Near Yellow Mountain

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

June is the first month since I left Asia 19 months ago that I have not spent at least a couple days in Japan.  Instead, I hosted four groups of Japanese in the US and took one group to Argentina.  In years past, my older guests from Japan would always request I find a Japanese restaurant or, if that wasn’t an option, Chinese food. The post war generation seemed to fear the size of American portions and the taste of small town food.  These days my guests are younger and much more open to testing the limits of their appetites.

One of the new rites of passage for my guests from the other side of the Pacific is eating a big American steak at Del Frisco’s after a “Shellfish Tower” appetizer and perhaps a platter of squid (aka “Shanghai Calamari”). Dinner is normally finished off with a large dessert and talk of diets starting the next day (or week). Instead of sake, red wine is the drink of choice after the obligatory beer toast.
I guess in a world where a very thin Japanese won the Coney Island July 4th hot dog eating contest several years in a row vs. Americans more than 2.5 times his body weight – I should not be shocked when my friends and customers who are used to eating small portions of sashimi, sushi, noodles or 100 grams of steak in their home country suddenly gorge on 700 to 800 gram steak portions in the US after eating several oysters, king crab and large portions of bread.
Perhaps it is simply the basic human desire to “try something different” that drives the sudden mass consumption of calories.  Last night, before we finished dinner, one of my guests asked me if I could arrange some “famous” Carolina barbeque for lunch the following day. I am not sure what guidebook was consulted in his pre trip preparation but there was no question in this person’s mind that eating “pulled” pork and hush puppies was a critical part of judging the success of his trip. This afternoon, my svelte friend ate hush puppies as a starter and polished off a large combo plate with barbecued pork, beef and chicken. In between courses, he sampled a platter of fried catfish that I ordered and thought should be part of his culinary resume. The only disappointment faced by my friends from Osaka was that the food could not be washed down with beer – which is not available in this small town restaurant. Why not drink a few beers at lunch in America since it is 1am Japan time?

My Facebook page is well documented with pictures of the eating triumphs of my friends from the East. Normally it takes less than five minutes after I post an eating photo for the “likes” to start appearing from Japanese cyberspace. Eating too much in America seems to be the Japanese version of “when in Rome, …..”
As I drove my guests back to their hotel this afternoon, they dozed off in a haze of jet lag and caloric overload. Just before nodding off; they began to contemplate the challenge of not napping through their 3PM meeting and getting mentally prepared for another American dinner.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day Present

