Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What's in a name?

My first business dealings with a Japanese company occurred almost 20 years ago. The meeting was at the New York office of a large Japanese trading firm. The gentlemen I was meeting had lived in the US for a couple years so he spoke passable English (unfortunately the opposite is rarely true for Americans living in Japan but that is another topic). He introduced himself using his real name and then quickly followed up by saying “but call me Tom or ‘TT’ ”. His first name in Japanese was Toshiya. His last name – Taniguchi. At that time I knew nothing about Japanese culture beyond what I had looked up in the library – yes, the library as this was in the “pre-internet” era. Handling business cards with two hands was about the sum total of my knowledge of Japanese business culture.

I became friends with Taniguchi san but I never called him Tom or TT. Although I quickly concluded that many Japanese dealing with foreigners took English names to make communication easier for themselves and those they were meeting with, I just didn’t like the idea of using “adopted” names. I thought I should show my customers from across the Pacific the respect of properly pronouncing and remembering their names.

My colleagues in the US never hesitated to use the English names and often wondered why I stubbornly insisted on using Japanese family names with “san” appended. My answer was always quite simple – “I prefer to use their real name”. It just seemed like the polite thing to do. 

On one occasion after dinner (and a few beers) a colleague from a trading company asked me “why don’t you call me Mike?” I responded, “Hasegawa san when you start calling me ‘Kentaro’, I will call you Mike". He looked surprised, “why would I call you Kentaro?” I told him it was my Japanese name. He said, “but Joe-san, you don’t have a Japanese name” and then he smiled: “ok – I understand”.

For better or for worse my refusal to use English names in Japan continues to this day. I tried the same approach when we moved to China and had to abandon it almost immediately. As in most cases, Japan and China are 不同 (different).

I spent quite a bit of time in China before we moved there but I did not fully appreciate the Middle Kingdom’s relationship with English until we settled into our new life in Shanghai.

Learning Chinese is a challenge, using English names made life easier

Most of the young Chinese I met never even referenced their Chinese name. My first office in China was a serviced office used by many foreign companies with limited staff. Included was a part time assistant. She introduced herself as “Jenny” which in 2005 was an extremely popular name. I think there were more "Jennys" in Shanghai than in the western hemisphere. During my first week in the office, Jenny told me that a representative of Citibank Private Banking wanted to meet me. I said it was fine and within minutes, a well-dressed, earnest looking young man was at my door. “Good afternoon, my name is Bear”.

I managed to choke back a giggle and offered Bear some tea. I moved to China before banking rules were relaxed so Bear’s pitch was a little weak: “if you deposit USD 50,000 we will not charge you to keep it” he told me with a straight face. He added, “of course there are some rules about how you get the money back out”. Bear had only taken one sip of his oolong tea when I told him that his offer did not sound like a good deal to me. I added that if he was going to remain in the financial services industry perhaps a name change was in order. I suggested he re-name himself “Bull” and the meeting was over.

Later that afternoon, the building manager came in to introduce herself. “Hello I am ‘Pony’; it is nice to meet you”.  Again I managed not to laugh but wondered to myself if the entire animal kingdom was going to show up before the end of the week.

We stayed at the Ritz Carlton while we waited for our household goods to arrive from Japan. Unfortunately the shipment was delayed so after a week we moved to a guest house closer to our home and daughter’s school.  Upon our arrival we were greeted by a young women named “Disney” and were soon introduced to “Belle”. I wondered aloud if Mickey and Gaston were going to help with our bags.

After a couple weeks, I realized that I was remembering all these unique names without a problem. Maybe the young Chinese were onto something.

I began to hire a local staff. First was Oliver who was followed by Sabrina. By then I had totally bought into this English name idea.  Later, my local staff included:  Wilder, Cory, James and Irene.  

I spent the most time with my driver Philip.  Philip was not his first English name. He told me that he used to be called "DVD".  I replied that Philip was a much better choice. As Philip and I got to know each other, I learned of his love for American movies and TV shows.

After several months of commuting conversations, one day on the ride home Philip asked me to do him a favor. “Sir, I want a new name.” I responded: “Philip is a great name and it suits you.” “Sir you know I watch a lot of movies – nobody in the movies is ever named Philip”.  If Philip was a good name it would be in the movies”.  We drove on. Since the IPhone was not invented yet, I couldn’t quickly check the internet for movie characters named Philip so I told him anybody could pick a movie name like “Rocky” but his name was better because it was “not a copy”. “Besides to the family you ARE Philip.”  His normally smiling face went to a frown and he told me he would think about it.

