A Tour Guide of the Mundane

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

Each and every one of us, as San Diegans, shares a common bond.  Perhaps more accurately, we share a common role.  It is a role most of us assume with a sense of pride. It is a responsibility we all bear by living in America’s Finest City.

You have chosen to reside in San Diego with all it has to offer, and by virtue of your decision you are now the Quasi-official tour guide to all of your out of town friends and family.  When the barest of acquaintances calls to tell you they are coming to town, realize that you are what helped tip the scales in their minds when they couldn’t decide between San Diego and Orlando.

Still, we take our hosting duties seriously because we all want to show off our city in the best possible light.  Who wouldn’t need to catch their breath when they first saw the dramatic cliffs off of La Jolla Cove?  Who wouldn’t be charmed by the romance of Hotel del Coronado?  Who wouldn’t want to try a fish taco?

I know all of San Diego’s landmarks.  Whether the guests are from Boston, Los Angeles or any point in between, I can arrange a whirlwind tour of local attractions and get them back on their plane headed home, happy and most importantly, out of my hair.

The challenge comes when I host guests from Asia.  For these guests, I seem to enter an alternate universe where the attractions I take them to draw blank stares while they inadvertently stumble across a seemingly innocuous matter that ends up being the highlight of the trip.

As their tour guide, you start taking things personally.  How would a tour guide feel if I traveled to Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa and continuously admired at how straight and upright all the other buildings were?  Or if I visited the Great Wall of China only to gush over how realistic the wall looked on the silk-screened T-shirts I bought at the gift stand?

I once took a family from Taiwan to an elegant Sunday brunch.  They joked that this was the reason why Americans were overweight.    On the other hand, when they found out how much they could save by buying vitamins in bulk, the amount they brought home could stamp out scurvy in several developing countries.

Then there was the time I took my father in law to visit Balboa Park to walk through all the beautiful gardens. Yet, when I asked him what he remembers of San Diego, he inevitably will say something like, “Oh…the hot dogs at Costco are so tasty and melt in your mouth.”

When I visit Asia, you see how fast the pace can be.  Crowds await you at every turn and everyone struggles through, day in and day out.   You wonder whether their value system, like my own, might be influenced by what we experience in our own environments.   Perhaps, for those who live life in a constant rush, a simple, solitary pleasure can be the most fulfilling.

Come to think of it, those hot dogs are pretty good.

A Sweltering Problem Begs for a Cool Solution

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I found out recently that I will be traveling to China sometime in August.

Let the sweating begin.

How hot is it, you ask?

It’s a brutally humid, suffocating heat.  I suppose it’s good that it’s humid because if it were a dry heat, visitors like me might spontaneously burst into flames.

It’s so hot Chinese tourists spend their summers on African safaris just so they can “beat the heat.”  It’s so hot you can put a bowl of ice outside and watch how the ice just dissipates into the air, bypassing the whole “ice melting” stage.

It’s that kind of hot.  At least it is for me.

I am quite sure that the last time I traveled to China in the summer, I made a vow that I would never go back to China in the summer.  Yet, here I am again, going to China in the summer.  I think there’s a conspiracy going on between the people issuing Visas and my wife who would like to see me lose some weight.

Of course, China and the rest of Asia have long since discovered air conditioning.  It’s in all modern buildings, from hotels, restaurants and businesses far and wide.  It’s just not in any of the places I go when I’m on business.

I’ve tried everything.  I started out bringing a hotel towel with me wherever I went.  It didn’t really keep me cool but at least I could keep myself from looking like I just came out of a “Singing in the Rain” dance rehearsal.

I once brought a battery-powered fan but that didn’t do the trick.  I then put my faith in the promise of high technology and bought a battery powered, personal cooling doodad that wraps around your neck and is supposed to keep you cool.  Of course, a side effect from wearing this contraption was that it made me look like a complete idiot, but what’s a little embarrassment when it comes to my personal comfort?

Unfortunately, it didn’t work, so the only thing I accomplished was to give the impression that the latest fad in the west was for grown men to wear shiny new dog collars.

