19 February 2009

A Typical "Business" Trip

It all started off, as usual, pretty innocuously...just a one-night trip to an industrial city for a few factory visits and meetings. A nice morning drive to Cixi provides some time to catch up on email and reading. The drive there takes you across the newly completed Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which is the longest trans-oceanic bridge in the world at 22 miles. It is definitely weird to be in the middle of the ocean on a huge bridge and not being able to see land in any direction.

The day's meetings were pretty productive. After a quick rest and shower at the hotel it was time for dinner. This dinner wasn't that different from previous dinners that I've had here, but it ocurred to me that at every turn there were examples of the unique culture and etiquette that are part of a Chinese (business) meal. It just seemed to bring together a variety of typical experiences which sparked some thoughts.

Some ground rules/observations/tips...

  • Don't be shy about what foods you like. You will thank yourself later. I casually told my hosts that the enormous spiny lobster in the center of the table was especially delicious. I have never seen a lobster so big, nothing like what you get in the U.S. They responded by boasting that it was imported from Australia and cost 1000RMB (about $150). The guy next to me then proceeded to place about half of the thing onto my plate. At a table of 12. I felt guilty, but only for a very fleeting moment.
  • When toasting someone, it is customary for the glass of the older person, the more respected person, the guest of honor, etc., to be above the glass of the other person. It is a way to show respect, by lowering your glass to someone elses so the rim of your glass clinks their glass halfway down. In practice though, this often leads to hilarious situations where you both try to show respect, glasses racing downwards to the table surface, so that finally they're both on the same level. It takes some practice to get used to deftly positioning your glass below the other person's. One guy actually lifted my arm so my glass was above his.
  • Don't say that you don't like a particular food. It just leads to awkwardness, endless questions, and the attention of the whole table turning to the foreigner (as if you don't already stick out enough being white). Just say everything is good. If someone puts food on your plate, even if you don't want to eat it, thank them. Just bury it in your rice bowl when they aren't looking or subtly catch the server's eye and motion for a new plate. New plates are provided frequently throughout the meal anyway because the fact that all of the dishes are served with the inedible parts (chicken/beef/pork bones, fish heads, fish skin/scales, shrimp heads and shells, etc.) intact means that quite a bit of detritus accumulates as the meal progresses. These plate changes are great opportunities to get rid of the food you can't bring yourself to eat.
  • You will invariably be asked to pose for a group photo. Why not? Makes you feel tall at least.
  • When the guy next to you shows off his diamond-studded gold Rolex watch, repeatedly telling you that it cost 300,000RMB (about $44,000), act very impressed. Status symbols are extremely important in China. How else to differentiate oneself among a nation of 1.3 billion? He is not telling you about the watch anecdotally. He is telling you because he wants you to be impressed by his wealth.
  • That leads into the general topic of money in China. Be prepared for questions about money. It is completely normal to ask people how much their things cost. Almost every time I meet a new Chinese person here, I am asked how much my rent is (they laugh and tell me I'm getting ripped off because I'm a foreigner), how much my cellphone was (they audibly scoff when I tell them it was only 300 kuai, the cheapest one in the store), what my salary is (I don't tell them this), etc. Part of this is just curiosity because I'm an American and they assume all Americans are filthy rich. Furthermore, the American notion that it's impolite to talk about money is completely nonexistent here. There is no such thing as "old money" in China. All the money is new money because it's all been made in the last 20 years or so with the advent of rampant Capitalism that really took off in the 1990s. The accumulation of luxury goods and the comparison of who has what is the new national pastime among China's wealthy.
  • Always accept a ride from dinner to KTV in the factory boss's brand new BMW 7 series. You know life is good when there's a built-in refrigerator in the back seat...
  • There is a 100% tax imposed on luxury cars here, so above a certain threshhold, cars start to get really expensive. I was told that a 7 Series or S Class here costs the equivalent of $300,000. Totally insane.
  • Enjoy the fresh fruit and unlimited alcohol at KTV.
  • Don't be too freaked out when one of the Chinese guys starts making bird wing shadows on the projector screen. Apparently this is SOP.....?
  • Never refuse a toast. It's just not worth all the explaining and subsequent disappointment. If you don't want to drink, then just toast the guy and raise your glass and pretend to drink. Or say "yi ban" to indicate that you'll drink only half of your glass instead of the standard "gan bei" (empty your glass). Pretty soon people will be drunk enough to not remember, or at least not be slighted by your moderation.
  • If at 10:00, you realize that you've been drinking for a good 4 hours and you have to get up at 7 the next morning, don't be shy about saying your goodbyes and hopping in a cab back to your hotel. Never mind the fact that everyone else will stay at KTV until 2AM. By this point all the Chinese guys are very drunk. Think dancing on tables, breaking glasses, screaming karaoke, grabbing the waitresses kind of drunk. They'll be temporarily angry with you and try to convince you to stay, but it'll be fine in the morning. Get in that cab. You will not regret it.
  • And finally, always use a good western-style toilet while you have the opportunity, like at your hotel. And carry your own toilet paper. Your next option might not be so hot.