Christmas rolled around. One of my daughters got a “heavy bag” you could punch or practice kickboxing on. It needed to be hung from the ceiling in our garage so we called the maintenance office and they said they would send someone over. Soon a golf cart arrived with a very large smiling man carrying a toolbox. He didn’t speak English but by then I could speak enough Chinese (and gesture) well enough to communicate. I looked up at the Chinese giant and noticed the name embroidered on this uniform was “Hunk”. I think someone from the office picked that name for him.

Ironically, unlike in Japan, I had to have a Chinese name for official paperwork.  Someone from the corporate office in Hong Kong picked my name without consulting me. She took two Chinese characters that had the combined sounds of my last name. – well sort of. “The two characters mean sharp and bright” she said cheerfully over the phone. Not happy at having no input regarding my name, I responded that I guessed the meaning of the name could be interpreted as prick and closed the conversation with a less than sincere “thank you”.

Philip finally agreed not to change his name
Since the Chinese language is much harder for me than Japanese, I ended my time in China thankful that many of the people I dealt with everyday took English names. I was probably most thankful that Philip  agreed  not to change his.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Election Day - Another Sad Story

When I lived in Shanghai politics was a common topic during group lunches with the local staff. There was a lot of curiosity about US politics and a certain suspicion about the reporting of US elections by Chinese television. My local team seemed to know and care more about US politics more than most Americans. Chinese TV does a great job of pointing out the negative aspects of the US system. Of course the behavior of our politicians makes the job easy for them. 

The current state of the US political process is a head scratcher for many foreign observers

I am glad my friends in China aren’t being forced to watch the madness of the current senatorial campaign in North Carolina. I have been home much of the past few weeks and experienced the non-stop barrage of mudslinging back and forth between the democratic incumbent and her republican challenger. According to the local newspaper, literally tens of millions of dollars have been spent so far in the “campaign”. I have not heard one positive statement about what either candidate will do. They only talk about alleged misdoings and character flaws of the other candidate. My phone rings multiple times a day with automated campaign calls. Makes me wonder if my friends in Shanghai weren’t right about certain benefits of a one party system. No, I am certainly not advocating that but our system clearly needs an overhaul.

More mud than issues in North Carolina
One of my favorite election conversations was more about linguistics than political drama. I had a great Japanese teacher. She always sought to make the lessons practical by discussing issues of the day. One morning during US “election season” my first year in Japan, she began the lesson by asking me about the “upcoming erection”. Given that “L” as we know it does not exist in Japanese and is normally substituted with the “R” sound; election is normally pronounced “erection” by Japanese English speakers. At first I was quite surprised by the question but then after looking directly at the very proper Japanese lady before me, I realized this was simply a manifestation of the “substitution of R for L phenomena”. Nevertheless my attempt to keep a straight face failed and my sensei immediately realized the pronunciation error and the meaning. She smiled and lamented the problem of speaking about the topic in English. I was lucky to have heard this first from my sensei so I was prepared not to laugh on Election Day when I was asked the topic by others.

The vexing problem of the "L" has many manifestations
The year in question was 2000 which of course was the year of the Bush – Gore debacle.  I remember starting a meeting with customers who told me Gore won and it had been announced on TV. I got home and found that nobody had won and I spent the next few weeks trying to explain our convoluted electoral process to my Japanese friends who seemed to take comfort in the fact that our political process seemed as screwed up as Japan’s.

It is hard to keep a straight face when asked; “don’t you have an erection in the US today? Or as in 2000, “wow, the US erection really lasts a long time.” Explaining the nuances of the “hanging chads” and the election equivalent of a food fight in Florida was tough enough but many were surprised to find out that the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win in our “democratic” process. While nobody came out and compared our 2000 process to a third world election, I had the feeling many were simply too kind to state the obvious.

Given the current state of our political process maybe we should all be seeking medical attention because our “election” definitely lasts more than 4 hours.  

