back in Seattle

We’re back in Seattle for a while this summer (well I’ll be going back and forth between Seattle and Beijing). It’s nice to be here with the family; as I mentioned before, it was a little weird last time to be in our big house all by myself (although not altogether bad…)

In addition to my observations from the last trip, here are few other things I’ve realized now that I’m back:

  • I’m mixed up by Beijing prices. I can’t believe how much I’m paying for stuff like dinner or clothes in Seattle. On the other hand, there’s a huge range of great wine at much lower prices than in Beijing. (Anything imported into China is expensive, but local stuff is much cheaper.)
  • I feel much more empowered and free in the US. This isn’t a political statement (although that’s true too); it’s just very exciting to be able to read signs on the street and labels in stores. It’s also very liberating to drive your own car (although I don’t mind having a driver some times…)
  • On the flip side, I like walking to places – dinner, hair cut, grocery store. Even in the suburban boonies where we live in Beijing, we walk a lot more. I’m not a fan of having to drive everywhere like we do in Seattle (at least at our house.)
  • Clean air and water rock. I can’t stop drinking the Seattle tap water; it’s sweet and delicious. It’s great being able to regularly see the horizon (full of mountains no less.)
  • I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Americans are fat. I’ll cop to being a little overweight, but OMG, there are a lot of fa-a-a-at people here.
  • I like saying “hello” to people on the street or as I’m running and having them say “hello” back. Seattle is a friendly place. (Of course, it’s not just Beijingers who are more stoic. I mentioned the same thing about Wellington, NZ a while back.

In some ways, it’s a little surreal being back. In some ways, Beijing feels like a dream or a long vacation; it feels very natural being back. On the other hand, I miss things and people in Beijing already and am looking forward to heading back in some ways (cheap two hour massages within walking distance of home anyone?) I guess that’s the price I pay for having two homes in two amazing places.

One Small Step

Chinese bathrooms are generally kind of gross, even in nice places. That said, there's definitely been a huge improvement even in the few years since I've been visiting Beijing. Here's a funny sign on top of a urinal that shows the effort to make things better.

onestep

The message is basically something to the effect of:

One small step forward
A big step forward for civilization

(mai chu yi xiao bu, wen min yi da bu)

OK, it was funny to me. More places could use this sign, even in the US.

My First Trip Back to Seattle

I just returned from my first trip back to Seattle after moving to Beijing last November.

I was super excited after my short stop in Tokyo (with the great ramen and sake experiences) to get home. Our approach to Seattle came in over downtown Seattle, so I could see all of the boats lined up for Opening Day, Lake Washington, and the Cascades. It was really lovely; I started feeling really home sick.

Then things took a little turn for the worse. After we landed at SeaTac, the crack border guards promptly confiscated the $40 worth of boxed ramen that I bought in Narita. (The soup base apparently had once been a chicken before it was boiled and reduced into a 3ml packet). I'm sure we all feel much safer now.

Then, once I got to our house, opened the blinds, and discovered that some bad people had stolen all of our patio furniture and my beloved Weber grill. As I was feeling confused, angry, violated, and a bit stupid, I tried to call Michelle back in Beijing and some friends in Seattle to see if I had missed something only to find my Seattle cellphone number no longer worked thanks to T-Mobile's not-so-great customer service.

Fortunately, I think I managed to get most of the bad parts behind me quickly, and the rest of my trip was great. Rather than bore everyone with a play-by-play account, let me just make a few observations:

  • Seattle is a beautiful place to live. Michelle and I always comment on this when we come back to town, but the contrast with Beijing is really striking. The green and clean mountains and water in Seattle are just unparalleled. Even the air smells sweet (or maybe that's just the lack of coal and dust.)
  • I have great friends. I spent a lot of the week catching up with old friends and colleagues between my meetings. It was like I had never left, especially thanks to blogs and Facebook. I really enjoy my new friends in Beijing, but I didn't realize how much I missed the folks in Seattle. I feel very fortunate to have such an awesome circle of friends in so many places.
  • Nothing beats meeting face-to-face. I think I'm a pretty good communicator via email, etc. but I my 30-60 minute in-person meetings with my colleagues in Redmond were much more productive than weeks of email.
  • Home is where my family is. I loved being back in our house and in our familiar environs, but it was a little weird being there without Michelle and the kids. I'm looking forward to being back in Seattle in the summer with them.

