Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Realities of Goodbyes

December 11 15 2005

So begins my last week in Langfang so ends my tour of duty in China. I've been so ripe with homeward journey anticipation that I have not fully comprehended how many friends I have here. Yes, this is the cheesy part of talking about how wonderful and shit everyone here is. A couple months ago, there was a possibility that I may come back next year for an unknown period of time. I mentioned this to several people around the hotel and they have taken my word as bond and keep asking me when I'll be back and how long and where I'll be staying and all that stuff, with clear eyes of excitement and misunderstood hope. Well over the weekend, the verdict was passed from the bailiff to the judge, and I will not be coming back to China, at least not in the foreseeable future. The second part of this project is in severe jeopardy because of our company's inability to follow through on software deadlines and for some reason they don't want me to just come back here and hang out for a year. The client wants me to come back for the whole year, however, they have not been told about the problems for next year. When they get wind of these problems, there is no doubt they'll never want me in their offices again, not because of the work I've done, just general disgust with our company. China is a dog eat dog world and I am walking around with Alpo underwear on (speaking of China and dogs, it is true, but not common). These things have a tendency to change several times, but for now, I knew I had to treat this week like it's my last. China.

Sunday evening I was called downstairs by Jenny because Mu Duo and Qianqian wanted to give me a couple going away presents. I didn't think I had it in me, but it made me tear up some, nothing noticeable, it may have gotten stuck in my subconscious. These girls have been my sanctuary from this insane country for six months now; they have been the smiling face to my sour moods, the laughter to my pain. Like the Grinch, my blackened heart grew four times to roughly the size of a piece of overcooked chicken.

Monday was somewhat of a boring day. Xinlei and I went to the office to have our last real meeting. Of course, they listed off a bunch of changes they wanted to make and, once again, I laughed at them. It was like a parting teabag, a little something to remember them by. We were asked to come back Wednesday afternoon for group pictures and then to go eat dinner. That meant that Wednesday I was going to have my picture taken and be forced to get wasted on that horrible, vile liquid that proves that the people of Big Red have absolutely no taste buds.

Tuesday night, Xinlei and I took Sky, Jenny and Carol out to dinner. We went to a pretty cool jungle type of restaurant. I brought an English/Chinese dictionary with me from home and it proved time and time again to be the best $10 I spent. It got worked over like a cheap porn and everyone was jealous of me, so on Monday night, I went and bought a handful of them to give out to people around the hotel. All three of these girls got one and they loved it. The food was good but the company was better. Over the past six months, Xinlei and I have eaten the spiciest foods in all the lands, of course all three of these girls don't eat spicy foods and, which we didn't know until after all the food was on the table. These three girls, along with Qianqian and Mu Duo have become my best friends here in China, next to my little yellow brother (his words, not mine).

Sky is the shiest person I've ever met. She spends about two-thirds of her life with her hands over her mouth in some sort of embarrassment, which has only increased in my presence. She's also the most polite. Every time she tells me how busy she is, or how much trouble she got from Hatchet Harmony for serving something incorrectly, I tell her that I'm sorry. It's kind of a normal reaction in America to something going bad. "My grandparents died in a scuba diving accident." "Ohh, I'm sorry." It's just a normal comment to make. Her response is always an emphatic "It's ok, don't apologize. It's nothing!" She is good and smart, but also sheltered at home by her parents. She's forced to work at the hotel despite her pleas of insanity and stuff, which is not uncommon in this country. I have been informed by many people that she has somewhat of a crush on me. My god that would be a crazy train wreck. It's probably a good thing that I hadn't known about it all along because I'm a sucker for booty and I would have ruined that poor little girl in some horrible way.

Jenny may be one of the funnest people in the world to be around (and 'funnest' isn't a proper word, but that's ok, Chinese people don't know that). She has the sense of humor of a ten year-old, but I attribute much of that to the communication gap. Plus, she enjoys telling me when she's having constipation problems, but she does it in such a cute way that it just cracks me up. Anyone who bridges the language barrier to talk about taking a shit is tops in my book. Jenny owns the title of the best-translated sentence since I've been in China. She was telling me how busy she was for the upcoming month with friend's weddings and birthdays and how many presents she had to buy for them. She immediately corrected her 'busy' statement to say, "Actually, I'm not too busy this month, but my money is swamped." What a great person.

Carol is going to school in Cypress for hotel management and speaks great English. She has only been around for the last five weeks of my trip, but she was a welcome change in the hotel. She has a great mixture of Western influence of European schooling and with traditional Chinese values. Her personality is a nice halfway launch pad for me before I go home. She drinks and swears, so naturally, I'm drawn to her and wish we had more time together, plus I'm totally jealous of her going to school in Europe.

I have made no attempt to hide my utter crush on Mu Duo. From the first time I saw her nearly six months ago, I knew I was in love. She speaks very very little English but has learned quite a bit. She is one of the hotel hostesses, which means that her job is to stand outside of the restaurant behind a lectern waiting for people to come and eat. This hotel gets about twenty people a day for any given meal, so she has plenty of time to just hang out. I slowly begun to eat up her free time by hanging around her teaching her English, laughing with her and trying not to act like a damn child. My biggest source of guilt during my time here was my relationship with Mattie and the look in Mu Duo's eyes when she saw us together for the first time. Her eyes unknowingly taught me that accepting substitutes for feelings is a bad habit to get into.

Qianqian is drop dead cute and reminds me of one of those girls who is just there to have a good time and socialize. Someone who everyone wants to be around because she just makes everyone feel good about themselves. Her English is horrible and neither of us care, we have spent hours together laughing and making fun of each other without the other knowing it. She enjoys using the rock-star-hook-'em-horns that I taught her and knows what Superfly means.

A handful of girls in the hotel are being forced to band together and form a dance team that will perform on New Years. It is quite entertaining, and since I will not be around on New Years, and have nothing else to do, I have started go and watch the practice sessions. After dinner, I met up with Mu Duo and we went to watch dance practice. I took some pictures, and despite the incredibly embarrassing dancing and even more embarrassing leotards, these girls were eating up the camera. It gave me an idea.

