Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mukul's Birthday...

So my birthday on the 25th was the final birthday in the team during this month and also towards the end of the assignment. There are both pros and cons of such a situation. The team is intimate so there is a lot of affection (thanks Sue, for having been there at midnight!! You made my day!), but then energy levels are low due to the grueling work schedules. Anyway, the battle weary 11+2 made my mid-week birthday quite a special occasion. There was good dinner followed by a little bit of clubbing.

I replaced Emperor Dan as Emperor for an evening

Pretty cake (it was from the 14th Feb lot with a heart and all, and available on a very good deal)
Pampered by the team... gifts for me and Club M
Li'l Frooti wanted the Indian touch... what the hell... back home it would have been worse anyway
I've been unkind to a lot of folks in the team and my blog has not always been sensitive. Thus on the eve of my birthday, the had a group meeting (minus me... of course).. to figure out how to get back at me in a subtle but effective manner. "Whatever be the gift", it was recorded in the minutes of the meeting, "it has to be something that weighs at least 15 kilos and gets him into massive baggage problems". Some sinister laugh was also recorded as part of this exchange and I happen to have a copy of this in wav format.
The team's gift... thank you guys... I'm really croaking...er.. choking with emotions.

The birthday team in attendance
The boys have bonded well on this assignment (much to the discomfort of the girls), and there seems to have been forged a special relationship that typically takes much longer under ordinary situations (but hey, we're here under non-standard circumstances, in a challenging environment, in unstructured space!!). My first birthday gift from Dan and Tom was given almost a week earlier. After I had given up on trying to lip-read and body-language-read the 41 Chinese TV channels, I went and bought a media player for myself. Impressed by the purchase, the business case, and convinced by the brown man's intelligence, another 6 folks went ahead and bought the same. During the course of my sales' pitch, I had talked a lot about WiFi connectivity and convenience etc.. so the team went and bought wifi dongles too. D&T gifted me a dongle to show appreciation. 

Why the hell did I not spend more time talking about the Samsung Galaxy Tab instead? We Indians just don't have what it takes to dream big!!

So while I have the dongle.. and am grateful for it, with no wifi on my floor, it's pretty much like a box of tampons for me (pretty intriguing, but essentially of limited utility currently). Just kidding guys..!! thanks a ton! :-)
The first gift!!

And hey.. thanks Sue, Frooti, Lucy for your sweet tokens!!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why the Suris cannot settle in China

The Chinese apparently spend 40% of their lives making and drinking tea! Just like with everything else here, tea making is quite an art... the performance being as important as the taste. India too is known to be a tea country, but what we call tea in India is pretty different from what is called tea in China.

The Suri family – back home – is a highly tea-ed family. My parents, brother, wife… right down to my 5 year old nephew, seem to be highly addicted to tea and the pot is always boiling at any time of the day.

Indian tea making goes like this:
  • Boil water and put in the tea leaves while the water is still boiling
  • Boil the leaves till the leaves start shrieking out in pain and beg to be released.
  • Dunk in some milk for color. Dunk in sugar for taste.
  • Strain and pour tea into huge mugs/glasses/cups… whatever. 
This is a fairly simple process. In comparison, the Chinese tea making exercise is a treat to the eyes and is a romantic endeavor with a general mood of love and longing. It’s not something you can do on-the-side while watching TV.

Here are the steps. First buy a Barbie doll kitchen set with a tiny teapot (or two), strainers and microscopic cups. The cups should be small enough for you to place 4 in your mouth. Anything larger would mean that you’re compromising on the 20 cups of tea to follow. 

  • Boil water in an electric kettle. Let the steam rise lazily out of the snout and flirt with you gently.

  • Place some green tea in the kettle and gently pour a little water onto these leaves.
  • Swirl the pot so that the water caresses the leaves… whispers sweet nothings to the leaves gently and arouses them to perform.
  • Drain the water out, leaving the leaves burning with desire for more and feeling moist but unfulfilled. Create a pain of separation so that there is anguish in the pot. The color of the water drained would be the testament to what the leaves have lost in the brief relationship, and leave them slightly bitter with life, but at the same time eager to experience true love with greater devotion.
  • Give the leaves fresh love … pour boiling water again and see them passionately mingle… experience new hope for life, and expect fulfillment. Indulge in their lovemaking in the pot and become part of the mood.
  • Observe as the two become one, oblivious to the watching world, lost in the intensity of each other only as those destined by the Almighty to be together in life can. Live their ecstasy with them.
  • Strain the water into a new pot and retain the leaves. Gently. Watch how the experience has changed both – the water and the leaves – forever! Never would life be the same for either… they have achieved nirvana and fulfilled the karma they were created for.
  • Serve the tea in the Barbie cups to partake in moderation the pleasure that you have just voyeuristically been part of. Let each sip you take transport your mind to a land where love is true, giving and unconditional. Where the divine unison of two has given more than the sum of these. Drink in the smell of warmth and togetherness and savor every sip that represents a moment from a passionate relationship.
Images from the first 'proper' tea experience.

