the occasional journey through the bars are perhaps my favorite genre of submission – and you put this type of story together particularly well. I can't wait for part 2!