Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Old Thoughts on a New Year

Monday, January 2, 2012

Each country I have lived in or visited seems to take the "New Year" seriously - at least for the first few days of the 12 month cycle. We may not all celebrate the New Year at the same time (for example, Chinese New Year) but the desire to have a fresh start, to conquer bad habits or to work harder seems universal. Whether we watch a ball drop in a city center and proclaim this New Year will be the "best ever", visit a shrine and write down our wishes or shoot off fireworks all night, the first day of the year brings a sense of expectation.

Thirty years ago, as 1982 dawned, I wrote down several goals. One was to run a marathon (which I did - actually I ran 4 in the last 7 months of the year). Another was to start writing a book - even then I was hedging since I wrote down "start" which implied I would not finish in 1982. I neither finished nor started a book that year nor in any subsequent year. As my life got busier, I even stopped having a list of goals most years. One exception was 3 years ago when I decided to lose some weight and by June was down to a couple kilos less than my high school graduation weight. To state the obvious point - goals are powerful things.

Twenty years ago, I never expected to be climbing Mt Fuji

As I sit in my home office on the morning of the 2nd day of 2012, I have already heard from my elder daughter, who graduated from University in May. She sent a text stating her flight to NYC landed on time (7:25am) so she can get her laundry done from the holidays before going back to work tomorrow. She decided to move to NYC after graduation to pursue her dreams despite a lousy job market and no job offer in hand. The job came shortly after she decided to act. The child teaches the parent.

My younger daughter is sleeping upstairs and will fly back to LA, where she goes to University, this afternoon. She is where she is because she dares to dream.

My younger daughter - perhaps pondering her future in the Japanese Alps

 I spend a lot of time thinking about the goals of my children and how their life choices have been shaped by living overseas. My wife and I were adults when we moved to Asia 12 years ago but our girls were young and lived 8 and 11 years in Asia, respectively. Their goals and dreams are much bigger than mine when I was their age. Part of that difference is changes in the world and technology which makes the globe a more open place but a large part is having lived in two Asia culture during their formative years.

Since we left Asia 13 months ago, I have been back 9 times and will spend a good part of January in Asia and then South America. Keeping a foot in my "Asian world" helped me adjust to being back in the US but as I reflect on 2011, I realize it is time to reflect on my goals from the 30 years ago. It is time for new dreams without forgetting the old ones. I may start that long overdue book in 2012 - I also might finish it. One thing that the last 30 years has shown me is the simple concept that we can only finish the things we actually begin. Dreaming is good, doing is better but the critical thing is deciding to act.

In the past 12 years, I have spent the New Year holiday in Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, China and the US but for all those New Years, I knew I was going to continue on the path I was on as far as living and working. This year it is time to make a change. I realize I am still young enough to do something new and I have a supportive wife and family. It is time to write "the book" - at least metaphorically speaking.

New Year indeed.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Time Capsule

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Sabrina, my former assistant in Shanghai. My old company was changing offices. During the packing, Sabrina found a thick envelope with personal pictures of mine. She told me to she was sending them. A few days later the pictures arrived in a DHL envelope.

Opening that package with dozens of pictures from my first couple of years traveling to Asia was like shifting through items in a time capsule. Looking at the images brought back memories from the time when travel to Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore seemed so exotic to me. In the 1990s, the thought of actually moving my family to Japan was unimaginable. China was not even on my radar as a place I might visit let alone live for five years.

These days flying to Tokyo or Shanghai is as normal as taking a flight from Charlotte to NYC but to the younger man I see in those pictures traveling to Asia every six or eight weeks during the late 1990s was a constant source of wonder. I had forgotten many of the people and places from the early days. I now realize how much I miss the joy of getting to know a culture so different from my own but one that made me feel at home even as a complete stranger. I would never presume to say I am an expert in any Asian culture but after traveling all over Asia and living in Japan and China for eleven years I regret to say I lost the sense of wonder that made the first trips so special.

Some of the people in the pictures are no longer living. A picture of my late friend Fukuma san brought back wonderful memories of traveling cluelessly all over Japan on my first few trips. Perhaps to keep me from learning too much about business details our Japanese partner sent me off for several days of customer visits with the non-English speaking Fukuma san. We both felt a little awkward to start but quickly developed a great friendship despite the language barrier. In meetings not having a translator had some advantages – the natural Japanese inclination to be good hosts seemed to overcome me not knowing protocol. My handler was powerless to counsel me given the lack of a common language. Fortunately, every customer had a “write board” and markers.  I used chemical formulas, numbers and filled in the gaps as much as I could by drawing and diagraming my questions. Those early meetings were a bit like a game of Pictionary on steroids. It became obvious to me that most of the “non English speakers" were English readers to some extent which helped a great deal. Most of the people I was meeting were not used to dealing with foreigners so it was a new and different experience for them too. It was a first step in doing business but I didn’t want to stay at that childlike level for too long.
Fukuma san smiling after golf
On my next trip to Japan a few weeks later, our partner took a different strategy with the “returning gaijin” and sent me off to visit customers with two English speakers or more correctly two speakers of “Japanglish” that linguistic twilight zone where sentences contain words in both languages and understanding the intended meaning is not always the end result of the dialogue. One of my companions was Murai san. Twenty four years my senior and blessed with a near photographic memory, Murai san liked the fact I came with more questions than answers which was a new experience for him when dealing with “one trip wonders” from America. Eighteen years after our first meeting, Murai san has retired but remains a friend. We still meet for dinner and play golf from time to time. Murai san was in elementary school when WWII ended which gave him a great perspective on the rise of Japan from the postwar ashes. His perspective on Japanese relations with Americans and his encyclopedic knowledge of the lithium business in Japan was invaluable to me. I loved the fact that although polite, Murai san was tough. He accepted me as someone sincere about learning Japanese business style and culture but was not hesitant to make me the butt of his good natured jokes. Once I decided to study Japanese, I provided an almost endless stream of linguistic errors that kept Murai san and his colleagues laughing more than I thought possible for the normally serious Japanese salary men.
Murai san (on the left) was also my karaoke sensei
The joint venture we had with Murai san’s company was doing well due to the invention of the lithium ion battery. More people from my company wanted to come to Japan to “take a look”. Often I was accompanied by two or three people that wanted to tell our partner how to “improve their business”. Murai san appreciated the quality of our product but did not think much of the latest business fads from America. He thought too many people came over – he would share his sarcasm with me under his breath with quips like “is this another MBA case study?” as a colleague droned through a deck of PowerPoint slides in rapid fire, unintelligible US business jargon or “did you charter a 747 this time?” when too many people from my company showed up for a meeting. On one occasion a second time visitor from the US was asked what he would like to eat for dinner. The reply was an unreasonable request that would have required visits to three or four restaurants to fulfill. Murai san whispered to me in a Japanese phrase that Fukuma san had taught me  that I needed to learn how to train my colleagues better. I appreciated the fact I was beginning to be viewed as a bridge or sorts between the cultures.
As I made my way through the stack of pictures, I came across a picture of Miyata san – in front of his dental clinic in the Okura hotel complex in Tokyo. By the time I met Miyata san, I had been traveling to Asia for more than two years. In a dozen trips I had become very comfortable in Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. One afternoon in Taipei I encountered a “hard foreign object” in a plate of fried rice. Unfortunately a tooth in the back my mouth did not survive the experience. Suddenly I had tooth fragments in my mouth and after taking a breath it was obvious I had an exposed nerve. I was three days into a twelve day trip and scheduled to fly to Tokyo a few hours later. My host offered to try to find me a dentist but I knew my travel timeline did not allow for an afternoon dental visit. I had never fainted in my life but the dull pain was growing and I was feeling weak in the knees. My company provided international travelers with an SOS card which allegedly enabled you to obtain emergency assistance anywhere on the planet. I got to a phone and called the number. This was before the “call center” craze and I was connected with someone in Philadelphia rather than Mumbai. Unfortunately when I said I was in Taipei, the reply was “where?”. I said “Taiwan – close to Japan, not too far from Mainland China”. “Sorry I need to check a map” was the reply. Sensing a lack of competence on the other end of the line, I hung up and called the Okura hotel in Tokyo where I was staying that night. I explained my situation and after a short wait they said a dentist would meet me at the hotel when I arrived at 11PM. I had hoped the hotel could help but was shocked that I could have a dentist meet me late at night.

