Impressions of Beijing

It’s been 2 weeks since I landed in Beijing, with the whole family in tow, pursuing my dream of another startup in the land of opportunities.

Welcome to Beijing

Since when, China replaced the United States to be the land of opportunities? I don’t think I am alone with this view.  Someone from Mars Bar candy company rented my house in the US, and as it happened, he just relocated to America after a 4 year posting in Beijing. He and his wife looked at me with eyes of envy, and said, “oh, you’ll love it there in Beijing.  There are so many opportunities; it’s a lot easier to make money there. The US is too mature and steady, hard to find a break in the market.”

After one week in China, my son declared one morning. “I both hate China and love China! I hate China, because people drive insanely dangerously, and they don’t stop for you.  I love China, because China has awesome pools!”. Well, school hasn’t started, so the kids daily outing was to try out different fancy pools in different hotels/gyms before we decide which gym to join.  The pools all come with hot tub and fresh towels, and someone forever vigilantly wiping away water dripped on the floor.

Many Chinese friends from years ago have now prospered. Almost everyone has a car, and many have more than one child.  We went with one family to a fancy swimming pool in the CBD area. (Central Business District).  My 8 year old boy jumped into the pool like a fish, and went off with his laps.  He took off with butterfly stroke.  I watched him, with the smile of a proud mother. This is the whole summer’s work with the swim team in our local community pool in the US.

My friend looked at him, and said, “He’s pretty good, he’ll be able to catch up with the swim team after a few sessions.”.  WHAT????  My friend didn’t notice my shock at all, and simply went on to recommend the best swim coach in town.   We signed on with the coach immediately.

After a few training sessions, my son started to whine about going to swim practice, trying to wiggle his way out of it. “He makes us swim more than 500 (ft), and we couldn’t get out of the pool in between laps. We were in the pool the whole hour!”

“Hey, this is China!” I said. “There are a lot of people and you have to try a lot harder to compete.”

“I don’t like China, I like America better.  I like swimming in America.  It’s more fun there.” He continued.

“Well, that’s why China is beating America in everything.” I felt like a Tiger mom/China hater/panda hugger/radical, all at the same time.

I quickly changed the topic, leaving no impression that he could get out of the swimming.  Of course, I chose not to mention that Michael Phelps came through a similar community pool system in Baltimore.

Parenthood exists in muddy water; bi-cultural living is also in muddy water. I’ll let the water be, hoping it’ll clear up somehow, maybe with the force of nature.

Wealthy Chinese Table Etiquette

I know I have become too American, as I allowed my dinner guests to order for themselves.

Back in Beijing, I lead a different life. Unlike the steady pace of office/school pickup/homework/dinner/bed routine, Beijing trips often are filled with a frenzy of meetings, lunch and dinner appointments.  This seems to be fitting with the pace of America and China, serves me just fine.

One day, I had lunch with a Chinese government-official-turned-businessman, and then dinner with a couple who loved traveling around the world.

Usually, when setting up the appointment, it’s somewhat indicated who 请 whom.  That means who is inviting whom. The Inviting party picks the restaurant and is usually expected to pick up the bill afterwards. It’s considered extremely embarrassing for Chinese to work on splitting the bill after a meal.

My lunch date made it very clear that he’s 请ing me.  So, he picked me up from my office, with a black Audi A6. I had no idea where we were going. He drove a short distance to Shunfeng, a hugely expensive Chinese seafood restaurant frequented by government officials and traditional businessmen.

The small parking lot in front was already packed with black Audis or Bentz. A young man was attentive directing us to the back parking lot, and escorted us into the restaurant. All the waitresses wear light makeup, bright yellow or red Chinese dresses, hairs put up high in a bun, with 3 chopsticks sticking out of their hair buns. They reminded me of peacocks.

My friend ordered for both of us, as I wasn’t even presented a menu.

“Could you please do not order any Abalone for me? I honestly don’t like it.” Knowing my friend, I had to speak up.

“What about sea urchins?” my friend asked.

“No, I don’t like sea urchins either. I am actually really happy with some good vegetable.” I insisted. Truthfully, I grew up in the mountains of Yunnan and never had much of a taste for exotic seafood.