Monday, September 29, 2014

Age Old Questions

I am starting this blog post on day 10 of a 12 day Round the World trip. I just boarded the Shinkansen in Tokyo. In a little over 2.5 hours I will be in Osaka. Hopefully in less than an hour I will see Fuji san (aka Mt Fuji). It is always hard to predict from the weather in Tokyo whether Fuji san will be hiding in the clouds or reveal herself.

Unfortunately Fuji san was hiding this time so I can only show an old picture

Watching the Japanese “urban countryside” rush by usually puts me in a reflective mood and today is no different.

I was a relatively young man when I started traveling the world but as the years pass I find myself on the upper end of the age spectrum in meetings. During my first trips to Japan, I often was 20 years younger than the people I was meeting or negotiating with. The logical part of my brain and the mirror tell me I am getting older but I keep waiting to “feel” it with the exception of a gimpy right knee worn down by decades of morning runs.

For some reason in the past several days I have been asked my age in four countries. Being asked your age in Asia is more common than in the US. In Japan age is more closely linked to rank in a company than it is in the US. In general, older people are treated with more respect in Confucian societies than in America so the age thing isn’t all bad.

The first time I was asked about my age in the recent past didn’t bother me because it was on my home golf course in North Carolina and a Japanese playing companion who is bigger and stronger than I am noted that my drives were 10 to 15 yards past his on almost every hole. Finally on the back nine, he said “Joe-san, may I ask your age?” “Showa san-ju-ni nen”  I responded stating the year of my birth in terms of the reign of the emperor at that time. He did the five second calculation and said “wow!! ”. “Yes, I am that old” I said but had the last laugh on the scorecard.

Looking back, my biggest age crisis came when I turned 19. My life seemed to have rushed by and I viewed the onset of “20” with trepidation. Age 30 was noted but since my 10K times were still dropping, it didn’t bother me. I didn’t even take note of 40 and 50 didn’t seem like a big deal until many of my younger peers told me it was hard for them to accept that I could be 50. “You will get your turn soon enough" was all I  could say.

The year I turned 50 we went on a family holiday to Viet Nam. On New Year’s eve my wife entered me in a kayak race which turned out to be several. That is, since I won my first heat, I moved on to the next the round and the next. I wound up in the finals with a 25 year old and was a length ahead half way through the race only to be nudged out at the finish line. A few hours later I was reading a book by the pool when I suddenly felt four shadows looming over me. A delegation of young hotel workers had come to congratulate me on my kayak exploits in the nearby river. Their English was ok but they struggled to find the right words to explain my failure at the finish line. “We were really impressed, you know you if, if, if you …..” I said: “don’t worry I understand - if I wasn’t so damm old I would not have lost at the end”. Well since I had brought it up they confirmed – “yes, that is right for somebody your age, you were impressive”. I stood up, smiled and said “thanks – I think”.

Last weekend, I met someone I knew ten years ago when I lived in Japan. We shared a meal and caught up on our lives. As we were saying goodbye, he said “how old are you now?" I was caught a little off-guard, stated my age and then wondered to myself why he asked.

The final blow in the recent round of age questions came early this week. I was at a Starbucks with some people I used to work with.  I mentioned meeting one of the senior executives in their company a few days earlier in Shanghai. They wondered aloud how much longer he would be in his current position and his chances of getting to the very top of company management. They mentioned his age and then, for some reason,  wanted to confirm mine. I was not sure how my age fit into their calculation of another person’s upward mobility  but clearly I was somehow a barometer of “senior status”.

Having a senior moment on a golf course near Tokyo
Tomorrow will be my last full day in Japan on this trip. Fortunately I am playing golf with three friends that are 3, 6 and 22 years older than I am respectively. They know how old I am and are unlikely to make age a topic of conversation.  For a few hours,  I will be the young man in the group again.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11

In the years since 9/11/2001, I have flown many times on the anniversary of that sad day. This morning I am sitting in the lounge at Denver Airport waiting to fly home. I am looking at my boarding pass that says September 11, 2014. It is hard to see that date on a boarding pass without thinking back to the day that when the Twin towers fell and the world changed.

I was living in Japan on September 11, 2001. I had just returned home from a dinner with my visiting boss. As I walked into the living room of our apartment, I remember saying I was tired and hoped there was “something interesting on TV”. We didn’t watch much TV when we lived in Japan. In 2001, our international options were limited to CNN, BBC and maybe a cartoon network. I flipped on CNN and saw a distant shot of the Twin Towers and a commentator saying it appeared that a small plane such as a Cessna had crashed into the one of the Towers. It was a beautiful morning in NYC so it was hard to image how a small plane would be in that airspace and crash into the WTC. I began to read a book but was interested in finding what in fact had hit the World Trade Center so I continued to listen to CNN in the background.

