Tag Archives: Big Dumb Corporation

☕️ ☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 2 – Taiwan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Busy Street in Taipei

We flew to Taipei in the morning, and took a cab direct from the airport to the office. Taipei was hotter, more humid, busier, more crowded on the streets and sidewalks, older, less westernized, and appropriately somehow more relaxed than Tokyo. It’s hard to see a country when you spend most of your visit in a corporate office, but those were my first impressions anyway.

My Taiwanese IT counterpart, “Roger”, closer to my age than Tashiki, in glasses, and dressed comfortably for the steamy Taiwan summer weather in an open-collared, short-sleeved yellow plaid shirt and jeans, walked us from the small elevator to the office lobby, where we paused at an empty reception desk. On the wall behind the desk a giant red plexiglass logo reassured us of our unity as citizens of the one same corporation. Roger officially greeted everyone and introduced those who had not yet met. Then looking serious,  told us the first important thing.

Explaining as best he could in English, and with the unending patience of someone who has repeated it for the millionth time, that it may seem strange to us and how we do things in America, but if we insist on using toilet paper, it is essential to place the soiled paper in the little trash can, next to the toilet, and not flush it down the toilet. This practice is important because Taipei is a large island city with an old sewage system never designed to handle toilet paper, which should be disposed of in the same manner as regular office paper waste.

Staring at our feet in the lobby, holding suitcases and clunky Dell laptops, and feeling a bit displaced, our team made note of this explanation with a few smirks, and for my part, naïve disbelief. After all, Roger and I had shared several international calls and previous team meetings in New Jersey, and I knew he had a dry sense of humor. I hadn’t traveled much, hadn’t yet taken my first surfing trip to Costa Rica—with its similar infrastructure—and had never traveled anywhere where this requirement was verbalized so clearly. Was he kidding us? I just didn’t know.

Having quickly covered this necessity, Roger was joined by our second local IT host, Mary, with shoulder length dark hair, trim in a blue button down shirt and cotton vest, sleeves folded back, jeans, and deck shoes, she seemed genuinely pleased to see us. After more greetings and introductions (absent the greeting card ritual), she ushered us past the logo and into the main office, a smaller and more informal operation than the one in Tokyo, with a conspicuous number of empty desks—then she respectfully presented the second important announcement.

Clearly, tea preparation was a simple matter, she explained, mastered over several thousand years by this mature culture, but coffee? This was a mystery that required a modern solution. For their staff, and honored coffee-consuming-Western guests, the office had acquired a Chinese—not Japanese—solution to that daunting problem faced by so many non-Americans, that is, how to make a decent cup of coffee. Offering this introduction as she led us to the little kitchen lounge, Mary proudly unveiled a stainless steel mechanical coffee maker next to a steel rack of little gold and red cartridges, which we could access any time that we required or desired our chosen American beverage. Mary demonstrated how the machine worked, telling us with a smile, “Whenever you need coffee, it’s here! You just come and make it!”

Without discussion, our team agreed that this was a clever invention. We pretended to have never seen such an innovation, and expressed our astonishment at the freshly produced cup!

While Mary prepared a second cup, my thoughts drifted. As the IT expert required to manage and edit our email “directory”, I was familiar with every name of every one of the one thousand or so employees globally. Americans, Brits, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese. I could usually identify the user’s nationality by their name, but with the Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues it was different.

In Japan, I didn’t think too much about Tashiki’s name. At least, I was pretty confident that was his name. An American in Asia should know that the Japanese introduce themselves, in proper Japanese, first stating their “Family Name” (what Americans call “Last Name”). Except sometimes, in polite deference to English speakers, the Japanese might reverse the normal Japanese order, and present themselves first by “Given” (what Americans call “First Name”) and then “Family” name. In that case—an American, believing he understands the proper and polite Japanese ordering of names, might then refer to his colleague in the opposite fashion, by “Family” name, when trying to refer to him by his “Given” name.

Without making this more confusing than it already is, let me just say that for a year or more I referred to Tashiki as Wakamatsu, until with his usual kindness, he explained that I should probably call him “Tashiki”.

