Home

When I stepped out onto the porch to let the dog out, I could see my breath. The stars were frozen overhead in the crystal darkness, and at 5:30 am, the city was blessedly still. At this peaceful hour before the world stirs and comes rushing at me again, I am so happy to be home.

This place is my anchor. The axis point around which my world revolves. Despite the electrical storms of anxiety, and the fogs of depression that roll in upon me, this place is always a beacon of love shining out into the night calling me home to what matters. Yes, it feels good to be back where I belong, in the only place that really matters. All the rest is just noise and distraction. Here at 20 Prospect, the stars above remind me of the saints we loved who have gone before us, and the sleepy warm embrace of my wife as I kiss her goodbye, is the very breath of life.

Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota - USA

Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota - USA

I’m leaving on a jet plane

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. – John Denver

This has been a long 10 days. Every trip to Asia takes it toll, and this one is no different. I am burnt to a crisp after so much time outside of my routine. I will be so happy to be back on the front porch again. As fascinating as travel can be, there comes a point where you wouldn’t cross the street for another new experience, but long for the familiarity of home.

Some parting shots from China.

Swedish Fish?

Swedish Fish?

The garden's of Mr. Li

The garden's of Mr. Li

Stir Fried Tofu

Stir Fried Tofu

Alley in Zili Village

Alley in Zili Village

Chikan Village

Chikan Village

Rica paddy and communal Dialou

Rice paddy and communal Dialou

Sunset over the Pearl River

Sunset over the Pearl River

Farewell! Thanks for keeping me company on the trip. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Farewell to China

Today was a first for my business trips to China. A day not spent working, but sightseeing with my colleagues. Some background. I planned this meeting last winter as a chance to get our global team together. We’ve been lucky enough to meet each of the last two years in Minnesota. But unfortunately, only one of the team from China has been able to attend. I was hoping that by holding the meeting here, we could get the 2 engineers, and the 2 saleswomen (yes, sales WOMEN in China, I run a progressive group) to attend as well as the country manager. So we planned the meeting for an amazing resort hotel, that cost a princely $59/night, right near our main subcontract factory in Dongguan China. This is like planning a sales meeting in Pascagoula, Mississippi across from the fish rendering plant. Business/Adventure travel.

Anyhow, my colleagues here planned the last day of our meeting to be a group sightseeing expedition, to a UNESCO world heritage site about 3 hours drive away from here. The Kaiping Villages are very unique. They were home to many expatriate Chinese, who emmigrated to foreign countries from the Pearl River Delta area, during the 19th, and 20th century. Leaving behind their families, to a country that was unstable and lawless at the time, they sent home money and constructed what is best described as “castle towers” for their families to live in. Built in a western style using materials shipped back from the West, they look like little “keeps” from the Italian countryside, not like something you’d see in a rice paddy in Southern China. The windows and doors were heavily fortified to keep out theives and bandits. Most of these men had 2, 3 or even 4 wives living in China in these family compounds. What I find most amazing, is that they are still family owned. Many still belong to foreign Chinese who only visit on occasion. The ones we toured were donated to the Government by the families that owned them, to be preserved as museums.

Enough words, lets show some pictures!

One of the many homes of Mr. Li (Lee)

One of the many homes of Mr. Li (Lee)

But that’s one of the more “normal” looking of the Dialou houses. Here’s a more typical example of some…

Dialou houses

Dialou houses

This shot is one of my favorites…

Zili Village

Zili Village

This one is taken from the upper porch of the home on the right…

artsy!

artsy!

There are even urban areas built in the Dialou style. This is a tidal river in the delta. Reminds me of Florence.

Hmm... OK, maybe the Arno was a little cleaner.

Hmm... OK, maybe the Arno was a little cleaner.

Did I mention it was hot? My god, I just about melted. Even my Chinese friends were complaining. Jeepers its hot here in August. Whose idea was it to hold a meeting here?

