After the 2016 U.S. Elections: Whose Land Will It Be?

Los Angeles, California

November 14, 2016

This American election, unlike any since the Civil War, has been nation and earth shattering in its implications. This was not normal, and it may take awhile to determine America’s moral compass and role in the world.

The country that I passionately love and have lived in as a Vietnamese-American immigrant and citizen for over four decades suddenly appears to be a less welcoming place than I and many others had thought. I had hoped that unity was a shared national objective, not a lingering question. I can’t help but feel like a foreigner in my own land even in California, on the liberal edge of an increasingly ‘Divided States of America.’ I noticed similar nativist sentiments while visiting London this past summer during the Brexit vote, which seems to have spread across the Atlantic and taken invasive root in the Mid-Western heartland with the surprising election of Donald Trump. I can only imagine what millions of undocumented migrants must be feeling now about their uncertain future.

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

The folksy notion that “This land is your land, this land is my land,” may not be what millions of voters or even half the country believes in given the results of the 2016 elections. Rather, exit polls indicate that a majority of white Americans voted for Trump (52 percent of women, 63 percent of men) and those without a college education did so resoundingly (67 percent). Americans that feel most threatened by immigration and job loss were drawn to Trump’s tune to “Make America Great Again.” Tellingly, America may not be “made for you and me” as the cherised Woody Guthrie song goes, and did not fully embrace Hillary Clinton’s slogan of being “Stronger Together.”

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.

The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’

But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

Woody’s daughter Nora Guthrie has commented that some politically-motivated verses in the original version were removed due to the looming threat of McCarthyism in the 1950s towards expressions that could be perceived as un-American. So the lyrics about “a big high wall there that tried to stop me” and its sarcastic undertones about unity and private enterprise, never made it into the popular version. Perhaps as Guthrie foresaw, America is bent on building barriers to keep people apart – and possibly along the southern border with Mexico based on Trump’s heated campaign rhetoric.

America has been, and hopefully still can be a beacon of tolerance to the world, and by example, help bridge the many political challenges and cultural differences that divide us. We celebrated the election of our first African-American president with Barack Obama, who steered the nation towards economic recovery, ensured more equal rights and healthcare benefits to many citizens and advanced climate change and other progressive initiatives. But, prospects for expanding this legacy have hit a “big high wall.”

Hillary Clinton, the candidate I supported strongly in the 2016 elections, seemed a week ago to have gained enough support to become the nation’s first female president, with her broad coalition of young, educated, female and ethnic voters. On November 8, that coalition enabled Clinton to win the popular vote by nearly a million votes and growing, but not the electoral college which decides the election.  Clinton could not withstand the crumbling support in the Mid-Western “Blue Wall” as white, working-class voters connected with Trump’s outsider status and promises to improve their livelihood and “drain the swamp” of the political establishment.  These voters favored Trump despite his many flaws, or perhaps thought Clinton was more dishonest given the investigation into her private email server, which was arguably less equivalent a sin compared to Trump’s scandalous behavior and frequent disregard of the truth.

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In defiance of the statistical polls, media pundits and coastal elites, voters chose to erect a monolithic political wall as Trump will govern along with the dominance of Republicans in the House and Senate, and a likely majority in the Supreme Court. It has been a decade since one party had control over both chambers of Congress and the presidency, which allows it to purse laws and policies that have lasting impact.

I used to work in Washington DC for over a decade in international economic policy, and have witnessed how majority rule can undermine minority interests and overreach the people’s will when there are few checks and balances. Democracy gives politicians a mandate, and much can be enacted or blocked by the power of the executive and whoever controls the agenda and budgets in Congressional committees. Emboldened egos with political power can seriously undermine personal liberties at home and America’s standing abroad, which is the frightening scenario we may encounter over the next two to four years, or longer.

We are in uncharted territory, as a Trump regime seems less willing to engage abroad than since the end of U.S. isolationism during the second world war. We are at risk of reneging on trade agreements, environmental commitments and security treaties. The retreat of the world’s superpower is dangerous as 95 percent of the rest of the world’s population is affected by the leadership of the 5 percent in America. We benefit from their success and they from ours. Moreover, friends and adversaries are keen to fill the vacuum of American leadership, which would result in unpredictable and destabilizing consequences.

