RIDING THE DRAGON
SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS AND LIFE IN CHINA
Humbly submitted by
May I do the people and the land of this great country justice
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Beginning
2. The Real Beginning
3. The Realer Beginning
5. The Realest
7. My Managers
10. Break- China Strategy
11. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou Loop
16. Happy New Year!
19. Home again - My moment
21. The Lido
22. Tianjin - Taiyuan
24. Award Trip Bangkok - Hong Kong
25. K's Story
30. Back to Beijing
31. Family Day
32. Hong Kong
34. Bell Lap
36. The End?
CHAPTER 1 THE BEGINNING
I can remember how this all started like it was yesterday, corny start, but so appropriate. I was in Florida for the launch meeting of our newest product, an antihistamine, which we were to be co-promoting with a French operation. Launches in our industry are historically big and splashy affairs as it takes so much time, effort and money to get a product to market. By latest estimates this conservatively takes about 12 years and $250 million and with no guarantee of success either! I, however, was really a little bit nervous about the whole thing because new products in the northeast have in the past started off a step behind the rest of the country. For example, my second year as a sales manager as we launched our soon to be blockbuster antidepressant it turned out to be a personal nightmare.
We were all given a flat 6% market share as quota. Fair 'nuff, except that our division was developed to solely call on primary care, while another division called solely on specialists. Consequently our quota was based on the market generated by all these groups combined with the problem that in the NY area there a gazillion psychs and few primary care doctors are going to try a new product like this first. So for the initial couple of years we fought like bulldogs trying to convince these healthcare providers to lead the charge, but it just didn't happen big and fast enough. As such we went south in the ratings in a hurry. I felt terrible as a new division the 1993 sales report set the tone and I was concerned about what they say about first impressions. However, the next year, 1994, my district to their credit, began crawling out the pit rising to #42, I was so pleased, I knew we were on the right track. We were selling smart and now our quota was partially based on our own sales history (for example a given products sales for the previous year) We continued the trend and smoked three years solid, it was a slow start but once moving we were unstoppable. I couldn't have bee prouder of my own efforts but far more importantly my team. We finally in the limelight and could witness all of our incredible hard work. It may have taken being three time Winner's Circle members and over 5 years to get where I felt we belonged and get my people promoted, but dude, we did it and by the way in fine style. I think the saying goes "it just doesn't get any better than this." And I am here to tell you so.
Well, I've been interested in international operations since coming to the company. I spent 5 years in Germany with the Army and loved it, my wife is British and a lot of my family still live in Germany. I think everyone in the world knew of my desire, but as of late I was beginning to give up on the idea. International just didn't take many people from the domestic side of the house. Matter of fact I can think of only two, the guy I replaced and a guy I trained with in 1986 who went to international marketing. So, I was beginning to get used to the idea of staying in the NY area for awhile, maybe find something in HQs or something, because I really didn't want to move to some other part of the country. Of course, I blinked, China!? Man, I was thinking more of Brussels, Heidelberg or London! And on top of that, my partner tells me they're looking for a senior manager with no kids. Nuts, I'm out before I even get to the plate. And finally he says, I'm not sure this is general knowledge so watch the follow-up. Follow-up, are you kidding?
CHAPTER 2 THE REAL BEGINNING
Well, lo and behold, about two weeks later I get a voice mail from my boss saying that my name is passing through domestic sales vice presidents which is actually turning out OK, because I'm getting some publicity. Not only do the head honchos get to see my name, but also see that I've got the stones to show an interest to go to a place like China, for even though this is a huge potential market, most domestic managers didn't view this as favorable place to live nor enhance one's career opportunity. At this point, domestic and international are two different beasts and leaving US sales would not necessarily ensure an ultimate return. But best of all my performance has been good enough to earn this approval, so far not too shabby, I've got three levels of upper sales manement approval. If this went no farther, I've done well.
Shoooot, I can't believe it, about another week later, my manager forwards a voice mail from the sales Vice President saying congratulations to me, I'm wanted in Headquarters for an interview.
Now I'm like a puppy with a new toy. I'm shocked that I'm even being considered, what happened to a senior manager? No kids? What's going on? Well, hell, I've been on courtesy interviews before, but I'm convinced for some odd reason that this may lead to something no matter what, so I prepare like a madman for this. I run my resume past about a dozen people, I get books out from the library, I call people in marketing for background information and I even go to my boss for guidance - 'magine that! He tells me at our little get together that four people are in the running all are senior guys with no children at home, which I must admit scares me just a skosh. However, he adds that two of them, and I know one somewhat, are not 100% into it. The other guy, also from the northeast is out for bear, he's the one to beat. I feel my pluses are more international experience, solid and uninterrupted track record and pants afire! On the other hand he brings loads of experience and just finished an assignment at Headquarters which allows for a bit of networking.
I get a fresh haircut, new hair gel and a brand new plain maroon tie to go with my heavy white starched shirt and blue pin stripe Hickey Freeman suit. Man I am going into this interview both guns blazing, I was even starting to amaze myself! The final touch was the day before my interview I'm out with one of my representatives and what do I find in a doctor's office but the newest Time magazine. And what is their feature story this week? Yep, China - no Providence, huh? It gets even odder. Five years earlier when I interviewed for this current position it was a two step jump, just like this. And the night before I had the interview, I met a female colleague that I kind of like in the hotel I was staying at. And then the same deja vu happens for this interview. Now I'm even starting to feel good about this. Just for information, my district had hosted an after hours program aboard the Spirit of New Jersey, then night before my interview. After the program I checked into the Weehawken Ramada and then the next day just drove on into the city. It was there I met Terry, just like the event five years earlier.