It is hard to image now but when the second plane hit the WTC, I literally did not believe it. I said to my wife that it was probably the work of some precocious computer geek that hacked into CNN’s feed. I could see my wife did not share my theory. Rather than continue to watch, I told my wife I had to get up early and went to bed believing all was well in NYC. The idea that terrorists could attack NYC and Washington with commercial aircraft was unimaginable.

As I slumbered my wife remained vigilant in front of the TV. I woke up in the middle of the night, the TV in the bedroom still on. My wife was visibly shaken. She confirmed that the US had indeed been attacked and my "hacker theory" was sadly incorrect. I switched channels and the coverage by then was universal.

The following day was a blur. We woke our daughters up and explained the big buildings we had taken them to see just a few weeks earlier on a visit home were now piles of smoldering rubble. Like their parents it was almost impossible for our daughters to grasp the idea of the US being attacked.

I headed into Osaka on a busy commuter train to meet my boss and start the day. Lost in thought I felt a hand on my shoulder. The normally reserved Japanese commuters also seemed stunned and many of them took leave of their standard behavior and made physical contact with me.  Many said in halting English or Japanese that they were “sorry”.  In the more than 2,000 days I have spent in Japan over the years that 21 minute train ride probably had more of an impact on me than any other experience I had overseas.

I spent the next few days trying to get my boss on a plane back to the US. Flights to the US were suspended that day, the next day and the one after that. Finally I suggested he take Air Canada to Toronto and drive to North Carolina.

I foolishly thought the storm would pass and everything would be back to normal within a month.

Thirteen years later as I sit in an airport lounge – the talk on the news is about both the anniversary of the attacks 13 years ago and the ongoing threats we still live with.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Culture Club

Cross cultural training covers many of the obvious issues an ex-pat is likely to face when dealing with an unfamiliar culture. Before doing business in Japan, I sat through a few days of cultural training classes and was given books to read covering well documented issues between individualistic Americans and the Confucian influenced culture I was being sent to. 

The training was basic things: the importance of the group culture, protocol in meetings such as handling business cards with two handed respect, allowing time for chit chat (aka - not getting right to the point), “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes”, etc. All good things to learn but just scratching the surface of the skills needed to operate effectively in a foreign environment.

As an American who came of age well after the end of the hard drinking post war culture popularized by TV series like “Mad Men” or seen in old black and white Super 8 family home movies across the 50 states; I was not prepared for the importance drinking as part of business in Japan.

Even Bill Murray had to be trained about Japanese drinking culture
 Nobody taught me that more than half of my time with customers would be spent “after 5PM” – the time of day when relationships are cemented and important insights to business problems are gained. Those expensive training classes taught in American conference rooms did not cover the critical topic of cross cultural drinking. 

Drinking was not an important part of my business or personal life in the US. Business dinners and golf outings in the US, while not normally alcohol free, were certainly much more temperate affairs than my normal evening with customers in Tokyo or Osaka.

Fortunately, despite the holes in my cultural training, I had a Japanese mentor 25 years my senior who enjoyed explaining Japanese culture to foreigners. His experience was that most "gaijin" didn’t listen. I tried to be the exception to the rule. Among the many topics we covered, the lessons on Japanese drinking customs proved to be some of the most useful.

The fact that I was a runner helped because the first lesson in Japanese drinking was that it is a marathon not a sprint. My first trip to Japan included several evenings in row where meetings ended at 5:30 PM and dinner started about 6:00. What I learned on that trip almost 20 years ago was that “dinner” often continued with a trip to a club (second party) and often to a third party. More often than not the festivities lasted four hours and on some nights as long as seven. Another feature of a night out in Japan was a pretty standard schedule of starting out drinking beer with appetizers, changing to sake during the meal and drinking whiskey at club or shot bar after dinner. If we ate western food then wine might replace sake but in many cases it was simply an addition. Occasionally the night ended in a ramen shop.

