Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ridin the Storm Out

It is a calm but cloudy fall morning in our part of North Carolina but a few hours drive to the east the Outer Banks are being blasted by the beginnings of what some in the media are calling “a 100 year storm” – it seems we get one at least every five to ten years…. Of course, any storm that has the potential to flood and leave our largest population centers without power is a big deal – but I am hoping the “100 year storm” moniker is media hype and not like hurricane “Hugo” that hit here in 1989.

While we lived in Asia we had many experiences with the dark side of Mother Nature. We lived in Kobe, Japan which was famous for the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. When we moved into our “earthquake proof” apartment building in early 2000, remnants of the tent cities that housed survivors from the 1995 quake were still visible on the artificial island which was our new home.

Although I had felt small earthquakes on prior trips to Japan, I had never experienced a quake of even moderate severity until a fall afternoon in 2000. I was working from home that afternoon and had the windows open in our 19th floor apartment to take in the breeze off the bay. I felt a slight shake which I thought was a gust of wind and then suddenly the floor beneath me started to move slowly back and forth. Maybe five seconds later, the pace increased. I jumped up and ran to the living room and saw a wall unit housing our stereo about to tip over, I heard screams coming from the people walking on ground level. A few moments later, I could feel that the “ripple” of the actual quake was over but the building continued to move as the technology built into the foundation did its job by allowing the movement to disperse the energy of the quake with minimal damage.

My wife rushed home from a nearby shopping center where only an hour before we had been together at Starbucks. Her first reaction to the shaking was that perhaps her decaf latte actually had caffeine but when she heard screams and saw panic in the eyes of the people around her she knew it was something else.

The kids came home from school and we shared our reactions. Since this was first earthquake our daughters had experienced and nobody was hurt - it was an "interesting" experience but not a big deal. They saw it differently than many of other students who burst into tears and in some cases become catatonic with fear. My daughters learned later that a few of their classmates were earthquake orphans; others lost relatives or friends in the 1995 quake. Any large earthquake caused them to flashback to the day when their lives were changed forever.

This was the first of many earthquake experiences we had in Japan. Fortunately it was also the most severe. Each quake made my wife a little more uneasy but the kids seemed to take them as a normal part of life. A few years later we got a good jolt and my wife wanted us all to get ready to leave the building.  My younger daughter was taking a bath and as the water sloshed out of the tub and onto the floor she said “mom – it is just an earthquake, I am going to finish my bath”.

Besides earthquakes, our high rise apartment on an artificial island in Kobe Bay provided a great view during one of the worst typhoon seasons Japan had experienced in many years. Our building not only moved back and forth during earthquakes, it also accommodated high winds by “swaying in the breeze” for extended periods. In the middle of a typhoon, our building felt like a ship moving through rough seas - the steel structure made appropriate noises and as my daughters and I made jokes about the Titanic, my wife’s sense of humor was tested.

Our Christmas vacation in 2004 found us on an island in the Andaman Sea. At the last minute, we adjusted our schedule so my elder daughter could meet friends for a ski trip. The peaceful beach where we jet skied was overtaken by waters from the tsunami on Boxing Day. If we hadn’t changed our plans by one day we would have been in the midst of that tragedy.

Once we were back in Japan, we learned that a friend of ours died on a beach in Thailand. Another was injured as she clung to a tree. Several other friends who were in the area were fortunate enough to have been out of the path of the rising water.

Our time in Japan drew to a close and as we packed our belongings for the move to Shanghai, my wife said she was glad to be going to a place with no earthquakes. The day before we arrived in China, Shanghai was hit by a large typhoon - the first in many years.

I am hoping the coming storm "Sandy" is a bust but only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

theory of "relativity"

One of the downsides of ex-pat life was that my family did not get to spend much time with our US relatives during the decade we went “missing”. I have five siblings – my wife has eight. Our cousins, nieces and nephews while not innumerable almost qualify as a separate census category. Now that we are back in the US, any opportunity to see a large contingent of relatives is embraced.

Last weekend, one of my nieces got married in rural Maine. For the first time since my mother left this world for her eternal reward while we were living in Shanghai, I saw all of my brothers and sisters at the same time. As they say these days, the weekend was – “good stuff”.  I was the only one of us born in the second half of the baby boom generation which is a sobering thought. We may be taking glucosamine and having colonoscopies now but get-togethers still have the same basic feel they have had for a few decades. Generally speaking we all tend to fall into the same familial roles we had as kids. I may be generalizing from a small sample but the same thing seems to happen when my wife gets together with her brothers and sisters.

In addition to getting to spend time with my siblings, I also got to see many nieces and nephews and an old friend of the mother of the bride that my wife and I had not seen since people tuned in to Magnum PI on Thursday nights and “the Great Communicator” was living in the White House.
A random sampling of “the cousins”. Used without permission. Nobody signed a release and there is more than one lawyer in the group.
The picture above includes a minority of cousins on my side of the family so when my two daughters speak about “having cousins” they know what they are talking about. My elder daughter is front and center next to the bride. Unfortunately my younger daughter was unable to make the trip from LA to Maine since it was midterm week at USC (Go Trojans!) and spending 20+ hours in transit for a weekend seemed excessive.  A large inventory of frequent flyer miles (aka "free travel") doesn’t solve the time problem.

Over the years, missing family gatherings was a hot button for both of my kids but they understood that the benefits of their ex-pat life came at a price. I can’t speak for them but my guess is if they had it to do over they would not change how they grew up.
Although a  steady stream a photos uploaded to Facebook all weekend long gave my youngest and other relatives who could not make the trip a sense of what was going on; it is a very weak substitute for getting to interact live with people who are part of your history but tend to get pushed to the back of your mind for extended periods in the busy, modern world.   

