Near Yellow Mountain

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Good to Be Back

The first day of 2019 seemed like a good time to return to my long neglected personal blog. No, it’s not a New Year’s resolution; just something I always enjoyed and decided to make time for.

I started a blog several years ago to help me adjust to living back in the US after over a decade living in Japan and China. A respected Asia expert that advises many large International companies was hired by my former employer hired to “help” me decide to move to China from Japan. We became friendly especially after he told me that my employer “was terrible at supporting ex-pats” and I should only go to China if I “thought I could handle it without proper support from HQ”. You have to love a person with that level of honesty.

Ex-pat life provided all sorts of interesting experiences

We spoke again before I returned to the US after living for more than five years in China and five plus in Japan. He congratulated me on my success in Asia, told me I would have trouble adjusting to life both in the US and back at HQ and suggested I write a book about my experiences. A book seemed out of my wheelhouse but I thought writing blog posts might be both good therapy for me as I adjusted to life back in the US and if I ever changed my mind about a book about my ex-pat experiences it could be a good resource to draw from.

No book yet but the my wife got the blog bound
Time passed, my adjustment to life in the US took a couple years but my adjustment to life back at HQ never happened. Less than two years after returning I was jettisoned from the corporate world and got busy reinventing myself as an advisor to various stakeholders in the lithium world. I signed up for Twitter and Linked-In, starting writing business posts and my personal blog was, for the most part, neglected.

For me, the Christmas – New Year’s Holiday period is a time to reflect on where I am in life and where I want to go next. I have been extremely blessed to have been at the right place at the right time in the lithium world. The “survival” worries I had when I no longer had a “corporate master and safety net” are a memory thanks to the largesse of the growing lithium market.

New Year's is a good time to "reboot"

Like many “type A” people when I get into something, I tend to narrow my focus on the whatever the “new thing” is to the exclusion of other interests. Reading and writing for pleasure were one casualty of my focus on communicating with the world regarding lithium via social media and more recently a podcast. I may have fallen prey to those Silicon Valley types who have designed an ecosystem that has many of us behaving like gerbils on treadmill seeking small dopamine hits (whether we know it or not) as we collect more followers and “likes” on our social media sites of choice.

So I am planning 2019 to be a year of re-balancing how I spend my time – more quality time with my bride, books, hobbies, etc and less “screen” time with the “app” creations of teens and twenty somethings.

I am not retiring or leaving the lithium world just as things are getting really interesting in the transition from an oil based to a renewable energy economy. I just want more of my “flip phone” era lifestyle back. Of course this is both a personal as well as a general “first world” problem – that many readers of this blog probably have too.

Now that the lengthy preamble is over I can get to the topic I had in mind. Over the past 28 years I have accumulated over 5,000,000 frequent flyer miles. I have circled the globe 103 times on Around the World tickets. Including those trips plus normal point to point, round trip tickets I have crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans more than 250 times. It takes absolutely zero skill to board a plane and accumulate miles but it is difficult to travel to six continents and not be humbled by what you don’t know.

The older I get the more it strikes me how many interesting people you come into contact with when traveling and how much you can learn just by engaging with the locals. I am still learning travel tricks on a regular basis because I started paying more attention a couple of years ago after having some obvious travel hacks I had been missing pointed out to me. I will save those tips for another day.

When I interviewed people for jobs during my days in the corporate world, I often asked people that said they had “five years” experience if they “really had five years’ experience of if they had one year of experience five times”. I wanted to know HOW they were better in their thinking and work in year five than they were in year one. Very few people have a good answer to that question but upon reflection I realized I need to constantly be asking myself a variation of that question – am I spending enough time learning new things and making sure I am having new experiences?

Last year I had a situation where my “normal” hotel in Tokyo was sold out and I had to stay somewhere else. It turned out to be a great hotel – much better than the one I was comfortable with and showed me I had gotten into a travel rut of always staying in the same hotels in various cities and eating in the same restaurants.

There is something to be said for making travel easy and as stress free as possible but there is also something to be said for walking into a place called “Champagne and Gyoza” at 1am in Tokyo with another gaijin and just seeing what happens. Turned out to be great gyoza and marginal champagne so we had beer instead. Ninety minutes and two dozen gyoza later I was back at the hotel with a memory I won’t soon forget.

Lately, when I am alone in Asia; I seek out places I have never been. It takes me back to some of the great experiences we had when my family first moved to China and we communicated with sign language, flash cards and a few spoken words. Almost every day brought a new experience when we first arrived in Shanghai.

My wife and I always tried to teach our kids to “ask for the order” when they wanted something whether it was a room upgrade, a discount or a pet sitting job. The best examples of this concept I ever saw were from kids selling things on the street in Cambodia and Viet Nam. Both times they were pre-teens who learned enough English to try to sell things to tourists. In both cases, they made eye contact, established where we were from, said something to establish credibility.  One young lady sold us by knowing all the state capitals in the US, proving it to us and then using the positive impression to sell us a travel guidebook that was clearly printed locally. My wife started to leaf through the book and was stopped in her tracks by a firm response: “lady the book is $2, just buy it” which is what happened. It always amazed us how entrepreneurial kids were in places like Ho Chi Minh, Angkor Wat and Lhasa.