There is no shortage of writing about ex-pat kids. The normal fare is about third culture adjustment, “reentry” problems, or encouraging your children to become bilingual. Of course these are all valid, even interesting, topics. As Father’s Day approaches and I think of my daughters, I reflect on the the wise counsel from my wife that gave my daughters the opportunity to benefit from growing up on the other side of the world.
It has been almost 13 years since I came home from with the offer from my boss that we move to Japan for “three to five years”. I asked my bride of 15 years what she thought. In her typical decisive style, she pondered the issue for less time than it took to prepare dinner and replied “sure, it will be good for the girls BUT I am not going on a house hunt because you know I hate to fly”.  No hand wringing, no analysis paralysis, just a simple quick internal run through of the pros and cons and the answer. Unless the question is about buying a big ticket item, my wife can be relied on to provide sound counsel in a short period of time. This makes my life easy; so unless we are buying a house or picking a stock, I can normally just ask her and have a clear well thought out decision in a matter of minutes. 
After getting the OK from the family oracle about a move to the east; we had to see how the kids would react. Our daughters, aged 7 and 10 at the time were used to their mom coming up with impromptu adventures so I guess this seemed like another in the series only with jet lag. Our elder daughter had already made Japan her destination of choice when offered a trip anywhere in the world with Dad the year before. She had a great time (except for her first run-in with a Japanese squatter toilet) so that night between dinner and an episode of “Rug Rats” she gave the move a thumbs up. Our younger daughter was somewhat of a super computer of decision making in those days. Like me, she had a well tested decision making algorithm. She asked: “what does sissy think?”. When we told her sissy approved the move, the response was a quick “ok” - typical of her economy with words. The next day, as our daughters donned their plaid jumpers on the way to the small catholic school they attended, they had no idea how much their lives were about to change.
Several months later we were living in Kobe. Our house had always been a hub of activity in the US and our apartment in Kobe was similar. Southern drawls were replaced by a plethora of Asian and European accents consistent with the international community we lived in. We were lucky, our kids adapted well. They liked the school, new friends were abundant and all the differences that came with living in Japan were most often seen in a positive or at least humorous light. 
Years passed, our calendar adapted to where we were. Only Christmas and Easter remained anchor holidays - we had Golden Week in May and Obon in August instead of things like Memorial Day, the 4th of July and Labor Day. We enjoyed the trip to the US each summer for a few weeks but were always ready to return. The first time we came back to the US was 16 months after we left. As we changed planes in Dallas, my younger daughter looked at me in awe as we walked across the terminal; “Dad” she said in a loud whisper, “Americans are so fat”. I said “actually, they were fat when we left, you just didn’t notice it then”. After a few weeks in the US, it was interesting to hear the kids perspective on America. They commented on everything - the size of portions in restaurants, how loud people talked, the world view of relatives. In less than a year and a half their view of the world had changed so much. I was back and forth to the US every couple of months on business, my world view changed but not nearly to the extent that my daughter’s did. 
The family life revolved around school and seeing interesting sights in Japan and around Asia. We didn’t go home for Christmas as many ex-pats did. We traveled to places like Hokkaido, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Australia, and New Zealand.
We didn’t get satellite TV until we had lived in Japan for 4 years and even after we did, we didn’t watch it very often. After over five years, my company wanted me to move to China and I wasn’t very interested. In the end, I decided we would “go home” but the girls had different ideas. They wanted to stay in Asia until it was time for college. Both expressed to me that going back to small town North Carolina would be boring without sufficient diversity to make life interesting. In the end, although my “decision” was to return to the US;  it was not hard to persuade me to consider staying. I didn’t want to leave Japan but I wasn’t sure life in China would be good for the family. When in doubt, I did what I normally did - I asked my wife. Feedback was quick, she said staying in Asia was the best for everyone including me. Knowing if I stayed in Asia, I would still spend a lot of time in Japan, sealed the matter for me.
Life in Shanghai was much different and in many ways much harder. Both girls had some adjustment issues but that was temporary and life moved on. We watched the kids adapt to a much less “family like” school environment. There were many new ex-pats from the US.  Many of these families wanted to recreate the US environment in Shanghai. In the end, the years in Shanghai were good for the kids. Both graduated for high school in Shanghai and returned to the US for college. 
Our children are making their own way in the world - one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. Their experience growing up overseas has made them think much differently than their parents and the friends they left in the US so many years ago. Both sought out environments where they have access to international cultures and people who can appreciate their way of thinking.
The time overseas served our kids well. Their experience living in and traveling around Asia has made their lives back in the US richer than it otherwise would have been. That is all the Father’s Day present I need.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Be careful what you ask for!

Last night I was having dinner in a restaurant in my hometown. I was with a colleague from my company and a Japanese customer. I go to this restaurant quite often so I know many of the waiters. Over the course of the evening, it came up that my Japanese customer and I are going to Argentina today and would be sampling the local beef and wine. It also came up that we often play golf in Tokyo and Shanghai. He said: “I want your life”. My response was “be careful what you ask for”.
I am now sitting in a crowded United lounge in Newark airport on a four hour layover. I will spend over 12 hours on an overnight flight (fortunately in first class). After clearing customs in Buenos Aires, my Japanese customer and I will wait for two and a half hours in the arrivals area for two other Japanese customers who are flying to Buenos Aires from Sao Paulo. Our connection to Salta (northern Argentina) in a cramped commuter plane doesn’t leave from the cross-town domestic airport until ten hours after our arrival. We will arrive at our hotel in Salta approximately 28 hours after we left for the airport. After a quick shower, we will meet the local staff from my company; have some excellent Argentine beef and Malbec before returning to the hotel around 11PM.
Almost all my Japanese customers want to see “where the lithium comes from”. Often this involves a couple days in Buenos Aires, a tango show, maybe golf…. The trip “up the mountain” from Salta to our lithium plant is usually in our company plane and takes 30 minutes. Normally we go in the Argentina summer (December to March). Unfortunately, an insistent customer wants to go in winter, the plane is out of service on routine maintenance and due to a tight schedule our guests cannot spend an extra day in Buenos Aires for a tour and tango show. This trip will be different……..
On Monday morning, at 6am we will get in a four wheel drive and spend seven hours driving on mostly dirt roads to a lithium plant at 4,000 meters in the Andes. We will go on a one and half hour plant tour and then drive down the bumpy mountain “roads” back to Salta. After we get back we will have a late dinner and try to show our Japanese guests a bit of the local culture.
On Tuesday, we leave Salta for Buenos Aires and after sending my guests on a flight to Japan via Europe; I will have six hours to kill at the airport before flying 12 plus hours back to Newark, arriving at 6am on Wednesday. After clearing customs, another Japanese customer who is based in New York will pick me up at Newark Airport and take me to play golf, a meeting and dinner…………. Not sure when I will work in a shower between Tuesday morning and Wednesday dinner – hopefully after golf……..
So to my waiter friend in Charlotte, I would say that in the space of 96 hours I will fly more than 12,000 miles, spend over 16 hours driving, and about 15 hours waiting in airports. Yes, I will have a couple nice dinners, some good wine and play a round of golf.  But work is work. Be careful what you wish for….. “My life indeed”
I am not complaining; I do the work I have chosen and for the most part enjoy it but people tend to see the highlights of other people’s lives without seeing that most good things come at a price.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The "plane" truth