I won't go into much detail on the interviews except that it was fairly grueling, as are any interviews for such an important position. My first stop was with the one of the heavies in international personnel. I must admit I thought I blew it with him, because his very first question was "why?" and I blinked. I had rehearsed all of my responses but this caught me off guard being the absolute first question. But I held my own after and was particularly proud of the fact that when he, being a former Army officer also, used some colorful language a couple of times and I didn't take the bait. Unusual for me, as I like spice in my conversation. The second interview was with a guy from training. Here I lost some steam, started doing the humana, humana at one or two questions because he's really firing them at me. I'm doing my best "hookin' and jabbin" and scrambling a like a madman, I want this and if I'm going down it will be fighting like badger. Yet maybe it's bit like long distance running, something I really enjoy. If you're really pushing hard and just when you think you're about to hit the wall a second wind rolls in like a shot of adrenalin. Maybe that's just what happened!
And then, amazingly, it happens, I'm invited to China to interview. Well, I can't tell you the emotions I felt about this. Based on my initial impressions I didn't even think I would GET an interview much less be asked to fly there to for a second round. I'm dancing in the streets I got the word while taking an administration day (which means digging out from paper in my home office instead of being out in the field with sales representatives) My aunt from England was visiting for a few weeks and really wasn't to crazy about the idea because she's all alone and really enjoys her visits to the US, what would happen with China? Matter of fact we got into a bit of row as she would say over the whole thing which I kind of expected. Right now family, my parents for example, is readily accessible not necessarily so when in the Far East. Bound to be a little stress for everyone as we wander off for three years or so.
So, anywho, I'm apparently on my way. Truly there was no question but I was scheduled to attend a course through the Army Reserves, the Psychological Operations Course and that was a bit of an issue. A bit about this for a moment. Now, I'm a West Point graduate and for sure I am at times embarrassed that I have walked the halls as some of the great soldiers that have preceded me. Men like Meade, Lee, Pershing, Patton and, of late, Schwarzkopf, definitely shapers of world history and events. Nonetheless, I've made my mark as small as it may be. I've jumped out of airplanes, froze my ass off in German training areas and done more pushups than the average housefly. I may not have fought in a war nor lead a victorious charge, but I've served my country well and earned the respect of a few decent people along the way. And frankly, I'm damned proud of that.
I can remember while I was contemplating getting out of the Army I attended one of these headhunter programs run by a right horses backside who not only later blasted the Advanced degree I was pursuing, but also ridiculed the Army Reserves along the way. Well, I was too naive in just about everything then, not that I consider myself any smarter now, and really bought into what he said. But, ole Robert Cones never did take me under his wing, I became somewhat successful without him and enjoyed the hell out of one the US governments finest programs. My compliments to Major C. Johnson, Command Sergeant Major Grocott and Sergeant First Class T Clauss, the world is better place because of people like you.
I really did some great things with the Army Reserves, just to name a few would be to go to Civil Affairs Training at Fort Bragg, missions with 10th Special Forces and an exchange program with the Bundeswehr (German Army) Not to mention made some great friends along the way and drank a few gallons of beer with them. But to get back on track, I had completed the correspondence phase of this course and was slated to attend the residency phase at, of course, the same time my interview in China. This would be no problem if I got the job, but if not...
More importantly though, I would get to see Fred. Now, you know a little about me now, but without telling you about Fred, this book wouldn't be complete. Here, folks is a special man. We served together in the 3d Infantry Division Artillery in Germany and along the way forged a life long friendship. So much so that he is now the Godfather of all three of my children. So much so that when he was fatally injured in a car accident in Miami that my wife and I went to the hospital and helped identify him. So much so that when this course coincided with Fred's return stateside form a three year tour in Japan and I would be able to see him after many years, that I was ready to ask for a different interview date in China. Fred, being the way he is, told me to go to China. The world should have more people like you my friend.
So off I go. So off we go. My company being the progressive operation that it is wants my wife to come along seeing this really is a team deal. Too much stress and culture shock not to have total family support. United flight 801, Newark - Tokyo - Bejing, here we come.
Wow, I've done many a transcontinental flight to Europe, but this 16 hour jaunt to Peking is a new experience. Three meals and two full length films will give any seasoned traveler a second thought about cortizone. But we gut it out, touch down in Beijing and thank God for my training in Peru where'd I spent a summer exchange program with while at West Point, there were no surprises. Even now after flying dozens of times out of that airport I am amazed that a country with this kind of growth, this kind of traffic and desire to be an world leader can have such a nightmare for it's flagship station. Then to top it off, I couldn't find our escort, not that my thirty-five words of Chinese were not enough, it's just that we were beat to a pulp and I was somehow expecting a slightly warmer welcome for the position that I was interviewing for.
But no big deal, I would later learn that this is the typical chaos of Beijing International we eventually hook up and head for the Kun Lun hotel on the second ring road. Now here we are, this is what you bought the book for, 15 pages later we finally get to hear about China. But hell, if you wanted this from page 1 you already will never be able to appreciate this incredible place. China is far to large and complex place to ever appreciate from one book, without emotion or from page one of anything. It is a total experience, nothing less, and that is why I am providing all this other minutia. China has to be seen and felt as a package, anything less would do the country and it's people an injustice, and certainly would do the same to you. A visit here would be a waste if you view all my previous ramblings as such. I warn you now, I have listened to the worthless ramblings of many a so called world traveler who's "been there, done that" just because they had the money or worthless inclination to do so. Appreciate what I have blithered on about so far and you just may be ready for a visit, and the country may just be ready for you.
