A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
Sorry for my absence the last couple of weeks. Did you miss me?
I've been a bit distracted.
Certificate of Marriage
Hiromi and I have been quietly planning to marry in September in Japan... most of our friends and family have known about it for a while, though I haven't been shouting it from rooftops...
I guess it's time for that to change.
In the lobby of Seattle Municipal Courthouse
A little over five years ago, I met Hiromi in person for the first time while on business for Microsoft in Japan. We weren't really working together directly on anything at that time, but several people from the MSN Japan team went to lunch at Misato-ya in Chofu with me, and Hiromi may have been the person to suggest that we go to the popular organic vegetable teishoku restaurant whose korokke and unpredictable okazu I still crave. I'm pretty sure I spent all of lunch talking about food, cooking and ceramics, probably exhausting anyone who wasn't interested in my personal obsessions.
On another trip that year, Hiromi wasn't even in the office. She had been surprised by a brain tumor and was unable to work for a while while it was being treated.
Somehow Hiromi remembered me a couple years later when we started working on something together. It's rather embarrassing to admit now, but at first I wasn't entirely sure which Hiromi I was working with. There were two contractors named Hiromi on the team back then.
Anyway, I planned a little vacation to Japan after about a year without any business travel. Hiromi invited me to meet up with her on a trip I made to Japan in 2003. We had dinner together one night, and then went touring around Yokohama on another.
I owe my entire relationship with her to my clumsiness... While we were walking around in Yokohama, I nearly ran into a post in the middle of a shopping center, she grabbed my hand to pull me out of the way, and never let go. The wind and rain that day was furious, and a brief trip outside left us chilly and well-soaked. Our lives would be permanently intertwined that day, though I don't think either one of us really knew it then.
In Chambers with Judge Judith Hightower
I didn't really deserve her... I sent all sorts of mixed messages when we first started dating. I was conflicted about starting up a long distance relationship, as I'm sure she was. It took more than a year of trips back and forth before we removed all the ambiguity. Yet somehow she stuck with me.
Things evolved, and Hiromi decided to come to Seattle to take some classes so that we could get to know each other better. Somehow she didn't become bored of me. I don't know how I managed to keep her interested. I wasn't at my best. I was, as now, juggling a day job and my fledgling internet business, more exhausted than usual, and occasionally a bit depressed that I couldn't devote all my energies to that project. But we stayed together, and it became harder and harder for me to imagine my life without her.
We seriously started thinking about marriage, but neither of us was in great financial shape. She went back to Japan, after a little under a year in Seattle, so that she could start earning some money again. I started saving money while paying down some business debt.
At the time, it seemed like it was best to marry in Japan and arrange for the immigration paperwork there. Perhaps a bit sentimentally, we picked the anniversary of the day that I nearly walked into a pole in Yokohama, which coincidentally turned out to be a taian day this year, an auspicious day for a wedding.
Then immigration policies changed again, and we learned we wouldn't be able to start the process of bring Hiromi back to Seattle until after I would return to Seattle after our September wedding... And at first we were just resigned to a fate of things taking longer.
I had a little conversation with my attorney earlier in July to discuss our plans, and he said it was too bad we didn't just get married when Hiromi was still in town. If we weren't hung up on the date, he said, we might have been able to speed things up by starting the application process a bit earlier. I realized that she'd be in Seattle briefly after attending a dance workshop in California, and we started discussing having a simpler municipal wedding before our bigger family ceremony next month.
Well, that's what we did... perhaps a bit hurried... Hiromi's ring won't even be ready until just before I go to Japan, and we haven't figured out mine yet. The judge kindly provided symbolic rings for the ceremony.
There's still a long way to go before we're really together, but now the end of our long time living apart is finally in view.
Ron Mamiya, the presiding judge of Seattle's Municipal Court, had requested to do our ceremony because he shares Hiromi's family name, but Hiromi's tight schedule meant she'd be gone before he returned from his own vacation. Instead, the Honorable Judith Hightower took care of our ceremony in her chambers. She kindly indulged us taking lots of photos, actively encouraging the two camera-wielding witnesses to move about the room for the best possible angles. She even took a few shots of our group together.
Hiromi's former manager Tsuneo, a couple of layers removed, attended at Hiromi's request as a witness. Our friends Jennifer, Hal and Noriko also attended.
After the ceremony, on the steps of the courthouse
Unfortunately, this was also one of the briefest trips Hiromi's ever made to Seattle, and we didn't really have a lot of time to enjoy each other's company after the wedding. We had a little dinner with Jennifer and we came home early in the evening. We only had one night before I had to take Hiromi to the airport.
This was the most painful trip to the airport I've ever made.
