"Gambare, Gaijin San"
- Group of schoolgirls near the finish of the Norikura race.
In September of 1992 I was asked to help translate a brochure about the factory into English. It was intended originally for recruitment within Japan, but it was decided that it could also be
used a PR for any visiting foreign VIPs. The company was beginning to get more overseas business, which meant that use of English was very much encouraged throughout the factory, but not very
much practiced. A lot of the time when I am asked to translate things by people who do not normally work with me, they assume I cannot read the original Japanese and insist on explaining it to me
at great length. For the brochure I spent two whole days being told what a wonderful place it was that I was lucky enough to be working in, and I had to make the same sales pitch in English. I
spent a considerable amount of time making the English text reflect what was in the original Japanese and also stay relevant to the photos and other content, and so I was more than a little
disappointed to see that in the finished product, the English text had been mercilessly cropped into grammatical rubbish to fit the spacing allotted by the printer.
As part of the internationalisation of our business, we tried to get a contract with an American manufacturer to supply CD Changers, which they would then supply to an American car manufacturer. This would involve modifying the software and hardware of one of our existing models to communicate with their equipment. In order to discuss the technical details of this, I was asked to fly to America to meet with them. This would be my first trip to America. We flew first to Ohio, where my company had a production and technical facility, and then down to Alabama where the client was. I was initially impressed by the wide open spaces of Ohio, compared to the cramped conditions of Japan, and was even more surprised to see Alabama, where the distance between houses seemed astronomical. I use the word astronomical, because the city of Huntsville, where we were visiting, is also home to the NASA training centre, which has an old space shuttle in it's front yard.
During the meetings with the client company, I was intrigued by the differences in work styles between Japan and America. As part of their agreement with the workers union, all employees were banned from wearing neckties, which would have been unthinkable in most Japanese companies. (We were even asked to remove ours when we did the factory tour, to avoid suspicion!) When it came time to discuss the nitty gritty details of the communications specification, I was pointed to a young engineer who told me what he wanted. In Japan this discussion would have been led by a more senior engineer, even if the actual work to decide those specifications was done by a junior. Another difference I noticed between Japan and America was the service in restaurants. For our first meal out, a local representative took us to a steak house, where the waitress spent about ten minutes talking to him after she first approached our table, telling him a sizeable chunk of her life story. After she passed out the menus and went away, I asked if he knew her, but he said no. Another restaurant we went to for lunch, which was more like a canteen, had waitresses who, when told that they had brought me the wrong drink, simply told me I could have it anyway! The service in general was much more homely and friendly that Japan, where the staff try and impose as little as possible on the meal they are serving. The other difference, of course between American and Japanese restaurant service is the size of portions. Those in America would probably feed three people in Japan, and after the first couple of days eating a huge Belgian waffle for breakfast at the hotel, I decided to stop eating lunch. This was inspired partly by a sight I saw on the tour of the production line at our client's factory. All of the workers were seated on stools, but there was one woman whose behind was at least twice, if not three times the width of the stool she was on. My gaze was hooked on this behemoth of a backside, and I almost walked into my boss, who had stopped to stare at the same spectacle.
During this visit I had the opportunity to meet up again with Tim, who had returned from Japan a year before. Tim was now fighting Hodgkin's disease, and the chemotherapy had left him bloated and almost hairless to the extent that I almost didn't recognise him when I first saw him. I also got to enjoy the hospitality of the few engineers who I had previously guided to my favourite bars in Kawagoe. I was taken to an Ice Hockey game, the first and only game I had ever seen, and was amazed by the fierce dedication of the fans, who would literally throw themselves against the glass wall around the rink to distract a player taking a penalty. The half time show consisted of a contest where two people selected by a radio show were allowed thirty seconds to gather up as much of the cash that had been spread out on the ice as they could, with only the winner getting to take home his loot. As the whistle was blown to start them off, one of the two started running towards the centre of the rink and then dived forward with his arms open to scoop up money like a rake. The crowd loved it.
We came back from America with a sample of the client's radio, specially modified to work with the communications standard we were to use, but I wired it up wrongly and caused it to catch fire, which did not please my boss very much. We managed to fix it, but the CD changer we had modified to fix it also caught fire, due to a piece of solder one of the hardware engineers had left inside it shorting the power supply. I was beginning to think this project was jinxed, but there was worse to come. We modified our changer to work with their system, and took it back to Ohio a month later to present to them. Unfortunately, although it worked perfectly on the bench, it stopped working within seconds when connected in an actual vehicle. My self and my boss were both software specialists, so we had to contact Japan to see what was wrong, but they only sent us back the useless response that they had seen nothing untoward. I asked again about this, because before we left, I had noticed some noise on one of the signal lines and had asked the hardware people to correct it. When I asked them what they had done to correct that noise, in the hope that it might help us now, I was told that they had seen nothing wrong, and so they had done nothing. This setback led to an extension of our trip, which meant that I would have to postpone my Christmas trip back to Ireland by a day. I told my boss that I would have to ring home to inform my parents about the delay. As I was dialling, one of the Japanese local staff made a snide remark along the lines of "Hello Mommy!". I told him to get out of the room, but I wanted to kick him out. After returning from that trip I had one day in Japan before I had to fly again to Dublin. I went three quarters of the way around the world in four days.