Oh yeah, right. Anyway, after sightseeing we left the clear air (yes, you heard me clear air!) and headed back to Dongguan. Within an hour my throat was burning again from the pollution. This was to be our last night together, and time for the traditional farewell dinner. They had planned a special location for dinner. A restaurant on stilts overlooking the Humen Bridge, and the Pearl River, in the city of Humen.

Pink is the new pink

Pink is the new pink

You will be surprised to know the specialty was seafood. But not just any seafood. Chinese seafood. Or as we call it in Minnesota, “Bait”.

Seafood or Bait?

Seafood or Bait?

OK, those white things in the tub were earthworms as thick as your thumb. The little back things were some type of swimming beetle about the size of a half dollar. And the other stuff was… well, does it really matter? After worms everything else is pretty much a let down. Suffice to say there was every imaginable crustacean, and squirmy thing that swims in the river delta.

And there was also alcohol thankfully. In fact, Mao Tai made an appearance. This time we were among friends, and there was much toasting, and picture taking. Laughter, and camraderie all around. And for one evening we were not 4 Hong Kong Chinese, 3 Americans, a Japanese, a Belgian, and a girl from Shanghai, but one team. It was enough to bring a tear to the eye of this sentimental old fool. Or maybe it was the Mao Tai. In any case, when we loaded back into the mini bus for the drive back to the Hotel, and good byes, I decided the time had come to pick up the karaoke mike, and serenade the team. (Yes, the mini-bus came with on board karakoe)

I sang John Denver a-Capella (that’s Latin for poorly) With a slight twist…

Almost heaven, Dongguan China

Kaiping Village, Pearl River Delta…

Life is old there, older than the trees,

older than the mountains, rolling like a breeze,

Country road, take me home, to the place, where I belong,

Dongguan, China, mountain-mama,

take me home country road…

It brought down the house.

What China looks like…

Not quite the China you see in on the Travel Channel, or the China you saw during TV coverage of the Beijing Olympics. This is the China of gritty Coastal cities, where millions come to earn their living, and send their money back home to the families they left behind in little villages in the West.

"Corner" Store

"Corner" Store

Welcome to Dongguan. Where a permacloud of pollution floats overhead. The streets are a free for all of buses, cars, motorcycles, and every concievable type of bicycle contraption you can imagine. I am always amazed at the amount of stuff they can pile onto a bicycle.

Pick 'em up truck

Pick 'em up truck

Store fronts are a row of garage doors. You rent a space, open the door and you are in business. Machine shop? Welding Shop? Grocery Store? Auto repair? Furniture Sales? No problem. Just put your stuff inside and you are open for business. Or if you can’t afford a garage, just spread your stuff on a blanket on the side of the road, sit on the curb and viola!

Machine Shop

Machine Shop

This is pretty common in developing nations all over the world. I would like to make some grand statement about human scaled economy, but I’ll pass. The fact is this is just how it is, and I don’t begin to understand it, or make a value judgment about its benefits and drawbacks. China is too big for me to wrap my little mind around. It can be a bit overwhelming, and intimidating. Only by making small, one on one connections with people can we begin to understand. With over 2 billion to choose from, it might take me a little while.

Dongguan

Dongguan

Greetings from China

Yesterday we left Hong Kong, and made the journey northwards into the ever thickening gray cloud to the city of Dongguan. The air pollution is astounding. My eyes burn if I am outside for any length of time. Not that I go outside. Jeebus is it hot. I don’t believe I have ever been so hot in my life. On Sunday the air temp was in the mid 90’s and the dewpoint was 81 degrees. I didn’t think the dewpoint could get to 81 degrees.

I could go on for pages about the size, speed of change that is occuring here. The country is in the middle of a rapid acceleration from the dark ages to the future. Everytime I come here there is a new high rise, or block of luxury apartments going up next to a stained cinderblock Mao era tenement. This pace of growth is simply not sustainable, and yet they have been sustaining it for over 10 years now. The scale of the urbanization kind of discourages you from making any attempt to be environmentally conscious. Really, any green initiatives we implement in Minnesota is a drop in the bucket compared to the pollution that spews out of China on an hourly basis.

