Thursday, November 29, 2012

More about My Days in California

November 6 was the election day there. Very surprisingly to myself, I didn’t mention anything about it in my last blog, which, in a way, shows how much I have changed. I would have spent every minute in front of the TV set to follow the results. During a break of the following day, J and I talked some about the reelection of Obama, the Clinton and Bush years, and more generally about the political systems of the US and Japan. I believe that my political view is more evenhanded or more rational now, and this was forced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also because of the days I have spent in Singapore.

Also I should mention these: When I went to the front desk of the hotel for checking out, one of the two staff said, “I saw you the other day, with a 6-pack.” I remember a woman was showing a thumb-up to me when I was approaching the elevator. It must have been her. And the other person at the desk was pleased to see my classic Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Getting Even with Who I Was -- To Milpitas/San Jose

Arriving at Changi Terminal 3 at around 8:00 am on November 3, early enough for the flight, I proceeded to the SIA check-in counter. “Do you have visa?” a Filipina staff asked me. I thought she was asking me to show her my Singapore ID. No, she was talking about the visa required to enter the US. “You must have it.” Oh yes, I don’t remember when it was but I do remember that I translated an SIA article about this rule of visa requirement. She walked with me in the departure area to find someone “in a pink uniform” who would be able to assist me. We couldn’t find anyone in pink. Then she asked me to get the visa online with my laptop. I tried to access the “esta” website, but the screen showed that timed-out message again and again. I decided this would be futile and went back to the counter to show what was happening on the laptop screen. Two other SIA staff, a man and a woman apparently also from the Philippines, came over to help me. When did the Philippines take over the SIA check-in counter? One of them even tried to access the site with her smart phone. That’s when my laptop managed to open the website for our relief. They navigated me through the site smoothly and she with her phone in her hand said, “You are lucky.” I got the visa with the cost of US$14.00. By then all passengers had been gone. Lucky maybe, but I felt very troubled.

My old watch had been found broken (“spoiled”) some weeks before. A new battery failed to wake it up. I wanted to buy a cheap Swatch again at the airport. As I had to spend so much time at the counter, I rushed to the gate. No time to browse through shops to buy anything. I was hearing the final call for the flight, SQ016.

I didn’t see any vacant seat around me. What makes so many people think about flying from Singapore to San Francisco on this 9:25 am flight? In about six hours, the place landed at Incheon. After a transit process, I moved to from the arrival gate to the departing one and quickly bought a cheap Swatch (US$107.00). Luggage check was very strict for boarding. Every passenger was required to open their carry-in bags. Only an hour at Incheon.

From Incheon to San Francisco, it took more than 10 hours. Yes, incredibly boring and almost sleepless 10 hours. Sitting on the same seat, my butt hurt so badly. Turning my head this way and that, there was no way for sound sleep. A tiny nice thing was that as the back-seat screen for the passenger sitting right next to me was not working all the way from Singapore, she was moved to a vacant seat somewhere, I had some more space for myself.

It was about noon, November 3, when I came out to the arrival hall of San Francisco International. Soon I entered the small café there to have Anchor Steam.

There would be many hours waiting for my client who would arrive late afternoon by a flight from Tokyo. In the meantime, I was walking up and down between the arrival and departure lobbies. I bought a small bottle of water for US$3.29. And the “Vegetable Tempura Roll (US$5.36)” I had at “Ebisu” on the departure floor for early dinner was very weird stuff. What’s that fluorescent green thing that was wrapping the rice?

As soon as my client came out to the arrival area, I found him. More than three years ago I met him in Tokyo. We went to the Hertz counter to get a car. He had arranged car rental. We drove to Sheraton San Jose with no big problems. I found my room large enough with a bedroom and a living space. Each part had a TV set though the one in the living room was not responding. The hotel didn’t seem very new, reminding me of something from the 80s. After my 18-hour move from Singapore, I concluded this Saturday night with him at the hotel bar with calamari, Sam Adams and a generous pour of Wild Turkey on the rocks.

The next day, Sunday, I stayed in bed trying to get some sleep but failed. I had had long flights before, but I think this was my fist real experience of jet lag. We went out for dinner and came to “Great Mall” where we found many shops but didn’t feel like eating at any of the few restaurants there. We ended up at its food court. At the Japanese-looking shop, I ordered a bowl of vegetable ramen, which disappointed me deeply. I’ll never have it again if even given another chance. The bowl had chopped vegetables, including broccoli, carrot and a few kinds of mushrooms. The noodle itself was a very thick whitish thing. The soup was probably chicken-based and tasted very unrefined. It was certainly not any kind of ramen. But then, I believe I had eaten something similar during my previous stays to America. He had a very similar (identical?) thing from the Korean shop right next to the Japanese one. A “Subway” sandwich would have been better. After dinner, we drove a little and found “Me-Kong Supermarket” at 777 East Capital Ave., where I bought some apples, bananas for my breakfast and 12 bottles of Heineken. It was an old-fashioned shop to which some renovation work probably would bring more customers. Coming back to the hotel, a front desk staff, who welcomed us on Saturday, said, “A lot of beer! For me?” “Would you like to join me?” was my answer. I finished seven bottles this night alone.