I've already described the airport, and I must admit I was kind of expecting the same for the highways nearby and if you've ever spoken to anyone whose been in Beijing a mere nine years ago that is quite understandable. But what greeted me was a pretty squared away six lane interstate that zipped us right to the hotel. Apparently, one of the reasons this road was built was part of China's bid for the 2000 Olympics, a real genuine attempt to gain international acceptance. So, if you could see many of China's other road networks and then this, you could gain a little appreciation as to why they were a little miffed when Australia got the nod.
So there we were checking into this luxury hotel, marble everywhere, employees every where, just plain luxury five star accommodations, hello, am I in China? Yes you are sir, in perfect English and we're settling in to anything as good as if not better than equivalent US digs. Man, I'm loving it, despite being put in coach on the way over here, much to my wife's displeasure (with the position you're interviewing for, you should be on the company jet, helicopter, spaceship etc, etc.) this place is AOK. By now my internal clock is so off balance (12 hour time difference for those who don't know) I say come on let's see what's up, and oh by the way, it's 11:00 on a Sunday night. Well guess what, everything's up, the sauna is open til 2AM, one (of many) restaurants is open and the night club is just starting to crank. And in we go, Rmb 50 per and we're in this Euroschlock environment with thumping hiphop and dance music, smoke and more leather and lace than a poor boy should have to bear. Welcome to China! This is communism? I would might've never joined the US Army if I'd have known! Probably the biggest eye opener of my life. Naturally, I felt obligated to drink a few $5 Buds, bump and grind with my wife and fantasize about the beauty around me! I'm telling you my start in the PRC was not too shabby.
The next day however, starts the business for real. Now, everything comes down to the nitty gritty. The guy I'm interviewing with has spent over thirty years with the company, served on three continents, and makes me feel small. How, think I am I going to keep my own? However, if one thing to my credit after the three hour grilling I get is I didn't blink this time. When asked why, I have the answer nailed, cold, I'm ready. I even quasi handle the chopsticks at lunch. Yessiree, I have hit stride. That is, of course, until the marketing director takes my wife and I out to dinner that night. Off we go the finest hotel in Beijing, The Palace, again, it will give anything in the West a run for it's money. And me, I'm figuring this could be a once in a life time opportunity, yes please bring me the bird's nest soup, Peking duck, yes some of that delicious steamed fish, oh, it comes with the head on and I'm supposed to eat the head or at least the eyes? Fine, bring two, except I forget that my wife blanches barbecuing hamburgers. And if you don't eat the bird's nest while warm it congeals and has the consistency of egg white.
The fish came out with the head on, of course, after living here for awhile I finally realized that this is so basic I may as well expect fruit after the meal. But my wife is having none of this thank you very much. It was enough to get a few mouthfuls of soup down and now comes the waiter to show us the live fish first. Already she's anticipating the inevitable when from one of the private rooms behind us, a patron steps out loudly clearly his throat and expectorates upon the floor. This by the way is a national sport here in China. Don't play with the air sickness bags in the planes, they are very common repositories! But she's already teetering because of this and now out comes the coup de grace, steamed fish complete with intact head. Well with that little display she's turning white and I see my entire interview heading south. I respond immediately, I ask our host to request that the waiter to remove the fish head, quick thinking dude! Well, combined with his FORTY-five words of Chinese the waiter more than willing to oblige these foreigners deftly removes the head, plops it on a plate and places it directly in front of my wife. You see she is the guest of honor and the fish head is a delicacy and with our hacked Chinese, the poor waiter thought that's exactly what we wanted. I sure hope the carpet's soft for my wife's landing! Oh by the way, this is in the Palace, the finest hotel in Peking, just thought you might need to be reminded.
Next day we're on our way back to Beijing International, this time however, first class on China Air, which means we get a little gift - I think it was leather business card holder. I've gotten some pretty neat gifts since, duffel bags, tie tacs, but don't get me wrong I've flown an awful lot of coach also, not to mention a Tupelov or two! But not this time, no sir, big cozy 7-4-7 and a one hour flight to Luda, once again ladies and gentlemen, King Kong is in the house!
We get picked up by Wang Fan, who will ultimately be my secretary and my predecessor's driver. And actually I'm quite surprised at Luda's airport, quite crowded (shocker eh?) but cleaner and newer than Beijing and off we go to "The Zone." Sounds ominous doesn't it? What it is, though, is a specially created economic trade zone of which there are about a dozen major ones in China since they opened their doors to outside trade. But this is no dinky international trade zone like near me in Mount Olive, no siree, this is about 150 thousand people and light industry ranging from us to Canon to Pittsburgh Plate Glass. With construction of the new highway from the airport and downtown to the zone it take us almost 90 minutes, now that it's done, it's only about thirty.
