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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Training Day

The last time I stood in front of my co-workers, the first time they saw me, my suit coat dripped beer and I held a broken baby bottle in my hand (read here). Now, standing on the raised platform in front of 200 scientists, I’m about to speak. The first scientific impression my co-workers will have of me, and at this point I have no idea that what I say next will make them gasp in shock. A stunning, unexpected collective involuntary reflex from the audience that stops me cold. And that is from the first two words of my scheduled 90min presentation.

Training a medicinal chemist takes time. Lots of time. Some rules of thumb state it takes a new chemist 6mos to produce on a project and up to 5yrs before making strategic decisions that push projects forward. New people take time, And this company brims with new people, growing by 50% a year. Many, many new chemists need training in basic aspects of industrial chemistry and medicinal chemistry. Few boast work experience, and fewer have western business exposure. To address the lack of experience, mentoring…teaching…training…forms a large part of the work load for those of us with both work experience and western business exposure. As my first task at my new company, I put together a short technical training seminar. And it’s this training presentation that evokes “the reaction”.

I think about what the scientists in the audience experience. They must come to the presentation. Attendance required and tracked, a graded quiz following. Pressing, important matters await them in the lab and they will likely be anxious about getting back to the bench. They acquired English as a second language and boast varying degrees of proficiency.

I cut the presentation to 30 min, one main idea per slide…which I will say slowly, twice. I don’t use slang and I stick to high level concepts which can be applied to their own work. I shy away from boring bulleted lists. I am not didactic. I speak slowly and try not to rush, de rigueur when the excitement of the presentation takes hold. That is the plan as I listen to the introduction of me and my presentation. The introduction is in Chinese, with the last word in English. “Paul?”. I alight the platform and take a moment to arrange myself. I look up and scan the crowd, look over at the host and say…

Xie Xie. Thank-you.

*gasp* from the audience. Then stunned silence.

Wow. Did I say it correctly? Did I just utter a horrible curse? Did I not use the right tones? I look at the audience looking at me for a few seconds, then press on. Later, I realize they did not expect to hear any Chinese from the laowai, the foreigner. Low expectations will be good for my language acquisition goals.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stranger in a Less Strange Land

He stares at me, blatantly, even walking sidewise with his head turned. His gaze fixed on me, the oddity in the hotel breakfast room. I hold his gaze for a moment to try to unlock his fixation, to no avail. He comes closer, still staring at the laowai, the foreigner.

I’m used to standing out. When I catch my reflection in the metro window, even I’m shocked at how different I look. Being surrounded by Chinese people all day changes my residual self image and to see evidence that conflicts with my self image jars my psyche. No wonder little kids on the metro sometimes stare, or wave or say ‘helllloooo’. Light skin, tall frame, blue eyes, different style clothes …. I could not stand out more if I was wearing a clown suit.

If my appearance jars my own psyche, my look must be very intriguing to even the more urbanite dwellers in this megalopolis. The less urbanite communities…small towns within a hour or two drive from here, and I would evoke reactions not much different than a UFO. I must admit my ego finds that a little thrilling. How cool is it to be special just by showing up?

But not now. Now it’s not cool. Now being different bothers me, makes me uncomfortable beneath the weight of the rude stare of this stranger. He must be recently arrived into the big city from a surrounding town. He stops in front of me and says “Paul”?

I recognize him as soon as he speaks. A former co-worker from the other side of the planet! Amazing. Later in the day, I meet another former co-worker in the local Starbucks. The world is getting smaller, and this place is globalizing quickly. Lilly, GSK, Novartis, BI all have large sites within a block of each other here. Several ‘small’ Chinese companies are here (each hiring about up to 1000 scientists).

Now, I expect the unusual event of happening upon an old co-worker from the other side of the planet on the streets of Shanghai to continue with increased frequency.

And it makes me smile.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Health Check and Feet

I'm nervous. The form asks for samples. Scary names in English, and that's IF it's translated correctly. Blood. Urine. Sputnum? Stool?!?! *gulp* How are they going to collect that?!

At the government office, forms to stamp, lines to stand in and fees to pay. All the tedium of beauracracy combined with the discomfort and mild humiliation of the doctors office. And no breakfast before hand. My stomach growls angrily in protest. The little office brims with foreigners of all stripes. I had imagined a large group of mei guo ren, Americans, but in reality we make up the minority. I try to chat up the workers there, who must be bored dealing with confused lao wai all the time, they are uninterested, but pleasant. Chinese DMV? They take x-ray, a sonogram (no response at all when I asked the technician if I was having a boy or a girl), a weak eye test, and blood (and no other fluids) sample later and it's time to take the hour drive back to work.

