One of my first mentors in business as well as life, and a man I greatly admired, taught me early on that you can usually judge the character of a person by the condition of the shoes she or he wears.  Reflecting back on my own successes and failures, and the shoes that were a part of each, that advice has proved right more than wrong and I still find it useful and practical advice, even today.  

 Welcome to my mildly irreverent views on business, travel, living and working in Asia and life in general. And remember, don't show up for life in the wrong pair of shoes!    

 (Photo above- Beijing shoe store window display 2006   See, even in China they get it!)

04 October 2007

I finally found a hero worth having

As a child growing up I, like most, had many dreams and, for what I believed to be a whole host of reasons, many of them remain just dreams still today; but perhaps that might change soon. In this day and age of the cult of celebrity there is a lot of talk about the lack of genuine heroes, good heroes, to inspire and lead by example. Today I spent perhaps one of the most emotional, if not most inspiring, hour and a half of my life so far watching Dr. Randy Pausch’s “last lecture”, the inaugural speech in a series called Life Journeys organized by Carnegie Mellon University. For those who have never heard of Randy, and although I have never meet him personally, I believe he is the kind of person that would be ok if I call him Randy, he is an extraordinary educator and human being and, in my mind, one of this generation’s truly great heroes. Randy is dying of cancer, but to watch him and to hear his message it is hard to keep that in mind. The theme of his speech was what it takes to make childhood dreams a reality, either your own or those of others.

Randy poignantly reminded me today that I need never give up on those childhood dreams, and more importantly, Randy reminded me that nothing really stands in my way other than myself. Randy reminded me that the door remains closed forever to those who stop trying to get in. His compelling reminder that the metaphorical “brick wall” was only there to keep out those who truly did not want in was a lesson lost somewhere along the way. He jogged my memory to the importance of having people in my life who supported and encouraged me to live my dream, no matter how improbable or preposterous it might seem. No less important, he reminded me of how vital it is to surround myself with other people who share the passion for making my dream a reality; for nothing really great can ever be achieved alone. But Randy’s speech was not for me, it wasn’t even for the hundreds of people in the audience or the hundreds of thousands who will share in its magic in posterity. Randy’s speech was for his three children. And despite the sadness his passing will bring them, they will never need another hero.

I too am a parent, though my own children are well into early adulthood. Regardless of that I plan to share Randy’s speech with them; in fact, I will be by their side when they listen. I doubt that I will ever be able to achieve what Randy has done, as there are few who ever will. What makes Randy so special is not so much they way he has chosen to face death, but the way he has lived his life and achieved his dreams and the powerful force he has been in helping so many others reach theirs; that is what makes him a hero in my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way thinking regretfully or disparagingly of my parental skills, though there is probably ample room for doubt; in reality I am excited that I have finally found a hero worthy to share with my children. And should that not be one of the most important tasks of a parent? I think so.

02 October 2007

When too many A's become C's the elders worry

The occasion was a business dinner at a “supper club” in Chengdu, a lively city in the heart of China’s colorful Sichuan province. The entertainment that night was a pair of dancers and their unique version of a tango soon digressed into a provocative and vivid reenactment of sex. Even more startling, in the blink of an eye, the young lady’s ample breasts were exposed to the enthusiastic applause of the mostly male audience. My secretary leaned over and matter-of-factly whispered in my ear, “this is why Chairman Jiang is worried”. This was shortly after Jiang Zemin, China’s then president and secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), made his September 1995 speech to the Fifth Plenum of the Central Committee where he warned that economic development must not take precedent over ideology, and open displays of sexuality such as the one I had just witnessed was definitely one of those pesky flies that had flown in the window that Deng Xiao Peng had opened so wide.

Jumping ahead a little more than a decade and what did I find in today’s headlines? “China bans bra, underwear and sex toy ads” (AP-Beijing bureau). Once again the “sex police” are out in full force and on the offensive against social pollution. One of the most entertaining aspects of China is the often-clumsy attempts to clean up the moral landscape ahead of major holidays, party meetings or large-scale media invasions such as the upcoming Olympics will bring. But what made this latest proclamation particularly interesting was the fact it targeted, among other things, push-up bras and “figure-enhancing underwear” and the ban was being enforced to prevent “misleading consumers” with “outrageous” or “insupportable” claims and to clean up “social pollution” that harms the image of the Communist party. I’m not even going near that one on misleading consumers but perhaps there is more here than meets the eye!

