Frank O'Hara in China, September 1999

Terracotta Soldiers
The Terra-cotta Soldiers of Xi'an, China

Xi'an (pronounced Shian) is an ancient city of 6 million people. (It's one of China's smaller cities!) It was the domain of the first Chinese emperor, Qin (pronounced Chin) who united various warring principalities about 200 B.C. Xi'an's most famous tourist site is near Qin's mausoleum - 7 or 8,000 terra-cotta soldiers and cavalry. They call it the 8th wonder of the world and, in my estimation, it does qualify. Also, this city was the terminus of the ancient "Silk Road". Although I was busy in my role as a CESO Volunteer Adviser I was taken to see many fascinating tourist sites in this historic area each weekend.

My impressions from this my first visit to China
- August/September 1999:

  • The crowds of cars, bicycles, mopeds and every kind of conveyance imaginable has to be experienced to be appreciated.
  • Chinese people are courteous and polite. This particularly shows in traffic, where the swarms of bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians compete with cars at intersections. In North America it would give rise to much road rage. I have seen no indication whatsoever of such an attitude.
  • There are no crosswalks. Pedestrians stroll nonchalant across many lanes of traffic. It seems to be an unwritten rule that nobody runs. (That rule does not apply to me.)
  • The main roads are surprisingly wide. I expected the streets to be medieval. Not so for the principal roads. The city is bisected about every couple of kilometers by wide modern well-kept roads. Normally, in each direction, there are two lanes of auto traffic plus a two lane road for bicycles and hand drawn carts as well as motorized ones. In addition there is a very wide sidewalk for pedestrians (at least 4 times our normal sidewalk's width). In some cases the auto traffic part of the roadway is three or four lanes in each direction. The different categories of roadways are separated by boulevards, planted with shade trees for the pedestrian and bicycles - a smart move in this hot climate. This is also a place to wait for the best time to stroll across the traffic. On September 7, it was 37c. They sprayed water on the streets to cool things a bit.
  • I have not found the pollution as bad as I had been led to believe but it is very evident.
  • Women with enormous floppy brooms keep the gutters clean of debris. There is no graffiti and very little rubbish on the streets or sidewalks.
  • Chinese are particularly prompt - if someone is late by three minutes the apologies are profuse.
  • Chinese are friendly (and curious) with foreigners. On the street, I am frequently greeted with a smile and a "Hello" or "Neehow" (their version).
  • All children take intensive classes in English, starting in Middle School. Unlike most English Canadians taking French, after a few years many can carry on a basic conversation in English.
  • They look for every opportunity to absorb English pronunciation and vocabulary from a native speaker. My host speaks quite good English. He learned as a teenager by talking to American tourists - so his accent is sort of mid-western. Even at an early age he showed entrepreneurial flare. He memorized the Gettysburg address and much American history. So he would stand on the street near a favorite tourist site, reciting Lincoln's address and attract the tourists to him rather than accosting them. Then he would amaze them with his knowledge of the U.S.A. (He found that he often knew more about U.S. history than many Americans!) What a salesman he was - and still is.
  •  I was taken to many different restaurants, featuring foods from various regions of China - a variety of cuisine that surprised me. I became reasonably adept with chopsticks.
  • Chinese have very different eating protocol. My mother always said, "Bring your food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food." Quite obviously Chinese mothers don't say that. I have become a slurper with the best of them.
  • With their socialist background, Chinese are still learning about marketing, but watch out. They are learning fast. Some say that the 21st century belongs to China and I would echo that sentiment.
  • My work as a "Canadian Expert in Marketing and the Internet" has been rewarding for me and, I hope, useful to the Chinese. I have given seminars to my host company and to several other companies and had many other meetings with customers of my client. This economy is shackled by certain government regulations (particularly in the area of communications) but is being unshackled year by year. It's going to be interesting if the process continues. I also created an English version of my host company's web site. (They had an English version but it was very basic and, like most written English that I have seen, not very good - they call it "Chinglese". )
  • In my experience, the Chinese are exceedingly generous, with their time, their willingness to explain (like my ill-fated endeavour to learn the official Chinese type of Tai-Chi) and the gifts that they extend.
  • Dr. Norman Bethune paved the way for Canadians to receive a warm welcome. All children learn at school about his self-sacrifice.


Some Highlights
as a CESO Volunteer Adviser in Xi'an

My host company was Xi'an Eton Enterprises. They put me up in the Xi'an Hotel, right next door to their office building. I had heard many alarming tales about the inadequate facilities offered by Chinese hotels. This may be true some places but from my experience in Xi'an and Beijing I would say it does not apply to the major cities. My Xi'an Hotel warrants a full four star rating.

MeetingFirst I planned with Wilson Wang, president of Xi'an Eton Enterprises and my host, what exactly I would do over my three weeks' stint. On the left is Nan Hong who provided interpretation for most of my meetings. Although, not for Wilson Wang who speaks very good English.

My mandate was to give lectures to Eton's employees on Marketing and the Internet, and in particular, E-commerce. We quickly determined that it was premature to do more than an introduction to E-commerce. However, there was much to be gained from a better understanding of the marketing and sales process and how to use the Internet for marketing research and marketing support. So I first gave a seminar to the Eton staff (about 16). They are very enthusiastic and intelligent. I then adapted the seminar for other groups.

As it turned out, there were many opportunities to be involved with Eton customers and prospects. Mostly this was ad hoc, as clients came to the office. I was treated as the expert in many different areas (One definition of an expert: a CESO volunteer who is willing to jump into any situation.) For example, one facet of Eton's operations is the creation of graphic designs for advertising and packaging. The client in this picture was the owner of a local radio station and he was not very happy with a billboard design that had been prepared. I was asked for my opinion. As it turned out I was able to suggest that, instead of the call letters, they incorporate the location on the radio dial. (To help people find it.) If you think that Chinese are taciturn you are mistaken. The client was so enthusiastic about my little suggestion that in a blaze of Chinese that I couldn't begin to grasp, he came across the room shook my hand and gave me a big hug. He then wanted to have his picture taken with me.

 Here are several people from the office who wanted to have their picture taken with me. I've never been so popular

 I prepared a PowerPoint presentation on my notebook computer and gave a seminar in English (They created a Chinese version) on "Marketing and the use of the Internet" to a large company that are prospects for Eton's Technology Transfer division. The fellow beside me handled the interpretation. (In this picture I am proving that I am expert enough to count to four.)

I spent an interesting Saturday afternoon with the graduating class from the MBA program at a local university. (My host, Wilson Wang, is a graduate of this program.) The meeting was scheduled to begin at 2 P.M. and run to 4 P.M. Actually it ended around 7 P.M. I had some fun giving everyone who didn't have an English name one that, to my ear, sounded similar to their Chinese one. A few already had a name but one didn't like hers so I did the honors and "re-christened" her. They had lots of good questions. Towards the end of the get-together Wilson said, "Now, Frank, tell us a green joke." It turned out that that is the Chinese way of saying off-colour joke. Normally, I have no difficulty thinking of lots of jokes but it isn't easy to think of one that lends itself to simultaneous translation. It doesn't help either when the person who is doing the translating keeps asking "What's a ____" (fill in the blank). I made several attempts. One person laughed at one joke. I'm in the market for stories that translate well.

As you may have suspected, I count this as the experience of a lifetime. I won't forget my friends in China and I hope that they benefit from my endeavors. This world is a global village and I have had the privilege of visiting one of the suburbs and, I hope, contributing to its closer relationship with the rest of us, as well as to our appreciation of the Chinese people.