Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Driving Lessons

One of the first issues that confronts you when moving to a new country is transportation - getting to/from work, schools, shopping, etc. We never had to give getting places a second thought in the US, we just got in the car and went.

In Asia, we had two distinct travel experiences. The train system in Japan was so good, I never gave driving to work a second thought, the train was too convenient. We had a car my wife used a lot more than I did. The only real difficulty driving in Japan was the parking. Americans are not used to having to retract there mirrors or offer up their vehicle to mechanical arm that files it away. We didn't worry about getting stopped because the Japanese police were always helpful to "gaijin".

China was a different story. Driving is relatively new in China. Rules are flexible and survival on the road seems to come from a sixth sense only Chinese have. Examples: red lights are a suggestion you might want to consider slowing down. Going the wrong way on a one way street is ok if you honk your horn loud and long.

Most companies make ex-pats sign an agreement not to get a local license or drive while in China. When we arrived in Shanghai, the subway system didn't cover much of the city. Buses were not an option - too crowded and slow. We had to have a car and a driver. Fortunately most companies, mine included, pay for a car and a driver.  What the company can't do is help you communicate with your driver. The challenge of utilizing a non English speaking driver and only having one car is a big issue for most American ex-pats.  At home, multi car households are normal. Having to plan your family life around the use of one car is stressful. In the US, if you don't know exactly where you are going, you can get a map with instructions on-line,  use a GPS or stop someone and ask.  In China, more often than not, with bilingual directions, each new destination is like an episode of "The Amazing Race"without the promise of a million dollar prize for winning. For my family, the driver situation was a challenge that turned into one of the most positive aspects of our time in China. Ultimately my wife and I both got Chinese driving licenses (I was the only American my company had in China at the time so they didn't know enough to tell us not get a license).

Our first driver was supposed to speak English but after 5 minutes the first day, it became clear he only knew how to say "hello". Fortunately by minute 15 we discovered he spoke Japanese which made things quite easy for me. He also liked our daughters which was another plus. On the other side of the ledger, we found out he did not believe he should ever have to take an order from a women. This fact did not please my wife. After weeks of dealing with "Morris", our nickname for him, my wife decided we needed a new driver. As it would happen, shortly after the decision, "Morris" had a dispute with the car company and held the car for ransom. We never saw him again.

My secretary called the car company and insisted that our new driver had to speak English and have a good attitude. I think the response was something like "both those drivers are already assigned and the other 10,000 drivers are 'learning English'". We did interview one driver who had memorized five English sentences. When he met my wife, he quickly delivered his small cache of English with a big smile. My wife was so excited to have a smiling, English speaking driver to replace the malevolent "Morris", she forgot to ask him any questions and sent him to my office so I could close the deal. I didn't really care if the driver spent English or Japanese - he just needed to speak a language I spoke. I tried to engage him in conversation and it became clear he spoke five sentences very well and that was it. I called in my secretary to translate, complimented him on his five sentences and we went back to the list of candidates. We were tempted to hire a non English speaker because he looked like Tiger Wood's twin but decided the novelty would probably wear off by day 2. More candidates came and went

A few days passed and we decided to lower our standards to "good attitude". That was the day we met Wu Feng (aka "Philip"). Philip was a charmer and he did speak some English. "Some" being defined as less than 150 words. He did not pretend to know English and he told us that in a simple English sentence. A good sign.

What we didn't know at the time was how he would change our lives for the better.

The first day I was in the car with Philip he was quiet. I should have taken note because that was the last day he was quiet. I was taking Chinese lessons so at first we spoke a combination of bad Chinese and bad English. Late in the first week Philip burst out with something that sounded like "I know who Nathan Hale is!" I asked him in Chinese to repeat what he had said and he repeated with gusto that he knew American history from school and that he knew about the less than well known hero from America's Revolutionary War.  I told Philip that he knew something that most Americans didn't know. This started a debate about how Americans could be so poorly educated that they didn't know about Nathan Hale. Philip dropped me off at home with great skepticism and I rushed in the front door to my computer and Googled "Nathan Hale". Fortunately I had remembered him correctly.

At the time, black market DVDs of American movies with Chinese subtitles could be purchased for a few RMB. When he wasn't driving, Philip watched movies and TV series like "24" and "Prison Break". We talked about protagonists of shows like we knew them. At first Philip's English skill made our discussions very basic but Philip learned quickly. He spoke a lot of half English / half Chinese sentences and I passively learned more Chinese by being able to get his Chinese from context. I began to enjoy commuting more than I ever had. One day I asked Philip what he thought the biggest difference between Chinese people and "Western" people was.  He gave an interesting answer - he said both Chinese and Westerners knew if a product was good or bad but westerner's knew "why" the product was good and Chinese were still in the process of learning. Philip often drove customers and people from our US office. His ability to read people was amazing. As time went by I realized that I trusted to Philip's opinion about people more than most of the people on my professional staff.