I suffered through the intervening few hours of travel, checked in to the Okura and was escorted to the dental clinic which was conveniently located between buildings in the hotel. Miyata san was in his 20s and accompanied by his girlfriend who was fluent in English. I explained my situation and he asked me if I wanted a temporary fix or a crown. He went on to explain that if I got a crown I would need to have three appointments. He said that he would be able to schedule them in the early morning or evening so I continue with my business schedule. I liked this guy and was happier when I found out he went to dental school in  the US. I was sure his English was ok but he insisted his girlfriend would be there each time to make sure I could fully understand him. He smiled and said his practice was new and I was his first gaijin patient. He then told me the price, which was very high by US standards, but a low priority compared to the pain in my mouth. He took care of my pain and we agreed to meet again early the next morning.

I skipped breakfast and was a little early for my appointment. There was a book in the waiting room, I began to read. The book was a fascinating story about the first Japanese person to have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The days past, the extra visit I needed was to meet a coloring specialist to ensure the color of my crown matched my other teeth perfectly – “Miyata san”, I protested, “this is the back of my mouth and my teeth are not so perfect anyway – don’t worry about it”. Miyata san smiled and said “Lowry san, your teeth are a long lasting record of my work, please be patient”. I was already hooked on Japan but come on – this guy is worried about the color of a tooth in the back of my mouth that I have trouble seeing in the mirror.
Miyata san - after taking care of his first gaijin patient
 On the morning of my last visit I paid and handed the half read book back to his receptionist. I said that I regretted not being able to finish the book but was happy my mouth was back to normal. Miyata san walked me out. I thanked him, we bowed and parted.

The rest of that day was filled with meetings and dinner. I returned to my room and my message light was on. I called the front desk. “We have a package for you.” In the package was the book I had been reading. I read the note attached to the cover which said that Miyata san was happy I enjoyed the book and he wanted me to finish it. The author had autographed it inside the front cover. The author was about to become Miyata san’s father in law.
Each picture in the envelope brought back a great memory. Thanks Sabrina.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The New Silk Road

One of my favorite places in China is Xinjiang Province in the northwest part of the country. The Northern Silk Road trading route wound through the province centuries ago. The feeling is more Middle Eastern than Chinese due to the mix of ethnic minorities. I began visiting the main city of Urumqi on business in 2002. Over the years I visited Xinjiang more than a dozen times. Despite the rapid modernization in the province, no one will confuse doing business in Xinjiang with doing business in Shanghai, Tokyo or New York.
Life in the slow lane on the Old Silk Road
On my first visit, I stayed in what is euphemistically known as the “best available” hotel. At check-in, after showing my passport and signing several forms, I was "upgraded" which I assumed was probably a loose interpretation of the word. As I walked down the dark hall to my suite, I could only imagine what was on the other side of the door. To my surprise, the room was huge with a beautiful view of the snowcapped mountains outside the city. To my dismay, broadband had not made its way to western China. After several calls to the front desk and a couple of visits from the hotel "tech" expert who was also the bartender – I was in business; connected to my company server in the US by a 14.4 kbps (that is kilobyte not megabyte) connection. Anyway, a few hours later I had my email. On my fourth visit to Xinjiang, a couple years later I stayed in a brand new Sheraton with very fast broadband but I digress.
Nothing typical about a business lunch in Xinjiang
The hosts on my inaugural visit were the management of a large State Owned Company. They liked to entertain but instead of playing golf, they preferred big screen karaoke while drinking “bai jiu” (53% alcohol), riding horses or having an outdoor lunch of very fresh lamb. Fresh in the sense that the lamb is alive when you arrive at the Yurt where lunch is served. On my first trip, after a brief business meeting, we drove to an ancient village for a tour followed a stop at the lowest point in Central Asia. By mid-afternoon we were part way up the nearby mountains at 2,000 meters sitting outside a Yurt eating a feast of local lamb and vegetables. After a post-meal horse ride we headed to a Muslim restaurant for more food and a culture show. The busy day was concluded in front of a full wall sized karaoke screen (something I never saw in Japan). On this occasion instead of “bai-jiu” they brought in Xinjiang Black Beer to lubricate our vocal cords.
Far away from the polluted skies of eastern China, the blue skies of Xinjiang
The customers on the Old Silk Road weren’t my most profitable but they were probably the most interesting.

It was our faithful driver Philip who introduced us to the "New Silk Road". A few weeks ago I made a brief stop in Shanghai as part of a longer trip around Asia. One of my assignments was to bring back 13 pair of pearl earrings requested by a friend of my wife for her daughter’s wedding party. Knowing me to be a reluctant shopper, a week before the trip, my wife emailed Philip and asked him to visit her favorite pearl shop in Shanghai. Always eager to please Philip asked for specifications and said he would do his best.
Philip - one of the founding fathers of the New Silk Road

 The next morning Philip’s smiling face appeared on my phone. He had driven to the pearl shop and requested my wife’s friend Laura, the shop owner, give him her wireless password. Then he connected my wife with Laura via Facetime on his IPhone. From 7,500 miles away over the New (wireless) Silk Road, my wife chatted with her old friend, looked at various options and made her selection. Philip was happy because he didn’t have to worry about picking the pearls or negotiating the price.

One of the speed bumps on the New Silk Road - wireless "disconnections" courtesy of China internet "management"

A few days later Philip picked up the earrings and brought them to the airport when he met me. My part in the deal was only to pay Philip and put the earrings in my briefcase.  Several cities and ten days later, I landed in Charlotte with the goods. A few days later while I was on a morning run, my wife’s friend was out on a walk. She waved and said “thank you for the beautiful pearls”. I smiled, waved and said "thank Philip" under my breath.
Philip, loving all things Apple, will say that Steve Jobs invented the New Silk Road. I think Philip did.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

"First Anniversary"

It has been two months since my last blog post. For almost three years, I have averaged a post every week to ten days so this long break is unusual; however, I was a little surprised when people started sending me emails asking if I had switched blog sites or if I am “ok”. 

