Our family's stay in Shanghai, China

Archive for March, 2012

The Ancient Warriors

Rows of life-size terra cotta soldiers stretched uninterrupted front to back in this pit. The horizontal divisions were not original and archaeologists have left those as boundaries for their excavations.

Toward the front of the tomb. The timbers enclosed the opening which had a ramp to bring in the soldiers into the tomb. The opening was sealed with the timbers and dirt when the tomb was completed.

Last weekend we went to Xi’an, and it was an absolutely amazing trip.  It’s in northern China, and was about a 2 hour plane ride to get there.   Compared to other cities, it’s not very big, but compared to cities like Indianapolis, it’s huge.  There are about 8 million people there, and it’s where the famous terra cotta warriors are, that were discovered by a group of farmers in the 1970’s.

Horses with charioteers behind them with their arms outstretched. The wood chariots and reigns have rotted away.

There are other emperors’ tombs in Xi’an, the other one we saw being only one of 2 that have been excavated.   It’s not quite as famous as the first, and there are several differences between the two.  We visited the more famous one first.  In the 1970’s, a group of farmers were digging a well, and fell into the tomb.  They looked around, and were stunned to find themselves surrounded by the remains of the terra cotta soldiers.  Archaeologists flocked to the scene, and worked hard to get the tombs open to the public.  Work still continues, though much slower.  The soldiers we saw ranged from being whole, to still being in pieces.

A terra cotta archer, kneeling. The kneeling archers were found almost entirely uncrushed and intact. Since they were lower, the collapsed roof structure did not crush them.

It was amazing to stand in a place where people had stood hundreds of years ago.   Emperor Qin Shihuangdi believed in afterlife, and created huge life-size soldiers, horses, archers, chariots, and anything else he thought he’d need.  It took about 11 years to create the whole thing beginning about 221 B.C., and it’s pretty incredible seeing how much was created.  But the soldiers weren’t found all in one piece.  Shortly after the emperor died, a peasant rebellion started during his son’s reign.  The rebels partly destroyed the tomb by burning the wood supports above.  The warriors, horses, and chariots beneath were crushed when the wood supports and clay roof fell in, but with careful excavation, archaeologists were able to piece some of them back together.

All of them are life-size, and each one different.  No two soldiers have the same face, and were modeled after whomever sculpted them.  Their shoes, hairstyles, and clothing depicted what rank they were, and they were arranged just like they would be in real life.

Reconstructed soldiers not yet back in place in the tomb. The white labels specify their location. Note the different hair styles which relate their rank in the army. Also, the height of the toes of their shoes vary with their rank.

The biggest tomb holds more than 6,000 terra cotta figures, many of which are still buried.  The main reason for that is because oxygen makes the bright colors on them fade away.  The archaeologists are trying to find a way to save the colors before continuing to unearth them.  Even though the emperor in charge of it created such a masterpiece, he was known as a cruel leader.  He unified China, but was cruel to the people.  And many believe the workers who constructed the tombs and terra cotta figures were buried alive, so no one would know the tomb’s location.  They have also found several empty pits that they believe were never filled because the emperor died suddenly, and no one wanted to do the work.

A partially excavated area of the tomb. The timbers for the roof structure rested on the dirt walls (foreground and background). The blackened dirt is from the burning of the roof structure during the peasant uprising. The square tiles on the floor of the tomb are original.

Several of the main tombs have been excavated, but the emperor’s tomb hasn’t been started on, and there are no plans to.  They believe he constructed a river of mercury around it, and that it isn’t safe to excavate.  The most amazing part about his tomb is that it’s a huge hill, all man made.  When you see it, you can begin to understand why thousands of people worked on it and the rest of the tomb.  The astonishing thing is how such a work of art could be lost in time.  No one knew the soldiers existed until about 40 years ago.  For hundreds of years, they remained buried underground, undiscovered.

The soldiers were placed in the same formation they would have been in in life, including an outward facing row on each side.

The round opening in the center is a grave years after the tomb was demolished in the peasant uprising. In front are reconstructed soldiers. In back are the crushed soldiers caused by the collapse of the roof structure when it burned.

