Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy Anniversary

Today is my 28th wedding anniversary. My wife is the planner in the family so she gets the credit for setting the date. There are many benefits to having your anniversary between Christmas and New Year’s. The week after Christmas has always been a relaxed time for our family. I never go to work and often times we traveled for the holidays.

Following Christmas so closely, anniversary gift expectation is low – in a pinch you can always slide part of the Christmas gift inventory into the anniversary category. By 12/29, we normally have been eating too much for several days so the dinner venue isn’t a priority.  I have always liked our anniversary situation.

My advice to those setting a wedding date is to choose carefully. You are also adding a date to your “holiday calendar” for the rest of your married life. A bad choice will have annual consequences. Although a counterintuitive thought to many, a date just after Christmas can be a great choice – as can your spouse’s birthday for obvious reasons. Can you say “two birds with one stone”?

Ex-pat life can help take the pressure off on anniversaries especially if your “big day” is tied to an international holiday when you are expected to travel as a family. Even better when the company picks up the airfare.

During our eleven years in Asia we were only at home once on our anniversary which has been spent on four coasts of Australia (for the geographically challenged that would be: north, south, east and west), Singapore, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Thailand, and New Zealand. It is hard to get too stressed out about what to do on your anniversary when you are staying at a beach resort and going out to eat out anyway. How many people have had a “Dr Fish” tiny biting carp pedicure before heading off to their 25th anniversary dinner – at a French restaurant on a cliff in Thailand wearing shorts and tee shirts?

Having our feet "done" at Dr Fish
We spent one anniversary hiking on a glacier in New Zealand after getting stopped for doing 130 in a 60 kph zone. In my defense, except for the cop, the road was empty. I spent the morning of the next day looking for the national bank where I could pay the $300 fine and get my passport cleared so I could leave the country.

On a glacier in New Zealand
On another trip - to Western Australia, we spent part of our big day ambling through a former penal colony “guest” facility. Nothing says “happy anniversary” like a sunset walk through a prison.
Now that we are living back in the US, things are a little more mundane on 12/29. Since our daughters are living on their own now, Christmas week is currently reserved for their return to the house that they didn’t grow up in but still maintain rooms. For different reasons, our anniversary is still a low profile event. Spending time with the kids is more important.

The bottom line is – marry the right person and the anniversaries work themselves out but it is nice to have a significant other who makes life easy from the beginning.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Travel "daze" - a quick trip into the heat of Japanese winter

I am in the midst of a transition from company employee to working on my own which essentially means I have less control over my travel  schedule – not what one thinks would be the case but my current situation. I am doing advisory work so when a client requests a meeting, it may only require a day or two of my time. As a result, for now,  trips are shorter which has good points and bad points -  less time away from home but a more intense travel schedule.

This week I left the US for Osaka on Tuesday morning arriving on Wednesday afternoon (due to the 14 hour time change). I had a dinner meeting Wednesday in Osaka with a client who was asked by another Japanese company to invite me to Japan for an introduction and to discuss a long term advisory services agreement. On Thursday morning, two people from my client company and I took the bullet train to Nagoya to meet with the potential client. After the meeting and lunch, the “client in waiting” took the train with the three of us to Tokyo to meet their Australian partner who had flown in only for our brief meeting and dinner.  Although I was flattered that so much time and travel expense was spent to meet me face to face, having a meeting that involved people from three continents seemed like a good opportunity to use the Skype "conference call" feature.

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I changed into casual clothes and left to meet a former customer and friend at a nearby yakitori shop/pub so we could catch up. In my former life, I knew I would be in Japan for at least one week out of every two months, now my schedule is much less certain so I wanted to see as many contacts and friends as I could during my short visit.

On Friday, I played golf with my client and the “client in waiting” and then had dinner with old friends in Tokyo.  One of my dinner companions was my (soon to be 80 years old) Japanese mentor.  I never miss a chance to see him. After dinner I met a customer from my old job for drinks and got back to my hotel at 1am.  Saturday morning, after a run around the Imperial Palace,  I met a former co-worker for tea and then made my way to Tokyo’s central train station.  I took the Shinkansen back to Osaka to catch my flight home since I couldn’t get a seat out of Tokyo. In five days, I spent 33 hours in the air, 9 hours in airports,   9 hours in cars or buses and 7 hours on trains all for a total of 6 hours in scheduled meetings, and a round of golf with lunch in between the front and back nines.  In my “spare time”,  I managed to spend  8 hours  with friends.  I flew over 16,000 actual miles but got more than 60,000 frequent flyer miles due to the bounty of incentives for top level frequent fliers.  I didn’t really experience jet-lag on this trip because I didn’t have time but being in Japan in December does present a special challenge for me.

Once in Japan,  I was almost constantly, uncomfortably warm – except when I was outside or in my hotel room where I could turn the heat off. From the taxis, buses and trains to the conference rooms and restaurants, the temperature was always about 5 degrees above my comfort zone.  My theory on this phenomenon is that the post war generation that endured years where food was not abundant and heat sources scarce during the winter made it a national policy to never be cold again once the Japanese economic boom began. From my perspective, they have been far too successful.

Everyone I contacted before the trip cautioned me that winter had arrived and Japan is “very cold” which to me is code for: “bring shorts”. When I walked outside the terminal building at Kansai Airport in a short sleeved shirt, I got many strange looks from the bundled up Japanese. When I handed my suitcase over to the limo bus attendant he inquired where my coat was. “In my suitcase”, I replied. I knew what was coming when I boarded the bus – high heat and low humidity.  Five minutes after the bus left the airport, I mopped the sweat off my forehead while the Japanese around me – most still wearing their overcoats were perfectly content. I was out of practice dealing with the Japanese winter heat. The next day on a balmy shinkansen ride I was wise enough to wear a short sleeve shirt on the train and wait until we neared our stop to duck in a restroom to “pull a Clark Kent” and emerge as “salaryman” in a blue suit. If I had a big “S” on my shirt it would have stood for sweaty rather than superman.  Of course,  I realize that I was born with a naturally low temperature set point and all foreigners do not have the same the “warm” feeling I have in Japanese public places.

