Back To China-- June, 2002
Introducing the new Read&Delete&a half-- wider, lower and too long to fit in your garage. This month we cover the trip that went on forever... 36 days in the orient.
My company sends me to China to assist in the establishment and operation of our new factory in Suzhou, which is about a one hour drive from Shanghai. This time they sent me over for five weeks, including a few days of vacation with Wendy and the boys at the end of the trip. I would tell you about the work I did over there, but unless you are an engineer-- or a masochist, you would probably not be interested in it. I will summarize the business portion of the jaunt by saying that in the space of four weeks I supervised the installation of an entire automated electronic assembly line (that I specified), installed an entire business computer network (programmed in Chinese), and coordinated it all into a brand-new factory building that was unfinished at the time. That was only my part of the job. There were two other guys with me who were doing just as much. (And we were all maniacs by the end of the trip.)
I got some new business cards as soon as I landed in Shanghai. At least I think they are mine. They are written in Chinese, and I can't read them. They must be okay, though. When I would hand them out, the recepient would do a slight bow and smile. (With my old cards they would just point me outside and call the police.)
When in Suzhou, I like to stay at the New City Garden Hotel. They have a bowling alley, a snooker table, a chess room, health club, a bunch of shops and five restaurants inside. (Japanese, French, Dim Sum, traditional
Chinese and Western) I occasionally ate my dinner in the hotel 'western' restaurant. The non-smoking area was lit by high pressure sodium lights. Those are the same kind of lights used in parking lots and inside Target
stores. It is mood lighting if you are in the mood for open-heart surgery. Next to the restaurant was the lounge, so I got to see the lounge combo get set up. It was a trio consisting of a sax, string bass and a piano. I
thought the music might be pretty good. Yeah, right. I forgot the first immutable rule of lounge music--- wherever you go in the whole wide world, lounge music is lounge music. Well, I haven't been in a lounge with Tom Scott or Dave Grusin yet. The sax player wasn't quite 'Kenny G', he was more like 'Kenny B', especially since he opened with 'Tie a yellow ribbon'. The steak wasn't too good either. But at least it was safe. I don't think China has had any outbreaks of Mad Horse Disease lately. It made for a perfect evening; just sitting under the streetlights, eating a Belmont steak and listening to 'How Trite and the Back You Into The Wall Trio'. So whenever possible, I would sneak away to some local noodlery for some sizzling beef with oyster sauce or won ton with shrimp and a little Tsing Tao with the natives.
On the other hand, the hotel has an incredibly good dim sum (mix and match) restaurant. When they say 'spiced pork' they are not kidding. Wow! After a mouthful of that, you can drink a bottle of Tabasco sauce just to cool your mouth and throat. This particular trip had a tendency to be a little high-stress. When I am
under great stress I tend to like to smoke an occasional cigar. The presence of noxious fumes seems to relax me somewhat. This is a phenomenon that evokes great wonder from my Chinese co-workers. A large percentage of Chinese people smoke like chimneys, but cigars are not common in China. One time, as I was
lighting one of my deadly brown leafy vegetables with a match, one of the Chinese guys says, "Why you use match? I have gas." (Indicating that he had a butane cigarette lighter.) I reply, "If you have gas, I guess that I
should not be lighting this match." Later on he wanted to give me a lighter as a present, but I refused. Again he asked, "Why you use match?" I replied, "I need the exercise." Wooden matches in China are like the Chinese World Cup soccer team-- they don't seem to catch on the first try, and a slight breeze will put them out.
It is darn near impossible to accomplish anything in business over there the same way we do things in America. The way it works is- 'ask and you shall receive'-- tomorrow-- and you can bet it won't be the way you asked for. Ask for it another way, and the response is: "It is not possible". China is the society of polite refusal. The housekeeping department in my hotel includes a service that comes in at about 6PM to 'turn down' the bedclothes and close the room curtains, etc-- to make the room ready for sleeping. I was in my room a little early - to do some e-mail-- when the doorbell rang. I opened the door to see a young hotel maid who looked up at me and said in English, "I'm here to turn you down.", to which I replied, "It figures. Everybody else does."
Speaking of the hotel, room service is a real trip. They have a menu in room, but I got a little nervous ordering from it, only because it has the words 'good luck' printed on it. It is more like "magic room service." You pick up the phone and order-- and 20 minutes later there is someone at the door with food that you might not recognize as such, if you order the local dishes. The western food is pretty straightforward--sort of. You can order a 'beef burger' that looks like a burger, but tastes like oatmeal. Just for adventure, I worked my way down the menu over a period of three weeks. I got some interesting combinations, like roasted goose and shredded sea blubber. I did stop short of the 'pickled vegetable and sliced fish soup'.
