CONFRONTATIONALISM AND KRYPTONITE
(Originally sent to Friends and ISSHO Wed, 10 Sep 1997)
I've been told that the following simile has been used in a recent movie, but as it did occur to me in America, I'll use it here and contend with the critics later:
I liken a trip back to America to Superman making a trip back to Krypton. When Siegel and Schuster first made the Man of Steel, they had to inject a little science into their fiction, because comic-book hero or not, an invulnerable superhuman was a little hard to believe. So they talked about Clark Kent coming from a planet called Krypton, which being more dense than Earth has a higher amount of gravity. So when Clark crashlanded on Earth, he was superstrong because things were physically lighter, and he had X-Ray vision from eyes attuned to a different opacity. Superman's nemesis was, of course, fragments of rock from his home world--Kryptonite--which made him lose all his powers.
Hence America becomes my Krypton because I feel absolutely sapped of strength there, even at the most interpersonal levels. Here in Japan, I can relate more to people; they generally give me the time of day and listen to what I say. This could be due to their interest in America, their tendency towards deference with White people, or my ability to describe in Japanese what I see around me--my X-Ray vision, so to speak. In terms of strength, here I feel I can accomplish more in a negotiation than the average Japanese--with the right mix of loud voice, humility, deliberate ignorance of custom, and choices of which battles to fight. Then there's the financial and emotional integrity in Japan (something which even Clark Kent, with a shitty job as a reporter at the Daily Planet, didn't have); here, I'm not troubled for money, bored with bad food, starved for pretty women to gaze at, or frustrated by a lack intellectual challenge.
(NB: See what a vacation can do for you! Guess I'd better enjoy this feeling while it lasts.)
In America, as we shall see as this travelogue unfolds, I had none of the above. Money was present, but it was definitely finite, and service charges and exchange-rate fluctuations were killing me. American food? It was very easy to run the gamut of flavors in about a week--sweet and salty, good fish sauced or fried beyond natural taste, greasy food that was too delicious to ignore. Women? Forgive me, but there were too many people with pierced bodies, tattoos, bad skin and cellulite. Not to mention that attitude from empowerment ("Cross me and I'll scream 'Sexism', touch me an I'll scream 'Rape!'"), which for me nowadays is a huge turn-off. Somebody to talk intellectually with? Infrequent. Like your friends who become boring because they have had kids (and talk about nothing else), life for me pivots around Japan nowadays. But hardly anyone in America cares about Japan at all--not even close to the awareness Japan has of America. Despite my ten years learning about an esoteric society, I could share nothing of interest with an American unless he or she had also been to Japan. It's debilitating.
And when we get into matters of "superhuman strength", that was my nadir. As Joseph would show me, I had been Japanized to the point of becoming a pushover at the bargaining table.
A WEEK WITH JOSEPH PLAYING "GOOD COP, BAD COP"
I first met Joseph in, of all places, Sapporo, where he was working for an Indian restaurant chain as a branch manager. Educational opportunities eventually brought him and his (Canadian, Caucasian) wife back to the States. Now he, through a mutual friend, was arranging my shopping for house stuff, willing to drive me around town, and even giving me a place to stay.
It didn't faze him. "Hey, you've got a family, you've buildin' a house, you compensate me for my time, and I'll take care of ya."
Joseph's personality took some time for me to get used to because it's, well, confrontational. Joseph is an Italian-American who grew up in Brooklyn, and if anybody out there knows that ethnicity and that area, it means gregariousness multiplied by assertiveness. When I arrived in Portland and got him on the phone, the second sentence he said was something like, "Hey, whatcha dickin' around Portland for? Why aren't you out here in Salem already? We just lost a day we coulda spent shoppin'." When I told him I was talking to my Portland freight forwarders, he said, "Okay, pal, it's your time and your money. You get over here and we'll get somethin' started." I said I'd be there by that evening and be out of his hair in five days, and he hung up.
A quick footnote. I'll be discussing the nuts and bolts of how to do personal imports elsewhere (in my HOUSEBUILDING PART FOUR essay, due late October), but I should give you the reason why I went from Seattle all the way down to Oregon: taxes. I was buying and forwarding household items from the US to Japan. I needed a shipper who would send a container to my nearest Hokkaido port, Tomakomai, directly from the US (i.e. not through Tokyo--which would add at least a couple of thousand dollars to the shipping costs). The only shipper that would do that that is Westwood, out of Seattle. But if I bought my goods and shipped from Washington State, there is a killer sales tax (around 8%), worse than just about any Japanese tariff. However, in Oregon, there is NO sales tax (a high income tax makes up for it). Solution: run down south, ship out of Portland up to Seattle, and then over to Tomakomai.
