Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, August 27, 2012

I beg your pardon

I am nearing the end of a nine day sojourn in the land of the rising sun. I will have crisscrossed the main island twice on this trip before leaving for Korea. A good chance to check the pulse of the nation.  August is usually a brutally hot and humid month in Japan. This year August is more uncomfortable than normal. Air conditioning is limited due to the impact of shutting down the nuclear power generators after last year’s earthquake and tsunami. It would be normal to expect tempers to be short and social graces to be lacking in this breathless and sweaty environment. However, I have not found that to be the case.
Another 3 hour ride on the Shinkansen has given me the opportunity to ponder why conditions that would have people in most countries snapping at each other during the dog days of August have very little impact on how Japanese treat each other. The fact is, nobody knows how to apologize for anything and everything like the Japanese. The tough weather conditions only seem to make the flow of “gomen nasai” and “sumimasen” more rapid.
When I first came to Japan in the 1990s, I found the culture of apology to be somewhat off putting and that was when I only understood one of the multitude of ways the Japanese tell each other on an almost constant basis just how sorry they are for, well, everything. Of course, Americans can apologize too. If pressed by circumstances, a New Yorker can quickly deliver an insincere “sorry” but that is about as far as it goes.  Japanese, on the other hand, seem to have made a national sport of “one upmanship” when it comes to telling each other just how they are sorry for all offenses real and imagined.
This week has been a great example of the “spirit of I am sorry”.  When I arrived at customs after a 12 hour flight from Europe the person who stamped my passport apologized for two things – making me wait (less than a minute) and how hot Japan is. Imagine the immigration staff at LAX apologizing for anything, ever………
I was on a roll – I got two more apologies when I purchased my train ticket – one because I had to wait 40 minutes for the next train and another because my connection time of 20 minutes at Tokyo station might not be “convenient”. I did not get an apology from my taxi driver but knew my friends at the hotel would give me another “sumimasen” fix at check – in. Before making it to my room I collected three more verbal apologies and one in writing. Although by this point I was thinking I should stop counting the apologies for the weather.  Anyway the written apology was from the hotel staff person who normally greets me and makes sure I get my “welcome Perrier”. She had the audacity to be on vacation and wouldn’t be there.  She had asked two of her colleagues to make sure my stay was pleasant so both of those people apologized for the slothful behavior of their boss who had the temerity to take 10 days off.
Understanding the differences between the culture I was raised in and the Japanese culture has long been an interest. Things that I first judged as “making no sense” have usually proved to be important components of a very different culture. Even if the level of sincerity in the plethora of apologies is limited, you have to appreciate that even an institutionalized apology makes daily life a lot more pleasant than a glare or shrug of the shoulders more common in the west. When my elder daughter was nine she visited Japan with me for the first time. Early one morning we happened to be crossing a street near Osaka station when perhaps 100 commuters were walking straight at us. My daughter’s hand tensed in mine. Her wide eyes indicated that she thought we might be swallowed whole by the oncoming dark haired crowd in blue suits. I looked down at her and said: "this is one of the coolest things about Japan, we can walk straight into that crowd and nobody will bump you". Her disbelief was obvious as was her joy when we reached the other side of the street unscathed.
Over the weekend, I played golf. I love playing golf in Japan – except of the fact they make you eat lunch in between the front and back nine. That is just the golf business model and does not merit an apology.  I am sure I could request an apology for having to eat lunch but I am still thinking about it.
My caddy apologized for so many things I lost count. Of course, the hot weather, the occasional gust of wind, the belief that her advice must have been the cause of all my missed putts. The fact that I still hear all the apologies simply proves I am outsider. Maybe I should apologize for that ……..
“Dear Visitor:  We are extremely sorry that Mount Fuji has no snow at the top this week, we are doing our best to correct this situation and appreciate your understanding”  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Swiss Mystery