So with the calendar reading September 1, I figured my blogging summer vacation should end. It was almost a year ago I wrote my most widely read post about getting “RIFed”, fired, “let go” or whatever phrase you want to use for being sent unceremoniously into the dark world of unemployment. When I checked my blog readership statistics it was somehow oddly comforting that readers from over 25 countries using ten different browsers and nine operating systems connected with my sad tale of corporate politics and pettiness.
Like most people suddenly out of work, my first inclination was to find another job. Although getting sent off to the work equivalent of Siberia was an emotional blow, I had no immediate financial concerns due to a severance package and eleven years of saving most of my income while I was on an ex-pat package.

In many ways, the past year felt like my first expat years in Japan and China. Although I was living in my home country this time, I was suddenly thrust into a new world where I had no corporate infrastructure supporting me and was, for the most part, flying by the seat of my pants.  Fortunately I have an insightful and supportive wife who quietly helped me figure out what I wanted to do next. She encouraged me to keep a journal which included the practical things I needed to do to ensure a smooth transition as I worked my last few days but more importantly the journal included ideas about my future – both my own and those from many friends who called me to check-in. I also found out who my real friends are – in many cases the people who supported me the most were not the ones I expected to “be there” for me. I received many positive and humbling surprises as I found out many people really did want to help me sort out my future. My desire to head back to normal corporate life quickly evaporated as I began to talk to friends about potential opportunities to work with multiple companies.

As the first few weeks passed and I mentally “cut the cord” from the habit of driving to the office or airport to start my days, I began to feel isolated and miss the camaraderie that can exist in small groups even in generally unhappy work environments. I came to realize that my feelings were a normal part of the emotional roller coaster that accompanies any major life change. Fortunately in week 6 of my new life I was off to Japan to sign my first contract. The idea that I am working for myself is a bit of a misnomer since in many cases, I am working with old friends who value my experience.  The first contract led to another with a major Japanese company just a few weeks later. By April, I was working for several companies and had more than replaced my corporate income.  In early summer I even managed to sign an agreement with a US company.

From time to time I got calls from headhunters who told me that the individual that fired me gave them my name. I found that interesting since he never was one to speak favorably about me. I decided not to spend too much time pondering that situation.
My days of being pictured in Annual Reports are over
I became a regular on Linked In which I previously didn’t pay much attention to. I developed a much better appreciation for networking and learned to enjoy working from home which I dreaded at first. My days are flexible – a couple hours of work early, a visit to the gym or a run, a little more work, maybe nine holes of golf, some phone calls, a walk with the dog and a couple nights a week Skype calls with clients in Asia.  My travel is down overall but next week I will make my fifth trip to Asia in nine months so I am doing enough traveling to keep life interesting.

As my “first anniversary” approaches, I am considering new business opportunities and looking forward to year two. Several friends who helped me over the past year are regular readers - all I can say is "thank you"

Friday, June 28, 2013

The "James Bond" syndrome - a politically incorrect tale of mistaken identity

One day many years ago as my undergraduate days wound down I stopped by the university bookstore for a reason that escapes my memory. One of my roommates who was also a close friend was in the store with his visiting mother. He introduced me and the three of us had a brief, pleasant but otherwise unmemorable interaction. Two days later I passed by mother and son in a nearby restaurant. Again, we chatted briefly about nothing in particular.

The next day my roommate, who happened to be a Native American from the Navajo nation, commented: “my mom really liked you”. “Do tell”, I responded. His reply: “well for one thing she recognized you in the restaurant, yesterday”. “What does that mean?” was my less than delicate reply. “Well”, he said with a characteristic smile, “normally she can’t tell one white person from another but she picked you out immediately, she even remembered your name”.

After a college career as close friends, I knew when make light of a comment and when not to. Although my mind said: “that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard”; my vocal cords uttered: “Well, I am honored”. My mind grappled with the idea that to a middle aged lady from the “Four Corners” area of the US, maybe all white people did look alike. Over the next two decades as I moved to various parts of America and finally to Asia, the comment of my roommate’s mom became a touchstone for me regarding the fact that to understand people of different backgrounds I needed to try to view things through the eyes I was looking into rather than my own. Despite my best intentions, given my small town America upbringing it was still hard for me to appreciate my status as a minority in the global scheme of things. And then came the “James Bond” syndrome.
the real deal
During my first few weeks living in Asia, I made a trip to Shenzhen, China. I was there to meet a new and important customer. The afternoon meeting was followed by the customary dinner. I was the only non-Asian at a table for ten. As one course was consumed and another came, I noticed that our host, the lady who owned the company, was looking at me and joking with her seatmates across the table. Not understanding the language, I wondered if I had somehow breached etiquette. Finally the mystery was translated: “we have been discussing how much you look like James Bond.” Being a long time Sean Connery fan, I wanted to confirm exactly which James Bond I allegedly looked like. “Which one?” I asked – generating an awkward “lost in translation” moment.  Of course, had I drawn upon the lesson from my roommate’s mother I would have realized that “all James Bonds must look alike”. All I got for an answer that night was: “yes, yes – you James Bond, really James Bond, ha ha ha”.

A couple weeks later my younger (seven year old) daughter came home after a visit to a new friend’s house. After a brief report on her day she told me that her friend’s mom “thinks you look just like James Bond”. Still hoping to be the Sean Connery version of 007 rather than Timothy Dalton version, I foolishly inquired “which one?” A quizzical look was all I got in return. My daughter was a “Star Wars” fan.
Not James, Bill or George circa 1994
The fun was just beginning. It seemed that if “all white people look alike”; I could be anyone and apparently I was.  Traveling with a colleague a few weeks later I was stopped in Taiwan and asked if I was Mel Gibson. Ironically I was traveling with the same person a few weeks later and was stopped in Buenos Aires and asked “the Mel Gibson” question. Quite certain, I bore no resemblance to Sean Connery or Mel Gibson; I became more and more convinced that depending on the city, I really could be anyone - assuming they were white and sufficiently famous. Travel was more exciting since I was never sure who I would be when I landed. Months passed, I was spotted as James Bond in China twice – in Chengdu and Shanghai. I was less successful in Tokyo – I was spotted there as Tony Curtis (I was pretty sure he was dead) and “that pro golfer”. Occasionally I was simply asked if I was somebody famous. In Japan, I would respond that: “I am nobody famous” which given the confusion a negative, positive response generates with Japanese seemed only to confirm, incorrectly, that I was indeed famous.

I realize many parents of my generation tell their kids “you can grow up to be President”. My mom never told me that but I was to find out as my hair grayed that I could look - to the Asian eye anyway, like Bill Clinton or George W. Bush and sometimes both in the same week. Occasionally it seemed I went from looking like them to being them. Over the years I stayed in the same hotels as both Presidents Clinton and Bush did in Tokyo and Singapore. One time as I finished a run in Singapore, a local excitedly spotted me as “43”. President Bush was in town during a stopover on the way to an APEC meeting so between that fact and perhaps being legally blind (he was wearing glasses), I could see how the person could make the mistake. I am not sure where he thought the secret service detail was.

