Giving A Whole New Meaning To Monkey Business

December 16, 2008 by trooce · 1 Comment 

Foo Joy TeaI’m sure many of you, like me, were glued to the TV last week, wowed by the spectacle of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics.  The dancers, the special effects, the long procession of athletes walking in to the stadium – I haven’t seen a line that long since I stood in line waiting to buy the new

 iPhone.

Yet, in the days that followed, despite the dominance of swimmer Michael Phelps or the Chinese team’s success in gymnastics, the brilliance of the occasion didn’t hold my attention as much as a little known compan

y doing business in China that gets very little attention but is actually no less awe-inspiring.

I’m referring, of course, to the tea-picking monkeys of Sichuan.

I learned about the existence of this monkey business during a random meeting a few weeks back.  During the meeting, as we were listening to the latest month’s sales projections, I glanced over at one of the canisters of tea sitting on the conference table.  There, sitting next to the other non-descript teas, was a canister of tea called, “The Monkey Picked Ti Kuan Yin”.  

In the description, it read:

The legend of tea-plucking monkeys comes from the inaccessibility of mountain grown teas.  Nurtured by clouds and mist, Ti Kuan Yin has an intense aroma and a complex, long-lasting finish.

In that moment, all my thoughts about the meeting disappeared and at once I became intrigued at the idea that in my tea cup, I was drinking tea made from tea leaves plucked by a monkey in a forest thousands of miles away.

A few thoughts:  1) How did the tea farmer initially decide that they were going to use animals to help them pluck tea leaves and how did they end up with a monkey?  I mean, at some point someone came to the conclusion, “OK, no more ladders.  No more long poles with knives on the end.  From here on in, we’re using animals.  Now where can we find a monkey?”

Actually, my guess is that they had to work their way up to a monkey.  I mean, why go through the cost and effort of acquiring a monkey when, say, a squirrel can climb a tree just as well as a monkey and is already climbing your tea trees?

In an attempt to confirm my hypothesis, I’m planning to employ the local squirrels in my backyard for a little manual labor.  While I have no tealeaf plants for them to pick, I figure that they are perfectly suited to clean out the gutters of my house.  I will report on my progress with this at a later date.

Now back to the monkeys.

At some point, the tea farmer decides to use monkeys to pick tea leaves.  So, my next question is, how do you train a monkey to pluck tea leaves?  Now don’t get me wrong, I know that monkeys are capable of doing a lot of things – carnival tricks, sign language, etc., but picking tea leaves?

I imagine the training sessions involve a lot of frustration and patience for the tea farmer.

Bungo!  Get over here!  Drop that banana and get over here now!  How many times do I have to tell you?  I only want tea leaves!  Nothing else!  What did you bring me this time?  A shoe!  One shoe!  You’ve been monkeying around all day!  Today alone you’ve brought me three tea leaves, a rock, four sticks, a dead mouse and this shoe.  Bungo!  Stop scratching yourself and pay attention!  You never see Bingo, Bango or Devin making these kind of mistakes.  Now you shape up or no more bananas and you can go back into the jungle to eat bananas whenever you want! Get back to work you cotton-pickin’, tea-leaf pickin’ monkey!

The funny thing is that this company is actively promoting their tea and how monkeys picked the tea leaves.  I wonder how it would go over here if the next time you pick a bottle of ketchup and in bold print it read, “The finest ketchup made from tomatoes picked by our own band of monkeys!”  

Last thought:  now that the Chinese have proven themselves in gymnastics while still having monkeys climbing tea leaves from trees humans can’t climb, wouldn’t this be the perfect time for the ultimate face off?  

Now that’s a sporting event I’d pay to go see.

###

When I was a child

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

There’s an unwritten rule that all parents abide by when raising their children. This rule supercedes all other rules of parenting, whether it is applied intentionally or not. Though the following may not be the formal title of this rule, I believe it is generally recognized as the “When I was a child…” method of parenting.

Comedian Bill Cosby once described how his father invoked this rule when noticing that young Bill was none too eager to walk to school. As I recall, his father said, “When I was a boy, my school was 20 miles away. I walked in bare feet, with 30 pounds of books, uphill…both ways!”