What to wear in China.
I hate shopping. I have always hated shopping, especially shopping for clothes. The very idea of shuffling through store after store, rummaging through racks of clothing -- looking for the perfect style with the perfect
fit at the perfect price-- is perfectly nauseating. So I don't shop for clothes. I buy clothes. I follow a simple plan: when clothes no longer fit- I throw them away. When clothes wear out- I throw them away. When the supply of wearable fabric in my closet drops to a level just above the minimum legal requirements for decency, I go out to buy clothes. It is a flawless system. The clothing procurement plan is even more basic: I locate a store that contains new clothes that look like the ones I got rid of. If it is less than a fifteen minute trip from my house---
touchdown! I go to the store by myself- and if I am badgered by a salesperson, I tell them I have leprosy. Then they push the clothes towards me on the end of a stick (judging by the styles I choose- they probably would have done the same anyway). I give them the money---then I go home.
But I am married now. I am married to a beautiful woman who wants to be able to be seen in public with her husband without having to make excuses like: "He's improved a lot since they changed his medication", or "He chooses colors and patterns that make him feel safe around strangers. He's been this way ever since the accident." On my visits to China I am lucky enough to have some Chinese friends who are willing to take me around to some of the local merchants to find some new clothes. One afternoon they brought me to one of the clothing districts in downtown Suzhou to find a few dress shirts and a light jacket, along with some trousers. It is an adventure that I would not miss for all the tea in-- well I wouldn't miss it. We started in a department store, then in a 'discount store' then finally out in the open market. If you ever come to China, you've got to see this.
This is how a department store works in Suzhou. Imagine walking into Marshall Fields' on State Street in Chicago and finding 10 men's clothing departments (all next to each other)- run by 10 different proprietors- who are selling similar clothes and trying to outdeal each other. That day I was measured 11 times (8 of them against my will). My size changed 4 times in half an hour - no wonder my clothes don't fit me; it must be some kind of skeletal disorder. My size? Apparently at 5'11 3/4", I am a giant among men in China. Most
clothing stores do not have trousers long enough to fit me. In the U.S., I wear a size 16 1/2 shirt. In China, that is an XXL. Forget about shoes- shoes made for Asian feet have different arch support than the American
variety. Put a pair of those on my feet and I walk like the Frankenstein monster. There was a men's shirt sale on the sidewalk in front of a store named "Bra and Undies Monopolization". OK. There was another store named
"Impossible Fashions". They were right- it was impossible to get into their store-- they were closed. Wanna buy a silk shirt? Suzhou is the silk capitol of China. You can buy silk for less than the price of cotton in some places. Silk neckties will jump into your hands for $2 each. Shirts that cost about $30 in the states- $6 in Suzhou. All of it made locally, and sold at the prices the locals will pay. I was willing to pay the 'list' price (about double what I ended up paying), but my Chinese friends would not hear of it. They haggled every price down to what they thought was a good bargain. I bought a two-piece, three button suit for $21. That blew my mind.
The last item on my list was a spring jacket. That was a tough find. Every jacket I saw had something about it that just did not make sense. One had buttons on the front, and zippers on the pockets. Some had no collar, or a collar that stood straight up. Some had a 2" wide band of elastic at the bottom. The last thing anybody would need was a jacket with a built-in tourniquet. Plus they all had the added bonus of some stitched or embroidered mismatched American phrase (such as "BRQN BEAR TOWN" or "ZIPPY LEFTOVER") or some enigmatic Chinese logo. After visiting about a dozen different shops, I finally found a jacket that had most of everything I wanted: light gray, zippered and with pockets that were big enough to fit my Occidental hands, plus it had a single word stitched onto the shoulder that I could not possibly turn down. There in gray letters is embroidered a concept that has boggled the entire world for two millennia-- the word 'grace'.
Don't drink the water--- and stay off the ice!
I tried to be a good boy by drinking only bottled water. In fact, every liquid I consumed came out of a bottle, including the water I brushed my teeth with. I bought lots of bottled soda and fruit juices, and my system
was functioning flawlessly-- until my co-workers and I went to McDonald's-- where you can get pork nuggets, mango shakes, pineapple pies and noodle soup. I got a Big Mac, french fries and a large order of McDysentery
(probably from the ice in my soft drink.) I got nailed pretty bad, bad enough to see the Chinese clinic inside my hotel - where the nurse spoke no English. After about half an hour of passing my Chinese phrase book back and forth, she was able to prescribe some antibiotics, rehydrating salts and a stack of magazines. All for about 65 RMB ($7 in U.S. dollars). Too bad it didn't work. Later that week, I went to see an English doctor who prescribed a larger antibiotic cork for $200.
