Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The "4 AM" Syndrome

After almost two decades of  transoceanic travel, I have experienced many changes in the "long haul" flying experience - on the upside: flatbed seats and better entertainment. On the downside: post 9/11 security and declining service on most airlines including the once unbelievable service on Singapore Airlines.

For me, one aspect of travel that has not changed over the years is the "4AM" syndrome. Whatever my "home" time zone may be (China, Japan or the US) - when I leave home to cross the Pacific the first few days after my arrival have one constant - I wake up at 4AM. If I go to bed at 10 PM, I wake at 4, if I go to bed at 1am, I wake up at 4. The problem with waking up at 4 is that I am ready to go back to sleep about the time I am supposed to go to dinner with customers. Many of my friends from Japan use some kind of pharmaceutical solution. I don't prefer that option because I don't like the sluggish feeling it brings. In the interest of full disclosure, I do carry NyQuil cold medicine gel -caps for the occasional desperate situation when I need to drop off to sleep quickly but I probably only use that option one night in one-hundred.

When I first started traveling, mild sleep deprivation made me miserable by day three of a trip. I would toss and turn waiting until 6am to get up and start the day with a run. The fact my customers usually wanted to stay out until midnight or later made my days very long and made long meetings seem much longer. I had trouble speaking English let along trying to understand the Japanese or Chinese.

Over time I learned not to fight jet lag but to embrace it, I stayed on a schedule of getting up at 4 and doing email or reading until my 6am run. I learned to manage my schedule so I have at least 60 minutes between the last meeting and dinner. A 60 minute gap allows me to get back to the hotel and have  a 20- 30 minute power nap before the "evening shift". It doesn't sound like much but 30 minutes of sleep gives me enough energy to feel normal through the evening.

Last week when I was sending emails back to North Carolina at 4AM Taipei time, I got a return email asking why "after all the years oft travel why hadn't I learn to manage jet lag".  I didn't bother to reply but the answer is I learned how to manage jet lag by not trying to fight it.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Around the world (and more) in 18 days

November 27th, 2011

In the past 18 days, I have been in Switzerland, China (Shanghai and Sichuan), Singapore, Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), Charlotte, Augusta, Georgia and NY. My return date from Japan was on the anniversary of my move back from Asia one year ago which sparked a bit of reflection while I was on the Singapore Airlines A380 from Tokyo to LA.

Traveling to so many diverse places in less than 3 weeks was a mini version of what I have experienced on a larger scale since early 2000. I transitioned from the "slightly stiff" Zurich to the wide open people of western China without a blink. Shanghai is an ever changing third home - everything changes but everything has the same feel. On the plane to Singapore I encountered a person experiencing the wonder of his first tour of Asia. He had so many comments and concerns that seemed childlike but were my own when I made my first tour of Asia in 1995. Singapore in some ways is the Asian Switzerland - everything is in order and runs on time but things like the street food hawkers prevent it from having the clinical feel of Zurich. Tokyo and Osaka are continually feuding cousins but I enjoy and appreciate both especially the little things like the fact that they use opposite sides of the escalators to stand and walk. I was back at home in the US for a day before going to Augusta, Georgia to play Augusta National Golf course. I stayed in a cabin on the property, ate among the "green jacket wearers"  in the clubhouse, visited the wine cellar, prepared to play in the locker room and met several members who represent the "Who's Who" of American business. You have to be invited to play this most exclusive of American courses. How did I get to this once in a lifetime opportunity??? From a Japanese customer with connections to an American member. Small world indeed.

The home stretch of the 18 days was spent in New York. My wife and I met our younger daughter who is at college in Los Angeles in NY to stay with our elder daughter who moved there after graduating from college in May. Her apartment is in a formerly gritty section of Queens that has become neighborhood that could be a poster for diversity. I detected six different languages on the street as we walked 400 meters to the subway.

We had a great time over the holidays - touring, shopping, eating, etc. The last night we attended a Broadway show called "Chinglish" aka Chinese/English which appealed to the entire family since we had lived through many of the circumstances in the play. Then we flew home......

Home is Charlotte, NC. A very nice mid sized city. We have a house on a golf course (my dream) and I have an easy commute to work - when I am here. Cost of living is very reasonable and the weather is nice. I still spend a good deal of time in Asia - I leave again in two days for ten days in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Yet something is still missing. My wife and I talk about it from time to time. Part of it is the normal ex-pat dilemma. I ran a growing business in Asia with little "help" from HQ that saw the company profits in Asia increase almost 10 fold in a decade. I was the only American there. The team was closeknit with a family atmosphere.

My environment has definitely changed. The challenge of learning cultures, language, customs and working with a young team anxious to learn, achieve and grow has been replaced by office politics, reductions in force, the growing American feeling of entitlement and casting blame on others such as exhibited by the current  "occupy" movement, political correctness, etc. Many places in America no longer allow public Christian symbols or traditional religious Christmas songs to be played in public places. Yet in Shanghai you can hear "What Child is This?" from speakers on Nanjing Lu. Who is "free"?

When I set up this blog a year ago I mentioned deciding what to do "next" in the title. The transition to living in the US is complete, what to do "next" is the challenge for year 2.

PS: My current Global Lithium role was the answer to that challenge mentioned five years ago.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Apple a Day

A week ago I attended a football game with 92,999 other people. Stanford vs USC - a three overtime thriller. As exciting as the game was, I left the stadium more impressed by something else - the pervasive use of Apple products. In this case mostly the IPhone being used as a camera and a way to keep up with other college games but there were also IPads and Ipods being used around me.

Being the happy owner of an Air Mac, an IPpad, an IPhone and an IPod as well as Apple stock - it was certainly not a revelation to me that a lot of people are similarly equipped. However sitting in a stadium and observing those around me as well as those at a distance via my wife's binoculars, it was a revelation at how widespread and constant the use of mobile technology has become even at a sporting event. Of course, there were also Android phones and even the occasional "dumbphone" with a camera but  Apple products were certainly in the vast majority. If this game had been a one sided "yawner" - it would have been understandable for the crowd to seek diversion in their personal electronics but this was a close game that kept the vast majority of the crowd on the edge of their seats (when they weren't standing and screaming).
Apple products have enabled a change in the way people interact (Facebook, Facetime, etc). Yes, I realize you can get on Facebook on a Windows PC or other non Apple device but if that was your reaction you are missing the point. How many people that never carried a camera before now take pictures almost daily because a reasonable quality camera is now in their phone? How easy has "around me" made it to find a restuarant or gas station no matter where you are in the world? I recently had a hankering for a Subway "veggie delight" when I was in Tokyo. Around Me made it easy to follow the little dot on my IPhone screen to the closest subway.
Since the death of Steve Jobs much has been made of his accomplishments. I have almost finished reading the book recently released on this life. What is strinking to me is that what seems to have made Steve Jobs a success was his refusal to accept the status quo and the easy path. His creative thinking along with stubborness mixed with arrogance seemed to have fuled his success and later caused him to be fired from his own company only to rise again  when the "corporate" version of Apple failed and he was called back after his success at Pixar among other things. The appreciation his "uneducated" adoptive father gave him for doing things right and clean, simple design is diametrically opposed to mentality of mst big companies today.

A couple of months ago, a senior executive where I work gave me and several other directors in our division a book on the "secret" to Steve Jobs innovation "process".  I found this totally ironic. Someone like Steve Jobs would have been fired within a few months if he worked for our company or most of the Fortune 500. As a non PC young man with poor personal hygiene, Steve Jobs would probably never have been hired by most companies that are now trying to discern what his secret was.

Hopefully there are more young people out there that will follow their dreams and create great products. Innovation is likely to continue to come from people that don't follow the conventional path and are willing to risk security to pursue their dream. I have yet to open the book that promises to tell me Steve Job's innovation "secrets".

Upon reflection the lesson from Steve Jobs seems pretty simple - one person totally committed to a goal still can change the world.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thoughts on Facebook

I was a reluctant joiner of the Facebook generation. I signed up primarily to post pictures so my family could see them without a lot of fuss. FB is great for that and I do enjoy the comments. Even the "likes" which I initially thought was kind of vapid have grown on me. I click "like" these days surprisingly often.

Shortly after I signed up, my wife asked several people to "friend" me so I would not be embarrassed if I compared myself to her massive number of friends. Just getting my siblings and a few in-laws to give me a "mercy friending" got me to a few dozen which moved my number off the "embarrassing low" friend level. In the year plus I have been on FB, I think I have only friended 3 or 4 people myself - perhaps an innate fear or rejection or a desire to avoid "farmville" and other nuisance requests. I have only "de-friended" one person - a high school teacher of mine that began to irritate me with all this political posts. 

