Near Yellow Mountain

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.