Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Opening Ceremonies

My wife really enjoyed the London Olympic Games opening ceremony. I enjoyed the Queen and James Bond bit and the making of the Olympic rings but otherwise caught up on my sleep during the long, soporific  extravaganza. In between my napping last night, I thought about the concept of “opening ceremonies” and “ground breakings”.  
In America, we have “grand openings” and “ground breaking” ceremonies as many countries do but generally speaking these events are perfunctory and utterly lacking in the kind of creativity American is known for. The Chinese, on the other hand, as they proved in Beijing four years ago are the masters of the opening ceremony universe. I guess you could expect that from the country that invented fireworks.
I have a lot of “China bashing” friends and relatives who, for the most part, have forgiven me for the transgression of enjoying my 5 plus years living in the middle kingdom. Only a few people I know who blame China for everything from US economic woes to global warming have ever visited China.  Those who have visited usually went for less than two weeks and came home loaded up with pirated DVDs, knock-off North Face ski jackets and a set of $120 “Callaway” golf clubs complete with a touring pro sized bag. Most see no conflict between their purchases and the unfair economic activity they accuse China of. But as usual, I digress.
One of my assignments in China was to get a lithium plant built in a foreign trade zone about 2 hours drive from Shanghai. Our company had unrealistic expectations about how quickly and inexpensively we could get the project done. They were unaware of certain items we were expected to spend time and money on – like our ground breaking and opening ceremonies…….
The head of the FTZ (Free Trade Zone) rarely met with our team. Our $15 million project was small by local standards so I was curious when I was summoned to FTZ headquarters for an “important” meeting. We had been following the local rules to the letter, paying people more than the local market and hadn’t had any injuries or failed inspections. As we drove to HQ, I pondered what critical issue could merit a meeting. “We want to discuss your opening ceremony” the big man said through his translator. I gave our senior Chinese staff member a quizzical look (as often was the case in China I was clueless about certain things deemed important by the locals) and he jumped in to assure the powers that be that we were “working on our plan”.  I played (and was) the ignorant foreigner and asked exactly what the FTZ expected. I was thinking a few of the local leaders, some gold painted shovels, a video camera and 20 minutes. He was thinking a couple hundred guests, Texas (or should I say Chinese) sized decorations, fireworks, a dragon dance and TV cameras. And, of course, afterward a big party at the local fake 5 star hotel. How much does one of these events usually cost?, I asked. “Oh a small one like yours about 40,000”. “RMB?”, I asked. “No, dollars” was the response and “that doesn’t include the banquet”. In response to my look of surprise, he said “don’t  worry, my ‘friend’ has a company that can help you”. “Of course” I replied.
So a few weeks later I got to make the welcoming speech in Chinese at our opening ceremony. As I finished my 2 minute foray into uncharted mandarin waters, sweat soaked through my suit on the 42 degree C  July day. The mayor slapped me on the back as I returned to my seat; he claimed he understood every memorized word of my 120 second discourse on how glad we were to be in “good ole Zhangjiagang”. Just as I started to relax and the dragon dance began, someone from the local opening ceremony production company lost track of time and set the fireworks off early. Let’s just say our ceremony ended with a premature bang.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Size Matters


I am in the Kansai area for a few days. I like the straight forward no frills style of the Osaka area. I got a great view on Mt Fuji from the Shinkansen on the way to Kyoto where I had my first meeting of the day.  It is very humid in July so I was anxious to get my suitcase packed away in a locker at the station before carrying it around caused me to sweat though my clothes. Memo to self – remember to wear white shirts when it is over 30 C……..
Normally I check into a hotel before going to meetings but since I am staying in Osaka and my first meeting was in Kyoto, I had to go the station locker route. My new roller bag isn’t that big but I was at a small station and it took three of us force my bag in the locker. Two pushing on the door and one to put the coins in and yank the key out.  As sweat poured off the three off us after we got the locker door shut, I started to remember how the scale of everything from meal serving sizes to parking spaces in Japan were so different than the US.
My daughters were seven and ten when we arrived in Kobe. They were used to large American portions so an “S” meaning “small” size on the Japanese menu seemed to be the right choice when we visited a Wendy’s in Kobe during our first month in the city.  I will never forget the look on my younger daughter’s face when she was served her first “S” size drink. “Well Dad, I guess  ‘S’ means “sample” in Japan.  Although she was not technically correct; she was absolutely right – from then on we struck “S” from our ordering vocabulary. Even an “M” was risky. “L” was the only safe bet.  Japanese “L” almost equals American “S”.
The next shock came when my wife decided to take me to Teppanyaki for Kobe beef on my birthday. We were aware that Kobe was known worldwide for the quality of the beef so when we each ordered the $100 Kobe Beef set menu, we were quite sure we would sated on the signature product of our adopted city. Unfortunately, we didn’t read the fine print. $100 got you a small shrimp starter, salad, miso soup, dessert and coffee or tea plus 100 grams (weight before cooking) of Kobe beef. I was not raised on the metric system but I was aware that a pound was 454 grams which when I did the math meant I was getting less than a quarter pound of Kobe beef (before shrinkage). It actually looked like even less as I looked at the tiny cubes of meat on my plate.  Another day another “sample” – life goes on.
Our next surprise was when our car was delivered by the leasing agency. We were impressed by the sonar based parking assist feature and the retractable side mirrors although we thought it was a little odd how much was spent explaining how the mirror folded back. Once we started to drive and park the car, we understood that the folding back mirrors were not really an option - without them we could not have parked in many of the tight parking spaces. My wife quickly mastered the difficulty of parking in Japan - I did not.

