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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Pursuit of Love and Passion: Across the Oceans and Generations

2 September 2002,Da Nang, Vietnam

DaNang-PoscardFront

“… 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”

DaNang-PoscardBack

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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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No Medals for Austria in London: Measures of Achievement…

5 February 2000, Vienna, Austria

“… a new lunar year, a new country.  I’ve arrived to find a quiet city grappling with its dark past — no firecrackers are bursting through the night to ward off uneasy spirits — though plenty of police sirens are flashing as they rush off to control the demonstrations against a dangerous new government.

I write this from my Fletcher friend Rainer Staub’s family cafe — which has a rich intellectual tradition.  The tables around me are abuzz with discussions of past and future, mingled with nostalgia — and brewing once again with dissension.

The celebrants of the lunar calendar believe the first day is indicative of the year — which implies that Austria is about to face intriguing times… MDN”

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August 12, 2012

With the end of the London 2012 Olympic Games, there have been many replays of the sporting highlights, and with it reviews of the memorable moments and disappointments.

One athlete — American swimmer Michael Phelps, became the most decorated Olympian of all time, with four gold and two silver medals in London, retiring from competition with 22 total medals at the age of 27.  Another standout, Usain Bolt of Jamaica defended his titles from Beijing as the fastest sprinter ever and in doing so, became a self-professed legend.  Still, others like Oscar Pistorius the double amputee from South Africa didn’t win any medals, but proved he could compete with able-bodied runners in the 400 meter races — and in doing so, fully embodied the spirit of the Games like no other athlete.

Although most athletes will leave London without medals, records or much attention given – these men, women and teams were all Olympians and are a special breed of achievers.  Many will retire while some might aim to train harder than ever in preparation for Rio in 2016, and to try to secure their legacies as the fastest, strongest or most skilled in their sport.

In review of the numbers, over the past two weeks from July 27 to August 12, 2012 — around 10,500 athletes from 85 countries took home 962 medals in 36 sporting categories, ranging from a leading U.S. total of 104 medals to first-ever medals for tiny countries like Grenada and Montenegro, and developing nations like Gabon and Guatemala.  Notable among industrialized nations, Austria and its 70 athletes were unable to win any medals in the Summer Games, down from 3 in Beijing in 2008 and 7 in Athens in 2004 and the first time since the Tokyo Games in 1964.  Despite its wealth, Austria was bested by countries in 21 sports where it competed ranging from equestrian, shooting and synchronized swimming.  Though, Austrians usually perform better in winter sports and are expected to medal in Russia at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

Perhaps for the next Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016, Austria and other countries without medalists in London should consider offering their athletes generous incentives like the United States, which provides bonuses to medalists ($25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze)… or more lucrative payouts like in Russia ($135,000 gold, $82,000 silver, $54,000 bronze) and even higher in Italy, which pays gold medalists $182,000; and reportedly higher in Kazakhstan at $250,000 for gold, and in Singapore at $800,000 for gold. Singapore has yet to win gold, but perhaps its bonuses will create a gold rush to the wealthy island country… of Chinese divers, Jamaican sprinters, American beach volleyball players, Russian rhythmic gymnasts, and the like.  Though, medals don’t always amount to a price as proved by host nation Great Britain which pays out $0 for medals, and still achieved a glorious haul of 65 medals, 29 of which were gold and its best overall performance in a century — that money didn’t necessarily buy.

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August 12 marked the end of the London 2012 Olympics, and on a personal level has been a landmark date for me.  Fourteen years ago on August 12, 1998, I started my first “real job” at White & Case LLP in Washington D.C. after almost two years of internships, short-term work and study in Geneva, Switzerland focused on the newly-created World Trade Organization (WTO).

Seven years later to this day on August 12, 2005, I left my job at White & Case in a desire to relocate back to Los Angeles to spend more time with family.  I began a bi-coastal career still focused on international trade with Bryan Cave LLP – though with a gradual and rather unexpected transition towards becoming a musical artist and entertainment entrepreneur with the launch of Planet LA Records.

In the past seven years since 2005, my personal journey may not be the same as an “Olympian” – but did involve training and new skills, a test of patience and endurance, and attempt to leave an imprint and legacy.  Moreover, I gave my best effort at the greatest of costs, and in doing so, have few regrets in light of the measures of achievement.

Like athletes, many creative types invest in their passions and natural talents as a career — and often without much security or guarantees in return, whether in the form of cash, medals or attention.  In the past several years, I have interacted with so many performers and dreamers… most of whom are unlikely to ever become legends in their quest, but still gain great satisfaction from making the effort.  As a result, I have gained a more humbling and compassionate perspective on human nature, and what drives people to the brink of success and failure.

Today on August 12, 2012, my own journey seems to be heading full circle as I seek to connect the two disparate and separate paths.   Perhaps, the pursuit of a so-called “dream career” on my own terms may have run its course, and I might have to “retire” and return to a more stable and mundane way of life.  Entrepreneurial zeal can drive dreamers to create innovative models, but they face great risks in being able to sustain these realities.  I have been innovative in approach to artist and brand partnerships — but despite being highly productive, have yet to find a sustainable model.   This is a lesson I have learned the hard and fast way in the most recent era.

Over the next seven-year cycle, my best hope is to retain this imagination and utilize these skills in a setting that is the best of both worlds, global in nature and creative in focus… whoever may be in charge, or wherever on this planet.

Like the Olympic athletes who competed in London, whether as medalists or not — their time in the limelight is over for now… but their stories can inspire a generation to dream on, and face up to the measures of achievement based on society’s demanding expectations, and on a personal level of integrity.

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