Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Happy Anniversary

Today is my 28th wedding anniversary. My wife is the planner in the family so she gets the credit for setting the date. There are many benefits to having your anniversary between Christmas and New Year’s. The week after Christmas has always been a relaxed time for our family. I never go to work and often times we traveled for the holidays.

Following Christmas so closely, anniversary gift expectation is low – in a pinch you can always slide part of the Christmas gift inventory into the anniversary category. By 12/29, we normally have been eating too much for several days so the dinner venue isn’t a priority.  I have always liked our anniversary situation.

My advice to those setting a wedding date is to choose carefully. You are also adding a date to your “holiday calendar” for the rest of your married life. A bad choice will have annual consequences. Although a counterintuitive thought to many, a date just after Christmas can be a great choice – as can your spouse’s birthday for obvious reasons. Can you say “two birds with one stone”?

Ex-pat life can help take the pressure off on anniversaries especially if your “big day” is tied to an international holiday when you are expected to travel as a family. Even better when the company picks up the airfare.

During our eleven years in Asia we were only at home once on our anniversary which has been spent on four coasts of Australia (for the geographically challenged that would be: north, south, east and west), Singapore, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Thailand, and New Zealand. It is hard to get too stressed out about what to do on your anniversary when you are staying at a beach resort and going out to eat out anyway. How many people have had a “Dr Fish” tiny biting carp pedicure before heading off to their 25th anniversary dinner – at a French restaurant on a cliff in Thailand wearing shorts and tee shirts?

Having our feet "done" at Dr Fish
We spent one anniversary hiking on a glacier in New Zealand after getting stopped for doing 130 in a 60 kph zone. In my defense, except for the cop, the road was empty. I spent the morning of the next day looking for the national bank where I could pay the $300 fine and get my passport cleared so I could leave the country.

On a glacier in New Zealand
On another trip - to Western Australia, we spent part of our big day ambling through a former penal colony “guest” facility. Nothing says “happy anniversary” like a sunset walk through a prison.
Now that we are living back in the US, things are a little more mundane on 12/29. Since our daughters are living on their own now, Christmas week is currently reserved for their return to the house that they didn’t grow up in but still maintain rooms. For different reasons, our anniversary is still a low profile event. Spending time with the kids is more important.

The bottom line is – marry the right person and the anniversaries work themselves out but it is nice to have a significant other who makes life easy from the beginning.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Travel "daze" - a quick trip into the heat of Japanese winter

I am in the midst of a transition from company employee to working on my own which essentially means I have less control over my travel  schedule – not what one thinks would be the case but my current situation. I am doing advisory work so when a client requests a meeting, it may only require a day or two of my time. As a result, for now,  trips are shorter which has good points and bad points -  less time away from home but a more intense travel schedule.

This week I left the US for Osaka on Tuesday morning arriving on Wednesday afternoon (due to the 14 hour time change). I had a dinner meeting Wednesday in Osaka with a client who was asked by another Japanese company to invite me to Japan for an introduction and to discuss a long term advisory services agreement. On Thursday morning, two people from my client company and I took the bullet train to Nagoya to meet with the potential client. After the meeting and lunch, the “client in waiting” took the train with the three of us to Tokyo to meet their Australian partner who had flown in only for our brief meeting and dinner.  Although I was flattered that so much time and travel expense was spent to meet me face to face, having a meeting that involved people from three continents seemed like a good opportunity to use the Skype "conference call" feature.

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I changed into casual clothes and left to meet a former customer and friend at a nearby yakitori shop/pub so we could catch up. In my former life, I knew I would be in Japan for at least one week out of every two months, now my schedule is much less certain so I wanted to see as many contacts and friends as I could during my short visit.

On Friday, I played golf with my client and the “client in waiting” and then had dinner with old friends in Tokyo.  One of my dinner companions was my (soon to be 80 years old) Japanese mentor.  I never miss a chance to see him. After dinner I met a customer from my old job for drinks and got back to my hotel at 1am.  Saturday morning, after a run around the Imperial Palace,  I met a former co-worker for tea and then made my way to Tokyo’s central train station.  I took the Shinkansen back to Osaka to catch my flight home since I couldn’t get a seat out of Tokyo. In five days, I spent 33 hours in the air, 9 hours in airports,   9 hours in cars or buses and 7 hours on trains all for a total of 6 hours in scheduled meetings, and a round of golf with lunch in between the front and back nines.  In my “spare time”,  I managed to spend  8 hours  with friends.  I flew over 16,000 actual miles but got more than 60,000 frequent flyer miles due to the bounty of incentives for top level frequent fliers.  I didn’t really experience jet-lag on this trip because I didn’t have time but being in Japan in December does present a special challenge for me.

