Training in a Truly Foreign Country, Part II

What would you consider training in a truly foreign country to be? One where you neither speak nor write or read the language, right? I’m not going to make you guess. If you read Part I, you know that I’m talking about Japan. The Japanese actually have three kinds of writing, but I suppose if you were fortunate enough to read one of them you could get along without too much culture shock.

This is about training in Japan. In my case I was there to train high-level executives, including CEOs of huge corporations about American culture or How to do business the American way. Had I been younger, I would have been teaching English as a native speaker to the junior and middle staff. Japanese business executives, for the most part, don’t get where they are, without learning English in school prior to our arrival. At this time, Japan was leading the way for Pacific Rim countries in trade. Although this is no longer the case, Japan is still a primary player and provides a good example to talk about for training purposes.

In Part I, I jumped ahead to some experiences in Tokyo, but here we’ll back up to the research and go from there.

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Since it would be awhile before I actually went to Japan, I did some homework. It was stressed that I didn't need to speak Japanese; however, I wanted to immerse myself in Japanese culture. I began by eating sushi and tried very hard to appreciate the delicate flavors. (Actors dig very deep into their roles and that’s the way I approached this fantastic foreign opportunity.) I looked at every book I could find on Japanese culture; I even read cover-to-cover James Clavell’s huge novels that embrace Japanese culture. As I self-educated myself in Japanese culture, I tried to learn some Japanese as well.

I learned some simple things, too, that every tourist should know like how to use the pay phone. (I suppose now the company would send us a phone with numbers already in the contact list. I would hope.) I learned about bowing. How to present myself. How the rank structure works. I learned that if I got into trouble–got lost, for example, find a young woman dressed in a business suit and ask her to help you. There is a good chance she will be liberated enough and savvy enough to help a foreigner out. If you read Part I, you know that this did happen and it didn’t turn out as planned. It’s funny now when I think of it, but at the time, not so much.

One of the important things I learned was that my clothing called too much attention to itself. I don’t suppose much has changed since then. The Japanese are still conservative in business dress and I still have very little in my wardrobe conservative enough. I’ll just have to tone it down. And that’s what I did then. Still in comparison, I felt garish compared to the Japanese I met with. On the other hand, the club scene and casual dress are different matters entirely.

The older we are the harder we fall. Rule number one: Culture Shock.

I was offered, by mail, my first city: Hiroshima. The hair on the back of neck rose up. All I could think about was my Air Force uniform and the atomic bomb. Then I noticed something else. My work card was filled out with the CEOs of huge Japanese corporations and banks! No, this couldn't be! They could all speak English so what did they want of me? I was not there to teach them English, but rather American business culture. I was numb. A thought kept repeating in my head: flip it, flip flip it. What did that mean?

Don’t let the details bother you. Rule number two: Culture Shock.

When I calmed down and accepted my new role, I saw the future in training Japanese business culture to American businessmen and women. Then, I received some more mail from my new employers, this time asking my preference for a roommate and such. Also listed was a native speaker contact. I called her immediately and explained my distress. The new assignment for Nagoya came along with my Japanese work visa and a letter from the president of the company, whom I would call upon arrival.

I don’t think I would have ever felt right in Hiroshima. I questioned my competency. What did I know about “culture?” About business? What did the Japanese want from me? Thinking about it now, the only way I could have been more qualified might have been having a degree in art and music; I had the rest covered. In the Air Force, I worked with small business owners to large corporations, but I was too worried to take care of my own business. All I did was wait and question. I went over and over my “homework.” I needed to be prepared. Sometimes, enough is enough. Get some rest. Relax.

Sometimes it pays to be cavalier like the kid with the backpack. Rule number three: Culture Shock.

The rest of my orders came in. I was to fly to Tokyo for training before taking the superfast train to Nagoya. Sounded easy enough. I changed dollars to Yen at the bank, packed big bags and flew Japan Airlines to Tokyo. The ten-hour flight was pleasant enough. I felt relaxed, as if I had finally come to accept this new and exciting role of training the "big guys." I was used to flying. Planes are planes. Airports are airports. We landed at Narita International Airport. The airport was familiar. The plan was to retrieve one bag and ship the rest ahead to the Nagoya office. Up ’til now everyone I met spoke some English, but the guy behind the desk did not understand what I wanted to do and I couldn't read the paper in my hands that told him what I needed to do. After some wild gesturing, I was finally able to make him understand what I needed him to do. Should have taken more improvisational classes. Now just one bag to wrestle with and to make a phone call.

The phone call! There I was. There was the phone. Didn't look like any of our pay phones. I was catatonic. I forgot how to use the phone… My first rescuer, a young woman, didn't seem to speak any English at all, but she saw me petrified before the phone and offered her help. At least, that’s what it seemed she was doing. As if in a trance, I handed her the letter and my change. She giggled a little at the culture-shocked American, but quickly went back to business. She dialed and continually put coins in.

“Ohio, Sato-san?” Then she asked me, “You na…nama.” I told her. She spoke into the phone again, then handed it to me.

“Mr. Sato-san? This is Jack Shaw. I’m at the Airport.”

“You stay there. Someone come for you. You will know. ‘Kay?”

“Hai,” I answered proudly, but had forgotten the word for thank you.

He said a very accent-free, good-bye and hung up. I turned and looked for the young woman to thank her, but she was gone.

I never made it to Nagoya, because the company decided to keep me in Tokyo. Same client base. Cost some money to get my bags back. I was teased a bit for wanting a female roommate (they asked) and for being culture shocked, but heard worse. One guy who never ate anywhere but Denny’s. The point of all this: don’t go it alone unless you’re young like the backpack kid or want lessons-learned etched in your brain about culture shock. Happy training.

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