Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On procrastination

I often think, rightly or wrongly, of Chinese as lacking in the infinite subtlety of English. This largely centres on the vast number of ways that I might answer a question in English compared to the comparatively fewer options you hear in Chinese.

For example an Englishperson's response to a 'how are you?' question at the end of a tough day might be:

I'm tired/worn out/run down/sleepy/exhausted/knackered/fatigued/whacked/beat/ready to drop/etc., etc.

The Chinese equivalent from my experience would typically be represented by a respresented by

累 or, if they were really tired 好累.

Like I say, it's may well be a case that the act of observation means that the result is affected (i.e. people use simple vocabulary because I'm there). I'll let you know in 30 years when I've finally started to approach fluency.

It is nice, however, to come across phrases which are completely different from anything you'd say in English and add a lovely touch of colour to the language. On that note, today's Phrase of the Day is:

lǎn lǘ shàng mò shǐ niào duō

This is a proverb which means: A lazy person will find many excuses to delay working

The literal translation however is: When a lazy donkey is turning a grindstone, it takes a lot of time off for peeing and pooing

On that note, I must get on...

Monday, January 29, 2007

I've excelled myself...

I don't really know what has come over me in the last couple of weeks but I really have been pushing the envelope with regard to foods...

I've always been a fussy eater and was a vegetarian for many years before coming to China. Since ceasing to be veggie I've eaten pork, beef, chicken and lamb and, pretty much nothing else animal-wise.

I don't know what made me change this but it started when I got a free lobster tail with some roast beef that I'd ordered. In the last two weeks I have deliberately eaten:

Fish roe

I have to say that the seafood didn't excite me at all, nor did it particularly put me off. The lobster tasted pretty much only of butter so I really can't see what the fuss is there.

I'll let you know when I eat my first frog and turtle...

Week One, Done


That was a pretty intense experience. I thought my introduction to academia after 20 years was going to be tough and I wasn't wrong. A typical day had about 17.5 hours of 'work', less than 5 hours asleep and the rest eating and talking.

It was actually quite easy to keep going because of the intensity, the only day that was tough was the very last day because the pressure was easing off (no forthcoming homework) and the fatigue beginning to kick in after 6 strenuous days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning, connecting with others in the same boat, and the feeling that I've made a good choice to 'improve' myself. In terms of learning, its very clear that a primary method is to extract the experiences of the students and facilitate the sharing of these to the others. We are a fairly experienced group of people so there is a lot of scope for this.

Having dabbled with the idea of an 'online MBA' for the last few years I think this is one of the things I can't imagine them being able to replicate.

One interesting fact is the average length of time people remain in their current position post this MBA is less than 18 months.


I've been cataloguing the books I have on various management topics on LibraryThing (you can take a look at them if you like) and was checking out its recommendations. One recommendation, based on my library is, for example:

Managing transitions : making the most of change by William Bridges
52 copies. 1 reviews. Average rating 4.25.
Because you own: Leading Change, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (Harper & Row Management Library)

So, probably not entirely unreasonable that other people who own the book about leading change might be intersted in transition management.

The most peculiar one has to be this:

Writing Erotic Fiction: And Getting Published (Teach Yourself) by Mike Bailey
7 copies.
Because you own: Cold Calling Techniques: That Really Work! (Cold Calling Techniques)

Now I'm not a salesperson and only bought the book to get a better insight into the process but assuming that a lot of the other owners of this book are salespeople, does this mean that a career in sales is a likely precursor to a career in writing erotic fiction?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Goddamned Chinese Bureacracy (again)

Excerpt from an email...:

"Hangzhou PSB (the police force - ed) told me that if a child born of at least one Chinese parent was born in China, then the child is considered to be Chinese. Though you have registered her birth through the consulate and applied for her British passport, she could not exit from China without going through the following step 1 & step 2 first.

1) Her Chinese Hukou needs to be registered in the Police Station in Gansu where her mother's is located. (that's 2000km away from where we live). The Hangzhou official told me that the details requirements could be very different in different cities.

2) After Francesca’s Hukou is registered, she needs to apply for a single-use Chinese travel document in Gansu PSB to allow her to leave China.

3) After she leaves China and arrives in the UK, she can go to a Chinese embassy and apply for a visa to come to China. "


Sunday, January 21, 2007

And we're off

So here I am, another day another taxi, off to university for the first time in 19 years. Classically underprepared (I think - I haven't made it through all 400 pages of material I received in December yet) trying to convince myself that it seems very unlikely I'll be the least prepared person in class.

Hopefully everyone is in the same boat of worrying about what this experience is going to be like. To be honest I am fairly nervous for fear of letting myself down. Clearly need to allocate my time better to avoid feeling under-prepared though.

Undoubtedly there's going to be a bunch of smart people in the room but it seems very unlikely that they're all more capable than me at everything. So why can't I chill out?

On Leaving Singapore

Singapore is "Heaven on Earth" - sorry Hangzhou, you're nice but Marco Polo had clearly never been to Singapore. Then again various theories say he never came to Hangzhou either.

Singapore is clean and green, virtually free from serious crime, warm all year round, stable government, good business environment, etc., etc.

