The Ecphorizer

The China Report - Part I
Cris Wendt

Issue 07 (July 2006)

Cris spent 12 weeks in China as a consultant during the late summer and fall of 2003.  Here are his stories.

Report #1

Well, the first week is now over and we are back in our home-away-from-home: The Great Eagle Hotel in Hong Kong.  I can't say Hong Kong is just like America, but I can say that it is more like America than it is like China. 

Toilets are, well...interesting.

In fact, the Hong Kongers don't even speak a language (Cantonee) similar to the mainlanders (Mandarin).  Also, they have different currencies, so we keep two stashes of money.

Our project leader, Todd Paris, summed it up best for us when we were going from Hong Kong on the relatively short train ride to Shenzhen last Sunday: "O.K. guys, we're goin' in."

Although mainland China has political control of Hong Kong, it's still not a part of the mainland as far as the Chinese Gov't is concerned.  So, getting through immigration and customs is an adventure, especially in the hot, humid southeast Asian summer.  There are forms to fill out, lines to stand in, passports to have stamped, and foreign languages to deal with.  The longest part of the journey is the trip through customs and immigration.

Once we escaped from immigration, but still inside the train station inside of Shenzhen China, we are accosted by Chinese wanting to sell us watches or wanting to walk us to their special cabs.  Fortunately, we don't take them up on their offers and we proceeded to the regular cab line.  It turns out that these cars aren't allowed into the train station, so you end up walking about a mile to get into their cars. However, cabs can pickup people in the station.

Once inside our cabs (all eight of us), we cruised through the city of Shenzhen (right at the China/Hong Kong border) to get to our hotel.  Shenzhen is a large city with many high-rises, but you can tell that the heat and humidity take their toll on the high-rise apartments.  Rusty water scars the sides of the buildings (rain and drippy air conditioners), and everyone hangs their clothes out to dry.  It almost appears that every apartment building will look like a slum.

After about 15 minutes we got to our hotel, only to witness some sort of fight between a cabbie, and some other guy.  This escalated, involving other cabbies, even as we walked by to get into the hotel.  Everyone was a bit taken aback by the nasty experiences in customs, the heat, and now this.  Once inside the hotel, English was a rare commodity.

We managed to have a group dinner with our local Chinese contingency, then proceeded to check out the next day, and move to the Kapok hotel, closer to downtown.  It had one of the nicest hotel rooms that I ever stayed in.  We stayed there through Thursday night, until we returned to Hong Kong last night (Friday).  The week stabilized once we were "inside" and got settled.

One of the funny little things about hotels in Hong Kong and China is the lighting activator.  When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I couldn't figure out how to turn on the lights in the room - as with others as well.  As it turns out, there is a little slot on one of the switches where you are to put a card, such as your room-key card, in order to activate the lights.

The company in China, Huawei, feels a lot like a high tech company anywhere.  They are a little more regimented, and they are a little more quiet, but it generally feels the same.  Huawai is a Chinese telco company, similar to Nortel or Lucent.  They sell largely to China and the southeast Asian market.

One interesting quirk is that they have a 1.5 hour lunch, where most people eat for 45 minutes or so, then nap for 45 minutes.  The lights actually go out for an hour, whereupon many employees take mats out from underneath their desks and go nighty-night.

The lunch in the cafeteria costs about $2.00 (US) and is quite good.  It's a Chinese food buffet with soups, meats, veggies, mixed meat/veggies, etc.  I find that I am not nearly as hungry after eating Chinese food, and even skipped dinner 3 nights this week.  There are no vending machines with junk food, but they did manage to get us an espresso/cappucino machine for coffee (it's a crude version, but the coffee is much better than most US institutional coffee).

Toilets are, well...interesting.  The Chinese for the most part don't use traditional toilets.  Instead, they have a toilet basin level with the floor - akin to a ceramic hole in the floor.  The Chinese just squat over the hole and then do their business.  I haven't done that yet, since there are enough usual toilets to go around. They do have men's urinals.

We went out for dinner with groups a few nights, and for the most part, the food is similar to US Chinese food...but a bit spicier with some more unusual dishes:  live shrimp, goat's tongue, etc.  Overall, the food is quite good.  The Chinese were surprised that everyone in our group knew how to use chopsticks.  I told them that anyone from the S.F. Bay area knows how to use them and that being in China isn't that different from Chinatown.