But now I get my first real taste of the other side of China. I'm sure tourists whip in and out of Shanghai, Beijing and Qindgdao, stay at the Holiday Inn, Hilton or China World, eat foreign Chinese food and claim in the most blase manner to their cocktail set that they've seen China. Horsefeathers. Take a casual perusal of the people living along side this new road and you get a real view of what many Chinese really live like. Low, squat buildings and small rooms that are home, washing hands, face and veggies in bowls outside the door because there's more room. Right on the side of an eight lane quasi highway. This is it boys and girls, not what the average tourist sees, but Luda is an aggressive and mobile city struggling to be known as the Hong Kong of the north. Hard to believe, of course, until your realize, really realize that the average Chinese earn bout $100 per month, yes indeed. Our employees are some of the best paid in the country, and while certainly below US wages, far better than any local firm or government job.
Which makes me all the more proud of our operation, we make quality products and provide a working environment that make people want to stay, can't really ask for much more!
Once again we roll into an unbelievably beautiful hotel, marble everywhere, more employees than you can shake a stick at. You see, nothing is made of wood in China, there is none, practically the entire country has been denuded over the years for construction and fuel This especially so during the Great Leap Forward when Mao Tse Tung ordered the doubling of iron output and everything made of metal was melted down to meet this insane edict. Furthermore labor is so inexpensive that is not uncommon for a 200 room hotel to have some 500 employees. But this time I'm not looking for a club to hang out in, I'm thinking about the next day and what it's going to mean. Good thing anyway, because the only thing available here is a huge Karaoke/disco, no joke, dance floor, lights and all the while someone is singing Chinese mood songs. Problem is I can't drink enough to survive them. Furthermore, this is one fine place to meet attractive single women who for a Rmb 100 will talk to you (maybe in English) or provide a duet for karaoke. They also seemed to have many a fashion show which means tall Lanoning province women wearing racy Western clothing parading around the dance floor. Hey, cool by me, I love cultural things. Later on when I was here single for a couple of months, these places became far too dangerous. Kind of reminded of that scene in "Cabin Boy" with the six armed seductress in the cave.
But anyway, that night I'm focusing in a big way. I meet the man tomorrow, this is it, the final hurdle if I'm gonna cut it. And suddenly, I do feel kind of strange, for a moment I wonder if this is what I really want. This strange feeling and thoughts also hits me on the plane when I'm hanging out in the back by the cans standing for awhile. All of a sudden I feel doubt, and man that is one thing that terrifies me, everyone has their demons and this is mine. If I don't feel calm, cool and collect about something it's not good, and shit now I'm even feeling doubt. I mean I like Jersey, I liked being a sales manager, had a really great crew and even though I'm not all that close to family it was kind of nice being nearby. I've been away from home before, but goodness gracious we're talking China here! But I also realize that things are changing in domestic operations and right now I'm doing well and know that you've got to sell while the stocks are hot. So, these little thoughts and demons are playing on my mind, of course, just what I needed.
The morning comes in spectacular style. Spring 1996 in north China in my opinion was absolutely beautiful, perfect weather, temperature and everything in bloom. As I wait for my wife to dress I look out the window watching what would be a US Army Brigade of people running, seriously, doing their morning exercises! Man, and they were keeping some kind of sharp formation, I swear they knew exactly how companies and battalions are structured. Pretty neat I thought, good sight to get me in the right psych.
This time I get only a two hour drilling, but also get to visit a number of different personnel, finance, human resources, commercial and manufacturing directors, all people I would be working closely with in the future though I didn't know it then. My wife in the meantime went for a tour of the zone with the GM's wife. Even got to see the friendship store, know what that is? Well I'll tell you. Way before China was so friendly to us foreigners, the only way to get foreign currency was through these state run stores that charged exorbitant prices and in essence fleeced us unabashedly. No doubt quality is good and then the only place to find western goods (for example, Sensor razor blades) and I must be fair the prices have become more reasonable since opening to the West. The afternoon was taken up by a tour of Luda by Wang Fan, who proved to be most gracious tourguide. Even took us to William's Burger, no Mickey D's in Luda only KFC, locally referred to as "Kentucky." And before I knew it, the show was over, we caught a late night flight to Beijing and stayed at the Holdiday Inn Lido, a favorite ex-pat hangout.
You got to love the Lido, all that a Meiguo ren (American) could love and want is there, to include US prices, God Bless China, but it worked out quite well because the International School was still on their premises at that time and we got to make a very short but impressionable visit. Even took a few pix of the place for their future students (though, of course, we didn't know it then, but, of course you already know this!) Right after we jumped on the shuttle and at 10:05 we're on our way back. Rarely have I felt such a whirlwind, such excitement, such control, but doubt too.
And, by God, when I was contemplating everything by the pots on the way back, I really felt like this was going to happen, and you know, I think maybe I was a little scared.
The next day, Friday, we had a district sales meeting where we review sales strategies, marketing data etc for the upcoming few months in NYC. Spouses were invited because of our sales performance with one of our products, a reward type thing. So we picked some pretty nice digs and I think everyone had a fairly decent time. One odd feeling sticks with me to this day as I was walking about those three days, you know it's really not that crowded here. Man, I really was ready for the People's Republic!
CHAPTER 3 THE REALER BEGINNING
Now I've been on a couple of interviews before and there are a two sure things; good news comes by phone, bad by letter, good news comes right away, bad takes a long time. I've been waiting almost two weeks now and still I haven't heard a thing, even to the point where I'm asking my worthless boss if there's anything he can find out. I'm really sweating it by this point, because now I really want it, despite having another ripsnortin' year going I am really hooked on the whole idea, and in no small part due to the great interviewing trip. I was sure I did a great job, yet there was still no answer, what was going on? Then it came.