At the second tomb we visited. You can see terra cotta animals in the foreground and the terra cotta people in the background. They believe the arms were wood and they wore actual clothing, both of which rotted away over time. The photo is a very small snapshot of the huge number of terra cotta people and animals that were found in the tomb.

The other tomb, called the Hanyang Tomb, was by a less famous emperor Liu Qi of the Han Dynasty.  He became emperor in 156 B.C. The figures in his tombs were much smaller, about 1/10 the size of a person, and because their wood arms and cloth clothes had rotted away, they’re now armless and naked.  The fact that they’re smaller than the others signifies that the emperor was compassionate, not wanting to spend a lot on himself.  Soldiers, animals, and chariots were all discovered, and many are still buried.  They’re protected behind sheets of glass so the humidity can be controlled, and keep the figures from crumbling.  There were fewer figures in than in the other tomb, and the emperor was more practical by taking more animals for food.  The empress also had a tomb, though hers was much smaller because the emperor had a higher position.

We did a tour through a company called Tours by Locals that works with locals to lead tourists around certain cities and areas.  Our guide was incredibly nice, and she spoke Mandarin, and English fluently,so she could translate.  And she was able to tell us more details about both tombs, more than what was on the signs.  It was an amazing day, and definitely worth the trip to Xi’an.

An re-created scene of a pit with the terra cotta soldiers you can have your photo take with to make it look like you're actually in the pit with the soldiers.


The 600-Year-Old Wall

Looking along one side of the wall on the top. That's Laura and Mom bicycling away!

The outline of the wall in Xi'an is clearly visible in this satellite image on Google Earth.

Last weekend, our family went to Xi’an.  It is a city southwest of Beijing.  Our flight took about 2 hours from Shanghai.  The taxi driver drove through a large city wall to take us to our hotel, which was in the old part of the city.  The wall was built around the city about 600 years ago.  It still goes the whole way around the old city, but Xi’an is much bigger now.  There is also part of a wall in Xi’an that was for the emperor’s palace, because it was the capital city of China during more dynasties than any other city.  Only part of the wall is left though.  Xi’an is a city of 8 and half million people, so the old brick walls are only around the old city.

One of many sets of steps from the ground to the top of the wall. Laura and Jenna are at the top to the right of the steps.

We went to Xi’an mostly to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  I wanted to go because I had read about them in my National Geographic Kids almanac.  We also went to a pagoda in a Buddhist temple.  We climbed up, and by the 7th floor my legs were tired!

A guardhouse in the southwest corner of the wall.

The wall around the city is 40 feet tall, 40-46 feet wide at the top, and over 8 miles long.  There were 98 guard houses, 120 meters apart.  They were all very detailed, with curved up sides and columns painted red.  The wall had signs that told you about the bell tower and the drum tower, 2 places we also visited while we were in Xi’an.

We learned that people used to take bricks from the walls to fix their homes.  The government has fixed the wall so people can enjoy it now.

One of 18 gates in the wall, but not all are open for tourists to go onto the wall. This one is on the south side.

There were gates on every side of the wall.  Each gate has several big arches that cars can drive through.  We went up onto the wall by the south gate.  A courtyard had 2 sets of stairs on either side of the tunnel.   When you got out, you could get up to the top of the wall.  Guards dressed like they would have a long time ago were in the tunnel that led to the courtyard.  We found bikes, but they were too big for me.  Mom and Laura got one for each of them.  They rode one way, and Dad and I walked the other way.  There were lots of people walking and biking on the wall.  They even had little electric cars that you could ride around the wall on.

Looking down the side of the wall from the top.

While we were walking on the wall, we saw a huge cloud of smoke.  Dad and I went towards it, because we wondered if the one of the guard houses was on fire.  But it was a building that was on fire, not part of the wall, and we were not in danger.   We got close enough to see the damage, water spraying it, and hear the sirens.  There was a lot of smoke but it blew away.

This was so much fun!!! Dad ran along beside me in case I started to fall.

Mom was sneaky and took Laura's picture biking on the wall. Laura doesn't enjoy having her picture taken.

We went back to the bicycle booth to rest while we waited for Mom and Laura.  We moved a little farther later.  Soon, Mom and Laura came along.  Mom made her seat go all the way down so I could ride.  I had not ridden a bike in a while, so it was really fun.  I rode for about 15 minutes, then let Laura bike back to the booth while I ran along beside her.

