Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, January 29, 2011

TSA - defining the 3rd World experience

Just finished going through security at LAX. This was my 8th trip through a security line in 11 days. Charlotte, NC (where my trip began) generally does a good job. No complaints - reasonable courtesy and speed. My next experience was the terminal in Newark where most foreign carriers operate. Aside from the terminal being dated and dreary, the security experience gives one the feeling of a 3rd world  operation - rude, slow, slovenly. Several hours after my Newark experience, when I was changing planes in Singapore, the experience was totally different. A wonderful bright and clean new terminal where security was almost a pleasant experience - polite, smiling people - 2 minutes in the line. My next stop - Shanghai is a mixed bag but is constantly improving and generally fast, if not always friendly. Japan employs excellent technology and well trained, courteous staff. I mistakenly forgot to take a Coke out of my bag as I passed through security in Tokyo last week, the smiling agent asked if it was daijobu (ok) for them to check my drink in their special scanner - 15 seconds later she gave me the nod and let me put the drink back in my bag. LAX is similar to Newark - slow and generally speaking ... abrupt if not rude. Two of our gateway cities are an embarrassment - we greet visitors to the US more like a struggling 3rd World country than a superpower. Foreigners find it quizzical. We deserve better and so do they.They love the country but don't like the experience of entering.

I wish I could say that there is a strong possibility that I am generalizing from a small sample of experiences - unfortunately that is not the case.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A tale of three countries

Jan 28th - Tokyo

This was the first time to visit both China and Japan on the same trip since moving back to the US. For 11 years I either lived on Japan or China - one place or the other was home. I went to Japan often from (1995 to 1999) when I lived in the US but I never visited China when I was living in the US. Long flights give you a ample time to think of this kind of trivia.

Last month I made a quick trip to Japan but my mind had not really grasped the fact I had no longer lived in Shanghai so it seemed very normal to make a three day trip to Japan.

This trip my perspective on both countries was a little different.

Visiting both countries still feels normal and like "home" to a large extent. On the other hand, now that I am living in the US, I seem to be gravitating back to being surprised by the politeness and "crowded quiet" in Tokyo and the bone jarring street noise in the wild west of Shanghai.

Now, Connie and I are living in a very quiet area with the 15th hole of a golf course behind our backyard and the 16th tee across from our front door.  I drive to work alone; enjoying the solitude and being behind the wheel again but missing Philip's smiling face and updates on some random subject that each morning gave me new insights into a world I would never fully understand. It was also nice to be able to nap on the way to and from work. I had that option on the trains in Japan and in the car in Shanghai. Now, a two second head bob could have dire consequences.

As darkness falls at Narita airport and the Singapore Airlines 747 that will take me to LA  is being readied for takeoff less than 100 feet from where I sit; even after traveling the world for more than fifteen years,  I still marvel at the different experiences you can have on a eleven day round the world trip. I still find air travel amazing. It is 5:30PM on Friday in Tokyo, by 1PM Friday in Los Angeles I should be seeing my daughter. Maybe not a real time machine but an experience that I never take for granted - landing a few hours before I took off.

Although it sometimes seems like I have three home countries now; the greatest feeling is how much I look forward to the visit in LA with Cailin and then getting home to North Carolina. Three months ago, I didn't expect to be having that feeling.

Friday, January 21, 2011

"final test"

Jan 21 - Shanghai

Ok - I have been to Japan and I have been to my old office in Shanghai. Both were positive experiences. Seeing my colleagues in Shanghai has been great. I decided the "final frontier" was for me to go see the old house, my good friend Max - my old neighbor's Alaskan husky, the video store, neighborhood Starbucks, etc.

On the way from the office to Zhudi, Philip and I were discussing his current favorite topic - his new IPhone4. Like any two 3rd graders, we began comparing what each could do on our phones. I had never even tried to get on YouTube via IPhone and and since YouTube is blocked in China by the internet censors, I didn't think my attempt would yield results. To my surprise, through the miracle of a censorship glitch, 45 seconds later I had my brother singing Mr Tamborine Man on the little screen. Of course, Philip with his China registered phone could not get on YouTube. This was the first time I have known more than Philip on the topic of Apple products.

The trip to the old neighborhood only got better. After seeing the old house and Max, we went to the video store. I took a short video of Philip talking with the store owner and "miracle of miracles" was able to upload the video on Facebook which is a top ten target of the censors. I also learned that I had about two minutes or less on FB before it froze as the censors played catch up. Turning the phone on and off will enable you to re-access until the censor software does it thing.

I took a walk by myself and met Phillip back at his favorite hangout - Starbucks. By chance I ran into one of Cailin's high school teachers - we caught up for a minute and then I took another long look around me. I have been gone two months and in that time - several stores have disappeared and been replaced, the main drag of the neighborhood has had a facelift completed and right outside of our compound gate, a new hotel complex has started to go up. The saying "change is the only constant" is validated on a daily basis in China.

I have to admit, I felt like I was home - more at home than I currently feel in Charlotte but I still know the move was well timed. Off to Japan tomorrow........ Maybe having three "homes" in three countries is a good thing.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

first trip back to China

January 19th - I made my first trip back to Shanghai exactly two months after I left.
My long time driver Philip's big smile as he saw me walk out the door from customs made me feel like I was, indeed, coming home. Despite being tired from the long flight, it was an enjoyable ride through the low cloud and gloom of a grimy, Shanghai winter afternoon.

