I used to travel to China quite regularly for work. It was the best and the worst part of that job. I learned so much, got to live in a place extremely foreign to me and experience quite a personal growth spurt. I met some good and entertaining characters, learned how people can survive and thrive in a culture very different from mine and made a few friends that I expect to be lifelong. Of course, there was also the day of air travel to get there (sometimes a day + a couple hours), the smells, the heat, the mosquitoes, the illnesses, missing my wife, the gigantic time change and, last but most, the extremely long work hours filled with the stress of creating something from nothing right now.
As a designer for my company, I was always working at a fast pace to ensure our latest and greatest was keeping up with ever-changing trends. Once we would get to China we would crank the dial from busy to frenzy. That was the designer’s time to shine with winning rapid-fire sleep-deprived design or to crumble when they couldn’t make it work. I always wanted to have time to take pictures and jot down my thoughts. My idea was to write some sort of guide or Bill Bryson-esque story, but work or sleep always won.
Now, several years after the fact, I’m thinking I might post a China excerpt on my blog from time to time. My initial idea for this website (see “About” in the upper right-hand corner of the site) was to present you with things that I think make life better. This includes things that I make or do. Maybe it isn’t such a stretch to include a story or two. Let me know what you think.
Maybe sometime I’ll do an overview on China from my perspective, but for now let’s Star Wars it and jump right in with blasting music, phew-phews and an exciting chase scene…
It was definitely a winter trip because it wasn’t hot as fire and the sky was already dark for the evening. I was in one of the factory owner’s cars being shuttled to my next appointment. Our overseas office manager was sharing the backseat with me and we were discussing the tenor of the previous meeting, a to-do list and other business-y business. After that he made a few necessary calls in Mandarin as I watched the tile and soot-covered industrial landscape blur by under the strobe of infrequent street lights.
Many times these car rides were my favorite part of a trip. Because factories were spread out over the entire southeastern part of China and the roads were likely to be in bad shape it might be several hours between appointments.
During the day you got to see what local life was like as people sat for curbside haircuts or purchased shoes or just let their wieners swing while they walked and peed hands free. Typically daytime travel was intracity, which meant exposure to the worst street conditions and worst driving. Needless to say, this was a time of mental alertness. There was so much to take in. It also didn’t hurt to be ready to tell the driver he missed a turn in one of the maze-like megacities or to remind him that we didn’t really need to run over the smaller things or be run over by the bigger things.
The other kind of driving was in stark contrast to this. Once you got out of the city (especially on later trips when the highways were complete), you would just cruise. After about 10pm there were very few other cars and really very little activity at all. Usually the car taking you on one of these treks was nice. No, extremely nice. The seats were very comfortable and the sound deadening in the cabin was maxxed out.
On these rides you felt like you had just finished a big race. This had been what you’d focused on for weeks or months prior to the trip. Now you just had poured everything you had into your last meeting. You were bone tired from 12-hour jetlag and arguing about time tables and pricing. You felt good that you had done your best or were running any mistakes you made through your head. You had crossed the finish line and would be in a nice cocoon for a little while. You could dump your body into the seat, rest for a moment and get ready to do it again at the next location.
It was one of the longer rides that was allowing me a moment to recharge my batteries. A good thing too. Our last meeting had run too long and now we were out in the middle of nowhere at dinner time. Our manager was eating a sandwich he’d brought from home and I was washing down a Powerbar with a forearm-sized bottle of water. We talked about non-work stuff for a while. What did the Chinese think of US foreign policy? What was a fun vacation spot near Shanghai? Which Chinese dumpling is tastiest? The trip was long enough that we had done everything we could business-wise and the small talk wound down so we sat in silence for a while.
The streetlights gave way to blackness as we entered a tunnel. Maybe it was the change in illumination or change in tire sound, but something snapped my travelmate to alertness and he asked “Would you like to try my tasty butt crack?”
Was he kidding? Both of us were happily married (as far as I knew). This guy loved to joke but I had known him for several years and I could tell it was a serious inquiry. We were good friends, but he didn’t think we had that kind of friendship did he? There was the cultural barrier… Some of the other folks we worked with were gay. Did he think I was gay too? He’s a polite guy but we are out in the middle of nowhere… This could be really embarrassing for him…
I can’t remember if I was silent or let out a small “What?” He repeated, “Do you wanna da butt crack?” And then, attempting to make it more enticing, he added “Ohhh, it’s a nice one.”
I could here the leather bench seat groan as he shifted around. The plastic bag at his feet hissed as he rummaged through it. What was he doing? More importantly, what else was in that bag besides his sandwich?
We emerged from the tunnel and I saw him pull out the Chinese equivalent of club crackers. “Oh good. We are out of da tunnel. Now I can see what I’m doing.” “So do you wanna da butt crack or not?”
“It’s butter cracker, Richie.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you left off the er again.” “Butt-eeeerrrr.” “Thanks. I will have a couple.” “How long until we get there, you think? Maybe another hour?”
“I think you are right.”
If you enjoyed reading this and would like more, let me know.