Saturday, December 28, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 4 - The Wangfujing Marketplace

We really saw three big markets for shopping that I can describe: the Wangfujing market in Beijing, the rural food market of Suzhou, off the river tour, and Shanghai's Chinatown.  I'll tackle each one in a separate post starting with:


The Wangfujing market was a delightful mix of odd places.  It combined elements of street markets and department store shopping.  The main thoroughfare was like a large outdoor mall, not far off what you'd find in America.  They had a McDonalds, a Gucci store, and other name International brand stores that if I could remember, you would recognize.  To the left of the Dongan Dept. Store in the pic below, you can see the rightmost 1/3 of the Rolex logo.  These Rolexes?  Not fake.  And not cheap.

Yep, that's the Dongan department store.  "Like, that place is totally dongin', dude!"
When we first got off the bus there, we stopped at an apothecary.  This was a very interesting introduction to Chinese medicine.  Most of what you could find here was roots and herbs.  The idea was that for whatever ails you, simply take home this root or that herb and make a tea out of it, and all will be well.  Sounded a bit crazy and homeopathic to me.  Yes, this is where you get Medicinal Slices:

Yes, I'd like a slice of medicine, please.
That's kind of funny about China, too.  At some point, someone in our party (let's pretend it was Nicole, but I can't remember now) wanted Tylenol.  I looked high and low for something other than an herbal remedy in every little shop we stopped in, but we never found anything like it.  Seriously, that whole country is just crying out for a Walgreens!

The first pharmacy we stopped in was all roots and stems and leaves.  There did appear to be a more westernized pharmacy, right on the main street of the mall, so we tried there.  They had medicines for more dire afflictions.  When we walked in, they showed us a little laminated card that listed things like diabetes, gout, and other diseases you manage, not cure.  I actually asked them about one or two of the medications, but what they offered was something like a two month supply of something or other, and it was not cheap, so we passed.

The part I liked best about the Wangfujing market was the side streets.  I think that was true in most of China, and most of life, in fact.  I like the side trips, the dark alleyways, the unexplored corners.  Taking a narrow path off the main Wangfujing drag, you enter what really seemed like the market to me.  Dozens of open air booths, mashed in side-by-side, crammed with trinkets and trash, all waiting to be bartered for.

There were little black plates, little red books, little red lucky tassels on hooks!

Oh crap, I went Seuss there for a minute.... sorry about that.  The point is that there are endless little oddities in these booths.  Little bits of artwork, kids toys, electronics, t-shirts.  The variety was dizzying.  I don't recall buying anything at this market, but we did a lot of browsing.

Best shirt I saw there.  I love Beijing, too!  But where would you wear it?  To the kids' school?  
We actually went through a little store behind this twisty maze of street vendors that had leather coats.  I have always kinda wanted one, so we shopped there.  Of course, I tried on an XL first.  I'm a big guy, so an XL is a natural first try.

And in doing so, I got to relive Chris Farley's "fat guy in a little coat" routine from Tommy Boy (minus the rippage).  So, the sizes run a little smaller there, then?  Ok, fair warning.  But c'mon!  I tried on the 3XL coat and it was tight too!  As that was the largest size they had, I didn't have to argue much that I didn't want to buy anything.

Ultimately, I ended up at that Dongin' department store shown above.  Their ground floor was a cool toy store with some really neat toys in it.  Robots, artwork (and crap, too), but as we went up the escalator, we found more clothes for men and women.  We had to hit the restroom, and on the way out of this restroom on something like the 5th floor, we were accosted.

Not by mosquitoes, so much as just really aggressive sales women.  And they wanted me to buy shirts.  Oh, boy did they.  But I didn't want a shirt.  Not there.  Not then.  But I had been looking at leather coats about an hour earlier.  And they had leather coats.

This particular saleslady was relentless, and we started haggling on price.  I didn't want to pay what they were asking, and she didn't speak much English.  But she barked at me what she knew.  These words came out abruptly, in almost a shout.  Imagine a little Chinese saleswoman yelling at me "Finish!" (meaning, "this is my final price") and "Bigger!" (meaning, "you need to come up in price") and somewhat less understandably "Flanders!" (meaning, ... err... I had no idea what she meant).

Eventually we settled on $30 for a very nice faux leather jacket.  Size?  XXXXL, the biggest they had.  Yep, I'm nearly too fat for China.  I'm a big guy, but I'm not enormous.  Some people I can only imagine are turned away at the door.

I've already mentioned what it was like to see the open air food markets in Beijing, so I won't recount that here, but I can say we ended our day at a nice little pub place in the middle of the Wangfujing mall area quaffing beer, where earlier, we'd watched the Gucci store guys play a game of "pick the booger and try to wipe it on your friend." People watching is even more entertaining when you have no idea what they're saying and they're being childish.  We were hoping maybe they'd play the "cup a fart and waft it" game, too, but they didn't.

Up next, the Suzhou market.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 3 - The Mosquitos

One of the first things that the tour guides told us about shopping in China was to beware of the mosquitoes.

And they're not talking about the blood-sucking kind.  At least the insect kind.

No, this term mosquito very aptly describes a class of merchant - a peddler, maybe - very common in touristy areas of China.  They wait for you to depart tourist attractions and areas and then swarm onto you like mosquitoes smelling fresh blood.  And in some places, like exiting at the north end of the Forbidden City in Beijing, they were so dense it felt like crawling up out of a grave to fresh air just to be free of them.  In that case, it seemed like half a city block of densely packed mosquitoes all pawing and fawning and showing and for a claustrophobe like me, it was a gauntlet of “hell no.”

Our first real experience with mosquitoes came after the very first factory place we went, the Pearl factory.  Nicole and I weren’t the last ones out, but by the time we came out, we were greeted by members of our bus looking into little suitcases that the mosquitoes had brought by.  The first one I saw had a case full of watches.  Mostly Rolex.  All fake.

What caught my attention was that not all fakes were created equal.  There was quite a bit of negotiation over a particular Faux-lex that had a sweep hand.  These mosquitoes would ask $30 and negotiate down to almost nothing for watches with discrete second hand movements, but offer them $20 for these and they acted indignant.

With that encounter, I learned to be very careful about what was what.

But you can’t swat at these mosquitoes.  No, these are people, and even if they are not behaving decently, turns out you can’t hit them.  Our “swatter” was the Chinese phrase “bu yao” (pronounced “boo yow”, meaning “no want”).  We started off by saying it pleasantly enough, except they persisted and persisted.

Until our tour guide informed us that you can’t be giggling or smiling when you say it.  Of course, because it sounds like “booyah”, I had trouble saying it with a straight face.  After that advice I could be found walking through the mosquitoes angrily muttering bu yao, bu yao, and suppressing my giggles.

But that didn't always work.  The slightest interest, and that means that these mosquitoes will bite until they draw blood.  On the third day, we were going into the Hutong to have lunch with a local family.  This was certainly one of the coolest parts of the trip.  The Hutong was a style of neighborhood that's been almost wiped out.  It is characterized by narrow alleyways, and houses with little courtyards.

Also, poverty.

The Hutong district in Beijing has been preserved and allowed to stay as an example of the old style of living, but the people who populate the neighborhood seem to be relatively poor.  Our tour gave us the opportunity to ride into the Hutong on a bicycle rickshaw and have a local lunch cooked by a husband and wife team in their own home.

We departed the bus at the entrance to the Hutong and were swarmed by the mosquitoes as usual.  There was a woman selling silk bags and little purses that Nicole liked, and so she bought a bunch of them.  Nicole, looking for a fake watch for her dad, expressed interest in one gentleman's wares.

She wanted the nice sweep hand watch, and was willing to part with a twenty for it, but he was not having it. Yet he still wanted to make a sale, and started offering combinations of the other watches in the case for lower and lower prices.  He latched onto her and would not let go.  He knew she had money from her previous purchase and no amount of bu yao would get him to leave us alone.

But we figured that we'd soon be on a rickshaw and riding into the Hutong, and therefore we'd be away from these mosquitoes, especially this one.  We figured wrong.