What else....oh....the roads!

The best way to describe driving in Shenzhen is "controlled anarchy".  While this is largely a modern city, the rules of the road seem more akin to recommendations.  Almost all roads are something of a free-for-all involving pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, cars, and busses...yet it all seems to work.  Driving along the road cars are jockeying for position and pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way.  For as much jockeying and weird driving as I see, there are virtually no flared tempers and most amazing, this system seems to work.

Coming back last night was about a 2.5 hour ordeal, with most of that time spent in customs.

Well, great to be back home...sort of. I am working this weekend to finish a pitch, do expenses, etc.  I am mostly over jet lag, but seem to be up at about 6:15 every day.

1 week down, 11 more to go....

* * * *

Report #2

With all of the new experiences in China and Hong Kong, week 2 seems more like month 2.

During week 2, the discoveries and experiences continued.....

Cheap DVDs

One of our latest discoveries was cheap DVD movies.  Shenzhen is a very modern city with skyscrapers and crowded expressways - very much like a big US city.  But, Shenzhen also contains a second city, a city-within-a-city that consists of a lot of alleyways.  The alleyways aren't quite as dingy as some in the US, but they are definitely off the beaten path.  These are the streets that come to mind when you think of China. On these alleyways are fruit stands, beauty shops (with a lot of half dressed women sitting on couches...hmmmmm), news-stands, and DVD stands.  DVD stands look a little like the classic news stand, only they carry DVDs of popular movies.  Four of us in a DVD stand pretty much takes over the place. The DVDs only cost about $1 US,  We stopped by one the other night, and the guys I was with went crazy.  They each bought about $20 - $30 worth of movies.   Movies are a mix of reasonably recent movies: Terminator 3, Pulp Fiction, Traffic, etc. 

An issue I became aware of is the "zone" for DVDs.  I guess in an attempt to reduce piracy, a computer can only play DVDs from a certain geographic zone - a number that is typically listed on the package of the DVD.  However, the computer does let you switch the zone about 4 times over the life of the computer.  As a result, the search was on for Zone 1 DVDs.  Even if the zone couldn't be determined, $1 was a low enough investment if the movie was something someone wanted to see.

Ironically, a group of guys from a company called Macrovision are also over here, and they too are interested in the cheap DVDs.  This is ironic, because Macrovision provides technology to help prevent DVD piracy!  They call it "market research."

The DVDs are packaged in small cardboard sleeves, so it's easy to buy and carry around a lot of the DVDs.

Requests, anyone????

Ordering Food

The language and culture here still continue to haunt us.  The other night we were eating at a local restaurant called Friday's Cafe.  On the menu was American food, however getting that food the way you want challenges language and cultural barriers.  The first person of our group (Evan) was at the restaurant and ordered what appeared to be a nice cut of pork.  However, it wasn't cooked very well.  We tried to get it cooked additionally, but to no avail.  Our language wasn't sufficient, nor was our hand motions (I put my hand flat on the table and hissed out the sound of cooking steak - or so I thought).  Of the next two orders, mine was ordered "well done....well done...cook well done".  Todd then ordered a medium steak.  Upon arrival of our food, my pork was medium rare and quite good, while Todd's steak was rare.  Todd made an unbelievable attempt to get his cooked more.  At one point the manager came out and said something to the effect "you ordered medium, and according to the chef what you got was medium, NO more cooking....NO".  Somehow, we couldn't communicate the fact that we simply wanted it cooked more.  So, Todd ended up ordering mushroom curry over rice.  Evan just gave up and drank champagne.

As part of the dinner, Todd ordered champagne.  When they opened the bottle, the cork shot to the roof, then bounced to the other side of the restaurant. Yep, you guess it: warm champagne.  Our next challenge - how to communicate that we want the warm water replace in the ice bucket with ice.  We did manage to get that done.  Success comes in small doses in China.

Later in the dinner, Todd (who doesn't seem to learn his lessons very well) tried to get a piece of bread...or simply a muffin.  Nothing was on the menu, yet twice, baskets with a muffin were carried by us to other patrons  The second time this occurred, the muffin was delivered to the table next to us.  Seizing upon the moment, Todd pointed to the muffin and said "can I have this?".   The manager was still around and simply said "NO".  So much for the customer is always right - that's only in America.  We suspect that the manager thought we wanted that particular muffin - the one destined for the table next to us.

