Birthday Brief

Another detour on the way to Haungshan stories.

Not many people in the gym on a Sunday night.

Sunday was my birthday and from my last post, you know how important it is for me to acknowledge the day for myself–to do something that makes the day stand out from every other day. It started with cake with my team on Friday, lunch and board games on Saturday, and ended with climbing and dinner on Sunday.

Picking up on Sunday with no work alerts and nothing significant planned, I finally had the time to socialize with a few people online, take my time setting about my day, and simply relax. I did some much needed yoga and even took a nap (I’m trying hard to recover from this bronchial thing). The idea to visit the Suzhou Museum and the Suzhou Center was high on my list of things to do, but motivating to head out and still make my climbing plans later in the afternoon seemed like it was better just to hang back. While I did eventually venture out to the Suzhou Center (mall) just to get out of the house, I found the Center overwhelming and crowded, which really isn’t my scene. It was a relief to make it a short excursion because of the sensory overload from being in there!

Suzhou Center fish cutting
Suzhou Center fresh fish station.

Because I made the decision to go to the Suzhou Center so late in the day, it meant I would run late getting to the climbing gym. I took that hit as a forcing function to keep me from climbing too much. Again, having been sick for so long, I’m really trying to not overdo it so I can get better. When I arrived, my new friends had already been climbing for a bit. It wasn’t crowded and I felt good, best I’ve felt in weeks. I wanted to have some superficial goal, like 48 routes, or something and instead did as many climbs as I could until people appeared to be done. While I could easily have climbed another hour or more, I respected that I came late to my own gathering and therefore, should not hold everyone up.

After climbing, and true to their word, we all went for dinner. Even though we simply walked across the street to a restaurant arranged by none other than gym owner Liu Chang Zhong (or LCZ), I was blown away by the setting.

Restaurant
Birthday dinner. Sorry Milo, you are missing.

We had views of the lake towards Suzhou Center, and across to the Ferris Wheel and the very tall IFS building with the Church in MoonBay lit up just outside. We were in a private room with a round table, our own private bathroom (inside the room), waitstaff (inside the room), and both relaxing chairs and dining chairs complete with a television.

LCZ ordered Huang Jiu, which in my mind is still something to stay clear of. It hits slow and hard and therefore can be dangerous to drink. I’ve tried a different variation called Bei Jiu and will never try that again. It’s like moonshine or something. Yuck. Now you’ve been warned. Be wary of Chinese spirits. 🙂

Dinner was a fantastic number of dishes including local Suzhou crab, fish, shrimp, water lily, and more. The tea was delicious and the cake was incredible. The whole experience was more than I could have hoped for to have a wonderful birthday. And, it wasn’t just that they took me to dinner and we had great conversaton, it’s that they really put thought and time into making it significant for me. I was moved.

Mitten Crab
Suzhou Mitten Crab because they look like they are wearing mittens.

As has been my experience with every meal in a room like this, the food is bountiful and we could easily have had a few more guests to help us finish it. I also learned that like European restaurants, you are not pressured to leave the room. Dinner comes quickly, but conversation and drinking goes on for a lot longer. One of my new friends, Milo, describes these types of events as typically turning into a drinking party, though none of us had the mind to do that.

Fish cooked
Fish

I did my best to eat what I could, sampling everything, which is the main benefit for me with these types of meals. And, our conversations could have gone on for much longer. Poor Milo turned into a translator throughout the night when stories needed to be shared in both languages for full inclusion and understanding. Milo moved to Canada when he was 9 and back to China for a year in High School and now back to China for a work endeavor so his Chinese and English skills are thankfully impeccable.

Food
A feast! I feel like we eat like Royalty with so much food being served and the restaurant being so nice.

