First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Party at 798

Family In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 4 days

Last night we had a shindig to mark the occasion of a one-day visit by the vice-chairman of our parent company, a distinguished and well-known international creative. It was actually very cool to meet him - he also happens to oversee the exchange program that brought me here, so my managing director made sure to introduce us.

We only exchanged a few words, but then I lingered on the edge of his conversation and heard some of his war stories. He's been doing this for 40 years on at least 4 continents, and I'm pretty sure I picked up some pearls of wisdom.

But what was more eye-opening was the party they put on for him. He was literally in Beijing for maybe 24 hours. But they rented a big art gallery space in 798 and hosted a whole evening's entertainment.

798 is Beijing's answer to SoHo in New York. It's an artists quarter filled with cheap housing, hip art spaces and galleries, neat little bars and restaurants and lots of active art studios. The area was factories during Mao's time, and the space we were in used to be an arms factory - the ceiling is still painted with slogans encouraging the workers to greater glory on behalf of Mao. I'll have to go back and get pictures.

For the party, they had installed a stage, a giant backdrop with a projection screen embedded, two huge buffet tables, an AV control area, and then put on a show with an honest-to-goodness hostess in a red sequined dress.

First up were the speeches by the managing director and then the guest. Then they played the Irish-jig welcome video (it should scare my coworkers at home that I did the storyboards. Get ready for Henry the Arteest when I get back!), then 12 dancing girls, then a bit of Sichuan opera, then the dancing girls again.

I asked about all this time and effort and expense, and got the impression it is a cultural norm to make a BIG fuss when superiors come to visit. (Not that they're ignored in the U.S., of course, but I don't remember many dance numbers.)

Anyway, it all went off very well. The bad news is that video has been my main function for the past week and I don't know what I'll do next...


  • This is by far the longest I've been out of Minnesota.
  • It has now been more than 50 days since I've driven a car, the longest stretch since I got my license.
  • I have completed 7 weeks in the Beijing office, more than twice as long as I lasted at a certain Minneapolis retail company a few years back.


I was at work, and somebody put on some Chinese soft rock song (there's a lot of it in the office) and I'm trying to ignore it until the chorus comes on. The chorus is the only part in English, and it goes "Lonely, lonely Christmas, Merry, Merry Christmas."

Please discuss.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Riceometer Check

Family In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 5 days

The massive rice jug doesn't lie. This was day 49 of my 98 days in China.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

WARNING: Boring Work-Related Post

Family In Beijing Countdown: T-Minus 6 days

Today's post is dedicated to my coworkers back home, who are probably the only people who will care (except for Ron. Ron don't care about nuthin' but Ron.)

I guess I shouldn't lose sight of the fact that I'm here on a work-exchange program, not a holiday, so today's post is devoted to some of my observations and learnings from 7 weeks in a major Beijing ad agency.

Turnover: I made a joke about Banana's going-away email a few weeks ago, but she wasn't the only one. In a span of less than 2 weeks, there were 4 "this is my last day" emails in the creative department alone, which is about 30 people.

While the concentration might be a little high, the trend is not. I asked my boss and he said the annual turnover is about 30 percent. The causes: poaching from other agencies and burnout. It's a young industry, and for the local employees (as opposed to imports from Hong Kong, Singapore or elsewhere) I imagine there isn't yet much loyalty built up.

Or is there another reason? Let's look at the distribution of recent departures:

Hmmm. Maybe it's an odor.

Global Politics: I get the impression that global brands love China and want advertising troops on the ground in Beijing, but aren't yet ready to fully turn over the reins. These global brands tend to be based in Western countries, and their lead advertising office is there as well. Work done in Beijing often gets routed through San Francisco, New York, London or Paris - which, needless to say, means more cooks in the kitchen, and more time to come to agreement on things like creative briefs.

I've heard stories of overseas offices taking over partway through a project; or asking for their work to be faithfully translated (which often doesn't work when wordplay is concerned.)

I've also heard horror stories of satellite offices (not in my agency, natch!) creating local work that creates a full-blown scandal, so how quickly do you let a young office with less experience call the shots?

On the one hand we have local offices to create work relevant to their market. On the other we have global leads to ensure consistent quality. And I promise you this is not unique to my agency. I don't have the answer, but I can say there is some tension there, and maybe always will be.

Equality: One effect of China's past is that women, men, minorities, EVERYONE has always been expected to do their share, and everyone has to be treated the same. Now that the market has opened up, it seems to me that people are judged and promoted on merit in the sliver of upper-middle-class white-collar China I've seen.

Both in the agency and at the client, I don't see any substantial difference in the number of men or women in positions of authority. Nor, as we were told growing up, have I seen a dearth of women - I'd say my office is about 50/50. Describing race relations is difficult - there are many ethnicities in China, but 95% of them are Han Chinese, and foreigners who are here both want to be here and are wanted.

I realize I'm only seeing a miniscule sliver of China, and I don't fully understand what I'm seeing even then. But worth mentioning just the same.

Work/Life Balance: Little to be found! As I've said, people often work 10-12 hour days, and often weekends - not just occasionally, like I do, but consistently. That's not to say they don't grumble, but it's an entrenched way of doing business now.

Overwhelmingly, my coworkers are single and childless. As one coworker observed, it's hard to tell "if we work so much because we're single, or if we're single because we work so much."

Audience Segmentation: Sure, you have 1.3 billion people, but they range everywhere from agrarian nomads to high-powered high-tech billionaire capitalists. This, needless to say, poses challenges for advertising.

Take computers. If you buy media nationwide to sell your computer, in Tier 1 and 2 cities, you have to convince them that your processor is superior to the one they bought a year ago. In Tier 3 and 4 cities, you have to educate them why they should buy a computer.

The obvious solution is multiple tiered messages. The solution that often gets chosen for budget reasons is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I think people find that very frustrating.

