QriousLife wants to interview you!

A little publicity plug for a non-writing (but still story-telling) project I’m working on. If you’re in Beijing, please read on!

Dear friends:

Do you have an awesome job and/or 留学 story to tell? If so, I would love to have you as a guest on my pilot talk show. The first trial episode aired live last Wednesday. You can watch it here: http://www.umiwi.com/zhuanji/172

The background
I’ve been invited to develop a program for Youmi/优米网 (www.umiwi.com), a dynamic young company started by the famous CCTV producer/presenter Wang Lifen. This online broadcasting platform currently specializes in programs featuring “bigwig entrepreneurs” like Jack Ma (Ma Yun), Feng Lun, Ren Zhiqiang and other celebrities. In the future, Youmi hopes to produce more lifestyle programming that their viewer groups can better relate to.

The program I’m creating is tentatively called “留学故事” and is focused around Chinese who have studied abroad or foreigners (who speak good Chinese) who have come here to study. While viewers may be interested in the “logistics” of studying abroad (TOEFL, visas etc), I would like to get them to ask the question, What kinds of interesting career decisions do people make after pursuing higher education? I hope to inspire viewers with stories of what education ultimately can do for you.

What we’re looking for

  • People with passion who love their jobs and have plenty to say about their education/career decisions.
  • People who speak Chinese well enough to handle an interview/conversation mostly in Chinese, but with some English thrown in.
  • People who are in Beijing who can come to Dawanglu to record their segments (we target to film near the end of the workday, around 6pm, but if you’re flexible to come in during daytime hours, that also works).
  • The pilot series will be pre-recorded (not live) so if the camera-shy among you need not worry!

If you’re interested, please send me a few bullet points about yourself

  • Where did you go to school in China and abroad?
  • What did you study?
  • What kinds of jobs have you held?

Thank you!

Q

Battle of the email cultures

This week I vent a little about Chinese business culture, specifically, the severe under-usage of email. Yes, I’m a reformed (reforming?) management consultant / investment banker, so my email needs are admittedly higher than average. But still! Pre-meeting agenda-setting emails and post-meeting next-steps emails should be basic “musts”, no?

Read it here or on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-08/26/content_11205559.htm

I think of myself as being Chinese through and through. From my love of mystery dishes that frighten most of my foreign friends (like “mao xue wang”) to my crimson-colored passport (often an impediment to traveling abroad), I’m the “real deal,” despite having spent many years overseas. But I do go through bouts of culture shock – or culture friction, to put it more lightly – in my own country, especially when I have to get down to business with “real Chinese.”

I’ve only worked for western companies and never in China, so business is the area where I feel the biggest cultural chasm. There are many subtleties to get through when bringing western- and Chinese-minded colleagues together, but the most obvious point of difference is over the use of email.

I like to conduct my business over email. Real Chinese don’t.

Email holds a special place in the heart of corporate America. My cynical former boss liked to joke, in words unsuitable to print verbatim here, that no small bodily function happens in an American company without somebody sending an email about it.

It’s true. From the broad avenues of New York to the hilly pavements of San Francisco, you see people constantly on their Blackberries (or, more appropriately, “Crackberries”) firing off meeting notes from a just-concluded sales pitch, answer the boss’s demanding calls, or looking up the venue for a client dinner on Google Maps. In an American workplace, emails are used to notify people of upcoming meetings and projects, include or exclude various parties, set agendas and assign responsibilities.

Sometimes I laugh about how typing out a few lines on email eludes us into thinking we’ve gotten actual “work” done, but mostly I like the system. Emails keep me organized.

Here in China, Blackberries don’t really exist yet and email is a lesser-favored tool in the workplace. Technology curve aside, there’s certain casualness about getting things done in China. People don’t like to put things explicitly in writing (case in point: contracts), preferring phone calls – or even text messages – instead.

Last week, I collaborated on a project with counterparts at a “real Chinese” company. Day two into the project, I found myself panicking when none of my local counterparts replied to a project proposal I sent out. It had been a whole twenty-four hours. Did they not check their emails yet? Had they read my proposal but not understood? Did they disagree and want to do something else? Whatever the case, why wouldn’t someone just hit the “reply” button to let me know?

When the team finally sat down to discuss in person, I learned that everyone had received and read the proposal. They just didn’t think it was necessary to add to the massive mound of electronic couriers already floating in cyberspace. Either way, the project would’ve gone off fine. We simply came to the table with differing expectations about how we communicate. Now I’ve learned.

The funny thing about email is that people who aren’t accustomed to doing business this way also haven’t had the “How to represent yourself well in email” tutorial. I got mine in university. After the initial excitement of opening the acceptance letter to my dream school, I found a form asking me to choose my “@school.edu” email addresses. All three of them.

