Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Living the TaiTai life

One of the vocabulary words I've learned in Mandarin class has been TaiTai which means Mrs., as in "Zaoshang hao Wang taitai" or Good Morning Mrs. Wang. However, I've also learned that TaiTai has a different, somewhat pujorative, connotation here in Hong Kong where its used to describe the wives of rich businessmen whose life of leisure revolves around shopping, spa treatments, and mah jong.

One of the defining characteristics of a taitai are trips to Shenzhen to get their treatments cheaper than they could in Hong Kong. I guess even though their rich, the taitais don't want to waste money needlessly. One such spa is literally over the border with Shenzhen, and somebody in the MBA office(a HK native) had taken a couple of the girls in the program a month ago, and these girls in turn organized a return trip, attended by both girls and guys, while I was in Beijing.

Everybody raved about this place (one girl from Paris even bought a membership for future discounts), so I felt like I missed out. As a result, when the email was sent about another trip I jumped on the chance for this, um, "cultural experience," and I went last night after a really boring "CEO talk" in Central about how Six Sigma was like Mah Jong. . . Please don't ask. . .

Well after our ride to the end of the KCR line, we found ourselves at the spa at 10pm. It was definitely very chinese looking, but you could tell this was a nice place. Everything was written in chinese characters, but luckily there were a couple of English speaking staff members who could help us. The girls and guys parted ways into our respective locker rooms, and I quickly changed ready to get pampered.

I asked one of the german guys, who came the last time, what we did next, but before I could answer one of the staff members motioned for me to follow him. He pointed to my back, and I figured they wanted to clean my back so that the masseur would work with clean skin. I nodded, and next thing I know I'm on a table and this guy is pouring buckets of water on me and scrubbing my back hard. It kind of hurt, but everytime I tried to leave, I was told to stay put. After 15 minutes I was allowedto get up, and the guy smiled and pointed to all of my skin that was now on the table as if this was a good thing. Seriously, I think I left 5 layers of epidermis behind. . .

As I leave the locker room the other students point and laugh and ask to see my back, which apparentlyis now beet red. Turns out the treatment was extra, but for HK$30, I wasn't going to quibble. Plus, now my back was as smooth as a baby's. Ha!

We were hungry and wanted to eat, but the buffet wasn't starting for 40 minutes, andwe couldn't read the menu. In order to kill time a couple of us went to get foot massages, and I go over just to chat. One of the girls breaks out her Mandarin book, and the staff starts laughing at us trying to practice our Mandarin on them. One of them, good-naturdely, joins us in going Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma (in different tones meaning Mother, Hemp, Horse, Swear. . . It's funny how Swear and Mom have the same sound. . .).

After eating, we go for our 2 hour massages, which felt really good. All the knots in myback were kneaded out and I felt completely relaxed. So much so that I fell asleep in the middle. Afterwards we then went to bed in the massage rooms, where we were allowed to stay until we felt like getting up.

Grand total for the back scrubbing, dinner, 2 hour massage, and ability to sleep overnight: HK$220 (US$28), this place was quite the find. You can't even get a 30 minute massage in the states for that.

However I don't know how much pampering I can take in the future, my back now hurts whenever I take a shower. . .

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

It's Official

I'm going to BCG in Chicago after this crazy B-School experience is over. I definitely procrastinated this decision, because it was a hard one to make. There were things I liked about each firm, and I didn't want to make the trade-offs. Plus, signing on the dotted line symbolized that I'm that much closer to graduation and having to work again. . . Scary. . .

Anyways, time to continue blowing the signing bonus on visits to LKF, "brand name" clothing, and building the movie collection.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Bo - Po - Mo - Fo

I hate to feel dumb and helpless, but that is exactly how I felt in the mainland when I would:

  • Have the hotel write in Chinese Characters where I wanted to go and take on faith that I would get there.
  • Point to things I wanted to eat, or point to the chinese characters conveniently printed in my lonely planet guidebook
  • Play charades with random people by pantomiming airport by sticking out my arms in the form of wings, eating by pointing to my mouth, or bathroom by pointing to . . . well you get the idea.

Not content to repeat these events on my next foray to the Mainland, I've started taking Mandarin classes both here on campus on Tuesdays (when the travel schedule permits) and on Fridays at a private language school with a couple of other students.

Not only do I want to learn the language, but also learn the answers to such mysteries as:

  • When a Chinese speaker sees a new character how do they attempt to sound it out? Ans: by asking somebody or looking in a dictionary. . . which begs the question
  • How do you alphabetize things in a language without an alphabet so that you can look things up? Ans: You sort by the number of strokes.
  • How do you communicate time in a language with no tenses? Ans: You say I go yesterday
  • When translating English names into chinese, the chinese will often use chinese characters that sound similar to the English sounds just like we translate chinese names into things like Tsim Sha Tsui. . . However, given that each character represents a word, does that lead to some interesting translations (i.e. does Chi-ca-go translate to old smelly feet in Chinese)? Ans: They didn't understand the question.

Now yes, I realize that they speak Cantonese here in HK, but there are more Mandarin speakers in the world and I'll get a bigger ROI. Plus, given that I studied in Barcelona (where they speak Catalan natively) to learn Spanish, I figured I should continue the trend of studying foreign languages in inappropriate(notnative speaking) places. If English wasn't my native language I'd go to Montreal to learn English to complete the trifecta.

Anyways, I have good teachers, but any hopes of feeling smarter evaporated during the first class' phonics lessons. . . Repeating sounds over and over just makes you feel like a stupid child. Especially when the teacher goes "not SHI its ZCHI!" and I can't tell the difference or even repeat the sound coming out of her mouth. The feeling of regressing back to childhood was complete when I had to supress a giggle when we repeated the intial (consonant) sounds of Bo - Po - Mo - Fo (hee hee Mo - Fo!)