And online, where each site is purchased individually and sites report their own results - Good news! We hit our targets once again! - there is a lot of skepticism. I've only seen very rough media plans, but what I've seen seems to have been a 'wide net' strategy. Everyone reads news, so lets go to the news sites. Everyone uses search, so we'll buy search terms.

It's changing - DoubleClick just came to town - but since there aren't even common advertising formats from site to site, the efficiencies of scale and quantifiable results we enjoy back home are still coming.

And lastly, this will be funny just to select people back home, especially to John and Ron:

There is a very high-ranking global leader from New York visiting tomorrow. Last week, the managing director asked me to get involved in producing a video that captures the spirit of Beijing and showcases our work.

Not my area of expertise in MANY ways, but I think it worked out all right. I created a theme, a tagline and a structure for the video, including crude storyboards, then my boss created a visual motif, then people filmed it, edited it together, blah blah blah.

But then the managing director said the music chosen was too slow. She wanted something upbeat, energetic - you know, cool music!

In putting together showcases of our work back home, I've often helped select the music. Heck, my iPod is full of songs, most of which probably haven't been heard here. I sat with my boss and he selected Cobrastyle, by the Teddybears, as one he wanted to try out. I got a copy to the video guy (who doesn't speak English).

Today we saw the almost-final cut. There had been some debate about the song, so I wasn't surprised to find that an executive decision had been made to use a different song.

They wanted something uptempo, with a strong beat, something unusual and modern that will sound good to Western ears. It was signed off on by everyone up to and including the managing director, despite my expressing some concern about this particular song.

Which is why, when this high official from New York arrives at his Beijing welcome dinner, he will see traditional Chinese motifs in a video featuring his Chinese counterparts - set to an Irish jig.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Where is my Chinglish? I was promised Chinglish!

Family In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 1 week! (For those who don't know, my wife, parents and sister are touring China now, and will be coming to stay with me a few days when the tour is done.)

Chinglish, for the uninitiated, is the delightfully mistranslated English that one sometimes finds. It's a relative of Engrish, which is the same idea only in Japan.

I have to admit, I often find it quite amusing, but I feel a little guilty pointing it out - after all, the people who write Chinglish actually speak my language far better than I do theirs, so who am I to judge?

On the other hand, it has been in the news over the past couple months, so I would be negligent in my duty as an observer of life in China if I didn't mention it... right?

Anyway, Chinglish got worldwide attention recently when people started noticing that a lot of the English signs being put up for the Olympics were hysterically mistranslated. News agencies wrote about it - one of the most famous was "To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty," which essentially meant 'Caution: Slippery' - then wrote about edicts from the Chinese government that they were going to stamp OUT Chinglish before it could embarrass them on a global scale.

Well, when the Chinese government says they're going to do something, it very often gets done. I have looked for Chinglish since getting here, and found very little - certainly nothing like the news articles had described.

I asked some people who had been here for a while, and they were almost wistful in remembering how it had been a few years ago. I get the impression that for English-speakers, it was one of those little touchstones that could unexpectedly make them smile.

I've been asked to keep my eyes open, and I will continue to do so, but for now I'll just share what few examples I have come across.

1.) The notebook I use at work:

On the one hand, I'm flattered, of course. On the other, the 'future technology' appears to be lined paper, so I'm not sure quite what Notebook considers an 'outstanding achiever.'

2.) A store I stopped at:

You know what? It really, really was.

3.) The tag from my strainer:

OK, first, I am really glad that my strainer is so concerned about both my physical safety and the image my business projects. Second, I bet every Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade nerd out there read "and grail will make you healthy" and thought some variation of the joke "...unless you choose -- POORLY."


A story from last week. My wife and I were going out for dinner last Thursday and noted that the intersection right by my building, which has been under construction since I got here, was moving along nicely.

(They don't stop work for anything here - recently they were putting down blacktop WITHOUT STOPPING TRAFFIC. It was the responsibility of the drivers not to get crushed by the steamroller. I was crossing the street and my shoes were sticking to the hot tar.)

Anyway, we returned an hour later - and found that while we were gone, they had finished work (this is at 10:00 at night) and opened part of the road. So some traffic was rerouted, and some wasn't, and some people knew it, and some didn't, and there's no signs, and smack-dab in the middle of this 6 lane, five way intersection (which narrows to one lane in one direction, by the way) is a free-standing traffic light.

This promised great entertainment, so we sat on the edge of a small walkway leading to the mall my building is atop to watch, with our backs to a small flower garden and narrow cobblestone sidewalk.

The show was as good as expected, when suddenly Shannon turned with a start.

"What is it?" I asked.

"I wanted to make sure a car wasn't coming up behind us," she replied.

As someone who has almost been run over on a sidewalk, I have to commend my wife for her rapid, instinctual survival skills.

As I mentioned last week, I lost my Motorola RAZR. On the one hand, this is a bummer. On the other, an opportunity. I am in the cell phone capital of the world, and while phones actually aren't cheap here (there's no subsidies from the service providers like back home) they do have phones that aren't released in the US.

But I have no idea what to get! I'm not going to drop money on a RAZR because I can probably get one at home cheaper than here. So if I buy something, it has to be cool and something I can't get otherwise. I was thinking of a Sony Ericsson K790a (which I could get in the US, but not easily.)

Anyone else know of anything cool I should consider?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Terracotta Da Vida, Baby!

Don't you know that I'll always kung fu?

Oh, wow... I can hear the groans from like 10,000 miles away!

Anyway, I was a total lazybones today, so I thought I'd just post this picture. It's actually the spare statues at the Great Wall at Juyongguan, where I went a little over a week ago. They are all lined up behind the gift shop, and I assume when the ones they have on the wall topple over and break - which they do - they come here for a replacement.

Other than that, I did laundry and dishes, bought some music online, watched a movie, and only left the apartment long enough to pick up a bag of chips.

One item of note - we had an honest-to-goodness thunderstorm in Beijing today. It's rained a few times, but this is the first true storm I've seen. Not much by Minnesota standards, but cool to see.