I have endured countless lectures about the dangers of not wearing a coat in Japan when all those around me are wrapped in layers but have found it is better to smile rather than to explain.  Some of those who golf with me on a crisp winter morning seem to understand that my threshold for cold is different than that of the locals. I once played a winter round in short sleeves and asked my playing partner how many layers he had on. He had four thin layers on under his bulky top layer and also had disposable “heat bags” sealed on his inner layer.

Despite my love for the country overall, the Japanese desire to stay warm leaves me cold………  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lessons Learned

For most of the past 20 years, I have been involved in international business. Like many of my generation seeking upward mobility, I worked a few years after graduating from college and then got an MBA. Over the years I also attended “executive” education courses at some of the top business schools. Despite all the expensive training, I found most of my business education of marginal value compared to actual experience. The majority of successful business relationships I have made over the years weren’t because of complicated strategies and clever tactics. Business boils down to people and establishing a good reason for them to trust you with their business.
We found the guy from the Lonely Planet Cover

Over the years my family lived in Asia, we visited many places that would not be considered hot beds of business education. Cities like Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Siem Reap, and Lhasa but in each place I learned a lesson that had more value than many of the case studies I toiled over in business school.

During our first trip to Viet Nam, we stayed in central Ho Chi Minh City. Shortly after arrival, we went for a walk. A few blocks from the hotel we were approached by a little girl that looked like a 3rd grader but was probably in Jr. High. She immediately asked about our family – how old were our daughters? Where were we from? Why did we come to Viet Nam? What were our travel plans while we in her country? She was charming and spoke English very well. After drawing us in, she got down to business by showing us what she wanted to sell us - Lonely Planet Travel Guides which a large percentage of ex-pats on vacation use for reference. She told us the books she had were great copies run on nearby high speed presses – she also threw in a few more technical details that went over my head. She handed the Lonely Planet Guide for Viet Nam to my wife and offered us a price that was about 25% of what we would have paid for it in a bookstore. Ever the careful shopper, my wife started to look though the book. The girl pointed out that the cover was just as good quality as an original. Suspicious that my wife was making sure all the pages were in the book, the young lady stopped her and said: “look, lady - this book is good quality and cheap – are you really going to check all the pages when you are spending less than $4?, it isn’t worth your time”. This kid was a sales guru – in the space of a couple minutes she had charmed us and established a relationship, qualified us as customers, showed her product, handled objections, and put a closing argument on us we were powerless to walk away from. In the end we bought more than one book. A true sales professional in a child’s body, I can only imagine what the future holds for her.
New friends - we wound up going to their house

A few days later we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the ruins at Angkor Wat. We were tired and sweaty after a long day of hiking and climbing. As we made our way back to our hired car, a young lady confidently approached us. “Hi, I am Lillian, are you Americans?” she asked. When she got an affirmative response, she followed up with “what state are you from?” Once she heard North Carolina, she said “the capital of North Carolina is Raleigh” and then said “I know every state capital”. That was her hook – she reeled us in. “Ok”, I replied “what is the capital of South Dakota?”  “Pierre” was the immediate response. I closed with “Mississippi?” Her rejoinder was “Jackson”.  Fully aware that the majority of graduating high school seniors in the US cannot name all the states and state capitals, I was impressed by this pre-teen from the third world who was preparing to access my wallet. Her transition to making a sale wasn’t brilliant but it was effective. She told us that since she had shown us that she knew something about our country; she wanted to “help” us learn more about her country. She produced a slightly dog – eared copy of a book about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot – who was responsible for the massive genocide in Cambodia that happened during my college years. Since she was asking more than the price printed on the book and the book wasn’t new, I tried to negotiate the price but she was having none of it. She closed the deal with a smile and I walked away, humbled but pleased, with my over-priced book.

What impressed me about both transactions was that unlike so many experiences when people try to sell to tourists in the third world, neither of these young ladies made the common “guilt” pitch that we should buy whatever they had to sell because we had money and they were going pester us until we gave them some.  
Waiting to climb the stairs at Potala

A couple years later we visited Tibet. Lhasa was definitely on my bucket list but we had some concerns about accomodations and food. I had visited much of rural China and knew when travel agents talk about “best available” accommodations – it normally is not good news. We were lucky in Lhasa - all the toilet paper and granola bars I brought  with me turned out to be unnecessary insurance. We stayed in what had been the Embassy for Nepal. We had a great time in the thin mountain air.  Thinking our time on the “rooftop of the world” would mean a week of roughing it, we were surprised to see Mexican and French restaurants in unimpressive buildings but with great food. One night after having excellent cheeseburgers, we walked out of a restaurant and were greeted by a young girl who asked if I knew the words to “Red River Valley” – when I told her I didn’t know all the words, she asked if I would sing it with her anyway. Strange request on a dusty side street in Tibet from a girl who was born during the heyday of the “Smashing Pumpkins”. I did my best to sing along with this girl who was tolerant of this glaring gap in my musical knowledge. In the distance I could see an older man watching the girl carefully. I didn’t get the feeling he was a stalker so I assumed they were connected. When the singing was over, I asked why she knew the song. She said her grandfather learned it from Americans who ended up in China during WW II. He learned English from songs. I assumed grandpa was the man watching from afar.

A few minutes passed as my wife and daughters spoke with “Sarah” – her English name. It came up in conversation that we were living in Japan. Suddenly a torrent of Japanese came out of Sarah’s mouth. I asked her in Japanese how she learned Japanese. Again – grandpa. At that point, I really wanted to meet grandpa so I walked over and introduced myself and asked about his precocious granddaughter. He explained that the Chinese government was changing Tibet and that he wanted to prepare Sarah for a life outside of Tibet and maybe outside of China. A couple times a week they went out on the streets of Lhasa so she could practice speaking foreign languages with native speakers. He normally stayed in the distance so that Sarah would learn better how to interact and rely on her own skills. I could have spent a couple days talking with this interesting old man. Grandpa had a clearer globalization strategy for his granddaughter than most American companies have for their business. Grandpa was clearly not a man of means but he was getting his granddaughter ready to succeed in a changing world. Rather than try to sell us something, Sarah wound up giving my wife and daughters bracelets. We also got her email address and it was our hope to stay in touch. Unfortunately we never got a response to emails sent to that address. Hopefully we simply wrote it down incorrectly.

