Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Year of the Pig coming to a close

Tomorrow, February 7th brings the new lunar year - the year of the Rat. Therefore, this will be the last post in the blog.

The last year or so has been quite a journey, both physically and mentally. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, China is an exciting place going through some incredible changes. The few weeks I have spent back in the United States though remind me that most people have no idea what it's like over there. There are numerous misconceptions (like the fact that India is equally developed) and suspicions. I have tried to address some of them with my posts. I hope that I have helped shed a little bit more light on the topic.

I thank all my readers for sticking with me, especially the really dedicated ones who read every post and left comments to a few. It was very easy to write when I knew someone would actually be reading.

I hope Katie and I will go back to China again someday, and maybe then we will both get the chance to share our thoughts in a new blog. Until then, 再见.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Return to China?

My previous post was about China and its potential. With this topic addressed, what advice would I share with people who have the opportunity to go to China?

The opportunities offered by being in China at the ground floor (or maybe the first or second floor) as it ascends to its future heights are incredible. The country truly is a confusing place filled with misconceptions and contradictions. I believe you have to be there to understand it. Consequently, if you want to have a chance of succeeding in the future global marketplace, you should go. Unlike the United States, China is not based on a Western, Judeo-Christian set of values. There is no Roman alphabet. It will not be as easy for society to integrate China's rise as it was to integrate the rise of the United States post-World War II. It has the potential to be like Japan - a mystery to almost the entire world. However, unlike Japan, China makes up 1/4 of the world. So it will not be content to be isolated.

China right now is still on the cusp of development. It has a very long way to go in terms of cultural and managerial development. If you are young (i.e. less than 25 years old), you should do everything you can do live in China for at least a little while to learn the language, be exposed to the people, and generally acclimate to the society. In 30-40 years, China will be a true superpower and you do NOT want to be on the side that struggles to understand it.

With that in mind, what have I learned from my personal experience? I have learned that I am NOT Chinese. The locals don't consider me to be Chinese, and I certainly don't feel that way. However, I don't feel completely American either. When I was younger, I often read books about Asian Americans feeling caught in between two worlds. I never really felt that way. I was pretty much American, after all. However, being in China and recognizing some aspects of the culture there that I truly identify with, I realize upon my return that I am not as American as I thought. Perhaps that feeling will go away over time, but I cannot shake the feeling that I truly AM caught between two cultures.

I have also learned that I can adapt to new situations. My time living in China was not altogether unpleasant. There were difficult times for sure -- I hope I never wait in line at the bank again. However, visiting the Great Wall, or seeing the ingenuity in the Shanghai Maglev, was certainly invigorating.

I hope to go back to China again someday. I am excited to see how much it will have changed. That will be true if I go back in 5 years, or even next week.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Home at last

I've been back in the US now for about 3 weeks. That has given me enough time to reflect on the past year. It has been quite an experience, so I apologize if my comments are not as coherent as they could be. There are simply too many things to say for me to be able to organize them very well.

First a few thoughts of my last night in Shanghai. I spent it having dinner with students from Harvard Business School who were spending their holiday vacation visiting China. It helped me realize that China is on everyone’s minds. When I was at school, China was the domain of Asian Americans who wanted to get in on the “action.” At dinner that night, 90% of the students who were visiting were not of Asian decent. Now there is also a popular elective course at HBS called “Doing Business in China”.

China is growing faster than ever. GDP growth for 2007 surpassed 11%. It represents a huge market for consumer goods as 1.3 billion Chinese citizens learn to brush their teeth and drink Starbucks. Thanks to its cheap labor and good infrastructure, it is also an increasingly important source of goods for the worldwide market. China is expected to surpass the US soon as the world’s second largest exporting country (behind Germany). However, this ignores the true strength of the country economically and politically.

