Hot business idea: Chinese bicycle helmet company

I have no idea if tere is such a company, but right now they’re not making any money. I see thousands of people riding bikes everyday everywhere, and I can’t recall ever seeing someone (other than the oddball foreigner) wearing a helmet. But you know what? Traffic is pretty crazy here. As remarkable as people here are to keep things moving in what appears to be total chaos, sometimes it is just that. Especially when it gets dark and there are still bicycles whirring about. And for a second assume that they have lights or reflective gear. Oh no. On my walk home from dinner tonight, I walked in front of an alley with a truck pulling out, and as the truck pulled out behind me, pop, it hit a woman (in her 50’s it looked like) on a bike. The truck wasn’t going terribly fast, but fast enough that the woman couldn’t avoid. She didn’t appear to be terribly injured, but she did hit her head on the street. I actually wanted to help, but being the only foreigner around, and not speaking the language, I wasn’t sure what I could/should do. It was kinda weird in that no one wanted to get involved. I stood around long enough to make sure that she got some attention, but I got the impression that once she got maybe a little first aid, that was the end of that. I don’t think these kinds of incidents are terribly uncommon, nor do I think there’s any consequence for the driver or the company behind the truck. In China it feels like every man (and woman) for themself. I could be wrong–it’s just my impression. Anyway, I remember about a dozen years ago when bike helmets became mandatory in Washington State, and the lobbyists against the idea complained that it would only make the helmet companies rich. I can only imagine what would happen when China finally decides the safety of its people is worth enforcing, and all of a sudden 1 billion people are the market for a bike helmet. Chaching.
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Back To The Future, Part 2

I found this one too. It’s even older than the previous one.
 

I’ve been really enjoying the single life. No, not in that way. I’ve been enjoying doing a lot of walking, exploring the city. I’ll walk to various restaurants for dinner, and on the weekends I’ll go on looong walks around the city. Like 10 miles or so. I just like seeing stuff. Nothing in particular. No agenda. No destination. Just a map in my pocket so hopefully I can get back where I started. And my Zen to keep the tunes flowing. I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of the area after talking 3 or 4 walks in different directions. That’s something I never could have done with the family. I can walk as fast as I want, as far as I want, and stop at anything and everything that looks interesting, for as little or as long as I like. It’s a bizarre feeling. The days seem sooo long. I’ll certainly enjoy tootling around with the fam, but I’ll miss this too.

 

Beijing is known for its food. I’ve had a lot of great food. I’ve also had some not-so-great food. I’ve found that when I’m with someone that knows what they’re ordering, we usually come out ok. When I go in a non-Chinese restaurant, I always come out ok. It’s when I walk into a Chinese restaurant solo that I sometimes have problems. First of all, anything that doesn’t have pictures on the menu is out, obviously. And it’s not easy to figure that out since I have no idea how to ask to see a menu before I go in. Maybe I need to figure that one out. But I walked into a hotpot place the other day (I didn’t realize it was a hotpot place before going in—it just looked like a nice restaurant). Most Chinese restaurants that have English on the menu have a “sort of” version of English. So for my hotpot, I ordered some seafood balls and chicken. I should have known better than to order the chicken. China has a way of making me lose interest in chicken. Their idea of chicken is to gut the chicken, then carefully slice it up and server it on a plate so that it still looks like the chicken—skin, bones, head, feet, and all. And they’re so scrawny that you have to put whole pieces with bones in your mouth and try to gnaw off a little meat. Sorry, but that just doesn’t do it for me. Anyway, so I’m sitting at my table, with the entire wait staff staring at me, and one of them motions to my fork with regard to the seafood balls. So I figured that I guess those weren’t for the hotpot after all. Must be an appetizer or something. So I popped one in. Oops. They were for the hotpot alright. In fact they were still half frozen. I suffered through it and ate it, despite one of the wait staff motioning (while the rest were laughing) that it would be ok to spit it out. Half-way done with my meal, they brought the menu back, and I finally realized they were trying to get me to order some vegetables. I assumed that they were included, but no. Well, since I was half done, and I wasn’t enjoying it too much anyway (if only because the staring from whole staff was getting old) I passed and just hurried out.

