Monday, November 19, 2012

The 18 Months of China: A Retrospective

So, looking back at the last 3 years of my life, I've realized it can be pretty well divided into 2 approximately 18 month halves:

1) The ~18 months from December 26, 2009-->May 7th, 2011. We will call this the most important 18 months of my life, educationally speaking

2) The ~18 months from May 7, 2011-->November 29, 2012. We will call this the China months

The story of part 1 is well-documented in this blog, but to review: December 26, 2009, I got onto an airplane with one of my best friends to venture out to Asia. 36 hours later I was in Tokyo, and the ensuing 5 months I learned about life. I was on exchange in Hong Kong, traveled all over Asia, met the most amazing people in this world, learned how to prioritize, and learned how to enjoy myself while also getting important things done. From there I went to an internship in the Netherlands, where I learned to do office work with office work people from all over the world. I learned about passion in seeing the Dutch root their football team to a 2nd place finish at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I learned to cope with culture shock, something I hadn't experienced in Hong Kong. I learned to keep in touch with said amazing people I met in Hong Kong, even though they may have been a country, continent, or half a world away.

After this, I went to Colombia to meet one of the most special people I knew in Hong Kong, where I learned how to make the most of a relatively short reunion with close friends. From Colombia, I went home to the most intense academic year of my life, which included a semester with 26 credit hours of courses (15 is the norm). I took my learning to prioritize in Hong Kong and put it into practice during this time, in that of all my time at Illinois State, that 26 hour semester included not only the best social life, but also the best grades. This was a crucial 18 months that ended the day I graduated, May 7, 2011.

Part 2 started the very next day, when I got back onto an airplane and flew back to the most beautiful city on this planet, Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong and China for a month for a consulting project. Here, I learned to be a leader. To apply pressure to people when pressure was needed, to use the power play. I learned to utilize people's strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and get the most from them. From there, I returned home for a few weeks before returning to Beijing, where I learned to cope with truly remarkable adversity. And it was back to the US....but not for long, as I returned to Shenzhen in November 2011. During the past year here in China, I've learned to keep my mouth shut, listen more than speak, but also to not back down to adversity. I've learned some Chinese. I've learned what it's like to be the only white guy in an office of 60 Chinese people. I've learned a lot.

And now this is all coming to an end, as I head back to Chicago in a week and a half to start a new cycle.

3 years ago, I would have had no idea what the ensuing 18 months would have contained. Nor would I have known on my graduation day what those ensuing 18 months would have contained. Just as now, I really have no idea what these coming 18 months (or for that matter, 18 weeks) will contain. But I would like to take this opportunity to summarize these past 18 months in a few stories, memorable events, and general themes that I've encountered.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing I have learned during these 18 months centered around the world's 2nd largest economy is anyone reading this blog: you are NOT poor. Or unlucky. The man has not screwed you over. Your life now is probably quite good. Even if you're reading this from your dungeon of a basement in Detroit, Michigan, odds are your life is infinitely better than the majority of people on this earth.

To clarify--by developing country standards, China is a juggernaut. They have superhighways, amazing airports, skyscrapers the likes of which you cannot imagine, and a relatively good social welfare program that provides reasonably OK education and healthcare to 95% of its 1.3 billion people. Compared to places like India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, poor people in China are remarkably well-off. And yet, compared to you and me, they are still what we would call decrepitly poor. I've learned here to appreciate, to an ungodly extent, the fact that I was born in the largest economy in the world, speaking a language that opens more doors for you throughout the world than anything else you have on your resume. I've learned to be grateful for what I have.

I've learned here that being on the outside looking in is really not so bad. To clarify--as I mentioned a moment ago, Hong Kong is the greatest city in the world. Living in Shenzhen, being only 1 hour from such a city, was initially a curse. Something of a "so close but so far" idea. I would go into Hong Kong on a weekend and return to Shenzhen, always dejected in trading the gleaming skyscrapers and their reflection off of Victoria Harbor, the palpable pulse of places like Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, the views from the peak, the classy liveliness of SoHo, for the relative grayness of Shenzhen. It was heart-wrenching.

However, after a few months, I noticed something interesting. I grew quite fond of having everything in Shenzhen cost less than half of its equivalent in Hong Kong. I learned to love the fact that I could go into just about any bar or club, no matter how classy, wearing shorts and sandals, and not have to worry about feeling underdressed. I learned to appreciate my surroundings. And consequently, I've not made a leisure trip to Hong Kong in months, but for going to meet friends who happen to be passing through the fragrant harbor for a weekend trip. Indeed, perhaps being on the outside looking in is not so bad.

Most importantly, however, I learned to follow one's dreams and trust one's intuition. After I returned home from Beijing after encountering the aforementioned adversity, I knew I'd be heading back to China. I knew I'd be heading back sans job, sans many job prospects, and sans any plans beyond "meeting up with Douglon at HK Int'l Airport and sleeping on his couch for some undefined amount of time". I had no way of justifying it, nor any way of knowing whether it would work out, I did it because it seemed to be the right thing to do. I have absolutely no idea where I would be right now had I decided to stay in Chicagoland and work, but odds are I would not be nearly as content with my current situation had I made that choice. And consequently, I feel like the idea of following one's dreams, doing what seems to be the correct choice, and going with your gut are some of the most underrated and underutilized things in this life. Be unconventional. Or don't, I can't say I really care either way, I'll just continue doing it.

Some other assorted thoughts, particularly interesting moments, and takeaways from the China Months:

The idea that Chinese people don't like the United States is one that I heard a fair bit before coming here. This idea is moronic. The Chinese name for the US, 美国, literally means "beautiful country". Had I really wanted to during this year, I could have gone out every weekend and not paid for a single drink, because by virtue of being western, you will be given free drinks in many clubs in Shenzhen. The average Chinese person really does seem to like the United States, although in regard to our government the sentiment is not quite so easy to generalize. That said, as a US citizen in China, I can honestly say that by showing respect and interest in the Chinese culture, you will almost certainly be well-received by most anyone. It's amazing.

On that note--Chinese people are some of the most hospitable and genuinely nice people in the world. Yes, in any major city in China you will witness children urinating in the street. Yes, you will see people hocking disgusting loogies everywhere. And yes, an overwhelming number of people smoke an overwhelming number of cigarettes. But despite many of their unpleasant tendencies in this regard, Chinese people are amazingly friendly. I've had many a home-cooked meal by coworkers and friends, and really cannot say I'd expect the average person in the US to be nearly as friendly or open to strangers from other countries. It is an amazing phenomenon, and one that I will not easily forget.

China is unequal as hell, but people don't seem to care as much as they would in the US. Don't get me wrong, the income inequality in China is becoming a more hot-button political issue, particularly with the recent change of power here within the Communist Party. But think of this situation for a moment: in Shenzhen, you see at least 1 Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, etc., pretty much every day. The country has over 1 million millionaires (certainly even more when you account for grey income). And yet, there are over 100 million people in this country earning <$1 per day. Mind you, anyone in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, etc., who is seeing all these flashy cars is not on <$1 per day, but there are still some cripplingly poor people here. For example, one of the company bosses in my office building pulls up to the place every day in a brand new, gleaming, beige Rolls Royce. Easily a $500,000+US car. And just across from the office is a row of dormitories for workers that are constructing yet another gleaming office building just across the street. These workers are likely on ~$400US per month. This income inequality is as blatant, if not moreso, than anything you'd see in the west. And yet, by and large, the people here seem fairly OK with it. It's an amazing phenomenon. I feel like if this were the case in the US, there would be Occupy Wall Street in every city. Interesting stuff, anyway.

Chinese political scandals make our political scandals look pathetic by comparison. Perhaps this is an unfair generalization, but during my time here, China was rocked by one of the most remarkable and star-studded political scandals in the history of the Communist Party. In short, Chongqing (huge city in SW China) Party Boss Bo Xilai was brought down in a corruption scandal. Bo was a remarkably popular but polarizing charismatic party leader who had previously been considered a real rising star in the Communist Party.

This would be a fairly major event, akin to the mayor of a major US city being brought down in a scandal. Big news.

