Thursday, February 27, 2014

Work in Good Faith

Lately, I’ve been exposed to a common theme: people trying to “get something for free.”  You know the type.  People who set up rules very carefully, and then skirt the edges of those same rules to make themselves appear more successful.

It’s insidious the way some people tend to set up these laws and then agree to the letter of them, but not the spirit, all whilst calling on other people in a similar situation to live up to the spirit. This type of person may actually carefully craft a rule as a bit of a trap, and then wait until it's agreed to before they spring it.

A colleague told me once that his company made a huge deal with a partner based on a particular metric.  The agreement, as stated, was mutually beneficial and fair to both parties, so they agreed and inked the deal.  Shortly after the deal was inked, however, the metric changed in a way that was very beneficial for his company and very bad for the partner.  My colleague couldn’t be sure whether his company knew about this metric change beforehand, but the effect it had on the relationship with the partner was chilling.  There was nowhere to go but down.

I’ve seen this now on a number of occasions, and I can’t speak vehemently enough against it.  To me, this is business in bad faith.  It’s hard enough to build trust without deliberately misleading people, setting up rules for other people to follow, and then skirting them yourself. 

It’s bait-and-switch and contract-trap mentality that gives corporate America the bad reputation it has.  And it is well-deserved.

This also appears to be true across corporate America.  A business does something and we decide as a country that we need a rule to stop that business from doing that.  All business in that industry follow that rule, and drop anything that's not written.  That is, because rules get written down, any unwritten rule is perceived as not necessary.

Does that mean there should be no rules?  I don't know.  I don't want to have hold people and business to any particular rules.  I want them all to hold themselves to a high standard and behave with a social conscience.  The only rule is "don't be evil" and I think we need to vote with our feet and wallets if it's broken, but not necessarily regulate them.

Get out there and do business in good faith.  Be a good partner.  It elevates everyone you work with and for.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't Shit Where You Eat

Ok, profanity?  Really? 

Well, I’ve never said I wasn’t coarse right down to my bones.

Besides, this isn’t mine.  It’s a common turn of phrase that I’ve often thought, but rarely said.

What’s worse, in doing a little internet search, it doesn’t mean what I think it means.  Or at least originally didn’t.  In reference after reference, it appears to relate to dating within the office. 

Except that’s completely and utterly not how I’m using it here. 

I’m using it in the “don’t cause trouble in a place or situation you are often in” sense.  But still in the sense of the workplace. 

I’ve seen people go out on Social Media and gripe about the company they work for.  Sometimes it’s blatant, and sometimes it’s more subtle.  I’ve heard people talk about their previous employers as bad places, saying things like, “I’d never recommend that place to anyone.”  

It’s one thing to think about the problems you see within an organization and talk about them in a generic way, in the hope of communicating with someone that has solutions that might be a good fit for where you are.  It’s something else entirely to badmouth your company, by name, in public.

I don’t get that.  That business is on your resume, and every negative thing you publicize about your organization devalues your time there and your resume.  And you’ve further identified yourself as someone who badmouths their organizations after the fact (or worse, during).  Who is going to want to hire someone like that?

You have just whizzed in the water cooler. 

Now, I’ve seen sites out there like glassdoor.com, which purports to offer a clear “insider” view to an organization.  I don’t know how accurate those portrayals are, but even if you posted anonymously, you’ve dooked in the doughnuts. 

And why?  To stick it to your former employer who took a chance on you, gave you a paycheck?  Seems a little disingenuous.  To "helpfully" warn good people to not waste their career there, like you did? 

See, I don’t think it’s enough to talk about the bad stuff there and air dirty laundry.  Every organization has some.  If you have a beef with your organization, try to change it.  If it doesn’t change, leave.  But just because you didn’t fit in there, or just because they don’t run the company the way you would, that doesn’t mean that the next person to come along won’t be the one to turn things around.

Companies, like people, evolve and grow.  Some even learn from their mistakes.  Remember that every little thing you see as negative may just be the result of a positive decision that was made somewhere else.  Organizations don’t optimize around you.

