Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, November 26, 2012

Game Day

Once again Thanksgiving is upon us which can only mean the annual grudge match between USC and ND is only days away.  Unfortunately the game this year has no meaning in determining the best college football team in the land but given the global alumni reach of both schools, it will draw attention around the world on Saturday. My younger daughter maintains slightly more than tepid interest in the USC Trojans. Her mother and I, like moths to the flame, continue to stay up late on the east coast to watch the Trojans blow games in the last minute and teach us football fan perseverance.  Of course as a lifelong Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills fan, I have eaten the bitter bread of football futility since childhood. 

Goal line stand from the cheap seats

While we were living out of the US, I totally disconnected from American sports - except golf since it was on TV every week in Japan. Over the two years I have been back in the America, my interest in sports has slowly but steadily returned but generally has been focused on the college sports rather than watching the soporific events that pass as pro sports.

I grew up a dedicated fan of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Two of my uncles attended ND.  One was kicked out.  After graduating from Georgetown and having a very successful business career, he became a catholic priest in his 40s. The other played golf for the Irish and managed to graduate. His time at ND seemingly inspired him to eschew work in favor of a lifetime of golf and watching sports on TV.  

I spent many a fall Saturday in the 1960s and 70s watching the Irish on a fuzzy 19 inch black and white TV. For big games, my mother would drive me to the next town where my aunt lived. She had a color TV and a better signal – cable hadn’t arrived in the area where I lived. I particularly enjoyed watching the annual Notre Dame  match-up with USC.  I watched many ND vs. USC games in my aunt’s living room while her ever present boxer scowled and drooled on me.
One of the Irish faithful with my elder daughter
Unfortunately, the Irish have been a disappointment to the “faithful” for most of the last quarter century. My wife and I saw them play in the Cotton Bowl, the last time they had a Heisman Trophy winner.  My father in law came up with tickets one row behind the Irish bench – a great view to see them get thrashed by Texas A&M.  To put the time in perspective, we didn’t have kids, I didn’t have any gray hair, the “Great Communicator” was President, and my 5K times were below 17 minutes. In short, a long time ago.

 My younger daughter attends USC.  She grew up in Asia, so in order to help facilitate her “Americanization”, her mother and I encouraged her to develop an interest in football. This turned out to be a long term project. It didn’t help that her team was on NCAA probation her first two years and the two most famous Heisman trophy winning alumni were OJ and the 2005 winner - the only person ever to have to give his Heisman back. Scant progress was made in our “Fan Project” during her freshman year but when the season was over, at least she knew the quarterback’s name.
OJ's Heisman 
Things began to look up when she got a job before her sophomore year that required her to give campus tours and know all the Heisman trophy winners and other football lore. We called her most game days -  she knew more players and asked questions. Progress.  Her mother and I attended the Stanford – USC game late in the year and saw her tears after the triple OT loss to the “evil empire” from the Bay Area. It appeared we had an emerging fan. We were hopeful.  

 Her conversion seemed complete while she was home last Christmas break. We were at a mall when she said she needed to get back to the house to see the USC quarterback’s announcement on ESPN as to whether he would turn pro or return for his senior year. Although I was happy to see her interest, I wondered if an outside force had inhabited her body.
My younger daughter - focus on the jersey, please ignore the Obama pin she wore to taunt me

Time passed, the USC Trojans were ranked number one in the pre-season polls. The “kiss of death”, I recall saying. The Fighting Irish were not ranked.  By mid-season, USC  had lost a couple close games and the Irish won week after week. Notre Dame rose in the rankings as the Trojans headed for the “also received votes” category.  My daughter called and questioned the capability of her team’s coach.  She theorized that his “play sheet” was really a take-out menu from a Mexican restaurant. After her team’s third loss of the year, she lamented on Facebook about how much it hurt to be emotionally invested in her team. After a 4th loss to their cross town rival UCLA, there was only one way for my daughter’s team to salvage the year – beat Notre Dame.

