Near Yellow Mountain

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.