So that's all you're getting from me. Have a good one!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Visit to Bobby Du

Hair care in China is an outdoor activity. Walk through a hutong, or even a public park, and it's not uncommon to see a 'barbershop' consisting of a kitchen chair, a bedsheet and a tackle box of scissors.

I point this out because it's something that's been worrying me. There's only so long one can go without a haircut. I got mine cut just before leaving Minnesota, some seven weeks ago, and I wasn't sure exactly what my game plan would be.

I considered just ignoring it, and coming home with long, buttery, Fabio-like locks streaming behind me.

I considered walking into a barbershop, but was warned that some barbershops are actually fronts for a business that has nothing to do with cutting hair.

I considered asking one of my Chinese friends to come with me to translate. (FRIEND, IN CHINESE: "Yes, bald. Like a monkey's butt." ME: "What did you tell him?" FRIEND: "To take a little off the top.")

But ultimately I decided to do the smart thing: Go where other non-Chinese speakers go.

I was thus recommended to one Bobby "Hair" Du, chief stylist at Eric's Salon in Lido Place, a hotel-linked mall near my apartment and a favorite of expats.

Now, if you know me, you know I'm not exactly a 'chief stylist' kinda guy. I once attempted to cut my own hair with a beard trimmer, just for reference. And he was expensive (for me) even by US standards. In a city where a barber in an actual barbershop might charge 25 yuan, maybe $3.30, Bobby commands almost ten times that.

But he also speaks English, and my English-speaking friends have decent hair.

The salon was full-on haute couture. A pierced, tattooed Englishman with a black fauxhawk sat me down and brought me coffee while I waited. The place was all hardwood, black lacquer and textured glass, with international 'chill' music playing. I have to say, I kind of enjoyed the primping - I got a shampoo/scalp massage, then Bobby came and worked his magic.

He was a soft-spoken Chinese, all in black, with a goatee. I could tell he didn't like the way I wanted my hair cut, but went along with it. I thought he did an excellent job, and at the end he said "You know, maybe for your job you need to have it parted, but I like it better mussed up." And he put some product in my hair and did so.

You know what? I like it. You may be seeing a new Henry when I get home.


Relaxing day today. I slept in, then went for a picnic in Chaoyang Park with some coworkers. I brought a chilled watermelon that cost 6 yuan, and everyone else brought food that, it turned out, averaged 100 yuan each. Doh! But we settled up, so I didn't feel like a total slacker.

The meal included roast chicken, a salad with bacon and cheese, wine, preserved duck's liver (yes, I ate it. Not bad...) bread and butter, salami, chips and other treats.

One coworker's fiance, an Australian (another 'came here and never left' story) who teaches Montassorri and is about to become principal of a small school, brought out a cricket bat and we played a little. We sat around and chatted, then cabbed back to their apartment where we played a little music, board games and chatted until it was time to go home.

Here's a building near our picnic spot:

And the random monument right by us. Even the Chinese had no idea what it's about. But for some reason it includes the word 'esperanto.'

Friday, June 22, 2007

Back in Blog! First up: Gun Day

Hello, everybody! Long time no blog! This will probably be a long one as I recount several days worth of activity, but I’ll try to keep each bit short. However, to keep the promise I made before my hiatus, I start with last Saturday’s ‘Bachelor Day’ with my boss and another coworker.

It’s not uncommon for Hong Kongers to come to Beijing – lots of booming business, money to be made, career opportunities. But often, their families are quite settled in Hong Kong. Such is the case with my Executive Creative Director and an account director here, both of whom find themselves – like me – bachelors in a new city.

So we’ve taken to getting together many weekends. They are amusing themselves, and I get personal guides to parts of the city and activities I wouldn’t see otherwise.

Still, I wasn’t prepared to be asked: “Want to go shooting?”

Now THERE’S an experience off the beaten tourist path. I agreed.

We met for breakfast, then had a private driver take us an hour out of the city to a military R&D facility that also hosts a private firing range. Inside was a reception area – plenty of traffic on a Saturday morning – and a gift shop.

Opening off the reception area was a display room filled with guns in cases, everything from hunting rifles to military arms to non-lethal crowd-control guns. They weren’t just Chinese, either. There were guns from around the world and a variety of eras – Chinese-made AK-47s (called the Type 56 here), an American M-16, Israeli Uzis, a Steur AUG (my Counterstrike/TacOps gaming friends will know that one), revolvers, pistols, bolt-action rifles from WWII, even a display of heavier machine guns on bipods and tripods.

You go in, pick your guns, and an employee takes your order – Which gun? How many bullets? – and then leads you to the range itself. (Because of some connections my company has, it was arranged that we could choose some of the larger guns.)

Safety was well established. Each firing position was in its own room overlooking the outdoor range. Each room had a guide who loaded and mounted the rifles to a ring on the table so it couldn’t be swung around, then sent the target down. In the pistol rooms, the pistol is chained to the table, you reach through a small hole in a plexiglass partition and the gun is handed to you from the other side of the plexiglass, so you can’t pull it in or aim too far left or right.

I fired 30 rounds from a Chinese Type 56 (aka AK-47) rifle, 10 from a Russian sniper rifle, and 15 from a Chinese 9mm pistol. I did all right, including 99 out of a possible 100 with the sniper rifle, and did as well as I could have expected with the other two.

Mostly, though, it was a surreal experience. There were whole families with kids. One time I heard some huge belt-fed machine gun blast off 200 rounds in one continuous stream –BADADADADADADADADA!!! – then looked to see a grandmother turning in her chair away from the smoking gun, laughing hysterically along with her family as the completely unscathed target was reeled back in. One room had a small armored car built into it – you could climb into the turret and shoot the dual-machine guns at a target WAAAY downrange.

In China private gun ownership is only allowed in special circumstances in rural areas, so maybe firing guns is a novel occasion. In any case, it’s safe to say a fine time was had by all – myself included!


