Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part I: In which Jessica plays boss, Black Jack

Kunming -> Xishuangbanna -> Lancang -> Menghai -> Xishuangbanna

Last week I got to go on my first business trip since starting my job in Kunming. I had been told that the purpose of this trip was to visit some of the field sites for our malaria program, in order to provide “support and supervision”. In summary: it was amazing. Unique in my life. Possibly even transformative. More on that later.

It was absolutely certain that this trip was going to involve going to areas where people did not speak Mandarin and, even when they did, that they would speak it in an accent incomprehensible to me. Of course, no one would speak English. So I was both nervous about being unable to understand anyone other than my colleague from the Kunming office, NM, and also confused about what useful role I might be able to play in the whole affair. This would all become clear soon enough.

The flight from Kunming south to Xishuangbanna (XSBN) only takes 45 minutes. What could we possibly being doing with the rest of the day, such that we had no meetings planned for the afternoon? It turns out that our first stop was to be at the CDC in Lancang, a 5- or 6-hour drive from XSBN in a 4×4 truck. On a guess, I would say that if there were real roads between XSBN and Lancang, this trip would take maybe 2 hours. Ninety minutes if my Dad were driving the car.

As it stands, the roads are awful – appallingly pocked with craters and strewn with boulders. The kind of roads that lift you out of your seat and have you clinging to your coworkers for dear life for hours at a time (which they do not appreciate). Not only are the roads bad, but you periodically have to stop because there is a random crew of people using minor explosives to excavate rock from the side of the road. Or a group of peasants felling bamboo. Or a giant bus that has collapsed in a giant ditch right in front of you, and now people are pouring out of the bus like ants and swarming around the tires trying to figure out how to get the thing moving again.

So you wait.

I should stop here and apologize: I have almost no pictures from this trip – a trip that took me through southern Yunnan’s breath-taking scenery tropical scenery – because my colleagues never wanted to stop the car so that I could take pictures, and a lot of the areas we were in otherwise were deemed “sensitive” by the CDC and I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything. But on some of our breakdown stops I got to snap a few pictures that will give you an idea of what the scenery looks like:

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

All of this driving and waiting left plenty of time for me to consider my surroundings and current situation. In the truck with my three Chinese colleagues, chatting about this and that, singing along as the radio alternated between blaring operatic nationalistic ballads and tunes by, as NM put it, “The Spicy Girls”, our merry band of public health pranksters rolled along through mountains and valleys.

I can’t believe that someone is paying me to do this, I thought. I can’t believe that I managed to con someone into giving me this job. How lucky am I?

***

We pulled up to the Lancang CDC before dinner that evening, and suddenly my role was made clear to me, 5 minutes before we were to meet with the local CDC director. “Ok,” says NM to me, “you’re the big boss from Washington. You’re like our boss’s boss’s boss. And you don’t speak or understand Chinese. Just speak English and I’ll translate for you. Be serious and impressive.”

Let that sink in for a minute, bearing in mind that I was wearing a slightly stained t-shirt and wrinkled pants. Also, if you are reading this blog it means you’ve met me, so you know that I don’t look old enough to be anyone’s boss.

Of course the CDC Director had not been informed that I would be there, and when he found out who I was he is falling all over himself to impress me. (This is all relative, by the way – it does not mean that he stopped picking his teeth or answering his cell phone in the middle of my sentences.) This guy turned out to be a good friend to our organization and an all around nice person – in addition to being a serious character, given to making grandiose proclamations like “I am the eighth most handsome man in Lancang!” Incidentally, he would not explain who numbers 1-7 were, so don’t ask. (This was also a lot funnier in Chinese, for those of you who speak the language: “我是澜沧第八帅!”)

He hustled us all over to a Wa nationality restaurant nearby and – surprise! – announced that, before dinner, we would be playing a Chinese version of Black Jack, with mysterious rules that kept changing. Also, it was the drinking game version of Black Jack, and the drink we would be consuming was the local corn liquor that was finished being made not half an hour earlier in the kitchen.

A little note about drinking and doing business in China: this is extremely common, and is both a show of hospitality and respect to your guests, as well as being something of a open challenge to your business partners. Women can often get out of these drinking games and endless hard liquor dinner toasts by demurring from the outset, but I figured Hey! I’m the big Washington boss. I will drink with this guy.

Now don’t go getting all upset – I managed to hold my own and didn’t even embarrass myself. (Which is more than I can say for the CDC director, who ended up complementing me loudly on my “excellent figure,” and poor NM who finished the night by throwing up.)