This little guy rowed his bucket out to our boat and "asked for the order"
On another occasion we were walking along the street in Ho Chi Minh a boy of about twelve came up to us with nothing to sell; he just wanted to beef up his language skills. We talked for about ten minutes and suddenly a late model BMW pulled up to the curb. Our new friend politely said “Oh that’s my mom, I have to go she drops me off near international hotels a couple times a week so I can chat up foreigners and improve my English”.

The passion for learning I found traveling in Asia and working with young people in China, taught me that I needed to consider how much time I was spending consciously focused on continuing to develop myself.

If nothing else writing this blog helps me re-live great memories of the time I have been privileged to spend traveling the world and living in Asia. Sorry if this was a little too much stream of consciousness but thanks for coming along.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Escaping the "Bubble"

My ex-pat days are long behind me but their impact on my life remains.

Fortunately, unlike many “former expats”, I don’t have to rely on my memory of the time abroad because I return to Japan and China multiple times each year. I see the constant change in the Middle Kingdom and marvel at how slowly things change in the Land of the Rising Sun. I find both situations comforting and, from my perspective, as they should be.

My first trip to Asia was 23 years ago. Since that time I have spent almost the same amount time in Asia as I have in the US. I am writing this after a five-mile stroll through the quiet backstreets of Tokyo beginning at 5:30am and finishing at a coffee shop where the idea to write a blog post seized me.

Room with a View - 33 floors above Tokyo
Despite my strong Irish catholic origins, I have always appreciated the Confucian belief system that drives much of the behavior on this side of the world. I am more comfortable in the major cities of Asia than most big cities in the US. Moderate language skills certainly help when traveling in Japan and China but truth be told one can easily survive in most cities in Asia with only English fluency.

Few Americans truly appreciate how easy the Japanese have made getting around even for those who can’t speak a single word of the local language. It is easy to create an ex-pat bubble and have what amounts to an ersatz overseas experience. Not getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the culture is probably the biggest mistake most ex-pats living in Japan make.

Although I did a pretty good job of avoiding the “ex-pat” bubble trap when I lived in Japan and China, in recent years I fell into the trap of never pushing out my comfort zone on business trips – staying at the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants, taking the same running routes, etc.

Fortunately, when I lived in Japan I was not working a big company office with a large number of expats and bilingual staff. I had to set up an office and also worked in a joint venture company office where I was the only non-Japanese person. Unlike many of my peers, I went of my way to have a local experience – to the extent a foreigner in Japan can.

Tokyo is a Great City for Walking
My trip this week presented an unusual opportunity to move out of my self-created business trip rut. I was asked by a client to fly to Japan for a single meeting that had the potential to morph into additional dialog – or not. I decided to book myself for three days in Tokyo. Trips from North Carolina to Japan with just an overnight in-country actually are two nights sleeping on a plane and one night in a hotel. As the years go by I have lost my enthusiasm for Trans-Pacific “day trips”.

So I had three nights and the better part of four days on the ground in Tokyo and the unusual situation of mostly free time. Over those days I met socially with multiple local friends, stayed in a hotel I had never stayed in and walked over 120,000 steps (or approximately 50 miles/80km) in and around Tokyo. I purposely rode subway lines I had never been on, entered small suburban restaurants where non-Japanese don’t normally go and certainly not without a local friend. I speak Japanese well enough to go where foreigners don’t normally appear. It was refreshing to get outside my comfort zone in my “second home”.

Just Point to it - You don't have to Speak Japanese to Order Food in Tokyo
Walking for hours at time was great. Despite a population far greater than any American city there is a lot of green space in Tokyo. Surprisingly, in the early morning hours, I could walk for several minutes without seeing another soul. There is a peacefulness in Tokyo I never feel in NY, Shanghai or LA.

Best of all, thoughts of work left me. I thought about the time my family lived in Japan – learning how to get by in a very foreign world, my first feeble attempts at speaking the language, the joy of learning how to relate to people with a completely different world view.

My brief sojourn was more vacation than business (please don’t tell the client picking up the tab) but it was also a great reminder of how much my life has been enriched by spending more than a decade on the other side of the world. That said, it is important to take time to really see and experience  what is around you.  It is easy to take world travel for granted after so many years. Hopefully last week is a reminder that will stay with me for awhile. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Continuing Education

Time flies. It is an unrelenting truth. It doesn’t seem or feel like so long ago I was the youngest player on the varsity football and basketball teams or later the least senior person in business meetings. Fortunately, I will always be the youngest of six siblings but at meetings these days I am more often than not one of the oldest people in the room.