Traveling in Asia as a family for over a decade was a great experience. We always called it “vacation” but the lessons we learned were priceless.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Game Day

Once again Thanksgiving is upon us which can only mean the annual grudge match between USC and ND is only days away.  Unfortunately the game this year has no meaning in determining the best college football team in the land but given the global alumni reach of both schools, it will draw attention around the world on Saturday. My younger daughter maintains slightly more than tepid interest in the USC Trojans. Her mother and I, like moths to the flame, continue to stay up late on the east coast to watch the Trojans blow games in the last minute and teach us football fan perseverance.  Of course as a lifelong Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills fan, I have eaten the bitter bread of football futility since childhood. 

Goal line stand from the cheap seats

While we were living out of the US, I totally disconnected from American sports - except golf since it was on TV every week in Japan. Over the two years I have been back in the America, my interest in sports has slowly but steadily returned but generally has been focused on the college sports rather than watching the soporific events that pass as pro sports.

I grew up a dedicated fan of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Two of my uncles attended ND.  One was kicked out.  After graduating from Georgetown and having a very successful business career, he became a catholic priest in his 40s. The other played golf for the Irish and managed to graduate. His time at ND seemingly inspired him to eschew work in favor of a lifetime of golf and watching sports on TV.  

I spent many a fall Saturday in the 1960s and 70s watching the Irish on a fuzzy 19 inch black and white TV. For big games, my mother would drive me to the next town where my aunt lived. She had a color TV and a better signal – cable hadn’t arrived in the area where I lived. I particularly enjoyed watching the annual Notre Dame  match-up with USC.  I watched many ND vs. USC games in my aunt’s living room while her ever present boxer scowled and drooled on me.
One of the Irish faithful with my elder daughter
Unfortunately, the Irish have been a disappointment to the “faithful” for most of the last quarter century. My wife and I saw them play in the Cotton Bowl, the last time they had a Heisman Trophy winner.  My father in law came up with tickets one row behind the Irish bench – a great view to see them get thrashed by Texas A&M.  To put the time in perspective, we didn’t have kids, I didn’t have any gray hair, the “Great Communicator” was President, and my 5K times were below 17 minutes. In short, a long time ago.

 My younger daughter attends USC.  She grew up in Asia, so in order to help facilitate her “Americanization”, her mother and I encouraged her to develop an interest in football. This turned out to be a long term project. It didn’t help that her team was on NCAA probation her first two years and the two most famous Heisman trophy winning alumni were OJ and the 2005 winner - the only person ever to have to give his Heisman back. Scant progress was made in our “Fan Project” during her freshman year but when the season was over, at least she knew the quarterback’s name.
OJ's Heisman 
Things began to look up when she got a job before her sophomore year that required her to give campus tours and know all the Heisman trophy winners and other football lore. We called her most game days -  she knew more players and asked questions. Progress.  Her mother and I attended the Stanford – USC game late in the year and saw her tears after the triple OT loss to the “evil empire” from the Bay Area. It appeared we had an emerging fan. We were hopeful.  

 Her conversion seemed complete while she was home last Christmas break. We were at a mall when she said she needed to get back to the house to see the USC quarterback’s announcement on ESPN as to whether he would turn pro or return for his senior year. Although I was happy to see her interest, I wondered if an outside force had inhabited her body.
My younger daughter - focus on the jersey, please ignore the Obama pin she wore to taunt me

Time passed, the USC Trojans were ranked number one in the pre-season polls. The “kiss of death”, I recall saying. The Fighting Irish were not ranked.  By mid-season, USC  had lost a couple close games and the Irish won week after week. Notre Dame rose in the rankings as the Trojans headed for the “also received votes” category.  My daughter called and questioned the capability of her team’s coach.  She theorized that his “play sheet” was really a take-out menu from a Mexican restaurant. After her team’s third loss of the year, she lamented on Facebook about how much it hurt to be emotionally invested in her team. After a 4th loss to their cross town rival UCLA, there was only one way for my daughter’s team to salvage the year – beat Notre Dame.

My wife, elder daughter (an ND fan of sorts living in NYC) and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in LA so we could celebrate Thanksgiving as a family and see the suddenly #1 ranked Irish play the flagging USC  Trojans. I was conflicted, my wife and I were committed to supporting the Trojans as least as long as our daughter is a student there and, more than likely, long after.  Yet, after waiting so long for ND to return to their glory days, even thinking about rooting against them brought on a healthy dose of catholic guilt.

On Saturday, we donned our Trojan gear and wandered the campus before the game, soaking in the atmosphere.  I particularly enjoyed one student standing next to me as the band played on campus before marching to the Coliseum. He was speaking Chinese into his IPhone while alternately stopping to scream cheers supporting the Trojans in accented English.   

The morning of the game I posted on Facebook that either outcome was acceptable to me but despite my long term love for the Irish, I was hoping for a Trojan upset. I didn’t get my wish but I am happy to see the Irish going to the national championship game. The Irish team may not be as good as their record but it seems to be their year - perhaps the long dormant "luck of the Irish" has returned.  The USC team they beat Saturday has proven that great talent can be overcome by poor coaching. We aren't bitter, just disappointed......

Despite the loss, after the game my daughter said she was looking forward to “next season”.  Despite the trials and tribulations of the USC football program, it seems  we may have another football fan in the family.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Two years ago this weekend, I turned in my Chinese resident documents at Shanghai  immigration and returned to the US. Before I departed Shanghai, I signed a two year contract extension for my driver, Philip, to ensure he would not be suddenly let go by the new management coming in from corporate HQ.

This morning when I checked my phone, I saw a text message from Philip. Exactly two years after I signed his contract he was told his services were no longer needed. I immediately put in a Facetime call to Phillip hoping he was in a place that had Wi-Fi. A few seconds later Philip’s smiling face appeared on my IPhone. He looked me in the eye from 7,500 miles away and said “don’t worry about me, it doesn’t matter”. He then gave me the details of how he was told - he was being replaced by a less expensive driver who doesn’t speak English and then moved on – wanting to know how my wife, daughters and dog, Yuki,  were doing.   

