Saturday, July 23, 2005

It is in change that we find purpose

This morning was my first day in the clients office. Beijing Gas is a pipeline company that’s owned by another gas company called PetroChina. Today is the Beijing Gas kickoff meeting where we discuss the scope of the project and other really boring items. I will be working primarily on the second project, PetroChina, whom we meet with tomorrow in Langfang. I will be providing support for the Beijing Gas project, but not a whole lot more. Their office is about two blocks from the hotel, so we were able to walk there. At 8:30 am, it is about 85 degrees, but the humidity is only around 2000%. Still overcast, still no sun.

Their office building is a very nice building, very good working air conditioner, nice bathrooms (which are really the two things I look for in an office). The conference room looks like a room from the United Nations building. It’s not very big, but there is a set of Chinese flags in the windows, a huge cherry conference table with a second row along one wall. In front of each seat, there is one of those machines that you can plug in headphones and speak to an interpreter (who sit in the second row with their own microphones). It’s nicer than any conference room we’ve got in Kansas City.

The meeting goes well in the morning, mostly Marlow discussing the project. Beijing Gas sends around seven people to the meeting. I’m not paying that great of attention because it’s not my main project.

We go to lunch with several of the Beijing Gas people and it’s nearly exactly like the night before. Several courses (15 or so this time), very hot tea, very un-air conditioned restaurant, very strange food. This meal featured deep fried sardines that you eat whole, an eel, various vegetables and goat stomach. All in all, very good (as long as you eat before asking ‘What’s in this?’). It was at this meal that I was introduced to possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I can sum it up in a short sentence & I will say no more about it. Pig intestines stuffed with coagulated blood. Peace.

Marlow had to go to a meeting in the afternoon, so I gave a three or four hour tutorial/presentation on how our database works and helped get them familiar with what’s coming up. Even though it seemed completely new to them, Xinlei said that I was the third person to go over this stuff with them.

Dinner was very similar to lunch. We met two additional GE employees, Bill Gu (the salesman) and a guy named Paul (from Australia). By now, I’m getting pretty worn of the meal thing, not so much because of the food, but because my meals typically are about ten minutes of eating while doing laundry or sitting in front of the TV. Luke (3rd person speak) is a creature who enjoys ‘down-time’. Since I’ve been here, I’ve eaten every meal with a group of people and by the time I get back to my room, I’m so tired, all I can think about is going to sleep. It’s keeping me from the things I like; reading, writing, and the things I dislike; working in the evenings. I’m sure it will slow down soon enough.

Tuesday morning, Xinlei, Marlow and I are on our way to Langfang. This is where I will be living and working for the next six months. Before leaving the states, I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn about my new surroundings. There are about two million web pages about Beijing and a total of one web page about Langfang, and all it really has is a link to a Beijing webpage. Looking at a map, Langfang is about 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. According to this web page, the population is about 3.6 billion, but web pages aren’t often checked for content and extra zeros, the population is actually 360,000. PetroChina (the client), sent a van to the hotel to pick us up along with our luggage. Xinlei is going to spend the rest of the week here as well and he’s got five bags. Unfortunately, my two bags take up all of the storage space in the van, so he is going to return to the city in the evening to get his bags and come back. This isn’t a huge van.

I usually enjoy driving around off-the-beaten-path roads, so I was looking forward to this drive. The smog is so bad that we can only see about 100 yards off the road. Our driver Random McHonkalot, sticks and moves in and out of traffic like a cat chasing a mouse through a garden, honking at random times, driving between the lines at random times and watching the road at random times.

The PetroChina offices are, in a word, shitty. The building is completely cement and reminds me of the halls and rooms gymnasiums. Very poor light, my footsteps echo down the hall with every step. This is place is called the Pipeline Research Center. Mr. Feng (you call everyone Mr.) is a young looking officer, maybe 35 years old. He’s very nice and helps me out all along the way. The conference room is slightly better, corner air conditioner and a window, wood chairs and a table plus three computers for the conversion vendors to work on.

The first thing I notice as people begin to file into the room is that everyone here seems pretty young, most younger than me. They’re all extremely nice and excited to practice their English on me. We go through introductions, I try to write down everyone’s name and specialty, but they’re extremely hard to understand and the spelling/pronunciation is very different than in the US, for example Weng is pronounced Wong. I’ve only been in the country three days, so it’s all still very new to me. I’ll start getting the hang of it, but for now, I’m really struggling to remember names. Xinlei (pronounced shin-lay, which is not what I’ve been calling him for three months) is a great help as usual.