The companies I worked for in America did not have a culture of co-workers frequently spending time eating and drinking together after work – with or without customers. Japan is quite different in this regard and the emphasis/importance of eating and drinking together in Japan is hard for many Americans to understand or accept. 

My mentor, who came of age during the post war boom, patiently explained many things to me as we poured each other countless tiny glasses of Asahi “Super Dry” beer during dinner meetings. Details about how decisions were really made inside his company, the official and unofficial roles of different people in his organization, how foreigners are “evaluated”, etc. I was asked my opinion regarding many real and/or perceived flaws in my culture – why are American’s so short term focused? impatient? arrogant? Poor behavior or “scorecard liberties” on the golf course was another hot button and something that came up more than once in bar conversation. Never stated directly but always the point amounted to: “If Mr. XXXX can’t give an honest score, how can we trust him as a business partner?” I was fortunate that a senior person in a Japanese company was so candid with me so quickly. 

At first I wasn’t a big fan of the tiny beer glasses used in Japan and the custom of only pouring for others and not yourself but it quickly became obvious that pouring for others was a reflection of the culture of interacting with the group. The small size of the glasses increased the frequency of the interaction. I was introduced to sake - which was an acquired taste. I was cautioned of the dangers of hot sake (“too easy to drink”) but encouraged to drink flask after flask. The fact that I like all types of Japanese food and was studying Japanese also helped me be accepted as a “reasonable gaijin”.

When I arrived in Japan, I had not had whisky more than five times in my life. I wasn’t a fan in general and really didn’t like the whiskey and water mix most Japanese drink. At clubs, I would order a straight whiskey which implied I liked the taste and was a strong drinker and then leave the drink untouched after a ceremonially first sip – avoiding a headache the next day and allowing me to get up for my morning run. If I did have a headache, Japan has an ample supply of hangover remedies available at train stations and the plethora of convenience stores in every neighborhood
One of the many widely available "hangover" drinks
Part of my role as the only foreigner from my company living in Japan was to assist colleagues from the US and Europe who were making their first or one of their infrequent trips to Japan. Some were faster learners than others.

On one occasion, one of my US colleagues who is a friend and also the size of a pro football linebacker joined me for several days of business meetings in Japan. Dinners in Tokyo and Osaka were no issue. Our hosts took note of his size and made dinner reservations at places with tables or horigotatsu (sunken) seating which could accommodate his bulk and keep him from having to sit cross legged on tatami. Several meals were at steakhouses assuming he could not survive long without beef and providing the hosts with a good excuse to eat an expensive steak. In general, my friend has a large capacity for drinking beer or whiskey. He tried limited amounts of sake without issue and his “11 on a 10” scale volume at karaoke brought more than one manager running over to check on the loud but less than talented Bon Jovi imitator only to see his size and meekly bow while backing out of the room with a smile.

Our final stop proved the most memorable.

We flew to a small city on Shikoku Island to visit the plant of a very large customer and have dinner. I had recently taken our host to the US and Argentina to tour our lithium plants and do some sightseeing so I knew we would be treated as honored guests. Unfortunately in a small Japanese city there is only so much you can do to accommodate a large foreigner especially in space challenged dinner places. I knew it would be a long evening but I was looking forward to it. The first stop was an excellent traditional restaurant where we were seated in a tatami floored private room with very low tables. I advised my friend to sit on the end so he could stretch his legs. He, uncharacteristically, waved off my advice. I smiled to myself already knowing the outcome. A few moments later two, attractive young kimono clad ladies appeared with flasks of hot sake to break the winter chill. I advised my friend that the hot sake would go down easily and he should pace himself.  The two ladies giggled when they saw the large American squirming on the tatami and quickly filled his sake cup. 