Having college age kids brought complications - both our kids drew the hard line with us initially - "YOU CANNOT BE MY FACEBOOK FRIEND". Apparently both feared that one of us might turn out to be a Facebook stalker and embarrass them by putting parental advice on their wall or worse - like friending THEIR friends. I took the rejection in stride. A few months later, I was shocked to get a friend invitation from my younger daughter. I actually think she made an inadvertent click that sent me the invite but she didn't want to hurt my feelings and allowed me to stay on her friend list. Of course then she felt obligated to friend her Mom too. I suspect she used FB settings to limit our access but aside from me sending a "fatherly" message to one of her male college friends I have met I seemed to have stayed within the complex unwritten rules of intergenerational Facebook behavior. At least I get to see her pictures. My elder daughter, despite being out of college, still draws the hard line on being FB friends with her parents. Strangely both my kids are friends with many other relatives. Many of my nieces and nephews that are college age or slightly above have friended me. Yes FB protocols are odd especially since both of our kids talk to us on the phone very often and reveal details that I would never have shared with my mother or father but this largesse of communication does not extend to free access to Facebook.

Having lived overseas, I really enjoy the convenience of staying touch with friends all over the world. International connections can be a bit more complicated. The sheer volume of similar names on Facebook and names written in Chinese characters can present  problems. On two occasions I have been at dinner with friends in Tokyo and had them ask me to be their friends. Even sitting next to each other with Facebook up on our IPhones,  it took a long time to help them "find" me so I could be "friended". Japanese friends that enter their names on FB in kanji rather than the romanized versions have friended me.  With my limited reading ability in Japanese - I normally have to get my Japanese / English dictionary out to confirm who I am accepting since some people don't use a profile picture or one that doesn't provide positive ID. My profile picture is usually a shot of my better side (the back of my head), some people use pets or other pictures.

Now that Facebook is both a noun and a verb, the question of longevity arises. Will it be as pervasive in five, ten or twenty years? I have no idea but it is another phenomena of the digital age that has changed how we communicate.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How things have changed - my travel experience

I started to write this post a few days before the 10th Anniversary of Sept 11, 2001 but got side tracked before leaving the US on a three trip that took me to Buenos Aires and Salta in Argentina, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Tokyo. From the Atlantic to the Pacific and back with a sojourn to 13,000 feet in the Andes in the middle. I flew from Charlotte NC to Buenos Aires on anniversary of 9/11. It was hard not to reflect on how life has changed............ now to finish my original post.

Labor Day has always been a transition holiday. As a kid, it marked the end of summer vacation and the beginning of school. As an adult it marked the end of the slowest part of the business year and the beginning of the push to finish the year stronger than the prior year.

Ten years ago I was living in Japan and did not celebrate Labor Day but my colleagues in the US did. That week I was preparing for my boss to arrive in Japan on September 11. By that time, I had been in Japan 18 months and was beginning to forget about American holidays. My "new normal: was taking the train to work rather than driving, bowing instead of shaking hands and trying to explain to our American HQ why things were different in Japan. Life had changed but my travel life was about to change more than I could imagine.

Before I moved to Japan, I was traveling about 100 days a year. I lived 20 minutes from the airport and on days that I needed to fly, would leave the house about 60 minutes before my departure time, park at the $6/day lot just a few steps from the terminal, check-in, go through security, get something to drink in the lounge and board the plane. That, for me as a frequent flyer, was a normal flying day in the US before September 11, 2001.

Before I write further I am very aware that the real tragedy of 9/11 is that many families lost loved ones in the terror attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, that is the real tragedy of 9/11.

However in addition to the real tragedy is second order impact - all the "over the top" and mostly useless "security" that has been added to the travel experience. Any commercial traveler in the US is required to have a part in the security "Kabuki" that takes place in airports all over the US.

I remember my first domestic flights when I returned to the US for the first time after 9/11. My one hour departure from my front door to take off became a three hour ordeal. Despite being an American, my travel in the US set off all the alarms set up by the newly formed airport security apparatus. My tickets were for first class and issued in Japanese Yen rather than US dollars. Although Japan was not known as a hotbed for terrorists, the simple test in the fall of 2001 for a potential terrorist was "any ticket written in a foreign currency". The 9/11 terrorists flew in first class so that combined with foreign currency got me "randomly" selected for "enhanced" security 100% of the time for almost two years. Fortunately the "shoe bomber" had yet to appear so while my carry-on bags were being dumped out in front of me and my three cells were being scrutinized, at least I got to keep my shoes on. My US, Japan and China based cell phones always brought on additional questions: "why all the phones?" My simple answer that I traveled regularly to the US and China and lived in Japan (global phones were outrageously expensive and not common in 2001) always brought more "why? why? why? questions. Meanwhile, as my patience wore thin and boarding continued I was losing overhead bin space - as someone who doesn't check bags this was a constant frustration as was the attitude of most of the security people who had yet been organized into TSA.

My recollection is that flying remained extremely inconvenient for almost five years. I remember being in Australia with my family on vacation and watching the report about the "shoe bomber" on a flight to the US. My first thought was "here we go again" and sure enough a few weeks later in the US I was padding barefoot through the X-ray machine. Once in Hawaii, my entire family was told each of us was "randomly" selected to a search - we were taken to a tented area and all our bags, even those my wife and kids had checked, were dumped out on a  tarp and checked. "What are the odds of 4 people with the same last name being randomly selected on a flight with less than 150 people?" I asked the person in charge. The only response was that we do what we are told......

Each new wrinkle in the TSA policy seemed like a bad joke to me - especially after the "no more than 3 ounces of liquid in a single container and all liquids  in one small plastic bag" requirement was added. I quickly learned that as long as I produced a bag with small liquid containers on the belt through the x-ray machine, I could leave other liquids in my briefcase and not get questioned - that made the plastic bag rule seem even more foolish. I still do this every flight and can say that after literally more than 200 trips through security I have only been stopped once for the hand moisturizer and contact lens solution I always leave in my briefcase.

Recently the TSA has added body scanners at many airports - no belts or anything in your pockets now. The lines get slower and it is highly doubtful any real measure of security is being added.

Osama is gone now but his legacy of causing travel inconvenience will live on. I am all for better security when it is more than a show for the masses. As someone that travels the world on a regular basis, I still wonder why the US cannot seem to put a system that is efficient and no evasive like they have in Japan, other parts of Asia and many places in Europe.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Last Friday, I had the final meeting with my "coach". A somewhat sad day for me - like the last day of a college class you really enjoyed or finishing a good book. I was surprised how much I benefited from the experience.

Prior to my return from living in Asia for eleven years, it was suggested that a "coach" could help me speed up re-entry to life in the US organization. When I got back to the US late last year, I was asked (again) if I was interested working with a coach. "Sounds like a good idea" was my response. Honestly, I was more curious about the whole "coaching" phenomena. I wanted to know what a coach actually does and if, for example, they gave you homework.

Before I left the US in early 2000,  it seemed only those destined for the top management suite or those likely to be shown the door due to behavioral issues had coaches. In short, coaching seemed either for accelerated mentoring or "anger management".

The coaching "industry" seemed to have gone mainstream while I was in Asia - like drinking bottled water or doing ergonomic evaluations of every employee's "work environment". Another of the many changes I have noticed since coming back.

Like everything else in this blog, what I say about coaching is "generalizing from a small sample" - my experience and my opinion. 

As far as the value for money of coaching - it is hard to say.  I never checked on the cost - my feeling is that my coach was relatively pricy especially based on the fact there is a large organizational umbrella (read company that needs to make a profit and pay overhead) in between my coach and my employer. Many coaches can be reached directly via their website but large company's tend to use a service to arrange coaching. Just as sure as I am that I benefitted from the time with my coach (a couple hours each week when I was in the country); I am also sure that I would never have been willing to pay out of my own pocket for coaching. A more likely scenario is that I would have read a couple of books by coaches and/or discussed my repatriations issues with a fellow ex-pat in an airport lounge or on a long haul flight. I might have just pored out my soul to Yuki - our  loyal dog and gotten feedback via how bored she looked while I talked. I say none of this to denigrate the value of coaching. I had the good fortune to work with an excellent coach but given the nature of the industry I think I was lucky. In general, coaching is more laissez faire than "financial planning".

Once it was decided that I would have a coach, I was given several candidates to consider - I selected two from the group to meet over lunch and then picked one.

Pondering what to do "next"
My coach did a great job of helping me sort out how I felt about returning and whether it made more sense for me to focus  on success in my current position or perhaps ultimately deciding that I was better off finding a new opportunity where the skills I developed in Japan and China would be better utilized and appreciated. It was a socratic process to get me to come to up with future plan on a step by step basis. I wasn't told what or how to think but I was supported through a process that enabled me to select my own "end game". Clearly "an end" is coming to the role with my current employer and the real question is: what path do I take with the skills I have developed?

