An Ordinary Life – Part 2
An Ordinary Life Part 1 — Setting the Scene
This is Part 2 — The Bad Years
A reminder of the characters in the story.
|Ian||Yours truly; in my late 50s; an honourable man, but apparently a complete bore|
|Dawn||My ex-wife; a Thai national; 3 years younger than me; a "good girl"; a university graduate|
|Peter||First born son; just turned 21|
|Paul||Second born son; just turned 18|
|Mary||I don't have a daughter but if I did she would have this name|
|Udang||My current partner; pronounced "oo-dung"; Thai national; 21 years younger than me (!)|
|John||Udang's son; 15 going on 16|
This is the post where I'm grateful for the anonymity of this site. Given the information I am about to divulge there is no way I want to be identified. If I wasn't able to contribute anonymously I would not submit even one part of this series, let alone six. I find it cathartic telling the story, I just don't want it attributed to me publicly. Maybe this is cheap therapy for me.
I presented the point of view in Part 1 that I thought I'd found a good girl but she was at best restless and perhaps even a latent bad girl. I recently obtained information that told me the entire marriage was a lie. This post provides more information about some bad times in my career that affected the marriage.
Here is the difficult, confronting and unvarnished truth. From 1998 to 2007 I was unemployed three times for a total of nearly four years. Ouch. The first was a period of 12 months, the next 15 months and finally 18 months. Count them — that's 45 months with no income.
The first was caused by the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-98. I was employed by a company in Indonesia and well paid in US$. In a six month period the exchange rate for Rupiah collapsed from $1=2,500 to $1=17,500. No company can afford to keep employees who cost 7x more than budget. At one stage they tried to set an exchange rate of $1=7,500 (I called it the mythical exchange rate) which was bad for everyone. It was bad for the company because they were still paying 3x their budget; it was untenable for the expats because we were paid less than half of our true (overseas based) commitments. With that background it was never going to last and the day came when we were all called into the company President's office one by one, given the speech, thanked for our efforts and told to leave.
I found that job very frustrating. The company President was a difficult man and even though I delivered far more than anyone could expect he always complained that it wasn't enough. I was frustrated. He was ungrateful. When I told Dawn it was over she was pleased because she knew I was unhappy. Honestly, in the end it was a relief.
I'd been plotting to find work in the US for some time; when the job ended it merely put the plan into high gear. I had a wife and two sons who were 4 & 1 so I figured if I was going to make it happen this would be the best time. While I haven't revealed my nationality, I am not American; I don't have authorisation to work in the US so I had to overcome the hurdle of finding employment sponsorship as well as a job. That may not sound like much but to put it another way I had to compete with a pool of maybe 40-60 million people and convince potential employers that I not only deserved a wonderful salary but I was also worth the additional headache of sponsoring for an H-1 visa. People in the US are great; they will listen to a sales pitch, but probably 90% walked away when the issues became apparent. That still left 10% of people who both listened and gave me a chance. Fortunately I was cashed up at the time and could afford a hit to the finances to look for work.
I went to the States for my job search and stayed with friends to minimise costs; it's good to have friends. You know something? It was easy. In two or three months I had an offer from a company in Minneapolis. The role was less than you'd expect with my experience but it didn't matter because it was a start. The goal was to take the job, do well, get a green card and move upwards in that company or move somewhere else. Getting a start was the key. They called me back to Minneapolis to give me the good news in person (without telling me why on the phone, although I could guess) but that's when we hit the problem. There was a quota of 55,000 H-1 visas in the US every year (back then; apparently now it's 65,000). When I was boarding the flight to Minneapolis I saw a news item saying the quota for the current visa year had just been filled — literally on that day. So it was too late; I missed out on the job and they employed their #2 candidate. Bummer. It also meant I'd have to wait another eight months or so for the quota to open up again. Double bummer.
Dawn didn't take the news well. She had to get out of Jakarta with Peter & Paul in tow due to the civil unrest caused by Suharto's impending downfall. Thailand is close to Indonesia and as she had family there it was the logical place to go. I said, as a backup plan, I could look for work in my home country so we all went there for a month staying with my family. However, they were in the midst of a recession and while many companies said they liked my background everyone had a job freeze and no one was employing new staff. I stayed there by myself for another two months looking for work but when it was clear that every door was closed I went back to Thailand to prepare for my next assault on the US.
A few months before the US visa quota opened again I went back to restart the job search. It was more difficult this time and I had fewer call backs but the ones I had were good, solid opportunities. In the end I had a choice between two opportunities, one was a global role with a US multinational based in NY with significant travel or one in the South of the US with a lower profile nationwide company. The job in NY would be better for my career but I opted for the better lifestyle of the South with less travel so I could help my family assimilate.