My friend’s drinking pace seemed to quicken when he realized the kimomo clad attendants would not let his glass stay empty. Everyone at the table was enjoying the food and pleased that my friend seemed to be having such a good time. A couple lively hours passed and it was time to “move to another place” for drinks. It seemed both of my friend’s legs had fallen asleep after resting unnaturally on the tatami. I was hoping his walking skill would return once the circulation returned to his legs. After a short taxi ride we entered a club. It was great to see tables and chairs but they were definitely not size appropriate for my buddy whose walking seemed to be impaired by more than circulation problems. A bottle of whiskey was ordered and after a couple of drinks my friend decided it was time to visit the restroom. Everyone in the crowded room seemed to look up as the American giant (although still much smaller than a run of the mill sumo wrestler) made his way up a step and out to the toilet. I smiled and thanked our hosts for the great meal and spending so much time with us.  Conversation continued and, unfortunately, I didn’t notice my friend approach the step down toward our table. I heard a gasp and then several others as I looked up to see my friend airborne, unable to right himself, and coming in for a landing at the table next to us. Like a car crash it seemed that just before impact all motion slowed down. I still remember trying to calculate if my descending colleague was going to land on another patron or simply destroy the table he was headed (literally) for. Glasses and a bottle flew, people scrambled out of the way and after the crash landing my friend slowly rose to his feet, smiled and said maybe it was time to return to the hotel. After the requisite bows and apologies to those nearby; I assured our hosts my buddy was absolutely fine and just a little drunk. They quickly expressed grave concern for his well-being. We agreed to have one member of the group take him back to the hotel and rejoin us later. The rest of us moved on to another bar. My departed friend was, of course, the topic of animated conversation for the rest of the evening. “Your friend looked like a 747 coming in for a crash landing”. “We are happy that he survived but the table did not….”

This incident happened several years ago and despite no longer working for the same company an increasingly embellished version of events that night is told and retold anytime I am with someone who was at that dinner. Although it may sound strange to Americans, the “flying gaijin” cemented an already strong bond with that company. Had a similar incident happened in the US, my friend might not have survived the fallout if HR had been informed. My friend’s nickname in Japan remains “the Shikoku destroyer”.

There is no shortage of drinking places in Japan
Drinking plays a significant role in Japanese business culture and if properly managed can result in stronger work and personal relationships. Of course it is possible to not drink and be successful in Japan but that is the exception rather than the rule. Anyone from my company that came to Japan with the attitude that they would not eat the local food and at least pretend to drink part of a beer during the first toast at dinner  normally didn't do very well from 9 to 5.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Musings from the Middle Kingdom

June 16, 2014

I am sitting in the ANA lounge in Chengdu waiting for my flight to Tokyo. It is day 11 of a 12 day around the world trip. I have spent eight days in China. It is 90+ humid degrees in the lounge and about 70 degrees outside on this June morning – just a small example of the many minor irritations one experiences when traveling in the Middle Kingdom. This trip took me to Beijing, Xining in Qinghai province, Lhasa in Tibet and Chengdu in Sichuan province before a 24 hour stopover in Tokyo to get my fix of Japanese food and pick-up some Japanese gum on the way home. I always buy gum in Japan. Some might say it is odd to travel 7,000 miles to buy your favorite gum but I don’t question your odd habits so please give me a pass on this one. This trip was interesting – a quick look at both positive and negative developments in China.

I was in Beijing on a clear day - the top is closer to normal
I was only in Beijing for a day but the weather and air quality was as good as it gets in the crowded capital city. The driver who picked me up was friendly and chatty. Despite my limited skill in Chinese, we talked most of the 45 minute ride to the hotel. After he dropped me off, the driver spoke with the person who arranged the pick-up and expressed surprise that I could speak (limited) Mandarin – a surprise to me too since I moved back to the US from Shanghai over three years ago. I was glad to have some practice since I was traveling the next day to the interior of the country where English skills are not as prevalent as in Beijing or Shanghai.

The primary reason for the trip was to speak at a green energy conference in Qinghai - a mineral rich but still underdeveloped western province with big ambitions. I got off the plane in the capital city of Xining and was met by a driver holding a sign with my name. Apparently he didn’t know it was my name and perhaps thought it was a company name. He told me in Mandarin that he was waiting for five more people; but continued to wave the sign. I told him it that was my name on the sign and not likely to help him connect with his other passengers who turned out to be five executives from a couple different companies in Beijing. Even after assembling his six passengers the driver showed no sign that he was ready to depart. The other passengers began to grumble as the airport emptied and we all stood there waiting to move to the hotel. Finally, I called the conference organizer and asked why we were waiting – a few seconds later she called the driver who was standing next to me and asked him why he had not departed with his “VIPs”. The driver looked at me - seeming to link the call I made in English with the call he got in Chinese as soon as I hung up. I was tired and frustrated and asked him what the holdup was - much to the mirth of my co-passengers who were surprised to hear Chinese (or at least a reasonable facsimile) coming out of my mouth. I have learned over the years that it is not a good thing to anger your driver who was clearly embarrassed to be verbally spanked by his foreign passenger so I sat in the front seat on the ride to the city and tried to make amends. Fortunately, it seemed I was at least partially successful in that endeavor. He smiled as I said goodbye (or maybe because I said goodbye) and, at last, I was at check-in.