I still had two more English-Chinese dictionaries to give out, one for Mu Duo and one for Qianqian. They were both sitting by me and I told them that I had something to give them, but it was up in my room. The following paragraphs officially outs me as the 'creepy old guy', but that's ok, it's true. I really just wanted to spend more time with them in more of a relaxed environment (like my bed! just kidding, damn people). Their English is bad enough that it was difficult to explain without making them think that I wanted a massage or something, but eventually they understood and we were off. Of course, it is against hotel policy for staff to go into guest's rooms (someone should tell that to the beauty salon bitches), so we snuck up in the employee's elevator. Of course, it would have been easier to sneak up if I hadn't been there to draw suspicion because by the time we got to the 15th floor, about fourteen people had gotten on and off. Knowing the sophisticated gossip web that the hotel has installed, I knew that it would just be a matter of nanoseconds before the whole town knew about it. But what the hell, they are my friends and I'm leaving anyway.

When we got into my room, I handed over the dictionaries and they were literally jumping up and down in excitement. I had no idea that my five-dollar books would be so popular (of course, that translates to about one week's salary for them). They had a camera and so did I, and we soon began taking some farewell pictures. Enter next creepy guy suggestion, I suggested that they put some of my clothes on so that we could take pictures of each other. Nothing perverted (unfortunately), but they were pumped up and highly entertained by the size of my sweatshirts. We ended up taking about a hundred pictures each. Afterwards, they decided to clean my room. They went around and folded and put away all my clothes while I videotaped them (because I hate cleaning). Of course, they told me that they had heard how dirty my room was, but they were still surprised by the chaos of all my shit. That damn gossip web runs deep, I'm sure they also knew the size of my underwear and about my affinity for watches that don't work.

Next, I asked them if they would like to take a shower together while I ate chocolate covered coffee beans wearing a purple Speedo. But I forgot that there were no coffee beans in China, so we just scrapped the whole thing.

After we were finished (not in the porno sense of the word, just in the normal boring sense), they told me to keep the pictures secret because they could get fired from their jobs for being up there. This made me feel horrible. Getting a job in China is a pain in the ass, if you lose a job, there's no McDonalds you can go work at until you get another job somewhere else. If these girls lost their jobs, they'd probably end up turning to the Slutty Chick District. Of course that would be the straw that broke my back, because I'd probably be first in line to visit them (with a sack of coffee beans slung over my shoulder). I could probably support five of these people indefinitely from America, but that's beside the point.

After they left, I locked the pictures up on my computer and drifted off to sleep with visions of financially supporting a Chinese harem dancing in my head.

Wednesday was our last day in the client's office. We went in at the crack of 3:00 pm and sat through a painful demonstration of our software performed by the ever-smooth Mr. Li. The 40 minute demo took about 2 hours with constant interruptions coming from all directions including smoke breaks, pictures, constant cell phone ringing and housekeeper that needed to mop the floor.

After the software butchering, we headed off to my going away/project finished celebratory dinner. I knew this was going to be painful, throughout my six months here, I have witness time and time again foreigners returning to the hotel after a night of farewell drinking and the results have not been pretty. This would likely bedrafty fall evening. me on this

We headed back to the familiar steam-bowl restaurant, which is one of my favorites, where we had reservations in a massive private room with a massive round table in the middle. It just seemed fitting that my time in China should be ending in much the same way it began, eating and bitching about the horrible alcohol that is so popular around here. The difference was, I soon realized, my first time here I only had about three glasses of the firewater. Mr. Feng was having none of that 'pussy ass shit' this time around. Xinlei leaned over to me and said "You may as well be wearing a sign around your neck tonight, they're going to punish you dude."

And he was right, except that I wasn't the only one wearing a sign around my neck (and eventually a lampshade and at one point a waitress over my shoulders), it was his last day with these guys too, so he was there right beside me, drinking glass after excruciating By the time all of the gifts were handed out and dinner was over, Xinlei and I were totally wasted. It felt like we had been drinking for six hours, in reality, we had only been there about two hours (my Rolex said we had been there for 6:20 hours). glass of the booty wine.

I had been getting text messages from Mu Duo all evening and I was excited for a chance to go see her again, but these decisions were not up to me. After dinner, they wanted to take me to a real Chinese teahouse. I have to say, I was completely surprised that I had not been to one of these places so far. I just assumed that they were another whorehouse front.

Being as drunk as I was, my memories of the next unknown amount of time are somewhat hazy. In fact, most of what I put together was based on the pictures that were on my camera in the morning.

Anyone who has been drunk, really drunk, many times, knows about different forms of inebriation. Tonight was one of the drunks where I didn't think I was drunk until I went outside. That cold air hit my face and my head started spinning like a John Coltrane 45. Inside professional businessman quietly discussing marketing strategies, outside bumbling idiot with his zipper down trying to drunk dial someone who doesn't speak English. Going through the doorway into the outside air was like walking through a wormhole into Greenland. By the time we walked the two blocks to the teahouse, I could barely stand up. I just wanted to vomit and be done with it. I had lost all control of my body and all ability to reason. I wanted to sleep, I tried to pick up a rickshaw, my shirt was on backwards like Kris Kross and I think I bought an orphan child a beer. Had I ever been this drunk while the sun was still up?

When we finally got to the 'tea shop' (which I still thought was going to be another whorehouse), we were shown to a private room on the second floor.

"BRING ON THE BITCHES!! IF I CAN'T REMEMBER IT, THEN I WASN'T WITH A HOOKER!!!! WOO HOO!!!!"