My parents never used the rule intentionally, but then again, they never really had to. Having come from China, my parents both lived in stark conditions devoid of all the conveniences we take for granted today, but there was also the ever constant threat from the Japanese invasion during World War II, as well as the communist takeover of the country. Compared to my childhood in the 70’s and 80’s in a middle class neighborhood in San Diego, I didn’t need many reminders – I knew how fortunate I was – I had a happy childhood.

Of course, this now leads me to my problem. I am now a father, who along with my wife, are raising three kids. While I have every intention to continue the tradition of the “When I was a child…” method as it has been passed down from generation to generation of parents before me, I am having a hard time coming up with appropriate examples of my own that would instill a measure of guilt in my own children. So far, none of the examples I have from my own childhood inspire much sympathy.

I’ve listed a few examples and you can be the judge. Here goes:

When I was a child, we didn’t have a remote control to change the channel on the TV. I had to get up from the sofa to change the channel myself until I started ordering my little brother Steve to be the remote control.

When I was a child, automobiles didn’t have child safety restraints or car seats, for that matter. In fact, you weren’t even required to wear a seat belt. When we got in the car, my brother and I were usually in the back of our Ford station wagon with the back window rolled all the way down. Any sudden turn would fling us from one side to the other. It was just a part of growing up. Head concussions build character.

When I was a child, public bathrooms didn’t have sinks that turned on automatically when you placed your hands in the bowl. Back then, there was a button on top you pressed to get the water started and it only lasted .65 seconds every time you pressed it. In order to wash your hands properly you had to perform an elaborate yoga move and place one foot on the button to keep the water running.

When I was a child, we didn’t get anything fancy for our school lunch. Our menu consisted of bean burritos, fish sticks, soybean hamburgers, and milk. Each day during our lunch break, I would try and open the small, individual sized carton of milk, which was nearly impossible because every time you folded back the carton flap, the spout never opened forcing you to jam a finger into the lip of the container to get any milk. On top of that, the school supplied each of us with one straw made from wax paper, which would immediately go limp after the first sip of milk. Struggling to suck milk through a limp, soggy straw one drop at a time, I’d often black out halfway through the carton.

It’s ironic how a happy childhood could lead to a parenting crisis. I’ll put some more thought into it after I finish my soybean burger.

The American Dream – Transplanted

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

The phone rings.

In my lonely hotel room in China, I was a bit surprised to get a call to my room.  No one back home knew where I was staying, and I had just left my partner downstairs after a long day of work.  It couldn’t be him – he was as tired as I was and was probably even less inclined to talk “shop” any more.

Which left only one other possibility – my client, in the other room, must have a question for me.

“Wayne”, he said, with a tinge of frustration, “I can’t turn the lights on in my room.”

“Oh, no problem.” I said, mustering as much enthusiasm as I could.  “Just take your card key and place it in the slot right inside your door.  Then you can turn on the lights.”

My client, the CEO of a large furniture company based in North Carolina, had never been to China before.  In fact, I was surprised to find out that he had never been outside the U.S. before except for a short vacation in the Bahamas.

Given the situation, it was understandable that the whole “Card key in the slot to turn on the lights to help save energy” system most hotels in China use might, to my client, seem a bit, well…foreign.

The second call came a minute later.

“Wayne”, he said, sounding more irate than before, “I punched the card in the slot, turned on the lights, went to take a shower, and in the middle of my shower all the lights turned off on me!”

“OK”, I said, even more calmly than before.  “Where is your card key?”

“It’s on my dresser.  Why?”

“Well, you have to leave the card key in the slot to keep the lights on.”

The call ended with a bit of exasperation and a lot of good humor.  Bridging two cultures as different as east and west, isn’t too hard if you take it one small step at a time.  That’s the key – or in this case…the card key.

When traveling to China, it’s amazing how much you discover about the various cultures as seen through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time.  Much more so than when you experience it for the first time.  My first visit to China was mostly a blur, just too much to digest.  In this case, it was my CEO client, who I will call Frank, who was interested in finding some factories in China to build some new furniture lines for his company.