So, in my latest bout of desperation, I have searched far and wide and I believe I’ve finally come up with the perfect solution to keep me from sweltering in another hot summer in China.

I’ve asked my brother to go instead of me.

Unfortunately, I’m just kidding.  I’m still going, but I do think I may really have solved the problem.
Last week, while surfing on the web, I came across a web site devoted to products to help soothe sore muscles and other body aches.  One of the products was an ice pack that gets ice cold without the use of a freezer or refrigerator.  By shaking the bag, the pack goes through some kind of chemical reaction and instantly becomes ice cold for about an hour.

Instant cold?  Someone must be smiling down on me.

Of course, reading the fine print on the back of the ice pack has a way of yanking me back to reality.  In very tiny print, it reads:

Caution. Ice pack capable of extreme cold.  Prolonged exposure can cause redness, swelling, frostbite, possible hypothermia, loss of circulation, and other health issues related to extreme cold.

Of course, let’s not forget the added effect of me looking like a complete idiot.  But what’s a little embarrassment, some swelling, a touch of hypothermia, and a loss of feeling on my neck when it comes to my own personal, umm…

Where the heck did I put that battery-powered fan?

The Bathrooms are Alive with the Sound of Music

September 7, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

The Bathrooms are Alive with the Sound of Music

I have decided to be a brain surgeon.

I have no relevant experience or formal training as a brain surgeon, but I do have some time on my hands and thought it might be challenging and fun.  I’ll probably kick off my new role as a brain surgeon this weekend with something manageable – nothing too demanding.

Wait a minute.  Did I say I wanted to be a “Brain Surgeon”?  I’m sorry…that’s just silly.  What I meant to say was “Karaoke Singer”.  There’s not really that much in common between the two.  First off, Karaoke singers don’t usually hold people’s lives in the palm of their hands.  Hearing? Possibly. But lives?  Probably not.

For those who don’t know, Karaoke (pronounced “Carry-Okey” in the West) is the popular phenomenon that began in Japan where patrons take turns singing lyrics to pre-recorded music.

I have participated in Karaoke both here and in Asia.  While the experience in the U.S. is fairly straightforward, out in Asia it is much more elaborate.  For those of you who might have an opportunity to Karaoke in Asia, I thought I might provide the following observations as a primer.

Karaoke Clubs are often located in posh hotels throughout Asia.  Once you enter the lobby of a club, you are greeted by a hostess dressed in formal attire who will escort you to a private and elegantly decorated Karaoke room.  You are somewhat surprised by all the pomp and circumstance surrounding an activity that is typically reserved for your daily shower.

You and your friends enter a small room lined with an “L” shaped sofa on one end facing a large screen on the other.  The more exclusive rooms also include an adjoining restroom in case nature calls or can be used as a makeshift “quiet room” for those who would rather miss the least talented member of the group straining to hit the high notes of “New York, New York” (? These little town blues are melting awaaaaay! ?).

Once seated on the sofa, a waiter will take drink and snack orders.  While the Karaoke room charges are very reasonable, you suspect that the club makes up the difference on what they charge for food and drinks.  Either that, or there must be a world wide potato and barley shortage forcing the club to charge eighteen dollars for a bag of potato chips and a beer.

The next order of business is to select songs for everyone to sing.  Seeing as how this is a Chinese Karaoke club, most of the songs are in Chinese, but a good number of them are from the west as well.

As far as I can tell, all Chinese Karaoke songs are about love.  There are songs about being in love, falling in love, falling out of love, looking for love, finding love, songs by singer Courtney Love, tennis matches with a score of 15-love, words that start with “L” that rhyme with “dove”…you definitely start to see a pattern.

As for me, I never have to worry about selecting a song.  Like it or not, in the course of the evening I will inevitably end up singing the Righteous Brother’s “Unchained Melody.”  For some reason, if you are from America and have been invited to a Karaoke party in Asia, you are required to sing that song.  I believe you have to agree to it before they’ll give you a visa.

On top of that, the person operating the Karaoke machine always raises the pitch of the song, so the only way I can reach the high notes is if I’m wearing some really tight pants. By the time I reach the climax of the song and reach that last high note, no one can hear me except for any stray dogs or dolphins that happen to be near by.