Added complexity ensues when you add in the tones. For those of you who don't know, Chinese is a tonal language and sound/word can have drastically different meanings depending on which tone (flat, falling, rising, or falling and rising) the word is spoken with. A lot of these homophones make you stop and go, how in the hell did these concepts get associated together. For example:

  • Ma can mean: Mother, Horse, or be a question word
  • Ai can mean: Love or cancer
  • Si can mean: Death or Four.

Given my tone deafness (all of you who saw Follies know what I mean), this language is going to be hard. . . I know I'm going to say something like your horse has cancer and completely confuse the hell out of the listener.

Well, after the first week I can now say Ni Hao (Hello), Zaoshang Hao (Good Morning), Xie Xie (Thank You). Unfortunatley, given the complexity of the language this is probably about as far as I'm going to get.

That's not true, I can also say "Shi Mei Guo Ren" (I am an American), but learning that was a waste of time. I was already able to communicate that concept very easily without language class.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Some more from Beijing

Before I continue, I'm not the only one who has noticed certain chinese habits:


Now back to the regularly scheduled blog entry:

Just because I was traveling by myself in Beijing, doesn’t mean I was always alone. By booking my tours at the hostel I met up with some other travelers. The most interesting was a Chinese girl, my age, from the Sichuan province who was on her way to Cameroon (yes in Africa) to be an English-Chinese translator for a Chinese manufacturing company with operations there.

We met on the trip to the Great Wall, and I learned she had been in Beijing for a week trying to get her visas settled and she was flying out the next day for Cameroonbut wanted to see the sights before she left. She bemoans the fact that she has to endure an 18 hour layover in Paris on her way to Cameroon the next day. Turns out she couldn’t get a French visa in time so she can’t leave the airport during her transit. She explained it was because:

“China is 3rd World”

- “I disagree, it may not be first world but it’s not 3rd world.”

“Yes it is, you have only seen best cities and not the country. In the country we’re 3rd world. That’s why I couldn’t get my visa.”

Touche, she had me there. I take this as my opportunity to ask about the changes she’s seen in her life.

“Well, when I was young my family cooked and heated with wood, had no hot water, and no TV. Now my family has 3 digital cameras, computer with internet, TV, and heat. Plus, the provincial capital now has 8 Starbucks.”

That my friends is China for you. Despite it being "3rd World" it is developing at an astonishing rate. That's not to say there aren't problems, but despite these advances she was still pretty pessimistic.

Earlier as we were walking. . . I mean climbing. . . she said: “The old Chinese were so smart, unlike the Chinese of today.”

- “Why do you think that?”

“The older Chinese were able to build something like this. All we do now is copy.”

- "True, but don't you think you'll innovate, once you learn everything you need to from copying?"

She gives me this weird look, as if I were dumb, and says no without further explanation, and I drop the topic.

Later on, I met a couple of friends of friends who also happened to be in Beijing. Both were friendly Mandarin-speaking expats (I consider someone from HK as an expat), and we had some interesting conversations. I bring up this last conversation to one of them, and she agrees, but elaborates on how the younger generation values making money and consumption above all else and aren't too concerned about how it is achieved.

These are just 2 data points, and whether this sentiment will evolve over time is an open question, but if true it does pose some interesting implications for the future if Chinese society is content only on immitating advances made elsewhere. First it means foreign companies will have to continue to be careful about their IP in China as there won't be a momentum to strengthen IP protections. There will be too many people profiting from the status quo and there will be little Chinese IP to protect, so there won't be an impetus to change. Secondly it poses some interesting questions for Chinese growth. Without strong innovative/entrepreneurial forces, China will achieve a limit as to the growth it can achieve. At some point, the growth coming from getting more labor force participation and basic development will cease and growth will have to comefrom innovation and prodcutivity improvements which will be hard to copy. . .

Other interesting points I learned from my conversations included:

  • The infrastructure (legal system, financial markets, etc.) for full market reform isn’t there yet.
  • Despite your perceptions, there is sometimes talk on Chinese TV about becoming a democracy. It doesn’t get too radical, but talk happens.
  • The Chinese value stability and are worried that liberalizing too radically would undermine that stability. They worry about following in Russia’s footsteps. I'm not sure whether this is a common view, or just one held by elites...
  • The managers of the state owned businesses can be shrewd businessmen.
  • They get CNN and western media, but sometimes when a sensitive topic comes up the signal will get lost or pages will be missing. However, that is relatively rare.
Another topic that came up involved Hong Kong's competitiveness in the new China. One of the
friends of friends mentioned that she had a conversation with a Chines businessman who said that HK and Taiwan used to have an edge and that he sees that edge being whittled away. In that businessman's eyes the HKGese are too demanding of institutions(like the government) and rule-following (i.e. pollyannaish)to succeed, unlike those from China or Taiwan who are willing to use a little Guanxi(connections) to do what needs to get done. Don't know what to think on this point, but it does give me caution about business in China. . .

Another nerdy post, but again I am supposedly here to get an education. . .

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bleating out your favorite hits

It turns out that 2 of the full time students had birthdays within the last week, and to celebrate the entire class, and us exchange students, celebrated by going to Karaoke!

For those of you who have never done Asian style Karaoke, it's a bit different than what we're used to back home. You go to a karaoke parlor which has dozens of studios of various sizes where you and your friends sing in the privacy of your own private room.

Here's a picture to give you an idea of what karaoke here looks like.

