Near Yellow Mountain

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.