The first time I visited Qinghai Province was twelve years ago. I still have a clear memory of that trip. I stayed at the “best available” hotel and walked down a very dimly lit hall to my shabby room that inspired me to sleep in my clothes. A lot can change in 12 years. A word to the intermittent traveler, any hotel called “best available” should be avoided if at all possible. My daughters still talk about a “best available” hotel we stayed at in the Tibetan countryside.

On this trip I checked into what I like to refer to as a “3.9 Star - 5 Star”. The hotel has aspirations of being a 5 star and is advertised as one but on a global scale is not quite a 4 star. Nevertheless I was delighted to see a big room that was clean and even had a large flat screen TV. After I solved the riddle of how to get off the hotel advertisements and into the channels, I only had to click through 36 different Chinese offerings before I found a channel with movies in English – good thing I enjoy watching movies from my 20s. When jet-lag called me at 4am, I turned on the TV and saw Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson. You just can’t see “The Breakfast Club” too many times.
After the visit to my cinematic past,  I met friends for breakfast. Breakfast buffets in China always provide interesting fare. Spicy diced rabbit is not normally on my breakfast menu but since it seemed low carb, why not? I have to say the green tea bread was delicious. I have never shied away from “thousand year old eggs” but given the recent scandal on use of toxic chemicals to speed up the egg aging process, I opted for fried eggs instead. Twelve hours in Xining – so far so good. 

Sadly, due to the toxic chemical scandal, I passed on the 1,000 year old eggs this time
In total, I spent four days in Xining. The governor and his boss (the head of the communist party in the province) attended my presentation the first afternoon. I was quite surprised to have so many cameras from local media in my face as I got up to speak. I was sent internet links to clips of the TV coverage and emailed them to friends and family. Seemed odd that my “15 minutes of fame” would happen in China. I attended a dinner with the governor the first evening – a lot of toasting with the lighter fluid like substance known as “bai jiu” aka white alcohol. The alcohol percentage can run from mid 30s to low 60s. It tastes bad when you drink it and tastes worse the next morning when you wake up. Bai Jiu has a “lingering finish” on steroids.

The second day during a break in the conference I was handed an envelope. “This is your honorarium for speaking yesterday” I was told by the smiling conference staff member. I put the envelope in my briefcase. After lunch, I opened the envelope and saw many crisp $100 bills. They did not look like the $100 bills I was used to so my first thought was that maybe my industrious hosts had printed them locally. A brief visit to Google allayed my fear that the “Benjamins” were not the real deal. It just seemed odd that the first time I saw the new US currency was in a remote part of China.
During the five years I lived in China, I met many Communist Party officials especially when I visited smaller cities. It seemed like all of the SOCs (State Owned Companies) I did business with had a party member involved in management. Normally the “party guy” didn’t know much about the business he was “managing” and was along for a free meal and a chance to work on “business development” (aka drink) with foreign companies. I was very impressed by the party officials I met in Qinghai this time. The province is attracting significant companies who are selling their products to companies like Apple. I was impressed.

I first saw the new "Benjamin" (top) in Qinghai - I was glad they weren't a local product
 On my final day in Qinghai, I was taken to an outdoor concert by the China National Symphony- flown in from Beijing at great expense. The venue was at 9,500 feet above sea level and it was cold and rainy. I was told it only rains four or five days a year in the desert but it rained each day I was there. The organizer looked out at the barren hillside and decided he needed to do something to brighten the gloomy day. A quick call on his cellphone and within 30 minutes, several hundred sheep, a large complement of cattle and local cowboys came over the hill to provide a more interesting backdrop for the festivities. Nobody throws a party like the Chinese.