I’m putting this in a separate post because it’s so dang long. Read at your own risk.

After the guns but before Shannon arrived, my friends and I went to the Great Wall at Juyongguan. It was fabulous. The wall is restored, but very few people were around. Literally, 2 tour busses and maybe a dozen cars in a lot that could hold hundreds of vehicles. People who do go there go early, I was told, and even then most everyone goes to Badaling, the most famous part of the wall.

Partly it’s because Juyongguan is very steep – the entrance is in a valley, and the Wall rises steeply in both directions, an almost endless staircase that rises at more than 45 degrees in many places – almost more like a ladder. Unless you’re ready to climb, not much to do.

But what that meant for me was no crowds, no vendors hassling us – just us and the Wall. Visibility was good (see the pictures below) and we climbed to the first tower, where my friends decided the view was good enough. I climbed another 30 minutes to the next big tower, thinking it was the top – and just saw more Wall rising to ANOTHER, even HIGHER tower.

I wished I could have stayed, but had to cut myself off somewhere. This one is going in the memory bank, though.

You already read about the store and the Dragon Fruit, but after that Shannon and I went to the antique market, where we managed to spend more money and learned we are not good negotiators. My best was getting to 55% of asking, my worst was 75%, in a market where 50% is the max you should pay. But hey, we may not get back, and we’re talking about a dollar here, a dollar there. Good fun.

Then we went to the Temple of Heaven – where our camera battery died. Got some shots on our cell phones, though. This is a Ming dynasty complex almost 700 years old that features the famous Temple of Prayers for Good Harvest and a raised platform that marks the center of the world. It was beautiful, but hot and medium-crowded. Amazing, though.

For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant called Annie’s for pasta. I hear they deliver…

During the week, I worked, and I’m sad to report Shannon worked some too while recovering from jetlag. But she did get to do some exploring on her own – I’ll let her write her adventures if she likes when she gets back in a week and a half – and we’d meet in the evening.

On Monday we went out to an Indian restaurant called Ganges. Good food. We ended up the only people sitting upstairs at a table surrounded by gauze curtains. Talk about atmosphere!

We went to the Lao She Teahouse for a floor show and appetizers. It took an hour and a half to fight through Beijing traffic, and our driver got lost to boot.

The teahouse isn’t especially old, but it is a Beijing fixture. Foreign dignitaries come here on state visits for a show that includes magic, Beijing opera, acrobats, singing, dancing and more – sort of a Chinese cultural smorgasbord for people in a hurry.

It was very enjoyable. The snacks ranged from delicious to “interesting,” and the tea was all-you-can-drink. I have to say, Beijing Opera is almost indecipherable for an outsider, even accounting for the fact that I don’t speak the language. Here’s a YouTube clip to get the idea across (I did not shoot this):

Funniest part of the night was when easily a dozen coworkers plopped down RIGHT IN FRONT OF US with an assortment of VERY high-ranking clients from America whom they were entertaining. We moved up to say hi to a couple people sitting closest to us, but bailed before we could cause confusion for the clients.

Wednesday night one of my coworkers took Shannon and myself to a good Chinese restaurant on the west side of the city. It was a cool place designed to mimic a forest glade – see the picture – and the food was spectacular. There was sesame chicken, sweet-batter-fried shrimp that tasted almost like kettle corn, cold noodles, vegetable wraps, egg rolls (we dipped them in vinegar – very tasty!), shaved beef, hot egg pastries and the obligatory Tsing Tao beer.

Yesterday I went to concept testing from some ads I’ve been helping with. The client had a representative in from the U.S., and together with my coworkers, we sat behind the one-way mirror and watched people give their reactions to our work.

It was pretty enlightening – I’ve never done that with my work before – but I won’t bore you with the details. I prefer to bore you with my inane babbling.

Afterwards I joined the client and some other folks for a walk through a nearby hutong for some shopping. Then I caught a cab home – and forgot my cell phone in it.

AAAARRRGGH! In a normal city, you have a very slim chance of getting your lost cell phone back. In Beijing, with its robust informal economy and tens of thousands of cabs – no chance. We called the number. It rang the first time, and the second time the message said the phone had been turned off.

So to the driver or passenger who is enjoying their newly-acquired year-old Motorola Razr v3 – enjoy, you wiener. It got crappy reception anyway. And if any of you get a random call from someone in China – it had ALL of your numbers in it – politely ask if they would mind returning it to me in your very best Mandarin Chinese.

For dinner, we went to a Chinese dumpling shop. For about 13 dollars, we got a liter of Tsing Tao, fried pork dumplings, steamed vegetable dumplings, fried rice and a huge mound of sweet and spicy shrimp. Couldn’t even finish it, but I can tell you that when I get back, I MUST learn how to make pan-fried dumplings.

And now today. Saw Shannon to her cab at noon today – she’s off to Shanghai to meet up with my parents and sister for a 12-day tour of Shanghai, the Yangtze (including Three Gorges), Xi’an and Beijing – we’ll all be together again on July 3, with my family heading home on the 6th and my wife on the 8th.

So I have twelve days as a bachelor again.

Two words: Dumplings and guns.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


UPDATE (June 19): Thanks to KatieCW and alpha particle for identifying this as Dragon Fruit and passing along many interesting facts. We've put it in the fridge and will try some on Thursday. Remember, kids: Dragon fruit is an excellent source of dragon!

OK, so I make a big whoop-dee-do about how I won't have time to blog now that Shannon is here, and we immediately encounter something that we both agree needs to go in the blog.

We were in a grocery store (where and how we came upon this store is the second half of the story) and my wife, through no fault of her own, accidentally purchased this:


So you know, my vote is that IT is going to eat US.


Perhaps those of you who have been reading this blog remember that when I first arrived, I was having a hard time getting settled. The only grocery stores I could find were wholly Chinese, meaning I wasn't sure how to eat half of what I saw, and I couldn't read the labels on the other half, so I ended up buying food based on texture and color of packaging.