We boarded our rickshaw, and our rickshaw operator started pedaling down a narrow alleyway.  A block away from where we started, we relaxed into our seat, grateful to be away from the mosquitoes.

All of a sudden, someone talking to us from the left.  "Two for twenty!"

The guy was on a bicycle, and he'd caught up to our rickshaw!  He was still trying to make the sale!  He had latched on to us suckers, and was sticking his proverbial proboscis into our ankles.

And as our driver angled around corners, hurried down narrow alleyways, and dodged oncoming bicyclists and mopeds, our mosquito held on.  Then he did something crazy.

He threw his case with all his watches into Nicole's lap!  And all of a sudden, she was shopping in her lap! And negotiating out the window of a moving rickshaw!  In the craziness, I can't really remember how everything went down, but I think ultimately she grabbed three of the watches, stuffed a $20 bill in the case, and tossed the case back at the mosquito.

He had his sale, and she had a few watches.  And we were able to have a very nice lunch in the Hutong with a family that kept wicked big and colorful crickets in little cages hanging on the wall that they occasionally took out to the cricket fights (no kidding).

After lunch, we came back out into a swarm of some of the same mosquitoes that had chased us into the Hutong.  As we were preparing to leave, one of the mosquitoes we recognized grabbed up a bike with a kiddie seat on it.  In getting on the bike, she seemed to break the child seat.

And on top of it, we don't think the bike was hers.  We think she was "borrowing" it so she could make the sale!

And she rode us down, again with a harrowing Indiana Jones-style chase through the narrow streets of the Hutong.  Nicole was yelling at her "No, No!"  But the woman persisted until our rickshaw driver turned to her and shouted "NO!"  He was our hero of the minute, and we couldn't stop laughing.

We were warned as sternly against buying from the mosquitoes as not to eat street food.  We figured it was to ensure that our sales went to our tour guides or people that gave them kickbacks, but they did offer some good reasons not to purchase from them.  The best reason they offered was that we have no idea what counterfeit Chinese money looks like, and that these people are quite likely to take large Chinese bills that tourists give them and return the change as counterfeit and pocketing the difference.

That didn't really stop us from buying the occasional thing from them, though.  Never had any real problems with it.

Next up, Markets!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Shopping in China – Part 2 – Tour Guide Shopping

I guess I've said a few things about our tour guides, but maybe not introduced them properly.  For each four-day leg of the journey (we spent the first four days in Beijing, then took a flight to Shanghai and bussed around there for four days), we had a different tour guide. 

In Beijing, our tour guide's "English name" was Brian.  He said that was a reference to Bryan Adams, because "everything he do, he do it for us."  He was a very engaging and entertaining speaker who generally got things started out in a fun direction every morning, taught us how to say a few things in Chinese, answered questions throughout the day, and helped us navigate and negotiate deals in the various marketplaces.

In Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, our tour guide was a woman.  She went by the "English name" Celery, so chosen by her friends because she really loved celery when she was younger.  She was from Hangzhao, a fact that she told us with almost every breath.  I can't tell you how difficult it was to call someone a name that is an english word that isn't generally used as a name.  And this is from a man whose children are named Gamble and Random.  Go fig.

These tour guides were our lifeline.  They were our protectors.  They got our hotel rooms for us ahead of time so that we didn't have to wait to check in.  They kept our passports for us.  They knew where we needed to be and mostly kept us to a strict schedule.  We would have quite literally been lost without them, so we had to put our trust in them.  And they worked very hard for us.

I know I wrote that there were a lot of art and product-specific shops that we went to, and that we think the tour guides got a little taste of the action for inspiring us to buy the goods at those specific places, but there were other ways that the tour guides were compensated.  Each day, Brian or Celery would explain that there was something they could get for us - something that represented China, or a service they could set up for us.

Custom Suit

It's pretty common that you hear of someone that travels to China and has a suit custom made for them while they are there.  It's amazing to think of an entire suit being made within a few days.  On the bus on our first day in Beijing, Brian offered to schedule a tailor to come to our hotel room and take my measurements.  I jumped at the chance. and scheduled a tailor to come measure me on that first night.

They brought material swatches for the suit itself, and I picked out a narrow pinstripe pattern in black.  They showed me some shirt material, and I selected a lightly textured white fabric.  It was a very quick measuring process, maybe 15 minutes in the whole transaction, but I knew that I'd have the best fitting suit I'd ever worn.  The next night they delivered it and I tried it on. Now I just need that magic occasion to wear it!

In-Room Massage

That first day, Brian also offered to have masseuses sent up to the room to give us 90 minute foot and body massages, so we scheduled those, too.  $30 apiece, so Nicole and I both scheduled them.  We were not disappointed when two Chinese women came to our room and gave us our rubdowns.  We were still jet-lagged, so I'm sure I fell asleep during the backrub portion, but I distinctly remember the second part.

After rubbing down our bodies, the two women disappeared into the bathroom and had us sit up at the edge of the bed.  They brought out what looked to be a Wal-Mart bag full of diarrhea.  Ok, so it was just dark brown liquid, and there may have been some leaves in it, but it was completely sketchy.  We were instructed to put our feet in the liquid.  Then they tied the bags off and let our feet soak.

So in other words, they made feet soup.

They followed that up with a wonderful footrub that even my ticklish feet withstood just fine.


On the bus, Brian told us of the ability to obtain jade animals in the shapes of the Chinese zodiac with stamps on the bottom that had the Chinese version of a name.  I jumped at the chance to have one made for Gamble and Random.  We ordered them on day 2, I think, and they arrived on day 3.  The little kits came with an inked wax glob to ink the stamp, and a cute little jade figurine with a stamp on the end.  Gamble's was a sheep, and Random's was a pig.

Oh, and just so you know, while Nicole's a dragon (Chinese royalty), I'm a rat.  I'm sure you always expected as much.

Unexpected little gifts

Brian gave us a couple unexpected little gifts.  He gave every one of us a map of Beijing and the surrounding area, which the map-inclined among our tour took great delight in visibly exploring, trying to figure out where in the Fuxing Hek we were.  He also gave us a pack of little Chinese bookmarks.  I think they were very small and easy to lose, though, since I don't remember seeing them after the unpacking.

Souvenir photos/books

Another thing we did as a group is take a couple group pictures.  One was in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, and the other was in a Garden in Suzhou.  These pictures were then printed and offered in a souvenir book of the area.  We picked up the one in Beijing but not the one from Suzhou.


Brian seemed to sell us a lot of very Chinese artifacts, but Celery was from a different part of China. Shanghai is more Western, more hip.  She offered us the ability to order Beats by Dre headphones, power brick chargers, and those sorts of things.

I picked up a little brick charger to charge my phone when my battery is low.  It's already come in handy a couple times!

So that's what the on-bus shopping offered us.  Next up, I'll tell you all about the mosquitoes.  Oh, the mosquitoes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 1 - Bus Shop

I started writing this rather long series of posts over Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, figuring it was a great weekend to reflect on the shopping scene in China.  Thing is, the whole experience is so interesting to me that I’m going to break it down into a few different chapters.  First up, I’m going to talk about shopping from the perspective of the bus.

A lot of the shopping that we did was really based around the bus.  Pretty much each morning our tour guides would tell us of something that we could get on the bus from them, and take orders, or tell us about something we could do in our rooms later for a fee.  If not that or we were going on the bus to go to one of the various factories

People ask us how the trip could have been so cheap for what we got.  Ultimately, it’s because the whole trip is like a time share deal.  They bring you over on tours of product-specific facilities, and you listen to presentations on the different types of classic art and products that China is known for.  You don’t have to buy, of course.  They don’t really pressure you.  But it is quite the education and sales pitch in each place, and you are a captive audience, so it’s easy to get excited about what you’re seeing.  The Chinese art can be really inspiring.  It was also said that these places were government-sanctioned and quality controlled, and that pieces would be the highest quality at these places.

