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Happy Halloween!

5 Nov
Ready for Halloween?

Ready for Halloween?

Halloween is an American holiday.  When I first came to China it was hardly celebrated at all – in fact, the term in Chinese was still even fairly new (万圣节).  Over the last seven years, it has slowly gained in popularity from just an additional night with some special drinks at bars, to being more entwined in the culture.

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Now there are Halloween parties at schools, costumes available online and in some of the stores and even an office party.  I did have a discussion with a colleague this year as to how it all began, why it was important – and he admitted he still doesn’t see why it is getting popular, but others have embraced it.  The idea of being able to be someone else – whether an ancient Chinese poet, a zombie or a vampire has an attraction that transcends cultures.

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As I mentioned, this year my company went all out and had a party on Halloween evening with different departments acting as teams and competing for the best skit.  I was assigned to the rag tag team of departments that were too small for their own group – and we really went all out.  I was the pumpkin queen for Super Mario who was spirited away by an evil thief and then had to be rescued from a series of monsters including a masked belly dancer, a tree, a flute playing assassin and an Egyptian pharaoh.  Our chief legal counsel was Mario – and he impressed everyone with his jumps and acting so much that our team wound up in second place!  It was a blast.

Mario rescued his queen!

Mario rescued his queen!

I find it ironic that after making Halloween merchandise for so many years for the rest of the world, the treats and favors are now being used by Chinese people themselves.

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What was your favorite costume of all time?  I still remember a Care Bear costume that I wore in first or second grade.  That was definitely up there – though this year’s pumpkin was pretty good too.

Happy Halloween!

Seven years!

1 Nov

Seven years ago today I arrived in China for the first time.  The date is forever fixed in my memory as I took off on Halloween and the flight attendants were all wearing Halloween costumes on the plane.  I landed the next day at Terminal 1 at Pudong Airport (terminal 2 did not exist yet) and looked for nearly twenty minutes before I found the representative of the English language training school who had been sent to pick me up.  We got on a bus and headed into the wilds of Shanghai.

I was scared and excited, spoke no Chinese, but figured I could do anything for a month if needed because I had booked a round trip ticket (just in case things didn’t work out.)

Wow.

Seven years.

Shanghai has changed a lot in the last seven years.  Four subway lines have sprouted into 16; two airports with one terminal each have become four total terminals; the high speed train now connects many more places – only five hours to Beijing!  Visas are easier (and harder) to get and the amount of English language signage has increased exponentially.

Prices have gone up – this has not been a stagnant economy.  Lunch prices have close to doubled, rent has increased, plane tickets, clothing, necessities of daily living are all significantly more expensive.  However, more things are available now as well – and if I want to pay I can have an organic smoothie or imported milk or laundry detergent from another country.

I have changed as well.

From my first month on the ground, I put in the time with my Mandarin teachers and textbooks and didn’t really stop until nearly four years later.  I slowly got comfortable speaking in different situations – ordering food, bargaining, daily life, work, on the phone, in presentations until I can now state my case and even argue.  Humor still escapes me most of the time, but that has always been the hardest for me because of the cultural overtones and word play.

As I found my “Chinese voice” I became more aggressive, more likely to speak up for myself – physically louder and more confident.  I managed a cross-cultural team and discovered that to survive in business I could not be a perfectionist or I would go crazy. I visited most all of the skyscrapers (new and old) on the Lujiazui side of the river and consulted with their HR on what the future of their benefit plans could mean.

I am proud to say that I am still friends with at least four individuals I met within the first week or two upon arrival and have watched them get married and/or have kids and/or switch careers.  I have done the same, switching jobs, meeting my husband and continuing to morph in this magical city.

So, upon this seven year “China-versary” I wanted to thank you all for following my ride, for looking into my jumbled view of the world and hope you stay around for whatever comes next.

I promise you won’t be bored.