While the lifestyle was great and I was happy, the job itself didn't pan out well. The company I joined, being a smaller and younger company, had a corporate personality unlike anything I'd experienced before. Maybe I was too conservative even back then because I couldn't assimilate to the company's culture and it became apparent it wasn't working out. After a couple of years we had "that" discussion and agreed it was best to part ways. The role was so short-lived that I didn't even have the chance to apply for a green card let alone meet the residential requirement to qualify for one. Of the three occasions I was out of work this is the one where it was more my fault than being a victim of circumstances. My personality and their corporate personality just didn't mix.
When you lose a working visa in the US you don't become illegal straight away, you're illegal six months after it's cancelled. I thought that might be enough time to find a new job. Transferring a work visa, even a cancelled one, is easier than getting a new one because you aren't subject to quotas. I still had to convince a new company (any company) I was better than a US worker and they just needed to take that "one extra step" to get the work visa but at least I wasn't fighting against a quota. In the first two months of the job search there were lots of opportunities and I was getting call backs every week. I was sure I'd get a new job. Then the economy turned; it seemed every company in the US imposed a job freeze at the same time and my call backs dropped to zero — for weeks on end. I'll draw the analogy of losing the visa and becoming illegal not being a black and white thing; you start in the clearly safe zone and you shift one degree every day until after six months you've turned around 180 degrees and you're an illegal alien. After two months and lots of call backs I wasn't concerned; after three months and the call backs ending I was slightly concerned; after four months and no call backs I was worried; after five months I knew the game was up and it was time to leave.
Dawn and I had a serious disagreement around this time. She has the traditional Asian view that it's the husband's job to provide for the family. I am OK with that. Her additional point of view, and I don't know if this is a Thai thing or just her thing, is the husband should also been seen to do as much as possible to support the family. Her view was that if I wasn't working I should mow lawns or flip burgers — anything to get money — otherwise I wasn't trying. My point of view is that if you're conducting a job search then you have a fulltime job finding a fulltime job. It means scouring Internet job postings; polishing the resume to be its absolute best; and networking. There's a rule of thumb in the US that it takes one month of job search for every $10,000 of income; the truth was that even in good conditions it would be a challenge to find a job in just six months. You don't go and flip burgers because you're 1) diverting time from looking for the right job; and 2) devaluing your brand & value. Try explaining it in an executive interview — imagine this: "So Ian, as an executive in the company you'll be responsible for changing the way we do things and motivating everyone to contribute at a whole new level. Tell me what you're doing now and how that will bring about the changes we need?" It doesn't work if you say you're flipping burgers. This difference in approach and opinion between Dawn and me is something we never reconciled.
By the time we left the US she was seriously annoyed with me. I'd lost my second job in three years and she lost her chance to live in the US — this will be explained further in Part 3.
Nevertheless I was determined to make our relocation a good experience. We left our home in the South about ten days before we became illegal and went to Thailand via the west coast. We spent five days in California on the way with one day in each of the major theme parks around LA. It was the experience of a lifetime and a memory I hope the boys never forget. (They were 7 & 4 so they have vague memories of it.)
To this day no one has thanked me for that. I received zero gratitude. Peter & Paul were too young to understand it was a big deal. Dawn felt I was such a disappointment and was so angry with me that she couldn't bring herself to say the words "thank you". What she did say before leaving on the long trip back to Thailand was that she would accept I'd lost a second job, but if it happened again "it would be over". I can't say that left me with a comfortable feeling. And with the things that happened while we were in the US I certainly felt threatened by that comment.
By this time my finances had taken a beating. The money I saved from Indonesia had been whittled away by supporting the family for 12 months with no income. In the States we bought a (great) house but my cash flow couldn't afford the continuing mortgage payments so after I lost the job we had to sell it at a fair discount to its real value. Even then, because the economy had turned bad, it took another nine months to sell and put serious stress on the finances. We went back to Bangkok without a lot of money and were fortunate we could stay with her family. The accommodation wasn't fancy but it was also not living on the streets so it was great. In my entire tale of woe I can't criticise her family. They were always helpful and supportive of their farang relative. Dawn's mother was 100% on my side during the separation and divorce, constantly advising her to take me back. I'm on good terms with the family even now. They, like the naughty girls of Bangkok, couldn't figure out why she would divorce me. It's often said that Thai families stick together no matter what; given that they should have turned against me but instead they've been very good to me. When times were good I helped them but I fully recognise when times were bad they helped me.