Monday morning, November 5. Cool weather with blue sky! Pleasant. Simply blue with no clouds to be found. So refreshing. The schedule said the training would begin at 8:30 am. We arrived at the company building, which stands next to the hotel, early enough at 8:15 am. We said good morning to the security guy at the entrance desk who replied “ohayogozaimasu” and he, perhaps half Japanese, told us the person we expected to see was not there yet because it was still “very early.” He called her but received no answer. He said he would give her another call again at 8:30. Do you mean 9:30? That’s when he told me about the daylight saving time which came into effect the previous day. “You guys may want to go for breakfast because it is still early.” We went back to the hotel for breakfast.

After “Chef’s Omelet” and coffee, we went back to the building and were brought to the classroom by we didn’t know who. He turned out to be a trainer himself of another system and a participant of this training course. There were two other men in the classroom and one of them after short greeting started explaining the course. I had been told that the course would be taught by a different, well woman, trainer. During the break in the morning session, J, the trainer, told me that she had resigned after she came back from China where she has a course to teach (after all, that’s because of this training course in Shanghai that I came to California). And he didn’t know what had happened to her there. Anyway, our training course started with a tight schedule ahead. We had lunch at the cafeteria, which at around US$8.00 to 9.00 or even a little more I thought was quite expensive. In any case, we continued to eat there on all the training days except the final day, November 14. 

After our first day or work, my client and I had dinner at the same hotel restaurant. I selected a dish I don’t remember (it must be chicken). I almost chose New York steak. But when the waiter said it was 12 oz., I changed my mind thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish it. America being America, the dish was also too big for me and it tasted very bland. The waiter was a Japanese American from Hawaii. Wearing an over-sized white shirt, he misheard when I said “A*****” and thought I said “Apple.” “That’s the biggest company in the world” was what he said. I corrected the error

For Tuesday dinner, we went to “Max’s,” a Filipino restaurant, at Seafood City Supermarket, Landess Ave. I ordered a dish of fried fish, two fried eggs and garlic rice. It was only OK to my taste. Around the car park of this dark place, we also found a Korean restaurant, a “Kopitiam” (!), a Vietnamese noodle shop and a dingy pizza restaurant. In this part of California, it seemed that there was a sizable Vietnamese community as I saw signs with Vietnamese names. Right next to the noodle shop was a dentist office also with a Vietnamese name though I don’t remember if it was Nguyen or what else.

On Wednesday, the boss of the trainers took the whole class to a group dinner at a Japanese restaurant called “Izaka-Ya” in North 1st Street, San Jose, with nice staple izakaya food and a funnily translated menu listing dishes like “fried squid legs.” Does a squid have legs?

Thursday night, we went back to the hotel restaurant for dinner as we couldn’t think about any other place. I had a plate of roasted chicken breast and couldn’t finish all. This day, the temperature dropped. It was fine and cold rather than fine and cool. Standing outside in a long-sleeved shirt, my body was shaking.

For our Friday dinner, my client friend and I went to “Pho Saigon Noodle House,” the Vietnamese noodle shop I had set eyes on when we ate at “Max’s.” Each of us had a large bowl of pho ga and it tasted nice and was satisfying to me. Then we tried Target supermarket across the street. Again, I bought apples, bananas and 12 bottles of Miller Lite for the total of US$18.22. I had to produce my ID for the beer. “Oh, you look young.”

We hit the road to San Francisco on Saturday! On Friday, P gave us the Caltrain schedule and a navigation guide to San Jose Diridon Station. Our plan was to ride the 10:35 express but I was too lazy to check the step-by-step navigation guide and we simply started. The GPS asked us to enter the station’s street name and zip code, which we had no idea of. We only knew the name of the station. We got lost and made a few U-turns and I enjoyed it. This is certainly part of the fun of visiting an unfamiliar place. By the time we arrived at the station located near HP Pavilion, the express had been long gone and the 11:00 local was about to depart. We didn’t try to catch it. We had to wait for the next train, also local, departing at noon. During an hour before the local train, I, feeling hungry, had a turkey sandwich and a cup of hot coffee bought at the station kiosk.

