Training in a Truly Foreign Country, Part I

Sections of this topic

    folder-upTraining in another country is not like training in Cincinnati when you live in Florida. Even when that training is simple. There are some other considerations. In the Far East, or Middle East for that matter, there may not be many signs in English or anything close to English unless it is a picture of something. If you are training, you can’t hide behind your training platform forever–especially if you are alone. Unless you speak and read the language, it’s a rough beginning especially in the Asian Pacific Rim countries. Europe and the Americas are easier even when you don’t speak the language; you can still have most of your needs met. Still sound a bit cryptic? Read on.

    When I was younger, apparently not young enough (I’ll explain later), and living in Portland, Oregon, I was fascinated with the Pacific Rim countries. I was interested in Japan, which at that time was the most booming of the Pacific Rim countries; although that has since changed, Japan remains a powerful player.

    I was born on the West Coast–Los Angeles, but left as a young teen and went to the Midwest. Of course, I wasn’t given a say in the matter. Later, I spent several adult years in Southern California, but most of the time the only business I was interested in was in acting or in playing on the beach. So, this story I’m about to tell you happened after I had gained tons of confidence–or to put it another way I was rather cocky with the attention I had received from doing theatre and commercial acting. Subtle differences.

    My resume didn’t impress in Portland so I had to audition for an agent. I had to get new headshots, going from “open jacket, sexy” guy to “rugged, often bearded” northwestern gentleman. I swear that’s what the agent told me. Believe it or not, this is all pertinent information. Actors have to fit in differently in different parts of the country. Even within the look, there are differences. Subtle differences. In commercials shot in a two-day period, I wore rugged clothes as one might expect and carried a chainsaw in one hand; however, in the commercial the next day, I wore a tux and held a martini to my lips with one hand, sipped elegantly and spoke in clipped tones about the gin I gestured to with my other hand. During that commercial shoot, I met a fellow actor who had just come back from Japan, where he had been teaching English, and in his spare time, did a few Japanese commercials.

    As if my world wasn’t complicated enough with moving to a new area, I decided at that very moment that I wanted to do that, too. One look at the newspapers told me there were a plethora of opportunities. I interviewed with three companies before I was hired by the largest English training company in Japan. The number of native speakers outnumbered the number of administrative staff and sales. As it turned out all the administrative jobs were held by women (and I don’t mean this in a negative way) who all look 13 by American standards, and it is the men who handle anything to do with money. It was a fact I didn’t see anywhere in the brochures, travel guides or other culture books I reviewed.

    In any large city it’s easy to get turned around. Now imagine one where you can’t read a single sign except the foreign logos you recognize atop some skyscrapers or a Seven-Eleven, McDonalds, or KFC.

    Here’s what I didn’t know, or what didn’t sink in with my research. Japan is a very conservative country. Women in most cases are still regarded subservient to men. It is not spoken about in public. It just is.

    Despite being told by my hosts to ask a young woman in a business suit for assistance should I get lost or need help translating–that she would more accommodating than a businessman, I found that wisdom to be somewhat flawed. I must have been terribly scary because the young woman took off running down the street when I spoke to her. I spoke to her gently, I swear. Since I worked for a Japanese company, a small businessman’s hotel was also a good place to get information.

    If you think we have a large subway system…think again. Tokyo station has 27 exits; Ikebukuro, where I stayed, has 23. I had taken the wrong exit out of the station and ended up completely on the other side of it. And, it still looked the same! This wouldn’t have bothered a 23 or 25-year-old. Life is still an adventure at that age. By the way, the Japanese businessman’s hotel desk pulled out a larger map, showed me the error of my ways, and at least got me back into the station. That’s when my head began to spin again… And it began to rain…hard rain. A good Samaritan came (I could see his halo or was that his umbrella) and asked for my map. Every foreigner has one. He led me by hand to my hotel, invited me to his Christian church, and disappeared in the mist. I’m pretty sure that really happened.

    Since I was staying in bonsaied Japanese hotel, I did everything the Japanese way–everything–except when I got back to my room the first thing I did was take off a soaked shirt. A gentle rap on the door. The lady of the house or hostess appeared with a pot of tea, then furiously backed away and shook her head, gesturing to my bare chest with her eyes closed. I got it. I closed the door and put on the robe, and re-opened the door to a smiling lady who brought the tea into the room set it down and bowed on the way out. Any Seven-Eleven will show you that skin is not taboo in Japan, but apparently body hair is. Subtle differences.

    Not wanting to get lost again, I bought a ham and cheese sandwich at the Seven-Eleven to take back to my room. As a Californian, I had experienced earthquakes before, but never where I couldn’t understand the news following it. It was a bit discomforting. The 23 or 25-year-old would say, “Cool.” Yeah, real cool. For once, I thought it would have been nice to know someone here and not be so independent. My confidence or cockiness was shot; I was humbled.

    So, if you get anything out of Part I, take this: it is always best to share in the adventure and don’t leave a man or woman behind.

    A final thought. When I started talking about getting lost, you thought I was going to talk about a sea of people or waves of people…and I didn’t. It’s because those waves didn’t involve me. From my perspective, I saw the “waves of people” being pushed on the train; I didn’t know where they were going and that “big hand” seemed bigger than “big brother” invading my personal space, too. I felt trapped. Truly trapped. Held prisoner by my ignorance.

    When a foreigner walks down the street or stands in a elevator or on a train or a bus, there is space made for him or her. Foreigners like us. The Japanese are a proud people; some might call it being racist. It’s not really. In their country, they don’t see as many “foreigners” as we do in ours. They make space; it’s polite. It’s not that they hate us; they are genuinely concerned and helpful, but you need to approach the right way, the Japanese way. We expect everyone in the world to act American. Why shouldn’t they expect everyone that comes to their country not do the same? Subtle differences.

    In America, we talk about safety in numbers; in Japan, it’s more a matter of comfort in numbers. Better to befuddled in a group than befuddled all by yourself. At least in a group, you can have a good laugh and go on about your business. Stay tuned for…

    …another American Training in a Truly Foreign Country, Part II.


    This commentary is my opinion alone and The Free Management Library is not in anyway responsible for its content. I have written several articles of a similar nature. I tend to look at training, the workforce, business management, leadership and communication from a slightly different perspective than you might expect. I published an e-book called The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development in which I explain my reasons for looking at training and development in a different way. I look at it from the outside looking in, from the worker side, from the management side, from the trainer’s, and sometimes from the psychological side. I encourage others to talk about what they think about certain aspects of training on this website as long as they keep it generic. We’ll link to their site, and I hope you will comment here.

    Take a peek at my site and you’ll find out more. By the way, I have an e-novel, Harry’s Reality, published by Amazon. It’s a scary look at what the future could be like if we stopped talking to one another and let the devices take over.

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