People I Have Known in Asia : Jim (part 1 of 2)
When I was writing my last submission, My Journey through Thailand, a lot of it was about some of the people I met in Asia and how they contributed to my story. But after 4,000 words, I realized I had to tell my story or tell theirs. I chose the former but decided I would soon re-visit these wonderful people I knew. Now I want to write about these very interesting people and the role they played in making Asia such an interesting place for me. For the record, the names have been changed and minor details have been altered. If you see yourself in these stories, chances are I have never met you in my life. If you want to write and claim differently, and possibly claim libel, I have to remind you that I live in America, where the libel laws are so loose, you can go on TV and claim our president was born in Kenya and survive the next day as a free citizen. Otherwise, I will try to stay as close to the truth as I can. For this story about Jim, a lot of the details did not happen in the timeline of the story but came to light in subsequent conversations we had over the years.
Fifteen years ago, I am on my company’s worldwide team traveling mostly to Asia to help close big software deals. During this time, when websites started to appear everywhere, companies were investing huge amounts of money in this technology. I was traveling to Thailand for the second time to speak at an ASEAN conference about a product we had in this area. I flew directly to Narita, had a beer from the automated machine in the United Club and a quick shower, before flying business class to Bangkok. Settling into my seat, a slightly large gentleman ambled into the seat next to mine. We chatted about events of the day until the flight took off. Just then, the attendant brought us our first glass of red wine. He tasted it, proclaimed it better than average for airline wine. I was instantly intrigued. The main meal was mediocre at best but the naan flatbread was excellent. So, we told the attendant to keep the bread and the wine flowing, which she did.
I told Jim what I did for a living. I was surprised when he told me he was a wine consultant. What is that, I asked. He said airlines, hotels and restaurants paid him to recommend wines to complement their menus and events. I asked how he got into this line of work and he proceeded to tell me the most extraordinary of stories. Little did I know it would be a story, as well as a flight, I would never forget.
He said he began his career in food operations; buying and distributing food and drink to the stores and restaurants in his small sector of New York City. It was a good job, paying very well, but it was a full day of very stressful long hours and confrontational meetings, followed by customer dinners late into the night. As he had no life outside his job, the constant eating made his weight balloon to over 300 lbs and soon his wife and two children left him. It all caught up to him one day when an employee found him counting endlessly on his fingers in a broom closet. His family had him committed to a psychiatric hospital for observation. He was to spend the next three months of his life there.
The relief from his everyday stress had an immediate impact on him. Soon he was engaged with his therapists and reading many books in the small library. One of the books was on Buddhism. He read about how we basically make our own Hell through trying to hang on to things. It instantly resonated with Jim and now his therapists were encouraging his further study. He found out he was his own worst enemy; overworking, overeating, overdrinking, trying to have the good life and to “get ahead”. Now it all made sense why he was here. When he was evaluated for release at the end of his 90 days, every board member agreed he was ready to re-enter society. The first thing he did when he got out was to find the nearest Buddhist temple and ask to be admitted as their newest novice monk.
As it happens, he found a small Thai temple in a rural area that agreed to take him on as a novice, provided he pays his own living expenses. He slept in a communal room, kept the small woodstove burning (this being winter) and had regular sessions with the two monks who could speak English. After three more months, he thought he was doing well but the lead monk, in the gentlest of voices, consoled that being a monk was probably not his best path. He laughed because as soon as the monk said it, he knew it was true. Before he left, the monk gave him one last piece of advice: do what you love and you will always be happy.
It was a revelation to Jim as he now knew that he had spent half a career at a job he hated. So he started to think about what he loved to do. This was rather hard as he had been consumed by his job, with little time for anything else. Then he remembered that over the years, he had amassed a small wine collection in his cellar, almost as an afterthought. Why had he done this? The more he thought about it, he realized when he had free moments at home, he would love to go down in the cellar and read the labels and look on a map where the wine was made. He imagined the warm days in the beautiful vineyards when the grapes were harvested and started on their journey to produce a drink that would bring such happiness to people like him. These small grapes were bringing such joy to the world.
Right then and there, he decided his next profession would have something to do with wine. He certainly could not be a winemaker or a viniculturalist, not with his impatience, a trait he and his Buddhist monk advisors knew he would never completely get rid of. So he went to a bookstore and bought a lot of books on the wine industry and started to read. He discovered that a lot of the material he was reading, he already knew. He must have been unconsciously saving this information in his mind over the years. A few days later he discovered a job called a Wine Consultant – basically someone who advises individuals and businesses on what wines they should purchase. Maybe this was something he could be successful at with his food operations background. He certainly knew food and restaurants, how to sell products, and how to woo customers. He might even have a few contacts that would be useful to getting started. A plan started to emerge in his head.
Jim spent another couple of week at his books, studying and making notes about the many different types of wine, major vineyards, and any mention about wine consultants. He then pulled out his old Rolodex and started looking for any card that might help him. He started making calls. Unfortunately, most of them were already using consultants or were using established wine distributors, so they were very lukewarm on changing to someone new in the field. Then he spoke to an old business mate who was COO of a national chain of restaurants. Initially, he wasn’t much help either, but then he mentioned that his company was expanding into Asia and they were having a devil of a time finding reliable sources for their food and especially their wine. Jim asked if he could find good wine for his restaurants, at his own expense, could he be their wine guy in Asia. His friend agreed, so it wasn’t long before Jim was flying to Tokyo to meet a friend of a friend, and hopefully a new life in the wine industry.
Needless to say, one contact led to another and to another, and after two weeks, he found a distributor of California wine in Tokyo selling good labels that matched up with the menu of his friend’s restaurants. This may sound like no big deal, but when this happened almost 20 years ago, wine was mostly unheard of in Asia. What Jim didn’t realize at the time, he had stumbled into the beginning of Asia’s wine revolution. He went on to find many clients in Asia’s biggest cities, mostly Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok. So it was on a business trip back to Bangkok that Jim and I met. But it wasn’t all for business, Jim said. Just then, I heard a large bang outside the cabin window, almost like a gunshot. I looked out the window but did not see anything. Everyone else in the cabin seemed calm so I went back to my conversation with Jim.
He told me he was going to Bangkok on business and to see his wife. He said on his first trip to Bangkok, he met a pathetic streetwalker who was obviously a drunk. She wanted to come with him and he said yes, but only if she stayed with him three days. She agreed. What she thought would be a drunken orgy turned out to be her salvation. Jim stayed with her, providing rice soup and snacks, but no alcohol. It was brutal for both of them but at the end of three days, she was committed to staying sober and staying with him. Seems Jim was repaying an old debt from the Thai monks. They married soon after and a few months later, she joined him in America, along with her young son. Now she and her son were in Thailand visiting her mother with Jim joining them soon.
Just then I noticed that the plane was making a big u-turn. I looked at the world map on the screen and it confirmed that just after we passed Taiwan, we were now heading back to it. I was convinced that something had happened to one of the engines on the B-757 we were flying in. Soon there was an announcement from the pilot. “Radies and gentlemen, we are making an emergency randing in Taipei. Prease do not be concerned”.
Jim still seemed nonplussed so I settled back for what I thought would be a short layover, a new plane, and a quick recovery to Bangkok. Little did I know, it would soon turn out to be one of the strangest 24 hours of travel I would ever encounter.