Near Yellow Mountain

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.