Return Trip to Geneva: Re-Connecting with Ground Control

3 April 2014

Geneva, Switzerland

geneva-apr2014-back“… Upon arrival this early Spring morning, I crossed the Pont du Mont-Blanc towards the L’horloge Fleurie (flower clock) which was blooming on schedule as the over-sized hands rotated over the in-laid yellow flowers that were changed with seasonal precision.

Just beyond was the ever potent Jet d’eau (water fountain) which framed a misty rainbow against the billowing sails that made their way between Alpine lakeside towns of Evian and Montreux across the crystal waters of Lac Leman.

It has been nearly six years since my last trip to Geneva.  The WTO Doha Round is now past its 12th year of painstaking negotiation.  Some former WTO colleagues have moved on, while many others have remained to carry forth globalization.   Though, I have traveled less far and often in recent years, my perspectives appear to be deeper and wide-ranging as I reflect upon a former career and promising future.  MDN”

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United Airlines Flight 956:  Newark/New York to Geneva

2-3 April 2014

“Just like the old days” … posted my friend Mike Mossetig, a former journalist with The News Hour in Washington D.C. who has since retired and relocated to Hong Kong.  He was the first to respond to my Facebook update mentioning I was en route to Geneva and Europe.

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The seasoned Boeing 767-300 plane reminded me of the jet-set “old days” and of my previous trip to Geneva in 2008.  I had taken this same route many times when it was still a Continental Airlines flight (which has since merged with United), among the over fifty trips to Geneva while living in Washington D.C. and working for two global law firms for over a decade.

Six Springs ago, I was at the peak of my previous career and was traveling to Europe to participate in a seminar hosted by my former firm’s London office featuring the Deputy Trade Minister of Ukraine Valeriy Pyatnytskiy on May 14, 2008, just after he led his country’s delegation in concluding its 14-year WTO accession negotiations.  Ukraine is now making headlines again with the recent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and given the struggles the country is facing politically and economically.  On that last trip, I also had an interview for a global advisory position with a prominent Swiss insurance company.

Looking back on that moment, if I had remained in a corporate role – the past six years would have resulted in a far different existence… I would have been a wealthier and more traveled man, but perhaps not as enriched as from the independent path I eventually took.  The following year in 2009 upon returning to Los Angeles, I established a consulting practice and creative business in pursuit of a passion.  The seasons have flown by in the West where I had to learn survival skills in an entrepreneurial world, and now am re-learning as an Executive MBA student at UCLA Anderson and its partner program in Singapore.

“Ground Control to Major Tom,” was a repeated lyric from the David Bowie song “Space Oddity” in movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” – which I watched during the flight to Geneva on the 3×5 postcard-sized screen of the plane.

Mitty’s character played by Ben Stiller was prone to daydreaming about an exciting life, but in reality had not gone anywhere, or done anything notable.  At the start of the movie, he turns 42 and had been living a life lacking in purpose, respect and romance.

Mitty’s boss in the opening scenes ridicules his daydreaming:  “Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.  Can you hear me, Major Tom?”

But later as sung by his love interest played by Kristen Wiig — the song inspires Mitty to take a leap of faith towards real adventure and self discovery: “This is Major Tom to Ground Control.  I’m stepping through the door… and the stars look very different today.”

Coincidentally, I am also about to turn 42 and anticipate major transitions ahead.  Looking back, I am grateful for the lessons learned and miles traveled thus far, despite being more grounded in recent years.  Like Mitty, I have embraced substantial risks and challenges… which hopefully should lead to further exploration and greater meaning in the new era.

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Indeed, “the stars look very different today” even though it is starting to feel a bit “like the old days.”

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Pursuit of Love and Passion: Across the Oceans and Generations

2 September 2002,Da Nang, Vietnam

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“… The city of Da Nang was abuzz with revelers on holiday as today is National Day — also Labor Day in the US.

My parents and I have returned, after many years (my mother after 27 years) to the country of our birth.  Needless to say, much has changed.  My grandmother at almost 90 is not as coherent as before, but still very glad and aware of our presence.

Other family have welcomed us with much love and kindness — without a hint of strain after many years and hardship.  We are glad they are now more content with their lives — and always the more appreciative of our own opportunities “back home” — which is always where the heart is… whether the California Coast or along the white sand beaches near Da Nang… MDN”

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April 5, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“She passed away this week,” my mother said of her aunt, my great aunt Ba Le — who I first met in November 1996 over 16 years ago, on my first trip to Europe.

“She returned home.”  My mother explained, “She will be laid to rest this weekend in Hanoi.”

I wasn’t sure if my great aunt was still living in Lausanne, as she had moved over sixty years ago to France, then Switzerland — before Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel between the North and the South by the Geneva Accords concluded on  July 21, 1954.

It was during the Geneva Conference which negotiated the Accords that the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought, beginning on March 13, 1954 and ending with the climactic French defeat on May 7, 1954 — marking the end of French occupation of Indochine which lasted from 1887-1954.  The end of French colonialism set the stage for U.S. entanglement in the Vietnam War for the next two decades during the Cold War.