  • Disregard concepts of monogamy and pour fresh boiling water over the leaves again… the leaves now tempered with experience, and mature from their teenage escapades. Let the leaves now go beyond the physical, and connect with the water on a sublime level. From infatuation to true bonding… let them hold hands and talk… let them get to know each other at a different level.
  • Strain and sip a taste of this new experience. Close your eyes and let your mind wander to the trueness of this relationship – no longer young enough to be called youth, but still emotionally with a lot to offer. What the leaves have lost in ‘freshness’, they made up for in ‘devotion’.

  • From bigamy to polygamy… pour fresh water onto the leaves and leave them to grow old together gracefully. Understand each other as closely as it is humanely possible and to accept each other with all their faults and imperfections. The passion may be long gone, and the drive and energy is a thing of the past, but the sincerity and loyalty offer a new dimension to this relationship. This is not a romp any longer… it is a journey of closeness… walking into the horizon together – fully proud of their togetherness, and confident of their unique understanding.
  • Strain and sip for a flavor of this mood. Let your eyes well up with tears at the emotionally overwhelming lifetime you’re getting to experience. Comprehend the trueness of the oneness. Let the tea tease your senses and tingle memories of all that it has been through… the initial heartbreak, the youth of passion, the marriage of devotion, and the age of togetherness and love in its purest form.

Dainty tea delights

Use the leaves any more than three times and you’re probably a dirty old man!

So for serious tea drinkers like those in my family, the problem is that 10 normal sized cups of tea in a day could well need more than 24 hours. Not to mention the sheer emotional exhaustion if this is done right every time and the involvement is intense.

But then we could all switch over to beer, right?? :-)

Local Experiences: Here is where I draw the line

We’ve seen a number blog entries where I’ve detailed our ‘local experiences’ and I’ve always been one to support roughing it out and jostling with the natives. Breath in the secondary sweat, step on a few toes, get yours stepped on, eat the local broth, etc. It’s all an integral part of understanding a new culture and I’m all for it! So far we’ve done a good deal of it – the local street food, local transportation including riding my Professor’s electric bike, local massages, extremely local shopping and, of course, a bunch of local projects with local clients.

Very Local solo transport
Local Markets

Local Food

Local girl and local headgear (the global silly 'V' sign though)
But where I draw the line is the local liquor! We know it to be liquor because it simply shares a common aisle with the Johnny Walker family in the supermarket. Other than that, there is no perceivable reason that this be considered alcohol of the consumable variety. If social alcohol has the impact of getting one happy and high and finally knocked out, the Chinese liquor goes straight to Phase 3 bypassing the first two. Is that the Chinese idea of efficiency?

Eenie meenie minie mo...what is is cheap and will kill me mo'?
After researching significantly, I came across the Great Chinese Guide to Local Ethanol and Related Products Perceived to be Consumable. It was strictly in Chinese but I got some of my friends to translate this in English. Just like the Chinese people have Chinese names and English names, similarly liquor too has two definitions and is better known by any alternate use it can be put to. It would be useful for any future traveler to China to bookmark this post as a quick reference. Here are the types of Chinese liquor.

Decreasing order of Price

  • Mildly displeasing room freshener
  • Budget mosquito repellant
  • Odorless home cleaner (tables/refrigerators)
  • Mildly pungent kitchen multipurpose cleaner
  • Soft dishwasher liquid
  • Nail Polish remover
  • Strong dish/pan detergent
  • Western Style toilet cleaner – mildly displeasing
  • Squat Pan cleaner – totally repulsive
  • Actual Nail (i.e. human nails and not nail polish alone) remover. Will additionally lead to hair loss too.
  • The Gasp-A-Lot multipurpose toilet/tile cleaning acid
  • Actual nuclear fuel
Given the rather lousy per-diem we're entitled to, it was obvious that our story of romance with Chinese liquor began in the middle of the spectrum and fast made it's way downward. Duli was the first to begin with the nail polish remover. While initially we could not see any changes in him (hey, this was Duli after all!), we soon noticed bleary eyes, dropping off of two nails, and an extremely significant loss in his desire to 'acquire Chinese' allowing competition to acquire enviable fluency. Club M founders adopted Duli to 'our fold' and 'our way of life' (and better known Western liquor). Hey.. this IS a CSR project, isn't it? 