I’m not saying there are no bad companies out there; only that what’s bad to you might be a great turnaround opportunity for the right next person, and that you do no one any favors badmouthing any company in your history.

Don’t plop in the popcorn.  Ever.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dead Man Walking

I put in my notice this week that I’ll be moving on to a new workplace.  Starting a new chapter.  Mowing a greener lawn.  It’s a move that I think surprises precisely no one.  And because I have a huge interest in organizational structure, how organizations evolve and behave, and employee morale, I thought I’d document my experiences on the way out. 

Note: nothing written here is intended to cast aspersions on my current organization.  I've grown quite a bit here - professionally, technically, and personally - and the company has encouraged that growth every step of the way. 

Before announcing

We know that transitions don’t work.  And knowing those things, I wanted to try a few things to make it better for the organization.  Just because I’m moving on, that doesn't mean that I want the folks I’m leaving behind to suffer in any wake I might leave.

Now, I did something atypical, I think.  In the week before I announced my departure, I inventoried everything I owned or had unique knowledge in.  I gave special attention to anything I knew that might be unique to me, so that it might be given some light.  I wrote it down, and kept it in a separate file that I added to daily.

In the time leading up to my announcement, everything I did that would need to be taken forward, I made sure I did in conjunction with someone else, so that they would know how to do it, having either watched on or completed it under my supervision.  Any tasks I had that were completely isolated, I took pains to ensure they would be completed before I departed and that no one would have to take them over.

During the time I was on the job search, I took the time to prepare more documentation than usual.  I know it’s what we’re supposed to be doing anyway, but I find most developers don’t.  Every time I found a piece of information only I knew, I put it in our wiki, so that it would have the chance of being discoverable in the future.

I gave this information over when I announced, and I believe it was greatly appreciated.

Post announcement

Thing is, after announcing my resignation, and after the organization all heard, I start to see signs of it healing around me.  Meetings I was invited to, I either no longer have to attend, or I bring the person I’m grooming to take over the task.  The way I teed it up, I’m basically making sure I’m here for a solid transition. 

People who didn't not previously work together, I see them working together as projects who used me as a resource switch to other resources.  The amount of requests I’m getting for transition of ideas is already slowing.  I can feel myself fading into the background and being allowed to let replacements step up and forward.  And that’s all a good thing.

I really like that whole self-healing idea.  If you’re a contributor to an organization, as long as you’re not a Net Negative Producing Programmer, leaving is going to cause some pain to the organizational organism.  The start of transition meetings and transition plans and handovers are the platelets coming to the scene of the wound to form a clot and first stop any bleeding. 

This clotting phase includes messaging.  I have to admit, I had intended to control the messaging on my departure on my own terms, thinking maybe of announcing it to everyone at once, but given that I botched my last departure from an organization, I consulted with a few clever folks with more experience than I, and they helped me understand that controlling the message was the organization’s way of starting the healing process.  I kept quiet about it, and I guess it worked out ok so far.

That wound will close and heal eventually, and all that will be left is my name in the source code repository and document histories.  And some of those things I leave behind will become beautiful tattoos, and some will become scars.  And that’s okay.

The goal is to not leave a vacuum that closes with a damaging thunderclap.  Even though I've become a bit of a junk drawer in the organization, I’m certain that I can transition better than most.  For any given task, the replacement is groomed to be as much a clone of me as I can create, while realizing that all copies are lossy, because anyone I’m transitioning to already has a job they are doing full time.

I imagine it’s a little like being a lame duck president.  I hear all the cool names I've always heard applied to everyone else.  I’m the “dead man walking” or “Mr. Short-timer”.  In general, my voice no longer matters.

I would assert an organization has no better independent consultant on things that could improve the company than an outgoing employee.  At this point they are free to pick my brain on issues knowing full well I have no political aspirations or machinations within the firm.  And I’m making myself available for such consultation.  Whether they care to hear it, or whether they’re sore and insulted I’m leaving, or whether they trust I would give them good advice because their success is no longer entirely my concern all remain to be seen.