14 February 2009

Riding the Maglev

I was taking a colleague back to the airport yesterday and decided that it would be much easier and faster to take the subway and the maglev train. If you try to drive to and from Pudong International at 4pm on a Friday you are setting yourself up for a 4 hour roundtrip journey in excruciating traffic. So we took the maglev. This is the super-high-speed train that runs out to the Pudong Airport. I don't exactly understand magnetic levitation and how this thing works, but bottom line is that it reaches a top speed of 431 km/h (about 270 mph) and gets you to the airport in 7 minutes. It is scary fast.

Anyway, as we were waiting at the station, some guys came up to me with their camera and motioned for a photo. It was clear that these guys didn't have a flight to catch, but were just riding the maglev for the experience. I could tell from how they were dressed and their accents that they weren't from Shanghai and weren't exactly international travelers. They later told me they were from Shanxi province, a somewhat bleak industrial province in north central China from what I remember from a few years ago.

Anyway, I assumed that they wanted me to take a picture of them all together in front of the train, so I reached for the camera, but they said no, no, we want picture with you. It was a shock to experience this in Shanghai. I remember experiences like this from 2006 when we were traveling in parts of rural China where some people hadn't ever seen foreigners before, and we all got accustomed to being extreme noveltys and the subjects of endless fascination. Kids handed us markers and asked us to sign their clothing. We got off the bus for lunch and people came to stare. We walked into the one bar in town in a random small city and were dragged to people's tables to drink and eat for free.

But in Shanghai nobody looks twice at the white guy. There are so many foreigners in this city that everyone is used to it and you rarely feel scrutinized or noticed. I have gotten used to being anonymous and not a spectacle as you often are as a white person in other parts of China. So I was surprised when they each took turns standing beside me and grinning, some putting their arms around me, while the others took photos, and everyone laughed.

08 February 2009


I just had one of the most delicious meals of my life in Taipei. I arrived in Taipei a day early, so Saturday night I went out to get some dinner.

I walked in and was seated at the sushi bar and the food started coming. No tuna or salmon to be found (you can have these anywhere, right?) but simply the freshest, most delicious seafood I have ever eaten. All raw, the flavor of the fish mostly unadorned. The weird thing is that because there was no menu and because I don't understand the Chinese for the obscure kinds of fish I ate, I had no clue what I was eating for the most part. A few things I recognized or could understand were mackerel, shrimp, salmon roe, big prawns, scallop, and clam, but there were about a dozen other kinds of fish that I had.

I have never had sushi anywhere near this good. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but at $60, it was definitely a steal for the quality and quantity. I had no say in what I ate. The two chefs across from me just kept serving course after course of sashimi and nigiri. Add to that some grilled kobe beef flavored with salt and pepper and a few beers, and you have yourself a knockout meal.