Near Yellow Mountain

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A quaking reflection

My family moved to Japan on 2/29/2000. It's been 12 years but this leap year day is only the third anniversary of the move. Yes, a rather insignificant fact but one that sticks with me for some reason.

Being in Japan on my "anniversary day" probably caused more reflection than if I had been home in North Carolina. The evening we arrived in Japan as a family it snowed heavily bringing much skepticism from my wife and daughters who I had assured that "the weather in Kobe is just like North Carolina". We left Charlotte on a warm (60 degree) late winter morning and landed in the biggest snow Kobe experienced in the five plus years we were to live in Japan. Dad's credibility as a source of knowledge about Japan was shot before we got off the bus from the airport to the hotel. Beyond that, it was the coldest March anyone could remember. Not a great start to the ex-pat experience.

Fortunately the weather broke in early April, the cherry blossoms came and five interesting years of experiences were ahead of us. We did not experience our first significant earthquake until we had been in Japan for nine months. Our apartment building was built with "earthquake proof" technology which assured us of an "extended ride" during each quake as the rockers beneath the build activated to disperse quake's energy. My daughter's and I became very matter of fact about quakes but my wife never came to terms with the arrival of the unpredictable movements.

Fortunately earthquakes did not define our experience in Japan. We learned to adapt to a culture very different than our own. Kobe became our second home. We were "strangers in a strange land" but, in time, became a part of the fabric of the local community . After more than five years as we were moving to Shanghai, I picked up my dry cleaning at the local shop for the last time. When I told the lady at the shop we were leaving, she looked very sad. My ability to communicate with her, which was a bench mark for my progress with the language, had grown from pantomime about "heavy starch" to having normal conversations about everyday life. The feeling that I would be missed by this nice older lady was somehow comforting.

As I said down to "write something" this morning before going to the hotel gym. I looked out from my room to the grounds of the Imperial Palace. As happened on our arrival 12 years prior, the 29th of February brought snow. I took a picture of the white blanket covering Tokyo and thought of the past 12 years. Then, the floor began to gently slide back and forth. A shallow but extended quake came and went. I go home tomorrow but I am also home today........

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New York State(s) of Mind

I am in NYC for 50 hours. My wife and I wanted to see our elder daughter who works for a "Late Night" TV show that is filmed in late afternoon and then take her out for a Valentine's Day dinner. Part of what our daughter does is "warm-up" the audience before the show starts. Great to see our "baby" bring the crowd's energy level up so quickly and skillfully. Her workplace is the theater from where the old "Ed Sullivan Show" was broadcast when I was a child. A stage that made Elvis Presley, the Beatles and many others household names in America. It was great to see our little girl begin her working life in such an iconic place.

Many blocks to the south a much bigger story is playing out on the court at Madison Square Garden. A young Asian American who got no scholarship offers to play basketball in college and was not drafted after playing basketball at Harvard has become the Tim Tebow of the NBA. Like many people who grew up playing and loving basketball, the current generation of spoiled athletes in the NBA has completely turned me off to  the pro version of the sport. Jeremy Lin is a breath a fresh "eastern" air from the west coast. Confucian values hit the NBA. Foreign players are no longer noteworthy in pro basketball but an undrafted kid with Asian roots who just a week ago was sleeping on his brother's couch because he did not have a guaranteed contract has caused quite a stir in America's number one media market. I really hope Mr Lin has a long career.

On a more somber note, we toured the 9/11 memorial this morning. The joy of seeing our daughter thriving in her new environment and the buzz in this great city over an unknown becoming an NBA star overnight quickly were muted by the memory of 9/11. My wife and I were in Kobe, Japan on 9/11/2001. We saw the first footage of the CNN feed and then like so many around the world were horrified by seeing the second plane hit the Towers on live TV.

Yes, life moves on but certain memories will never be forgotten.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Two days in Florida

This week I took a brief trip to Florida, a short respite from the "cold" of North Carolina. The 50 hour trip was in part to test how my recently injured back would hold up to the rigors of travel before leaving for a two week trip to Asia next week. The other reason was that I was asked to become more engaged with our US and European customers in 2012. This trip covered all my bases - a Japanese customer with a US operation and a French customer with a US operation.