Characteristic of my boss's style. I get a message on voicemail, "Nick, would you please give me a call at home (or the office) Thank you." Never an inkling as to what was going, nor how to prepare or what to expect. It was the most nerve wracking way of doing things that I could imagine. I never did that and the best part was that inevitably it means bad news. I am so tense, that I can't even dial the phone. I've got a reserve meeting at Fort Dix that night so I just jump in the car and hope that at some time on the way I get up enough strength to make the call.
Finally, half way down the Jersey Turnpike I finally do it - I think it was exit 10, the outer bridge to Staten Island. And I don't remember much of that conversation except he says "how do you say congratulations in Chinese?" Zhu he ni. I'm on my way!
CHAPTER 5 THE REALEST
There is no Chapter 4, because, you see, 4 is a bit of an unlucky number here. When pronounced, si, it sounds like the word for death. Few Chinese will stay on the 4th or 14th floor of a hotel. So, just to be on the safe side, I will not have a dead chapter in my notes.
Well, I'm all a-tingle, I call just about everybody who is unlucky enough to have given me their phone number. This is the biggest news since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Local boy does good. Godamnit, I am genuinely really excited. And, shit, I'm not even sure why! I mean when some of my colleagues heard this, they said I was fucking nuts and some others weren't sure where China even was. I remember faxing something in a local store and the woman manning the facsimile machine saying "they have faxes there?" Damn, woman they even have toilets!(though not everywhere I must admit) But the second most important call I make is to my district, the first to my wife, natch, and tell them "short fuse" whenever I had an urgent something, which I am proud to say was infrequently. (short fuse was an old Army term, meant it would detonate quickly) We need to get together to wish Damien good-bye, he was a trainee in my territory who was supposed to replace one of my guys that was supposed to be going to international in eastern Europe, but wasn't. A happy ending here is that now he is indeed there working out of Brussels! How many happy endings can there be and against all odds, goodness gracious!
Telling everyone in my district really was quite difficult, it did turn out to be harder than I thought. Some of the ladies even shed a tear, wow, I really was taken a bit aback. Despite the fact that I knew I worked hard and knew that I had gained their respect, I was still somewhat surprised. We had met at this place the 96th Bomber Squadron, I think they're a chain and then spent the next few hours drinking quite a bit. I really felt that I had built quite some bonds with this group. I still think about this now, how can one not after working so closely with them for almost five years? I also often wonder if this is the "going native" syndrome, perhaps even getting a bit to close. But we had become quite successful and had a lot of fun on the way doing it. Or were we now at the point where maybe things were all becoming true professionals? Something I contemplate every so often.
I also was able to say some good-byes at the district sales meeting. This was a joint meeting of all the reps in the northeast, approximately 80 or so. Ooo! And hang out with everybody even though many think north Jersey is full of car jackers and toxic waste. I got to say adieu in public to everyone, and it really meant a lot to me, but I also got to thank my district and that's what really mattered. There was also an awards trip out west for all the managers that made quota in 1995 so there was more opportunity to say goodbye. Funny so many people knew of my promotion even though the formal announcement had never been made. Like I always said you don't need e-mail just the rumor mill! Not that all that many people were sorry to see me go, but it was nonetheless a pretty big move and closure was important, I'd never know when our paths might one day again cross.
So needless to say things are a bit interesting. I finally do however, get formal notification from my new boss that I'm the man - director of sales and tells me of my none too shabby package. And I'm in the blocks ready to go! In the meantime, a personnel director calls saying that before I go the company is going to send me to the China Institute to learn some Hanyu. Well, that's cool, except that I know that I'm as quick as a brick when it comes to learning languages, I plain struggle. Back at West Point my Spanish was good enough to get me on an exchange program with the military academy of Peru and I learned some German on my own while living there, but I am not stellar in either. And I know what the word fluent means, I wish I could even get half so far. I suppose the one reason I've done OK is that I don't get embarrassed when I make the many mistakes inevitable when learning another language. Like a blind charging hippo I just keep on going. So while I'm excited, I know that this is going to be a bit of a disaster, can you imagine, Chinese? And oh, by the way, we'll send you learning modules for all the new products you haven't sold before.
First day of class is June 24, my friend, I will remember that day as long as I live. The Institute of Chinese, smack dab in midtown. Hot and humid, I get up at 5:30 to walk ten minutes to the bus stop, catch the 6:25 Lakeland Express to the Port Authority and then walk uptown to the Institute. I walk because, I've got time to kill, the 7:25 gets me in a bit too late, so I schlepp. I've taken tough courses before, Thermofluid dynamics, DiffyQ, Masters level Prob and Stats, but this baby puts them all to shame. The terrible feeling of being totally and irreversibly lost, a feeling that I haven't had since those dark classes at West Point and freshman year in high school came rushing back. It truly was like reliving your worst nightmare. Certainly the pressure of my promotion, anticipated move to China and my new boss's expectation that I would show up in China speaking like a native didn't help. But all that aside, this is one tough nut, for learning Chinese is like learning two languages, first pinyin (a Romanized language to help Westerners) to help pronounce the characters and second if you want to get fancy the characters themselves. And please don't forget the tones, you see a pinyin word can have four different meanings simply by one of four tones used. For example the single pinyin word ma, Moms hemp horse swears, is what comes out by using the 4 tones.