He had few preconceptions of what to expect.  The ones he did have were negative, and were shaped primarily by what he heard on the news or read in the paper back home.

Chinese factories…sweatshops…child labor…substandard pay…dangerous work conditions – this was his fear.  If that’s what he found, he told me, his company would have no part of it.

I would never discount these stories.  After all, China is a big country with an exploding economy.  But that wasn’t a part of the China I’d ever known or experienced.

Our first factory stop, in the industrial town of Dongguan, about a two-hour drive from Hong Kong, was in a furniture factory known for intricate hand carving.

As we arrived, we climbed out of our car and were greeted by the factory spokesperson, a young lady in her mid-twenties, named Lisa, who surprised us immediately with her English abilities.  She had a strong command of the language, with a noticeable but pleasant accent.  She spoke very succinctly, yet soft, in a very cordial way.

“Thank you for visiting our factory today.” she said.  “My name is Lisa and I am very honored to meet you.  Let me take you on a tour of the facility and I would be most happy to answer any questions you might have.”

We walked into a massive multi-story concrete building with large frosted windows on one side and loading docks on the other.  Lisa led us through the first floor of the factory, quickly reeling off the various furniture tools they use to shape and assemble their products.

She stopped at one machine, a massive contraption with conveyer belts, monitoring screens and buttons too many to count.  Lisa seemed to beam with pride as she drew her hand towards the machine.  “This is a brand new sander we just purchased from a company in Germany.,” she said.  We bought it so our factory workers wouldn’t have to sand nearly as much by hand and could increase productivity.  We invested nearly $150,000 U.S. dollars on this machine.”

Frank, who seemed right at home in this factory as it reminded him of his own factory back home, leaned over towards me with a big grin on his face, and whispered, “I’ve got two of those back home.”

For Frank, nothing seemed out of the ordinary so far.  It was a typical furniture factory, from the stacks of lumber lining the walls to the finished pieces drying in the finishing room.  It wasn’t until Lisa walked us upstairs that Frank’s eyes began to widen.

At the top of the stairs, we entered a large room.  There were over 100 factory people, both men and women, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, sitting around large work benches lined up in rows across the room.  They all seemed very slim, and wore mostly long sleeve shirts and pants, and seemed comfortable despite the hot, muggy weather.
As we walked past, you could hear the clickety-clack of hammers and chisels, carving into their work almost in unison, much like a symphony orchestra, but instead of music, they produced wood shavings, which covered the floor like confetti.

Lisa motioned to us to follow her.  Stopping at one workbench with three women carving an intricate detail into what would end up being a sofa leg, Lisa said, “This is one of our carving rooms.  We have two others on the premises that are much, much larger.”

Frank, watching one young man carving at his station, called me over.  He wanted me to ask the young man, who happened to be wearing a Michael Jordan T-shirt, some questions, out of earshot from Lisa, to get an unvarnished response.

In my broken Chinese, I did my best to start a conversation.

“How are you?” I asked, “Could you tell me how long you’ve worked here?”

The young man, looking surprised that we had approached him, said, “I’ve been working here for eight years.  I have been carving for five years.”

“Are you from Dongguan?”  I asked.

“No, my family lives very far, far away, in the country.”

“How did you find a job here?”

“I was very fortunate.  This factory is in a special administrative zone.  I came here to look for work and I had to apply for a permit so that I could work here.  I make enough to send money back home to take care of my parents and family.”

Frank, unable to understand a word of our conversation, pointed at the young man’s T-shirt, smiled and said, “Do you like Michael Jordan?”

The worker looked up, eyes beaming, and proudly exclaimed, “Chee-ca-go Bullsah!”

A few minutes later, a loud alarm rang and all the workers quietly filed out of the factory into the large courtyard outside.

“It’s lunchtime,” Lisa said.  “I think they are having stewed chicken on rice today.  Would you like to see?”

Walking downstairs into the courtyard, we see all the factory workers waiting single file in a line snaking around the building leading to the lunch counter.  Along the way, Frank began asking Lisa many more questions.