You might also recall the frustrations I experienced for a full week trying to buy bananas.

In the end, it's all good. I've learned to adjust to new ways of doing things, had to problem-solve all kinds of unexpected obstacles, and ended up living very much as the Chinese in this area do - shop at the same stores, eat the same food, adjust my diet based on what was fresh or available.

So early this afternoon, Shannon and I are going out, and I invite her to look at the four-story shopping mall my building adjoins. I had explored it my first weekend and seen little reason to return; it was also the scene of a frustrating and embarrassing cell-phone transaction my first week (not documented here.)

Anyway, I wanted her to see it in case there was anything she wanted, and also to show her the AMAZINGLY low traffic there is in some of these new shopping centers; today, on a Sunday afternoon, most stores had far more staff than customers.

So we're looking around and I see a down escalator. Haven't been there... Let's check it out!

In the basement of the building where I have lived and scraped for more than a month, there is a big, beautiful, gleaming, hardwood-floored, fully stocked, foreign-oriented grocery store. Premium cuts of fresh meat in sanitary shrink-wrapped perfection laid out like jewels. Far and away the best, freshest, cleanest, most varied produce department I've seen in China. Imported cheese, German beer, American packaged goods, even European dairy.

And to make a final mockery of BeijingBananaQuest07, when I paused to look at the huge table of perfect, almost-ripe bananas, one of the dozen idle staffers (there were I'd say 8 customers in the store including us, tops) ran over, took the bunch from my hand, ran to the weighing station, weighed it, tagged it, then handed it back with a smile.

Unreal. Anyway, to bring this full circle, Shannon was stopped by the sight of these bizarre pink and green fruits about the size of a small cantaloupe and made the mistake of picking one up. Bang! Zip! Boom! It's tagged and in our basket.

Ah well. I guess Beijing just got easier. But it's a good thing I didn't find it earlier - what would I have blogged about?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

WIFE IN BEIJING! Slow Blogging Ahead!

UPDATE (SUNDAY AM, BEIJING TIME): Shannon is here and safe and had a very smooth trip, for any who are curious.

Hey folks!

Well, the big day is here! My wife will be landing in Beijing in about one hour, so I'm afraid I don't have time to write up today's adventures. Also, I anticipate having somewhat less time to blog over the next few days while she and I are out on the town in the evenings.

Please do check - I hope to post whenever I can, especially since I think we're going to be out and about seeing lots of new things. I just wanted you to know why if I miss a day or two or three. And to keep you checking, and keep you interested enough to come back next Friday when I GUARANTEE you a new entry, I leave you with this:

I guess I consider myself a mediocre shot with an AK-47 assault rifle.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Wife In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 1 day!

Yesterday afternoon, I was asked to fill in at the last minute for a media buying pitch to a major U.S. car brand that's looking to make a splash in China.

Now, my background is as a copywriter on the creative side, not media buying. But this coworker wanted me to just talk in general about the value and potential of online marketing and talk up some high-level strategic ideas they had developed. I know just enough to be dangerous, so I said sure, be glad to help.

But then I started to pick up on some things. For example, when this coworker (also Caucasian, by the way)introduced me to the woman leading the pitch, he did so by saying "As you can see, he's tall and white." This was a joke, but still...

I got the impression that the woman on the pitch wanted high-level people involved to show the potential client our depth and how serious we were. She asked about my title - Associate Creative Director - and how much experience I had in automotive or related fields - none. It was already understood that I am not a media buyer. Not too promising, right? But she came back a couple minutes later and said yes, we need you to come.

I met them at the potential client's office, and I could tell she was still not too sure about me - "Have you been in front of a client? In China?" Yes, I said I had. Later: "Just try to sound important." (Meant more in reference to position in the company, but still not a huge boost.)

We got in and set up. I had seen and made edits to the slides I would present, but I hadn't seen the rest of the presentation, other than over a shoulder, so I knew it was in English.

There was some conversation between my Chinese coworkers and the Chinese individuals we were presenting to. Our presentation leader leaned over to me.

"Change of plans," she said. "The man from America can't make the meeting. So we're doing it in Chinese."

Ahhhhh. Now it made sense. I was the token white guy, there to make the American comfortable. So I sat through the next hour and 27 minutes of the hour-and-a-half meeting not understanding a word (although I was able to read the slides, at least) and then had to do a VERY abbreviated version of my slides since everyone needed to leave at 10:30. All in all it was fine, just another new experience here in China!


I was finally given access to the servers at work yesterday, and as I was looking around in one of the folders, I found this (the highlighting is actually as it appears on the network):

If you can't see that, it's a folder containing the Linkin Park album Minutes to Midnight, for which I mentioned some time ago a coworker of mine has great, ongoing, unabated enthusiasm.

And now I know where the files are hosted.

And they don't know I know.

What to do? Perhaps I should ask this little red-clad fellow with the pitchfork who is sitting on my left shoulder...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Happy Flag Day, Everybody!

Wife In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 2 days!

My dinner tonight? The same meal I make every Flag Day in Beijing: my very own sesame pork fried rice with cashews, egg, onion and bell pepper stir fried in soy sauce, potato chips, pickles and a Yanjing Beer.

Oh, these are the days when it's hard to be away from home, all the way on the other side of the world in Beijing. The holidays, rich in tradition and happiness, when the lonely traveler's heart yearns for the simple warmth of treasured time among friends and family.

Why, right now, I'm sure you're all gathered around the Flag Day tree, watching with bemused delight as the children open their presents, their eyes lighting up with joy.

Later, family and friends will assemble for the time-honored Flag Day feast of turkey and candied yams. Once the dishes are cleared, I'm sure you'll all relax in front of the TV for the traditional Flag Day game on TV - Devil Rays/Rockies, of course! - or perhaps go out in the yard to look for gaily colored Flag Day eggs that the Flag Day bunny has left behind.

