Asia Trip – Part Two

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

It seems every time that I cross the border from Hong Kong to China, a customs agent gets flagged by the computer that I am a suspected criminal.  That is to say, someone by the name of “Wayne Chan” is a suspected criminal.

Each time I reach customs, they seem to go deeper and deeper into their computer files while repeatedly glancing up at my face to see if I’m a match for whichever mug shot they have on the screen.  All the while, my mind is flashing back nervously to every indiscretion I’ve ever had in my life and wondering if the jig was up.

Could they be after me for a dumpling I swiped off of my colleague’s all you can eat tray when I had only ordered a bowl of noodles?  Did the hotel clerk snitch on me for taking one too many toiletries?  Is it possible that they saw me buy that “Rolex” off a street vender in Hong Kong that was on sale for seven dollars?

China, despite all the economic reforms they’ve had over the last 20 years, is still after all, a communist country.  I have an irrational fear that if I don’t answer all their questions correctly, I’ll immediately be whisked off to some Mongolian labor camp.

My colleague, who is always with me when we cross the border (and seems amused by the whole situation), once observed that the longer a customs agent questions me, the more my voice changes.

At first, I start out speaking Chinese.  Once their questions get more pointed, I immediately revert to English.  Any further questions and my American accent becomes more pronounced. The more inquisitive they get, the more I sound like I was born and raised in California.  For some irrational reason, on a subconscious level I’ve concluded that they will assume Californians are never wanton criminals. I start using the words “dude” and “righteous” in my responses as much as possible.

By the end of the screening, I’ve become a professional surfer, spouting phrases like, “Dude!  I’m like toootally here for a righteous business convention dude!”

Do they really think a dangerous criminal would try to get through customs sounding like that while wearing running shorts and a Daffy Duck T-shirt?

Of course, this latest trip added another component to the customs process – the SARS inspection.

While the SARS outbreak was apparently completely under control by the time of my visit, government officials were still very diligent in monitoring each person as they passed the customs counter, ready to detain anyone with any telltale symptoms.  I became acutely aware of my desire to contain any impulse I might have to sneeze at that particular moment.

If I did, I suppose I could say, “My bad, dude.  I like toootally have a case of the hay fever, dude.

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.

Mother Nature Calls…For Gloves And Goggles

September 3, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

Ahh…Mother Nature.  To be in the element, to hear the sweet sounds of outdoorsy goodness – there’s just nothing like it.

I see the trees, swaying gently with the wind as fall takes hold and turns all the leaves into vibrant hues of yellow and red.  I pass by a creek, with water gurgling over smooth stones as it winds here and there on it’s inexorable path to the ocean. I love nature.

Holy pinecones!  I nearly ran over a possum.  I’d better keep my eyes on the road.

There you have it, my friends.  In just a few short sentences, I’ve managed to encapsulate my experiences in the wild. I’ve always loved the outdoors… from a distance.

So, it may come as a surprise to you that I’ve recently had a revelation.  I’ve decided that man was not meant to be cooped up in a house, breathing recirculated air, constantly bombarded by the beeping of microwave ovens, or the buzzing of cell phones.

It dawned on me that while I have traveled the world from sea to sea, from New York to Shanghai, I have spent nary a day in my own backyard, which is the American west.

Well, that fact is about to change – American west – here I come!

But how?  How about camping?  No, not yet.  I need to ease in to it.  No need to jump in the deep end right away.

Stay at a hotel?  Not enough of a stretch.  How can you experience the outdoors from the confines of a hotel room?  I can do better than that.

How does one experience the outdoors without having to brave the elements in a tent but not chicken out by staying in a cushy hotel?

Two words – Recreational Vehicle.  Yup, the Chan family is going on an RV vacation!  Woo hoo!  Yippee!  Someone alert the media!

At the time, it made perfect sense.  I already know how to drive and the kids will love traveling in a house on wheels.

The only one I had to convince was my wife Maya.  She was definitely not with the program.

If I recall her first reaction was, “Now I have to cook in a car?  I don’t want to cook in a car!”

I tried to convince her any way I could.  I tried to explain.

“Look, sweetie, this is going to be great.  It’s so much more affordable than staying at a hotel.  We don’t have to move luggage back and forth.  If we want to go somewhere, we just drive and everything goes with us!”

I think her response was, “I don’t want to wash dishes in a car!”

Yet, the more she was opposed to the idea, the more I became obsessed with it.  I started shopping for an RV, taking month long trips all over the west.  Hiking up the Rocky Mountains, traversing streams while fly fishing at the mighty Big Foot (yes, I saw that movie), hunting wild boar while camouflaged in a mixture of turkey feathers, leaves, and unscented deer dung – whatever it was, I was ready for it.