And on my way out, I have no intention of badmouthing anyone or anything.  I have my reasons for leaving, and if anyone’s been paying any attention to me at all over the time I've been there, they know what I think.  Because I've been honest and candid about the organization, the processes, the people, the work, everyone already knows my opinion on everything.  Now is not the time to vent.  It’s the time to celebrate past successes and growth, help the company heal, and move forward.

In short, my goal is to be the sort of alumnus my current employer will be proud to talk about to future incoming employees.  I want to be the poster child for leaving well and with class.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Something to Think About - More Communication Antipatterns

A while ago I wrote about a phrase that offends me deeply, the single word "just".  You can read about it there, but I came upon another phrase that really bothers me.  I've heard this type of conversation killer categorized into something called communication antipatterns.  That means, a pattern of speech people get into by habit, but are otherwise destructive.

"Think about that" or just "think about" are two versions of the same thing. I hear it all the time when discussing things with folks at work.  I've worked with people who would not only say this out loud without realizing it, but one former colleague would use it repetitively.  It was almost assuredly a nervous tic.  After almost any point he made, he'd hold out his hands and repeat, "Think about that!  Think about that!"

Insisting that someone "think about it" indicates to a listener that you believe that you have figured out some answer, that it is relatively obvious and requires few leaps of logic, and that if they simply pause and reflect on what you've said you will come to the same conclusion they did.  It implies to them that you've given it much more thought than they have, and that if they don't agree with you, thinking about the problem will bring them to your brilliant conclusion.

Here's a few problems I see with this phrasing:
  • The listener could feel as if they've thought about it a great deal, and they may have credible, serious counterarguments that you've just demonstrated you're not willing to hear by telling him that you've thought through all the angles.  Maybe it's you who haven't "thought about it".
  • You're being lazy in your argument.  If you say "think about it," you're trying to convince someone of something.  Don't take the shortcut.  That's how you get miscommunication.  If you have a good argument, spell it out.  It gives the listener a chance to disagree with your premises one at a time, without insulting them, and also may lay out something the listener hadn't thought of, possibly because of a legitimately unknown item.
  • You might be implying that the listener, even after having laid out all the facts, is incapable of putting things together.  That may be true, or you may not know what they know, but it is insulting either way.
"Again..."  Oooh, this is one I'm guilty of saying all the time, and I'm trying to break this habit.  If you call me on it, I might swear bitterly under my breath, but I'd be grateful for the help stamping out this offensive speech pattern.

This one implies that the recipient of the phrase is no smarter than a toddler who didn't hear you the first time.  It's not as offensive as some of these other ones, because it's often an acknowledgement that you know you're repeating yourself, but there's an implication that goes with it that's no fun.

Sometimes I use this even if I’m not reiterating a point.  That’s a horrible mistake to make because it makes the listener feel as if they have missed something, even if they haven’t.  Worse, it might imply that there’s a significant issue

"The smart thing to do would be...” – Oh my, I just heard this one last week.  If I had to specify one phrase that I think tore down more work relationships than any other and that contributed to significant team siloing, it would be this one.  There is no more directly backhanded way to deliver the message that the recipient is not smart.  This boils down to nothing more than “I’m talking to you and trying to present a solution.  It differs from yours, but if you were smart, you’d do this.”

No kidding, I’ve seen this one conversational antipattern delay and ultimately torpedo a multi-million dollar, multi-year effort because one key architect continually said this to one key IT project lead.  In talking to the lead, he said something to the effect of, “If that guy calls me stupid one more time…”

We’re all knowledge workers here, so our intrinsic value is in at least part derived from out intelligence and the solutions it generates.  These conversational antipatterns really tweak the heart of that.  It’s name-calling.  Subtle, but still name-calling.

And when was the last time you heard “Well, you’re a doodie-head!” in a meeting?  Good, then stop saying these things, too.

Again, the smart thing to do would be to think about that.

Dammit.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dog Ownership

So very recently, my daughter started declaring that she wanted a dog. Mostly in passing, but I’ve heard it a number of times already. 