It was also 38 years ago this month that the Vietnam War ended, and with the Fall of Saigon — my parents, relatives and I fled the country as the Communist forces of the North overran the South and unified a divided nation.  April 30, 1975 was also a watershed moment in American history as diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy at 4 Le Duan Blvd in downtown Saigon — which reopened in 1999 as the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.  In fact, my good friend Robert Ogburn who I met while an intern at the U.S. Department of State in 1993, has returned to serve there in his current posting as the Deputy Consul General.

It is amazing how much Vietnam has been transformed, and is now quite welcoming of former Western adversaries and diplomats, as well as its ethnic diaspora like me, my parents and my great aunt — who have returned to our place of birth after wars and generations have passed.

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November 1996, Lausanne, Switzerland

“He died with a broken heart at 24, with few realizing his talent until much later.”

So began the tale my great aunt told me of her childhood amour back in the colonial days when Vietnam was part of the French colonial empire known as Indochine.

“We were not permitted to marry,” she explained, with a deep pause.

The young composer who was captivated by her beauty did not survive long after their relationship ended, given the strict traditions of the day on appropriate love and profession.  Shortly after, his remaining artistic aspirations crumbled when his respected parents destroyed many of the seemingly frivolous songs he wrote as a means of disciplining him into reality.  However, with the withered songs of love, so went his broken heart.

His friends managed to salvage his compositions, and posthumously shared the secrets of his brilliance.  As for my great aunt, she ended up leaving Vietnam before the end of the French occupation in 1954 to marry a gentleman in France.  Later, after being widowed, she remarried a gentleman in Switzerland.  She currently lives alone in Lausanne in her grand age, where I have come to visit on my first trip to Europe.

There on the mantle in her small apartment were photos of the three men she loved in her life — tributes to their memory and her fascinating journey from Indochine to Paris, and now Lake Geneva.

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My great aunt lived quite a full and international lifestyle.  She loved at home and afar, and returned to her ancestral roots after six decades in the West to her final resting place.  May her soul find eternal enlightenment…

My father also happened to return to Vietnam this week upon retiring earlier this year.  For the first time in his life, he is no longer burdened by a labor intensive job, and can finally take more than a few weeks off to relax with our relatives and his childhood friends.  He is spending nearly three months at his birthplace of Da Nang or “China Beach” pictured on the postcard above, which I wrote when I returned with my parents in 2002.

“I plan to visit Laos for the first time.” He told me as I dropped him off at LAX airport earlier this week.

His statement struck me and reminded me of when he dropped me off at LAX  nearly two decades ago, when I left for Laos for an internship at the American Embassy in Vientiane during the Summer of 1994.  It was my first trip abroad as a young adult and recent college graduate, and I was incredibly smitten with wanderlust.  The following year on July 11, 1995, the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations — allowing me and other Americans to visit Vietnam after a 20-year embargo.

Laos is next door to Vietnam.  I was quite surprised my father had never been before, and waited until his retirement to visit.  After 65 years of experiencing warfare in support of U.S. troops, toil in American factories and sacrifice to establish his family in our adopted home — my father is finally allowing himself to visit Laos.  He must have been proud his son went to Laos before he did, and the nearly 40 countries that I have ventured to since then.

In memory of the recently deceased and in respect of the living, I am ever grateful for the opportunities to have lived freely, loved dearly and pursued an artistic passion — no matter how fleeting.  The adventures have been enormously rewarding, whether to foreign and familiar lands, or to have expressed myself through writings and songs.  The destination, as cliche as it may sound, is not necessarily the end goal — but rather the journey itself.

May you also have the chance to live your lives with fewer regrets, higher hopes and greater fulfillment.

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First-Class Encounters with Hillary and Zac, and a Renewed Perspective on Travel and Life

19 May 2008, Zurich to Geneva, Switzerland

“… Over 50+ trips in the past dozen years, since I first came in 1996 to visit my aunt in Lausanne, then returned to work in Geneva in 1997, then again and again over the years — and today, to interview with Zurich, a Swiss but very global insurance company headquartered in Zurich.

Yes, this little ‘red brick’ in the middle of the map versus the black block I added to mark ‘L.A.’ — have been inextricably linked.

No doubt, my fate is intertwined with these two dots, pulling me back and forth over time, distance and destinies… MDN”

October 5, 2012, Los Angeles, California

Two items appeared today that reminded me of my jet-set days, current crossroads and past encounters with celebrated personalities Zac Efron and Hillary Clinton.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I read about the release of “The Paperboy” directed by Lee Daniels and based on the Peter Dexter novel, which stars Zac Efron along with Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and others.  Several years ago, while living bicoastal and commuting on one of the United flights between LAX to DC, I sat in the second row of the first class cabin behind someone who obviously was a celebrity.  He sported a hoodie and sunglasses as he approached his seat in the first row, right side and next to the window.  While on the flight, I glanced briefly in the reflection of the window to my right and noticed he was reading a script called “The Paperboy.”  I didn’t recognize the script or the actor, though remember thinking he looked like Zac Efron, Jake Gyllenhaal or one of the handsome young Hollywood A-listers.  As I got off the plane, I overhead the flight attendants say it was Zac Efron, and it’s good to see the movie has since been released and Efron’s star remains on the rise.

