Sunday, November 27, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 7 -- Raging Against the Machine

"Please wait a moment."
--the most frightening words a Chinese bureaucrat can utter

The situation was critical. My student loan payments began next month. I could either stick with the standard 15-year plan and its huge payments;

or I could apply for the 25-year Extended Plan and pay almost double my balance because of all the interest.

It came down to two bad choices: declare bankruptcy now or have a negative net worth till age 47. Funny how they schedule my student loans to end at the same time my kids start college. The vicious cycle never ends!

In my darkest moments, I'd imagine there was some big conspiracy to keep college graduates poor. People who want to teach, volunteer for worthy causes, pursue the arts, or travel around the world are forced to go corporate to stave off the dreaded loans. This advocacy group is trying to solve the problem, but I didn't expect sweeping changes any time soon. Sorry, I'll get off my soap box now.

I had to get the student loan forms to my Mom before the deadline passed.

I went into the office of the China Post fully armed. I had a receipt from the last time I sent something to America, my Chinese address written down, and my ultimate weapon. Her name was Miss Zhang, the young woman who's teaching me Mandarin.

Lucky for me, the International Service window had no customers waiting in line. I was going to mail my precious application via EMS (worldwide Express Mail Service). There was a different postal clerk than who had taken my mail last time. He also gave me a different form than I used before. That should have been my first warning.

I filled out the form and slid it back under the window. The postal clerk frowned, shoved a blank form at me, and grumbled.

"He said you made a mistake and have to do the form again," Miss Zhang translated.

I grumbled a bit myself and did the form again.

"He said you filled out the wrong form. This is the right form," she said as yet another form slid under the window.

"I filled out the wrong form?! He gave me that form!" I exclaimed.

Either the third time's the charm or three strikes I'm out, I thought as I slid the correct form to the postal clerk.

He blinked as he had just seen it for the first time. A torrent of words spilled from his lips. I only caught "bu" [No] and "Xie wei ii" [Hawaii, pronounced "Sha-wai-yee"]. Enough to know this was bad news.

"He said they don't mail to Hawaii," Miss Zhang said. "He said this is impossible."

"No way!" I said. "I mailed a letter to Hawaii before and my Mom definitely got it."

Miss Zhang leaned closer to me and lowered her voice. "I believe you. He most likely does not know how to process a delivery to Hawaii. He will say it is impossible rather than lose face."

She spoke to the postal clerk. Miss Zhang said had she known the difficulty of this task, she would never have wasted his valuable time. Maybe some other person could help us so he could get back to serving his customers?

Postal Clerk #1 got up and started to walk away.

"He said to please wait a moment," Miss Zhang said.

Customers came in after me, stood in line, and left. Three cycles of customers went by. An eternity later, Postal Clerk #1 came back with another postal clerk. In desperation, I gave them the receipt I had from my last mailing. The two clerks studied it intently and talked.

"They're going to find the postal clerk who processed your last delivery," Miss Zhang said.

"Can't they just put the receipt under the scanner and pull up the information on the computer?" I asked.

Twenty minutes passed. The phantom clerk never showed up.

Finally Postal Clerk #2 passed my receipt under the scanner. Instantly, all the necessary information popped up on the screen. Postal Clerk #1 sat down and typed. In the next 30 seconds, they input my new form, sealed my letter in an envelope, and tossed it in the mail cart.

I checked my watch. In spite of having an old receipt, no line to wait in, and a native Chinese speaker with me, the whole endeavor had still taken me a full hour.

Miss Zhang tried to make me feel better as we walked out of the post office.

"It's not you. China just has its own pace."

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 6 -- In the Classroom

"All human nature is similar."

At various times, I considered each of these as a complete, stand-alone story. But I couldn't find a way to expand them to feature length. So here's a grab bag collection of war stories from the English-teaching frontier:

International Crime 101

It's surprising the things I get asked during my English classes. I find myself having to be an expert on many more subjects than just English.

In addition to my regular classes, I also have to teach "Global Club," a free discussion forum. Students meet together with an English teacher to practice their conversational skills.

One night, I was at a loss for a topic to jump-start the discussion. The students were sitting around the table with their notebooks and pens ready, faces expectant.

Finally, I had an idea. I said, "Tonight's topic is 'American Business Slang.' Is there anything your foreign colleagues have said to you that you just didn't understand?"

The reaction was immediate:

"Yes! What does 'card up my sleeve' mean?"