This morning I am in Zurich changing planes on the way from North Carolina to Tokyo. Not the most efficient way to get from point A to point B but as a long time advocate of “Around the World” air tickets it is the price I pay for saving money for my company and getting myself a first class seat 95% of the time. For someone who travels more than 150 days a year, getting a first class seat makes the travel experience, especially on long flights, much easier.
I am sitting in the Swiss Airlines first class lounge in Zurich.  It is beautiful day and as I have a few hours here, I am contemplating the service in this island nation (surrounded by mountains rather than water) and how different it is from the island nation on the other end of my flight to Tokyo.
Far be it from me to criticize the efficient Swiss. Switzerland works. Everything is tidy and in place, the scenery out the window is wonderful – quite a statement for an airport lounge, the attendants at the front desk look sharp in their freshly pressed uniforms. A car will drive me out to the waiting Airbus 340 at precisely 12:25pm.  I can’t put my finger on it but something is missing.  Not a complaint but a feeling that the Swiss have everything except maybe fun. I have never been to a Swiss party but have the feeling they are very organized.
After more than an hour here, the only smile I have seen is from a “guest worker” from Southeast Asia who seems to be delighted to pick up dishes. Would I trade this lounge experience for the US Airways lounge in Charlotte?  No way.
The real mystery to me is that when I fly Swiss Airlines, the service in the air is some of the best in the sky. The dour faces seem to lift on takeoff like the fog in the valleys surrounding Zurich. The attitude of perfunctory efficiency experienced on the ground turns into something very different in the air – real customer service, smiles and yes, even laughter. Perhaps this kind of behavior isn’t allowed until the plane leaves Swiss air space.
When I reach the island on the other end of my flight, I know what to expect. Japanese efficiency plays out much differently than does the Swiss. Despite their reputation for seriousness, the Japanese seem much more concerned about the feelings of the person being served. The coolness I feel in Switzerland is replaced by warmth I feel from the Japanese even when I know the person doesn’t really care about me personally but is just doing his or her job. Perhaps it is simply a skill Japanese learn like saying “perhaps” when the meaning is “hell no, you’ve got to be kidding”.
 As an American I am used to mediocre service oftentimes provided by someone who feels serving is beneath them and that they are entitled to a large tip for simply showing up. Maybe I should stop analyzing and simply enjoy good service no matter which island I am on.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Olympic Lessons

The last few days of the London Olympics are upon us. I took the afternoon off to watch the gold medal women’s soccer match between the US and Japan. Four years ago, we were living in China and watched the US soccer team live. We saw an elderly couple in the crowded stadium who were obviously unable to find their seats and asked if they needed help. They proudly told us that their granddaughter Hope was the US goalie. They noticed our driver Philip who was attending with us and asked if he was “real Chinese”. We said yes and they asked if we could take their picture with him. Philip understood what was happening and I asked under my breath if it was Ok. The ever affable Philip nodded yes but pointed at the elderly man's NBC Sports cap.  I told the couple a picture was fine but asked if Phillip could wear Grandpa’s “NBC Sports” hat for the picture. Done deal. 

As a boy watching the Olympics, I never imagined that one day I would live in China and Japan and attend Olympics held in both countries. The Olympics are for obvious reasons most thought of as an epic sports event but for me they are also a window on changes in the world.

I remember every Olympics since 1968 - the summer games in Mexico City and the winter in Grenoble, France. We watched in “vivid” black and white. Color TV did not arrive in my house until several years after - too late for the Munich games in 1972 but before Montreal in 1976. Coverage was very basic those days - several hours over the two weeks compared with the daily six channel cable coverage in our house for the current games. If we miss an event on TV, we can always check the Internet.

When I watched my first Olympics, the Soviet block was the enemy but not yet dubbed the “evil empire”. From the perspective of my hometown, “the Russians” donned the black hats no matter what color their uniforms were. China did not participate in the Olympics in the 1960’s and 70’s so the “People’s Republic” was not on my sports radar until much later although I heard rumors about their ping pong and badminton prowess. 