As a keen observer of China for more than a decade now, I have admittedly noticed an unusually large increase in average cup size during that period. Ok, I carry the Y chromosome, and as hard as I try to the contrary, in the presence of the superior sex my eyes tend to drift toward the vicinity of the breasts. This observation is of course personal and devoid of any scientific support, but it was reasonably confirmed in the Shanghai Daily last year in an article that began with this teaser, “A recent report suggesting Chinese women are growing larger breast made headlines around the country”. The article goes on to attribute this in part to change in diet but I am not so sure of that. And why should this be held in any doubt?

On an average day in Shanghai, where 3 out of 5 taxis are adorned with advertisements for breast enlargement clinics, ironically, most carrying a picture of a pair of decidedly “western” 34d’s staring back at you, the breasts of 40 young women miraculously blossom overnight. For those seeking a more natural approach, the shelves of supermarkets, pharmacies and even the local version of 7-11 are stocked with an amazing array of breast enlargement creams, soaps, herbal supplements, breast enlarging teas and a host of electro-mechanical devices all touting the ability to transform you into Pamela Anderson in a matter of weeks! There are even massage parlors devoted to breast enlargement (sorry guys, female attendants only) and the ancient art of acupuncture has gotten in on the act as well. The most imaginative one though, I swear I am not making this up, is a collection of ring tones being marketed to turn those A’s and B’s into C’s and D’s. Honestly, it sometimes seems to this humble observer that the entire nation might be preoccupied with breasts. I often wonder why that is.

Perhaps it is partly the blame of “western” pollution as Playboy, Baywatch and Angelina Jolie are as much a part of modern day culture of China as in the US. Perhaps it is partly the fault that in China, where job qualifications often include the requirement of “appropriate appearance”, beauty is an important factor to get ahead and a shapely pair of breasts probably is useful in the male dominated world of business. Maybe it is a “tribal” sign of sorts that you have moved up in the world; after all, the cost of a set of implants is roughly 2 times the average annual income of most. Or is it done only to please a husband or lover in exchange for the hope of greater security in the relationship? Chinese men, well actually most men for that matter, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to these matters. Even more improbable, maybe it is defiant act and outwardly open grab at power that has traditionally been vested in the male species. The author Anita Wise once noted, “A lot of guys think the larger a woman's breasts are, the less intelligent she is. I don't think it works like that. I think it's the opposite. I think the larger a woman's breasts are, the less intelligent men become”.

Most likely it is a combination of all these things in different doses and I am sure I will never know the answer. But what I do know is that the trend of “bigger is better” is unlikely to change soon and maybe this time the “moral police” got it right. What better time than ever to inject an element of “truth in advertising” into that particularly deceitful business of push up bras.

28 September 2007

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”

Dear Respectful.
Warm greetings to you and your family in the name of God. I introduce my self to you with all faith, trust and hope you will understand to assist us not to betray us at the end. I was 20 Years old boy when my father died 2 years ago in a gold mine in Republic of Serria Leone. He was into legal gold minning,he has succeded in saving the sum of Ten million, five hundred thousand United State Dollars.USD ($10.500,000)left in fixed /suspense account in one of the prime bank here in Abidjan during his Business on Gold, before he went on a trip to Republic of Cote D'Ivoire West Africa near by country to our country to save his money for security reasons because of the political problem in our country.

Since the death of our father our step mother has been trying to kill us, she has been given us a lot of problem and she have collected every thing from us and now she still need the deposit certificate to claim this fund but I can't give this to her because is all we have to leave with. I am 22 years while my sister Lora is 20 years old of age we still need to go to school and have a better education and start a new life. Our step mother knows that our dad has such money but she don't know where exactly the fund is been deposited. Right now we are hiding in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. Our father used my name 'Joakim Thorelli' as the next of kin to the deposited fund. And we ran away with the deposit document, so nobody have access to the money now except me and my younger sister Lora.

We need help from you to asist us to transfer this money to your country for investment and who will be sincere to invite us to his country without cheating us or doing bad to us on my arrival with my sister, we are willing to offer you 15% of the total sum after the transfer of this fund into your account in overseas. Please mail me urgently to know your stands before looking for help elsewhere, you're the first person we are contacting in this isseu.
Please permit me to ask, can you honestly help us as your own people and can we completely trust you? We are kindly requesting for this vital information from you if you agreed to assist us out of our problem:

(1) Your full name (2) Your Personal telephone number and fax. I will also want you to tell me more about yourself in your reply to my letter to you. Thank you for your signify interest to assist me and my sister. Hoping to hear from you soon. May God bless you and preserve our friendship in good faith.