How much do they make, on average?  Do you take care of their food and housing?  How often do they get to go home?

Lisa explained that the factory provides food and housing, and that the factory shuts down several weeks a year to allow the workers to go home to family.  She said that the average pay for a factory worker was $60 to $70 U.S. dollars a week, but that was about four times what they could make back in their hometown.

Finishing our visit, Lisa walked us to our car and wished us well.

For the rest of the week, we continued to visit factory after factory.  Some factories specialize in painting, some in metal work, and others in glass making.

At the end of the week, as we shuffled back into the car for the long drive back to Hong Kong, Frank gazed out the window, and spoke, almost to himself.

“You know what surprised me about this week?” he asked, not really expecting me to answer.  “These are very hard working people, who seem to feel very fortunate that they’ve found work here.  They’re taking care of their families, and seem very proud that they have found something productive to do.  You don’t always see that back home nowadays.”

When I come back home, I inevitably read stories about how Wal-Mart is destroying our domestic manufacturing industry by importing inexpensive products from China or how India is stealing engineering contracts from local companies who can’t compete with their lower wages.  When I do, I think back about that trip I had with Frank.

As an American, I can understand the frustration of people who have lost their job to someone unknown from a far away land.  Yet, as difficult as that is, I also understand that a global economy is simply that – global.  The person finding that job didn’t do it out of spite against us, they did it so that they could take care of their family, just as we would like to do for ours.

I don’t pretend to have the solution.  I doubt setting up artificial trade barriers or tariffs against China will work unless we set them up against Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico and any other country that has significantly lower wages than us, which seems impractical.

While we will never be able to compete in competitive wages, in the end it may boil down to American ingenuity, an area in which our country excels and to this day, has no equal.

In that respect, the American dream is alive and well.

Giving A Whole New Meaning To Monkey Business

September 9, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I’m sure many of you, like me, were glued to the TV last week, wowed by the spectacle of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics.  The dancers, the special effects, the long procession of athletes walking in to the stadium – I haven’t seen a line that long since I stood in line waiting to buy the new iPhone.

Yet, in the days that followed, despite the dominance of swimmer Michael Phelps or the Chinese team’s success in gymnastics, the brilliance of the occasion didn’t hold my attention as much as a little known company doing business in China that gets very little attention but is actually no less awe-inspiring.

I’m referring, of course, to the tea-picking monkeys of Sichuan.

I learned about the existence of this monkey business during a random meeting a few weeks back.  During the meeting, as we were listening to the latest month’s sales projections, I glanced over at one of the canisters of tea sitting on the conference table.  There, sitting next to the other non-descript teas, was a canister of tea called, “The Monkey Picked Ti Kuan Yin”.

In the description, it read:

The legend of tea-plucking monkeys comes from the inaccessibility of mountain grown teas.  Nurtured by clouds and mist, Ti Kuan Yin has an intense aroma and a complex, long-lasting finish.

In that moment, all my thoughts about the meeting disappeared and at once I became intrigued at the idea that in my tea cup, I was drinking tea made from tea leaves plucked by a monkey in a forest thousands of miles away.

A few thoughts:  1) How did the tea farmer initially decide that they were going to use animals to help them pluck tea leaves and how did they end up with a monkey?  I mean, at some point someone came to the conclusion, “OK, no more ladders.  No more long poles with knives on the end.  From here on in, we’re using animals.  Now where can we find a monkey?”

Actually, my guess is that they had to work their way up to a monkey.  I mean, why go through the cost and effort of acquiring a monkey when, say, a squirrel can climb a tree just as well as a monkey and is already climbing your tea trees?

In an attempt to confirm my hypothesis, I’m planning to employ the local squirrels in my backyard for a little manual labor.  While I have no tealeaf plants for them to pick, I figure that they are perfectly suited to clean out the gutters of my house.  I will report on my progress with this at a later date.

Now back to the monkeys.

At some point, the tea farmer decides to use monkeys to pick tea leaves.  So, my next question is, how do you train a monkey to pluck tea leaves?  Now don’t get me wrong, I know that monkeys are capable of doing a lot of things – carnival tricks, sign language, etc., but picking tea leaves?