Now that I am spending most of my time in North Carolina, I have gotten used to being my bland, non-famous self but on my regular trips to Asia, I know there is a chance I may morph into someone else, briefly. I wonder if my roommate’s mother would recognize me now.

Friday, May 31, 2013

That's the Ticket

Last night as my wife and I were driving home from seeing a touring production of “War Horse”, we turned off the highway onto a country road shortcut only to encounter a classic southern tradition – the “speed trap”. As I passed the two police cars I looked at my speedometer and felt I was within “normal tolerances”.  I thought I had dodged the proverbial speed trap bullet. Unfortunately as I turned the next corner, I saw blue and white lights come alive behind me. Twenty minutes later, citation in hand, I began to reflect on similar experiences in Japan, New Zealand, and China.
Japan has very nice police cars
My wife drove our car much more than I did in Japan since I commuted by train. Upon getting her first parking ticket, she decided to “do the Japanese thing” and give the police an apology letter hoping to get out of the $150 fine. She had the front desk staff at our apartment translate the letter. She drove to the police station, bowed and presented the bilingual letter to the officer on duty. Unfortunately the duty officer had been educated in the US and spoke perfect English – “this is very, very good “ he said with a smile “may I post it on our bulletin boardl” he continued. “Unfortunately” he concluded “you still have to pay the fine but we appreciate your effort”. Japanese police: 1 Team Gaijin: 0.

Many ex-pats in Japan either did not drive or stayed close to home when they did. My bride is made of sterner stuff and taught her Japanese friends the meaning of “road trip”. One day, she took three Japanese friends on a long excursion to visit a cultural spot. Two hours into the trip she was pulled over for speeding. Always a quick thinker, she turned to her friends and said “do not say anything - today you are all Americans of Japanese descent who can only speak English, I will do the talking". These normally law abiding citizens of the land of the rising sun followed their friend's lead. As the officer approached the door, my wife took the initiative – “good morning, I am sorry, we are Americans and nobody speaks Japanese, do you speak English?” The officer surveyed the car and was immediately suspicious – quickly asking questions to the other ladies in Japanese. Surprisingly all three ladies adapted quickly to the deception and with poker faces shook their heads “no”. Had they spoken, even in English, their accents would have given them away as native Japanese speakers. Sensing victory, my wife diverted attention from her guests and started speaking in a torrent of quick English, “is something wrong, could you please call a translator, I am sorry”. Nothing turns the tide in Japan like a good “I am sorry” followed up with a not too well pronounced “sumimasen” (a "catch all" apology in Japanese). Although the officer still seemed hard pressed to believe the three Japanese ladies in the car were “from California”, my wife pressed her advantage with another apology and the officer finally said (summoning his school boy English) “Ok, ok, prease (not a typo) slow down”.  Japanese police: 1 Team Gaijin 1. As my wife pulled back onto the highway, the car erupted in joy "sugoi (wow), Connie san, you are great negotiator, ha ha ha". The high point of that trip came before the destination......
This was not our last encounter with Japanese traffic police but we were content to end our days in Japan in a draw. Final score was 3 to 3.
The Kiwis have almost as many "speed cameras" as sheep
My first encounter with non US traffic police came during a vacation trip on the South Island of New Zealand on the day after Christmas. I was having a ball driving a powerful car on the two lane roads of the sparsely populated island nation. As we sped toward a glacier we wanted to hike on, I saw the unmistakable form of a police car pulled across the road with his “rack” on. I slowed down and then stopped a few yards in front of the car. A very tall uniformed officer was calmly waiting for me. Given he elected to pull his car across the road and stand outside his car, the Kiwi cop clearly wasn't worried about causing a traffic jam in this remote area. I had the passing thought that maybe he was just lonely.....

As we were coming to a stop, my wife and daughters began to strategize. Their conclusion was I should tell the officer we were in a hurry because it was a “special time” of the month and they were out of “pads” so we were hurrying to find a convenience store. I smiled at the hastily thrown together strategy but decided to play this situation straight. The line that  “we are searching for the nearest convenience store at the bottom of the southern hemisphere to secure feminine protection” seemed a little weak from my perspective as the only male in the car.  
“Hello, where are you from?” asked the surprisingly friendly cop. I meekly replied, “we live in Japan but are from America”, “that’s great, welcome and I hope you enjoy New Zealand - unfortunately I have to treat you like everybody else”. I was invited to sit in the police car while we worked out the details of my $300 fine for going “>2X the speed limit”. The Kiwi cop took my passport and input the number into his little computer console and then asked if I didn’t “see the sign” stating I was entering a town. “I saw the sign but never saw the town” I replied - not trying to demean the local populace (of two?) but trying hard to understand how a single house and a barn constituted a town. Anyway, while my family waited in our rental car and discussed my failure to play the “pad” card, I had a very nice chat with the cop who wound down our conversation by reminding me to stop at any “authorized” national bank to pay my fine before I left NZ or my passport would be “flagged” at the airport. His final words were “what happens in New Zealand, stays in New Zealand. As I left the car, I whispered to myself “well played, sir”. Who says Kiwis don’t have a sense of humor?

After Japan, we lived in Shanghai. Most US companies will not allow their expat employees to get a license or drive in China. Since I was the first American my employer sent to China, they didn’t think of all the details. Readers of this blog are already acquainted with our driver in China, Philip, but both my wife and I got Chinese driver’s licenses because we wanted the freedom to be able to drive ourselves from time to time. Although my wife and I both drove, we didn’t normally go very far without Philip behind the wheel.
Philip never believed that "silence is golden"
Philip needed to keep his driver’s license to keep his job. A natural charmer, I loved to watch Philip deal with police. We spent a lot of time on the road and were flagged down by police on several occasions. Each time Philip reacted the same way – he jumped out of the car and met the officer as far away from our car as possible. I learned to watch the face of the cop change from stern to neutral to friendly. Philip would just keep talking and point toward the car from time to time. He would look toward me and then turn and whisper to the officer. The abbreviated version of Philip’s line to the officer went something like this: “we are Chinese brothers who must work for a living”. “Unfortunately I have a very tough American boss who is always in a hurry trying to make money “. “Please help me, I need to keep a good driving record but my boss is so tough”. In every case, when we were together, Philip talked his way out of the ticket.

I didn’t mind being the prop that Philip used to keep a clean driving record. Normally we did a high five as we pulled away. If only it was that easy to get out of a ticket in the US.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Story of a Trip

On April 15th my wife drove me to the airport so I could begin another 12 day around the world trip. No sooner had I passed through security when the Skype app on my phone beeped. One of my clients that was supposed to meet me in a few days discovered that, although his visa to travel from China to Japan was valid, his passport did not have the required 6 months validity to allow him to enter the country and it would require ten business days to get his China passport reissued. Two days of meetings scheduled with a potential Japanese partner were suddenly off. I had too many other meetings planned to cancel the trip but I had to hope that hour two of my trip went better than hour one.