I didn't get to say much as Philip provided non stop commentary on his view of both the wider world and the goings on at FMC - the company I work for. Best to sit back and enjoy the thoughts of a Chinese mind conveyed in a unique form of English.

An interesting week to return as China's leader is currently visiting the US. As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I turned on CNBC. As one of the pundits began to discuss a key topic of the Hu Jintao visit (RMB appreciation or lack of it). The screen went black until something more palatable to the censors was being said. China keeps a lid on what is communicated to the masses by the foreign press.

Despite the 30 hour trip,  I had to get right to a meeting and dinner. As I entered the office elevator bank where I had made an emotional departure just eight weeks prior, it felt very natural to come to the office - except for the fuss everyone made greeting me. After receiving a series of heartfelt "welcome back" greetings, we wrapped up a meeting with a major customer (three old friends) who in the normal fashion of their native Sichuan province insisted we rush to a restaurant so we could eat spicy Sichuan food but more importantly (to them) toast the return of a friend with "bai jo" - white alcohol. Despite crossing 13 time zones, I was a good sport. "Ganbei" after "ganbei began to take a toll. Rather than feeling a buzz. I felt a need to sleep which mercifully happened earlier than normal as my Sichuan friends had an early flight home the next day.

I sleep well on airplanes but never sleep normally the first few nights after a transpacific trip. My first night in China was no exception - I was up for good at 2:15 am just in time to turn on the TV and see the speeches and press conference by Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. As the human rights questions began, I expected a black screen to greet the increasingly intense questioning from US reporters. I was surprised and pleased that the screen retained its color and I was able to watch the entire press conference. Hu Jintao was deft in dodging questions and stating the well worn Chinese positions on "making human rights and RMB appreciation moves according to the 'internal schedule' of China and not on another country's timetable". Chinese politician's are much more disciplined than the average western elected official. Although President Obama tried to sound as if he was engaging in substantive discussions, he clearly was not coming out a winner vs the skillful mandarin.

I was out the door at 5:15am for a run and very surprised to be greeted by a blanket of snow - uncommon in Shanghai. Snow is viewed as a lucky event in a city like Shanghai where it doesn't stay on the ground overnight very often. Later in the day, the snow proved lucky for me as my flight to Changsha (in the center of the country) was grounded due to the snow and I was allowed to spend three straight days in Shanghai rather than change cities and hotels.

Instead of being on the road with part of my team, I spent a day in the office catching up with the entire office. Rather than the spicy fare of the previous night, we ate Shanghai food - two nights of spicy food in a row is too much for the normal Shanghai palate.

I am up again in the middle of the night writing this and listening to reports of Hu Jintao's last full day in America.

The emotions I felt yesterday were quite different than I expected. It was great to see my team but I know this isn't where I belong anymore. I have made the first mental transition that is part of the process of going home. My corner office is now occupied by a newly hired corporate person who is called "President of FMC Asia". The "50 something" Shanghai born, American educated - MBA and PhD now sits at the desk I had made to my specifications in a Shanghai factory. The meeting table and leather chairs I also specified were empty as I looked down the hall into my old office. Strangely I didn't feel a tinge of the anticipated emotion. Maybe it will come later but it seems I have crossed over. I am a visitor now not the boss. An America educated, Chinese person sits at my old desk - the wheel turns.

Last month I visited Japan, my first Asian home. Yesterday I completed the loop seeing Shanghai for the first time. It is good to be back.  On the other hand, even though I don't feel totally settled with being back in the US, I feel no need to be In China long term either.  I hired a good team in Shanghai, trained them and now it is time for me to move on and let them move on with new leadership. Two months after walking away, I finally know, leaving was the right thing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First "normal" day

Monday was supposed to be my first "normal" day back in the office. We moved out of the hotel we called home for two months and into our house on Sunday morning. By late Sunday night, snow began falling and by Monday morning, it was apparent - my first commute from our new home would delayed. Charlotte has virtually no snow removal equipment and the local drivers have limited skill in a winter environment. By Monday afternoon, ice was falling rather than snow so Tuesday was another day at home. It was a nice respite which we used to continue the house settling job that will stretch into February.

Finally - today was my first commute to work from home in America since December, 1999. Despite the long time gap, the commute felt "strangely" normal. Although I enjoyed the convenience of the train commute in Japan and the camaraderie of my Shanghai commute with Philip driving the car while talking about anything and everything - not being behind the wheel never felt like a "normal" way to get to work for me. Even after five and a half years in Japan, boarding the 7:24 from our local station never seemed normal. In our five plus years in Shanghai, having Philip as a driver always had a bit an "over the top quality" that I never fully adjusted to.

So now I am back behind the wheel but with the full knowledge that "new normal" won't be normal for long. Next week, I will be happily back in Shanghai with Philip driving me and the following week I will be in Tokyo using a combination of subway, trains, cabs and  shoe leather to get around.

Maybe getting back to "normal" will have to wait........