When we walked back down the stairs we could see people getting their pictures taken with the guards. Mom took mine with them and then we walked to dinner.

Laura and Jenna in one of the pedestrian gates in the wall.

I had a great time, and would be glad to go back to the wall in Xi’an.

Jenna with two guards dressed in period uniforms. Their demeanor seemed to be in period costume as well because they didn't smile at anyone.

Xi’an, An Historic Chinese City

A remnant of the brick wall that surrounded the emperor's palace

Last weekend, we traveled to the city of Xi’an (pronounced Shee en), China, in Shaanxi Province, north of Shanghai and southwest of Beijing, to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.  If not for the warriors, we probably would not have traveled there, but in reality enjoyed everything else we did just about as much as the warriors.

Xi’an has about 8½ million people and more than twenty Chinese universities.  A guy at the coffee shop described the city as “historic” and it’s a very accurate description.  Xi’an was the capital of China during more dynasties than any other city in China starting with Emperor Qin Shi Huang from the Qin Dynasty who fought wars with neighboring states to unite China under a centralized government.

Jenna looking at the astounding size of the terra cotta army in Pit #1. The rounded opening near the center of the photo is a grave from years after the tomb was built and subsequently destroyed during the Peasant Uprising.

An excavated, but unrestored area of the tomb. The round impression on the left was created by a wooden chariot wheel. The figures were crushed during the peasant uprising when the roof was burned and collapsed into the pit.

Our first day was a tour to two tombs, Emperor Qin and Emperor Liu Qi of the Han Dynasty.  The emperors believed in an afterlife, but also believed you needed to take what you needed to that afterlife.  So they prepared elaborate tombs during their reign.  Laura’s blog has more details on these sites, but the magnitude of the terra cotta army in Emperor Qin’s tomb is astounding. Even though the largest pit is divided into squares for excavating, the rows of soldiers seem to stretch on and on.  It was interesting to see the excavation work at the various stages:  soldiers, horses, etc. restored and placed as they would have been; partially re-constructed soldiers and horses; pieces laying on the ground; tubs of dirt and clay in the process of sorting to sift out all the pieces and then areas of the pits with the soldiers still in pieces as they have been for hundreds of years.  Some pieces are missing.  The chariots and parts of the weapons were made of wood and have rotted away.  Some of the soldiers are missing body parts or have holes where the terra cotta was too broken to repair. Even though we had researched the site, nothing really could prepare us for its sheer magnitude.

Looking at the main entrance into the group of caves from the caves' courtyard.

Emperor Liu Qi’s tomb was incredible, but on a smaller scale.  The numerous rows of figures, even though much smaller than life-style were still pretty amazing.  This emperor chose to take livestock of all sorts with him and the tombs or pits have rows and rows of cows, horses, pigs, goats, etc., numbering in the thousands.  Here too you saw the excavations at various stages and it was interesting to see their work and how much they had done in just a few years.

Entrance into one of the caves

The other place we visited on Saturday was a cave dwelling.  Our guide tried to take us to caves that are still inhabited, but the narrow roads through villages are not ready for automobiles.  However, our guide did talk to a gentleman in his 70s who showed us abandoned caves where he used to live.  It was a group of caves for three families.  They also had a separate cave where the animals stayed.  We walked down a slope to get to the door.  Each family’s caves opened onto a courtyard where they had a cistern for drinking water.  The cave openings were bricked up with clay, clay bricks and wood doors.  This gentleman lived there until the 1960s and there are still people living in caves in China today.

This is the courtyard of this group of caves. The brick form between the trees is the cistern. The opening high on the wall on the right was protection for the families. A ladder allowed the family to climb up to hide and they would pull the ladder up with them.

Looking into one of the caves, you can see there were multiple rooms in the individual caves.

In the areas outside Xi’an we saw similar cave dwellings several times, some obviously being lived in.  Our tour guide suggested they did not necessarily live there because of poverty, but the residents found them comfortable in the winter and summer.  Although that may be true to a certain extent, if given the financial means to live in a house with electricity and running water, we have to think that they would be willing to move.

