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).

L&A-RockOpera-site

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.

DaNang-Beach2

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.

WPF-EventFlyer-Feb5-2015

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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Second Chances and a “New Age” in Singapore and L.A.

1 June 2014, Singapore

MarkBlog-SporeFront-June2014“… ‘Welcome to the new age’!  the familiar chorus from Imagine Dragon’s global hit “Radioactive” reverberated through the atrium at the NUS Business School.

Earlier this year, the band joined me at CES to see Fleetwood Mac in Vegas — and a year ago, I entered this building to embark on an educational journey with familiar institutions NUS and UCLA, and destinations along the way — Shanghai in November, India in February — and this summer, the conclusion of the academic adventure in Los Angeles.

Today, as I prepare to depart Singapore, I am a bit wiser, more optimistic and ready for the dawning of a ‘new age’… MDN”

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August 23, 2014, Los Angeles, California

“Congratulations! Look forward to what more you will do for the program,” Dean Judy Olian said as I accepted my second degree from UCLA, an MBA from the Anderson School of Management, after having received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1994.

Anderson-Graduation-Smaller Like twenty summers ago, my parents and brother returned to the campus to witness the ceremony, thankfully.  A year prior, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had a major surgery known as a Whipple procedure in January and was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Life sometimes gives you a second chance,” he said, both in self reflection and as a proud parent.  For him, each new day is hampered by uncertainty… though filled with a stronger awareness of the present.

UCLA-Family-Graduation2014The hope and irony of the moment struck me.  Two decades of promise had passed with much ebb and flow, peaks and valleys, marked by cross-cultural studies as a Fulbright fellow at the National University of Singapore (NUS), to a global trade career in Washington D.C. and Geneva, followed by a return to L.A. to pursue creative expression and entrepreneurship.

Then, coincidentally, back full circle at UCLA and NUS again, where I had to start over and retrace my steps in order to find a path forward.  Once again, I became a starving student strapped with huge loans… but more optimistic and humble than ever.

Notably, this year marked the tenth anniversary of the partnership between the two renowned business schools.  What started as a sensible concept of facilitating business education between East and West, led to an established reputation and global rankings of #3 by The Economist and #4 by the Financial Times in 2014.  Of course, we had to celebrate the program’s progress, and since I was known in the class as a professional “party planner” (as a result of all the Planet LA Records showcases), I became highly involved with the commemorative events.

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.com

Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.comSomehow, it made sense to align an MBA anniversary celebration with talented musical performers and corporate sponsors including from my new employer, and in historic settings in Southern California.  It was gratifying to help create these memorable experiences, which sure required a lot of education and risky business ventures to master the art of party planning (lol).

At the graduation, my classmates chose me to present one of the teaching awards to Professor Prem Shamdasani, our most entertaining marketing professor who guided us on concepts about branding and customer loyalty, and with much humor and passion.

“Before I begin, I wanted to thank my classmates for the undemocratic election,” I said jokingly before presenting the award to Dr. Prem.  This was due to my selection as the class president, which happened while I was away on an urgent business trip during our final intensive session in August.

Joking aside, it is an honor to represent the class on the UCLA Anderson alumni board and continue to build the academic brand, while helping to sustain the camaraderie of our group… and yes, probably more reunion parties to plan!

On a personal level, the past two years have been an amazing opportunity to gain more practical career skills, and to offer greater emotional value in every moment… given this precious, second chance at learning and life.

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January 1, 2014: Reflections on Asian Wealth and Family Health

21 November 2013, Shanghai, China

Shanghai 2013

“Shanghai claims to have over 700 skyscrapers!” my MBA classmate Sherry pointed out — as we headed towards some local factories and a company tour of Li & Fung — the global trading giant — which started in China, relocated to Hong Kong, and now expanding again in China.

From the 65th floor Nanjing Lu bar at the top of my hotel (Le Meridien) next to People’s Park, I am overlooking an urban forest of skyscrapers.  Across the river in Pudong, the Shanghai Tower will be completed in 2014 and rising to 121 stories, China’s tallest and the second highest in the world.

Here, I can feel the heartbeat of arguably the world’s most dynamic city and impatient nation.  MDN”

* * *

January 1, 2014, Midway City, California

“About 33,000 were diagnosed last year,” my father explained after doing an online search about the Whipple procedure on the iPad Mini I gave him for Christmas.

And life expectancy for most is around two years…” he said, in a hoarse voice weakened by over a month of chemotherapy.  On New Year’s Eve, he proudly wore his “UCLA Dad” sweatshirt while undergoing the latest treatment earlier in the day.

In a few fleeting seasons, he went from being a healthy retiree in the Spring to emergency hospitalization for jaundice in late summer, which was diagnosed by the the fall as a obstruction caused by pancreatic cancer.