Closer to home, many U.S. residents including myself have faced discrimination before, and acts of hate seem to be on the rise whether targeting differences in race, gender, orientation or perspective. After this election, many feel more anxious than ever that the victors may impose an oppressive vision on the country that could permeate in American attitudes and values for generations to come.  We can’t help but think that up to half of the country is threatened by people who are not of their color or creed, or by a woman or LGBT person. This uncertainty and fear of each other’s intentions is a sad way for us to live.

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Although post-election protests can emphasize the need to preserve rights and create sanctuaries from abuse and discrimination, they are unlikely to overturn election results and the daunting power of the parties in charge. Still, we must hold President-elect Trump and the politicians in Washington accountable by any legal and peaceful means, lest they try to unravel the American fabric of multiculturalism, which are essential fibers in our efforts to form a “more perfect union.”

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,

This land was made for you and me. © (Woody Guthrie)

Guthrie’s song may provide some comfort and remind us of America’s harmonious spirit. We can only hope that leading voices will chant with dignity and help lift the bitter fog that hovers over us. If so, then the graceful light of America’s star may shine for all residents who believe “this land was made for you and me.” If not, then we are facing a long, dark winter and many divisive days ahead.

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Advancing Americanism at Home and Abroad: #ImWithHer

November 7, 2016
Los Angeles, California

The 2016 elections are thankfully, almost over, assuming Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump score a decisive victory in the Electoral College after the polls close on November 8, and the results are willingly accepted by the parties and people, as has been the case since the end of the American Civil War.

After what has been an extremely bitter contest, hopefully the America that I love and respect as a U.S. citizen — which embraced my immigrant family since we arrived from Vietnam over 40 years ago and has given us precious opportunities to assimilate, will be able to heal and adjust to the daunting challenges ahead.

So much is at stake in this historic election as it will redefine the direction of the world’s most powerful, diverse and innovative nation.  Many in the world admire America’s integrity and ideals, though are quite anxious about how the outcome of this presidential election may shape America’s borders and engagement globally.  Judging from the movements of the U.S. stock exchange and the Mexican peso, the markets favor a steady, political hand over an untested and disruptive force.

On the one hand, Hillary Clinton is an extremely qualified woman with sound temperament and over four decades of meaningful public service and foreign policy experience.  My brief personal encounters with Hillary Clinton occurred while I was living in Geneva and Washington DC.  On these occasions, she was engaged with pressing global issues as she attended as First Lady the 1998 WTO Ministerial Conference and 50th anniversary commemoration of the multilateral trading system in Geneva, and was a featured speaker as a U.S. Senator at the Vital Voices Leadership Awards celebrating brave women in Washington DC in 2006.   I admire her devotion to shining a light on vulnerable populations — including those struggling with poverty, discrimination and globalization.  On a personal level, I went from a conservative Republican upbringing to a more liberal and worldly perspective, and decided to support her in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, as I wholeheartedly do now in the 2016 elections.

The alternative, Donald Trump is an erratic, anti-establishment candidate with scant knowledge or appreciation of America’s political institutions and global affairs, who has also disparaged people based on gender, race, religion, immigration status, disability, to name a few.   He has demagogic tendencies and is prone to spreading lies (with over 70 percent false statements as fact-checked by PolitiFact).  He has also threatened to unravel critical security alliances like NATO and agreements on trade and climate change, which would seriously undermine peace, prosperity and sustainability.  As a trade specialist, I can recognize the need to refine market-access commitments and enforce trade rules to “level the playing field” — but retreating from long-standing treaties and erecting questionable tariff barriers will impede the ability of U.S. businesses to succeed, compete and create higher-paying jobs.

