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.

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.

Lonely Planet China guide is good looking with mediocre content

I was very impressed by the beginning of the Lonely Planet China Guide book. “the Best of China” page offered a quick summary of the classic highlights of the country that one should never miss – The Forbidden City and the Great Wall of Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, etc. The photos are beautiful. I also liked the section that introduced the writers, bringing a human face to advice they are dispensing.  Then the Rural China, Eat China, Hike China and Red China pages all offered some interesting sites, and are very helpful for those who want to venture off the Yangtze Cruise to experience the real China.

But, to me, it also demonstrated the lack of access due to language constraint. For example, the Hike China section is a bit limited. Having hiked most of the trails listed in that section, I beg to differ. For example, the Yubeng hike aka. Pilgramage trail to Mt. Kawagebo is among the most breathtaking and spiritual hike. WildChina team members first hiked in this area in the late 90s, and only now that trail is gaining some awareness among Chinese speakers. Not sure if the guide books’ outdated or the writer didn’t know about it. Either way, I think there could be a better guide on hiking ops in China.

Then I went straight for the section on lodging (called “Sleeping” in the guidebook) in Beijing. It is unfortunately written by a backpacker who is too well versed in adjectives such as “top notch”, “Elegance”, “gorgeous” “stunning”, “impressive”, “outstanding”, “splendid”, “enticing”.. I’ll save you the rest, but seriously, these words all appeared in 3 paragraph describing St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, and China World Hotel. You can basically randomly re-allocate these words, and the information you are getting won’t change a bit.

Obviously, the writer hasn’t stayed in any of these places.  I wish there is a bit more details like, The Made In China restaurant in the Grand Hyatt serves the best “Begger’s Chicken” and is one of the most interesting Chinese restaurants to dine in because of the open kitchen layout. You get to see the chefs tossing the greens in a wok alight with fire!  By the way, I think the Frommers Guide does a much better job with restaurants recommendations. Also, for families traveling with children, the China World Hotel Service Apartments offer the best option- with large rooms, ensuite kitchen, etc.

Also, among the top notch, I’d add the Opposite House for its zen like design and personal service. Not to mention the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace. These are the more boutique hotels that really make Beijng an interesting destination to stay.

What got me most is the section on “Beijing for Children”. I have a feeling that the authors didn’t really travel to Beijing with kids. The hardest thing I found upon arriving in Beijing is how to kill the early morning hours due to jet lag. Two very important things for me: breakfast at 金湖茶餐厅 (GL Cafe Restaurant),and morning walks in Ritan Park. The Café is a 24hr Hong Kong style restaurant, very helpful at 4am when there is no other place to eat, and the kids are crying! They have branch locations next to the St. Regis and the China World. Hotel. And they have high chairs. Ritan Park is a major source of entertainment as it opens at 6am for the morning exercises- an entertaining place for the kids to watch others play badminton, or do taiqi. Maybe that’s me, but I need to have the jetlag bunch taken care off before I could think of ice skating in Beijing. A good source, follow @BeijingWithKids on twitter.

When WildChina failed to deliver

Sporadic Impression - Rongkun LiuMekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

Mekong River Valley, Yunnan, Courtesy of Rongkun Liu

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AS I was wrapping up my day before the snow hit DC, an email popped onto my screen:

“I have made a gift of $3000 to the Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan program in honor of Wild China. I am so happy to know about this area of China. A magical place that needs and deserves protection. Kristine”

This is the most significant Christmas present I have received from a WildChina client. Kristine just won my respect and heart for donating the refund I gave her for a less than perfect trip to China.

This was Kristine’s first email to me after her trip:

“We loved the route and the scenery of Yunnan and the support staff (cook and driver) were fantastic. However…. Xiao (one of the guide) was very good about talking with Nico in Mandarin. However the first two days on the trail he was talking on his cell phone constantly which interfered with the serenity of the hiking and hampered chances for me to see birds (which he knew was an important objective for me). At the second campsite we were joined by two other large groups. It turned out that one group was guided by Xiao’s brother, and the other group had trekked with Xiao before and had been outfitted by him for this trip. From that point on, we could not seem to escape from these two large and noisy groups. They began hiking at the same time, stopped for lunch in the same places, camped in the same areas and clearly wanted to chat with Xiao on the trail. The noise and the size of the group significantly detracted from our enjoyment of the trekking and any opportunities to see birds along the way. This did not meet my expectation of a private trek and Xiao was clearly splitting his attention between the groups.”

