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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Holiday and Food

It’s down time now, the middle of the CNY holiday and people are off to far flung destinations…Malaysia for the beaches and sun, Thailand for the fun, back to the US or within China to see family…and eat.

Not much is happening so I, too, am thinking about food. It’s strange to have to prepare my own food again. With the Chinese company, breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided to the employees. Of course the food is Chinese, and it is served industrial style in a large cafeteria, and if you go at the wrong time, the lines are long. The cafeteria serves about 3000 meals per day, it’s an amazing operation.

Breakfast is usually some form of pasty or Chinese dough (my fav has the red bean paste inside but often it’s just dough) with some really yummy little pickled peppers and warm rice soup thing. Its small and I have taken to having a small breakfast before company breakfast. I usually can find a group of English speaking seniors there to eat with in the left corner. That is at 8:15.

Lunch is like a collection of tapas plates, but to me this is the hardest meal. I have no idea what the little plates are, and I’m a little wary of the meat dishes so I often just get the vegetables and rice. A little company shop sells fruit, hot/cold/special drinks. The lady behind the counter there knows me, Ko-Le – a coke is liquid familiarity for me, but I miss ice. She gets it for me now before I even ask. Lunch is at 12:15…same area for the seniors.

Dinner gets delivered to my office. Here’s a typical meal in the picture. Usually it’s rice, some sort of clear noodle, cabbage and sometimes another vegetable with a meat dish. My fav has been the chicken thighs, my least fav was the fish head. Dessert is usually an orange or tangerine. Dinner comes at 4:45.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buttering the Salad

There are only two of us, in the very back of the plane. She is Chinese. It’s dinner time, and she is concentrating on the little square dish holding the salad. She looks puzzled. After several moments, she picks up the pad of butter and begins buttering the salad.

It’s time to come back to the US and finish packing. Real work has barely started and already I’m coming back to (not quite) home. I wish I wasn’t leaving now. There are meetings for me to attend in the US, client meetings. That’s something new, I’ve never had clients before. The flight is very very long, flying over the arctic. The snow capped mountains and valleys are breathtaking on a clear day. Fourteen hours is a lot of time to fill. I have books, food and my computer and naps to keep me occupied. Those things you can control. You cannot control who your neighbor will be for the duration.

I’m so far back in the plane that the tail section narrows to allow only two seats on the side. My neighbor comes on the plane late in the boarding process. She has a carry-on and cannot reach the overhead compartment. I help her put the bag away and she says ‘thank-you’. She says it the way I speak chinese… tentatively, quietly, full of uncertainty. I ask her in my limited mandarin if she speaks English? Ni hui bu hui shuo yingwen? Bu hui. She does not, that is our entire conversation for the next 14hrs.

I would guess she has not flown before. She clutches her large purse on her lap as if unsure what to do with it, holding it for security. They come early with in the flight with the customs declaration cards and she hurriedly fills it out and tries to give it back to the flight attendant. She does not watch the movie or read. The drink cart comes, she points. The dinner comes and she looks at the salad.

I empathize with her situation completely. I see myself in her. To be in totally unfamiliar surroundings and not know the expected behavior/response/action. I say ‘excuse me’ in mandarin. I pick up the little container of salad dressing on my tray and pantomine applying it my salad. “Oh!” is the look on her face. I’m sure I am buttering the salad everyday in China.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chinese New Year - The Banquet

The stage is two feet high and the lights are hot. I’m in my casual brown suit, soaking wet with beer and holding an empty baby bottle. This is the first impression 1,200 of my co-workers have of me.

The company is hosting it’s annual banquet for Chinese New Year. The whole company eats, and drinks, and drinks, and drinks and puts on shows for four hours. There is nothing like this in the US. Employees here expect it. The Senior managers all must participate in some sort of skit. Some put on costumes that look like bastardized Saturday morning cartoon characters, some dance. There are two acts involving simply stunning women. Employees. Volunteers. One set does dance routines with bare midriffs and spandex and one show-casing traditional Chinese attire. They are huge hits with the crowd. My business spider-sense tingles…this is lawsuit territory in the US.