 

I’ve had some really good non-Chinese food. I’ve had great Indian, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Israeli, African, etc. Actually, the other Asian foods are hit & miss. If you get authentic, it’s really good. But there are some places where they’re Chinese run, and they’re not so good. I recently went to a Korean restaurant that won the “Best Korean Food in Beijing” from the international reader’s poll (Han Na Shan). It’s a big chain, and if all restaurants are like the one I went to, the restaurants are both huge and packed. The Chinese love this stuff. The only problem is, it’s horrible by Korean standards. E place that Hedi & I went to, no one spoke Korean. That’s a bad sign. It was the same for Han Na Shan. It’s also a bad sign when there’s no Korean on the building, which was the case for Han Na Shan. Ugh. But I tried a place right next to my apartment that was run by Korean (at least the manager spoke Korean) and it was much better. Large variety of good banchan (the free small appetizers that just come—you don’t order them), even for just me (like 6-8 dishes before the main dish). Han Na Shan had nothing but a tiny dish of bad kimchee and soggy cucumber. Ugh. There are tons of Koreans here, so I’m sure there are more good Korean restaurants. I just have to ask them to find them. I’ve given up on the restaurant guide, as the only decent Korean food I’ve had was not listed in the guide, while both of the bad restaurants are. This is the beauty of staying for a couple years. It gives us time to discover the city.

 

Like I was saying, I’ve had some really great food too. My apartment is surrounded with a huge number of great restaurants of international origins. The Indian food here is better than most Indian food I’ve had in the States. More variety, more flavor. The Israeli place was simply amazing. I got a combo pita + shwarma thing, and I expected the pita to maybe come with some hummus or something. When it came, I thought there must be some mistake, because the pitas came with like 10 side dishes. It was soooo good. Again, more flavor than US restaurants. I took a picture. I could eat that every day. I don’t only because there are so many places to try, and I like experimenting. The African place also rocked. I was a little timid on the ordering. I didn’t quite go for the alligator tongue or the Rocky Mountain Oysters (yes, they were really called that on the menu, and yes, they really were testicals). But I had some samosas (I can never pass up samosas) that were very different form the Indian ones I’ve had. But the best part was a freshly made fruity chutney that was absolutely killer. The African place was totally Africa, including a thatched roof, which was apparently imported from Africa, along with everything else in the restaurant. Te restaurant is part of some agreement with China/African governments to build relations. Whatever—the food is good! Oh, every table also had one of those (I’m not sure what the correct term is, so I’ll just call it…) big bong things. You can apparently order whatever you want to smoke at the table. Same story for Indian food. I took a picture of one place that such cool tables, with various ingredients embedded in them. One downside of the places run by non-Chinese is that they tend to be much more expensive than Chinese places.

 

How cheap is Chinese food? Let’s put it in perspective. At the hotel where I stayed, the small bottled water containers were 30RMB, or about $4, each. While walking around Shanghai I ate at a nice restaurant I found that had western food. I hadn’t tried western food here yet, so I was curious what they could do with it. Not expecting much, I was surprised that the food was actually really good. I was starving after a lot of walking around Shanghai, so I pigged out, ordering a chicken/mango salad, strawberry smoothie, salmon/spinach pasta, and coconut crème brulee for desert. Total damage after tax & tip: 46RMB, or about $6. There’s a food court kinda place near my Shanghai hotel where I’ve eaten a few times, where they serve real food (unlike food courts in US malls). Today I got a beef/veggie/rice thing cooked and served in a huge leaf for 15RMB (less than $2). But stuff in Beijing has been a bit more expensive. Not sure why—maybe I haven’t found the good places yet. Oh, speaking of which…

 

