(Originally sent to Friends and ISSHO Wed, 10 Sep 1997)
I just got back from my semioften pilgrimage to the States. In keeping with a long-standing tradition (now in its second year, after 1996's EUROTREK), I would like to write up my travels and travails in a several-part travelogue. Hope you enjoy my:
SALMON WARS AND DILBERT
A departure from my typical "let's go overseas and find things to reminisce about" sojourns, this time I went abroad in the name of "business". At least that's how I explained it to my wife. "You what? You want to go over by YOURSELF?" she exclaimed, when I broke the news to her late one ill-timed evening when the kids had had too much caffeine. "At least take one of your loinfruits with you! Like you did last time you visited Tokyo."
"No can do, Aya." I replied. "As I said, this is business. I go via Seoul on Korean Air to Vancouver, take a bus down to Seattle, and stay a few nights with friends. Then I go down to Oregon and buy all manner of personal effects for our new house. It won't be easy on a kid; I have to purchase huge line items like 1400 board feet of flooring and a cord of sawn walnut, comport bulky iterms like a king-size mattress and a cooking stove, and then deal delicately with our freight forwarders--dockworkers trained in the Teamsters' School of User-Friendliness. Getting our 20-foot export container loaded and sent off from Portland will be challenge enough for me all alone. Don't try to complicate the equation by giving me living luggage. This trip is business, not pleasure."
Who said Japanese wives are docile? "'Not pleasure'?", she retorted. "What about all those friends you plan on seeing after you see off your container? There's John in Portland, Doug flying out to see you in Seattle, and Bill and Lisa at the beginning and end? Seems to me like you will have one week of work, then three weeks of seeing friends. Surely you could take one kid off my hands and get over that first-week hump together."
"Look, Aya", I slapped my forehead and dragged my hand down my face like they do in the Funnies to show exasperation. "Forget it. I had a hard enough time just getting my airplane ticket to Vancouver (the closest city to Portland that Korean Air flies). It's peak summertime season, and Koreans like to escape the summer heat by bopping off to Canada where it's never hot. The plane was practically full from February and I had to pull a lot of strings to get aboard. And now here it is July and you want me to find one more seat?"
I could see her answer coming, so I preempted:
"No, and I could not take a kid on my lap. It's a seven-hour layover in Seoul and then ten hours across the Pacific. Besides, I am going on accumulated frequent flyer miles, meaning for free, just before and after the 'free flying blackout times'. That is why I am going to be away for four weeks--so seeing friends is but a windfall. And a kid's ticket on top of that in peak season will cost a pretty penny--money which could be better spent buying stuff for our house.
"Okay? I'm going alone."
Economics. Gets them every time.
REPATRIATING IN THE ERA OF THE SALMON WARS
I left on July 25. It was an uneventful series of flights, relaxing in the First Class Lounge during layover (we had accumulated so many frequent flyer miles--70,000 miles' worth--that I was even upgraded to Business Class the whole way), reading Michener (I brought two epics--"Chesapeake" and "The Source"--that I knew I would never finish; still haven't), and filling little doily plates with decadent finger food. Tried to make my own Gin-and-Tonics several times from the open bar, with limited success but the intended effect. Thus, things were nearly dull. The eventfulness started when I arrived in Vancouver and took a bus down to Seattle.
Canada, which The Economist appropriately calls "a really nice country", is the only nation I know where Passport Control has agents who smile disarmingly at you, and the agriculture officials act like Park Service rangers--wearing shorts and trying to make like we were all happy campers. Going through was a breeze. Of course, it may have just been me--I don't look Haitian or like an Abu Nidal member (things that Customs officials I'm told are on the lookout for), but they practically shooed in just about everybody off our three concurrent arrivals, like the Mexican police do at the Tijuana border crossing.
Furthermore, how many other countries do you know will ignore national pride enough to take American currency (albeit give you Canadian in change), not give you a look like you're some imperialist, and even give you a decent exchange rate (I think it's a 30% discount now) automatically at any register? Nice and very accommodating. I got started on my high-fat vacation diet--with both a Whopper and a slice of pizza for lunch, and a huge blueberry muffin for afters--then boarded the bus to Seattle to face the first major bit of this trek's force majeure: The Salmon Wars.