Best regards
Joakim Thorelli and sister,

Dear Joakim and Lora;

It was indeed a surprise to receive your mail and, after carefully reading it over and over I must say I am saddened to hear of your plight and my sincere and deepest condolences to you for the loss of your father, if that is indeed what I understood you to say. The matter with your stepmother is of course what seems to be of the utmost importance at this time.

Differences of opinion, tension, passive aggressive behaviors and even hostility are not uncommon in family situations such as the one you and Lora find yourselves in now. I am of no doubt that the strain of your father’s untimely death has played a large role in the worsening of your relationship with your stepmother, but I do believe she means well, despite that it might appear otherwise at times. Since it seems you have good access to the internet, my advice to you is to direct your self to where you will find many qualified professionals who can start you, Lora and your stepmom on a path of healing and recovery. There is also a wonderful book called “Making Friends with your Stepchildren” by Rosemary Wells that might make a lovely gift for your stepmother and could even be a nice bridge to renewing your relationship with her. I believe you can find it at I am sure your departed father, God bless his soul, would sleep more peacefully in his grave knowing that his family was again united in heart and spirit.

I am also very pleased to read that you and Lora have plans to continue your education. Joakim, I did notice that most respectable employers could look on your sentence structure, spelling and word usage not so favorably. Using your father’s legacy to improve your education seems much more prudent than pursuing risky investment options in my country. I believe your stepmother would concur with me on that matter.

If however you persevere in your interest to invest the money there are many far more knowledgeable than me on how to do this. Since you are currently staying in a refugee camp, one very good idea would be to contact the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. I believe they would be able to provide invaluable assistance for many of your current dilemmas. I think the director’s name is Mr. António Guterres and, while I do not have his email address, I am sure you can find it since you were able to find mine. Another idea worth your noble consideration is to contact the Swedish Embassy nearest you, as Thorelli is a well respected family name in Sweden and they should be most eager to help I am sure on behalf of your departed ancestors.

My dear Joakim, thank you for your trust in me to help you through this troubling time and I hope my kind advice in some small way leaves you with hope. It is perhaps indeed a miracle of god that you found me first. Please do stay in touch.

Warm regards,

26 September 2007

What I learned in spite of Sunday school

Having grown up with a rather haphazard and eclectic immersion into religion (yes, I was baptized several times), the question most often on my mind as a child was whether I would burn in a cauldron of fiery brimstone or know that my weekly penitence was the key to the door of eternal bliss. The final product of these liberal doses of Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Moravian, Lutheran and Catholic dogma was a very spiritual challenged person, but one with a tremendous curiosity how one book, The Bible, could produce so many different and often conflicting interpretations. One thing was for sure though; this Bible was one powerful and compelling piece of literature and was far more interesting than My Weekly Reader. Later in college, struggling to find easy (thus passable with minimum effort) courses I stumbled on something called “World Religions”. Here I not only rediscovered the Bible, but also discovered the Hebrew Bible, The Qur’an and the collection of writings of the Buddha’s teachings, and the powerful influence they had on peoples lives. Much to my surprise, I actually learned some valuable lessons that have served me well in life.

In today’s increasingly polarized and intolerant society maybe it might be worthwhile to consider teaching the world’s great religions, and a reading of the great books and writings these are based on, as a required subject in the primary school system. Think what a tremendous impact this might have on reducing the points of intolerance in our society today. That would of course mean that the teaching would have to be done from a secular pulpit, a condition that I fear would be pretty hard to sell to roughly 49% of our population-those aptly named “red states”, not to mention the obstacles that would need to be overcome in the more totalitarian and monotheistic school boards that exist in parts of the nation, but consider the implications.

The Bible, the Qur'an, Buddha's teachings are all indeed a great works of literature. All of these classics surprisingly share a universal code of morality and ethical guidelines. Stripped of any particular dogma, this sage advice might indeed lead in some small way toward lessening intolerance, bigotry and racism so rampant now wherever we look. At the same time, in a country such as ours where 50% or more of the population thinks Singapore is part of China, the implications for broadening understanding of geography are compelling as well. Even the teaching of science, mathematics, health and business might benefit from this change in curriculum. The only risk is can this be accomplished without the introduction of bias toward a particular dogma or faith, but this is a risk that is worth taking I believe, for the common good.

