Near Yellow Mountain

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.