There are so many empty 755ml bottles on all the 135 tables. So many empty cases of beer as not to be believed. It’s hard to drop the business wariness and I’m a little on edge. Everyone is having a very good time. It’s easy to see the bonding happening. It’s an ocean of people. No spouses are present. There is so much special food, so unusual to my eyes...chicken feet, fish head, chicken presented with the head on the plate, cooked shrimp with head still attacheded. Someone explains that the moving parts are best.

I’m only able to understand bits of what the MC’s are saying, they are also employees. First skit is due up and it seems they are calling for volunteers. One of the seniors starts shouting my name. Um…What? Four hours before I was told I would have to make a short speech. I practiced two lines of Chinese for three hours. One hour before I was told the speech is off. My name is now being yelled from other tables, momentum builds and I am trapped, but also flattered. I start up to the stage and several others trickle out of the sea of people and line up under the hot lights. We are being video taped. Another senior takes pity, I think, and comes to stand next to me. I don’t understand what the MC’s are saying, but a tray comes up with baby bottles full of beer. Ah…crystal clear now. It’s a race to see who can finish the beer through the nipple first.

I have a few seconds to craft a strategy…venting will be important I think. San, Er, Yi…3, 2, 1…and I’m sucking to win! I realize I can squeeze the bottle for faster flow rate. I squeeze harder and the top bursts, soaking me. But it’s too late, I’m already out of the running.

Later, still sticky with beer, I float from table to table. From recognized face, to recognized face and the other seniors introduce me to their teams. The teams are happy, young and eager. My team will be like them. I hope I can reach them, train them, help them develop and be successful. Lead.

I say in spotty, recently learned mandarin "Wo yingwen shuo de hen hao, ke shi wo putonghua shuo de bu hao. Xin nian kuai le" ... I speak english very well, but I speak mandarin very badly. Happy New Year! I raise a very small glass and shout "kan pei!" We all drink together.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

‘Twas the weekend before new years…

…and I’m being as quiet as a mouse. Standing in the corner of a simply gorgeous apartment in a medium rise luxury building. You can tell this is a luxury building by the lack of three floors. No fourth floor (four sounds similar to ‘death’ in Chinese) and no fourteenth floor for the local well-to-do. And no thirteenth floor for the rich and superstitious expat community. I hold a piece of pizza in one hand and a coke in the other, comfort food. Boisterous conversation fills the high ceilings and resonates off tasteful d├ęcor. The pizza tastes good, I miss cheese. Surveying the scene, mentally trying to remember names and positions. I’m terrible with names. I’m terrible with names when they are one syllable in English. Did his name end in –eng or –ang or –en or -un? Was he PK or Biology or scale up or analyitcal? Was he the one who suggested the apartment broker or the one talking about the watertowns?

I’ve joined the company at a time that would be equilvalent to two weeks before Christmas in the states. Performance reviews have been written. Financial data is done and cannot be changed now. People are beginning to think of traveling…many back to families in the US. Feeling proud of the growth from the past year, a little sentimental and cautiously optimistic – even in this climate – of the coming year. Lots of parties and team building/bonding. The alcohol is flowing. No one is starting new projects now. I miss doing medchem. Talking medchem I feel comfortable, familiar, with the assurance of some experience. I know what I’m doing and if I don’t know, I know how to find out. Medchem will start later, after the holiday. Parties are different, parties are now.

Everyone is relaxed, having a good time. Speaking mandarin. Except for me. I’m eating Pizza Hut in the corner. I’m hesitating, being a little asocial. For me to approach any of the conversation groups, they will have to switch to their second language to include me. I feel bad. This is their time to relax not have to speak English for the new guy. Here is the big challenge in microcosm. I’m going to have to push to be included. No one is keeping me out. No one is being impolite. It’s purely my own issue and it’s critical to conquer if I’m going to be of use here.

I finish the pizza, the crust has a little cone shaped well that includes a shrimp. Must be the nod to local tastes. I see a group with names I remember, find a space in the circle and am greeted with warm smiles and English.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

End of First Week

Starting at a new position poses challenges. The familiar systems and processes that used to serve so well now are useless. Previously simple tasks become an exercise in zen emotional control. How do you order a paper? Who do you call for computer help? How do I get reagents? Where can I find a pen? Where’s the ISIS base raf? These are typical problems in any new work place. Add to this the layer of social unfamiliarity and language barriers and these small issues can grow.

