My Final Business Trip to Beijing

My company no longer needs me in China.  This is a good thing.

I’ve made seven trips in the past 12 months, including this one, but our plan of establishing the business and transitioning to a local team is nearly complete.  Appropriately so, there is no place for someone like me, who isn’t a deep technical expert and doesn’t speak the language.  Thankfully, we are also exploring other areas, and I already have two projects in two different countries.

Visiting Beijing so often, on trips ranging from four to sixteen days and visiting Shanghai and Hangzhou in addition to Beijing, has been fantastic.  I made it to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.  Like many business travelers, I suspect, I will need to come back as a tourist to fully appreciate the country and its culture.  Even with the business meetings and the feeling some days that I might as well be in Akron, it’s been fantastic and many things will stay with me.

When traveled in younger days, the ubiquitous American phrase across the globe was “Big Mac and fries.”  You went to McDonald’s, and you were home.  Now the phrase is  “Grande Latte,” at least in China.  Starbucks is seemingly always just around the corner and tastes the same.  Starbucks would be smart to put more items like mugs in  Chinese as souvenirs.

"Grande Latte" - Now a Global Phrase

China is no longer the remote place it might have been in the past.  It’s a major global city with full connectivity.  With the Internet, an iPhone, and satellite TV, you are never really that far from home.  As I write, I’ve got an ESPN Gamecast of Yanks-A’s in a separate window.  While Twitter is blocked by Chinese authorities, it comes through on my iPhone and through my company’s VPN.  Our apartment has CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg for news.  The local English paper, China Daily, is good enough.

The iPhone has been indispensable on these trips.  I’ve got language applications and an application with restaurant and bar reviews for Beijing.  Of most help, however, has been Google Maps.  The application works here just like it would at home, and the maps show place names in Chinese.  I’ve used it to show cab drivers exactly where I want to go and to find my way to a subway station on a cold, rainy night in February, when I was completely lost.

I’m going to miss the haggling in the local markets for knock-off clothes and purses for my daughter and electronics for my son.  I’m going to miss the 11RMB or $1.61 cab rides across the city.  I’m going to miss that “wild west” feeling I get from time to time when you realize you are having a nice meal and glass of wine overlooking downtown Beijing or Shanghai.  I will miss handing over business cards, keys, money – literally everything — with two hands and a slight bow. I will miss getting jammed into subway cars on my 2RMB or $0.28 ride, where, at 5’6″, I can see over most people.

I can’t say that I will miss the pollution and the smog.  (I was asked if a recent thunderstorm drove out the smog.  I said yes, but added that “replacement smog” came right back in.  I won’t miss the traffic jams on the ring roads 24×7.  I won’t miss the rock hard bed here in our corporate apartment that just ruins my back and leads me to my Advil bottle every four hours or so.  I won’t miss the agonizing slow speed with which documents are saved to or retrieved from our corporate servers back in the US.

In one year, I climbed the Great Wall in the snow.  I got my daughter more “Juicy” items than she can handle.  I got a knock-off iPhone, and may get a knock-off iPad in the coming days.  I ate duck tongue, pig’s ear and donkey.  We’ll see if the next country can live up to this.  It will be tough.

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Three Quick Observations About Sports in Beijing

I write this on a Monday morning in Beijing, just as the United States is settling in for what’s bound to be a long night watching the Emmy Awards.  This is my seventh trip to China in the past year, although it’s my first since March.

I’m afraid that I can’t go into a deep analysis of sporting life in China.  That is likely a topic of a PhD dissertation somewhere.  Instead, let me make a few observations about sports here.

Sports is More Global Than Local

Beijing Guoan F.C. - Did Anyone Notice They Won the Championship?

On an earlier trip in March, the local Beijing soccer team, Beijing Guoan F.C., played for and won the championship of the Chinese Super League.  If the buzz in cities is said to be “palpable” for big events, then the buzz in Beijing at the time was, well, “unpalpable.”  There was no talk of it among our Chinese colleagues and little mention in the English-language newspaper, China Daily.  Imagine Manchester United or Olympic Marseilles or even Real Salt Lake winning a championship and no one noticing.  Can’t happen.

There is a local channel, CCTV 5, which is dedicated to sports.  It shows mostly international fare, from what I can tell.  I watched USA-Croatia live in the basketball world championships Saturday night. As I write, it’s showing a replay of China-Germany from the 2008 Olympics.  (The cynic in me says that China wins, but I’ll have to wait and see.)   Back in February, this channel broadcast the Super Bowl with Chinese announcers.  They returned late from halftime, and we missed the onside kick by the Saints, but that was the only glitch.

There was a buzz last spring when Stephon Marbury came over to play basketball in Shanxi in the Chinese Basketball Association, but that died down after a while.  I think that’s the way it is with local sports leagues here.  The interest rises with news and then dies out.

The expat communities in major cities, however, keep the buzz going about English football, American basketball and other sports with regular gatherings to watch the games at local watering holes.

ESPN is not ESPN

Satellite television available in western hotels and in western apartments has a channel called ESPN.  This is not your mother’s ESPN.  The goal of ESPN is not to push American sports on the rest of the world, but is to bring the model of sports broadcasting outside the US.  Thus, it broadcasts mostly sports of relevance to Europe and Asia:  soccer, auto racing, and motocross.   This morning, ESPN ran a 20 minutes loop of “ESPNews” showing soccer, golf and auto racing over and over and over.  I did get to watch Yankees-White Sox on Sunday morning (Saturday night), but those games aren’t regular, except for the weekly Sunday night game.  Right now, ESPN is showing a tape of a Little League World Series game between Hawaii and Texas.