My wife, elder daughter (an ND fan of sorts living in NYC) and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in LA so we could celebrate Thanksgiving as a family and see the suddenly #1 ranked Irish play the flagging USC  Trojans. I was conflicted, my wife and I were committed to supporting the Trojans as least as long as our daughter is a student there and, more than likely, long after.  Yet, after waiting so long for ND to return to their glory days, even thinking about rooting against them brought on a healthy dose of catholic guilt.

On Saturday, we donned our Trojan gear and wandered the campus before the game, soaking in the atmosphere.  I particularly enjoyed one student standing next to me as the band played on campus before marching to the Coliseum. He was speaking Chinese into his IPhone while alternately stopping to scream cheers supporting the Trojans in accented English.   

The morning of the game I posted on Facebook that either outcome was acceptable to me but despite my long term love for the Irish, I was hoping for a Trojan upset. I didn’t get my wish but I am happy to see the Irish going to the national championship game. The Irish team may not be as good as their record but it seems to be their year - perhaps the long dormant "luck of the Irish" has returned.  The USC team they beat Saturday has proven that great talent can be overcome by poor coaching. We aren't bitter, just disappointed......

Despite the loss, after the game my daughter said she was looking forward to “next season”.  Despite the trials and tribulations of the USC football program, it seems  we may have another football fan in the family.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Two years ago this weekend, I turned in my Chinese resident documents at Shanghai  immigration and returned to the US. Before I departed Shanghai, I signed a two year contract extension for my driver, Philip, to ensure he would not be suddenly let go by the new management coming in from corporate HQ.

This morning when I checked my phone, I saw a text message from Philip. Exactly two years after I signed his contract he was told his services were no longer needed. I immediately put in a Facetime call to Phillip hoping he was in a place that had Wi-Fi. A few seconds later Philip’s smiling face appeared on my IPhone. He looked me in the eye from 7,500 miles away and said “don’t worry about me, it doesn’t matter”. He then gave me the details of how he was told - he was being replaced by a less expensive driver who doesn’t speak English and then moved on – wanting to know how my wife, daughters and dog, Yuki,  were doing.   

I spent many hours in the seat next to Philip - he still drives me any time I am in Shanghai
Philip was in a crowded room at a friend’s house with a lively mahjong game going on in the background. Not a drinker himself, I asked Philip if his friends were drinking – he smiled and said with typical clarity “no, you drink, you lose mahjong”.

Never one to dwell on his problems, Philip turned to politics – “how about the election”? “Which one?” I replied,  since China’s leader changed in the past week.  “The Obama one”; “You know Romney don’t like China” After spending five years together in the car, Philip did not have to ask who I voted for but he did need to comment just to gently remind me that my guy lost. Wanting to change the subject, I asked about China’s new leader, Philip was quick to say, “I hope he is good” and the political discussion was over.

We talked about our “China work team” for a few minutes and Philip gave me his evaluation of how everyone was doing. Philip was always insightful but pretty blunt evaluating people. From the company CEO whom he didn’t care for (“he thinks I am part of the car”) to customers (“he may be Japanese but he is still a good guy”). Philip understood I loved Japan so he treated all my Japanese customers with respect but he made the "official" China postion on Japan clear.

 I always asked one more question after the original comment Philip made about somebody and usually there was much more to his comment but sometimes not. Being American, my favorite comment was in response to the question about why he didn’t like our CEO. He looked at me like I was from Mars and said “Laoban, he is French, isn’t he”.

Philip’s face turned serious  – “when do you come to Shanghai”? “You know, nothing has changed, I will meet you anytime”. “You have any problem, you call me”.  “I want to see you in Shanghai”. From most people, I would pass this off as meaningless courtesy but from Philip I knew it was sincere.  I told him I would see him in early 2013 and, changing subjects yet again, asked him if the company offered him severance.  Always one step ahead of me, he told me he had already spoken to “the legal guy” and it seemed he would get 6 months’ pay. While Philip and I talked, my wife was on Facebook and other websites letting her ex-pat network know that a great driver was on the market. Philip was pretty well known in the ex-pat community. We often got calls from friends who were having trouble communicating with their drivers. Philip was always happy to translate and tell drivers how they should behave. He knew that he had a special status in the ex-pat community but he didn’t exploit it.

