Holiday Weekend – Chinese Style

It’s Saturday morning and, although my head aches slighltly from the revelery of the Friday night before, I rise early.  Usually I’m up early on weekends anyway, but today I have a mission to accomplish.  I need cat food.  Standing outside the locked door of the store at 730, I’m perplexed.  The store does not open until 830.  I will have to wait, and this is not good.  Since this weekend is a holiday weekend in China, waiting until 830 for the store to open will mean I will be late for work.

Even after more than two years here, the pulic holidays prove a difficult adjustment.  Most of the national holidays come by the lunar calendar, which results in the date and the day of the week changing yearly in the solar calendar.  This mixing of calendars, dogs and cats living together, results in some interesting holiday rituals, the most painful being a toss-up between the fireworks at all hours of the night, at all locations of high rise buildings, and the Saturday workday.  There are one day and three day holidays under this system.

One day holidays, result in three days off.  Stay with me here. Presumably the powers that be want to give workers the time to get home and back for each of the holidays, thus needing three consecutive non-work days for a one day holiday.  If the holiday falls on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, no problem.  Just link one day off with the weekend, viola! Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday holidays require some work-week manipulation. Now, an extra day off is needed and is paid for by a Saturday work day.

The three day holidays, result in five days off. Spring Festival and National Day, two extra days off are needed to link the three holiday-days with the accompanying weekends.  These two days come from the book-ended weekends, so around these holidays working on a weekend is inescapable.  Worse, weekly routines for are thrown off kilter for over two weeks, just for a three days off. Aiyo!

The store opens, I grab the cat food and go.  Late commuting time Saturday morning, the metro is still packed with commuters, and I get to work much later than usual…just another holiday weekend in China.

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A day in the life, part 1

A CEO stands outside the factory gates and shakes hands saying ‘good morning’ to each of the workers, the first few go easy, energetically.  By the 100th or the 1000th the handshake becomes perfunctory, the hello and smile forced, eye contact missed, slouching, totally understandable.  Unless the employee getting the lackluster greeting is you.

 CROs cannot afford to give lackluster greetings, each person coming in the gate needs to receive fresh smiles and warm handshakes, no matter how many have come through before, no matter how tired you are and no matter what other work needs to be done.

For the most part, people coming to visit here carry interesting times.  They are senior decision makers in pharma, have lots of experience, fun stories and generally have the personalities that have allowed them to survive long periods in a tough industry…they get along well with people. Also, they tend to be jet-lagged.  And I enjoy giving suggestions on where to go/see/eat, makes me feel competent about living outside the US.  The only downside – the work day turns to shredded work moments.

Here’s a typical schedule on client visit day.
7am – catch metro, iPhone through email, podcasts
8am – clock in, breeze through email, call US east coast         
9am-12 – meeting, introductions, biology, chemistry, corporate
12-2pm – lunch, informal                                           
2-3pm – lab tours, group introductions                                          
3-5pm – working meeting with client                                             
5-9pm – dinner turtles, fish heads, bird nest or shark                       
9-10pm – home                                                                   
11pm – sleeping soundly

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Do printers get hangovers?

An IT group is like the utility company, you only notice when they are not working. 

In medchem we deal with so much data, it’s a full time job to keep it all available and organized for the scientists to use.  Fixing global IT problems poses distinct challenges, not the least of which is a number of people from disparate departments in widely varying time zones all have to be awake and on the phone at the same time.  Here’s an example.  The mothership IT changed something and our poor barcode printer suffered.  Do printers get hangovers?

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Sock it to me IKEA

The man standing just outside my apartment door politely begins to remove his shoes.  Despite my protestations of ‘mei guanxi, jin lai’ he slips off his well worn dress shoes while balancing a heavy flat box on his shoulders. His socks are black and thick.  His partner follows suit.  Both are wearing the traditional laborers uniform…suitcoat, mismatched slacks and loafers.  They step in.  Damp footprints on the hardwood floor mark their path and they quickly set down their heavy burdens. The foot-smell goes far beyond any of the locker room odors I remember from college, it will linger for hours and survive multiple clean-up attempts, I nearly gag.

It’s all so familiar, the maze like path, the mid-quality merchandise nicely arranged in small tableaus, the crowds.  I’ve been here before, both this exact location and in this exact experience elsewhere.  IKEA represents a destination more than a store.  I fitted out my grad school apartment nicely with decent furniture that lasted for my time there, spending several days looking and imagining future living spaces, eating meatballs with lignon berries. Home furnishing based musings, meatballs and lignon berries are also available in Shanghai.

Unlike my US apartment in grad school, however, almost all the apartments here come already furnished and thus pose another variable when apartment hunting….location, size, bedrooms, bathrooms and furnishings.  And the furnishings range from cheapest mismatched junk sale-bought imaginable to the very most expensive nouveau-riche style Victorian.  Having designed and built my previous home, I miss the opportunity to take an empty space and make it mine by design.  My apartment has mid-range semi-modern furniture but lacks a few key things, the purpose of the sojourn, and I’m happy to do what I can to personalize my new home. There are cheaper places, there are better quality places but none with the same convenience and meatballs.