But this scandal went even deeper than that. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and found guilty of murdering a British man with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and who was allegedly helping to launder money out of China for the Bo/Gu family. The scandal took another bizarre turn not long ago, when it was revealed that the British man, Neil Heywood, was also allegedly involved with the British spy organization MI5. Among other accusations, Bo was also accused of paying $1 million to famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (Westerners will know her from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as the main female villain in Rush Hour 2) for sex about 10 times. That is to say, $1 million per time. Ridiculous. Definitely makes the old Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair seem rather tame by comparison.

Obviously, these are only a few short examples of what living in China for 1 year will teach you. I can honestly say this has been one of the more interesting years of my life, and one that I am sad to see end, but as I learned very well after exchange in Hong Kong...all good things must eventually do just that; come to an end.

Anyway, this blog post has gone off on something of a tangent relating to the bizarre and interesting world of Chinese political scandals and income inequality, so I'll just go ahead and stop writing. In summation, I view the coming weeks as the end of yet another 18 month or so cycle in my life. I have no idea what the next 18 months will bring, including whether it will even bring about a logical chapter end 18 months from now as has been the case for the last 3 years, but we shall see.

More news to come as it develops. Most likely upon return to the US, I will post a decently long blog full of some of the more interesting pictures from these 18 months....with Chinese internet speeds being maddeningly slow, I will not be doing this now. Meantime, probably will write 1-2 more posts from Shenzhen, as I'm sure years from now I'll like to get some insight as to my thought process during this rather immense transition.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Big Catchup

So.....it's been 3 months since I've written anything. What has transpired in these past three months, you ask? Well, more than you can imagine. A brief summary:

Went to Chicago for 10 days
Went to Germany for 8 days
Spent 24 hours in Amsterdam seeing old friends
Drove 200+km/hour on the German autobahn
Went to Finland
Went to Thailand to meet up with old friends for 9 days
Got the Job of my Dreams

I guess with that precursor, it would seem fair to explain how exactly all of this went down.

My last blog post was August 7th. As planned, on August 16th, I flew to Chicago, and was there for work/visiting family until August 25th. I then flew back to China, arriving on August 26th, before leaving for Germany August 29th. As you can imagine, my internal clock was a bit messed up for a few days.

Anyway, Germany was interesting. Despite my having formerly lived in their neighbor, the Netherlands, I'd never been to Germany, though I did connect in Frankfurt back in 2009 when flying Rome-->Istanbul on Lufthansa. We arrived in Frankfurt and took the train straight from there to Cologne for the SPOGA+GAFA trade fair, a major trade fair involving basically all outdoor-type products (and may others, though outdoor definitely seemed to be the emphasis). Our 9 days in Cologne were sensational, Cologne was a marvelous city of a decent size, full of great views of the Rhine River, nice historical sites, phenomenal beer, and a whole host of other German stereotypes including but not limited to lots of Volkswagens, a very efficient public transport system, an infinite selection of different meats, cheeses, and breads, and a whole host of surly (but in fact quite friendly) Germans! During our time in Cologne, we worked about 7 days at the convention center, and had a couple of days to sort of explore the city.

From Cologne, we had 2 days following the expo as "free time" before our flight back to Hong Kong. My boss, Jacky, and I pored over a map of Europe for about 20 minutes, talking about places that seemed to be within reasonable distance of Cologne. After intense debate centering around my hatred of Brussels, Belgium, we decided that the best thing to do would be to rent a car and drive to Amsterdam. As I was the only one of the 4 people there who knew how to drive, I was chosen as the driver. We got to Enterprise to pick up our reserved car, only to encounter a slight problem.....

The car was a stickshift. In the United States, we NEVER use manual cars. I would guess ~2% of the cars on the road in the US today are manual, and many of them are old and driven by either proper car enthusiasts, crazy people, or, up until about 5 years ago, my grandmother. So obviously I have no idea how to drive a stickshift car.

After making several sad attempts at getting the thing out of the parking lot, I decided to call it quits, and asked if they had another car. They did not, however a place down the road did, so down the road we went. After renting a little 4-door Renault, it was off to Amsterdam via the famed German Autobahn. And justifiably famed it was.

After reaching a speed of 201km/hr (this was literally the fastest the car could go....I was flooring it), I was amazed to see Mercedes's, BMWs, Audis, etc., flying by me in the left lane at what must have been 250+km/hr. Absolutely mental. The highway was remarkably well-paved and in excellent shape. Upon our arrival in Amsterdam, it took around 1hr of driving through the incredible narrow and confusing canal streets in order to find our hostel, which ended up being right in the center of town. It then took me another hour to find parking and return to the hostel.

Anyway, so our 24 hours in Amsterdam (as it were, it was exactly 24 hours, given that I parked the car, paid something like 45 euros for 24 hours of parking, and we got back to the car at the end of the parking time and hightailed it back to Frankfurt) was excellent. I was able to catch up with two old friends from exchange, Marije and Roald, and chatted a bit about their lives as young recent university graduates in the Netherlands. Interesting stuff.

The drive back to Frankfurt was fairly uneventful, however upon return to Frankfurt we did encounter a small problem--a flat tire. Now, this could have been a horrendous situation: we're in downtown Frankfurt, very far from the airport, very far from any car rental place, and we get a flat, five hours before our flight back to HK. Thankfully, we broke down right next to a car repair place.

"OK, well this could be worse, I assume they'll have tires here", I said, trying to sound optimistic.

As it would turn out, no, they did not have tires here. Nor did anyplace nearby. Well, we seemed screwed. However, in a miraculous turn of events, we called the rental car company. And this is how that went:

"Hi, we've just had a flat. We're at some car repair shop right next to the Commerzbank Tower"
"OK, here is what you should do: leave the car there. Give them the keys. We will have it towed later. You will have 120 euros (~$150) deducted from your deposit on the car to cover the cost of tire/towage. Get a cab or metro to the airport. Have a good day"

And Richard Dawkins cried out, "Thank Charles Darwin!"

And so we did.

Anyway, while I did feel slightly dodgy about just handing the car keys to some German guy and hoping for the best, we had few other options, so that's what we did. (update: they really did only take 120 euros from my account. Amazing)

So we got to the airport with time to spare. Only to find out Lufthansa had gone on strike over a decrease in the allowable consumption of German beer by flight crew during flights (flight crew members are now limited to consuming 10 pints on domestic flights, 15 on international). Among the flights affected....Frankfurt-->Hong Kong. So we were rerouted on Finnair via Helsinki. Consequently, I now have a Finland EU exit stamp in my passport, which is something I can't say I saw coming when I woke up that morning.

After returning to the great People's Republic of China, I was here for about 3 weeks working before heading to Thailand for Chinese National Holiday to meet Dan, one of my good friends from High School who currently lives in Vegas. I also met with my friend Tina from Illinois State who is currently studying abroad at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Put bluntly, the trip to Bangkok was 9 days of drinking on Khao San Rd., chatting with Chinese tourists in Chinese while Dan watched and had me translate, and doing very little in the way of actual sightseeing. Though as I'd previously been to Bangkok twice and seen most of what there was to see, this was no great loss.

One very interesting thing to come out of the Thailand excursion, however, was an email from an old coworker of mine from SES WORLD SKIES in the Netherlands. She was short and to the point, something like:

Hi Blaine, how have you been doing lately? In case you haven't heard, I left SES, and am currently working for Company X. We're looking for new analysts, I was wondering if you'd be interested in applying?

I had a look at the job description. 3 things stood out at me:

1) I would be writing research papers for money. This is something I've previously done and would do for free
2) I can make my own hours/work from home
3) "We are very flexible in terms of location, provided there is sufficient internet and telephony services"

Well, as anyone who knows me can imagine, number 3 is a pretty dangerous proposition. So I applied. And interviewed. And interviewed again. And interviewed again. And on November 9th, 2012, I received an email making me an offer I couldn't refuse.

And I didn't refuse it.