This phase of language learning, for me, feels like I’m handicapped. For instance, while getting ready at the gym switching my shoes at the benches, the kids (maybe aged 6/7?) ending their training session were enamored with me, saying “hi” in English. I would respond both in English and Mandarin. They were so cute and one girl was very dramatic about how difficult the training was and how tired she was that she literally plopped down on the mats next to me chattering away, arms and legs splayed as though she was too tired to move again. I understood this much but lacked any words to communicate with her until I heard her say she was ready to go to sleep. Then I laughed as I said “go to sleep” back to her in Mandarin. She giggled and rolled over, blushing and chattered some more. I fell back into handicapped mode and wished I could learn Mandarin faster. It was a similar feeling at dinner, though Milo’s gracious translating and engaging conversation helped keep me involved and in touch with everyone else.

After dinner, a cake was brought out. Zhou’Er is a baker but he didn’t bake this cake. He and his wife, however, ordered it and added some final touches to it. You have to know how much thought went into this because they asked the bakery to make sure the top looked like mountains, and Zhou’Er’s wife (so sorry I can’t recall her name) had to hunt for the climbing additions she added. It was perfect!

Top of cake
Top of the cake
Front view of cake
Front view of cake

In the States, you can’t bring in outside food into restaurants because of health code violations or some such thing. They didn’t seem to have a problem with us bringing in a cake and eating it there. Once again, the cake came with it’s own cutting spatula, cake plates, and cake forks. I’m really enjoying the cakes I’ve been having because even though they are cake, they are not overly sweet. Traditionally, I have not appreciated Chinese “sweets” because of the strange tastes and the lack of sweetness, which always threw me. Now, I’m finding an array of items that I enjoy eating because they taste good and don’t need to be any sweeter.

Though the meal was over and the cake eaten, drinks were still being served and we continued to chat. I believe if people didn’t have other obligations, and it wasn’t a Sunday night, we could have chatted for much longer than we did. We eventually walked back to the gym where I retrieved my scooter and everyone said farewell. Except, when I came back from getting my scooter, they were still there and a man who looked like a crossing guard (could have been a policeman) approached on his scooter (much fancier than mine). I was puzzled.

This man was trying to pack his scooter into the car. Everyone was just standing there while Zhou’Er was speaking to the man. The scooter didn’t fit in the back seat so they were going to try the trunk. The scooter man lays a blanket down and the scooter rests on it then they close it up and the man prepares to drive the car. I ask Milo what is going on and he tells me drinking and driving laws are fierce and if you’ve had any amount of alcohol, you are safer to call for a driver to drive you home, than risk getting pulled over and put in jail.

“Rent a driver” folding his scooter and putting it in the trunk of Zhou’Er’s car so he can drive him home and then return to his route.

I was shocked! Of course people shouldn’t drink and drive, but a zero tolerance society was…wow! I thought at first this man was called to check their alcohol levels to validate they could drive or something like that because he was so formal. Then, I’m told you order this man through an app and pay for his service. It’s really genius. Many times myself, or my friends don’t want to leave their vehicles in the city and uber home and have to uber back to get their car. This would solve that. Of course for safety and etc. there should be corollary laws in place to protect citizens, the vehicle, etc. but I still think it’s a good idea. It’s a relief to know that your friends will get home safely.

We wrapped up the night and I’m happy to say the best gift I received was the enlistment of these new friends to become the new LCZ adult training team for climbing!

I was over the moon excited they were interested that it was all I could talk about to anyone who would listen. We have LCZ, former Captain of the Chinese National Climbing team, myself a former US National team competitor, Zhou’Er a strong but recreational climber, and Milo, a fairly new but improving also recreational climber with mountain climbing aspirations. Now that we have agreed to be a team for the next 6 weeks, we need to decide how we want to train. We don’t have all of the resources I’m used to so the training will have to be a bit creative and for that I rely on LCZ’s input. For the structure, we will decide our approach and plan tonight at our first training meeting. I can’t wait!!

I’m moved by how much generosity and genuine interest these strangers have for me and their commitment to climbing. I’m excited to get to know them better and I’m looking forward to getting stronger and improving my climbing for the duration that I’m here. I think we will learn something from each other and I look forward to sharing what I learn with you, the reader and my friends back home.

Once again, thanks for reading my blog.