“I ordered plenty of vegetable, but you should have some Abalone. It’s good, particularly baby ones cooked in a porridge.” My friend insisted, and pushed ahead with two orders.

The dishes came. Excellent plain boilded shrimp, and outstanding vegetable and fish. The only dish I didn’t like – Abalone Porridge. The worst of all, I drank the porridge and left the baby abalones in the bowl.  Thinking back, I probably insulted my host to an unbelievable degree. The abalones I left in my bowl probably cost a migrant worker’s monthly salary! And I just left them for the sewer.

I never saw the bill, and vaguely remember we talked about high-tech investments.

Learning from my plight at lunch, when my guest took charge of the dinner menu, and said, he knew what his wife liked, I let it be.

This time, it was more or less understood that I would pay.  I chose the Chinese restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel because I was staying there.  I met them at the hotel lobby.

He picked a few dishes, a plate of tea-smoked chicken, a serving of pig ear salad (yes, real pig ears, marinated, and slow cooked, and sliced so they didn’t look like ears anymore), a green vege dish, and something else I don’t remember.  The only thing I remember was that the chicken wasn’t very good.  But, we were too busy talking; I didn’t pay any attention to the food.

They just returned from their skiing trip to northern Japan. So, I wanted to know all the details of how they survived the earthquake. They said they didn’t feel a thing, and the flights were normal as well. Conversation went on to how to find the hidden lodge in Chile, or scheming a time to go skiing in Vale.

Whenever we talk about travel, I can’t stop talking. Never did it occur to me that maybe I should have ordered more dishes or ordered some fancy dishes.

Late at night, I picked up the tab, RMB 585 (USD 90).  (That in Beijing is considered a fairly small amount for treating guests.) This couple bundled up and walked home.

Only later did I realize what my dinner guests had done. They knew that I wouldn’t let them pay, so they took charge of the ordering and kept the dishes to a few simple dishes. If I were a true Chinese hostess, I should not have allowed that to happen. I should have taken charge and ordered exotic and expensive items to show my respect for them.

I didn’t. The dinner guests knew me well enough to know how much I respect them.   I know they eat simple meals everyday. I also know they read with a ferocious appetite, and know every piece of classical music intimately well. They often walk, leaving their expensive Volvo SUV at home.

They are one of the very few wealthy Chinese who would do so.

What do you do with the brick of tea?

You know what I am talking about! – That brick or disc of tea in the velvet box! What do you do with it?

A few years ago, we were living in LA. My dear father came from Yunnan to stay with us in America for the first time. He brought a few bricks of Yunnan Pu’er tea (普洱沱茶) as gifts for people. Literally, they look like a solid disc or brick that if you get wacked on the head, you’d bleed.

I held him back, telling him that Laowai (Chinese endearment for “foreigners”) really didn’t know how to appreciate tea, and they wouldn’t know what to do with the brick.  Finally, we were going to dinner at this famous screen playwright’s house for dinner, my dad insisted in bringing one brick and presented it to the writer. The writer was very polite and thanked my father. I never went back to ask what he did with it.

Let’s face it, the brick of tea is packed so dense, that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. It’s too big to boil as one serving of tea; it’s so hard that you need a hammer to break it; it makes a huge mess if you do that! So, all the bricks I have collected still mostly sit on my bookshelf, until yesterday.

A big background on Pu’er tea, this is one type of tea that Yunnan Province in Southwest China is known for. They brew into a strong dark brown colored tea. But, historically, this tea was always packed on horse backs and carried by caravan trademen over dare-devil terrain onto the Tibetan Plateau. There, they transfer into the famed Tibetan Yak Butter Tea.  Honestly, I prefer drinking Pu’er tea by itself without the yak butter part.  Nevermind my personal taste, Yak butter tea is an essential form of calorie for Tibetans. The transportation route became known as the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road. National Geographic magazine ran a beautiful article on this road, but I was hugely offended by the article left out Yunnan.

People from Yunnan still prefer to store tea in the same condensed brick form. In fact, it is said that the older the tea, the more valuable it is. So, many collectors are in search for decade old tea. There are tea connoisseurs in China, as there are wine connoisseurs in the west.