Cell Phones

One of the ironies is the proliferation of cell phones and cell phone technology in China.  Perhaps a better description is the backwardness of the US when it comes to cell phones.  In Hong Kong, China, and most of the world, cell phones are much more flexible with GSM signal technology.  You can buy calling card minutes, and program your phone to a particular region with a sim-card.  You pull out the battery, and replace the SIM card and you have a new phone number for a new carrier.   However, the cell phone that I bought has a Chinese manual.

Also, cell phone etiquette is funny here.  In the US you are a criminal if your cell phone rings in a meeting or a public place.  In China, people always answer the phone and conduct at least a short conversation, regardless if you are in a meeting or not.

I am in Hong Kong today, and hope to get out to visit Todd's tailor to get some custom shirts and maybe a custom suit.  Apparently, you can get a $3,000 suit for about $350 (US dollars).

Work Being in a foreign culture, things just take longer and are much more difficult - even the little things.

Given the lack of freedom of expression in China, internet access is limited from the local high-speed LAN:  certain web sites are inaccessible, and who knows what is being checked.  However, you can get less censored access with a direct dial line.  However, the direct dial line is slow and the local printer is only accessible with the local lan.  Also, our printer keeps moving.  So printing is always a painful process.

Office supplies are few and far between - even paper for the copy machine is kept by the local department.  Each time you copy you need to bring paper.

Fortunately, we have a group of junior Bearingpoint employees from the Shanghai office who help us translate in meetings, and prepare meeting minutes.  They even convert our material to Chinese and vice versa.  They are all very bright, so they help immensely.  My assistant, is "Springlet", a 2-year Bearingpoint employee in their strategy group.  She's the most senior of the Shanghai assistants, so I get the most help.

In two weeks, we'll be conducting customer interviews across China.  I hope to get to Shanghai and Beijing, rather than the rural areas of western China.

Weather It's hot and humid here. Period.  At times, it feels like an oven.  However, the weather is occasionally punctuated with the occasional thunderstorm, which is quite dramatic for this California boy.

Thank goodness A/C works great in our hotels.  I just crank it up!

That's it for this week - "Talk" to everyone soon....

* * * *

Weeks 3 and 4

Well, after concluding week 4, I am in Hong Kong ready to return to Shenzhen, China in about 2 hours.

Somebody's Watchin' You

As U.S. consultants, we are very dependent upon the Internet for email, information, etc.  I think it's the "email" and the "etc." that concern the Chinese.  There is a general paranoia among my group, and the other consultant groups here at Huawei (our client) about using the intenet at our client.

Currently,l we have two ways to access the internet at our client site:  a special direct dial setup that gives us mostly unlimited access, but is slow, and their internal ethernet network, which is fast, but limited.  To share printers, we have to use the local ethernet.   There is a suspicion that there are software agents and other daemons that prowl the local internet looking to load themselves on machines and prowl the machine's contents.  We found that the local internet connection doesn't give us access to our email accounts such as Comcast, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. unless we give it permission to put special "cookies" on our system to track where we've been.

Some of the other consultants report unusual behavior of their systems at times, where software has been running slow, and they suspect that some other software had been running.

We've resigned ourselves to never using our work computers connected to the local ethernet.  Instead we use the dialin line for email access.  However, for print sharing where the internet is required, we use "rubber duckie" systems to connect to the internet - these are computers provided by Bearingpoint (who we work for on this assignment) and contain no real work.  We move files to these machines with our flash drives or email, then we print them.  In the case "big brother" is watching these machines, there is nothing of interest on these machines.

Flying in China

This past week I made a trip from Shenzhen, our Chinese base, to Beijing, the capital of China.  The goal was to perform customer visits. This was my first opportunity to fly wholly within China.  It somewhat resembled an American airport of about 30 or 35 years ago ( I am told...).   To begin the trip, my translator, Tina, picked me up at my hotel via taxi and we headed to the airport.  Given my dependence upon her for most of the trip (...ah,  where's the restroom?..). I called her my "nanny".  Without her, navigating this trip would have been a much larger adventure.  Tina is a employed translator for our client company, Huawei.  She mostly translates technical manuals to English.

