Ni Hao from China.
Anyone who has traveled internationally can attest to the hassles of customs and immigration. Besides the pain of getting a visa before leaving, actually going through customs and immigration consists of long lines, forms to fill out, and key instructions on what to do written in a foreign language. However, the pain of customs isn't too much if you only have to deal with it once or twice for a week. For us, going through customs and immigration is a twice per week experience (between China and Hong Kong). And unfortunately, there are no rewards or shortcuts for being a frequent traveler.
However, having gone through customs/immigration many times, we have learned to optimize all of the processes and make this experience as painless as possible. We fill out our forms in advance, we have a debit card to speed-up the process of buying train tickets, and we know the nuances of what lines to get in.
However, what we cannot change are the 3 immutable laws of customs at the border crossing:
1) The Hong Kong side is ALWAYS slower. For some reason, the Chinese are more sophisticated than the Hong Kongers (Hong Kongese?) on this one. What this means is set your expectations that the Hong Kong lines will be longer. This was a complete surprise to me given the more sophisticated nature of Hong Kong, but it has never failed to let me down.
2) Women are ALWAYS faster than men when they work the customs/immigration window. I think the women try to make the lines move fast and work efficiently, whereas the men always seem to think they have some international spy in front of them and are trying hard to find some problem with either their forms or passport. Unfortunately, more men than women work the windows, so you don't always get the luxury of a window worked by a woman.
Today I had one funny experience where I managed to dart to a short line where a woman was working the window. Having been through customs many times, standing in a customs line feels like standing in any other line, with typical line mannerisms and body language. However, I think for the guy in front of me, it was his first time entering China and he didn't want to get anything wrong. When it was his turn to approach the window, he did so in a very mechanized fashion, reminiscent of how the soup line moved in the "Soup Nazi" Seinfeld episode. The guy marched forward one step, paused momentarily, then put his passport into the window slot with only his one arm moving. He then stood looking forward directly in front of the window, putting both hands at his side, not moving an inch. He was perfectly still as the woman was processing his passport. Upon receiving his passport, he then took one step to the right, then marched forward. I think he was afraid that had he done it any other way, the Red Army was going to take him away.
3) Exiting from Hong Kong into China is a culture shock - each and every time. Hong Kong is quite civilized and worldly, quite a nice place to return on Friday night. However, entering China is like walking into a madhouse. Upon leaving the station to find a cab, there are people everywhere. They not only cram into the little shops at the train station, but they are walking all over the station. No sooner after getting into the train station, do people show up from everywhere trying to take your bags and show you a taxi. They almost grab the bags from your hand. However, experience has taught us it is best just to find the taxi line, as these renegade taxi drivers make you walk up to a 1/2 mile to their "cab". Once inside of a taxi line, there seems to be a constant stream of people asking for money. There is the woman with the baby trying to get you to buy gum, the old man who actually offers money to take his retarded son (grandson). There are the people missing one or more limbs who walk up with plastic cups. In addition, there are always people selling things like umbrellas (handy today when it rained), candy, etc. This is in a place where it is always hot and steamy and you just want to find air-conditioning.
As of late, the taxis don't seem to line up inside the terminal anymore, making the task of finding where the taxis are lined up a new chore every week.
The town in China where we spend most of our time is Shenzhen (Shin gen). Shenzhen is a fairly large city (I believe 2-4 million) that was a creation of the Chinese government in about 1980. In an effort to prevent everyone from seeking out Hong Kong as the "promised land", the government decided to create a city right next to Hong Kong as a commerce center. Technically, it's a "Special Administration Region" (ironically, a SAR). I guess you could say that they somewhat succeeded, as there is a lot of commerce and banking, including one of China's stock exchanges. However, either the town either grew too fast ever to be cosmopolitan, like Shanghai, Hong Kong, or New York, or, it was the Communist government's (at the time) idea of what an western style industrial city should be. The result is what you could safely say is the worlds largest tacky city. It's reminiscent of the saying, "money doesn't buy you taste". There are a few nice places, but most elements of the city have strange combinations of colors, furnishings, and metaphors. You might have a 500 year old China in a Denny's-like booth at a cheap restaurant. They have turned Pizza a Hut into an almost glamorous western restaurant. On the sidewalk next to a 60 story building is a plastic bag of garbage smouldering. However, McDonald's is still McDonald's.