Now I'm starving. Dinner arrives and here is what I see. No one ever tells you that the nails are still on the chicken feet, strange that's what kept me from eating the rest of it. Tonight, dinner will be a treat. Five. Five Dollar. Five Dollar Foot Lohong...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In Country - First Mission

The fog blocks all view from the window. Droplets streak past on the glass and the engines cycle down in preparation for landing. A slight bump marks the moment I'm back in country. I grab a cart and pick up my 100lbs of luggage, the driver waits for me with a sign, my name in English. Back to the same simple hotel, not enough room to unpack my things, so I continue to live out of my suitcase for a little bit longer.

There are projects waiting for my input, but first mission: find a place to live. The company labs stand in a very distant spot from the city center, so a choice must be made between convenience of a short commute to work, or a short distance to the fun of the city. People tell me that living close to the city costs too much, but compared with Boston or NY rents they are cheap. A 100sq m (~1000 sq ft) 2bd/2ba apt on the 23rd floor with river and city views, including fitness center, indoor outdoor pool, 5min from the metro will run about $1500/mo. International satelite TV and WiFi available, but extra. Living out of a suitcase drains the soul, makes thinking of higher order endeavors (PK, SAR, synthesis) difficult, hoping to have a home here shortly.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Change Time

I'm standing at the curb, 100lbs of luggage digging into my shoulder, all my worldly possessions. The bussle of the airport swirls around me as I wait for the shuttle to the hotel. The van stops with a screech of rusty brakes and the driver begins in broken english, then mandarin. It's dark and the lights of the unfamiliar city fill the windows as we drive. We arrive at the hotel and I am listening to the cleaning staff speak, trying to pick up their mandarin conversation. My pigeon-mandarin is even rustier than the brakes after 6 weeks of inactivity. I drop my bags with relief. I'm in San Francisco.

The eucalyptus trees, the water and mountains, dry air, sunshine and happy people - the west coast is truly wonderful. Not much free time to enjoy it, though. The meetings here brim with venture capital frims (VC), the gate-keepers of financing new ideas. They look into their financing crystal ball and see two years of darkness before the light begins to show. Even worse, most predict little to no hiring of new chemists once the recovery begins.

Take those predictions with a hearty grain of salt, though. Bright spots still shine, good ideas find funding and people that add value to an organization will find a place. Spring is coming, the days are getting longer and the time has changed (spring foward to DST in the US).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

China Castaway

Piles of clothes appear to be growing from the floor in clusters...shirts, pants, unmentionables. Several old suitcases are opened and placed sporadically around the room. It's a race to see if I can get the clothes into the suitcase before the cat pees in it. It's a race I end up winning for a change.

The planned one week in the US has stretched to six weeks. Now, only dozens of hours left before leaving home, and the ‘to do’ list remains long. Laundry, packing, shopping, errands…saying goodbye. So many action items - loose ends to tie up...but, I’m thinking of a tropical island prison.

Being back in the US long enough to re-establish a routine, comfort and familiarity makes returning to China as foreign as leaving the first time. Leaving a home here, and no home there to land in. Stressful. TV provides a temporary escape from stress of moving preparation. With much to do, I lose myself in sitcoms and movies, crossing off ‘to do’ items during commercials. I’m moved more than usual by Castaway.

If you are unfamiliar with this 2000 film, here’s the part I focus on…trapped on the island for four years, until by pure chance, the tide brings him flotsam usable as a ‘sail’. The marooned FedEx hero makes a desperate move to escape his tropical imprisonment. Fashioning a make-shift raft equipped with the newly encountered sail, he shoves off. At a critical juncture, he passes perilously breaking waves, thanks to the new found sail, and heads out to sea. Looking back as his island disappears, he is momentarily nostalgic.

Remarkable. This island was his prison, and yet he looks back on it, at least for the moment, fondly, as he heads into the unknown. Here is an example of the powerful pull of the familiar…that an island prison, remains in some ways, more appealing than setting off into uncertainty.

It’s a touching moment, and I can’t help but think of looking back at my home for the last four years as it begins to fade into the distance. I look back with more than a moments nostalgia…much more. If an island prison evokes a mere moment of sentimentality, how many more such moments will a home full of happy memories provide? Indeed, how are all those moments to be dealt with? I’m moving forward with some trepidation, remembering to breath, because tomorrow the sun will rise…and who knows what the tides in China will bring.