In any case, the formal process has come to an end. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with someone who was skillful at getting me to work through a process to decide if I am better off on my own. The question is: with one daughter just out of college and another with three more years at one of the most expensive schools in the world; do I have the courage to "do the right thing"? Time will tell.

Thanks "coach"

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Office

After eight months back in the US, I am quite comfortable and settled. There is only one thing that I have yet to adapt to - spending more than a couple days a month in the US office. I am in the midst of three straight "office" weeks. I did this once before earlier in the year to prove to myself I could do it. This second run of three straight weeks was mostly for personal reasons - I didn't want to be away while my younger daughter was back from college so I had a very good reason to stay close to home.

My job is to make sure our worldwide customer base is buying product and satisfied with our service. The majority of our business is outside the US - so spending a lot of time in the office is, for the most part,  non productive. Of course, there is administrative work (planning, budgets, reviews, reports, face to face time key people, etc) but that doesn't take up more than 20% of my time. Most of the people who report to me live outside the US. Not much point to spending a lot of time in the North Carolina office.

For over a decade, I didn't have to worry too much about being bored in the office. Although I had completely different situations when I lived in Japan and China - neither presented the "office" challenge that I have here.

I spent over five years in Japan but almost never went to the same office more than once a week. Due to the fact that I had responsibility for both my company's Asia Pacific business and two joint ventures with Japanese partners, my office situation was a little complicated.

For my company's non-JV business, I had a small space in a "serviced" office where although there was only one of me (and no employees), the serviced office created the impression that the company footprint was much larger than my small room. One of the serviced office receptionists greeted the occasional visitor and answered my phone. If I needed a big, impressive, conference room, I could rent it by the hour and have an "office lady" (an actual job title in Japan not me being politically incorrect) bring coffee and tea creating the impression that we had a staff in the Osaka office. As President of two joint ventures, I had the "power" desk at the back of an room with many other desks in front of me. I guess the logic is the guy in the back can see what everyone is doing. Our partner company didn't particularly want a "gaijin" in the office even if he was the JV President. My time in that office was limited and largely ceremonial.

Often, I simply worked from home - our 19th floor apartment was on an island in Kobe bay - I will never live in a place with a better view. My wife was not always thrilled when I announced that I was working from home. I enjoyed the diversity of work environments. My time in Japan was completely different from the experience I had when we moved to Shanghai.

Shanghai was a major change - I was our division's first and only employee in China but my mandate was different. Instead of dealing with JV partners, I was to hire a local team, acquire land, form a local company and get a plant built while still spending a lot of time in Japan and traveling around Asia. I started with a serviced office office rented from the same international company I rented from in Japan. After that all similarity stopped.

As the China team grew, I began to get questions about "policies" - the lunch policy, the working time policy, the company trip policy. After working independently for so long; I had to get used to a constant stream of questions. In the end, delegation became my "policy" for all policy questions. I responded to all "what is the xxx policy questions" by asking "what do you think the policy should be?" and adding "since I am not Chinese I need your help". This system worked very well because I was lucky - I hired a great admin who enjoyed formulating policy. Time passed - we hired more people.

Sometimes we moved the Shanghai office outside

The next big hurdle was finding our own office space, getting it decorated and moving in. Serviced offices are great for one or two people but when you have several people, it usually is less expensive to get your own place. Being in the Shanghai office was never boring, we had a lot to do, a growing business and many customers from small cities in China that visited us because they wanted an excuse to visit Shanghai. Training the new team and more importantly learning from them kept me busy and I never had the feeling of ennui that I have in the US office. It also helped being the boss. In a Chinese office, the boss gets more respect than in a US office plus since salaries are lower and the culture of "full employment" exists, there was never a shortage of people trying to help me get things done or teach me the proper pronunciation for a Chinese word. I got spoiled in Shanghai and I am still going through withdrawal.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Stories from a month of travel

July 23, 2011

The last four weeks were mostly plane, hotel, plane golf, plane ...... California, Montreal, Michigan, Japan, NY, NC ........

My trip to Montreal was a great culinary adventure as always. The long wait in customs made US immigration look good by comparison.  The traffic around Montreal indicated that our neighbors to the north could use some stimulus spending of their own on their roads and bridges. Leaving Canada was a testimony to needless bureaucracy. For some reason, four people at different positions checked boarding passes before we got to the gates.  All the quality of life talk we hear from our Canadian friends seemed questionable after two days up North. Perhaps I am generalizing from a small sample..... then again, maybe not.

A long term colleague in Japan who had a great opportunity to take a position with a young growing company decided to move on. I spent nine days traveling in Japan as part of  a "sayonara tour" to help him say a proper goodbye to customers. In the US, a change of job every few years is expected. In Japan, the departure of a long time employee generates questions that demand a reasonable explanation and reassurance that the relationship between the companies will remain stable. In this case, I tried to serve as a stabilizer since I have known some of our customers in Japan longer than my Japanese cohort. My friend's departure will generate more travel to Japan for me in the short term and also prompted many comments from our Japanese customers that my leaving Asia was "not a good idea".

Having a knowledgeable, trusted co-worker in Japan is a great asset that I will miss. To some extent I took all his hard work for granted - he made so many arrangements and handled so many details that an administrative assistant cannot handle as easily. On the other hand, life without a local "handler" is good challenge that will stretch me in ways I haven't been stretched in a several years.

The explanation of my friend's departure was not as difficult as the 9 days and nights of large lunches, long dinners and late nights fueled by beer, sake, mizuwari and countless stories of the past 16 years of business dealings. Saying goodbye can be hard work even when you are the one that is staying behind. Two days of golf in the intense Tokyo heat on the weekend only exacerbated the dehydrating effect of nights with too little sleep and too much of everything else.

I slept for 9 hours on the flight back to the US to prepare myself for a family wedding that took place less than 24 hours after I landed. Sometimes I marvel at how different life can seem just a couple of days apart. On Wednesday night I was in the Ginza area of Tokyo surrounded by a sea of salarymen with nary a face similar to mine in sight - 48 hours later I was in the Finger Lakes area of NY in a small church attending a wedding - I blended in perfectly with those in attendance. I felt at home in both places. Places that could not have been more different.

After the wedding, my wife and I spent a couple of nights in my hometown to attend a gathering on my side of the family. We could only stay two days because I had to be back in North Carolina to greet customers from Japan and the 4 person crew sent from Japanese TV (NHK) that is shadowing one of my customers for a few weeks for an episode of a NHK show called "The Professionals". It was a little odd explaining the 4 person camera crew filming golf and dinner but people always seems to want to cooperate when a TV show is involved. It was so hot while we were playing golf that the cameraman and sound person put on head "dress" that made them look like Al Qaeda - I thought maybe the police would be called to check out the "terrorists on the golf course". Fortunately we finished 18 holes without a visit from the local SWAT team.

Last week I spent an entire week in my North Carolina office with no guests or travel. I enjoyed the quiet - for about 3 days. I will be back in Japan in two weeks.

 A lot has changed in less than two years - my colleague in Japan moved to a new company and, a year later, I moved on too. We remain friends, see each other often, and hope for the opportunity to work together in the future.

Life goes on - change is constant but the relationships that matter endure

The Japanese TV show I mention in the post  was filmed in China, Tokyo and North Carolina. The hour show gave another friend, who was the featured "Professional" more than his "15 minutes of fame". After the show aired, I had the chance to see people notice him in train stations and on the streets in Tokyo and Osaka. Viewers sent food and snacks to his office to help him maintain his "figure". My cameo in the show as the "bad gaijin" got me noticed on the street a few times but only when I was standing next to the main character.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Perspective: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

This week my wife and I flew to California to attend a grease industry convention near Palm Springs. Boring business perhaps but good people. The company I work for sells a raw material used in the grease making process. Not our most interesting market but, for me, almost a "living time capsule". The last time I attended this convention was 1999.

I did not expect to see so many familiar faces (plus 12 years of aging, of course). The numbers attending the event were up compared to the last time which was a surprise for a low tech business in a down economy. In the past, this event was dominated by American attendees. Americans are still the majority but there were many more Asian attendees this time. The Japanese have come for years but now there were representatives from several other countries. Mostly they were young, coming to learn something or deliver a technical paper.

A few things struck me. The event was much less formal than last time  - I wore khakis and golf shirts to some sessions and still felt over dressed. In 1999 suits were, for the most part, the dress of the day. In a similar fashion, behavior is also less formal with a continuing trend in American towards declining "social graces". When the "grease guys" go casual, you know it is a trend.

