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July 22, 2008

My first mainland China business trip covered two major cities in Central China: Chengdu and Wuhan.

Below a list of what I have started to call “out of body experiences,” as when they are happening I suddenly feel I have stepped outside of my physical body and watch the episode from another perserpective:

1) Listening to Chengdu distributor explain why he put stickers of “Nemo” and“Mickey Mouse” on our prized Aveo collection of insulated mugs: “they are too white”

2) Eating sushi in the back of a audacious Chengdu taxi while colleagues chomped down on life-sized beef slices (famous local food)

3) Introducing myself to our the buyer of our largest retailer whose Japanese company requires all employees to wear hideous uniforms with red bow ties – regardless if you are a manager or working on the shop floor

4) Accidentally forgetting my and my colleagues’ laptops in the back of a taxi and then waiting for 2 hours until we could locate the driver who eventually brought them back

5) Driving along the streets of Wuhan with three from my team and our distributor singing to “Brother Louie”

6) My colleague ripping the back of his pants on a airport seat and having to wear his extra shirt around his waist – tucked into his belt – the rest of the night

7) Listening to explanation from China Eastern Airlines for cancellation of flight back to Shanghai: they “lost” the plane

8) A bus load of “cancelled” passengers driving around Wuhan at 10pm looking for the hotel the airline would put us up in for the night – driver was also lost

9) Opening the door to hotel room carpeted in black (original color: beige)

10) Getting a phone call after one hour in the hotel that we are to go to back to the airport for our flight to Shanghai

It’s time I broke the silence…

And why?

Because some things are worth sharing no matter how busy I am (and how lazy I am to get on the computer when I have free time):

1) Subsequent to years spent in the ad industry in Vienna, I have witnessed my fair share of photo shoots – from highly complex ones with models and photographers with true artistry to those who could offer a more reasonable price from across the border (Hungary) but still did a very clean job. When recently at work we needed some original model photography for an artwork insert (one that goes between a double-wall mug), I suggested we do use some of the beautiful ladies from the office. My colleague found a photo studio that showed some great examples of vintage Shanghai (1930’s) – the look we were going for – and off we were! We booked the studio about two days before the shoot. The scheduled time for 3 ‘models’ was 3 hours.  In my world, this was just not possible. A photo shoot with 1 model normally takes a full day. You have to worry about light settings, hair, makeup, clothing, etc… I was still in shock over the time when they said they would use different photographers to save time…again, not my world. Normally, one photographer’s style affects the result and so we would have 3 different styles which is not what we wanted. This was all sounding very suspicious, but my what-I-thought-already-pretty-Chinese-adapted-jaw finally dropped, when they said they would deliver the digital photography in already photoshoped quality the next morning at 10am! My world: one or two days of work depending on the number of photographs needed to retouch.  I wrote my boss a note saying I was going to be there to supervise, but that he shouldn’t expect any results by the next day.  Impossible is nothing, Possible is everything. I arrived at the studio to see a Chinese production line run and managed with the utmost efficiency (putting our Austrian studios to shame). A line of mirrors with a line of girls in front sitting on chairs behind which another line of girls would perform make-up and hair miracles within minutes. The wardrobe, shoes, jewelry – all within grasp. Poof – you were a shanghainese woman from the 20’s. Poof you were a bride, poof you were a pregnant hot chick, poof you were a cowgirl (these were only the examples I saw during 2 hours). In and out the ladies moved from makeup chair to studio (where, mind you, the client was not allowed, as to allow for full efficiency!) and back again for their second costume change. We started at 3pm and finished by 6pm. My jaw officially on the ground. The next morning, with a slight delay, the CD was delivered – with photography that looked too perfect and glammed up in my view, but absolutely served the purpose for our project. The whole thing cost Eur 40/model. Need I say more?

2) Everyone likes trees. So the Shanghai government offers city dwellers, companies with CSR programs, team-building groups, etc etc the opportunity to plant trees in the outer districts of the city for free. All the trees, plants, bushes are provided by the government. Or you can pay Eur3/tree and have it planted for you. My company opted to do it as a company outing this past Saturday morning. We took a 40-minute bus ride (probably killing trees with our exhaust along the way) to a new road only to find many others groups of all ages gathered to plant trees. In true Chinese style, we left the bus and everyone just picked up the first shovels they saw and shouted ‘let’s start!’ The trees and bushes to be planted were spaced out along the road so you could somewhat identify where the tree was supposed to be planted – I say ‘somewhat.’  (I did notice areas of softer earth, which I later found out were pre-dug by the government workers the day before!) Without a word of instruction, everyone started planting away. The government workers just stood on and watched (probably wondering why the hell we were doing this and causing them extra work, as they would probably have to replant them after we are gone). Connie and I managed to get our first tree planted when I asked the wife of my American supervisor, Ramela, if she had done this before. Yes, many times. Did you get instruction? In answer to this, she proceeds to tell me about the way they were told to plant trees when she did in the US – right down to 3 kinds of fertilizer, etc. It was at this point, I looked at the tree I just planted in what was more rock debris than soil – I looked at the plastic bag and wire I had dug out of the ground in the process – and I asked her if my tree would grow. “Sure,” she said, “This is China. It’ll survive.”