So, anyway this is one of the toughest courses I've ever taken, but truly I am treating it that way! My tomato truck is not around the corner, I am afraid of this course and know what it will take to make it happen. I am however, not overwhelmed with my instructor. Outside of spending far too much time hassling this one 15 year old nuckelhead that probably deserved it anyway, had a real Napolean syndrome about him. He would really berate us and spend an inordinate amount of time agonizing over Chinese grammar, "Claaaasss, is this a modal or aspect particle? Hhhmmm, I'm waiting, you should know this by know or your just wasting your family's or company's money." Not for a minute am I suggesting that this is unimportant. Chinese has no conjugation or tense, word order becomes absolutely critical, but could I at least learn how to ask where the bathroom is?
This goes on for weeks, six to be exact. Thank God for our conversation instructor, Mei Dan (fourth tone, please otherwise she is an egg! Remember how important I told you those tones are!) who is far more realistic and Americanized I am told. Apparently Zhang Laoshi is real Chinese and teaches as such. Come on, he's been here since 1960. What's the excuse? In between I'm heading down to headquarters for briefings from the product teams and also trying to learn about the products we sell in China. I'm telling you, I'm blithering by the end of the day. Tack on the fact I've got decide what to do with my house, my relocation appraisal came in BELOW what I paid for it five years ago, not see my family for a few months and say goodbye to everyone and everything I've come to know since moving to New Jersey and I am truly a mess. I have always prided myself on being flexible and able to take a punch (all right, intramural Army boxing!) but for once I am really starting to feel overwhelmed. So it really blows when I am accused of not putting enough into this program, dude, there just ain't anymore to give.
At one point I really was ready to call my boss and say forget it, I just am not getting anywhere and just as well should come over to Luda and get to work. But I didn't, like the brick that I am I gutted through it and event took the final exam (a disaster) Having said that, I still spend about half an hour a day studying this damn language and actually have received a compliment or two - so who the hell knows, maybe it works. I survived, went to the graduation banquet at this real Chinese restaurant on 52d street complete with rotating serving table, but didn't realize 'til I actually got over there. Almost enjoyed the whole experience, even got a kiss and hug from the two sweethearts that helped me survive and really grease the skids through the whole class ordeal. And for a brief moment as I walked to the Port Authority thought that I just might make it. It really was a beautiful evening, and I had bought a dozen silk roses to leave on the bed for my wife to greet her on her return. Once in Jersey I had to walk about three miles because I caught the last bus out which doesn't go to my regular stop, but even that didn't bother me. Funny.
I've always been a scrapper and this was just one more piece of evidence.
The next week was dedicated to good-byes. Sunday, off to church and resign as my position as Vestryman. A position which I was very reluctant to assume, but then later learned so much about my church and it's congregation that I'm glad I was forced into it. There had been a real brouhaha over the departing rector and some church politics and I was dropped right square in the middle and didn't feel all that comfortable about it. But I and hopefully assume others on the Vestry made my decisions with my heart, Christian values and years of management experience and it seems we're better off for it. Like I said about my old district, my opinion really doesn't mean a hill of beans, you'd have to ask the people of the church. Nonetheless, we remain a part of this parish and hope to one day sit again in it's pews, if you're ever in the northwest corner you should make a short trip to Christ Church, it really is a pearl in this part of the Skylands.
After this I head north to Morrisville, NY right in between the cities of Syracuse and Utica, to visit my brother. Can you imagine? Now I've been back in this part of the woods for five years and this is the first damn time I have visited him in his own digs. Takes a move half way across the damn globe to make this happen, but his wife has never really like our side of the family, sooo. Which the by the way, I'm not judging, if he's cool with it, that's that. And I'm finally on the way. Got to see Colgate University, home of Norwich-Eaton, ethical operation of Proctor and Gamble and even went for a ride in my brother's '69 XKE. I've always worshipped this particular product of British workmanship, but the last service forced my brother into taking out a loan. Such is the problem with beautiful old cars, may even have to sell my 81 Benz for the same reason. My goodness, I love the look, smell and feel of fine automobiles - a Lambourgini Diablo is my dream (even got some die cast metal models of 'em) but they sure do suck up a fistful of cash. Oh well. But the visit was a success, Monday morning when I left we were both in fine spirits and actually made a commitment to not let so much time slide between visits.
Well, my last day in the US of A for awhile is upon me like a cold morning. Friday, August 8, my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. Every little chore around the house that I can possibly think of is done, all the paperwork, bills and goodbys are finished. This is it, no more, the fat lady is finally singing. My final major event here is to go see Jimmy Thackery play at our local and very famous NJ Blues Bar, the Stanhope House. Now to deviate a moment, as I must do so very often. This is truly a righteous place, rumor has it that such legends as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robert Cray and Dave Mason have played here. I myself have seen Johnny Copeland, Steve Forbert, Commander Cody and my favorite, Billy Hector. I have drunk a small fortune of beer there, enjoyed great company and some of the most smokin' blues and ripsnortin guitar that one can ever hope to see and hear. Maureen, I love your digs, have always enjoyed your warm welcome and really had to laugh when I found out that our Hong Kong operation was based in a building by the same name. And so here I am on my last night with my good friend Bob and a guy named Curtis checking out Jimmy. Mind you I was planning on seeing From Good Homes over at an equally famous place called the Waterloo Village concert field (forget Woodstock, check this place out) but it was raining, parking at times does suck, so we decided on the Stanhope House.