The room had a handful of couches and a table with about five chairs around it. I fell into a couch and stood by for further instructions (by laying on the couch and trying to sleep). There was about twelve people with us now - all of the project people, a couple of the vendor people, one extra-large honkey, Dr. Dong, but I noticed my poor friend Xinlei was curiously absent. No worries, I've got that excess of confidence that alcohol creates in drunk people, in an unknown part of the city on my last day in town, I'll find my way home.

Even though this was a teahouse, I was expecting us to be presented with more booty wine (along with hookers), but I was incorrect. No booty wine, no hookers. This place was on the up and up (as far as I could see, which was about 13 inches in any direction). We sat around for about twenty minutes; a handful of people had migrated to the card table playing some sort of card game that I had no interest in learning. Eventually Xinlei made a brief entrance into the room, he sat down next to me and said, "I'll be back dude, I have to go throw up again." He then stood back up and disappeared.

In the end, he probably spent about 25 seconds in the room because the next time he came in, he sat down and told me he was leaving. Then someone came in and asked me if I had his car keys.

"Why the hell would I have his car keys? He has a car? That doesn't sound safe; there are a lot of pedestrians in China. Maybe we drank them." I suggested.

I have no idea how the car key situation turned out and am surprised at how little I cared. Before long, a tea waitress came in and sat down in front of a bunch of us and began to show me the tea-making process. Dr. Wang was my stand-in translator, I had no idea the guy could even speak English, looking back, I think that maybe I was actually fucked up enough that I was understanding Chinese.

The actual tea making process, works like this. Spend a ton of time making about two ounces of tea, then divide the tea into five cups (or shot glasses) and drink them over the course of fifteen minutes. There was also a part where smelling a cup was involved, but I think that Mr. Li may have just farted into a cup and handed it over to me.

After about an hour of this nonsense, I decided to leave. It was either leave or sleep on the couch and this was supposed to be my last night to sleep in the hotel, so I stood up and placed my foot squarely through the coffee table. I was only about two blocks from the hotel, but five of them insisted on escorting me in a taxi.

By the time I got back to the hotel, I re-realized how wasted I was. I looked at the clock and realized that it was only 9:00 pm; it felt like I had been drinking for ten hours. It was still pretty early, so I did the traditional drunk-foreigner activity, headed to the bar. I've mentioned before how I've seen every foreigner pass through the hotel show up in the bar after drinking all night and I always said that I would never be 'that guy', but there I was, stumbling into the bar and ordering more beer. I had two or three beers with some German guy whose name I had been struggling with for two weeks now. I'm sure I was very entertaining, just like all foreigners are after their 'last night with the clients' party. Eventually, I stood up straight, the way a drunken guy does when booze cowardly flees the face of whatever trouble it has caused, and vacated the bar and went to bed. I was upset that I didn't get the chance to see Mu Duo that night, but in my advanced state of drunkenness, it was probably for the better. Sober girls usually don't think I'm as cool as I think I am when I'm wasted for some reason.

I woke up at 9:45 am the next morning to a massive headache to the realization that I had lost my backpack with several important things in it - computer, passport, money and my extra coffee. This sent me into a mild frenzy and I sent Xinlei a message about it. He replied back that it was in his trunk and that he was on his way to drop it off. I got a call from the moving company that said they were on their way to my room to pick up all my shit. There's nothing like waiting until the last minute. All of this could have been avoided if my company's totally useless Human Resource department hadn't screwed around for almost two weeks to approve my coming home. At one time, they actually had the nerve to ask me if I wanted to just carry all ten of my boxes with me to the airport.

He stumbled into the hotel, the Chinese mirror image of me hung-over and mangled from uncomfortable vomit-riddled sleep and sat down next to me. Our breakfast consisted of one bite of watermelon and half a cup of coffee each. Our conversation was not the normal high-energy banter that had made us friends; it was more of a series of grunts and hazy turns of the head. Drink together, recover together. But not today, I had shit to do and he wanted to go back to bed, so he took off and I began my last day in the hotel.

Thursday was to be my last day in the hotel, so I was getting hugs and stuff everywhere I went. My crusty hangover and rancid odor just didn't seem to stop these people. At breakfast, I talked with Qianqian for about fifteen minutes and she started crying on the spot. I would be leaving that evening for Beijing where I would stay the night and leave first thing Friday for the airport. I decided to leave Langfang a day early because of the vast unknowns around here when it comes anything travel related and the unknowns of saying goodbye to people you can't talk to.

The movers came around 11:00, so I spent the morning trying to coax some initiative out of my soul to get my shit packed and sorted out. I need two piles, things I'm taking on the plane with me and things that I'm shipping. The stuff that's getting shipped will not be back in my hands for about six weeks. I loaded up one box with all the gifts I've received over the last couple weeks (gifts that will be re-wrapped and given out as Christmas presents in two weeks), all the books I've read, and all of my summer clothes. I've read every book I brought, I even finished the painfully boring Lord Jim, and so I picked one book to read on the airplane, and threw the rest in a box.

By the time the movers got to the hotel, I had everything packed and ready. They took about 15 minutes to slap another coat of tape on the boxes and took off. At the last minute, I decided to have my bicycle sent home as well. I was going to give it to another expatriate here, but I haven't seen the guy for three weeks. I didn't want to just leave it, it's a great bike and now that it was on its way home, I was even more glad I decided to send it back.

I had created a pile of stuff that I'm not going to take home with me and decided to donate it to various people, rather than just throw it away. It pretty much consisted of my fan, an iron (never taken out of the box), a handful of bathroom stuff (much of it left by Mattie), a grocery sack full of coffee packets, and an envelope full of money. The most curious to most people is probably the envelope full of money. Over the course of six months, I've accumulated a load of, what I call trash yaks. These are bills of one yak or less (China actually has 1/10 yak bills). One-tenth of a yak converts to 1.25 cents (US cents), I probably have $30 worth of trash yaks and have no interest of taking them home with me, I have tried to give them to Jenny, Sky and Mu Duo and explain to them that I just don't want them, but they get pretty freaked out by the whole idea. In fact, everyone has been pretty freaked out by my offer of giving away a bunch of stuff. Luckily, Carol has a great understanding of English and I could explain it to her very well. The deal worked out to this I would bring it down to the bar in unmarked sacks and leave it there and they would pick through it, but not when I was around, plus no money should be in there. What a crazy bunch of loonies. I decided to hand over the money to Xinlei for tolls, I knew he'd understand and would give me no trouble over it.