Also, since I'm sure you're wondering, here are the foods and drinks I missed and sought out:

  • Bacon Of course. We have crappy-to-decent bacon in Beijing, but no thick cut, free-range, gourmet bacon. My first real meal in Seattle was a bacon and egg orgy while reading the Sunday paper.
  • Mexican food We haven't found any good (or even decent) Mexican restaurants in Beijing. Even the Qdoba at SeaTac on the way out was better.
  • Hot dogs I have a soft spot for supermarket hotdogs; we have lovely German frankfurters in Beijing, but no Ballpark franks, etc. Call me weak, but get me my hotdogs.
  • Microbrewed ale In Beijing, we have good German lagers (brewed locally even) and decent Chinese beers (think Tsingdao), but for my money, nothing satisfies like a yummy microbrewed ale.

So, thanks to all my friends for making this trip great. I really enjoyed it, but I'm glad to be back in Beijing with my family. I'm looking forward to coming back out to Seattle this summer (and buying a new grill.)

Silly World: Doggy Bag Waiver

For my birthday this year, Michelle and the boys took me to a lovely dinner at the Grange, a restaurant at the very nice Westin Hotel here in Beijing. At the end of our nice dinner, the waiter presented me with a waiver to sign before I could take my leftovers home. (Contrary to my brother's remarks, it was not a waiver saying that we knew the doggy bag did not contain any actual dog.)

Top portion of Westin's doggy bag waiver
(click to see the whole thing, minus the signature block)

The doggy bag itself also had bilingual instructions warning of the dangers and telling people how to reheat the food for maximum safety.

OK, I get it, there are dumb people who will leave the leftovers out, get sick, and then sue, but I still think this was a bit ridiculous. Apparently, this silliness is not restricted to China or the Westin. In Australia, restaurants are choosing between the waiver and ending doggy bags altogether due to the risk of lawsuits.

Time for a little personal responsibility, folks...

English is Hard

When we decided to move to China, a lot of people asked about my level of Chinese language ability and then commented something along the lines of "boy, Chinese sure seems hard." After spending some time here now working with smart people who speak English as a second language, I think I can assert that English is hard too.

Sure, there are lots of funny and sometimes incomprehensible "Chinglish" signs where I can't figure out how the person writing it could possibly have constructed such sentences, for example:

Chinese sign saying (in English) "Prohibit playing Kongming latent we are all safe".

Badly translated menu with lines like "Purple air comes from east - a propitious omen"

But, there are a bunch of common mistakes I see my colleagues and others make that demonstrate how whimsical and arbitrary English can be. One big class of mistake is correctly deciding when to add an "s" to the end of a word. I see sentences like "We need to hire more talents" or "We collected a lot of feedbacks." It's very difficult to explain to someone why a person can have a lot of talents, but a team looking for people hires talent. It's similarly difficult to explain why you can't have two feedbacks. Of course, there's no good rule for determining a priori whether a word is an enumerable unit with singular and plural or a category/group word with no plural. It's even more confusing when the same word like talent can be used in both ways.

Even the China Daily got this wrong in today's paper.

China Daily website saying "Call for Overseas Talents"

So, my hats off to the billions of people around the world learning English and even more kudos to my colleagues and everyone else who actually do business or go to school using English as a second language. It's a hard language.

25 Random Things About Me

All of you on Facebook must have already seen dozens of these "random things" lists go by; after being tagged a few times, I figured I should finally write mine. This is a lot like the "Five Weird Habits" thing that went around a few years ago. I'll try to not to repeat anything from that post or write other stuff that's already on the blog.

Some obligatory instructions for the Facebook crowd:

Rules: Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.

To do this, go to “notes” under tabs on your profile page (look under the plus sign), paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.