As an American immigrant, teacher, entrepreneur and global executive — I am in a good position to recognize that population shifts and shocks arising from globalization will continue to reshape my American homeland and its 324 million citizens as well as the 7.4 billion or 95 percent of the population outside of the country.  Livelihoods are vulnerable to the forces of commerce, mobility and technology.  For better or worse, these trends are inevitable and the America that was, will never be the same.  Change is hard and time is merciless as it moves forward, even if many people want to retreat inward or to a nostalgic era.  Yet, there is still much potential for Americans to become more prosperous through our enterprising spirit and stronger in our diversity.

This defining presidential elections will likely test the viability of U.S. democracy, social equality and tolerance in the world’s most multi-cultural nation.  America can continue to inspire and provide much needed leadership in the world.  The alternative, unfortunately, can result in geopolitical chaos as the world becomes less safe and more poor.

Voting responsibly this year is so critical to advancing ideals of Americanism at home and abroad, and for generations ahead.   We will bear responsibility for shaping the course and destiny of the American republic on November 8, 2016.  #ImWithHer

 

Return to Vietnam: Offering Global Perspectives to a New Generation

11 August 2016, Hanoi, Vietnam (Postcard)

“… On perhaps my eighth trip here over the past two decades, I have visited with family and colleagues from Da Nang & Hoi An in the Central coast to HCMC/Saigon in the South, to Hanoi in the North.  On this trip, I made it to the mountainous region of Sapa just as the emerald rice paddies were at their most verdant peak.

Here in Hanoi, I was invited to teach an international business class to a young, eager and “green” crop of college students at the Foreign Trade University.

It has been an honor to pass on my global insights to these Vietnamese students.  I hope they will be inspired and grow into future explorers and leaders at home and further afield… MDN”

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“Take my suitcase,” my father offered as I searched my parent’s home for luggage to carry my books, gifts and various items for a month-long trip to Asia.  As a seasoned globe-trotter, I usually bring only carry-on bags for most trips… but this journey would necessitate more baggage.

As my father handed me his dusty black nylon Samsonite, which he last used on a trip to Seattle for his brother, my uncle’s funeral in March 2015, he did so with a nostalgic gesture.  “I don’t think I will be using it again,”  he said firmly, as has always been his manner throughout my upbringing.  The words struck me as I couldn’t really fathom him not traveling, ever again… the man who instilled such a great sense of exploration in me.  From the many visits to American national parks where my brother and I slept in the backseat of his Toyota camper, to a European vacation to visit my brother when he was stationed in Warsaw, or a return to Vietnam to visit relatives.  This wanderlust has been rooted deep in my cultural mindset, physical stamina and restless soul.  I just couldn’t imagine retiring luggage — or a traveler at heart who could no longer venture forth.

Prior to the trip, I consulted my oncologist friend on whether I should go on the trip at all as it was a delicate stage in my father’s health.  His cancer had reappeared in the Spring as a Stage 4 development, and some doctors suggested this time would be tougher and more unpredictable than before it went into remission.  I also noticed a change in my father’s attitude, as he was more resigned towards the inevitable.

About two months earlier, my colleague at Cal State University Fullerton (CSUF) had asked if I would be interested in teaching an international business and management class at the Foreign Trade University (FTU) in Hanoi, which has a long-standing faculty and student exchange program with CSUF.  I initially agreed, though took precautions in the event I had to return home earlier than expected.  Also, the summer would be full of international travel as I had work meetings in London and an alumni reunion in Italy in June… and knew that beyond this season, I would need to stay closer to home.  Then as July approached, I packed my bags and my father’s suitcase, and left for Singapore for a stopover to visit with former classmates prior to arriving in Vietnam.

1 August 2016, Hanoi

“The women of Sapa are examples of savvy global entrepreneurs,” I explained to my class upon the start of our second week together.  “They were trekking guides, spoke many languages, invited foreigners to stay with their families in local homestays, and got us to buy all these handicrafts they made!”

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I had just spent the weekend and taken the overnight train to the mountainous region of Sapa, where our group hiked all day in the rain and across rushing streams to the village of Lao Chai.  The journey was worth every soggy step as we were immersed in the cascading, terraced emerald rice paddies and welcomed by hospitable and enterprising local hill tribes.

