Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Peoples Republic Of Meeting Rooms

August 23, 2005
Housekeeping games were brought to an abrupt and embarrassing halt Sunday when I found out that Xinlei is friends with one of the housekeepers on my floor. Good thing I found out now, because they would have been really pissed at me if they walked in just as I was putting the finishing touches on my to-scale tofu and napkin based version of a 1968 Cadillac.

Tuesday was an excellent lesson in business culture, that is, if you were paying attention, and since I don't speak the language, I had about 9 hours to soak it up. To officially finish the first part of our project, Mr. Feng wanted to organize an ‘experts’ type of meeting with all the management for PetroChina. Details were sketchy and I really had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me.

The previous Thursday, I worked with Mr. Li on a PowerPoint presentation that he would deliver to the management people. I put together a slightly watered down version of a huge presentation that we give other companies and wrote comments about each slide for him. I didn't think much of it, we’re asked to give presentations all the time in Kansas City, but Xinlei told me that this was an immense honor and a very good thing for Mr. Li. Mr. Li is a bit younger than me; he’s fairly tall and has a voice deeper than Barry White. He wears shorts and flip-flops to work every day, smokes in all meetings, so naturally he’s my hero. The best part about it is that once I turned the presentation over to him, I was officially off the schedule, which means that I didn't have to come up with something to say, and I could just sit there thinking random thoughts about nicknames for the people in the room.

PetroChina rented out a hotel meeting room (but not in my hotel, so I got to visit yet another hotel). Marlow was to leave the country on Wednesday, so he came out to Langfang for the day to say his goodbyes and help us have a presence of more than two people.

The meeting room was huge, and how they got the table into the room is beyond me. The dark oak table sat about 45 people, with a microphone in front of each seat, a row of chairs all around the walls, several flags at one end of the room, projectors and fresh cups of hot water all over the place. Plus, sitting on each seat was a bag full of unknown goodies.

These bags have begun to baffle me in some stupid way. In the Langfang International Home of Hutmacher, they have meetings every day. Every person at every meeting gets one of these bags and I’ve always wondered what they contain. I’ve learned so much about the hotel services industry, but these bags have been a hard egg to crack. The bags are the type of bags that we use in America when you’re too lazy to buy wrapping paper and wrap the presents (just like me). They are featured at every gathering of more than three people China-wide and are more common than chopsticks and more popular than Jesus (just like the Beatles). They always feature the logo and name of the company putting on the meeting, or the store that you bought the clothes, food, shoes, knives, whatever at. I’ve been busted at least three times trying to look into one, it’s always assumed that I’m trying to steal one, which makes me want to get my mitts in one more than anything and the fierce security around the bags leads me to think that there’s money or an amulet of power in there.

There they are, I will finally get my chance to crack into one and receive what I have rightfully earned. As I walk nervously towards one of the bags on the Tuesday morning, trembling with anticipation of what color and powers the amulet may possess, someone stopped me again.

“I’m sorry sir.”

“What?! I’m actually supposed to be here this time! I want my bag!!!”

“Jesus, ok, I was just going to have you sign in sir.”

“Ohh, yeah, right, ok… here …Agador Sparticus, from Wisconsin. There, we cool?”

I resumed my slow, memorable walk to a bag at the table. Slowly, bounding, momentous. Then I was stopped again, this time by Mr. Feng.

“You cannot sit at the table, you must sit in the outer rim.”

“What? Ohh, ok, gotcha, sorry thanks.” (“Sorry, Thanks” is my typical response for everything I do here in China. This serves two functions, an apology for screwing something up, appreciation for setting me strait without arresting me. I use it about 35 times a day.)

One more time, slowly, around the table, exciting, fear, agony, pain of the unknown, quivering knees and shaking hands. Damn, this is a long walk, screw it.

So I sat down and grabbed a sack and poured it out on the floor like a child on Christmas morning dumping his stocking full of candy and toys and underwear (thanks pop…). A quick account of the contents were slightly disappointing. Here’s the official list: One pen, black; One Notepad, white; 10 Post-It notes, yellow; One schedule, Chinese; One PowerPoint print off, Chinese. That’s it. The total contents contained no gold, amulet, not even an elf or a kitten. I was totally bummed (but I still immediately put all the stuff in my backpack, the pen may be a magic pen, I’ll have to test it out when I get back home).

After waiting around for twenty minutes or so, the meeting was set to begin. I was pretty much expecting it to be similar to a meeting we have in North America, which usually consists of a presentation and open discussion, but I couldn't be further from the truth. The meeting started with the Vice President of Operations of PetroChina giving a welcome, followed by a five second applause, exactly five seconds. Next, the Senior Project Manager guy did the same thing, followed by another five-second applause. This went on for about five people. Twenty minutes into the meeting is when I first felt like I was going to fall asleep. There is something about the relaxing timbre of the Chinese language that is like taking a sleeping pill. I get the same feeling watching NASCAR, or listening to Dave Matthews desperately tries to ‘rock-out’.