Now why was I detouring out to Salem, Oregon's humdrum capital, to buy? Let Joseph tell us in his inimitable style:
"Look buddy, it's your money, but Portland is fulla fuckin' yuppies. It's fuckin' expensive to buy anything over there. Salem, on the other hand, is a working-class burg. Nothin' to do out here but work, fuck, sleep, and shop. Hey, I betcha you can buy all your stuff here, rent a truck for a day, truck it over to Portland yourself and still save money. I don't mind whatcha want to do, but I'm tellin' ya, you're comin' all the way over from fuckin' Japan to save money, and the best place to do it is over here where I am. Got it?"
I got it, and was on my way out to Salem after a talk with my agents and a walk around Portland, that charming yuppie town.
BUSINESS NEGOTIATIONS IN THE US:
"DON'T TRUST ANYONE. THEY'RE ALL OUT TO SCREW YA"
I wish any MBA who is learning how to be a "game-theory-style" negotiator could have joined me for the Joseph Crash Course. Every single interaction where there was money involved was a wrestling match, every other interaction was a besting match. Allow me to illustrate:
Day one of our shopping spree was spent taking care of the big purchases. Having received a shopping list from me months in advance, Joseph had made several calls and found the stores that sold the stuff at good prices. So out we drove into the middle of nowhere, a place called Corvallis (which looks like a cross between Abelene and Lubbock, Texas). The building supplier just happened to have 1.5 square meters of sawn walnut timber, access to hundreds of square feet of light oak Bruce Brand flooring, and all the door casing, floor base and ceiling crown I could have asked for. How Joseph found this all in one store, I didn't ask. But it made for one-stop shopping.
Which was the way that Joseph had arranged it, but plans threatened to change. Joseph kept one eye on me and one ear on the negotiation between me and Ed, the middle-aged salesman. An unctuous character, Ed realized that he had a sale of several thousand dollars --cash-- going on here. But he also realized that I knew nothing about US market prices--only outlandish Japanese prices, so he could actually sell me the stuff for 20 or 30 percent higher than normal and I'd be none the wiser.
But Joseph would. And that's why he intervened at Ed's first price quotation:
Joseph: "You FUCKER! What's that price you told me on the phone? Hey, I've got a whole bunch of other places lined up, so if we don't like what we see here, we're out that door and you'll never fuckin' see us again."
If I were Ed, I would have probably at least been indignant. But amazingly, he just smiled and said back, "You're from the East Coast, aren'tcha? So am I. Been a while since I heard that shit." He was prepared to schmooze some more when Joseph said, "Okay, so what about that fuckin' price?" Ed knocked the price down appreciably.
I said: "Does that include delivery?"
Ed was about to answer when Joseph tapped me on the shoulder. "Ed, give us a minute." Joseph and I went off to a quiet corner, where he put his arm around me and gave me a quiet lowdown:
"Look, Dave, as I said, it's your money. But you're losin' it. Look, OF COURSE it includes delivery. Don't remind them. If they've got the fuckin' balls to tack it on later, we can get pissed off and walk out for their pulling a fast one. Assume that the price they give you includes everything. Got it?"
I nodded, and we returned. Joseph gave Ed a steely glare and said, "Of course delivery is included, right? It's only to fuckin' Portland, and we're blowin' quite a wad here, so no funny stuff."
Ed gave a real shit-eating grin and said, "Yeah, price includes delivery."
Said I again: "I need it in Portland by Friday. I've got a container going to Japan by the end of next week and--"
Joseph collared me again. Again privately: "Dave, you're sayin' too much. You're makin' it sound like you need them more than they need you. Don't fuckin' tell them your time constraints or else they'll find ways to screw you. They can wait, you can't--but don't fuckin' TELL them that! Your money, your terms. No bullshit. Got it?"
I was starting to get nervous about saying anything at all, so I said: "Can you do the talking for me?"
"Okay, that'll be part of the service." Joseph went back and turkey got talked. In the end, we bought the most beautiful cord of dried sawn walnut we've ever seen, sound planks of red oak for the master bedframe, 1400 square feet of Bruce No-wax Lindel oak flooring, and a couple hundred feet of oak crown and moulding. Palletized, shrinkwrapped and delivered on time for a little over $5000 cash. Considering that the estimate I got for buying the Bruce flooring alone in Japan was around $8000, we made out.
I won't dwell further on what I bought or how, so let's get to the point of this parable:
Being confrontational matters in America.