I guess I wind up a little disappointed, I'm just not relaxed, whoa, surprise. Which bugged me for a while, but when I was back for a short business trip two months later we went back to see Billy and had a great time. But that was the way it was. Went to bed a little drunk, woke up 'bout five hours later and headed to Newark International..
We're now talking eating it here and passing it there - old Army saying. The final insult is that when checking in the bitch behind the counter gives my ticket to some other passenger and I spend the next hour of being accused of losing my ticket and running around like the proverbial madman. I try explaining that I am much too anal to do something like that, yet noone believes me. But, sure as shit, some other passenger has the tix. So righteous me, strides up to the check in counter to "give her a piece of my mind" and get my boarding pass, only she ain't there and by the time I get back to the gate, my plane is gone.
Now think about this a minute, my biggest deal ever, the opportunity of a lifetime. I'm already about a month late because my boss is gracious enough to let me "learn" Chinese, I've got a tight schedule lined up for me in China, and whoops, I've just missed my plane. Mind if I throw up? Throttle someone? I come as close to losing it as I ever have. It's the most absolute "I can't believe this is happening." OK, yes, I am partially to blame for wandering off to chew the ass of the twit who gave away my ticket. On the other hand, it was a package deal, because as my oldest daughter would say - "she started it!"
Well the three stooges at the counter finally realize that maybe they were somewhat involved and begin frantically searching for another plane, any plane, any where. Connect me in Detroit when my missed flight gets in, JFK, Philly, Boston ANYTHING. But nothing shows up, bagel, zero, big donut. I feel like I'm going to cry, but wait! Why not call the company travel agency that originally booked the flight? What genius! And how bout this, there is a flight in three hours out of JFK non-stop to Tokyo, meet your luggage there! Good riddance to the three stooges and Bob and I are on our way to LI to my ticket west. Plane departs on time, my stomach is back in order and friends the adventure begins.
Ha, not yet, there's a little lesson here. I get to Tokyo and go to get my luggage and guess what, my original flight (Northwest, in case I forgot to mention) was five hours
delayed in Detroit - if I'd been on it I would have missed my connecting flight to Luda and my first impression day. Hooollllyy, mollllyyyyy, can you believe it? Hey, on top of that, I got mileage for both flights!
During the flight I finish reading "China, Empire of Living Symbols" by Cecilia Linqvist. I began this book during my Chinese course in a futile attempt to better appreciate and learn the language. Though it didn't help me much it certainly was interesting reading about the history of a few of the tens of thousands of Chinese characters. It also made me appreciate what a another disaster Mao would have wrought if he had abolished characters and relied solely on pinyin. I wonder of the English language has such a rich history. A small example seems to always come to mind is that the sap of a South American tree is called chickle, hmmm wonder where "Chicklets" came from - well it amuses me!
CHAPTER 6 LUDA
Well, here I am.
Luda Economic and Trade Zone, Lianoning Province, People's Republic of China.
Very nice welcome from my secretary, driver and marketing director and resident European. They pick me up nice as can be, bring me to my hotel and then even to dinner, even brings me some undies, a shirt and tie so I've got something to wear the next day. A hot shower, brandy and nighty-night, tomorrow's the day.
I sleep like a rock but wake about 5 AM because of the time difference. I while away about an hour reviewing Chinese, then head downstairs for breakfast. I must add that any western traveler would indeed be pleasantly surprised, despite all the Japanese around, stuff like fried eggs, pancakes, bacon and thank God, coffee are usually always available in any 4+ star hotel. So not a bad start to the day. At zero eight on the dot the guy I'm going to replace, Al, buzzes my room and whisks me off to the office.
In I stride. I know that every eye in the place is on me, I am the new da bezi (big nose, as we are affectionately referred to) who is going to attempt to replace the man and lead this company into $100 million sales territory. I am younger, newer and quite the interesting subject no doubt.
CHAPTER 7 MY MANAGERS
Today begins my first real adventure into these badlands of China. The first couple of days in China were really not that much of a challenge, look at this form, study this report, this is so and so, etc, etc. But now is when the rubber meets the road, I am to go out to the regional offices and meet all the local managers and where possible local representatives. Here is what my position is really all about. I will meet the people who are pushing my edicts and commands, my first line supervisors making the sales happen, the infantry of industry I always say. Certainly they are wondering about me, but more importantly, I am wondering about them. Will I make the right first impression, will I be perceived as being to young and not having been a senior manager in the US and will I be able to fill the shoes of my predecessor? No time to think about it (which I've found to be the case most of the time here) I am off with the sales operations manager, Rong Li, who will be there to translate my first great steps.
This is going to be quite some whirlwind, we take off Wednesday morning for Guangzhou, over to Shanghai, back to Luda, Monday to Beijing and then after that to Guilin for a big sales meeting. Can you imagine, all the while trying to maintain a cool, collect composure and attempt to fill this new role. First time on Air China for real and the Dalian airport, can you imagine what it's like to stand like a dork in the middle of all this commotion while your fanyi (translator) runs around taking care of all the incidentals such as the boarding pass, airport tax (Rmb50) etc, etc, while not understanding a damn thing? The one redeeming quality is that the cafeteria there serves some pretty fine coffee. I try to deal with all of this by doing something I am completely unfamiliar with and this shut my mouth and just observe, I also study some Chinese though I still question why.