Then yesterday, this turns up in her backpack from school
A little dark, but it's a proposal from Random asking for a dog.  
What a big girl!  She laid out her argument so well, and put in some very persuasive points.  So I feel I should put my thoughts on paper here.

I’m grateful that she wants a dog, and I’m sincerely happy that she’s gone through the thought process and wants to show responsibility.  She’s so adorable, I want to say yes and make her childhood grand.  Here, in no particular order, are my objections.  I’d love for people to leave feedback here or on Facebook for me.  Help me understand what I would have to do to say yes to my princess.

The Cats

Not sure how they would react to a dog in the house.  Given their temperaments, I would expect somewhere between cold indifference to actively aggressive/fearful.  Also, how do you keep cat food separate from dog food?  The cats are piggies who forage all the time for any dropped crumbs.  I can’t imagine a dog dish being safe from the cats.  People with both, how does that work?

Bedtime

Daily, we put the cats to bed.  They go into the laundry room for the night.  I’m sure I’ve just horrified every cat person I know, since I’ve heard cats are supposed to hunt and roam all night, but these cats get treats when the go to bed, so they aggressively request bedtime each night by meowing and leading me to the laundry room. They have their carriers in there and sleep in there.  We obviously couldn’t put the dog in the laundry room for the night, could we?

Noise

Nicole doesn’t like the noise the kids make interrupting her sleep.  I can’t imagine how she would tolerate barking, whining, scraping, etc.  The kids we can at least appeal to their sense of mercy and ask them to be quiet.  Seems like when you have a dog, you have to expect them to bark at any and all hours of the day and night and be okay with that.

Letting the Animal Out

My understanding is that we have to let the dog go outside.  Animals don’t wear shoes in the house and therefore track everything in from outside and transfer it onto every surface they mount.  The floor, the counter, the bed, the couch.  Seems like a germy mess to me.

Letting the Animal Out, Part 2

We don’t have a fence for our backyard, so it seems like letting the dog out is impossible, at least without supervision.  Going for a walk with a dog sounds fine during the spring and fall, but I’m not willing to commit to doing that in the current weather.  If someone else committed to that, fine, but it will not be me.  I don’t have that kind of time.  And the cost of building a fence is currently prohibitive.

Travel

With a dog, you have to allow extra time and cost for boarding or increase imposing on friends.  When we go on vacation now, someone comes by daily to check on the cats, but with a dog, someone has to come by more than once, and possibly spend time with the dog outside.  It’s either one of those or ratchet back on travel.

Annual Trips

The family minus me goes on summer trips to Ohio for weeks at a time.  Since I am not willing to take on regular pooch-maintenance, those trips would either have to stop or involve boarding.

Poop

When we got the cats, I inherited the job of scooping the cat litter.  I’m over it.  I have committed to handling the cats litter boxes, but I’m done picking up poop.  I’m not wandering around outside looking for and scooping it up.  I’m not going to scrape it off the kids’ shoes or mine.  Having a dog means finding some way around me doing this.  Kid volunteers, Mommie volunteers, don’t care, but I’m not going to do this.

So those are my issues.  Help me figure out how to mitigate them.  I'm willing to live with the smell and damaged goods in the house.  I'm willing to pay for the food for any creature in our family.  But I'm not sure I'm willing to give up the travel or the money for fences or money for boarding, etc., and I'm inflexible on the walking/pooping issues, but I am interested in hearing how people do it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Junk Drawers in Your Organization

A while back I wrote about the pleasure of teamwork.  I got to thinking about that again today.

In that post, I spoke about a team that didn’t have a purpose.  That team handled items not handled by the other teams. 

think it’s a common thing that most households have a junk drawer or two.  Or maybe a junk area.  I have to confess, I believe some people have junk rooms, and maybe even have a garage so full of junk that they can’t even use it to protect one of their most expensive purchases, their car.

These junk areas that people have seemed to have a parallel with this team I spoke of.  It’s the place where you put stuff that you don’t know where else it goes.  Or you don’t have time to organize.