Who needs three different email addresses at one school? Later, I learned that having three addresses lets you present yourself to different people in different ways. For your friends, “coolcat@school.edu” is pretty neat. For your potential future employer, “joe.smith@school.edu” is much more appropriate. The third one is just a spare.

How I wish I could’ve imparted this simple lesson – that your email address speaks to your professional credibility when you work with foreigners – to a job candidate whose resume I once reviewed. Pity, but I never did have the chance to meet or work with “loveangelrun@hotmail.com.” I wonder why.

This Colette person may be onto something…

Another bite out of Love Bites from Colette Li at Global Times:

http://www.globaltimes.cn/www/english/metro-beijing/two-cents/letters/2010-08/565725.html

Do office seducers flirt with disaster?
By Colette Li

“I don’t want to become ‘that girl’ who hooks up with all the guys in the office,” my friend told me between bites of brunch last weekend.

I had been hearing her gush about a new romantic interest in the office for a few weeks. Apparently, there were “sparks flying” and “covert flirting” between trips to the water cooler. Now she was spilling all the beans.

“He’s not just my coworker, but my ‘mentee.’ I’m the experienced colleague assigned to help him navigate office politics and locate the copy machine.” Interesting. I’m sensing a bit of reverse gender roles at play here.

“I’m not that worried about the mentor/mentee thing – I’m not his real manager and he’s only a year younger than I am. But I’ve already had liaisons with three other co-workers. One was just a kiss and the other two were a few months of harmless fun.” Aha, now we get to the real point.

“Should I keep things strictly business with my hot mentee, or should I go for it, no holds barred?”

I’ve been on the listening end in conversations with a lot of women who profess to have the hots for a sexy boss, but rare is the advice-seeker who comes to me pining for a junior co-worker. We’ve seen it on screen – Demi Moore in Disclosure and Rachel Green on Friends both played characters who tried to take things a little (or a lot) further with a man lower down the corporate totem pole – but I’ve yet to see it in real life.

As I pondered my friend’s quandary, I found the feminist in me getting worked up. If everyone male from Bill Clinton to David Letterman, to name just a few famous bosses with wandering eyes, is having fun with young female staffers, why shouldn’t we?

Personally, I see nothing wrong with an office mentor reciprocating the signals a mentee is sending her way. However, I would check the Employee Handbook before getting too involved with a co-worker. At larger corporations especially, there can be rather strict rules about office dating and serious professional repercussions if the relationship were discovered. Think about how much of a turn off it would be if one of an amorous duo – or both – were dismissed for violating workplace poli-cies.

Luckily for my friend, there were no injunctions against co-workers getting cozy at her company. But even with the rules cleared and out of the way, there were still other hang-ups. She wondered why she’s been so “lucky” with office men and, after a string of flings, has she become the “office tart?”

The whole “office tart” (or other less choicely-worded labels) perception is perhaps just self-inflicted guilt. It’s natural for young professionals who spend inordinate amounts of time together poring over contracts and presentations to develop romantic chemistry. After all, the simple fact of working life is that you see your colleagues way more than you see anyone else. If my friend found something specifically and individually appealing about each of her previous three office liaisons, then there’s really not much for her to worry about.

But, if she couldn’t honestly say that each coworker she cuddled (or kissed) was uniquely attractive in some way, then her predilection for workplace romance is just a matter of convenience. That is, the guys were simply there. If this were the case (and it isn’t), I would urge my friend – and other serial office romancers out there – to carve out separate work and personal spaces. Join a club, go to the gym, take a walk in the park – meet guys outside of the conference room, for Pete’s sake!

Ultimately, life is too short for guilt trips. As long as you’re having fun, not taking advantage of minors or subordinates and keeping things discrete from 9-to-6, there’s nothing wrong with going after someone who reciprocates your feelings.

Is Beijing a creative capital?

I think so. Read on to find out why. Get it here on the blog or the (slightly) censored version on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-08/19/content_11175514.htm

Beijing gets a bad rap when it comes to creativity. While the international media lauds other world capitals as being “hip” and “quirky”, and having cool sounding things like “budding artists enclaves,” Beijing seems to appear in the press surrounded by buzz kill words like “politicos” and “business dealings.”

In defense of my beloved city, I say that this is a vibrant place where interesting people meet to do extraordinary – or simply unusual – things. I can prove my point with a rundown of strange encounters in the last couple of weeks.

On Sunday at 3pm, I was where I usually am at that hour – stretching and bending on a yoga mat.  However, I wasn’t doing yoga in a studio or at home. Instead, I was demonstrating an Eagle Pose to a crowd of snap-happy onlookers inside the cavernous main hall of a half-renovated art gallery in 798.

