Bad China Days
Sometimes, living in China sucks. We’re not supposed to say that, but it’s true. Our friends, family, and colleagues see the glamorous side of the life that we lead, the travel to exotic places, the sights where we take the obligatory photos, our posts about the food and the constant rain of new experiences. We should love it, at least that is the feeling we get from the relatively constant guilt trip that people in our lives send our way.
Complaints and venting are often met with an eye-roll and comment to the effect of “I wish I could make a living traveling the world”.
I remember one evening I arrived to my favorite hotel in Hong Kong, six hours or so behind schedule due to aircraft delays in the mainland of China (China lays claim to some of the most delayed airports in the world). I had planned in my head the meal I would have; perhaps a Neapolitan pizza or a nicely prepared steak. After a few months on the mainland without a break, I was ready to eat just about anything that did not involve a wok in its preparation. But here I was, nearly 1AM and the only food option was the 7-11 across the road. As I settled into my instant mashed potatoes and buy-one-get-one Sapporo, I logged into Facebook just in time to see comments about my high-flying lifestyle. There was nothing to do but laugh at the ridiculous juxtaposition. If they could see me now.
The challenges of living abroad can sometimes feel like they conspire to wear you down. When you live on the other side of the world you may find that sympathy often runs thin from across the ocean. Need to have conference calls with your customer or colleagues back home? You’ll likely be waking up at 2AM to prepare for a 3AM call. Are you having issues with production? Expect a message from the home office to the effect of “That’s why we have you over there. Get it sorted!” You get the idea. The stress adds up, exacerbated by buck stopping with you, due mainly to your geographic and cultural isolation. Nobody at your office wants to hear about your China production challenges, they just need you to ship the sh*t.
I remember listening to an interview with Bob Iger, president of Disney, talk about the challenges of being CEO. He said one of the biggest issues he faced was that, fundamentally, there was no one at a higher level in the organization, and so had no ability to pass the buck or refer an issue to a higher authority. One line stuck out; he said “when things get hard, as the CEO, you don’t get to stay in bed and hide under the covers; the issues will still be there when you get out of the bed”. There will likely be lots of times where the temptation is strong to crawl under the covers and wait until the issues blow over. The reality is, however, that no one is likely to deal with these situations unless you do.
The archetypal Bad China Day is, for most of us, caused by the last straw in a series of small seemingly innocuous transgressions; a death by one thousand cuts, dripping-water-torture of sorts. We often take for granted how much context drives our comprehension in the unspoken parts of our conversations. I wrote a good portion of this story, like many of my other stories, while traveling in the back of a minivan on the backroads of China. A little while ago, we ducked into a gas station and I noticed that the car next to us had the windows tinted with the tint film installed on the outside of the windows. WTF? I quickly snapped a photo and sent it to a colleague in Shanghai. He replied back that, strictly speaking, the person installing the film likely followed the instructions correctly, instructions that possibly did not insist that the film be inside of the car. I shook my head and let my colleague know that he’d been in China too long. He was right though; if you’ve not grown up in a car culture, cultural context doesn’t inform you about the correct location to install window tint film.
I remember one day in China when the temperature had finally crossed from spring the summer. In our office, we had a number of ceiling mounted air conditioners, so before I arrived to the office I asked the security guard to turn them on to get the cooling started. I arrived to an office so hot and dry I could have fired pottery at my desk. I called in the security guard and asked why he had set the air conditioning units to heat? He replied that I asked him to turn them on, and he did so. I realized that the air conditioners were still set to heat, from the last time they were used in winter. I corrected him, letting him know that he needed to change to mode to “cool”. The next day I again arrived to a hot office. Once again, while he had changed the mode, he didn’t lower the temperature setting. Day three and I found that the air conditioners were struggling to keep up. A glance at the controller showed the fan speed was set too low. By the end of the week, I had a two page standard operating procedure drawn up, with photos, detailing how to TURN ON AN AIR CONDITIONER. Suffice it to say many other tasks that we as westerners take for granted ended up with their own standard operating procedure documents; it can be downright exhausting when it takes two weeks and an eventual 27 page document to explain how to take and share a decent photo of a prototype. You may find yourself thinking that people must be actively trying to misunderstand you.