Does your company have an "Operations" department?  I tried looking up definitions of an operations department and it said “See Back Office”.  So ok, I did.  And what did it say?  That bit of the organization not visible to the public.  Great.

It’s in back.  Out of sight.  You don’t want to know how the sausage is made.  It’s the junk that kinda makes stuff work.  It’s what’s left when you take away Marketing, R&D, IT, Compliance, Legal, etc.

And how is it organized?  Who knows?  It’s a junk drawer.  Could be a proxy for Corporate Accounting, Tax, Internal Product management.  “Operations” as a word means nothing.  It’s a container for real functional business units.  It's how the company "operates" behind the scenes.

Over time, people can become junk drawers, too, if they don’t have personal goals to do otherwise.  Are there people in your organization that other people have transitioned things to over time?  Maybe they inherited them because they were there a long time and had the knowledge to take them on.  Or maybe the organization didn't have time to think of where the responsibility should truly lie, and through the transition items into the junk drawer.

What happens when the junk drawer employee leaves?  Pass it on?  Create another junk drawer?

I’m really not bagging on the idea of junk drawers in an organization.  Practically, it’s difficult to fully categorize every last thing in any system.  There will always be things that don’t have critical mass to require attention from an entire team.

What I'm saying is that if you have to have a junk area, keep it small and manageable.  Also, spend some time looking for them periodically.  They get big when you're not looking.

Shopping in China - Part 8 - What We Bought

Holy Hannah!  I know I thought a lot about shopping in China.  Eight posts?  Did we do anything else while we were there?  Oh hell, yes, but I found myself so fascinated by the whole shopping thing that I wanted to share it all with you.

Ok, so I talked a lot about what was available.  But what did I actually buy?  Too much.  Here's the list. Mona?  Did I forget anything?  Leave a comment below.
  • Lasers (green and purple)
  • Poopoo pillows
  • Beats earbuds
  • Personalized jade stamps for the kids
  • Custom tailored suit and shirt
  • Megaphone kit
  • Family ball Jade statue
  • Chairman Mao's little red book
  • Souvenir book with photo from Tien an men Square
  • Dragon Well tea.  What looks to be an infinite supply.
  • Power brick for charging phones mid day.
  • A piece of a custom plate that had my caricature on it.
  • Sweet bamboo hero plaque from the Great Wall adventure
  • Great wall T-Shirt size XXXL
  • Leather jacket size XXXXL
  • Hao snacks for the kids
  • Little bottles of Erguotou
  • Spirograph toys for the kids
Nicole bought
  • A set of fake watches for her and her dad
  • Silk scarves for her and for gifts for very specific folks.
  • Simple pearl jewelry
  • Pearl infused skin cream
  • New luggage to hold all the stuff her crazy husband bought
  • Butt pillows (I think they're called seat cushions, but butt pillows sounds better) for the flight home.
I think that's our swag inventory from the trip.  I'm sure I'll get corrected in the comments if I'm wrong.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Shopping in China - Part 7 - The Black Market

In the last post I described what it was like to go to Chinatown in Shanghai.  I really enjoyed it.  But there was a dark side to it, too.  And that's what I'm here to tell you about.

Brian kind of touched on it while we were in the bus in Beijing.

I've talked about the mosquitoes before, and why dealing with them was a bad idea.  It's more than because the currency might be fake, but also because they deal in counterfeit merch.

Counterfeit merch in China is so commonplace that people around the world know about it.  It's a running gag for everyone.  It was in fact, so commonplace that Nicole's dad actually asked her to bring him back a counterfeit. Counterfeits are bona-fide Chinese souvenirs, in some kinda weird way.

Brian did let us know that counterfeit merchandise was illegal.  The mosquitoes sell fakes, but they are also beggars and people know to stay away from them.  The Rolex store in the Wangfujing marketplace, however, sells real Rolex watches, and they would be punished heavily if they were caught selling counterfeits.