China is being managed reasonably well. The problem with the strong single party government is that there are no checks on power - no legislature to define the laws independently of the president and no court system to declare laws unconstitutional. However, run well, like in Singapore, a strong central government can be very effective in bringing the country out of poverty. It’s interesting to talk to the local population. They see nothing wrong with the strong hand of the government cracking down on unrest; it's usually not the urban population that is affected.

The Chinese population seem to believe in a manifest destiny that China will undoubtedly become the next world superpower. Furthermore, everyone is willing to work hard and invest whatever it takes to get there. This reminds me of the United States in the early 1900's. Scary stories of Chinese food contamination and abused laborers are similar to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1904) and post-Civil War industry that gave rise to the American Federation of Labor. For those that believe we need to keep jobs at home and prevent the flow of goods from China (and the rest of the world), I say this: "It's inevitable." Even though cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Tianjin have been growing like crazy over the past few years, over 800 million people still live in the countryside. Over 20 million of which still live in caves (yes, caves - Google: China, caves, loess plateau). Farmers here struggle to raise enough food for the rest of China. But with modern technology like tractors and chemical fertilizers, land and labor productivity should continue to increase. In the United States, every farmer supports 140 people. If this were to be true in China, the country would only need 10 million farmers. What do you do with the other 700+ million people? Make cell phones, study physics, become nurses, and even carry weapons.

There will be bumps in the road, e.g. Political unrest, stock and real estate market bubbles, bird flu, etc. However, I believe that the Chinese people are dedicated to making their country a success. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have done nothing but make sacrifices for what they believed was in the best interests of their country. Often such sacrifices were at the end of a sword, or gun barrel, and often they weren't actually the best thing for the Chinese people. However, the Chinese people know how to endure and persevere more than any other civilization. With the gradual opening up of the country to foreign influence thanks in part to the economy, but even more so due to greater communication via the internet, there will be an ever greater check on the government to insure it makes decisions in the best interests of the country and its people.

I'm back in the US now. Everywhere I turn I see areas where they could learn from the Chinese. It's interesting; when I first arrived in China, I could only see disadvantages to the US. Here in the US, I see billions of dollars spent on lobbying and elections (where the real distinctions between candidates are marginal compared to the worldwide political spectrum.) I see lazy people that don't see the value in additional education. There are millions of Americans who feel entitled and believe that they are below the poverty line because they can't afford a car. There is no wonder why factories move to China (or Vietnam or Korea or Taiwan).

That's not to say China has no major problems. The environmental issues and human rights abuses will pose a huge barrier to the country in becoming a major world power. But I believe things will improve over time.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Day 8 - Delhi again

This was my last day in Delhi. I didn’t have much on the itinerary other than to go to the National Museum and get some souvenir shopping done. I accomplished both with nothing substantially noteworthy. Thus, I will take the opportunity to share some random interesting facts about India.

(1) Indian tourist sites have no problem charging foreign tourists more than locals. At the National Museum, a ticket for foreign nationals costs 300 rupees. If you are an Indian citizen, it costs just 20 rupees. The Taj Mahal was even worse. It costs 750 rupees (US$20) as a foreigner. If you are local, it costs less than US$1. I understand that local visitors should get somewhat of a discount, but all the sites end up being overrun and crowded by crowds that climb all over the historical monuments and take flash pictures where they shouldn’t.

(2) The retail market in India is horrendous. I know India has some complicated regulations regarding the retail sector that prevent companies like Wal-Mart and Carrefour from setting up wholly-owned operations. The rule extends even to convenience stores like 7-11, which are all too present throughout the rest of Asia. This makes life difficult if all you want is a Diet Pepsi (or any other cold drink) and you can’t find a stall that sells it. It also means that each tiny stall carries only a small selection of the most popular (i.e. Indian) snacks and that every stall will have the same exact set of products.