I don't remember us posing for this
Fortunately, I'll be in Japan again in just over a month. There's still a lot of planning to do, and I'm not sure how we'll get everything all done by then, but I'm sure we'll figure things out.
Just before dinner
I was surprised at how much this small ceremony changed the way I look at Hiromi. I was completely inarticulate on our way outside the courthouse afterward, but a thousand thoughts were racing around my head. Even at my worst, most selfish moments, I haven't been able to imagine my life without Hiromi for a long time, but everything became so real to me all at once. I was more than a little overwhelmed... after going to the airport yesterday, I was completely useless for the rest of the day.
I usually eschew political monologue here since it is so rarely relevant to my post-Microsoft life as an importer, food aficionado, and struggling business owner. In college, I wore my progressive and occasionally radical politics on my sleeve, but I’ve mellowed out considerably over the years, even if I maintain a relatively similar belief system. I promise I’m not going to turn into my relatively unread blog into a political soap-box, but I do have something I must gently rant about.
I have been increasingly frustrated by the thinly veiled anti-Arab, xenophobic reaction to the news that Dubai Ports World is buying out another foreign company that manages terminals at a half dozen ports around the U.S. With a few exceptions, progressives, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have responded in a completely reprehensible, opportunistic fashion. At the same time, the administration’s own handling of the eruption of controversy is also laughable, with the “we didn’t know anything about it, but really it’s fine with us” performance worthy of a cameo appearance by John Kerry.
The hostility toward this deal is full of opportunistic misunderstanding about how ports work, and the fuel for this uproar is equivalently opportunistic hostility and fear of Arabs and the Muslim world. Why react intelligently when you can create a fire-storm?
This is not about ceding U.S. control of our ports infrastructure to foreign companies, as Dubai Ports World has only gained control of a lease allowing them to operate terminals at US ports. This gives them the power to hire US labor to do such low-margin work as unloading shipping containers, and passing paperwork from one company to another. For their efforts, they will have the power to repeatedly touch high volumes of money that produce very low margins. Only an Arab buy-out of a municipal bond hedge fund could possibly be more uninteresting.
The way ports work is not a big secret; thanks to British trade practices dating back hundreds of years, almost every port in the world relies on the same tedious paperwork with un-memorable acronyms designed to squarely clarify title and liability for every piece of cargo and every set of hands that might touch it. The operational side is pretty much the same worldwide, except for variations in things like union-negotiated restrictions on which job description is allowed to do what kind of work. “The terrorists” aren’t going to gain substantially more insight into our security weaknesses than they could by working at a any port closer to home for a few weeks.
Security is still firmly the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard (for seaports) and the TSA (for airports), in addition to other agencies such as local police forces and local port authorities. The terminal managers are usually only responsible for securing their own facilities, an interest which all for-profit enterprises share; Dubai World Ports is no more interested in allowing terrorists to rifle through its paperwork or sneak into its warehouse facilities than any other company.
The United Arab Emirates port of Dubai is the only Arab port participating in the innovative Container Security Initiative, which improves container security by stationing U.S. customs personnel at the port of origin, enabling risk assessment and security inspections as early in the supply chain as possible. Aside from the obvious benefit of early detection, this expedites cargo release on the U.S. side, since Customs merely needs to be satisfied that the freight containers have an intact seal before releasing cargo to the consignees.
UAE also subscribes to maritime security treaties and has a solid record of cooperation. The US Navy trusts the maritime infrastructure enough to regularly dock and service its ships at Jebel Ali, all managed by Dubai Ports Authority, closely tied to Dubai Ports World.
By buying the U.K. company which previously held these port leases and various small offices around the United States, DPW is tying its success to the future of U.S. trade. This is a textbook example of how the U.S. could improve relations with the Arab world through constructive engagement. Aside from this, Dubai Ports World’s executive staff is as multinational as any other conglomerate. Their (soon-to-retire) Chief Operating Officer is an American, their Head of Business Development and commercial business unit’s Senior Vice President, and their Chief Counsel are all American. Most of their other executives are Indian or European. Although executives are replaceable, the current management’s success is clearly not tied to an Islamist extremist future.
Some people complain that DPW is state-owned, but UAE’s government is also no friend of Islamic terrorists; they do have some human rights problems that merit concern, but this is not particularly relevant to the security of U.S. ports. Singapore’s Neptune Orient Lines can be accused of the same, and they lease a terminal in Oakland, CA; a number of Chinese state-funded enterprises lease terminals and smaller facilities at ports around the U.S. The only reason why DPW would merit special consideration is the fact that they are based in an Arab country, and the only justification for such concern is racist or anti-Islamic fear.