 

Taxi roulette

27 Sep

Since I switched jobs last year I can no longer walk to work.  I miss my daily walks and now really have to make an effort to get out and about more – either walking in the evening, arranging lunches by my apartment when I work from home or taking a walk near the office at lunch.

Getting to the office means that I either have to take the subway (which is about a 40 minute trip) or a taxi (which takes between 20-30 minutes depending on the traffic).  As I don’t go in every day because of the way my schedule works, I have been taking taxis quite a bit recently.  I know that if I get in a cab before 8am it normally means that I’m at the office by 8:20 and ready to start my day.  Rainy days are always tough – but I’ve had some bad taxi karma in the last several weeks where no matter what I try to do – in the morning it can be almost impossible to get a taxi.

I have my preferred corner and know if there is more than one person waiting at that corner it is normally going to be a very long day.   Sometimes you can see lots of taxis but they are all full.  Sometimes you see lots of empty taxis but they don’t stop.  And sometimes, people cut in front of me at the corner and jump into the taxi.

I have tried different tactics – I have a taxi app on my phone which sometimes will work.  I know if I head out before 7:30 my chances go way up – same thing if I go after 10am.  But really – there is no good way to predict if there will be others at that corner at the same time as me.

Once I get a taxi – it doesn’t mean all is well.  Our office is located near the Huangpu River, but right next to a ferry terminal – so very few taxi drivers have heard of it.  I have become an expert on telling the drivers which  tunnel to go through – which way to go if there is  traffic, how to get un-lost when they take a wrong turn when I wasn’t paying attention and even arguing if they take too long and the fare is higher than I expect.

It is funny how getting that taxi can affect my day and my mood.  When it works – my day starts very smoothly – when it doesn’t I can wind up flushed and discombobulated – not the best way to start my first meeting.

Similarly – getting home from work I have the same situation.  My normal tactic is to leave the office slightly early because of my late phone calls – but even that doesn’t guarantee me a smooth trip home.

Each time I put my arm out I am playing a game of taxi roulette – hoping and hoping that taxi will pull over in front of me and will whisk me off to my next destination.  The taxis remain affordable (about $4 USD one way to the office) and the drivers for the most part are polite and professional.

I would say that this is a cultural difference, but I don’t think so – I think it is a big city standard that I managed to avoid for a long time given the location of my apartment and workplace.  We have considered buying a car – but driving in Shanghai strikes me as even more stressful than playing taxi roulette – then I’d have to worry about parking too!

What tactics do you suggest for managing my taxi frustration?  I know it shouldn’t bother me so much – and occasionally I’ll have a week or so where everything will go perfectly – but that is the exception not the rule.  Any tips?

Flying business

20 Sep

As I mentioned before, I have traveled a lot in the last four months.  I’ve been all over – the States three times, South Korea three times, the UK (Britain and Scotland), Australia, Singapore and Indonesia.  All told I was traveling over two thirds of the time from May through the end of August.

Blue skies

Blue skies

With that much travel, I spent a lot of time in airports – on planes, in lounges and in the duty free shops.  I also saw many, many more blue skies than if I had stayed in China.  My status on Delta and its alliance partners has ticked up to the top and I must admit that I’m getting a little spoiled from not standing in line, cutting security queues and having first access to the plane.

In London I got to explore the Virgin Clubhouse lounge which has waiter service, a hair salon, a music studio and a pool table inside.  In San Francisco, Korean Air uses the British Airways lounge where I was the only person in the highest lounge for nearly an hour with a full buffet to myself.  In Shanghai I now know which lounges let you access the plane directly and avoid the scramble around the gate above.  Sydney’s lounges have a full barista set up where I could get a fresh cup of chai and homemade scone.

A buffet for one

A buffet for one

I bought English breakfast tea and Winston Churchill’s caramels in London, kangaroo jerky in Sydney and my ultimate foot lotion socks in Seoul, plus lots of candy and other small gifts as I made my way through the airports.  I completed a survey on the Seoul airport and got a free toothbrush.