One day Philip drove me to the golf course and watched me hit balls before I played. For some reason, we spoke in Chinese that day. When Philip left to go back to the car, a fellow golfer who was obviously a professional person, asked me in English where I learned Chinese. I responded that I didn't speak much Chinese but that my driver was helping me. He gave me a funny look, "driver?". I said "Yes, the guy I was just talking to was my driver".  He didn't believe me until later when Philip picked me up. He said, I thought he was a member of the club that I didn't know.

Over the five years, Philip drove for us, I am sure that we learned more from him than he learned from us. I did not come close to learning Chinese as well as he learned English.

Happily, he stayed with our company and still drives for me when I am in Shanghai. I will see Philip in a few weeks. He is more friend than driver.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Voice from the Past

Yesterday I exchanged emails with a friend from my high school years. The kind of close friend that is your trusted confidant. The kind of person you tell about your darkest fears, girlfriend problems or why you haven't thrown a touchdown pass in a couple games. The kind of friend that when they tell you that you are wrong; you might argue with but you know they are probably right.

We have only seen each face to face about five times since we went our respective ways after high school graduation. At one point we may have gone a full 15 years with no contact of any kind; yet despite not knowing details about the intervening years we connect just as if we saw each other the week before. The advent of email and then Facebook have made staying in touch easier but we still aren't posting on each other's wall regularly. I think the emails yesterday were the first exchange since mid 2011.

In her latest email  my friend asked me about how being "home" was going and then she corrected herself; she said that I probably didn't feel like it was home so she changed the question. She went on to say several things about how she thought I might be feeling. She seemed to have read my mind (or my blog). I know she hasn't done the latter so I accepted the fact that she could always do the former.

I reflected on why she had the ability and then I realized that she was my first "culture" coach. She really got to know me by helping me work through my first major transition in life.

When I was 14, my mom and I moved to a town not too far from my hometown. Another small town in western NY with about the same population. The two small towns were seemingly indistinguishable small dots on a map of a rural area but they were light years apart in outlook, economy, religion, etc.

My 14 mile move as a high school freshman was similar in many respects to the move I made decades later to Japan.

Learning how to adapt to a new high school was in some ways more difficult than adjusting to working in a Japanese joint venture company. The curious stares on my first day in homeroom not so different than my first day in a Japanese office. One person is friendly, another not happy with a new face. Many shrugged and didn't care either way.

Despite all the thinking about my ex-pat life, I had never really thought about how similar it was to my first move. When my family was about to move overseas, the company I worked for spent a lot of money on testing my wife and I for "ex-pat ability". They shelled out thousands more for "pre assignment" training for the entire family. I didn't realize it time but I had already been through a similar process guided by a teen age girl with my best interests at heart.

Almost 40 years later, my friend closed her email by saying "can you believe we have gotten to the point where we are talking about retirement and bad knees?"

Honestly I really don't care about the subject; I am just glad we are still talking from time to time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Friday Night Lights

I grew up in a small western New York town near the Canadian border. Sports were a major part of my life from as far back as I can remember. I was skiing before I was in school. Little League football and elementary school basketball followed. As my teen years began, I continued to play football and basketball and I took up golf. For me, the different seasons were more about changing sports than changing weather. I did well in school but never had to expend much energy on homework after school. Most of my after school time was playing, watching or reading about sports.
Years passed, I was out of college and took up marathon running and was on a corporate track team that placed nationally on a regular basis. Children came. Since I married a two sport college athlete and a coach, the die was cast. Our daughters were skiing and swimming as pre schoolers. Once they started school; basketball and soccer followed. 
Like many other western New Yorkers, my heart was broken several times in the early 1990s as our pro football team, the Buffalo Bills, set a record for Super Bowl futility.
Point made - American sports culture was a major part of our family life.  
And then we moved to Japan........
Once we arrived in Kobe our efforts were focused on adapting to our new surroundings: international school for the kids, setting up an office and restructuring Joint Venture companies for me. My wife was probably the busiest one of all helping each of us adapt and getting involved in the local ex-pat community.