The traffic is virtually lawless in Shenzhen compared to U.S. standards. "Traffic Lanes" are little more than a concept as cars are constantly jockeying for position with other cars and pedestrians. I even saw a bus drive over a sidewalk to gain a traffic advantage. Traffic and driving behavior is so bad that we have an inside joke, "our taxi got a ticket tonight for driving on the wrong side of the road.............we rear-ended the car in front of us". Every day either going to work, or returning, there is at least one close call with a truck or bus. I simply could not imagine driving in Shenzhen. It has to be seen to be believed.
Pollution is also horrid as their growth has been so fast, they forgot about pollution control and environmental considerations.
Not That Kind of Club!
After several weeks of trying to find a fitness club, we finally found one, and a few of us became members for three months. However, after only two weeks, the club closed its doors with a sign in Chinese that said that the club was closed for remodelling until 10/31. A guy in a nearby business said that owner owed the landlord rent $$ and decided pretty much to "get out of Dodge".
However, he told us where to find another "club". After walking to a large mall, and asking around, we found out that there was a "club" with athletic equipment on the 6th floor. This was confirmed by the man and woman (nicely dressed) at the bottom of the elevator (located externally to the building). The man escorted us up to the 6th floor to check out the "club".
What we were to encounter next was almost beyond description, and very, Shenzhen-esque - perhaps a cross between a disco, brothel, hostess bar, and "new age". Upon leaving the elevator, the three of us who were dressed in gym gear (following our escort in his tux), entered what appeared to be a large dance floor area. Flanking both sides of the dance area were two lines of women, well-dressed in slinky black dresses. Behind one of the lines were a few tables of women drinking and talking. A few men were around. We walked through the dance floor by the lines of women (feeling almost as though we were in an award ceremony) into a narrow area where there were rooms with couches and TVs. Each room had an escort or guide outside, each of whom said "hi" as we walked by. Incense was burning in the hallway, and everything in the entire place was either white, jet black, or glass. The whole area, quite large, was nearly void of customers. We finally emerged from the incense hallway to an outdoor pool. The escort pointed to something like a pool house and said that there was exercise equipment in the building, but that it closed at 8pm.
5 down 7 more to go.
* * * *[the report for Week 6 mysteriously disappeared between China and California!]
And next week, I take a week and a half off to return home.
Ordering American Food
-->When I visit a Chinese restaurant in America, there is occasional discussion with friends about how the food isn't really authentic Chinese food. Some say rather, it's an American version of Chinese food.
I've been "lucky" enough to experience this from the other perspective. The other day I ordered room service from the menu. I ordered spaghetti bolognese. Hmmmmm, I thought, finally some American-style food (even though it's Italian). I began to form a picture in my head of a nice round plate of steamy yellow spaghetti noodles, topped with a deep, rich red marina sauce and bit of meatballs. And of course, there would be garlic french bread on the side. My taste buds were preparing
About 10 minutes after placing the call, room service arrived. In walked the woman, who spoke no English, to deliver my spaghetti. When I looked down on to the plate, my eyes began to well up and I thought that tears were going to flow down my cheek. What I saw were large, flat rice noodles, all covered in a brown sauce with square bits of meat. How could this be? This isn't spaghetti. As it turns out, the food was pretty good, but it wasn't spaghetti as we all know and love it.