After a short flight to Washington where I was catching my international flight, I found a seat in the lounge and worked on a presentation I wanted to finish before spending the next 20 hours in transit. A text message came in – did you hear about Boston? My response was a simple “no, what happened”? The unbelievable news came back so I immediately checked the internet for details. I have relatives in Boston and was fairly sure I knew at least a dozen people who were running the marathon. As I searched for stories on internet I thought about the day, many years before, that I ran the Boston Marathon and how crowded it was at the start and finish. My thought was that there could be hundreds dead or injured. Reports were still jumbled as I went to the gate to catch my flight but it was clear there had been both death and critical injuries. I found out that flights from Boston and New York were stopped due to the fear of a terrorist attack. Washington flights were still allowed to proceed. I wondered if this was an isolated event or the first stage of broader plot. I needed to wait another 8 hours when I landed in Zurich before I had more details. Tragedy often brings perspective. How could I worry about the minor issues with my trip in light of what was happening in Boston?

I walked off the plane in Switzerland and checked my phone for news – several emails from all over the world expressing concern about the events in Boston. Anytime there is a terrorist act or major weather event (hurricane, etc) in the US, I get email expressing concern from friends in Asia. They know I come from a big family that is spread around the country. I have always found these emails a comforting verification that people actually do care. I read several reports from Boston on-line but the story was still unfolding. There were no additional bombs and number of fatalities and injuries was less than I expected. I went to my gate for another long flight and watched the unbelievably tough security at an El Al gate for a flight to Tel Aviv. Each bombing in America seems an anomaly in the generally safe environment we have. The Israelis have a much different situation which added more perspective to the complicated feelings I was experiencing. El Al probably has the best airport security in the world. As I took a picture of the Swiss mountains, a man in a dark suit approached me and asked if I was on the flight to Tel Aviv. I was happy to respond, “no, I am on the flight at the next gate”. His look said “clear the area”. I didn’t comment as I moved toward my gate.

I left the efficient and very secure Swiss airport for the more “interesting” environment of Bangkok. Customs was quick and the traffic light on the cross town trip to my hotel. After a visit to the gym, I had a short meeting and a dinner of local food with an Australian buddy and his Thai colleague. My Aussie friend speaks Russian and Spanish in addition to English but his efforts to speak Thai brought quizzical looks from the waiter and bursts of high energy laughter from his colleague. I guess that’s why I leave my attempts at speaking Thai to “sewa dee” (hello) and “kop kun krap” (thank you).

I got a few hours’ sleep and left the hotel at 4am for a 6am departure for Tokyo. I am not sure why any flight needs to leave for anywhere at 6am but at least I was upgraded to first class and slept for five hours of the six hour flight. After another gym visit and dinner by myself, I focused on getting some sleep but stayed awake longer than I intended listening to CNN  reports on the Boston story.

Before the trip I made a conscious decision to try to do few new things (or normal things at new places) on this trip. I was fortunate to play golf at a course I had never played on my first full day in the country. On Saturday, friends took me to a part of the city I had never seen to watch a flamenco dancing show one of their colleagues was in. Afterward, I went for an early dinner with the group – the lone outsider with a close knit office group. I always enjoy interacting with groups of people that work together in Japan. This bunch was extremely close and it was fun getting to know them. I have done business with their company for longer than any of them have been employed. The younger people who had limited experience with foreigners were surprised to listen to me tell stories about the history of their company and stories about their boss. Good fun.

CNN and BBC kept me updated on what was happening in Boston. One of the bombers was already dead and pictures of his accomplice (and younger brother) appeared constantly on the TV screen in my room. It seemed there was no broader threat related to this incident. I focused on the coming week. My life went on while several dozens in Boston were left to deal with injuries that will change their lives forever.
In the hotel lobby, I checked my watch. I knew it wasn’t 4am so it seemed I needed a watch battery. After morning meetings and lunch, I had some time in the afternoon so I asked the concierge at the hotel where I could get my battery replaced. She gave me a map and I headed off for a nearby 8 story electronics store.  In the US, getting a new watch battery is a 10 minute exercise at a local shop. In Japan it was more of an adventure. A few steps before I entered the main entrance of the “BIC Camera” Electronics store, I was bombarded with greeting shouts of “Irrashaimase” – the typical greeting when you enter a shop in
Japan - just a little more “over the top” at BIC Camera than in most places. I had been told I could get a watch battery on the 5th floor which turned out to be incorrect. I wandered around looking for a clerk willing to make eye contact with a foreigner. Despite being the land of great service, store clerks who don’t speak English often do their best not to interact with foreigners -  fearing that they might not be able to communicate. Using a combination of my gaijin nature and Japanese, I finally invaded the personal space of a clerk so he couldn’t look away and asked in Japanese where I could get a watch battery. Relieved that this was not an English test, the clerk could not have been more helpful explaining that I could "bring my watch back to life" in the far corner of the sixth floor near the service counter. A minute later I presented myself at the watch battery area only to be asked to talk to the same person after moving several feet to my right where a sign said the equivalent of “enter here”. In my hometown, getting a watch battery is accomplished by saying, “could you replace the battery?”  No additional questions are usually asked. Things are a little more complicated at BIC Camera. After looking over my watch the clerk began 30 seconds of rapid fire Japanese that went beyond my limited vocabulary of things related to watches. I picked up “breaking the seal” and “not sure” and “depth of 100 meters”. Rather than engage in a conversation about the fact that I wasn’t planning on testing the watch guarantee by swimming to a depth of 100 meters anytime soon, I did what I often have to do when speaking Japanese. I guessed and I faked it. Rather than admit I was not exactly sure what he said, I took the part I understood and ran with it. “So desu ne, zen zen mondai nai, daijobu desu”. “Is that so, no problem, it’s ok. I followed with, "how much? and how long”? "How much" was the key. Since he replied 930 Yen ($10) and "san ju pun" (30 minutes), I was pretty sure he was not planning an expensive major tune up. Reminding myself to brush up on my watch related Japanese vocabulary; I took my claim number and told the clerk I would return in 30 minutes. My mission in those 30 minutes was to find the high end but small restaurant where I had been invited for dinner that evening. The friend I was meeting always picks interesting places but they are often hard for him to find let alone a foreigner from out of town. Fortunately, he had sent enough info for me to look the restaurant up in Google Maps and get a street level picture of the front door. I found it in less than 15 minutes and went back to pick up my watch. I paid my 930 Yen and watched the clerk carefully inspect my watch before handing it over to me. Nobody does attention to detail like the Japanese. I solemnly promised not to take the watch on a diving trip, bowed and headed back to the hotel.
That evening with Google Maps leading the way I confidently made my way to the appointed restaurant and spied my host standing in the street scanning the various signs in search of the restaurant he had selected. Doing my best ninja imitation I snuck up behind him and tapped on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I know where it is”, I said. His face turned quizzical and I held up my iPhone showing the map.