After my final lunch in the hotel (the key word for the day was 'final'), I stood around and talked with Mu Duo and Qianqian for a little while. They had developed the pictures that they took in my room the other night and wanted me to sign them all (like a damn NBA player). This was kind of strange considering that they were pretty adamant of me not mentioning our 'picture party' to everyone. One last chance to have a little fun, I got kind of creative with the captions. "You're the best cheerleader of 1993!!!" or "Mommy made me mash my M&Ms" or "No time for the ol' in-out in-out love." After a while, Carol came out and told me to hang around a bit because the hotel food and beverage department wanted to give me something.

The General Manager came out and handed me a bag with a couple pieces of cake in it and a card. She said a few words that were translated by Carol and I gave her a big hug, which embarrassed the shit out of her (she's old enough to be my mother). Carol told me that the reason everyone here likes me is because I'm a rare creature that combines foreigner with approachability and people here just don't get that very often, compound that with my extended stay and child-like nature, it's no wonder I'm a hit.

I spent about a 1 hours in western restaurant just hanging out, I was actually going to go take a nap, but Jenny and Sky got pissed that I wasn't going to hang out with them all day on my last day in China. Jenny and Mu Duo kept sneaking off to go to the back room and cry. Carol was kind of bothered that I was not getting any more emotional. She kept asking me if I realized that it was my last day and that I would never see them again. I tried to explain to her that it is a very emotional time for me, but I'm also getting pulled in a million directions with work, moving and trying to say goodbye.

After a couple hours of hanging around, Jenny, Sky, Carol and Mu Duo got off work, so we all went up to my room to hang out for a while. I was still pretty hung over and kind of wanting to sleep for an hour or so, but I knew I'd have plenty of time for sleep on the airplane the next day. I had about two hours before leaving and we all sat around and chatted for a while. Even after all this time, it was obvious that these girls were still somewhat uncomfortable around me, but that's to be expected, I'm a freak and they were in my bedroom.

Around 6:00 pm, I headed downstairs with four girls in tow to begin the checkout process. Checking out of a hotel in China takes about half an hour. During my checkout process, a group of nearly-former roommates had gathered in the lobby, watching me intently. After I got done checking out (just a side note, my previous 5 weeks of food at the hotel came to just over $200, that's three meals a day for over a month plus bowling, drinks, billiards and 'hair cuts'), I began my official goodbye tour. By this time, Xinlei had shown up and was waiting patiently out by the car. He wanted to make sure to give me enough time to say goodbye and to let me go at it alone, which was a really cool move on his part, I still can't get too emotional when a bunch of dudes are hanging around, call me old school.

I started at the Seafood Sunshine restaurant and went through the Western Bar, hugging various people, shaking hands and watching the tears roll. There were many people crying whom I had never even talked to, which made me feel like shit. I ended my farewell tour at the VIP restaurant, I gave a handful of people hugs, Mu Duo and Qianqian were crying uncontrollably, stuttering terms of endearment in English between tearful sobs. I was only holding on by a thread by this point and realized that all of the anger and desperate desires to go back home from the previous weeks had I wanted to stay with these people; I didn't want to go home. I think this is a pretty common feeling that people get when saying goodbye, it's a matter of short-term ease. It is easier to not say goodbye and sleep good for one night, than to say goodbye, be sad for a short time, and move on with your life with the things that need to be done. completely vanished.

By the time I had made my way outside, Xinlei was waiting and we loaded up and headed off to Beijing for the night. Langfang faded in to the dusty and cold background and I cried to myself. I knew that it would to be close to impossible to keep in touch with any of these friends; fourteen time zones, the fact that my local telephone is a Sprint which makes it a significant accomplishment to successfully call next door, let alone absence of computers or email addresses for these poor people. Like most relationships, the passion and the contact and the memories are heavy and constant like rain in the beginning, gradually reducing over time, eventually disappearing altogether, leaving only the skeletal remains of a friendship and love that meant so much at one time. I knew that some day I would wake up and realize that I have not thought about any of these girls for as long as I can remember. I don't know what made me more miserable at that moment; knowing that I was saying goodbye or knowing that a year from now I probably wouldn't feel sad about saying goodbye.

Xinlei and I were going to go out to dinner and we called Mattie and invited her to come to with us. Over these past three weeks, Mattie and I have seen each other once and talked to each other maybe four times. Her manager has come to China from Denmark and she's spent every waking minute with him, I can't call her because she'll get in trouble and she's been living on two or three hours of sleep a night. During this time, I've been surprisingly fine with the reduced contact. The final chapter of our relationship was pretty anti-climatic, but surprisingly true to life. I have realized that flames of passion will fizzle and die and it is possible to not be broken down in grief by these things. We still talk to each other on and off, but it gets less and less with every passing week. I feel guilty because my feelings say that I'm no longer interested in pursuing her in the same courting way of a month ago, but it wasn't the first time that my feelings were battling each other and it most certainly wont be the last time. She has been super sick since her manager had left town, sick enough to be in the hospital getting IV drips several times a day, one of the side effects of getting one hour of sleep every night for three weeks straight I assume. She is sick by nature, as much as I've been sick, she's been sick twice as much as I have over the past months. She had just gotten out of the hospital and her and Sherry were going to meet Xinlei and I for dinner.

I decided that I did not want to waste my last night in Beijing by staying at that wretched Celebrity International Hotel so Xinlei hooked me up at a spot about half a block away, which was We were both hung-over pretty well still, so we choose the American hangover cure liberally apply nasty greasy food to stomach. The only place for this in our vicinity was TGI Fridays, about a block away from the hotel, so we went and waited for Mattie and Sherry to show up. perfect.