Perhaps the great American humorist and author Mark Twain sums this up best with these words, “All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten.” At least by putting that basket on display for all to see, it is easier to find the rotten ones.

24 September 2007

Halloween, hamburgers and that elusive 15 minutes of fame

As I strolled past the candy aisle at the local supermarket this weekend I caught a quick glimpse of packages decked out in all manners of orange and black. That could only mean Halloween was just around the corner, right? Even though I am considered well beyond the age that gets pumped over pumpkins and hobgoblins, Halloween does hold a special place in my heart, for it once brought me one of those "mini" 15 minute moments of fame we all so desperately seek and seldom find. The absurd, or perhaps pathetic reality is it wasn't that long ago (I am nearing retirement age) nor was it even on home ground. Casting aside those minor details, it was indeed one of my most satisfying accomplishments under pressure ever and certainly a worthy example of the unlimited creative power we all possess. As far-fetched as this might sound, I think there is even a business lesson or two here if you stretch your imagination.

This episode began with me in the middle of the planning season and already struggling for weeks to find a coherent and rational plan to support some mildly irrational budget targets. I was setting smack in the middle of the world's most dynamic economy and my boss really would not accept any reasons for less than double-digit growth, no matter how sound or correct any arguments to the contrary might be. At wits end from the whole process, I did what any rational person would do- headed off for a drink or two to clear my fuzzy head. On top of this enormous budget pressure was a sudden realization that I would soon miss yet another holiday celebration in my home country. Granted it was a pretty minor one, Halloween, and it would be unlikely I would even mildly enjoy being at "home" handing out treats to obnoxious little kids; nonetheless, it was a holiday and no matter how lucrative those "hardship" bonuses may seem on the surface, money is of little solace when holidays are repeatedly missed, even those insignificant ones.

You can imagine my bubbling joy when later that night I found my favorite Shanghai watering hole, the "place to be and be seen", was holding a massive Halloween party with a fairly impressive list of prizes. It seemed this rowdy holiday had been heartily embraced by the Middle Kingdom after all. Of course, this revelation was really not so surprising as most western holidays, particularly those "commercially attractive" rituals like Christmas, Easter and the whole host of "Hallmark holidays" had quickly taken root alongside the traditional, and far more profound, ones in economic-driven modern China. Already knowing that Halloween in China would be more of a "big kids" kind of thing to entertain us hard working "respectable" professionals, my naughty inner child made no bones about it that "we" were going to run rampant alongside the other aging ghosts and hobgoblins that year. Besides, this sort of opportunity seemed the perfect venue to fulfill my obligations as a cultural ambassador to the world, right? As my friends and I sat slowly drowning our week's misery in a few magnums of stale, expensive "cheap" French wine, the seeds were first sown of what would become one of my finest, if not defining, moments in a long love affair with Halloween.

The grand prize for this upcoming extravaganza would go to whoever came up with the best and most original costume! To hell with the budget, this was my new target! I knew this was going to be an equally challenging task as I looked around the room at all the other creative and motivated competitors I would be facing, not to mention the often surly staff who would be voting on the winner. After all, this was happening in "the" place to be seen in Shanghai, "the" place to be in the late 1990's if you were on the cutting edge of anything. There was definitely a lot attitude and brainpower here, albeit some bordering on temporary, if not permanent, impairment from too many tequila shots. I knew a Herculean effort would be needed to have any shot at winning.

After having procrastinated for most of a month mulling over hundreds of half-baked ideas while adding the final touches to my already late budget, I only set out to find my "perfect" costume on Halloween morning. Now this might seem a bit tight by most planning standards but I was confident that I had the talent to pull it together as I headed off to browse through the many novelty and theatrical shops tucked around Shanghai's artsy districts. Although it was the time of day when my biorhythms were not even awake, my mind was brimming with fanciful ideas and clever designs. I definitely was in a groove and knew it would be a breeze to quickly flesh out a "winner" once I found the "right" pieces. First stop- the many novelty shops surrounding Yi Yuan Gardens, all filled with colorful (but deadly suffocating) rubber and vinyl masks in every caricature, creature and demon imaginable (all “export quality” of course). But alas, there were just too many Dick Nixon, Crusty the Clown, and Bill Clinton faces staring back at me; besides, everyone had these at his or her disposal! After a brief lull and a coffee or two later, my creative juices flowed richer and richer thanks to Mr. Caffeine! Why not some "native" costume-perhaps an ancient Chinese warrior, or better still, a frightening and colorful Beijing opera character!