Unlike in the US, where it's all about public embarrasment, karaoke here is an intimate thing you do with your friends. . . and apparently something you do to close business deals. I guess making an ass of yourself in front of clients builds trust since if you screw them they'll have blackmail material. . .

Well, I arrived late to find the party well in progress. The social lubricant of choice was Chivas and Green Tea, which apparantely is a a quite popular concoction here in Hong Kong. It's a very potent blend of east and west, a very apt drink for this city, no?

Anyways there was a lot of Chivas fueled singing going on, and I was being implored to join in. Since I was still sober, I was not ready to make an ass of myself, so I protested . . However, another exchange student then asks me "well, what about your Backstreet Boy moves?"

How in the hell did he know about my performance at Follies? That was something I had not shared at all to anyone over here.

I looked at him in utter shock and with my mouth agape. When I didn't respond he continued "I found something on the GSB website telling me about that, so I know it's about you."

Yup, turns out he found out from the trusty internet. I had mentioned that I was blogging to keep in touch with friends at home, and suggested he do the same. He tried to find my blog by Googling my name. He didn't find the blog, but he did find an article from the Chibus (the GSB's student newspaper/gossip rag for those of you not in the GSB) telling people to ask me "to show you his Backstreet Boys moves." DAMN YOU FAISAL!!!!!!!!!

Well that was blood in the water and other students pressured me to sing. Thankfully, I was able to dodge "I want it that way" by singing "It's my life." However that's the beautiful thing about Asian karaoke, you're not singing by yourself. After singing a couple of lines everybody else started joining in, and we all made asses of ourselves together.

Well the Chivas kept flowing so thus the singing continued, with plenty of canto-pop (which I left to the chinese since I couldn't read the chinese character lyrics) and western music being butchered. Not that anybody minded since we were having a great time.

That and the Chivas dulled the pain signals our eardrums were sending. Unfortunately many of us felt pain of a different sortthe next morning, but I digress. . .

Saturday, January 20, 2007

In once forbidden places

Well a couple of weeks ago, as I was supposed to be paying attention in managerial accounting, I realized that Asia was a big place and I wanted to see a lot of it while I was here. I had planned my schedule with classes just on Friday and Saturday, to give me maximum flexibility, and it would be a shame to squander the opportunity.

So, I thought what better time than the present to make some plans and went to a travel agent and see what packages were available. Beijing for HK$3200 (US$420) with 5 days 4 nights Hotel w bkfst and Air . . . Sold! I tried getting a couple others to join me, but others didn’t have a similar schedules and I couldn’t convince me to play hooky. They cited classes, but the real reason for their reluctance was that “it was cold in Beijing right now.” Well, being from Chicago, that didn’t stop me, and away I went. Plus, if it’s above freezing (the highs were in the upper 30s), it’s chilly, it ain’t cold.

Overall, the trip was amazing. Shanghai was great, but Beijing much better. It was the picture of urban China I had in my head before I arrived: Historical sights, Chinese architecture, Stalinist (or should I say Maoist) architecture abutting wide boulevards, the contrast of old Chinese hutongs (alleyways) and modern skyscrapers. Beijing did not disappoint, and I really recommend a visit sometime. Beijing has a palpable history unlike Shanghai which has already paved their history over. Unfortunately, I hear Beijing might do the same. That would truly be a shame.

Most of my trip involved the tourist circuit, which included a tremendous amount of top-notch sights. I seriously made some tracks and saw much of the city. My itinerary(including requisite shots of me in front of the landmark!) included:
  • Tianenmen Square: Absoultely huge square but very totalitarian in appearance. 1984 anybody?

  • The Forbidden City: Huge, overwhelming and absolutely beautiful. There are countless buildings to explore. I spent 4 hours there and barely scratched the surface. It's amazing to see the opulence the Chinese emperors used to live in.

  • Temple of Heaven: A huge beautiful Chinese Temple where the emperors used to pray for good harvests and luck.

  • The Great Wall: Truly magnificent and a great workout (I walked 4km of it). It is at the top of a mountain ridge, and truly snakes away from you to the horizon.

  • Summer Palace: A lakeside palace 15 miles from the Forbidden City. As if the emperor didn't have enough real estate in Beijing. . .

  • Lama Temple: An active tibetan monastery with worshippers and monks. It was very interesting to see Chinese burning incense and praying at the various temples within the complex

  • I paid my respects to Mao’s body: Kind of creepy to see Mao's corpse (or is it a wax replica), though interesting at the same time. The Chinese were very reverential. Many bought flowers to place in the mausoleum. However the reverence ended when you entered the gift shop located not 20ft from his body. Mao's face on a plate anyone?

Unfortunately some of the sights were being renovated for the Olympics. Imagine my disappointment when I pulled into the first courtyard of the Forbidden City to see what the audio guide described as "the most beautiful building in the palace."

Part of the circuit involved a couple of shows, booked at the hostel down the street for 100 RMB ($12.90) vs. the 300 RMB my hotel wanted. I ended up at shows geared for tourists, in effect “lao wei” theater. The acrobatic show was good, not great. The Chinese Opera was interesting to see, and they of course chose a tourist friendly production “Havoc in the Dragon Palace.” It had lots of colorful costumes, singing that was very high and loud, some acrobatics, and some fighting. The translations were fine, but I still couldn’t follow the plot. It involved the monkey king visiting the undersea castle of the sea god to borrow weapons where he created “havoc in the dragon palace.” There was something cultural I was missing. If somebody could explain it to me, I would appreciate it.