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Life through a different lens

Man bouldering
Man bouldering

I wanted to interrupt my Huangshan writing to share more interesting stories from my time here. What I love about spending significant time living in another country is the ability to see myself through other people’s eyes. It’s unavoidable because I stand out. People stare at me and my colleagues are always asking questions about how we do things in America or asking me to explain myself when I use metaphors. In fact, the only other time when I looked “exotic” was when I lived in Sweden and while culturally different, it was a similar fascination with the West. This post will share some contrasts, go deeper into the differences I experience between the two cultures, and show a lot of random pics to split up all of the text. Most of the pics will be food.

Warning: there may be disturbing food images.

Household Contrasts

Experiencing life through a different lens creates a natural curiosity about the way I do things or the way I think, etc. Something as simple as what dishes and utensils they provided for me in my apartment start to shed a light on what they think of as essentials. I have noodle bowls, soup bowls, traditional Chinese soup spoon, rice cooker, wok, rice paddle, chopsticks, and yes, a few western utensils (oversized spoon, fork, and a sharp butter knife). I eat at home a lot and have found that I now eat only out of a bowl and solely with a pair of chopsticks. I still make the same types of food as I did in the States because I don’t want to bother with buying a whole bunch of supplies just to make something special let alone attempt Chinese food.

My apartment is very modern and very Western. Nothing overly significant there, except that my in-room washer and dryer is one unit. Why don’t we have more of those in the States? I don’t know what the living quarters of a local look like but I have seen homes in the villages. The tables and chairs are much closer to the ground that they look like a child’s dining set. People will drink water from the tap after it’s been boiled, whereas I refuse to even cook with that water. I’ve no choice when I go out to eat a restaurant, but at home, I use filtered or bottled water to rinse my food, brush my teeth, make my oatmeal, and make tea. To help kill any pesticide or germ from the markets, I cook everything: spinach, carrots, green beens, broccoli, peppers, ginger, mushrooms, etc.

Another difference I notice is that people are very friendly here. Ok, let me clarify: Strangers are not friendly, older women are still pushy, and well, you should mind yourself in the big cities, tourist attractions, and crowded villages. Theft is real. That said, here in Suzhou, it’s fairly safe. I’m not sure if it’s all of the surveillance or if it’s because despite it’s size (built like a large city but not inhabited like a large city) there aren’t the numbers of people to make theft an issue.

Suzhou Team Contrasts

I think FanChen is trying to shoot me. Or, he’s counting…
Cake to celebrate two birthdays.

My team here in Suzhou is made of young 20-somethings all fresh out of school, with a couple people maybe in their later 20’s with some work experience. The young energy helps keep the atmosphere upbeat and lively. They are a bit more social and they all get along really well. Because they are young, it’s even more interesting to see their behaviors and witness their manners because this is a time in their lives when they are at liberty to express themselves (at least that’s how I perceive it in the States).

Many young people, I’m told, move to the cities to get better jobs so they may live alone and away from family. Eventually, as the parents age, they will likely live together again. It’s still not unusual to have generations of a family under one roof. Only this time, the family will move to the city, not the youth moving back home.

With that in mind, consider that they make good money doing a job at Microsoft because they hold the most valued positions in the company as software developers. Yet, I don’t see them spending money like they have lots of it. They wear nice clothes but their wardrobes are modest. Further, these kids are smart and hungry to do good work so they work a lot and are eager to please. The language barrier means they can ask many kinds of questions and Americans working with them tend to have a lot of patience.

I also find that this team puts a lot of emphasis on inclusion and team building. Contrast that with Redmond where I’m lucky to collect people to have a lunch together on any given day and where everyone is heads down working that it’s hard to feel collaborative outside of a meeting. And, morale events….our budget must be super small compared to here because our morale events are lunch excursions (we did go bowling once), not visits to other cities for a weekend get-away.