For dinner last night, our colleagues took us to the Maojia Restaurant. Yes, it is named after Chairman Mao. Apparently, he was born not far from here, and the restaurant specializes in the native cuisine of his hometown. Entering the restaurant you are greeted with an oversized bust of the mad man himself. The effect is somewhat surreal. It’d be like walking into the Hitler Coffee Shop in Germany, or Joe Stalin’s House of Borscht in Moscow.

After dinner I did my part to promote and encourage Intercultural Awareness. Dick Nixon would have been proud.

I got your Cultural Revolution right here...

I got your Cultural Revolution right here...

Hong Kong Garden

I've had this song stuck in my head since leaving Seoul

I've had this song stuck in my head since leaving Seoul

There are times when you are on the road, where the fatigue of travling grinds you into dust. And there are times when you look out the hotel window and think “Holy Krep! I’m in freaking China!” and the euphoria of adventure washes over you. This is one of those kind of mornings.

Kowloon Cacophony

Kowloon Cacophony

Or maybe it’s having just had a pot of decent coffee for the first time in a week. My colleagues in Hong Kong have taken good care of us and put us into a very nice Western hotel. A full pot of European coffee at breakfast this morning has my heart palpitating, and my brain pinballing around inside my head.

As much as I loathe to admit it, I’m a lucky man. Sure, to be honest I could spend the rest of my days in a rocking chair on the front porch, but a part of me still savors the thrill of travel. I think its the fascination with discovering different cultures, and finding the differences and similarities between us all. Flying on the plane to Tokyo last week I was reflecting on the fact that all babies sound the same when crying. Black, Brown, White, Red, Yellow, it doesn’t matter. Make them tired and cranky and they all sound the same. (Hmm, maybe that’s why I couldn’t sleep on the plane.) On the other side of the coin, laughter is also a common language. Oh, maybe some linguist would correct me on this one, but get people laughing and it doesn’t matter where they come from, they all sound the same. When you are on the other side of the world, and missing your wife and family these are the things you take comfort in.

OK,  so much for “profound” insight. Now back to work. I do actually work on these trips. Well, sometimes.

Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Drinking in Seoul

Park near the Hotel Swarming with Dragonflies

Park near the Hotel Swarming with Dragonflies

My visit to Seoul is quickly coming to an end. I leave for the airport in a few hours, to fly on to Hong Kong. But is was not without memories. Last night’s dinner was a classic evening of Asian business entertainment. I have experienced similar nights in China and Japan before, so I had some idea what to expect. We were meeting 4 gentlemen from one of our good customers out for dinner. For the purposes of this story, we shall refer to them as the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant. Why? I have no idea. Seems like they’d want to take the round eyed devil out to a Korean place, but for some reason we ended up at a Chinese restaurant. After the usual business card exchange, and polite introductions of the Four Horsemen and myself, they quickly asked if I liked to drink. They also inquired if the Pope was Catholic.

A round of beers was quickly ordered up, but I knew they had bigger plans than that. Some background first. The Four Horseman, and our local Distributor and Country Manager are very close. They meet monthly to do this. My being in town was merely an excuse for another night on the town. As I said before, I’ve had similar dinners in Asia and China before, and these nights always follow the same routine.

1.) Introductions, and some serious talking to get to know a little bit about each other.

2.) A round of beer, and some formal toasting.

3.) Explanation of the significance of their custom of getting together once a month to drink, and how important it is to maintain close relationships.

4.) Ordering of food, and inquiry into whether the round eyed foreign devil (me) has any particular food hang ups. (I do not. I eat anything. ANYTHING. Just to prove I can)

5.) The introduction of the local drink. In this case I was surprised it was not Korean Soju, a clear vodka like 80 proof liquor. Oddly, my last trip to Japan involved a similar night of drinking, and the Japanese insisted on drinking Korean Soju. This night however, my Korean Four Horsemen insisted on ordering Chinese Mao Tai.