On Wednesday, I met Japan and US based Japanese customers for dinner in Orlando. The group of 9 consumed about 140 ounces of beef after the typically large appetizer platters served in high end American steakhouses. If we are in Japan, we almost always eat traditional Japanese food but in the US, my Japanese guests almost always prefer to test their calorie consuming mettle on a steak that is the equivalent to what would normally be consumed by six people at a steakhouse in Japan.  In any case, a fairly typical low stress and enjoyable dinner meeting.

The next day in Jacksonville I had dinner with a senior manager from the US operation of a French company who recently received almost $100 million from the US government to build a "shovel ready" green energy project that they built a couple years sooner than planned because the US President decided that the spending would be "good for the economy".  I am not a big fan of "stimulus" spending especially when the spender tells me the project was built prematurely only because the money was made available by the President's program. In this case, the money would have been invested by this company anyway just not until 2013. Very few jobs were created because the plant uses more robots than people. So the US taxpayer "invested" in this company for no good reason. The investment got the taxpayer no equity in the company and will yield no meaningful return. On the positive side, the plant is state of the art and although operating at a low rate because it was built early - it is making a quality product.

This particular company has always been hard to deal with so I was not looking forward to hearing about our recent price increase and how we needed to be more flexible and long term in our thinking. My expectations for the evening were very low.

Much to my surprise the dinner was one of the more pleasant ones I have had since returning to the US. As it turns out, the person I met actually lives about an hour from where I live in North Carolina. He commutes to Jacksonville as needed since he travels around the world most of the time anyway. Some of his suppliers in other parts of his business are my customers in Asia. We compared notes on people, food, customs. It is not that often I meet someone in the US that knows people I know in China, Japan, etc.

Another lesson learned - keep an open mind. As the world shrinks, you never know when or where you will meet a kindred spirit.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Back" to work.....

For the past 18 years I have spent approximately 150 days a year traveling around the world.  My travel pre and post ex-pat assignment has stayed quite consistent. In January, I spent a week in Japan, visited my daughter in LA, made a domestic trip to visit customers and took several people to Argentina for a week. I managed to play 4 rounds of golf on three continents. Business as usual... and then I threw my back out hitting practice balls on the driving range near my home. I am not prone to back problems and fully expected to take some Ibuprofen, skip a day of exercise and be fine the day after. No such luck. By the evening of my injury, I knew I would be working from home the next day since walking and to some extent breathing was difficult.

I stayed home a couple of days on my back - pecking out emails on my IPad because it was too hard to sit up and type on my laptop. I put heat on my back initially when I should have used ice. Fortunately my wife was kind enough to suggest that I "Google" how to treat my back - she already knew the right answer but also knew it was better for me to hear it from Google especially in the grumpy state the bad back put me in. My condition got worse on day 3 (I foolishly spent 35 minutes on an exercise bike and went to the office only to return in extreme pain). As a result, I spent a couple more days at home alternating ice packs, heat and ingesting more ibuprofen then the bottle recommends.

It has been a week since the full swing with a 4 iron reduced me to a teary, kneeling mess on the driving range but the experience has taught me many things besides stretching my aging body before hitting golf balls. The first thing is to appreciate my health. When it is hard to walk and draw a deep breath - little else matters. Fortunately, I had no travel planned for last week. I could still communicate with customers in Sydney, Singapore, Tokyo and New York as if nothing had happened but I kept coming back to the thought of how I had rarely missed a day of work in the prior 25 years. Like many, I took an occasional "mental health" day but as I lose about 15 to 20 weekends a year to travel, the "one off" mental health day still seemed like the company was getting the better end of the work bargain.  From the back of mind came the thought - what if I got a permanent injury and could no longer live the type of life I live now?

As the painful days passed,  I vowed to appreciate my health more and to try to do more to ensure I stay healthy.  I have always exercised, sometimes probably as much for my head as my body. It was much harder for me not to exercise than not to go to work.  Despite decades of daily exercise, I never took time for stretching, cooling down or slowing down when my body was telling me to take a day off.

Reflecting on what you would do if you lost your health leads to other questions - am I making the best use of the time I have? When you look in the mirror and the answer to that question is probably not - then it is time for more reflection.

My back is now at about 85% of normal - good enough to go to the office tomorrow and hopefully good enough to get on a plane Wednesday. The question I really need to go "back" to is would I be happier making a change.