It was a smooth ride on the train. I found no roof above the stations on the way, except probably one for which a freeway above was working as a partial roof. The local arrived at San Francisco Station about 10 minutes late, perhaps because the train stopped at Stanford as it was a football day. On Friday, Paul told us the station was near AT&T Park.

I was anxious of seeing the ballpark, the home of the SF Giants, which had won the World Series 4-0 against Detroit 13 days before. My client friend agreed gladly to my suggestion to have a look. The park was really near the station and easy to find. There was a crowd outside though the baseball season was over. They gathered to see what I later learned as “Red Bull Flugtag.”  With too many people, we couldn’t see much of the event and entered the Dugout souvenir shop. I wanted to get a grey visitor jersey that shows “SAN FRANCISCO” proudly. I only found 2X and XX sizes, too large for me. And a guy at the shop was not very helpful, who basically said, “If you don’t find it there, we don’t have it,a Singaporean attitude.

Not wanting to waste our time, we moved to the bus terminal to go to the city end of the Golden Gate Bridge. We found that the terminal had been demolished for redevelopment. We followed the arrow signs to find the temporary terminal. To get there, it required some walk and the bus stop for the Bridge was not in the terminal but on the side road (Beale Street), a small stop with nobody waiting for any bus, except us and a woman who was soliciting small changes. We waited for about 20 minutes before the bus came. I believe that the one we took was the 3:15 #70 bus. To the Bridge, it cost US$8.00 per person. Too expensive! I had to ask the driver when I boarded if this was for one person or two. I now wonder if it was a whole-day pass? I didn’t know how long it would take to the Bridge. I only knew it shouldn’t take very long. The only street I remember along the route is Van Ness Ave.

We had decided to walk over to the other side of the Bridge and back. Going over, a woman, of course a perfect stranger, offered to take photos of us (so nice of you!), and after a short photo session, we moved on. It will take just a few minutes by car, but I think walking is the best way to feel this Bridge. The sun was going down quickly while we were walking back to the city side. The sunset was beautiful, definitely. And it was almost cold, something I had not experienced for so many years.

Beside the Bridge souvenir shop, there was a bus stop only for #28 to 19th Avenue. It came soon and got pretty crowded. Our intention was to go near Fisherman’s Wharf, where we would have our dinner. Having no idea of where the bus was running, we got off at the stop where most people did. In front of us was Safeway market and on the other side was a car park and sea. Now I think it was the Marina Blvd. & Laguna St. stop. We began walking from the stop to Fisherman’s Wharf, quite unsure of how to reach there. With the help from his guidebook, we were just walking on. On our way, we accidentally found Ghirardelli Square and Chocolate Factory. We walked down Laguna Street, turned to the left at Bay Street and turned left again to Van Ness Ave. and found the beach. We saw Fisherman’s Wharf some blocks away. Walking along the beach, we passed a building which I now know was the Sala Burton Building and, walking up the slope, half surrounding the building, came out to Beach Street. The large roof sign of “Ghirardelli” appeared before us.

After only 15 minutes or so at Ghirardelli, we came out to Beach Street and to the beach again. We must have been walking down Jefferson Street to the east. Turning to the left at Taylor Street, we arrived at the Wharf. As he told me he had dinner here on his previous visit to San Francisco, we decided to have our dinner at Pier 39.

We had a look at the restaurants in Pier 39 and decided to settle down at “Wipeout Bar & Grill.” Apparently with a similar concept, the restaurant just next to Wipeout had very few diners. We chose the more crowded one. We ordered beer, “House Salad,” “Wipeout Fried Combo” and “Shrimp & Steak Bowl” for two of us, almost knowing we wouldn’t be able to clean the plates. The smiling young waitress who took our order was very welcoming.

Not lingering for long at Wipeout, we started our trekking again, this time to find a Cable Car station to return to the Caltrain station. With his guidebook, my client friend worked as the navigator to the station. At Taylor St. and Bay St. we rode the Powell & Mason line to Union Square (US$6.00 for one ride) , from which we walked to San Francisco Station, where we were to take the 10:15 Caltrain. We were back at San Jose around midnight, me with a slight pain in my left knee because of the long walk. Why only in the left knee?

Sadly not much of the scenery in San Francisco remains with me. I believe that is because we were just walking on and on to our destinations or because my sense is inherently blunt to remember and describe scenes. I hope they will come back to me.