--> The other American food I ordered from room service was a club sandwich with French fries. Overall, what I received looks a lot like what you might think, except for some mystery meat that was masquerading as ham. However, what was strange was that everything tasted like what we call "5 Spice", a mystery Chinese seasoning that somehow permeates almost all food. It's some sort of pepper, but it definitely gives everything a Chinese taste.
David Beckham is a famous international soccer star who plays for the Real Madrid soccer team, and who is known internationally simply as "Beckham". Beckham is quite the celebrity. What does Beckham have to do with us in China?
Our BearingPoint project leader, Todd Paris, is a dead ringer, and I mean a dead ringer for Beckham. Not only do they seem to look alike, but Todd has facial hair grown in the same pattern as Beckham, and Todd even ties some of the top of his long flowing blond hair into a top-of-the head mini-pony tail. Todd claims that he had "the look" first. Of course, it's important to know that Todd is from L.A (we call him princess, especially for his favorite Starbuck's drink: Triple mocha with a single pump of chocolate and no whip cream). Todd seems able to get away with looking like...well Todd...in a professional setting. Todd definitely stands out in a room of Chinese clients.
Because Todd has a great sense of humor, he hears no end to the Beckham references (of course, in return, he spares us no mercy from his usually accurate observations of us). The other day while standing in one of our many customs line, three of us from the BearingPoint team were in different lines. Things were pretty quiet when I looked to one of my co-workers and said, "Evan, hey look, isn't that Beckham over there in the customs line"? Most everyone took a look, and of course Beck...I mean Todd just gave us the dirty eye.
Even though Todd is quite the ladies man, and quite a gregarious guy, he's just learning how to play Beckham. So if you ever see me on TV with an international soccer star, it will probably just be Todd!
Unfortunately, I was sick with "the runs" while the group took a 20 minute helicopter ride from our weekend home in Hong Kong across the bay to a place that could be known as the the land of sin. Macau has its relatively recent roots as a Portuguese colony, but capitalism has taken over. I cannot report on what took place in Macau, as I would only be reporting on rumor and innuendo. If you want an idea of what takes place in Macau, you might try adding the word Macau along with a word that describes any illegal activity that you know of - and I am sure that you'll get a "hit" (so to speak).
* * * *
[After about 1-1/2 weeks in the US, I returned to China to finish the final 6-8 weeks.]
While learning a foreign language, you occasionally encounter words that are just fun to say. There is something melodic about them - perhaps they have the right rhythm. While in China, Todd and I have found such a word - the Mandarin word for "Thank you". Seems innocuous enough. The word is spelled xie xie...or sometimes xi xi. It is roughly pronounced as shay-shay or seay seay.
Early on while I was trying to say it with its subtelty, it can out something like sheeayyyy sheaaayyy. Todd started laughing and said, "Cris, that is so WRONG the way you say it. You sound like a child molester". He then went on to pronounce his own version, with his head slightly tilted toward me, and an eyebrow arched.............shaaaaaayy shaaaaayy. At that point we both started to laugh. To date, this appeals to no one else. We once had the translator say to one of the Chinese Bearingpoint employess, "why do Cris and Todd say thank-you and laugh all day?"
We have turned Shay-shay into a generic word that we use in English. It's become an almost empty-vessel word that derives its meaning solely on the tone and the content in which it is used. For example, when you see a woman exposing her legs in China with a low-cut dress, or a slit down the side (very rare in conservative China), I might say "Hey Todd (slightly turning head and arching an eyebrow)...how about that...a little shaaaaaay shaaaaaay on the left. Or, one day Evan, another consultant spilled his coffee. At that point, Todd went on to mimic a little clapping and said (with a slightly tilted head and arched eyebrow), "how about a little shaaaay shaaaay for Evan". We sometimes use it to replace other slang, such as Mojo. For example, if Barry Bonds hits a home run, we might say, "nice shaaaaay shaaaaaay Barry". We even sometimes use it in its intended context by thanking someone. Most Chinese, however, do laugh at the way we say it (if they understand what we are saying).