Inclusion

Inclusion permeates the environment, or maybe that’s an extension of the importance of relationship building. It is expressed in everything we do here in the team. If I have a suggestion and desire to do something, I cannot push for it to happen because I’ve learned that the team needs to think about it and consider it (logistically) before any decision towards planning can happen. Even ordering a cake or milk tea, which we do on occasion in the office, can be a collaborative event. You don’t just take your tea when it’s ready, you collect all of the teas, take it back to the office, make sure everyone gets theirs and have a couple extra in case anyone else in the neighborhood wants one and wasn’t there when we ordered.

Lunch

Lunch time is a collective initiative, brought on by one or a few people, then everyone rallies in a kind of wave that heads down for lunch together. We eat together everyday and try hard to find a table or tables close to one another that can seat everyone together. No one leaves the table until the last person is done eating. If I see everyone waiting for me to finish eating, I simply don’t finish my meal and announce that I’m done by setting down my chopsticks so I don’t hold everyone up. As long as at least one other person is still eating, I continue to eat, too. The group will get up as a collective and head back to the office once the group has decided it’s time, usually marked by the last person at the table finishing their meal.

Me and cake
Not at all my birthday or anyone’s birthday. Someone just wanted to order cake. The whole experience was so novel to me, and I liked this cake, that I asked for my picture with it. See the last heading on cakes in this blog more context.

Now, let me just add that I never did lunch in High School. In grade school and middle school, which were the same school for me, I slowly drifted away from eating with the core group. We were a small class so it wasn’t easy to have options and some of these kids I’d grown up with since Kindergarten so the friendships changed over time. It didn’t help that there were things happening in my home life that made it difficult to relate to the other kids so I preferred to work in the kitchen instead of eating at the table with my classmates whenever the opportunity was there.

In high school, I found I could skip lunch and avoid the whole social awkwardness altogether. My computer instructor, Mr. Bauer, was kind enough to let me hang out in the computer room at lunch time and after school. I say this because I don’t have a lot of experience with group lunches and this whole scenario is rather new for me. Maybe this is how it’s always done, everywhere. I just know the entire time I’ve worked at Microsoft, I’ve never had a lunch experience like this either.

Close up of cake
Close up of cake

Snacks

Another example of their strong sense of inclusion comes from the snacks that are brought to the office and are in the kitchenettes on each floor. (We don’t have anything like this in Redmond, FYI). The cleaning ladies throughout the day will bring food to the various neighborhoods and fix snacks, replenish cold drinks and prepare fresh hot teas for everyone. Some snacks remain in the kitchenette, other snacks they bring to the neighborhoods. The Neighborhood snacks consist of grapefruit wedges, oranges, bananas, cherry tomatoes, etc. and they typically bring one type of snack in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Noodles and buns
Birthday noodles and buns. Supposed to mean a wish for a long life.

The unspoken etiquette is to take some for yourself, but to make sure everyone has had their chance to have some. For instance, despite two neighborhoods being next door to one another, our neighborhood would never take from the other if our supply ran out. It just doesn’t happen. And, you walk by both snack tables to get into our neighborhood so there is plenty of opportunity. Also, if you take a snack from the kitchenette you have to know that they are not meant to be taken for an individual. The cleaning woman will open several packets of things and leave them sitting open on the counter in the snack basket along side unopened packages. Apparently, when someone wants a snack from there, they take one or two pieces from the opened package. And, if they open a package, they offer it to teammates they know in the kitchen with them or as they return to their desk, they offer some to everyone in the neighborhood before finishing it themselves.

Because I’ve been sick for so long, the local doctor started me on antibiotics. Throughout the day I’d feel queasy and started bringing small pretzel breads to work with me. I was eating one while everyone was having a chatty moment, hanging out, and someone looked at it and asked where I got it (quickly eyeing the snack table). I immediately felt guilty that I was eating something and hadn’t asked if anyone wanted some, first. I stepped back to my desk to offer him the only other one I’d brought with me, but he didn’t take it. I don’t know how hard fast this etiquette is, but I do know they are very forgiving of Westerners because let’s face it, we are ignorant when it comes to these things.

snake
Snake, don’t know which kind

Even though this is China and air quality is a problem, you don’t drink from the tap, consistency of sanitation and health inspections is lacking, etc. the people I spend my time with create an instant sense of belonging and a genuine sense of caring. Of the many things that continue to surprise me about China, this is hands down the most surprising. Reflecting on my impressions of China or Chinese people from before my time here and all I can say is I really don’t know what I thought about them. All I can say now is that I’m fortunate to know the people I do here. My time here is greatly enhanced and I am thankful for that.