Upon entering the airport, the airport lobby somewhat resembled an American airport of perhaps 30 years ago. But instead of heading to the check-in counter, we proceeded to a series of ticket counters in the airport lobby area looking for our tickets.   There were a series of individual vendors who sell tickets.  In the airport, you don't see the airlines sell tickets - the airlines only check you in.  Finally, we found the counter and retrieved our tickets.  No e-tickets here.

For some reason, flying in China is largely done on a cash-only basis, and credit cards don't seem to be used.  I didn't have enough cash, so Tina proceeded to pull out a series of 100 dollar bills (8 Chinese dollars to 1 US dollar) to pay for both tickets.   We had a similar situation at the end of the trip, requiring me to go to an ATM to get the cash.

After buying the tickets we proceeded to another area where you have to buy a special airport construction tax ticket.  This was another 50rmb (rmb=Chinese dollars).

We had some time to kill so we had a cappucino in a coffee shop that appeared to be a Starbuck's at one time.  You could see that a Starbuck's sign once appeared there, but the letters were removed and replaced with the new proprietership name.

The actual flight was reasonably nice and had something I hadn't experienced on an American flight in a few years:  a hot meal.  And just like those flights in the US, that chicken or beef still seemed to be a mystery meat, regardless of the official name.  On the return flight meal,  I could sense that the servers were behind me serving, so when she asked me for my meal, I responded with "chicken".  She seemed to ask the question again, so I again responded with "chicken".   Then my translator leaned over and said to me, "Creeees, she's asking you to lean your seat forward so the person behind you can lower their meal tray".  A couple of times after that when someone asked me something, Tina would look at me and say "chicken?"  I came to realize that the Chinese do have a sense of humor.

Tiananmen Square

After arriving in Beijing with a stomach full of chicken and rice, we met up with others in our interview group with a few hours to kill before dinner.  So, we took a taxi over to Tiananmen Square, famous for its student uprising in 1989.  Tiananmen Square is quite a central and historic place in Beijing and and has an important place in the Chinese psyche.  Tiananmen Square contains monuments, a 400 year old palace from the Ming Dynasty, and was the place where Mao announced the PRC on October 1, 1949.   The square is quite large, and feels a lot like a college campus with a variety of vendors, people flying kites, etc.  Government buildings flank the square.

I witnessed the flag lowering ceremony at 7 p.m.  This ceremony consists of soldiers marching to the flag pole, lowering the flag, and marching away.  The flag is located across the street from a red building with a picture of Chairman Mao.  For people watching the ceremony in Tiananmen Square, their backdrop is this building.  Traffic is stopped on the street as the ceremony is underway.  As darkness set upon us at the conclusion of the ceremony, the backlit building grew brighter and brighter.  The Chinese with me said that the flag lowering is a very emotional moment for them.


Since our translator, Tina, does a lot of Chinese to English translation, she is very interested in more than just simple words.  She wants to know the idioms and sayings of Americans.  And of course, I was happy to provide her with *the official* list of idioms used by "all" Americans.  Actually, I wasn't that bad.  I told her that a lot of American idioms have to do with American individualism, such as "off the beaten path," and "renegade."  Then there are miscellaneous others such as "the sweet spot",  "the devil is in the details", "devils advocate", "trade the devil you know for the devil you don't know", "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", "penny wise and pound foolish", "the forest for the trees", etc.  And in case you are wondering, I kept them all clean, because I can see the forest for the trees and realize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

During the 12 interviews with all men, we had an interview setup where I was the "American expert" who came over to help Huawei understand their customers.  Flanking me on both sides were the translator and a junior Bearingpoint executive - basically two women in their mid-20's.  I mentioned to them that if the interviews were to succeed, it was important that they used "sweet talk" whenever possible to help the interviewees feel more comfortable.

TV & Movies in China

As it turns out, The Chinese are quite familiar with American movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Tom Cruise, Sharon Stone, and others.  One night at dinner, I heard shows such as Friends, 24, and Sex and the City as favorites.  The Sex and the City one floored me, as in general, the Chinese are quite conservative.  Several mentioned their favorite movies as the Lord of the Rings series.

The Chinese get first run movies about six months after the introduction in the US. but they can probably get them before their US release if they buy them on DVDs at the local DVD store (see above). 

He is a keen observer and enjoys telling the background stories of his trip to China.    When he comes home, he manages to get the Editor to pay for his lunch in order to pass along these stories.

More Articles by Cris Wendt

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