Trying to Get Paid
Working overseas for an American company as a consultant through an intermediary consultant poses a unique challenge. Mainly, how do we get our money?
Bearingpoint is in the US, our consultant lead (Evan) is from the US and has a US bank account. I am from the US and have a US bank account. However, Evan and I are currently located in China. Certainly mailing, receiving, and depositing checks is a problem given travel time to and from the U.S. Electronic funds transfers cost a fair amount to perform, and Bearingpoint prefers to pay employees with checks. Also, my contract is through Evan, not directly with Bearingpoint.
So, we've setup a process where our lead consultant gets physical checks in a Seattle mailbox. A friend then picks up the check and deposits the check into his bank account. From there, our lead consultant uses Paypal to transfer the funds to us. Well, that was the theory.
The process started out well as Evan got a check into his bank account. As a first transfer, Evan sent Dean (another consultant) and me $10,000 using Paypal (which is the Paypal limit). Very Quickly, all of us got emails from Paypal. Our accounts were all frozen and we couldn't move money. We needed to re-verify our accounts before proceeding. Meanwhile, Dean's credit card was at its limit - and believe me - it's not a good feeling having your credit card at its limit while you are in China and need to use it twice weekly.
My verification process required a fax of my drivers license, and, verification of my home phone number. The fax of my drivers license was no problem, but calling me "at home" was another story. They were going to call me at a set time to verify it was my home phone (a process coordinated through a web interface and automated phones). Being 7,000 miles away in China made this difficult. The only saving grace was that by the time this all transpired, it was the beginning of the week that I was to return home. I was able to make the call and get my account cleared. It took Dean and Evan about one week more to straighten things out. Finally, it's working.
Now, as to the question why were we just getting our first payments into the bank six weeks into the project? There is a lesson here - get everything signed before you leave!!!
The High Life in Hong Kong
Our Bearingpoint project leader, Todd, besides looking like the soccer star, Beckham, likes to live the high life just like Beckham. When he went to Macau a few weeks ago, he took the helicopter. When he flies from the US to Hong Kong, it's first class. Todd tends to negotiate these kinds of terms (through $$$) as part of the agreement. This includes us as well. After all, "you can't expect a bunch of consultants from the US to have to spend their weekends in China and never be able to go home."
When here in Hong Kong, Todd stays on the super-exective floor of a 5-star hotel (the Langham hotel) with personalized stationary that say "Todd Paris, in Residence". He knows the hotel people from other trips.
What is nice about this, is that there is a pull-factor from Todd to the rest of us consultants on the project. When we flew from SF to Hong Kong we flew business class (better than domestic first class). We too stay at the Langham on weekends, and stay on the Club Floor, with all of its privileges (not quite Todd's level, but still a cut above average). The Club Floor means that after escaping from China and arriving at the hotel, we drop our bags with the concierge, and go directly to the 11th floor lounge, where we are greeted with a glass of champagne while the club floor room is being prepared and our bags delivered. By now, the employees know our name. Again remember, this is a 5-star hotel, one block from the Star Ferry and a spectacular view of Hong Kong. Also, when arriving from SF, Todd insists that everyone spend at least one day in Hong Kong, acclimating to the culture and jet lag before going to China.
Even in China, Todd insisted on a hotel change because our first hotel wasn't nice enough. Needless to say, we all love Todd!
Contrast this to the other consultant team that flies coach, then gets on a bus that proceeds directly from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, China (including customs) and begin work. Most of their weekends are spent in China.
Well, I am off to spend the afternoon in Hong Kong after drinking a glass of champagne in the lounge. And until next week, have some good shaaaay shaaaay.
* * * *
..with thoughts of Donna Rigali, a good friend who passed away at a young age due to cancer. I think of her laugh every time I have a funny experience....