I imagine the training sessions involve a lot of frustration and patience for the tea farmer.

Bungo!  Get over here!  Drop that banana and get over here now!  How many times do I have to tell you?  I only want tea leaves!  Nothing else!  What did you bring me this time?  A shoe!  One shoe!  You’ve been monkeying around all day!  Today alone you’ve brought me three tea leaves, a rock, four sticks, a dead mouse and this shoe.  Bungo!  Stop scratching yourself and pay attention!  You never see Bingo, Bango or Devin making these kind of mistakes.  Now you shape up or no more bananas and you can go back into the jungle to eat bananas whenever you want! Get back to work you cotton-pickin’, tea-leaf pickin’ monkey!

The funny thing is that this company is actively promoting their tea and how monkeys picked the tea leaves.  I wonder how it would go over here if the next time you pick a bottle of ketchup and in bold print it read, “The finest ketchup made from tomatoes picked by our own band of monkeys!”

Last thought:  now that the Chinese have proven themselves in gymnastics while still having monkeys climbing tea leaves from trees humans can’t climb, wouldn’t this be the perfect time for the ultimate face off?

Now that’s a sporting event I’d pay to go see.

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?

Not a cloud in the sky…on purpose

September 7, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I read recently that in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the host country of China has been testing technology that would allow them to control the atmosphere to ensure that the games will be held in picture perfect weather.

That being the case, for the first time in Olympic history, when the athletes take the field, notice the crisp blue skies overhead and proclaim, “You couldn’t ask for better weather”, an official can rightly say, “Well, actually you can, but it takes a while to get the permits.”

As I understand it, the technology has been around for years, and it involves shooting certain chemicals into clouds that are heading towards the Olympics to force the clouds to rain and sputter out by the time they pass over Beijing, where the games are being held.

Think about it – we now have the power to CHANGE THE WEATHER!  If we keep going in this direction, you just know that at some point the Sharper Image is going to come out with a personal “Thunderstorm Zapper” for those days when you “really can’t afford to let it rain.”

Umbrella companies will go belly up.  No need to take any more chances when washing your car and hoping that it doesn’t start raining the next day.  No more hurricanes to deal with and if one happens to slip through, you can send a nasty letter to the National Weather Service to fire the guy who apparently fell asleep at the wheel (or in this case, fell asleep at the big weather canon).

You have to wonder about the guy who came up with this technology and the type of personality he had.  If I was in that meeting when he proposed the idea, I know what I’d ask.

Me:  Excuse me, but do you really think it’s a good idea to tamper with Mother Nature and do we really know what the long term consequences might be?

Weather Changing Inventor Guy:  Mother Nature sucks.  Besides, I can make it rain!

Of course, if you ask an environmentalist like former Vice President Al Gore, he might say that we’ve had the power to change the weather for quite a while but until recently, we just didn’t know it.  Who would have ever thought that as a collective force, we human beings would have the power to make our world warmer?

On the one hand the idea of mankind having the audacity to control the weather is kind of funny.  But when you really think about it, it seems like it’s a part of a much larger trend, one that at least for me, seems a little scary.

We’ve built enormous dams to generate electricity and divert water to where it wasn’t meant to go.  As we saw with hurricane Katrina, we’ve built entire cities in areas that lie ten feet below sea level and are shocked when a massive storm fills it to the rim with water.

Now we are planning to physically prevent the possibility of rain on the opening day of a very famous sporting event, as athletes from all over the world march onto the field in front of an adoring crowd.

Call me crazy, but maybe just this once, it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing for it to rain on this parade.

Chan – From Noodles to Burgers & Back

September 7, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I am witnessing a metamorphosis.

Like millions of other Chinese Americans, I grew up in a family where my parents were born and raised in China.  They moved to the United States to find a better life and it was also where they met, fell in love, got married, and ultimately had me – their most “cherished and prized progeny”.

OK, maybe I’ve never heard them use the term “cherished and prized progeny”, but I digress.  Let me get back to my point.