Other adventurers included Sue who wanted the 'pretty pink bottle' to take back home. We believe she was actually paid at the super-market rather than the other way round. 

From L to R: Mr. Weird, Mr Squat Pan Cleaner, Mr. Nail Polish Remover, Mr. Nail/Hair Remover, and Ms. Pink (who makes you turn distinctly purple)
Dear future Travelers to China: Forget the toothbrush and sacrifice the toilet paper... make sure you carry your 'high' essentials.

Susanna's Birthday (22nd May)


(PS: Please read comment below)

Sue's Birthday (21st May)

So this post is a little delayed and I've been out of action for a bit. I mentioned last week how we decided to give Sue the shopping time of her life at the Huge Commodities Market, and how that did not turn out too well. Later in the evening we went in for a more conventional birthday celebration. Hotpot with lots of meat (hey, who can refuse one lamb free with one order of lamb and beef?) and barely made our way through the cake. With my birthday coming up in 3 days time, I was anxious to see whether the great Indian custom of cake smearing had found its way to other cultures yet or not. Thankfully, it had not. 

Queen Sue: Elegant as ever

Too many candles for someone who looks 18??

The queen with the subjects
The evening could not really be considered over just then... While the blogpost image errors from my previous post may have given a sneak preview of what happened, here are a few more images from visit to Club 88. There was karaoke upstairs and the dancing downstairs and lots of Vodka en route between these two spots (with dabbles of beer for good measure). It was a happy team and it was a b'day well celebrated. Birthday celebrations like these, unfortunately, set the bar too high for future birthdays :)
The Queen dancing.. err.. the Dancing Queen!

Lucy taking charge

The ladies letting down their hair (wherever possible)

Censored to account for Indian cultural sensivities.. yeah yeah.. squint away, you fellas :)
Squint any more and you could be mistaken for  a Chinese

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Of Exclusive Clubs and Competition

There have been some mentions of the Club Mukul on an alternate blog, but I thought it is important for me to give my readers a perspective as well.

Being the only person on my floor, it would seem strange that Club Mukul should have been created in the first place. There are those critics that are plain green and believe that a larger room is what explains the establishment of this enterprise and are obviously in denial that it's the larger heart and not the larger room that makes Club Mukul such a resounding success!
  • Unmatched authentic Indian Hospitality at it's best
  • Good understanding of customer preferences
  • Value added services such as entertainment and gossip
  • Free intellectualizing session on account of the fact that 'I'm an MBA'© *** and need only a broad keyword of one or two syllables to get started.
  • Relationship advice including playing the Agony Aunt bit. 
  • Technology discussions and also L2/L3 troubleshooting 
Club M: Founder's Day celebration i.e. day of the Founder's founding and not day of the club's founding.

Loyal Patronage. Customer Sat at it's best!

The Motel 168 daily reported last week that a me-too enterprise (Club Tom) was launched to latch on to the resounding success of Club Mukul (report carried in fine print on the last page). Rumors have it that the Club closed early on it's inauguration day itself and the CEO was at Club Mukul's for a night cap. Club Tom CEO (also one of the original 33% equity holders in Club M) refused to comment on the veracity of these rumors so this information needs to be treated as hearsay only.

***: I have been informed by the copyright owner of 'I'm and MBA' that I have exhausted the royalty paid to give the right to use this in my conversations and text. Looks like I need to purchase additional credits! 

Of Laundry and Optimization

To those of my personal friends who know me well, it's no secret that in life there is ONE thing that gives me the jitters and immense discomfort. I can handle the odd cockroach in my burger, the lizard scrambling over my dinning table, my foot landing right into dog poop etc. very easily (though I don't really look forward to these either); but one thing I distinctly dislike.. DISTINCTLY.. is doing my laundry by hand!!

I've done my fair share of this in life during school boarding days. But ask me to wash a handkerchief today.. and I would think of million reasons to not do it. During the CSC preparation calls, while people were busy voicing more practical concerns around food, stay, language, number-of-hangers-entitled-per-room, internet, wifi... I was just keen to understand the laundry arrangements. 

I checked with a good friend from the China 9 team and he reassured me that the local laundry would take care of everything though on payment. Hence it was a surprise to me when we were told by Lucy that undergarments and socks could not be given out to the third party and we had to make our own 'arrangements' (whatever that meant). 

I got the sweats and had visions of being haunched over a pile of used undergarments and scrubbing till my fingers whittled away and knew then and there what would be the most unpleasant memory (or memories, if I chose to do my laundry more than once!) of this entire stay. And my fears have been well founded. I HATE it... and there is no word in the English language that can adequately capture my sentiments. 