Even if the real thing is made in China, then, that real thing is exported and branded in the country. Imported goods from businesses of other countries are taxed heavily, so all genuine items from outside of China are more expensive than they would be in their country of domicile.

The point is, you don't go to China to buy a Rolex.  No one does.  You go to China primarily to by fakes.

There's a weird thing here that Brian and Celery both explained to us.  The Chinese people love our brands, so many of them that can afford it make periodic shopping pilgrimages to the United States to buy all kinds of things.  The Nautica fleece Brian was wearing one day?  Purchased on a shopping holiday to the U.S. Celery told stories of coming to California to shop at outlet malls.

But the illegality of selling fakes doesn't mean it's not done.  Somewhere between the mosquitoes and Wangfujing, there's a seedy underbelly, a black market, and it manifested in a way that surprised me.

Last post was about Chinatown in Shanghai.  It was a real treat for legit shopping, but they have their back-alley shenanigans, too.

Scattered all over the streets of Chinatown were dozens of hawkers that held in their hands a laminated, foldable card that showed everything from Rolex watches to Samsonite luggage to Coach purses.  They were laid out almost like little JCPenney brochures in that you could see pictures of the different items and you could kinda catalog-shop.

Like everyone else in China, these folks were out for the hard sell.

We had already purchased way too much to bring home in the luggage we brought, and we were scouting for luggage in the various shop stalls, but one of these hawkers came up to us and I actually bit.  I pointed at luggage and made it known that I was looking for a big suitcase.

The hawker indicated that we should follow her to her shop.  Which she was standing nowhere near.  You see, she was the bait, and the shop was fishing for customers.  The hawkers would walk around the entire marketplace looking for someone to bring back to the shop.

Ok fine, we figured, we just have to follow her over to her stall and we'll see what she has.  The hawker took off like a shot.  Not everyone walks so fast in China, but she was trucking, and with so much to carry already, we struggled to keep up.  But she kept checking behind her to make sure her fish were still on the line.

She darted down an alley, and we paused.  She was indicating that we were to join her up a dark staircase on a higher floor of a completely unmarked building.  So that didn't give us a great feeling.  I was ready to go in, but Nicole is smarter than I am and staunchly refused.  We indicated to her that we were not going there. I don't remember exactly what was said, but the hawker changed direction and took us around the corner and down a shallow alleyway.  At the end of this little alleyway was a door.

She gave a distinct knock.  Not the "shave and a haircut" knock, but one I believe was to be taken as a signal. Like being in a 1950's spy movie.  The door was opened from the other side.

The door opened into kind of a courtyard/alleyway.  Open to the air, and it was like a little street between buildings.  Seemed weird for there to be a door at the end of an alley that opened into another alley.

We walked a little ways on this internal alley and knocked at another door.  This one opened up and we stepped inside.  I was shocked by what I saw.

The room was about the size of a small strip mall store.  Lined around the outside walls were purses, bags, other artifacts.  There was a glass case full of watches.  There was a selection of suitcases.

I can't stress enough how much the inside of what looked from the outside to be a makeshift Chinese backstreet hovel looked like a western department store.  The transition was so jarring that I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Yet at that moment, I knew it for exactly what it was: a black market department store.

Well, we looked at the merchandise.  We were there, so why not?  It wasn't clear whether this was illegal counterfeit merch, or whether it was illegal genuine merch being sold in China without paying taxes or worse, stolen.

Sadly, they didn't have what we wanted.  We had to argue that while we would absolutely love to buy something from them, they were not selling what we wanted, but that we were still willing to deal.  The hawker escorted us from the premises and back into the streets of Chinatown where she escorted us to a more legitimate looking streetside shop where, unbeknownst to the hawker, Nicole had tried to find a suitcase earlier in the day.

Funny thing is, we ended up buying a suitcase from that store.  We found one that met the size and wheel needs.  It wasn't a Samsonite.  It wasn't even an imitation Samsonite, but it was a luggage, and that was that.

But we recounted this later to the tour group when we met up, and they had a similar experience.  Except Celery took them to a back-alley business that she knew to be safe (who knows?  It could have been the same one).

