The first trip out of the country

Posted in: Tales of a Travelling Business Woman

One of my favorite stories is my first trip to Japan. I went with my boss and at 24 years old, it was the first time I’d ever been out of the US. Everything was new to me about traveling – the long flight, airplane meals, the movies, the time change!

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“Adaptability is one of the most important characteristics you can have…”

After landing in Japan, the excitement kept coming as we drove on the other side of the road, the hotel room was tiny and nothing was in English. This was certainly going to be an adventure and I was ready and eager for it!

Our first morning, we rode the bullet train to visit our first customer, a large manufacturer of forklift trucks. My boss and I were led to a large conference room and instructed to sit on one side of the table. In walked 10 engineers and a high ranking executive. They all focused on my boss and did not look me in the eye, which I found to be a bit rude at first. I must admit, even now, I don’t think of myself as a business woman, just a business executive. We exchanged business cards and in Japanese tradition, studied each one of them carefully. The last person I exchanged cards with was the most junior person in the room. The young man almost dropped his card as he was so nervous interacting with a business woman that he was visibly shaking. I firmly grabbed the card before it fell and carried on as if nothing happened so as not to embarrass him. He never looked at me, but I could feel his relief. I remember thinking how tough that must have been for him.

As we began the meeting, to my surprise, the interpreter told us that the customers were expecting “Amanda”, who they only knew through faxes, to be a man and so were very embarrassed not to have known. I’m not sure what they would have done differently at this stage, but I thought it was polite and honest for them to tell us. During the meeting, the men directed all questions to my boss, but being the empowering leader that he was, he allowed me to answer as I was the one doing the work and had the answers. It was amazing how adaptable the Japanese men became, as halfway through the meeting, they realized I was the one with the knowledge and so directed all the questions to me. On reflection, I realize what a big thing this was as I’m sure they never dealt with a business woman before.

That night they took us to their “company house”, a place they had VIP dinners and entertainment. It was a fabulous place, with traditional seating on the floor and incredible food, service and entertainment. Again, I was soaking it all up, feeling so fortunate I had the opportunity to have a job like this to experience business in Japan. Towards the end of the evening, I asked the host if someone could show me where the ladies restroom was. There was a panic and the host called over the servers and had what seemed to be a frantic discussion in Japanese. Finally, the manager of the company house came over to me, profusely apologized and said they never had a woman there before and there wasn’t a separate woman’s bathroom. So, he led me to the men’s bathroom and stood guard for me. Again, I found them to be so accommodating, even though it was not part of their culture.

There is a fondness in my heart for Japan and the people that will never go away. I have many stories I will write about as I learned much about traveling to different countries and appreciating other cultures from these early travels. On this first trip especially though, I learned how important it is to have an open mind, and if you do, you will have experiences you never thought possible. Like the Japanese I met when I was 24, I also learned that adaptability is one of the most important characteristics you can have in your quest to become a global citizen.