Once in Japan,  I was almost constantly, uncomfortably warm – except when I was outside or in my hotel room where I could turn the heat off. From the taxis, buses and trains to the conference rooms and restaurants, the temperature was always about 5 degrees above my comfort zone.  My theory on this phenomenon is that the post war generation that endured years where food was not abundant and heat sources scarce during the winter made it a national policy to never be cold again once the Japanese economic boom began. From my perspective, they have been far too successful.

Everyone I contacted before the trip cautioned me that winter had arrived and Japan is “very cold” which to me is code for: “bring shorts”. When I walked outside the terminal building at Kansai Airport in a short sleeved shirt, I got many strange looks from the bundled up Japanese. When I handed my suitcase over to the limo bus attendant he inquired where my coat was. “In my suitcase”, I replied. I knew what was coming when I boarded the bus – high heat and low humidity.  Five minutes after the bus left the airport, I mopped the sweat off my forehead while the Japanese around me – most still wearing their overcoats were perfectly content. I was out of practice dealing with the Japanese winter heat. The next day on a balmy shinkansen ride I was wise enough to wear a short sleeve shirt on the train and wait until we neared our stop to duck in a restroom to “pull a Clark Kent” and emerge as “salaryman” in a blue suit. If I had a big “S” on my shirt it would have stood for sweaty rather than superman.  Of course,  I realize that I was born with a naturally low temperature set point and all foreigners do not have the same the “warm” feeling I have in Japanese public places.

I have endured countless lectures about the dangers of not wearing a coat in Japan when all those around me are wrapped in layers but have found it is better to smile rather than to explain.  Some of those who golf with me on a crisp winter morning seem to understand that my threshold for cold is different than that of the locals. I once played a winter round in short sleeves and asked my playing partner how many layers he had on. He had four thin layers on under his bulky top layer and also had disposable “heat bags” sealed on his inner layer.

Despite my love for the country overall, the Japanese desire to stay warm leaves me cold………  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lessons Learned

For most of the past 20 years, I have been involved in international business. Like many of my generation seeking upward mobility, I worked a few years after graduating from college and then got an MBA. Over the years I also attended “executive” education courses at some of the top business schools. Despite all the expensive training, I found most of my business education of marginal value compared to actual experience. The majority of successful business relationships I have made over the years weren’t because of complicated strategies and clever tactics. Business boils down to people and establishing a good reason for them to trust you with their business.
We found the guy from the Lonely Planet Cover

Over the years my family lived in Asia, we visited many places that would not be considered hot beds of business education. Cities like Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Siem Reap, and Lhasa but in each place I learned a lesson that had more value than many of the case studies I toiled over in business school.

During our first trip to Viet Nam, we stayed in central Ho Chi Minh City. Shortly after arrival, we went for a walk. A few blocks from the hotel we were approached by a little girl that looked like a 3rd grader but was probably in Jr. High. She immediately asked about our family – how old were our daughters? Where were we from? Why did we come to Viet Nam? What were our travel plans while we in her country? She was charming and spoke English very well. After drawing us in, she got down to business by showing us what she wanted to sell us - Lonely Planet Travel Guides which a large percentage of ex-pats on vacation use for reference. She told us the books she had were great copies run on nearby high speed presses – she also threw in a few more technical details that went over my head. She handed the Lonely Planet Guide for Viet Nam to my wife and offered us a price that was about 25% of what we would have paid for it in a bookstore. Ever the careful shopper, my wife started to look though the book. The girl pointed out that the cover was just as good quality as an original. Suspicious that my wife was making sure all the pages were in the book, the young lady stopped her and said: “look, lady - this book is good quality and cheap – are you really going to check all the pages when you are spending less than $4?, it isn’t worth your time”. This kid was a sales guru – in the space of a couple minutes she had charmed us and established a relationship, qualified us as customers, showed her product, handled objections, and put a closing argument on us we were powerless to walk away from. In the end we bought more than one book. A true sales professional in a child’s body, I can only imagine what the future holds for her.
New friends - we wound up going to their house