The Million Dollar "What Kind of" Room
A week or so ago, a few of us went to the Felix Club, a very nice club at the top of the Peninsula Hotel, about 26 stories high. Years ago, the Peninsula Hotel (still considered among the finest in Hong Kong, though technically on the Kowloon or mainlaind side) was a nice cul-de-sac shaped hotel about 9 stories high with a nice view of Hong Bay and downtown Hong Kong. This has a nice classic look - reminiscent of the Fairmont Hotel in SF. The hotel created a vertical extension at the back of the hotel to shoot 26 stories high to continue to allow nice bay views when some new buildings obstructed the original view of the bay. Since the extension looks more modern than the rest of the hotel, it definitely looks like a modern-day Jack and the Beanstock kind of growth.
The Felix bar is very nice, and has a European feel. It has an elevated floor/bar at the front of the bar with bar seats and candles. My first impression was a nouveau version of the painting, "The Last Supper". The view of the bay is definitely extroardinary.
However, what makes this bar famous aren't the drinks, the European clientele, nor the bar itself. I found this out when a friend visiting Hong Kong said, "Cris, go into the bathroom" when we exited the elevator. I told Ching, "well, I don't really have to...go....". She responded with "well, go in there anyway". I couldn't imagine them serving drinks in there, but I went in anyways. As it turns out, other women exiting the elevator were asking the men in their crowd to go there also. They spoke German, but I did recognize the pushing gestures and the command-like tone in the female voices. In fact, some of the women were lined up to go inside as well. Hmmmmm.....
As I entered "the facility" there was a giant marble wash basin, almost flat except for a slight indentation and very minor faucet. However, at the far side of the room was a curtain, with men standing between the curtain there and a huge bay window taking advantage of the scenery. As it turns out, they were also taking care of business while looking at the scenery almost as though things were flowing over the edge like a waterfall. Once the men were done and exited, the women took command of the room, checking everything out, especially the view. I wondered how all of the women knew about this place, but none of the men did.
The Bubble Has Burst
After 11 weeks of business class travel, and club floor hotel rooms in Hong Kong on the weekend, our project manager told us that expenses were getting out of line and we'd have to cut back. The weekend routine of "escaping from China," and Friday evening champagne drinks while we are waiting for our room keys and check-in process have turned into sayings of "China's not that bad - I've never spent a weekend in Shenzhen. Let's go see the Minsk aircraft carrier that's been turned into a theme park east of town". The difference in price of a weekend in Hong Kong and Shenzhen (when you stay on the club floor of a 5 star hotel) is about $400 (US).
As for the economy class travel vs business class....well....we are still fighting Todd, our Beckham-esque project manager on that one!
The Camera Scam
Hong Kong has some pretty good deals on clothes, but they also have some pretty bad deals. I ran across a scam that was printed in the paper a few days before (that I didn't read). While attempting to buy a 5 mega-pixel digital camera, the proprieter gave me a pretty good price, but quickly added, and I can get you a 6 MP camera for only 100 Hong Kong Dollars more expensive (about $12 US) - some camera that I never heard of from Fuji. As I hemmed and hawed, the price fell by $100. The more I showed a lack of interest, the more the price continued to lower. I finally just left, saying that I'd check things out on the internet. Turns out, the camera is really only 3 mega-pixels, which somehow gets interpolated to 6 mega pixels according to the marketing literature (marketing!). And, the price never got low enough to cover even the list price on the web for the camera as I found out on the web. I later discovered that had I bought the original 5MP camera, the guy would have either raised the price (...there's only 1 left...), or started to process my credit card as they were retrieving the camera from the back (only to say that there was only 1 left, but it didn't have a battery nor charger) - leaving me stuck. I did eventually buy a camera at a different place, and got a good price.
[At this point the Reports From China stopped arriving. One can only hope that Cris' bubble didn't burst so badly that he was Shanghaied from Shenzen due to mounting expenses and no paychecks. -Ed]
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