So now I will be leaving Shenzhen. Having resigned earlier this week (which went remarkably well with my boss), my last day with my current company will be November 29th. I will be returning to Chicago the next day and staying through the holidays, before taking a 1-way trip I booked yesterday to Seoul, via San Francisco, on December 28th. Intention is to look at apartments in Seoul for a couple of weeks, and if I can find some decent ones for some decent prices, I will live in Seoul for probably a year or so, learn some Korean, eat some kimchi, and probably learn to Gangnam Style like you would not believe. If apartments in Seoul prove unreasonably expensive or cramped, plan is to head to Beijing or possibly somewhere in stupidly northern China like Harbin.

Anyway! So that's all, folks. It seems my year or so in Shenzhen will be coming to a rather abrupt and bittersweet end. I briefly toyed with the idea of staying in this city, as I really do love it, but at one point I realized that if a 2-years ago version of myself was told that at age 24, with a fair bit of cash saved up, I'd be told I can go live anywhere in the world, and that I chose a place that is 1) the city I've just spent the last year living in, and 2) Shenzhen, China, I would have thought this to be a terribly unimaginative choice. Consequently, Seoul it is, at least for now. I suppose I'll try to put at least one more post up here from Shenzhen, though who knows.

Some other assorted goings on and interesting events as of late:

1.) Text received from a good friend of mine here in Shenzhen the other day: "Most bizarre thing I've ever seen in Shenzhen. Just arrived at this technology park, fancy office complex and there is a homeless guy who looks like he arrived from feral middle of nowhere yesterday with his dick out walking around pissing on the pavement and no one is paying any attention"

Well, no one comes to China because it's the most civilized place in the world...

2.) 2 nights ago when walking home through a park, my friend and I witnessed what can only be described as a many hundred person dance orgy. Basically, there was a huge public square that was fairly logically divided into four areas. In what we'll call "area 1" were several hundred people following the lead of some guy doing the Gangnam Style, with the song itself blasting out. In "area 2", there were people doing the tango. "Area 3" was ballroom dancing, and "area 4" was a sort of traditional Chinese-ish Tai Chi sort of dance.

So I suppose you'd not find that at home.

3.) This article: http://www.chinasmack.com/2012/pictures/chinese-boy-defecates-in-guangzhou-subway-netizens-shocked.html

4.) I ate at a fairly traditional Cantonese restaurant a few weeks back. Outside the restaurant, they had a display case with dead dogs hanging there for purchase. This no longer unsettles me, as you see it all the time here. However, halfway through the meal I had to use the toilet. I went back to the toilet, which was on the side of the restaurant outside in an alleyway. I had to wait outside as it was in use. I saw, to my sort of perplexed but not so surprised amusement and horror, was a sheep's head, cut in half down the middle (imagine a human face cut in half right down the middle through your nose, sort of like a 2-face type of idea), sitting in a basket on the ground just next to the toilet. I have no idea what this sheep head was doing there, but I can only hope it was not waiting for someone to purchase the "boiled sheep head" and consume it, as it was just sitting outside in the horrendously filthy alleyway in the horrendously filthy part of Shenzhen known as Buji.

So obviously, it must be impossible for the readership consisting of 5 people to imagine why I'm a bit apprehensive to commit to another year in China, and am rather going to a much, much more developed, civilized, and generally pleasant place that is Seoul, South Korea.

So now that we've all caught up on what I've been up to, heard some other random and disgusting stories, and have become thoroughly bored of this blog post, I will wrap it up.

I will be leaving 2 weeks from yesterday for Chicago, and will be around for 4 weeks. So any friends of mine in Chicagoland, let me know if you'd like to get together during December. That's all for now, more to come as it develops.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The "Family Style Workshops" of Huizhou

So it's been an interesting week. One of our US employees, designer Brian, has been in China for meetings with subcontractor factories and our Chinese design team in preparation for our meeting with Lowe's Hardware next week. Consequently, we've been running around all of Guangdong Province to various factories big and small in order to make sure everything goes smoothly. In the last week, I've been to Huizhou twice, Foshan once, and the very famous district of Foshan, Shunde, which is home to some of the larger factories in China.

Yesterday was one of the more interesting factory visits of my life. Brian the US designer, Jacky the manager of the sales team, and a few other employees were heading out to Huizhou to visit a factory that produced stone/slate tabletops for some of our tabletop firepits. We weren't really given any information about the factory beforehand, and apparently no one from our company had ever visited this factory before. About an hour outside of Shenzhen, still around 20km from proper Huizhou, we pulled off the highway and through some dusty, winding sidestreets until we arrived at an impasse. We didn't know where we were going, per se. We called the factory owner, who came with his little 2-door Lexus from the mid-1990's, to meet us at our location. We followed him for about 3 minutes until we pulled up to the factory. He emerged from the car, a fairly stocky Chinese man in his late 30's, one of the thousands of entrepreneurs who had come to Guangdong province for  a chance to prove their mettle in the free-market experience of modern China.

This was the factory...Notice the very house-like nature of it
"Looks like this is someone's house...", said Brian, upon our pulling into what was very much a driveway of sorts

"Ah, factory very large", I muttered sarcastically in Chinese to our driver.

From what we could see on the outside, this factory literally was a 3-story rickety old house, complete with clotheslines hanging from the 2nd and 3rd floor balconies. Upon walking into the factory "office", it became increasingly apparent that this was, indeed, some guy's house. What made this so apparent, you ask?

Well, one of the rooms adjoining the office was a kitchen. And even more interestingly, another of the rooms adjoining the office was a bedroom....

So we were in some guy's house.

"Can we see the production area?", Jacky asked, which I was quite interested to hear the answer to.

This was where they got their supplies from...unclear whether
it was just a pile of stone that they'd found, or if they ordered it
We were led around the back of the house, where there was a largeish (maybe like 1,500 square feet) shed. The shed had an aluminum roof, a small forklift, and about 8 people working back there, cutting stone to make tabletops. This was, as it would turn out, the factory. After our tour of the production area, we were led across the street to the area where they stored their raw materials. As you can see from the photo at left, this was not quite what one would expect from any type of factory, even a Chinese one. It was more or less a pile of rubble on the side of the road. That said, they did have some very nice-looking stone samples, and overall it seemed to have a decent level of organization to it. The owner proudly showed us varying shades of stone, and explained that they hand-cut all stone in order to make their tabletops. The potential of an order from us would allow this factory owner to expand his operation and possibly buy up the property next door, which would more than double his production capacity. He seemed to have an air of want, but far from desperation, in regard to securing our business. Finally, having seen the production area and material storage, he showed us one of the samples of their final products. I must say, it was pretty freaking impressive. A beautifully done, hand-made stone tile tabletop, something that I could easily see on someone's patio in the US. Remarkable to think that it was produced here, in all places, a random little factory-house in Huizhou. I was speaking with a friend of mine about this last night, and she informed me that these are quite common. Apparently the Chinese name is 家庭式作坊, lit. "family style workshop". Really amazing stuff.

All things considered, they do make bloody nice products
So overall a very interesting day in Huizhou. After the first factory, we went to a larger one which involved us doing a huge lunch with the factory 老板, or big boss. Designer Brian was slightly squeemish going into the meal based on his general bad luck with Chinese food, but he really enjoyed most of the dishes of what turned out to be a magnificent lunch. Will be returning to Chicago for 8 days a week from tomorrow, so that should be nice. Definitely looking forward to a deep dish pizza and some proper dessert (I love Chinese food, don't get me wrong, but that is the one place they lack to a staggering extent..dessert. Absolutely pitiful). So probably in store for some pie upon arrival in the US. And maybe some real proper ice cream (note: you can get like a nice Haagen Dazs ice cream here, it just costs like $9). Anyway, so dessert and deep-dish pizza are high on my list. And I assume I'll probably get China-sick about 4/5 days into my Chicago trip and have to make a run to Chinatown for some egg tarts, hot pot, and juice-boxed lemon tea. We'll see how that goes I guess.