It's day 20 and there have been compromises made. The undershirt is no longer being worn as getting rid of just this has decreased the washing burden by close to 60%. The socks were being ignored for a bit and giving an additional benefit of 10%, but then not-so-subtle hints from my colleagues led to this scope being reintroduced. I'm toying with the idea of going commando and doing only the socks and handkerchiefs... i.e. reducing the burden by around 25% and hence total cumulative optimization of a staggering and impressive 85% but there are some practical issues in doing so. 

Let me elaborate. The practical issues do not relate to any perceived discomfort, but have more to do with the fact that I can't go commando incognito. Club Mukul Washroom  (of the Club Mukul fame!) is a fairly public area thanks to Club Mukul being so, and considering that most of my laundry is put out to dry over the shower cabinet, the boxers v/s briefs question is one that I'm never going to be asked. Any causal observer with more than 60 secs seat time in the washroom can well enough assess this through simple observation. More tenured sitters can further assess brands and segment me into the various globally recognized underwear segments that exist. 

A sudden absence of these garments is bound to be noticed instantly and the correct inference drawn right away. I'm not really up to getting weird stares from my colleagues especially since some of the stares may be directed southwards. 

It's crazy! No resolution possible...!! Hmmm..... what if I put out some fresh ones and make them appear to be drying and just keep on rotating my clothesline with new fresh ones every day so that even the really analytical observer cannot make out the difference? Hmm... that's a thought... that's really a good idea!!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My kingdom for a Controller... wait.. what kingdom?

I’m still getting too much of the ‘slow down your speech’ please thing from everyone I interact with. I’m astounded at how elementary they think this is. Am amazed at this Chinese aversion to speed given the fact that their slowest local trains run at 260 kms/hr! In India, we don’t have planes that fly at that speed! And hey… have you heard how the Chinese language is spoken? Does anyone have the speed guns trained at their voice waves?!!

Well people, while there may be knobs that can be twisted to shriek out louder, there really isn’t one that can be twisted around to control the speed of one’s speech. People think it’s as simple as getting out of your jeans and into a pair of shorts. Well I have news for you. It’s more like getting a gender change… radical and totally personality change. Get a gender change and going to the loo you discover that you can no longer do what you’ve been doing all your life in the way you had been doing it! It’s THAT drastic!

To be fair, I’ve tried a lot… I’ve tried breathing slowly to keep the pace a little lower. I’ve tried pausing between sentences and words… making my speech seem ludicrously insane. I’ve even tried taking two washroom breaks in a single paragraph to give the students time for the message to sink in! Nothing is working! The mind-mouth coordination (a lesser known sibling of the hand-eye coordination family) does exist, and messing with the mouth messes with the mind for me!

My theory is that some things in life are God gifted and you shouldn’t meddle around with them. You need to do it the way nature intended you to. Ever had 4 bottles of beer in a club, have a gestation of say 3 hours… entered the washroom for an extremely urgent and uncontrollable release and been told by the attendant: ‘Sorry sir… our receptacles here have a volume inflow constraint. I urge you to trickle and not gush’. I challenge you to try that and revert to me on how easy it is to slow down when nature intended you to zoom!!

The session that should not have been.. and translation woes

The work seemed to be piling up and suddenly we had a day on which we were to spend the entire day at the University. Ms LL.. .a faculty audience at out first session had requested us to ‘attend’ one of her regular lectures so that her students of International Business could see ‘different types of people’ in the class room and perhaps compare skin tones. So at an unearthly early hour, in peak traffic, Andrea and I reached the University to attend a session and actually not conduct one. I – the ever diligent student – took my notepad with me determined to take notes and participate.
Ms. LL (leading to our 'overtime' session)
Ms. LL began with an introduction to us and then mentioned that this was going to be an HR lecture and that the guests in the room (i.e. we) were going to be guest speakers!! So much for my notebook and back-to-school feeling. This was a sneaky session added into our already choked schedule. And what about the preparation we should have made?  

She flashed a slide which had the following contents (in English) in pretty colorful boxes:
HR Interventions Topics:
  • Recruitment and Resourcing
  • Training and Development
  • Performance Appraisals
  • Compensation and Benefits
  • Labor Regulation
  • Use of carbon nano-technology for deep space travel
  • Non surgical interventions in the cure of cancer
  • The Freudian paradox as applied to psychosomatic disorders.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. The last three bullets were not really there, but could well have been. For a Financial Analyst and a Business Development guy, the first 5 were as bad as the last three. I could have taken the wife on teleconference and had her talk for two days on these HR topics but my wife is not really a morning person and getting her up at 5:30 AM (India time), would have seriously led to long-term implications.