Although attendees from Asia are up there seemed to be very limited cultural interaction. Asians off in a corner together during cocktail hours or breaks. Perhaps not unusual, particularly with a largely technical group but sad to see missed opportunities. Most technologists from Asia will get few chances to visit America and to meet and speak with non expat Americans.

While, in general, it seems Americans are more open and less insular than many cultures - it was hard to tell by observing interaction at this event. Americans, at least those of a certain age, were taught that America was the "great melting pot". My Japanese teacher corrected that notion for me referring to America as the great "salad bowl". The obvious inference being that cultures were thrown together like as tossed salad rather than becoming the single entity that melting implies. I will leave the proper reference to cultural experts but I think my sensei had a valid point.

I felt strangely comfortable at this event - like putting on a pair of perfectly broken-in shoes. Nice to see old acquaintances and talk about now grown children, business, sports or any other common ground. Very natural. On the other hand, I felt a bit out of place and "different". I felt a need to speak with the Asians using Japanese, Chinese or the very limited Thai I know. The reaction was almost universally the same - people (the Asians and Americans nearby) looked at me as if I was from Mars. If I speak Japanese or Chinese to someone in their native country - they usually smile, speak back in English if they know it but if I continue in their language; they are usually happy to continue - in either language. At this event, except for one Japanese guy; everyone seemed very confused that an American was using their language in his native country. Most smiled but seemed very ill at ease in how to react. We all seemed uncertain about the ground rules. This seemed very odd to me having had similar experiences one on one speaking Japanese or Chinese in cities from Oslo to Buenos Aires to Charlotte. I am not sure what was different this time except in prior cases I was usually helping someone who was lost or had some other need to interact with a "foreigner".

I have attended conferences and industry meeting all over Asia - China, Japan, Singapore, etc. There seems a common thread of dynamism - change, new technology, youth, etc. Of course, these conferences are normally in markets that are high tech and developing rapidly. The focus is usually on innovation and the "next big thing". Comparing these events with an American grease conference is "apples and oranges". On the other hand,  it does concern me that in my limited experience America seems to be in decline vs Asia on many levels. Americans develop the IPad and Asians make it. An American company still makes the profit but how long will that last????

Of course Asians still want to send their kids to our best colleges. Wealthy Chinese now join tours to the US for the express purpose of buying houses because, even in our expensive cities, houses are cheap by the standards of Shanghai and Beijing. Wait until the RMB appreciates....

I have told many Japanese and Chinese friends - it is easy for you to become an American but I can never become Japanese or Chinese.  The playing field isn't level and Americans are playing on the uphill side. Our government has no idea of how to foster economic growth despite spending trillions. What I saw this week in California was a concurrent look at the past and the future.

 Maybe I should wait 12 years to go back to this meeting.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Dog Days

So much is written about ex-pat life, culture shock, re-entry issues, third culture kids, etc. Little is written about the ex-pat dog. In the case of our dog, Yuki, we adopted her in China, so she didn't become an ex-pat until we returned to the US. Her ex-pat experience is still unfolding.

Yuki was born on the streets of Shanghai. She came to us as a confused puppy that had been taken in by a French lady who ran a shelter in the city. Each month the shelter had a dog adoption day at an Irish bar so Yuki (whose original name was Kaylex) had some multi cultural experiences before coming to our family as a 3 month old.

Yuki is a native Chinese speaker who still barks in English with a bit of the Mandarin tonal quality you would expect. She was very uneasy with our American household at first, not understanding why my daughter and I would sit in front a flat screen watching episode after episode of "30 Rock" and "24". She also marveled at some of the food we ate - she had never experienced "Cheez -Its" before.


Yuki had to adapt to American Life

Her seeming distain for the mindless hours we spent in front of the television did not go unnoticed. Over time she adapted to American programs but, wanting to keep her connected to her home culture, we made sure she watched CCTV at least 30 minutes each day and she never missed the CCTV New Year's Eve show.

Getting Yuki permission to leave China required about the same amount of paperwork as it would for any Chinese citizen - medical certificate, various adminsitrative approvals and verfication that the shot record chip implanted in her neck was still readable.

Yuki's trip to America was aboard a United 747. We spent two weeks before her departure day training her to eat treats and drink out of the beverage container in her airline approved dog carrier or as our driver Philip called it "Yuki's business class seat". After twenty hours enroute with a layover, customs clearance plus a "bio break" in Chicago,  Yuki arrived in North Carolina.

Since our house wasn't ready Yuki spent almost two months living in a hotel with us. She immediately took to her new home as the local area had plenty of squirrels and other small creatures that she hadn't experienced in China. A few days after arriving in the US she took her first long car ride as the family visited relatives for Thanksgiving. Yuki had never seen so many white people in one place but she enjoyed the festive atmosphere and the exotic leftovers. She wondered why her family didn't invite any Asian people to this party.

Yuki didn't get to see much wildlife in Shanghai

Initially the clean, clear air of North Carolina made Yuki feel strange. Her hair got thick and shiny. The food tasted better. Once she moved into her new home on a golf course she had new worlds to conquer - chasing deer, finding golf balls on her daily walks and barking at the neighbor dogs. She missed her friends in Shanghai. In her old neighborhood at 4PM each day the Ayi's (maids) walked the dogs. While the Ayi's talked or complained about the continual screw-ups of their foreign employers or plotted how to get higher salaries; the dogs played, fought and had their social hour. The biggest void in Yuki's new life was the lack of social time. There were no Ayi's walking the dogs in her new neighborhood. Yuki missed Philip and thought it was strange that her family drove themselves everywhere in the new country. Time passed, Yuki adjusted.

Yuki is hoping to signal more "TDs" for USC this season

Yuki feels "American" now. She has embraced the culture and enjoys watching sports on TV when she can't get outside to chase squirrels and deer. There are few things she still misses but she doesn't think about them very often. In the end, Yuki's ex-pat adjustment experience was not so different from the other members of her family.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"trashing" in - the ex-pat garage sale

When we left on our ex-pat assignment, we expected to be gone three years. We returned eleven years later. During that time, my company paid an annual fee for many of our things to be stored in the US. The girls were young. Not knowing they would be adults when we moved back - we kept everything. Over the years the company paid approximately $50,000 to store TVs and electrical items that wouldn't work without power adaptors in Japan, the Barbie Jeep, basketball hoop, skis, Beany Babies (we had dozens and took only the favorites), clothes we didn't feel had to go with us, etc etc. In 2011, instead of a Barbie jeep, my elder daughter drives a Toyota Rav 4...... Nobody wants to pay much for an oversized stereo TV that was state of the art in the 90s when the world has moved to flat screen high definition.

Every year when I would see the storage bill on my ex-pat cost statement; I thought I would gladly have gotten rid of all that stuff for what it cost to store for one year, let alone eleven years. About five years into my time overseas as I was agreeing to "another three years", I seriously thought of negotiating to end the storage madness by accepting one years storage cost in exchange for allowing the company to move our goods to the dump or the nearest Goodwill store. Could have.... would have .... should have......

As I write this, most of our "junk" is sitting in our driveway. My wife and daughters are trying to sell it by having a classic Southern "garage sale". For non American readers - the concept of a garage sale is to clean out old stuff from your garage by selling it cheap - usually on a Saturday morning. Garage sales are popular in North Carolina. My wife, a natural marketing expert, had great success in the 1990s convincing people to pay "just a little" more for things we would have donated to Goodwill or had to pay to dispose of if a buyer couldn't be found.

Now that we are settled in our new house; today was the appointed day to sell the stuff from the storage unit that filled our unfinished basement for the last several months.

From first light, cars would drive up and people who had forgone showers, combing their hair or eating breakfast so they could have the first opportunity to turn our trash into their treasures - scanned our driveway full of potential bargains. The American girl doll and accessories went first. We got less than $20 for something we spent about $200 on in the 1990s. A typical garage sale return ratio for something still desirable and in good condition. The basketball hoop went for $10. A dollar here and a dollar there and the driveway began to reappear as the "inventory" went to a new home.

At the end the day, the girls may net $400 from what the company paid $50,000 to store.

Another lesson in ex-pat economics...........

Friday, May 13, 2011

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

I just ended a thirteen day trip to Asia with five days in Tokyo. Over the past 15 years, I have spent at least 30 days each year in the "eastern capital". Based on my experience, I consider myself qualified to judge how the city is operating. It has been 60+ days since "3/11". The aftershocks are detectable but for the most part not felt. Tokyo seems like its normal self.