At each place, you are handed a card.  Those cards identify which tour group/bus you are with.  We were not told explicitly, but we figured that they were used to kickback to the tour guides a part of the sale, giving the tour guide an incentive to sell us on the culture while on the bus.  Here are the places we went, and my opinion of each of them:

The Pearl Factory was the first factory we went to.  They sat us in a little room and explained to us that there are both freshwater and saltwater pearls.  They showed us that there are many different colors of natural pearls.  I knew that there were a couple different colors, but I was dazzled by the wide array of color choices.  They also suggested that the way to determine the difference between real pearls and fake pearls is to rub two together.  When rubbed, it should feel raspy.  And no matter the color of the pearls, the residue should be white.  We didn't spend big money here.  I think Nicole got Random some inexpensive jewelry and maybe a couple gifts and a pair of earrings for herself.


By the second day, I was thinking that it would be cool to get a jade dragon sculpture for my home office desk.  Something to inspire.  A thing of beauty, an artifact of power.  We got to visit the Jade Factory on the morning of the second day. 

They showed us a beautiful piece  Beautiful, the dragon thing with the man and the woman (look up the difference).  They are supposed to be bringers of luck.  They eat money, and they never poop, so they represent growing wealth and prosperity.  At prices starting at a few hundred dollars, I decided I wouldn't pick one up.

The second thing they showed us was the nested family ball:

The dragon and the phoenix represent the mother and the father and they are carved on the outermost ball.  The outermost sphere demonstrates that the parents protect the family.  Each nested concentric sphere is carved in place and represents a family member.  I really wanted to get one of these too, but the prices at the factory were similarly high.  I ended up getting a little one at a souvenir shop.  It wasn't the best jade, but it was a good reminder of family.

And we went and looked at even more beautiful statues.  There was a beautiful lithe dragon carved in light green jade that was perfect.  The sticker, however, kept me from even attempting a negotiation.  This particular item was priced at $2200.


After climbing the Great Wall, we went to the Cloisonne Factory.  If you've ever seen one of those beautiful Chinese vases with lots of detailed enamel, that's probably Cloisonne.  They had the craftsman making things in front of us.  I could never have guessed how it's made.

First, they take a copper pot and bang it into shape.  They fire and smooth and fire and smooth the copper.  Then they create the outline of the designs that will appear on the pot out of metal and attach that to the pot.  Each metal ridge stands about a quarter inch from the pot. 

So then it's kind of like a color by number.  Enamel is painted into each space between the metal wires until the layers come up flush with the pot.  The enamel colors end up so vibrant and beautiful.  We didn't return with any examples of this work, but it is very pretty.

Silk Embroidery

We went to a place where they made embroidered silk wall hangings.  They dye the silk strands vibrant colors and then stitch them onto fabric one fine thread at a time, resulting in some incredibly detailed and vibrant portraits. 

The true master works of this type have one image stitched on one side of the wall hanging, and another totally different image stitched on the other, with no obvious threads or ends in sight.  These works of art were far, far too expensive for our blood, however, so we didn't pick anything up.

Other silk products

And the Silk Factory, we got to see how they take the silkworm cocoon and unwind it to get the thread.  They held one end and in their other hand they unwound the cocoon, while I took the center point of the thread across the room about 30 or 40 feet to demonstrate its strength.  As the one holding the thread, I was amazed by how strong a single strand of silk is.

Then they demonstrated how they take those threads and make sheets out of them, and how they then stretch those sheets one over the other to make comforters.  Many folks in our group were able to stretch out these layers and feel how strong the material was. 

At the Silk Factory, we had the option of buying comforters, sheets, and pillows, along with scarves, dresses, and all kinds of silkwear.  The pillows we bought have a pouch filled with "silk soil" sewed up into one side.  Silk soil isn't soil.  It's what comes out of the backsides of silkworms.  It's supposed to have medicinal properties.  Of all the purchases we made, this is the only one where I now think "What was I thinking?"  Then again, I bought silkworm poop, and that's amusing enough.

Tea Plantation

I really enjoyed the Dragon Well tea plantation in Hangzhou, where you can buy authentic Longjing tea (literally “dragon well”).  As you drive into the hills on the other side of the West Lake in Hangzhou, you start to see stepped crops growing on the hills, and you know those are the tea plants.  We got to take a tour of the plantation; they showed us how they dry the leaves.

The Dragon Well tea that we were served is supposed to be the best, and the tea they were selling us was the so-called "Empress" tea, meaning that these leaves were picked at the time of the year reserved for tea for royalty.  The tea leaves are more tender or something.

They sat us in a little room and taught us a little about tea.  They explained that there are three types of tea: green, oolong, and black.  Green tea is not at all fermented, whereas oolong is partially fermented, and black tea is fermented. 

They showed us how to pour the proper cup of tea.  Tea leaves steeped in a pot of freshly boiled water, then pouring the tea in a once, twice, thrice motion (for luck?).  They said that the tea leaves can be used many times.  The first cup is for aroma, the second has the best flavor, and after the fifth time, the leaves should be relieved of duty.

I bought quite a lot of this tea.  I really liked it while I was drinking it there, and as opposed to the poopoo pillows, I consider it among my best purchases.  I have a cup that my lovely bought me in Shanghai that has a bottom with a wire filter for steeping loose-leaf tea. I drink those five cups of tea every day.

Up next, Bus Shopping Part 2!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Annual Review Thoughts

Oh, it’s that time of year again: the time to spend thousands of hours and millions of company dollars pretending to fairly and impartially rate and rank our peers.

Oops, did I just say that out loud? 

I did. I’ve said it before and I will say it again:  I think the annual review cycle is an outdated, unfair, and demotivating waste of time.  It satisfies an organizational need to put on paper that some process, however worthless, is being followed. It’s a matter of doing something by the letter of the law, not the spirit.

Nor am I alone in this assessment.  Aubrey Daniels, in her book, “Oops! 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money” talks about the annual review cycle as one of the biggest wastes of time and money in an enterprise.  Here’s what I have always claimed:

Reviews are often a way to back-justify a popularity contest

Confirmation Bias is crazy evident in this.  I need to give an employee an average review.  Can I think of a few times they came up short or screwed up or maybe just didn’t step up to handle a dropped ball?  Sure.  I need to give an employee a stellar review to justify a promotion or a raise for some non-merit-related reason, so can I find some examples?  No problem!

Annual is not often enough to be relevant feedback

For those of you who are parents, and responsible for the social and intellectual development of your children, imagine if you gave feedback to your kids once a year (well, that’s kinda what Christmas is, and may provide about the same behavioral modification impact).  You wouldn’t do that.  You know that feedback long after an action is useless either as a punishment or a reinforcement.  So why do so many people wait to do it until they’re forced? 

Many folks who went to college/university took some kind of intro psychology class.  In terms of behavior modification, the ultimate point of doing some kind of review process, positive feedback needs to immediately follow the desired behavior to effectively encourage change. 

Good managers knows that they’re always trying to best motivate their employees, maximize productivity, and leverage skill sets.  Why would you have them wait a year to give official feedback?  If they’re not giving lots of great, positive, frequent feedback, then maybe they shouldn’t be managing people at all.

Forced curves are demotivating

You hire the best, why would you tell all employees that they’re the best you could find and then tell 90% of them they’re average?  Because you can only give one person in the department an “Exceeds Expectations” instead of the dreaded “Meets Expectations".  Chester has been here eight years and needs to make senior developer or he’s leaving with all our legacy knowledge.  Guess everyone else is getting a “Meets”.

You’re not graded against your goals

There’s a whole aspect of the annual review that doesn’t really mean much: it’s that setting of goals and then evaluating your performance.  Except in sales departments and similar organization, the work is often not sufficiently metrics-driven to give anything more than a subjective nod to meeting of goals.  The goals may not be concrete enough, or they may not actually be related to the day to day work and are therefore stretch goals.  The idea that goals can get adjusted mid year to reflect actual work done as job changes is a symptom that the feedback cycle is too long.

So that’s the dark side of reviews as I see them, but what would we do to replace them?

What can we do instead of annual reviews?

Do nothing

If reviews are so costly, a good alternative would be doing nothing at all.  First do no harm, is a great motto.  Address the roots of the problems you face.  Annual reviews are often a symptom, not the disease itself, and they are the cure for nothing material.

