Near Yellow Mountain

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Politically Incorrect ??

As I traveled around Asia the past 17 years, it has always amazed me how interested people are in American politics. Upon reflection I guess it is natural for people to be interested (and concerned) about who is in the White House given the impact the American president has on the balance of power in the world. Generally speaking, the people I knew well in Asia were much better informed about both US politics and their local politics than most Americans.
My Japanese sensei not only knew all the main players in American politics - she knew where they went to school, where they worked before they entered the government, etc.   I was often asked for my opinions on politics and the politicians. We had many heated debates given her tilt toward the left and mine toward the right. Her favorite target was the secretary of defense and his “beady eyes”. Her level of interest and knowledge always amazed me.
Since Japan changes Prime Ministers like Imelda Marcos changes her shoes it was always quite easy to deflect criticism of American politicians by asking questions about the current Prime Minister. One famous line from a Japanese leader to Bill Clinton was “me, too”; when Clinton introduced himself as “Hillary’s husband” at an official function. 
More recently a Prime Minister’s wife told the Financial Times that she believed she was married to Tom Cruise in a previous life. One of the more popular Japanese Prime Ministers of the past decade was rumored to sit naked in the official residence singing opera at the top of his lungs. I want to thank Japan for keeping the political bar low - America needs that, especially now.
Our driver in China, the often quoted Philip, was a George Bush fan. He often told me: 
 “I can understand Bush, his English is very clean but Obama chews his words and says ‘blah, blah blah’”. As usual Philip’s political analysis was no nonsense. Philip was a big fan of what he saw as American values. One day when Philip first started driving for us, we were on a crowded street and I saw a man with a push cart struggling to get across the road. I asked Philip to pull over and I got out and helped the man get his load to the safety of the sidewalk. When I got back in the car Phillip told me: “that is why I love America, you will help anybody but a Taiwanese guy would never do that”. I am not sure why Philip brought Taiwan into the discussion but he loved to make comparisons. 
Like many Chinese who were not alive during World War II, Philip still knew the details of Doolittle’s Raiders who bombed Tokyo in 1942 and then ditched their planes in China. He saw them as heros that supported China.
Philip knew the details of Henry Kissinger’s visit to China prior to Nixon’s visit in the 70’s. In Philip’s mind America equals freedom no matter who is in the White House. Unfortunately as time passes, I think Phillip may have to revaluate his beliefs.
The Chinese professionals who worked for me in Shanghai had much different views than Phillip. Most believed the Chinese government does what is “best for the people” and accept the party line in most things. One example - they almost universally believed  the Tibetan’s and people in Xinjiang really wanted to be part of China.  Philip was very cynical when it came to the intention of the Chinese government, yet many more educated people seemed to rationalize almost any act of the government. I never could understand that. 
Perhaps my feelings have been impacted by an unrepresentative sample but like most things in politics, opinions rather than facts seem to matter most.

An update since I wrote this in May, 2012

I haven't lived in the US for a Presidential election since 1996 - can't say things have changed for the better.

As a resident of Charlotte, NC  I am on overload from the just finished Democratic National Convention. I flew into Charlotte last Saturday sitting next to a democratic icon from prior decades " the Reverend Jesse Jackson" and this morning, the day after the proceeding ended, I had to deal with blocked streets taking my wife to a medical procedure near the hotel where the President was staying. It seemed every police car in Charlotte was clogging a square mile of the city. Fortunately, by now, Air Force One is back in Washington. Other than my two minor brushes with the convention activity, I avoided live contact with the proceedings but watched on TV switching back and forth between CNN and FOX so I could hear two entirely different accounts of the same speeches. Where was the BBC when I needed it?

The convention itself seemed to be powered speakers long on rhetorical skills and short on factual content. For 3 days Charlotte seemed to be the capital of the new socialism.