I also did a lot of walking around to get a sense of the pulse of the city, and because distances are vast. In my walking, I had some other observations about China:

  • Chinese society is freer than you would expect from western media. I had heard my mom’s stories from studying abroad in Franco’s Spain where people were afraid to break any rule, and figured China would echo that. However, those perceptions were unfounded, like in other cities around the world people go about their business and largely do what they want. You might even say they sometimes take this to an extreme(The sign says Don't step on the ice):
  • Personal space is a not a Chinese concept. You have to get used to being jostled and not having people get out of your way. In stores, from market stalls through high end dept. stores, sales people will not let you shop in peace. They literally stand next to you and follow you as you browse. Somebody mentioned that this could be a side effect of the cultural revolution when there wasn’t much privacy.

  • Similarly, the Chinese will not respect your place in line unless your body is pressing up against the person in front of you. If there is enough room for a body between you and the person in front of you, you are not in line, and somebody will claim that spot. This has happened to me countless times. This does not apply in HK where the British trained their former subjects very well in the art of queuing.
  • The Chinese really enjoy spitting. . . a lot. On any walk within a Chinese city you will loudly hear "HAAACKKKK PITCHOOO" countless times as people dredge their throats and deposit the results at a high velocity on the sidewalk. People will try to avoid hitting you, but there is always the chance for collateral damage.
  • Traffic lights only apply to cars planning on going straight. However if they’re turning, left or right, the light is only a suggestion. If you fail to remember this nuance while walking you might find yourself splayed on the hood of a turning car even when you have the walk signal.
  • Traffic laws do not apply at all to anyone on a bike. Bicyclists can run through lights (even when going straight), ride on the sidewalk, go the wrong way down one-way streets, etc.

As to the last 3 points, you have to always pay attention and keep your wits about you in China at all times, or else you might miss something vitally important.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Negotiations, Part Deux

As part of my walks through Beijing, I came across an indoor market, filled again filled with your favorite "brands," and I decided to try my luck again. Not to belabor the shopping in China topic, but here it goes. . .

After some browsing, I got in lost and I stumbled upon a bulletin board for the staff. This picture should show you what I'm up against:

Well, now that I knew my enemy it was time to start the battle. I needed a light jacket and soon found an “Adidas” one I kind of liked. I tried it on, and asked her price:

“New design. Very popular. For you special price. 680 (US $80).”

- “Come on! That’s the US price and I’m in China.”

“OK! OK! 300! Still very good price.”

- “I’m sorry I’m a student. I don’t have a lot of money I can’t afford that.”

“OK So what you pay?”

- “150”


- “Well I gotta go.” And I start leaving

“OK! OK! 150” and she starts wrapping it. . .

- “Actually I don’t want it anymore, thanks for your help.”

She gets angry. “Come on! You being naughty! You bargain with me and I give you your price! You play me! You waste my time!”

- “I’m not playing you. Sorry, I just changed my mind.”

“You evil mean boy! You waste my time! I in business and need to make sale.”

- “Who’s playing whom here? Plus, just because you want to sell me something doesn’t mean I have to buy.”

I try to leave, but she physically blocks my way and her associate, another small Chinese girl, comes to help impede my path. I was not intimidated mentally or especially physically.

I start pushing through, and she goes “OK! 140,” I break through and she goes “120!” I start walking away and she screams “OK 100!!!!” Meanwhile the other stall-keepers turn to look at the commotion.

I probably could have gotten her down further, but decide to throw in the towel and give her the money. Plus, I actually liked the jacket.

Just like me to create a scene to save a few bucks.

**Sorry this somehow failed to post originally***

As she's bagging the jacket. She says "Tell all your student friends what good deal you get, so they come buy from me."

- "Don't worry, I'll definitely tell them all about it" I respond.

Done and Done, I've kept my word. I guess I'm not such an "evil mean boy" after all, though I doubt this is what she had in mind.

Monday, January 15, 2007

No Hablo Ingles

I'm quickly learning that Caucasian features are a magnet to touts of all types in Mainland China. I'm constantly hearing "Hello DVD/Mah-Sah-Gee/English guide/Rolex/Taxi/Tour, etc. At first my midwestern politeness would take hold and I'd acknowledge the person and say "No Thank You." However many people here are pretty persistant, and that wouldn't shake them. Then I started just ignoring these touts, but that didn't work wither. Lately, I've been pretending I only speak Spanish, which has worked most of the time.

Now, everytime I hear the "Hello Lookie Lookie," I do my part to re-erect the language barrier and say "Lo Siento no hablo ingles." Which always confuses the tout. I can see it in their eyes, they're thinking what kind of lao wei doesn't speak English. Then when they persist, I respond "Lo Siento no te entiendo." with a look of utter incomprehension in my face. Nomally, they then get the point and leave me alone. Some even mutter something under their breath. . . I get the point they're thinking "how useless, a lao wei who can't speak English." Mission accomplished! I'm left in peace. Who knew those many years of spanish education would come in useful?

However, today that strategy met its match. In the walk up to the Forbidden City(yes I'm in Beijing, I'll write more about it when I get back to HK) there were tons of touts. . . The same routine and then I go "No hablo ingles." Then she responds "Ah espanol! Como Estas?" Now she's trying to engage. She quickly realizes the ruse and says "You American! Why you lie!?!" and won't leave me alone. I shake her, but the damage was done and everybody realizes I'm about as American as they come and I'm being pitched everything again. Dammit! I'm going to have to refine my technique for next time.

I am a nerd, N-E-R-D

So, while I'm over here in HK having a good time exploring the region, and Lan Kwai Fong, I am ostensibly here for school. Moreover, I truly do want to make the most of the opportunity to learn as much about China as I can in the 3 short months I am here. Part of the education will entail travelling around, but I do hope to make the most of the resources CUHK has to offer.