I spent many hours in the seat next to Philip - he still drives me any time I am in Shanghai
Philip was in a crowded room at a friend’s house with a lively mahjong game going on in the background. Not a drinker himself, I asked Philip if his friends were drinking – he smiled and said with typical clarity “no, you drink, you lose mahjong”.

Never one to dwell on his problems, Philip turned to politics – “how about the election”? “Which one?” I replied,  since China’s leader changed in the past week.  “The Obama one”; “You know Romney don’t like China” After spending five years together in the car, Philip did not have to ask who I voted for but he did need to comment just to gently remind me that my guy lost. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about China’s new leader, Philip was quick to say, “I hope he is good” and the political discussion was over.

We talked about our “China work team” for a few minutes and Philip gave me his evaluation of how everyone was doing. Philip was always insightful but pretty blunt evaluating people. From the company CEO whom he didn’t care for (“he thinks I am part of the car”) to customers (“he may be Japanese but he is still a good guy”). Philip understood I loved Japan so he treated all my Japanese customers with respect but he made the "official" China postion on Japan clear.

 I always asked one more question after the original comment Philip made about somebody and usually there was much more to his comment but sometimes not. Being American, my favorite comment was in response to the question about why he didn’t like our CEO. He looked at me like I was from Mars and said “Laoban, he is French, isn’t he”.

Philip’s face turned serious  – “when do you come to Shanghai”? “You know, nothing has changed, I will meet you anytime”. “You have any problem, you call me”.  “I want to see you in Shanghai”. From most people, I would pass this off as meaningless courtesy but from Philip I knew it was sincere.  I told him I would see him in early 2013 and, changing subjects yet again, asked him if the company offered him severance.  Always one step ahead of me, he told me he had already spoken to “the legal guy” and it seemed he would get 6 months’ pay. While Philip and I talked, my wife was on Facebook and other websites letting her ex-pat network know that a great driver was on the market. Philip was pretty well known in the ex-pat community. We often got calls from friends who were having trouble communicating with their drivers. Philip was always happy to translate and tell drivers how they should behave. He knew that he had a special status in the ex-pat community but he didn’t exploit it.

Convinced Philip was doing ok, I wound the conversation down. I have no doubt I will see Philip again. The little brother I never had was more to my family than a driver.

Philip with Miss USA on July 4th, 2010

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


This week was my first trip to Japan after leaving my old job. The trip was planned to show respect to my customers after the sudden departure from my ex-employer. In general, the Japanese have a hard time understanding how American businesses make decisions - especially about people. Since I have known most of my customers for over 15 years, “what happened?” was a fair question for them to ask and I didn’t want close things out by email or have someone  from my old company give an explanation. Call me a cynic but I think my story and the “official” line might be different.

As someone who has not been out of Japan for more than eight straight weeks since 1995, I also didn’t want to just drop off the radar. I wanted to close the loop face to face with as many people as I could see in a week. I was also curious to discover the depth of my relationships. A certain status comes with selling a vital raw material that is often in short supply. I thought my relationships were deeper than my prior company affiliation (aka “commercial self”) but that point had never been tested.

Actually the fact that I left for Japan with an itinerary full of meetings, dinners and three rounds of golf should have allayed my fears about where I stood with people but I still cleared customs in Tokyo with a slightly uneasy feeling which disappeared a short time later when I had dinner with a friend from a trading company.

Of course, everyone wanted to know the “why?” of my situation but in most cases I spent very little time talking about my  old company and more time talking about the recent tensions between Japan and China, the US presidential election and the fact I planned to be working again soon in a position that would have me traveling to Japan on a regular basis.

It was a very interesting week and not in the least awkward except for one incident when I was at the front desk of one of the largest companies in Japan where you have to check in and get a computer card to access the elevators. Although I had an appointment with several people that I have known for many years, the young lady at the desk could not find my name in the computer (it was spelled wrong – the curse of having a last name that begins with “L” in Japan) and she awkwardly asked me to “wait a while”. I solved the problem by calling my host and handing my phone to the young lady so he could explain who I was. The next issue was enduring the five minute apology I received for the small mix-up.

So now I have been back to Japan without the cover of my old company role. It was a good feeling to realize people were happy to make time for me. From a business perspective, it seems that the skills and knowledge I developed over the years are more valuable than I realized. Leaving my old job seems to have opened a lot of doors for me. Many people told me this would be the case but I didn’t believe them until last week.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election night

My younger daughter just sent me a text with a picture of her official ballot. This is her first presidential election and while I am pretty sure her vote for the top job will cancel out mine, I am just happy she got out and voted.

I voted in early knowing that I would be in Japan on Election Day. It is Wednesday morning here and I am hoping we have a result before I go to bed tonight. Twelve years ago, our first year living in Japan, we had the Bush – Gore debacle, I remember starting a dinner with customers who told me Gore won and it had been announced on TV. I got home and found that nobody had won and I spent the next few weeks trying to explain our convoluted electoral process to my Japanese friends who seemed to take comfort in the fact that our political process seemed as screwed up as Japan’s.

Explaining the nuances of the “hanging chads” and the election equivalent of a food fight in Florida was tough enough but many were surprised to find out that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win in our “democratic” process. While nobody came out and compared our 2000 process to a third world election, I had the feeling many were simply too kind to state the obvious.

I am hoping this election does not put American politics in the global comedic spotlight again but as I left the hotel this morning, CNN was reporting that each candidate’s lawyers were preparing to litigate results if necessary. Not a good sign.

Of course, my favorite Japanese election stories relate to pronunciation rather than questions about our process. Given that “L” as we know it does not exist in Japanese and is normally substituted with the “R” sound; election is normally pronounced “erection” by Japanese English speakers.  It is hard to keep a straight face when asked; “don’t you have an erection in the US today? Or as in 2000, “wow, the US erection really lasts a long time”. My Japanese teacher, being a very proper lady, lamented the problem of even discussing the topic in English.