The story they got from her is that these things are all over Chinatown, and that what can happen is that the tourist goes to one of these, and when they get there, the proprietors lock the door until the tourists buy something.  That is, you're imprisoned until you pay to get out.  We are lucky in that it didn't happen to us, I suppose, but it was an interesting possibility.

So that's the black market.  That's pretty much everything I have to say about shopping in China.  When touristing to any new destination, shopping for unique and fun things is always a treat for me, and next post, I'll list out the things we bought while we were there.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Shopping in China - Part 6 - Chinatown in China

The last day of our China trip was in Shanghai.  Many of us were exhausted with the cultural attractions, and we just wanted to do some shopping.  I think that the two things we skipped out on that day were the bullet train, which reaches speeds around 220 mph, and the rug factory.  Not wanting rugs nor being that enchanted with a long wait and another fee to ride a train, we opted to have an easy morning.

We had Celery write down on a piece of paper where we were going, and we got in a cab to go down to a popular shopping area that they call Chinatown.  That being where our dinner arrangements were for that evening, all we had to do was lounge around there all day, collecting souvenirs, of course, and wait for the rest of the group to wait up for us.

We slept in and had a late brunch, followed by a trip to Starbucks, where we ran into someone with a sweet hat that I had to have a picture of.  Here's Kevin, modeling that hat:
Kevin models the sweet "Comme des Fuckdown" hat.  He also seems to be modeling HTML gang signs, too (angle brackets "< >")
So we had the hotel hail us a cab.  The cab driver didn't speak a lick of English, so it was good that Celery had written down our destination.  The cab ride was something else.  In a future post, I'll detail the "white knuckle rides of death" that every commute in major Chinese cities seem to be.  I'd rather be a pedestrian in Boston.

Anyhow, we pull up to Chinese Chinatown.  The place is a massive outdoor market the likes of which we hadn't seen yet.  Street after street of little shops.  These weren't the little food shops in the Suzhou market, nore were they the American style department stores of the Wangfujing Marketplace.  The best equivalent we'd seen thus far was the back alleyways of Wangfujing.  Each little store was clean and full of its own set of Chinese souvenirs.

Here's a little video clip to give you an idea of what it looked like:

video

There were stores that specialized in silk scarves.  There were stores that specialized in luggage.  There were stores that had electronics, and jade figures, and pillows, and toys.  The closest equivalent to these shops I'd ever seen would be either in a Mexican border town or a place like the port cities you visit on a cruise.

And everything was negotiable.

Before we left for China, we were warned to negotiate for absolutely everything.  The mosquitoes afforded the most obvious opportunities to negotiate, where you really didn't care whether (and often hoped) they walked away. But we were warned to negotiate with everyone for everything.

The rate of negotiation was variable by city, however, according to a guidebook friends in our group had.  In Beijing, we were warned to start at about half the offered price.  In Shanghai, however, it suggested we start at 10% of the offered price.

That's right; we were advised to start by asking for a 90% discount.

Now, "ask" is a bit of a misnomer.  Because they didn't speak much English, the proprietors of the stores often would tap out a price on a calculator in RMB, meaning you had to do a quick mental calculation to get to USD.  Then they'd almost shove the calculator into your hand, a gesture we understood as "you don't like that price?  Name your price."  And we'd tap out the same number they had typed, less a zero.

And oh, the uproar!  The feigned offended reaction to our horrendous effrontery!  They would shake their heads and wave their hands and often would just wave us off, as if to say, "You're not worth dickering with.  Too low."  But most often, they knew you wanted the item and that it was now down to price.  They'd punch a counter offer into the calculator, and eventually you'd either come to a number or you wouldn't, but you could always walk two stalls down and try again with the next vendor that had similar items.

It really did become kind of a game.  I had things I knew I wanted to get.  Lasers for the nephews, for example.  A loudspeaker to wear around your neck (the tour guides all used them, and I'd never seen such a a thing, so I of course had to look for one).  Beats audio headphones.  Silk scarves.