There was more…

The email simply broke my heart. How, could this ever be possible? Generally, when clients seek me out to send me an email, I am used to reading the ones piling praises on our guides and staff. They make me happy, and remind me again and again why I am in service industry and not in fund management as most of my HBS classmates are. I just love the human contact and love the smiles we bring to clients. Also, negative on this trial? I could never have imagined that. I took my whole wedding party on this hike from the Salween Valley to the Mekong valley and it was the last frontier of China. Xiao was the best local villager I could find. How did this all change? But, I was in no position to defend WildChina but to apologize:

I am terribly sorry that you had such a negative experience, and I am sorry that our guides were not as considerate or professional as you expected. Let me investigate on this further and I’ll get back to you on this specifically. If I may, let me tell you a story about Xiao.

I personally insisted for the team to bring Xiao onto your trip, because I remember the first day when I met him. I went to his village with my backpack (after days of travel on the road, not 10 hours), and simply asked around a group of villagers if any of them would be interested in a job of guiding me through the mountain ranges across to the other side. Nobody except Xiao raised his hand. I don’t think any other traveler went to the village with such a strange request before. At that time, the village didn’t have electricity, and xiao’s house was dark and small. He had a bright and sincere smile, so I hired him on the spot. He guided me through the mountains for 4 days, and was the most attentive helper I could ever find.

Following that journey, I decided that it was such a wonderful experience, I took my own wedding party there, and xiao couldn’t be more attentive, and so were our Tibetan guides and chef. Xiao was so entrepreneurial that he called me up afterwards to see if I would invest in him to build a lodge. He had to make the call from the village pay phone, since he didn’t have one in his house. I appreciated his entrepreneurial spirit, and gave him the money. For me, it was a simple way to give back to the community, and if he could succeed, great, if not, I tried.

To help him develop a sense of customer service quality, I sent two American interns there over the next two years to work with him, helping him develop menus, helping him purchase sheets and mattresses and set up the first computer. Then, he emailed me one day, and said, “hey, I am online! And I have a new cell phone”
A year later, he sent me a message, “hey, check out my blog!”

Earlier this year, when I logged onto Flickr, I found his pictures there!

I haven’t been back for a while, and was simply delighted that someone would take the opportunity and develop a successful business out of it.

Then your feedback came. I could just picture him talking on the cell phone and busy talking to all the other guests. I just never imagined that would ever happen on that trail, and I don’t think our operations team could foresee that either. Imaging hiking crowds on that trail came as such a complete shock. The only reason I could see if October 1st holiday when travelers from Kunming also decided to discover the beautiful wilderness of Yunnan.

The fact this area is now covered with cell phone signal and popular with travelers, I don’t know if I am supposed to be happy about or not. The fact that your experience was negatively impacted upsets me tremendously. Xiao and our Tibetan guides may have become victims of their own success. How to deal with that, how to take it forward from here? I’ll have to pursue the answer.

After confirming the facts with our local guides, I sent Kristine a heartfelt note and a refund check of $3000 (needless to say, WildChina lost money, but that’s not the point):

“Our brand is about excellence, and our mission is to deliver excellence. On your recent trip, we did not deliver. There were forces at play, some we could control, some we could not. But the fact remains we are committed to excellence.”

She donated the check to TNC in honor of WildChina. What a beautiful thing!

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China’s Next Generation

I must be out of touch with China’s next generation. The son of a friend of mine called me up for some advice on career. This is how the conversation went:
Son of a Friend (SOF), “Shall I pursue a PHD in engeering?”

Mei, “That depends on what you goal is. What do you want to achieve? What is your goal?”

SOF, “To make money!”

Mei, “Hummm, tell me why that’s so important for you?”

SOF, “well, last time when I was in Beijing, I went to a dinner with my father to entertain a retired chief of China’s Central Bank. He was driving a Nissan, which couldn’t have cost more than 50,000 RMB. I felt really sorry for him. There is such huge difference between being in power and not being in power. I am sure when he was the central banker, he was surrounded and served by tons of people. So, I decided that being a government official is not what I wanted in life. Making money is the best way to go.”

Mei, “ Why do you think a PHD would help you get closer to your goal of making money?”

SOF, “I plan to go back to China to work in transportation engineering. Those are all government projects. So, I have to be chosen by someone in power to win those projects. I believe they would choose the ones with a good resume, good degree from one of the well known schools.”

Mei, “Well, let me tell you what. PHD is probably a long winded way to get to your goal of making money. Being someone who has a good degree from one of the famous school (yes, I do have a Harvard MBA), I know, a good degree might help to open the door for you. But whether you make money or dirt inside the door is entirely dependent on who you are and what you can deliver. “

The snap shot might only provide a snap shot of our conversation, which I am sure didn’t help his decision making. But, it had a huge effect on me. I couldn’t stop asking myself, what’s wrong with me? Just becoming too old fashioned or has money sucked the air of China’s next generation?

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