Given the current state of our political process maybe we should all be seeking medical attention because our “election” definitely lasts more than 4 hours.  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ridin the Storm Out

It is a calm but cloudy fall morning in our part of North Carolina but a few hours drive to the east the Outer Banks are being blasted by the beginnings of what some in the media are calling “a 100 year storm” – it seems we get one at least every five to ten years…. Of course, any storm that has the potential to flood and leave our largest population centers without power is a big deal – but I am hoping the “100 year storm” moniker is media hype and not like hurricane “Hugo” that hit here in 1989.

While we lived in Asia we had many experiences with the dark side of Mother Nature. We lived in Kobe, Japan which was famous for the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. When we moved into our “earthquake proof” apartment building in early 2000, remnants of the tent cities that housed survivors from the 1995 quake were still visible on the artificial island which was our new home.

Although I had felt small earthquakes on prior trips to Japan, I had never experienced a quake of even moderate severity until a fall afternoon in 2000. I was working from home that afternoon and had the windows open in our 19th floor apartment to take in the breeze off the bay. I felt a slight shake which I thought was a gust of wind and then suddenly the floor beneath me started to move slowly back and forth. Maybe five seconds later, the pace increased. I jumped up and ran to the living room and saw a wall unit housing our stereo about to tip over, I heard screams coming from the people walking on ground level. A few moments later, I could feel that the “ripple” of the actual quake was over but the building continued to move as the technology built into the foundation did its job by allowing the movement to disperse the energy of the quake with minimal damage.

My wife rushed home from a nearby shopping center where only an hour before we had been together at Starbucks. Her first reaction to the shaking was that perhaps her decaf latte actually had caffeine but when she heard screams and saw panic in the eyes of the people around her she knew it was something else.

The kids came home from school and we shared our reactions. Since this was first earthquake our daughters had experienced and nobody was hurt - it was an "interesting" experience but not a big deal. They saw it differently than many of other students who burst into tears and in some cases become catatonic with fear. My daughters learned later that a few of their classmates were earthquake orphans; others lost relatives or friends in the 1995 quake. Any large earthquake caused them to flashback to the day when their lives were changed forever.

This was the first of many earthquake experiences we had in Japan. Fortunately it was also the most severe. Each quake made my wife a little more uneasy but the kids seemed to take them as a normal part of life. A few years later we got a good jolt and my wife wanted us all to get ready to leave the building.  My younger daughter was taking a bath and as the water sloshed out of the tub and onto the floor she said “mom – it is just an earthquake, I am going to finish my bath”.

Besides earthquakes, our high rise apartment on an artificial island in Kobe Bay provided a great view during one of the worst typhoon seasons Japan had experienced in many years. Our building not only moved back and forth during earthquakes, it also accommodated high winds by “swaying in the breeze” for extended periods. In the middle of a typhoon, our building felt like a ship moving through rough seas - the steel structure made appropriate noises and as my daughters and I made jokes about the Titanic, my wife’s sense of humor was tested.

Our Christmas vacation in 2004 found us on an island in the Andaman Sea. At the last minute, we adjusted our schedule so my elder daughter could meet friends for a ski trip. The peaceful beach where we jet skied was overtaken by waters from the tsunami on Boxing Day. If we hadn’t changed our plans by one day we would have been in the midst of that tragedy.

Once we were back in Japan, we learned that a friend of ours died on a beach in Thailand. Another was injured as she clung to a tree. Several other friends who were in the area were fortunate enough to have been out of the path of the rising water.

Our time in Japan drew to a close and as we packed our belongings for the move to Shanghai, my wife said she was glad to be going to a place with no earthquakes. The day before we arrived in China, Shanghai was hit by a large typhoon - the first in many years.

I am hoping the coming storm "Sandy" is a bust but only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

theory of "relativity"

One of the downsides of ex-pat life was that my family did not get to spend much time with our US relatives during the decade we went “missing”. I have five siblings – my wife has eight. Our cousins, nieces and nephews while not innumerable almost qualify as a separate census category. Now that we are back in the US, any opportunity to see a large contingent of relatives is embraced.

Last weekend, one of my nieces got married in rural Maine. For the first time since my mother left this world for her eternal reward while we were living in Shanghai, I saw all of my brothers and sisters at the same time. As they say these days, the weekend was – “good stuff”.  I was the only one of us born in the second half of the baby boom generation which is a sobering thought. We may be taking glucosamine and having colonoscopies now but get-togethers still have the same basic feel they have had for a few decades. Generally speaking we all tend to fall into the same familial roles we had as kids. I may be generalizing from a small sample but the same thing seems to happen when my wife gets together with her brothers and sisters.

In addition to getting to spend time with my siblings, I also got to see many nieces and nephews and an old friend of the mother of the bride that my wife and I had not seen since people tuned in to Magnum PI on Thursday nights and “the Great Communicator” was living in the White House.
A random sampling of “the cousins”. Used without permission. Nobody signed a release and there is more than one lawyer in the group.
The picture above includes a minority of cousins on my side of the family so when my two daughters speak about “having cousins” they know what they are talking about. My elder daughter is front and center next to the bride. Unfortunately my younger daughter was unable to make the trip from LA to Maine since it was midterm week at USC (Go Trojans!) and spending 20+ hours in transit for a weekend seemed excessive.  A large inventory of frequent flyer miles (aka "free travel") doesn’t solve the time problem.

Over the years, missing family gatherings was a hot button for both of my kids but they understood that the benefits of their ex-pat life came at a price. I can’t speak for them but my guess is if they had it to do over they would not change how they grew up.
Although a  steady stream a photos uploaded to Facebook all weekend long gave my youngest and other relatives who could not make the trip a sense of what was going on; it is a very weak substitute for getting to interact live with people who are part of your history but tend to get pushed to the back of your mind for extended periods in the busy, modern world.   

As much fun as it is to spend time with people you haven’t seen in years, it is also fun to step back and watch the proceedings – sort of like a live “family movie”.
As suddenly as we all came together, the wedding and reception were over. In less the 48 hours, most people came and went. As our time together waned, there was much speculation over which cousin would provide the next opportunity for another wedding get – together.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Crisis

More than a decade ago, my family became ex-pats.  Although all four of us (my wife and two daughters) are currently living back in the United States, each of us still relate to our ex-pat identities to some degree. My ex-pat identity was hard to separate from my work identity since my job was the reason we lived overseas.
Of course, I have had other “identities” over the years: son, brother, student, friend, American and later - uncle, runner, employee, husband, dad, gaijin, etc. Not an all-inclusive list but you get the point. Like most people, on any given day of my life I would move in and out of my various roles without thinking about it.