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, Mr. Feng cancels the rest of the day so that he can show us around Langfang. I am technically on what GE calls a ‘Bubble Assignment’, which means that I’m actually living in another place for an extended period of time. Part of a bubble assignment is that they help me find appropriate housing. Originally, my moving company thought I would be living in Beijing, which has plenty of furnished places to live in, but Langfang is about an hour from Beijing and I really don't feel like adding 10 hours of driving time (with traffic it would be more like 15 hours) per week. These mobility people are great at under-estimating or over-estimating to fit their needs. They told me that Langfang is only about 45 minutes away, but everyone else (who’s made the drive several times) said it was an hour at a minimum. So I had to immediately make sure that they were looking for place for me to live in Langfang, instead of Beijing. Piss and moan, piss and moan, they said it would be difficult to find me something, blah blah blah, but I stood my ground and had complete support from GE (for once).

The mobility people (Santa Fe Relocation) found me an furnished condo in Langfang that was 15 minutes from the office and sent me picture of it. It looked pretty sweet. Three bedrooms, on a golf course, ‘walking distance from amenities’, maid service. Pretty much exactly what I needed (except I really don't need that much space). Mr. Feng wanted to show me the condo’s because he said they may be a bit farther away than Santa Fe had mentioned. He was absolutely right, it was at least ½ hour away from the office and it was in the middle of a ghost town practically.

It’s hard to describe this neighborhood. We drove through a University town, which is a little gated community in the middle of the city and I was thinking “Ok, this is a little far, but living in a college area would be pretty dope”, but there was no one around, buildings upon empty buildings upon empty streets. It was like a scene from a weird movie where a man falls asleep and wakes up to find the world the exact same, except all the people are gone. Bikes laying on the ground, one wheel slowly spinning, piece of trash slowly blowing across the street, quiet, quiet. This area could have housed maybe 50,000 people and I probably saw fifteen people, and they saw us driving through like we were crazy, like we were driving into the radiation area.

Still on and on we drove, I kept thinking that we’d get there any minute, or drive out of the empty city any minute and return the hustle and bustle of the city, but it never happened. Now suddenly, we’re on streets that are basically long driveways between houses, houses that look familiar to the ones in the pictures, but not as ‘photoshopped’. We stop and there is a landlord waiting for us and she takes us in to show us around.

Keep in mind, I’m in a van with about 7 people, all taking me to see one place to live. I walked in and they sat to work on the joint, kicking the walls, checking the electrical outlets, opening and closing doors, cabinets, windows, discussing the place. It was like I brought my own team of house inspectors. And they all had the same thing to say “If you really like it, you should get it, but we don't think it’s right for you.” I had to agree, it looked nice on the surface, wood floors, nice leather furniture, TV, bathrooms, kitchen in progress. But upon further review, it was actually wood-vinyl glued to the floor, TV that didn't work, bathrooms that were built for midgets, and a kitchen without any appliances. Plus, the doors all had apartment numbers on them and most were locked.

Come to find out that we were in a resort community in the middle of China’s largest golf course, 108 Hole Green Golf Villa. That’s a lot of damn holes. These places were like the China equivalent to time-shares. People rent a room for a weekend to play golf and have community living for the kitchen/living room etc. This would account for why we were the only ones within 5-iron distance. This basically meant the following: 1. I could be the president and only member of the neighborhood watch committee 6 days a week. On the 7th day, there would be 200,000 people. 2. There was nothing in walking distance. I would have to take a cab to everything, groceries, restaurants, pornography outlet mall, to work. This wouldn't be a big deal if I could speak Chinese, but Xinlei would be ready to kill me.

I had to agree with everyone. But this is basically the only furnished type of place in the city. The Santa Fe people were wanting to sign me up with this place sight unseen, just to get me off their list and get their commission. They are also pretty weird about me going to see these places without them around, I’m not entirely sure why, but oh well, Mr. Feng is extremely helpful and he’s not getting paid for it, which makes me believe him a bit more.

I just assumed we were done and on our way back to the hotel, but about two blocks from the hotel, the van pulled down an alley and into a little side neighborhood. One thing I’ve already noticed is there are very few ‘residential’ type areas, but after looking a bit closer, my mind is getting pulled away from the big buildings and signs and looking down the darker side streets and gaps between buildings. These are the areas of life in China. The people live anywhere they can in the gaps between and behind shops. I noticed this first when walking around near the Forbidden City. These are the poor and huddled societies of the world, and cannot be described in the language of poets and brushes of painters, but must be viewed with the eyes of someone who has never seen and listened to with the ears of someone who has never heard.

This was one of those neighborhoods. We stopped and knocked on a door. I was really confused, what is going on here? Why are we stopping? This is when not being able to communicate hits me the hardest when I’m in a period of utter confusion. A lady answered the door & showed us around an apartment. This was her home, her and her husband were going to move out for six months if I needed a place to live. It was more ‘homey’ feeling than the last place, and most defiantly, closer to the ‘action’, but it was such a surreal environment and I really was having trouble comprehending what was going on. I’ve kind of given into the fact that I will not have the comforts of home and that I can live pretty simply, but when push comes to shove, there are a few things I really need. One is a clean bathroom. This bathroom was stricken with a color scheme of mold and calcified faucets. The bathtub was about the size of my suitcase. The shower came up to about mid-thigh with a steady stream of lukewarm water.