I first read about The Salmon Wars while in transit. Ever notice how your senses become more acute if you read the news on an airplane? Because you realize that most of those distant events will soon no longer be distant at all--like flying into a storm front developing over one of the world's troublespots. (That "I-shouldn't-be-here" horror-movie tingle would be so much sharper during my flight home in August--reading about Korean Air's horrendous Guam crash from another KAL Super Seat. But more on that later.)
Anyway, according to the Economist (Aug 16, 1997, pg 33), the Salmon Wars are just another snit between the two countries which trade more with each other than any in the world, ever in history (a billion dollars a day!). Currently Canada and the US are waging "the potato war", "the electricity war", "the NATO war", "the magazine war", "the steel war", "the Helms-Burton war", and "the wheat war" (so phooey on the US-Japan paranoia of trade disputes upsetting "The Relationship"). The Salmon War happened because a 1985 bilateral treaty on fishing restrictions expired, and Alaskan trawlers began scooping up, "in record quantities", salmon in US waters bound for British Columbian spawning grounds. Canadian trawlers, in a high-profile protest, then blockaded an Alaskan ferry in a Canadian harbor for three days, and American ferry services responded by boycotting that harbor. World leaders then sat up and took notice--the Northwestern Seaboard is, after all, an area of the world with great resource potential, kept peaceful through umpteen rules on exploitation (see the Jones Act, which has guaranteed for over a century a shipping bottleneck for Alaskan trade through Seattle). But now the Canadians were unusually UNnice--scooping up as many salmon as they could in their territorial waters, and threatening to deny the American navy access to a Canadian torpedo testing site. The beat goes on. The point is that the real losers in this squabble are the fish. And the other international border crossers.
The US border is less than an hour away on the three-hour trip to Seattle. But as our bus pulled up to Checkpoint Charlie, our driver gave us our USDA checklists (to make sure we weren't carrying anything agriculturally contagious across the border--I always wonder how effective this measure is), told us to have our driver licences or passports ready, and prepared us for a wait: "We are neither legally permitted to disembark, nor allowed to keep the engine running, so just sit tight until the Customs Officers tell us what to do."
We sat, and sat, and sat for nearly an hour in an increasingly saunaizing bus with unopenable windows. Several of the passengers, bound for Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport), began to grumble that they might not make their connecting flights. One passenger asked if the Americans could be let through first, only to be growled at by an indolent official. This would set the tone for the rest of my stay in the US, that of dealing with confrontational people threatening to turn obstructionist at any time.
When we finally were permitted off, we were told to bring all our bags and have them ready to be inspected. I said to some of the agast Americans, who were used to being waved through the automobile checkpoints after a few nonchalant questions, that we were getting the treatment one generally sees in border stations worldwide, including the former Communist Bloc (riddled with entry taxes/bribes), Indonesia (bureaucratic), and South Korea (slow and grilling because it is still fighting the Cold War). So just try to enjoy the experience.
But of course no-one did. It wasn't just being held up in line as the Germans and Koreans paid their entry taxes. Every single person, including the Americans, was subjected to a full luggage search, passport "look-at-the-picture-and-look-at-the-bearer" comparison, and interrogation of the facts inside. A surly official gave me the runaround when she saw that I live in Japan. "Why do you live in Japan?", she snapped. Because I work there. "Where do you work?" I work at Hokkaidojouhoudaigaku, I said in rapid Japanese (as if my answer really mattered--but I hoped the spoken Japanese would lend me some credibility). I was then let through.
What a contrast to the Mackenzie treatment off the plane! Granted, the Yanks didn't bring out the rubber gloves or give us a full body cavity search. But nobody likes to be the one bus a day which gets the "random-tough-search" procedure from officials who have taken their "mean pills", or, like lions with no pride, feel the need to justify their existence by roaring once in a while. Especially since it didn't seem like a "one bus thing"--the next one got more of the same.