But before I got in too deep, a friend of mine suggested, “Before you buy any deer dung, maybe you should try renting an RV and see if you like it.”

This made sense.  If I could get Maya to enjoy her trip in a rented RV, then buying one would be the next logical step.  I just needed to take care of all the details, so that she would enjoy herself.

So on one fateful day not long ago, we packed up, loaded up our SUV, and drove over to the RV rental place. I had watched the orientation video earlier and met with the rental specialist who walked me through the RV.  I was ready to go.

First, I had to unload our luggage from the SUV.  Then, reload it in the RV.  Then we had to buy groceries and fit a weeks worth of food into a refrigerator the size of a large backpack.  Once we got to our destination, I had to refill the tank with gas, and decided that as long as I didn’t eat lunch for the next three months, I could afford it.

Once we found our spot at the RV park, there was another round of tasks to do.  The RV had slideouts (portions of the RV that slide out to provide more room inside), which were easy enough to figure out.  Then, hooking up the power and cable were pretty straightforward as well.

Which leads me to what, in the parlance of the RV world, are called, “cleanouts”.  In my entire life, I have never thought as much about what happens when you flush the toilet as I have on this RV trip.  Of course, I realized that it had to go somewhere, but for the first time, I became an essential participant in ensuring that everything goes where it is supposed to go.

I had watched the video, and while it wasn’t the most pleasant of all my tasks, it was arguably the most important.  The video seemed pretty straightforward.  It never occurred to me that we would be arriving at the RV park at midnight, and that I would have to perform this task for the first time in the dark.  Unfortunately, asking my family to “hold it” for 12 hours seemed unlikely.

As I got outside to start, another RV owner spotted me and watched curiously as I stared into the cleanout tubes, trying to figure out what to do.

He said, “Excuse me, but you should probably put on your rubber gloves and goggles before you do that.”

I looked around.  Did this thing come with rubber gloves or goggles?  Answer: No and No.

For the rest of the week, the only thing I could think of was, “This wasn’t in the video.”

Still, I managed to put it together and the rest of the trip was fine.  The kids were having a blast, Maya managed to “cook in the car”, and took care of every last detail.  Maya and the family had a great time.

At the end of the trip, I had to unpack the RV, load it back to the SUV, clean the RV inside and out, and dispose of all the trash we had accumulated.  By the time I was done with this trip, I was ready for another vacation.

Last week, as we were trying to decide what to do for our upcoming winter vacation, Maya said, “Hey, why don’t we rent the RV again?”

Does anyone have the toll free number to the Marriott?

Would You Like That With a Side of Grits or an Egg Roll?

September 1, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

If you ever want to get a real sense of how diverse various cultures can be, don’t bother going to New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle or Los Angeles.  To truly get an education, go to Belmont, Mississippi.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the sights and sounds of the big city.  I love that in most big cities you can go from a Japanese tea garden one moment, and walk a couple blocks away to have a Chicago style hot dog from a cart or visit a Turkish Hookah cafe across the street.  By the way, if a tourist from Indiana named Henry Henderson regularly visited a Turkish Hookah café in Texas, would it be proper to say that Hoosier Henry Henderson was hooked on a Houston Hookah?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Anyways, back to my point.

The point is, what the big city provides in the way of variety and well, downright fun, can sometimes lack in the way of perspective.  Contrary to what you see in the big city, that kind of variety is the exception, not the rule.

Which brings me back to Belmont, Mississippi.  A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Belmont to visit with a client of mine who does a lot of business in Asia.  Upon meeting Rusty (I’m going to call him “Rusty”, just in case this column gets into the hands of a local Belmontian), I was surprised to discover that despite doing a lot of business in Asia, Rusty had never traveled there.  In fact, the furthest point east that Rusty had traveled was Atlanta.

The meeting was very productive, so much so that Rusty invited me to his favorite (and as far as I could tell, the only) Chinese restaurant in Belmont.  Without mentioning any names, I’m just going to call it Rusty’s Chinese Restaurant.  Seeing as how I wanted to keep my client happy, I put my best game face on and readily accepted his invitation.

Upon arriving at Rusty’s Chinese Restaurant, I discovered that it was an all you can eat establishment, which is not unlike many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. not located in a Chinatown or Asian business district.

I’ve always wondered why so many Chinese restaurants serve all you can eat buffets.  Obviously, there’s a market for it.  But, why only Chinese restaurants?  Why don’t you ever see all you can eat Kabob restaurants, or a French-themed buffet serving big troughs of escargot, truffles and pate?

Despite Rusty’s encouragement to try the buffet, I opted for their daily special.  Now, I would be happy to tell you what the daily special was that day, but the description wasn’t very descriptive and it still wasn’t too clear to me even after my entrée arrived.