The journey provided me with some local anecdotes for my class of 32 Vietnamese college students at FTU, many of whom were age 21 or younger and had not left Vietnam.  As their teacher, I tried to inspire them to become astute decision makers as they experience more of the world.  Unanimously, they all wanted to spend time working or living abroad; no surprise, as the focus of FTU is on international business.

Personally, it was an enriching experience for me to be invited back to Vietnam to offer my global perspectives.  My previous trips since 1995 have been short, after having left the country of my birth over 40 years ago.  I shared with the class stories about growing up in America, and how it was a more individualistic yet an innovative culture.  Later, I would go on to work for a multilateral organization — the WTO in Geneva, and support multinationals like FedEx and Toyota with trade negotiations at ministerial conferences in Mexico and Hong Kong.  When we discussed the Saudi Arabia culture case from the textbook, I recounted a trip to Riyadh with my boss to advise on the country’s WTO negotiations.  From meetings with officials in Brussels and Tokyo, to speaking on panels in London, Sao Paulo and Shanghai, over a decade of international trade work provided useful insights to the students on the conduct of cross-border transactions, regulatory frameworks and collaboration in cross-cultural teams.

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By the time we finished the class with group presentations on August 12, I was delighted that several of them told me they were inspired by what they learned, and would seek global careers after graduation.  My greatest hope for them, or any of my students, is that they can be better prepared in their education to succeed in whatever their passions or dreams they want to achieve — in a more borderless, connected and competitive world.

As for me, I decided to return to California the next morning even though I usually would linger and catch up with family and friends in the region.  I had some events to attend to back home with my day job and creative gigs, prepare to teach again in the fall semester at CSUF, in addition to the annual gathering of UCLA Anderson’s global MBA programs where I remain active in the alumni network.

Also, I was simply, eager to spend some quiet time at home with my father and family given that in the following seasons, the days will grow shorter… and with the faster passage of time, a sentimental and inward journey awaits.

In the uncertain yet inevitable paths ahead, we can only hope for good health, greater happiness, and a lasting love and legacy that transcend the boundaries of the short time and space we have on this earth.

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A Birthday and a Brexit in London: Years of Uncertainty Ahead

June 23, 2016, London, United Kingdom

“Remain, of course!” my English legal scholar friend Carol explained her vote that day to my German friend Ben as we celebrated my birthday at Hutong restaurant in the upper floor of the spectacular 95-story skyscraper known as The Shard, the tallest building within the 28 member states of the European Union (EU).   Carol and I have known each other for nearly two decades, and we also toasted that evening to her recent appointment as department head of the law faculty.

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Since I arrived in London that morning from Geneva, I was bombarded by the numerous pronouncements one way or the other about the “Brexit” vote to “Remain” or “Leave.”  It was the topic of polite and serious conversations throughout my professional meetings that day with several British companies.  They were all exporters to the EU and beyond, and were rather nervous about the negative implications of being shut out of the European single market as well as retaining talented European employees in the country.

As I went from London City Airport to the West End and about town, the multi-cultural mix of Black Cab and Uber drivers were also very opinionated, with a vocal Englishman proclaiming his vote to leave due to immigration, sovereignty and budget concerns — while African, Romanian and South Asian drivers all expressed their anxieties about whether they could or still wanted to work in the UK if it were to leave the EU.

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By dinner time, the political rhetoric was reaching its end game as the polls were closing and early indications were that the voting would be very tight with the Remain camp likely to pull ahead.  Moreover, the financial markets on the eve of the vote were banking on the pound rising and the U.K. staying intact in the EU which it joined in 1973, and last voted to stay in 1975 by a 67% margin.

The sunrise the next morning on Friday, June 24 flooded my hotel room in Shoreditch around 5am, so I turned on the TV and saw the British media had just made their call based on a 52% to 48% margin — the UK had voted to leave the EU, the first time a major member state has done so!  The stunning result sent shockwaves across Europe and far beyond the English Channel, unsettling Asian markets that were open before the traders in the City of London had arrived at their desks.  Soon after, political and financial chaos ensued as Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation and the pound dramatically lost its value… and this was just the early and blinding hours of Brexit.