A coworker took me out to lunch at a really fancy place that used to be home to imperial servants. It’s a residential place, where each table is in its own room. Before ordering, he asks me, “is there anything you don’t eat?” Warning to anyone who ever receives this question in China: it’s a trick question. I said no, not really. I’m not a big fan of shell fish, but I eat it. I had also been in China long enough to know to tell him that I’m not a big fan of head, feet, or skin. Bones I can work around. Great, so off he went ordering. When the first dish came, it looked interesting, so I asked him what it was. Goose lung. Oh. Um. I guess I forgot to mention I’m not a big fan of goose lung either. Actually, I ate it and it wasn’t bad. When I was younger I wouldn’t have been able to pop one in my mouth knowing what it was. My time in Korea helped with that (for which I’m very thankful). Another interesting dish was black chicken soup. Not blackened chicken. Black chicken. The meat is actually black naturally. It’s some funky kind of exotic chicken. There were some other bizarre things which I can’t remember anymore.

 

Some of the things you see on menus is just amazing. I’ve asked some Chinese folks if it’s for real, and it is. And a lot of it they just serve on sticks on the street, kinda like how you get a hot dog in NYC. One of the things I saw in my guide, which I wasn’t sure how common it was (or whether real at all), but I saw for myself: goat penis. There’s a reason I limit my Chinese food to places with English on the menu!

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Back To The Future

Flashback time: I just found this in my Drafts folder. I wrote this about 4 weeks ago. better late than never I suppose…
 

I’m leaving this Thursday to go back to USA for a few weeks, mainly to help the fam get moved out of the house, and then spend some time with family before we all head back out. Hedi & the kids haven’t come over yet. They’re waiting for the school year to get out.

 

The biggest thing I have to get done in the next few days is get our apartment selected and secured. This has been a very difficult problem. There are a couple factors, mainly revolving around school location and work location. Both are in Beijing, but the city is huge, and they’re quite far apart. Actually, even before that, we had to decide where the kids would go to school. This was also a very hard decision, because while there are some good international schools, most of them are out in the boonies in a community called Shunyi. It’s basically a community that sprang up for expats, and expats only. It’s literally about a dozen little neighborhoods with American style homes, in cookie cutter fashion, all jammed together. Ugh. We really don’t want to live in a compound of foreigners who try to pretend they don’t live in China. If we’re going to live in China, I want to dive in head first and live right in the heart of the city. Ok, that’s also a fairly expat life, since the apartment is well out of reach of middle class Chinese, but at least it’s in the heart of the city, with China literally all around us. So we decided on Beijing City International School, which is the most downtown of any international school. It’s a nice new campus, going into only its third year. They have school buses which go to most of the main apartment complexes. I really don’t want the kids to spend a huge amount of time on a school bus, so we’re going to live close to the school. Only thing is, the school is on the complete opposite side of the city as my work. So my commute is going to be, um, challenging. I might try the subway, but I think the likely thing is that I’ll break down and hire a driver, so I can at least work in the car and work shorter hours. The kids bus ride will be about 10 minutes. My commute will be about 90 minutes. But there’s lots of stuff around us, so we’ll enjoy being in the city on weekends. One thing we’ll miss (I will at least) is being part of the kids sports leagues. No baseball, soccer, baseball, etc. We could have all that if we lived up in Shunyi, but it’s not practical from where we’ll live. Plus, to maximize our experience here, I want to get out and see/do stuff on the weekends.

 

So while I’ve picked the apartment complex, I still need to figure out the exact unit. Apartments here are all individually owned, so you have negotiate with each landlord on price and terms, so it’s not easy to simply compare different units, even when they’re vacant. While many units come furnished, we’re picky enough that we don’t like virtually all of the furnishings. Apparently it’s common to roll in a furniture allowance into the rent, and then we can pick our own stuff. I think that’s what we’ll do. Hedi doesn’t trust me to pick it (probably rightly so), so we’ll wait until she’s here, which means we’ll be without furniture for a month or so, which is how long it takes to get, according to the preferred supplier I talked with.

 

I’ll be relieved once I get that figured out.