Guangzhou in case you haven't been inspired to look at your map is way south and pretty close to Hong Kong (another town used in my Chinese 301 book) It is also hot, and humid and congested, it is also damn near three hours flight. But on this trip I am treated to the best hotel in town The Garden, though unfortunately a 45 minute ride from the airport. I have just enough time to change, nick myself while shaving that I always seem to do after flying over here (so that I look my best) and go out to meet the manager of our smaller division. I first meet him for lunch and then go over to his local office which is a short walk in the sauna outside. I am impressed by this guy who seems to run a pretty tight ship, typical of this division and is genuinely pleased with the company and the job he is doing for us. As mentioned earlier this is merely a fact finding mission in which I listen attentively to all the concerns and problems of everybody. I studiously nod and write things down so that late I can talk with AD and try to make some sense of everything. I also try to choke down some Chinese tea during these things which is probably the last thing I need in these barely air-conditioned offices. And they also have a habit of not using tea bags, but just spooning in some ground up leaves and pouring hot water right on top, so you have to be careful not to suck in some of these things while slurping away.
This first visit seems to go OK and then we are off to the local office of the larger division and the area manager, a short ten minute walk through the sauna again. Man did this place remind me of Miami. Once again I listen attentively as SLW yaks away about how tough things are (I was warned about this by Al before) and gt to meet one of the DMs LSS. Though not too bad, this place doesn't seem to be quite as tightly run as SPS, even SLW is a bit casual looking wearing a polo shirt. Just as an aside we really don't have a dress code, per say, it is a bit hard demanding this based on what everyone earns. Not that we pay our people badly, actually we are almost benevolent by any comparison, but it is still not a big chunk of change, not for fancy garb anyway. So as before this goes on for about an hour and then I expectedly invite everyone for dinner that night around 6:30. We head back to the hotel where Rong Li, thank you Jaysus, suggests we rest a bit before dinner. Now late afternoon naps are not the riguer here in the company, but I was still jet lagged as hell and this was the best thing I'd ever heard. I laid down and slept like a piece of granite for an hour. When I woke up I was so groggy I could barely walk, I thought I'd been embalmed.
Off we go, little did I know, but to another great culinary experience. You see after the fish eye deal, foolish me thought that I would see no more! But as I have so well learned since being here in China, that just when you thought you've seen it all, something else will come your way. Tonight at the start though I'm feeling pretty smug, I'm getting pretty good with the old chopsticks and have suffered through a course or two and feel like I can hold my own. Kind of reminds me of when I was first assigned to Germany as a squeaky clean new lieutenant. I'd put three major field exercises under my belt in my first 6 weeks and made some remark to my wizened platoon sergeant about how that wasn't so bad a start. He just laughed. By the time I left Germany I had put so much time in the field I wondered why sergeant Han even bothered laughing. But do I learn, nope, shit to me please, sir.
While there were a few oddities served that night, my favorite was the chicken. Chicken you may ask, how can you miss? Well, I tell you, the Chinese have invented s so many bizarre ways to prepare this feathered beast that you will never look at one of those cute little Purdue packs of skinless breasts the same way again. Matter of fact, I now hate chicken. And what's worse is that gracious Chinese hosts tend to order this for their weak livered Western neighbors knowing that this is something we like. This particular little dandy was served up on a platter. I swear it looked as though just as the chef had finished plucking it, the damn thing jumped up and ran away. But before it could get away, it tripped and the chef who had grabbed a meat cleaver went whackity, whackity whack, chopped him up in where it lie, wings and feet asplay. This he then with great aplomb carefully scooped up and place it in similar position on a tray. So cleanly cut was this that he stood the HEAD (yes, the head) up in the front as a sort of hood ornament. Hmmmm, nummies can you please pass the celery?
Next stop Shanghai, can you imagine (hum, heard that before?) Again, this is one of those surreal places that I can't believe I'm going to, almost the realization of a distant dream. Here's a surprise (again) we touch down, it is hot, crowded and the hotel almost an hour from the airport. But once again, maybe because of my newness, the very best in town, the Porterman and oh, guess what, the local Hard Rock is right there thank you, thank you. We check in, pay approximately Rmb3000 in cash, all in 100s because there are no thousands here and get ready to meet the east area manager. I carry cash because if I use my credit card the bill goes back to the US and then I get reimbursed in boatloads of RenminBi's. Not the most efficient way of doing business but cost effective. Think about it though, almost US hotel prices paid in local currency of 8.3 to 1 with bills no bigger than 100, oy what a hassle. But I must admit I feel quite rich because of the inch thick wad of cash I carry around with me. Just another day on the road in China.
We go to meet this manager Zhen Yu whose office happens to be in a local hotel. Ultimately, I ask her to leave this cozy arrangement because it reminds me of Jabba the Hut and she never gets in the field like she's supposed to, but again this is merely a fact finding mission, so I just listen and store data. Mostly, it's stuff I've heard from the day before or somewhere in my career if not maybe myself, prices too high, bonus to low, quota too high, oh well welcome to the world of sales. Well, once again I survive and of course, ask her and any local managers to dinner this evening.
Now this manager is particularly interesting because any preconceived notions I've had about Chinese women are now dashed to bits. Somewhere (in blind stupidity, I imagine) I had gotten the impression that Chinese women were docile, quiet and subservient little things. May I reassure you that nothing, NOTHING, could be farther from the truth. Actually, I feel incredibly ignorant, stupid etc, etc, for even having contemplated the
the thought after having been given a dose of the real deal. Most o