Read&Delete From the Other Side of the World
This is the long awaited, long overdue, long in the tooth China travel issue-- describing in maniacal detail a two week trip to mainland China, visiting the industrial strength cities of Shanghai, Suzhou and Nanjing, by yours truly-- America's own-- the Occidental tourist!
My company is opening a small factory in China. In order to sell our product within the Chinese market, we have to build that product within China. That is the trade law in China. My mission on the mainland was to make sure some of the systems got put in place and to locate equipment for the factory as it is being built. This is the reason why I was sent to the back side of the globe. It is a 13 hour flight from San Francisco to Shanghai. During the flight I sat on an aisle seat, right next to Mr. and Mrs. Incontinence-- who used the restroom twice an hour, and ate nothing but soup and noodles. I got
about 7 minutes of sleep on the plane. I was ready to sleep in the overhead bin.
When I landed at the Pu Dong airport in Shanghai, I expected to see armed guards dressed in green all over the country. I did not see a single machine gun in all of China-- but I saw at least a dozen of them in one terminal in San Francisco. The Pu Dong airport is clean, well run and extremely efficient. I got my luggage, went through customs, had a full body cavity search (just kidding!) in less than 15 minutes. I was pretty tired by then. I had crossed the International Date Line (not a phone service!) and had lost a day. I left San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, flew 13 hours and arrived in Shanghai on Thursday night. The air temperature throughout the trip varied between 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, skies partly
Just for clarification purposes, the currency used in the Peoples' Republic of China is the "China Yuan Renminbi"-- otherwise known as the yuan or RMB. The current exchange rate is 8.19 yuan to the American dollar- at the hotel anyway. Some local prices of common products: 20oz Coca-Cola= 4
RMB -- pack of Chinese cigarettes= 7.5 RMB-- taxi ride across Suzhou = 11RMB -- lunch at McDonalds= 20RMB-- lunch in any real Chinese restaurant that does not function as a trendy tourist trap= 8RMB --train fare from Shanghai to Suzhou= 26.5 RMB-- 30 minute back massage in the hotel health club= 100RMB (No, I did not get a massage-- I only saw the price listed on a advertisement card in my hotel room!) Overpriced western-style dinner in the hotel dining room= 120RMB--- litre of gasoline 2.5RMB-- Motor scooter (Vespa)= 5000 RMB -- New Buick automobile (made by Shanghai GM)=~100,000 RMB. To figure the costs in US dollars, divide the RMB price by 8. To figure
what your salary would be if you lived in China, divide your gross income by 10.
On my first night in Shanghai, I checked into the Park Hotel-- a beautiful oak paneled hotel in downtown Shanghai. The Park was built in 1934, and when it was built it was the tallest building in Asia. (not anymore!) The entire room was run from my key. There were slippers and a bathrobe in the closet
and a radio built into the nightstand. The radio operated from a series of pushbuttons set to local Chinese radio stations. The first button I pushed (and I am NOT kidding about this) played the "James Bond" theme-- or a symphonic arrangement of the themes from the first three Bond pictures. So I checked the room for hidden microphones. No bugs-- just lint.
The next morning I went to the "business center" of the hotel. That's where
you can print, fax, copy and check your e-mail- using one of the business center's computers. These computers use Windows 98-- the Chinese version of
it, that is. Same icons, but all Chinese characters. It looks like an operating system for Klingons in "Star Trek." There was no attendant in the
room, so I just sat down at one of the computers and in about five minutes figured out the dial-up modem and was able to get my e-mail off the
Internet. Then the attendant came in and about went into shock. She asked me in broken English as to how I got on to the Internet with that computer. I got scared, thinking that I had broken some law and that the Chinese Secret Police would be after me. Actually what had surprised her was that the computer I was using had been broken for several days-- and could NOT access the web, and that I, an American with no knowledge of Chinese, had fixed it. I told her that I am a network administrator, and that east may be east, and west may be west-- but Windows is Windows.
I took a cab to the railway station and caught the express to Suzhou. There is some similarity between rail travel in the U.S. and China. Train travel in China is, well, kind of weird. The conductors on the train also sell food and nylons to the passengers. First they show you to your seat -- an assigned seat, by the way-- and once underway, they sell tea and noodle soup and hosiery to the passengers. They are like airline flight attendants here in the states. I will explain more later.