Dinner was kind of strange; the four of us (same people from the Mongolia trip) just hanging out, like the boring final scene from a movie that wasn't very good. Because she had been so sick, Mattie was very weak and tired, plus my hangover made me want to sleep so the conversation was kept in low to non-existent tones. It made me sad to think about how things had worked out between us. It was like 90% of the our energy went into the first 10% of the relationship, but, once again, I think that is also fairly typical for doomed relationships.

After dinner, Xinlei drove me to my hotel. Mattie and I stepped outside and said our goodbyes in front of the hotel entrance.

"Please don't ever forget me." She whispered to me.

"I wont, I promise." I said, "I can't forget you, you're a wonderful person and I had a great time with you. I just wish we had more time and that things were easier for us. We both know that I may never come back here, but I promise you, if I do, you'll be the first to know."

"Thank you for everything, I will miss you." She said.

"You are still my beautiful princess, my little tiger cub and have the most beautiful eyes in the world. Goodbye beautiful, I will miss you."

We embraced, kissed and said our goodbyes. Because of our fleeting emotion of the past month, it wasn't a teary or long goodbye, nothing that will ever show up at the end of a movie or at the end of a book. But at that moment, I knew she was leaving my life and that I would probably never see her again. That brought the total of friends I would never see again in my life to about 50 in one day, not a good day for friendships.

With a heavy and thoughtful heart, I spent the next two hours on the phone with making my last minute travel arrangements and talking to my family. It's much more difficult when you have to rustle up someone to pick you up from the airport, and even more when you need to get to your parents city, three hours away, to get your car.

The theme of the day has been spaced around saying goodbye and realizations about the facts of not seeing nearly all of these people again. How many people have come into your lives over the years and you have just never seen them again? How often were you aware that you were seeing them for the last time? I would guess very rarely. If you knew that this conversation was the last one you would have with someone forever, would you say something different? I think so. Would you even want to know that it was the last conversation? A much trickier question, the first reaction would likely be an emphatic 'yes', but after further review, many people would change their answer to a reluctant 'no' I think. Think about the stress that could result from that knowledge. We all have romantic notions of being poets and saying things that will be remembered for life or written in books of great quotes, but the fact is, most people just aren't that quick or intelligent enough to say something memorable and the burden of knowledge makes people even slower. So during the entire encounter you are too preoccupied with the inconvenience of this knowledge and the actual conversation will lapse into something forced and pathetic. In the end, you will look back on the time, not with wonder and excitement, celebrating a friendship, but with a slight embarrassment, knowing that it just didn't go as well as it could. On the other hand, if you didn't have that knowledge, the last conversation can be beautiful and relaxing (or at least only as painful as a normal conversation). Looking back on this conversation you will be left with memory of the discussion, and mostly hope. Hope that your paths will someday cross again; hope that you will be able to say "It's been so long, remember that last time…" hope that the person is not gone forever, just away for a while.

Communication skills are something that are often overlooked in today's high-tech world, with emails, international mobile phones, video conferencing and mail order brides. Business and project schedules have made it so we can't afford to waste the time for face-to-face talk with someone, being able to look into their eyes without the hum of a computer and pixilated features. This is fine for work, who gives a flying fuck about colleagues, but it has quickly grown into our personal lives. The people of this century are rapidly losing their communication skills, but no one seems to notice it when you're on a conference call. Communication is more than speaking and listening, it is saying something and understanding. It is looking into the eyes of your companion and letting them look into yours. We are becoming robots, transferring data in the most efficient way possible without regard for the beauty of our minds, without thought of becoming interesting or artistic. You don't notice it until you meet someone with horrible communication skills. I notice it in young people all the time and I hope they notice it in themselves, or maybe that's just where the 'those crazy old people' thoughts come from.

Someday this wave has to crash. Where will you be when it crashes? On low ground in the streets of a dirty city trying to send an email, or up in the mountains, writing about life or talking about the world that with which we have been blessed. The lucky ones will be able to look and see the high waterline where the silicon and circuitry of man failed this world and where nature took over. The world has destroyed more powerful creatures than humans for millions of years, we're nothing more to it than acne on a teenagers face, just a part of it's growing up, here today, gone tomorrow.

Tomorrow I've got ten hours on an airplane to contemplate my past and my future. I will ignore the immediate present because there is nothing exciting about sitting on the cheapest seats that the airplane has because my company will not let me upgrade.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Work Is Lame, But It Pays The Bills: Part 2

Our actions under stress and pressure that reveal our true selves, not our actions when all things are cherry. Unfortunately, I have had my true self-revealed time and time again during my stay here in China and the outcome is not pretty. The PetroChina project has been moving along like a well-oiled machine for about three months now. There are smiles; laughs and beautiful women follow us around town as we walk. My experience has taught me my past karma has a wicked whiplash when things seem to be going this good and happy times are bound to be short lived.

To understand my problems, I must first explain my job again. I design databases and help clients learn how to use them. These databases build maps, it’s called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and it is probably a major at your local university (that you have not heard about). Before they can use them, they must put all their data into the databases. In a way it is like a car. If you want to buy a car, someone must first buy all the pieces of the car, then assemble them and put gas in the tank, only then can you put your Great White cassette in and rock out on Broadway. The car company is responsible for putting the pieces together to build the car, but it is up to the consumer to put actual gasoline in the tank instead of Natural Light. This means that I am a car company, the putting the pieces together represents the database, and the client is the consumer that doesn't know what Natural Light is.

The first six weeks consisted of us working together as a team to design the database. The following three months consisted of me building the database and getting it prepared for the clients. This meant a lot of hotel working time with headphones blasting. The kind of work I love. The past six weeks have been the final stage of our project, taking data and filling the tank with it. The client hired a vendor to get the data ready to put into the database and we helped oversee that process. This vendor happened to be the same vendor that screwed up our first project, but I was determined to force quality work down their throats like a greased pig.