October 12, 4:30pm. Airplane somewhere between Tokyo and Shanghai.

Looking out my window at the clouds below, I am trying to collect my thoughts for this entry. I am returning from my first business trip for PMI – four days in Tokyo. Before we moved to Asia, cities like Shanghai or Tokyo were mystical metropolises, their existence felt only through scenes in films and news reports about economic booms and crashes respectively. I would never have imagined that one day I would be presenting to an audience of Japanese businessmen accompanied by my Chinese boss and Japanese distribution partner. How would I be received? What if I would say something wrong? In order to sell, one has to understand how to tap the needs of the counterpart, but the Japanese are even more opaque than the Chinese – smiling, polite, and gracious regardless of age, gender, status, situation. On the way there, I asked my boss what I should do, and he responded that I best put on my “lamb face,” which then became our inside joke for the rest of the trip. Not too aggressive, outspoken or direct. In the art of being indirect (and I am really starting to believe this is an art form), I am still a novice. During a dinner invitation with our distributor, we were asked if we could eat horse meat. I reacted with a hasty “no!” and firm shake of my head. I saw my boss looking at me, and I immediately understood my reaction was too “Western.” I asked him if I should have declined more kindly, such as thank-you-but-I-do-not-eat-horse-meat-etc-etc. And he said better yet would have been, “I really enjoy eating fish and vegetables.” Lesson 2: instead of contradiction, add phrases like “probably (not), maybe (not), I am not so sure, I do not think so…” – I have experienced this done in China as well, so I believe I have reached decent proficiency (at least in interpreting).

Other impressions in stream of consciousness (due to lack of ability to write comprehensive story at current time): lights, high-tech everything, dark suits, women with make-up, brightly-colored tights, warm toilet seats, sparkling white garbage trucks, taxi drivers with suits and gloves, bowing with arms planted at sides, adding “san” at the end of a name to show respect, long procedure of exchanging business cards, most tender sushi, rice balls, oolong tea, subway maps that look like something out of “Matrix,” boots, sake, tempura, Japanese breakfast, offices with workers packed in like sardines, seating in an office (long rows of connecting desks per department with the supervisor at a separate desk at a 90 degree to the others), smoking everywhere, expensive stores and restaurants, insanely long and tedious negotiations, relationship-building, details, clean streets, brightly marked crosswalks, coffee chains at every corner, aesthetics, beautiful packaging for everything, old women with PDAs, kimonos, sense of tradition, island culture.Tokyo is a place I probably could keep coming back to and never get tired of. I am fascinated by the people and the culture. So much so that Patrick and I are planning on celebrating New Year’s seeing other parts of Japan with my cousin Ece, who is teaching English in a small village there.

My mother is a sociologist at her core. She tells me stories about the days she visited the overpopulated ghettos on the fringes of the ever-growing Turkish metropolises for academic purposes. When you are with her, you notice she has a special connection with people of every kind. She observes behavior and analyzes. Most women cry for help when they are realize they are becoming more and more like their mothers. I happily accept it. I am an analyzer. Especially when I really want to understand the population and behavior patterns ties to culture like I do in China (my brother and Patrick call it a staring problem – which isn’t a problem at all in China, because everyone stares).

