Sunday, December 04, 2005

Work Is Lame, But It Pays The Bills

September 25-30th, 2005
(if that gives you an idea of how far behind i am on posting this crap)

This week was one of the busiest and most stressful weeks of my professional career. Next week we get a 7-day holiday for National Holiday (clever name?), but before the break, I had a ton of work to finish, nearly all of it for the Beijing Gas project. We are delivering the project on Wednesday and I was having quite a few problems with the software/data/database. For most North American counterpart projects like this one, our company does the all the legwork for getting the stuff ready to go. But for this project, Beijing Gas hired a conversion vendor to do all the work and deliver the data to us by a certain date. This greatly complicates matters for several reasons.
First, the language barrier. They speak no English and the Beijing Gas project has not been blessed with a translator of Xinlei’s quality. This makes it very difficult to explain our anything technology or requirement based. Secondly, they are located an excruciating twelve hours from Beijing. This means that we can’t simply visit them and help them as they work; we are limited to phone calls and a once-a-week visit from their project coordinator, Mr. Liu. Thirdly, Mr. Liu is an idiot. He suffers from the great sin of pride and has difficultly admitting when he doesn't understand. This means that he takes our thrice-repeated requirements, which he doesn't understand, and communicates these to his staff, thus complicating the misunderstandings. Fourthly (is that a word?), they know nothing about GIS or pipelines. This means that they are just flying blind.
This past week has been a three-way tennis volley of emails, conference calls, visits and faxed tears between us, Beijing Gas, and the vendor, all in an vein attempt to get the data right. It just hasn't gone well and the above-described barriers tend to only magnify problems. If our staff found a problem, we would tell the person to fix it and it would be done in an hour. If we find a problem here, it’s a minimum of 24-hour turnaround. I had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to fix my problems and prepare a demonstration that would prove to Beijing Gas that we are deserving of the bill that we will be sending them. I realized by the end of the week when I sat down to write, that I was just piecing bits and piecing of my thoughts together, so this comes across like reading a businessman’s version of Naked Lunch.
Laura and Chris had stayed in Beijing trying to get their loose ends tied up - finishing documents, installing databases, drinking without me. Upon Mr. Feng’s requirement for Xinlei and I to stay in Langfang and dedicate my time to his project, I was in Langfang doing the double project tango. This week, we were required to be in the PetroChina offices for 8 hours every day (because Mr. Feng doesn't trust us to stay in town, so we have to ‘check in’ every day), then I go back to the hotel and work for about 10 hours on the Beijing Gas project, fighting the temptation to swan dive from my 15th floor suite. Even after three months, we still haven’t established any form of trust and it has worn me out, I am already frustrated, this just concentrates my anger on a simple target.
Sunday, Xinlei told Mattie that I didn't have any plans for the upcoming holiday and asked her to take me somewhere. That’s pretty a pretty forward request in my opinion, but I’ve learned that being forward is pretty much straight poker around this country. Later in the week, she actually did invite me to go on a holiday trip with her, but it was such late notice, that most mass transit means were completely booked. I was pretty flattered that she even thought to invite me along. This is the hottest chick to ask me to do something with her in my life. Instead, she asked Xinlei to rent a car and drive her, her roommate and myself on a holiday trip. She said she’s trying to set him up with her roommate. With the recent turmoil between him and his girlfriend he was pretty acceptable to the opportunity. Plus, he just got his drivers license, so he’s fired up about driving for four days. He’s been doing the real deal long distance relationship (she’s going to school in the States) and the rocky shores of a relationship are even more jagged when you can’t talk face to face with a loved one in times of trouble (at least that’s what I’m assuming, I’m not in love nor do I live a long distance from someone willing to have sex with me).
The day Xinlei got his drivers license, he rented a car for the day. Total cost of a one-day car rental here is about 150 RMB (less than $20 USD). You don't rent from Hertz or Enterprise; you just rent some guy’s car, which means that you’ll likely have to clean the stuff out of the car before determining it adequate for putting your ass on the seat. He rolled up to the hotel in Volkswagen Golf like a Formula-1 driver, squealing the tires and smiling from ear to ear. Security guards and bellboys were diving out of the way and I was laughing my ass off. He picked me up and we were off on all four wheels, at least at times. Over the course of the next hour, my good friend knocked over two bicycles (thankfully unoccupied, but the fact that they weren’t even moving is somewhat disturbing) and scraped his mirror down the side of a brand new SUV. All three of these incidents brought little more than a blink to his eye. In Kansas City, if you’re not white and have to talk to the police, you better wear a vest because they come in with guns blazin’. Over the weekend, I’m going to get a heavy dose of Chinese driving, so I knew I had to get used to it, I just hope I can get it out of my mind before stepping behind the wheel of my car when I get back home.