I only thought deeply about any specific identity at transition points in my life – when I got married, when my daughters were born, the first few months we were living in Japan, etc, etc. For several weeks after we arrived in Kobe, each day was an adventure but after a few months it was simply where we lived. The same thing happened when we moved to China – a few weeks of drama and then we adjusted to our new environment.  
For me it took longer to adjust to living back in the US than it did to moving to Japan or China. The problem was not living in America; it was working for the company in America. While I was overseas, I had almost total autonomy to make decisions. As long as the business did well, I was left alone to manage things as I saw fit. Just before I moved back, the company got a new CEO who brought a new mindset. My team in Asia continued to look to me for decisions but the new CEO and the team he brought with him from his former company had created a “matrix” structure which effectively meant no one person was in charge in many situations.

Although I worked for a fairly large company, they did not have an overabundance of rules when I left for Japan. I never felt “compliance” with rules a burden before I left. When I came back to the US; however I was shocked at the changes. For the most part, I had been able to set the rules in Japan and China; back in the US I found that the company had begun to micromanage small details of office life. It seemed that “big brother” had arrived. I asked some of my co-workers about all the rules and while they acknowledged things were different – they were “used to it”. It made sense, gradual change over 11 years is hard to notice or get upset about but I was being hit by many things at once. From the company nurse who insisted on standing inside the restroom door while I produced my urine sample for a random drug test and the HR person who insisted on doing an ergomatic check of my work environment to advise me on changes that should be made --- to the random, voluntary “safety audit” form I found on my desk signed by one of our accountants down the hall. She felt my key board should be placed in a pull out tray below desktop level and that my wastebasket was in an awkward spot – amazing stuff. Unbelievable to me - an office neighbor felt compelled to check my surroundings without asking me and was encouraged to do so in the name of safety.

My big new office was beginning to feel like a white collar prison and my new identity seemed to be “inmate”. Fortunately the company decided to parole me a few weeks ago and my new and temporary identity is “early – retired”.

Things have a way of working out for the best………

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Romancing the Stone

If you have read past blogs, likely you will recall the mention of Philip, (our driver, culture guide and friend in Shanghai). Phillip was never a complainer but over a series of weeks a few years ago, I noticed he was constantly rubbing his lower back and seemed to have some level of pain each day. I asked him about it several times. Each query was rebuffed with a quick “mei wenti” or “no problem”. Finally when it was clear that the condition was getting worse,  I told Phillip he HAD to see a doctor. He grudgingly said he would call for an appointment.
A few days later Philip went to the doctor and was told he had a kidney stone. On the x-ray it appeared more like a kidney boulder. There was no chance for Phillip to pass it in the normal way. He needed surgery and even then, because of the size of the stone and how it had attached to the kidney wall, he was in danger of losing his kidney.  After consulting the doctors again, Phillip was told he would need to be at the Shanghai Kidney Hospital for a month. He wouldn’t be able to drive for almost six weeks. I told Philip not to worry about the time away, he had insurance through the company and he would still be paid his salary. We got a substitute driver while Philip was out. Breaking in a new driver made me appreciate Phillip more than ever. The nervous young substitute was not a very good driver, had no experience with foreigners and was not anxious to engage in conversation. Those six weeks seemed like a year.

The day of Phillip’s surgery, we kept in contact with the hospital for updates. Hours passed, we began to fear the worst. There was talk of removing the entire kidney but in the end the kidney was saved. We were anxious to see Philip and visited the hospital a few days later. My admin assistant took us to the Shanghai Kidney Hospital. Since the hospital does not serve foreigners, they don’t see many foreign families. Based on the attention we got, maybe we were the first foreign family to visit. We entered the hospital with a group of five – my wife, daughters and admin. By the time we crossed the lobby to enter the elevator, we had picked up several followers, when we exited the elevator it seemed the pied piper must have been in our group. The locals seemed very interested to find out who had the foreign visitor. We got to Philip’s room and saw a smiling Philip holding court with his seven roommates. I noticed Philip looking over my shoulder. Then he looked at me and asked who all the people behind us were. Well over a dozen of the curious throng we picked up on the way to Philip’s room decided to follow us in. I turned and motioned for them to leave and finally with some support from Phillip we able to convince them to find entertainment elsewhere.

Each bed in the room had a number and Philip introduced each of his roommates by their number and where they were from. He said: “Mr. # 2 is from Guangzhou and he owns a shipping company”. Philip seemed to like having a shipping company owner in his room. The rest were introduced in turn. It was clear that Philip did most of the talking in the room – whether or not he had visitors. Nobody seemed to mind.

Philip was eager to show us his new treasure so he raised the plastic bag holding the larger of the two stones. We were shocked at the size. After he left the hospital, Philip put the big stone in a jar and it became a conversation piece in the car.

Philip recovered quickly and was back at work as scheduled. The short separation had shown us how much Philip had become part of our family. We kept the stone in the car for several weeks. Philip’s stories always improved when he had a prop……..

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Moving on......Updated version April, 2015

In May, I wrote a blog about it being “Time to Say Goodbye”. I talked about needing to leave my current position and the reasons. As it turns out, what I had been told by “the experts” before I left the US for Japan was true – it is hard for a long time ex-pat to return to where you started. My favorite author from high school, Thomas Wolfe, was right. At least in my case, “you can’t go home again.”

By my  favorite author from my high school years - for many expats life imitates art
The feelings I had in May about needing to move on intensified as I watched my ex-boss get fired in June and three others in leadership positions depart quickly. Despite being a profitable business in a company whose stock had just hit an all-time high, the corporate chiefs are never satisfied and seemed to feel a game of corporate musical chairs was in order. I stayed away from the growing chaos as much as possible by spending time with customers in Asia.
Another saying came to mind as I traveled, “you can run but you can’t hide”. Although I dodged the initial salvos from the change machine at HQ, it became apparent to me that a bullet with my name on it had entered the corporate RIF chamber.