Typical of the country, individuals and companies are trying to show solidarity with the need to reduce power use in the wake of the nuclear plant shutdown. Company lobbies are much darker than normal; escalators are not running, and certain businesses are running at modestly reduced hours. Beyond the office lobbies - the meeting rooms are bright and the reduced hours at some businesses are more of an excuse to operate more efficiently than anything else.

In the streets and restaurants, things seemed normal. Traffic to and from the golf course on Sunday was normal. Restaurants are full. While Japanese car companies are not producing at normal levels yet - they can see the day when they will be.

It was a pleasure to spend five nights in my favorite Tokyo hotel - the Peninsula. The service was great as usual. Perhaps the occupany was a little less than normal but after the images the world saw after "3/11"; it was hard to imagine the recovery would happen this fast.

One of my customers has a plant less than 15 miles from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Just a  few weeks ago it was doubtful when or even if the factory would reopen. It is operating as I write this.

It was great to see Japan on the mend.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Squatter's Rights?"

My current trip found me in several small cities in western China. Despite a long tenure in Asia; I never came to grips with one of the major differences between east and west. Warning to the reader - this post may be too much information for some......

My family adapted quickly to the high end toilets of Japan. I think each of us probably pushed the wrong button  and got soaked at least once but we all liked the heated seats and other pleasant functions of a typical Japanese improvment on western culture.

It is best to approach a Japanese toilet with respect
After returning to the US, there was more than one cold winter day in North Carolina when I harkened back to the warmth of the Japanese toilet. One of the selling points of our house in Shanghai was that the landlord had the foresight to buy a full featured Japanese toilet which even had a "purity indicator" for the water in the bowl. Not sure why......

On the other end of the spectrum, we also encountered the dreaded "hole in the floor" aka squatter toilet on many occassions. Over time, I developed a sixth sense for where I might encounter the "squatter" and tried to manage my bodily functions accordingly. One of my traveling mantras in rural areas became "never pass a western toilet without a stop".

It seems like such a simple thing. As a marathoner, I often had to duck in an alley or in a wooded area when "nature called" on a long run. This never bothered me but I just never got comfortable with the "one eyed" toilet staring up at me from the floor. I felt like a young sumo wrestler awkwardly trying to learn how to engage the opponent at the center of the dohyo. I found the positioning needed bothersome and the lack of relaxation afforded by the hole a blight on the wisdom of the east. Did Confucious really use a squatter? It is also very hard to read and "take care of business" at the same time. Nobody calls a squatter toilet the "reading room" for good reason.

Later today after a week where I was forced to squat several times, I look forward to flying to Tokyo where the Peninsula Hotel provides the top of the line warm seat, adjustable spray toilet. Yes, simple pleasures are sometimes are the best.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

who are you?

According to the statistics of the blog site, the majority of the people who read this blog are Americans but there also readers from 14 other countries. I assume the Americans are mostly relatives - I certainly have a lot of them. I also have a good idea who the readers from China, Japan and Australia are (friends and colleagues who know I blog) but those of you in other places - I am curious. I am not asking for ID, I just find it interesting how people come to read an anonymous blog like this. An odd thing for me to be read in places I have never been - like Croatia..........

Going around the world - alone but with a friend

Later today I will leave on a 12 day round the world trip that will find me in Swtizerland, Shanghai, Sichuan Province China  (Yibin and Chengdu), Jiangxi Province, Shanghai (again), Tokyo and Ellicottville NY. Many who travel overseas frequently have mixed emotions about such itineraries.  The places sound exotic but unless you get outside the airport to hotel to meeting to airport to hotel..... grind; an around the world trip is just long and tiring.

I have had the good fortune to enjoy my long trips largely because after many years, I feel I am going to see friends rather than just people I do business with. Many of my meeting in Asia are conducted in non standard
venues - hiking trails, golf courses, unusual restaurants, bars, etc. I try to keep my time in traditional meeting rooms to a minimum.

I love seeing the mountains in Switerland and experiencing the energy of Shanghai. Sichuan province has more majestic mountains than Switzerland and is the Panda capital of the world. Chengdu is a wonderful city with a rapidly improving quality of life, great restaurants and friendly, relaxed people.  Jiangxi Province is also an emerging part of China. On my first trip there several years ago, we drove on a new expressway and had to dodge water buffalo that decided the warm pavement was too comfortable to resist. Of course, I am very anxious to return to Tokyo. My last trip was just before the earthquake and tsunami. My company placed a travel ban on Japan for a few weeks and even today I still had to get special permission to go. Japan is like a second home. I really want to see how my friends are doing.

For the most part I travel alone - meeting old and new friends in each city. Despite being "alone" in between stops - I do have a travel companion. My Patagonia "maximum legal carry-on" has been my only travel bag since it was given to me on my birthday in 1998. After over 100 around the world trips and visits to every continent (save the polar); my MLC is looking quite tattered.

My normal flying uniform is black jeans,  an "Icebreaker" merino wool "sweater t shirt" (which I buy in Australia and come in several weights to sccomodate all temperature levels) and black ASICS running shoes. Although most people dress casually these days on long flights, the average business traveler will carry a neat samsonite rolling bag or equivalent.  They don't look like a lost backpacker from the 70s. I occasionally get raised eyebrows when I enter a first class lounge and present my boarding pass. Only my new leather Tumi computer bag betrays my lost backpacker appearance.

I have plopped my MLC down next to royalty (literally), actors, politicians, famous professional sports figures in first class lounges all over the world. It is interesting how there seems to be a camraderie in the overseas first class lounge. I have spoken to people that likely wouldn't have given me the time of day if they saw me on the street or in a restaurant. I say overseas because I haven't had the same experiences in the US - people seem in too much of a rush most of the time although I did speak to an aging star of the TV show "Dallas" in the Cinncinati lounge once.....

Three years ago I purchased the new version of the Patagonia MLC. Unfourtunately I don't live near a Patagonia store so I purchased it over the internet after only seeing glossy pictures on the website. Much to my disappointed the new version was like being downgraded on US Airways - the ultimate bottom. Smaller, with less robust construction, and straps more suited for a kindergarten's daypack; the "new" MLC sits in my closet collecting dust and I continue to make minor repairs to my 14 year old MLC - fearing for the day it will no longer be able to travel with me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Odds are "50 - 50"

Many companies send ex-pats to be to an outside company for evaluation of their suitability to live in another culture. My entire family went through an evaluation process before we left for Japan in 2000. After suitability tests and one on one counseling; ideally both the company and the prospective expat get a better idea of their odds of success in a foreign culture. The new ex-pat also learns that the odds of staying more than one year with the same company after repatriation is less than 50%. Reasons given for this phenomena vary....  the expat changes, receiving an interesting job assignment upon return is the exception rather than the rule, the "sponsor" that sent the ex-pat has moved to a different division or a different company, less freedom, etc etc.

Confronted with these statistics, normally the expat tries to get the names of former ex-pats within the company to see how their company performs on the retention issue. I was not an exception to this  "rule" and neither was my company - I checked the the company ex-pat alum population; about 50% stayed with the company more than one year after returning.

By the time the expat in waiting realizes the odds of a successful return are limited, it is usually too late to change course - the plans are made, the family is getting excited about the move, and the replacement for the current job may already have been announced. In short, getting "cold feet" is rarely an option. In my case; I believed to opportunity far exceeded the risk.

In most cases, the expat quickly forgets the potential long term career issues and focuses on the long "to do" list that needs to be completed before departing for the new "homeland".

The move is made. The first six months to a year are a whirlwind of adjustment - strange language (in most cases), different living conditions, new friends, new schools, new colleagues. About the end of the first year when close relationships with ex-pats from other companies, countries and cultures are established; a picture emerges. The ex-pat world has a natural diversity - a melting pot of countries, languages, cultures, etc but in most cases; expats work for multinational corporations that tend to behave in similar fashion. Benefits and ex-pat "premiums" may differ but big companies have a similar modus operandi and the major concern is naturally - the business not the ex-pat. Big companies tend to have a mix of long term ex-pats and short term ex-pats. Long term ex-pats are valued for the ability to change countries often, get things running or fix problems and then move on. Short term ex-pats are often overseas for "career development". In many cases; this means they hopefully develop a broader perspective on the world but often don't contrbute much to the business while they are on assignment.

My company is a small multinational - there was 1 of me in Japan vs 124 ex-pats at P&G when I arrived.
I found out over the years that my experience would be different than my ex-pat friends at P&G and Caterpillar. Better in some ways; not as easy in other ways. I had more freedom and my boss was 7,000 miles away but I had almost no local support and had to get things done on my own. Getting an apartment and a cell phone was tough for a one person foreign office. I adjusted and eventually embraced the freedom I had. I worked with our local joint venture partners and developed new business. I talked to my boss about once a quarter. He visited for a few days a couple times a year. Sales and profits doubled and then doubled again. The family had a great time. I didn't think about going back to the US.