I have been flying over the Pacific and the Atlantic on business for almost 20 years. If I include both oceans and my trips to South America, I have taken approximately 400 long haul (more than 8 hour and some as long as 19 hours) overnight flights since 1995. 
Fortunately, since these are business trips and my airlines of choice generally upgrade me, about 90% of the flights have been in first class. Most of the business class flights are on Singapore Airlines where I feel no need to upgrade since their current business class seat is nicer than most airlines first class seats.
Although it is true by “salaryman” standards that I am probably spoiled in my travel habits; I also learned a long time ago how to pay less for my tickets than most of my peers. Sometimes I pay $4,000 to $5,000 less than my co-workers or about 50% less on a transpacific ticket. Beating the airlines at the pricing game has long been a hobby. Using  'Around the World' tickets, upgradeable discount business class and a travel agent overseas all help ensure I get good value. 
We don't always fly on the big airlines
I fully understand that people who fly over the ocean once a year or once a lifetime think 
paying for a few thousand dollars more to fly business class is over the top. My counter argument is: “if you were spending a month a year sleeping on planes, you would not be happy having a cramped economy class seat where you can hear the stomach noises,  teeth grinding and see the drool of your slumbering “bunk mates”. Since the business I am responsible for brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in profit to the company I work for; I ride guilt free in the front of the plane.

Since almost all airlines use either Boeing or Airbus planes for long haul flights, the main hardware is roughly equivalent. Airlines compete with the quality of the seats and entertainment and of course their ground and in the air staff. Generally speaking American carriers do a reasonable job in the seat competition but are inferior to the top Asian and European airlines in all other areas - especially flight attendants in first and business class. For the most part, US airlines allow the most senior flight attendants to have first choice for routes and class of service so often times the first class cabin has the most senior and the least service minded staff. Of course there are exceptions, but painfully few.

Once on the plane, I normally get a newspaper and magazine (which I almost never read), lather up with moisturizer, make sure my blanket and headphones are close at hand and settle in. I also try to establish some level of rapport with a flight attendant and make sure I check the menu (which doesn't change very often) and know what I want to eat when they ask. About 99.5% of the time, United Airlines flight attendants will ask you what you want to drink but don’t know what wine they have. Singapore Airlines flight attendants always know and if you are an elite flyer they know your name before you tell them and without having to look at the manifest as they make their way down the aisle. Before take off, I pick the movies I want to watch but normally sleep intervenes after or sometimes during the first movie. I normally sleep at least six straight hours on a long haul. My record is 12 hours.

First class cabins on long haul flights generally have between eight and twelve seats. For each airline I use (United, Singapore, ANA, Lufthansa, etc) and each type of plane (747, 777, A-380, 767) I have a specific strategy for where to sit. I like to be the first one off the plane in the race to the customs line but I also like a good angle to the toilet - almost every passenger tries to get in the toilet to freshen up before landing. After spending more than half a day crossing the Pacific eating and drinking without moving much, most people’s bladders are quite active toward the end of the trip. If you see a fellow passenger with a make-up bag in hand you know you want to get your last visit to the toilet in before she closes the door and sets up shop in front of the mirror. 

One dirty little secret of air travel is my strategy to vent my occasional flatulence without detection. Actually, it may be best to keep that to myself..........