"Look at me!" says little Billy, proudly showing off his Flag Day costume. Later he'll go Flag or Treating with the other children in the neighborhood, coming home with his treasures, and then staying up past his bedtime to watch the traditional Flag Day fireworks.

He'll try to stay up 'til midnight to watch the flag drop in times square, but the poor little guy is tuckered out from all the Flag Day festivities. As you tuck him in, looking for all the world like the classic Norman Rockwell Flag Day painting, he'll stir briefly and say:

"This was the best Flag Day ever!"

Happy Flag Day from Beijing, and God bless us, every one!


One of the designers had her last day in the office today, and when she sent around her good-bye email, I noticed that the English name she had taken - not making this up - was Banana.

Good bye, Banana! I'm sure you are a very good person, but since I never met you, the only tribute I can pay is to make fun of your name.

And besides, what IS it with me and bananas?

Looks like I'm going to Hong Kong July 14-16. I'm actually really looking forward to that.

I don't know what brand because it was in Chinese, but it clearly said Sesame Oil. Or perhaps it was a mislabeled bottle of goat bile. In any case, I had to pull the skillet off the range and give it a quick wash and go back to the olive oil (!) I've been using here for my "Chinese" cooking.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Wife In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 3 days!

Not much to report today, so I think I'll rest a little in anticipation of my wife's arrival on Saturday (yay!) So today's post is just some interesting statistics and observations I've come across lately.

I've been following economic stories quite a bit since getting here, and on CNN today I saw a few points of interest in the crawl: Inflation in China was up something like 3.5% last month, mostly driven by rising food prices. Eggs are up, and so is pork - there's been some kind of disease in the hog population here.

In my building, the price of the breakfast buffet has gone from 30 yuan when I got here up to 38 yuan - don't know if that's a result of inflation, but interesting nonetheless. As China's economy becomes less and less controlled, it will be interesting to see what kind of effect rising prices for base necessities like food will have on a consumer culture like the one China is trying to develop.

Another interesting statistic that was sent around at work - the average Chinese woman spends 1/4 of her income on hair and makeup.

At the same time, the Shanghai stock market, which lost like 15% of its value last week, has been skyrocketing again, up almost 2.5% today alone, and is back within a couple hundred points of its record high from 2 weeks ago. (BTW, I'm going from memory here because I'm too lazy too look it up, so I won't swear by these numbers - but I am estimating conservatively.) Western economists say (and some coworkers confirm) that it is driven by individual investors, like the U.S. market in the late 90's.

Savings rates are down, especially among the young, so they spend more and invest heavily in stocks. (Although when you consider that China's savings rate is among the highest in the world, pushing 40%, I think, they have some room to give - especially compared with Americans.)

At the same time, companies are growing like gangbusters, and salaries are rising with it almost unrestricted - again, reminds me of my Web economy days in the early 2000's. One coworker said average raises are 10% or more a year, with promotions and new jobs often bringing in 25% to 50% salary jumps - in Beijing, anyway.

I know I'm making allusions beneath the surface here, and yeah, I'm thinking it seems crazy. But I make no prognostications - for one thing, I lack the education and the smarts to draw ANY kind of conclusion. For another, there's never been a country like China, never been this kind of growth in this short a time anywhere in the world, certainly not under a government as hands-on yet savvy as China's seems to be.

The one thing I DO know from my business-reporting days is that, individually, every number I've mentioned in this post is astounding, and they all are happening now.

One way or another, gonna be a heck of a ride.

So now it's off to dinner - mac and cheese tonight! (I was able to find some New Zealand butter and milk that said 'pasteurized' in English at Jenny Lou's.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Riceometer Check

Wife In Beijing Countdown: T-minus 4 days

How long have I been here? Hmmmm, let's check the trusty ol' Riceometer...

Let's see... convert from metric... carry the 2... divide by pi... Yup! Looks like I've been here 33 days-- 1/3 of the program.

See you all in another 6 pounds or so!

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Trip to the Grocery Store

WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG Wife In Beijing Countdown: T-Minus 5 Days! :D

Now back to your regularly scheduled twaddle.

Here are things I have purchased an eaten since getting to Beijing.

1.) Primary Flavor Milk Candy

Gotta say, the sentence intrigued me. What exactly IS a primary flavor? Whatever it is, it's delicious. They're like creamy Tootsie Rolls, but a little smaller and softer.

2.) Watermelon Soda

OK, see if you can wrap your tiny mind around THIS! It's SODA-- but it tastes like WATERMELON!

OK, that was pretty boring. But I like the packaging. It gives me seizures.

3.) Spicy Fried Chicken Flavored Bugles(R) Brand Snacks

This one was accidental. I had been surprised by a randomly-grabbed bag of Bugles before when it turned out to be yellow curry-flavored, so I deliberately looked for the bag whose color and layout said 'corn.' I opened the bag, ate one and -- what the HECK is THAT flavor?

Eventually I found the flavor written in English small on the back, and I guess now the picture in the lower right makes more sense. However, with retrospect, maybe I should be more worried that this packaging promotes last February's NBA All-Star Game.

4.) Bag of Meat

One of my coworkers urged me to try this. I think it's Korean. It was just a non-refrigerated bag with a semi-soft lump in it as far as I could tell - NOT the sort of thing I would choose on my own. But he insisted that it was tasty, safe and would spice up the instant noodles I eat once or twice a week.

You know what? He was right. Inside the bag was a vacuum-sealed pack, and inside that was a lump of quite flavorful roasted beef that I slice thin and stir into my noodles.

(Needless to say, refrigerate after opening.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sanlitun Night Fever

Another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody (but my wife will be here in 1 week! YAAAAYYY!), so I decided to get out of my immediate neighborhood and check out the Beijing scene in the heart of the city.

Now, when I say "the Beijing scene" I mean "the Beijing scene that a noob like myself could easily find, and where I can melt into the background and not feel totally uncomfortable." I am sure there are the hip places that real Beijingers go to, but for me, it was off to find a cab to Sanlitun Bar Street.