A couple days later, I was sitting on a tatami mat on a small island in Japan enjoying sashimi and sake with customers when my cell began to buzz. Night time in Japan meant the day was just getting started on the east coast of America. The news was not good – one of our least knowledgeable people had just been named to run the Division. We had a new boss and not one who appreciated my Asia skills…….
My trip continued for another ten days. I was traveling with a colleague who was equally unhappy with our leadership change. We mulled over the possible impacts. “There is no (expletive deleted) way he can get rid of you, who else can do what you do in Asia?” queried my long-time friend. I smiled and my unease grew.

I flew home to happily find our new leader was out of the country. The buzz in the office was about the coming reorganization. A week passed, a new week began. I had three groups of Japanese visitors coming over a ten day period to visit our plant, discuss the future and play golf (not necessarily in that order). I incorrectly assumed that nothing would happen when we had important guests visiting. Our new leader returned to the office, he wanted to see me at 4PM – before a customer dinner.
I sat across from a man that I had never liked but had always had civil dealings with. He knew nothing about our business and had no international experience before he came to the Division. On the other hand, he was gifted at internal politics and used to work for the company our new CEO came from. His ascent to the top - a victory of form over substance.
“I want to show you my new organization” he said. Not waiting for a reply he described the boxes on his chart. “Did you notice your position is not on the chart?” he said with a gleam in his eye. Since it was a rhetorical question, he went on: “that is because I have eliminated it”. “You are paid too much and I want to get your departure costs in this quarter”. His parting shot was that my old boss was not around to protect me. Clearly this was not a painful experience for him. Rather than give him the joy he was seeking by reacting emotionally. I simply said, “Well, ok, I guess I will go talk to Connie (my wife)” and walked out of the room.

This diagram shows the highlights of the final meeting with my boss.
In a moment, I had gone from 1% er to 8.1% er (unemployed). Of course, inside I was hurt and angry and feeling “screwed”. I left the building, got in the car and hit speed dial on my touch screen (hands free, of course).
Within 30 minutes, I was home – walking our faithful dog Yuki with my wife. I got someone else to host the dinner I was skipping. I talked and talked some more. I told my wife: “this is like 8th grade, I was going to break up with my girlfriend (translation - leave the company) but while I failed to act she broke up with me (translation – they RIFed me)”. Feeling a surge of energy and a lot of emotion, we dropped Yuki at the house and kept walking. After letting me vent, the ever wise Connie said: “look, this is a Christmas present; they are paying you to leave”. “Your non-compete is void”. “Had you left on your own, you wouldn’t be getting paid and you wouldn’t be free to work anywhere”.
Of course, she was right but it took me another 24 hours to see the world through her lens. I started making calls and then I started getting calls.
I still had guests in town to host. I told them the situation. They were not happy with my sudden demise ("but nobody else in your company understands Japan, Joe san"). Nevertheless, we carried on. The golf outing to Pinehurst was still a great time. We planned a November meeting in Japan to discuss the future. What my boss didn’t understand was that my relationships in Asia will continue whether or not I am with the company.
The next week was a whirlwind of activity. I reviewed my severance package and early retirement options, saw a financial planner, had a physical, went to the dentist and eye doctor, talked to two ex-bosses who had also been “let go” but were better off for it. I listened to their advice and started to plan my future. I talked to other trusted friends about next steps. I had my first interview by phone and agreed to visit the company to discuss options as soon as possible.
I video chatted with our faithful Shanghai driver Philip a couple of times. As usual his perspective made me feel good: “I don’t care what the company does, I am always your driver”. “I don’t care if China and America go to war, I am your driver and your friend”. Vintage Philip - not sure where the war comment came from but I understood and appreciated his sentiment.

Good to his word - 30 months later Philip still drives me when I am in Shanghai
I started saying goodbye to dozens of people – at the office during the day and by night via phone and computer to friends and customers in Japan and China. After a few calls I was asked by one person not to say “goodbye” but to say “see you later”. That became my mantra.

Yesterday was my last day of work for my former employer. I had lunch with some friends, got a buddy in IT to help configure my new computer and turned in my things.
The next several weeks will be interesting. There are several options on the table. I haven’t been this excited about the future since the week we left for Japan to begin our ex-pat life. Perhaps I should have acted sooner but no matter – today is the first day of the rest of my life and I am looking forward to the future again.

Post script:  it as been 30 months since I wrote this post. Life and work is good. I formed a company and have been busy ever since. Working on my own has been more enjoyable, less stressful and more profitable than working for a marginal boss in a declining organization. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Blind Inspiration