Our Taiwanese colleagues also have formal names, which sometimes appear on their business cards but which were rarely used with English speakers. As a student of T’ai Chi Chuan, I had some understanding that their presentations of names was similar to the Japanese, that is, “Family” name first. Thus T’ai Chi Chuan Master “Jou, Tsung Hua” is respectfully referred to as “Master Jou”. Which may sound like the informal western “Joe”, but is not the same. So, how, I wondered, do our Taiwanese (and Chinese colleagues) acquire first names like “Mary” or “Roger”? Are these their real names?

That evening, our hosts took us to a local seafood restaurant. Seated almost comfortably on a porch, an ocean breeze fanning the palm fronds; my mind stuck in a distant time zone, lulled by twinkling lights and cold beer, I chatted with the colleagues. Placed in front of each guest, a pot of black volcanic rock roiled with boiling water. The wait staff delivered trays layered with a colorful array of fresh, cleaned and prepared—but uncooked—local sea life, vegetables, and herbs. Using metal tongs we selected and dropped the shrimp, fish, octopus, or some other ocean denizen into the pot.

The slow cooking process encouraged conversation and served as a friendly icebreaker after our first day in the office. When cooked to satisfaction, we removed the food, placed it on the plate, added condiments or sauce, and ate—myself creating a minor stir with my unexpected dexterity with chopsticks. (I’m just full of surprises.)

After some back and forth, I decided to query Mary politely, “If it is not rude for me to ask, was “Mary” her “given” name?” (She smiled at this.) “Or, how did she come by it?”

She explained, these names are an accommodation because most Westerners have difficulty (by which she meant, make such a mess of) trying to speak Chinese. At some point late in their professional education or early in their international careers (if they are to work with English-speaking-Westerners) she and her colleagues acquire what they call their “American names”. They are usually ‘christened’ with their “American” name by a “coach” or employment counselor who is engaged in recruiting countrymen for work with foreign companies.

Most of my American colleagues accepted those “American” names without much thought or sensitivity, but to me it always seemed a bit weird, or awkward, like a “stage name”. As if you worked with and were maybe even friends with Reg Dwight, but only ever called him “Elton”. Or when, did you call him “Reg?”

Dinner concluded, our American and British team traversed humid downtown Taipei, now dark, the streets still rushing with the noise of car and scooter traffic. Checking at last into our nearby hotel, exhausted, I noted that although the office loo had what might be called a “plain vanilla” toilet, nevertheless my hotel bathroom sported a very sophisticated model (was it the Superlet?) with at least as many integrated functions as the “add-on” ones in the Tokyo offices.

There was also, of course, a small, classy brass-lidded container for soiled toilet paper, a reminder of the information provided, but as yet unused, much, much earlier in that very long day.

Although to this point I had only a bit of a “sensitive stomach”, I discovered the next morning after arriving at the office, that clearly, I was unaccustomed to something—seafood, radishes, or some unknown spice. Possibly even the cream I used to temper the Iced Coffee from a Starbucks we had discovered nearby.

With two days’ work left in the office, my digestive system initiated a full revolt.

 Excusing myself abruptly from numerous meetings, I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time contemplating that first important announcement, “the use and disposal of toilet paper”. From my long, seated meditations, I was grateful for the breeze that continuously blew fresh air into the open window of my seventh floor private office. Now and again a colleague might make his way to the men’s room to ask a technical question about migration of a mail file, or query me on the wording of a memo. Several times I tried to rejoin my colleagues only to excuse myself again and again for another visit to the lavatory. Eventually, I just remained in the stall.

After a long interval, someone brought me an Immodium, which I took, re-appearing briefly to obtain a cup of water, and then trying not to run, I returned to my Fortress of Solitude awaiting relief.

In my stall, things were not so busy. It was peaceful. I became overly familiar with the chiming tower clock at the church behind the office, the cooing of pigeons that landed in the shade of the window ledge, and the playful laughter of the students at recess in the yard of the Catholic school next door, which as far as I could discern from my porcelain throne, could have been the laughter of children anywhere in the world.

Relief came eventually, and I was able to move about, slowly. The next day, I didn’t drink the coffee, tried to stay out of the toilet, and yes, finished installing the new email system.