Monday (the day after organizing a trip with a girl), Xinlei and his girlfriend patched things up. He was in a great mood. Of course, I knew it may be interesting next week with this Mattie’s friend coming along on our holiday trip with the sole purpose of meeting him, but I suppose that just adds to the excitement. Plots can be layered over a story like rubber bands around a golf ball, if it’s tight enough, that thing will bounce for the rest of it’s life. He’s pumped about setting up a trip and driving us around the country for a few days. He’s going to be my Clark Griswold next week and it’s great to see him smiling and happy again.
Dave and Niall are leaving this weekend, which means I get a bike from Dave. Having a bike will make me instantly mobile. When you can’t communicate with taxi drivers here, you’re pretty much tied to anything within walking distance. It’s difficult enough to go grocery shopping without piling two hours of walking on top of it through groups of scattered ass and pimps in my neighborhood. Langfang has about 450,000 people in it, but it’s about the size of a 50,000 person American city, so if you’ve got a bike, you can go anywhere in the city provided you don't mind riding like a madman through traffic, which I don't. I remember when I was a child; living in Cheney, Kansas, my parents would let me ride my bike anywhere in the town, except on Main Street. It’s too busy and dangerous, they kept telling me. One day I let my friend talk me into riding down Main Street to save some time. Reluctantly, I rode down the road, staying as close to the curb as possible, when I heard a horn honking behind me. I turned, and there was my dad, or a ghastly devil version of my dad, with eyes like lasers and a face red as a tomato. Needless to say, my lesson was learned about riding on busy streets: Watch out for your father, he’s probably the worst driver on the road.
Monday evening, one of the hotel assistant manager girls came and talked to me for about one hour in the western bar, she doesn't speak English and it was painful. She’s about 19 years old and looks crazy as a loon. On top of the international psycho chick implications, the rest of the girls absolutely hate her and they just assumed that I was hitting on her. She had the mannerisms of a ten-year-old and was keeping me from drinking, so naturally, I despised her. After she left, Jenny and Sky wouldn't talk to me for the rest of the night, so I just left.
Later in the evening, I told Dave and Niall about what transpired earlier with the Western Bar Girls versus the Assistant Manager Girls and how none of them talk to me. They laughed and as soon as I left the room, told Jenny that I was so pissed that I was moving out of the hotel. In reality, I was a little pissed at them, but I’m not in high school anymore and in the grand scheme of life, I don't give a damn. I know this girl was a bitch, you could just see it in her eyes and my theory is that the only reason she spent that time talking to me was because she knew how much the others hated her (I dated a girl for four years just like that, lived with the bitch for two).
Jenny pulled me aside to apologize, she really felt bad because I didn't really talk to her all night. I explained that I wasn't pissed off, just a little upset because they were really cool people and it sucks when people just quit talking to you for being a nice person. Only with an open heart and free mind will you be allowed to float freely between people. Throughout the night, I got a couple phone calls and text messages from them apologizing again and again. Luckily, they weren’t waking me up because I had to stay awake all night working on my Beijing Gas presentation. Just another lame little distraction and side story that happens from time to time.
Mattie and I continued our text messaging throughout the week and she makes me feel nice, like drinking a glass of warm milk. She was very cool to me when I told her how stressed out I was in preparation of my presentation, she told me to relax and look at the stars and to remember that she was looking at the same stars. Now that’s some nice shit to say to a fella. I’m looking forward more and more to our trip and have high hopes for chemistry (once again, I feel myself setting my standards and hope higher than a reasonable level of attainment, but that’s par for the course for me).
By Tuesday night, I was still having work problems and had to abandon my problems in lieu of preparing for my demonstration Wednesday morning. Xinlei and I were to leave at 7:30 am for Beijing (we had PetroChina’s approval to leave Langfang for Wednesday only). I stayed up all night working on the demonstration. For me, there is nothing more frustrating than not being able to figure a problem out. The combination of dwindling time, sleep deprivation and frustration-sanctioned hate had put me into a 24-hour haze, a kind of continuous partial attention to everything with blurred edges; incoming data and stimuli enter into my head through my eyes and ears and placed in a growing pile marked “Data Backlog: Process Later”.
First thing in the morning Wednesday, I went down to get some breakfast and ran into Niall. He didn't recognize me because I was dressed ‘like a bloody businessman’ and got a good laugh. These guys here are used to see me running around the hotel in shorts and sweatshirts, tennis shoes and stocking hats, so when they see me with my shirt tucked in, painful ribbing ensues. He was leaving that day for another city in China for a few days, but will be coming back over the weekend and then leaving for good. We’ll probably have one more barnburner, spirit waking, rugby discussion night of drinking over the weekend, which I’ll be in need of by the end of the week. Dave will be leaving Saturday, so the two of us still have a few days of drinking left.
Nearly all the rest of the United Nations have left; the South African, the Austrian, the Swede with the Irish scotch that will curl your toes, the sperm sorter, the assistant sperm sorter, the deaf American, the guy from Uganda. I’m starting to feel like the last guy at the party who is waiting for a ride that is running late. Despite all of the stress these past few weeks, I’ve still been having a really good time with all things not related to work.