Another parking oddity was the fact the someone from the local government came out and measured our parking spot. We lived in a high end apartment building with an ample number or reasonable sized assigned parking spots. The government knew the situation but each time a new resident registered a car, two people came to our parking garage to make sure the size was correct.
I guess they were afraid some criminal element was repainting our parking lines at night.

My time in Kansai was short. As I usually try do when I am in the Kobe area, I met my Japanese sensei for breakfast near my old apartment. I ordered a standard Japanese set breakfast (no "super size" option here)  and we spent an hour catching up - I was hungry again before I left the restaurant.............

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lost in Translation

Today I have a long layover at LAX on my way to Tokyo. During the flight from Charlotte to LAX, I listened to a Japanese language learning Podcast. Since I was closing in on 40 when I started learning Japanese in the mid 90’s; I need all the help I can get trying to maintain a reasonable level of fluency.  When people ask me about the process of learning Japanese, I usually explain that before you try to learn Japanese, it is important to learn how to understand and speak Japanese English (aka Japanglish).
As was common in the relationship my company had with our partner company in Japan, the interactions were very polite – cordial meetings, good dinners, golf, etc but very few details regarding our customers in Japan. Visits from “the gaijin” were met with smiles that got much broader when they put us on the train to the airport at the end of our trips to Osaka. At the time I got involved with our Japanese business, we had been partners for almost 25 years. Nobody from our side had ever learned Japanese beyond “konnichiwa” so we relied on the three people from our partner that spoke some level of English to help us communicate. Both sides were making very good profits so everyone was relatively happy with the status-quo. Everyone except me. 
As the “new guy” I felt I should try to do things to better understand what was really happening in the Japanese market.  So prior to my third visit, I sent a fax (imagine that - they didn't email at the time) to Japan requesting to visit our actual customers not just our partner’s staff. This is when I learned that when Japanese say “this could be difficult” they mean “hell, no”. I didn’t see any customers on that visit but I did spend a lot of time requesting to visit customers on my next trip. As our company is in the lithium business and the lithium ion battery had just been launched in the Japanese market, my request was strongly supported by my boss so to keep the peace with our company they “agreed”. I was told customer visits would be arranged on my next visit. This is when I learned the concept of “passive resistance”.
When I arrived in Osaka several weeks later, I was told that “all the English speakers are busy this week” so I was sent to visit customers with two smiling gentlemen that spoke about 60 words of English in random order. They also selected customers that did not provide anyone that spoke English. I began to learn Japanglish on this trip. On the bullet train to the first customer, a lot of smiles were exchanged until we got near our stop when Fukuma san stood over me and in a more of a scream than anything else poured out a brief torrent of English “off the train, now!!”. It seems that the soft spoken Fukuma san was taught English was spoken in high decibels. Once we got to the customer’s office, things got more interesting. After checking in with the receptionist, Fukuma san pointed to a chair in the corner and said “please shit here” followed by “please, please yourself at your home now”. Of course, he was asking me to “have a seat” and “please, make myself at home” rather than to relieve myself in the reception area before playing with myself.  In cases like these, the bad English is funny and the true intention is easy to understand but that is not always the case. More on that in an upcoming post.
As it turned out, the “English speakers” were not available during the day but were free each night for dinner and drinking. They were hoping I would give up on my quest to “get to know” customers and were disappointed that I seem to enjoy Fukuma san and his very limited English. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling the story about getting screamed at to “get off the train” and to “shit down”. This brought howls of laughter from the English speakers and poor Fukuma san heard about it every time we were all together for the next five years.  “Ha, Ha, Ha Fukuma san – “shit here”, “shit here”.
As the week went by, I learned to enjoy green tea (served at every meeting) and to use a whiteboard to communicate in chemical formulas and numbers. Our partner’s plan to discourage me also inspired me to begin my study of Japanese – some of my early gaffes in Japanese still follow me today. One of the early phrases I learned in a restaurant was to ask for the chef’s recommendation – very useful when you are alone and can’t read the menu. Unfortunately, I used the same word when asking a caddie to show me the line for a putt. My Japanese friends found that to be just about the funniest thing they ever heard and to this day will smile at me when we play golf and ask me if I am going to ask the caddie for her recommendation…….