Meantime, the next week should be good, I've been hanging out a fair bit with designer Brian, and it's been really nice having a fellow US citizen here to talk to while at the office. Very nice to be able to chat about the olympics, US politics, how much we both miss food in the US, and the like. Makes work more enjoyable. Apart from that, not much else going on, will try to post another blog tomorrow about some of the huge factories we visited in Foshan this past weekend. I've recently been inspired by the writing of a friend of mine who is turning his former HK blog into a book, and consequently will be trying to write more consistently for the time being...we'll see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Factory Audits, a Tron Reference, and a Calm in the Travel Storm

So, interesting week thus far, and it's only Tuesday.

I had one of those days yesterday where I honestly didn't know whether to be sick to my stomach at the fact that I've moved to China, or to be incredibly grateful for having done so. In short, I was to do a factory audit yesterday, on my own factory for a major customer that wants a "western mind" looking after the factory. For whatever reason, I approached the day in a more astute manner than usual. Consequently, I noticed a few things that I hadn't noticed before, and these things most certainly not only made me be indescribably thankful for having been born in a country which was (at the time, anyway) the unquestioned most powerful and influential nation in the world, and for having had the most universal business language as my native one.

The day began routinely enough--I arrived at the office at 9:00am and had a car arranged to take myself, Jacky, and a handful of other sales team members to the factory. I have been driven out to the factory dozens of times. I've always noticed the ample farm fields outside the factory, and seen the farmers farming their strawberries, rice, and various vegetables. However, until yesterday, I had never noticed their accommodation in the fields. As it would turn out, the farmers are more or less living in tin shacks near their fields. Thinking about this, I sort of came to the realization--these farmers are literally working for their livelihood--they farm every day in order to have food to eat (or I guess, in order to have a harvest with some surplus of whatever they are growing which they can then sell in order to buy food to eat), but in short, they are engaging in what many international organizations correctly call "sustenance agriculture", that is to say, they are basically working to survive. All the while living in their tin shacks....

Anyway--

The morning consisted of meeting with the engineers (all in Chinese...) and discussing the feasibility of creating several new products for a major customer in the US. At 11:30am we broke for lunch (factory canteen....pro=free, con=bland food), and afterwards we resumed the meeting with the engineers. Following this meeting, at about 2:30pm, Jacky, Brian Bai (Quality Control manager at the factory, and an absolute legend), and I began our "factory audit". This was a shocker.

As I mentioned, I've been to the factory dozens of times. And generally speaking, I'll keep a relatively watchful, but not overly observant eye on what's going on. However, as this was a proper audit, my purpose in being there was to really watch out for any violations in terms of health, safety, human rights, etc. Consequently, when we walked into one of the assembly rooms, I saw some guy standing atop the assembly line with no shirt on. This was from around 200ft away. My first thought was "well, this is a violation of general workplace behavior...that guy should have a shirt on". Upon getting closer to the guy, I realized that his job was to lift this enormous, 30-40lb machine up and down all day (in the ~80 degree factory heat, mind you), the purpose of the machine being to polish the stainless steel on all products. The look on this guy's face, upon further examination, was one of absolute and total physical exhaustion, one which basically said "you could kill me now and it would be a welcome diversion". I didn't have the heart to tell Jacky and Brian Bai to make the guy put a shirt on, and thankfully, I think they realized my general horror at this sight, and didn't say a word.

Following the factory audit, we went to speak with some engineers and quality control guys. At this point, I noticed for the first time that you could pretty easily understand which ones had worked on the assembly line before, and which ones had not. The remarkably easy (and horrifying) way to tell this fact was to look at their arms. If they had horrible scars and burn marks at some place on their arms, odds are they have worked the assembly lines. Shocking.

So anyway, it was a day to remember. Again, a day that will make me on one hand wish I'd never moved to China, yet one that will also make me so grateful for having done so, for I can now properly ascertain how lucky I am for having been born in a developed country and speak English as my first language. Statistically speaking, at the time of my birth, no less than 2/3 of the world was considered "Developing". Furthermore, the birth rates in developing countries are substantially higher than those in developed countries, in general. Consequently, at the time of my birth, maybe as many as 4/5 children born were born into developing countries...which really makes you realize how fortunate most of the readers of this blog are to have been born in a developed country and have opportunities that 80% of the people born on your birth date could only dream of.

Anyway, now that the morbid factory discussion is over with, let's talk about something more pleasant--the return of photo of the day (at least, for today). I've passed this huge colony of buildings near Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center just about every day during my time here. The other day, I finally came up with an adept way of describing them--it's as though Shenzhen has stolen a scene out of the movie Tron: Legacy. Basically, at night, you have this formation of 4 buildings that are jet-black, but for green criss-cross patterns going up the buildings, making them look eerily futuristic. I decided to snap a photo of them the other night during a walk home from the pub to my apartment--

So a bit Tron-ish....

Apart from the factory audit and the Tron realization, things in South China have been interesting enough. Definitely looking forward to a relatively quiet few weeks in Shenzhen before things start getting crazy in early August, which will entail--some hugely important customer meetings the 2nd week of August, followed by heading to Chicago for work in mid-August, coming back to Shenzhen for about 5 days, then heading to Germany, before coming back here for about 2 weeks, then heading to Bangladesh for holiday for 8-10 days, then back to Shenzhen for a week or so before Canton Fair in Guangzhou. Should be a busy 2 months, needless to say my internal clock will be destroyed completely somewhere between flying over the Pacific from Chicago back to China and flying over Asia from China to Cologne...

Meantime, tomorrow I'll be heading down to Hong Kong for a mini HKU reunion with AlanKey, Paris, Matias, Iain, etc. The last couple of weeks have involved a whole lot of going to Hong Kong, with Elliott having spent a week there from 4-11 July, and with AlanKey and Paris having been there since the 4th as well. It was great seeing Elliott and Paris for the first time since May 2010, and AlanKey for the first time since the infamous fake ID night in Bangkok in January 2011, so it's been a nice few weeks in the catching up with old friends department.

Not a whole lot else to write about at this very moment, I'm hoping to try to get more consistent with posting photos on here again, as my relatively quiet last few weeks have really allowed me to explore this city a lot more, and the coming few weeks should be relatively quiet but for obscene workload, so be on the lookout for more photos! Until then, stay hungry, stay foolish, and take it easy, more news to come as it develops.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. One of the Most Brutal Vacations of my Life

I'm not much for organized travel. Rather, the ideal trip for me involves flying into developing country X (preferably sans return airfare), with a guidebook, a backpack, and a sense of "well, we don't really have any reason to be here, so let's make the best of it and see how things go". I've had a lot of incredible trips fitting this mold, and hope to continue taking trips like this for many years.

Like Shooting Fish in a....Pond?
This past weekend we had a "company sponsored holiday", which involved a 4-day trip to Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Now for those who have actually traveled in their lifetimes, you'll notice that this is a 3-city trip in 4 days. That is to say, there is a 0% chance that we were actually going to "see" any of these cities, it was just going to be "get on the bus, get off the bus" for 4 days. I sort of expected this, as it's a very Chinese style of travel, and tried to mentally prep myself for the rather ho-hum nature of this type of trip. But my god could I have never prepared myself for what went down that weekend in the Yangtze River Delta.