By the time Xinlei and I fought through the morning rush hour traffic in Beijing on Wednesday morning, it was nearly 9:30. Thinking back to my Data Model Unveiling meeting I had with PetroChina a few weeks back, I really had no idea what to expect. I was sure this thing would be overdone in some way, but I didn't care one bit, all I knew was that after today, this project is over, at least over for me (and that’s all I gave a shit about).
As it turns out, the only way it was overdone was in the size of the meeting room. The room was huge, which I think is just typical of Chinese business style, but there was only about seven people in there, and four of them were my colleagues; Marlow, Laura, American Chris and Mystic-Crackpot Translator Chris (who entertained me with stories of astrology last time I was drunk at Lotus Lane).
They were in the middle of discussing why the data was completely fucked up and things didn't appear to be going particularly smoothly. It seemed as though we had arrived in the nick of time; Xinlei and I know leaps and bounds more about this stuff than anyone there, if only from sheer repetitiveness with our other client and their child-like attention spans.
Laura spent quite a bit of time writing a document as to why the data was messy, with all fingers pointed safely away from us (and rightly so for once). Our job was not to capture the data; it was just to put it in the database - to polish the turd - if you will. But we also need to make sure we don't completely send the vendor up the creek (there’s a high likelihood that we will be working with these guys again somewhere down the line). We have to be honest without being brutal and hope that the facts will speak for themselves. While putting together her document, Laura was extremely frustrated by this point (as were we all), so I had to make sure she understood this, she was ready to write a scathing letter of anger as her project summary. Cool heads prevailed and the result was a good report.
Mr. Liu was trying his best to say it was our fault and it simply wasn't. Laura has not had much experience with these kinds of conversations with clients and the translator that was working with her was pretty worthless. Plus, Marlow was in the back row, checking his email and surfing the Internet. He was leaving that afternoon and his mind was already three time zones away.
I immediately wedged my way into the conversation and started explaining. Xinlei pointed to Mystic-Crackpot and told him to translate for me. I talked for about two minutes and waited for Chris to translate, but he just sat there. The guy is pretty worthless and as soon as he saw Xinlei, he thought he’d be able to just chill out and let Xinlei take care of everything for the morning.
“Chris! Pay attention! Translate everything I just said!” I nearly yelled at him from across the room (stifled giggles from Xinlei in the background).
So he started talking and explaining and was immediately cut off by Xinlei. Xinlei took the bull by the horns and took over for the Mystic-Crackpot, who was just clueless. After about five minutes, Xinlei and I had everyone in the room straightened out and we were kosher.
Note to anyone who will be doing work over here, get the best translator money can buy and stick with him or her, it pays huge dividends in the long term. Invest in them with industry knowledge, spend time with them outside of work, get to know them, become friends with them if you can (hold and caress them if necessary). Comfort between two people is important. Xinlei and I have that, and it goes a long way.
Laura looked over to me and whispered “Thank you so much.” I felt so bad for her; she has gotten thrown around this project and has weathered the storm admirably. In the past three weeks when working with me she has shown me how good and smart she can be (and has made me realize how lazy and angry I can be). Marlow has been a negative force against her the whole time because he didn't want to lose face, difficult to the point where it almost seemed personal. I tried my best to defend her and keep him from totally burning her down, but it’s difficult to do without starting an out and out fight. He had his own problems to deal with on the project management side, but he really didn't help the technical side of the project very much. I’d still like to deliver a horrorshow tolchok his gulliver.
Next was time for me to do my demonstration. Everything went as well as could be expected. I had about 90 minutes of material to go over, but after about 25 minutes, they had enough and stopped me. They liked what they saw and were happy. I know more about this stuff than anyone in China and I can talk about it all day long, I have a tendency to get to in-depth too quickly. I completely expected them to say that they were happy, and with the inner-knowledge that they would have no idea what was going on in reality, but I also knew that all of this will come back up when they’re deciding whether to pay us or not.
Pride and saving face in front of others here is a full-time job, they’ll always tell you that they understand and seemingly let you off the hook. But it will come back to you when they are having their internal meetings and trying to impress their managers by burning us to the ground. They have to save face there as well, but it will be in the ‘hard-ass supervisor’ fashion. I say that it happens everywhere in China, but it’s also very prevalent in the rest of the world as well (it’s just so much more pronounced here than the rest of the world). People spend so much of their energy trying to look important, hoping that their superiors notice it and promote them, if they would only spend that same energy learning and doing their job, everyone would be in a better place. People are also really quick to point how difficult their job is and not wanting to explain it to the next in line in a lame way to gain some sense of self-preservation. That’s fine with me; I’ll learn it anyway and roll them over. I prey on the weak and selfish.
After the meeting, Marlow took off to the airport and Xinlei, American Chris, Laura and I went to have lunch and bitch about work for an hour. Laura and Chris were leaving Friday or Saturday, but I was going to be in Langfang for the week, so I wouldn't see them, so we said our goodbyes and Xinlei and I headed back to Langfang, the city of smiles.
I’m going to get pretty drunk for the rest of the week.

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