It is probably important to note that the final product can usually not be any better than the pieces that make the product, which in this case were represented by a pile of sticks, some napkins with scribbling on them and an empty pack of Kools. Considering what they had to work with and when confronted with constant confrontation and criticism from Xinlei and I, the vendor did an admirable job and ate up our requests with enthusiasm and actually produced a decent final product – Kool-man: a stick man with a pack of smokes as a body, carrying a white flag (actually, a bunch of spreadsheets and other boring shit). The date of November 25th had been set as final data delivery date. This would give us plenty of time to push the Kool-man into the database and test the software for a couple weeks before getting out of Big Red. The data was delivered on time and I was still feeling good and beautiful women were still following us around.

Enter conflict stage right. First, the client decided they needed a bunch of data base changes, a process that was required to be finished over a month ago, a deadline that they apparently just ignored. Up until the final data date, I accommodated them as best as I could, but I had to set the this date as the drop dead database change date, the agreed upon schedule backed me up (which is a first for this project), but past dealings with these guys had set the stage nicely for last minute changes (see ‘Last Minute Dinners’ and ‘Last Minute Grape Picking Trips’ and ‘Last Minute Foot Massages’ and pretty much every other chapter I’ve written so far).

Employees of transmission companies are often quite lazy; they are the oil and gas industry’s version of government workers. As a consultant company, strict requirements, tight deadlines and late nights of work are pretty much par for the course, so it can be frustrating when you cant get one tenth of the level of dedication out of the people who are buying our stuff. China is no different, if the manager is not in the room, nothing gets done (actually, they do an admirable job of reducing the number of un-smoked cigarettes in China). As soon as the manager returns, everyone gets down to business, but because they haven’t been paying attention for six months, they are totally clueless.

To complicate the finishing process, they will not allow us to put their data on our computers, which means that we have to put our software on their computers. When asked about this, Mr. Feng’s response was this – “If you had our data, what is to keep your government from bombing our pipelines?” I can't make up a quote that good. I had to explain to him that I wasn't a personal friend of Mr. Bush, but I can understand his concerns. Last week, Mr. Feng sent an official email request for getting a copy of our software on a trial basis to facilitate database delivery and data loading. This means that we would install our software on their computers without them paying for it and load the data, then uninstall the data before leaving their offices at the end of the project. Let me rephrase this statement. We will turn over our software to them so that they can copy it and I will be able to buy it at the Silk Market for roughly the cost of a macadamia nut and a Chicklet.

Big Red, as mentioned previously about one thousand times, is not known for their business integrity. To fight this, the western world has adopted a process called ‘obfuscation’ to keep their mitts off our shit. Obfuscation is a software encrypting process that prevents prying eyes and hands from accessing the software code, thus duplicating the software. Because of the difficulty of spelling ‘obfuscation’, I will hereon refer to it as ‘encryption’ or possibly ‘mixin’ up them their letters’. Of course, our software has not been encrypted yet and it is my company’s business policy to not deliver any software outside of America unless it has been encrypted properly. Unfortunately, this is not a simple process and can take up to six months to accomplish. So, in order to install the software, we would have to make an exception to our company’s policy, which is not out of the ordinary, but we just have to get approval from all the proper channels.

Mr. Feng’s email sent a wave of internal company notes, meetings, conference calls, notes tied to the legs of pigeons, and more emails. In the end, it was approved and I was allowed to put the software on one computer in their office (despite my warnings, company politics prevailed). Part of the approval process included a special trial version contract that states things like – PetroChina agrees not to duplicate the software and we will uninstall it when we leave plus about fifteen pages of legal jargon that will be used as scratch paper in their office and is about as exciting to read as eating lead paint chips.

Before installing the software, we had to get Mr. Feng to sign this document. Of course, in true Chinese style, he didn't want to out and out sign it, he kept it on his desk for a week and when I confronted him about it, he said that he wanted Mr. Li to sign it. That’s kind of like having one of the White House housekeepers signing a NAFTA treaty. After minimal arm-twisting, he reluctantly signed the document. This is yet another example of how no one wants to be the ultimate person that is held responsible for any action around that deals directly with their job description, he’s the damn project manager for the department and was trying to slough this off on a run-around office grunt.

The next morning, Xinlei and I went to their offices to install our software so that we can finish our project and get the hell outta Chinatown. Without boring everyone with the details, our software requires about three other programs to work. As it turns out, all of these programs on the client’s computer were illegal pirated versions of the programs (I think ‘illegal pirated’ is a double whammy, if the pirates find out you’re stealin’ their shit, there’s going to be hell to pay). The only reason I found this out was because our software didn't work and the breadcrumb trail led to a stack of burned compact discs emblazoned with the familiar markings of a Sharpie.

Anyone who has delved into the depths and dark recesses of the online world of music, games, software and goat pornography like I have, knows that the Internet has single-handedly kept honey baked hams and wine on the tables and love in the hearts of the good men and women of Sharpie Inc.

Upon pressing them for the actual release disc of the software, they freely admitted to not having the installation disc because they had not paid for the software. This is not good. In fact, this is potentially very bad. Picture this if you will, the world software and computer manufacturers find out that my company (a worldwide conglomerate with more than 300,000 and less than 15 billion employees) was helping a client install pirated software and turning around and performing week long training sessions on said software at a clients site. I am a simple man, a bit of an alarmist at times, but simple as the breeze, and I didn't have a clue what I should do, so naturally I called Kansas City and ruined my boss’s Thanksgiving to ask his advice.

I had to tell the clients that I couldn't even touch that computer until the legitimate software is installed and my nerves soothed. They reluctantly agreed to get the real software and have it in place by the next morning. This likely means that they’ll just find a better-pirated version of the software. This is yet another example of how different it is over here. They just don't care. They had no malice in their words, they didn't flaunt the facts, but they sure as hell didn't hide them either. They answered my questions with a straight face and open eyes.