As much fun as it is to spend time with people you haven’t seen in years, it is also fun to step back and watch the proceedings – sort of like a live “family movie”.
As suddenly as we all came together, the wedding and reception were over. In less the 48 hours, most people came and went. As our time together waned, there was much speculation over which cousin would provide the next opportunity for another wedding get – together.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Identity Crisis

More than a decade ago, my family became ex-pats.  Although all four of us (my wife and two daughters) are currently living back in the United States, each of us still relate to our ex-pat identities to some degree. My ex-pat identity was hard to separate from my work identity since my job was the reason we lived overseas.
Of course, I have had other “identities” over the years: son, brother, student, friend, American and later - uncle, runner, employee, husband, dad, gaijin, etc. Not an all-inclusive list but you get the point. Like most people, on any given day of my life I would move in and out of my various roles without thinking about it.

I only thought deeply about any specific identity at transition points in my life – when I got married, when my daughters were born, the first few months we were living in Japan, etc, etc. For several weeks after we arrived in Kobe, each day was an adventure but after a few months it was simply where we lived. The same thing happened when we moved to China – a few weeks of drama and then we adjusted to our new environment.  
For me it took longer to adjust to living back in the US than it did to moving to Japan or China. The problem was not living in America; it was working for the company in America. While I was overseas, I had almost total autonomy to make decisions. As long as the business did well, I was left alone to manage things as I saw fit. Just before I moved back, the company got a new CEO who brought a new mindset. My team in Asia continued to look to me for decisions but the new CEO and the team he brought with him from his former company had created a “matrix” structure which effectively meant no one person was in charge in many situations.

Although I worked for a fairly large company, they did not have an overabundance of rules when I left for Japan. I never felt “compliance” with rules a burden before I left. When I came back to the US; however I was shocked at the changes. For the most part, I had been able to set the rules in Japan and China; back in the US I found that the company had begun to micromanage small details of office life. It seemed that “big brother” had arrived. I asked some of my co-workers about all the rules and while they acknowledged things were different – they were “used to it”. It made sense, gradual change over 11 years is hard to notice or get upset about but I was being hit by many things at once. From the company nurse who insisted on standing inside the restroom door while I produced my urine sample for a random drug test and the HR person who insisted on doing an ergomatic check of my work environment to advise me on changes that should be made --- to the random, voluntary “safety audit” form I found on my desk signed by one of our accountants down the hall. She felt my key board should be placed in a pull out tray below desktop level and that my wastebasket was in an awkward spot – amazing stuff. Unbelievable to me - an office neighbor felt compelled to check my surroundings without asking me and was encouraged to do so in the name of safety.

My big new office was beginning to feel like a white collar prison and my new identity seemed to be “inmate”. Fortunately the company decided to parole me a few weeks ago and my new and temporary identity is “early – retired”.

Things have a way of working out for the best………

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Romancing the Stone

If you have read past blogs, likely you will recall the mention of Philip, (our driver, culture guide and friend in Shanghai). Phillip was never a complainer but over a series of weeks a few years ago, I noticed he was constantly rubbing his lower back and seemed to have some level of pain each day. I asked him about it several times. Each query was rebuffed with a quick “mei wenti” or “no problem”. Finally when it was clear that the condition was getting worse,  I told Phillip he HAD to see a doctor. He grudgingly said he would call for an appointment.
A few days later Philip went to the doctor and was told he had a kidney stone. On the x-ray it appeared more like a kidney boulder. There was no chance for Phillip to pass it in the normal way. He needed surgery and even then, because of the size of the stone and how it had attached to the kidney wall, he was in danger of losing his kidney.  After consulting the doctors again, Phillip was told he would need to be at the Shanghai Kidney Hospital for a month. He wouldn’t be able to drive for almost six weeks. I told Philip not to worry about the time away, he had insurance through the company and he would still be paid his salary. We got a substitute driver while Philip was out. Breaking in a new driver made me appreciate Phillip more than ever. The nervous young substitute was not a very good driver, had no experience with foreigners and was not anxious to engage in conversation. Those six weeks seemed like a year.

The day of Phillip’s surgery, we kept in contact with the hospital for updates. Hours passed, we began to fear the worst. There was talk of removing the entire kidney but in the end the kidney was saved. We were anxious to see Philip and visited the hospital a few days later. My admin assistant took us to the Shanghai Kidney Hospital. Since the hospital does not serve foreigners, they don’t see many foreign families. Based on the attention we got, maybe we were the first foreign family to visit. We entered the hospital with a group of five – my wife, daughters and admin. By the time we crossed the lobby to enter the elevator, we had picked up several followers, when we exited the elevator it seemed the pied piper must have been in our group. The locals seemed very interested to find out who had the foreign visitor. We got to Philip’s room and saw a smiling Philip holding court with his seven roommates. I noticed Philip looking over my shoulder. Then he looked at me and asked who all the people behind us were. Well over a dozen of the curious throng we picked up on the way to Philip’s room decided to follow us in. I turned and motioned for them to leave and finally with some support from Phillip we able to convince them to find entertainment elsewhere.

Each bed in the room had a number and Philip introduced each of his roommates by their number and where they were from. He said: “Mr. # 2 is from Guangzhou and he owns a shipping company”. Philip seemed to like having a shipping company owner in his room. The rest were introduced in turn. It was clear that Philip did most of the talking in the room – whether or not he had visitors. Nobody seemed to mind.

Philip was eager to show us his new treasure so he raised the plastic bag holding the larger of the two stones. We were shocked at the size. After he left the hospital, Philip put the big stone in a jar and it became a conversation piece in the car.

Philip recovered quickly and was back at work as scheduled. The short separation had shown us how much Philip had become part of our family. We kept the stone in the car for several weeks. Philip’s stories always improved when he had a prop……..