Stiff Drink

This weekend is my birthday weekend and I’m sad and homesick (in a way) that I’m trying to make sure I’m not alone for my birthday. I’ve had too many of them this way and it’s just depressing. So, when I make any kind of deal out of my birthday, it’s like my way of saying that I don’t care if no one else cares….I’m going to care.

When I was awakened early this morning with an urgent matter at work, I was a bit frustrated. It’s the first day I thought I could get some much needed rest (I’m still recovering from this bronchial thing and rest has not been easy to get because I’ve been working a lot). I also thought I could do some yoga, blog a little, then get ready to have lunch with my colleagues and play some board games this afternoon. It was going to be a perfect day. Even though it’s not my birthday until tomorrow, this was the team’s way of celebrating with me and I was glad to have the camaraderie.

pidgeons
These dishes were ordered before I arrived. It’s safe to say they like all kinds of fowls.

This task I began to look into took me most of the day. And, when lunch time was nearing, I hadn’t even showered, let alone did any yoga or blogging. Just before I was to prepare for this lunch, I see a message pop up saying I should take some steps to see if I can get my fix to check in. For you techies out there, I had a fix to an issue that was blocking our ability to deploy a service in a particular site. Every day this remained blocked would increase the likelihood that it would become customer impacting. However, before a change can be committed, it has to pass a suite of tests. In this particular branch of code, the tests that need to run can take many hours to complete and apparently the build environment was having issues so it went down for maintenance this weekend starting Friday at midnight.

Wouldn’t you know it. My tests were running for hours, right up until midnight when the system went down. This alert this morning was to tell me that the tests failed, but now the service was unreachable. Ugh! This was not going to be an easy thing to solve and required paging various people in the team, including working with Redmond until late their evening (a Friday night for them). I saw this email come in and the stress from the situation that had been building all morning, knowing that this high priority task could keep me from my birthday lunch and games, eventually brought me to tears.

I wrote an email to Redmond explaining I’d been working with the China team since early this morning, indeed worked hard to get this thing in the build before midnight the night before, but not for lack of trying was unsuccessful. I told them, I’d been up until midnight and up early, hadn’t showered, needed lunch, and I needed to go into the office for more reliable internet. I knew it was late there so all I needed was for them to know I needed this break and I could continue to work with someone after lunch.

Tofu
Tofu

When I arrived at lunch, I was really sad and though I was enjoying the meal, I shared what was happening and apologized for being late (so thankful I could make it at all!). Everyone was really wonderful at talking about the situation and when I learned we were all going to the office after lunch, I suddenly felt a lot better.

One of my colleagues got up to order drinks for people. He asked in English what people wanted: “coke, sprite, beer, something?” To which I laughed out a reply something like “how about a stiff drink!” Well, I thought that was funny. None of my colleagues got the joke. I didn’t actually want a stiff drink, I was suggesting it only to emphasize the stress of the day. When asked what I meant I realized they were trying to look up “stiff drink” in the dictionary. That’s when I was reminded that my humor and metaphors fall flat because of the language barrier. It would be like them saying “Great fortune is great risk.” I mean, we don’t talk like that so it sounds funny to me…like a fortune cookie saying. So these types of American or English expressions must sound like that to them.

Before lunch was even done, I got a notice from the guy in Redmond saying they were going to use my fix for testing the environment, which meant that I wouldn’t have to do anything more at the moment. An immediate wave of relief swept over me, though I wasn’t home-free, yet. Back at the office, I was able and ready at a moment’s notice to focus on the issue, but until they needed me, there wasn’t much I could do. Everyone gathered in a conference room and started playing games. Mid-way through the first game, and almost 8 hours after my morning alert, the alerting team had completed my check-in. That was it. The issue was closed. Now I could focus on spending time with my colleagues, the games, and practicing my Mandarin. It was going to be a perfect birthday/”not my real birthday, yet”, afterall.