I pick out familiar shelves, dish rack, side tables and other interesting organizing-based items, then take advantage of China’s biggest resource, cheap labor.  My 50lbs of merchandise will be delivered same day, and then set up two days later all for less than $20.  I drop off all my purcahses at the delivery desk, head out for an evening on the town and then after dinner, return home and wait for the delivery men.

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American Exports

One of the tough things about being an expat is the little things.  Little things you know so well how to do at home, are maddeningly difficult in country.  Banks here don’t send statements, no one uses checks, monthly bills do no carry over and late payments need to be done in person during bank-business hours, where to find the best deals on food, consumer products, etc…

The difficultly of daily life extends to the work place.  It’s hard to navigate the company’s internal website.  All in chinese characters, and several minutes of trial and error convince me I have to ask for help.  I first call HR to see if they can give me, over the phone, the simple information I need, but they cant.  Instead, they direct me to an admin.  After some flattery, the cute admin sends me a detailed step by step screen shot of where to click, a picture book for the illiterate, a visual map through the HR hanzi maze. Tracking through the instructions I finally get to the goal, and I cant believe what I’m seeing. I retrace my steps, follow the guide exactly and only confirm my earlier finding.

The Amercian dollar continues to decline against the Chinese yuan (RMB). This is a great thing for Chinese consumers, they can buy American luxury goods cheaper.  It’s also great if you export goods from the US, your goods become cheaper here.  Its good if you want to help correct a trade imbalance.  It’s not so good if you are the American good being exported.  Not so good to have your dollar-tied salary adjusted monthly, based on the current (and declining) exchange rate.   

I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but after two successful years, the company growing double digits, growing my group by over 300%, impressing the client, setting up a science based culture, and establishing a successful reputation for the company,  I find that my salary is now 3% lower than two years ago.  Not adjusting for inflation, which, in the heated Chinese economy, is running about 5% a year.

There are many reasons why I came to China, the opportunity to join those making their fortune here at this historic time, being only one of several, but unfortunately that part seems to be failing. Note to self: sign next contract in RMB, and like anywhere else, caveat emptor.

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I hate coins.  Stateside, throw the daily pocket change into the jar and when the jar overflows, stuff it in a backpack and visit a Coinstar.  Trips to rid myself of mountains of coinage were immensely satisfying.  Vast weight of useless objects turn into paper purchasing power, the efficiency of automated counting, sorting, reducing clutter and increasing consumption all done with amazing automated efficiency  The sound of the hail of coins dropping into the bin, occassionaly, the little treasures of non-US coins burped out of the system, awesome!  Gladly I would hand over  8.5% of my pennies  for the experience.  And although Coinstar has not come to China yet, here there are many, many coins.

The players in the coin game…

1RMB – about the size of a quarter, looks silver and crisp
0.5RMB – bigger than a dime, it’s gold color is distinctive
0.1RMB – about the size of a dime, its silver and light
0.01RMB – small, light and feels like board game money
(US$1.00 = ~7 RMB but the $ continues declining)

The mountain of Chinese change that I’ve slowly built from the daily pocket harvest over 1.5years tips precariously now, a mound of garbage about to spill out of the landfill. Tumbling out of their overtaxed container like Tribbles out of an elevator. Time for action!

I resolved to put a handfull into my pocket everyday and rid myself of them with all possible diligence.  After three weeks, however, the tactic of spending had failed.  One unexpected purchase would inevitably return me with 5-7 coins in my pocket and most days ended with more coins than the start. No other option now, time for a clean sweep. Time to face The Bank.

I invite the admin to accompany me to The Bank as I suspect what I am asking for surpasses my extremely limited ability to communicate in Mandarin. Convincing her to come with me is not easy, and I can see this will be harder than I thought. “You want to do what?” “But it already is money, just spend it.”

Combine a bureaucratic institution such as The Bank, with a culture that prides itself on being able to “eat bitter”, and an unusual transaction and the inconvience factor mutiples.  Though I’m a ‘preferred’ customer at The Bank, there is no getting around waiting.  After 10min, someone comes to talk with us and looks confused after the admin tries to explain what I want to do.  She ultimately nods in agreement and goes to get help.

She returns and motions us back to a teller window, and I look forward to watching them dump coins into a sorter, watch the digital numbers rise, hear coins hit a metal collection box.  I hand three bags of presorted coins through the ditch in the thick glass.  With disappointment, I begin to realize that these two tellers ARE the coin counters.  And though there are dozens of 100RMB note counters, there are no automated coin counters at The Bank. 

It takes the two tellers almost 30min to count all the coins.  They proceed deliberately since, as is the tradition in China, if they make a mistake, they will pay for it out of their own salary.  There are no paper coin rolls, they rip printer paper and hand craft coin rolls.  After an hour at The Bank, my mountain of coinage is gone, and I leave with 550RMB in paper in my wallet and a much lighter backpack.

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