Short Story 4: Phuket, Thailand
Caught Off Guard in Phuket
It’s the summer of 2022 – travel ban restrictions are lifting, and you’re itching to explore uncharted territory in another country. You’re eager to discover something new after spending a chunk of time at home for the past two years due to COVID-19, a deadly pandemic that turned the world upside down. Now picture yourself abroad on an island, one that you hear about on travel shows or online showcasing stunning beaches, delicious food, and unique cultural experiences. There’s something about sandy beaches, ocean waves, and tropical climates that resonates with people universally. An island getaway is also a way to escape the pain inside and decompress from the daily grind back home. Your career field has presented you with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’ve accepted a job offer to work and live in Phuket, Thailand. You’ll be able to travel to surrounding Asian countries too. Your managerial role is well-deserved after years of effort, sacrifices, and growing pains. Navigating through the complicated and even cut-throat workforce is more challenging than you had imagined before walking to the podium to get your diploma or degree(s). Maybe you’ve had many doors slammed in your face by gatekeepers and hiring managers. Perhaps you were stuck at a company or position for a long period of time, tired of the mundane, and decided to find something new to do. The new Phuket job offer you received is hybrid (three days remote, two days on-site) after thirty days. One of the best beaches (Nai Harn Beach) is nearby the office and your apartment, ten to twenty minutes on foot and five minutes by vehicle. As travelers and wanderlust influencers would say, “Living the dream!” You arrive in the Nai Harn district of Phuket in June 2022, soaking in the hot weather while everyone outside is wearing shorts and flip-flops. From a city or town upbringing to living on the beach is a significant change. Plenty of delicious Thai and international food is available. Phuket surrounds a handful of relaxing beaches throughout the island. You don’t need to rent or own a car and deal with hefty monthly payments. It’s convenient to get around your new surroundings by renting a motorbike (similar to riding a bicycle) or taking Bolt (Phuket’s version of Uber). If you prefer walking in the heat and carrying an umbrella for unexpected heavy rain, that’s doable. You can get to work, Nai Harn Beach, restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, and marijuana coffee lounges without a problem. If you’re a guy and a night owl, massage shops are on every road. The bars have Thai girls dressed exotically, ready to satisfy any man's fantasies or guilty pleasures if the price is right. It’s been a week in Thailand, but you’re gradually acclimating to the Phuket way of living. The sadness of saying goodbye to your family and friends and leaving your comfortable life back home has evaporated. You’re now working and residing on one of South East Asia’s top islands and tourist destinations. You’re in Thailand, the land of smiles, living an unconventional nomad/beach life, and building your career in Phuket. What could go wrong? After a few days at your brand-new job, you can’t believe what has happened. In this brief Thailand experience, we’ll explore how the shit hits the fan in Phuket. Put on your sunscreen and have your water bottle handy!
Caught Off Guard (2022)
It's Friday, the end of day is approaching, and I haven’t heard from Human Resources (HR). I’ve been in Phuket for a week and had no check-in from anyone, other than Anna, the chief executive officer’s (CEO’s) administrative assistant. I sent Sandy, my reporting manager, an email at 1:30 pm. I instantly received an automated reply that her email was invalid. My gut says, “She quit or got fired.” Anna spills the beans on WhatsApp after I inquired about Sandy’s work email. Sandy no longer works for the startup. I'm surprised! She began working for the company roughly a year ago as a marketing manager and was promoted to chief marketing officer (CMO) before completing her first ninety days. Sandy offered me the content marketing manager role a year ago during the summer of 2021, but I declined. Another company in California offered me a marketing position that I couldn’t refuse. Before I left California, HR didn’t bother to notify me that Sandy wasn't working for the company anymore. Anna was my point of contact, wearing two hats (administrative assistant and HR) but getting paid and responsible for one job (administrative assistant). Still, I must try to remain neutral and not let the update take me down a rabbit hole. It's Friday, the end of the workweek is approaching, and I haven’t heard from HR. Around 4:00 pm, an HR representative sends me a long email. The key takeaways are to install certain apps the startup uses on my computer, set up my company email for desktop and mobile, and bring my laptop to the office on Monday. I was aware that staff brought their laptops from home to the office. Though during the interview process, the HR manager assured me that the company would have a laptop for me on my first day.