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Among the first interactions I had were with my global MBA classmates who hours before were sending birthday wishes in a WhatsApp chat group.  The discussion quickly shifted to a lively and sometimes humorous debate over the implications of #Brexit or #Regrexit which also started trending.

Was it time to buy pounds that were losing their value and weight rapidly?  Would German or French become the prominent languages of the EU after English loses its champion?  And ominously, was this a sign of anti-globalization sentiment on the rise and that Donald Trump — who coincidentally or purposely was in Scotland at his golf resort and supported Brexit — might be the next major populist and political uprising in the U.S. elections in the fall?

The day before the Brexit vote, I was visiting my former colleagues at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, and also stayed with my Swiss friend Matthias who previously worked as a trade negotiator for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) comprised of non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.  As a trade specialist, I realized that the UK would soon face great difficulty in unraveling exiting rules AND launching new trade agreements with many key trading partners after four decades of aligning its trade policies with the EU.  Outside the EU, the UK stands to lose its negotiating leverage and face many regulatory complexities going solo while trying to obtain and digest trade preferences a la carte.

There was much talk after Brexit about whether the UK could still gain access to the EU single market — the world’s largest, or lose its financial “passporting” and other rights as it was reluctant to accept the EU’s four fundamental principles including free movement of labor in addition to removing barriers to goods, services and capital.   Some observers suggested the UK’s best hope would be for Norway or Swiss-style deals (as members of EFTA and not of the EU) which allows them access to the EU single market while having little to no political say on the other freedoms of movement.  Or, the UK might find itself forced out of the EU single market in the initial period as a deterrent to other countries considering a similar path, and in the “back of the queue” when it comes to trade deals with major trading partners like the United States, as President Obama had warned prior to the Brexit vote.

The political, economic and social turmoil has yet to abate as much uncertainty remains in the near term and years ahead, including when and how exit negotiations with the EU will proceed once the UK invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allowing it up to two years to withdraw from the EU.  The UK is facing internal as well as external crises as civil war has erupted within the ruling Conservative and opposition Labor parties — coupled with the threat of sovereign breakup as Scotland and Northern Ireland supported remaining as opposed to England and Wales who favored leaving.  The UK’s “Independence Day” ironically could result in another Scottish referendum of independence and the reunification of Ireland, while making England a smaller and less influential country.

Birthdays are often a time for reflection for me, and apparently for the UK on this pivotal day forward given its monumental and divisive decision to leave the EU.  Time will tell whether this decision was a veUK-pic1ry bad one for the UK, the EU and global cooperation overall, or if these British isles can manage to persevere and punch above their weight just as they have extended their influence over many cultures and generations across the world.

As I looked upon the gleaming city of London from the glassy Shard tower upon turning another year… it struck me that age, wealth and the public mood are ever shifting and a reflection of the veritable present, and not necessarily of an established past or an impulsive future.

Time is both a savior and enemy, always moving forward with precision and uncertainty.  In the face of this unpredictability, perhaps the best advice to heed is to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

 

When Worlds Align: 2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings

1 January 2016, Los Angeles, California

“When Worlds Align:  2015 Year-End Reflections and New Year Greetings”

“Make sure they call you Professor Nguyen!” My friend Nhutrang said jokingly when I announced I would start teaching an International Business Management course in January 2016 at California State University in Fullerton.

My dear friends Phong and Nhutrang were hosting a holiday brunch at their home in the Washington DC area where long-time friends joined, some whom I had met during my first time in DC in 1993 when I started an internship on my 21st birthday at the Department of State.  Earlier that week, I had lunch with Ambassador Tomseth and his family, who was the Chief of Mission on my first trip abroad as an intern at the American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos in the Summer of 1994.  Over two decades later, it seems timely and appropriate for me to impart some of that knowledge gained from international and entrepreneurial pursuits to a group of millennial students and global citizens.