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Will I Ever Learn?

I little over a year ago, I put my camera in a checked bag on the airplane. Do I really have to finish the story? Yeah, it broke.
 
Fast forward to today. I was just back in the USA for a couple weeks helping my family with the big move and all (visiting family, etc.), but in China I got a new sim card for my phone, and I forgot to bring my USA sim card back to the States with me, which meant my cell phone only had a China #. Not too handy in the US. So I ended up not using it at all and it ended up in checked baggage. And now it’s broken. Ugh.
 
The annoying thing is that I keep all sorts of stuff on it, from important things like my Tichu spreadsheet (well, ok, I have a backup of that on PC) to less important things such as my notes for interesting things I’ve come across in China that might be blog-worthy. That list is now gone. Ugh ugh.
 
Most of the types of things on the list are just little things, but to me, it’s the little things that are interesting. For example, today I went to a restaurant (I would actually prefer not to go out on Sunday, but the little store in my building where I can get food that I can actually figure out what to do with (e.g. spaghetti) closed down with no replacement yet) called Bellagio. It was quite yummy. I ordered pretty simple stuff: kung pao chicken and mango smoothy, but both were easily the best I’ve ever had. Actually, I probably would have ordered something a bit more adventurous than the kung pao, but from the moment I sat down and was handed the menu, the waitress stood next to me waiting and finally started pointing. I can’t handle the pressure! I buckled and just quickly got something that sounded familiar. I watched so many yummy-looking dishes come out. I’m definitely coming back, even after we get into our permanent apartment and this is no longer walking distance.
 
So while I’m eating this yummy food, there was something about the wait staff that was odd. Nothing major–it took me quite a while before thought even registered. It wasn’t just that they were all women (I don’t think I’ve seen a male server in any restaurant yet–maybe there’s a law against it?). It wasn’t just that there were a lot of them (par for the course). It was that they all looked so similar. What was it about them? Not just the outfit. I got it! They all had super short / super spiky haircuts! I’d say hair styles or hair-dos, but there are really just haircuts–as in Annie Lennox short haircuts. And all spiked. Given that I can’t recall seeing a single woman with super short hair like that here, it’s quite amazing that they manage to get all their wait staff to get haircuts like that.
 
Now I have to figure out what new phone to get. And in China there are zillions of options. I’ll need some help choosing. Anyone have any suggestions? (full keyboard, Windows Mobile 6, of course).
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Man, Spaces is starting to bug me

So I went through the hassle of not only uploading pictures, but labeling them in Spaces, but you can’t see the labels when viewing a blog entry. If you click on a picture, you get a lame new popup window with the picture in it, and it scales to the window, which by default isn’t big enough to show full resolution (of the already reduced resolution required by the picture upload thingie). The only way to see the labels is through the photo album viewer section, which shows ALL pictures, without any way of just viewing pictures associated with a particular blog entry. Furthermore, if you click a picture in the photo viewer corner of my page (not the small thumbgnails at the bottpom of each blog entry), then you get a much nicer photo viewer, that automatically shows them full size, and with the caption, and previous next buttons. How come you can’t get that when you click the thimbnails in a blog entry? Grumble grumble. I need to go track someone down…
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Work work work

Before I forget, a caveat for any Chinese readers of the blog (since this is linked from my Messenger account): This is written from an American view, for other Americans. I will write about things that seem amusing to me, and I think to other Americans. That doesn’t make it bad or good–just different. There are a number of things here that are just funny, even though they’re not meant to be. I’m sure when Chinese go to the USA for the first time, they find some things funny too. But I have no ieda what they are! But if anyone wants to write about it, go ahead, I won’t be offended. In fact I’d love to know what they are. 🙂
 
