The Letters A and U

The was easily one of the most nerve-wracking evenings of my life. But I’m glad that these stories are now preserved somewhere in the ether.

Notes and corrections:
1) Despite what you may think you hear, there are no rude words in this video. All the same, it’s probably not suitable for work or kids.
2) The first time I use the word ‘Homogeneous’, I meant to say the opposite word ‘Diverse’. Whoops.
3) I know, I know, Hungarians aren’t Slavs.
4) Kabanos is a Polish pork sausage.
5) #JáTaké is Czech for #MeToo.
6) 風穴先生 (Kazaana-Sensei) actually spoke great English. I used her to represent how the students sounded.
7) I mistakenly inserted the caption ‘Unraveled’, but the storytelling series is actually called ‘Unravel’. See

Witchcraft and Sorcery

The future is here. So wait, why am I studying Mandarin?

The Magnificent Power of “I Don’t Know”


Where Knowing Everything Means Knowing Nothing

In my early days as a consultant, it was always tempting to come up with an answer to any question a client would ask me. The classic Fake-It-‘Til-You-Make-It Strategy. Or there was the Deflection Strategy, where you can politely dodge a question with phrases such as “I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that…” or “Here’s what I can tell you…”.  I’ve seen plenty of other panicky nonsense too. The Give-An-Answer-To-An-Entirely-Different-Question Strategy works surprisingly well, especially if the client isn’t really listening properly in the first place. And then there’s the Buy-Time-With-A-Long-Winded-Answer-So-That-Everyone-Forgets-The-Original-Question Strategy. Sorry, where were we?

I am grateful to have been surrounded by mentors who demonstrated how to avoid these traps. And these days, I really enjoy saying ‘I don’t know’. When you confess to not knowing the answer to one question, it accentuates the credibility of all your other answers. So while there’s certainly a skill in being able to concoct intelligent answers to every single question, be careful not to bury your bright diamonds of knowledge under a thick layer of coal.

Maybe This Time I Should Shut Up and Listen

You’re a thoughtful, worldly, professional human being, and you have every right to express your opinion on any topic you choose. But there are times when saying “I don’t know” is a matter of deference to others who have more depth of personal knowledge or experience. There’s something powerful about admitting that you still need to learn from others on a particular topic rather than professing to know all the answers yourself.

Personally, I have loved sharing details from the fifteen years I have lived and worked in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But when I’m asked questions such as “What do they think of this in Japan?” or “What do they do about that in China?”, I’m very wary to give an answer unless I’m sure that I can make an accurate generalisation. In this regard, saying ‘I don’t know’ can be a sign of humility, rather than a sign of ignorance. I wish that more news commentators would at least preface their opinions with similar disclaimers. Or indeed more privileged white males when asked their opinion of the #MeToo movement…

Authenticity, Vulnerability and Curiosity

In business as in personal life, we need to be our authentic selves. It’s just too tiring trying to be anyone else. So if you’re in a situation where you don’t know, admitting so can be a great way of breaking down walls and building trust. There’s a time for confidence and assertiveness, and then there’s a time for refreshing honesty.

The world is bewilderingly complex, and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we can’t speak intelligently on the geopolitics of Syria, the effects of climate change, and the workings of Blockchain for a combined ten minutes. But there’s a difference between perpetual curiosity and willful ignorance. We need to be continual learners and embrace each ‘I don’t know’ not as a badge of pride, but as a prelude to discovering more.

Nerdy Narcissism

Like any other normal person, when I have a spare 45 minutes, I like to research how my name is written in various world alphabets, and then list them roughly in order from West to East according to a representative country where they’re written.


Should we stop using the word ‘Expat’?

I’m always wary when someone is referred to as an expat. It’s a term still commonly used by Human Resources professionals to refer to employees who have been sent on assignment overseas. But maybe it’s time to stop using this word altogether.

  • The Ickiness

My biggest complaint is the neo-colonial aspect to the word itself. It has been great to see how employees from every corner of the world have now been expatriated from their home countries. Let’s send more qualified Kenyans to Kuwait; Vietnamese to Venezuela. But to me there’s still a congenital ‘whiteness’ about the word. Why am I an expat, but a builder from Bangladesh is a migrant worker? Aren’t we both just different kinds of economic migrant?

  • The Detachment

Referring to an international assignee as an expat can create a barrier between themselves and the people around them. The title becomes an excuse for them to disassociate themselves with their office surroundings, and not truly engage with their host environment. It lets them group themselves with other ‘expats’, define themselves by their differentness, and engender an us-versus-them mentality. Before long, when an ‘expat’ has a bad day they might say ‘I hate this country’, rather than say… ‘I’m having a bad day’.

  • The Ego

The term brings with it a sense of elitism and entitlement. A company should certainly help an international assignee with their lives, be it getting through the pain of relocation, helping with schooling costs, or advising on tax issues. But referring to the assignee as an expat adds an extra layer of status, which once given can be hard to retract. The next generation of internationally-mobile employees should be taught that an assignment is just part of their job description, not a perk, nor a badge of honour.

I was inspired to write this article in part because I hear a loud drumbeat of nativism around the world, especially tied in with anti-immigration sentiments. I’m personally the son of political refugees, and have been an economic migrant in Asia for over a decade. I also believe that a migrant should do their best to assimilate into the fabric of their new society. But it never escapes my attention that we have double standards for migrants in the West versus Western migrants living in the East. To some extent, global multinationals and HR leaders can help to reconcile this double standard by limiting the use of this term.

What are your thoughts? If you agree, what terminology would you suggest we use? Do you disagree, and am I just yet another hapless victim of political correctness? Do you have any stories of ‘Expats behaving badly’? Your answers and comments gratefully received!