Day 7 - Agra

We woke up early on New Year’s Day to go to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We left the hotel at 6:30 AM so that we could see the sights and make it back in one day. Agra is about 200 km (120 miles) from Delhi. I must say I was confused when the tour operator estimated it would take 4 hours to drive there. That’s an average of 30 miles per hour on a major highway between the capital and the largest tourist attraction in India. From Shanghai, I can take the high speed rail and get to Hangzhou from Shanghai (distance of 160 kilometers) in about 1 ¼ hours.

Once we were on the road, however, I understood. The road itself was better than expected. Two lanes in each direction, sometimes separated by a 3 inch high curb. The problem is the fact that it seems to be used by every type of vehicle known to man and every animal on Noah’s Ark. First there are the big trucks, spewing diesel fumes. Then there are buses, passenger cars and motorcycles. Then come the autorickshaws – three-wheeled carts with 100 cc engines. Occasionally, we would pass by a farm tractor pulling a bed of hay. Finally, there are people on bicycles, riding alongside the diesel trucks. Camels seemed to be the dominant mode of long distance transportation on the animal kingdom side. There were quite a few pulling some carts. However, there were elephants as well, carrying grass on their backs.

Despite their popularity in the rest of the world, I only saw two horses on the highway to Agra. Although they aren’t “using” the road, we did also see many dogs, monkeys, goats and of course cows sitting on the side, or trying to cross the road. As a result of all these obstacles, we got to Agra in just about 4 ½ hours, including a stop for breakfast.

The Taj Mahal really was nice. Definitely worth the trip. I won’t describe the Taj itself too much because everybody has seen pictures and my verbal description can’t add much. I will say though that the view from the back of the Taj Mahal was interesting. The site is located on the banks of a river facing what was to become a black version of the white Taj Mahal, and wihin sight of the Agra Fort, a palace for the Sultan. Even today, the view is impressive, until you see the garbage on the other side of the river and the people picking through it. Wherever you go in India, you are constantly reminded of the absolute poverty there.

After the Taj Mahal, we visited some other less famous and interesting sites, including the Agra Fort, and then quickly sped home at 40 km/hour and go to sleep.

The one other interesting part of our trip was that we shared the van ride with an Indian couple. The husband was from the United States (although born in Tanzania); the wife was born and raised in South Africa. When we told them it was nearly our 6th day in India, they asked us if we too were dying to leave. We then spent much of the day talking about the difficulty of living and traveling in India.

Day 6 - Delhi

With the wedding over, Paul and I headed to Delhi. Fortunately, the trip from Cochin to Delhi was relatively uneventful by Indian standards. Our flight was only 1 ½ hours late and the taxi driver from the airport only tried to rip us off twice: the first time by claiming that our pre-paid taxi fare receipt didn’t include luggage, the second time by asking for 50 extra rupees to lift our bags from the trunk. If only our first full day in Delhi had been as smooth.

As usual, the hotel was great. We stayed at the 5-star ITC Maurya, a Starwood hotel outside of Delhi. After eating breakfast and buying tickets for a New Year’s Eve party for that evening (more on this later), we went “downtown” to the official Delhi Tourism Center to buy tickets for an afternoon tour. Our guide book told us it was right across the street from a particular temple and next door to a coffee shop. With directions in hand, we guided our taxi (again pre-negotiated rate) to the right place. At the tourism center, we were told there were no tours running that day because on Monday, all the museums and some of the major attractions are closed. We asked for suggestions on where to go, but were essentially ignored as the employee tried to get his TV to work so he could watch cricket.

A little uncertain, we got a map and identified some places ourselves. We were only 2 blocks from Connaught Place, the supposed central hub of Delhi, so we decided to walk over to check it out. Less than 50 meters down the road, we found THE Delhi Tourism Center, next to another coffee shop. Immediately, we realized that the first tourism center was not an official information booth and was simply a well disguised tour operator sales center. That certainly explained the employee’s rudeness. With no tours running, we were not potential customers. It was very convincing; they even had official free maps. The real tourism center gave us similar information – that many of the tourist sites were closed and no tours were running. But they did help us out with some suggestions on where to go.