Back in May, I walked into a tiny tea store in Heshun Old town in Tengchong, Yunnan. A young tea salesman told me that I needed a 解茶针,(needle for separating the tea). I had no idea that special equipment was available to do this job. He also explained that the tea brick was pressed together one layer at a time. So, adjust natural tendency to break off a chunk, one should carefully peel layers of tea horizontally.

I took the needle as a treasure and tucked into my purse. Hello?? How stupid is that!! I was caught at the airport security in Tengchong. To my amazement, the airport staff saw it on the imaging screen, and said, “Take the TEA NEEDLE out! It has to go in checked luggage. “Oh, no!” I groaned, knowing very well that I’d loose the needle, as no one had ever bothered to retrieve my check luggage for something like this.

Well, I was in for a surprise. People there knew that I couldn’t do anything with the tea if I didn’t have the proper instrument. So, they found my luggage, and now I have the tea needle in DC!

With tool in hand, I gave it a try yesterday, and was delighted with the result- now in a glass jar for future use. My son was busy playing with my iphone next to me. I tried to explain to him what I was doing, telling him about tea from mom’s hometown.  He simply ignored me. Never mind.

If anyone’s listening, WildChina’s tea journey with Jeff Fuchs is worth the experience.

Is it OK to call your travel agent at 3:30am?

“Absolutely NO.” is my immediate answer.  But, we just did.

A travel agent called WildChina’s US at 3:30pm EDT, which makes it exactly 3:30am in the middle of the night in Beijing, to tell us that her client just notified her that her flight from Guilin to Beijing was delayed from midnight, and now she’d be arriving at 5am in Beijing.

Could WildChina make sure someone’s picking her up at that early hour?

My colleague and I looked at each other, and answered her firmly, “YES.”  Because that traveler is a WildChina client, and there is no way that we are leaving our travelers stranded at the airport after a full night’s delays to wait another 3 hours before their car ride comes.

But, to make it happen, there is no option but to call our Beijing office colleagues. To our happy relief, the staff picked up the phone, and said that she had been monitoring the flights and have adjusted the pick ups already. Clients are to be picked up at 5am!

When I heard this, I couldn’t help but feel myself getting emotional from this. How often in the corporate world, do you find a staff more dedicated to clients than the staff of WildChina?

If anyone called me at 3:30am, I’d be really mad!! By the way, my father and husband included. They know to avoid calling after 10pm my time. But this? A phone call from an overseas office in the middle of the night about a car pick up for somebody you’ve never met? She took it with such grace and professionalism! Her name is Maya Ren.

I guess I got emotional, particularly because the day before another WildChina staff found out that there was misunderstanding about the deadline of a VIP travel proposal. It was due on Wednesday US time. She found out at 10pm Beijing time Wednesday evening – that means, unless she pulls the all-nighter, there was no way she’d be able to deliver. I was almost ready to call the client and tell them to wait another day, but she and her teammate told me to wait. They would work on it then, and sleep the next day.

At 2am Beijing time, 2pm on Wednesday afternoon in New York, the beautiful proposal arrived in client’s email box! Their names are Amy Sun and Sunshine Shang.

I was rendered speechless by the amazing commitment from the WildChina team in Beijing. Thank you!

Wedding Hike

For those of us with cross-border marriages, it often involves two weddings to cater to family and friends on each side. We had gotten married a year earlier in the States, but my grandma wouldn’t take the paper issued by some foreign government as my marriage certificate. It had to be done properly. Her granddaughter had to be married out respectably.

So it’s time to plan a wedding in Yunnan. The logistical challenges of organizing a wedding are many. Starting from the simple most, flowers and wines. I have always had a preference for a western floral arrangement rather than a rigid Chinese bouquet, same with wines. I’ll pick a glass of red wine over Maotai (the fancy Chinese white spirit).  So I ended up cutting out pictures from wedding magazines, and taking them to the flower market to find a talented florist to do them. Fortunately, Kunming is China’s cut flower center.

Then it’s the wines. It’s no longer an issue today, as  you can find many western wines in Chinese supermarkets. But back then, the only wine import channels was 5 star hotels. So that’s what I did.

The most fun part was designing activities so that my Chinese relatives and our western friends could mingle. We decided to invite our wedding party on a 9 day journey from theSalween River valley across the snow mountains to the Mekong River valley.  My husband’s best man probably didn’t quite expect the hike to be so rigorous at such high altitude (10,000 ft), so he didn’t waste his precious hours to prepare for it.  He eventually make it up the mountain top with the help of two Tibetan guide and a donkey.