This time with me working “remotely”, or at least intermittently, we completed our IT Magic. Our migration team returned to the USA, where the economy was teetering, and the local New Jersey Executives grew disturbed with tales of great advances in the creation of coffee in Asia – something that was sorely lacking in our office in New Jersey.

But before we go there, let’s first take a look at Coffee in France...

—Christo

☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 1 – Japan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Tashiki, with the onion-framed wire rims, Beatle mop-top, sincere smile and winning sense of humor, gave the impression he had somehow slipped away from working as John Lennon’s stunt double in the “Magical Mystery Tourmovie and stepped into a magical real world that was always of great interest to him.

After spending some time in his youth as a Japanese ex-patriot attending school in Southern California, Tashiki managed to escape the interest of the Big Dumb Corporations of the USA and returned to find a job in Japan. Years later we’d both ended up working for the same multi-national corporation. I’d met him when he visited our site in New Jersey. Now in Tokyo, it was a relief to see a friendly, familiar face. And I might add, a colleague who I knew could communicate with me much better in English, than I was capable of speaking (with my two or three phrases) in Japanese.

This was my first trip to Asia, 2006, not long before the world economies took a nose dive, and our Japanese colleagues on the 23rd floor, in the large open office of low-walled cubicles in the old Kakegawa section of Tokyo, welcomed us with the traditional cross-cultural bowing, exchange of business cards, and handshaking that celebrated our trans-oceanic office arrival. We appraised and complimented each other on our cards, especially the double-sided cards with name and titles in Japanese on one side and English on the other! The ritual complete, the colleagues informed us of “two important things”: the location of the rest rooms (outside and just off the central elevator), and a surprise for us, coffee!

Jet-lagged from the eighteen hour journey, and not yet accustomed to requisite long days of an important Western IT specialist—bringing a new email system to be followed by a hardware “refresh” of new laptops—I was relieved with the unexpected promise of coffee.

We strolled to a little corner of the office which served as a kitchen and lounge. Our colleagues had recently installed a small appliance somewhat larger than a toaster oven. Nearby, between a small frig and a microwave, a shiny, silver table-top carousel held twenty or thirty red and gold, thimble-shaped aluminum containers, but larger—if thimbles, then, those used by a very large seamstress.

An eager and worthy host, Tashiki demonstrated how to pop the coffee “thimble” into the toaster-like coffee maker. He pressed a button or two, and after some grumbling and hissing from the machine, a brown liquid appeared and half-filled a paper cup we had placed beneath it.

The colleagues were excited to share details of this new innovation, and I agreed, making coffee with such convenience was an impressive feat! And, since my stomach doesn’t tolerate black coffee, and already a bit queasy from travel, I politely asked if there were milk or cream so that I might sample the brew in my accustomed manner? We located the cream, or “creamer”, which came in single serve, single use, four-inch-long, drinking straw-width paper or plastic tubes, accompanied by sugar, packaged in a similar fashion, both of which I applied to the brew.

While we took our turns at the coffee machine, Tashiki carefully and passionately explained the adjacent color-coded recycling bins—of which there were at least three. Which bin to use for which items, plastic, paper, other waste. Emphasizing that, as you know, Japanese are a very organized, tidy, and especially clean culture, and as they have an ancient and intimate relationship with the ocean, recycling was “very important to Japanese People”. I could relate to this passion for sustainability, and was a bit disappointed, (but not surprised) by the patronizing amusement expressed in winks and smiles by several of my American colleagues.

It had been a very long flight. Over the arctic ice cap, frozen Russia, and raging seas. My first ever of what would become a number of flights of that distance and duration. I was tired, my eyes scratchy from being open for too long. I located a small, empty conference room, and slumped into a chair under the glaring white fluorescents to drink the coffee. The first wave of jet lag nausea clobbered me unexpectedly, as I sipped. Maybe something was wrong with the paper cup or the creamer. It was that first taste, and politeness aside, the coffee was not so good. It had the stale, manufactured flavor of “instant” coffee, this time worsened by anticipation, by the expectation that there was something special about its production and brewing.