As a dozen or two iPhones, SLRs and video cameras flashed at me all I could think while balancing on one foot was “I hope my teacher doesn’t come crashing down on me.” That’s right, my teacher, who normally stands in front of me in class, was this time perched in a bird-like pose on a reinforced glass platform suspended over my head.

We two yogis were at the Yuanfen New Media Art Space participating in a “Living Prospectus” – more conventionally known as an “exhibit” – for the Yuanfen~Flow (YFF) project. YFF, according to the people who founded it, is “a dynamic new concept that distills the energy produced from the fusion of art, technology and business.”

Wait, that’s not all.

“[YFF] melds Yuanfen (缘分), the Taoist-Jungian synchronistic intersections of people, disciplines, events and places together with Flow, a concentrated, passion- and purpose-driven state-of-mind that drives tasks and productive activities.”

Translation: it’s so out-of-the-box you might not even get it. And it’s happening here in Beijing.

I recently got involved with YFF, which is the brainchild of David Ben Kay, gallery owner, curator and former General Counsel for Microsoft China. Before I came into the fold, the YFF group had already attracted a cult-like following of creative geniuses, computer programmers, new media artists, yogis, non-profit bleeding hearts and accomplished business people and academics, including senior current and former executives from Lenovo and Starbucks and professors at Columbia University and Parsons School.

From what I can make out, YFF seeks to combine art and technology within a self-sustainable business incubator model. The exhibit I participated in on Sunday was a live demonstration of some far-fetched sounding ideas, such as a virtual yoga platform, musical concerts delivered to remote locations via “telepresence” and 3D digital art sales. (If this piques your interest, or confuses you, go check it out for yourself at 798. The exhibit will stay open for 4 months).
The few days that I spent immersed in YFF culture, helping to write press and business documents in the “business headquarters”, in a predominantly male-populated home office affectionately called “The Troll Pit,” reinforced my belief that Beijing has an irresistible energy that draws creative people, dreamers and the adventurous.

Ever since I moved back to Beijing last year I’ve kissed goodbye to dinner conversations about promotions and year-end bonuses. In their place came dynamic discussions with brilliant people (who are sometimes a touch crazy), unafraid of changing life direction and doing something utterly different. In the last week alone at YFF I’ve met an Armenian lawyer turned filmmaker who has, just for kicks, practiced wushu on the French and Greek national teams; a Zimbabwean technology entrepreneur cum Bikram yoga instructor; a software programmer-slash-businessman-slash-accomplished speaker who has addressed audiences at Great Hall of the People, Diaoyutai and the People’s Party Consultative Conference; and an ex-US Marine, students and volunteers who have all flocked to this place, to this group, to strive for their wild goals.

I arrived at university a tad too late to have experienced first-hand the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley in the 1990’s. But, from the tales I’ve heard, I imagine that kind of daring and dreaming is what’s happening in Beijing right now. YFF people are diverse – in culture, ethnicity and age, ranging from seventeen to, I don’t know, forties and fifties? – but they have come together so intensely that they’ve adopted a lingo of their own.

“Come into the flow” and “How are things flowing?” are standard greetings in lieu of “Hello, how are you.” What they’re working on is clearly the beginning of something amazingly successful – “We’ll be millionaires in a couple of years” – or a grand experiment in abstract pie-in-the-sky stuff – “Have you heard of arcology?”

Whatever the outcome, it’s the fact that these people came together in Beijing that matters the most to me. Here, in the supposed piracy and low-end manufacturing capital of the world, original ideas are born and brought to fruition. That is what I love about Beijing.

Awesomeness happening tomorrow 3pm at 798

If you’re curious as to why QriousLife has been so quiet of late, it’s because a magical place called “The Troll Pit” has been eating up all her time. The grand exhibit — a “Living Prospectus” that demonstrates the mad melding of art, technology and business in Beijing — happens tomorrow (Sunday) at 3pm at Yuanfen New Media Art Space in the 798 Art District.

Go check it out: http://www.yuanfenflow.com/en/media-announcement/

Cantonese vs Mandarin language wars

Looks like despite my best efforts to frame the recent protests over Cantonese language TV broadcasts in China as a cultural issue, and not a political one, my editors have decided to lop off the last paragraph of my article (so that it now doesn’t really make sense). Sigh, at least I tried. Read the uncensored version here, or the censored nonsense at China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-08/05/content_11100641.htm

Living here in the northern capital, I don’t usually come into contact with the Cantonese language, except when a Hong Kong tabloid magazine is thrown in my lap at the nail salon or Canto-pop drifts into my open window from a karaoke-equipped restaurant downstairs. But recently, Cantonese has been all over the mainstream headlines.