Although the written word can hardly do it justice, I thought I’d give you a sampling of my performance of that final verse:

? I-aye-aye-aye NEED your love!!! ?
? I-aye-aye-aye-aye need your luh-huv,?
? God speed your love, to-who-who-who-ooh, me-HEE-HEE-EEE!!! ?

The bathroom really gets hoppin’ when I get to that part.

To Golf, or not to Golf…that is the problem

September 5, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I work in an industry where hard work pays off.  If you apply yourself, learn your trade, plan ahead, and work with people in a professional way and customers with great respect, you may just have a chance to move your way up the professional ladder.

Or, you can just learn how to play golf.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard of non-golfers complaining that they’ve poured their soul into a proposal, sleekly integrating elaborate spreadsheets and color schematics, only to have it reviewed and critiqued over and over again, while two people playing a round of golf can iron out a multi-year agreement before the 9th hole with the contract sketched out in pencil on the back of a scorecard.

Of course, I’ve learned that golf plays a role in nearly any type of professional business.  But in my industry, where I help multi-national companies work in Asia, golf is viewed as a near religion.  In Asia, where open space is relatively limited, a membership to an exclusive golf course in, for example, Hong Kong, can run several hundred thousand dollars, and there’s a waiting list to get in.

As for myself, I’m not a complete beginner, but in my lifetime, I’ve tried the game.  It’s not for me.  I’m not very good.  I don’t see the point.  I don’t like wearing funny pants.

If I had to choose between playing golf or, say, watching bread rise, it’s pretty much a toss up for me.  Unless, of course, they were baking a nice fluffy egg bread, which I can never resist.

Still, if the simple act of playing golf is going to help my career, who am I to question it?

So, while on a trip to South China a few weeks ago and the opportunity presented itself, I told my partners, “Sure, let’s do it!  Show me those funny pants!”

For the benefit of all my fellow non-duffers out there, I’d like to share my experience playing a round of golf in Dongguan China.  I’ve summarized these helpful hints into a report I call, “Five rules to playing a round of golf.”

Rule #1: When someone asks you what your handicap is, don’t respond by describing a recent mishap when you accidentally fell down the stairs.  They’re asking you something entirely different.

Rule #2:  You cannot have enough golf balls.  Think of how many golf balls a normal person would use, and then triple it.  Be sure to buy golf balls at a sporting goods store and not at the pro shop at the course.  I have a strong suspicion that the golf balls sold in the pro shops are coated with some type of magnetic resin so as to make them highly attractive to sand pits, trees and any body of water within a ten mile radius.

Rule #3: When one of your group is set to tee-off and is in the middle of their swing, don’t answer a call on your cell phone by shouting, “Well, how the heck are ya!”  unless you are wearing a lot of padding to protect yourself from flying golf clubs.

Rule #4:  As you are ready to tee off, keep your head down, bend at the knees, gently grip your club, remember to pivot your weight from your back leg to the front, and strike the ball cleanly as you smoothly stroke the ball and continue with a natural follow through.

After the ball dribbles off to the bushes to your side, be sure to blame it on some kind of medical condition that prevented you from a “full extension.”  Find some malady that people have heard of but don’t know well enough to ask you any specific questions about.  During my round, I had a severe bout of “lumbago”.

Rule #5:  If your skill levels are like mine, and if you don’t have a caddy, you will have no idea which club to use at any given time.  Watching which club your partners are using would be helpful, except for the fact that since they are better than you, they are usually 100 yards ahead of you and you won’t have any high powered binoculars that would allow you to see which club they are using.

Instead, I’ve found it very useful to select a club based on whatever is your lucky number.  Since eight is my lucky number, I naturally pull out my eight iron.  As your partners are busy taking their shots, with the club in your left hand, pick up your ball with your right hand and heave it as hard as you can toward the green.  Since your partners won’t have a high powered binocular to see what you just did…well, you get the picture.

The only problem is, my golf partners were always so far away from me that I never had the opportunity to talk about any business.