Looking around the room, I started to take account of the people who were here, assigning my own little stupid nicknames, then planning on altering them as needed throughout the day. There was Gabriel, the gay officer, Elvis, Drunk Bobby, whistling Charlie and so on. I did notice that there were only three women in the meeting. I wasn't completely surprised by this; in fact, I really kind of expected it. China is a very sexist country, and women’s rights are pretty much reserved for all things food related (serving, making, delivering) or hotel related (cleaning, booking, staring at white guys), so it’s good to see some of them getting their feet in the door in these types of industries.

It would have been an easier day if I could have taken my computer out and worked or written a book (I doubt the headphones would have gone over too well however). The level of honor given to this meeting was pretty impressive, no computers, cell phones or anything. Total attention to the topic of the hour. We should be so lucky to get this sort of support from management when we ask their opinion or advice.

There were two PowerPoint presentations. One by Mr. Zhou who did a 45-minute presentation on the goals and achievements of their GIS (GIS means Geographical Information System, which is what I actually do for a living, copy and paste into your favorite non-pornographic search engine to find out more mind numbing details.) Keep in mind, everything is in Chinese, the slides, the schedule, the language, so there was no way I could have understood what they were talking about. However, every slide had some level of familiarity to me and I couldn't put my finger on it, until, like a scream in church, I realized it. These were all GE slides; this PowerPoint was obviously plagiarized from one of my company’s presentation. In reality, this presentation probably has no value, but I’m again reminded of the fate of everything we sell this country. It will be copied, redone, re-stamped with another name and practically given away.

After the first presentation, we had a ten-minute break, exactly ten minutes. It was kind of like being in prison and getting prodded by a poker or smacked with a book in school when you’re late. I was so nervous, I only went about three feet from the front door of the conference room.

Outside the room, Mr. Li was awaiting his big presentation. He speaks a little English, so I went up to wish him good luck. This guy was a nervous wreck, he was actually breathing deeply and shaking his hands out to try and relax.

“I’m so nervous Lucas” he stuttered.

“Hey man, don't worry about a thing. Just remember that you know more about this than everyone and I’m right here if you get in trouble, just ask, you’ll be fine.”

I tried to sound encouraging, but he was making me nervous for him. This was his first every presentation. Lucky for him, presentations here seem to be 100% guaranteed uninterruptible. That means that he will be able to speak his peace and then be done. No questions, no interruptions, no cell phones, nothing. Just a hot room with canned lights above every seat, warm bottles of water, cups of boiling water to quench the nerves, the hum of the projector, the microphone that reverberates your voice unnecessarily around the room, the silent eyes of 60 people watching, judging, staring, glaring, nostrils flaring at your imperfections.

Other than that, he would be fine.

His presentation was…I don't really know, I found out how to get the internet working on my cell phone, and since I was banished to the back row, corner, behind the shadows of the sound system, I was trying to figure out how to check my email for the next hour. Before I knew it, it was lunchtime. I was starving, so we helped them take the bloodied corpse of Mr. Li to the dumpster and got our grub on.

There was some question as to if PetroChina really wanted us to stay for the whole day or not. Often in these meetings, they like to have a ‘closed door’ portion where they boot us out of the room and talk about us. Apparently, it was blaringly obvious that if they wanted to talk about us, they could just speak Chinese and we’d have no idea. So after a two-hour lunch, we returned to the room for the afternoon discussion session.

Discussion sessions in North America consists of kind of an open forum where everyone brings up points, others agree, disagree, reply, laugh at (that’s my job), whatever. They can get out of hand if the meeting isn’t very well organized, but generally, the end product is better for the wear. This is what I was expecting for the afternoon. I expected to be asked a few questions or be looked at to help explain certain things, just kind of be the expert guy from the Evil Empire of America.

Once more, I couldn't be further from the truth. The ‘discussion’ consisted of this: one person would turn his/her microphone on and talk for five to ten minutes, then someone else would do the same, then someone else, until everyone was talked out. Using Xinlei, I was able to see that nearly all people said the same thing.

“I want to thank Mr. Feng and his team for their hard work. I am very much in favor of the database design and I think this is a good starting point and look forward to learning more in the future.”

Then the next guy.

“I want to thank Mr. Feng and his team for their hard work. I am very much in favor of the database design and I think this is a good starting point and look forward to learning more in the future.”

And so on, and so forth for two hours. There was really no actual ‘discussion’, even though several good questions did come up, no one made any attempt to answer them and no one seemed concerned that there was no answer.