Sometimes and in distant lands, worlds align… as was the case on my first trip to Colombia in November to visit my long-time musical collaborator Juan and his family. Since we met in UCLA Extension’s music program in 2009, we have been writing songs together and released our last album “The Universe in Me” in 2012 (also when I closed the full-time operations of Planet LA Records).   After a three-year impasse, we are about to launch our defining effort and musical called “Lovers and Angels” about the City of Los Angeles on January 4, 2016 (click image below for a preview).

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It was also an opportunity to visit my Fletcher School classmate Jeroen who is now the Belgian ambassador to Colombia. The worlds of music and international diplomacy crossed in Bogota… leaving me feeling a bit nostalgic about a diplomatic career that could have been, and the hope of a creative legacy that has yet to be.

2015 also took me to other new countries including Sweden in April following an aviation conference in Germany and a visit to manufacturing facilities in Italy, as part of my work with global sourcing company Wessco.  While in Milan, I caught up with my MBA classmate Daniele who suggested hosting a reunion in Italy next summer. I also returned to Asia in July with my mother on a trip to Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, and to attend the graduation ceremony for the dual-MBA program between UCLA Anderson and the National University of Singapore.  During that journey while in my birthplace of the beach town of Da Nang, I woke up to the news that I was appointed to serve as vice president of the UCLA Anderson alumni network for a three-year term.

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My father wasn’t able to join us in Asia, though fortunately his health has stabilized since his major surgery.   His uncertain condition has been a constant reminder to appreciate and take every moment in stride.  In the Spring, my family traveled together to Seattle for the funeral of his brother, my uncle Ky who passed away in March.   We had a large reunion among my cousins, all of whom had children of their own – in contrast to my brother and I who have none.

As in previous years with Planet LA, I continued to facilitate synergies between artists, brands and causes by supporting partners including Whole Foods Market and their charity Whole Planet Foundation with an annual Pre-Grammy party and Summer Music Series.  The third annual party set records by raising more than $20,000 for global micro-lending programs and was attended by over a thousand industry guests.  Planet LA also showcased emerging and global artists during the SXSW festival, the Gibson Guitar showroom and with other partners.

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As I look back upon 2015, it was the first year in awhile where my diverse worlds came into balance, both personally and professionally.  My family was intact and distant friends still close. I was gainfully employed and could better serve my professional and creative communities, and alumni network.  For the first time in three years, I was able to write music again and will soon share this labor of artistic passion.  And, after selling my homes in DC followed by years of transitory living between family and friends, I found my own place again.

My footing has been restored after a prolonged journey defined by relocation, repositioning and reinvention.  Now, I am in a good position to share some of these lessons in a classroom and beyond.  Often times, it takes focus and perseverance to set worlds that collided back into harmony and alignment.

So thank you to my dear family, friends and believers for their unconditional support and faith in my hopes and potential.  Best wishes to all for a promising 2016!

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Lifelong Learning and Lessons Learned

July 7, 2015, Singapore

“So, what do you hope to accomplish with this degree?” my fellow classmate Jakob asked, as we celebrated after our graduation ceremony earlier that day from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

The question struck me — was this second chance and effort at reinvention going to lead to a more balanced professional career, or will it be filled with as many thrills and spills as the preceding go around?

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Life can be ironic as it is forgiving as I had come full circle after two decades and double degrees from the same institutions UCLA and NUS (a BA in 1994 and an MBA in 2014 from UCLA; a Fulbright Fellow in 1995 and an MBA in 2015 from NUS), and had reached a point where I was finally finished with school, but not with learning.  In fact, I was far from done in my association with these repeat alma maters…

July 14, 2015, Da Nang, Vietnam

“It’s official! Welcome to the Executive Committee as VP!”  Wendy the president of the UCLA Anderson Alumni Network of over 30,000 Andersonite Bruins, wrote in a congratulatory email I received upon waking 14 hours ahead in the place of my birth, Da Nang, Vietnam.   I had been confirmed as vice president of the alumni network a year after graduation and having served as president of the class of 2014 UCLA-NUS Global Executive MBA for the Asia Pacific.