So, with maps in hand, we continued to walk towards Connaught Place. We weren’t sure we had arrived when we got there. The commercial center of Delhi is a big circle with dry grass in the center, shoe shine people on the sidewalk and 2-3 story tall buildings flanking the roads. Some were stores selling Western brand names like Nike and Addidas; there was even a TGI Fridays. However, most looked run down. One was even using a generator to power a string of fluorescent light bulbs that were lighting the store. However, Paul managed to spot the beacon of freedom that is McDonalds. A little tired of Indian food, we went in to see what we might eat. Half a Chicken Tikka and a McAloo burger later, we left McDonalds not much more satiated than when we entered. Nevertheless, we decided to hit up the tourist spots.

First was Hanuman’s Tomb. Great historical ruins from the 13th century. Don’t remember too much of the history, but check out the pictures here. We also managed to run into the Harvard Business School India Immersion program here. Two buses full of current HBS students. Paul’s initial reaction was, “Are all business school students so tall?”

After the tomb, we went to see the Qusab Minar, a tower built around the 13th century. Mildly impressive, but not worth it’s UNESCO World Heritage stamp. Then it was back to the hotel for a nap before New Year’s Eve.

For New Year’s Eve, we tried to attend the party in our hotel. But apparently, like many clubs/parties in India, it’s very difficult to be a man without a woman by your side. Our concierge politely told us that he could not sell tickets to men attending stag. Luckily, the Taj hotel down the street was more than happy to sell us tickets to their party, which featured a live performance from Jazzy B, a Punjabi singer from the UK. Oblivious to what Punjabi music might be, we bought the tickets figuring a 5-star hotel party would be fun no matter what.

That evening, we found ourselves in a room filled with 900 South Asians (read: Indian), 2 East Asians (me plus a Chinese-looking girl with her Indian husband), and 5 Caucasians (Australians on a group honeymoon), while listening to music sung in Hindi. It was funny and entertaining for the first 30 minutes. Then Paul and I literally began to count down the time to midnight.

Monday, December 31, 2007

India: Days 3, 4, and 5 - Wedding

I've never been to an Indian wedding before. When I told my friends that I would be going to India to attend a wedding, they all expressed their jealousy, and needless to say, my expectations were sky-high. Nonetheless, I ended up being surprised by the sheer extravagance and the endless activities.

On the first night Paul and I were there, we attended the sangeet. It was a bit like a western reception - open bar, dancing, an emcee, and dinner ... except it was all backwards. The evening began with drinking, speeches, and dancing, and ended with food being served at 10:30 PM. It was a lot of fun -- and the groom's uncle kept the Johnnie Walker flowing. Around midnight, everybody went home to prepare for the next day.

The second day offered breakfast and lunch, but Paul and I skipped both to attend another event on the schedule, a cultural show featuring regional Indian dancing. After watching for 30 minutes, we asked our assigned driver to take us to the ferry so we could take a boat across to Fort Cochin, an older part of the town. We rode around on an autorickshaw (think three-wheeled rickshaw with a small engine and driver) for a few hours and then went back to the other side of the water to attend the evening reception.

The evening reception on the second day of the wedding was at the luxurious Le Meridien resort in Cochin. There were probably 2,000 people in attendance. They were mostly the bride's family's friends, relatives and business associates. There was a live performance, more free liquor and table upon table of food. As it was nearly 30 degrees Celsius (= 86 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and very humid, we spent most of the evening inside bathing in air conditioning and drinking Johnny Walker Black (more about Johnny Walker later).

The third day of the wedding started early as our wedding schedule indicated a "procession" at 8 AM. Instead of bridesmaids and a flower girl, we found a parade involving three elephants, an army of dancers, and a large group of the groom's family and friends walking in. This was followed by 2 hours of ceremony and more eating. After this, the couple was deemed married and the days of celebration were over.