I’m up before the crack of dawn for my first day of work, eager to step foot in a multi-national tech startup. The eagerness to learn and grow, with visions of moving up to director in a few years, doesn’t sound far-fetched with this company. I arrive at the office and sit in the lobby area. Employees pass by as if I don’t exist. Sam, the HR manager, doesn’t give me a warm welcome, just a fake smile from a distance. After an orientation by another HR representative, which was difficult to grasp because her English wasn’t crisp, I headed upstairs to introduce myself and shake the hand of my reporting manager, Dylan. This is our first time meeting and speaking. Instead of sitting at the same working table as Dylan in a confined open-floor workspace, he tells me to sit at a different table with another team consisting of four Thai nationals. Rin, the female manager, is laid-back and speaks fluent English. The collective vibe between me and the Thai co-workers at the table reminds me of middle school and high school. I’m an outsider who doesn’t belong to their tribe. They choose to communicate in Thai rather than English, knowing that English is the primary spoken work language. By 4:30 pm, an HR representative sends me an email. It's an independent contractor agreement for my first ninety days with the company. I’m confused! I received and signed my offer letter to be an employee about two months ago. Rather than trying to connect the dots or justify myself to Sam and HR, I sign the contract. If I refuse, HR will not convert my temporary business (three-month) visa to a legal working (one-year) visa. I leave work feeling distraught, wondering if I made the right move. Dylan didn’t check in with me the entire workday. I’ve never had a manager who completely ignored me and didn’t take the initiative to at least introduce himself/herself to me on my first day. Still, I’m somewhat hopeful that things will get squared away in the upcoming days. Also, I’m not the type of individual who quickly throws in the towel when the going gets tough.
The following morning at the office, I ping Dylan regarding my job responsibilities. Dylan tells me he doesn’t know and to help the department and the unit behind me with whatever they ask. He mentions not being aware that it was my first day yesterday and that I’m a marketing manager on his team until after he checked his work email Monday morning. Today’s Wednesday and I meet Miles, the American CEO and founder of the startup. His upbeat San Diego, California personality makes me feel as if everything’s going to be alright. There’s no trace of negativity or toxicity in his actions and words. Miles was under the impression that I was hired as a content writer, not a marketing manager. Before I arrived in Phuket, I had three scheduled final-round interviews with him. He canceled each one, never apologized, and didn’t squeeze in fifteen to thirty minutes to chat with me. I didn’t hold his flakiness against him because he approved my counteroffer of a ten percent yearly salary increase. However, the following day, my intuition nudges me that moving to Phuket to work at this wacky and toxic startup was the wrong decision. I meet with Kyle, a senior employee who’s worked for the company for two years, during lunch. What I learn from Kyle and from looking at dozens of LinkedIn profiles of previous employees is that the turnover rate has been high from the company's inception (2019) to its present (2022). He tried resigning a few times, but Miles would wheel him back in. Staff who have made it to their second-year anniversary have seniority, even if it doesn't appear in their job title. Kyle continues on concerning the year-end bonus, the quarterly bonuses for sales and marketing, and the semiannual raises of two to four percent not happening since his first day two years ago. My heart sinks, realizing the compensation package on my job offer is an illusion. Kyle didn't try to convince me to leave while I still could. I knew intuitively that his intention wasn’t to lie. He was stating the facts calmly and honestly while I was questioning him. Having lunch with Kyle and getting the breakdown was the nail in the coffin to immediately plot my next move.
It's Friday morning and I’m on less than five hours of sleep each day for the entire workweek. My mind has been bombarded by the stimuli from the external (Nai Harn district) and internal (company) environments. Thoughts are racing in my head. My subconscious has been painting a picture, and it’s clear now. Although this is day five at the company, I’m submitting my resignation notice before lunch. Nothing will change my mind. Dylan’s reply to my resignation letter is, “Send it to the HR manager.” Sam replies a minute later apologizing about cutting ties with the company and asking me to have a meeting with her and Dylan sometime after lunch. I meet Dylan and Sam in a conference room at 3:45 pm. My manager says there’s no work for me and today’s my last day, in roughly one hour. Perhaps that’s what I get for being mindful of writing a resignation letter with a notice period (it’s thirty days in Thailand), which gives the hiring team some wiggle room to find a replacement. To top it off, Dylan says, “You will not be getting your relocation allowance.” This strikes a nerve. I state that my offer letter says the relocation reimbursement amount, and on orientation day, HR declared that I would get reimbursed in two weeks. Sam’s response: “The relocation allowance is after ninety days.” “Why didn’t anyone tell me before?” I reply. The HR manager doesn’t utter a word. I’m mad but bite my tongue. My it-is-what-it-is remark wraps up the meeting. Sam and Dylan conclude by inviting me to a company outing (food and drinks at a local restaurant) since it’s the CEO’s administrative assistant's (Anna’s) last day. I can’t believe what’s coming out of their mouths and their relaxed demeanor, despite being shallow about not providing my relocation allowance. It’s like getting blindsided by a kick to the face as you're lying on the ground. What a fake invitation! I exit the conference room, grab my stuff upstairs, and walk out of the building wearing my sunglasses to mask the fury in my eyes. I don’t look back. Back at the lodging/hut where I’m staying next to Nai Harn Beach, I’m sweating as my heart is pounding. For the first time in my adult life and career, I’m so mad, sad, and disappointed that I want to cry. The reason tears aren’t running down my face is that I refuse to give away my power to anyone at the startup. Instead, I book a Phuket beach/day tour for the next morning. Four days later, I email the CEO. The purpose of the correspondence isn’t to point the finger or throw anyone under the bus. I’m neutrally stating the facts concerning what occurred during last Friday’s exit meeting. My plan wasn’t to leave the startup after a week. I envisioned a long-term opportunity and an upward career trajectory before my first day. It’s difficult letting go of what transpired. I have to pass by the office Monday through Friday before and after working out at the gym, which is across the street. The fruity-looking building is a reminder that certain individuals in companies can chew us up and spit us out, even if our hearts are in the right places. I don’t feel vindictive, but walking by that building daily is like an ingrown hair being stuck inside a zit-size ball. A week has flown by and Miles hasn’t replied to my email. He probably won’t. All that talk during our first face-to-face meeting about a great leader being someone with kindness and discipline was bullshit. As the saying goes, “Talk is cheap.”
