Thursday, April 24, 2008

30 hours of life jammed into a 12 hour segment

It was a day of contrasts, new experiences and extremes. But it began plainly enough with the commute out to work in Ka Fa Qu.

As promised, I said I would get to the bottom of the Sichuan restaurant name. Bringing the napkin along, I asked my friend Ling for a translation. The answer - 川人百味 - chuan ren bai wei.

Chuan is the nickname for Sichuan. In the olden days, Sichuan was known as the province of 4 Rivers. "Si" means 4 and "chuan" means river. This came to me as a thunderbolt, hours later during a cross town taxi ride. But back to the topic at hand. 川人百味 translates as "Sichuan People Hundred Tastes", and that it is.

We spent most of the morning meeting and greeting and then moved out to the construction site for more meeting, more greeting and a tour of our part of the facility that is under construction. Punctuating that was lunch in the worker's canteen, my second favorite place to eat in Dalian. Today I had a great soup made with raw bacon, glass noodles and cabbage that cooked before your very eyes, the steel bowl being suspended above a sterno burner, bringing the concoction to a boil as you ate it. An interesting presentation. Downed it with a Diet Coke that left me reeling for hours afterwards, an effect that for some reason just doesn't seem to sink in to my thick skull. They use some different sweetener or more caffeine, but whatever it is it gives you a case of temporal displacement that is not exactly what I would call pleasant. One of these days I will learn.

During our tour we decided to have a group picture so we handed our guide our cameras and stood there while he took 8 or 10 individual shots. The indoor attempts didn't work as they were either blurry due to no flash or washed out due to the reflection from the flash on our safety gear so we repeated the entire process a second time outside.


Later in the afternoon we decided to head across town to have a visit to the HP district office for a general meet and greet with them. Ling had the receptionist call 4 taxis and the resultant argument at street side was an opera in the making. Turns out it was nearing shift change and there had been a misunderstanding about our destination (the receptionist had told them it was our hotel instead of the software park.) In the end, two went off and we took the other tour on what was to become an amazing race across a part of town that was completely new to me. Take my word for it, there is nothing like a taxi driver with his day's end in mind when it comes to generating creative solutions to rush hour traffic. We used more parts of the road than I even knew existed and maneuvers which while not completely driven by a fatal drive to keep moving, were at least motivated by a desire to call it a day.

On the way over, I was listening to Ling talk to the driver and to my surprise was actually catching some of it. I asked him a very pointed question - you folks don't care about the 4 tones, do you? His answer - not really. As I have long suspected, it's all about context and generally there are few mistakes in communicating among native speakers as long as both know what the boundaries and topics of the conversation are. I find this pretty interesting, because all of the western teaching methods beat the tonality into your head, over and over and over. Rebel that I am, I generally don't worry about it and just forge ahead. And this approach has worked for me, people more often than not know exactly what I am saying. In comparison, he told me that English training in China takes a similar approach with heavy concentration on the alphabet and memorization of sentence construction rules, whereas everyone might be better served to just grab a few words and go out there and try. I guess this is where the thoughts of educators conflict with the successes of those that have bucked their recommendations.

We had a very fruitful meeting that began with each of them introducing themselves until it came to me. I did so in Chinese, much to their amazement and delight. Andy followed in turn which prompted the most senior guy to remark that everyone at Intel must speak Chinese. That generated a huge laugh. We visited and toured their regional call centers (a huge room filled from side to side with agents sitting 4 to a desk) and then headed out towards dinner. The HP guys were kind enough to go off and come back with taxis for us.

Our driver started the show off right - he bypassed a long line of cars turning left by heading down the wrong side of the road and timing his arrival at the intersection perfectly to catch the changing light. He made his left on the outside of the cars remaining in the approach to the intersection from the cross street.

From there is was more of that style of driving, including a couple of times when I felt we were about to go under the backsides of trucks stopped in the jam.

Dinner was at the local Swissotel, a very fancy establishment across the plaza from my favorite hole in the wall, mentioned earlier. We were taken to a private room, poshly decorated in Asian-fusion by traditionally dressed young women in gold jackets and floor length red skits. Dinner was held at a 3 meter table in the center with the biggest lazy susan I have ever seen. We worked our way through 15 or 20 courses including jellfish heads (shown below), beef, sardines, vegetables, shrimp, more vegetables, a noodle dish with roe and little shrimp that I think were actually mealworms, mushrooms, slab bacon, tiny intact crawfish, cold pork sausage, a whole crab resting on a platter of baked egg custard, dumplings formed of sticky rice and sculpted to look like carrots, stir-fired clams, small pork ribs, patties made of white carrots and chopped pork that resembled corned-beef hash, and stir-fried dumplings. That plus cold local beers from large frosty bottles and a fruit cup to polish it off. In other words, just another team dinner in China.




Most of these rooms have their own toilet and this one was no exception. It was a half-circle mounted on the far wall of the room. I'd been told to check it out and so I did before leaving. It was a House of Mirrors, rest room style. Tall walls composed of 6" wide mirror slats running from floor to ceiling. All of the regular appliances of course, but with that very strange infinity effect you get from mirrors reflecting upon mirrors. Made me think I would not want to have been spending the evening drinking before entering.




As I left the hotel, a really cute, bubbly young woman approached me with a big grin and handed me a small piece of paper with her name and phone number on it. I wonder what she wanted? As an insurance, she handed one to my friend as well. Women can be so fickle.

Having eaten as much as we did, we decided to walk home and in doing so passed one of the many wedding planning storefronts in the district. Weddings are a very big business here in China and the stores are well-appointed and very chic. In the warmer months they set themselves up outside on the plaza, attracting people with blasting rap music. I prefer the more elegant approach and liked the dresses in the window of this one.

So that's it, another day and a half-dozen new food, experiences and acquaintences. The disco beat from the bar down below the hotel is reverberating off my hotel and the hour is late and thus it's time to close.

Zaijian!

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