On our way out, the landlady said (through an interpreter) that if there was any room I didn't like, they’d change it for me & she’d come over to do my laundry and cook for me as much as I needed. This bend-over-backwards thing freaks me out a bit, it’s like when you’re talking to someone who’s really religious & really pumped about it and they wont stop shaking your hand and following you around (“This big sinner would be a great catch”). I was trying to get outside, but she ushered me over to a chair & brought me a cup of water, just doing everything she could to get me in the place. She’d be a great car salesman. I thought she was going to start cooking dinner, but finally after sitting there for a few minutes, we left.

I’m worn out & ready for the hotel to gather my thoughts and get some rest. Xinlei & I are staying here for the rest of the week, Marlow is going back to Beijing tonight, so I’m sure he’s ready to leave. But first, we have to go to dinner with the PC guys. We were picked up at the hotel around 6:30 and taken to a restaurant that had a whole wall of fish tanks. Not pretty fish tanks, but more of the food-storage type of fish tanks. We had a private room for dinner, it was really nice in there, cool air conditioner (which was immediately shut off), plenty of room (which is good, because about 10 people came in to eat, plus three waitresses).

Mr. Feng ordered dinner for everyone & the food started coming in droves. But first, they brought the ‘wine’. I have heard stories of the liquor that they call white wine here, so I was dreading this night, but I knew it had to come sometime. We each had three glasses at our table, one shot-glass size, one tea cup and one large orange juice sized glass. Naturally, I assumed that the shot glass was for the ‘wine’ and the other glass was for water/Coke or something, of course I was wrong. Both glasses were filled with the ‘wine’. I keep using the quotes to help with perspective (a sense of humor is the same as a sense of perspective and proportion). The ‘wine’ looked like vodka, and I was honestly hoping that it tasted like it because this shit made my throat quiver just looking at it.

Everyone that has traveled to China has told me that they toast and say ‘ganbei’ which means ‘chug sucka’. So, not wanting to appear more foreign than I already did, when Mr. Feng toasted us, I drained my large glass of ‘wine’. In the split second after chugging and feeling my insides set aflame, I noticed that no one else at the table did it, they all took small sips & were laughing at me like I was crazy, even Xinlei & Marlow. Apparently, this was not a ganbei, it was just a regular toast. I was immediately drunk. Once again, I am forced to put into words something that cannot be described. Upon contact with your mouth, this ‘wine’ (which has 60% liquor) begins to burn & taste like sweet vinegar mixed with fire. The thing is, the taste doesn't go away for about four hours, so I was tasting this crap until I went to bed. Plus, since my water glass was being used for this fire-water-piss-wine, I had nothing to wash it down with except hot tea. That was my first drink, but unfortunately it wasn't my last.

The waitresses see an empty glass as a sign of family dishonour, so as soon as I finished drinking, she came over and filled my glass right back up to the top. In China, it is ok to leave food on your plate, but it is not ok to leave liquor in your glass, so I knew I had to finish that glass before I could get up and go cut my tongue out in the hotel (like finishing your vegetables before the Muppet Show comes on). Luckily, there were nine other people in the room who wanted to make sure I knew that. Over the course of the next hour, every person in the room stood up & toasted me, welcoming me to Langfang/China/PetroChina/back from the bathroom, whatever came to mind. The thing about the toasts, the person picks who has to drink, so Xinlei & Marlow had their fare share of toasts, but most of the other guys just sat back and laughed. Finally, I finished my ‘wine’ and they let me switch to beer, which I drank three of right away to try to wash the taste of melted flesh out of my mouth, but it did no good.

Thoroughly tired and fairly drunk, I was ready for bed for real by now. Get into the van & we’re off, but not in the direction of the hotel. PetroChina has a volleyball team & Mr. Feng wanted to take us to the game & let us watch it for a while. It was quite a sight. A bunch of very official looking co-ed volleyball teams and a couple hundred people packed an outside court that resembles an inner-city basketball court. Lights strung overhead, people clapping & cheering, a generally happy place. This was a nice detour & I’m glad I got to see it, hopefully I’ll be able to come out some other night when I’m not so tired (and drunk). I also hope to get recruited to play on their basketball team. I’m fat & out of shape, but I’m 6’5”, and I’ll throw down on these fools.

Drive up to the hotel, this place looks like a casino, lights going up & down, flashing & changing. I get into my room & realize that they are right outside of my window, so in one window is a flashing yellow light and the other window is a strobe light. Close the blinds and like a child, close my eyes to avoid the darkness, finally, time to sleep. Every day I sleep later & later. This morning I slept in until 5:45. I was pretty worried about the jet lag, but I seem to be doing ok. My body has been through some roller coaster shit the last couple months and I’m pretty much pulling six month’s of all-nighters, so some discomfort can be expected. Four days down.

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