If you want to catch highlights of your favorite MLB, NHL, NBA or NFL teams, your best bet remains, by far, the Web.  If you are going to be over here for an extended period, you may want to consider either a) subscribing to one of the league’s online broadcast packages; b) getting a Slingbox to connect from home;  or c) getting knowledgeable about free online broadcast feeds.

Expats – Have Sports Will Travel

The cover story of September issue of The Beijinger, the local journal for expat activities, is about sports.  Always good at covering the city’s restaurant and bar scene, the Beijinger showcases the breadth of sports available to expats, from cricket to softball to Australian rules football to croquet.  I know from searching before, that there are some local pick-up ice hockey games.

As some of you may know, when you put a bunch of expats in one spot, sports leagues are bound to start up.  The global phenomenon that is the Hash House Harriers is a great example.  Back in the early 1990’s, Mrs. Spidey and I lived in Moscow and played in the broomball league, a full contact version of that game you played in college, played on flooded tennis courts at the foreign embassies in frigid Moscow.  Expats, as you know, can’t exist without sports leagues, and I’m ecstatic that br00mball is alive and well in Moscow.

At the same time, perhaps as part of Beijing’s continued emergence as a global city, I see health clubs sprouting up and more and more joggers out in the pollution.  There is a Beijing Marathon and a Beijing Triathlon.  In The Beijinger, they highlighted “The Great Wall Charity Challenge.”  This team event involves sailing 40KM, running 12KM and then “scrambling” up the Great Wall for 2KM.  Sounds intriguing to me – except for that sailing part.

Random Thoughts from Beijing

I’m in closing in on my fourth night of my sixth trip to China since September.  I tweeted tonight with a photo of Spidey next to a PapaJohns box.  It’s been that kind of trip.  Working all the time requires comfort food once in a while.

As I told a colleague via email the other day — life with an international team can seem glamorous – and it can be, but it often isn’t unlike a trip to Denver or Phoenix or Albany.  Personally, I love traveling.  I like the experience on the airplane.  I like the different cultures.  I also like the challenges of starting up businesses in new places.  International business is what I studied years ago, and now I’m getting to use it again.

But the trips, even to a places like Beijing, are becoming less and less of a hardship.  Let me tell you about my day today.  I didn’t have any meetings in our office, so I decided to stay in our apartment and work.  It started with a 6:30am run in our club, which has about 15 treadmills, full weight equipment, sauna, steamroom, whirlpool, etc.  Yes, that’s a hardship.

Next was a bowl of Frosted Flakes – just like home.  As I ate, I watched the Caps and Canes via Slingbox, simultaneously checking NCAA tournament scores on espn.com and participating in a Caps chatboard on Japers’ Rink.   All this time, I’m connected wirelessly to the Internet.  Again, big hardship.

I did work, rest of the day in the apartment.  I got a lot done.  I left the building only once today —  to walk a block to a Starbucks, where I said “grande black coffee” and got one 18RMB later.   In many way, this day could have taken place in Akron or Richmond or Boise.

(The best part about China may be the time zone difference for U.S. sports.  East Coast U.S. games start at 7:00am here with the 12 hour time difference.  I never have to stay up late to catch multiple overtimes!  I caught the Yankees winning the World Series at 11:30am.)

I’m hoping against hope to get out somewhere in Beijing tomorrow.  We’ll see.  I know tomorrow starts with sleeping late, but after that, it will be a challenge to avoid work.

Even Spidey Can Be Delayed When Traveling to Newark

I’m writing this morning from the President’s Club Lounge in Terminal C at Newark Airport.  I first tried to get to Newark on Sunday night, gave up, and returned last night (Thursday), only to encounter more delays.  My 10:40 arrival quickly became 12:10am over the course of the day.  Thank goodness, however, that I left St. Louis last night, because the flight in from St. Louis this morning is also delayed, and I almost certainly would have missed my flight to Shanghai.

All of this occurred after my adventures on Sunday, when I tried to leave St. Louis for Singapore, connecting through Newark.  In the end, I gave up trying to get to Newark.  Flights were delayed beyond my connection and, since I didn’t want to fly to Newark late on Sunday and wait for an 11pm departure Monday  night, I went back home and reconfigured my trip to go directly to Shanghai today.

As I talked to colleagues, I heard things like “Newark is always a mess.  I never fly through there.”  This was followed by similar sentiments regarding Chicago and Dallas, Atlanta and Houston.  Is there really a place where you don’t encounter delays from time to time?  Snow in Chicago – wind in Dallas — rain in Newark.  Pick your poison and relax.  Nothing you can do.

So I started thinking, given my fascination (obsession?) with Spider Man, whether having Spidey’s superpowers would have made a difference this past week.  I thought for a while and couldn’t come up with a single one of Spiderman’s powers that would have helped.  Spidey doesn’t fly.  He can stick to an airplane as it flies, but he primarily moves by swinging on his web down the Manhattan streets.  I thought about all the comic books I’ve read and I have only some fleeting memories of Spidey outside the U.S.A. (not including space, of course).  To test this, I Googled “Spider Man Airplane” and “Spider Man Travel” and a few others.  I got nothing.

I’ve decided that, despite all his powers, Spider Man would have been delayed along side the rest of us getting to Newark.  However, he probably would have called Iron Man or the Fantastic Four to give him a lift.  Maybe Silver Surfer or Human Torch could have moved the storm fronts or pushed the airplanes a little faster to make up for those delays.  Great to have friends like that.

I did find the picture here of Spider Man climbing the Great Wall of China.  I wonder how he got there?