The Long Farewell: Part Two
By the time Michael had left the company, I was completely comfortable in my new Asian home. It wasn’t just the nice condo in Singapore and the ex-pat perks; everywhere I went in Asia was new yet so familiar. With customers, my business acumen and technical knowledge gained me instant respect, but with ordinary Asian people I felt a kindred spirits of a sort. I was in Jakarta the three days following 9/11. Everyone I met expressed great sorrow for the terrible events that happened to America on that day. One man stopped me on the street and asked if I was an American. I hesitated but decided to answer honestly. He told me that if it were Muslims who were behind 9/11, then they were not true Muslims. Islam, he explained, was about love and learning how to have a good life. He looked at me with longing eyes as I explained that in America we had Christians who did terrible things as well, like Timothy McVeigh who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. He then shook my hand vigorously and said something about peace. These incidents and many more endeared me to the people of my new home in Asia; now it felt more like home than home itself. I had to find a way to stay.
One day, when Nong wasn’t visiting, I called in sick to my office for the first time since I had arrived in Singapore some six months earlier. I realized that the events in my life were moving so fast that unless I slowed them down for a brief period, I was never going to understand them. I had to come up with a plan to ensure I kept my very happy life intact here in Singapore. I turned off my hand phone and disconnected my computer from instant messaging. Sitting at my desk in my home office, really an extra bedroom in my condo, I tried to clear my mind via a meditation technique I had learned in a Buddhist handbook. Amazingly enough, after a few minutes, the first question that popped into my mind was, “If Michael and I were working so well together, then why didn’t he offer to take me with him to his new company?”
Yes, a very good question indeed. I remembered that Michael had ended our last conversation rather oddly; like catching himself from saying something he shouldn’t. Yet that was so unlike the bombastic Michael, who was usually indiscretion itself. After a few moments thought I realized that I was working under a very expensive ex-pat compensation package that Michael’s small start-up could hardly afford. Even if I was willing to forego those many perks and join as a local employee, I might put myself in some legal difficulty as I had signed an iron-clad contract for two years of service. Besides, I am sure Michael had bigger problems than trying to bring me on board. Luckily, Michael had given me an email and phone number. I decided to store these in a safe place in case I needed them in the future.
Another thought that occurred to me on my “mental health” day was what my new goals at work were. A few days after Michael had announced his resignation my human resources representative came to me and said there was a job freeze on so I couldn’t hire any staff. I asked when it was supposed to end and she shrugged her shoulders. So now my entire raison d'etre in Singapore was in question. As I now had no direct report it would be up to me to show value for the huge compensation my new company was paying me. From my previous gathering of requirements from the local sales teams, there were several requests for greater expertise to help close large deals. I looked back through my notes and shamelessly offered my services as a well spoken, white faced deal-maker to these teams, which ranged from Hong Kong to Indonesia to India. A few of the teams responded positively so I set about to get travel approved; a new requirement by the corporate bean-counters. It was a new world but I was ready to do anything to keep my high-rent condo and my beautiful tee-rak from Issan.
With a plan of action in place for my work, something else that had been simmering in the back of my head came forward. Who, really, was my girlfriend Nong? As my knowledge of Asia increased, including the red light districts, so did my suspicion that Nong wasn’t who she claimed to be. She never asked for money but I had offered a monthly stipend of $S1,500 to offset her time away from work and she gladly took it. Plus, there were shopping trips to Takashimaya and money for food and small expenses. I guess that was pretty good for a country girl from Issan. She was now visiting me in Singapore two weeks on and two weeks off. With an invitation letter and a copy of my work permit from my passport, she was able to get past Singaporean immigration without being suspected as Thai working girl. But who was this enchanting creature who spoke such good English yet only graduated from Thai high school?
Her story about being a hostess/waitress at the family restaurant in Udon Thani seemed real enough, yet she never had a problem getting off work, no matter what the season in Thailand. I tried to delicately probe her history but it always seemed to frustrate her and make her irritated. Lately, there were times when I was traveling and her phone would be off. I didn’t think much of it at first but when it happened three times, and always at night, I became concerned. She always had an excuse, mostly her phone battery died or something like that. After the last time, I had had enough and when she arrived at my condo a few days later, I confronted her. An ugly scene ensued, after which she broke down crying that she loved only me and that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. I gave in, of course, as I was stupid and had a forgiving heart. Besides, what was I going do? Throw Nong out; admit that my move to Asia had been a huge mistake and I should return to America. Then divorce and start dating the self-important pigs who represented the middle-aged female population there? No, I had a plan for my life and I was sticking to it.