When I think of the Mexico City games, I have one enduring image - Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters. Each stood on the podium wearing black socks with no shoes. They raised their arms revealing black gloves on the fists. The gesture was incorrectly interpreted as a black power salute when in reality the two were drawing attention to the plight of poor black people in the United States. They called it a human rights salute. As an 11 year old living in a small town in upstate New York, I had never met a black person. I had no idea why they were raising their fists. Of course, I had seen pictures from the racial conflicts in the south on the news but the images were not real to me. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made them real and caused me think about things happening in the US beyond my protected small town environment.

Four years later, I watched with excitement as Frank Shorter won the marathon in Munich but that was overshadowed by the tragic murder of the Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. The ‘72 games brought the reality of terrorism into my living room and caused me to read many books about the holocaust. The lessons from 1968 and 1972 did not dampen my enthusiasm for the Olympic games but I began to realize that bringing the world together for sport had a dark side.

The next Olympics that had an impact were the 1980 Moscow games - the US stayed home which I thought was a cop out. I was freshly out of college and America was at a low ebb - high unemployment, inflation, an energy crisis and a President from Georgia that seemed like a nice, old man out of his depth. Thousands of athletes who had sacrificed for years for a chance to represent the US had their efforts come to naught by one man’s decision. As leader of the “free world”, the US decision brought many other countries into the boycott and proved that the ideals of the games could be managed by politicians. 

The Olympics of the mid and late 1980s in LA and Seoul seemed to mirror the rise of “corporate sports”. We now had official Olympic toothpaste, peanuts and airlines. Logos were everywhere. The Olympics had survived the stormy waters of politics but were drowning in sponsorship. My interest and enthusiasm for the actual competition was unabated but I didn’t like the “official” packaging.

The 1990s brought full professionalism to the games. The “dream team” of NBA players at the ‘92 games was a disappointment. I would rather have seen our best graduating college players try their hand against the increasingly strong national teams from Europe and South America but my thinking was in the minority.  

Over the years I visited many summer and winter Olympic venues in the US, Germany, Norway, etc but I got my first live Olympic experience in Nagano in 1998. In general, the winter Olympics are lower key and less commercial than the summer games. I had a great time in the Japanese Alps. The Olympic atmosphere and Japanese hospitality was hard to beat. I left Nagano feeling good about the Olympics. 

We moved to Japan in 2000 and watched the Sydney and Athens games on Japanese TV - a different perspective for sure. I missed the US coverage - the human interest stories and variety of the coverage.  My lack of interest in what Japanese TV featured - judo, ping pong, etc made me long for overproduced US coverage which exists because of all the corporate sponsorship. I started thinking that I was an “Olympic hypocrite” - watching Japanese TV coverage of the Olympics made me realize that if it took corporate sponsorship to get me a decent viewing experience I could make that trade.

We moved to China in 2005 and lived through the build up to the Beijing games. The Olympics were China’s coming out party as a world power. Every detail was managed. A weather control bureau was created with the objective to ensure that it rained just before the games to clear the air. I had customers that were forced to relocate factories for the sake of the games. Taxi drivers were ordered to learn English by 2008, foreigners were enlisted to point out bad English signs in public places. Local residents who liked to wear Pajamas around town in the summer weather were ordered not to and spitting on the streets was ‘banned”. Of course most of the programs were miserable failures -  most of the malevolent Beijing taxi drivers did not learn even basic English, the bad English signs were largely unscathed and there was no noticeable reduction is spitting. On the other hand, most of my Chinese friends could not have been more proud of the Opening Ceremonies and most of what happened during those two weeks in August 2008. The Chinese felt having a successful Olympics validated them as a member of the first world. That should tell you something.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Luckiest Dog in China

My wife, my daughters and I are all dog lovers. Growing up, I always had a dog. My first job, at age 7, was dog sitting. My wife is of the same ilk. While we were dating in graduate school she got a puppy for me. I named him Higgins. He grew from a handful to a 40 kilo powerhouse that shared my daily runs for 13 years of his 17 year life. When Higgins was almost 4, we adopted Murphy, a gentle mixed breed soul that joined our daily runs and was the female “ying” to Higgins’s alpha male “yang”. Our daughters came along and turned the dogs into playmates, victims of their “dress-up" games, the audience for their plays and the protectors of their backyard “100 acre wood”.

