In honor of Labor Day, I thought I would share some good, bad, and…. well, downright crazy stories I have from working at a Japanese company during my tenure in Shanghai. Although I already recorded some funny stories in deeply buried posts from the past, there are a few more memories that deserve to see the light of day. These memories are so unique to Japan (and China?) that I have just have to write them down.
Can we make her more global?
When I was working at a Japanese company located in Shanghai, I was the only westerner in the building. Besides myself, everyone was either Japanese or Chinese. I was the ultimate unicorn: a trilingual American who somehow ended up working at one of Japan’s top companies in Shanghai.
When we got a huge proposal to pitch an ad campaign to a big Chinese company for a global project, we jumped on it like hotcakes. One of the requirements listed was to have a global team who could cater to a western audience. After reading the proposal at the meeting room, I looked up and saw all eyes were on me.
“Mary has to be there during the pitch,” the creative directors said. “This client is looking for a global edge — they want to hire someone who can appeal to the western market.”
“Yes, Mary should definitely sit in on this pitch,” the other creative director said, nodding in agreement. “After we create our campaign and gather the materials together, we’ll have her join the panel.”
“Uh, what do I have to do?” I asked with confusion, since I was not a member of the creative or branding team. “Do you need me to present anything?”
“No, no…” the directors shook their head. “Just sit there. Having a westerner on the team will make us look great.”
“There’s one problem though,” the other director said, eyeing me from the tip of my head to the bottom of my toes. “Is Mary foreign enough?”
“You’re right,” his colleague chimed in. “I think we should ask Mary to dye her hair blonde — what do you think everyone?”
I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but then quickly realized I was the only one laughing.
“Seriously?” I said out loud. “You want me to dye my hair blonde?”
“Maybe the eyebrows too?”
I didn’t say it verbally, but my eyes told him there was no way in hell I was going to dye my hair blonde to prove we were a global company. In fact, it would probably have the opposite effect. Before I could vehemently voice a retort, Takada-san chimed in with a laugh.
“Yamada-san,” Takada-san said with a smile to the creative director. “Why don’t we get a blonde wig for you and have you sit in to add to our western repetoire? You could be Mary’s sister.”
The whole conference room exploded in laughter, and the subject was dropped. Takada-san looked at me with a wink. Have I mentioned how awesome my former female boss is?
I joined the proposal as the token foreigner. While we put on a good pitch, the client decided to go elsewhere. Perhaps, even to this day, that director blames my black hair.
The Mad Dash to Clock-In
The Japanese company I worked at in Shanghai made us clock-in via a fingerprinting system on the front doors of the office. One fingerprint in the morning and one in the evening signaled our clock in and out time. In America, outside of a government job, there is no way employees would consent to a fingerprint ID on a daily basis — but hey, in China (and technically Japan) — I shrugged and knew my privacy was long gone.
China has a notorious problem with employees coming into the office late, which the very punctual Japanese did not appreciate. To incentivize punctuality, my company added a 100 RMB (15 USD) late fee to anyone who clocked in after 8am.
Thus began the mad dash to the fingerprint device.
We heard many screams from the fingerprint device around the 8am mark. Usually around 8:01am, when someone just barely missed the cutoff, we heard the cry of a poor soul who lost 15 USD to a slow elevator. Or a traffic jam. Or delayed subway.
I had many mad dashes to the fingerprint machine. Even when I arrived at the building at 7:45am, the elevator lines would sometimes take 20 minutes to get me to the 20th floor. Other times I was so desperate I opted for the stairs, reaching the 20th floor drenched in sweat and nearly out of breath, only to have the machine glitch around 7:59am.
One Japanese creative director (the one who wanted me to be blonde) just said screw it to the system. He walked in late every single day and he gave no fucks. I heard a rumor that, by the end of the year, he paid close to $10,000 USD in late fees.
Mad Men in 2014
I was the personal translator & interpreter to our CEO, who was the chain smoking CEO you might imagine from Mad Men — except he was Japanese, and it’s 2014 and not 1950.
My desk was immediately outside of his office, which was completely transparent to our team (with glass walls, floor to ceiling). Although he was visible to the entire company, he gave no shits about his behavior. He chain smoked like a train. I saw some whiskey shots go down at his desk. Other times I’d see him kick back with a cigar, his room awash in smoke. I worried about him getting lung cancer.
I had many meetings in that smoke filled office, trying to hold back a cough as I gave my latest reports in Japanese. He was a curt, no-nonsense man who cracked many inappropriate jokes — but nonetheless, he treated me fairly, and I liked him. I knew he was a good person.
Ironically, two years later he was diagnosed with diabetes. He had an epiphany, stopped smoking, changed his lifestyle, and became a kinder person. He treated me to dinner last I was in Shanghai and apologized for any mean thing he ever said, and we had a deep and meaningful conversation.
Mary dons an afro and sings Jackson 5
“I heard we’re having a talent show for the Christmas party,” my CEO said as he puffed his cigarette near our desks. “Who the hell is actually going to join that?”
“Me, actually. I have a group organized and we’re going to do a song,” I said with pride. Tohko convinced me and two other Chinese people to participate in the talent show, with a song and choreographed dance number to boot.
My CEO laughed in response, taking another puff from his cigarette. “What are you going to sing Mary? Born in the USA?”
I scoffed, “well, now you’ll just have to join the Christmas party to see, won’t you?”
“Well I was gonna skip this Christmas party,” he finished his cigarette and looked at me with a smile. “But now I gotta see you sing whatever it is — my money is still on Bruce Springstein.”
Tohko, myself, and the two other Chinese colleagues practiced everyday to perfect our dance moves to Michael Jackson’s first claim to fame — the song ABC sung by the Jackson 5. As the only person who had the courage to sing, I took the lead and even re-tweaked the lyrics so they fitted our company name and slogan.
I still can’t believe I donned an afro, matching t-shirts and tights, and danced in a group as I passionately sang ABC to a group of 200+ Chinese and Japanese people. We were at the Andaz in Xintiandi in Shanghai, one of the glitziest hotels there is, and our group put on the best show on the stage of the company Christmas party.
Weirdly enough, it’s one of my most treasured moments from my life in Shanghai.
I wish I could say that was the craziest thing that happened that evening, but we had another activity where our company split into groups to dress our four executives up into Chinese empress’ from the Song, Tang, and Han dynasties. Let’s just say, those elderly Japanese executives made some beautiful concubines for the Chinese emperor. Why can’t we do fun stuff like this at American Christmas parties again?
In the end, it was a night I’ll never forget. I’m an incredibly shy and reserved person, so for me to publicly perform in front of my entire company was like electroshock therapy. I wouldn’t have had the courage to perform without Tohko’s encouragement; and thanks to her, our practice sessions enabled us to grow closer with our Chinese colleagues and with each other.
Working Abroad: Never a Boring Moment
I wish I could say my professional life in America had as many crazy stories as the above, but my career has been quite vanilla since moving back to the USA.
I often say that my years in Shanghai were some of the best of my life. I was truly lucky to land a job at this Japanese ad agency and forge some truly unforgettable connections through our shared time in China. I still keep in touch with almost all of my coworkers from this company, and when I go to Tokyo I always make an effort to meet up with the team for a drink and reminisce about our crazy Shanghai days — Tohko included.
Happy labor day everyone!