A few days later we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the ruins at Angkor Wat. We were tired and sweaty after a long day of hiking and climbing. As we made our way back to our hired car, a young lady confidently approached us. “Hi, I am Lillian, are you Americans?” she asked. When she got an affirmative response, she followed up with “what state are you from?” Once she heard North Carolina, she said “the capital of North Carolina is Raleigh” and then said “I know every state capital”. That was her hook – she reeled us in. “Ok”, I replied “what is the capital of South Dakota?”  “Pierre” was the immediate response. I closed with “Mississippi?” Her rejoinder was “Jackson”.  Fully aware that the majority of graduating high school seniors in the US cannot name all the states and state capitals, I was impressed by this pre-teen from the third world who was preparing to access my wallet. Her transition to making a sale wasn’t brilliant but it was effective. She told us that since she had shown us that she knew something about our country; she wanted to “help” us learn more about her country. She produced a slightly dog – eared copy of a book about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot – who was responsible for the massive genocide in Cambodia that happened during my college years. Since she was asking more than the price printed on the book and the book wasn’t new, I tried to negotiate the price but she was having none of it. She closed the deal with a smile and I walked away, humbled but pleased, with my over-priced book.

What impressed me about both transactions was that unlike so many experiences when people try to sell to tourists in the third world, neither of these young ladies made the common “guilt” pitch that we should buy whatever they had to sell because we had money and they were going pester us until we gave them some.  
Waiting to climb the stairs at Potala

A couple years later we visited Tibet. Lhasa was definitely on my bucket list but we had some concerns about accomodations and food. I had visited much of rural China and knew when travel agents talk about “best available” accommodations – it normally is not good news. We were lucky in Lhasa - all the toilet paper and granola bars I brought  with me turned out to be unnecessary insurance. We stayed in what had been the Embassy for Nepal. We had a great time in the thin mountain air.  Thinking our time on the “rooftop of the world” would mean a week of roughing it, we were surprised to see Mexican and French restaurants in unimpressive buildings but with great food. One night after having excellent cheeseburgers, we walked out of a restaurant and were greeted by a young girl who asked if I knew the words to “Red River Valley” – when I told her I didn’t know all the words, she asked if I would sing it with her anyway. Strange request on a dusty side street in Tibet from a girl who was born during the heyday of the “Smashing Pumpkins”. I did my best to sing along with this girl who was tolerant of this glaring gap in my musical knowledge. In the distance I could see an older man watching the girl carefully. I didn’t get the feeling he was a stalker so I assumed they were connected. When the singing was over, I asked why she knew the song. She said her grandfather learned it from Americans who ended up in China during WW II. He learned English from songs. I assumed grandpa was the man watching from afar.

A few minutes passed as my wife and daughters spoke with “Sarah” – her English name. It came up in conversation that we were living in Japan. Suddenly a torrent of Japanese came out of Sarah’s mouth. I asked her in Japanese how she learned Japanese. Again – grandpa. At that point, I really wanted to meet grandpa so I walked over and introduced myself and asked about his precocious granddaughter. He explained that the Chinese government was changing Tibet and that he wanted to prepare Sarah for a life outside of Tibet and maybe outside of China. A couple times a week they went out on the streets of Lhasa so she could practice speaking foreign languages with native speakers. He normally stayed in the distance so that Sarah would learn better how to interact and rely on her own skills. I could have spent a couple days talking with this interesting old man. Grandpa had a clearer globalization strategy for his granddaughter than most American companies have for their business. Grandpa was clearly not a man of means but he was getting his granddaughter ready to succeed in a changing world. Rather than try to sell us something, Sarah wound up giving my wife and daughters bracelets. We also got her email address and it was our hope to stay in touch. Unfortunately we never got a response to emails sent to that address. Hopefully we simply wrote it down incorrectly.

Traveling in Asia as a family for over a decade was a great experience. We always called it “vacation” but the lessons we learned were priceless.