Getting around in Suzhou
If you have any idea about driving a car while visiting the Mainland, get them out of your head right now. The traffic pattern in Chinese cities closely resemble that of traffic inside a beehive. The center line painted down a Chinese street is there to designate just that--the center of the road. It divides nothing; although everybody tends to stay on the right of it, it is not a hard and fast rule to do so. Ditto the traffic lights, as they only indicate the general tendency of direction of travel of traffic in the intersection. The side streets have equal right-of-way for everybody: pedestrians, bicycles, moped, scooter, car, truck and motorcycle. The only trouble is that pedestrians don't have loud horns or weigh a couple thousand pounds. Same with parking. You can park anything you want on the sidewalk, just as long as it doesn't leak. The main rule of traveling as a passenger in a motor vehicle in China is this: Don't ever watch what
the driver is doing. If you watch him as he weaves himself (and you) through an endless stream of pedestrians, cyclists and oncoming traffic, you will have heart failure. Just don't look. Chinese drivers know how to drive in China-- and you don't. Their cars don't have a scratch or dent on them, the
bicycles are not banged up, and nobody is hobbling around on crutches. Then again, crossing the street on foot is another matter. The only direction that you cannot be struck from is below. The funny thing is that it takes about three months of full-time training to get a driver's license over here, and the last month of training is done full time on the road with a full time driving instructor(very expensive-- $6000RMB). ANY accident with injury will cause the driver to lose his driving privileges forever. But they still drive this way. I sat up late into the night trying to figure this one out. It is one of the great mysteries of life. My conclusion--if you think of it as traffic, you will go insane. If you think of it as dancing- it starts to make sense.
Real Chinese food, or, "What did I just eat?"
(Author's note: Skip this section if you are really squeamish)
My Chinese associates were willing for me to eat American food during my stay, but I declined. I felt that it would be an insult to them if I did not at least sample some of their local dishes. The only thing I was planning to insult was my digestive tract. Even then I was wrong. My antacids and fiber packets are all unused. I won't kid you-- some of the food looked pretty disgusting to my distinctly American eyes-- but I ate it anyway-- and it tasted very good. I ate noodle soup that looked like the before picture for the
Lake Erie cleanup-- in a restaurant with a very slippery floor-- from a coating of food grease.
There are McDonalds' restaurants in China, but except for soda and french fries you are not likely to recognize the items on the menu. Pork nuggets, tangerine pies, and spicy chicken wings abound. Ditto the KFC. The only thing that is not usually highly spiced is the Coca-Cola machine. I tried not to turn down anything offered me by my hosts. Because the timing of my trip was so close to the Chinese new year festival, I was invited to a number of holiday gatherings. This led to a varied menu of Mainland delicacies: shark fin, snake skin, pear dumplings, lotus stems and more. It took a little getting used to when the duck was served complete--- I mean complete-- let's just say that the bill arrived with the main course
and leave it at that. There were sand cookies and lemon pork turnovers served at the "Red Racing Cake" bakery. Snake skin is a little tough, it tastes like a mouthful of rubber bands. Soft-boiled duck eggs are a real trip. Some things are a little hard to find. Potato chips are easy, along with most American snack foods. Milk? No problem. Coca-Cola? You'll never get away from it. But I'll dare you to find a piece of cheese outside of a McDonalds. It's just not popular. Bar-b-que sauce-- what's that?
My last dinner of the trip was served at a "hot pot" restaurant. (Sort
of a fondue joint.) We sat at a big table with propane tank underneath and a giant pot of simmering liquid that I will not describe. The waiter brought a
selection of items to dump into the mixture: derivatives of chicken, pork, beef, bamboo, neoprene squid, boiled duck eggs and a bunch of spiced
vegetables. I handled it all pretty well, at least until the bowl of fresh shrimp
arrived. They were fresh, in fact they could not possibly be any fresher, if
you know what I mean. There they were wriggling around in their glass bowl, waiting for us to scoop out a ladle full into the pot of boiling waste water. Eat what you want, then spit out the rest.
Eat everything you want, but don't drink ANYTHING that comes out of a water tap. Chinese people drink bottled water for a reason apart from looking trendy. There are more parasitic organisms in a drop of their tap water then there are in the Chicago City Council. Wash your clothes in it, shower in it, but for heaven's sake- don't drink it. Case in point-- I have seen NO drinking fountains in China. Speaking of questionable substances, there is also a brand of wine in China called "Dynasty." It's okay as red wines go, fitting in somewhere between grape juice and carbonated mouthwash. Sort of a sparkling peroxide. Don't quote me on it, it may be pretty good-- I am not a wine expert, maybe it was just a bad bottle. (NOTE: The Dynasty white wine was very very good.)