You learn that the long term ex-pat has a different outlook from the "3 year" standard assignment ex-pat. The short term expat tends to be less concerned about learning the local language and more concerned about getting home for Christmas and home leave. The long term expat often dreads the day they are "called home" and, in the increasingly global world, often jumps ship and joins another company rather than moving home. The short timer often never leaves home emotionally and keeps one eye on the company "intra-net" for likely next jobs at HQ.

My family lived overseas almost 11 years. We called two very different countries and living environments home. We tried to embrace both cultures from the beginning and never went "home" for Christmas but oddly I never considered myself a long term ex-pat. Time flew by, my daughters grew from little girls to young women, graduated from high school and moved back to the US for college. My hair color changed to "distinguished". My 10K time slowed.

We were away long enough that moving "home" seemed very much like the other two ex-pat moves. Except for the language, moving to the US had much the same feeling that moving to Shanghai  from Kobe did in 2005.

While I was "out" for 11 years, the company changed significantly My "sponsor" moved on; I had 4 US based bosses during my time away. Even though I came back to the same division within the company; the environment is very different. We have a new CEO - the first "outsider" in the 125 year history of the company. The outsider brought in many of his former colleagues and now the outsiders are insiders running the company. A bit of a trojan horse takeover. My ex-pat experience should have prepared me for all the change on the home front.

I am still only five months into my repatriaion experience. I am not sure whether I will be one of the 50% that stays or goes.  

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Of death and taxes

April 15th is traditionally tax day in the US although due to a technicality this year you can wait until the 18th to file. All US citizens, no matter where you are living in the world, are required to file with the government and send in a check if the prior collections from employers or financial institutions did not give Uncle Sam his full pound of flesh. Of course it is true that a large % of American's get money back each year either because they foolishly allowed their "Uncle" to hold their money without interest over the course of the year or their income is below the tax paying threshold when their tax credits are calculated. A few, get back more than they paid in (only in America) but that is another topic and I digress........

Wanting to be certain I get no unwanted attention from our tax collecting agency, I usually file and send my additional "contribution" on April 14th by registered mail (or by DHL when we lived overseas). Yes, dear international reader, we Americans are one of the only - actually I think the only citizens on the planet that must pay taxes in our home country even when we are legal residents in another country. We paid dual tax (actually my company paid dual tax) during our ex-pat years....... my digressions continue.

Paying taxes leads the already stressed taxpayer to another stress causer - the US Postal Service. From my experience this week, I think the word "service" should be lower case if not totally eliminated. Going to the post office to ensure there is a traceable record of your tax payment provides further evidence of what many already sense - the idea that your tax dollars are "at work" is a comforting thought but the Post Office provides evidence to the contrary. To be clear, I know that many who spend their careers toiling for the "PO" are hard working people but I sense that this group may not be the majority. Anyway, next year I think I will spend a little more money and let the private sector guys from DHL get my tax payment to the IRS "Service" Center.

I left the Post Office and spent my afternoon in a more pleasant endeavor - playing golf with my brother in law. A man, who is now my hero and a "poster boy" for knowing when to retire. After a career in the military and another one in the private sector - my new model for "work life planning" turned in his "electronic leash" (aka Blackberry or IPhone); drove his company Lexus back to the dealer and decided to spend his last decades on earth doing "other things" that only he (or perhaps in certain cases his lovely bride) will determine. My hero was wise enough to save,  marry someone frugal enough to live a good life, raise and educate successful children and still have enough leftover to walk away while he can still strike the golf ball well. As we played the back 9, I inquired about the his decision to retire. The response was clear and without hesitation.

The next day as my wife and I played in a 9 hole couples golf outing; we heard the sirens of several emergency vehicles. We could not see them since the hole we were playing was some distance from the road. Later we found out that a well respected local judge had dropped to the ground on the hole across from our front door. He died shortly thereafter. I had not met this fellow member to our golf club but his death has already made an impression that will be hard to shake each morning as I start my morning run on the spot where his exit from this world began. Death and taxes.

The lesson from my brother in law was reinforced by a local official I will never get a chance to meet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Masters of the Universe

The Masters Golf tournament is a unique sporting event. Uniquely American, uniquely southern but with a global appeal. Even non golfers seem to be attracted to the four day spectacle that is the Masters. The site is an 18 hole golf course that is more like a palace garden than a place where athletes compete. The ~300 strong membership of Augusta National Golf Club is mostly older men. They don green jackets and have a reverence for tradition that is so strong even the broadcast network carrying the event and the PGA (Professional Golfers Association ) have to follow the "Augusta" rules. The rules were written over 75 years ago by the founders - two young men from Georgia. One of the gentlemen was  arguably the greatest amateur golfer that ever lived. The other, a young businessman that ruled over his green fiefdom with an iron fist. Decades later, changes come when the membership of Augusta National deem them necessary and not before.

Since I was a child the Masters has been part of April. In the 1960s, Arnold Palmer and his army of followers marched across our 19 inch black and white TV each spring. The years went by - Arnold was followed  by Jack and Gary then Tom then Freddie then Tiger and now Bubba.

It doesn't get better than this - after my second shot on the 13th at Augusta
I got a chance to play in late 2011

Living in Japan did not prevent me from watching the annual Georgia celebration of golf - it only meant the announcers spoke Japanese and I had to get up in the middle of the night. The same was true for the time we lived in China.

Last weekend a lifelong dream came true  - a Japanese business partner invited my wife and me to attend the final round of the 75th Masters. Our pilgrimage started early - an hour and a half before the first non contender teed off. We walked through the gates with my Japanese friend to the right and  a Chinese friend to my left. We had been preceded by another new friend (we met at dinner the night before) who grew up in Venezuela. He graciously arrived early, waited for the gates to open and placed chairs at the 18th green so we could be part of the group seeing the final putt minting the 75th anniversary champion. I wasn't aware when I entered that I would be given access to the clubhouse because I was the guest of a member that had a connection to my Japanese business partner. Anyone who has been to the Masters as a spectator knows that getting into the clubhouse on Sunday is special.

An American, attending the quintessential American golf event which would ultimately be won by a South African-walking side by side with Asian friends. As a child watching Arnie on a snowy black and white picture or even years later when I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia, the idea that I would ever get to attend the Masters and be there with people born on the other side of the world was unfathomable.

During the morning we wandered the course before it was filled with players. We (I should say my wife) managed to get us seats at the first tee to see Freddie Couples and many other greats tee off. As noon approached we finished our tour of the front nine.

Playing "Amen Corner" during my November,  2011 visit
We had lunch in the clubhouse with our member host, who as a young man knew the founders well. He regaled us with tales of Presidents and other famous people who had come to the shrine of American golf. For many, Augusta National is an anachronism that should be wiped out by the current flood of political correctness. For me, this unique tradition laden club is a wonder that should not be tinkered with by those wanting to change everything into "PC grayscape".  After lunch, we spent over an hour watching from a great vantage point on "Amen Corner" then moved over to #16

We watched the last several groups play the 18th and saw the winner putt out. For me,  the day was like a dream and it was wonderful to share it with my wife. As we walked across the course and munched on the last pimento cheese sandwich available in a closing concession tent,  I was glad to have been part of this 75 year old tradition - if for only a few hours.

Waiting near the first tee
Later the same year, I was invited to visit Augusta, have dinner, stay in a cabin on the property and play 18 holes the next day. Another amazing opportunity that will never be forgotten.

An update for 2013 - day one of the Masters is over - a 14 year old Chinese player is the youngest person ever to qualify and after day one is still in the competition. There are now two women members at Augusta National. The world changes but Augusta remains - adapting and remaining the global shrine of golf.

The wine cellar at Augusta National - President Eisenhower's tree may be gone but his personally written initials are still in the spot that held his inventory

It is the night before the 2015 Masters begins. I am steeling myself for four days of watching: "Tiger comeback- take 5", Rory's attempt at a Grand Slam, Bubba hoping to repeat while I hope for a Freddie miracle or Jordan Spieth's first major. This is one of my favorite weeks of the year.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Final Step

As weeks and then a few months went by since my return to the US, I kept putting off the last step of my move - getting a driver's license in North Carolina. You can comfortably live in Japan or China and never get behind the wheel of a car but in the US - not having a driver's license makes everyday life almost impossible.

No, I was not walking to the office.

No, Philip  (our driver in Shanghai) had not crossed the Pacific to make my life easier.

Nor was I driving without a license like so many people who come here from other countries and choose to drive sans legal permission - a risk a US citizen is not usually willing to take because of the consequences if you get caught speeding or in an accident.