The best way to pamper your feet - only found in Korea.  Single use lotion socks that are incredible!

The best way to pamper your feet – only found in Korea. Single use lotion socks that are incredible!

I spent a weekend exploring the area near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I ate traditional Korean food in Seoul and caught up with old friends in Singapore.  My boss bravely tried haggis in Scotland where I marveled that there was whisky on the breakfast buffet.  I met up with a former colleague for a weekend in San Francisco where we had sourdough bread and met people I haven’t seen in nearly 10 years at an actuarial conference.

My visit to Jakarta was punctuated with a breakfast with one of my first friends from Shanghai who was in my Chinese class way back when I was teaching English.  She’s Indonesian and had moved back with her husband a couple of years ago.  One visit to the States I had a rental car and enjoyed driving again with the windows down.

Of course I also met with clients and colleagues and had conference calls at odd hours.  I struggled through jet lag and time differences and not remembering which room was mine at the hotel because I had three different room numbers in a week and none of them stuck in my head.

Will my carry-on fit?  Of course... I am flying business!

Will my carry-on fit? Of course… I am flying business!

It was fun and invigorating and exhausting.

In short, it was business travel.

I’m ready for a break.

Have you ever traveled a lot for business?  What are your favorite memories?

 

A new year’s ritual – the company new year’s party

11 Jan

The annual dinner or Nian Hui (年会) happens at almost all Chinese companies this time of year.  They run the gamut – the more traditional being elaborate seated Chinese dinners with masters of ceremonies dressed in formal attire to smaller events at a department level.

All of the annual dinners I have attended to date have involved friendly competition, performances and lucky draw raffle prizes to make sure everyone leaves the event in a good mood.  They all also will involve the new Chinese zodiac animal that is coming into season.  Next year is the year of the horse, so horses featured in the 2014 festivities.

Now that I have switched companies I have had the opportunity to see another style of annual dinner.  We celebrated last week and really had a great time.

Similar to my first year in China, I was asked to participate in one of the show elements – a song choice with back up dancers.  It was the Alison Gold song – “Chinese Food.”  The song was ridiculed in the US press because it is not politically correct, but my colleagues were the ones who suggested it – and given the applause we got, enjoyed by all.

My costume for the Chinese Food performance.  I found out later that this is a traditional garment for unmarried girls in North East China.  It was also very hot with the fur collar!

My costume for the Chinese Food performance. I found out later that this is a traditional garment for unmarried girls in North East China. It was also very hot with the fur collar!

Unlike my previous annual dinner experiences though – this wasn’t a sit down dinner – it was a buffet and then followed by the show – which meant that people paid more close  attention to the performance because they weren’t eating simultaneously.  In addition – this event focused on the management team much more than at my previous company – to the point that a lot of the jokes were at the management teams’ expense.  Luckily I got a little bit of a heads up beforehand!

The event was a spectacular – the theme was “Asian style.”  From our Chinese Food performance, to wishing the team happy new year, to a troop of three belly dancers (normally mild-mannered employees), to a “princess choosing her prince” spectacular involving cross dressing and of course a sweet love song – there were jokes and applause for all.  We also selected over twenty people for gift certificates and other prizes.

The final event though, was the re-enactment by the management team of a scene in one of the hottest soap operas running on Chinese TV.  It was a Qing dynasty event – the scene where one concubine accuses the other of having a baby with the doctor instead of the emperor.  A paternity test is demanded and it is found that the first concubine fixed the results.

None of the management team was aware of what the challenge would be prior to that evening and we were broken into two teams – each to reenact the same scene, then the audience would vote.  To make matters more complicated, I don’t read Chinese well and two of the others didn’t read Chinese at all, so it was an English/Chinese mix, but that added to the humor.  My team decided to switch things up – our emperor was a woman – and the favored concubine was the chief legal counsel (a man).  I never would have guessed their hidden talent at acting – it was hilarious.   We were given period dress to wear as well which helped with the humor.