I moved on to Osaka for a few days and stopped in LA on the way home to see my younger daughter. By the time I arrived in North Carolina, the Boston bombing was no longer leading the news cycle but was still being discussed. Life goes on. As I write this a few weeks later, the story is mostly a memory to the general public. I guess that is natural but the fact remains that those directly affected by the bombing have senselessly had their lives changed forever. Of the more than 120 around the world trips I have taken over the years, this one will stay in my memory because of what happened in a place that was not on my itinerary.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taxing Matters

Today is tax day in the US. I think it goes without saying that most cultures are united in their dislike of the government getting into their pockets any more than necessary although there certainly are differences as to what various cultures think of as “necessary”. Europeans seem to have the greatest tolerance for high taxes but, of course, there has to be some way to pay for all those weeks of vacation and social benefits that some other regions of the world (including North America) as a general rule don’t get.
Tax Day is upon us
 We have a President that is in hot pursuit of what he believes is a tax policy that requires a “little bit more” out of those he thinks should pay what he deems their “fair share”.  It costs a lot of money to have all those secret service agents on the golf course after burning up copious amounts of jet fuel and advance team personnel hours getting the POTUS to his “home” state of Hawaii or is it Illinois? Do you think the secret service agents do double duty - protecting the President’s (golf) balls from going OB? But I digress.

In 2009, according to a memo from the Joint Committee on Taxation, a bi-partisan Congressional committee, only 49 percent of Americans owed money on their Federal income tax returns. For tax year 2011, the non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimated that only 54 percent of Americans would pay any amount of Federal income tax. The top 20 percent of Americans earn 53.4 percent of the total U.S. income, but pay 67.2 percent of total income tax [source: Tax Policy Center].  Maybe government spending is the problem our leader should be focused on given the President doesn't seem to feel half of the population should pay any tax.

Why is the fair share of tax for half of the citizens in the country – zero? I think our tax policy could be improved but I also think everyone should pay something even if it is a token amount.

The ex-pat has a completely different situation than half of Americans who pay no tax. The ex-pat pays in the country they live in and in the US even if they didn’t set foot in the America one day in the year.

The US is one of the only countries in the world that makes citizens living overseas pay taxes at home when they pay taxes in the country they are living in. Yes, skeptical readers, there are certain exclusions that lower the tax burdens of ex-pats but those exclusions are minimal.

When I lived in Japan, my employer paid KPMG (a large global accounting firm) to do my taxes for Japan and the US. My employer paid all of my Japanese taxes and the extra taxes due in the US because my income was higher when I was working overseas. If the company hadn’t paid my taxes I could not have afforded to live overseas. The first year living Kobe my Japanese taxes were almost as much as my salary. When I got the tax bill in Yen and did the calculation back into dollars, I thought there was an extra zero mistakenly added to the bill. The company wired me the money for the tax payment and that was taxed too. When I complained that taxing the tax payment as income was a like a “circular reference” in a spreadsheet, the local tax office said it wasn’t “because we only tax the first transfer not every time”. Not sure of the logic but fortunately it was not my money paying the tax.

My employer paid the tax without complaint as a “cost of doing business” and I got a nice postcard in the mail from the Ashiya Tax office thanking me for paying my Japanese taxes and giving me a lucky number for the “tax lotto” drawing. I never won the lotto drawing but I saved the postcard.

Being transferred from Japan to China after five years was largely driven by the fact that Japan’s tax laws got even tougher after five years as a resident. The company wanted me to stay in Asia but they didn’t want to pay taxes that amounted to more than my base salary and part of my bonus.

China was even tougher – the company had to pay a higher % of my income and subsidies for housing, the kid’s school, etc each month but at least they gave me a few more deductions.  The tax laws of China also become more severe after five years in country which was part of the reason I never saw year six as a resident of Shanghai.
So between golf boondoggles and keeping Air Force One in the sky, maybe the President should think more about elimininating expenditures like the one below than contemplating what "fair share" means when his target group is already paying most of the tax and half of America is paying nothing. Happy April 15th.

This is just one useless expenditure on a long list of government waste


Monday, April 1, 2013

The Artful Dodger

The recent banning of dodge ball in some American schools would be humorous if it wasn’t so sad. The state that got the ball “rolling” in this case was New Hampshire. Seems odd that a state that has “live free or die” on their license plates would be the first to put an end to this gym class classic.  The ban is part of a larger movement to end “human targeting” activities. Wow! I guess boxing and sumo are probably at risk too. How about the business of being a “head hunter”? Seems like asking somebody to the prom is a human targeting activity. In all my years of school I can’t remember a single serious injury in a dodge ball game but I will confess that I broke a girl’s arm in six grade during a heated kickball battle. She was pitching and I was kicking. Sue Pierce if you read this, I really am sorry….

Perhaps the dodge ball ban is just another sign of a trend that seems to have begun when the baby boomers started having kids: well-intentioned parents who decided that no child’s feelings should be hurt by failure in classrooms or on sports fields. A nice sentiment to be sure but one that seems to be a contributing factor to the growing spirit of dependency and entitlement in many areas of American life. What’s next? No contact or no score football? Or “everybody gets 2400 for writing their name” SATs?

While the good people of New Hampshire consider changing their license plates to read the “land of 10,000 wimps”, the “Tiger Moms” in Asia continue to force their children to work hard and give them very little praise even when they achieve. Meeting expectation does not merit a 2 foot high trophy and endless accolades. Yes, the stories are true. Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Watanabe are “forcing” Xiao Wu and Kentaro chan to go to cram school after their normal classes and do calculus problems followed by violin practice at night and on the weekends. I have never seen a “My child is an honor student at Chairman Mao Jr High” bumper sticker on the roads in China. The Tiger Moms would likely be doing time (going to prison) if they lived in New Hampshire.
A Tiger Mom gets ready for the day - boots not included
I don’t necessarily think the excessive pressure that many parents in Asia put on their kids is the ultimate in child rearing but I think the balance point is a long way from banning dodge ball and a grading systems where a lot more kids get A’s than C’s.

My daughters were seven and ten when we left for Japan in February, 2000. They were on swim, basketball and soccer teams while we lived in North Carolina. It always amazed me how many kids walked out of season ending award events with trophies, ribbons, medals that would have made a winning Super Bowl team in the 1970s proud. “Yes parents, your ‘Bad News Bears’ were 0-12 but let’s give them a big hand for the great season”. I was perfectly happy if my daughters only wanted to participate or just be part of a team. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t want them to be able to fill a trophy case with “participation” awards that would make their rooms look like an Olympic gymnast was in the house.

When we arrived in Japan, our kids went to an international school with students from all over the world. Standards were clear. Our girls enjoyed being challenged. A lot of their friends spoke two or three languages in elementary school. Sports were more about participation than winning but there were no “over the top” awards for showing up. My wife and I actually felt bad that there was so little emphasis on school sports but we got over it.