Aha! It was still morning, I had already latched onto the perfect idea and I still had the rest of the day to pull it together. Hailing the first taxi in sight, it was off to FuXing Lu with its motley collection of theater shops tucked in amongst the bookstores and galleries. All were filled with bright colored face paints, rich and regal robes with a dazzling accoutrement of ancient weapons, bright colored paper lanterns, some very wicked looking carved wooden masks, and staffed by the most lifeless people I had every encountered in a theatrical environment. But, that aside, here it was! All I could possibly need was there for the choosing. This was going to be the costume of all costumes...the crème de le crème!

After much contemplation and the usual trying on of this thing and that thing, I finally assembled my intended wardrobe. Next, in my not too substantial Chinese, I asked one of the more curious staff what amount of RMB this treasure would set me back. After a quick whirl on the abacus, to my astonishment the clerk replied RMB 5,800! Wow, this was more than US$ 600!! After several futile efforts to bargain I realized it would take my whole month's entertainment budget just to fund this one night affair. No way! That was a sacrifice that I just wasn't ready to make. After one more half-hearted attempt to bargain, knowing that even a highly unlikely 20 percent discount would still make this too extravagant, I walked out the door in a bit of a funk. Oh yes, I briefly toyed with the idea of whether this had any shot at all as a business expense, but quickly decided that required a degree of creative accounting way beyond even my skills.

Dejected and now fast running out of time, my empty stomach now growling like a pack of wolves, I decided that perhaps some food would re-ignite my creative juices. I went to the next corner and looked up and down the street for a place to grab a quick bite to eat. Suddenly, there it was!! Like a vision from the heavens the rightful owner of my perfect costume was staring back at me, as he sat smiling with his legs crossed, sharing his bright yellow bench with the pigeons! I quickly raced back in the shop, grabbing a handful of colorful face paints and a thick and bushy wig of auburn hair. Next, it was off to the many small clothes markets that crowded HuTing Lu alleyway to find the rest. Yes, they had the baggy yellow trousers, the red and white striped shirt, and even a matching yellow vest. As an added bonus I even found a pair of monstrously oversized shoes that made it all complete.

With less than an hour now to spare I needed to quickly transform these assembled pieces into the whole, to turn this wonderful vision into reality. Hurrying home I quickly went to work...painstakingly recreating that friendly and smiling face in detail! What emerged was even beyond my expectations! Everywhere I went people stared in awe of my talents to so realistically recreate this global icon! Needless to say, I was unanimously awarded the best costume prize at the largest party in town and merrily guzzled copious amounts of expensive champagne, one of the many rewards for the fruits of my labor. Oh, did I mention this party was sponsored by Verve Clique Champagne? Later, (or was it earlier, I always get confused when it is nearing dawn and my blood alcohol level is in double digits) as I weaved my way home with a lovely lady clinging to my arm, charmed and intoxicated by my creativity, I knew that this was surely the pinnacle of my life so far. I had captivated the masses-I was truly the king of Halloween in Shanghai! God, what a rush it was!

Stumbling out of bed later that evening under the weight of a massive champagne hangover, you know the kind where it hurts to merely blink your eyes, I surveyed my surroundings, albeit in a mildly distorted way as my eyes were clearly not prepared to take on the arduous task of focusing. To my utter horror, I discovered my brightly painted face had deserted me and taken up residence in every nook and cranny of my bed, my sheets now decorated in a kaleidoscope of color! I raced to the bathroom and gazed into the mirror through my champagne fogged eyes. Oh my GOD! My face was a vision from Hell! Streaks and gobs of black, red and white grease paint had merged in a pattern so indistinguishable and grotesque it could have easily been mistake for the early symptoms of some terrible and exotic tropical disease. Only after hours of scrapping, washing and scrubbing was I able to see my skin-at least the layer that remained! I was not yet prepared for the acne bloom soon to follow from pores clogged shut with grease paint; a visible reminder of my teenage years for weeks to come!