I’m happy to say that my team prevailed with our twist.  I laughed so hard that my sides hurt.

After the festivities were over, about twenty of us headed across the complex to a karaoke bar and sang into the wee hours of the morning.  It was the perfect capstone to a wonderful evening.  We rocked out to Chinese and English hits and celebrated a birthday with cake.

I won’t forget this annual dinner for a long time.  This is one ritual I will stand behind.

Are companies in the US still doing holiday parties?  I know that with the economic downturn many of these events were stopped – but I think that coming together with colleagues outside of the normal leads to another level of trust which results in superior teams.  When was your favorite holiday party?

Back to Beijing

28 Nov

I haven’t been in Beijing for about six months and recently had the opportunity to go back for work twice in the last month.  The first time I went I had heard that the pollution was bad, but I hadn’t realized just how bad until I landed.

Getting in to the car I immediately sensed a strange taste in my mouth.  It was as if a little bit of dirt had gotten into it.  I didn’t notice it at first, but even after a drink of water the taste just wouldn’t go away.  The visitor who I was accompanying took it pretty hard and I knew in his mind, Shanghai was a better city.  It’s funny how the pollution can change your view.

A perfect cup of tea - and a way to wash out my mouth from the grit

A perfect cup of tea – and a way to wash out my mouth from the grit

Because it was his first trip though, I was able to revisit some of my favorite places in Beijing – Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  Even with the gray skies, I still had a good trip.

Posing with Chairman Mao - note the gray sky

Posing with Chairman Mao – note the gray sky

The lions in front of the Forbidden City are just as imposing under gray skies

The lions in front of the Forbidden City are just as imposing under gray skies

This shot was taken just as we left the Forbidden City - I noticed the reflection in the water and thought about how I could capture it.  One of my favorite photos recently.

This shot was taken just as we left the Forbidden City – I noticed the reflection in the water and thought about how I could capture it. One of my favorite photos recently.

My more recent visit the situation was flipped – Shanghai has had high PMI 2.5 levels for the last week and Beijing was clearer.  I flew in the evening and I picked up the most beautiful sunset out of the window as I skimmed across the sky.

The sunset welcomed me back to Beijing on my second trip

The sunset welcomed me back to Beijing on my second trip

I’m happy I’ve made it back to Beijing.  It is a completely different city depending on the weather.  What places fall into that category for you and what times of year should be avoided?

Finding peace in Hangzhou

5 Sep
View from my balcony

View from my balcony

This is the third week in a row I have had a long road trip to a second tier city for work.  Two weeks ago it was Yangzhou, last week Changshu and this week Hangzhou.    Hangzhou was an overnight stay and to tell you the truth, not something I was really looking forward to.

Shame on me!  It was an incredible experience and just what I needed to get out of my funk.

The hotel and conference center was enormous in the Qixi wetland park resort.  Each room had a balcony overlooking water and bamboo.  There was even a comfortable sofa outside with a place to put up my feet.

Cleverly the conference organizers allocated enough time at lunch to go back to my room and rest.  I curled up on the sofa and let the peacefulness wash over me.  Nothing disturbed the quiet save an occasional bird.  It was wonderful.

At peace

At peace

I think that is the amazing part of China – even a business trip can turn into a mini-respite as long as I have eyes to see.

Before we left the hotel gave each guest a box of moon cakes.  I haven’t opened mine yet, but it seems an appropriate gift.  I could see myself returning to take a walk under the full moon and enjoy the autumn weather.

How do you celebrate fall?  Where is your escape?  Have you ever found peace in an unexpected place?

Road trip!

20 Aug

A few weeks ago I went to Yangzhou for work.

After clarifying with my colleague that we were really going to Yangzhou (not Changzhou – which I have been to before), I asked how we would get there.  Typically these type of day trips are by train.  Instead, my colleague informed me that he was going to rent a car and we would drive the 3.5 hours there and 3.5 hours back in one day.  I was in for my first road trip in China.