All of this discussion was isolated to who I like to refer to as ‘the table folk’; the people important enough to sit at the table. Everyone else sat there silently, listening (and often sleeping). I downloaded Pac-Man.
During the first presentation and introductions, I noticed one of the guys from our meetings running around taking pictures of everyone talking and a girl running around with a little digital voice recorder, placing it in front of whoever was talking. This continued throughout the entire day. If you were given the floor, you got your picture taken and everything you said was recorded. This probably accounts for the lack of creativity and proactive thinking from the discussions.

We finally got to Gay Gabriel’s turn. This homo turned his turn into a 25-minute rant about something. He was lisping and all kinds of stuff, arms flailing, neck twitching, it was pretty strange. I’m impressed that I could detect a lisp in Chinese.

Xinlei turned to me and whispered, “I think that guy is faggot.”

YES! Two things, I guessed right earlier, and Xinlei is using the word ‘faggot’ now, which means another one of my minions is learning Luke-speak well and using it in his normal life.

I knew Gabriel was bullshitting, because no one was paying attention to him, it was the equivalent of reading names from a phone book in a Congress filibuster. This guy appears to have mastered what I like to refer to as the idiot’s defense mechanism. So many people in my company have this down to an art. Here’s how you master the IDM: Firstly (and most importantly), you must know absolutely nothing about what’s going on. This is the most critical step for obvious reasons. Secondly, you must feel the need to talk anyway, so that no one suspects that you’re an idiot. Thirdly, learn buzzwords and use them incorrectly and repeatedly and talk for way too long, so as to bore anyone listening to death. Fourth, believe that you’re successful at your mission. And lastly, step five; fool no one (except for others that have no idea what’s going on). Optional steps are: make more money than me and get a promotion, continue to not get fired, repeat steps 1-4 at all gatherings of friends and family (not necessarily step 5).

Our company is running two projects simultaneously in China, one is Beijing Gas, and the other is PetroChina. Both projects are basically the same except for time constraints on the Beijing Gas project. The strange thing is that the same company owns both companies. Both companies are paying us quite a bit of money to develop databases for their needs, but they both want the databases to be basically the same. Even though they’re based out of different cities, the project managers of both projects talk quite a bit about progress, database status, cock size, typical things. The company as a whole could have saved several hundred thousand dollars by combining their forces into one ultra-powerful Voltron type project, but they opted not to. Even though this was the PetroChina meeting, there were several people here from the Beijing Gas company that were listening intently and examining the database with a very interested eye.

The project manager for Beijing Gas is Mr. Wong. Throughout the day, he continually proved that he knows more about our system and functionality than anyone else in the company. He hit me up with legitimate questions and took a genuine interest in my answers. His project is the project with the extremely aggressive schedule and I hope that we can pull it off. I’ve been in the consulting role on that project for the most part, quick phone calls, advice etc. But as the project wears on and the time runs out, I’m being pulled into it more and more. He’s a good guy and I could easily work with him, so I really don't mind, of course my company knows that too, so I’ll be getting leaned on pretty heavy in the coming weeks to help out.

Finishing up the day around 4:00, we headed back to the hotel. On our way out, we were invited to dinner with all the bigwigs. It goes without saying, these sorts of dinners are very important to client/contractor relations. I’ve been to several of them in America and South America. They usually involve good food and heavy drinking, which just happen to be two things that I excel at. I hate these damn last minute dinner invitations. This happens all the fucking time. When work is done for the day, I’m done, all I can think of is getting back to my room and drinking coffee until I fall asleep. They usually give us about 20 minutes notice and it pisses me off every time. I the kind of guy that just likes to have due notice of what is required of me, even if they told me at lunch, I would have been fine with it, but 20 minutes is a bit short to keep me in good spirits.

This restaurant featured the largest dinner-round table I’ve seen since being in the country. It sat 25 people comfortably and had a bouquet of flowers in the middle that was about the size of a hot tub (this later turned into a hot-tub sized ashtray unbeknownst to the flowers). At each seat was a pot of soup sitting on a flame, which signified one thing to me. FIRE BOWL! This is the best food in the country. I’ve had it with Xinlei a couple times and each time I ate myself into a stupor and I planned on doing it again tonight (short term dinner notice dinner spirits rising gradually). All this food would be required if I had any hopes of staying sober with all the booty wine that was lurking in the shadows of this private restaurant room.

We all sat down and one by one over the course of about 45 minutes, the bigwigs started showing up. Each as late as their position is high. The final person to show up was the president of the company. Somehow I ended up sitting in the boss area of the table, so I was kind of surrounded by VPs, CEOs and PMs and all the other business acronyms that we hear every day in these troubled times of greed.

Finally, it’s time to eat. I was about to eat my chopsticks. The waitresses had been bringing food in for the last hour; raw meat sitting there, waiting to be boiled in the lovely stew that has been boiling over the open flame in front of me for the last half hour making me sweat profusely. I’m about to get ass deep in some fire bowl, here it goes….