To that point, and given my well documented addiction to coffee, it should be no surprise that I attended a lecture from the Starbucks VP of Greater China that the B-School organized. He discussed Starbucks' expansion in China, and gave a real interesting talk. Some of the most interesting points included:
  • The fact that China is a tea culture did not scare them. They had already succeeded in Japan and England which are also tea cultures.
  • Starbucks is expensive here, a Grande Coffee is 20 Yuan ($2.25 US), which is even more expensive than it is back home, and Lattes are 35 ($4.25) . However for the Chinese its even worse given the average salary of 4000-10000 Yuan/month for professionals here in China. As the VP put it, if you made $4000/month would you spend $20 for a cup of coffee? (I wouldn't. Actually that would cause me to break the habit. . . my frugality would win out.)
  • That being said, most Chinese when they think of Starbucks don't think coffee. They think "good environment," which is the hook Starbucks uses here. People here like getting their latte and lounging at the store. Unlike in the US, which is 80% take-out, China is 80% stay-in. As a result, Starbucks has to invest in more comfortable furniture than it does in the US.
  • Apparently in Chinese culture, invitations to visit one's home are reserved for only family and the closest of friends. Invitations to offices involve a lot of protocol over who out-ranks whom, etc. Restaurants had normally been the place to have casual gatherings with acquaintances and business contacts, but those were only good for mealtime, The "good environment" filled the void for these casual meetings in between mealtimes.
  • To adapt to local tastes they have things like Green Tea frappucinos and put more of an emphasis on food(given the long lingering times).
  • Hu Jintao, the president of China, was seen toasting with a Starbucks mug when he was in Seattle. He is also quoted as saying if he were'nt president he'd spend a lot of time at Starbucks. Thus, mayors around China are petitioning Starbucks to enter their cities seeing it as a sign that their city has made it.
Besides the obvious lesson that getting the public endorsement of the head of state of a semi-autocratic country will help business in said country, Starbucks' experience does underline the importance of understanding the local culture of the markets you're entering. It will allow you to highlight and amplify the relevant aspects of your product/business that appeal to the new market, while adapting the other aspects of your business that either are unimportant or potentially negative.

Along similar lines, I heard about an academic conference about China on campus last week and crashed a whole bunch of seminars. The school brought scholars from all over the world to talk about the research on China they were conducting. Some of the talks I went to included:
  • Sino-Japanese Relations : Ups and Downs
  • To Lend or Not to Lend: A Case Study of the Transformation of a Chinese Commercial Bank’s Decision Making on Corporate Loans
  • Marketization Without Privatization: The Politics of Partial Reform in China’s Public Service Units (PSUs)
  • Tax Controversies and the Development of Tax Procedure in China
  • Commodification of Welfare in Shanghai: Managing Risks and Opportunities in a New State-Society Relationship

Most were about as interesting as they sound, but I did learn some interesting tidbits. For example, the state of China is devolving a lot of services (ie. health, education, welfare) to quasi governmental agencies. These agencies are also where 60% of China's educated class work. This allows the government to retain control while minimzing public funding. These agencies are in the process of being reformed to benefit "millions of people," not hundreds of millions so they're being reformed for the employees. . . not those being served.

I'll stop there before I continue to further convice you all of my nerdom.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Everyday I'm being reminded of how hard it can be to translate ideas from one language to another, even amongst those who are very proficient in another language. Not that I can complain, their English is infinitely better than my Mandarin/Cantonese/German/Spanish/French. . .

I can usually understand what writers/speakers are trying to communicate, but it does make me pause and go, huh that's a unique way of putting it. . . the Mainland is notorious for this (rightfully so from my experience), see, but there's still a bit of it in Hong Kong. For example:
  • The head of the dorm is the Warden, I live on Block A, and the staff goes on patrol (though given all the rules and regulations I think it can be appropriate at times)
  • There's a clear sports drink called Pocci Sweat. (Why on Earth would you name a drink "Sweat?" Gross)
A different, phenomenon occurs in class sometimes when the professor stops abruptly and goes "Hmm, I don't know how to say this in English." and will bust out some chinese to which the chinese members of the class will nod or laugh. Meanwhile I'm sitting there not getting in on the joke.

Not to say this is just a Chinese phenomenon. It's pretty universal. . . For Christmas dinner in Hangzhou we met up with some additional Germans through the other Germans on the trip. It was a great family style meal and we ate like kings. I ate a fair amount, but no more than the others. With 7 out of the 10 people at the table being German you can imagine that a lot of German was being spoken, and I ended up tuning out a lot of the conversation and conversing in Spanish with the Spaniard.

However when all the dishes on the table were nearly clean, one of the germans we had just met unsolicietedly yells, in English, across the table to me "Do you need us to order you more food!" Which I interpreted as a pointed remark implying I was being a pig. I got a little defensive and started getting cagey and this only prompted further cross-examination. Turns out he meant to say "Are you still hungry?" and wanted to gauge whether there was interest in ordering more food, no veiled insults implied. . .

Finally, I wasn't going to share this experience given the public nature of the web and the fact a wide audience is reading, Hi Mom and Dad, Hi Grandma and Grandpa! But here it goes. . .

In Hangzhou (on the Shanghai trip), 2 of the Germans, the Spaniard, and I go out for some beers at a bar. Being a weeknight, the bar was very uncrowded. This girl takes an interest in us and comes up to our table and we try to get her to teach us this Chinese dice drinking game we've been seeing everywhere. Her English is pretty poor, so we have no clue what the hell is going on. After a while she tries to get us to leave the bar with her to go dance somewhere else. We decline and she leaves. . .

Then one of the Germans goes "I think she was a bitch."

To which I respond "Huh? Yeah her English was bad, but I actually thought she was pretty friendly. Maybe overly so and a bit forward."