Over the course of my working life I have accumulated almost 4 million frequent flyer miles.  Much less than the character played by George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air” but a respectable sum.  In two decades of almost constant business travel, I have had a variety of interesting seat mates :  athletes with Super Bowl and NBA rings, a loser in the Presidential  nomination process, a princess, IOC members and Olympic athletes  and today, on my second of two flights, the Rev. Jesse Jackson  who was traveling to the Democratic National Convention .  I have never had a blind seatmate until my first flight today.  I realized my new friend was handicapped when she boarded in a wheel chair but since she and her helper (nicknamed “Lightening”) were both wearing sun glasses, I thought maybe they were just typical aging Southern California hipsters getting on a plane at LAX.  I watched as Lightening got Maggie settled in seat 1A and then departed for his seat in 24F. I was in 1B.
Flying home from a 13 day, 8 city trip around Asia, I was more in sleep than chat mode. Besides I was finishing watching an episode of “White Collar” on my IPhone so I wasn’t really looking for conversation or inspiration. As I watched my phone, my peripheral vision was attracted to Maggie’s hand movement around her seat. After about a minute of seeing her hands move methodically over her surroundings, I pulled out my ear buds and asked if I could help. “I am trying to find the earphone jack” was the reply to my question.  The earphone jacks were in an unusual place for a United 737 so it took me a few seconds to locate it and get her connected.
Maggie mentioned she was worried about her IPhone battery running down. I told her she was in luck because this plane had electric outlets in the seats.  She smiled, reached into her purse and held up her charger and then asked if the plug would match her cord. I plugged it in for her, she heard the beep indicating the charging had started and a big smile crossed her face.  She thanked me and continued to quietly explore her environment by gently touching the seat arms. She located the Direct TV controller and tried to divine what the seven buttons meant. I wasn’t sure whether trying to help her again was crossing a line or something she would appreciate.
 I thought back to my teenage years when I would visit my grandmother who was virtually sightless but furiously independent. Each time I visited her I seemed to cross an invisible line and offer help she didn’t want. Normally I was rebuffed with a loving slap and a verbal rebuke that she was perfectly capable of doing things by herself.  
I was more uncomfortable watching Maggie struggle than fearful of offending her since she had already accepted my assistance once.
So I decided again to ask if she wanted help. I explained the control to her.  She was surprised and happy that the plane had Direct TV and explained to me how Jet Blue was the first to install it on planes.  I was impressed by her knowledge of airline trivia. She said she needed to leave a couple text messages before she had to turn off her phone. I was curious to see her send a text message.  She did it by talking into her IPhone. When she was finished she went on to explain that the voice recognition did not always work and sometimes she had to use the keyboard which was much more difficult but “doable”.
The boarding of the plane continued. Suddenly two gentlemen stopped and greeted her. She said hello and told them “Lightening” was in 24F. They told her they would see her when the plane landed in Chicago and continued to their seats. I asked where she was going. She said to Mackinaw Island in Michigan but she was worried about the tight connection. I told her I had an IPhone app that could give updates on her flight and the connecting gate. That was an app she wanted. Soon we were just talking like two average travelers.  We took off.  Half way through the flight, she needed to use the rest room. She simply excused herself felt her way past me and made her way to the rest room. She clearly had done this before and I guessed the wheelchair was only to speed up getting around airports. The flight attendant jumped up to help but only needed to watch her slow but steady progress to her destination. She returned and confidently made her way to her seat.  Conversation resumed.
 I asked how “Lightening” got his name. She said he was hit by lightening at 14 and had been called that ever since. She asked about my work and my family. We landed, said our goodbyes and I made my way to the gate for my next flight.  In many ways this was a normal exchange between people who happened to meet on a plane.  On the other hand, for me this was an amazing experience. One of my greatest fears is losing my sight and, in my mind, my freedom. Over the course of 4 hours, my seatmate showed me that life goes on – she travels, sends text messages, and “watches” TV and Netflix. I boarded my next flight thankful that my sightless seatmate opened my eyes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I beg your pardon

I am nearing the end of a nine day sojourn in the land of the rising sun. I will have crisscrossed the main island twice on this trip before leaving for Korea. A good chance to check the pulse of the nation.  August is usually a brutally hot and humid month in Japan. This year August is more uncomfortable than normal. Air conditioning is limited due to the impact of shutting down the nuclear power generators after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. It would be normal to expect tempers to be short and social graces to be lacking in this breathless and sweaty environment. However, I have not found that to be the case.
Another 3 hour ride on the Shinkansen has given me the opportunity to ponder why conditions that would have people in most countries snapping at each other during the dog days of August have very little impact on how Japanese treat each other. The fact is, nobody knows how to apologize for anything and everything like the Japanese. The tough weather conditions only seem to make the flow of “gomen nasai” and “sumimasen” more rapid.
When I first came to Japan in the 1990s, I found the culture of apology to be somewhat off putting and that was when I only understood one of the multitude of ways the Japanese tell each other on an almost constant basis just how sorry they are for, well, everything. Of course, Americans can apologize too. If pressed by circumstances, a New Yorker can quickly deliver an insincere “sorry” but that is about as far as it goes.  Japanese, on the other hand, seem to have made a national sport of “one upmanship” when it comes to telling each other just how they are sorry for all offenses real and imagined.
This week has been a great example of the “spirit of I am sorry”.  When I arrived at customs after a 12 hour flight from Europe the person who stamped my passport apologized for two things – making me wait (less than a minute) and how hot Japan is. Imagine the immigration staff at LAX apologizing for anything, ever………
I was on a roll – I got two more apologies when I purchased my train ticket – one because I had to wait 40 minutes for the next train and another because my connection time of 20 minutes at Tokyo station might not be “convenient”. I did not get an apology from my taxi driver but knew my friends at the hotel would give me another “sumimasen” fix at check – in. Before making it to my room I collected three more verbal apologies and one in writing. Although by this point I was thinking I should stop counting the apologies for the weather.  Anyway the written apology was from the hotel staff person who normally greets me and makes sure I get my “welcome Perrier”. She had the audacity to be on vacation and wouldn’t be there.  She had asked two of her colleagues to make sure my stay was pleasant so both of those people apologized for the slothful behavior of their boss who had the temerity to take 10 days off.
Understanding the differences between the culture I was raised in and the Japanese culture has long been an interest. Things that I first judged as “making no sense” have usually proved to be important components of a very different culture. Even if the level of sincerity in the plethora of apologies is limited, you have to appreciate that even an institutionalized apology makes daily life a lot more pleasant than a glare or shrug of the shoulders more common in the west. When my elder daughter was nine she visited Japan with me for the first time. Early one morning we happened to be crossing a street near Osaka station when perhaps 100 commuters were walking straight at us. My daughter’s hand tensed in mine. Her wide eyes indicated that she thought we might be swallowed whole by the oncoming dark haired crowd in blue suits. I looked down at her and said: "this is one of the coolest things about Japan, we can walk straight into that crowd and nobody will bump you". Her disbelief was obvious as was her joy when we reached the other side of the street unscathed.
Over the weekend, I played golf. I love playing golf in Japan – except of the fact they make you eat lunch in between the front and back nine. That is just the golf business model and does not merit an apology.  I am sure I could request an apology for having to eat lunch but I am still thinking about it.
My caddy apologized for so many things I lost count. Of course, the hot weather, the occasional gust of wind, the belief that her advice must have been the cause of all my missed putts. The fact that I still hear all the apologies simply proves I am outsider. Maybe I should apologize for that ……..
“Dear Visitor:  We are extremely sorry that Mount Fuji has no snow at the top this week, we are doing our best to correct this situation and appreciate your understanding”