During the day on Sunday, I stayed in the room, reading “A Gun for Sale,” which I started on SQ016. Every night since I arrived, I had been trying to read more but not very successfully. I had a room-service “Traditional Turkey Club Sandwich.” I stored the sandwich into my stomach but not much of the French fries. I’m not a lover of fries. For dinner, I suggested the Vietnamese restaurant we had eaten at the previous week. This time, I ordered a small bowl of pho bo and a plate of spring rolls. Satisfying.

On Monday, the training moved on to talk about another, older, machine, the inside of which I had never seen. The structure, however, seemed much simpler, making things easier for me. For our dinner, we drove to a different direction to Santa Clara. His guidebook listed “Yo Yo Sushi” close to AMC IMAX Theaters in Mission College Boulevard. We took a look at the restaurant. It was basically a sushi-on-conveyor and ala-carte-dishes place, which didn’t trouble me at all, but the menu pasted on the window looked not very appetizing. Instead, we went to “tomatina,” an Italian restaurant. He had “Tortelloni Carbonara” while I “Fusilli Gorgonzola” and a glass of red California wine. We also ordered “Caesar” salad for us to share. The gorgonzola pasta was really filling but I liked it.

On Tuesday, the temperature went up, and it continued on Wednesday. J told me that this year Indian summer was short in the area.

We went out to San Jose for dinner, thinking that we might find some other places except “Izaka-Ya.” We didn’t find much and thought about having dinner at the sushi restaurant right next to “Izaka-Ya.” We decided not to, looking for a wider variety. And as I assumed that “Genji Japanese Steak House,” located on the other side of “Izaka-Ya,” and Jade Cathay were under the same management, probably Chinese, after all we decided to have our dinner at “Izaka-Ya” again. Almost soon after we placed our order, J and O, his old boss who treated us the previous Wednesday, appeared, unexpectedly. Shaking hands, O told us he was pleased to find us back at the restaurant, which should mean it is kind of authentic. After dinner, we dropped by 7-Eleven nearby, me to buy a 6-pack of MGD (US$6.99). As I was paying, a man with an incoherent speech came in and started talking to the 7-Eleven man at the counter.

The last day of training – Wednesday, November 14. The whole class went out for lunch at Pepper Lunch USA, a Japanese restaurant which seems not related at all to the Japanese chain of the same name. In the afternoon, we had a factory tour. Not only the production area, we had a look at the repair shop as well. This I definitely enjoyed. Located near was the R&D area, which we didn’t go into because “there is one who’s not employed,which was me. The day was concluded with the usual answer checking of the examination. That was it. My 8-day work in California was over. I believe that I did at least an OK job without any fatal errors though I had not seen one of the two machines for more than three years and had never looked closely at the other. It was a training course that came to its end very quickly. It was a great opportunity for me not only because I learned more from it but also because it reminded me of what it feels like to be in the U.S.

Dinner for the last night. My client friend and I decided to go to “Kubota,” which his guidebook called the “best Japanese restaurant in San Jose.” The book said it was in Japan Town. We drove around the area for some time taking more than a few U-turns to find the place. We couldn’t. In any case, Japan Town seemed quite dark without much vigor that night. After finding a parking slot with a bit of difficulty (not much vigor but a lot of parked cars), we thought about choosing a restaurant with a dinner-set menu or a ramen shop, which had a sign of urgent staff hiring. We decided to try the set-menu “Gonbei.” He ordered salmon teriyaki, an American invention and also a common Japanese dish found at locally managed Japanese restaurants in Singapore, while I went for yosenabe with rice, miso soup and a side dish of mashed potato and hijiki. This yosenabe was not a sophisticated stuff but who could have asked for more there. And behind the chopstick bag, I found the branches of the restaurant, one of them “Kubota.” I still don’t know where it is. 

Throughout my trip, everyone was helpful, and I ate a lot and consumed much beer, with no exercise at all except much walking in San Francisco.

Thursday morning at around 10:00 am, we started driving toSFO. In less than an hour, we arrived. I said good bye to my client friend with whom I spent much time during these days, and went straight to the check-in counter. There was already a line of some length.

I found a line that was so much longer with people who were entering the immigration area. A few officers were checking their passports. Holding up my passport above the eye level as of trying to see a watermark, she asked my full name. I gave it to her and she said “Arigato.” I went on to the X-ray area. Everyone was taking off their shoes to place them in those plastic trays. And when my turn came to go through the metal detector, I was asked to remove my belt, also destined to go to a tray. And it was not a usual detector. It was shaped like a transparent capsule with a door in which I had to raise up my hands. It was not a pleasant experience.