So, was it worth it? You bet!! For weeks and months thereafter, I was immediately recognized by my peers at "the" place to be and be seen and was asked time and time again (well, at least more than once) to tell the story of how I managed to land my name in the inaugural slot of the Halloween Ball honor roll. And, that clever little treat bag filled with Kit Kats and condoms from which I dispensed goodies throughout that immortal night remained a huge hit also in the weeks and months thereafter, though it was clearly out of the character of that wholesome personality I had worked so hard to replicate.

Who would have thought that this monumental icon to American fast food, Ronald McDonald, would have been the final inspiration behind my moment of fame in tradition rich China, particularly in Shanghai were KFC outsells McDonald’s be a factor of 10:1? Maybe a better question to ask is what is so special about this whole damn affair to begin with? Well, those are fair questions and I think I have the answer, at least to the latter. In the words of Mark Twain, "To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man's character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours". As for the former, I guess you can chalk it up to another victory for globalization.

23 September 2007

A New Weapon in the Battle of the Bulge

Get ready for Small Bites! I found this clever little device on the front page of the business section in the local paper last week. (Click on title to read the full article.) What first appeared to me as someone’s attempt to recycle last year’s retainer is in fact a nifty little gadget that controls how far you can actually open your mouth, limiting the amount of food you can insert at one time. It’s clinical merit seems based on some marginally relevant research conducted on eating habits a few years ago that showed the slower we eat, the less we actually eat, and the less we eat, the faster we lose weight. Now there’s a novel idea. Oh, did I mention that particular research used “Chicken Nuggets” as the test food, an item with at best a questionable role in any weight management program to begin with, particularly if they were McNuggets. But I am getting off track here, so back to Small Bites.

According to this article and some other research I did, there are roughly 400 million overweight or obese people in the world who could potential gain (uphs, I mean lose) from this device. The basic principle behind its effectiveness is behavior modification and limited field trails in Europe have been quite successful. Small Bites is designed to cause discomfort, yes hurt, if you open your mouth too wide. So by making it painful to eat large bites, Small Bites soon whips you into a toned and svelte chunk of humanity. Wow, I wish I had thought of that.

As one who is considered a pragmatic thinker it is however quick for me to see some of its shortcomings already. First, how do you cut up a Whopper Jr. into small bites while weaving in and out of lunchtime traffic? Maybe this gives new meaning to the concept of “having it my way”. Those donut holes that usually comprise half of a hearty breakfast seem to be too big to inhale now also, can we get those in mini size instead? A trip to the ballpark is never really memorable unless accompanied by a juicy cheese steak and bucket of crab fries. Ok, the fries I can work with, but the cheese steak? Even that big tantalizing bite into a luscious crisp autumn apple seems unlikely if fitted out with Small Bite. And what about the far more important and no less desirable urge for amorous play? I guess tongue kissing is out of the question with this baby firmly in place, not to mention those other “unspeakable” mouth pleasures. Hmm, its practicality seems dubious at best.

As a long time weight challenged individual I guess I can understand the motive. After all, this little device comes on the heels of a pharmaceutical answer for losing weight that promises increased and uncontrollable flatulence and the potential for “leakage” and severe diarrheas, certainly far more embarrassing than getting your fork hung on your Small Bite. Society today does unevenly reward the thin and the thick and we seem to be in an age where quick fixes are preferred over longer-term solutions. Even the most cited comment about that tragic performance of you know who recently on MTV was, “my god, she is fat!”. But what happened to common sense? Of course we are going to gain weight if we eat the wrong foods, in the wrong portions and consider exercise to be the trip from the couch to the refrigerator and back. There are medical reasons for some, and these are legitimate and often complex, but for the majority of the so-called weight challenged majority, it is a simple case of too much and too little; too much of the wrong foods and too little exercise to work off those carbs and fats and other nasty little critters that accumulate on the mid section. Do I really need to wire my mouth shut and depend on an occasionally jolt of pain to remind myself to eat smaller bites?

Or maybe I am really just jealous I didn’t think of this first. At $50.00 a pop, the market potential is over $20 Billion. Good luck Small Bites!