The next day, they successfully negotiated a legitimate version of the software from the other software company (as far as I could tell). I wonder if they told them that their illegal version just didn't work very well. Regardless, after about fifteen minutes, we had our software up and running.

About this time, I was asked to get client confirmation from our finance department that we had finished stages 1 and 2 (of 3 stages) of the project. These have been done for months now and the confirmation was just a formality. I sent Feng an email requesting his response and went to his office to discuss. Knowing his affinity for signing official documents, I was sure that this would go smoothly and painlessly as head transplant surgery.

As soon as we got to the office, Mr. Feng immediately changed the subject of our meeting. He asked me to sign a letter of recommendation for the son of PetroChina’s Vice President, who is trying to get into an American university for graduate school. I should say that I have never met this young man, but the letter read like this:

Mr. Yang has played a large part in the development of our GIS data model and performed above and beyond expectations with the GIS software and software programming applications and is more than an expert. In my time working with him, he has excelled beyond that of other employees and would be honored to have him admitted to your university.

Mr. Feng wanted to put my company’s logo and the PetroChina logo on the document and send it off. He said it would look beautiful. He already had my name on the document with a nice large Hancock-esque space for my signature. Of course, never meeting the guy, I really don't think that he has worked on my project. I was taken by surprise and had no idea how to react. I told Mr. Feng that I would have to ask my boss if it was ok for me to sign the letter, knowing full well he will say no. In fact, if I signed that letter, I could be ‘relieved’ of my position immediately. He then asked if I could sign it, not as GE, but just as me, Lucas.

This put me in an extremely uncomfortable position and there was no way in hell I was going to sign this. Even if it meant disaster for this project, I have to maintain my personal and professional integrity. I worked fairly hard to get through school and there is no way that this dumb prick was going to get a free ride to a better university than I could ever go to based on my recommendation. The only reason that he was trying to get into an American school was because he wasn't smart enough to get into a Chinese school. Most Americans don't realize that many of the foreign students are foreign just because they couldn't get into school in their own country, not that it matters all that much. Even stupid Asian students have better study and work ethics than most American students, which is why American’s are consistently outperformed by China’s bottom 15%.

By this point, we were about one week behind on loading. If they would just let Xinlei and I loose to finish things up, we would be free and clear. But alas, this day was not a day for luck.

After I told Mr. Feng that I couldn't sign the document, he suddenly informed me that his email wouldn't work to send me an email, so he would be unable to confirm that we have completed the first two stages of the project. Suddenly, beautiful women are not following me around as much.

We were still desperately trying to get started on the data loading, but they started out by ignoring our verbal requests for a couple days; it was only after I sent an email to everyone about the effects of further delay was I to get any reaction from these lazy people. We were over a week into the process and hadn’t made a single step towards even starting our work.

This is when Mr. Feng assigned Mr. Li to load the data and load the software. Trying to be nice, yet continue to tell some version of the truth, I will say this; Mr. Li is an idiot, his computer skills are comparable to his basketball skills and my love skills. The guy has barely paid any attention to the whole process, but has been given an unbelievable responsibility as the non-official database professional for the department, but all he’s really concerned with is where he can put the ashtray where it wont interfere with the internet surfing.

The next few days went extremely slow while we painfully tried to explain what we were doing and keeping these guys from ‘trying to find a better way’ to do stuff. When they paid attention at all, they were horribly confused. Some things just aren’t learned well with six people crowded around a computer. Once again, every time Mr. Feng was there, they were paying all kinds of attention, but when he was gone, work came to a complete halt.

Then, like a ray of sunshine on a dying plant, the department had four days of meetings, this gave Xinlei and I four days to get everything loaded and probably saving the project from certain disaster. He’s got a good technical head on his shoulders and could work with very little supervision, which allowed me to work on our project summary document.

By Thursday, we were finished and things were looking good. I sent Feng an email explaining everything that happened and discussed our plans for the remaining two weeks, which were mostly centered upon getting a good demonstration ready for our software running on their database.

Xinlei called me that evening and said that we were to report to the office in the morning to go over a bunch of database changes. This sent me into a white-hot rage of swearing and throwing stuff around the room. We ‘froze’ the data model several weeks ago (‘freezing the data model’ means that we don't make any changes to the system so that we can put the data into it). Now, I have two weeks before I leave and they want me to change a bunch of shit. To top it off, Xinlei spent a whole week getting everything in the database and working correctly. Changing the model is not a simple process; you basically create a brand new database and redo all of your importing. A real buzzkill.

I was so pissed that I couldn't even sleep that night. I knew what I had to do the next day and it wasn't going to be pretty. I was going to be forced to tell a client ‘no’. This is something that happens more often than most people think, but it’s never pretty. It’s a simple matter of this; we write a contract that has a specific list of tasks that both parties are responsible for. We include in this contract a schedule. The schedule says how long each task will take and when it will be finished. Every client in the entire world tries to get more out of the contract than they are paying for, it’s called ‘scope creep’ and it sucks ass like underwear creep. So in the morning, I was going to go to the office and pull the underwear out of the ass of this project, thus stopping scope creep. This is one of the things that my new position requires me to handle, before it was always my bosses that took care of it, now all the sudden, it’s me. I have a whole new respect for those rich guys (but not much).

In the morning, I went in with a helmet and flack jacket preparing for potential war, but it turned out to be just a bunch of questions, no actual model changes. Feng wasn't there, so we discussed our finalization plans with Li and Zhou. I was relieved, but I knew that we just avoided the subject, not actually addressed it. It would happen, it’s just a matter of time.

Like I’ve mentioned before, these guys insist on having their employees do all demonstrations, which I can understand, but Mr. Li got held down and raped by the management last time for his presentation, and that one had nothing to do with the software, he only had to read a PowerPoint that I wrote for him. If he is going to survive this, he is going to have to let Xinlei and I be his trainers, like Rocky. Even then, we better keep the Vasoline and pressure paddles nearby.