He responds . "Exactly my point!"

I must have given him a perplexed look because he goes "You know, bitch. . . prostitute."

"Oh you mean whore not bitch, and I don't think she was."

"Whore? What is this?"

This then sparks a lesson from me on the interrelated meanings but subtle nuances of bitch (and by extension son of a bitch), slut, whore (and by extension corporate whore which I used to describe myself), and ho. I also explain the etymology of bitch as meaning both female dog and how that evolved to its current usage. I also explain words with stronger connotations and how they should never be used. As I'm explaining, I notice the Spaniard furiously taking notes.

A couple of days later on the train back to Shanghai, he pulls out these notes and says "I learned so much good vocabulary from you this trip."

I'm so glad I did my little part to break down the language barrier one obscene word at a time.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

I really need to take negotiations class

I've been haggling a lot recently for purchases, and I seem to always come out the loser. Well I now know a class to take this spring. . .

A couple of weeks ago I went to Shenzhen, which is just over the border, just to say I went to the Mainland (this was before Shanghai). Now, other than business, one goes to Shenzhen for 3 things: to take cheap domestic flights to the rest of China, get massages and manicures cheaper than you could in HK, or shop for all your favorite "brands." Given that I've been tasked by my sister to find some purses, I decided to partake in the latter. I quickly realized that I had no clue what she would like, so I decided to shop for myself.

In the first store I start looking at watches and quickly zero in on one. After some haggling, I get him down from HKD 500 (US$65) for an "A" quality watch to HKD 250 (US$30), which is what I was told was the normal rate. Well when walking around the mall I was able to hear another gweilo get HKD 150 (US$20) for something similar. D'Oh.

Next, I seriously needed some sunglasses and bought a pair for HKD 70 (US$9) after some negotiation down from HKD 300 (US $40) . . . Well, as I'm walking through the mall, another shopkeeper sees my glasses, points at them and say "Another pair? Special price for you! Only HKD 20 (US$2.)" This happened many times through the rest of the day. . . Double D'Oh!

After that I gave up on Shenzhen shopping and vowed I wouldn't return until I improved my skills. Last night I happened to be visting some travel agencies in Mong Kok and decided to do some practicing at one of the famous night markets there (the "Ladies Market" to be specific but yes they sell plenty of mens clothing).

I see this "Billabong" shirt I like in many of the stalls and start haggling. A few stalls advertised the shirt at HKD 39, I try 10. She says 35, I say 15. She says "No more. best offer." I start leaving expecting her to follow after. Nope. Next stall I raise my price to 20 and get a dismissive hand wave and "Harrmph" sound as if I just called her baby ugly.

Next stall the opening begins at $60 (she really wanted to soak the gweilos), when I mention others were offering 35. She says "These Hong Kong shirts, others cheap china crap." Well I doubt her story, I mean its the exact same shirt as the others, I'm sure they have the same supplier. As I turn to leave she says Fine 35, to which I say no 30. We start bickering for a minute or 2 and then I leave. Now, I know its the equivilent of 60 cents, but its the principle of thing, I need the practice!

I try one last time in the last stall before the market ends. Same song and dance, 39. I offer 30, expecting a big fight. Nope, he goes "OK" without any counter or protest. It was too easy, and I'd been had. Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!

Like in Macau, you never win at somebody else's game.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Across the Pearl River Delta

I noticed that my passport gathered a speck of dust, which signalled to me that I needed to travel somewhere else. The obvious destination was Macau, a short 1 hr ferry ride away from Hong Kong, and I went there with another exchange student from St. Gallen. For those of you that haven't heard of Macau, it was a former Portuguese colony, that like HK is a city-state that is a Special Administrative Region of China. The real reason though to go, is that its being billed as the "Las Vegas of Asia," and of course due to my grandmother's influence I can't pass up an opportunity to gamble. . . or so I thought.

"Las Vegas of Asia" is definitely appropriate to describe the city. However, it's more like the Vegas of the 1970s(or so I've heard) with most of its emphasis on gambling and smaller casinos. However that is rapidly changing, the city is one massive building project with huge in-process casino resorts everywhere. In a few years it will definitely look a lot more like its Nevada cousin whether it will act like it is a different story.

Case in point, after getting my latest passport stamp, we immediately made a beeline for the Sands, one of the newer casinos which is owned by the Venetian in Vegas. However realizing this is too good a market, they're about to open a huge Ventian Macau location this year.

The Sands was a nice casino designed in western style decor, but it had a different feel than any western casino I've been to. Namely,
  • The casinos was a bit hard to find within the building, you had to go upstairs go through a metal detector, etc. A far cry from Vegas where you always know where you can place your bets.

  • There were hardly any slot machines in the casino, those that were there were off to the side in their own special room/area.

  • Baccarat was by far the most popular game, consuming tons of floor space. Next came Sic Bo. There were only a few tables for Carribean stud, blackjack, and roulette. Craps was nowhere to be found.

  • It was kind of quiet and subdued, without that many slot machines there was no clanking, beeping, or "Wheel of Fortune!" to be heard. Moreover, there was no music being played over the loud speakers.

  • There were a lot of people there, but nobody looked like they were having fun. Everybody was very intent on the game at hand. No time for chit chat, laughter, or drinks.

The minimum bet was HKD 100 (US $12.90). Given this, we figured we'd move on. It is called gaming for a reason, so if I'm going to lose my money (and lots of it given that minimum) I want to have a good time. Well we tried the Wynn and Casino Lisboa and found similar situations. The Wynn in Macau looks very similar to its Vegas cousin, a bit smaller but still as opulent. It even has some dancing fountains(though on a smaller scale than the Bellagio).