All the sudden, someone starts talking. I say someone because I had no idea who it was. I’ve noticed that in meetings when someone starts to talk, I have no way of telling who it is unless I look at each person one at a time and see if their lips are moving. Everyone sounds the same (except for Gay Gabriel the Filibuster King of Langfang). The more people around, the longer it takes me to isolate the source of the words that I don't understand. This room has roughly thirty people in it, so I have to move quickly, the clock is ticking and this guy isn’t going to talk all day (hopefully). To the untrained eye, it may look as if I’m just not paying attention, casually gazing around the table, off in my own little world. But in my head, I’m frantically trying to solve the puzzle of the unknown voice. I’ve been doing this all day, but at the dinner table, I’m not second row any longer, I’m right in front. A couple times, the person was finished talking and I never did find out whom the voice belonged to. This time, it was the President (I realized that if I just followed everyone’s eyes, I could find the location much easier).

He held up his glass to a toast, I held up my glass along with him, no one else in the room held their glasses up and they all briefly stared at me. I put my glass down quickly, right onto my cup of tea, spilling the hot tea across the table and creating a noise similar to a jackhammer in a crystal goblet shop. All gazes returned to my once more, and unfortunately not for the last time.

It’s cool, I’m cool, we’re cool, you’re cool. Carry on Mr. President, you were saying…. Thus begin dinner and my steady decline into an unknown drunkenness with typical results for someone of my size and dexterity.

We had about five toasts with the nasty booty wine right away. Each of the top dogs got their shot; we all held our glasses up and hit them on the glass table then took a shot. My throat was on fire and my stomach empty.

Finally, people started eating and I dug in like an Ethiopian at The Sizzler, shoveling handfuls of raw meat into the boiling pots, waiting impatiently for them to cook enough to eat. Pulling it out with the chopsticks, dipping in the dipping sauce and then cramming it into my mouth, only to find out that the simple dipping sauce was liquid fire. This sent me into an immediate coughing fit and sent everyone else at the table into an immediate laughing fit.

Several times during dinner, the actual eating degenerated into a drinking festival with everyone walking around toasting each other. I finally finished my glass of booty wine and switched to beer (everyone else had switched to beer long ago). The president of the company started it off by going around toasting everyone in groups of two or three at a time. He even toasted me, saying that he has heard all about me and wanted to go to dinner with me sometime. He’s very busy, but he promised that we would go out to dinner. Xinlei said that that was a pretty impressive honor and that if it happens; it’s newspaper type of news. I actually felt humbled and honored that this guy, who is the boss of several thousand people actually knows who I am and wants to kick it with me. Should be another great experience, but I doubt it’ll ever happen.

The Chinese culture has it’s own distinct form of dinner etiquette. As far as the actual eating process, everything goes; elbows on the table, smoking while others are eating, eating with fingers, belching, farting, shirt and shoes optional, spitting on the floor, eating off others plates, it’s kind of every man for himself. I like it. But the etiquette comes from the toasting and listening. When someone toasts you, you’re supposed to toast with your glass below his or hers as a sign of respect, especially when the person is a higher officer than you. Certain times call for the opposite, like when the officer is truly wanting to thank you; these times the officer will toast the glasses evenly, or even (gasp), below yours. Of course I didn't know this until much later. The president toasted me and I did it like I’m used to, smacking glasses and tilting the glass back the ol’ maw. This did not go unnoticed. When the president is toasting, everyone is watching you out of the corners of their eyes. Eventually I learned to just hold my glass and wait to drink until the other person drank, much safer.

By the end of the night, everyone was toasting everyone. Here’s to America, here’s to China, here’s to your nose, here’s to my nose, here’s to the waitresses, here’s to the flowers, basically anything that came to mind. Needless to say, we got pretty wasted. The lackeys from the other room came in and made sure to toast the president, it kind of looked like a little choir behind the guy, singing Christmas carols (except with beer in their hands and cigarettes hanging from their mouths). The people in the lackey room were totally wasted, I should have ate with them, they’re used to my social mistakes. Everyone has to toast the new guys, especially if you’re Americans. I probably had 15 beers and was still going strong.

Then out of nowhere, the president said something and everyone just got up and left, stumbling into the street, arm in arm, singing our own songs, beer on the breath. Dinner was over as fast as it started.

This dinner was Marlow’s last night in China. He’s been ready to leave for the past three weeks, his wife hates it here, and he’s sick of the food and living out of a hotel room. He hates China, not because it’s China, but because it was China where he realized that he’s tired of traveling and this country will always be that place for him. I can see where he’s coming from, unlike me, he’s got a life back home in Canada. It was a good night and a good sendoff for him. He’ll be back in a month or so to help us finish off the other projects. I’ll still be here, trying to settle into my new routine of living in a hotel.

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