Note: A very decent and honorable friend of mine has been going through some health problems recently.  When we both worked at the same company, he showed me the ropes and was always willing to lend a helping hand.  Golf was and is his passion, and I’d like to dedicate this column to him.  Sammy, all your friends wish you a speedy recovery.

Watch Your Language; It May Save You (Asia Trip – Part One)

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

In order to give my current business trip to Asia the attention it deserves, this report will be the first in a two-part series chronicling my travels. Mostly though, I just like using the words, “Two-part series” and “chronicling”.

First, a word about my credentials as a traveler to Asia – I don’t really have any.  Actually, I speak enough Chinese to help get me by when I’m traveling through China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and when I’m shopping at the 99 Supermarket in Kearny Mesa.

The problem is, when people in China first hear that I can speak some Chinese, the rest of our conversation, no matter how complex the subject matter, is done in Chinese. When I’m trying to negotiate a business transaction, I don’t know whether my comment “I hope we can make this business a ‘win-win’ situation” really came out as “My shoe is in love with the broken toaster.”  This can get you into trouble.

When I’m with a client in Asia, in order to impress them I must give them the perception that I know what I’m doing.  Whether that is actually the case is beside the point.  I need to keep up appearances.

While I speak some Chinese, I cannot read it.  And yet, when we are at a business lunch, the waiter always gives me a menu completely in Chinese.  In order to build up my reputation to my clients as “Wayne Chan – savvy world traveler”, I nonchalantly order items off the menu as if I know what they are.  As I recall, the last lunch where I ordered off the menu consisted of three pots of tea, eight bowls of steamed rice, and 40 take out boxes of mushu.

A good rule of thumb when visiting Asia with only a partial command of the language is to keep things simple.  Don’t make special requests.  It causes more grief than it’s worth.

I once checked into a hotel and asked for a room with two double beds and a view of the ocean, close to my client.  With my Chinese, the request sounded more like this:

I want…in room that I am paying to sleep in…please make me two sleeping furniture…then stand up see water way over there with other person too.

When I travel to countries like Malaysia and Thailand, I sometimes use a handy little translation program on my handheld computer.  I recall one dinner at a Thai restaurant in Thailand (actually, wouldn’t all restaurants in Thailand be called a Thai restaurant?) where I was particularly interested in a red curry dish.  When the waiter asked me how spicy I would like it, I used my handy dandy translator to find the word, “mild”.  But after tasting the dish, I may have inadvertently substituted the word “mild” for the phrase “brain hemorrhaging-level spicy.”

Take my advice – when in China, make generous use of the phrase, “Wu swo wei” (It doesn’t matter).  You’ll be surprised how often it works.

The Britney and Beijing Accord

September 1, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

It turns out that the fashion police are alive and well in China, and they have set their sights on Britney Spears.

Pop star Britney Spears is scheduled to give a number of concerts in China next year, but in light of the recent furor over Janet Jackson’s breast baring performance at this year’s Super Bowl, China’s cultural officials have taken great care to eliminate any potential “wardrobe malfunctions” during her appearances.  As a start, they have demanded to get a first look at her performance and her wardrobe.

According to one official, “Every aspect of her tour will have to undergo examination and approval.  That especially goes for the clothes she’ll be wearing.  The requirement is that they don’t show too much.”

As a Chinese-American who would like to contribute whatever I can to ensure a positive relationship between the U.S. and China, I have taken it upon myself to draft a set of standards that might help address the situation.   It is called “The Britney and Beijing Accord.”

#1    Chinese cultural officials must approve all song lyrics in advance of the performance.  However as a general rule, songs pertaining to anything of a sexual nature are prohibited.  Songs addressing topics like the weather, beautiful scenery, fresh fruit, or China’s entry to the World Trade Organization are generally acceptable.

#2     Songs featuring androgynous, half dressed male dancers moving provocatively on stage are prohibited.  However, having government officials standing at the back of the stage clapping rhythmically is acceptable.

#3     Dancers should refrain from grabbing any other part of their body during the performance.  If a “body part grab” is an intrinsic component of a particular song or dance routine, performers should restrict their grabbing to areas such as their head, shoulders, knees, and toes.  As a side note, one fully acceptable maneuver is if the performer should choose to place both hands on their knees and bring their knees together repeatedly while simultaneously crossing their hands to the opposite knee.  This is formally known as the “Hey, look what I’m doing with my knees!” routine.

