February 28, 2016

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G'bye Wall Street, Hello Bhutan! A Father's Journey. [Part 1]

Meet Bassam Latif, this month's Hero Parent, who took a sabbatical from Wall Street, and relocated to Bhutan to follow his wife Sandy when she moved to Asia to work on health policy issues. Bassam's raw and adventurous account is packed with candid humour and and poignant lessons on becoming an involved parent....

The Prologue

Sandy and I met in college almost 20 years ago. She was sitting on the edge of a balcony railing holding a beer and I remember thinking: “That Korean girl’s crazy… we should talk!”

The fact that she’s Vietnamese American didn’t change things. And the fact that I’m Pakistani didn’t deter her much either. We became fast friends immediately, started dating 3-months later, and were married 7-years on. We have now been married for 12-years and have two boys aged 6 and 2.

Sandy has always had an infectious sense of adventure that has continued to buoy a bigger sense of purpose in our family. She spent her summers working at hospitals in central Vietnam, developed a rehab field clinic in the Malawian bush, and mobilized therapists to get to Haiti after the earthquakes there. And then in 2014, Sandy secured an incredible opportunity to teach and work on disability related health policy issues in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

At this point, I felt I needed a break from my career on Wall Street to recharge and get back to basics for a while (wife, kids, good health, and stuff). And Bhutan seemed like the perfect place to spend 6-9 months. I resigned; my firm generously offered me a 9-month sabbatical instead (expect support from the most unexpected quarters!). I took it and we went!

 Sandy heading off into the remote bush on one of her week long patient studies.

And then over the next 24 months, we lived the most improbable and enjoyable lives, first in Bhutan and then in Vietnam. Sandy worked with various international NGOs on health policy issues impacting people with disabilities with projects all over Asia. I raised our boys, took photographs, worked on my writing and consulted for companies in my spare time. We are planning to return to the US this year to be closer to family after over 2 amazing years of travel and work.

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MAY 2014

Day-1… And It Finally Hits Him!

 Our new home!

Our arrival in Bhutan yesterday went a bit like this:

“You are working in Bhutan?”

“No, my wife Sandy is. I’m accompanying her.”

“You will watch the two girls then?”

“They’re boys… And, yes, I’ll be watching them.”

“They look like girls.”

“They’re boys… with long hair.”

“Maybe they will grow into boys. Your visa is valid for 6 months from this day. NEXT!”

I think that’s the Bhutanese bluntness I had been warned about. And with that, we were officially residents of the Kingdom of Bhutan. It’s at this point that the latent panic of the last four months finally started to surface. There was a storm of activity since I left work a couple of weeks ago, with a whirlwind of shopping, packing and vaccines leaving no time for doubt. Its when we finally got on the first of a series of long-haul flights from JFK-Doha-Kathmandu-Bhutan, and I was introduced to my aisle seat wedged firmly in the middle of the economy cabin, that the enormity of my situation finally became crystal clear.

I was in the middle of a minor panic attack by the time we got to Kathmandu. By then, I had been on a plane for 19 hours, 9 time zones and 3 countries on 2 continents, giving me ample opportunity to rehash all my decisions over the past few months; I was in firm disagreement with every one of them! By the time we gained entry into Bhutan, my panic attack was in full bloom!

I don’t remember anything of the twenty minutes that followed our entry into Bhutan other than that they resulted in me buying two bottles of cheap whiskey at the airport duty free (to accompany the mini bottle of whiskey smuggled off the plane and already in my pocket) and exchanging an unreasonably large sum of US $2,000 at the foreign exchange counter into Nu. 120,000. Why anyone would need that much money to get from the airport to our new home in a developing country is beyond comprehension. By the time true memory kicks in again, I was standing curbside, holding two children and two bottles of whiskey (plus one mini-bottle).

At this point our designated driver made himself known. 

“Kuzuzangpo la, sir… are you Mr. Sandy? I am Tashi,” he said, flashing me a big smile with his teeth stained red with a lifetime of chewing beetle-nut.

“Yes… I suppose I am. I think my wife Sandy is out looking for you”

I was now officially Mr. Sandy, my wife’s househusband in a foreign country, in charge of the wellbeing and upbringing of our two children, Zaman 5, and KP 8 months old. A task my former career in investment banking had almost certainly not prepared me for. 

"And in one of my moments of calm, I realized it took Buddha 7-years to achieve enlightenment. I suppose I can give myself a few more months to figure this out."

AUGUST 2014

Learning To Become The Point-Parent

Not on Wall Street anymore!  

I’m 4 months into my new life and it’s been an interesting process to say the least. I’d like to say I’ve been farting rosebushes this whole time, but in truth its been a bit more roller coaster than that. After the fear and panic of quitting had worn off (lets call this Stages-1), I was overcome with an amazing sense of calm (Stage-2), which lasted a few weeks, giving me just enough time to get on a plane and land in Bhutan.  That gave way to a full-blown paralyzing panic (Stage-3)!  I had to find some deeper purpose to what I had just done… Something definitely more meaningful than taking a break from work to support my wife’s career choices, and becoming a more involved parent to my two children. Yep, I definitely needed something deeper than that!  So I explored all reasonable challenges (Stage-4), like becoming a teacher or developing a jet engine that ran on yak piss.  And I got close… but then in what I consider to be a real loss for air travel, this panicked urgency gave way to moments of purposeful calm (Stage-5).  And in one of my moments of calm, I realized it took Buddha 7-years to achieve enlightenment. I suppose I can give myself a few more months to figure this out.

In the meantime, KP said his first words to me and he took his first steps with me… both while Sandy was at work. I’m seeing what I was missing all these years! 

In other news, I’m thinking of pulling together a Bhutan Scratch ‘n’ Sniff book entitled: ‘Monks Poo Too!’

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Bassam's blog, coming next week!


Aquin Dennison
Aquin Dennison

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