My hosts provided an army coat to keep me warm at 9,500 feet
Part of my invitation was a side trip to Tibet. My last visit to Tibet was in 2006 - I took “Power Bars” and toilet paper with me expecting the worst. I didn’t need either one except in the previously mentioned countryside “best available” hotel. Lhasa was wonderful place to visit in 2006. Still very much Tibet. Although I was glad to return, I was saddened to see the so called “progress” foisted on Tibet by Beijing. There were Chinese flags flying atop each monastery. The Tibetans and their neighbors across the border in Xinjiang province are not happy with Beijing’s plans for their future. The central government has taken a heavy hand in both places – see the helpful young police/army that line the streets around the Dalai Lama’s former home in the picture below. Word is they are there to “help” the tourists……

The Government rules for visitors, I draw your attention to rule #4 - no "hullablooing" or "slapsticking" in the monastery

Despite the above, I enjoyed my 48 hours in Lhasa. I was surprised that so many monks in Potala were carrying smartphones and IPads. I was asked by one of them where I was from. I told him and then asked him for a World Cup update which after a few quick movements of his thumb he was happy to read me off the screen of his Samsung smartphone. Like anywhere in the world Tibetans will adapt to the modern age. I just wish China would allow them to keep their culture intact. If you want to see Tibet – you better go soon because it is disappearing fast and becoming China... and not by choice.
Just one of many "help" squads in Lhasa courtesy of the Central Government

Saturday, June 7, 2014


I found myself in Germany on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. A long-time friend picked me up at Frankfurt Airport and told me we were making “a stop” on the way to his house. The stop was the home of an older couple that I met last October when my wife and I hosted them along with my friend for a few days when they were traveling in the eastern US. They wanted to have lunch with their recently minted American friend and “speak English”. We sat outside under a bright blue sky on a perfect, peaceful June Day. Both German and American flags were flying in the backyard. It was hard for me to imagine the adrenaline rush that my father was having 70 years earlier as he anticipated crossing the English Channel.

My Father - "Thanks Dad"

The topic of D-day came up and I gingerly took out my IPhone and went to my camera role where I had two pictures of my Dad in a screen shot I saved of pictures that my sister had posted on Facebook earlier in the day. As my hosts glanced at the image of a college age American in uniform from decades before, I began to ponder how odd the world I inhabit would have seemed to the young man in the picture. My father was part of the invasion force coming over on the second day and like most of “the greatest generation” never talked about it until late in life and then only when asked.

The final destination of my trip is China – Germany only a stopover to see a friend. D-Day was not in my mind when I booked the ticket. The timing of the trip was driven by an invitation to speak at a lithium battery forum in western China. The invitation was officially from the government of the province but was really the doing of an old friend who was tasked to invite some “foreign experts”. I definitely qualify as a foreigner and I think they were “rounding up” on the expert part. It would have been hard for either of my parents to imagine me being invited to China as a guest of the government.

The only other “major” anniversary of D-Day I remember was 40 years. What I recall was President Reagan’s speech. I was in the midst of graduate school on that June day. I had never been outside North America and the idea of ever living in Japan would have been “not impossible but not very likely”. Living in China would have been “impossible”. I was with my Dad but there was no discussion of his part in the D-Day invasion force. He wasn’t ready – even after 40 years.

The week before my current trip, American TV was rife with comments about the 70th anniversary. Of course, as times passes, there are less and less D-Day participants around to interview about one of epic battles of all time. 

Yesterday, we didn’t dwell on the topic of D-Day over lunch but the brief discussion stayed in the back of my mind as we drove through the German countryside to my friend’s home. I am old enough to remember the cold war and Viet Nam. I turned 18 just as Saigon was falling so I was never faced with being in armed conflict. My nieces and nephews went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I was born in the era that fell in between wars. Maybe because of this, I often think about the sacrifices of the generations on either side of mine. 

I have spent more time in the past twenty years in Japan and China than in the US. Now I make my living largely because of my experiences and relationships in Asia. My Uncle was part of the battle of Iwo Jima – we didn’t learn the details until after his death a few years ago. In the early 1950s, my Uncle was an ex-pat in Japan working for Pepsi. After his death I was given pictures taken of him at parties in Ginza and other parts of Tokyo I am very familiar with. I have always regretted not having the chance to talk to my Uncle about the experiences he kept to himself.

The year I graduated from college I had dinner with my Uncle. He asked about my future which was very uncertain. That night he told me to consider living overseas. His advice was quickly forgotten but came back to me 20 years later when I was offered the chance to move to Japan. The opportunities I have today to travel the world are due to the sacrifices of those who were born before me and after me. I can only say "thank you".