This wedding hike was the first trip organized under WildChina’s brand name. The images from this adventure accompanied me through the first year of WildChina’s creation, as sales aid. It is now one of WildChina’s signature adventure travel to China product: Hiking the 19th Century French Explorer’s Route. It launched our local Tibetan guide into a successful lodge business in Dimaluo village near one of the most beautiful Catholic Tibetan Churches.

The wedding after the hike was probably the best party in my life. Also made my grandma happy.

Nowadays, I go back to Harvard Business Every year to discuss the case study on WildChina, and they ask me if I had any advice for future entrepreneurs. I always say, “Leverage whatever you can, your friends and family as your first clients, and your own wedding as your first product!”

Proof? WildChina now helps other people with their weddings at the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace! This photo at the top is from a beautiful couple who are WildChina clients.  For more of their photos visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30359491@N08/sets/72157624138596972/

Why Chinese love Obedient children?

A very happy client of WildChina sent in a quick note to thank us “I just wanted to let you both know we are having a great trip here in China. It is a beautiful country with incredible sights and history. All of the people we have met have been wonderful! And your guides have all been terrific. Thanks for setting everything up!”. A bit background, this is one couple traveling with more than a dozen kids – a feat that I can only admire!

Then came my staff’s response. “ Guess not easy for you to manage all the kids, but heard from our guides, the kids are quite obedient and sensible…” I am not sure how our clients would react to this, as I knew my colleague only meant it as a compliment, without realizing there is a different connotation in English.

The word “obedient” was “ 乖” (pronounced as Guai) on my colleague’s mind. 乖 is translated as “obedient” according to google. But the truth is, there is no word in English that expresses what “Guai” means. This is one of the few cultural incidences that made translation impossible.

In Chinese families, kids are praised if they behave well, i.e. listens to parents and elders, does what he or she is told to do, does not challenge authority, or creates mischief. Adults would say, “孩子真乖,听话”. (you are Guai and listened well.” So, this is praise simply on the child’s behavior, as a compliment. There is a general social acceptance that adults’ words are to be heeded and respected.

But in English environment, we still want the kids to listen, but there isn’t such a praise word for obedient behavior. Usually, if my son did his homework by himself without me prodding, I’d say “Good Job.” When he doesn’t listen to me, I count “1, 2, 3” and then “Time out”. “Guai” concept simply doesn’t exist, as sometimes, kids being naughty and breaking rules is viewed as “entrepreneurial” potential. It’s true, I am sure Mark Zuckerberg, founder of facebook wasn’t a “Guai” child.

At the same time, the word “Obidient” often has a negative connotation on both the parents and the kids. It comes across as the children being overly pressured to follow rules, and the parents overly managing their children.

Hope our clients didn’t take this as an offence.

World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, China

I’ve long wanted to visit the World War II Cemetery in Tengchong, Yunnan, as I’ve heard so much about how bloody the battles were, and how the American Flying Tigers came to our assistance at moments of needs. We even created a trip that goes there.  I went there with much respect, and left with the same respect for lives lost, but also sorrow for how differently deaths are treated.

First I had a little difficulty finding it. I asked the taxi driver to take me to 二战烈士陵园 (World War II Martyr Cemetery), as “Martyr” is usually the word I knew how we called those who died in wars. The taxi driver asked me if I wanted to see the Martyr Memorial or 国殇墓园 (badly translated by me as National Tragedy Cemetery). What’s the difference I wondered? “Those who died in WWII were Chiang Kai Shek’s solders, they are not in the Martyr Cementery.” He said. Ah, now I get it, the word Martyr I grew up knowing was only referring to communist soldiers not the ones who died fighting for Chiang Kai Sheck, even thought they were also fighting against Japanese.

As I found out later, those two cemeteries are located next to each other, separated by a wall. I wonder if the ghosts mingle at night.

A very brief background. Yunnan Province in Southwest China only became the frontline when the Japanese decided to change their tactics and started their attacks from Burma into mainland China. The bloodiest battle took place in May 1944, as Chinese army mounted a bloody siege to win back the ancient trading town of Tengchong. More than 9000 Chinese soldiers and 6000 Japanese died in the battle.  There are 3346 dead honored in the Cemetery.