More informal feedback

There’s this weird vibe at the office where we can’t tell each other what a great job we’re doing, or what a cruddy decision something was.  Maybe that’s because if you give someone positive feedback all year, they’ll be upset if you give them a Meets rating at the end of the year.  Or maybe egos for 30-40 year-old office workers are more frail than that of your average tween.  Start by praising your coworkers and people you supervise.  Get used to giving honest face-to-face feedback about problems and screw-ups.  It’s tough and uncomfortable to change, but it would make the office a better place.

More frequent feedback

More frequent feedback would be helpful.  Annual reviews suffer that downside of not being timely and therefore useless.  Give feedback early and often.  If you’re a manager, find a way to give feedback with every interaction.  Yes, every interaction.  And keep feedback focused on improvement, not criticism.  Focus on what was done right.  Most people get defensive when criticized, because they already know what they did wrong.  Criticism amplifies that conscience effect and kills morale.  Positive feedback is almost always unexpected (partially due to imposter syndrome), and works to reinforce more of whatever you said you liked.

Quarterly bonuses and raises

I once worked for a company that gave its employees quarterly bonuses.  It was the greatest thing ever for motivation.  If you had a great quarter, it was awesome.  If you had a bad quarter, and your bonus kinda sucked, you could turn it around in a quarter. With an annual review, if you have a bad Q4, and the political whimsy is not on your side, your entire annual bonus/raise could be jeopardized.  Quarterly bonuses also keep an employee engaged and motivated to self-reflect. 

Lighten up on the tooling

The tooling and formality around annual feedback is stifling.  First, put in your goals for next year.  Have a meeting to review the written goals.  Sign off on the goals.  At the midyear review, tweak the goals because practically, you should never have set those goals in the first place, or maybe your role has changed, or maybe your manager has.  Then do five to ten 360 degree reviews.  Then write up your own self assessment.  Then meet formally with a manager and document that.  Then approve the final copy, regardless of whether you agree with it.  It all smacks of busy work, and I don’t know that anyone finds any value or pleasure in doing it.  Do whatever it takes to take the time-wasting tooling out of the equation.


It’s time to do away with this ugly tradition and replace it with more rewarding behaviors in the organization.  At worst, you’re taking away an expensive (both in time, goodwill, and motivation) waste of time, and at best you’ll be improving your culture, focusing on productivity, and raising the spirits of your most important resource, your knowledgeable internal associates.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Write

I seem to have been writing a lot lately.  Just the other day, I put out about an 1800 word essay on my blog. I did this because it’s something I've been thinking about, and I follow Scott Hanselman's philosophy on multiplying your effectiveness (it's a 40 minute presentation, but it really is worth your time, no matter what your field).  One of the tips boils down to this: if you have an opinion to articulate, and you’ll want to say it to many people, it’s worth it to spend a little time to polish your thoughts, write it down, and then you can send it to many people at once, and have it available to refer to.

I don’t know how many times I've posted the same points or ideas to Facebook, talking to different friends. The barrier to entry is so darn low to hosting your ideas permanently online that there’s absolutely no reason not to publish your thoughts.  Blogger?  Free.  Tumblr?  Free.

And I've been doing that a lot more.  It occurred to me that I should be encouraging more people do the same, but then I figure they will want to know, “How do you write?  I have thoughts, too, but how do I actually get them on (electronic) paper, organize them, and make them sound good?”

Here’s my secret: I don’t.  Well, not really.

My recipe for writing is as follows:
  • Have some thinks
  • Write them down somewhere online (as I mentioned, there are free platforms out there)
  • Edit (this step is entirely optional)
So let’s break it down:

Have Some Thinks
You'd think this was the hardest part.  I do.  I mean, I did.  Maybe you have this idea that you have to have an original thought, and it has to be a well thought out thesis, or that it has to be so well-researched that it has to be bulletproof.  Here's the real truth, however.

It's a blog post.  It doesn't have to be your Ph. D. defense.  It doesn't have to stand up against a tide of questions or a barrage of counterarguments.

Think about the last argument you had with a family member where you had a difference of opinion.  You probably went back and forth and the conversation diverted here or there into topics unrelated.  Think of a blog post as your opportunity to get your side of the conversation out without interruption.  So you can get your whole opinion out without being interrupted.  This is a great way to get your opinion out, get it off your chest, and maybe even continue a constructive conversation.

Write them down somewhere online

Ok, these steps are so easy I can give you a recipe:
  • Pick some blogging platform. I obviously use Blogger, but Tumblr, Wordpress, whatever.  Just pick a free one that lots of other people are using.  
  • Pick a sweet username or blog name.  This can be your name or your topic, something hipster, or something classical.  Anything that you feel represents you and what you're most likely to write about
  • Write a little test post.  My first post on my first blog (this is my third) was a trivial little nothing post that I can still see and occasionally look at as the genesis of ... wow, 10 years of writing.  Don’t share this test post with anyone.  Just know it’s there.  Let the fact that you've published your thought to the web sink in.
  • Next, start getting those ideas out.  Whenever you have something long form to say to someone, say, in an email, blog it instead and send them a link.  Put together a lot of drafts and have them ready to add to.  Whatever you need to do, get those ideas out of your head and onto the page.  Bullet points, fragments, whatever.
  • Flesh out a post.  Click publish.  Repeat.  It's not so hard.  Eventually, the problem will be that you have so much to say that you don't have time to say it.  Trust me.  It happened to me, too.
  • Publishing gives your thought a permalink, somewhere you can always refer someone to.  Another big benefit to doing this is that you can refer to your former thinks whenever you want without having to rewrite them.
Edit (optional)

If you want to, please feel free to edit your thoughts.  Take some time to proofread them, spell check them, check them for grammar.  Make sure you don't say "like" too many times, or whatever speech pattern you have that doesn't translate well to the written word.  But remember, editing is optional.  Here's why.

Ok, so you’re thinking your thoughts are all disjointed, and that they need editing.  Maybe that's true, but don't let that be the reason you don't publish them.  Perfect polished thoughts can be left to the philosophers and linguists who look to distill ideas into their perfect essences.  Your idea doesn't have to be perfect or bulletproof to have value.  Heck, you thought it, right?  It was good enough for that email conversation you were going to have.  Why not have that conversation with more people?

Afraid you might be wrong?  Well, maybe better to find out than to be wrong forever.  Worst thing that happens if you're wrong is that you learned something.  Worried people won't think you're a genius?  Here's a hint.  They already don't.  Don't worry.  You're not a genius.  But you are valuable, and your opinion matters.  You can have great thoughts even if they're not entirely fully formed.

So get your voice heard.  Speak up.  And then tell me, because I want to hear what you have to say.


You’re going to have opinions, so don’t be shy.  Share them.  Write them down.  Put them out there.  Share your knowledge and talent with the world.

Or at least with me.

Setting a Master Page for a Subsite in SharePoint 2013

Ok, so this may be super obvious to all you SharePointers out there, but it wasn't in any way obvious to me. This took me an afternoon to get all these pieces together, so I thought I would share.

I saw a dozen articles talking about how to get your subsites to inherit a custom master page from a site, but I couldn't find much that talked about setting a custom master page for a subsite that differs from the master page for the parent site.  And much of what I found didn't really help me, because SharePoint security hides a lot of the Site Settings from you if you're not a Site Collection admin, even if you have full control and design privileges.

Note: I am not a SharePoint expert; quite the opposite, I am a novice.  I may get a bunch of this wrong, so please feel free to leave comments and correct me.

Create your custom master page

For any of this to be relevant, you need to create a master page and get it into the master page library of the Site Collection.  To do this, I mapped a drive via Windows Explorer to the SharePoint master page library directory.  Once I had the drive mapped and opened in explorer, I took an existing master page and edited the corresponding .html file.  That link above is a pretty good source of info on how to do this.  As you save your .html file to that directory, SharePoint converts it over to a .master file.

One thing I didn't know about this mapped drive was that behind the scenes, because SharePoint is using WebDAV, it's keeping versions of the file as you save them, if the library is configured that way.  We'd been trying to figure out source control for SharePoint, and this provided us with the mechanism.