But guess what; to use a registered trademark “I’m an MBA”© and while I’ve been basically good at BS throughout my life, the MBA gives me the unique capability to get ‘More BS in Articulation’ (i.e .MBA). I realized that I could grab the keywords and speak impromptu and get the necessary audience response.

Mr. Su Ri: The HR Expert
 Later in the day was our second formal session on ‘Getting ready for a Job Search’. While the number of students in the room was always limited by room capacity (i.e. extremely high attendance), what was particularly interesting was the way in which the number of translators for each successive session were following the Chinese population growth rate. This time around we had 5… the good professor Z, the ever dependable Lucy, and three student forced-volunteers. At this rate the last session is probably going to have over 50 translators and that might be an issue

This picture just keeps growing: Prof Z, Prof W, Dean X, Andrea and me
 Sometimes more is not always good. We had a few tricky moments where  (mostly when I was the one presenting), all the interpreters looked at each other and seemingly wanted to ask for a breakout session to reach a common Chinese understanding to what I was saying. More often than not Lucy would bail us out. One interesting exchange was during Andrea’s explanation of the ‘Elevator Pitch’, the Chinese student interpreter kept urging his peer audience to seek the use of lifts to get to the interview session rather than using the stairs and use elevators regardless of which floor the interview was on. Lucy was fortunately pretty attentive and caught on the puzzled distress on elevatorphobic members of the audience and set right the understanding.

Our extended Interpreter set: Looks like a punishment? It was!
We could have well started a nationwide trend in elevator abuse in the country.

The most I've been at the center of attraction

MMMLXXXVI steps for a man… a leap for his ego

The once-in-a-lifetime experiences in life can be broadly categorized into two types. The first are those that are unique because the opportunity to experience them is unique and may not come by again. The second category is those that you would never be silly enough to sign up for again.

Our scheduled hike-up-a-mountain belonged to the second of these categories. Don’t get me wrong… I thoroughly enjoyed myself… but you’d really have to push me at gun-point to do it again and then too it’s probable that I’ll resist and take my chances that the gun misfires.

Our NGO organized this hike-up-the-mountain  (as per the agenda) for us on a Sunday, and I had visions of a dirt track, boots on firm mud, a few gazelles drifting across the path, birds fluttering sweet nothings over the heavily wooded and beautiful landscape. The hike we got instead was nothing like that!!I strongly urge the content owners of the Chinese to English dictionary to revisit the word for hike.
Project Goal Setting Tollgate

Whatever that means!
The mountain is real… and while the 'hike' it is not, the journey up against the magnificent force of the Earth's gravity is real. And there are a goddamawful number of steps up… 3086!

Let me pause here. I understand that a good deal of my readership is senior management in impressive positions and used to seeing large figures on their monthly bank account statement and the figure above may have been simply skimmed over.

Three Thousand and Eighty Six Steps.
T h r e e  T h o u s a n d  A n d  E i g h t y S i x   S t e p s.
For my friends familiar with Hindi: teen hazaaar che-aassi (!!)
For my friends familiar with Roman numerals: MMMLXXXVI

Anyway, I proudly present a picture of the group climbing the stairs. Note that as I’m not in this picture, it essentially means that I was leading the pack.

Looking relaxed eh? No clue of what lay further.

There might be contradictory and defamatory pictures floating around in alternate blogs and I urge you to consider this perfectly rationale explanation for those pictures: Out of a sense of moral responsibility for the group I, being the broadest person in the team (in the absence of Carlos), eventually decided that someone needed to take the responsibility of bringing up the rear just in case one of the team members tipped over backwards. There! That sounds reasonable enough.

Too late to discover a fear of heights.
 Denis and Sue made it up without breaking a sweat. Which is fine since I was sweating enough for the entire team anyway. Andrea and I faced a bit of a challenge on the way up but that too is easily explained by the fact that our project with the University is extremely grueling and stress levels have permeated from the mental to the physical. Had we been given a simpler project with a corporate or something, you would have seen us flitting from step to step and double hopping a few in the way just for fun.
A head count on reaching indicated that we had indeed all managed. Some just about!
The journey brings you close to the almighty… you either get to see the pretty Buddhist temple on top, or you topple and reach even closer to Him (though you’d probably be kept for a few days in the pre-heavens infirmary to get back to normal).

Laughing Buddha? "Ha Ha Ha... see what you went through to get up here buddy?"

The temple of a thousand Buddhas

Some touch of Hinduism on display?
 Remember folks… once-in-a-lifetime. Strictly!