Time passed and Higgins sadly became a memory. Murphy became the dowager of the house. The company asked me to move to Japan. We loved Murphy too much to put her through an international move and she happily went to live with my Dad on 16 acres in the countryside. We were sad to leave Murphy stateside but knew she was happy with her “grandfather”.

Murphy with her "sisters"

We adapted to life in Japan but the lack of a dog in the house was a huge void. My daughters missed home from time to time and the feeling always manifested itself with the expression “I miss Murphy”.  Never “I miss the US” or “I miss my old school” or “I miss my best friend”. Loneliness was expressed in one way - “I miss Murphy”.  I often felt guilty for not bringing Murphy but knew it was the best thing for her. The girls filled the void by dog sitting for a variety of ex-pat pups. Anytime I encountered a dog on my daily runs I thought of Murphy and tried to make a new friend. 

Time passed, we moved to Shanghai and lived in a house rather than a high rise. We loved  life in Japan and the transition to China was harder than we thought. Something was missing in our lives. After a few months, my wife decided it was time we got another dog.  

One Sunday morning (after church) my wife had our driver, Philip, take us to an Irish bar. Philip was a little confused but was unaware that the bar was the site of a dog adoption run by a French ex-pat. We walked into the bar and the rules for selecting a dog were explained. I immediately was drawn to a lively puppy with a great personality only to be told by a 10 year old girl that she had already picked the dog and that she had the first choice. The negotiation skills that served me well in my business life were useless with the elementary school student that wanted “my dog”. In the end, I did not persuade the young lady and we went to our second choice, the seemingly lethargic younger sister of our first choice.  

So we finally had a dog in the house. There was some debate about the name. We all agreed her original name of Kaylex didn’t fit. My daughters could not agree on a new name so I picked one for them. “Yuki”, which means snow in Japanese, became the moniker for our Shanghai stray. 

Yuki, the Chinese puppy with a Japanese name that we adopted from a French lady in a Irish bar in Shanghai, became the darling of the house. Time passed, her personality developed and we wondered why we allowed ourselves to live without a dog in Japan.

Our ayi (maid) liked having a dog in the house. She preferred walking Yuki to household chores. Each day at about 4pm a group of ayis with dogs would walk together so Yuki had a social life. Yuki proved to be anything but lethargic. She constantly tried to herd us like we were sheep and showed no fear of dogs three times her size.

Yuki adapts to strange local customs

Philip watched the developments in our house with mild disbelief. He could not understand all the fuss over a dog but he enjoyed playing with Yuki while he waited for me to get in the car in the morning. He insisted on speaking Chinese to Yuki despite the fact that Yuki responded much better to English. He was sent on missions to find various things Yuki needed and drove her when she needed to go to the vet. Finally, it was time for us to return to the US for several weeks in the summer. Philip was astounded that the ayi was going to live in our house over the summer just to babysit Yuki. 

From time to time Philip would tell Yuki that she could have been “lunch” instead of a pampered American dog. As Philip helped us pack the car before he took us to the airport to fly home for the summer he blurted out: “Yuki, you are the luckiest dog in China, you have an ayi to take care of you, air conditioning 24 / 7 and can watch TV all day”.

The luckiest dog in China now lives in North Carolina with a golf course for a backyard. She doesn't have an ayi anymore but she still has air con and TV..........
Scouting the backyard before a hunting trip