“Excuse me,” I asked.  “I was wondering, what is this?”  (Spoken with an emphasis on the word “is”)
“That’s our daily special, darlin’”  she said.
“Oh, I see…and what was the daily special again?” I asked, hoping for some additional clarification.
“Chicken Egg Foo Young” she said.
Finally, I pointed at a plastic container of thick, brown, somewhat lumpy liquid, and asked, “…and how should I use this?”
“Well sweetie, whatcha got there is your sausage gravy for your chicken egg foo young.”

Now, I have had the good fortune of being able to travel to Asia for business quite often, and my culinary experiences have run the gamut.  I’ve eaten braised pigeon, deep fried rattlesnake, quail meatballs, and some seafood I’ve never even seen in aquariums.  Yet in all my travels, I have never had chicken egg foo young with brown sausage gravy on it.

But you know what?  I liked it.  It was warm, filling, and seemed homemade.  In the end, you can’t ask for anything more than that.

Despite all my travels, it was in Belmont Mississippi where I discovered that culture inevitably adapts to its environment.  When facing a new environment, that would probably be a good idea for all of us as well.

Of course, the unanswered question:  What did my chicken egg foo young taste like?  Yes, yes – it tasted like chicken.

One Man’s Medicine is the Same Man’s Embarassment

September 1, 2008 by trooce · Leave a Comment 

I just came back from a business trip in Beijing and all I got was a lousy T-shirt.

Actually, I didn’t bring back any T-shirts.  Instead, what I came back with was a sense of amazement.

Sky-high skyscrapers.  Locals dressed in the latest couture.  Mercedes Benz cars parked next to trendy microbreweries.

Even factory workers would drink Starbucks during their coffee breaks.

OK, a little creative license there, but you see where I’m going with this.

This wasn’t the Beijing that I remembered.  The last time I visited Beijing, it was 1980.  Beijing was so much different.  But then again, so was I.

In the summer of 1980, I was 16 years old and I joined a group of students from all over the country to attend a Chinese language program at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.

My parents thought this trip would be a good opportunity for me to learn about my roots.  They thought this trip would give me a chance to expand my Chinese language skills.  They thought I would come back with a greater appreciation of my heritage and the richness of my culture.

I thought it would be a good chance to meet girls.  After all, I and every other student who attended the program were fully aware that this program was informally known as “The Love Boat.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t really hook up with any girls during the trip.  But as a consolation, I did manage to pick up a severe case of food poisoning.

I shared a dorm room with two of my cousins.  Seeing as how they were both younger than me and with even less experience with the fairer sex, this was not the best environment I could have hoped for.  The room had a concrete floor, and each bed was covered completely with mosquito netting.  I quickly discovered that the mosquitoes were in abundance, and unless you wanted to unwillingly donate a pint of blood each night via a hundred mosquito bites, you stayed under the netting.

However, this being the summer, it was also hot and muggy, with nary an air conditioner in sight.  Coupled with the fact that the mosquito netting effectively blocked out any breeze from the windows, you soon came to realize that you had inadvertently duplicated the conditions of a Thanksgiving turkey basting in the oven.

Under these sweltering conditions, a cool, tall glass of water would have really hit the spot.  Unfortunately, the best we could do was a bracing cup of hot tea, or boiled hot water kept in a large thermos, which contained so much excess grit and minerals that you felt like you were drinking a cup of watery sand.

Towards the end of my journey in China, I came down with a severe case of food poisoning.  High temperature, extreme queasiness, a genuine feeling of hopelessness.  No, that’s not what the food poisoning did to me, that’s how I felt as a number of friends helped me make my way to the University’s medical clinic and looked inside.

I felt like I was on the set of M*A*S*H.

Still, how bad could it be?  I immediately felt more at ease when the doctor told me I just needed some penicillin.  However, I soon realized that what might be good for my health might not be so good for my image.

In front of all my friends, including a few girls I was trying to impress, I nonchalantly asked the doctor where I could pick up the penicillin pills.

The doctor replied, “We don’t have penicillin pills.”

Figuring he meant a penicillin shot, I bravely rolled up my sleeve and said, “OK, no problem.  I have had lots of shots before.”

The doctor, seeming a little perplexed, looked at me and quietly said, “Umm…we don’t give you the shot in your arm.”

After a few moments, I quickly grasped the situation and asked,  “You don’t mean to tell me you’re going to give me a shot in my…”

When it comes right down to it, buying flowers, writing a romantic poem, seeing a romantic movie…there are a lot of things a young man can do to win a young woman’s heart.  Bending over and pulling your pants down in front of your friends for a penicillin shot is not one of them.

Then again, the experience certainly wasn’t a complete loss.  I did manage to learn the Chinese words to ask, “Could somebody please cover me up with a blanket?”