Even the airline is fantastic. Just flown for the first time in Singapore Airline's new First Class cabin. Big widescreen TV, superb menu and a seat wide enough to fit me, YY and Frankie side-by-side (not that they were there but you get my drift)..

Possibly the only downside from relocating there at some point would be that Frankie would probably end up having to do National Service. Clearly I'm much too old for anyone to even try that with me.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is cold, drab, polluted (ok, I accept it's not entirely their own fault).

Taxi drivers are also much less likely to speak English (although the driver of the one I'm in right now can speak putong(ish)hua so that helps. Still, doing an MBA in Hong Kong would seem to be the ideal time to try to pick up some Cantonese on the side.

One slight irritant is that this is the first year that the HK authorities have insisted that the EMBA students need student visas. With a British passport I could enter Hong Kong for 6 months. With my student visa applied, that's reduced to 7 days. Aside from the fact that processing my entry took 4 times longer than before, the 'Student' entry stamp is so big they will only get one per page - not good as I need to come 20 times this year!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Singapore is not China

Despite a large percentage of the population (over 70%, apparently) being ethnically Chinese, Singapore bears absolutely no resemblance to China.

OK, there are a lot of people that speak Mandarin (or possibly Manglish – it’s much more likely to have English strewn at various points in the sentences) but they absolutely do not think of themselves as “Chinese”.

To that end, there is a survey in the (Singapore) Sunday Times that reflects Singaporeans views of Mainland Chinese workers.

1. Hardworking
2. Rude
3. Greedy

(it’s not a very scientific survey but they could have picked honest, intelligent, selfish, condescending or sophisticated. By contrast Indian and Filipino migrant workers are Hardworking, Intelligent and Honest).

Chinese Talent (it doesn’t define the distinction but I can safely say that “worker = blue collar, talent = white collar) doesn’t fare much better as they are perceived of as:
1. Hardworking
2. Intelligent
3. Rude
3. Greedy

So, more intelligent but otherwise unrefined.

The article does then go on to interview someone to justify why these perceptions are too harsh and suggests that if you ask a Chinese worker what salary they are looking for they may say “The more the better” when what they’re really saying is “If it can be just a bit higher than the market rate that would be great” and that “with greater business dealings and cultural exchanges between Singapore and China, the misconception will surely disappear over time”.

To suggest that the idea that some Chinese people are not ‘greedy’ or ‘rude’ and that this is a misconception would seem to be reaching realms of fantasy.

A lot of the characteristics people harp on about (spitting, constantly trying to rip people off, not caring if you live-or-die) of the older, less-educated, less well travelled people must serve to embarrass the younger, more professional types. I’ve had many a conversation over the last few years with Chinese of all ages who hate the pushing and shoving rather than queueing, the spitting, the complete disregard for others and the attempt to rip people off.

Obviously this survey is creating a gross generalisation here. A similar survey right now might suggest that "working class" people in the UK are all foul-mouthed, ignorant, ill-educated, ill-mannered racists who can't pronounce "Shilpa". But the point of gross generalisations is, of course, that you notice the people who have these characteristics more than you don't (for example, you can't miss the people that spit but you don't pay attention to the 10 other people that don't).

Yet again, it is another PR problem. People don’t necessarily know who the ‘Chinese’ talent are (apart from the fact they probably speak slightly more standard English without the Singlish sentence structures) but people can spot a gang of Chinese construction workers easily enough. That way the perception quickly comes that ‘all Chinese people are…’.

I don’t think that increased business dealings and international exchanges can change people’s perceptions because it is a fact that some Chinese people have these characteristics. Just like the recently published guide for Chinese tourists acknowledges that some behaviours have damaged "the image of China as a civilized country". Hopefully business dealings and international exchanges can change people’s actions to prevent these perceptions coming about in the first place.

So, what about us Europeans? What do Singaporeans think of us? Apparently we're

1. Intelligent
2. Creative
3. Condescending

Ah, OK. I guess given the character traits of the average expat in the business community, that's probably about right...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Nokia N73 Dissapoints

The Nokia N73 phone has a fantastic specification list and on that note meets all of my requirements:

Phone with handsfree
Long talk time
Good battery life
3.1 megapixel camera
English/Chinese dictionary
Syncs with Outlook
Able to access Gmail easily

Unfortunately it has one massive drawback that let's down all of the above and that is that the processor speed is simply inadequate for the task.

The whole point of a camera in a phone is for those opportunities where you chance upon something unexpected, where you are unlikely to have a camera on you and that's where it disappoints.

For example - from the back of the taxi you get the 'what's that? That's interesting. Grab phone. Slide camera cover open. Wait. Wait. Wait. Damn the taxi's set off again'.

I guess on a phone that has a button marked 'clock' on the main menu that takes 3 full seconds to display the time is, inevitably, going to be more complicated with something like a camera but, it's still rubbish.

Verdict: 4/10. Great phone, ruined.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Pace of Change

China's Beaureaucratic Machine is certainly not a well-oiled one at the moment. In the space of the last few weeks, we have been struck twice by examples of the inability for one part of the machine to communicate with another and twice again by complete bolts from the blue.