As I gazed outside towards the bright, rising sun as it dashed above the South China Sea, the moment seemed all the more amazing.  All this privileged education, the ability to serve in global institutions, pursue a creative passion, and yes, perhaps still have the drive and ability to accomplish something more meaningful.   What do I hope to accomplish?  How should it be defined or measured?  (maybe based on return on investment (ROI); now that I have an MBA, I probably should think that way!)

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Why was I provided such incredible opportunities, as opposed to the fisherman hauling in his catch that morning to feed his family, or the taxi driver waiting to earn a 40,000 Dong fare (about US$2), or the budding local entrepreneur who had a later start than I did as Vietnam embraced capitalism two decades after the end of the war?  Not to downplay their livelihoods, but I do feel very grateful.

Coincidentally, 1995 was when I first returned to visit the country after leaving in 1975 at the age of two as the war ended with just a small suitcase of clothes my parents had packed, though with plenty of space for a hopeful future.

Over the past two decades, I’ve returned to study, work and vacation on more than a dozen trips to Japan, Great China, Indochina and the rest of Southeast Asia.   Every time, I’ve been amazed by the energy and dynamism of the region — and how increasingly interlinked it is with the America and the rest of the world, whether culturally or economically.

Given my cross-cultural upbringing and education, if I can serve as a bridge between East and West and improve commerce and understanding — then that’s a useful purpose.

July 17, 2015, Hanoi, Vietnam

Văn Miếu known as The Temple of Literature — is Vietnam’s first imperial university founded in 1070 by then King Lý Nhân Tông for the nobility and wealthy based on Confucian principles and worship of knowledge.  I first visited this historic site in 1995 along with two American classmates studying at NUS in Singapore.  Today, I thought it would be fitting to end my latest journey to Asia by paying homage to this academic mecca.  For good measure and appreciation, I brought along my latest credential earned over the past two years of hitting the books and sweating out the exams (not to mention, in sweltering humidity that day).

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For over 700 years, this esteemed institution paid utmost respects to its teachers, laureates and elite students that excelled in their tests as they strived to attain revered status as mandarins and become public leaders.  Since 2010, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is often filled with tourists as well as locals who come to pray for skill on their own exams (or usually, parents praying on behalf of their children), and all can now buy lucky amulets with encouragements like “Study” and “Intelligence” for just a dollar.

The temple’s layout is similar to the Chinese temple at Qufu in Shangdong, Confucius’ birthplace, and divided into five main courtyards, with the third containing the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” before approaching the inner sanctums.

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I came here today to reflect, whether divinely or in egalitarian spirit, upon my own lessons learned in the classroom or otherwise over the past two decades (and recognize we all have different objectives, so not proselytizing).

Here is my simple list of three:

Humility Leads to Growth:  The more I am able to learn, whether it be a new skill or from an unforeseen perspective, the more I feel humble and enlightened.  Humility often arises from an open mind and heart, which allows growth to take place.  This could come from an engaging conversation with someone we thought was too different, or experiencing the world.  Otherwise, we may become too fixed in our ways.

Giving is Rewarding:  I have found that offering my time, knowledge or resources to support others or a cause is a wonderful and fulfilling investment, especially when it’s done with no return expected.  Generosity is rewarding in itself as well as to society.

Opportunity Offers Great Potential:  Perhaps being an immigrant, I have had an engrained sense of not taking opportunities for granted.  In approaching each new idea, partnership or innovation — I instinctively think of whether it is possible to attain the synergistic 1+1 = 3, which should make something that is not ideal better.  Opportunities can be remarkable if we achieve their greatest potential.

With these lessons learned and latest credentials earned… I still have much left to accomplish whether as a business leader, a humble servant or in lifelong learning.

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Summer Solstice & Birthday Celebrations

June 20, 2015, Santa Monica, California

“Maybe one of the birthday boys would like to join me for my final song,” Joseph Eid said in feigned surprised as he gestured me to join him on stage.   Moments before his set, we had quickly rehearsed a song together in the parking garage of Studio Maesto in Santa Monica.