Yangzhou it turns out is very difficult to get to.  You can take a train to Nanjing and then transfer to the slow train that comes once a day.  Or you can take a bus.  Or you can drive.  My colleague decided driving made the most sense.

As a city, it is known for it’s tourist beauty and a ubiquitously named fried rice dish – Yangzhou Fried Rice.  When I asked around about what to eat – everyone said that dish wasn’t eaten in Yangzhou, but I should try their steamed dumplings.  Since I was going to a client meeting I saw none of the beauty of the city – and I didn’t even get to eat the dumplings because we were in the outer technology park.  That’s ok – eventually I’m sure that I’ll get back there.

Being an American, I know how to settle in to a long car ride.  Early that morning three of us met at the designated pick up point.  I came prepared with a large bottle of water, a small bottle of Coke and two packages of mints.  I also nabbed the passenger seat given my long legs and settled in.

Thinking back over the last six years – I have never been in a car in China for that many hours in one day.  I’ve been in buses, on trains and obviously on airplanes, but car rides are typically limited to taxi rides in the city or occasionally grabbing a ride with a colleague or friend who has a car.  As we battled the ever-present traffic in Shanghai trying to get out of the city, I realized how nice it was to not have to deal with tolls and gas stations – the trains really take care of you from that perspective.

As we steadily drove west the traffic thinned out.  My colleagues and I talked about our upcoming meeting, about their hometowns and about all kinds of other things that only make sense in the confessional of a car.  We crossed bridges and rivers, we drove by huge transformer stations and also passed prosperous looking fields.  Given the heat, everything was deserted except the expressway.

The rightly named - "Big bridge" (大桥)

The rightly named – “Big bridge” (大桥)

After pulling off for a quick stop to stretch our legs at a rest area we headed back to the road.  A flashing sign above our heads warned us that the pavement was 53 degrees Celsius (127 degrees Fahrenheit) and we should give our tires the chance to rest often.  Coming back from the meeting the same sign said the temperature of the pavement was over 57 degrees C (137F).  Talk about hot.

Our meeting went well, we had just enough time for a quick lunch near the client’s factory even though we got lost in the last 20 kilometers because the GPS drove us off the road.  Coming back, the same thing happened.  My colleague finally pulled over and asked a local how to get back to the expressway.  He said that until recently, you went one way, but since they just opened another route, lots of people were getting lost lately.

Finally back on the right track, we settled in again and missed the traffic back into Shanghai.  It was a 10 hour day for a 2 hour meeting in total, but did give me a sense for the road trip here in China.

The best part of the road trip - going home with the sun setting behind you

The best part of the road trip – going home with the sun setting behind you

Where has been your favorite road trip?  What treats do you bring along?  Are you a map reader or a GPS junkie?  Share your stories.

31 Days

7 Jul

When I moved to China over five years ago now, I didn’t know if I would be there three weeks or three years.  This year is come November is my sixth year here.

As my time extended, I started to become aware of a rule that hit during your fifth full year – for tax purposes at some point in that year you need to be out of China for 31 consecutive days.  The day you leave and come back don’t count so it’s actually close to 33 or 34 days out of the country depending on who you ask.

That is a long time to be away from home.

And that is what I have been doing for the last month.

To make things even longer, I had a business trip to Beijing at the front end, so my time away from home has extended even longer.  I can’t wait to get back!

In the last month I have been in four countries, many cities, have been on around 10 flights and racked up thousands of frequent flier miles.  And I am still not home.

I have vacation stories and work stories.  I went on a food crawl in Singapore – tasting the local hawker dishes for an entire afternoon.   I rode the world’s fastest elevator in Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.  I ate my fill of avocados in Washington DC and sat at the Lincoln monument as the sun began to set.  I learned the secret to entering the back door at our Taipei office and met people in Singapore that I have never seen face to face.