Publish your master page

For the custom master page to appear in the list of pages that we'll get to later, you need to publish it.  Go into the site collection Master Pages library, and find the file you just saved.  Once you do that, you can publish that file.  You are only able to publish the .html file, though.  Trying to push the new master file fails.

Set the master page

Go to the subsite for your new custom master page.  Go to the site settings and manage site features.  Now, you might be able to see the "Manage Site Features" link if you have full control and design privileges, but no, even those don't allow you to do the next step.  We had to give my account site collection administrator privs to activate Sharepoint Server Publishing.  Why do you have to do that?  Without that site feature activated, you can't see the link "Master Page" where you can change the master page for the subsite.

Go back to your site settings.  Under Look and Feel, now you can see "Master Page".  Click in there and set your master page to be your new custom master page (using the dropdown).

It's really that simple.  I found a number of places that said "just click Master Page", but couldn't find the link. That's how to do it!

Go forth and SharePoint!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Myth of the Transition Plan

When an employee leaves an organization, there is a weird period where the organization panics a bit. Maybe it was clear that the outgoing employee was awesome at creating things, but maybe a little weak about documenting them.  Or maybe the employee was a single point of failure on a couple different systems or components, or just legacy knowledge that will be orphaned or disappear on departure.  Could even be that the outgoing employee was the only trained backup for a couple people who have already left.

So what do the organization do?  It creates what's called a "transition plan."  This plan is supposed to reduce the outgoing employee to a set of disciplines that need to be transitioned to as many people as the responsibilities dictate.  What's the typical response to this? 

This transition is supposed to take place through a number of mechanisms: in person meetings, tutorials, documentation.  When an individual announces their departure, it's often kept quiet a couple days as possible negotiations, or risk mitigation, or simple grieving happens.  If the employee was kind enough to give two weeks, and the organization isn't one that kicks people out more quickly, there's usually a maximum of eight days to get a transition done.  As a result, a transition is often ill-planned, hastily thrown together, and often misses some key things that get forgotten in the rush.  

I've been thinking about this a lot lately.  In my time in my current employ, I've inherited a lot of legacy information, either suddenly from another outgoing peer, or by being the only one to dig through the detritus left behind when everyone who knew anything about the system was long gone and unavailable for question. In fact, I've dug through so much legacy code to discover crusty old systems that I adopted the "Software Archaeologist" moniker.  Note, I find the digging through code fun, but can be construed as a symptom of poor knowledge transition and organizational knowledge retention.

Why Transitions Are Rather Pointless

Transitions are lossy.  When a few people get into a room to do a transitional walkthrough, say of some code, what people don't realize is that there's not much hope of retention of the entirety of the information. The presenter boils everything down to only what's absolutely critical, and then the audience takes away only a fraction of that.  Spaced repetition would help this somewhat, but this information will likely be broadcast at most once.

The outgoing employee has no motivation to excel.  Sure, people are going to be professional, and no one wants to leave ex-colleagues in the doo-doo.  Can't burn those bridges!  But I've never seen anyone put anything remotely approaching enthusiasm into a transition plan. They do as they're asked, but if they don't do a great job, what's the worst that could happen to them? There's not a single motivating factor to make sure what's left behind is a well-oiled machine.  If an outgoing employee is leaving now, it's very likely you've not had their enthusiasm for a long time anyway.

Recipients are not engaged or open to transition.  The people receiving the knowledge transfer aren't leaving.  They didn't pick the timing.  They were not looking for more work.  Because they already have a job that doesn't involve what's being transitioned to them, they're likely already busy with what they're doing and aren't thinking of this new task or set of responsibilities. Maybe they don't want this new work or type of work, see it as an imposition, or see it as the company trying to put more pounds of sticky mess into an already overflowing bag.  A transition may be very demotivating to the remaining worker, and I've never seen someone say to those recipients, "Hey, I know you're already overloaded, but we really appreciate you stepping up and picking up this extra workload.  Here's how we plan to mitigate this departure's effects on you."  Never.

For infrequently used knowledge, the transition survival rate is basically zero.  When an employee transitions out, the proactive part of what they were working on often gets put on hold, and those transitioned to are basically there just to maintain the status quo of those things, meaning that the transition recipient may not use the knowledge for weeks, months, or even years.  By then, even the 10% of the material they understood from the transition has decayed significantly.

Transitional knowledge doesn't survive a second transition.  Given that the transition is lossy, and that information that is broadcast is often not fully received, you can call this observation "simple probability theory."  If information has a 10% chance of surviving a transition, then the second transition has a 1% chance of transmitting the information.  Even if you think the transition rate is higher, subsequent transition success diminishes with time and number of people.

Managers are not accountable for the information, only "planning the transition."  When a manager's employee leaves, they have to scramble.  They often do not have enough bandwidth to absorb the loss of the productivity of a full team member, but they have to do the best they can.  They can write up a transition plan, schedule the meetings, and walk away saying, "well, I did all I can do."  That's true.  Once you let your organization get to that point, that's the best you can do.  But when the transition doesn't survive for the long term, and there's inefficiency due to current employees having to mine out information from source or worse, there's no managerial accountability for the resulting drag on productivity. 

What Would Work Better

Okay, so I can't give some prescriptive advice here based on what's worked better for me.  I've never seen good transition.  Here's some quick hits that would improve the situation, though.

Don't need transition.  Just don't need it.  It's that simple.  Transition, as I've described it here, is not absolutely required.  These transitions often occur in an organization that is ill-staffed, and everyone has a unique, non-overlapping set of job responsibilities.  If no one else works on the same thing as the outgoing employee, then the amount that has to be transitioned is 100%.  If there is sufficient overlap, backups, and bench strength, transition is often not an issue.  Managers should regularly analyze their teams for single points of failure and work diligently to ensure knowledge is spread around.

Have an employee DR plan. It's amazing how many organizations plan for system outages and put DR plans into place for when computers go belly up, but absolutely fail to recognize that they are guaranteed to have permanent personnel outages eventually, and that they can't necessarily predict when those will happen. Most organizations plan for months to do a single day of system testing to demonstrate that they can handle a building or a system outage.  Every application we write has to have a fail-over story, a way to recover if the database is missing or an app pool spins out of control in IIS, chewing up all the resources on the app tier.  The same organizations that spend millions on that do no visible planning for permanent employee outages, which happen all the time.

Transition to documentation. If you do find yourself in a position to need to transition information, it is not sufficient to have a meeting to do a simple code walk-through of the most common path.  The most common path should be documented in an architectural doc already.  Have a walk-through detailing the exceptional cases, how to troubleshoot common issues.  And in that session, take notes.  Then publish them to your internal knowledge base.  You do have an internal knowledge base, right?  Oh, dear...

Maintain an organizational knowledge base.  If you don't have one, start one.  As a leaf-node resource, you may not have much say in where this is, but if you're a manager, get this up as a shared network drive at minimum.  Better still, some kind of document management system.  SharePoint document libraries are an obvious answer in Microsoft shops, and I've used a SharePoint wiki as a knowledge base for a few years now. It's searchable, editable, auditable, and shareable.  But whatever you do, have somewhere that this information can sit and be discovered later.

Transition to Video. I've actually used this strategy on my own departure previously.  You'd have to ask the recipients whether it worked effectively though.  When the time comes, interview the outgoing employee. Ask for the knowledge to be presented, and video record the whole thing.  Often, this is faster than writing all the documentation down, is less onerous than sitting and writing documentation (so you have a better chance of getting better information), and if only 10% of the information is retained, you can go back and mine the video for more.  And you can possibly produce documentation from the presentation if need be.

Encourage a culture of sharing.  This falls into the category of not needing to transition, but retains a different flavor somewhat.  If your employees self-organize, if they pair up on coding and other job responsibilities, if they regularly collaborate, then you have a much diminished need for panic transitions. More people will share ownership in more artifacts.  And the flatter the hierarchy, the more the management shares that ownership, and panics less.  