So what exactly am I doing here? That’s a good question. Aside from just “experiencing China”, what I’m doing for work is the following (cut & pasted from email I just sent answering this). What I’m going in China is basically twofold:
1)     Lead a group of software engineers who create the Business Intelligence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_intelligence) platform for Windows Live services. Currently this is work that only benefits Microsoft—an internal service. In the future we’re considering making what we do available to the public as well. Microsoft recently bought a company called Deep Metrix, which produces nice business reports, but cannot handle the scale of websites and logs that Microsoft services generate. “Why is this in China?” many people ask. Well, there’s no particular reason it has to be. Which leads us to…
2)     Develop the local talent. China has CS grads by the thousands. Microsoft can hire the best (competing pretty much just with Google), but it doesn’t do any good to have a team full of fresh hires, so the goal here is to the develop the employees so that they can eventually be a self-sufficient development arm of Microsoft, including the leaders.
 
And since not everyone knows what Windows Live services means: Windows Live services =Hotmail, Messenger, Search, Spaces (hosting this blog), etc. Basically all the stuff you can do online via services Microsoft offers. “Windows Live” is basically a brand name for “free” (at least that’s the trend) online services, as opposed to products that you go buy and install.
This is the first group I’ve been in at Microsoft where the customer is internal business only. Not only that, it’s the first project where the end result is not an application (client or server). Rather, it’s a pipeline: data comes in, gets processed, and goes out. That’s it. But it’s slicing and dicing terabytes of data per day.
 
I have a team of 6 developers—all recent grads from one of the nearby universities. Our location is strategically placed to attract these students. It’s a nice complex. See picture of building. All speak some degree of English. It’s a requirement of employment. Can you image if a top Chinese company came to the US to hire more employees, but only those who speak Chinese? English truly does have an (unfair) advantage. But none have spent any time living abroad, so their English can, at times, be a challenge to understand, not just the words, but even more so the meaning. But if I can get even a small fraction that level of Chinese while I’m here, I’ll be happy. It kind of makes me feel self-conscious at times when I walk into a meeting that’s being conducted in Chinese, and then all of a sudden they switch on a dime to English just to accommodate me. It’s especially weird to hear two people struggling to talk to each other in English, just because I’m there. Once in a while, if it gets really tough, they break into Chinese, but they usually stick it out in English.
 
Office life is fairly interesting. Especially compared to Microsoft-Redmond. In Redmond, each kitchen has basically a 7-11 supply of drinks—all varieties of sodas and juices. In Beijing, there is a small fridge, with what looks like a “sampling” of what’s available. Like 3 or different drinks, and just a few of each. When I asked someone about this, apparently is was because there was some concern about the “privilege” getting abused, especially by contractors. Good thing I gave up sodas or I would be going through withdrawal.
 
There’s a fortune here to be made in affordable paper/plastic products. At least I guess they’re expensive because they’re impossible to find! There are no napkins in the kitchen (nor at most restaurants, which drives me crazy), and the paper cups in the kitchen and at the water jugs (no drinking fountains) are all clearly labeled “for visitors only”. Sometimes I feel like I’d kill for a napkin. So what do they use instead? Tissues (e.g. Kleenex). I brought some western-style pastries one day from the bakery at my apartment, in case some folks had never tried them, and since some were large, I thought maybe I’d get some plates/knives/napkins. None of which I could find in the kitchen. When I asked the group admin about it, she said she’d get some, which she did. Apparently there are some in the kitchen, but they’re kept in a locked cabinet, and you need to know the secret password to ask the maintenance staff (who wonder the building all day doing random things) to unlock it for you. Note that water is also controlled. A lot of people bring in humidifiers. See the picture with the water jub about that.
 
Speaking of maintenance staff, two of the amusing things they do are: 1) Keep the tea flowing. Most employees have custom standing tea orders, which the “ayis” (literally aunts I think) keep filled throughout the day. They also keep track of meetings scheduled and make sure meeting rooms have fresh tea on hand. It’s interesting how the team has tons of “stuff” in it. It gets filtered when poured. 2) Provide afternoon fruit. Everyday there is some afternoon fruit, ranging from watermelon to banana to cantaloupe. The ayis bring it around to your office. Pretty cool. Ever tried eating watermelon at a desk with a Kleenex?
 