At a Chinese dinner party, especially a business dinner, the hosts and guests toast everybody in attendance. I was present at one dinner with about 100 local business operators, and it was a pretty nice event. I was sitting next to the manager of a major Suzhou power company. He and his wife were very gracious to me, the only American in the room. Everyone came around us and gave a toast. The men stood while the women sat, everybody clinked glasses, sipped and the men sat down. One and another. Again and again. Up and down. For a while the toasts came about 30 seconds apart. What happened next? Would I, a foreigner in a strange and possibly hostile land, sit quietly, sip and nod my head occasionally out of politeness, or would I stand up, open my mouth and jeopardize all trade relations with a dozen major Chinese manufacturers? What do you think? You know me-- after about sixty toasts went by, (two and a half glasses of Dynasty) I stood up, taking the entire U.S.-China international relationship firmly in hand, and addressed the crowd, saying, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I can honestly say that I do not know more than four words of your language-- but I am very honored to be in your presence, I celebrate with you for your success, and I wish all of you great fortune in the coming year." The group sat silent while my company's Chinese factory manager translated my oratory into Mandarin. More silence. Then everybody jumped up, clapped and cheered. I got a lot of handshakes and more toasts. I'm not sure about the accuracy of the translation. Either they understood it word for word, or they think that I'm Rudolph Guliani, former mayor of New York.
Everybody's on the air.
Walk down any street in Shanghai or Suzhou and you will be sure to see somebody chatting into a cell phone. You will hear them ringing in restaurants, karaoke clubs, elevators and in public restrooms. In fact, the world's largest market for cellular communication is China. And they don't give the phones away like they do in America. They cost the equivalent of about $100 (That's a LOT of money for the locals). My guess is that the reason why the Chinese are wild about cellular communications is because Chinese pay phones just don't work. The public phones in my hotel lobby have video touch screens. One of them displayed the following message (in English):
BOOT DRIVE FAILURE
INSERT BOOTABLE DISK
(The influence of Microsoft is everywhere.)
Doing business in China----Shopping-- Suzhou style.
OK, you need a couple rolls of film, a can of soda and a new leather belt. What store do you go to? Wrong! The correct question is, "Which stores do you go to?" One-stop shopping is rare. Most of the shopping district is like a giant flea market, and 99% of the prices are negotiable. There are department stores around, and the same rule applies. If you are polite, you can "work a deal" for nearly everything. Prices drop nearly in half if you react the right way. I bought a piece of carry-on luggage that would go for
about a hundred dollars in the US for about 160 RMB (the Chinese currency) at a market. (about $20 US) My belt broke while I was playing tennis (I was surprised it was only my belt-- I hadn't played tennis in over 20 years) so I needed to stop in a store to pick up a new one. (I like to wear loose fitting clothing - and a broken belt could finish our U.S./China relations.) I was accompanied by an interpreter, but it really wasn't necessary. Price negotiation is a global skill. A little bit of sparring over the price is
almost a requirement for commerce in China. When the saleslady quoted the price at 165 RMB, I let my jaw drop and put my palm to my forehead and I gasped. With a big smile on my face, I had the interpreter explain to her, "You must have me mistaken for Bill Gates. I am a POOR capitalist." She grinned and cut the price almost in half. It's the smile that does it. If you are pleasant-- people want to do business with you. This is the principle known as guanxie (pronounced "guan-she")-- the practice of building a trust relationship with people you want to do business with.
Doing other business in China- or don't look down.
The acronym P.R.C. officially stands for the People's Republic of China. I think of it as the Public Restroom Challenge, or finding a place to go that won't make you nauseous. To put it delicately, when you walk into a public restroom in China, the cleanest thing in there is you. The hotel restrooms
are as Western as they come and the sanitation appliance located within is identical to those in America, but the ones out in traditional restaurants, train stations and the like are quite different. They are flush toilets-- on two counts. They are flush to the floor folks, and there are no dividers between the stalls. Yes, they do separate the bulls from the cows, but other than that it's just one pen with a bunch of troughs. I refer to the device as a "squat bomber", because that's exactly what you do-- squat and bomb. That's as graphic as I am going to get, except to say that you will need to displace the proper clothing, position yourself, balance yourself and do the job without slipping on the wet floor. BYOTP. Enough said.