Only 60 days until the election. I am not sure I can deal with two more months of mud slinging and gratuitous distortion of statements made by the other side. I already know who I am voting for and why. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Well Trained

One of the joys of living in Japan was access to the best train system in the world (sorry to my European friends but overall Japan is #1 - end of story). I rarely flew domestically in Japan, preferring to get from city center to city center via the shinkansen (aka “bullet train”). I still try to arrange a shinkansen trip each time I visit Japan.
When I first was learning Japanese I made certain my sensei taught me how to order shinkansen tickets with an aisle seat on the Fuji san side of the green (first class) car. I had a little trouble with the pronunciation of “aisle” but since the trains always run so the the same side faced Mt Fuji - if my pronunciation of “tsuuro” drew a quizzical look; I would quickly follow up with “C seiki” as in ABC..... and to give finally confirmation I would say finally reconfirm by saying “a seat that is not a window seat”. After six months of this, my tongue finally mastered tsuuro and I stopped holding up the line at the ticket window.
Another one of my favorite things was asking for a receipt when I bought a shinkansen ticket at JTB (Japan Travel Bureau). Seemed a simple enough request but the amount of labor and paper generated from the receipt request was mind boggling. Out came a ledger book and small stamping tools. A flurry of activity ensued and I was finally presented with a proper, stamped and signed receipt which I, of course, didn’t really need. I always paid with my American Express so that receipt was enough for my expense report but the process of getting an official receipt was to me like an abbreviated tea ceremony. I didn’t have patience to sit through a full tea ceremony so getting a receipt a JTB became my substitute for the longer cultural ritual. I became one of the few regular gaijin customers at the Rokko Island Sheraton Hotel JTB. I think they enjoyed my visits and I was quite unhappy when the person in charge informed me that the office was closing down in a JTB “restra” - the Japanese version of “restructuring”.
Since Japan Railways apparently does not care too much about making a profit, it seems a shinkansen departs the major stations every five minutes. Except for peak travel seasons around the main holidays, the shinkansen is rarely crowded. The fastest train is called Nozomi. Just over 2.5 hours from Shin Osaka station to Tokyo station. Given the airports are not centrally located it was faster for me to take the train to Tokyo than it was to fly. 
Once on the train, I settle into the very comfortable seat, plug in my headset and enjoy watching urban sprawl, rice fields, mountains and the next big city in turn whiz by. I have traveled the Tokkaido line between Osaka and Tokyo more than 150 times but have gotten an unobstructed view of Mt Fuji only about 20 times. Normally enshrouded by clouds I know to the minute when Fuji san will appear on a clear day. I am not sure why but I never tire of seeing Fuji san. 
Another aspect of the shinkansen culture I enjoy is eating on the train. Although there is a food cart available on board most savvy shinkansen passengers, purchase a bento box or other sustenance for the ride. If you board in Tokyo, the department store at the station has two floors of food options you can take on the train. Nothing I like better than enjoying a sushi bento or a katsu sandwich normally accompanied by a box of chocolate covered almonds or perhaps ice cream from the food cart. My elder daughter claims that shinkansen ice cream is the best in the world. 
Should inclement weather force the shinkansen to slow down and be late by a few minutes (a rare event); the conductor will come on the PA and apologize as if he has just run over your family pet in the driveway. 
When I lived in Japan domestic business travel was fun and relaxing. Now that I am back in the US and often use US Airways to get where I need to go in America - I can only daydream about comfortable seats, smiling service, and a timely arrival as I am jostled by the mass of unhappy fliers that compete for overhead space before packing 
into their increasingly close together seats hoping the plane isn’t more than an hour late.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Time to say goodbye