One noticeable difference in culture is the acceptability of sleep in public. In China, you can sleep wherever you want when you’re tired. Including at your desk in the middle of the day. It’s not uncommon to walk by people’s cubicles and see them completely collapsed asleep. Once I walked up to someone to ask him a question, and before I noticed he was sleeping started talking to him. He woke up, put his glasses back on, and was completely puffy-eyed. I apologized for waking him, and after answering my question, he went right back to sleep. It’s also extremely common to see workers outside sleeping wherever.
 
The people here are very hardworking. Since they’re mostly young and single, it kind of reminds me of the old days in Redmond, where it’s not uncommon for people to stay until midnight.
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Let’s try this again

Ok, I’m kinda miffed at Microsoft. I typed up a looong first blog entry, and right before I was about to post it, I thought I’d throw in a picture, just for fun. Well, that caused an ActiveX control to be installed. Of course that was with my permission, but I forgot that that would cause the page to reload after installation, and the page load would cause my unsaved post to be lost. Ugh. Why can’t they save a draft when I click the uplaod pictures button? Double ugh.
 
Anywho…
 
So I’ve been in Beijing since May 18. I’m staying in a serviced apartment. It’s generally very nice (nice full kitchen–rare), but like many things here, they miss on some details. For example, the carpet, while somewhat fancy, is completely stained. For the fortune that this place charges, they could probably recarpet my room for one night’s rate. Pictures attached. The city pictures are from my room (limited angle view, and away form the heart of the city). [Hmmm, I don’t like that I can’t seem to have pictures inline with the blog. I don’t like that. I may have to manually edit html to see if that works. Maybe will try playing with that later.]
 
I’ve had to call the front desk for help many times. For starters, there’s a 110V plug in the bathroom for bathroom devices (like a shaver) that has the US-style 2 prong outlet (normal in China is a 3 prong 220V outlet that’s shaped completely differently). Since I brought an electric shaver, I immediately tried this out, and found that it simply didn’t work. (This was also the case in our hotel during our visit.) When I called down, they sent a maintenance person up, who of course didn’t speak a word of English. After demonstrat/C problemsing the problem, we both tried to communicate by vainly hoping the other person would magically understand our language. After no such luck, we called the front desk to translate. The maintenance guy said that I needed a converter. I knew that wasn’t true, because my plug did fit, and the outlet said 110V right on it, but part of surviving in China is going with the flow, so I said whatever, sure, get me a converter, which he did. But of course the converter wouldn’t plug into that outlet since it had the Chinese-style plug. So in the end I failed to be able to plug in my shaver in the bathroom, but since it’s cordless and I just need to plug it in to recharge, it doesn’t really matter where I plug it in.
 
The there’s the A/C. First, I have it, which is good. It’s getting pretty hot in Beijing. I actually don’t mind it so much, because it’s not too humid (yet). I’ve had (have–neither has been fixed) two A/C problems. 1) The A/C in my bedroom will just shut off when it feels like it. It’s really annoying waking up in a hot sweat (I have a warm comforter and go to bed with the room cool) early in the morning and then not be able ot go back to sleep. My solution is to leave my bedroom door open and crank the A/C in the living room. Problem 2) The actual A/C is not central A/C. That would be far too easy. It’s individual units per room. This is how it is virtually eve a bunch, ryone except the newest office buildings. Anyway, so I have a condensor or whatever attached to the outside of my wall, and the rattles like crazy when it’s on (which is always). It makes a loud resonating sound that fills the apartment. It’s incredibly annoying. We’ll see if it’s fixed when I get back from Shanghai, where I’ve been for the last 3 days (more on that later). We’ll see. I tend to doubt it.
 
The apartment does have two nice things downstairs: a bakery that makes good bread, and a (very) small grocery mart that has things like peanut butter and spaghetti. 🙂 I like to explore the restaurants, but sometimes I don’t feel like it, so it’s nice to be able to make a nice PB&J sometimes.
 
Gotta split. Check out time.
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