What Expatriates can learn from the death of Robert Bicknell

My friend Robert Bicknell, who passed away recently, wrote in the following posthume article, that his greatest fear is to be forgotten.

I ask all of you as a favor to read his last interview with Golf Magazine at https://vietnamgolfmagazine.net/en/noi-so-lon-nhat-la-bi-lang-quen?fbclid=IwAR2JeJoAgomhaR6O0MbnLzTqObkUZEcpLgJuHhPNK6bez-lfFC66e_triTQ

You will get to see his courage, his grace and good humor that made him so beloved. His words and wisdom will stay with you, which means that you will be fighting against his greatest fear, of falling fully into oblivion.  A man like him is rare and not easily forgotten. 


Robert first came to Vietnam in 1992.  He like, he is an old Vietnam hand. If you came to Vietnam to find your fortune back then, you were adventurous, crazy, patient, a glutton for punishment, unnaturally stubborn, and most likely, did not end up successful.  The old joke back then was, if you wanted to leave Vietnam a millionaire, come as a billionaire. Do you know how to make a small fortune in Vietnam, come with a big fortune. Read ‘Mr China’ Tim Clissold where he recommends to come with a Huge fortune USD320Mio to be more precise. I know too many people who gave Vietnam their best shot and went back home to a difficult situation because they had used up their fortune and had fallen behind their peers in terms of career.


But you came and stayed because there was a passion in you for something new, unexpected, thrilling.  You didn’t want to stay at home and be a cog in the machine, stuck in one place, spinning and spinning.There was an advantage in being a cog though.  You were enclosed by the machine, you had a certain amount of safety and security. You had a regular paycheck, you had insurance, you had a pension (I know, I know, that’s going by the wayside too in so many places).  Being an expatriate means making a choice. If you’re in Vietnam, you’re not in France or America. If you chased the entrepreneur dream, or maybe just pioneering, discovering or4 escaping your comfort zone, you weren’t getting a regular paycheck.  If you’re focused on the moment, living cheap and easy life to the fullest, you weren’t carefully planning for 20 years down the road. These are obvious statements and yet I can testify that it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. Risk analysis has to begin with an understanding that clear cut choices have been made—the jump off the cliff has been made and now there was only water or rocks waiting (clearcut benefits and clearcut repercussions).  Actually one can come to any country and work as an Employee, Self-Employed, Entrepreneur or Investor. As Robert mentions you don’t obviously start with an advantage -no citizenship, no Vietnamese language- but especially in developing countries from the start, you come with a crystal ball with hindsight experience on what can happen in the future. In the case of Robert, he fairly knew what the golf industry will look like 20 years from zero back in 1992, just from his international experience as golf pro manager. This is a huge advantage some have used to prosper developing things ahead of the pack.

Robert passed away because his cancer was misdiagnosed or treated to local standards, and with insufficient financial/insurance protection. His type of cancer is normally slow to develop, death within 6-months was too quick.  Therefore the care that he received was substandard (to put it mildly).  He was not stable financially because as he stated and implied in his last interview, he was in a foreign country, unfamiliar with the language, navigating badly the ins and outs, and was taken advantage of (surprise, surprise).  Did he stay with his passion—golf and developing courses—longer than he should have?  Should he have gone for something more stable and predictable? No one can answer that question except him  Or perhaps the answer is a pro-active and dynamic vision of the future unrolling in front of you… knowing you have 70% hindsight from your crystal ball, experience of what happened elsewhere in that field. Over the years -26 years- there have been some choices to make, some crossroads to choose from involving risks health/financial/partner/timing… sit back and take the time and advice from mentors to make constructive decision to build up a safer future


I am a contemporary of Robert, I began in Vietnam not long after he did.  The reason I came fell by the wayside and I had to make adjustments.  I stopped having big dreams, had a family and began a career (insurance) that some might call just being a cog in the machine.  I emphasized acquiring property and building a savings.  I was very fortunate to have a savvy partner in my wife.  Not long ago, I had to rely on the medical system here for a serious event.  I survived it because I had the understanding of the risks, the medical system and the connections from medical insurance business.  Looking  back now, I think I worked out the risks of being here and the to-do to afford to stay a lifetime which resume to not putting your eggs in the same basket and as Andy Grove puts it ‘only the paranoid survive’ mentality. Not saying i am in hostile territory, but surely not in my pond therefore I prepared for it.

If the choice is between food and rent, and health insurance, then the choice is very clear. But if you think long-term and you have no safety net, the choice is clearer. Expatriates are like younger people who think the future is bright and they are invulnerable.  But just as the tightrope walker has to constantly adjust his center of gravity because the rope he is walking on is constantly moving, we all should keep reevaluating our lives as the time changes and our bodies or needs changes (like having dependents relying on you).  Can you afford leaving a country you built your life and your loved ones are permanent residents? %Thinking about it, the cost of insurance becomes more affordable than you think.  Also, get to understand what medical facilities do exist to international standards and what treatments should be gotten in Thailand or Singapore.   Some people last recourse is gofundme where the average collection is 5000$ i.e. just the cost of a medical evacuation.  The point is just to arm yourself with knowledge, it is easier to pay a 5000$ deductible on medical treatment of $300,000 over a rfew years, than to crowdfund the full $300,000/year.

In the meantime, let’s think about the risks of living in Vietnam in terms of health, especially cancer.  Vietnam has a cancer problem—


Since environmental factors play a huge role in cancer, cancer in Vietnam will rise because I see the environment only getting worse for the foreseeable future.  Air pollution is big in the news but there’s not much we can do about it.  Only macro policies that address factories and vehicles will make a difference.  The other big factor is the food we eat, and that is something we definitely have more say in.  I don’t mean just eating more vegetables and avoiding cured meats (I won’t be doing that, no way).  I’m talking about foods literally made with carcinogens.  Check out this youtube video because it may save your life— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oQbCOz9nlU&t=4s.  Here you have a famous wonton soup chef say that certain wontons made from industrial chemicals taste just as good as his wontons, and are made at one tenth the cost.  The only thing to keep the stampede from the chemical vendor is a sense of ethics, but if only 1 in 10 restaurant owner has questionable—puts money above everything—then there is a real problem.  How many people do you know in this country seem to put money above everything else? See?  I do not ever recall this kind of issue arising in the West.  It seems to be a phenomenon particular to Asia.

Cancer is death by a thousand cuts, and so maybe we will be better off if we can limit the cuts to a hundred or so.  Perhaps it is time to cut down on the street.  It is cheap, it is good, it is romantic, but it is probably not worth the cancer.  Unless, you know the vendor, and their ethics.  Try to get a look in the kitchen.  An untidy place with mysterious powders sitting on the floor is not a good sign.  I do believe that foods are the best medicine.  We should look into the kinds of foods that heal and literally make us look and feel good (turmeric, garlic, nuts, salmon).  Less alcohol? More exercise?  I know that this call for moderation and vigilance is not exactly joie de vivre.  I’m French, no one needs to tell me about joie de vivre.  But vigilance and awareness is not burdensome if it becomes a habit.  Risk analysis, once it becomes second nature, becomes like air.  You will rely on it but you won’t notice it.  Anyway there’s no joie de vivre in the hospital, in the cancer ward.  Joie de vivre is life itself.

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