After five plus years in Japan, we moved on to Shanghai. The school there was more intense. Despite being called Shanghai American School, my kids were the exception – both parents were American and neither of Asian descent. We learned the difference between an “American fail” and an “Asian fail”. An American fail was an “F” and an Asian fail was anything below “A”. Actually, I was making a mild attempt at being politically correct - it wasn’t called an “American fail” it was called a “white fail”. My kids didn’t like the insult but they took it in stride.
We saw first-hand the negative impact of all the pressure on some of our daughter’s friends. Bright kids with great grades and 2,200 plus on SATs who felt the stigma of having to take home a lower score than the parents expected. Of course, they knew they would have to take the SAT prep course and test again.
There was a greater emphasis on sports in Shanghai but academic stars trumped jocks on the school’s “most admired” lists. Most parents considered sports a needless diversion from study.
The irony of the situation was that the vast majority of the Asian kids wanted to go to college in the US. The Asian parents and children all know, despite our allegedly “shiftless” ways in the US; America has the best universities in the world. The target schools were “any Ivy”, Stanford, Michigan, U of Chicago, NYU, etc, etc. Of course, Oxford and the London School of Economics were also acceptable but, by and large, getting accepted to one of the best colleges in America was required or the child was simply a “disappointment”.
Despite our lousy scores in global math and science testing, America is still a leader in innovation and creativity but how long will that last when we spend so much time focusing on nonsense like the “end of dodge ball” and changing the name of “tug of war” to “tug of peace”?

follow me on Twitter: @lowryjp

Sunday, March 17, 2013

March Madness

There weren’t too many American traditions I missed while we were living overseas. My family tried to embrace the local culture. Both Japan and China have such rich histories and interesting holidays that I rarely felt a void – except in March.  Since both my wife and I are part Irish, St. Patrick’s Day has always been a big deal – green clothes, green food, green beer, Italians pretending to be Irish, etc. However, the reality was that I had no trouble temporarily forgoing St. Patrick’s Day in exchange for holidays like “Bunka no Hi”, Tomb Sweeping Day, Chinese New Year or even “White Day”. What left a void during my more than decade long sojourn in Asia was the absence of “March Madness”. 
"Go Irish"
The statistics from the blog tell me that about half my readers live outside the US and come from over 40 countries so perhaps an explanation of “March Madness” is in order. No matter what you have heard, baseball is NOT America’s past time nor, according to a recent deception sweeping the land, is NASCAR. Basketball is - and not the boring brand played by spoiled multimillionaires in the NBA. I am talking about college basketball and more specifically, the season ending conference and NCAA tournaments.
March Madness sweeps the land – the reset button is hit. Even teams that have lost twenty games during a long, cold winter still have a chance at glory if they suddenly find their stride as spring approaches. The rest of the world may stop for a couple of weeks every four years during the World Cup - March Madness is an annual event, too important to be left to even or odd years. The impact is far reaching. People who don’t really care about basketball are drawn in, office productivity declines as workers skulk around office corridors with their “bracket sheets” hidden between file folders so they can fill them out as they pretend to be taking notes in a meeting. Others bring down the US GDP by spending time figuring out how to watch their favorite teams via live streaming on their computers at work. Pizza sales soar but the food industry upside does not compensate for the lost hours across the rest of the economy.

Since I am no longer working for the employer I had during my ex-pat years, I can come clean on the fact that several times during my years in Asia, I arranged trips to the US in March for two reasons: a chance to ski a couple of days and catch part of March Madness. The “productivity police” never knew because there was always some meaningless conference I could sit through in the US in order to get my skiing/basketball fix. St Patrick – forgive me.

During my years in Japan I became a sumo fan. Our local tournament, the Osaka Basho, takes place for a couple of weeks in March. I loved attending the event or watching on TV. Sitting near the dohyo (sumo ring) was exciting. My daughter was almost sent to her eternal reward when an airborne wrestler landed in the spot she was sitting shortly before I pulled her out of harm’s way. She thought the shower of sweat that landed on us was "very cool".
Osaka Basho circa 2002 - my daughters with young sumotori
Unfortunately even Sumo could not fill the March Madness void. Now that I am back in the US, you won’t see many stamps in my passport dated March. I am waiting until April to go back to Asia.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Continuing Education

Over the last ten days I had the good fortune to visit Shanghai and Tokyo. Now that I am working with different companies; logistics dictate that I stay in hotels close to their offices so I no longer tread my old, familiar paths in either city.

While I am enjoying working with new faces and seeing new areas of the two cities; my old relationships are still important to me. In Shanghai, dinner was arranged with my former team. A colleague agreed to pick me up but as he had to travel across the city, a traffic jam forced a change in plans. My phone rang and Philip (my often mentioned former driver) was on the line; “Sir, I am picking you, please be out front in 5 minutes, OK”. A few minutes later, a small blue car pulled up with headlights flashing and a smiling face behind the wheel. As usual, Philip was in a good mood and had plenty to say: “how did you pick this hotel?”, are you a VIP here? “which card did you use?”. Philip always had a keen interest with my status with various airlines and hotel chains.
On one occasion I was flying back to China from the US via Frankfurt on Lufthansa. I had to bring back several items we couldn’t get in Shanghai so I had to check a bag which I rarely do.  The bag didn’t make it and I wasn’t sure I understood what the baggage agent was telling me. I called Philip, who was waiting outside customs, to straighten things out. A couple minutes later I had a lost bag claim in hand and made my way to the exit. Philip greeted me and wondered out loud why I checked a bag in the first place. He drove me to the departures area instead of the highway. “Philip, why are we here?” He replied; “you need to go to check-in with the paper they gave you”. Knowing better than to challenge Philip, I went to check-in and explained the situation to an agent who, thankfully, was fluent in English. She apologized for the inconvenience, promised my bag would be delivered to my home the following day and handed me an envelope. I got in the car and opened the envelope which contained  2,500 RMB (over $300 at the time).  Philip wanted to know what was going on. “You mean the Germans (Philip tends to view everything from a national perspective) gave you RMB 2500 instead of your bag” he said in an angry tone. “No Philip, my bag is coming tomorrow”. Philip considered the situation for a nano second and then said, “you are really a VIP, the Germans lost my ex-bosses’ bag more than once but they never paid him and he was a German”.
We arrived at the restaurant – it was great seeing everyone from my old team – I left Shanghai 26 months ago and the company 4 months ago yet, it was as if nothing had changed except Philip was drinking beer. He said he was happy he could drink with me for the first time ever because his wife was with him and could drive them home. It was also the first time Philip had seen the old team since his departure from our former company in November.


After a few days in China, I moved on to Tokyo. Prior to leaving on this trip, I was invited to attend an “OB dinner” on my second night in Tokyo. My only understanding of the term “OB” in Japan was out of bounds on the golf course. Apparently this was another gap in my English or at least my Japanese English (Japanglish).  By return email, I asked about the term “OB Party” which means a gathering of people who had retired from a company – aka “old boys party”. In this case, the oldest of the old boys was my first mentor in Japan. He turns 80 later this month. Murai san has been retired for a few years. I never miss a chance to eat, drink or play golf with him. His current focus is shooting his age on the golf course. He has a good chance. The average age at the dinner was about 75. An incredible amount of knowledge and experience sitting at one table, I was honored to be there.

During my days in Tokyo, I attended a “Green Energy Expo” at the largest venue for such events in Tokyo. It was a great chance to catch up with industry contacts from Japan and the rest of Asia. Many people I hadn’t seen since my job transition, were eager to know what I am doing. One old friend who speaks very limited English listened to me explain that I was working as a consultant to multiple companies. I explained again in Japanese and he smiled and said in English with a big laugh: “you are the lithium fixer”. I knew it was a compliment even if the movie origins were questionable.  