Sanlitun is in western Chaoyang district (I am in northeastern Chaoyang), so it's maybe 20 minutes by cab. Sanlitun is one of the two main embassy districts in the city, which means it has attractions and nightlife that cater to foreigners, including Westerners. The Canadian, Australian, German, French and Italian embassies are nearby. (The U.S., U.K and other embassies are a couple miles south, in the Chaowai and Jianwai neighborhoods.)

And the best known part of Sanlitun is the Bar Street, a mile-long gauntlet of discos, bars, restaurants and shops (a less gracious guest might also mention pimps, "girl bars" and beggars). As you walk up the street, each establishment has people working the sidewalk, trying to coax you in, even maneuvering you to a seat before you realize what is happening.

Luckily for me, I had a destination, recommended by the guidebook my wife had bought me. It's called The Tree, a well-known but hard-to-find bar and restaurant built into an old building several turns down the random alleys that branch off of Bar Street. It specializes in wood-fired pizzas and Belgian beer (40 varieties of Belgian beer alone.)

I found it with a little difficulty, but was glad I did. It had an easy, warm atmosphere, was buzzing with conversation, and featured a big bar (I prefer to sit at bars - somehow, sitting alone at a bar seems less sad than sitting alone at a table, because at least you can strike up a conversation at a bar.)

I found one open seat and took it. The bartender spoke good English and, seeing I was alone, did what all good bartenders do - talked to me. He asked where I was from, what I was doing etc. I asked him a little about Beijing and ordered a Hawaiian pizza, a Jamesons and had him pick his favorite beer for me (it was Belgian, of course, but not too dark and a little sweet - I really liked it.)

It turned out I had taken the seat of a member of the Chinese party to my left, so when I saw them searching for a barstool, I quickly apologized and moved to another part of the bar where some seats had opened up, and was soon joined by two people in town for the weekend.

He was from Boston, originally, now a long-time resident of Bangkok, and his coworker was Thai. They work at the Bangkok office of a large international insurance firm. We had a nice long conversation about living in Asia, differences between China and Thailand (I played the role of the China 'expert:' "Well, this may shock you, but there are more than ONE MEEEEELLION people in China"), politics of the region, economics, and of course sports. ("The Timberwolves are the worst team in the NBA!" "No, the Celtics are the worst team in the NBA!")

They were great people and I was glad to have met them. Like many of the Americans I've met in Asia, he came for a short stint and never left. He now speaks and writes fluent Thai (am I the ONLY American with terrible language skills? I thought we were supposed to be boorish ignoramuses! Lets get on the ball, people! You're making me look bad!) and has no intention of going back - same story I've heard from at least a half-dozen Westerners I've met in the last month.

All in all a delightful evening. We left The Tree in search of another beer, and eventually wandered into a blaring disco/bar. It was interesting. Maybe half Chinese, half foreign, all blinded by the random lasers firing from the ceiling, all deafened by American music ("'Cause I ain't no hollaback girl! This place is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S!" -- wait a minute, why does it ALWAYS come back to bananas with me?) and only a few (probably drunk) people awkwardly dancing.

Most of the people (myself included) were dazzled by the lights, nursing their beers, trying to look like we belonged here while curiously glancing around, waiting to see what would happen next.

Might be my best metaphor yet for China.


Hello to any of you who found this through the Chasing the Dragon blog at Fortune.com! It's really funny: I'm here to learn about marketing in China, so, as a former business reporter, I spent a lot of time reading about the MARKET in China. One blog I frequent is chasingthedragon.blogs.fortune.com, written by Fortune Magazine's Asia editor Clay Chandler.

It's a terrific perspective on China's economy and trends. I went to look at it yesterday and found that his most recent post referenced and linked to my Beijing Traffic Lesson of a few days ago! Unbelievable!

Clay, thank you for the kind words and the reference. And to my coworkers back home, if you are interested in learning more about China, bookmark his blog. He also obviously has a terrific eye for quality based on his link to me, so I urge you to immediately sink your life's savings into anything he mentions, even in passing.

Earlier Saturday, my coworker Michael and I met for breakfast, then took a cab to the Chinese Military Museum. I am a bit of a Cold War freak, and Michael is interested in armaments, so we thought it would be a fun way to spend a couple hours. The People's Liberation Army is very influential in China, so I was sure it would be pretty spectacular.

Also, I wanted to see some of the stories I knew told from a different perspective, and it was clear from the sign outside the museum that this would be the case:

So we bought our tickets, went through the gate, and...

Oh good. Renovation.

Like most older things in Beijing, the museum is undergoing a massive improvement project. It's 5 stories tall and I'd say 3/4 of it was gutted and emptied. In a few places, huge bronze statues were sitting in hallways with ropes under them, clearly just dragged out of the way. Most of the wings were dusty construction zones.

But there were some ancient exhibits, and some modern exhibits, and the main hall with its tanks, planes and huge missile was still open, as was an outside courtyard.

Just one observation: The museum is part relics of China's past, part trophy room with captured equipment from various conflicts. I was struck by how many nations had their arms displayed both as weapons China had used, and weapons China had captured. ("This U.S. tank was given to China to aid their fight in World War II. And THIS U.S. tank was captured in Korea. This Soviet tank was given to China by Stalin. And THIS Soviet tank was captured during a border conflict in the 1960's. This flying saucer was sold to the Chinese by the Lizard People of Planet Zornicron 6...")

My takeaway: China has a verrrry interesting history.

Anyway, some pictures. Rollover for captions, click to see the Photobucket album with more.

Remember the Bass-O-Matic in that old SNL commercial? Well, Michael and I went out for lunch after the museum to a shop near my place that sells nice, simple, reliable Chinese food. We had steamed and fried dumplings and some fish soup.