I was keeping my Georgia license because it was one of the last tangible ties to my expat life. If I was still resident in Georgia, the flawed logic in the back of my mind told me, I was NOT really a resident of North Carolina. If I took the final step and got a NC driver's licence and registered to vote at the same time (part of the normal process here); I was completing the move that had started months ago. I would no longer be able to rebuff clerks at grocery and department stores with the ultimate excuse for why I didn't want a Macy's credit card or a "Books a Million" member card. Telling clerks: "I live in China" always ended those awkward conversations.

Not a happy place - another reason I didn't want to go through the licensing process
If asked for my home phone by a check-out person or marketer; instead of saying "I don't give out personal information", I would always say "enter the international code from your phone company and the 86 21......". I always delighted at the confused face before me and then said in my kindest voice - "oh, I live in Asia and my number won't fit in you computer anyway". I was proud to be an expat. Likely, I will still deliver some of my former excuses from time to time but I have to be more careful since when people see your face on a regular basis; the "I live in China" line becomes suspect.

Despite the fact I still travel much of the time (in March, I only spent 10 days in my new "home" state); I am beginning to establish patterns that mark me as a local. When I am in NC, my lunchtime penchant for walking across the street to "Subway" (for foreign readers, this is a sandwich shop - not public transportation) is one such pattern. After about a dozen times of explaining the atypical manner in which I like my "foot long veggie delite" made; last Friday I had the horrifying of experience of being smiled at and asked if I wanted "the regular". "Yes", I mumbled back with the full realization of the linkage between the use of the word "regular" and my new status as a local.

In the end, it was simple economics rather than a sudden epiphany regarding my foolish behavior that led me to the DMV office to get a North Carolina license. In North Carolina, there is a new law requiring you to have a local driver's license before you can register a car. My Georgia license had to be replaced before I could buy a car. Before leaving China, I had negotiated for the company provide me a rental car to drive while I made my transition to life in the US. My negotiated "free" time was running out and the thought of paying Avis or Hertz with my own money to drive a generic white Impala or Cruze was incentive enough to get my licence and go car shopping......

As I left my office to drive to the DMV center to present the required documents and take the test; I counted the number of times I had done this before 7 times in different states in the US and once each in Japan and China. Japan was actually a two day process and a difficult experience. China was fun. I had memorized the 100 question test (smuggled out of the test center by my loyal driver when he took my wife to take the test). The English version of the China driving rules test is written in "Chinglish" (aka Chinese English) - very hard for a native English speaker to divine the meaning of the triple negatives. In any case, my approach was to memorize the "A,B,C or D" answer by the first four words of each question. I had my secretary quiz me on the way to the testing center. She was never able to read my even half the question before I spit out the correct answer. She marveled - I asked if she had seen the movie "Rain Man" - she didn't get the reference.  I knew I was ready. The examiner heard the mouse on the computer I used for the test clicking very quickly. She was sure something was amiss. Cheating she suspected. As I blew through the test, which mercifully was exactly the same as the smuggled version I memorized, the examiner stood over my shoulder to see how I was doing it. She looked around my desk and saw nothing that was abnormal. On the 100th click of the mouse, my grade popped up - 100%.  I think that day a legend was born at the DMV in Shanghai.

Despite the above picture, getting my NC license was a breeze - the horror stories about long lines and 3 hour waits proved not be the case last Tuesday. In and out in 35 minutes, I became a newly minted North Carolinian.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Birthday week.......not just for kids anymore

It has been a busy eight days. I celebrated my birthday in Los Angeles the day before my younger daughter ran her first marathon. She was excited and a little nervous as we drove to Dodger stadium to pick up her race number and then preview the race course in the car. We stopped part way through the course  to have lunch with a college friend of mine and his family. I noticed gas near the Italian restaurant where we ate in Beverly Hills was selling for $4.58 per gallon - much higher than other parts of the city. It seems the spector of $5.00 gas I hear about so often on CNN, is almost a reality in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, people in Europe and Asia are already paying substantially more - but I digress.....

We were up early on marathon morning - wanting to make sure our well trained runner didn't miss her 4 am departure for the starting line. Seemed a little early to me but none of the marathons I ran ever had 25,000 runners.

Big city marathons generally provide an interesting view of the city - LA is no different. We saw gritty areas of the city near downtown - where the race was a disruption to the normal ebb and flow of the lives of the homeless. Watching a steady stream of runners passing the 3 mile mark it was easy to get a sense of the diversity of the city. I heard spanish,  japanese, korean, chinese while America rock music blared from nearby speakers.

 In Beverly Hills, we noticed  well dressed spectators sipping lattes and cheering politely. We expected the finish in Santa Monica to be laid back and low key; however the arrival of wind and sideways rain seemed to have driven the civility  out of the locals. The finish area was total chaos more reminiscent of a disaster scene than a well financed event designed to enhance the image of the city.

For several days before the marathon my wife plotted our driving course on race day. It might seem simple to just "follow" the race route however in a race with 25,000 runners and countless closed roads to keep the runners out of harms way; logistics aren't straight forward. The planning paid off as we were able to see our daughter 7 times as she crossed the city. She finished faster than her goal time despite very difficult running weather. She was happy to have finished and raised money for her charity. We were proud of her effort and enjoyed getting a unique perspective of the city of angels.

I went from unusally windy and wet LA to an unseasonably warm Charlotte where I spent 3 days enjoying the temperatures in the mid 80s, spending time in the office and playing golf before heading to the single digit temperatures and snow in western NY. My elder daughter closed out her career as a college thespian playing Antigone in an adapatation of a play of the same name. It was great to see her perform twice and I also got a chance to ski with her before heading back to NC.

I used to tease my kids that their birthdays often became birthday weeks. It was nice to have a birthday week of my own.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lessons from Japan

I started the week in Florida to attend an industry show that is usually well attended by Japanese. On Monday I hoped to hear the latest news on events in the lithium battery industry from a Japanese expert who presents every year. This year he couldn't make it for obvious reasons. Some of my Japanese customers and others I know in the industry from Japan were in Florida. They had either left for the US before the earthquake and tsunami or are based in western Japan where the airports were not impacted. The small group of Japanese who I spoke with this week had a common attitude - the situation is terrible but "we" will work through it.

It is hard to find anything positive in the aftermath of a tragic event like this earthquake and the subsequent tsunami but if I can see one positive thing -- it is the focus by the media on how the people of Japan have come together, as they always do in times like this. People were not worried about looting or riots, they banded together to help each other and will continue to do so until things are back to normal. The stores had limited supplies but people were not hoarding.  The vast majority take enough for their immediate need and allow others to have what they need.

Having lived in Japan and still a frequent visitor, it is nice to see the example the Japanese can provide regarding civil behavior broadcast to the world. I was supposed to be in Tokyo next week. A couple days ago I got a note of apology from our partner asking if I could delay my upcoming visit because of the current "inconvenience". Only the Japanese would apologize in a situation like this.

Other than reporting on the people aspects of the aftermath; in my opinion, the media did not do so well. The reports from CNN were a bit over the top with comparisons of the problems at the Fukushima reactor to Chernobyl (not comparable for many reasons) or discussions about potential radiation migration to the US west coast (if it happens the levels would probably compare to a dental x-ray). Despite all the "noise", like many people, I listened each day to the latest. I live a couple miles of a nuclear power plant in the US. I am thankful for the low cost power it provides and hate to see the knee jerk reaction of governments and media that call into question whether more "nukes" should be built. The focus should be on continuing to improve and develop the technology. More people have died in oil field and coal mining accidents than incidents related nuclear power. Life is a risk. Thousands die on the roads each year but nobody calls for a ban on cars.

I don't agree with the French on many things but I think they have it right on their leadership nuclear energy. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The inescapable reality of nature

The blog stats tell me that a few people who read this are from Japan . Tonight my thoughts and prayers are with them. I started getting emails from friends in Tokyo within 15 minutes of the quake striking NE Japan. Most people who will read this have probably never experienced the power of a large quake. Japanese live with earthquakes the same way people in Buffalo live with snow or people in Oklahoma live with tornadoes. They are part of the ebb and flow of daily life.

It was interesting how my friend's distinct personalities came through even in the short emails they sent about a tragic event. One was in an understandable panic and worried about his family since he could not reach on the phone (he now knows they are fine). Another likened the experience to a carnival ride and joked about not being able to "get a cab". He grabbed some snacks and decided to sleep in his office with some of his colleagues - an earthquake pajama party of sorts. Another sent me "business like" updates during his several  hour walk home. Each person seemed to have two goals - confirm that their families were ok and start the process of getting back to normal.