Convinced Philip was doing ok, I wound the conversation down. I have no doubt I will see Philip again. The little brother I never had was more to my family than a driver.

Philip with Miss USA on July 4th, 2010

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


This week was my first trip to Japan after leaving my old job. The trip was planned to show respect to my customers after the sudden departure from my ex-employer. In general, the Japanese have a hard time understanding how American businesses make decisions - especially about people. Since I have known most of my customers for over 15 years, “what happened?” was a fair question for them to ask and I didn’t want close things out by email or have someone  from my old company give an explanation. Call me a cynic but I think my story and the “official” line might be different.

As someone who has not been out of Japan for more than eight straight weeks since 1995, I also didn’t want to just drop off the radar. I wanted to close the loop face to face with as many people as I could see in a week. I was also curious to discover the depth of my relationships. A certain status comes with selling a vital raw material that is often in short supply. I thought my relationships were deeper than my prior company affiliation (aka “commercial self”) but that point had never been tested.

Actually the fact that I left for Japan with an itinerary full of meetings, dinners and three rounds of golf should have allayed my fears about where I stood with people but I still cleared customs in Tokyo with a slightly uneasy feeling which disappeared a short time later when I had dinner with a friend from a trading company.

Of course, everyone wanted to know the “why?” of my situation but in most cases I spent very little time talking about my  old company and more time talking about the recent tensions between Japan and China, the US presidential election and the fact I planned to be working again soon in a position that would have me traveling to Japan on a regular basis.

It was a very interesting week and not in the least awkward except for one incident when I was at the front desk of one of the largest companies in Japan where you have to check in and get a computer card to access the elevators. Although I had an appointment with several people that I have known for many years, the young lady at the desk could not find my name in the computer (it was spelled wrong – the curse of having a last name that begins with “L” in Japan) and she awkwardly asked me to “wait a while”. I solved the problem by calling my host and handing my phone to the young lady so he could explain who I was. The next issue was enduring the five minute apology I received for the small mix-up.

So now I have been back to Japan without the cover of my old company role. It was a good feeling to realize people were happy to make time for me. From a business perspective, it seems that the skills and knowledge I developed over the years are more valuable than I realized. Leaving my old job seems to have opened a lot of doors for me. Many people told me this would be the case but I didn’t believe them until last week.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election night

My younger daughter just sent me a text with a picture of her official ballot. This is her first presidential election and while I am pretty sure her vote for the top job will cancel out mine, I am just happy she got out and voted.

I voted in early knowing that I would be in Japan on Election Day. It is Wednesday morning here and I am hoping we have a result before I go to bed tonight. Twelve years ago, our first year living in Japan, we had the Bush – Gore debacle, I remember starting a dinner with customers who told me Gore won and it had been announced on TV. I got home and found that nobody had won and I spent the next few weeks trying to explain our convoluted electoral process to my Japanese friends who seemed to take comfort in the fact that our political process seemed as screwed up as Japan’s.

Explaining the nuances of the “hanging chads” and the election equivalent of a food fight in Florida was tough enough but many were surprised to find out that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win in our “democratic” process. While nobody came out and compared our 2000 process to a third world election, I had the feeling many were simply too kind to state the obvious.

I am hoping this election does not put American politics in the global comedic spotlight again but as I left the hotel this morning, CNN was reporting that each candidate’s lawyers were preparing to litigate results if necessary. Not a good sign.

Of course, my favorite Japanese election stories relate to pronunciation rather than questions about our process. Given that “L” as we know it does not exist in Japanese and is normally substituted with the “R” sound; election is normally pronounced “erection” by Japanese English speakers.  It is hard to keep a straight face when asked; “don’t you have an erection in the US today? Or as in 2000, “wow, the US erection really lasts a long time”. My Japanese teacher, being a very proper lady, lamented the problem of even discussing the topic in English.

Given the current state of our political process maybe we should all be seeking medical attention because our “election” definitely lasts more than 4 hours.