We left the office at about 5:30am on Thursday. After flying from Shenzhen to Hangzhou, we were immediately hurled into a bus with a tour guide. A really. obnoxious. tour guide. He had a microphone with like a hip-speaker thing, and was yelling into it the entire trip. In very obnoxious Chinese. So that was pretty awesome. Our first stop on the trip was a pretty decent restaurant in Hangzhou, as we arrived about lunchtime. It was immediately obvious that I was going to be something of a "guest of honor" during this trip--I always sat at the head table, immediately next to the sister of the 2 brothers that own this company (the brothers were not on the holiday, and their sister is what I would refer to as the "Company Mom", just a really nice 40ish year old Chinese woman who speaks about as much English as I do Arabic....so she's pitch-perfect). Anyway, so we had a decent lunch. After lunch we went to the pretty amazing West Lake of Hangzhou, and took a very crowded touristy boat around the West Lake. Still decent. We walked around that area for most of the afternoon, before going to a sort of shopping street, then this bizarre Song Dynasty-themed Chinese amusement park/folk village/mental institution/song and dance theater. Yeah, it was all of the above. Weird first day overall, but nothing compared to the devastation of Day 2.
Temple somewhere near Hangzhou

Day 2. A brutal day for sure. We got on the bus in Hangzhou, and our first stop was a "silk museum". By silk museum, I mean a place where they tell you how silk is made, then spend an hour trying to convince you to buy some silk. And of course I'm in the market for silk scarves, bedsheets, and lingerie, if not this may have been a pointless excursion. That said, there was some entertainment when, on their map of the old Silk Road, they had labeled Kuala Lumpur as a city in Northern Sri Lanka (I assume they meant to say Colombo...) Anyway, so after this whole silk business, we went to an equally asinine place that was a "Chrysanthemum Tea Museum". Same thing, "here's our tea, here's how it's made, now buy some". Should also be noted that this was all in Chinese. And of course I"m in the market for chrysanthemum related products, otherwise this may have been a pointless excursion. From here, we went to a place selling various trinkets. And of course I'm in the market for that too, otherwise...well you get the point. Anyway, all these places were ~1 hour apart by bus (ferally hot bus as well), so by the time we'd been harassed to the point of wanting to stab the tour guide, the day was done and we were just arriving in Suzhou.

A brief aside--I asked Lisa why the hell we had wasted 1 of our 4 days doing an unbelievable amount of shopping/completely idiotic activities. She informed me that this is how the tour guide makes money--he gets commission from the shops if we buy things. Frankly, I would be just as happy giving the guy like $10 (or even less, we could realistically each give him like $5, and the $200 he makes would be about 2 weeks' wage in China), and just have that extra day to not be assaulted by merchants peddling their crap. But apparently this is not how China works. Also quite interesting, none of my Chinese coworkers seemed fazed or aggravated about this absurd series of shopping misadventures.

The lads, Jacky (#3 guy in the company) and Michael (Old friend of the owner's, company chef)
Day 3 was interesting, we went to a very beautiful old village called Zhouzhuang, which was definitely one of the coolest places I've ever seen. Appropriately named the "Venice of the East", it is world famous for its canal system, and I was pretty surprised and intrigued to find that many people were still living here despite it being a tourist-infested village.

Zhouzhuang, the Venice of the East
Another brief aside--days 3 and 4 of this trip (Saturday and Sunday) were absolutely mental from the standpoint of the INSANE NUMBER OF TOURISTS AT THESE SITES. And they were all Chinese. I had no idea that domestic tourism in China was such an enormous industry, but I can assure you that having 10 tour guides with 10 hip-speakers screaming at their tour groups inside a relatively cramped temple is not the greatest way to enjoy the historical relevance and general awesomeness of these places. But anyway, such is life when the country you're living in has 1.3+ billion people.

So after our tours around Suzhou, we finally arrived in the center of the center, the economic heart of the People's Republic of China, one of my favorite cities in this world (as of now, currently #3 on my list behind Hong Kong and Seoul), Shanghai. Upon arrival, I left the tour group to go meet up with my old friend Douglon, who I had lived with for about a month in Hong Kong upon my return to Asia in October-November 2011. He's currently living in Shanghai and managing his Dad's building, the House of Roosevelt. I met up with him at the House, which was a surreal experience. Put bluntly, it is one of the nicest buildings on the nicest and most famous street in China's most cosmopolitan and expensive city. The building has a restaurant on the 8th floor, where we went for dinner.

At this point 2 things should be noted--

1) I had already eaten dinner at this point.
2) Douglon is a world renowned eater, and more importantly, a world renowned host. So I knew what I was getting into to some extent, but was sure to tell Douglon upon my arrival

"Now Douglon, I've already had dinner. So can we just do some appetizers or something else light?"
"Of course, no problem at all"

As it was Douglon, I should have known better. The next thing I knew, a waiter asked me how I would like my steak cooked. Sweet jesus. Before dinner, I ended up getting a text from Martin, the old friend that I'd met up with in Hong Kong a couple of weeks prior. He was in Shanghai, and came to meet us at the House of Roosevelt (he's also a good friend of Douglon's, so it was a nice reunion). We were also joined by another friend of Douglon's, a Peruvian girl who had grown up in Sweden. The four of us enjoyed a magnificent meal atop one of the nicest buildings in the city, with a beautiful view of Pudong/Lujiazui and The Bund. Or at least, the 3 of them enjoyed the meal, as well as the sight of me trying to force down more food after having already eaten dinner.

Wuxinting Tea House, Shanghai
Overall a fantastic evening. The following day, I went with some coworkers to a really interesting temple near the Wuxinting Tea House and Yuyuan Gardens. I'd been to the exact place almost exactly a year before, which was kind of cool. Following this, I ended up meeting up with another couple of old friends of mine, Madlien and Martin, who are currently living/working in Shanghai. We went to the French Concession, a beautiful, leafy, up-scale area of Shanghai, and had a few afternoon drinks. I then received a call from Douglon inviting us for an afternoon lunch/few drinks at the House of Roosevelt. It should be noted that they have the largest wine cellar in China there, and that Douglon, being a ridiculously good host, would not take a cent for the food or wine. Consequently, we had a fair bit of food and wine. The food was infinitely better than the night before, as this time I was not already horrendously full, and we had a couple of bottles of white wine/champagne. I was to meet with my coworkers at Pudong International Airport around 4pm. The House is around 1hr from the airport by taxi, and consequently when 3:45pm rolled around, we decided I'd best hightail it to Pudong. And so I did, but not before falling asleep in the back of the cab (too many glasses of champagne it would seem), only to be woken by a call from Jacky asking where I was (though to be fair, they didn't care that I was a bit late, as the weather was crap and our flight ended up being delayed a bit anyway).

So that was the trip to Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. As I noted in the beginning of this blog post, I tend to prefer trips that are completely unplanned. After returning from this atrociously constricting trip, I decided it was time to book something stupid, so yesterday I booked 1-way airfare from Hong Kong to Dhaka for the day after my birthday, as we have 1 week's holiday for Chinese National Day that week (I was really, really, really hoping to do Tibet, but unfortunately the Chinese government has closed Tibet to foreigners for the foreseeable future....welcome to China!). For those who don't know where Dhaka is, you clearly haven't been reading my blog often enough, as I wrote a fairly decent piece on Bangladesh last year. Anyway, so will be heading there for some amount of time in late September. Interestingly, that's the tail end of the rainy season, so should involve some flooding and perhaps malaria. And I cannot freaking wait.

That's about all from here, interesting and manic trip to the Yangtze River Delta, and making plans for an even more interesting trip to Bangladesh. Some photos from the trip below (apologies that they're a little grainy, my camera broke the other day...5 years old so that'll happen, so I used my iPad camera on the trip, which is not bad, but not sensational. Also, if my grandfather is reading this, a huge thanks for the iPad a few months back, it's been remarkably useful so far, and had I not had it during these last few days, I would have had no pictures of the amazing places I just went to. Also happy belated birthday to my grandfather, and belated father's day to both he and my Dad)

Weird Song Dynasty Themed Theme Park
Near Hangzhou

Love the Chinglish


video
Yeah it was this crowded in the temple...


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Crazy, Crazy 2 Months

Oh boy. It's been one of those 2 month periods when I blogged absolutely nothing. Generally times like these indicate either having an enormous amount of work, or alternatively living a lifestyle characterized by intense highs and lows. In the first instance, I simply don't have time to write. In the second instance, I don't really feel like writing during the peaks, as I feel like I'll come off like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic,  and don't feel like writing during the troughs for fear of coming off like Leonardo DiCaprio in the prison scene of Catch Me If You Can (couldn't find the clip...unlucky!)

This particular 2 month stretch had a little bit of both, incidentally. So my last blog post came from my Qingming Festival trip to Kuala Lumpur. Since then, I've gone to the Canton Fair in Guangzhou, Las Vegas, nearly took a job in Hong Kong, nearly left my job about 4 separate times, and ended up staying at my job due to a ridiculous set of circumstances.