Having moved a few times, usually the quickest way through these issues is a human solution. If you know the people, you know who can help you. That’s my strategy here. There are a lot of smart, helpful people here, and all the management team speaks English. They’ve assigned me a very helpful and sharp admin who speaks basic English to take me to the bank, help find and apartment, etc…

I’ve spent the last week meeting people almost non-stop. These hour long meetings are taking on a tone much different than the meet and greets typical stateside. At least so far, my co-workers here seem much friendlier, more helpful, eager to connect. Guanxi, guanxi, guanxi. Building a relationship for trusted business contacts is vital, maybe more so here because circumstances are so fluid the only constant are people you can trust. Almost everyone I’ve met has given me their personal cell phone number. I’m not sure how much special attention I’m getting as a laowai, maybe they are scared for me, maybe they are remembering how difficult their return to China was, and they are Chinese. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the de rigueur of a smaller company.

The day after my first working dinner I’m invited for my welcome dinner. Still groggy from jet lag, the big easy chair with padded sides at the restaurant proves inviting. I skipped the bronchial tubes and stick to the thinly sliced beef and vegetables. Dinner was cordial, friendly, with only a touch of alcohol to facilitate social interactions. The steam from the hot pot felt good. They spoke English for me, it was nice.

After dinner, two departed back while I went with two other of my co-workers to the store. They are acting like my aunts. Insisting on me buying warmer clothing. We go to the Chinese equivalent of Target and the purchase is easy, no mandarin required. As we are heading out, Auntie Two says “That’s where I get my hair done, would you like a hair wash?”. It’s 930 on Friday night. No. Thinking she means sometime in the distant future, I assume it’s safe to say Yes. To my dismay, she leads us into the salon. Uh..what? All I really want to do is be warm and fall asleep. The hair wash lasts 45min. The woman speaks passable English and is good with customers. The hair wash includes a scalp and shoulder massage. I fall asleep multiple times. I feel so relaxed. Total cost= $10. Score one for China.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Contact

Today I'm sitting on the other side of the table, on the other side of the world. It's 12 time zones away from what used to be home. Four hours ago I was walking off the plane into stark newness. Now, I'm eating dinner with representatives of my former employer. I feel like one of them. I know how they are thinking. Large amounts of well prepared, but odd-looking food circles in front of us on a giant lazy Susan. They, like me, are jet lagged and have weak stomachs for the food so joyfully being described by our hosts. "Oh, this jellyfish is a specialty. Look, the head is still on the duck, fresh! That's hairy crab. Be careful of all the little bones near the fish head".

They suffer quietly with a polite business like demeanor, but I know they, like me, and not nearly as excited as my new compatriots. I'm trying not to think of this as a foreshadowing of the future. East meets West with best of intentions, but someone still goes to bed a little hungry. The beer is good. Still feels like I should be on THAT side of the round table. Surreal. I'm sure I'll wake up at any moment from this dream of the unfamiliar and return to cozy well known surroundings.

I've engaged in self-inflicted outsourcing. Several factors have pushed me here. Adventure, career opportunities, financial gain, networking. This may be the first time during my career that taking a position outside the US is a decent career move. A first for me, living away. Outsourcing is big business for research, something like US$10billion plus in the next year, and likely growing. It seems like any expansion in the drug discovery world will disproportionately happen here, in my new city, and now I'll experience the growing pains up close and personal.

This company is still private, full of start-up-going-public-wind-fall hopes. Hard not to think about that, but no way to predict the vagaries of the market, or management. And working at a CRO, I'll have a privileged industry wide a luxury box at the big pharma arena. Getting to shake hands without regard to company letterhead does have an appeal. I've given up my low-probability of being laid off big pharma job, comfortable if staid lifestyle for the above.

But I'm not concerned about that trade-off. I've made career decisions which have resulted in both great and terrible financial outcomes, no sense fretting about that. I'm more afraid that the benefits will not come, that what I've ventured and lost, at the expense of striving, is the loss of comfort and security, of time missed with close friends and family that cannot ever be replaced.