The point is, both my parents completely embraced the ideal that America was the grand social experiment, the place where the diversity of America is part of our national identity.  It is the place where we would be both Chinese and American.

Despite having to learn English and the intricacies of Western culture, both my parents excelled in what they set out to do.  My mother started out as a nurse before becoming the head of a library in a major University.  Likewise, my father started out as a professor of Electrical Engineering at a University before starting several successful businesses.

Without forgetting their culture or values, they embraced Western culture.  We rooted for our favorite football team every Sunday.  We bought a station wagon with faux wood paneling on the side of it and went for rides on Saturday afternoons with no particular destination.  On weekends, Dad would roast a whole side of beef just to feed the four of us.

If America ever had a melting pot, our family was swimming in the deep end.

Nowadays, my Mom is retired and my Dad is semi-retired.  Yet, it has come as somewhat of a surprise to see the transformation I’ve observed over at my parent’s house over the last couple of years.

It started out slowly, when I noticed that the coffee table in the family room started getting stacked with piles of Chinese newspapers.  Then I started noticing that nearly every evening that I dropped by, one or both of them were watching Chinese soap operas.  The next thing you know, Mom and Dad cancelled their opera tickets and have become aficionados of Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist who plays mainly Chinese music.

This last week, despite the fact that Mom knows virtually nothing about computers or networking, she managed to install an internet service that connects to their TV and allows them to get Chinese programming direct from China and Taiwan.

What is going on here?  It’s as if the melting pot is no longer stirring and all the ingredients have decided to “go their own way”.  If America’s acculturation really is a grand experiment, apparently my parents have decided to “revert to their original state”.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m as proud as anyone of my Chinese heritage, and I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to understand where I came from and the history behind it.  But, they brought me up in this country (Refer to “Cherished and prized progeny” above) and raised me to value both sides of my cultural identity.  I don’t like seeing either side getting short shrift.

For a little while, I thought that I might need to alter my behavior to keep things in balance.  Perhaps I could spend a little time savoring various aspects of Americana as the “yin” to the “yang” of my parent’s recent “re-calibration” to their roots.

I would do this by going on a road trip, driving a Chevy pickup, visiting various baseball stadiums on my way to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of fame while only listening to CD’s of Woody Guthrie and stopping to eat only at roadside diners that served hamburgers, chocolate malts and apple pie.

In the end, I decided not to make the trip.  First of all, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who will rent you a Bassett hound for a road trip, and secondly (and most importantly), I realized that even with all the Chinese videos and newspapers they have accrued, Mom and Dad remain quintessentially Chinese-American.

How do I know this?  Easy.

Look at where they decided to live their lives.

Like Comparing Apples to Puttymoo

September 7, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I have a simple linguistics test for you.

The next time you go out for breakfast, I’d like you to try and order a glass of orange juice as quickly as possible.  Simple, right?

Oh, I forgot one important part of the test.  Try ordering said glass of juice without anyone using the word, “orange”.  Aha…not so easy now, huh smarty pants?

Inevitably, the conversation between you and the server will go something like this:

You:      And with my breakfast, I’d like to order a small glass of…uhh…
Server:      Yes?
You:      I’d like a glass of juice from a certain type of fruit.
Server:      Of course, no problem.  What type of juice would you like?
You:      Uhh…well, it’s a citrus fruit, but not a lemon or a lime.  It’s round like a grapefruit but not a grapefruit.
Server:     Hmm…I see.  Maybe I can help.  What color is the fruit you’d like juice from?
You:    Color, yes, of course.  Well, uh…it’s like a darker yellow, or maybe a lighter brown color.
Server:    I’m sorry, but could you be a bit more specific?
You:    I don’t suppose you have any tangerine juice?

I bring this up because in the miracle of communication that we call language, a single word like “orange” can make the biggest difference in the world.  Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way on my current trip to China.

As I said, a word like “orange” is pretty invaluable when you want to order a simple glass of orange juice.

The same is true in China, as I found out a couple of days ago on my recent business trip there.

