Frank O’Hara in China – October 8 to November 9, 2001

One of the terracotta warriors (on the right)

I was invited to Xi'an to help a number of companies involved in the Hi-Tech Development Zone in that city of 7 million. There are actually two other Development Zones: one for manufacturing and one for agriculture. The Hi-Tech Zone is very extensive, with many high rise buildings, hotel, restaurants, parks, etc. and comprising at least several square miles. I worked mainly with a company that provides Human Relations consulting services and another that programs embedded computers. I developed an English version of their Chinese websites. I also presented a seminar on Small Business Management to about 100 entrepreneurs who are part of the business incubator facility in the Zone and another seminar on Sales Training skills. I also participated in a good many meetings that might fall under the rubric of "technology transfer". I had lots of opportunity to sight-see, try innumerable cuisines and get to know interesting people.

Management Training Seminar

The Chinese are used to a "lecture" without much in the way of questions or feedback. I wanted more participation; so I gave out little Canadian flags to those who asked questions or made comments. I did then get some interesting, some challenging and some quite unexpected questions. This is very much a 'Team" society. To my surprise, they are quite interested in techniques to make their staff more team oriented. For example, several questions hinged around, "How do I keep a valued employee from going with a competitor?" Another interesting one was, "Should I penalize a salesman who doesn't meet his quota?" Towards the end, the questions became more challenging. For example, I was asked, "With China joining the WTO, how will this affect the agricultural segment and how has this affected the agricultural segment in Canada? This was excellent experience for me in 'winging it'. My normal daily perusal of the Globe and Mail meant that I was not at a complete loss. Another good question was, "How should we handle the problem of 'grease'?" WOW. Interestingly, they use similar slang for a bribe or, at least, that's how my interpreter translated it.

In general, the content I had designed primarily for a Western audience was well received. Of course there is a problem maintaining spontaneity when everything has to be translated. Probably 50% of the attendees spoke reasonable English; so they got the message twice! I was very impressed with how many people speak some English and a good many do so very well.

An Impromptu Tai Chi Lesson (That's me, "carrying coals to Newcastle")

After a couple of weeks, I got back to doing my daily Tai Chi. People in the park next to my hotel doing various forms of exotic exercises intimidated me, a lone Westerner doing a form of Tai Chi that they no longer practice in the homeland of Tai Chi. Also, they do other forms of exercise that I have never seen, such as rolling a sort of wheel on a string, hung loosely between one's hands and flipping the wheel all over the place, including high in the air and catching it on the string. However, once I selected an area of grass that was not occupied and started to do my thing I became just one of the crowd. People paid little or no attention to me. Next morning I went out again and felt quite at home. It is quite an attractive scene, with many versions of Tai Chi and other exercises, some done to Chinese music. My next challenge was to bring my video camera and capture the scene. I got some great shots and was totally ignored by everyone. Talk about blasé. More likely is the fact that in such a crowded country no one pays much attention to others.

We visited Wilson's (my host) uncle, a retired professor of English translation and an expert in Tai Chi. He lived for years and taught at a university in Kentucky, USA but recently returned to Xi'an to retire. He lives with a son in a government-built apartment. (These apartments are not so Spartan and are more attractive, particularly on the outside than their East Block counterparts.) The uncle was delighted to meet another Tai Chi enthusiast. We illustrated to each other the differences in our styles. He is much more knowledgeable than I. As a matter of fact, he wrote a book on the subject when he was in the US. He kindly gave me a signed copy.

Official Building Opening

Wilson Wang, my host, picked me up at 10 AM one Saturday morning and took me to the grand opening of a condominium apartment building where he had been invited because his company supplied the elevators. It was a colourful affair, with balloons, pretty girls in bright costumes, a military band, various officials and speeches. I got some great video of the elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony. They had about eight pretty girls holding a long, wide red ribbon. Presently, officials each took a place between the girls, each man wielding a scissors. The band made suitable introductory music and they all cut the ribbon in unison. I told you this was a "team" society!. Wilson introduced me to many people, one of whom was anxious to get my name just right. Much to my surprise, during the introductory speeches when, I assume, the speaker was trying to make a point of how important the event was by naming the officials present, I heard my name. Well, it was a Chinese approximation of my name. It came out as Flanka O'Hala. Chinese characters can sound out a name phonetically; however, there is no way of distinguishing between "l" and "r". Wilson and I had a good chuckle. I was given a boutonnière with VIP on a red ribbon, in Chinese characters, of course. I had to travel a long way to be a VIP.

The people who buy apartments in the new building will have a spectacular view overlooking a very large and beautiful park. The price of a two-storey penthouse is about $80,000 US. It is small by our standards, for a luxury apartment, about 2000 sq. ft. The regular apartments are half that size and less than half the price

I fall for a restaurant

Every lunch and every dinner I was taken out to a restaurant, usually by an attractive young woman. One of the young women took me out to dinner at a very sumptuous restaurant. The food, décor, etc. were outstanding, even including six (count them) beautiful young women who, in a chorus, welcome each person coming in the door. I imagine they said something like, "Welcome to the most handsome man to darken our door this year". Of course, I could be mistaken. Maybe they said, "Welcome, we feed even foreign devils".