Since I visited the Viet Nam Memorial in DC, I’ve always wanted to see how the names are arranged at any cemetery. Take a wild guess? Are they ranked in alphabetical order of their names? Or by the date of their death? Or by the unit they belonged to?

In Tengchong, they are arranged according to their military ranks. The lowest ranking soldiers at the bottom of the hill, and the highest ranking at the top; while generals are entombed separately.  There is also a separate area honoring the 19 young American soldiers who died in the War.  I was glad to see the American soldiers honored as well, but the ranking of the other names bothered me quite a bit. To me, those who died in a war are equal regardless of their ranks, as they all equally gave what’s most precious to them – their lives.

At Viet Nam Memorial in DC, the architect Maya Lin decided to do it differently. She organized the names by the date they died, and for those who died together, she intentionally kept their names together. I was told, each Viet Nam Vet volunteer always stands in front of a certain plaque, as if he was guarding the names of those who served in the war together with him. I find the message powerful and moving.

This little blog is my way of commemorating those who sacrificed for what we have today.  Thank you!

Interview with Yunnan Girl

I just did an interview by email with Chris Horton. His questions brought back so much nice memories of Yunnan. Thought I’d share them here. Chris just published it on gokunming.com. A nicely edited version here: http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1573/interview_mei_zhang.

1. Where in Dali did you grow up? What are some of your strongest memories of that time of your life?

I grew up in Dali until I was 9. That’s when my family moved to Kunming. My memories of that time that keep coming back are many. We used to go to a hot spring for baths near Xiaguan. There are always camellia blooming, and we’d climb the mountain behind the hot spring to pick big white flowers (Rhododendrons as I learned later). There were so many of those white flowers that we’d cook them for dinner!  I remember people in Dali loved flowers, there are wild jasmines and other fragrant flowers for sale in the market all the time. Talking about market, that’s my favorite. Many different ethnic people would also come to the market, the Yis or Bais, wearing beautiful clothes, selling fresh vegetables and eggs.  I still come back to Yunnan to search for those moments. (By the way, thank you for asking this question, it brought back so much nice memory)


2. What was the chain of events that led you from Dali to Harvard?

If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t have believed events like this would ever happen. So my Dad, who was a worker building the hydropower station in Xiaguan, decided that the best thing he could do for me and my brothers was to give us the best education possible. He moved us to Kunming for better education. When I was testing for high school, he made me apply to the Foreign Languages school affiliated to Yunnan University, hoping that if I couldn’t get into college, at least I’d have some English to be a secretary.  I got it, but I cried and cried, believing that he robbed me of the opportunity to become Madam. Currie of China. After that, I got into Yunnan University, studying English and Law. I started taking part time jobs as an interpreter since college to pay for school. Then one day, at an usual official banquet hosted by Yunnan Government for Krung Thai Bank from Thailand, my life changed. The president of the bank decided to give a spontaneous speech. None of the government interpreters were willing to go up to the stage with him, as there was no preparation, no script.  They all recommend that I go up onto the stage, as I was the youngest interpreter with nothing to lose. So, I did. After that, the officials from the Bank invited me to sit at their table, and offered me a scholarship I couldn’t resist.  The rest is history.

3. What was the inspiration behind founding Wild China in 2000?
See here: http://www.wildchina.com/application/assets/img/press/pdfs/World-of-Chinese—See-a-Different-China.pdf

4. What are the most surprising or amazing places you’ve discovered in China since then?

There are many, so I’ll just pick a few from memory. I remember seeing the villages near the Yellow Mountains for the first time. I was struck by how beautiful the traditional architecture was, and how much history the places endured, and how sad the current state was – all adults gone to work in the city as migrant workers, with only grandparents and kids left in the village.  Guizhou Province also struck me an unbelievable place. It’s also in the Southwest of China, but incredibly poor and lack of development.  In a way, it reminds me of the Yunnan I grew up with. Rice terraced fields with ethnic hamlets scattered here and there. Traditional lifestyle that’s so beautiful and the hardship so challenging. That’s the China I knew and loved.