So the Canton Fair. It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. Basically, imagine literally every single manufactured item you've ever bought from China. Anything you own that says "Made in China" on it. Think about the incredible variety of these items. And think that (more or less) every single one of those manufacturers was at this trade show. Around 50,000 booths. Selling EVERYTHING. Everything from hairdryers to lightbulbs to action figures to pottery to busses, construction equipment, and everything in between. They even had Tuk-Tuks! I'm pretty sure I even saw some kids for sale. That was a lie, and probably not very funny. But oh well. Also noteworthy about the Canton Fair was the McDonald's in the Guangzhou Convention Center. How noteworthy can a McD's be, you ask?

Well picture this--24 counters. And no menus, per se. Just meals A, B, C, and D. Big Mac, Fried Chicken Sandwich, Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Fillet of Fish, with fries. And no drink orders. Just pre-poured, relatively warm, melty-ice Coke. And imagine it being about the size of a 16-car garage. With lines going out the door all the time. We had about 15 people in front of us in line when we walked in. And within about 4 minutes, we were served. Also of note, the meal was 45RMB, or about $7. This might not sound THAT crazy, until you realize that ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY OF CHINA, a meal at McDonald's costs 15RMB, or about $2.50. Price gouging for the win. I would have taken pictures, but when I took out my phone to do so, an employee more or less tackled me saying "NO PICTURES ALLOWED!!!" Is that all? You'd think it would make for good free publicity....

The Canton Fair also amazed me with its diversity. We had people from, among many others, the following countries come to our booth requesting information for product importing: Pakistan, Lebanon, South Africa, Kenya, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mauritius, Kosovo, and one very outgoing and awkward man from the "Armenia-China Friendship Council". It made the United Nations look like the Tokyo Metro at rush hour. After 8 days in Guangzhou that included my first ever experience with real Chinese Hot Pot (pictured below), we returned to Shenzhen. After a few weeks of working in Shenzhen, it was time to head to Vegas for the National Hardware Show.

So Vegas. We went to Vegas during late April/early May for a trade show. Fortunately, one of my best friends from childhood/high school/college, Dan Gannon, lives in Vegas (this to the surprise of my colleagues, as up to this point I've had a friend in literally every single city we've travelled to for work with the exception of Guangzhou). Anyway, so we went to Vegas for a trade show. In short, it involved a ton of working, and hanging out with Dan a fair bit. I got to meet Dan's best friend in Vegas, former World Poker Tour Champion Joe Bartholdi, who I can honestly say is one of the most genuinely hilarious and genial people I've ever met. Definitely the kind of person you'd like to hang around as much as possible, just a really nice kid (I say kid despite his being 32...shocking). He also happened to write a hilarious song called "Fat Chicks" that he performed in a bar. If I ever get a dying wish, it will be for him to upload it to YouTube. One of the funniest things I've ever heard. Vegas involved a fair bit of gambling (on the trip I was up about $150US, which was excellent), and a fair amount of shopping. Funny side note--one of my bosses wanted me to come with him to the Louis Vuitton Store in Las Vegas. I'd never actually been into a LV store.

"Are you going to get your wife a gift from here?", I asked, with some surprise. It should be noted that this guy definitely makes pretty damned good money by China standards, but as most LV handbags/products don't go for less than like $1,000, it still seemed excessive.

"No, I need to get the gift for a friend of my wife's sister."
"Well that's interesting. Your wife's sister's friend must be very rich"
"No, they're not. They are having me buy it for a local government official as a bribe to get their child into the best school in their province"

Welcome. To. China. In the 21st century. Bribes no longer are limited to just cash. Louis Vuitton merchandise is now considered perfectly legal tender for the perfectly illegal act of bribing Chinese officials.

The per capita GDP in China is around $5,400US. The bag cost $1,300.

Wow.

I returned from Vegas about a month ago today, and what a month that's been. I had an interview for a pretty interesting job opportunity in Hong Kong, and nearly left my job here to pursue other opportunities until my boss made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Around 20 May, time had come for my "6 month salary reevaluation", or some such thing. I went into my bosses office and reminded him of this, and he bode me to take a seat. Overall, it was a pretty excellent conversation--we spoke first about the fact that adjusting to life in Mainland China had been a bit more difficult than I'd expected, how there had been several times that I'd nearly left work here to return to the US, and the like. At one point I asked if I could start to go home at Christmas.

"Of course, I'm happy to pay for you to fly back to Chicago at Christmas for about a week or so."

Well that makes things a bit easier.

We then got to the point where we were going to talk about my future here. Regarding salary--he made a solid raise offer. I asked for an asinine amount more than that. Basically, I asked for what I'd be making in the US. Only I'm working in a country where, as I mentioned a moment ago, the per capita GDP is $5,400. Not $47,000, as in the US.

He was a bit taken aback by this request, and asked if he could think about it for a few days and get back to me. I said that was just fine. We continued to chat for another 5 minutes or so, at which point he asked me

"Well, if I give you this amount of money, what are your future plans? What do you want to do?"

"I suppose I'd stay here and work for you guys in China for a couple more years, then go work for you guys in the US for a couple years, then around age 28-29 go get a masters then a PhD then go into academia"

Something about that answer must have really pleased this very heroic and very wealthy Chinese man, because his next sentence was

"Well, I've thought about your raise request. And really, the money means nothing to me. And since you've started working here, I don't know why, but I've always liked you. Even when you've acted unorthodox, I've always thought it was interesting. I've always thought that you've been a very good addition to the office. So I'm OK with it."

Win.

The next day he decided to give me some more work responsibilities. I am now completely in charge of our company's expansion into the Australian market. I am going to be heading to Australia about twice per year (this coming year looks to be October and February), and will be setting up our entire operation there. This, in addition to the 3 times per year to the US and once to Germany means I'll be racking up a sadistic amount of frequent flier miles (probably around 100,000 per year), and will be able to take occasional much-needed breaks for living in the PRC. Overall, could not have gone better.

So that's about where I'm at now. A long post, surely, but it's been an eventful 2 months. A week from tomorrow, we leave for a 5-day company holiday to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, a trip where I'll get the chance to see a couple of friends in Shanghai, which will be nice.

Also random recent note--was able to spend this past Saturday night in Hong Kong with none other than Martin "Luther" Zech, an old friend from HKU who just finished a dual masters degree program with Sciences Po (Paris) and Fudan University (Shanghai), and Ben Don, another friend from HK/my trip last summer to Thailand/Cambodia. Martin brought 2 of his cousins to HK, and we showed them a night on the town, involving Wan Chai, trying to break into the Wan Chai Haunted House, and 3am dim sum (photo at right of Sir Ben Hibbert's favorite dish, whatever it is). Overall, an excellent trip town memory lane with a couple of old friends.

On the travel horizon, apart from next week's company trip, I'm hoping to sneak away to either Tibet or Bangladesh sometime in the next 3 months or so, before heading to Cologne, Germany, in September, then Sydney/Melbourne in October. Should be good.

Below are some more random photos from the last couple of months, including a gentle reminder from the phenomenal translators at the Canton Fair, a horribly iPhoto-edited shot of Shun Hing Square at night, and some other shots of Shenzhen. Cheers if you've read this stupidly long update, will try to be more consistent!

You'd better enjoy it in 2 hours.

Shun Hing Square. Must say, the building is starting to grow on me.

Shenzhen Metro. Don't even think about bringing on balloons. Don't even think about it.
Shenzhen City Hall after a rain. My office is the middle skyscraper on the left

Really interesting actually, there was a book in the Shenzhen Central Book Mall titled something to the effect of "The History of the World In 100 Objects", the book had been put together by the British Museum (without question the greatest museum in the world, and with a whopping $0 entry fee, also certainly at least tied for least expensive!) using 100 objects in their archives to show the history of the world. #100 was a solar-powered lap and charger manufactured in noplace other than....Shenzhen! 