The following year I was in the air again. I was told that I would have to go to Paris, for a new business project with Renault. When I was shown the agenda, I asked why I was being sent on the first day of a four day weekend, to which the reply was, "we presumed you would want to look around Paris." I was suitably pleased. In the end, it turned out that I would spend five days in Paris for the sake of a single day of meetings. Upon landing in Paris, I got a bus to my hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. I had arranged for my brother to fly over and meet up with me over the weekend, and a college friend of mine. Ciaran, who lived in Paris, agreed to meet with me also. The morning after I arrived there, I woke up early because of the time difference, so I decided to take a walk. I had come from the direction of the Arc de Triomphe the previous evening, and thus decided to go in the opposite direction this morning. As I stepped out of my hotel I looked to my right, and was delighted to see an Irish pub, the "James Joyce", right beside the hotel. I resolved to pay it a visit that evening.
We had a pre-meeting at the Pioneer Paris office, with a local engineer who had the clearest desk I have ever seen - there was literally nothing on it. When we started the discussion he took a single sheet of paper out of a drawer and started making notes. We finished our business for the day, and I suggested to my colleagues that we visit the Irish pub by my hotel. While one Belgian engineer was buying a drink, he was asked if he was Irish, to which he replied no, but pointed out that I was. I told the bartender that I was staying next door and would be a frequent visitor. We then went on to a Mexican restaurant, where I got a ferocious dose of food poisoning that rendered me totally useless for our meeting with Renault the following day, which was held in French so I couldn't follow it any way, meaning that I was free to go to the bathroom and be repeatedly sick. I managed to not throw up in the car back to the hotel, and spent that evening being very quiet and still.
For the next three days, I was free to enjoy Paris. I rang my friend Ciaran, and told him I would be in the James Joyce pub. Eventually we didn't meet until the following night, since there were two pubs with that name. While I was waiting for him, I got into a conversation with the barman from the previous night, who turned out to be the manager. He took a break and sat down beside me to eat a sandwich, and when I mentioned that I was living in Japan he informed me that he had a friend out there, someone who it turns out I was acquainted with. We made the usual comments about how it is a small world after all, and then he mentioned offhand that "Brendan Keyes has a son out there as well". This caught me off guard, and my pint froze midway through its trajectory to my lips. It took me a few seconds to figure out that he was talking about me! I mentioned this, and his reaction was to call out to the other bartender and introduce me, again as "Brendan Keyes' son", which brought another reaction of pleasant surprise. I was introduced to several people in the course of the evening, all of whom knew my father, it turned out, through his position as Registrar of the College of Catering in Dublin, from which most of these people had graduated.
I met Ciaran the following night, and my brother joined us from London. Ciaran showed me a newspaper article featuring all the Irish pubs in Paris, suggesting we see as many of them as possible during my stay. During that night, which lasted until dawn, we made it to about ten different bars, getting kicked out of one for singing "Finnegan's Wake" too loudly (or too badly). The next day my brother and myself did some sightseeing, and more drinking, after which we were invited to dine on a kebab by a very eager man in a little van who beckoned us to approach with a very large knife, and the kebab gave us both food poisoning again. This Paris trip was the first business trip I had been on where I spent more money than my daily allowance, and did not make any money from the trip.
Soon after I got back from the Paris trip, I took part in a bicycle race in a place called Norikura, up in the Japan Alps, at the invitation of my co-worker Kamiya. The race was uphill all the way, with only about 100m of flat road, rising from an altitude of 1400m at the start to 2800m at the end. I was on a bike with 21 speed gears, but I was forced to use the lowest gear surprisingly quickly. My speed was so slow at some points that I almost lost my balance. Some riders, who no longer had the strength to continue pedalling, found themselves without enough energy to pull their feet out of their pedal straps, so that when they stopped moving forward they just fell over. For two hours, I toiled away, pedalling two thirds of the way and then getting off to push when I could pedal no further. I had stopped for a drink of water, and found myself unable to start riding again, and was rendered even more discouraged by the sight of the fastest riders already coming back down after finishing the race. I was determined not to walk over the finish line, so with a few hundred yards to go I got back in the saddle and somehow managed to move the bike forward, as my thighs were like jelly at this stage. My back was bent and my head was just above the handlebars, as I relied on the last of my energy to get me to the finish line. About twenty meters from the finish, there was a group of three or four girls of high school age perched on a large rock, who were presumably there to support some friend or relative. One of them spotted me riding by and shouted out "Gambare Gaijin San", which means something like "Come on you Foreigner!". Her friends joined in, and within a matter of seconds it seemed like everyone at the mountain top was urging me on. From somewhere inside myself I found a new spurt of energy, and stood up in the saddle to gain a little speed before crossing the line as the crowd cheered. I stopped, got off and pushed my bike out of the way of the riders behind me.
After a while resting at the top I started to get cold from the altitude and my sweaty clothing, so I began the journey down the hill. It was refreshing to have the cool breeze on my face and satisfying to see that there were other riders still competing, which meant that my time of two hours and seven minutes was not one of the worst. This was one of the first times in my life I had set myself a challenge that was not something that other people were expecting of me, and it felt good to have met it. The beer that night was sweet and satisfying. The next day we did some low pace sightseeing, and the day after that it was back to work.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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