"Why do Americans always say 'Are we on the same page?' What book are they talking about?!"
"My partner says 'We have to go back to the drawing board' but I don't know where it is!"

It was like opening a floodgate. These Chinese businesspeople had been so confused for so long, that at the first opportunity for answers they buried me in questions.

I slogged through that session for an hour. But they didn't want to stop. I think they were afraid that if they didn't ask questions now, they'd never be able to get the answers again.

For the second round, they asked me to decipher the corporate-speak they read in American business magazines. I explained terms like horizontal integration, vertical integration, diversification, and core strengths. They had read American CEOs talking about these things and they wanted to know what they meant.

I usually keep this a secret, but I'm actually very interested in business and investing (My love of travel and movies is public knowledge). Talking about money can be distasteful to some, but my students had no such qualms. It was a lucky thing I had done reading in the areas my students were interested in.

Just when I thought I was done, a student blindsided me by asking, "What is money laundering?"

That caught me by surprise. I gathered my wits and said it was the process of turning illegal money into legal money.

"How do you do that?" the student asked.

"Uh, do all of you really want to know this stuff?" I asked.

A sea of heads nodded.

I shrugged; gotta give the customers what they want. I picked up a marker and started writing on the dry-erase board. I remembered what I'd read in spy novels and in a book on tax evasion.
I began by saying, "Drug dealers have traditionally been the pioneers in money laundering . . ."

Pens scribbled furiously on notebooks thereafter.

Dance, too much booty in the pants!

Although most of my students are working adults, there are a few younger people who attend. They're usually students preparing to study abroad in English-speaking countries.

Mandy is an 18-year-old girl getting ready to study in Australia. America was actually her first choice, but it's too tough to get a student visa there. England was too expensive, and Canada was too cold. So she's heading down under.

One day she came to class wearing a bandana that B-boys and B-girls wear. I got excited and said, "I didn't know you could breakdance!"

She blinked and said, "What is breakdancing?"

My heart dropped like a rock. Those were the saddest words ever. I tried to tell her about breakdancing, but she didn't get it.

This required drastic measures. I pushed the table and chairs out of the way. I told her, "It looks like this." I dropped to the floor and exploded into the six-step for the first time in months. I was wearing a starched shirt and tie at the time; I must have looked crazy.

Mandy bolted up out of her chair and exclaimed, "Oh yes! That's jie wu ["Jay woh"]!"

I still wonder if she pretended not to know, just so she could sample my skills.

The Great Wall of Babble

I was teaching adverbs of frequency (usually, frequently, etc.) when it came time for the discussion at the end of each class. The book suggested comparing what Americans usually do and what Chinese usually do. That seemed safe enough.

I should have known better.

I said, "Americans usually drink coffee. What about Chinese?"

Sibyl, another student gunning for Australia, answered, "Chinese usually drink tea."

It went like that for a while with each student getting a turn. Near the end I asked, "Do Chinese usually study English?"

"Yes," Sibyl answered. "Now Chinese children are even studying English from kindergarten!"

I was impressed. If they keep that up, they'll know English better than we do. Pronunciation was still their biggest obstacle, though.

I was about to move on when Sibyl asked, "And do Americans usually study Chinese?"

Dead silence. All the students looked at me. Oh crap, how do I answer that? I decided honesty was the best policy, another mistake.

"Um, no."

It was like throwing a switch. Resentment came off the students in waves.

"But we have to spend years studying your language!" Sibyl protested. "Why won't you study ours?"

I mumbled some lame answer about how most Americans will never visit China, and even if they did, their tour guides would speak English.

That went over really well. Now all the students were frowning at me. I wish I could describe how horrible I felt at that moment. Almost as bad as the time I vomited on my Dad's boss.

Finally, someone said something. "Can you speak any Chinese?" Sibyl demanded.

I meekly said, "Hui yidiandian Putonghua." [I speak a little Mandarin]

All their jaws dropped. They looked at me in shock. The ignorant waiguoren was studying Chinese!

Sibyl started to giggle. Pretty soon the whole room was roaring in laughter. They had forgiven me. Whew, that was a close one. I like to think I rescued China-U.S. relations that day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 5 -- Meeting the Locals

"A chat with a friend is worth over ten years of schooling."
--Chinese Proverb

There's a Taiwanese restaurant close to my apartment that I eat at a lot (reason: the most expensive meal on the menu costs $1.25 American). They make box lunches like bentos. The staff are all kids in their 20's. They want to talk to me, but they can't speak English. I ordered the fish meal, like I always do. The kids behind the counter tried to talk to me in Chinese again. I didn't understand, so they talked to the old lady waiting next to me for her food.