Starting in January 2009, as I began working for myself — I straddled the worlds of policy and entertainment between D.C. and L.A. — as an international trade consultant commuting frequently between coasts and abroad, and as an artistic entrepreneur pursuing my passion and with greats hopes of launching a creative career.  In fact, I remember having to shave for each trip to D.C., carrying my suit bag which was a souvenir from the stately Hotel Prince de Galles in Paris, along with talking points for visits to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, legal meetings and diplomatic functions.  On my return flights to L.A., I would break out the ripped jeans, Garage Band software, iPod playlists and The Hollywood Reporter weeklies, which was more appropriate attire and briefing material for visits to Sunset Strip concert venues and Billboard Film/TV conferences.

Coincidentally, my United Airlines lifetime mileage was nearing 800,000 by 2010 (790,615 to be exact) — and as a long-standing Star Alliance and United 1K elite member, I felt I could continue the streak of jet-set travel and creative vision — and ultimately, keep the left and right sides of my brain engaged and in balance.  This proved to be a greater challenge than I ever planned for or dreamed of.

Also today in perhaps what is another sign, I received belatedly the September 2012 copy of Condé Nast Traveler featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the cover while on an official visit to New Delhi.  It is the first copy I have received since I let the subscription lapse at the end of 2010.  Perhaps, I should consider the cover story as an encouraging omen of favorable winds ahead.

I have admired, and on several occasions crossed paths with Secretary/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton — briefly while she was with President Clinton at the APEC Ministerial Conference in Jakarta in 1994 and the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva in 1998, more recently as a campaign supporter during her run in the presidential primary in 2008, and up-close as I took a picture for someone with her during the Vital Voices gala at the Kennedy Center in D.C. in 2005.

Since I was an intern at the U.S. State Department in D.C. and at the American Embassy in Vientiane Laos from 1993-1994, a global career had been my focus and Condé Nast Traveler was my monthly bible.  I would eagerly await the exotic and practical tips, and annual rankings of global properties, airlines and attractions.  I would base my bucket list on these listings each year, from stays at the magical Four Seasons Sayan in Bali and the St. Regis Grand in Rome; recharging at premium airport lounges after connecting flights from Frankfurt or to Singapore; and lofty views from the statue of the Cristo Redentor in Rio, Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo… check, check, check… and cut!

2011 also marked the first year since 1994 in which I didn’t take a trip abroad.  I was moving too far “right brain” in creative yet local pursuits, and not making enough ground “left brain” in logical reasoning and structure.  No more Condé Nast Travelers, no passport stamps, and a blunted perspective brought on by too much risk taking and passionate ambitions.  By the summer of 2012 (coincidentally as I turned 40), things came to a head as my business partner and I closed the offices of Planet L.A. Records and have changed its operations.  Personally, I realized it was time to regain control of my direction, destiny… and perspective.

“I think where there has been more travel, there is greater understanding,” Secretary Clinton tells Kevin Doyle in the Condé Nast Traveler cover article.

Clinton elaborates:  “There may not be agreement — we may still believe that the political system of another country is wrong or the way women are treated is not acceptable — but we get closer to seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes, and I really believe that’s the essential step not only for diplomats and other government officials but for business people and for American citizens, because it helps us get perspective.”

Exactly!  “perspective.”

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine writes:

One of the most surprising (and pleasurable) ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of our time… [and]  According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier for him or her to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.”

Perspective is critical — whether for a diplomat, entrepreneur, artist or outsider — to be more thoughtful, creative and effective.   Perspective is a skill that must be constantly sharpened — whether through travel, cultural exposure or open mindedness to the world around us.

In hindsight, I was losing track of the global perspective I had worked so hard to gain over a decade — which hit an impasse last year with no meaningful travel.  As a recent outsider to the entertainment industry, my unique perspective has been the greatest talent I can offer along with a passion to succeed.  Indeed, these two elements (e.g., left or right brain, business or art, Hillary or Zac) are intertwined and can be complementary — just as I used to travel often between L.A. and D.C., Switzerland and the world, and between mind and space.

Thus, restoring that balance is essential.  Momentum is moving in this direction as I will soon travel to D.C. and elsewhere for important meetings that will set a new career course and educational path.  Nevertheless, entrepreneurship and artistic endeavors can still coexist, and perhaps be more focused by renewed perspective.

The Condé Nast Traveler article mentions that Secretary Clinton has traveled more than 800,000 miles to over 100 countries since 2008, the most traveled American foreign emissary in U.S. history.  800,000 — the figure immediately reminded me of my United lifetime mileage balance, and how that figure has stalled recently, and why that must soon change if I am to stay true to my professional ability, creative nature and worldly perspective.

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