Fresh eyes on China

My good friend who was transferred 6 months ago to Beijing, working at Microsoft, wrote a note about China that I thought you would really enjoy reading. So without further ado, here are some excerpts:

“At this very moment, I’m sitting in the Industrial Bank of China, trying to pay my credit card bill.   The venue is like the Chinese version of the DMV, where you take a number and then spend forever waiting for your turn at the teller window.   The bank is packed with people; sophisticated folks with designer clothes, school children in their track suits, and even my favorite ma tuan (sesame ball) vendor with a wad of bills so thick I wonder how really makes his living.  What an inspiring place to write about my new life!

Why are people in China so nice?  Imagine this: you get into work for your first day, grumpy and jet lagged.   Your boss sends out a welcome to the team email and every person on the team replies (and its reply all) to the thread welcoming you.   A gig or so of emails later your coworkers take you to lunch and then to see apartments around town on their own free time.   The welcome didn’t wear off; my colleagues take me bowling so that I feel more at home (though I rarely bowled in the US), and help me do everything from buying a cell phone to negotiating my lease.   My favorite part of  our interactions is when I dig through the layers of shyness, break through the language barrier, and see real personalities peek through.  Case in point, last week my friend came with me to translate while I complained about an unwarranted fee to my landlord.   I had always thought of him as quiet, nervous guy, but was pleasantly surprised to watch him transform in his mother tongue to a powerful orator with the ability to reduce my bogus “services” bill from 900 RMB to 100 RMB.

Just like that day, every day poses a new opportunity to “peek under the hood.”  Yesterday, I was grading the Microsoft Recruiting Entrance Exam (yes… we have a national entrance exam).   I was grading the 4th of 4 questions on this 2.5 hour exam, administered to all current student Microsoft hopefuls.  At this point in the exam most candidates were very rushed and were just writing whatever came to mind – a great opportunity for me to learn about their real thoughts!   Some cultural differences were immediately apparent, for example, we asked applicants to design an “Electronic Tour Guide” for the Olympics – a PDA device with some software on it; and one of the questions was “Who do you think are the users of this system?”   Some answers I expected were “tourist” or “athlete.”  However, another answer came across with remarkable consistency, an answer that I did not expect: rich people.   Here’s an excerpt from an exam by a Mr. Li Haoyan that I thought expressed this point well: “I suppose that the foreigners and the rich people in China (such as manager, official person) would be the users of this system.   Because the foreigners like to travell (sic) alone, so they will have no chance to be a member of a tourist group, buying such a system will be a great wealth for them.   For managers, their time is very expensive, they would not wait for guided tours.” There’s something in the collective consciousness of the people I meet about the newfound wealth of China, it’s apparent they have poverty/prosperity on the mind.

Several attitudes and ideas that float around here that really mark the difference between my old life and my life in China.  At first glance its, China Wow! It seems here that everyone is young, technically brilliant, and representative of the rise of China and its stupendous economic growth over the past few years.   The office has a high profile we receive all sorts of awards and get visits from Henry Kissinger to Wu Yi, and of course top Microsoft executives.   Everyone certainly looks prosperous, surfing on their internet enabled cell phones in marble hallways, wearing trendy outfits, and talking in English about their latest exotic vacation.   Beneath the surface the people-landscape is complex, and over time I have seen several recurring themes pop up in different circumstances.  First and foremost: innovation.   The broader Chinese government has recognized the need for increased intellectual property production and has, through a deliberate media campaign, stimulated an intense desire in the people of the country – and in the office – to be innovative.  From the intern who was hired last week to directors and executives everyone is focused on doing something that has never been done before.  This is happening everywhere, not just at Microsoft, but at other technology companies, private equity firms, and all over the telecoms industry. I get this slight feeling of irony when I think about what we are doing: the government said “innovate!” and we all rushed like robots to do just that.    It smells a bit like a mania to me; everyone thrashing around trying to innovate at this incredible pace, but at the same time, there is something really fun about being in an environment where everywhere you turn someone is describing the next big idea – and we all run to try it out. In a guilty/indulgent way, I enjoy these mania times where we feel like we can be and do anything. 


My new friends and I went on a cruise through the Three Gorges the first week in October, and I had an extended look outside the big cities and into the interior of China.  In the interior, the change of pace is strikingly evident.   Large mountains of rubble separate glass high rises and small traditional buildings, peasants stop plowing their fields to talk on their cell phones, and as I cruise through the Three Gorges on an old boat that seems well past retirement age, a wireless hot spot pops up on my laptop.   At the rate all of these places are developing leaves no doubt in my mind that much of the old will be “modernized” soon, and so I’m very thankful for the opportunity to see it all before it goes away.   Most Chinese I meet are very optimistic about the future, especially the prosperity that they see coming their way.  Even in the small riverside town of Changyang, where the high school students told me that we were the first foreigners that had been to the town in five years, the three 17-year-olds we met spoke great English had aspirations to be a politician, a real-estate developer and an engineer.   The budding engineer took my “míng piàn” (business card) and hit me up for a job!

I  have a new website to help English speakers get around China.  It gets a good amount of traffic and contributions!  You should check it out, especially if you plan on visiting China, and if you like it, link to it on your blog or website 🙂

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