Every time Ed and I talked, it was nice, pleasant, but useless social talk. Useless to anyone but the salesman, who chats so that he can better his position in "the hustle"--by finding out what position the customer is in, and how much one can get away with. (See movies TIN MEN and CADILLAC MAN for excellent illustrations of the dynamic).
But every time Joseph talked, it was a poker game, with Joseph keeping all his aces. There was not a nice word to be heard; Joseph knew the hustle and simply played Bad Cop. I did my best not to act surprised as Joseph verbally beat up anybody until they submitted a lower price.
On our way to our next ports of call, Joseph had plenty to say about my style, or lack of it:
"Dave, you've been in Japan too long. You act as if being nice and passive all the time is gonna get you a good price. Maybe you've learned it works that way in Japan, but it don't happen here that way. The hustle over here means nice guys finish last, and the ballbusters get the better prices. I don't think you're a dummy or nothin', but you've gotta learn. I don't mean to bust your balls either, cos I've seen this a lot with some of my other lifer friends in Japan. They got no teeth. You went there at a very young age--what was it, twenty?--and been out of the loop too long. You've gotta learn how to be more pushy. Here, salesmen are gonna eat you alive, and your flying all the way over ain't gonna mean nothing if you ain't savin' money."
What could I say to that? Except thanks. Now I could see the Kryptonite effect.
In America, I wouldn't dare throw my weight around the way I do in Japan. As readers of my tales well know, In Japan I'm no stranger to shouting because I feel so strong. It seems so easy for me to take umbrage from Japanese modus operandi, or get all self-righteous and defend myself via a cultural or a "personal rights" tack. And people in Japan, when confronted like this, generally cave in. But in the US, I no longer have the "my-culture-so-my-way" soapbox, and no American would give my claims of "rights infringement" any credence outside of a courtroom. Essentially, I felt like any shit I dished out would be thrown right back.
So without my arsenal of unretaliated strongarming, the only tack I could deploy was asking nicely for what I wanted. But in my experience with American salesmen, appealing to their sympathies or to their better nature doesn't seem to work.
To me, compared with Japanese, American businessmen don't seem to care enough about a sale to tailor it more to a customer's needs, and Americans, who tend to value lower prices over better customer service, don't bother to fight enough to get their way.
Contentious enough a claim? Let me try to quantify it:
Despite all America's slogans about the customer being "king" and "always being right", the fact is that I have generally found better service, more shopfloor knowledge about the products being sold, and more answered enquiries in Japan than in the US. If we had questions about some good at, for example, a wholesaler like Home Depot, we spend fifteen to twenty minutes trying to track down a clerk, and he would subsequently spend another fifteen to twenty finding another clerk who would know something about that good. Plenty of times that person would be off duty and we'd get no answer at all.
Joseph: "Hey, is that any wonder? These guys at Home Depot are only getting minimum wage, so what do they have to know about the shit they're selling? What do they care about anything except getting through the working day?"
Rare indeed was the lower-wage American worker who gave a hoot about what they were selling, moreover the image they were projecting of their company by being ignorant. Indifference seemed ubiquitous.
But let's put ourselves in American shoes: Americans encourage bad service because they all too easily sacrifice good service for a lower price. Places like Home Depot keep their prices down by hiring few staff and piling the goods high. Nobody knows what's in the store but the computer, and it ain't talkin'. But if the goods come cheap, that's paramount and therefore a tolerable situation.
The bottom line is this: If something is significantly cheaper at one store than another, the majority of Americans I know would do without zillions of clerks attending to their every need, moreover would blow off unrequited promises of future bargains for paying a premium now. No-frills over bells and whistles.
Concrete example: Gas stations in the US and Japan. Anyone who has used a gas stand in Japan knows how fantastic the service is--from the guidance into the filling area to the finishing deep bow in the middle of the street. That just don't happen in the US because it makes the gas station pricey. More to the point, most Americans choose self-service over full- any day of the week--look at the pariah status of the full-service sector.
I'll admit there is some noise in this assertion: Japanese drivers do choose cheaper gas stations too, and safety laws here keep self service from blossoming. But I reckon that even if self-service were allowed to exist, full-service would not die the quick death it did in the US. Let's hope the law changes to prove me right or wrong.
(NB: I am talking about price vs service, not price vs QUALITY, since I find both Japanese and Americans often choose a less durable good if the price is significantly lower. But even if the good is fungible or equivalent in quality, I think an American will choose a store on price and damn the risks, whereas a Japanese will choose a store on trust--how much the knew store knew about the good and how good the follow-up service will be. That's one reason why the DIY market is so slow to take off in Japan--they'd rather have installation as part of the service, rather than do it themselves half-assedly and saving money.)