My plan was simple, in a true effort to prepare Mr. Li; I would have Xinlei work with him for two weeks on getting him familiar with the software. He has never seen the software and has very little knowledge of map-making in general, so I wrote a demonstration outline and him and Xinlei would work together in preparation. I would be there for technical and moral support, but this would be their game. This was an excellent opportunity for Xinlei to learn more about the software, which he immediately realized, so he was on board. We explained this to Li and Zhou and they said that they had meetings all the following week and wouldn't be able to be there. They wanted me to put together the complete demonstration script for them and just hand it over before I left next week. I’ll be damned if I’m going to write this thing out, these guys are so lazy.

Monday morning, we went in to discuss our plan with Mr. Feng and to see if we could secure a few hours a day for Li to work with Xinlei. Mr. Feng said that it would be no problem and that Li would be there every day for us. He pretty much outed Mr. Li for the lazy ass he is.

After that, things began to go downhill.

“Ok, Luke, Wednesday or Thursday, we have a new set of data coming in from the field that we need to load into the database.” Mr. Feng said.

“Ahhh,” I thought, “They delayed the attack from Friday to Monday to catch me off-guard. It worked like a champ.” This is the tricky conversation that I had hoped would just go away, but here it was. I was the victim of the ol’ boxing okeie-doke.

“Mr. Feng, if you remember, we set a date for all data to be delivered to us, that date was almost two weeks ago. That means that we have already frozen the database and just wont have time to load it all.” I said, hoping that he wouldn't shoot me.

Then Mr. Zhou chimed in and said, “Ok, well we have a different new set of data coming in Friday, we need to updated the database with that as well.”

Jesus man. Is that data? Yes it is. That means it will have to wait until next phase. Remember you guys, this is a pilot area. That means we’re just getting stuff into the computer to make sure everything works, next year is the year that we get all of your data in and complete and up to date. I’m sorry, but I just can't do this. This is putting the project deadline in severe jeopardy and I don't have the authority to do that.”

After a few minutes of deliberation between everyone, Xinlei translating back and forth, he turned to me and said, “Feng accepts, but he doesn't like it.”

“That’s good enough for me. Let’s roll bitches!”

The next week featured Xinlei and I desperately trying to get Mr. Li to pay attention. They worked on their own most of the time, calling me in when needed. By the end of the week, Xinlei had practically built the demonstration single handedly and Mr. Li had successfully negotiated all boogers from his nose. We actually had very few data problems and even fewer software problems, which is always an unexpected surprise in my company.

This week Mr. Feng had also started interviewing for a position in his department. This seems pretty normal. What is not normal about it is that he’s had me sit in and perform the English portions of the interviews. A new requirement for many business level jobs around China is English skills, which I have. They have a test called Chinese English Test (CTE), which has 6 levels. Level four is required for college graduation; six is required by most businesses. All of the applicants are CTE-6 approved (or whatever it means when you pass the test).

Can you imagine the shock to a poor college student, coming into an interview, to see me sitting there ready to grade their knowledge of the English language?

The Chinese job interview process pulls no punches. The job market is so competitive that an employer can put out one job opening and have over one hundred applicants in the first week. The thing is, probably 75% of the applicants are more than qualified for the job, so the employer runs through a series of filtering and interviewing procedures that probably wouldn't fly in America.

First, he requires all applicants to send in a picture. It is common to ask for a second picture if the first one is not good enough. By the time a person gets to a face-to-face interview, it is often a group interview. The first interview I went to had five applicants on the same couch. Because English is a big part of the job requirements, Mr. Feng had me run the interviews. Of course, not knowing what job they were applying for, I was extremely unprepared (I had been notified that I was to help with interviews at 9:00 am and the first interview was at 9:30 am).

“Mr. Feng, what am I supposed to be asking them?” I whispered.

“Just test their knowledge of English.”

“Ok, here goes.” I said, turning to the first poor soul. “How are you?”

“……I’m sorry?”

“I’m sorry, let’s start easier. What’s your name?”

“……I’m sorry?”

This is going about as smooth as the first class I ever taught in college.

“Just talk to me in English. Say whatever English words you know.” Mr. Feng translated for me.

“Hello, five, n’Synch, hippopotamus, thank you.” He replied confidently.

“Kudos on the big word man. Thank you.” On to the next guy.

Eventually, Mr. Feng mercifully started to take over and ask questions to them. He required them to talk in English and it actually got better. I think they just needed the Chinese accent. The English was pretty bad, but it was better than my Chinese.

Some of the questions that were asked were surprising to me. I haven’t interviewed for a job in quite some time, but I’m pretty sure that North American employers can't ask many of these questions.

“How old are you?”

“Do you have a girlfriend? Where does she live? Do you have sex with her?” Apparently establishing heterosexuality is a must.

“What does your father do for a living?”

“You don't have any Japanese in you do you?”

When it was all said and done, I sat in on three group interviews and have no idea why. He asked me my opinion of them and wanted me to rank them, but I just didn't know. This is another thing I just wasn't comfortable putting my stamp of approval on. The people that were getting interviewed were software programmers, technology engineers, web designers, all kinds of high-end technical people, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the job. Mr. Feng didn't care, he just wanted to hire someone with an impressive job title, just so he can have a programmer, even though he’ll be cleaning the bathroom and taking notes at meetings.

Next week is my final week in China. I have quite a load of stuff to get wrapped up before going back home; it is kind of the reverse of all the crap I did to get to China in the first place. Among the things on the list are crowd favorites like, packing clothes and books, trying to get the movers to the hotel to take my stuff, arrange my flight home, arrange for someone to pick me up (which is already proving to be the most stressful part of the trip), and of course – say goodbye to everyone and sort out my life. As ready as I am to be home and away from this place, I can also feel the sadness of leaving setting in.