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  1. My dad came alone to the US from Hong Kong when he was sixteen to go to college in the middle of Iowa with virtually nothing but a Lutheran Brotherhood scholarship. I can't imagine how scary that must have been. He's my hero for this and many other things.
  2. I was born in Bozeman, Montana; grew up in Woodbury, Minnesota; went to college at Stanford; interned in Austin, Texas; married and started a family in Seattle, Washington; and now live and work in Beijing, China. Not a typical path I suppose, but it probably explains my fondness for hot dish, Mexican food, oysters, and jiaozi.
  3. I didn't speak English until I was two and started going to nursery school. That was probably the high water mark of my Chinese fluency. I'm still working to get back there.
  4. In third grade I was in a photo sequence on the front page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sports section for a ping pong tournament I was in. (The headline was "Tension, concentration, and then oh boy!") It's probably the only time I'll ever be in a sports section unless it's in a "weird story" or "weekend warrior dies exercising" article.
  5. During junior high and high school, my family owned two Chinese restaurants as side businesses, Jack Yee's and Loon Phung. They weren't very authentic, but boy people sure loved the gloppy chicken chow mein and chop suey.
  6. I love the 3M Company. My parents both worked there, I worked there in high school and interned there, and they helped pay for my college education. Almost everyone I knew growing up had parents who worked there. It was and is a great company. I still buy their products whenever I can.
  7. My first job was as a cashier at Target back in high school. This was before scanners so we had to learn to be "Touch Key Professionals". Within the first month, we had to pass a test to "ring and bag" fifteen items in a minute with no errors. 3M offered me a job to write Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets before I took the test, but I know in my heart I was fast enough to pass.
  8. I competed in speech in high school in a category called "creative expression". Senior year I took second place at the state competition with a piece I wrote called "The Ting Dynasty". I don't think you could do a talk like that anymore for political correctness reasons, but this was Minnesota in the mid-80's.
  9. I didn't drink at all or date much until after high school. I had a lot more fun in college.
  10. I almost became a marine biologist after spending the summer after freshman year at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey diving every day and counting the weeds on the bottom of the bay. In fact the only class I TA'd in college was SCUBA. I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I'd gone that route.
  11. My pledge name from my fraternity (Kappa Alpha Order) is "Disco Flow". I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how I got that name.
  12. I was president of my fraternity. Being president is probably the least fun you can have in a fraternity -- taking care of drunken people instead of partying, having the fire chief lecture you about the dangers of filling your house with hay for the "Longnecks and Longhorns" party, or having to explain (with a straight face) the merits of pledges carrying bricks to the Dean of Fraternal Affairs "We want the pledges to understand the weight of responsibility they are about to take on..." Still, I was honored to be chosen by my brothers to do this, learned a lot, and wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.
  13. I ran for Council of Presidents (like student body president but with a group of four running as a team) at Stanford, forming a new student government party, Students First. We lost after a run-off election. It was super draining emotionally; I don't think I'll ever run for office again (my abortive 2004 presidential campaign not withstanding.)
  14. I scored the only hole-in-one during the testing of Microsoft Golf 1.0 for Windows, the first product I ever shipped.
  15. I love explaining stuff to my two sons (unless it's for the umpteenth time.) It's so cool when they get excited by learning things.
  16. The first time I presented to Bill Gates, he noted dryly that something I said was "totally irrelevant". It took a while for my heart to start beating again. Fortunately, the next time, he cut off our senior VP to back me up. (And then there was the nearly disastrous demo...)
  17. I especially adore food pairings. Whisky and oysters. Truffles and port. Sauternes and foie gras. Ice cold milk and hot brownies. Bacon and more bacon.
  18. My brother and I had very similar resumes for the first twenty some odd years of our lives - same schools, same activities, same jobs, etc. but we're very different. He's really great (world class even) at a few things where I'm decent at a lot of things, we have super different political views, and we have pretty dissimilar interests now. It's interesting that we're so different after coming from such similar experiences. That said, I think he's cool and respect him a ton.
  19. I have something like ten or eleven patents pending in stuff ranging from user interface design to computer security to automatic photo processing, but I couldn't tell you what they were just looking at the names of the inventions. The legalese squeezes every bit of human-readable information out of them.
  20. My hobby is collecting hobbies. As an adult, I'm a current or former certified rescue diver, golf ball liberator, boat owning sailor, trigger happy photographer, green belt in Shaolin kung-fu, weekend brewer, nightly whisky connoisseur, chord-pounding pianist, longish distance road biker, half marathoner, non-fiction reader, Harry Potter addict, tennis ball whacker, directionless geocacher, paper poking shooter, Rock Band rocker, skier in remission, foodie, and blogger. I like knowing stuff about a lot of things.
  21. My wife is even more beautiful now than when we first started dating seventeen years ago. More important, we're better friends now.
  22. Snakes wig me out in a huge way.
  23. My favorite place in the world is on a sailboat early in the morning with a cup of hot coffee in my hand.
  24. I learned to flip my pen around my thumb just after high school and haven't stopped flipping it since. I really can't stop.
  25. I never seem to know the words to songs. I mis-hear them all the time (I thought Secret Agent Man was Secret Asian Man for a long time. Probably just wishful thinking.) Rock Band, Lips, and karaoke have been very educational.