5. What notable changes have you seen in China’s travel industry since 2000?

The extraordinary growth of domestic travelers spurred incredible growth in the travel industry. There have been some great advances, for example, I just visited Heshun village near Tengchong in Yunnan. I have to give the development company a lot of credit and respect. I think they did an amazing job keeping the beauty of the place while making it accessible to the general public. The landscaping is beautiful and tastefully done, and the written materials are interesting and well done. There are more and more lodges and hotels that are also tastefully done around the country. These are all great. But, I feel sorry for sites and places that are too quickly run over by tourist crowds. Lijiang old town is a prime example.


6. How often does Yunnan figure into your clients’ travel plans? What are the most popular destinations?

Very often. It’s one of our top destinations. Before I traveled the world, I thought I was just biased because I was from Yunnan. Now that I have been to Mt. Everest, South Africa, Italy, Peru, you name it, I know Yunnan IS one of the most extraordinary destinations in the world!

7. What are your favorite places in Yunnan?
My favorites are: Cizhong in Diqing, I find the catholic Tibetan cultures fascinating; Shaxi Jianchuan Grottoes, I loved the long history behind the whole Tea and Horse caravan road; Tengchong and Gaoligong Mountain, I love the incredible bio diversity there and the WWII history. I just hiked across Gaoligong from Baoshan to Tengchong last week, and thought it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever had. After the hike, I called Gaoligong Nature Reserve, and told them that I’d sponsor them in publishing a birding book! Look for it, it’s coming out next year.

8. Wild China has carved out a niche for itself as a provider of sustainable and socially responsible tourism in China for foreigners, do you see these concepts ever becoming important to the domestic tourism market?
Absolutely, we want to get involved in the domestic tourism market as well, but we have a wait a little bit for the demand to build up more. In the meantime, we are speaking at different forums etc to influence Chinese travelers.

9. Spending much of your time between Beijing and the US, you’re usually far away from Yunnan… what Yunnan dishes do you miss the most?

actually make it to Yunnan a lot! At least twice a year, and spending some solid time in the mountains.  Yunnan Rice Noodles (mixian) is probably the one dish I miss most. I am a good cook, so can fabricate most items including suancai (pickled greens) myself, but the noodle is beyond me.


What’s similar between a Chinese a funeral and a wedding

” We sat around the table on stools, lunching on simple foods, stir-fried greens, meats and rice. Nainai had her bowl as well – placed by one of her grandsons at the foot of her coffin. There a wick, in peanut oil, had burned for the past three days.

It is an eerie and poignant feeling to eat with a coffin at one’s back, a last supper with the dead, but it made sense. So much of my Chinese family’s world revolves around the dinner table and Nainai was such a grand cook, what better way to see her from this world to the next than with a meal?”

These were words written by my husband in 2003 documenting the passing of my 84 year old grandma in China. Strangely enough, all memories came back last night, when a close friend of mine lost her mother yesterday at age 99. We did exactly the same thing, we gathered, a small group of friends, each of us brought food. We sat around, ate, and drank some fine French wine, talked about our earliest memories of our own mothers. Frequently, there would be a phone call of condolence that broke the pace, then we all returned to the topic, then we drifted away to talk about Kate Blanchard’s performance at the Kennedy Center and babies. We talked about how miracles happened that on that same day, my 1 year old baby looked at me in the eye, and called me “Mama” for the first time. We simply had a good time.

I wondered if we should feel guilty for having a good time when someone just died? Then I decided, no! It was the right thing to do, to celebrate the passing of a beautiful life one year short of a century. And that is ok with Chinese culture, and that’s alright by me.

I learned when Grandma passed away. There are two most important celebrations in Chinese life – the red celebration and the white celebration. The red one is the wedding and the white one is the funeral for people who lived longer than 80 years. The commonality of the two? – family and friends gathering around lots of good food and good wine! The only difference is in color. A Chinese bride wears all red, and everything is decorated red, as red color will fend off any evil spirits. (I know, I know, all the young Chinese brides today wear white. don’t get me started on the diminishing Chinese cultural traditions!) A white funeral is celebrating the end of long life, a person leaves the world in white, as pure as he or she entered the world.

In the end, both weddings and funerals celebrate the glory of life.

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