The only other thing that China truly lacks, in my opinion, is central heat. They have a Central Committee, Centrist thinking, but no central furnace. These people won't turn on a space heater (that's what they use around here) until the water in the glassware starts to freeze. Each room in the building
is another kingdom. You could be toasty warm in one room, and walk into the ice age in the next. One office I was in was about 5 degrees colder than the outside January air. This is simply the way things are. The philosophy is this: in a big building, why heat empty rooms? Brrr!
Commuting in a Chinese fog
This morning I am typing on a train, as I make the three hour trip from Suzhou to Nanjing. There is not much difference in train travel in China from that in the U.S. There are cell phones, laptops, newspapers, walkmans and Kenny G music piped through the train. There are also curtains on the windows and tablecloths and ruffles on the blue seat covers. I am told that I am traveling in "business class." I got a cup of coffee from the hostess as I watch the mainland scenery passing in and out of the inscrutable fog.
That last remark was sort of a joke because the only inscrutable thing about China is the weather. Outside the window lay kilometer upon kilometer of Chinese farmland, railroad yards and canals, visible for a time when the mist rises, only to become shrouded again in gray obscurity as it falls.
The trip home is three hours shorter than the trip over there (due to prevailing winds) but the trip is more tedious due to the time change. Shanghai is 14 hours ahead of Chicago, and by the time I had returned to my front door in Aurora, I had been awake for about 30 hours. This was due to lay-overs, train trips and U.S. customs waiting lines, etc.
There are soldiers guarding the train stations and airports in China, but the same is true in America. Some civil servants there are slow or corrupt, just like everywhere else. There are towers and tenements,
gentlemen and cads, winners and losers everywhere on the planet. Freedom is what you make of it. Some of what we in the West consider oppression is not necessarily thought of the same way in the East. China itself is passing through a fog, trying to find its new identity. The people are hard working, honorable and industrious, and are looking to find a way to reconcile 5000 years of familial existence, 50 years of hard political intervention and a new century of technological acceleration. Even China has its own east and west. The old closed country of red with giant posters of Chairman Mao is gone. The days of the cultural revolution are a bad memory for the people (much like the Salem witch trials were for America), and they
are looking for their future. Change involves both letting go of the old and grasping ahead to the new. There is little resemblance between the China of 1990 and now, just as there may be little resemblance between now and ten years ahead. It is the country of the silk road and of Amway. (Believe it or
not, I saw an Amway office in Nanjing. Don't believe me? I have pictures!)
The Chinese worldview is changing, but do not be fooled. China will always be China, and the Orient will never become American. China is to be viewed as both a rare gem and a sporting event-- enjoyable but for different reasons. This is why our Creator made different races and climates-- to demonstrate His kind of diversity--- and to give us a chance to see that He is bigger than we can imagine.
I would suggest to all of you that if you are physically and financially able, it would be a much worthwhile experience for you to visit China. I barely scratched the surface by visiting some factories, shops and public places in a tiny portion of the country. I had little time to visit the museums, old palaces and historic places of this colorful land. For you paranoiacs-- you don't need to be afraid. The food will not kill you, bottled water is plentiful, and with some following of basic hygiene rules you will be safe from most diseases. There is little to fear about violent crime, as there are nearly no "repeat offenders". I'll relate a quick story about that. I missed a train one night, going from Shanghai to Suzhou, and there were no tickets left for any train before midnight. My guide went to find a jitney taxi (one that would take us to Suzhou by road. Five minutes after we walked out of the train station we were standing in a dark alley behind a "department store", waiting for taxis with a group of about 20 people. The humor of the situation got me. Here I was in a dark alley in Shanghai, at 10:30 at night, with the equivalent of six months Chinese wages in my pocket and an expensive camera hanging around my neck, standing with 20 people I did not know and could not understand, waiting for a questionable cab to drive me to another city by a route that I did not know-- and yet I was not afraid-- I don't think anybody there was. Don't get me wrong-- I would never cut through an alley in Chicago's loop in broad daylight for fear that somebody
will cut my throat for loose change. It is just that in Shanghai, the penalty of the crime is far out weighs the gain. The cab ride itself was interesting-- but I've run out of space.
All I am saying is that China is different. And in a few months I will return for another visit.
Wo shu-yao chu (Gotta go).......
P.S. I am taking a class in conversational Chinese for the next month or
so--- if my tongue doesn't fall out of my head.