Wendy and the boys came to China on my last week there, via Air Canada- where the customer is not forgotten- just ignored. Their arrival was the high point of the trip for me. After 25 days in a row of working at putting the factory together, it was a welcome relief to talk to people that did not require an interpreter.
The boys got to see the Suzhou Amusement Park, and got to swim in an olympic-sized pool at the recreation complex for the industrial park. Peter's assessment of the country: "The people talk funny over in China."
Peter and James made lots of new friends, and Wendy got to answer the same question over two dozen times by saying, "No, they are not twins." Even though the boys are over two years apart in age, they are within a couple inches in height, and they were the center of attention everywhere they went.
After the factory opened, I got a few days to spend with my family in Shanghai. We wanted to go to Beijing and see Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but there just was not enough time to do it. It is a 12 and a half hour train ride each way between Shanghai and Beijing (which is about equal to the flight from Vancouver.)
If you want to learn about ancient history, forget the Smithsonian and go to the Shanghai Museum. In its galleries, the Shanghai Museum has artifacts that go back 3 to 4 thousand years -- give or take a few
dynasties. When Christopher Columbus set foot on the 'new world', China had been China for about 2500 years. An entire floor of the Shanghai Museum displays only ceramics- some of which dates back 3000 years. You can see examples of Chinese calligraphy, furniture, royal seals and coinage that were antiques before the time of Christ. Don't complain about American history being difficult. We have only had 43 presidents. China has had nearly ten times as many Emperors.
We visited the Shanghai zoo-- where I was able to photograph a panda from a distance of less than four feet- straight down. The zoo is incredible. We saw zebras and giraffes and lions, tigers and the works- all from less than ten feet. The gorilla was having fun at the expense of his audience. The ape would look out of his cage (which had a glass wall front) and look totally uninterested in his surroundings until the people would start wandering away. Then the gorilla would shriek and run full tilt into the thick glass wall in front, bounce off of it, and return to his former position-- watching everybody squeal and scramble back from his cage. He was playing the audience like a violin and they were falling for it left and right. This proves that there is a sense of humor in the animal kingdom.
After five weeks in the land of socicommucapitalism, it was time to come home. For most people, this would be an easy task. In fact, it could be called a 'no-brainer'. I can attest to this, because I met a lot of
'no-brainers' on the return trip. That's not fair. I'm sure that all the flight attendants, baggage handlers, airline and customs officials we saw on the trip home had brains-- it's just that they might not have been using
them at the time. Do I need to explain? Does a co-dependant need friends?
The Pudong airport in Shanghai is extremely efficient, and all the employees know how to be courteous and helpful. We checked in, went through immigration and boarded the plane. No problem. About the efficiency of Air Canada- well at least they put us on the same plane. If I leaned forward and twisted my head just right-- I could just see Wendy and the boys. I won't talk about ther food---ever.
Air Canada flights to and from China make a stop in Vancouver, British
Columbia for the sole purpose of infuriating their passengers. We had a 55 minute lay-over (in order to pass through U.S. customs and get some exercise
carrying our baggage) during which Air Canada could not open the baggage compartment of our plane. Our bags finally appeared (I'm not kidding about
this) 30 seconds after the ticket agent took away our tickets for the connecting flight. Without tickets, we could not leave the 'secure' baggage
claim area. There was no bathroom, no ticket agent (he vanished into thin air) and no way out. We were stranded. I found a phone and got hold of an
Air Canada representative-- and managed to eject five weeks worth of pent up
frustration in about forty-five seconds. Within three minutes, I had the Vancouver airport general manager, Air Canada's Vancouver manager, two security guards and a ramp attendant falling all over each other trying to
get us to a bathroom, plus getting us a hotel room, and searching the plane for Peter's lost Pokemon' cards. I don't recall exactly what I said to them, but when I was done those guys were hopping up and down like marionettes. My people skills must change when I am sleep deprived.
The next morning it started all over again. A shuttle bus full of frozen fish and obese fishermen, two baggage searches, and a last minute body search of all of us at the gate. Plus, as an added forget-me-not, they
managed to lose one of our bags. So much for Air Canada/United Airlines. Next time I'll take the bus. What will I do with 65,000 frequent flyer miles anyway?
Gotta go..... It's back to Shanghai in August...... I can hardly wait.