Needless to say, this year was notable for its unexpected challenges and pending transitions, and ever full of learning…

In May, I dusted off my passport after a two-year hiatus and hit the books again at two familiar institutions – traveling to Singapore to start my Executive MBA program with the UCLA Anderson School of Management and its partner program, the National University of Singapore Business School.   The studies continued in L.A. in August and Shanghai in November, which gave me a chance to visit relatives in Da Nang, Vietnam and spend Thanksgiving with the Ogburn family in Saigon.

May also led to a new role handling brand partnerships for MNET America, the U.S. affiliate of the Korean entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M.  Meanwhile, I continued to support artists and brands through Planet LA Records and on more focused events, including with Whole Foods Market and the Whole Planet Foundation for a Grammy week party and during the SXSW festival, and an event at the Gibson Guitar showroom supporting Carrie Ann Inaba’s charity, among other creative pursuits.

This holiday season was rather disperse for my family as my brother was away in Afghanistan as part of U.S. security efforts, and my sister-in-law returned to Brazil to see her relatives.  This left the rest of us to watch over their two canine “kids.”

In 2014, the travels will continue to India in February, and back to Singapore in May as part of the MBA program, and to other destinations and roles yet unknown.

As I watched the New Year’s celebrations in London, Miami and New York City – where I have taken my parents before on family trips including for New Year’s, I could only hope we can spend more precious time together, and that my “UCLA Dad” will at  least, be healthy enough to witness my MBA graduation ceremony by the end of the summer.

Family-London

Whatever may happen, I hope to make him proud of the sacrifices he has made while fighting a war in the jungles of Vietnam and toiling for nearly forty years in America’s factory floors – allowing his sons to live freely, dream boldly, and explore the world – sometimes with him, and always with his aspirations in mind and spirit.

Happy and healthy New Year!  May you all live every precious moment to its fullest!

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“The Luxury of Home: From Shanghai to China Beach”

HaLong-postcardDa Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013

… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007. 

Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.

Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.

I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea.  We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West.  MDN”

*  *  *

Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013

“Peeezzzz….” Swat!  Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear.  I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai.  The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.

But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city.  No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor.  On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.

Graduation-Family

My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes.  On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.

… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia.  It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.

Hyatt-DaNang

There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang.   This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques.  We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.

As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.

“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.

“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!”  he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit.  We would love to have you stay with us.”

Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals.  Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.

… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites.  I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore.  Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.

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Too Close to Home, Still Far To Roam…

October 10, 1998, Da Nang, Vietnam

Da Nang 1998

… family and friendships can be most endearing, and often enduring, despite the strained years.  On my second visit back to Saigon, and now of my birthplace in Da Nang, or “China Beach” — I am touched, and by no means surprised of how quickly — and intimately those emotions are evoked.

Yes, I shared shots of Johnnie Walker with my father’s best friend — and of course, my family keeps commenting that I am too thin — it worked, and I ate my fill.  The nurturing reminds me of just how close we are in spirt — yet so very distant.  MDN”

DaNang-1998-back

October 26, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“Those are among the strongest chemotherapy drugs,” my oncologist friend explained to our family.

“Let’s hope he will pull through the treatment.”

We also reviewed the Advanced Health Care Directive, which my father signed to indicate his wishes in the event of medical emergencies.  We had to take every precaution as he is about to start chemotherapy this week to treat a tumor in a sensitive region at the intersection of his pancreas and vital organs.

My father has always been a solid pillar of our family… strong-willed, stubborn and bullet-proof (literally, after fighting in and surving the Vietnam War).  Now, he and we, are facing the toughest challenge to his well being and our family’s foundation.  In a matter of months, the cancer arose unexpectedly and has hit so close to home.

Meanwhile, my brother and I are poised to venture abroad again soon — after several years of being more domestic in our careers and travels since we moved back to Southern California.  He is leaving for Afghanistan for several months, while I am about to start the next session of my global M.B.A. studies in Shanghai, and a return trip to Vietnam.

“You need to go.  Do what you need to do,”  my father told us.

He has never discouraged us from blazing our own paths… whether my brother’s work assignments to conflict-prone areas in the Middle East and South Asia, or as I filled up four passorts on a jet-set career for over a decade.  We have always pursued the American dream, whether it took us to far-flung and dangerous locales, or navigating professional twists and personal transitions as we returned to our roots.

After we settled in our new home in the States in 1975, he and my mother have worked hard all their lives until their retirement this year.   We would often take our annual vacations in the national parks… Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Northwest.  These road trips involved a lot of bouncing in the back of a Toyota camper truck across the Western states.  Our wanderlust was incubated, and has never been cured as my brother and I lived and studied abroad, eager to roam the world and explore the boundaries of our passions.

“If anything happens, take me to Yosemite.”  he said.   Yosemite National Park is among his favorite places, and where we went on many camping trips.  We would often give him poster prints from Ansel Adams and annual Sierra Club calendars… scenes of plunging waterfalls, snow-flocked trees and the rock solid Half Dome… reflecting upon moonlit valleys and Nature’s unpredictable intentions.

Dad in Yosemite