#4     Removal of any article of clothing by oneself or by another performer (outside of a hat) is strictly prohibited.  Stage managers reserve the right to apply super glue to any article of clothing should said clothing appear to be nothing more than a prop.

#5     Suggestive words in otherwise acceptable songs must be altered for the performance.  The word “baby” should be replaced with the word “infant.” The word “lover” should be replaced by “husband” or “wife”, and the word “fondle” should be replaced with “look”.  Use of the word “loin” can only be used for songs addressing cuts of meat.  Likewise, words like “ache” or “throbbing” are to be used only for songs recounting a recent sports injury.

#6     Stage costumes must conceal every inch of skin below the chin.  Chinese formal silk qipao’s are acceptable, full-length body armor is not only acceptable but encouraged.

The trouble is, after following all of these guidelines, Britney’s show might only run for 20 minutes.

Bless You, Yao Ming, Bless You

September 1, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I used to be a rock star.

Strange though – except for the piano in my living room, I don’t own a musical instrument.  I’ve never fronted a rock band and I don’t really sing in public.  The closest I’ve come to singing in public recently was when I was driving my seven year old son from school the other day and singing to “Sweet Caroline” on the radio at the top of my lungs with the windows rolled down and a car load of kids roaring with laughter as we were both pulled up at a stoplight.

When will I ever learn?  Windows down – play U2 or Eminem.  Windows up and no one can hear you – Neil Diamond rocks!

OK, so in the strictest terms, I’m not an actual rock star.  But I think I know what it feels like to be one – at least when I’m in China.

Here’s how it works.  In the U.S., I’m a fairly average-sized person.  Six feet tall, average build, not too big, not too small.

When I go to China, especially in some of the more rural areas, that’s another story.  A six-foot tall Chinese man in China?  I might as well wear a goose outfit carrying a sign saying, “I’m looking for duck-duck.”

It starts up the moment I get off the plane.  I have to duck under a lot of doorways.  The seats are often too small.  Walking up stairs, you often have to bend down so as not to hit your head on the ceiling.  People walking pass stop in mid-stride with their eyes bulging and mouths agape, as if Big Foot had just disembarked from the plane.

At first I got kind of a kick from it.  Waiting to board a busy subway, you’re a foot taller than everyone else trying to board as you gaze over a sea of bobbing black heads.  When I’m sitting on a bus, I usually get the bench all to myself because there’s simply no room for anyone else on the bench once I sit down.

After a while though, you quickly discover that being overly tall in any country has a lot of drawbacks. I have to answer the same question every time.  “What did your parent’s feed you?” they ask, expecting me to say, “Oh, nothing special – hamburgers, hot dogs, human growth serum, the usual things.”

Then, despite the fact that I have been to Asia countless times, I have yet to buy a single article of clothing.  Oh, I’ve tried, but I can never find anything big enough for me to wear.  I immediately start feeling like a sideshow geek.  You can see the sales people sizing me up, with a look of bemused amazement when I walk into the store.  You can hear them trying to figure it out, speaking Chinese, unaware that I understand what they’re saying.

“Someone go in the back and see if we have any shoes that’ll fit this guy.  He’s huge.  See if we still have those clown shoes leftover from the party.  Maybe those will fit.”

It’s enough to give you an inferiority complex.  You start believing that perhaps, there really is something wrong with you.  You get paranoid.  You start questioning yourself.

Am I really that big?  I seemed fine at home.  Wait a minute.  Why am I so tall?  Why do I have all these bruises on my forehead from bumping into doorframes?  Look at my hands.  They’re freakishly big!  I could strangle a cow with these hands!  I’ve got cow-killing hands!

Fortunately, I’ve recovered from my paranoia, thanks in large part, to the very large Yao Ming, center for the Houston Rockets basketball team, who ironically enough, is from China.  He’s seven feet, six inches tall, and I’m sure he really does know what it’s like to be a rock star.

I just wonder what his parents fed him?