The Casino Lisboa was kind of dumpy and seedy. I now see where the Imperial Palace in Vegas got its inspiration. Up until 2-3 years ago all the casinos in town, including this one, were part of the same monopoly. I guess when you're the only game in town you don't have to give your guests that much.

Since neither of us were feeling the gambling we decided to explore the cities sites, which included some mediocre museums, a pretty nice old town with Portuguese architecture, and then went go-karting. We also tried some of the local food specialties, and had a nice dinner at a restaurant one of Josekin's friends recommended to us. All in all it was a pretty good day.

On the way back to the ferry terminal I realied that a certain group of friends would kill me if I didn't place a bet before I left. . . So, we went to another Casino Lisboa proprty. . . The Golden Dragon Casino right by the ferry terminal. Again, an Imperial Palace look-a-like, and I played some video blackjack. I lost 5 hands in a row and was out the HKD 50 (US $6). Wasn't happy about the loss, but now I can say I've gambled on 4 different continents.

Anyways, the last part of the adventure was getting home from the ferry terminal in Hong Kong. Since, we missed the last KCR back to campus we had to take the "red minibuses of death" that Josekin told me about. After a lot of searching, and somehelp from a friendly local, we found one thatwas heading towards the university...Well we get on and notice this big display next to the driver. Apparently it tells the speed the driver is going and beeps when he is going over the speed limit. . . Well, there was quite a bit of beeping going on in our journey back to campus. There are also no set stops, you yell to the drive when you want to get off, so it was kind of funny when the other student yelled stop in Cantonese and we went from 80+ km/hr to full stop in 2 seconds. . . glad I was sitting down for that one. . .

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Being Shanghaied

Before I continue, I got rightly called out for my first blog entry. That somebody who suggested I start a blog was Goldenchild. If you all don't like what I have to write, then you can blame him!

Upon arrival to Hong Kong, I learned that some of the students who couldn't go home for the holiday break (yes despite starting classes before Christmas, the school did throw us a bone and give us the week between Christmas and New Years off) were travelling to Shanghai. Anyways, I had only been here 1 week and my innate wanderlust kicked in, so I joined them on the trip. It was 3 Germans, a Spaniard, and me all traveling through China, so it was quite the collision of cultures. English was of course the common language, but I took the opportunity to practice my Spanish. I have to admit, I never thought I would be using Spanish in China, but I'm not complaining.

It was pretty cheap too for such a last minute decision. $380 for flight + 3 nights hotel. I guess Shanghai isn't a popular holiday destination. In fact, when I told somebody I was doing "Christmas in Shanghai" they said it sounded like the title to a bad B movie. . .

We visited Shanghai, Hangzhou (2 hours from Shanghai) and Suzhou (1 hour from Shanghai). All in all it was a great trip. We visited tons of Pagodas, gardens, parks, and just did a lot of walking and exploring of the 3 cities. I say cities, because that is what all 3 of them were. Before arrival I had never heard of Suzhou or Hangzhou, so I thought they were just small towns. Nope, this is China, so while "smaller" they are huge cities in their own right. I mean both have populations of around 6 million people. . . About the size of Chicago and nobody has ever heard of them! Well any westerner that is, every Chinese person I told said they were both beautiful cities, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Hangzhou especially which is centered around a really pretty lake. It also has quite a bit of money, we saw Bentley, Masarati, and Ferrari dealerships and tons of luxury boutiques. . . Apparently Hangzhou is a popular domestic vacation destination for the Chinese . . .

The sites were fun, but the best part of the trip were the only in China experiences we had. . .

First, getting around was extremely difficult without knowing Chinese. I've travelled through non-English speaking countries before, but the language barrier here is on a whole other level. It's just hard to navigate a place which uses a completely different writing style as you.

We would have the hotel write our destination in Chinese characters so we could hand it to a cab driver. However, if there were any hiccups or detours we were toast. . . One time after a particular disastrous time trying to find a bus to take us to the island of Putoshan (which got dropped from the itinerary since we could never find the bus to take us to the ferry), our Spanish friend had to resort to writing "HELP" on a piece of paper and walking through the streets. Although, it did work it took a while to find an English speaker. Once we found her, we did not want to let her leave.

Hopefully this shows you our dilemma:

Second, the rate of progress in at least the major coastal cities is astonishing. Part of the reason we couldn't find the bus to Putoshan was because the bus station was moved to make way for another development. Frankly, in Shanghai, every other block was a construction site. There were so many skyscrapers being built at every turn. However, there does seem to be an element of haste in all the building so it makes you wonder if bad investment decisions are being made. . . Case in point, the maglev to the airport. Awesome train ride, it went 300+ km/hr and travelled 30km in like 5-6. However it was still a 20 minute cab ride to get to downtown from the city terminal. Cool to say I've taken a maglev, but not ultra convenient. Additionally the development is causing so much pollution. Again what you hear is true. We went to the top of the tallest building in the city(4th tallest in the world after the Sears Tower) on a clear day and couldn't see very far due to all the haze.

Third, while in Hangzhou we met up with a German classmate of one of the Germans on our trip who was interning there. He took us to a Chinese club, run by the city government, where we were the Lao wei(gweilo in Cantonese or foreigner in English). Because we were such a novelty, we didn't pay any cover and were ushered to a table in a private room. Although the funniest thing was the dance floor, it was on springs so it bounced under the weight of all the dancing. Plus, the place was teeming with cops who were there to make sure the partiers were having fun, but not too much fun. We saw multiple forced evictions from the dance floor for infractions such as kissing, dancing too wildly, or standing on the platform with the cops(which my friend was allowed to do because he was lao wei). I think it was a pretty good metaphor, the government letting the population have fun but keeping a close eye to make sure it didn't get too out of hand...that being said we found plenty of people finding ways to do what they wanted.