We have seen poor housing in and around Shanghai, but nothing like the poverty we drove through that day in those villages.  Most do not have a local school, so the children walk to a centrally located school each day.  The people raise wheat and corn primarily in that area of China, but most of the work seems to be done by hand.  Our guide said tractors are brought in for some work, but we saw people hoeing and spraying the fields by hand.  We saw few automobiles.  After seeing those villages, we are no longer surprised at the numbers of Chinese moving to the cities for work and a better life because the villages cannot offer much of a future to its youngest residents.

View of the Drum Tower from the Bell Tower

Laura and Jenna by a bell at the Bell Tower.

On Sunday, we visited the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in downtown Xi’an.  Both were built during the Ming Dynasty and have great views of the city.  The Bell Tower marked the geographical center of the city.  When the city grew, the center changed and they moved the Bell Tower so it would still be in the geographical center.  We were also able to listen to a short concert with the bells and other musical instruments native to China.  Drums and bells were used for keeping and announcing time in China for 2,000 years.  Every major city had both a drum and a bell tower.

Laura and Jenna by one of the many drums at the Drum Tower

In the afternoon, we visited the wall that surrounds the historic part of the city.  The wall began as a dirt/clay wall and was bricked in the 1500s.  It’s been restored by the government and is now intact around the entire historic city, running over eight miles in length.  Jenna’s blog will tell you more, but it was incredible to think that when the wall was built 600 years ago, the residents of Xi’an had no idea America even existed.  They probably did not travel much beyond their city walls.  And there we were 600 years later, having traveled half a world away visiting that wall.  Laura and I had a great time bicycling along the wall!

Ceiling in the Bell Tower. Both the Drum and Bell Towers had ornate, colorful paint schemes inside and out. These were not just utilitarian buildings, but beautiful architectural structures.

Concert at the Bell Tower. The rows of bells in the background are an important part of Chinese history and culture. We have seen full and partial sets of these at other places, including the Shanghai Museum.

Monday we visited Da Ci’en Temple, a Buddhist temple.  There are many similarities between the Buddhist Temples we have visited and the main reason we went to this one was to climb the Big Wild Goose pagoda.  There are a lot of pagodas in China from various time periods and at various heights.  Some you can go in and others are closed to the public.  I thought it would be fun to climb one and it was.  This one is 7 stories tall with neat views of the city.  It actually lies outside the city walls, several blocks south.  The temples always have beautiful, relaxing gardens to wander through and enjoy.

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Laura and Jenna headed down the pagoda.

There was quite a bit of construction work going on in the area around the temple with tourist shops, wide sidewalks with benches and even a couple of western restaurants.  The morning we visited, there were large groups of people exercising and dancing in the courtyards.  Our tour guide on Saturday said the Chinese government had decided Xi’an should be a tourist city instead of an industrial city.  The government was building parks and creating ponds to make it a “happy place.”  They certainly have a lot of historic sites to bring people there to visit, but the comment about the government deciding Xian should be a tourist city was intriguing.  I can’t really say we feel the government control in a huge way.  Yes, the internet is slow with some sites censored and satellite TV is poor, but we aren’t limited in where we go or what we do.  We can find a lot of the things we need or want even though it might take several stops.  Comments like those remind us we aren’t in a free country.  The government here has more control, and exercises that control, a very different environment than we have ever experienced.

If you want to ask questions, about anything we write about, feel free to post in the “comment” section.  We get emails when anyone posts a comment and can reply that way.  

Laura, Jenna, and David in the doorway of the Wild Goose Pagoda. Notice how short the entrance is!

Nature, Technology and History – All in one day

Mom, Laura and I went to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (SSTM) last week for a few hours.  We started out in an area with animals from all over the world.  We saw displays with pretend animals in their habitat.  There were elephants, giraffes, platypuses, whales, seals moose, polar bears and penguins.  We even saw one animal that had caught its dinner.  Oooh, gross!  The area we were most interested in was the Australia area because we are going there in April!

Laura and Jenna in the "rainforest" at the SSTM

After we saw the animal exhibit, we went to a rainforest.  There were bridges, lots of trees and even a bat cave.  I liked the bat cave, but Mom and Laura did not.  The bats were not real, but Mom and Laura thought they looked creepy.  We saw a room that had a lot of bugs.  Some were giant bugs up high on the wall.  And they moved!  I was happy they were not real bugs.  One room had aquariums on the wall.  On the floor of this room was a stream with lots of small fish eating algae and swimming.  We could walk on it because it was covered with glass.  I enjoyed seeing the fish because it reminded me of the fish we used to have.

