A Good Day (Thanks, Marriott)

It is never pleasant having to spend your birthday on the road, especially on a business trip. Not only do you forego doing anything fun, you are usually surrounded by strangers who just don’t know.

Clearly, though, someone at the Shanghai Marriott City Centre was paying attention. I got back to my room after a long day to find a chocolate cake, a bowl of fruit, and handwritten notes from the guest services manager and from the GM.

This was about all the celebration I got for #54, but it was more than enough. SOmeone remembered, and that made up for a lot.

Presentation Counts

The real art of eating at a buffet is plating your food in an appealing manner. I am biased: nothing kills my appetite faster than the sight of an overladen plate that looks like a trough into which the kitchen scraps have been dumped.

Okay, I’ll own it: this is all a bit OCD, but do us both a favor and try this next time you find yourself facing an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord:

  • Walk the whole buffet first, making your selections;
  • Then take a plate and resolve to put no more than three different foods onto it;
  • Set the food on your plate while pretending you are serving someone you want to impress.

I wager that when you get back to the table, you will eat more slowly, savor your meal, and feel better afterwards.

Even Indoors

The air conditioner in the Beijing office crapped out. The solution: open the windows for a few breaths of a breeze.

Unfortunately, that breeze comes with particulates. My colleague Max wears a respirator mask and, like the rest of my colleagues, keeps an air purifier humming next to the desk.

A functioning air-conditioner would make things better, and we’re working on that. nonetheless, I suspect that even if we kept our office at 68º F/20ºC, the masks would stay on.

Civil Lift

If you want to know the problems that beset elevator riding in China, just look at what is prohibited. There are a still a couple missing. It would be nice to see “no spitting” and “no farting” prohibitions added to the list.

I don’t think I’m the only one to find myself an involuntary audience to a terrifying yet somehow awesome phlegm-laden throat solo, only to hear the soloist conclude the performance by expectorating in the back corner of the elevator. On one occasion, performance concluded, the instrumentalist gave me a grin and said “ni hao?” 

On another elevator ride, this one at the Park Hyatt in Beijing in the express elevator from the ground floor to the 61st floor lobby, one fellow (who clearly was not in complete control of his bowels) delivered a paint peeler that made the most noxious elevator smoker seem like a Samaritan by comparison. I felt bad for the guy, but I did go straight to the loo after disembarking, checking to make sure that I wasn’t carrying the scent with me into a client meeting.

I’ve also been on a couple of rides when it seemed like the perp had floated an air biscuit immediately prior to disembarking, thus leaving the rest of us frantically pressing our floor buttons, hoping to speed the car on its way. This, I have found, happens most often in office buildings, usually after lunch.

So yes, please don’t smoke, jump, loiter, futz with the buttons, or mess with the door, keep your sprogs under control, and don’t damage your elevator. But most important, let passengers off first: you have no idea what we might be running from.


Responsum ad Comment: The Finger on the Pulse

A reader asks, in relation to my no longer living in China full time:

do you feel like you are out of touch with the zeitgeist?


Great question.

My mentor and former employer Jeanne-Marie Claydon Gescher once said to me that she believed the shelf-life of a China hand away from China to be somewhere between about 45 and 90 days. In my experience, this is pretty close to the mark.

Since moving my family to the US and moving myself into a frequent flyer program, I have made I make sure that my periods away never get as long as three months, and I am usually “in-country” about 1/3 of my time. When I am not physically in China, I am mentally there. My work is all China-focused, and I spend half of my workday in China time, talking to people in China, going through WeChat, and operating as though I were there virtually. It makes for a bloody long workday, and I still feel culture shock when I step out of my office and into California, but there you are.

What has changed is my perspective, my lens. When I was living in China, I was walking through life with a massive 500mm telephoto lens that was able to see everything in detail, albeit with a focus that just saw China. Today, I’ve lost that massive telephoto lens, but what I swapped it for is a 10mm-300mm lens that allows me a reasonable degree of detail, but a much wider perspective that permits me to see China in the context of the wider world, and vice-versa. I have swapped a level of detail for context, and that’s worked out pretty well.



Responsum ad Comment: China and Nostalgia

A reader asks, in relation to my time in China:

“do you yearn for what was?”

Which I take to mean: do I yearn for China as it was when I lived there?


I am grateful for having lived through a remarkable time in China, and for having the opportunity to live there during a slower time when the people and the atmosphere were suffused with the essence of China’s history, when optimism in the face of backwardness was the motive source of power, and when people from overseas were valued for what they might offer China’s journey into the future.

That was the China I fell in love with as a young man.

But do I yearn for what was?

Not at all: not when I land in Beijing, walk the streets of Wudaokou, or drive past the places we used to live. The years we spent there and what China was at the time still exist in our memories, and that’s where they belong.

As an historian of sorts, I have learned to distrust nostalgia. It obscures history, enwrapping it in a pink fog of selective memory. As Billy Joel once wrote, “the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I am too happy for China’s progress and what it has meant to the lives of my friends, my family, and my colleagues to wish we were all back in the 1980s or 1990s.

It is right that now, today, China is a faster place: that its people are suffused with the possibilities of China’s future; that belief in themselves and their own culture should be the motive source of China’s power; and that people from overseas are welcome but seen in the light of their individual character and behavior rather than their provenance. China is a nation that has stood up, and until or unless she by hostile action makes herself my enemy, I could never wish her to be less.