During my career I have covered the age continuum – back in the day working with and having people more than twice my age report to me and in the last decade plus, especially when I lived in China, working with people half my age. I never thought too much about it until a few weeks ago……

I was sitting in a small conference room in Bueno Aires. Across the table from me was a young lady that my millennial daughters would consider a “kid”. I was meeting with her to learn about podcasting. An American college junior on a semester abroad who through a series of chance meetings became my “podcast mentor”.  My first business related experience with a “Gen Zer”. If this young lady is representative of Gen Z, I think we are in good hands but as always I digress.

Among the lessons I learned living in Asia for over a decade was to accept help and lessons from any and all demographics. That bit of wisdom is serving me well now. I started cohosting a podcast several months ago with an American living in Argentina. In addition to studying abroad, “Miss Gen Z” is an intern working in my cohost’s company. Although the podcast has gotten good reviews and quickly built a solid following, our newly minted podcast mentor spent the better part of three hours discussing “potential improvement areas” – also known as telling us we were doing just about everything wrong.

I am not known for patience or humility so having someone on the cusp of being three generations my junior reading me the “podcast screw-up riot act” would seem problematic.
Fortunately, in this case, I was able to check my ego and take my lumps (and a lot of notes).

My most recent “mentor” experience got me thinking about past mentors.

Twenty-three years ago I showed up in Japan yet another “clueless American”. I, like most people experiencing Japan for the first time, was impressed by the obvious positive aspects of the culture (civility, helpfulness, strong work ethic, attention to detail, etc).

I began making bi-monthly trips to the Land of Rising Sun. Fortunately, one senior person in the company I did business with (Murai san) watched me try to learn what was beneath the surface of the culture. Gradually he seemed to take an interest in helping me learn how to succeed rather than finding my weak points to exploit in negotiations.

In the 1990’s there was almost no English signage in Osaka making it tough for foreigners to get around. Almost all new western visitors required “handlers” to get to and from meetings if any travel complexity was involved. On visit four or five, I told my Japanese hosts I no longer needed help getting to the office and started ordering things myself in “pidgin” Japanese at dinner. I also started speaking to the caddies when we played golf. My pitiful but determined efforts earned me respect and provided an unceasing stream of laughter on the part of my hosts. I made every conceivable language mistake imaginable but over time I was also understood – well, most of the time.

Besides the obvious benefit of earning my independence when visiting Japan, I also gained a mentor almost three decades my senior. Murai san became my first of multiple mentors I would have over the years in Japan. In general Japanese culture is much, much more subtle than western cultures. It is very difficult for Japanese to tell naturally overconfident Americans when they are wrong, full of sh**, or otherwise off base. Fortunately for me, Murai san and later, after I moved to Japan, my Japanese sensei (teacher) were kind enough to be brutally honest with me when circumstances dictated. Learning Japanese is complicated by the fact that foreigners speaking unintelligible Japanese are always told they are “jouzu” aka skillful. Fortunately, I had multiple mentors more than willing to correct me on a constant basis.

When I moved to China my two most significant mentors were my driver Philip and my assistant Sabrina. Readers of my blog are no strangers to these two. To this day I am not certain if I (or my family) would have had the successful experience we did if we had not crossed paths with Philip and Sabrina.

 Mentors are great when things are going well and they are helping you learn or navigate the vagaries of culture or business life but they are even more important when you are in crisis mode. Fortunately, when my corporate life came to a screeching halt in 2012, a former boss one journey around the zodiac younger than I was there to help me make a quick and successful transition to my reincarnation as an independent. He understood me as well as the situation and was kind enough to share his experience and wisdom. Thanks Jon.

If you are lucky, as I have been, your most important mentor will be your children’s other parent. My wife has been my mentor since she was my girlfriend. When we first started dating, I was a socially inept 24-year-old who needed adult supervision to get through customer dinners back in my days in the fire extinguisher business. Her mostly subtle guidance got me through graduate school. After we got married, we began a peripatetic life where no move was made without her counsel. When I was being bullied by my company into moving from Japan to China and essentially told the company to “kiss my hindquarters” more than once it was my better half that guided me to “look at the big picture” rather than making a sub-optimal decision out of stubbornness.

I wanted to stay in Japan or go home. I was angry that the proposed move to China was driven by corporate tax minimization and that my family would be forced to move to a much tougher environment so the company could save what amounted to a “rounding error” in the grand scheme of things. The company tried to play hard ball with me which is rarely a good idea. Left to my own devices I would have refused to lose the “game of corporate chicken” and moved home to a very uncertain future while my daughters were in their teens.

My bride, along with the well placed tears of my daughters at a family meeting, convinced me to put my entrenched ego aside and “just say yes”. So, we moved to China. Had I not listened to my better half, the groundwork for what I am doing today would not have been laid.

I love the saying that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”. Ok, so it is a concept not an exact algorithm but likely there is a potential mentor in that five if you are careful about who you spend your time with.

My oldest mentor is 66 years older than my youngest. Take help where you find it. If you are fortunate enough to find capable people sincerely trying to help you, do yourself a favor and listen.

When I start writing a blog post I usually have an outline in mind, this one went in a different direction than I had intended but that is the beauty of blogs. Thanks for reading.