I kept my eyes closed the whole time we were in the spider exhibit because I do NOT like spiders.  Spiders are creepy, hairy and weird.

A piano-playing robot. You could sing with him, but none of us wanted to!

We went to a robot exhibit where Laura and I got our pictures drawn by a robot.  The museum person took a digital picture of you and fixed the size in the computer.  Then they would send it to a robot and he drew it with a marker.  It even picked up the crossing in my braids!  It also picked up the nosepiece in Laura’s glasses and it wrote SSTM at the bottom.  Laura says that it gave her a pug nose.  I disagree.  There was also a robot that played the piano when you sang.  I think the coolest one was a robot that, when you mixed up a rubik’s cube, it would pass it back and forth between its hands and look at it.  Then, it would fix it so all the colors were matching again.  It was pretty cool.

All three of us had a blast in the mirror room! Lots of times we could see each other, but could figure out how to get together.

We went into a room of mirrors that was SO fun.  It was like a maze with walls made of mirrors.  The mirrors were sometimes straight and sometimes angled.  You could see yourself from lots of different places.  You would think that a person is up ahead and they are really off to your left.  We were laughing and calling for each other.  We used floaties to see if a “doorway” was a mirror or a doorway.  If you didn’t you might walk right into a mirror and bump your nose.

Laura demonstrates her great strength.

Look at me!

Another area had all sorts of mechanical things in it.  There were some weights, a fifty pound one, a 100 pound one and a 200 pound one.  I tried to lift a fifty pound weight which is what I weigh.  So, I was basically lifting me.  As you can guess I was not able to lift it.  But Laura was able to.  Mom did not try to lift any of them.  I saw one activity where you had to pull yourself up in a chair with a pulley system.  I decided to try it.  I got buckled into a seat and started pulling on a rope.  I pulled and pulled and pulled until I got to the top.  I was several feet off the floor and then slowly started letting myself down.

Laura and Jenna in the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai

We called our driver and when he came, we got into the mini van and he drove us to the Jade Buddha Temple.  The temple is in Puxi and our driver used one the tunnels to get from Pudong across the river.  The temple is in the old part of Shanghai and there were a lot of old buildings and people.  Mom had trouble finding the ticket office.  While we were looking, we had to weave and wind through the people asking for money.  Usually they would hold out a bowl or a cup and speak in mandarin, but we didn’t understand them.

A courtyard within the temple's walls. The layout with buildings, gardens and courtyards is typical for the Buddhist Temples we have seen.

After Mom got our tickets, we went through a gate with a turnstile.  There was a courtyard and people were burning incense.  We walked through the corridors and looked in the shops and in rooms with kneeling pillows and large Buddha statues.  The statues were different sizes, colors and positions.  The biggest one we saw was a white Jade Buddha carved from one solid piece of Jade.  It was over six feet tall and came from Burma a long time ago.  Mom wanted to take a picture, but you could not take any pictures of it or anything in that room.

One of the buildings within the temple's walls. You can see small bonsai trees in front.

While we were there, we learned that sometimes the Buddha statues are tall and thin and sometimes they are chubby.  The chubby ones are Chinese and the tall thin ones are Indian.  The whole temple has several buildings, a pagoda and several courtyards and long corridors to walk between buildings.  We only saw one monk but a group of monks live there.

Laura and Jenna loved feeding the koi in the pond.

We found a pond with lots and lots of huge koi.  Most were at least one foot long.  The fish were orange, white, black and multi-colored.  We watched them swim around and then Mom spotted a small booth selling fish food.  She bought a bag for each of us.  The ladies there took plastic bags and laid them on the ground so we could kneel beside the pond and sprinkle the fish food.  But the ladies stopped us and showed us how to dip our hands in the water with the food so the fish could nibble out of our hands.  It felt like there were suction cups on our hands.  We loved it!!

This was amazing to see in person, with all the tiny details that were carved into the wood.