Some back ground on Mao Tai. It is perhaps the most foul tasting liqour I have ever had. And I have had the unfortunate experience of having it several times. The taste can best be described as “Old Bicycle Tire”. Seriously, like drinking latex paint. And the taste lingers, and lingers. You can burp it up the next morning. God knows what the Chinese use to make the stuff, but I suspect its a refinery by product  (Fermented Sorghum according to Wikipedia)

Anyhow, they asked if I had had Mao Tai, and I responded “Is that the liquor that tastes like a Bicycle tire?”. No offense was taken, but they laughed hard over that one.

High Octane

Chinese Lighter Fluid

Then the drinking began. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is the official Korean Drinking Etiquette, pretty standard for Korea, and Japan.

“It is against traditional custom in Korea to fill one’s own glass. Instead, it must be filled by someone else at the table. This promotes a spirit of thoughtfulness and camaraderie.

In Korean culture, using two hands to offer and accept items is considered an act of respect. Accordingly, if one’s glass is going to be filled by a superior, one should hold the glass with both hands. Similarly, when pouring soju for an elder, one holds the bottle with both hands.

To pour a drink, hold the bottle in the right hand with the left hand touching the right forearm or elbow; this peculiar arm position originated from the practice of holding back the sleeve of the hanbok so that it wouldn’t touch the table or the food.

Similarly, when receiving a drink, rest the glass in the left palm and hold it with the right hand, perhaps bowing the head slightly to show additional respect. You can also hold the glass using the same hand positions as when pouring. Pouring and receiving with just the right hand by a senior, or between equals, is common in normal situations.

Koreans often say “one shot“, a challenge to everyone in the group to down their glass in one gulp.”

A glass should not be refilled unless completely empty and should be promptly refilled once empty; it is considered rude to not fill someone else’s glass when empty.

The Four Horseman were very proud to explain it to me, including the significance of where you placed your hands when holding out your cup, to show the proper amount of respect to your drinking partner. Start near the hand and work your way back toward the elbow the drunker you get.

Note of caution. Asians like to think they can drink Westerners under the table. Unless you really enjoy hangovers, its best to let them “win”. The fact is, most of the Asians I have drank with tend to get sloshed really, really quickly. It goes right to their head. However, once drunk, they will continue to drink themselves into oblivion without a second thought.

My advice, down the first few shots with them to show them you can keep up. Once they are starting to get visible drunk, usually after about 3-4 shots, you can stop emptying your glass. They will notice, and begin to beam with pride. At this point, you can continue with smaller and smaller sips. They won’t refill your glass until it is empty. However, remember an empty glass is always refilled so long as their is liquor on the table. They will continue to empty their glasses. During this period they will enter phase 2 of the evening.

This is when the older gentlemen at the table will begin to get emotional and offer you advice, and their personal philosophy on life, business, etc. By this time you are sobering up, but they are continuing in a downward spiral. You can now relax, and know that you have made it. Little is expected of you from this point on, except your attention. Listen to the stories, and nod thoughtfully. Agree with their advice and insights.

Eventually, the signal that the night is ending comes when they start making profound speeches to you about the closeness of your relationship and how we need each other. Promises are made, and invitations extended to drink again during your next visit, or to take them out when they come to the states. It is polite to extend these invitations, even though they seldom are fulfilled. No problem.

The goodbyes are long. You shake hands at least 3 – 4 times, and then wave to each other as you part. Time to return to the hotel, drink lots of water and get some sleep. Take 2 apsirin in the morning, and chew gum to get the taste of the Mao Tai out of your mouth.

Congratulations. You have made friends with people from the other side of the earth. The human family has now become a little smaller. You have increased the understanding between two cultures, and connected in a personal way that no amount of email, or video conferencing can ever do. You will never be a stranger to each other again.  And you are now, officially, an international businessman.

Farewell to Seoul

Farewell to Seoul