The two hours of every day I spend up close and very personal with several thousand of my slight-framed, black-haired cohabitants provides me with insights I am learning to treasure (and I will continue telling myself this so as not to lose my cool). A quick run-down of my morning:
1. Leave home at 8:00am, sometimes 8:05 (but no later than 8:10 or I am not only late to work, but also hit the peak of rush hour on the train).
2. Greet the doorman with my convincing “Ni Hao” and ask him to open the door to the bike parking lot below our apartment building (in the beginning, this was done using all four limbs in a charades-like attempt to demonstrate using my bike, but now I have got the sentence down pat – except for the word bike “zixingche” which still challenges my American tongue).
3. Bike about 5 minutes to the West Yan’an Rd subway station (most of the line is elevated). There is nothing to get you awake in the morning like a good bike ride in Shanghai. Be on alert at all times.
4. Park my bike and get a ticket from the “bike valet parker” whose sole job is to watch all the bikes from 8 to 7 every day. I usually come home after he is gone, but so far, my bike has remained in tact (friends say it’s just a matter of time till I walk out and my bike is gone).
5. Wait for the train to come. One of my first mistakes was taking the yellow line which also stops at the same station and goes the same route before veering off and going north. I take the purple line – number four. This train comes every 8 minutes during rush hour. I have my arrival times almost perfectly now, but in the beginning, I would too often have to wait in the boiling heat while sweat would drip down my back and my hair would begin to stick to my forehead.
6. 12 stops, about 35 minuets in what feels like a meat locker until masses of people keep rushing in pushing you closer and closer to people you never wanted to be that close with. Here is what’s going on: most read the free paper handed out at the stations, some play with their mobiles phone, some listen to music, some sleep, some eat their breakfasts using obnoxiously loud smacking noises, some clear their throats and/or noses. Those who are not otherwise preoccupied, stare. They love to stare at anything I happen to be holding in my hands – most of the time,it’s my Chinese vocabulary notebook, a novel of some kind, or my phone. Most of the time I am standing – some days I “conquer” a seat (I use that word  because it is not an easy feat and I feel I use strategy and skill to obtain it).
7. The exit. The exit is a disgusting display of what happens when there are too many people trying to achieve opposing things in a very short amount of time. We have OUT contingency and the IN contingency. Sometimes we have flag-bearing officials at the doors trying to control the whole thing, but I have yet to observe what they really do. I try to position myself close enough to the door during the trip that I can approach it at my stop (yet not too close – as I discovered on day 2 or 3). Then I just stand there – knees slightly bent, arms folded around my bag, elbows out – and wait for the OUT group to sweep me along in their stampede. Note: I do almost none of the pushing -it is all done for me – which really made one of the Chinese girls behind me really upset the other day.
8. Walk about 10 minutes to the office. The office is in a really modern, glass, 50-floor building with a four-star hotel in it. However, the walk to the office consists of passing government housing whose toilet stalls are conveniently located on the sidewalk outside. I also pass street vendors selling all kinds of foods, a very busy bus stop, and two insane intersections. No stroll through the park.

The masses of bodies do the least to deter Chinese from their daily routine- after all, they are used to it. I soon will be too…I hope.

Pacific Market International Link to website!   . That is the full name of my new employer, a Seattle-based company founded in 1983 that designs and manufacturer food and beverage containers. Privately owned, the company owns the brands Aladdin see cool new website  and Stanley link to website , which have a long history in the US and may be familiar to some fellow North Americans (lunch boxes, camping trips, etc), but are still very new internationally in several European and Asian markets. They aim to “revolutionize the way people eat and drink on the go.” Now I am to play a key role in that revolution overseas as International Marketing Manager reporting to the Director of International Marketing and Design for all foreign markets, an American guy who Patrick and I met together with his wife at an expat dinner our first week in China. There are another 24 or so other employees in their Shanghai office. Overall, something like 140 office staff (they also have joint-owned factories here in China which they hold to a strict Code of Conduct as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility program).

The irony of it all: I traveled half way across the world to China of all places to find a company who puts human capital as their top priority. Their CEO Rob Harris is quoted saying, ” This is a company that is focused on people, the global community and the environment.” The culture fit is their top hiring criteria – as they are small but growing, they are careful to maintain the company culture even across borders and oceans. This and the people were really the selling points for me. Everyone just seems really excited and happy to be working there.

So  I’m kissing a cushy expat wife lifestyle of afternoon teas and shopping any time of the day goodbye sooner than I predicted. Actually, it’s not hard for me to part with the afore-mentioned, but it will be hard for me to adjust to the much more limited time I will have to continue exploring the city and Asia during our time here. I managed to negotiate 15 days vacation, which is more than exceptional on a local contract, but still does not compare the extravagant 25 days in Austria. We will have to make the best use of weekends and for those of you who want to visit, you are still MORE THAN WELCOME. We just need to coordinate a little more, so that I can take time off or plan around weekends, etc. China has three big holidays every year – one in the first week of October, the second at Chinese New Year (Jan or Feb) and then again first week of May (Labor Day).  Apparently, the city empties out as people travel to their visit their distant homes and families. We are going to use these days to travel in case anyone is interested in joining us!