The last room we went to at the temple had a huge piece of wood that was carved with a Chinese mountain village.  It was very detailed and took six years to carve.  We bought a picture that was made by a Chinese person that used just their palm, fingers and fingernails to paint it.

Even though the two places we visited were completely different, I enjoyed both.  I learned that Chinese can paint differently than I’m used to.  I also learned about Chinese history and the architecture of the Buddhist temple.

Working in China – By Dave

Here is a rare post from Dave.

I get asked a lot about what is it like to work in China.  The first obvious question is why?  There are many reasons that I volunteered.  With Laura starting high school this fall, the window of opportunity for an expatriate position was closing fast.  I was about her age when I first traveled outside the US.  Spending 4 weeks in Europe completely altered my worldview, with the realization of how large, diverse, and exciting the world is.  Our girls have traveled a bit, both in the US and once to Europe, but living overseas provides the chance to experience a culture in depth, and to see America from another vantage point.  They may not develop my wanderlust, but I do want them to see the world and open themselves to the possibilities for their lives.  And to realize how incredibly blessed their lives are, both materially but also their freedoms and the ability to control their destiny.

And honestly, this will be a great addition to my career experience.  I have traveled internationally for the past 15 years- by last count to over 30 countries.  But international business travel is common, being an expat will make me stand out, regardless of what I do for the remainder of my career.

Map of cities David has visited in China and Asia

Finally, the longer period of time allows me to develop deeper relationships and learn more of what and who China really is.  With the time I spend with my co-workers, we get past superficial small talk and I am able to get unique insights into their views on subjects such as:

  • the Chinese Communist government (cynical, and many think it will become democratic in their lifetime);
  • America (mostly admired but also self-centered);
  • Tibet (they think the Dalai Lama is a terrorist); and
  • Christianity (have heard of it, but most impressions are only from visiting the US).

But the Chinese are very patriotic and love their country, just as we love ours.

As much as I jumped at this opportunity, China was not my first choice.  It is a very much a developing nation and living here is a challenge.  Paris, London, or Munich would have been far higher on my list.  But there are few such opportunities (the only other time I came close was a job in Poland, but it fell through due to the global recession in 2009).  I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten this one.

Panoramic view of Three Gorges Dam and Reservoir in central China

China is having an increasingly significant impact on our world.  It will soon be the world’s largest economy, the sheer scale of its population and eagerness to join their rightful place among the leading nations of the world make it a country that we need to understand and get to know better as our cultures interact.  There are over 300,000 expatriates living in Shanghai, making it the largest expatriate community in the world.

Some who read this may think that I am contributing to the exporting of American jobs.  Whether job losses are caused by customers seeking low prices or companies seeking excessive profits is a different debate, but my role is focused on building a brand new business in China.  I am responsible to hire and train Chinese engineers to integrate our products into customer applications, for products sold in China.  In fact, my job is a newly created one; if not for the opportunities in China, there would be one less American job.  In effect, Chinese customers pay my salary.

I am responsible for launching our Technical Center for Hybrid and Electric vehicles here in China.  China has extremely poor air quality- though coal-fired power plants are the main contributor rather than car exhaust.  In most large cities such as Shanghai, we almost never see blue sky.  Even on clear days, it is a hazy brown.  The Chinese government- like the US government- is offering incentives to encourage the development of hybrid and electric vehicles, both for cars but especially for city buses and trucks, which are much better uses of hybrid technology.

A river gorge near the Three Gorges area in central China

I have a team of 7 engineers, working directly with customers and suppliers.  It sounds mundane to most of you, but it is exciting!  We must start from scratch, learning what customers need, trying to use our existing products to build business quickly but also to develop specific products for the Chinese market for the long-term.  Working in a developing country in emerging technology is unique and challenging.

If you are wondering about the skills of the Chinese engineers, generally I am impressed.  They are smart, hard working, and incredibly eager to learn and contribute.  My team ranges from a few years of experience to 20+ years, including a PhD. electrical engineer.  For them, there is a certain prestige in working for a western company vs a Chinese one.  The difference is that success is measured by what you accomplish and contribute (western), vs who you know (Chinese).