A total of two hours after pullling up to the border, we departed, with no shakedown casualties. Our clearly frustrated driver said, "I've been driving for years, and it's never taken this long. Goddamn Salmon Wars."
DIVERGENT WORKING EXPERIENCES:
MY FIRST HOSTS, BILL AND LISA IN SEATTLE
My first weekend stateside was spent getting used to the time zone difference (16 hours) and to America in general. It was helpful to be with people who were the same age, married, homeowners and Cornell vets, since easy conversation makes for longer wide-awakedness. During this stay, I realized that although we essentially lept from the same undergraduate starting block--Liberal Arts' degrees from a high-pressure academic environment--we could compare roads taken in the job market (they in the US and I in Japan) and their consequent effect upon our world view.
Bill's experience in the US job market was quite timultuous. After receiving a Bachelors' with a concentration in plasma physics, he went on to a doctorate in fluid dynamics--suitable for nuclear fusion research, and thus, pardon the pun, a bright future. I thought he'd be the one working on the next great breakthrough in energy sources--a container for man-made suns. It wasn't to be. The Peace Dividend dried up just about any DOD grants, government funding was cut all over for nonprofitable research, and international organizations (such as the ITER project) dragged their feet or produced nothing consequential. The only other real source of money in this world, the oil companies, were definitely not interested in funding their own obsolescence. So poof went Bill's job opportunities, and he faced the dilemma of the overeducated--specialized to a fault.
Bill sighed, indicated that he wasn't really interested in talking about this difficult period in his life, and took another sip from his Dilbert mug. "You want to know how Americans have it here as far as jobs go? Read this guy here." He pointed at his bookshelf to Scott Adams' THE DILBERT PRINCIPLE, full of cartoons and commentary about what it's like to work for big US companies. "Y'know, we work our butts off for some company which hires us as temps or part timers, refusing us job security or benefits, and we have to go from place to place looking for new projects. What happens is that we keep sawing at the branches we sit on. All so the bosses and the shareholders can make more money.
"I mean, finish our work quickly so we can be laid off? What kind of incentive system is that? I can see why UPS is threatening to go on strike. Here I am wanting to do good for this crappy old world, but I keep getting pigeonholed into jobs that aren't even remotely related to what I was trained for. It's downright depressing, Dave."
Fortunately my visit was at a good time in Bill's life. After several transitional years he found a bunch of other PhDs in the same boat who had discovered the newest, hottest job market around (thanks to the biggest technological empowerment of the general public since the PC). You are part of the process at this very moment. Internet Services. Bill now works 12-hour days designing web pages, having gotten a spacious office of his own, and secured a salaried position in a field that satisfies both his intellectual and financial needs. He's lucky, really--an example of how the structurally unemployed can find jobs so long as jobs continue being created. Or so the economists and politicians would have you believe.
Lisa's occupational path sounded much less eventful. After getting her Bachelors' in Mathematics (which a Liberal Artsie like I--majoring in Government!--could never see any practical application for), she went on to work as an engineer designing traffic bridges and roads. Given that Americans drive far more than anyone in the world, she had no trouble staying in work, supporting Bill through the bumpy stretches. She is probably the only college friend I know who has never changed her job. She wound up luckier than Bill, really.
Meanwhile I wound up farthest from my training. I was assured a grad school path with a BA in Government, so I got the equivalent of an MBA. Subsequently, after a couple of abortive years of being a businessman, I found the field of higher education to be far more my bag. I genuinely like to teach. Still, it's not something my friends back in the States can really understand; most look a little disparagingly when they realize that Dave Aldwinckle, the star straight-A student who apparently could have had any job he ever wanted, wound up a mere English teacher in Japan. Even my mother hoped I'd be in the UN or something. It just wasn't to be.
Fortunately, it doesn't matter, because it looks as though my veering off into Japan was wiser than I anticipated. Pulling the Dilbert book off Bill's shelf and reading it early one jet-lagged morning, I soon realized that it wasn't a Far Side or Bloom County collection. It is serious reading--about the shit that goes on in American offices. How employer and employee are at odds with one another, how workers are victims of management fads, how humans are just plain idiots whose best-laid plans wind up in folly. Some of the comments go beyond irony and into subversion--chapters on how you can sabotage your company, escape doing much work yet wind up smelling of roses, and get the wingnuts in your group promoted out of harms' way--into salaried management.