While the primary Chinese dialect, Mandarin, is basically the same wherever you might speak it throughout the world, there are a few words spoken in China that are not really used by Chinese speakers anywhere else in the world.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Anywhere else outside of China, when you refer to a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, you address her using the Chinese words, “Xiao Jie”, which basically means “young lady.”

However, in certain parts of China, I recently learned that you do not refer to a waitress in China with the term “Xiao Jie”, because culturally, that term is usually reserved when you are addressing a um…well…a “lady of the night”.  Or how about a woman working in the oldest profession?  I’m sure you know what I mean.

You might also be interested to know that the Chinese phrase for orange juice anywhere outside of China is “Ju-zi shwei”, which literally means “orange water”.  However, ordering orange juice in China by using the phrase “Ju-zi shwei” will give you a blank stare from your server, because the phrase will sound like gibberish, as if you took the phrase “orange juice” and replaced it with a nonsensical word like, say, “putty-moo”, because their word for orange juice is “chen jr”, which is a word I had never heard.

I wish someone had told me this just a little bit sooner.

That’s right, you guessed it.  At my last breakfast in communist China, I nonchalantly flagged down my waitress, smiled, and proceeded to loudly and confidently blurt out the following request, in Chinese:

“Good morning prostitute! When you get a chance I would really like you to give me some putty-moo.”

You would never have guessed that there were so many government police assigned to that restaurant that day.

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.

General Tso – Your Check is in the Mail

September 4, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

When the word, “genius” is used in normal, every day conversation, it is often used to describe the accomplishments of someone noteworthy. You’ve got Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, Thomas Edison and the invention of the light bulb, and George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip. Who would ever think of questioning their respective contributions to society?

For me, a genius is someone whose accomplishment stands out not necessarily because of how earth shattering their achievement is to society, but rather in the way that their achievement inconspicuously creeps into the fabric of every day life. For a good example of this, please refer back to Mr. Crum and his potato chip.

So who would personify my definition of a true genius? General Tso T’sung-t’ang, inventor (or inspiration) for General Tso’s chicken.

According to The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, General Tso was born in Hunan, China and lived from 1812 to 1885. He joined Hunan’s military in 1853 and became a full-fledged general by 1860. During his military career, he was most well known for his leadership in driving out the Taiping rebels from Hunan despite being hopelessly outnumbered. He went on to become a governor of the Chekiang province, and later a secretary of state. He died in Foochow on September 5, 1885, and was considered by many to be a hero.

Did you notice in the above description that there was no mention of General Tso actually coming up with his chicken dish? In my research of General Tso, at no point did I see any mention of his culinary skills. I never heard any quote from him saying, “You know what? Before the Taiping rebels arrive, I’ve just got to tell you about this chicken dish I came up with the other day.”

In fact, in my research, I found General Tso’s name to be spelled in any number of ways, from Tzo, Cho, Chau, Tao, and several other variations. The correct pronunciation of his name ran the gamut as well, although most seemed to agree that it was pronounced, “Sow”, rhyming with “cow”.

Upon further investigation, it is quite possible that General Tso had nothing to do with this chicken dish, and that it was more likely invented in a Chinese restaurant in New York in the 1970’s. Furthermore, “General Tso’s Chicken” is not really even an authentic Chinese entrée, since it is not a dish you will ever find in China. Finally, in the few times I’ve tried it at different Chinese restaurants, it always comes out a different way – sometimes sweet, sometimes salty, and sometimes spicy. The only common denominator that I came up with was that the prime ingredient was thankfully, chicken.

So what you end up with is a faux Chinese dish that is listed on every Chinese menu in America, usually in the more expensive “Chef’s Specialties” section, misspelled and mispronounced a hundred different ways after a long dead Hunan general who had nothing to do whatsoever with the dish that was named after him, and tastes completely different every time you order it,

Call me crazy, but that’s genius.

My only quibble is that as far as I know, neither General Tso nor any of his descendents ever benefited financially from his ubiquitous recipe. I guess this was before the time of Mrs. Fields Cookies, Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, or even General Tso’s modern day counterpart, Colonel Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It makes you wonder if George Crum ever got any residuals from all those potato chips.

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