I still remember what is perhaps the worst manifestation of a Bad China Day that I personally experienced. It started when we had just finished fitting out our second China factory building. One thing you’ll notice about factories and offices is that there are a lot of doors. At the time that we started the fit out, I spoke to the contractor about getting “master-keyed” locks; he said that such a thing did not exist in China. I made him call a local locksmith, and after a few ridiculous minutes (which felt like hours) of pantomiming my desire to have master-keyed door locks, I acquiesced to the reality that our fifty-door factory was going to require fifty sets of keys. Dutifully I went out to the local hardware store and purchased the largest key organizer that they had.
One of our first hires was an admin guy; I normally filled up some of his time performing odd tasks around our offices. He seemed like the ideal candidate to organize the office keys into our newly acquired key organizer.
I started with a simple request.
“Hey Jimmy (name changed), I need you to do two things. First, hang this key organizer on the wall. Second, I need you to organize all of these keys into the organizer” I’d even named each of the rooms on a set of the factory blueprints, to make it easier for him to line up the english names with each key.
I came back a few hours later and all of the keys were hung up in the organizer, in groups of 3-5 keys per hook, but none of them had labels.
“Jimmy, what is this?” He comes running over “I organized the keys, like you asked”
“Yeah, but they’re not labeled”
“I thought you just wanted them organized”
“Jimmy, lets say I wanted to get into the warehouse, which key would I use?” He moves closer and starts picking up keys and staring at them, as if he could “feel” the correct match by staring at the key with all of his might. “aaahhh” he let out a long sigh to indicate he was deeply considering the question.
“The answer is, Jimmy, that I can’t get into the warehouse, since none of us know which key opens that door”
“Ooooh! I see!” he exclaimed, with the same look of exasperated comprehension that you might have when you finally found the origin of the universe using the Large Hadron Collider.
“Ok Jimmy, let’s try one more time, I need you to test each key, and label it with the matching English words as I put on this map of the factory. Got it?” I hand him the map, the key, and give him my most disappointed look.
“Totally, no problem”
A few days later, I found myself in the need of one of the keys, and I headed over to the key organizer which I now noticed was hung crooked on the wall. I swing the door open and find that each key has been adorned with a fold of athletic tape and has random Chinese characters scribbled on it. Ok, kinda upset about that, but I was in a rush, so I tried matching up the Chinese writing on the keys with the Chinese writing on the map of the factory.
It turned out that Jimmy had made up his own descriptions of the doors that each of these keys opened. “That door over by the bathroom” “The closet where the broom is located” “The other office door”
At this moment, weighed down by the urgent need to find a key that I had little chance of finding, and frustrated that my employee could not handle what I perceived to be an extremely simple task, I finally snapped.
“Jimmy, What The F*ck!?!?!”
I see his head, along with several others, pop up out of their cubicles like a pack of timid meerkats.
“I need to get into the storage room but none of the keys are labeled correctly” This time Jimmy is not running over to help. He may have seen my blood boiling from where he was sitting. So I did the next best thing, at least to my adrenaline-addled brain. I picked up one of the keys and flung it at him. The key made a satisfying clang as it ricocheted off of his desk and onto the floor.
“Why The F*uck can you not get this right”
I should mention that as each word exited my mouth, I picked up another poorly labeled key and flung it in Jimmy’s direction.
This was not my finest moment. But I’m pretty sure logic and reason had long left the building, leaving only rage behind to continue on without them.
“I gave you the mother%^&ing map with English names, I even gave you the g*d-damn label maker, yet after a week of working on it, you still can’t label a bunch of keys properly; what. the. f*ck?”
Pretty sure every single person in the company was now staring at me.
I finally stop to take a breath. I think Jimmy may have retreated under his desk.
“Organize the keys, in English, with the label maker, by the end of the day today, or expect that you will not have a job tomorrow.”
In retrospect you’d look at this silly situation and think about how ridiculous it is that I could go ballistic over something so trivial. But really, that rage had built up over time, countless times where my staff and vendors had veered a little or a lot off course and needed far too much hand holding to get back on track, those little things that people do that seem to defy all logic, or times when people do the minimum and ask “Can you accept?” rather than pushing for greatness.
Those of you that have experienced these types of emotions may empathize or even have experienced these Bad China Days.
Thankfully, these days I’ve honed my skill at feeling when emotions are about to boil over and extricating myself from those situations before I start throwing keys again.