Sports in Kobe were pretty low key unless it was baseball or sumo
Weeks passed, then months. I ran every day as was my custom but I never thought twice about the sports world in the US. I got my first exposure to sumo - first on TV and then live. We lived in a high rise and found out that several of our neighbors played pro baseball for the Osaka area teams. We got to know other neighbors that played pro rugby. I was never a baseball fan but as I got to know people who were playing, I found myself watching an inning or two at night on TV. I had never seen a rugby game until I moved to Japan but several months after arrival, I found myself screaming support to my new friends as they raced across the TV screen in the Japan championship.
American pro golf is broadcast on Japanese TV each week but rather than hit the bilingual button on our TV to get the English broadcast by United States announcers, I preferred to listen to the Japanese announcers who made a 20 foot birdie putt sound like a winning goal in a World Cup game. 
In eleven years, I only watched two Super Bowls - one in which our adopted US  hometown of Charlotte played and another when I first got to China. I had my entire office meet at the sports club where we were members on a Monday morning Shanghai time (Sunday evening in the US) to watch the Super Bowl - “cross cultural training” I explained.
My sports knowledge  was a total disappointment to our driver in Shanghai. Phillip knew virtually every player in the NBA. He accepted my lack of knowledge of soccer - fully understanding that most American’s are not into the world’s favorite sport. He was less forgiving about the fact that after five years in Japan my knowledge of the NBA was woefully inadequate. He would excitedly tell me what Yao Ming had done in his last game or ask me if I had seen the Lakers on CCTV - Chinese television. He quickly noticed when he mentioned many player’s name and could tell I had no idea who he was talking about. “How can you not know that - you are an AMERICAN!”. One day Philip told me he wanted to learn the 50 US States. I bought him a US map and highlighted all the NBA franchise cities - this made things much easier.

Our friend and driver Philip holding an impressive kidney stone is a sports junkie

I felt no void as my sports interest and knowledge continued to atrophy. I was busy - work, kid’s school activities, traveling to interesting spots in Asia Pacific on family vacations.  
Eleven years in Asia, about to move back to the US and I had become a US sports illiterate with the exception of pro golf. 
We returned to the US just as the NFL playoffs and college bowl games were starting. My only interest in seeing games was how good they looked on our new 50 inch high definition TV. I watched the Super Bowl only to see the commercials.
My company hired a consultant to assist in my “re-entry” to US life but sports was not part of the program. Co-workers would mention games and players and I would smile and nod; hiding my dirty little secret - I had no idea what they were talking about and no interest. I still missed sumo.
I enjoyed watching the Golf Channel but other sports programing failed to interest me as I focused on getting used to our “new” life in the US. Since we lived on a golf course and had a sports complex a three minute walk away, I could open the back door evenings after work and play a few holes or work out in a well equipped gym. 
Pro football season came. I didn’t pay any attention until the Buffalo Bills won several games in a row. I decided to watch them play on TV but they lost that game and several others in a row. I only watched the one game. A false start....
After 13 months in the US as we were celebrating Christmas, my daughter suggest I needed NetFlix. I shrugged and asked why? The next day I decided to take the Netflix plunge and looked for a show to watch. I stumbled upon “Friday Night Lights”. Still on Christmas vacation, I watched several episodes over the next few days. The show triggered so many memories of high school and small town life, I found myself thinking about my childhood interest in sports - my old teams. I began to notice college basketball games on TV.  I discovered both the men and women’s teams from my wife’s alma mater were having great seasons. We started watching their games on the internet. The sports interest snowball rolled down the hill, suddenly I was watching more and more college basketball as the right of Spring known as March Madness (aka the NCAA tournament) began. 
I watched all 76 episodes of “Friday Night Lights” in less than two months. Time well spent as far as I am concerned.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Package" deal

There are many reasons people decide to accept an ex-pat assignment.  Reasons run the gambit - from "a chance to see the world or at least a small part of it" to the opportunity to quickly skip a couple of rungs in the climb up the corporate ladder. No matter what the reason, a side benefit of going overseas is the extra benefits that come with an ex-pat compensation package.

In many large companies the extra benefits that come with being an ex-pat are clearly specified and are non negotiable. For example, international school tuition for children, housing and cost of living allowances, club memberships, home leave or equivalent cash, etc. In less desirable locations additional benefits such as hardship pay, R&R trips, car and driver also come into the mix of potential benefits. In companies with only a few ex-pats or none at all policies tend to be more limited and less clear. On the other hand, they are also more open to negotiation.

At the time, I was asked to move to Japan, my company had a clear strategy of limiting ex-pats. My division had no ex-pats and HR had no clear policy about ex-pats. Like many other things, dealing with ex-pats had been outsourced to KPMG. There was a basic policy written by KPMG from which negotiations started.

Although it is hard to believe now, in late 1999 one could not simply type a few key words into Google and get a treasure trove of info on ex-pat policies and packages. After indicating an interest in an overseas assignment, I was given the KPMG manual which became my company's "policy". At first glance the policy seemed reasonable and to cover most key points but as I started to research the ex-pat experience by contacting people at other companies, going to the library (imagine that) and even managing to get copies of former ex-pats agreements; I could see that I might be able to do much better than the policy I had been given.