I also have not gone to a yoga class, written a blog post, cooked a full meal or seen my Chinese colleagues, though I am working and have been on more conference calls than I would care to admit.  My husband went with me for part of the vacation time, but I haven’t seen him either for coming up on four weeks.

It is discombobulating to be in so many different places but also invigorating.  I remember last year in the fall when I didn’t travel for about three months how antsy I got.  Hopefully this trip will cure me of my traveling bug, at least for a while.

And I know that every five years I get to do it again.  Not bad.

I am back blogging now, but may be a little sporadic until I make it back to China.  The fluidity of my schedule can be tough to predict as well as uploading photos when I am not    home.  Let’s see how it goes.

What is the longest you’ve been away from home?  Why were you away?  If you could take 31 days to travel, where would you go?

Wuzhen – a water village

23 May

In April we held a large event for our vendor community.  Because we called on resources all across China we decided to do a team building event the following day and take advantage of our colleagues from different places all being together.  The location of the offsite was Wuzhen – a water village about two hours outside of Shanghai.

I had been to another water village Zhujiajiao four years before, but that visit had occurred in January so I had never really gotten the full sense of the magic of the water villages before.

For the purist, Wuzhen is not a living water village anymore.  Most of the original houses have been turned into restaurants or guest houses and there are boutique shops that line the streets of the town.  There are myriads of shoe stores, sweet shops selling local delicacies and expensive water taxis that will take the well heeled tourist from one side to the other.  After seeing it though, that doesn’t matter to me – the beauty and peacefulness that I found there made it one of the least crowded and enjoyable mornings I have spent in China thus far.

It started the night we arrived where above the reception area were lanterns representing a dragon and a phoenix.  They illuminated the dark room and gave a sense of magic to the space.

The fire of the dragon

The fire of the dragon

was complemented by the beauty of the phoenix

was complemented by the beauty of the phoenix

That continued into my hotel room where the paintings and four poster bed grounded the space into traditional Chinese history.  From my window I could get a sense of one of the channels of the river running close by, but I couldn’t see into the darkness.  The hotel had planks embedded into the floor in the hallways which gave me the impression that I was walking over a bridge to my room.

Traditional Chinese art on the walls of the room grounded by the wood floors and carved pillars.

Traditional Chinese art on the walls of the room grounded by the wood floors and carved pillars.

The next morning before my meetings I went to wander the paths of the village.  I didn’t have a lot of time, so I tried to see as much as I could.

First view of the canal and the typical transportation by boat

First view of the canal and the typical transportation by boat

Peaceful water with reflection of the trees

Peaceful water with reflection of the trees

Mist rising off the water - the canals are fairly wide

Mist rising off the water – the canals are fairly wide

But the streets are very narrow - you can even touch both sides

But the streets are very narrow – you can even touch both sides

Bridges would cross from one side to the other

Bridges would cross from one side to the other

With gardens on some of the dry land, beckoning me in

With gardens on some of the dry land, beckoning me in

And scenes carved into the wall with bamboo behind reminding me of an earlier time

And scenes carved into the wall with bamboo behind reminding me of an earlier time

The mix of water and lanes and bridges with gardens just on the other side made me feel glad to be alive.  There was mist rising over the rivers and yet I could see the reflections of the trees in the canals.  It was a special place.

Wuzhen also happens to represent the elements which is the weekly travel theme at Where’s My Backpack – the Four Elements.  There is the water of the canals, the wood of the houses, the fire of the lanterns, earth of the bricks that make up the streets and the mist which rises through the air over the entire scene.   To see how others visualized the elements, please feel free to click on the link.

It also links up with the Weekly Photo Challenge this week which is Escape.  For that morning I escaped the loudness, the pollution, the busyness of Shanghai and was able to see a more natural world.  Wuzhen is a true escape from Shanghai.

Where do you escape to?

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