Issue 180, Spring 2007
We were bloated. Here in Hong Kong we had nine floors full of staff. I had been sent from New York to run two of these floors, our regional marketing and sales departments. We had seventy employees in Hong Kong, and dozens more spread through the region. We were like a big, slow-moving housefly that had lived past the summer; we were too heavy to stay aloft for long, and as soon as we landed, swat, we’d be dead.
But how long would it take? The conglomerate had hundreds of divisions, thousands of projects, tens of thousands of employees. It could take them years to figure out why we were even out here, in this remote outpost. Back in New York they were busy digesting a massive merger, what the press had called a “transformative transaction” that would, within just a few months, become known as the worst corporate marriage in history. In Hong Kong you could see the fat, the extraneous employees and duplicated departments: five payroll divisions, six HRs, and a dozen IT help desks. And in this distant tail of the lumbering beast, far from the nerve centers, we had kept on hiring long after the string of good quarters had ended. The orders to freeze hadn’t made it down the chains of command, so plans conceived during the boom were still in effect: new marketing teams; sales offices in Seoul, Bangalore, and KL; a VP in Japan. We filled every position.
I had the best job of all—the expat boss sent from overseas, generously accommodated with a housing allowance, club memberships, a Teutonic sedan, and a cost-of-living stipend. I was thirty-two, unmarried, and I suddenly found myself living a life of affluence. I had enough money to walk into any of the fancy boutiques in Pacific Place and choose whichever suit or pair of shoes I desired. If I’d had more time, I would have taken up an expensive hobby like sailing or collecting modern Chinese art but instead—at first—I was too busy hiring.
Our local staff greeted me warily. I’ve noticed that the first impression I give is often of arrogance or disdain, when actually I am diffident. This misperception has served me well in the corporate environment. It worked in New York when I joined the company straight out of business school. I completed my tasks proficiently, managed a few insignificant projects, and was lumped in with a group of colleagues who were given credit for a successful, albeit minor, acquisition. I caught the eye of our leader, the man who would later orchestrate the disastrous merger, and rumors spread that I enjoyed a close friendship with him. Those rumors were unfounded, but their existence was enough to ensure that I was handled with great delicacy by my management team.
So it was a surprise and relief for my immediate superiors in New York when I took the position in Hong Kong. It was not seen as a wise move. Those who wanted to get ahead would stay in New York, as close to our Sixth Avenue headquarters as possible. Once you left, my colleagues worried, you couldn’t control what people were saying about you.
They were right, but I didn’t care. I had gone through college and my twenties without making many friends. I didn’t know that by the time you hit thirty you had all the friends you were going to get. I’d miscalculated. I thought maybe in Hong Kong I could catch up.
I left a girlfriend behind in New York. Courtney was a blond with short hair and a pleasing gap in her lower front teeth that you saw when she smiled. She was pretty and smart, from a good family with property in Connecticut and Cape Cod. She coproduced television commercials with a partner, a slightly older gay man. When I told her I had accepted a job in Hong Kong, she was shocked. I had never even mentioned the position to her before and now I was telling her that I was moving to China.
I had assumed we would have one of those long-distance relationships. Phone sex, dirty e-mails, twice-annual rendezvous in exotic places like Bali or Kauai.
“That’s not a relationship,” she pointed out.
I e-mailed her several times after I arrived in Hong Kong and she never replied. When I called to ask if she was breaking up with me she explained that we had already broken up, before I left. Somehow I’d missed that.