It was all very tasty - the broth had a salty and sour flavor, and the fish meat was tender and didn't have any bones that I found - but it looked like some fish had been dropped in a Bass-O-Matic with dull blades and then just 'pulsed' maybe two or three times.

My favorite part: a pair of heads and tails sticking out of the bowl on each end.

Wow, long one today. Hope all is well!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Today's Lunch With My Boss: A Picture Story

True story. It was like I had bravely jumped on a Kung Pao grenade.


The CEO of my immediate employer (as opposed to the various levels of holding companies, parent companies, grandparent companies etc.) is in Beijing at the moment. Today he gave a speech to my Beijing counterparts, and as work is a little slow right now, I sat in.

Some highlights: "Greater China is the key strategic focus of [the company]. And Beijing is the key to China." "We're 1000% focused on you." "Every day in New York, we know what's going on in Beijing."

Now, I believe in it's customary to play to your crowd (Lead Singer: "Nobody rocks harder than Des Moines!" Des Moines crowd: "WHOOOOOOOO!!!"), but I have to say, I've never heard anything quite like that directed at Minneapolis. Apparently they hold our lack of 10,000% year-over-year growth against us.

I made a comment to my German acquaintance about the carpet-of-the-day in the building elevators.

"Yes," he said. "That's how they prove they change them every day."


So I can't trust the date on the chicken at the supermarket, but I KNOW there's a fresh rug in the elevator. Thank God.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Brands You Trust

Phew! That post yesterday took a lot out of me. So today's is short and sweet.

My refrigerator smelled bad the other day, which was inexplicable to me as it contains a 2 liter of Pepsi, a jar of pickles, some soy sauce and 5 cans of beer, but I needed to do something about it. So I went to Jenny Lou's, a store that caters to foreigners by carrying brands we recognize, to pick up a box of baking soda.

When I got home, I looked at it a little closer:

Ah, Arm & Hatchet. When you care enough to choose something that closely resembles the very best.


I was amused to realize that the elevators in my building have a different carpet that they put down for each day of the week:

"Man, what did I DRINK last night? I don't even know what day of the week it-- Oh! Thank you, elevator floor!"

On the other hand, I've been here about a month and only just noticed, so maybe they're on to something...

I want one of these. I would be the coolest guy in Minneapolis.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn

As I may have mentioned before, traffic in Beijing is its own art form. The city is adding thousands of cars per - I don't even know, week? Which means you have a healthy mix of people who have never driven before interspersed with people who should never have been driving in the first place.

To introduce you to the intricacies of Beijing driving, I will start with a relatively simple concept: the left turn.


We see here a typical intersection. The light has just turned green for the east-west streets, and car [A], an enormous black Lexus with pitch black windows, wants to make a left turn into the southbound lanes. Pedestrians wait on each corner. (For purposes of this demonstration, we'll assume no one is running the north-south red light, and no one is jaywalking - a rather large assumption.)


To make a left turn, it is VITAL that [A] cut off all eastbound traffic as soon as possible. The first few brave or foolish legitimate pedestrians step off the curb; this is of no concern. [A] makes his move.


NO! Too slow! [A] has managed to partially block [B], a brand new purple and yellow Hyundai taxi, but [A] has only achieved what Beijing drivers would consider a 'weak' blocking position.


In this detail, we can see why: [A] has only inserted his left bumper and cannot move forward without contact. [B], on the other hand, is in the dominant position - by putting his wheel hard to the right and flooring it, he can fully block [A].


[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density 'dead space' in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dumptruck carrying what appear to be 40 of the world's oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.


DENIED! [E], an old red taxi with its name sloppily stenciled in white on its doors, has boldly cut across two lanes of traffic, behind [D], and then swerved right, driving [D] into an extremely weak position behind [A]. Meanwhile, [B] and [C] are still fighting for position, with [C] muscling his way into the crosswalk. The only thing between [E] and a successful left turn is a few lawful pedestrians. [E] steps on the gas...


...and is cut off by [F], an elderly man pedaling his tricycle verrrryyy slooooowwwly with a 15-foot-diameter sphere of empty plastic cooking oil bottles bungee-corded haphazardly to the cargo area. He was part of the lawful pedestrians, but seeing the stalled traffic, decided to cut diagonally across the intersection. Not only has [F] blocked [E], he is headed straight at [B], giving [C] the edge he needs.


[B] concedes to [C], who drives in the crosswalk behind [F] and blocks [E]. Meanwhile, [G], a herd of about 20 bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians and wheelbarrows, sensing weakness in the eastbound lane and seeing that much of the westbound traffic is blocked behind [D], breaks north against the light. [F] pedals doggedly onward at about 2 miles per hour, his face like chiseled marble.


Now things get interesting. [C] has broken free and, as the first vehicle to get where he was going, wins. [E] makes a move to block [B] but, like [A] at the start of the left turn, only gains a 'weak' block. [A] has cleverly let [F] pass and guns into a crowd of [G], which both moves [A] forward and drives some [G] stragglers into the path of [D], clearing [A]'s flanks. Little now stands between [A] and a strong second-place finish.

STEP 10:

Except for public bus [H], one of those double buses with the accordion-thing connector. [H] has been screaming unnoticed along the eastbound sidewalk and now careens dangerously into a U-turn. This doesn't appear to concern the 112 people packed inside and pressed against the windows (although that could be due to a lack of oxygen.) [H] completely blocks both [A] and [D]. On the other side of the intersection, [B] has swerved into the lawful pedestrians (who aren't important enough to warrant a letter) and has gained position on [E].

[E] has forgotten the face of his father: He was so focused on his battle with [B] that he lost sight of the ultimate goal and is now hopelessly out of position.

This clears the path for dark horse [I], a blue Buick Lacrosse, to cut all the way across behind [H] and become the second vehicle to get where he was going (and the first to complete a left turn), since [F] has changed his mind again and is now gradually drifting north into the southbound lanes. But everyone better hurry, because the light is about to change...

STEP 11:

STEP 12:

And we're ready to start over.