The security of ports in the United States is not going to be determined by the country in which the corporate parent of the shipping and logistics vendors operating in our terminals is based. It’s going to depend on the quality of the people working at those facilities, most of which are meagerly paid U.S. citizens, Hispanic immigrants, and so on, much like any number of other foreign companies operating in the United States.
Additionally, security is going to depend on the amount of resources available for inspecting incoming cargo, the biggest hole in the equation. This is about a $2 billion dollar problem, with 9–10 million containers entering the United States each year. If customs had 30,000 people whose full time job was to inspect every container that came in to this country, it would cost $1.4–2.0 billion, assuming a roughly $50–65,000 average annual cost per employee. This would add about $250 to the cost of every shipping container. That’s a lot of money from an importer’s perspective (our margins are thin, too) and I certainly would like to avoid having to pay for it, but it would do far more than disallowing companies that come from parts of the world that scare us to handle stevedoring and paperwork.
The concerns about foreign control of U.S. shipping operations are also completely misplaced. The reason why some 80% of U.S. shipping terminals are operated by foreign companies is that most U.S. companies aren’t interested in that kind of low-margin money. Imagine trying to wow shareholders of a public company with single digit profit margins, even in good years with double-digit revenue growth, as DPW has achieved through strategic acquisitions. At the same time, you have high operating costs, rapidly depreciating, expensive fixed assets (airplanes, empty containers and ships) and completely virtual strategic assets (leases and contracts).
What does that get you? A reliable source of modest income. For companies from developing countries, or countries without a lot strength in intellectual-property driven enterprise, that’s potentially compelling. But for anyone else, you could buy a mutual fund and get the same thing without all the headaches.
A certain level of burnout with my job at Microsoft made me loath, or at least unmotivated, to seriously consider moving around within the company as my situation became more frustrating. It just wasn’t what I wanted.
I did spend some time looking around at similar jobs both inside and outside the company, and I tried to keep my mind open to staying, because, as I had long realized, I would need more money to realize most of my other ambitions, and it was a very lucrative way to collect savings toward that end. An alternately charming and sleazy career consultant told me the same when I confided in him that I was looking for something very different than I was doing.
Four of my long vacation trips to Japan during my Microsoft career coincided with professional crises. The first one, my first actual vacation as a Microsoft employee, wasn’t really planned to occur under such circumstances; a power struggle between two managers placed me in a frustrating position, and I had a long-planned vacation that my manager didn’t tell my new manager about, departing only a few days before I was being acquired by the new team in some sort of deal between them.
It was an awkward position to be in, but my new manager considered the information omission an error on the part of of my old manager and asked me to take my vacation as planned. During that trip, I was full of torn loyalties, feelings of disappointment, and apprehension. But my vacation, which was an incredible first experience in Japan, and my first trip outside of North America after my exchange program to Germany, gave me a lot of time to think about my future. It actually was the catalyst for a fledgling addiction to collecting contemporary Japanese ceramics, and expanded my culinary consciousness incalculably.
Over the next 6 years, my other three long vacations were very similar, although both of those vacations I took because I was frustrated at work, and wanted a distraction. It turned out that vacations were quite therapeutic, and even my short few extra days here and there that I got on business trips to Japan or elsewhere were extraordinarily refreshing.
I had the time to stop and take pleasures in basic human needs… good food, interaction with people, conscious moments of relative tranquility.
Strangely, it took me over a year to go on such a vacation again after my career frustrations began to mount. Before that, I spent more time than was probably healthy essentially fantasizing about alternative careers.
I felt really frustrated, and I had some self-destructive impulses… I thought about just walking off from my job without notice and burning some bridges, much like one of my employees did (the same forces that led me to consider leaving hit him harder, since I was deflecting some of them until he was moved under a different lead, and was used to certain kinds of irritation that were less tolerable for him). I had a few short-lived relationships where I was essentially completely emotionally unavailable and surely a source of other kinds of frustration for the women I was seeing.
I took refuge in my obsessions… I cooked a lot of elaborate meals for friends and acquaintances, refining some of my cooking skills. I spent a lot of time in pottery classes, considering early on the possibility that I might import some ceramics, and I thought it would be smart to have some first-hand understanding. Those pottery classes were also suitably humbling, as I did not have a natural talent and I sent a lot of clay flying. I also spent some taking Korean classes, remembering a college-era ambition of learning at least seven languages in my lifetime.
Early on, I started thinking about projects that I could indulge in with great passion, with some prospect for financial reward. I considered some restaurant projects, a small retail shop, and a more wholesale-focused import business.
In Part III, I’ll talk about how I evaluated the potential of these projects.