The restaurant was not all that far so we walked back to my hotel. There was a very light rain falling - not enough to open my umbrella. They have interesting sidewalks in the Hi-Tech Zone, including a sloped area at corners for people in wheel chairs or blind people so they don't have to step off the rather high curb. This corner sidewalk is defined by a different design of little raised round things in the ceramic (slippery) sidewalk that a blind person could detect. However, the blind person should be wearing rubber-soled shoes on rainy evenings. I wasn't. It was one of those quick falls where a person is on the ground before he knows it. My first thought was "I hope I haven't seriously injured myself", as I lay in a heap on the ground. I was OK. The same young woman comes to pick me up each morning. This morning she held my arm at each stairs or any other place where I might fall. She also moved to the traffic side when we crossed the street. I felt like an invalid but it was nice that she was so caring. Of course, if I fell there is no way such a tiny person could hold me up.

One of the bosses who is self conscious of his English took me to dinner along with a young woman who speaks respectable English. It was a very rainy night. He drove 'Kitty' to her home on the way back to my hotel. We went from the 21st century on the main streets to the middle ages or earlier. The streets were unpaved, narrow and crowded with small shops, mostly food - each specializing in a different thing. Each merchant was shielded from the rain by a very large umbrella. Along the side of the street was a string of small electric lights, maybe 60 watts. Since the lights were almost useless, especially inasmuch as they were above the umbrellas, the storekeepers had one or two candles illuminating their activities and their wares. It looked much as it must have 500 or a 1000 years ago. The streets would allow two small cars to pass carefully, as long as the pedestrians waited. In addition, of course, the mud streets were very uneven. It seems that streets like this are far more common than the attractive ultra-wide streets one normally sees from a car. It was interesting to me that the young woman, who is quite sophisticated, a university graduate, has a responsible job in a hi-tech company and speaks English quite well, yet lives in such surroundings.

Sales Skills Seminar

I gave a two-day course in Salesmanship. It went well. Unfortunately, the Chinese translation of my PowerPoint presentation left something to be desired because it is not easy to translate sales/marketing jargon. For the second day, we polished up the Chinese, with my explaining in detail what all the expressions, that we take so much for granted, meant. That day went very well. There were no surprise questions to keep me on my toes but there were good relevant ones. I gave everyone in the office (about 15) a little Canadian flag pin. I was pleased that they seemed genuinely pleased of the small gift.

(I gave this Buddhist monk a Canadian flag pin. He is now advertising Canada to all the tourists.)

Every Saturday and Sunday my hosts took me to two or three areas of interest. We never ran out of places! Xi'an is a wonderful tourist area.

Part way through my assignment I took five days off for a trip on the Yangtze to see the famous "Three Gorges". I had a personal guide because all the explanations are entirely in Chinese unless one takes a very expensive tour, designed for foreigners. Actually, there are also "Three Smaller Gorges" as well, on a tributary of the Yangtze. These are not only more beautiful than the "big" ones but the trip is in a small boat (about fifty people) on a fast-flowing river with many rapids. All in all it was a spectacular and exciting trip, especially when a boat coming downstream gave us a good bump as we were struggling upstream.

My state room was first class so there was a stopper in the sink. No towel though. I used my pillowcase and didn't bathe as much as I might have. I had a peak at what was probably third class accommodation. There were six bunk beds (12 people) in a room the same size as mine (two people). The beds were so narrow that it would require a slim Chinese on a diet to turn over. Of course, my cabin took extra room for a washroom but not a lot.

Some local customs

Chinese people as individuals are charming; however, as a group they can require some adjustment for a Westerner. My guide for the Three Gorges would charge ahead through the crowd but there was no way that this (perhaps excessively) polite Canadian could keep up. The Chinese are just incredible the way they can move ahead in a crowd, like a deer through the forest. They use similar techniques in automobiles. The side streets have no stop signs so drivers don't even slow down before barging into a solid stream of traffic on a main artery. Also, there is no such thing as a pedestrian having the right of way, even if there are lines on the pavement that would indicate so. I was amazed that I did not see a serious accident and only one fender bender. Pedestrians' and bicyclists' wariness is matched by their agility.

After watching the eating style of the great majority of Chinese, I am impressed by their ability to "get the job done". It is common practice to lower the head down to the bowl or raise the bowl to the mouth, with the chopsticks used as a sort of scraper. This results in rice or noodles disappearing faster than one would have thought possible. I adapted but still have a way to go. I had the opportunity to experience certain facets of Chinese eating with the fellow with whom I shared a room on the 3 Gorges boat. He didn't so much drink tea as aspirate it.

When I got back to Xi'an from the boat trip I was starving for news - none on the boat and none in the hotel where I stayed in Wuhan. They have many channels but they are all Chinese, except for the "Model" channel and a sports channel. I guess the government figures that busty models won't unduly corrupt the local people. When I got to my hotel in Xi'an I immediately turned to CNN Financial, which was the only thing available before I left and is just somewhat better than nothing at all. It was cut off. At the office I was able to access the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Globe & Mail newspaper websites but not US or British equivalents. As well, no one in China can access my website or any other site that is hosted by the same ISP. I found out later that they host a Falun Gong site, making it technically necessary to cut off everyone. It is interesting that China is making great strides to be part of the developed world to say nothing of a tremendous effort to educate citizens to speak English but holds onto some pretty old fashioned ideas.

Some of the fine people at the two companies where I worked.

Both the companies for whom I did most of my work had existing websites but only in Chinese. They want to do business with the West; so it was important to produce a good English version of the sites. I was glad to be able to finish both of them, in the limited time available, although they did require a few finishing touches, such as a link to and from the Chinese versions. With my background in marketing, of course, I did not simply copy the Chinese versions. As a matter of fact, they decided to change their Chinese sites to be more like the design I created for the English ones. Is that bragging? Oh well......