By now you might see I'm neither a no hoper nor a high flyer, but I do reasonably well. I'm a sombre kind of guy and I take my responsibilities seriously. I don't spend money frivolously, I care for my family and always support them. Having a family means having commitments. These can't be turned off just because you don't have an income. Rent or mortgage payments, putting food on the table, household bills and things like school costs have to be paid. Your kids' education is critical. As I don't live in my home country and we've moved around a lot the boys mostly went to international schools — and they cost a lot. When we returned to Thailand there was a possibility of Peter going to a Thai school; I wouldn't have liked it but if we had no money what else could we do? Peter had already been in the US school system by that stage and I have to give him credit that he knew himself well. He simply said he would not go to a school unless they taught in English. I used the very last of my money to pay for Peter's entrance and tuition fees at an international school in Bangkok. I was at my wit's end because after making that payment I had nothing left in the bank, but your kids' education is the most important thing you can give them. Keeping my family going was a $10,000 commitment every month. Yes, $10,000. I pleaded with Dawn to cut out unnecessary spending, pointing out what I thought was obvious — that I had no money coming in. I'm not sure what her idea was of reducing spending but it didn't have any impact. We truly didn't spend money unnecessarily, we spent it on commitments. It just takes $10,000 a month to run my family.
Think about that for a minute. I revealed earlier in this post that I was out of work for 45 months. I supported my family through that entire period and it cost me $450,000. My proudest achievement is that my family remained together and did not want for anything (substantial). Peter & Paul went to international schools most of the time. Every time I was unemployed there was an international relocation to get to the new position. Companies paid for some of those but I paid for a few; there were always ancillary costs that came out of my own pocket and they were sometimes substantial. I relocated from a 5 bedroom house in the US to a 3 bedroom place in Bangkok with an additional nine months of storage in the US and paid for that myself. It's now 14 years since the events in the US where my money was basically drained — and there is more bad luck to come because I still haven't described the third period without a job. My finances never recovered. I have zero capital. I have very minimal savings. I have virtually nothing for my retirement which isn't very far away. Peter started university a few years ago and Paul's college costs in the US will start soon. I'm proud that I supported my family and kept us together during the bad years. I would absolutely do it again. But I sure wish I still had that $450,000. And it should be more. When leaving the Indonesian company there were promises made to compensate for the situation and broken promises relating to compensation owed but not paid. I was $150,000 out of pocket for that experience.
I don't have a good relationship with money. I'm the kind of guy who, if I give a stock or financial tip, you should do the exact opposite and you'll be guaranteed to make money. The worst career path I could have would be a financial advisor. And don't worry, I am not in that line of work.
Fifteen months after my employment in the US ended I found work with a US multinational, based in Thailand but with a regional focus in SE Asia. This was a fairly lean and mean company with a good reputation but low on experienced resources so I was soon assigned to work on a big opportunity in China; that was outside of my region but they sent me there because I had the right industry background and the dollar (or RMB) signs were so big they needed everyone they could working on it.
On the personal front things returned to something like normal for a while. A new job meant a new income; the risk I took of paying Peter's school fees with the last of my money paid off and no one in the family starved. Initially staying with Dawn's family meant we didn't have to pay for rent. When we sold the house in the US I had a fresh injection of capital which we used to find a nice house in Bangkok. It was a step down from the great house we had in the US but there was enough space for all of us and we had no trouble adjusting. Things with Dawn were improving. She recovered from her outburst in the US and while life wasn't wonderful it also wasn't too bad. Time went on and Paul was ready to start school. He was academically a bit slower than Peter but there was no question he would go to the same international school as his brother. Everything was going well — for a while.