When I finished it, I was astounded, and wondered why nothing like this has ever appeared in Japan. To be sure, Japanese workers don't necessarily have it much better, with the slow undermining of lifetime employment, yet no clear diminunition in the hazing and deindividualization that occurs over decades in Japanese companies.
One reason I came up with was the need for positive spiritedness in public. What exactly do I mean by this? An illustration: Mayor Giuliani attributes one factor to his success in making crime rates in NYC drop by 40%, and not just that he's hired more cops; he says that creating an environment of lawfulness creates a virtuous circle. So clean up the graffiti, don't ignore acts of vandalism, get cops on the beat, and show people that raspberries at public order will not be tolerated, and things will start following suit--because the level of optimism towards lawfulness will increase.
Likewise, Japanese office environments foment optimism by enforcing it in the workplace. Even if the cheery slogans go ignored, Japanese bosses generally do not tolerate nasty slogans or negative attitudes towards work. Hell, believe it or not, even sarcasm is taboo.
On the other hand, you might notice that American offices are full of sarcasm. They permit a surprising amount of employee loitering around coffee machines, making wisecracks about how people are hardly working. It's not just behavioral. Cubicles and coffee mugs Stateside are festooned with "I hate Mondays", "Don't ask me", or posters that scream "STRESS is defined as the suppressed urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole who really deserves it.". It is considered humor. Humor I've never seen in any Japanese company. Nasty stuff like this over here would show poor working spirit and be taken down.
Visiting several American offices, I could see why Sakurauchi, former Speaker of the Japanese Diet, essentially called American workers "lazy". Despite the fact Americans work longer hours nowadays than even the Japanese, and generally for lower pay. The fact is Americans talk lazy.
To be sure, office bullshit exists in Japan too, and it affects worker morale. But my point is that American workers, as evidenced in best-selling Dilbert, are caught in pits of irony that erode positive work environments. The Japanese, in my experience, escape this pitfall by not being allowed that outlet.
In any case, THE DILBERT PRINCIPLE, I must admit, is a good book, and recommended reading for all those expats like I, who came to Japan at a young age and never worked for an American company. I think it is indicative of something important.
I would like to conclude this first part of what was intended to be light travelogue with two more quick points:
The first is that by coming to Japan, I avoided the strife and self-doubt that seems intrinsic to the apparently more Darwinian American job market. My job here pays well, affords plenty of respect in Japanese society, gives me lots of free time, and can actually be lots of fun. More important, I can read a Dilbert cartoon and never really get the jokes, or emphathize with the caustic comments on American employment practices. I don't want to empathize, for that matter.
Perhaps I was luckiest of all.
My second point is this: Bill, Lisa, and I were all straight-A students--the high school poindexters, and it's amazing where we wound up. Bill, and several other of my fellow "brainy" colleagues, have had a really rough time holding a job in the real world. Meanwhile, as we will see with my friend Doug, scholastic underachievers and Bart Simpson wannabes have often done just fine.
I've come to a sacrilegious conclusion--that it's debatable, in the long run, whether all those straight-A's in high school really matter (except as a door-opener at a few crucial stages, or as an example to your students as an educator). Only now am I realizing how little a person's educational background acts as a template for where he or she will finally end up.
Then again, that's probably for the best, since who would want future opportunities set in stone based on one's performance as a teenager? It's just a pity that all of our hard work getting an education doesn't make us more immune from occupational bad luck.
It was time for me to get my head out of the deep thoughts and start exporting. I would next travel south to Salem, Oregon, to meet Joseph, a person who had come to Japan and gotten a rough time in the job market. He, however, returned to the US with two sets of business smarts--one from Brooklyn, and one from Sapporo. Joseph, the tireless hard-selling businessman, who would teach me a lot about how confrontational Americans can be.
See you in Part Two.