Area around Masjid Jemak RapidKL Station, Kuala Lumpur, from 2 months ago. I enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Ode to the Muddy Estuary

So I'm currently in Malaysia. We had 3 days off at work for the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Monday-Wednesday of this week), and I figured I'd take off Thursday/Friday and just have a whole week off. Didn't go over remarkably well at the office, but eh, what can you do. I decided to go visit my friend Sabutai in KL again, as I was able to use my United Miles and fly there for essentially free (business class on Singapore Airlines, no less!) And as unnecessary as this trip may have been, I feel like to some extent I needed a vacation, as the Chinese custom regarding days off is that, because we had off Monday-Wednesday, we had to work the old 7-day work week prior. That is, we worked from Monday-Friday, then Saturday and Sunday. This 7-day work week totaled about 75 hours. So yeah, I figured a vacation was in order. Kuala Lumpur, or as it's universally known throughout Asia, KL, is a city I've now been to three times. Each time that I've visited this teeming metropolis known as "Muddy Estuary" in Malay, one thing has always been very apparent--this is, without question, one of the most diverse cities on earth.

Now to qualify this statement--I lived in Hong Kong for 5 months of my life, and I thought that it was a remarkably diverse city. You'd go to someplace like Tsim Sha Tsui and see people from everywhere. Indians, Pakistanis, Ghanians, Middle Easterners, Ivorians, and loads of backpackers from all over the western world. I've always told people that Chungking Mansions, a building block in TST, Hong Kong, is a sociologist's dream, that is, there are people from dozens (maybe 100+) countries in that building at any given time. It's staggering. However, when you compare Hong Kong as a whole to a place like Kuala Lumpur, it's not even close. Hong Kong, as diverse as it may be, is still about 90+% Chinese. Yeah, the ~10% that aren't Chinese come from everywhere, but make absolutely no mistake about it--Hong Kong is a Chinese city (yes, it has a very western feel to it, but really, the city's demographics are strongly, strongly Chinese).

Kuala Lumpur, on the other hand, is not. In short, KL is about 40% ethnic Malay, 40% ethnic Chinese, 10% Indian, and then 10% EVERYTHING (thus far I've met Burmese, Chinese, Mauritian, Malay, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Singaporean, and probably several others that I don't even know). And even those two 40% groups have, it seems, a pretty decent amount of intermarrying--you'll see loads of Chinese people with hints of Malay to them, Malays with bits of Chinese, etc. And it's not just the people you see, it's the food, the signage, the architecture, everything is basically thrown into this giant melting pot that is one of Southeast Asia's most truly unique cities. This ethnic hodge-podge is most evident in areas of town like Central. I found myself there today walking from Little India to Chinatown. There was absolutely no indication that these two parts of town were separated, basically I just noticed that the percentage of signs in Hindi/Bengali/etc. was decreasing, while the percentage of signs in Chinese was increasing, and eventually I found that the street stalls filled with chicken tikka, samosas, and mango lassi were replaced by street stalls serving duck, egg tarts, and bubble tea. Really remarkable.

Now for a brief bit of history on Kuala Lumpur. In a move fairly similar to my current hometown of Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur did not exist 150 years ago, and today the whole metro area is about ~7.5 million. Very fast-growing city, for sure. Situated in the Klang Valley in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, it is home to, among other things, former tallest buildings in the world the Petronas Twin Towers, the KL Tower, a vibrant Chinatown, and a host of other fairly interesting things. Actually, that's really not true about the host of other interesting things--as nice as KL is, it lacks a lot to actually do (similar to Shenzhen, as it were). However, it does (again, similarly to Shenzhen) have a reputation as a shopper's paradise. Hell, the activity of shopping in KL has its very own Wikipedia page. KL also happens to have one of the most insane airports I've ever been to.

Another fairly interesting thing I found out about Malaysia since I've been here this time around--apparently their legal system stipulates that if you are a Muslim and you commit a crime, you are punished for that crime based on Sharia (Islamic) Law. For those who are non-Muslim, if you commit a crime, you are charged with Common Law, with their Common Law legal system being heavily influenced by their former colonizers, the British. Furthermore, despite the fact that the state religion is officially Islam, you are guaranteed absolute religious freedom. I read a really, really interesting National Geographic article about 2 years ago, written about the more moderate brand of Islam being practiced currently in Indonesia. Having been to both Indonesia and Malaysia, and having had a decent bit of exposure to the mindset of both places, it definitely seems like Malaysia's Islamic fervor is quite a bit less than that of Indonesia. But anyway, interesting stuff.

I had a fairly bizarre experience today--I was in Suria KLCC, a huge shopping complex in central KL, and needed to use the bathroom. There was a 2 ringgitt (about $0.66) "VIP bathroom" that was nearest to me, so I figured, eh, and paid the 2 ringgitt to use it. Remarkable. As I went to wash my hands, the bathroom attendant took my hands, put them under the soap dispenser, pushed the soap dispense button, put my hands under the tap, as I was washing my hands he got some towels, dried my hands, removed my glasses (this was getting slightly awkward), cleaned them for me, and while doing so, gave me a damp cloth to press against my face. He also started chatting with me in pretty near-perfect English, "so how are you boss? enjoying your time here in KL?", etc. Oh, and to top it all off, he sprayed me with some cologne as I was about to walk out! I felt like the 3 ringgitt ($1) tip I gave him was immensely insufficient, but he seemed appreciative enough about it. Anyway!

Other stories from Kuala Lumpur--my friend Sabutai from exchange in Hong Kong is currently living here, so I'm staying at his flat near International Medical University, where he is going to med school. As it turns out, KL has a disproportionately large population of Mauritians--those from the island of Mauritius, a small country of ~1.3 million off the coast of east Africa. Consequently, many of Sabutai's friends from university are Mauritians, and I must say, their language, Mauritian Creole (similarish to French) is one of the more remarkably cool-sounding languages I've ever heard. Not entirely sure why, but just very pleasing to the ear.

As it turns out, the high-speed train from KL Int'l Airport into the city has free wifi throughout the entire train. This is a technology that I know does not exist in Hong Kong on their Airport Express train, does not exist in Shanghai on their Maglev, does not exist in SZ on the metro from the airport, and yet here, in good old Kuala Lumpur, we have free wifi on the train from the airport. Remarkable.

Similar to what I experienced 2 years ago in Singapore, the rain here goes from zero--torrential downpour in about 3 seconds. That is, I was walking around today, felt a few drops of rain on my head, and by the time I'd felt a few more, the sky had opened up and it was as though I'd stepped into a shower. Staggering amounts of water, and apparently this is not yet monsoon season....

Last night we went to an Arabic restaurant. For a meal, 2 lemon teas, and my share of the shisha (a Middle-Eastern water pipe with flavored tobacco), it cost about $5US. What a country.

So that's about it for the time being from KL. Below is a really cliché photo that I took yesterday of the KL Towers, consider that the photo of the day (even though I took about a month off from the whole photo of the day thing...let's just assume I was far too busy). For those who have read to this point, if you have any further questions about KL, let me know, having been here 3 times, I'm practically a local now (though not really...)

Back in South China on Saturday evening, Guangzhou for the Canton Fair in like a week, then Vegas in about 3 weeks. More updates to come (hopefully more consistently) as they develop, cheers for reading this far.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 28, 2012

So I'm now in the US on business. I arrived in Atlanta this afternoon after a 13-hour flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, a 4-hour layover involving lunch with my mom and grandmother, and then a 2-hour flight from Chicago to Atlanta. It was a pretty weird trip.

The day began at 8:00am China time on February 27th. I arrived at the office as planned at 8:00, which I thought was cutting it pretty close, as our flight from Hong Kong was at 11:00am, and it's like a 1.5 hour drive from the office to HK Int'l Airport. But Jacky and the other 2 guys I was traveling with seemed completely confident, so I figured it wasn't my place to say anything. Upon arrival, Jacky said we would be bringing with us $30,000. Now I assumed he meant 30,000 Hong Kong dollars, which is about $4,000US, a sum I thought was far more than we would need for 4 people's meals for 8 days in the US (hotel was paid for by company credit card, meals were paid for with company money, then we provided receipts). However, I was absolutely floored to see Jacky pull out 300 $100US bills from a bag. $30,000USD. The 2nd largest sum of money I have ever held in my life. Why in the hell were we bringing $30,000US cash to the US, I had no idea. We were unsure as to whether the limit for transporting US$ into the US was $10,000 (i.e. you must have <$10,000) or up to $10,000 (i.e. you can have $10,000), so we decided to play it safe--I got $9,999, Jacky got $9,999, James got $9,999, and Howard got $3. Apparently nobody trusts Howard.