I had reached out to him the day before as I was very impressed by his acoustic rendition of Pink’s song, “Try” and suggested we try “Try” at the joint birthday celebration I was hosting with good friends Christian and Javon which also supported an arts program for at-risk kids.

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“It’s been years since I’ve sang in public, so bare with us…” I told the full audience of friends, family and brand partners gathered in the courtyard of the studio.

It was three summers ago at the start of the Summer Solstice on my 40th birthday when I last appeared on stage with a group of artists friends to release an album I co-wrote with my musical collaborator from Colombia, Juan Andres Lizarazo. That was for “The Universe in Me” from our band When Planets Align which we started in 2009, and was the reason for the launch of Planet LA Records, our self-made label.

In June 2012, we released our last album just as we were closing the office of Planet LA as my former business partner Ben and I struggled to find a sustainable business model to support emerging and global artists.  Since then, Planet LA has evolved into a marketing entity focused on brand relationships with Gibson Guitar, Whole Foods Market and its charitable arm Whole Planet Foundation, among a diverse mix of partners from City National Bank, Teas’ Tea, Original Penguin and Uber.

“When there is desire, there is gonna be a flame

Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned…

I joined Joseph in the chorus of “Try” as most of the audience had never seen me perform live. Though, there were several steadfast friends including co-birthday boys Christian Rodrigo a talented actor from Spain and Javon Frazier a marketing guru previously at Marvel/Disney – who were there on that pivotal evening three years ago, when I wasn’t sure what I was “trying” to accomplish in the creative space or going to do from there.

Birthday2015-1Back then, artist friends Rebecca Sullivan and Nadine Ellman had also performed as they did three years later – and continued to stay engaged as Planet LA survived and evolved with a different focus after closing its label operations.

“But just because it burns, doesn’t mean you’re gonna die

You’ve gotta get up, and try try try…”

I sang the chorus several times with Joseph and percussionist Lucas, as the beat drove on, amplifying the professional and personal implications of the song.

Later that evening, as a surprise to our guests – several artists and our long-time producer Cartier Cutsinger and I announced a new project called “Lovers and Angels” a rock opera about L.A. Our composer Juan had returned to L.A. earlier in the year after a three-year absence to work on the project, just as I was getting settled again in a new place after years of being transient and “trying” to regain my sense of direction and balance.

The first song called “Summer Came Too Soon” is sung by Connie Lim, a talented solo artist. Juan wrote the catchy melody while I wrote the nostalgic lyrics, which is the trademark of our musical chemistry. I actually finished the song on February 14 upon writing to Juan’s melody, so decided it would be about love, of course.

We arranged for two dancers to interpret the song as part of the sneak-peek premiere. They swayed, and swept around the dance floor rhythmically in step with the opening verses:

“When Mercury is in retrograde, it’s time to appreciate and contemplate

As Venus glows, the moon slowly fades, the stars can guide the will of fate

When plump green jade begins to bloom, my luck accelerates maybe too soon

As seasons turn, perceptions can undo, as spring gushed forth, I met you…

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Then parted with the closing stanza:

Summer Solstice left me high and dry, like the receding Lunar tides

You came and went like constellations foretold

I learned from loss, you touched my soul…”

Here’s a preview:

 

I’ve always appreciated having a birthday at the start of the Summer Solstice, partly because of my fondness for the warm season and more so, for the bountiful possibilities of the longest day into night.

For me, life has always been about being able to savor every moment and realizing the potential of what actions may bring. Whether through professional ambition, creative drive or personal passion, I have been rewarded and humbled in my pursuits as “trying” in life or love can be wonderful, challenging and usually unpredictable.

But, “trying” and getting burned or learning from loss is often better than the “not trying” and missing out on the wonder of life’s upstarts, fits and flukes… whether on a long summer night celebrating birthdays and surprises, or throughout our impermanent and mercurial time on earth.

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