Yesterday's quake was massive and tragic. Although CNN headlines it as the "biggest earthquake in Japan's history" this seems more of an attempt at drama than the reality of the situation. Japan has a long history and the ability to measure earthquakes is a relatively new development. No one knows if this was the biggest quake in Japan's history. Countless major quakes have occurred over the centuries. Does everything need to be ranked? Ok - the largest quake in the history of recorded quakes......

While the full impact of yesterday's seismic event can't accurately be measured yet; "greatest quake" or not - the human toll will be much less than the great Tokyo quake of 1929 or the great Hanshin earthquake that hit our former hometown of Kobe in 1995. The fact is the Japanese are a remarkable and resilient people that deal with life on their shaky ground in an incredibly effective manner. Japan's building technology developed over generations certainly saved thousands of lives  today.

During my family's time in Asia we experienced many quakes. Our first year in Kobe we were rocked by a 6.8 quake that had our earthquake proof apartment building moving back and forth on the rockers built into the foundation.. The windows were open and from our 19th floor apartment I could hear screams of terror from  Kobe residents on the street below. Two minutes of rocking seems like an eternity. Many of these terrified people were related to or friends of  one of the several thousand Kobe residents that died in the 1995 quake.

Quakes became an accepted (if not enjoyed) part of our life in Japan. After five years of experience even a large quake became something that was noted with respect rather than fear. One day playing golf in Tokyo, I had a final hole putt shaken by a quake and asked if a local rule allowed a "do over". No mulligan putts in Japan.

We were fortunate to miss the 2004 Tsunami by just a few hours as a ski invitation had us move our departure from Malaysia up by one day. We were in transit in Singapore when the reports came in that the island we were on the day before was in the path of the tsunami. A friend of ours was washed out to sea that day and his body was not identified for several months.  There was a lot of discussion at the time about the SE Asia countries not having a Tsunami warning like Japan does. Perhaps the Aceh tragedy could have been minimized.

In 2008, my Shanghai office was rocked by the Sichuan quake that killed tens of thousands. Our office staff in Shanghai had never experienced an earthquake and wanted to rush out of the shaking building - the exact wrong instinct. It was an incredible experience to shake as much as we did when the epicenter was over 1,000 miles away.

The images streaming in today via satellite tell a story but only those who have seen the tsunami wave coming at them or felt the sickening sound of pitching or collapsing buildings can fully appreciate this manifestation of the power of nature.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Taxis, cold weather, Kobe beef and rabbit head

A busy week traveling around Japan and China. I stayed in a new hotel in Osaka this week - the St Regis which will become my new Osaka home after many years at the Ritz Carlton. Anytime there is a new hotel with an English name in Japan, it is great sport to try to make a cab driver understand where you want to go. The Japanese normally add a vowel to the end of names to make it "Japanese". The question of course becomes what vowel should be used and the intonation.

I was traveling with a Japanese colleague so I let him take on the challenege - making "St Regis" Japanese. Unfortunately for my friend, the driver appeared on the north side of 65 and potentially not the most flexible person we would meet that day. The first attempt "Sainto Regisuu" left the driver with a quizical look and the question if our destination might have a Japanese name. The next attempt lead the driver to question the nationality of my friend. The driver looked over to me to see if maybe "the other foreigner" in the car could help. Of course, questioning my friend's lineage did not win the driver points although it did give me a good laugh. My mirth did not help smooth the tension in the car......

Being somewhat of an expert in these kind of communication issues across Asia, I unleashed what I like to call the "gaijin" solution.  I pulled out my Iphone and showed him the location of the hotel on the GPS app. While the driver's eyes had a bit of trouble finding the St Regis dot on the screen we were in business.

I'll finish this post later......

Two days, two countries and 9,000+ flight miles later. It is 4am US east coast time. After arriving home and getting a few hours sleep - I am in my home office with a cup of Irish breakfast tea uncertain as to whether I will be functional today.

Back to Japan.

Last week Japan was unseasonably cold - my long held policy of not traveling with an overcoat but only a light pair of gloves to steel me against the winter cold did not seem prudent. On the other hand, carrying an overcoat when you travel with just a carry - on and a laptop bag is impractical. As an emergency measure, I often put a gortex golf rainjacket in my carry - on "just in case".

After the devastation at the end of WW II and the post war rebuilding period - the Japanese seem to have a adopted a "never be cold again" policy. In the winter, the trains are too hot, the taxis are too hot and most public places are kept well above my set point for feeling the least bit chilled. From time to time, the chill factor in Tokyo is well below freezing. Faced with a five or ten minute walk from a train station to a meeting or back to the hotel from dinner, I question the wisdom of the no coat policy but the gloves are usually enough. Last week was an exception.

One of the delights of guiding people on a visit to Japan is introducing them to perhaps the greatest Japanese invention - Kobe beef. After a few nights of sashimi, sushi and the general Japanese tendency to serve volumes of food that sate the locals but leave foreigners raiding the hotel mini bar before midnight; the third or fourth night of a trip is the perfect time to plan a visit to a restaurant that serves the special fare from Hyogo Prefecture - the legendary beer drinking and well massaged Kobe beef. Just as the first time visitor is thinking he will have to live through another night of -: never seen before starters, raw fish, white rice and minmalist portions;  a Kobe beef restaurant that will serve "gaijin sized" portions (for a steep upcharge, of course) makes the previous meals a distant memory. Last week I had the good fortune of making such a trip with a co-worker from China. As our schedule would have it, we were in Tokyo and our local contact picked a Kobe beef restaurant in one of the most expensive areas of Tokyo - Ginza. The food was great but the most interesting thing for me was to watch my friend's perplexed look as he converted the Yen prices on the menu to his home currency. He gasped as he did the mental math - he asked me if we really could be paying so many RMB for this meal. Oh no, I assured him.... we are paying more because we need to "size up" - the normal 100 gram serving does not "translate" nearly as well as the 250 gram serving.

After the chef did his work and began to deliver bit size quantities of the mouth watering meat from the hot steel cooking surface in front of us - the currency conversion forgotten. That was Wednesday night.

By Saturday evening, my coworker and I were in his native Sichuan province. Specifically in Chengdu. A city of 10 million people that is generally not well known outside of China except for people who are aware that Chengdu is the "Panda capital of the world". Chengdu is a special place - although it has become prosperous in recent years with companies like Intel investing millions; the core value of Chengdu residents is "chilling out" - drinking tea, talking to friends, playing mahjong, etc. They are proud that they don't work too hard. You have to love a place where getting your ears cleaned for the equivalent of a couple of bucks is a favorite pastime. The ear cleaning professionals are equipped more like someone who is preparing for major surgery. Enough said.....

We were visiting the city to meet with customers that have become old friends. They had decided to fill a gap in my Sichuan culinary experience by taking me to a local "country" restaurant. As we drove out of the city and the glitz of the increasingly wealthy Chengdu was replaced by a more rural atmosphere; we pulled into the driveway of a restaurant that looked like it possibly hadn't served a meal since before the cultural revolution; I knew the evening would be "special". I was taken out to fields behind the restaurant to watch the veggies we would eat being picked - looked a lot like weeds to me but I was game for the experience. Next we went to large tanks so we could select the fish that would be served minutes later. I noted the translucent water in the fish tank but reminded myself that Chinese grill their fish. Fortunately the geese I saw were not menu items and the dog that wagged his tail as I approached was a pet - we were, after all, in southwest China not north China. I was pleased the dog was safe.

We went into a spartan, concrete block building and sat around a large table where tea was served before the meal started. As we arrived, I noticed the restaurant sign had a large paintng of a rabbit but since I hadn't seen any rabbits on our tour of the grounds I didn't think too much more about it. As the meal was served the fish we had selected less than 30 minutes before began to reappear prepared in various ways, the veggies arrived and were quite tasty and then a very large bowl arrived. It was overflowing with small shapes that I  couldn't identify. Finally I was told - this is the specialty of the restaurant - rabbit head. I pretty much eat what I am served and either enjoy it or try to act like I do. This night was no exception. I am the only one in my family with no experience on the stage but apparently that night my "act" of enjoyment was well received. It was also rewarded by calls to "eat more". As we ate; the "bai jiu" appeared - a favorite of my friends - the Chinese equivalent of "white lightening" is 58% alochol (not 58 proof). I figured the antiseptic qualities of bai jiu would serve me well as the meal passed through my system.

I whispered to my friend who had shared the wonders of Kobe beef with me just a few days before: "we sure aren't in Ginza". He smiled and said: "Joe, you know, Japan is a developed country but China is a developing country".  That is the beauty of getting to travel in Asia. The Ginza and the Chengdu meals could not have been more different. I enjoyed them both - but for very different reasons.