Before I left the US on my first ex-pat assignment in 2000, my wife and I were sent to a testing company that assessed “compatibility” for an overseas assignment. We both passed with flying colors. The process moved on to the part where you are told about the “realities” of ex-pat life.  
 We were told about adjustment difficulties, cultural isolation and the fact that many ex-pats get “disconnected” from the home office. The statistic at the time was that 50% of ex-pats leave their company within one year of moving back to their home countries. I took a mental note but honestly I was more concerned about deciding whether or not I wanted to move my family overseas rather than worrying about what would happen when I came back.
In the end, we moved. Our adjustment difficulties were minimal – for the most part we found the things that frustrated many of our ex-pat friends to be humorous. We adapted to the “rule bound” Japanese way of doing things. We may have been the “nail that stuck out” but we did not get “hammered down”. I found I could actually wear a bathing cap in the swimming pool; I could take a number at the ward office and wait to be called even if there was nobody else waiting for service. Taking my shoes off and being asked to wear slippers 5 sizes too small at the dentist became normal.       
Ten years later, after a move to China, I was asked to return to the US but was given a year to make the transition. I accepted a job that was not exactly what I was looking for but was attractive because it would allow me to return to Asia on a regular basis.  In my first 16 months back in the US, I made 15 trips to Asia.  As the months went by, I came to realize one thing, I really enjoyed living in the US again but I only enjoyed my job when I was in Asia. 
As a family we had avoided most of the issues ex-pats have while they are overseas. We didn’t long for the United States – we never came back to the US at Christmas or spend a lot of time thinking about what we were missing “back home”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid the classic ex-pat dilemma upon my return. I had so much freedom to “do my own thing” overseas, coming back to a corporate bureaucracy more concerned with style than substance proved to be too much for me.  Initially I thought my feelings would pass but they only got worse.
It took me a long time to realize that I need to move on. I love the industry I work in but can’t stomach the increasingly politically correct environment that comes with the job. The grass may not be greener somewhere else but at least I will know…………………

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Kids are Alright

When my daughters were young one of the bedtime rituals we had was reading a story. One of their favorite books was called “The Book of Virtues” and their favorite story from the book was “Little Children Wiser than Men”. They delighted in a world where kids outsmarted adults (including their parents).
Today in a large meeting room in Thailand I was reminded of that story.
I have done business in Thailand for over a decade. I was early middle age when I started coming. On my first trip I met with an 80 year old owner of a company that still traveled to the US once a quarter on business.  My initial impression of doing business in Thailand came from this meeting.  I imagined Thailand to be a country that was totally dominated by the "old boys network". The real lesson was that first impressions are often wrong. 
Since that first meeting I have come to Thailand at least twice a year. As I get older the people I meet with seem to get younger. Of course this feeling is natural as you age but today it was not an impression.  In today’s meeting my company was trying to secure a large contract with a Joint Venture company (between a Thai and a Japanese company) that is investing over a $100 million in a new plant. Yet despite this being a major project, the eight people on the other side of the conference room table were on average less than 30. One young lady looked to me like one of my daughter’s friends from her 6th grade class. The other thing that struck me was that three of the four key players from their side were ladies. It is not unusual for me to meet with younger ladies when doing business in Thailand but I found it impressive that a very young women was in charge of such a large project. Of course, the Japanese involved were male and older than their Thai counterparts but the deference they showed the Thai “alpha female” was surprising.
Thailand and China (yes, I know this shocks people who have never been there) seem to be the most progressive of the Asian countries in letting capability guide who gets to be in charge. For me, dealing with ladies that aren’t much older than my daughters is a welcome change from the average meeting I attend in Japan, the US or Europe.
Of course, I realize that Silicon Valley is full of young people that have started companies and made millions but I am not in the software industry, I spend much of my time selling to companies making chemicals – one of the world’s more conservative and stuffy industries.  
As the two hour meeting progressed, I was very impressed by the capability of the young people before me. I tried to imagine what the baby faced group thought of the aging bunch on my side of the table. I am not sure whether I was “outsmarted” today or not but I am impressed that in a world with so many under-employed young people, Thailand is progressive enough to be developing a new generation of professionals more rapidly than many of their peers.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flying the Unfriendly Skies - an American Story