Fourth, while in Hangzhou we became the center of attention again. The group of us was trying to figure out what to do when an old man approached me and started speaking to me in English. Turns out, he learned English by working with all the foreigners in Shanghai back in the 1940s. His English was pretty good, and we started chatting. Next thing I knew there was a crowd of 100 Chinese surrounding us watching our conversation. For some reason they found us more interesting than the singer a few steps away. Then the old man suggested we sing for the crowd some English songs. It took some cajoling, but eventually he got us to sing Jingle Bells and Auld Land Syne (which for some reason he had the English lyrics in his pocket). We butchered the songs, but for some reason the crowd loved it. The old man said that if we waited or returned later he would get us coverage in the Hangzhou newspaper. We didn't take him up on the offer, but it struck us as funny. Why would the paper want to cover us, were we that much of a novelty? This is the type of thing you hear about in a small Kansas town, not a 6MM person city. Plus, this was a pretty major city close to the coast. . . what would happen if we went to a smaller town in the interior? That's not even metnioning the fact that one of the Germans, who is blond and over 6 foot tall, kept getting asked to take pictures with the locals.

Fifth, our package included a 3 night stay at a Shanghai Holiday Inn which was pretty nice. Much better than any Holiday Inn in the USA. In the hotel, we stumbled into the hotel "sauna" when looking for the gym. It turned out to be a massage parlor that asked us if we wanted "special" services here or in our room. Let's just say it boggled our mind that a Western hotel chain would offer such services to us. . .

Sixth, copying is rampant in China. We were constantly asked if we wanted Handbags, watches, DVDs which were all pirated. Even when not outright copied, there are plenty of firms that have been "inspired" by western companies. Case in point:

Finally, I will leave you with additional proof as to why dining in China is always an adventure:

And so the adventure began

So, in the midst of all the emailing and skyping back home, somebody suggested I start a blog documenting my time here. Namely, so I could keep everybody up to date about my time in Asia without repeating myself multiple times. Well, even though I've never been one for writing, I thought it was a good idea, so without further ado here it goes. . .

Well I arrived here 3 weeks ago after flying business from Chicago via Tokyo on American and Cathay Pacific. Definitely the way to go for such an interminably long flight. . . Before, I go on I'd like to thank Citibank for providing me the 25,000 miles that made the pampered journey possible. :)

I then went from travel luxury to my home for the next 3.5 months, a dorm on the CUHK campus. . . After living for 5 years in an apartment it has been quite the shock to go back to a dorm. That being said it's not too much smaller than a HK apartment. I'm not kidding, one of the exchange students who is renting in Central has such a small apartment that the bed comes out of the ceiling at night and hovers over the dining room table.

The worst part, is that I'm about 45-60 minutes via public transit to go to downtown and all the excitement. Don't worry I've been making the commute often, but its a pain in the ass! I'm living in the Hyde Park(w/o the crime) of Hong Kong. . . which is ironic since at home I purposefully chose to stay in Lakeview so I would be close to fun and would commute to classes. Here I reversed it. Although, it's the right choice since I'm paying 1/10th of what I would for an apartment. . . Just more money to spend on travel.

Classes have already began. I'm taking Managerial Accounting, Buyer Behavior, and Organizational Behavior. So far, they haven't knocked my socks off. Better than the worst classes I had at the GSB, but in no way near some of the best classes either. Well everybody said classes were not the reason to go on an IBEP. . .

I do like the other students though and friends of friends I've met. One plus of living in the dorm is that I've gotten to know a bunch of them, and make friends. it's definitely quite the international crowd here. We've got HK, Mainland China, Germany, France, Spain, USA and Canada represented. I'm also in a part time class and that group has already invited me out to eat with them a couple of times. Once to the Royal Yacht Club which was really nice, and another time to the on-campus staff restaurant for dim sum where I tried such delicacies as duck tongue and chicken feet. . . I'm glad I tried them but they're definitely acquired tastes. . .

I'm starting to get used to Hong Kong. It's a very cool city. Definitely Asian, but with enough familiarity that it's not a true culture shock. That being said, there have been some things that have caught my attention. In no particular order, here are some observations on life over here:
  • Shopping is so pervasive. Not including the multiple story malls, I swear every last inch of street facing property has a store on it. Even though caveat emptor reigns there are some good deals. My mom and sister, who kept mentioning how they heard the shopping was good here, would not be disappointed.
  • Eating is always an adventure and is generally cheap. HK has got some great restaurants and there is some great street food here. Even the canteens on campus, where I mostly eat, are pretty good. However, I never exactly know what I'm going to get. . .The English descriptions are usually very vague (i.e. chicken with Chinese vegetables and noodles/rice) and there are usually 5 dishes that sound similar. It's always food roulette and I never know if I'm going to come out the winner.
  • Similar to above, when ordering any meat product expect parts of the animal that in the US would be cut away and thrown out to be placed on your plate. Fish often come whole with bones head and tail for your inspection. When ordering pork, you get the skin and fat at no extra charge. There is no such thing as boneless chicken breast. Many restaurants, including the on-campus canteens, have whole cooked birds hanging in the window and they chop up the bird for you.
  • Christmas, while celebrated, is the most secular thing you will ever see. Not that I'm the most religious person out there, but it was weird to see no mention of Jesus during the holiday season. There was Christmas spirit, it was just all about Santa Claus and presents. I'm sure it was the merchants of Hong Kong realizing how good it would be for business if they "imported Christmas" to Asia. Ah, got to love unbridled capitalism.

Well that's it for know. I have to get to bed. . .