Maintain a culture of transition.  These transitions are often a surprise because an outgoing employee does everything possible to hide the potential that they might be leaving until the last moment.  This can be because the employee is hedging and thinking about not leaving, the deal can fall through, or a number of other scenarios.  There is fear that once identified as someone who might leave, opportunities will cease coming your way.  Thing is, everyone is a candidate for leaving at any time, if they are an individual of talent that is visible in any way to the outside world.  And if they're not, they're probably not good enough for you to want to keep (because they're not competitive on the market, say).


Losing employees is expensive.  Locating, hiring, and retraining a replacement employee can cost half an FTE or more.  You lose more than the employee's productivity.  You lose their organizational memory and their contribution to both present and future corporate culture.  Given the amount of time spent transitioning and the retention that results, you're better off not bothering with so-called "transition plans" and letting your employees, both staying and outgoing, be productive through the transition. 

Transition is inevitable, though, so you have to have a plan for talent management that involves identifying performers, keeping them happy, making sure you know what they want, and how to help them move on when it's time. This isn't an easy thing to balance, I'm sure, but it would mitigate the risk of loss of organizational knowledge and disruptive schedules if an organization could do that correctly. And knowing that you can't keep everyone (and you may even want some of them to go), develop and nurture a culture that supports flexibility and sharing. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Group Coding, Benefits and Observations

A few years ago, I started up a weekly tech seminar in my organization.  We do everything from demos of new technologies, to sharing technical issues and solutions we found to them, to watching videos from the web of our favorite speakers on technical topics.

There's another thing we like to use this time slot for: group coding sessions.  We take a simple problem from Project Euler, and we code it up as a group on a projected screen.  The sessions allow the developers to share tips on tools, talk about the right seams in code, and

Someone asked me why we would code in a group, and I sent them the following


Here’s the benefits as I see them:

·         It’s great for everyone to get to know each other. 
·         It’s great to work with other people and learn how to develop in a more collaborative environment. 
·         It’s great to create a more collaborative environment. 
·         It’s great for everyone to know everyone else on all dev teams.  Especially as some groups are more segregated than others.
·         It’s great to see how people use tools differently, as we all use things differently and become more productive as we work together on things.

So from an organizational standpoint, it’s all good.

That's what I said.  The details are a bit more complicated.  Let me talk a little bit about some overvations I've made and lessons learned.


We've seen great results from working together in these sessions.

It's no secret that I am a big fan of NCrunch (I tweet about them from time to time), and that and ReSharper are two of our key dev tools.  We got enough licenses for every developer to use both, but people weren't really using them.  After seeing the tools in use as we do a test-driven style example, people come up and ask for their license.  Spending a little time coding together has meant that we get a better return on the tools we bought, in terms of usage (hopefully they learn to use it wisely).

We usually send out the solution after the exercise, so everyone can work on any finer points after the fact. We've seen people dive deep into an optimization, or work on finding analytic solutions to brute force problems.  It gets people thinking about something other than the features their day job offers them, and they seem to be really excited about these other opportunities (I'm using the proactive follow up as evidence here).

Further, you get some peer recognition.  Everyone contributes some code, and those people who can code get the kudos of their peers.  Better still, we've found hidden talent and enthusiasm in all our colleagues.  It's great to know who can do what, and it's great to give them props for doing so in a group.

I don't care who you are.  When you start out, coding in front of people is hard.  You have to let go of that ego.  You have to silence that little voice of doubt.  You have to get past freezing up.  And it's better to do it here than, say, during a job interview or a more important coding session at a conference, meetup, or Hackathon.  And everyone does it.  It's harder for some than others, but you see them grow in confidence, both in themselves and in their code.

One Big Observation

One thing that kills, absolute kills a group coding session, and that's negation.  Someone else writes a test and implements a method, and the first thing the next guy does is delete the body of the method and put in a pet implementation.  Maybe it's better; maybe it's not.  I've seen both, actually, and what is most important here is a concept straight out of the improv comedy world.  I know it's a weird place to apply the concept, but one of the core concepts of improv is that you never negate anything anyone else does.  You build on it. You manipulate it.  But you never simply say no.

Imagine a comedy sketch at The Second City that goes like this:

Milli: "And now I'm a T-Rex trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a military cafeteria."

Vanilli: "No, you're not.  You're eating a pizza on the set of The Sound of Music."

And where does Milli go from there?  Vanilli has just taken the momentum out of the skit and turned things over on their head.  The same thing happens in a coding session.

The trick of great Improv is "Yes, and..."  In the Milli-Vanilli sketch above, Vanilli can do this by saying, instead:

Vanilli: "Yeah, and I'm a four-star general who walks in and does a double take as you cut the crusts off your sandwich."

Momentum saved, and the skit moves forward.

Yes, And 

So do this while coding.  Sure, someone may have just taken a misstep.  Maybe you see a more optimal way to do something.  Maybe you think your way is cleaner.  Keep that to yourself and don't negate what someone else has done.  Add to the example as is.  One of a couple things may happen. The example might evolve until it's obvious why your way might have been better.  Or you might learn something new.  Either way, I've observed that sessions that are allowed to evolve dynamically are more enjoyable.


I happened to be talking to Clark Sell on Friday during our That Conference call.  He's currently reading a book on Improv Wisdom, and said something very similar.  I haven't gotten to read the book yet myself, but I recognize the rule on the cover... "Just show up."  Which has a familiar vibe to what draws me to the tech community.  A big part of getting better is speaking up, doing, and making things happen with the people around you who also show up.

So get your code on.  Do it now.  Do it with your co-workers.  Just because you're dark matter, doesn't mean you don't matter.  You can do it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Drinking in China

Snow beer is the most popular beer in the world, despite being sold almost exclusively in China.  It was the first beer I had on the trip (on the flight there), the first of many.  I was most fascinated by the pull tab on the beer can, something that I hadn't seen since the '70's or '80's.

I didn't know that drinks were included with the international flight.  Hainan airlines really treated us well.  I haven't flown internationally since our wedding and honeymoon, so I don't know if including wine and beer with the flight is typical or atypical, whether it is for all airlines, or non-American ones.  I would be interested to hear in the comments section if anyone can supplement my info.

Staying hydrated in China is tough.  The tap water there is not for American constitutions, and may make you sick.  Luckily, you can drink beer anywhere you want.  Snow beer, for sure.

No kidding - this isn't really beer.  This is lighter beer than Budweiser.  It's just a slightly hoppier and slightly more alcoholic version of seltzer water.  So I'm not sure it's actually possible to get tipsy off Chinese beer unless you're a thirty-pound child.  Which I'm not.

Given the tour we were on, Master (our bus driver) kept a cooler full of beer for us and charged us a buck a beer to drink on the bus.  Better still, we could buy one as we were getting off the bus and just walk around any old place with it.  As an American, worried about open container laws and such, I'm not used to that.
Mmmm, bus beer!
I'm especially not used to feeling freer in communist China than I am in my home country.  That's one of the things that traveling really does, it opens your eyes to the myth of American exceptionalism (a phrase that appears to be completely not unique - the google search results boggled my little mind).  Cultures are different certainly, but there are always places each culture can improve.

As an aside, Master is the title used for bus drivers on these tours.  When you see twenty-six million people navigating the area around Shanghai, and the bus driver has to navigate between other buses, cars, mopeds, rickshaws, and bicycles with huge piles of stuff on the back... Well, you realize that you have to be a master to drive in that mess.

Anyway, it was awesome to have beer on the bus.  Coming back down off the trek up the Great Wall under a beautiful and rare blue sky and a hot bright sun and onto the bus, it felt so good to have a cold drink.  And strangely enough, although it was $.50 for a water and $1.00 for a beer, only the beer was cold, so what would you expect us to drink anyway?
The Great Wall is quite a climb.  Phew!  Give mah some beer!
And with all this near beer, water beer, snow beer, you'd think we had plenty of beer and wouldn't want any with our meals.  But still...

When we went out to eat, drinks were included with the meals.  But they'd only give you about four ounces of whatever it was you were drinking.  But more often than not, they'd leave a 22 oz bottle on the table. They wouldn't give you more.  That was it for the table.  So it was a shrewd move to sit at the kids table. Drinking at the kids table was aces.
Mmm, yeah!  Dinner beer!
On the streets of Hangzhou, from a streetside shop, I stopped for a bubble tea.  The signs were in Chinese, and the guy didn't speak any English.  So I got me a bubble tea by grunting and pointing.  I didn't know what I was ordering.  It looked like berry.  Turned out to be red bean tea.  The communication barrier had struck again.