Since 2009, China has become the largest car market in the world, selling 15-20 million cars per year.  The US is now #2 with 10-15 million, after being the largest for decades.  But in the US and Europe, 75-80% of the adult population owns a car, so the market is saturated.  In China, that number is less than 10%.  There are 300 million cars in the US, an average of more than 1 car per adult.  In China, there are more than 10 adults per every car on the road.  So there is a huge growing market, as the Chinese middle class develops and more people buy a car- most of them for the first time in their life!

So what is a typical day?  That depends on whether I am traveling.  If I’m in Shanghai, I start the day around 5 by checking urgent emails from the US as their day winds down.  I head out for a morning bike ride and enjoy a cup of coffee with my family as their day starts (a nice departure from life in the US when I rarely see them before I leave in the morning).   I leave for the office about 8-8:15, and get home around 6 for dinner and a little family time- often planning trips in China.  Then I catch up on any work deadlines, talk to my US colleagues by phone many nights, and get online for personal email and to keep up with US happenings, before calling it a day around 10.

The company provides a car service, so my daily commute is 20-30 minutes in a Buick minivan, on the phone or doing email (never an idle moment here).  I am fortunate, most of my co-workers commute by bus and subway for 1 to 1.5 hours each way.  When I was first living here in hotels, I commuted on the subways- they are cheap and efficient but jam packed.

If I’m traveling, the day starts about the same time with morning email and then a workout.  Then it’s off to visit customers for meetings to discuss new hybrid vehicle projects, and do email on my blackberry as I head to the airport or train station on the way to a new city.  Dinner is with my Chinese co-workers and customers, talking business and trying to keep up as the conversation swirls around me in Mandarin.  Back to the hotel, I catch up on work, touch base with the girls, have a little computer time, and often a conference call.  By 10-11pm, I’m ready to crash.  And of course, if a flight is delayed, it can be midnight or later.  As a co-worker put it sarcastically yet succinctly just last week, as I traded emails with him from a taxi at 1230am on the way home, “Travel for work is such a glamorous adventure”.

While the days are long, I push hard to make the most of our quickly passing time in Shanghai and China.

Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan, the 2nd tallest building in the world

And truthfully, it can be on occasion.  Once in a while, we will have an hour or 2 free late in the day, and I take advantage of those brief opportunities whenever I can, to go explore a new city.  Taipei, Taiwan was the most recent example, to see the Taipei 101 skyscraper.  For many years, it was the world’s tallest building, though it is now 2nd (and will soon be 3rd, a taller one is going up just a mile from our apartment in Shanghai).  Another was to the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, the 3 Gorges Dam.

My participation in customer meetings is mainly for appearances.  They are mostly in Chinese, with a little translation (we take Mandarin lessons once a week, but it would require years to become conversational).  But I am primarily there to show respect to them as an American manager taking time to visit, and to provide some small guidance for the team.  I don’t feel like I contribute much, but I do understand the need, both for our customers and my colleagues to make them feel important and that their work is valued.

Robot sculpture made of auto parts outside a bus factory in Hefei, China, west of Shanghai

Work in Asia is driven largely by the concept of “face”.  In the US, I go to meetings fully prepared with good data to back up my proposals, knowing that if I am not, I will get ripped to shreds.  It is tough, but it is the American way.  In China, there are still the same expectations, but you never let anyone “lose face”.  In public, you cannot let someone feel like they have made an error.  Those situations must be handled delicately and in private.

“Face” makes regular conversation- difficult enough already with the language barrier- extremely challenging.  You can never ask “do you understand?”  The answer will always be “yes, sure”.  The person cannot admit that they do not, to do so would be to lose face.  You must ask them to explain back to you, and listen intently to be certain that they do.

A common example is when I ask about the status of a project, everything is always “fine, it’s ok”.  But then I ask if a deadline was met and find out it was not.  So things are not fine.  It takes a whole series of questions to get the facts.  And then the real work starts.  Why was the deadline missed?  How do we get back on schedule?  Etc.  Entire books are written on this subject, and this aspect of Asian culture challenges me daily to provide leadership and technical direction.

So the variety is great, the days are enjoyable but tiring, and when we repatriate to the US, I can’t imagine how good it will feel to be home in Indiana.  And to have a comfortable, relaxed conversation in English without straining to understand every word and the speaker’s true meaning.

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