Over packaging, attention to detail

One final note under this category. Notice what came with the cakes we ordered. Candles with 2 matchsticks, Happy Birthday crown, small cake plates and small forks, a cake cutting utensil, an insulated cake-sized carrying container with an enclosed ice pack, and the cake in a very sturdy cake box. The cake cost around $25 each, with everything included. Another aside, the cakes are not nearly as sweet as in America and yet the Chinese still find them very sweet.

cake packaging
Attention to detail is impressive. When I go back to the States and order a cake, my expectations are going to be too high, expecting this same kind of service. lol

I know the post was long because it covered three general topics, but I preferred to put it all in one post rather than several little ones. Next up will be more on Huangshan. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

Drop me a note and let me know what you think and how I can make these posts even better.

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Mount Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), part I

Sunrise
Sunrise

Last May when I was in China on business, a few colleagues got the idea to visit Huanghan, Yellow Mountain. I wanted to join them but my leg (hamstring injury from 2 years ago) was still not quite well enough, I thought, to handle the many stairs required for the trip. And, I didn’t want to be a hindrance and slow everyone down so I opted out on the trip but kept the idea of a future endeavor in mind.

After arriving in China for my longer business trip, a colleague asked if I wanted to do Yellow Moutain. I was so sick upon arrival and my schedule was really full before arriving that I hadn’t really thought about when or if I would go to this mountain or anywhere else. The only thing in my mind was to be sure I made it outdoors climbing and being sick meant that idea was far off. Despite the lingering respiratory/sinus issues, I agreed to go. We were thinking a couple weeks out and I thought I would be better by then so why not say yes, now. 🙂

Ling
My colleague, Ling.

My colleague, Ling, was eager to start planning and thankfully, she is a genius at this. After her initial research it was clear we should go the following weekend. Weather was settling in and the weekend we initially planned had rain in the forecast. Not having anything on my calendar having only just barely settled in after arriving from the States, I agreed to go. Hopefully, this sickness would not get in the way and hopefully, my knees and hammy could handle the stress. I had heard it was a lot of stair climbing and descending so I was a bit nervous about my overall fitness. Ling assured me she wasn’t feeling in great shape and we’d take it slow so I felt better about committing to go.

Ling and I tried to recruit others, but I think the idea of stairs and the height of the mountain put people off. Some had already done it, only one would do it again but couldn’t join us. While it would have been great to have a small group go, it worked out better that it was just Ling and me. We really did take it slow, meandering up every viewpoint we found on our path through the backside and over to the frontside to our hotel. We got lost, backtracked, went in circles at one point, but never complained because the day was as good as it could get. Clear, blue skies, not too hot, very little haze/pollution on the horizons, and very few clouds in the valleys.

A photo showing a sampling of the many stairs
Ling coming down one set of many stairs

We had spectacular views from the minute we were on the Gondola. And, thanks to Ling’s planning skills, everything we needed from transportation, places to stay, proximity to things, etc. were perfectly executed. We even made it back down the mountain early enough to change our train ticket and make it home 2 hours earlier than originally planned.

Because everything worked out so well, I want to pass on some tips and suggestions for anyone who wishes to experience this mountain for themselves. Hopefully, this information will help you in your planning. I know if I was trying to sort all of this out on my own, I would have made a few mistakes or missed the mark because navigating is easier if you know Chinese, which I do not. So, once again, thank you, Ling, for making this trip super easy for me. 🙂

The next post will have some logistics and more photos from the trip. Below, find some websites that help with your planning and travel and describe the mountain and it’s significance — along with a link to a potential tour of the ancient village of HongCun.

Looking back to our hotel
Looking back toward our hotel (the one with the weather station on top)
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