A few days after my thirty-ninth birthday, I cross paths with Anna outside a market. Her last day was the same day I resigned. I acknowledge her and cut the conversation short. As I walk away, guilt surfaces. She was the most helpful and nicest individual in the company. I message her right away on WhatsApp apologizing for being aloof. Anna replies to meet her at a coffee shop down the road. The CEO’s former admin and I dive in. She mentions having gotten laid off and that it was the second time in two years. My hiring manager and CMO, Sandy, who I was supposed to report to on my first day of work, either quit due to being demoted or got the boot a few weeks ago. The company did a round of layoffs a few weeks before I started and a week after my resignation. Anna says that she wanted to email me to decline the job offer in Phuket, but didn’t want to be the grim reaper. I reassure her that it wasn’t her responsibility to fill me in. She knew it was a shit show and a toxic working environment with high employee turnover. Anna apologizes and feels sorry for me. Never did I think a company would give me a fake job offer letter, change it to an independent contractor on my first day, and then act as if they did nothing wrong. How can people be so cold and inconsiderate? Maybe common sense isn’t so common after all for specific people. I bump into another colleague from the startup near Nai Harn Beach one evening. Mary, a Thai local, knows some of the nitty-gritty of the company. Mary shares why many foreigners were getting cut. COVID-19 caused a seventy percent increase in the cost of foreign work permits. The reduction in staff enables the company to minimize costs by hiring Thai nationals because they don’t require a work permit and visa. Besides, hiring Thai employees who are somewhat proficient in English means the CEO can pay them less to do the same job as overseas employees. From a business standpoint, I get the logic behind the layoffs and why quality employees are treated as easily disposable numbers on a spreadsheet. When an organization’s balance sheets are in the red for months to years, eliminating positions is a strategy to help stay afloat for a while. This is in hopes of breaking even on revenue. After the ordeal with that shady startup company, I decide to turn poison into medicine by extending my stay in Phuket for approximately six weeks since I have a temporary business visa for visitors. This gives me time to focus on personal growth, plot my next moves, do sightseeing on the island, and travel to Malaysia and Singapore before returning home to California. I’ve been residing in a guest house lately. Imagine having a hotel room in a small two-story building but sharing a kitchen, lounge/living room, and laundry area with eight other people, mainly foreigners. The married couple and owners, a Thai woman and a foreigner, live downstairs. Some travelers and nomads stay in a guest house for a few days to a month(s) due to lower costs in comparison to a hotel. Fortunately, there have been no problems during my stay. A few weeks have passed and I’m eager to start a new chapter in my life.
In August 2022, after being abroad in Phuket, Thailand, and making two pit stops in Malaysia and Singapore, I returned home to California.
The CEO never replied to my email, and that’s fine. My vibrational frequency is on bigger and better things. In retrospect, the worst experience in my professional career in Phuket happened for a reason. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.
Overall, if you have ambitions to experiment with the nomad lifestyle abroad, whether for a month(s), a year, or longer, why not? It’s better to fall on your face knowing that you had the guts to try instead of wondering what if. If you’re scared, do it anyway; you’ll thank yourself later.
Discover a related Book 3, Sweating in the Land of Smiles: Living in Bangkok During the Year of Radical Change, or visit other short stories in Bangkok (3), Shanghai (2), and Langfang (1).