The tag line of United Airlines for many years was “fly the friendly skies” but like so many other American inventions, the friendly skies have moved to Asia. On a downward slide during the 80s and the 90s, after 9/11/2001 the American airlines slid even further into mediocrity.  Airports became increasingly unhappy places. The “war on terror” also seemed to become a war on fliers - on the ground and in the air. As the industry restructured, long term airline employees lost salary and perks and took it out on passengers. The TSA functions more like the “keystone cops” than anything else but most Americans puts up with the incompetence thinking they are being patriotic and doing their part in the “war on terror”. Low paid and often incompetent, our TSA airport security force often behaves like middle school bullies devoid of common sense. Of course, there are many hard working, diligent people working for the TSA but a bad system generally yields bad results and this is the story of the TSA.
Anyone traveling through the major airports in Asia – Narita in Tokyo, Changi in Singapore, Inchon in Seoul, or Hong Kong understands that airport security can be fast and in most cases courteous. Not so in the US where we would rather waste hundreds of thousands of man hours in productivity per year by forcing people to spend time in long airport security lines in lieu of more productive pursuits. Americans put up with it so it is not likely to change.
As someone that flies over 200,000 miles a year on United Airlines over 100,000 miles on Singapore Airlines and is also a “million miler” on American Airlines, I am a reasonably good judge of the service levels of carriers on both sides of the Pacific. As a global services member of United’s frequent flyer program, I know I get the best service they offer. I appreciate all the perks of being a global service member and how easy it is to book free flights for family members but unfortunately a great frequent flyer program cannot overcome a customer service system that is designed to provide a marginal experience in the air at prices higher than their Asian competitors. Normally it costs a few thousand dollars more to fly United from the US to Tokyo than it does to fly Singapore Airlines. Yet Singapore has newer planes, better seats, better entertainment, better food and more attentive flight attendants. Despite flying full planes to Asia and charging more than Singapore Airlines, United still can’t provide top notch service or earn a reasonable profit system wide.
On my current trip to Asia I flew from LAX to Tokyo on Singapore Airlines, after several days I flew to Singapore also on Singapore Airlines. Other segments were on Thai Airways and ANA. On most days, all these airlines provide better service than any American carrier provides.  On these flights the flight attendants checked the manifest and spoke to me by name, made sure I had ample food and drink and generally did what they could to ensure I had a good flight. Despite being a top level flier on American carriers, I almost never get the same level of service on a US airline. The question is why? Why can’t a country that invented most of the major innovations in the 20th century and still has companies like Apple that are the envy of the business world, get out of its own way when it comes to air or rail transportation?
Despite the fact that United has gradually upgraded most of the planes that fly across the Pacific and Atlantic, they have not upgraded the attitudes of most of the men and women that provide service at check-in and in the air.  It is shame that the American Airline industry cannot right the service ills that plague it.  Sorry for the rant but as someone who flies over 100 days a year, I ponder this question more than most people.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Living here, working there

When I started writing this blog 18 months ago, I was beginning to think about what I would do next. After more than a decade of a very interesting and challenging work and life in Japan and China, it was hard for me to picture myself back in the US. I was quite sure it would be hard to adapt to the role my employer wanted me to take in the US. That has proven to be true.

 My wife and I were new “empty nesters” as we returned to America - a transition on top of another transition. Living in a house without kids was also a tough adjustment. In time it became somewhat normal but I still miss kids in the house.

The US changed dramatically in eleven years we were gone. In my opinion, most of the change was not for the good. People here still talk about "communist China" but as I returned to the US from "communist China"; I got the feeling that in certain ways,  "land of the free" was becoming more like the "land of Mao". As someone who has always been proud to be American, the change was disconcerting.
Despite the changes, I am happily living in the US. I like the house and city I live in. I love the simplicity of getting around, ease of buying the things we need and not having to worry if a language mistake is going to result in 7 flat screen TVs being delivered to the house. 
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I am not happily working in the US. I find my office frustrating - good people working in an environment becoming increasingly dominated by politically correctness and an absence of autonomy. Too many people living lives of quiet desperation. 
On Monday, I make my 15th trip to Asia since returning to the US. From a lifestyle perspective, I have disconnected from living in Asia but from a work perspective, Japan still seems like home. For various reasons, circumstances have dictated frequent business trips to Asia often generating questions from my Asian friends inquiring why I moved back to the US when I spend so much time in Asia. As my company tries to build a "new" corporate organization in Asia, I understand my days of making frequent trips to Asia has a finite life. My employer would prefer that I did not travel so often to Asia but every time a problem comes up, I find myself on a flight over the Pacific. I enjoy escaping the office.
A headhunter called me a couple of weeks ago about a role with a start-up company in an industry related to what I currently do. The main challenge is to build a team in Asia.

As we have only had preliminary discussions, I am not sure what if anything will come of this opportunity but the idea of building another team in Asia is a happy thought.