With the immigration process cleared, I had little time to relax and look at the shops though I arrived early enough at the airport. I only managed to buy two small Cable Car toys. Sometime after I reached Gate 101, it was announced that the boarding time for SQ015 would be delayed half an hour and the gate would be changed to 98, giving me just enough time to grab a sandwich and a foam cup of coffee at “Deli-Up Café.”

Explaining the delay, the captain told us, the passengers, that departing flights were clogged at the airport. When SQ015 departed, originally scheduled at 12:50 pm, it was more than an hour late. It took the northern route, along the Pacific coast and up to Alaska. During this painfully long flight, seeing icy scenes helped me, though a very little. Alaska, Siberia and Sakhalin. Those were views that can be described truly amazing. Sleepless flight again.

The flight arrived at Changi at about 2:20 am, Saturday, November 17.

At the arrival lobby, I withdrew some cash and asked the information counter where a mailbox was located. As instructed, I went up the departure area to find it. I threw an envelope with a check inside to pay to a government agency into the mailbox I found. Inside my bag, the check travelled with me between Singapore and Milpitas. I had planned to send it before I departed Changi.

It was almost 4:00 am when I reached this familiar but miserable apartment. I hadn’t forgotten to buy a small can of beer at the nearby eating place.

Having beer, I turned on my mobile phone and found a few SMS messages. One of them asked me to contact a person who wanted my interpretation service. I replied the messenger saying that I would get back to the inquirer very soon. And I also found the inquirer herself had called me a few times too. Because it was still very early morning, I e-mailed her, explaining why it was not possible for me to contact her immediately.

Then, I had sleep for a few hours. My buzzing phone woke me up. The message from the same person was asking me if I could be available for interpretation job of the day. I jumped up and called her. It turned out that the message had been sent to me a few days before. I apologized.

When I opened my eyes half asleep at about 5:00 am of the 18th, I didn’t know if this was still the hotel room or this abject place. I totally mixed up the two. The place looked glossed over, and very confused, I was thinking that the two places had the exactly same layout. I didn’t know in which place I was.

In a sense, this whole trip was to get even with who I was 20 years ago. I couldn’t help thinking about how I returned to Japan from Albany, NY, then. And it is true that this trip filled a big gap I had been feeling in my mind as all of this happened this time not because I sought it but because I was asked to go there and it was for my own business. Now, I miss America again.

Friday, November 02, 2012

From Tuesday to Tonight

On Tuesday, I went to their Tai Seng office, by now so familiar to me. With little advance information, I had almost no idea about the meeting. After I entered the meeting room and exchanged simple greetings with some of the participants, a telecon began. It seems a worldwide conference as I started hearing the voice of their big boss. After her speech, a few people asked questions. I didn’t know who they were. Nobody at this office asked. With this telecon I already had trouble. They were talking about things for which advance knowledge was absolutely necessary for me to follow. And it had to be simultaneous interpretation as they whose voice I was hearing didn’t know my presence. I was not happy with the kind of quality I was managing to give. We had a short break after this and the presenter over here told me to give me time to follow her for a sentence or two. Once she started, it seems she forgotten what she told me and kept talking. I had no information whatsoever on what she was going to say. Trouble. This is an another example to prove that people think they only have to make me sit among them and all should go just fine.
And the guy from India, a participant, was very happy to talk, but he had a very strong Indian accent with which I had difficulty. I observed his mouth and tongue, which seemed to me to be rolling lightly and constantly when he spoke. I had met and worked with many people for whom English was not their first language. It usually took me only a few minutes to get used to their individual accents. His speech didn’t sound English at all. I could catch words he said not sentences. More trouble. I wonder whether, aware of his own way of speaking, he tries to internationalize it. The presenter and her boss had no problem for understanding him. His kind of accent must be something that is familiar to them, not to me. I can only hope that I was able to give enough amount of information to the two participants from Japan.
An enchanting thing about attending this meeting was that I met those two from Japan, one of them I hadn’t met for more than three years, and the two engineering trainers also in the meeting. Especially nice was to see one of them, with whom I worked in July and whose flat I with three engineers from Japan visited for a party. After the dinner, he suggested “blind drinking” at Cable Car. I am more than happy to oblige.
On Wednesday, I had dinner with the two guys from Japan at Tamaya. Though we couldn’t stay for many hours, only until 8:00, I had nice talk with them and I hope they feel the same.
Also today, I had an interpretation job. With another client, I went to a fruit supplier at Pandan Loop. We arrived at 9:30, half an hour early. I think that the meeting went well though nothing was finalized as this was just an introductory talk.  Though, what else I can contribute to this business, I don’t know.
Tonight, dinner at a VivoCity restaurant with a client couple with their daughter and my translation partner. The girl was very friendly to me.