21 September 2007

Barbarians at the Gate-Tips for traveling in China

With the Olympics just around the corner and the fall travel season in full swing, many travelers are adding China to their list of places to go, and for good reason. China is a fascinating and marvelous place to visit and is filled with not only breathtaking natural beauty and ancient charm but also some pretty amazing “first world” attractions like the futuristic landscape of Shanghai. Having been fortunate to have lived, worked and traveled throughout China for almost a decade I think I gained a bit of savvy on the ends and outs of travel from a westerner’s perspective as well as that of the Chinese. To anyone planning a journey to the middle kingdom, and I strongly encourage you to go if you have any doubts, here are some practical suggestions that will not only make your journey more enjoyable, but also might make it easier on your hosts.

First and foremost, make sure you bring your patience and a good sense of humor. Shouting and rudeness, while it might work in New York, has little place in China, and generally will only result in further delays or unhappiness.

From the moment you land at the airport until you board your return flight, you will feel you are constantly jostling for space. Queues are meant to be broken and it is every man to himself, particularly if you are unfortunate to be caught hailing a taxi in the rain. Look around you and you will quickly realize that this constant shoving and pushing applies equally to all. The Chinese have a long history of struggle.

If you will be traveling around by air, bring several good books. The abysmally poor on-time departure rate of most US air carriers is a goal worth chasing yet in China. Travel by train is far more efficient but is not recommended for those who exhibit any tendencies toward claustrophobia or are uncomfortable in crowded areas.

There are NO “no smoking” areas, so get over it quickly. If you are seriously affected by cigarette smoke, then maybe any trip to China should be reconsidered. There are more than 600 million smokers who firmly believe it is their inalienable right to light up at will. Change takes time, even generations, to happen.

Do not arbitrarily assume everyone can speak English. With the rapid expansion of tourism and a limited supply of qualified staff, even a 5 star hotel’s service may not be up to your expectations. While English language skills are expanding in leaps and bounds in most major cities, it is still a foreign language. If you are not with a guide or cannot speak Chinese make sure you have a good phrasebook in hand. Better still; make a few friends to help you in your journeys.

Take time to learn a few simple phrases and greetings. As complicated as Chinese language is, the simple greeting of Ni Hao (knee how) will bring warm smiles from your hosts, and whether you get the pronunciation right or not is less important than your effort.

Yes, taxi drivers will cheat you constantly. But is this really that much different than anywhere else? Again, many short journeys that turned long could have been avoided with a note from your hotel concierge, as the taxi driver who really understands English is as rare as the mythical unicorn, and those that do, cavit emptor.

Do not constantly compare the service you receive in China to your country in a negative way. Of course China has made huge strides in development, but it has been less than 10 years since the private sector really got involved in hospitality and retail, sectors previously completely controlled by the state. Can you imagine if the Department of Motor Vehicles was running Nordstrom’s?

As others have suggested, always carry adequate sanitary supplies. Toilet tissue is a rather recent amenity outside of the hotel, and even if you are lucky enough to find it you well never find it in enough quantity or quality to suit most western tastes. It is also commonly pilfered even if it was there to begin with.

Do NOT feed the beggars! As pitiful and grotesque as some may appear, more of this than you realize is self-inflicted to tug at your heartstrings. Those poor little children chasing after you are likely indentured and will see little, if nothing of your cash. Think Oliver Twist. Your constant source of income makes it even harder to police this unsavory crew.

By all means, eat the local cuisine. Sure the Pizza at California Kitchen is as tasty as it is back home, but the garlic crusted pork ribs so famous in Shanghai are to die for. Before you spend too much time trying to find the species and origin of that delicious looking food on your plate, try it! You will be surprised what you actually may like.

Be prepared to negotiate and haggle for most goods and services, but also use common sense. Of course you will pay more than the locals, your annual income is probably many times greater. Also, don’t always believe the stories of other travelers. It is not really possible to get everything at a 70% discount.

Stop buying counterfeit goods on the street, particularly DVD’s and that ridiculous Rolex watch! Your friends and neighbors back home in Washington are constantly fighting this matter, yet you’re the main reason it exists. Besides, the DVD will most likely not work back home unless you bothered to buy a local made player and the Rolex is guaranteed not to keep good time. Look around you in the major cities-the locals are buying the REAL ones.

Get off the beaten path. There are hundreds of thousands of enchanting and memorable venues besides those that the local version of Gray Line recommended. Have your hotel arrange a driver and itinerary and take your camera!

Last but not least, have the journey of a lifetime, for all the ingredients are there.