The next night, I had dinner with another retiring mentor who started explaining doing business in Japan to me when we met in New York almost twenty years ago. He was with a man 30 years his junior who will take over the company within a few years. I have always been impressed by their relationship which to me is the definition of the mutual respect between older and younger workers - one of the many things that makes Japan such an enjoyable place to do business. I mentioned having seen my 80 year old mentor the night before and the reply was “Oh, you went to an OB Party” – the gap in my Japanglish vocabulary rearing its ugly head again. As we said goodnight, I mentioned that I was looking forward to losing another golf bet with him on Saturday which is exactly what happened.  While I settled my bet, my mentor reminded me that this was the last time we would playing while he was still with the company. I got his personal contact info and invited to my home course when he comes to the US. Our goodbye handshake was longer than normal and the bow was deeper. The younger gentlemen took me to the airport. Although currently I am not doing business with his company, the relationship transcends commercial gaps. We set another golf date for when he visits the US in May and a tentative dinner appointment for my next trip to Tokyo in April.

Although I come to Japan now under different circumstances than before; the balance of new relationships and old make the “next chapter” richer than the last.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Snake Eyes

One of my favorite aspects about life in China was the holidays – especially Chinese New Year (aka “Chun Jie”, “CNY” or “Lunar New Year”). As an American it was hard for me to appreciate the importance of holiday – like combining Christmas, Easter, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving while adding the TV spectacle of the Super Bowl into a one week holiday.

We are about to begin the “Year of the Snake”.  Not my favorite of the 12 zodiac animals, give me the dragon or the tiger any day, but you have to take the good with the bad.
 As I write this, literally hundreds of millions of people are making their way home for the holiday. If I hadn’t experienced the travel chaos just before the holiday, I would never have believed what goes on as the lunar New Year dawns in the Middle Kingdom. Travel on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the US is nothing compared to what people do to get home in China.

Our first Lunar New Year experience was in 2006. We skipped town and went skiing in Japan. Clearly, I did not understand what I was missing. We had only been in China for five months and, after having a driver that held our car for ransom, had recently hired Philip. The family ski trip was a tradition, leaving the country during a major holiday seemed like a good idea and I wanted Philip to be able to have the holiday time with his family.

We loved skiing in Nagano but were anxious to get home to pick up the puppy we had adopted a few weeks earlier but had left in the care of the shelter until we returned from our ski trip. We went directly from the airport to meet our newest family member. Shanghai seemed back to normal. We thought Chun Jie was over but, as usual, things in China are rarely as straight forward as in they are in America.

Philip was still struggling to learn English but tried to explain that Chun Jie was really a 15 day event and we still had a chance to celebrate. He insisted that I buy 1,000 red firecrackers. When I asked why, I learned about what Philip called “good lucky”. “Sir” he said, “we must light in front of house and then ‘good lucky’ will come”.  Philip is always so enthusiastic, I usually just said “ok” to whatever he proposed. On the last day of the Lunar New Year Celebration, the family assembled in front of the house to light the firecrackers. Philip solemnly told us that after lighting the firecrackers, we could not clean up the red paper until the next day or else “no good lucky”.  We rolled out the firecrackers and as I was lighting one end of the long line, I looked up and noticed the front door was open and our 18 week old puppy was approaching. Too late – the noise had started, red paper filled the air and our little bundle of fur yelped and sprinted for the door. I guessed that “good lucky” was only for humans.

Chun Jie, 2007 was a classic. We knew what to expect and enjoyed every minute. I bought an official box of fireworks which cost more than most locals made in week. Normally, Philip would have made the purchase for us but in this case, he told me what to say in Chinese and let me know that I should buy the fireworks for my house. I accepted the “rite of passage”. Philip watched me from the car and when I proudly returned with the goods, I received a minor tongue lashing for not negotiating a better price.
We set our box of fireworks off early and I was impressed. At least for a few minutes, until the real fireworks started and continued across the city for most of the next 24 hours. We walked around the area amazed at the light show and noise. When we got home, we found our now full grown puppy cowering in a corner. Scarred by the experience of the year before, Yuki (Japanese name for our Chinese puppy - which is another blog post) never got used to fireworks.

In 2008, a week before CNY, snowstorms hit many areas of the country that rarely have more than a few flakes. Shanghai had the most snow recorded in decades. I was supposed to attend a meeting in a city about 90 minutes west – the last bit of business before the country shut down for the holiday. The government had closed the highways to the west but the secondary roads were still open. The weather had locals in a slight panic as people prepared to board trains, planes and buses to get to their homes which in some cases were more than a thousand miles away. Having grown up near Buffalo, NY- I considered the Shanghai “Blizzard” to be a light spring snowfall and let Philip know we were still going on our day trip. It turned out to be a long day.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I had no way of knowing what was going on in the sleepy towns we were forced to pass through due to the highway closure. The mass migration home for Chun Jie had begun – hundreds of people were making their way to small bus and train stations in each town along our route. Of course, the people walking in the road were not empty handed – gift giving is an important part of the holiday. Juggling their luggage and packages, the heavily burdened travelers did not have time to watch out for cars clogging the roads they were walking on. The cold, ice and snow did not help the situation. The drive took four hours rather than 90 minutes. We arrived at the office in time for a late lunch followed by a two hour meeting. As we prepared to make our way back to Shanghai, snow began to fall again.

Trying to retrace our route to get home proved difficult: more snow, more people and darkness to hide the infrequent signs marking the road. We finally realized we were lost when we entered a small town we didn’t see on the inbound trip. Fortunately the ever resourceful Philip had thought to provision the van with the favorite American junk food in the land – Kentucky Fried Chicken and plenty of drinks. Philip stopped and asked for directions; soon we were headed down a dark, narrow road. A road where I was to see one of the most amazing sights during my eleven years in Asia. Out in the middle of nowhere we came upon a man walking down the middle of the road – large suitcases in each hand and a satellite dish strapped on his back.

To me, this man embodied the “can do” spirit of China. As we slowed to safely pass him, the man did not look left or right he just held his ground in the center of the road. We were so amazed at the sight, somehow we didn’t think to stop and give him a ride. I could only speculate that he was walking to catch a bus to start his trip home. A man working in the industrialized eastern part of the country, providing for a family that he saw once or twice a year. I think of the “dish” man every year as Chun Jie nears.
After seven hours on the road, we finally arrived at my house. Eleven hours in the van round trip instead of three. I was tired but glad that the weather had enabled me to see the determination of people making their way home.  Providers that make incredible sacrifices for their families. Puts my “first world” problems in perspective.

Added a day later: From my perspective too many people in my home country hear the rhetoric about "communist" China and judge the entire country by what a tiny minority of "rich, old, Chinese guys" do. China isn't so much communist as one party - there is a difference although as a practical matter it doesn't matter much to people like "dish" man.
Forget that cruise next summer, book a ticket to Chengdu by way of Shanghai and see for yourself.