In the late 1990s, like many other aspects of employee benefits, there was a trend toward "minimization and cost shifting" to the employees. Companies began to try to sell prospective ex-pats on the "long term career benefits of going overseas" and to attempt to lower the cost of ex-pat packages. Pay premiums were reduced, hardship bonuses lowered and the amount of housing allowances declined.

I was given a couple of weeks to decide whether or not I would accept the assignment. My wife and I discussed the pros and cons. I was already spending a lot of time in Japan on business trips and was confident I could succeed from a business perspective. Our children were in elementary school so the timing seemed good to give them an international experience. We also decided it would be a good chance for the family to experience other countries in the region on vacations. I told my boss that I would go IF the company offered me a reasonable package to do make the move. That is when things got interesting.

I put together a list of extra costs we would incur by living in Japan that was not covered in the ex-pat policy. Rather than mention every detail - suffice it to say the list was extensive. One example - electrical items. Although the plugs are the same in Japan and the current "similar"; most electrical equipment we had was not suitable for long term use in Japan. I felt it reasonable for the company to reimburse me for all household items we would need to buy. Our HR director asked me to be reasonable. My response was that nothing less full reimbursement for things we needed was acceptable. I also asked for some things that we really didn't need so that HR could win a few battles on the road to finalizing my package.

Finally, after two months of haggling, HR agreed to provide a side letter providing virtually everything I asked for. I accepted with the provision that the last sentence of the side letter state that "in the event of any conflict with the company wide ex-pat policy, the side letter prevails".  I felt good and as I was later to find out HR felt good too. Yes, I had gotten much more than they wanted to provide but our HR Director was very experienced and knew I could have gotten more. "Win - Win, at least for the moment.

The three year assignment turned into five. After five years the Japanese tax laws for foreigners change and the cost to the company jumps. At the same time, American companies were in the middle of the "rush to China". Our business was growing rapidly and the powers that be decided that I should move to "lower cost" China. They told me that since I had overall Asia responsibility anyway it made sense for me to be in the fastest growing market. "No thank-you" I replied.

My boss had changed. The new guy was much more aggressive and tried to convince me on the merits of China which he knew almost nothing about. For 3 months I said no. Finally on a trip back to the US I was given an ultimatum - move to China or come back to an "uncertain future". As my boss and I finished off a bottle of red wine in an upscale Charlotte, NC restaurant; I looked him in the eye and said "I am sorry but I am not moving to Shanghai". He told me that he understood and would "get someone else". Through the company grapevine, I knew he had already asked all likely candidates and had been turned down across the board. We both were unhappy. I did not want to leave Japan and return to the US and he realized his latest attempt to get me to move to China had failed.

I returned to Kobe the next day and told my family at the dinner table that we would be moving back to the US. A few seconds later I was looking at three very unhappy faces. "Dad we want to stay in Asia" was the mantra of my two daughters. My wife was not excited at the prospect of the return. Over the 5+ years in Japan, I had made over 40 trips to China and seen most of the country. My daughters had been once, stayed in a 5 star and seen all the major tourist spots in Beijing and Xian. Their perspective was clearly limited. My wife had been to China three times. "Look", I said "China is not Japan" (not my finest verbal hour). "If you want to go to China, we will go but I don't want to hear a lot of complaining after we get there". At that my point, I knew the deal was done. Fortunately my boss didn't. He called me the next day. "I want you to know that you are still the 'leading candidate' for this job. Despite being frustrated at his don't take no for an answer style; I smiled inwardly. "OK", I said, "let me talk to my family again". Game on.

I sent my boss an email the next day saying that we would consider the move but a new package had to be negotiated. I reminded him that my daughters were in Jr High and High School and we would need certain guarantees. If we went, I needed a written commitment that my sophomore daughter would graduate from high school in Shanghai. That kind of commitment is poison to HR Directors.

Long story short - our prior HR Director had retired, the new guy (had been with our company less than a month) had taken early retirement from a much larger company and had a Texas sized ego. He also knew nothing of my company's policies and was told by my boss to "do what he had to do to get me to China" - lucky for me I still had some friends back at HQ who let me know important details like that.

Many contentious phone negotiations with HR took place. In the end, I agreed to a three year deal which got my elder daughter to graduation. China was a "hardship" country which made our package more generous in several ways. At this point I was skeptical that I could work for our company in the US again so I negotiated an exit package far beyond the standard "completion" bonus.

Three years later, we were in the middle of building a plant and my boss said it was "not convenient" for me to return as agreed. By then we were used to Shanghai and I was ready to negotiated my final package but that is a story for another time.