Oh, and before I forget, this isn't unique to China, but it's the first time I had a glass of celery juice.  I liked it, but Nicole didn't.  She tried to put watermelon juice in it, and yuck, that was pretty bad.
I say yum.  You say?
Also, I always like to try to figure out what unique types of alcohol are available in various parts of the world. In China, the unique stuff I got to try was called Erguotou.  I didn't get to try any there, but I brought a bunch of it home.  After having a glass of it, I plan to use the rest to strip the paint off an old dresser somewhere.
No, the picture isn't upside down.  This is a picture of what the bottle would look like while pouring.
Another alcohol we saw there was Moutai, also Maotai.  Sounds good, but I didn't get any of this, and it doesn't appear that I can get it in the U.S.

I guess I'll just have to go back...

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Spitting in China

So on our first tour day in China, the first tourist destination we hit was The Summer Palace.  While we were there, we got to see the Giant Rubber Duck, which was on display in the lake for National Day, October 1.

Our tour guide, Bryan (like Adams) at the Summer Palace in front of the Giant Rubber Duck.
As we left there to go get back on the bus, we were walking down the street when someone nearby stopped, held one finger up to one nostril, and blew a great wad of snot onto the sidewalk.

I gotta tell you, I was kinda surprised.  Someone in our group said, "Farmer's blow!"

That was the first I really saw of spitting in China, but then we saw it everywhere.

And I do mean everywhere.  In every city, and every stop we made, people were hocking up loogies and spitting them to the side no matter where we were.  And once you noticed it, you saw it all the time.

With somewhere north of 20 million people in Beijing, that's a lot of loogies.  There's a constant audible undercurrent of Auuuch-ch-ch!

At Tienanmen Square, there were a number of sidewalk scrapers whose job was to keep the entire public square clean.  They would occasionally stop an stoop down and, using a little metal scraper, meticulously scrape at the ground to clean it.

At first I thought it was gum they were scraping, but it could have been dried loogies.  The thought shudders me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Eating in China

Probably the biggest question I get about China, maybe after questions about pooping, is what we ate in China.

My answer is bland: Chinese food.  That sentence would have still been true without the colon.

The Meals

As I mentioned before, we were on a tour, wrapped in a little safe cocoon of western company and a tour bus.  Almost every lunch and dinner we ate was scheduled in advance and provided to us by Rewards Travel China.

When you go to a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., it's like every other restaurant.  You pick what you want: chop suey with a side of pork fried rice and an egg roll, and you get it delivered to your table.  It's a little different when you eat in China, although you can find some restaurants that will serve you this way in the states (Mapo restaurant in Naperville is one place I've been that does this).

For every lunch and dinner, we sat down, eight or ten to a table.  Tables were all round, and pre-set with silverware and plates.  In the middle of the table is a large lazy susan.  Often, there was a pot of green tea on the table when we sat down.  Then the waiter comes by and sets a dish of food on the lazy susan.  This could be anything on the menu, really.  Sweet and sour pork?  Breaded fish?  Celery with eggplant in a light glaze?  Mostly what you'd expect from a Chinese menu.

The person it's in front of generally takes a spoonful and lets the susan spin to the next person, who in turn takes a spoonful.

Then a giant vat of white rice gets set down.  Then a bowl of soup.  People generally take a little of each.

Then it gets interesting.

Dish after dish gets placed on the lazy susan, until it is completely filled.  Beef, chicken, pork, fish, veggies, and combinations of them in a dizzying array choke out the available space on the spinning apparatus.  It becomes hard, depending on the number of people at the table, to get to the dish you want, since people are always spinning it left or right to get a little bit more of something.

What's interesting was how much variety there was at every meal, but how much, by the end of the trip, the food all started tasting and smelling the same.  It got to the point where we were tired of the same food and were dying for any kind of food that wasn't Chinese.

This may be because the food was designed for a western audience.  On more than one occasion our tour guides told us that they carefully guarded our tender tummies because they'd had groups that ended up with a long visit to the People's Republic of Diarrhea.  And in a country where many of the toilets are squatters and paper in the potties is not plentiful (more on that some other time), this is not a fun situation.  It's possible that the meals were designed with that in mind.

Could also have been that these were the cheapest meals on the menu, and they were keeping costs down. As I pointed out, the price for the trip didn't even cover the apparent cost of the flight, let alone the hotels and meals.

One interesting tidbit is that these meals never came with any sauces.  With the dishes being tasty, but on average somewhat bland, I got in the habit of ordering soy and some spicy chili garlic paste so that I could spice things up a bit.  And they'd bring out a little dish of each, only about a half ounce, almost as if the stuff was more valuable than gold dust or unicorn farts.

And then the fruit shows up.  Sometimes it's a plate full of oranges, but most of the time it's not-quite-ripe watermelon slices.  That's dessert, and it's refreshing.  Oh, and no fortune cookies anywhere.  Or egg rolls.

By the end of the meal, there are plates everywhere.  Because we're part of a tour group and it's all paid for, that's when the tour guide shows up and we're whisked away.

Of course, that was just the meals we sat down for.  Sure some of them had different twiddles like the time we got to go to a place for great Peking duck, but overall, those were pretty same-samey.

The Wangfujing Snack Street

No, the real variety was in the street food.  In Beijing, you can visit the Wangfujing.  This is a street with major name stores that's been closed to automobile traffic and set up as a giant outdoor mall.  The main street is kind of Times Square-y meets a typical American outdoor mall, but alongside the main shopping area lies some real treats.

Wangfujing Snack Street is an extremely densely populated walkway chock full of street food vendors.  It's probably a quarter mile of vendor after vendor serving different kinds of local snack food. It is so crowded that the claustrophobe in me felt very uncomfortable navigating it.  This was home to some of the most interesting culinary sights in China.

There were produce shops down this alley, some with fruits of all kinds piled high.  The cantaloupes in China are oddly elongated, so I had to snap a picture:
I've got a cantaloupe.  Go long!
A lot of the food in Beijing comes on sticks.  At least the snack food in the market.  Imagine a six to ten foot wide table set with large serving pans of sticks of raw meat.  Now imagine these placed one right after another for a quarter mile, each vendor serving something different.  When you order these foods, they are cooked immediately in a vat of hot oil nearby. The prevalence of gutter oil may be the reason that our tour guides sternly warned us not to eat any street food.

And some of it is food you wouldn't want to eat anyway.  Never mind that the smell of this narrow snack street was a pure assault on the senses, but this street is home to food that even the Chinese only eat on a dare.  Some of these foods include sheep's penis, larvae, starfish, centipedes, spiders, seahorses and live scorpions. On a stick.
Yes, starfish.  PATRICK!

The seahorses weren't moving, but the scorpions wiggled and wriggled, very much alive
On the north end of the Wangfujing is what's called the Night Market.  It's a bit more roomy than the Snack Street, though they have largely the same things.  I had planned to try to eat something at the night market, but the reviews of the taste (scorpions taste like egg shell; crunchy but not much else) and the warnings of our guides kept me from doing it.

There was only one bit of street food that I did eat.  When we visited the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, there was a street vendor that had these sticks with nine little candied balls on them.  I had no idea what they were, and the people couldn't describe them to me, but I'd seen them everywhere, and I was feeling adventurous.

I bought the stick and bit into one of the candied balls, and inside was a little piece of fruit.  It was as big around as a quarter, and it had three little seeds in it.  The candy on the outside was crunchy, though it looked like a little candied apple.  Deciding it was OK, I shared it around and brought the empty stick on the bus with me.

I showed the tour guide and asked what I just ate.  The look of concern that came over him took me by surprise.  He shook his head and said, "No, no," and patted my belly.  He said that I shouldn't eat any street food or I will get sick.  He also said that the fruits were called Haw.  In looking them up, I found that I had eaten BingTanghulu, a popular street treat in China.  And yes, they were hawthorn fruit.