But then we come back to Joseph, who knew the American system and could get both price AND good service out of a salesman. He badgered people until he got bells like free delivery or whistles like shrinkwrapping. By doing the hustle day in, day out. Being confrontational.
To be honest, his demeanor was contagious. Sure, Joseph was one to give a restaurant some hell about an inferior slice of pizza (by leaving it half-eaten, spinning it onto the counter, and saying on his way out: "What is this shit? Hire somebody who knows what they're doin'."), which I wasn't wont to do. But eventually I found myself dishing the same stuff back at him, since that seemed to be the way to engender chumminess and respect.
I'd walk into a shirt shop that was "for broader sizes" (I've got long arms and a big neck), and get measured by the staff. Several shirts later and out the door, Joseph would remark on my steadily-advancing waistline: "The clerk said you've got what, a 40-inch waist? You're fuckin' the same size as me, and I'm over forty years old. What are you, thirty two? You're way ahead of me, man. You're gonna be like that eighty-inch guy we just saw in there in no time." I'd give him a big "Fuck you, man", he'd give me one back, and it wouldn't matter.
Or we'd be looking around Home Depot at some wallpaper and our tastes would diverge. "How about this, buddy?", he'd say. And it would be my turn to take the piss: "Joseph, you want me to deface my walls with that shit? Looks like fuckin' Venus di Milos running up and down the Colliseum. I'da thought that given your background--Italy being the foundation of Western Civilization, The Rennaissance, and the center of Christianity and good fashion design--you'd have better taste." And he'd give me a hearty "fuck you" and it wouldn't matter again.
I'd talk to Joseph like I'd never talk to a Japanese, unless he were a childhood friend. Here I'd only been with Joseph a few days and we were rattling each other like siblings. Confrontation was a sign of friendliness in America.
And it was everywhere. I'd go to Joseph's night workplace--a bar--where we'd cadge free beers off the bartender on duty. He's sit there busting the staff for not working hard enough or for not having as much vacation time as he. We'd go to a local Italian restaurant (which made excellent calzones), and there would be some of Joseph's friends of Italian extraction there just waiting for him. They'd spend the calzone interim busting each other's chops in ways that my writing can't do justice--you'd just have to be there. Then we'd go home, and his working-class neighbors were just as unJapanese as can be. They would drop by and eat whatever leftovers Joseph (an excellent cook) had handy, and sit there smoking his cigars. One man, in Tom Arnold or Ted Bundy style, breathed a litany of how he wasn't getting any from his wife anymore, as he bashed his sidewalk with a hoe and tore up his garden. One woman, with big hair and the exhausted beauty of a high school prom queen, spent her time chain-smoking and talking about whose husband was beating whose wife. The neighbors' huge American teenage kids, getting used to their newly linebackered bodies, lounged around on Joseph's sofa surfing his hundred channels of Cable in an unlit room. And so on.
As you can tell from the frenetic pace of my writing, this was too much for me to take all in. But the conclusion was this: in the end, I could feel the open-mindedness and hospitality that Americans are famous for. Joseph and I were not out of each other's sight for a good five days. Yet we had not one single scuffle--not one bit of real confrontation. Moreover, he put me up in his house, fed me, drove me all around town, found all my goods, shook down the salesmen, and did plenty more beyond the pale of a business relationship. He even said, "Get rid of those shit-kicking sneakers," and gave me a pair of his own! (lime-green Pumas, which I am still wearing) Granted, Joseph was duly compensated, and Japanese are famous for treating their guests like royalty, but I know of no Japanese who would have done all this for me.
We worked well together. Joseph's skill of not being bothered by anything (because he nips shit in the bud), coupled with my Japan-acquired skill of learning how to get along with just about anybody, made for a visit that was not just productive. It was fun. And even today I know I could count on Joseph to help out with a favor--since the Brooklyn in him sees me as an okay guy, and the Japan in me knows about quid pro quo for services rendered. For all the differences in styles of interpersonal relationships between Japan and the US, we found a complementary dynamic. I was Clark Kent, and he was Superman.
LEAVING SALEM AND SEEING MY SELF
Again, it was time to move on the next stage of the Trek. I would meet the most interpersonally arcane person I think I'll ever know. And I would care because, in a sense, this person *IS* me, from another generation, in another dimension.
My father, after over a quarter-century of separation, I would meet and get to know.
(Click here for Americatrek Three)