In response to a government proposal to reduce Cantonese television broadcasts in favor of Mandarin content, dialect speakers have organized protests in Guangdong and across the waters in Hong Kong. While the government’s alleged rationale is to make Guangdong more tourist-friendly to Mandarin savvy visitors who will descend on the city for the Asian Games in November, southern natives worry that this is part of a grander plan to abolish their cultural-linguistic heritage.

What to make of all the hoopla around this “language war”?

As a native Mandarin speaker, I daresay the popularization of my language across mainland China, and in Hong Kong after 1997, has been a good thing for me.

Visiting southern cities in the past felt more foreign than crossing the border into another country. In a truly foreign land, I would simply be an outsider and can rely on warm-hearted locals to help me navigate. But, in my own country, the north-south cultural and historical enmity makes people less inclined to assist a lost traveler from higher latitudes.

On previous trips, I could hear my southern compatriots’ frustration, disdain, and mistrust in their sharp staccato replies to my ignorant questions. Even our shared written language didn’t help, for although we share a common set of Chinese characters, Cantonese is frequently written using spoken colloquialisms that only make sense when read in dialect.

Over time, as Mandarin instruction was institutionalized in schools all around China and Chinese (Mandarin) wealth grew, southerners became more willing, and able, to communicate with their northern brothers and sisters.

I experienced the transformation fully than at the Hong Kong high-end department store Lane Crawford. Pre-1997, the well-coiffed salesladies never deigned to respond to my requests unless I spoke to them in perfect English. Post-1997, I could hardly fend off the staff rushing at me offering well-rehearsed Mandarin services. With the influx of mainland tourism spending, taller, broader women walking into the store must’ve started to look like big wads of renminbi bills.

Although I enjoy the benefits of “Mandarinization,” I can empathize with the Cantonese and the big fuss they’re making over their television broadcasts. Harvard professor Marc Shell has written that language is a key battleground for cultural conflict. More tangible than race or religion, the words that come out of our mouths are explicit identifiers of the groups to which we belong. A Cantonese person may not look that differently from me, but we identify with separate ethnic groups within China. Discussing language-based disputes internationally, Shell says, “You can pretend a Jewish person is Christian, but if he speaks a different language, you can’t pretend he speaks yours.”

I grew up surrounded by the loud brash sounds of northeastern Mandarin – “dongbei hua.” The more years I spend away from my hometown, the more endearing I find my native accent. Nothing breeds trust and good feeling quicker than hearing familiar speech in a faraway land. I once made friends with a restaurant waitress in a Chinese take-out joint in Paris – with whom I had very little in common – simply because I detected “dongbei” tones in her French. At the time, I longed to be around someone who reminded me of home.

Collectively, northerners are also bonded by an annual ritual that is very much language-based. Every Lunar New Year’s eve, nearly every household tunes into the CCTV variety show.  The show’s content is geographically biased: as one generation of vocally dexterous Mandarin entertainers has promoted a second generation of protégés (like Zhao Benshan and Xiao Shenyang), the majority of the show is now presented in northern accents on subjects of northern humor. My cousin, who married a Cantonese-speaker, took his family to Fujian last New Year. I asked him how well the CCTV program was received down there and he retorted, “Nobody watches it here in the south.”

Squabbles over language and cultural heritage are ubiquitous the world over. From the francophones versus anglophones in Canada, to Hindi-speakers against proponents of the thousand other indigenous languages in India, or Hungarian minorities fighting for equal footing with Slovakian linguistic dominance in Bratislava, the Mandarins versus the Cantonese is but one of countless similar tiffs.

But what exactly are the Chinese Cantonese really fighting for?

The more ardent defenders of Cantonese see their struggle as a stance for freedom of choice. Others believe they’re repelling an effort to weaken regional cultures through promoting Mandarin.

Yet, the Cantonese “everyman” seems to be riled up for much less lofty reasons. On a wide range of English, Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese bulletin boards (the latter of which I can finally read after college conversational Cantonese classes), most people seem to be more upset about stiff voice-overs and non-emotive soap operas than any systematic undermining of Cantonese culture.

“Of course we have to watch ‘Sing Ye’ (a nickname for Zhou Xingchi, a famous Hong Kong comedic actor) in Cantonese!”

“Beijing Satellite broadcasts programs in ‘Beijing hua.’ How come Guangdong Satellite doesn’t have local dialect programming?”

“Cantonese people don’t like to watch Guangdong Satellite. That channel is for Mandarin-speakers. We prefer TVB.”

Even some dedicated Cantonese advocates seem to take the matter lightly and can apply good old Cantonese colloquial humor in this time of conflict. An image printed in Time magazine shows an elderly gentleman at a Hong Kong protest holding up a sign that reads, “I love Cantonese. I know ‘stew winter melon’ (which sounds like “putonghua” when read out loud in dialect).”