So that's my experience eating in China. There is one more tidbit and some photos to share with regards to eating, but the experience in the Market in Suzhou overlaps with the shopping details I'll share, so I'll save that tale for another day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Engrish in China

Not very culturally sensitive of me, I know, but for many years back in the Allstate days, Mike Becker and I would visit  The word itself comes from a stereotypical mispronunciation that was made transposing the sounds of the more difficult liquid consonants when spoken by an Asian English speaker.  I know it isn't a very nice term, and after learning a little about Chinese pronunciation, I'm not ever making fun of anyone's pronunciation again.

Looking at now, however, I see the term has been generalized to any mistranslation, misspelling, or otherwise misinterpretation of a foreign language to English.  I don't know why I find misspellings on signs so humorous, but I do, and we would laugh so hard at some of the bad translations and misspellings.

I thought it was kind of rare to find an example of Engrish in the wild.  I figured on the mean and clean streets of Beijing, any English signage would have been inspected and corrected.

I figured completely wrong.

If proofreading skills were worth real money, I could make a fortune walking around China and correcting everything from spelling to grammar to kerning and missing letters.  It's astounding exactly how many of the signs are incorrect.  I thought I'd post the ones I took pictures of here.

NOTE: the camera is the one on my phone, and that's pretty hit or miss.  Sometimes the pics are clear, and other times, they're blurry.  Fair warning.

Urinating into the pool.  You are the Best!
This may be my favorite sign of the trip.  There's so much here to chuckle at.  From the title "This is what I've always wanted to talk to you" to the repeated "you are the best..." to the little fella who looks like a stubby little wiener, this is a masterwork of Engrish.

What?  No bugling in the park?
This counts as weird signage, so I'm including it.  This sign was posted near the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, the Opera House.  I don't count the sign as Engrish specifically, but it definitely made me look twice.  The things that got me most were the bugle, the two almost identical bikes that were necessary to include, the guy bouncing three balls, and the two symbols at the lower right that I don't have a point of reference for.

The Forbidden city is concerned about my family's well-being.
There is a fair amount of just odd phrasing here.  This is a bit of the forbidden city that's under construction, and clearly this is a warning to be safe.  But a building saying "take care" sets off the "weirdo" bell for me.

Yes, that's a picture of a man, all right!
I think the sign would have been clear without the text.  With the text, it's a bit confusing.  Not Men, but Man.  This one.  This little blue one. Ah!  One of the Blue Man Group, perhaps.

I am here?  Where is here?
Another one of my favorites of the whole trip, and there's a double weirdness here.  Both these signs are posted on a building at one of the landings on the part of the Great Wall we climbed.  I wish I'd snagged a better pic of that top sign.  If you can't read it, it says "Speaking cellphone is strictly prohibited when thunderstorm," a fine example of Engrish.  And then at the bottom: "You are here" without a diagram is not a very western concept, and I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do with that information, except maybe to call for help and give them the location, as long as it wasn't thunderstorm.

A weirdly phrased sign in the bathroom.
This one was above the urinals.  I believe this was for automatic flushing of urinals, but it didn't automatically wash the body part closest to the sign.

You say that, Sign, and yet, here we are...
This was at the Kung Fu Panda show.  Yes.  A kung fu demonstration at the Beijing Shi Cha Hai Sports School.  And two of the artists were in panda costumes.

Closer.  Closer.  TOO CLOSE!
This was advice at the urinals.  I wouldn't be averse to more signs like this in the men's restrooms in the US. Keep the splatter to a minimum.  Of course, there's a lot to be said about the bathrooms in China, but that's for a future post.

This seems like a sign you'd see in a Colorado dispensary, though there it no longer needs to be medicinal, no?
This shot was taken in an apothecary in Beijing.  The drawers in the wall contained a variety of roots, and certainly that's what the "Medicinal Slices" sign refers to.  Still, it's a weird thing to have so abbreviated in English, especially out of context.

Everybody Wang Fujung tonight.
This is a fairly longwinded name for a jewelry store.  Surprising that they had to tell us that we could only buy gifts here.  And in English, "supermarket" implies food, although the proper translation is more probably "superstore".

These ornaments will help you get "lade"...
So much wrong here.  "Quintessence facebook" is what made me take the picture, as I have no idea what that even means.  But right next to it I can buy some "Crystal inside painting", which apparently is something like bedazzling your colon.  "Field calligraphy" is also not clear.  

On the third floor, not only can I get those Lade Ornaments referred to in the caption, but I can also purchase an order of "Opening ceremony."  Maybe that's where you buy the yoga pants.

I think the Way Out is Far Out.
Not every bit of Engrish is big and obvious.  This little misspelling pointing everyone to the Peace and Tranguility Guest House is just a little typo, but they are ubiquitous.  Also, "Way Out" deserves its own category of Engrish.  You've got about a 50/50 chance of it being a "Way Out" sign vs. an "Exit" sign.  It is, of course, the way out.  And "Way Out" is also a perfectly standard way to label an exit in Britain.  It's just not American English to say it that way, so it seems weird to me every time I see it.  

Also, the use of "Toilet" for bathroom is standard there, whereas we would use that to refer specifically to the actual device, not the entire room.  Again, I understand this to reflect the influence of British English.

I forgot how to pronounce that "dng" sound.
Really, I'm not trying to be cruel.  These misspellings are everywhere.  Seriously, I can't believe that it was that hard to find someone who could look up proper spelling in a city of seven million people (Suzhou).

And uncultured, boorish behavior is dim scenery?
I don't know if I could have said it better myself.  This is the nicest way of telling tourists to behave that I've ever seen.  There's a lyrical quality to some of these odd translations, as if the turn of phrase could somehow become a charming part of the language.

I admit that sometimes I lift a leg when I do that, too.
It's not always clear what they want you not to do.  In context, this sign was suggesting that you should stay on the path, and you shouldn't step over the railing and walk on the nicely maintained grass. But when I first looked at it, I thought the sign was telling me not to do any disco moves in the garden.  Especialy with that weird disco ball in the upper right corner of the sign.

China is finally speaking my language.
There's nothing at all wrong with this sign.  It would actually be right at home in a small college town in America.  Here among all the Engrish, however, there's a bit of a foreign feel to the phrase "coffee language". Guilt by association, I fancy.

Lettce not and say we did.
I can kinda forgive this one.  It's on a buffet, and it's printed out on paper in a restaurant.  It may have been a legitimate typo, even.  This makes me wonder, however, if we left out a little squiggle in a Chinese character whether this is what it would look like to them, or whether it might be an entirely different word, or whether it would be a character that didn't mean anything.  

Don't do nothing.
I mentioned before that sometimes it wasn't clear what the Chinese signs were asking me not to do.  This one pushes that to an extreme, however.  The Chinese under that may make it perfectly clear what is meant, but doesn't help me at all.  There was a guy smoking in a seat right below this sign, however, so that's definitely not what it's for.  Unless it is and he was a serious scofflaw.

The big sign specified a small food.
I don't know what this one is trying to say exactly.  There's a minimum purchase in the VIP room of about $5 (30 RMB), but I'm not sure what that third line is getting at. Also, the butterfly... Is that the small food?

On the automatic revolving door of the hotel.
Here I am again confused about what not to do.  This is on the automatic revolving door at our hotel, so the "Attention" sign and the "Grab your kids and walk" sign make a lot of sense.  I can't figure out what they're supposed to be doing in the bottom picture though. The standing feller appears to be skateboarding into the face of the person on all fours, like a bizarre Jackass episode played out between Bam Margera and Johnny Knoxville.  Ultimately, I just took it to mean, "Don't fuck around in the revolving door."

To be a pickup artist, please check your baggage number.
This was the last sign of the trip that was Engrished.  It was in the Beijing airport by the baggage claim.  We had to pick up our bags from the domestic flight from Shanghai and re-check them to fly international to Chicago.  

Needless to say, we avoided the wrong picking up. 

So that's the signs I captured while I was there.  Surely there were ones I missed, and there were some we captured with other people's cameras, but I wanted to share these with everyone as soon as I was able.