She translated: "They noticed you always order this meal. They are very honored you think their food is so good."

I smiled and bowed to the kids. They loved that.

I was surprised at how good her English was. The prevailing rule when I travel is that for English, the best bet is to talk college students. Anyone older usually hasn't studied English.

We ended up eating dinner together at a table. I thought maybe she'd teach me some quaint Chinese customs. She educated me, all right; but not about that.

Her name was Hu. She studied at the Shanghai Foreign Languages University. In those days, traveling outside China was virtually impossible. Her plan was to become an interpreter; that was her way out. You couldn't apply for whatever job you wanted, though. The government placed you somewhere, end of story. If you didn't like it, you'd be blacklisted and never work anywhere again. Hu was lucky and got assigned to work for the Bank of China . . . in their London branch! It was a dream come true because her English improved rapidly after that.

(The following paragraphs get into heavy-duty technical jargon. I couldn't talk about what Hu taught me without covering that stuff. If this gets really boring, my apologies.)

When Hu returned to China after that stint in England, she had the top pick of jobs. Companies were clamoring to have a fluent English speaker on staff. She chose a high-profile job with CITIC Group (China International Trust and Investment Corporation). It was one of the first SOEs, a state-owned enterprise. Over the years, CITIC went through several transformations. First, it was a pilot project masterminded by Deng Xiaoping to introduce free enterprise into a communist system. Then, it became a magnet for attracting foreign capital. With the money in hand, CITIC became an engine for economic development, pouring funds into infrastructure and domestic businesses. Now it's settled down into a holding company overseeing the Chinese goverment's investments. CITIC might as well be called China, Inc.

It's the General Electric of China. Hu said they have over 40 subsidiaries in four continents. Their portfolio runs the gamut from natural resources, manufacturing, construction, power plants, aviation . . . it's hard to name a business they're not involved in. Lately they've been moving aggressively into financial services.

Hu got her wish of being able to travel. She flew all over the world as an advisor to the president of the company. She also was the lead negotiator in deals with foreigners. Her proudest accomplishment was selling CITIC bonds to foreign banks eager to build a relationship with China. I was amazed; she must have raised billions of dollars for CITIC. She said CITIC used the money in two ways: 1) make loans to Chinese businesses 2) Take over companies in industries that were vital to China's growth.

I guessed that CITIC's strategy was to keep key assets from falling into the hands of foreigners. Brilliant strategy: use the foreigners' own money to keep them from buying their way in!

There was one thing I didn't get, though.

"Why bonds?" I asked.

Hu explained that the only other ways to raise money were to sell stock or borrow from the West, namely the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Selling stock meant selling ownership and invited interference from stockholders. As for borrowing money, Western creditors attach "structural conditions" to their loans, often hijacking a country's economy. These conditions often included cutting government investment and opening markets before domestic companies were ready to compete with foreign ones. The problem with bank debt was that it was "callable," meaning the bank could suddenly demand the borrower pay back the full amount of the loan, crippling the borrower. The West could use the "call" option to force changes on a country.

It's different with bonds, Hu said. The issuer of the bonds controlled the loan. They decided what got repaid and when. Bonds were not callable, meaning that as long as the borrower made the interest payments, the bondholders couldn't force the borrower to repay. In the case of zero-coupon bonds, the borrower didn't even have to pay the interest. Bonds allowed the Chinese to borrow money on their own terms. She went into more detail, but I had gotten lost a long while ago.

She said restrictions were tight, even when she traveled. Hu always had to report to her superiors where she was going, who she talked to, the whole deal. That's why she said she would love to visit America. It was the one country she never got to visit. Smart thinking on the part of CITIC. One taste of American freedom and she might have defected straight away. Hu thought America would be so much more open and that people were more welcoming. (She found London people to be total snobs; she didn't like British food either).

She said she's jealous of young people nowadays, they're free to do whatever they want. Now Hu is retired. She plans to travel around with her husband. I told her a little about my studies and travels. Hu said I have a bright future and that I've made smart decisions. I bowed my head and denied the compliment (Chinese custom). Then she gestured for me to look over my shoulder.

All the restaurant kids were leaning on the counter, listening in rapt attention while we had spoken in English.