So that was that, we had divided up enough cash to buy a decent car. Now to get to the airport. Of course, no one was actually ready to leave at 8:00am--rather, we ended up getting out of there around 8:20am. Again, this is a 1.5 hour drive, and our flight was at 11. So we got to HKIA at about 9:45, and thanks to my being United Premier, got to go to the front of the checkin line. We'd completed checkin by 10, everything was going well, we went to security. At which point they told us we couldn't carry on this sign sort of thing that we were bringing as an advertisement for the trade show we're going to here in ATL. And we had to go get it packaged up and checked. Now we were really in a crunch for time. By the time all that was done with, it was about 10:25. We ran through security, ran through the airport, and got to the gate about 5 minutes before they were closing the doors. Had it not been for my United Premier, Shinerich would have had 4 people miss a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. I think that alone calls for a substantial raise!

So the flight was pretty awesome. The in-flight entertainment for like 1/4 of the plane wasn't working, so consequently everyone got United Airlines vouchers for either A) $75 off one domestic US flight, B) 10% off any flight, anywhere in the world, or C) 3,000 miles free. Now for me, $75 one domestic flight doesn't really do any good. 3,000 bonus miles is not worth very much. So I went with the 10% off any flight anywhere. Not bad, hopefully I get to use it before it expires in a year.

So at O'Hare I was greeted by my Mom and Grandmother, who had come out for lunch during my layover. They generously brought the iPad that my grandpa had given me, as apparently he had an extra one lying around, so I now have a free iPad2...not too shabby! Lunch was good, headed back to the airport and hopped a flight to Atlanta. Upon arrival in Atlanta, we went to a pizza place near our hotel. On the walk over to the pizza place, the huge problem in Atlanta of homeless people became very apparent. At one point, a homeless guy just would not stop pestering us, so I basically said "you know what, good sir, I have $0US on me. HOWEVER, if you want, I will give you this 5 Chinese Yuan note. 5 Chinese Yuan (~$0.85)." And he took it. No sooner did this occur than a cop pulled up and asked us if this guy was asking us for money, to which I sort of sheepishly replied "yeah..." The cop started walking towards the homeless guy menacingly. I asked if the Chinese guys and I were free to go, to which he replied "y'all don't want to press charges?!"...."No....."

"Ah well yeah, then you're free to go"

Is that all?

Anyway, so eventually we got to the pizza place. It was absolutely hilarious seeing the awe of the three small Chinese men traveling with me when there was a large black man with dreadlocks making pizzas behind a counter. And consequently, here is the photo of the day:

However, I acknowledge that this is kind of a crappy photo, so here's another 2 from the airplane as an added bonus!
This is a photo of the Canadian Rockies from about 36,000 feet.

And finally, with all due respect to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and every other Asian megacity I've ever seen, it must be said that no image quite quickens the pulse like flying over Chicago coming off the lake and looking out at the skyline, as seen in a pretty poor quality photo below:

After our dinner at the pizza place, we went back to the hotel, only to run into 2 of the legends from the US branch of the company, Brian and Brandon, who were at the hotel bar. After a couple of drinks (I decided to take it very easy, as I'm horrendously jet-lagged and really don't understand the point in going hard on a Monday night with a bunch of guys when you need to work at 8:00am the next morning), Jacky and Brian decided they wanted to play pool. So we walked through the dodgiest part of town about 2miles in order to get to the nearest pool hall. Which was essentially this horribly grimy combination of a jazz club/pool hall/crack den/Dongguan. Really weird place. And the walk was just unbelievable. The fact that people tell me to make sure to be safe in China is pretty laughable--Atlanta seems to be infinitely more likely to get you stabbed, robbed, or killed than anywhere I've been in China--even freaking Dongguan! So the next time someone tells you to be safe when visiting a developing country, tell them to look at where you're coming from! If you can survive a major US city, you can survive anywhere!

So anyway, that's about it from the flight over to Atlanta. Earned another 10,000 or so frequent flier miles, carried $9,999 into the United States, saved my company several thousand dollars by being United Premier and allowing us to not miss our flight, and had lunch with my mom and grandmother in Chicago during a 3.5 hour layover. All in a day's work, really. Will be meeting up with one of my best friends from HS/university, Bryan, who now lives in Atlanta, tomorrow afternoon.

More to come from the other side of the world

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 27, 2012

OK, so I had some time this afternoon to crank out another post which will be automatically posted tomorrow morning at the time of my flight taking off from Hong Kong to Chicago. This post is actually quite appropriate, given my planned activities tomorrow of flying across the Pacific Ocean.

See, I have 4 hours in Chicago before I head to Atlanta. I would love to see my Mom and Grammy in the airport for a couple of hours before flying out, and this should, in theory, be very doable. However, I'm not 100% sure of the process for flying into the US then having a domestic connection--I'm about 95% sure I need to go through customs, pick up my checked bags, recheck them, and all that. Which, of course, is a practice that I have not encountered anywhere else. Because the US is really cool, efficient, and not paranoid at all about terrorism like that. Anyway, so I was trying to look online at the exact process that I will be going through at O'Hare on Monday. I consequently came across the O'Hare Airport Wikitravel article. This article was incredibly harsh. The author had clearly been abused as a child, because the amount of spite dripping from his/her every word was just shocking. Among the most grievous-"This is no Changi (Singapore--my parenthesis, not theirs), no Kansai; in other words, it's nobody's favorite airport." Just to make things very clear--I would bet every penny I have that I have flown to many, many more airports than the person that wrote this post. And I assure you, O'Hare is indeed my favorite airport, you clod.

Now let's just establish this right now: I am not biased towards the United States. I am about as far from you can get from one of those idiots from the US who goes abroad preaching the gospel of George Bush, or Barack Obama, or Ronald Reagan, or the greatness of the new quadruple cheeseburger supreme with extra helpings of death from McDonald's, or the glory of Wal-Mart coming into China with their shuttle busses and destroying the microeconomies of fringe cities just so the Walton family can earn another few million dollars per hour.

But I do love O'Hare Airport more than any other airport on this planet. And while a small part of that probably is bias due to me just loving my hometown of Chicago, a large part of it is just that O'Hare is the freaking nuts (side note: I use the phrase "the nuts" pretty often in conversation with 2 of my best friends from HS/uni, Dan and Steve. It is a phrase indicating the best possible hand in poker, but we use it so much in the context of something being "good" that it's lost all meaning. I'm going to start using it in my blog. So from here on out, anything that's "the nuts" means very good). So anyway! O'Hare is the freaking nuts. Where else in the world can you find a massive underground tunnel taking you underneath the runway, complete with neon lights and moving walkways? Where else in the world can you find such a perfect compliment of really sleek, space-age architecture juxtaposed onto the very midwestern feel of Illinois? Where else can you find an airport which appeared in such iconic films as "Home Alone"?? What other airport code makes as little sense as O'Hare=ORD? (Though the origin of this does in fact make perfect sense--O'Hare was initially called Orchard Field, hence ORD. But nowadays no one knows this, except the 5 readers of this blog).

Furthermore, all I ever hear about from people badmouthing O'Hare are how every flight is delayed. Well, I have flown into/out of this airport literally dozens of times, and I'm pretty sure I've had like 2 delays. And yes, I understand that if the stats on on-time vs. delayed departures indicate a lot of flights are delayed, then there are indeed a lot of delayed flights, but I'm just saying, this is not a problem I have encountered ever, really.

Anyway, I'm beginning to realize that this blog post is pretty pointless, I'm basically just ranting aimlessly about how O'Hare doesn't suck, so I guess I'll just end it here. Photo of the day is not one of my own, but one I found on said Wikitravel site of O'Hare airport. Does THIS:

look like the crappiest airport in the world? Didn't think so! More to come from Atlanta (via the greatest airport in the world)