The problem was the new role wasn't working directly for a company like I had in the past; it was working in the "wonderful" world of services. We sold projects to companies and implemented them or we outsourced processes companies already operated that we took over and then had to perform better & cheaper. I've said this multinational was resource-challenged so you might already see a red flag. This was also my first experience in a business development role where you're paid a lower base salary and your total compensation depends on incentives — a bonus based on sales. I may be a wonderful person and highly experienced but I'm a lousy salesman. I have one significant weakness — I tell the truth. You can see where this is going; I had a business development role as a poor salesman with incentive based compensation in a resource challenged company. Do I need to make it clearer? No, I didn't think so. But wait, there's more …
In additional, this multinational company turned out to be unethical. This is a highly respected company so it took me by complete surprise. They laid out their rules for bonus payments in a straightforward manner and told all of their business development people to go out and sell. Bonuses would be paid based on sales. But in a resource challenged environment they ran into problems delivering on several projects. That didn't faze them; nine months into one of the years they announced they were changing the bonus plans so they would only pay based on profitable deals. I can see the business logic of that decision but an ethical company would say "All of you went out and did what we asked. Unfortunately we asked you to do the wrong thing and couldn't provide you with the resources to deliver on what you sold. For that reason, effective next year, we will change our bonus structure to pay based on profitable deals." But no, in a staggering example of non-existent ethics they changed the bonus calculations retrospectively applying new rules to the current year. In business-speak this is called moving the goal posts. No one went out to sell unprofitable deals, they turned out that way because of unexpected costs, mainly because additional resources were needed due to the inexperience of people in the company. I repeat, they did this nine months into the year so there was no time to adjust to the new rules. Deals were typically in the pipeline for 6-18 months so they simply took the opportunity to pay no bonuses to anyone that year.
So I wasn't getting bonus payments. I was a critical member of the sales and delivery team on a $60+ million opportunity in China where we won $40 million of new business and I got zip as a result. That wasn't because of the change in bonus rules, that's because I was working outside of my designated region. I wasn't kidding when I said this company was lean and mean. But you can see where this is heading. I was paid less than my previous roles because I was supposed to be on incentive based pay. For various reasons the incentives were never paid. Add to the mix that international school fees go up by about 15% pa and it wasn't long until I was underwater — my commitments were more than my income. Something had to give.
It was me. I caved. I was getting sick of financial problems; sick of the constant worry; sick of the company policies; sick of the people I worked with; and by extension I was sick of Asia. In one of the worst decisions I ever made I decided it was time to go back to my home country. Where are the psychologists when you need them?
I started to look for work "back home" and found a contracting opportunity. I had to set up my own company and contract my services to a big organisation but the money was attractive and I figured it was a golden opportunity — both for me personally and to show Peter & Paul their homeland. By this time I felt they were culturally unaware of their origins and they should know about their other country (as they have two passports and already lived in Thailand).
I left my family in Bangkok and went "home". I had a six month contract but that short period wasn't a problem because it would be extended. Wrong. At the end of six months they said "Gee, Ian, your work is great. We really like you. But the work you're doing is being moved to a large company as part of a big contract with them and unfortunately we don't have anything else for you right now." In an ironic twist my work was transitioned to the same multinational company I just left. It meant I had to go out and find other work for my little contracting company. Did I mention I'm a lousy salesman?
So here I was without work again. And this turned out to be the killer. In the end I was out of work for 18 months; with $10,000 a month of commitments and not a lot of savings to fall back on. At the beginning of this period of unemployment the family hadn't yet joined me from Thailand. I swallowed hard and relocated the family "back home" because even though I didn't have a current contract I was sure I'd get one. Perhaps I have a streak of optimism in me that isn't completely justified.
I networked, I strained, I suffered for 18 long, hard months before I found a new role. My relationship with Dawn was more and more difficult. She felt it was my job to support the family. She'd warned me in the US that she wouldn't accept another period with no income. And here it was — it had happened again. Oh dear. And when I finally found work it meant another relocation with Peter & Paul changing schools again. Oh dear, oh dear. At least they were in the state school system in my home country so there were no expensive school fees to pay. But they complained they were falling behind because the curriculum in both of the schools was just a rehash of what they'd already learned at the international school in Bangkok. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. And to make it worse this is the first time Dawn had to deal with my family. Oh dear x4.
My father is a crusty old bugger. It's hard to believe considering I'm so nice; the acorn fell far from the tree on that one. My father says what he wants, when he wants, how he wants and anyone who doesn't like it can be damned. Dawn took a good look at him, a good look at me and decided that perhaps the acorn hadn't fallen as far from the tree as she wanted. I think this was the final straw for her and it's when she started to actively plan her strategy to get out. She just had to get that passport first.
And that's a wrap for this part of the story. Dawn's culture says it's the husband's responsibility to provide for the family. She even warned me of the consequences of not having an income. Every time, in fact every month, I was unemployed it eroded her confidence in me. Every time I found a new job it meant a significant relocation; you can look at that as a positive (new life, new country) or a negative (changing schools and finding a new support network). Maybe everything would have been OK if I'd kept my job. I outlaid a fortune to keep the family going when I had no work which left me in a dire financial position. I lost my job(s), I lost my savings and in the end I lost my wife, too.
Part 3, titled Her Point of View, will follow soon …