OK, so there you go.

Happy "Niu" Year!

Happy Chinese New Year! 2009 is the year of the Ox (BTW, "ox" is "niu" in Chinese and pronounced like "new", hence the multi-lingual pun in the title. I admit it's less funny after all of the explanation.) The Chinese horoscope website I've quoted in years past seems to be stale now, so I found OnlineChineseAstrology.com instead. Maybe it will be more accurate... Here's what they forecast for the year:

The Ox is the second sign of the Chinese zodiac. Like its predecessor and complement, the Rat, it signifies new beginnings. The main difference is the Ox is associated with building to last and slow but sure action. Even more so than last year we all have to make good choices, as that which is begun now is likely to have long term consequences.

As with last year, this is an Earth year. The difference is this one is yin rather than yang. It is thus likely to be less tumultuous. On a personal level, better results are more likely to be achieved by reacting to circumstances and going with the flow rather than aggressively charging forward and initiating a lot of action.

Unfortunately Earth has a destructive relationship with the Ox's fixed element, Water. In fact this is the fourth in a run of six years governed by an unlucky conflict of elements. This fact should come as no surprise to those who have followed US and world financial markets or the unspeakable horror that has persisted in Iraq.

The combination of Earth and Ox, however, is not at all a negative combination. Its primary characteristic is durability. It suggests an environment dominated by cautious pragmatism rather than quixotic dreaming. Things will get done.

Furthermore, they will generally be successful if done in harmony with the spirit of the Earth Ox. This applies both to the type and amount of new projects as well as the approach to accomplishing them. That means focusing on just a few, long term projects. It also suggests proceeding in a cautious yet determined manner. Finally, it counsels avoiding taking unnecessary risks and yielding to the temptation to seek short term gains.

Since this is an Earth year, those people born in a Metal year will generally fare better than others of their animal sign, while those born in a Water one are likely to do worse than those born in Wood, Fire, and Earth years.

The year 2009 will be a period of lasting accomplishments. This is true for individuals, societies and the human race in general. There may be times when motivation appears to be lacking. In fact the big challenge everyone faces is to generate the enthusiasm and desire to act. Those individuals and organizations that do will create enduring benefits for themselves and the world.

It seems a little crafted for current events, but whatever, I'll take it. For me as a monkey the guidance is pretty clear and seems good most of the time:

How the Monkey fares:

This year offers the Monkey some opportunities to go far with talent. Your generous nature may leave you stretched in several different directions, so it is important to stay focused in order to achieve the goals you have set for yourself this year. You will be given the opportunity to impress the right people in business as well as in your personal life. Don't hold back this year, for this could be one that will leave an impression over the course of the next few years.

So, time to let loose in 2009 and be impressive in a focused way!

Ironically, we're in Japan during the first Chinese New Year since we moved to China, so we missed all of the fireworks. We hope to catch some of the temple fairs and such when we get back later this week.

Happy New Year!