1) Personal Taxation: In Early November I received this update from PwC that highlights new requirements for the personal declaration of Individual Income Tax. The regulations introduced in November apply to 2006 and require that I (and an awful lot of other people) now have to file a personal tax return. Previously that was done by one's employer but this has to be done in addition. So far the deadline (March 31st 2007) is quite clear but, as the PwC article points out, exactly what is, or isn't, in scope for expatriates is as yet unclear. Contacting my local tax bureau reveals that they appear to be just as surprised as we are by the introduction of this new rule so, despite the looming deadline, they don't know what we need to report, or how.

2) Street Names: We arrived in China just after three roads (文一, 文二 and 文三) had their western names renamed to something completely different causing no end of fuss because the taxi drivers didn't know where 文新 road (formerly West 文二) was. No sooner did they get the hang of it when they were all renamed again to (文一西, 文二西 and 文三西) roads (西 meaning West).

Well, it's happened again. I missed the turn for one of our offices because I was looking out for the road name on the street signs. It was only after I realised I'd passed the office and had to turn round that I realised that the name of the road has been changed. Raising this with my admin staff to check the facts, they assure me that they have contacted the post office who are adamant that 伟业路, the new name that's on the signs right outside of our office, is in fact in a completely different part of town. I guess we don't need to change our stationery as long as the post office thinks the name hasn't changed but it might deter our clients from calling.

3)Housing Benefit - This is a popular employment benefit for most staff where employers can contribute up to 15% of salary (which is free of tax, thus popular) to the 'housing fund'. This, the employees can use to buy a house, pay mortgage payments, etc. The employee has to contribute a matching portion, again, tax free.
The government has suddenly announced a very significant drop in the amount that can be paid in to the housing fund. It seems very likely that this will lead to employee dissatifaction with the employer (rather than the government) unless the employer does something to compensate but, giving the cash instead of the benefit will still result in a significant net loss to the employee as it will all become taxable. This leaves the employer in the irritating position to be faced with either significant staff dissatisfaction or significant extra cost.

4) Local Medical Taxes - Another sudden introduction in December starting Jan 1st. All Chinese staff suddenly find their compulsory government medical insurance taxes increasing by, wait for it, 4300%. OK, it's only 4RMB/month now but increasing it to 88 RMB in one go is quite a leap. At the same time, the employer contribution increases from 0 to 2.5% of salary, increasing the misery of the housing benefit change.

As an employer, this is one of the great irritants of doing business in China - it's not that the employment landscape changes but, like much of Chinese business life, everything happens suddenly and often in completely incomprehensible ways.

It is very difficult to get a complete picture of the landscape any point in time, let alone keep up with the changes. When we first came to China we asked everyone we could find about all of the benefits, taxes, fees, surcharges and miscellaneous laws that would cost us money and people told us all sorts of things. Despite knowing about pension contributions, housing benefit, income tax, corporation tax, sales tax, VAT, birth insurance and the like, no-one mentioned that we would have to pay stamp tax (on every contract we sign), water conservancy tax, a fine for not having any disabled staff (effectively a tax)... and that was just the position on October 1st 2003.

Monday, January 01, 2007

I think this only happens in China

I know I'm no expert at baby wrangling but I'm sure I'd have heard about this if it happened in the UK and I'm sure it doesn't.

Just before the turn of the year, Frankie and YY concluded 满月 during which time the neither of them are technically allowed to leave the apartment or terrible ills will befall them. This is not, you understand, in the form of a curse, more an extension of hyperchondria. YY getting a cold a week or so ago was, apparently, because she'd taken a shower a week after getting home from the hospital. Any suggestion that she was nice and warm in the shower and that we'd cranked up the aircon so the bedroom was also nice and warm was dismissed.

Note: You get plenty of free advice when you have a baby in China.

One popular practice is to 剃头发, that is to shave your baby's head, as a means of ensuring healthy hair growth so, that meant a trip to "Being Mate Love World" - a shop I was mystified as to its nature on my first trip to Hangzhou but, it turns out, it's just like Mothercare on methamphetamines.

The growing numbers of wealthy middle class parents with, typically, one child on which to lavish their attention are clearly a ripe target for extracting large quantities of cash on 'things you only get to do once to show your love for your child' so, as well as getting a haircut, Frankie was also booked in for a photoshoot before and after the shave.

By shave, I really do mean shave as the photos will prove:
Going. Going. Gone.
1) Deep in thought. Apparently not really sure about this.
2) Not sure this Mao Zedong appreciation society is really for me.
3) Nothing compares 2 U

After the shave the hard sell really kicks in. I thought we were going to get a few photos but when it is ever that easy (witness my 17 hour wedding photography ordeal). We ended up ordering a glass ornament inscribed with Frankie's birth details and a stamp of her right hand a foot (a palaver in itself) and a paint brush made from her hair.

Next stop was swimming or at least, floating with a rubber ring round your neck.

Francesca Swimming 2007/01/01

It does seem like it would be good exercise and might help with development but, does this go on elsewhere? Shops with large glass tanks full of babies? People might mistake them for menu items.