It was soon after this that Nong decided we should get married. At first I laughingly reminded her that I was married already. When this sent her to the bedroom in tears, I tried a more tactful approach of gently explaining that people can’t be married to two people at the same time. She asked me why I hadn’t gone to the American embassy and divorced my wife. I said that’s not the way it works in America. She still insisted I could. I later found out that in Thailand, at least according to some Thai friends, that this was possible for Thais living abroad. I did some checking with attorneys in Singapore and Thailand and they basically said I was bound to get divorced in America; else I would have to declare all my current benefits and salary as my current compensation. In which case, my wife would have gotten an enormous alimony. The other alternative was to live a “free but still married” existence in Asia. In fact, when I enquired about this subject with some ex-pat friends, they basically told me I should write-off my life in America and just live in Asia no matter what. Apparently, they had a few friends who were doing just that. “As long as you are here” one said, “civil courts in America can’t touch you.”
That didn’t sound right to me, no matter how whacked-out my wife was. When I tried to explain this to Nong, I got a blank look. None of this was making any sense to her. She mostly sulked the next five days until she had to leave Singapore. A few days after she left, I had to do a seven day trip to India. As usual, I called her every evening for the first two days; then her phone went dead. I was getting used to the occasional dead phone battery but when it was three days dead, I started to panic. I called her sisters and mother; all thought she was still in Singapore with me. I started to imagine crazy scenarios, like she was lying in some Bangkok hospital, the victim of a hit-and-run taxi. I consoled myself that even the inefficient Thai police would have made at least one phone call to her home. But, if not that then where was she?
The evening I returned home from India, I turned on my phone after the flight and immediately I received a call from Nong. As I clicked the call button, I was at the same time immensely pissed-off and immensely relieved, like a husband finding out his wife has had an affair but it was with another woman. I was in the taxi by then thanks to the super-efficient Changi airport system, so I used all my willpower to keep a calm voice. She was her usual up-beat self asking me how my trip was. I calmly asked her why her phone was off for the last five days and none of her family knew where she was. She said she had run into an old friend in Bangkok who invited her to her home in Pattaya. What about the phone I asked. Oh, she lost it somewhere and didn’t find it until she got back. I was really steamed now, mostly because she expected me to believe this imbecile story, but for the sake of the taxi driver, I kept my cool and went along with the charade. Before I hung up, I told her I loved her and that I would see her again in a week or so. For the rest of my taxi ride, and for a good part of that evening, I plotted how I was going to break up with Nong the next time I saw her.
Until Nong arrived in Singapore, about 10 days later, I kept up the act that I believed her story and that everything was fine between us. That weekend, I decided to break up with her by taking her out to dinner at the Newton Square food court; an outdoor hawker center where we would be alone in a loud talking crowd. Pretending I had left my key at home, I would ask for hers. Then telling I didn’t love her anymore, I would throw $S2,000 on the table and walk away. She could find her own way back to Bangkok. This idea calmed me the rest of the weekend but at the office, a big announcement was waiting for me. Our new parent corporation had appointed someone to take Michael’s place as head of our operations: Matsuda –san. He had been a sales manager for the parent company for hardware, no software experience, and he would be visiting our offices this Thursday. On the appointed day and at a nearby hotel meeting room, Matsuda-san, surrounded by other Japanese gentlemen I assumed to be our new 2nd in commands, said how glad he was to be our new leader. His broken English, even though I was used to the heavy Japanese accents, was barely understandable so I am sure it was unintelligible to my Singaporean colleagues. As I sat listening to his droning speech, I thought what bonehead had decided to appoint this Japanese bureaucrat to run a mostly English speaking staff. After his speech, I introduced myself and explained my role but got a cold-fish handshake in return. The next day I found out I would not report to Matsuda-san but to another Japanese executive who would soon be moving to Singapore. After a month of delays, it was decided he would not move but would manage us from Osaka. As I had received no email or any other communications from these guys, as had none of the other managers in the Singapore office, we were basically left to decide for ourselves what our duties should be.
That’s when I decided to take my fate into my own hands and find a way to visit Matsuda-san personally and lobby him to be here another two years. I had an upcoming trip planned for Beijing in which I would be meeting with a couple of our bigger customers there, so I planned a one day extension to Tokyo to meet the our new samurai. During this major upheaval of my business affairs, I put on-hold my plan to separate myself from Nong. There was just too much intrigue and I wanted a normal place to come home to at the end of the hectic business day. I bit my tongue and pretended to be the doting patron-lover while she purred her way into my bed each night. I tried to sleep peacefully but as Nong entwined herself around me; my mind was still racing to figure out this new dynamic in my company. Japanese managers had a mixed reputation in Singapore; moody, commandeering, inflexible. My friends could offer little help. Yet I knew if I wanted to stay in Asia, and I did with all my heart, I would have to find a way to please this strange little man from so far away.