And they were all to be had in Chinatown.

We walked around all day, picking up new toys as we went.  Here's a couple things we didn't buy:

A cat-based thermos for kids.  You know, for "happy drink time"!
You'd think I would have heard of these before, but yes, that's anime girl mouse pads with interesting wrist rests.  Of course, you can get these at alibaba.
The second picture here was taken at a toy store where they had for sale an entire wall of Monchichi.  That's right!  Oh so soft and cuddly!  Those Monchichi!

One of my favorite shopping episodes happened about midway through the day.  Nicole was in shopping for scarves in a more upscale shop.  I was feeling silly, so she would ask me how I liked the scarf she had on, and I would look at her and say "Ooooh!" and then I'd look at the say "One dolla, one dolla!"  The sales lady took me as joking and laughed and patted my chest and said, "One dolla?  For you FREE!" grinning so wide.  The whole experience was just awesome.

At one point, I was left alone with a camera in an open square.  I decided to give you a 360 degree view, but you know me.  Sometimes I get out of hand:

video

So that was Shanghai.  I really enjoyed shopping there.  But there is one tale left to tell of Shanghai.  And it is a tale of the seedy side of Shanghai shopping.  The underworld.  Come back for Part 7 of Shopping in China - The Black Market.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shopping in China - Part 5 - The Suzhou Market

In Suzhou, we took a canal cruise.  There are canals all over the place, and you can get in a little boat with an outdoor deck and cruise down the river.  We had a good time on the ride looking at the houses along the river, and we even saw a few weddings.  I believe we ended up being in as many pictures as we took.

Celery told us that the dialect in Suzhou had similar words for beautiful and ugly, and that it was poor form to get them mixed up. "Ah yu yu" means lovely, and "Ah ya ya" means unattractive.  Because it's so easy to associate with "Aye yi yi", it's easy to remember the difference.

So when we saw all the brides along the river, a few of us catcalled from the boat, "Ah yu yu!"  Luckily we didn't get it wrong.

To give you an idea of the size of the boat was vs the canals, have a look:
The boat barely fit down some of the narrow "canal"-leyways.
Also, along the canals were the back of peoples' residences.  Stone steps often led right down to the water. We saw one lady washing her produce in the canal.  The same canal into which we were leaking oil and gas out of our boat engine.  You'd usually see some plants that they were growing, and some laundry hanging nearby.  This is a good example:

So what does this have to do with shopping?  Well, this little riverboat tour was what we took to get to the marketplace.

This market was not for tourists.  This market was for locals.  This was the real Chinese market.  We were warned not to take pictures of individual people, as they are proud, but poor.  They don't like their photos taken if it's because they look poor.  This was the food that the locals lived on.  This was where they walked or used a motor scooter to get to for family supplies, maybe daily.

It was a narrow open-air market. The stalls generally consisted of a tabletop with some bowls or pans of either raw meat, vegetables or fruit, or even pans of cooked food.  We'd been warned sternly not to eat this stuff or I would have tried something.

So I can't remember what was in the bowls, but I think that the front left is chicken heads, the front right is whole baby birds of some kind, and midleft is chicken legs/feet.

Who knows what these are? Hit me in the comments to tell me!  Note that we're all taking pictures of this stuff, and that many of us have beer. 
I believe that these are congealed blood cakes in a big bowl of water. 
There was a very large stall that sold a lot of live animals.  They had cages of rabbits, chickens, other birds.   
You have to keep the veggies in cages or they run away.  China is a weird place...
Ok, so I don't know what these all are.  I assert that it's probably organ meat.  Literally, I think that one on the front left is some kind of animal penis.
A selfie back along the market where it was covered.  Photobombed by Kristin.
A giant bowl of live toads or frogs. 
And you can see below some of the food that was waiting to be purchased, killed, cut up, and cooked:
video

The Suzhou marketplace was so very different from the other marketplaces we'd been to, but it was enough to convince me that this was an authentic market.

Next up, Part 6 - Chinatown in China!