These days, now, many years later, people are familiar with these coffee cartridges, whether known by the name “Keurig” or “Nespresso” or some other marketing moniker. Are they better now? I don’t recall the name of the Japanese innovation at the time, but it was some very similar predecessor to today’s version that, like so many things in the twenty-first century, prioritized convenience over quality.

Not long after that first sample, I made my way to the Men’s Room, pretty typical of any corporate high rise restroom, anywhere—until I opened a stall door. I took a quick look, and figuring that I had stumbled into a “special needs” stall, opened an adjacent unlocked door…same thing: The toilet was clearly retrofitted with additional plumbing and equipment tucked beneath the tank and bowl. Next to the seat, a little “control panel” was attached with buttons marked with icons of lower body parts and water spraying, air blowing, and heat…emanating.

This was one of those novel advanced Japanese toilet seats, nearly unheard of in the USA, except maybe in a James Fallows NPR commentary. But I’d never seen, much less experienced one. So, of course, when the need arose, I sampled the luxury features, though in a public rest room this is a bit, embarrassing, due to the noise of electric pumps and splashing water. One button initiates the bidet (water rinsing) feature, and another an air dryer with several heat settings, and the seat itself was internally heated. This toilet technology was at least as impressive as the coffee maker, and in my opinion executed with a more satisfactory result. Though I was to later find that enhanced toilets were all the rage in Asia, I didn’t see them, not in my room at the Hilton, and not anywhere else in Japan—not that I was looking for them. In other visits to the office Men’s Room, I observed the frequent and long-lasting full occupancy of the stalls, which our matter-of-fact colleagues accepted as a scatological workplace “perk.”

I drank the coffee, I used the toilet, and I installed the new email system.

We completed our mission a few days later, having performed our impressive Corporate IT Magic in Japan, and flew to Taiwan for the next performance—a similar upgrade and installation in Taipei for the slightly less impressionable Taiwanese colleagues. And, welcomed upon arriving at their office, we, as newcomers, were presented with two important bits of information. Which I will review in the next installment…

…to be continued!!

—Christo

I am an HSI

A “Highly Sensitive Individual” isn’t sensitive to everything. I am sensitive to high frequency noise. I have tracked and hunted mosquitoes in a room by following their sound. Those high frequency pulse boxes that are supposed to repel rodents really bother me. And in fact, I have a very powerful sense of smell. I can tell when my friend has spiced the brewing coffee on the other side of the house. In restaurants, I know when someone has put a packet of Splenda in their tea. I can smell the Splenda in the air. But some things I don’t smell at all, and I’m not sure what those are, or if I never smell them, or just don’t smell them sometimes.

I worked in IT for a chemical company. Our department was in the basement, our offices had no windows, and there were labs upstairs. That meant there were drain pipes inside the suspended ceiling that ran above our cube farm. About once a month some particularly odiferous experiment, or maybe just a cleaning operation, would release fumes from above, which floated down and made their way to me, sitting at my desk. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The gases were invisible of course, but I could smell them. The “Safety Team” would investigate if I called. Which I did, frequently.

The “Safety Team” never smelled anything! I finally realized that as part of their profession they had sniffed so many solvents and chemical reactions and putrid gases, that their senses of smell were tired, their noses were burned out, and although they didn’t realize it, useless—at least for identifying a chemical spill or leak. Because I called so often, my colleagues implied I was paranoid, “crying wolf”, or just making trouble, instead of being a good corporate citizen, continuing to work, and not complaining as they all did. But eventually the Safety Team purchased a chemical sniffer—a little walkie-talkie-like-box with a round antenna, that looked like something from the Jetsons—and it frequently verified the leaking intrusion of noxious gases. Not reassuringly, the Safety Team reassured me that there was “…only two parts per billion of XXXXX chemical, and that’s totally in an acceptable range. I’m surprised you can even smell it!”

It surprises me now that I tolerated this toxic chemical exposure risk for years, until I adopted the personal policy of using the smell as a signal to leave the office, go to Starbucks, and carry on there, in a much more productive, creative, and human friendly environment, where the WiFi worked, the Internet was accessible, and my cell phone had signal. It’s amazing how we adapt. And how we don’t see the inevitable. There were parts of that job that were interesting and fun. And then there was the rest… It was so much better to be at Starbucks than to be at the office!

 —Christo