Lest you should think you can escape without a description of what we ate for dinner, I will just say that much of the Wa food we ate was extremely tasty – fish soups, a kind of steamed corn bread, an interesting potato porridge.

And then there were the water buffalo ankles. (Ankles? I checked with NM. Like, between the leg and the foot? She nodded.)

The CDC director conveyed the bowl of ankles to me grandly, informing me that I was to eat four of them, for some unknown reason. And yes, they were crunchy and cartilage-like. And ridiculously spicy. And all I could think of for the rest of the meal was that some poor water buffalo was staggering around a rice paddy on little stubs because I ATE ITS @#$%^&* ANKLES.

***

The next morning we went with the CDC director to visit some of the villages where we have doctors selling mosquito nets. NM informed me that I was to ask them some questions, as the interested foreign boss. “About anything in particular?” I asked. “Whatever, just make it up.”

After thinking about it for a moment I realized that since I know so little about public health in China, this was an opportunity for me to educate myself about the health problems of this area and what kinds of challenges the village doctors face – so it was actually fantastic to be the one getting to ask the questions.

They told me about why villagers don’t use mosquito nets, about their areas’ endemic diseases, about what the differences are between the health situation in China and just over the border in Burma. (That’s why I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, by the way; this place was about 75 miles from the Burmese border and if I had been seen taking pictures the police might have hauled me in for questioning.)

In case you’re curious, the general health picture is much worse on the other side of the border. Malaria prevalence, nutrition levels, life expectancy – there’s no comparison between the stable state of China and Burma, whose infrastructure remains in a shambles.

We visited one last village before leaving and spoke with some villagers whose situation seems to have improved markedly over the past 5 years due to increased grants from the government, but who are still very poor. They grow only corn, which they harvest once a year and the stores of which must last them all through the winter, spring and summer until the next harvest. If these people need to go to the doctor for something minor like the flu, it is covered 80% by a kind of insurance from the government and they must fund the remaining 20% themselves. If it’s something more serious, well – they’re SOL. Not enough money for anything else.

After lunch at a Lahu nationality restaurant (the first of two meals at which pig brains were served) it was back on the road to XSBN, by way of Menghai to meet with the CDC over dinner there. This was a friendly and brief meal, during a sudden tropical thunderstorm, where we toasted with a grain liquor of much lower alcohol content such that all of the women drank. Plus, we ate Dai nationality food and folks, let me tell you that as far as I am concerned, the Dai are the clear winners in the cuisine contest.

Perhaps it’s not fair – I am hopelessly in love with Southeast Asian flavors. Does your dish involve sticky rice? Pineapple? Coconut milk? Peanut sauce? Something steamed in a banana leaf? You have my heart. Dai food wins on all counts.

This meal was to-Dai-for. SOMEONE STOP ME.

This meal was to-Dai-for. (SOMEONE STOP ME.)

And how else to end an exhausting day back in XSBN but with a cold treat?

Pineapple chunks over ice

Pineapple chunks over ice

Good Gsught, everyone! More coming up in Part II of the story.

Words fail me…in Chinese

This was going to be a Friday Love List post, but it turned out to be a list of only one love: language fluency. For me – sadly and of course – this means only English. This is enough of a big deal in my life right now that it gets its own post. Love List of charming trivialities to follow.

***

Today I went out to lunch with an extended group of coworkers – that is, not only people who work in my office, but staff members who work in our drop in center for drug users. These other staff members – unlike my office buddies who are from all over China and can speak Mandarin – can all understand standard Mandarin, but they don’t like to speak it, feeling more comfortable in their own dialect (generally, the Kunming dialect).

I can barely understand anything that’s being said when people speak the Kunming dialect, although I now know a handful of words and little retorts that are specific to this dialect. (These amount to knowing how to say “to go shopping”, “potato”, “mushroom”, “really?”, the Kunming version of an interjection that has no translation in English, and a general term for addressing people you don’t know. Not very useful so far.)

It was halfway through lunch when one of my office buddies leaned over and asked me if I understood what was being discussed at the table. When I said that all I understood was that people were talking about a very fat person and the particular qualities of his fatness (I’ll save Chinese feelings on fatness for another time), she whispered: “Only some of them are speaking Kunming dialect – the others are speaking Honghe dialect.”

SIGH. Honghe is an area south of Kunming that has it’s own dialect – apparently intelligible to Kunming people, but a total mystery to me. It’s kind of discouraging. I was just starting to get the hang of having to speak Mandarin regularly, but I can see what a circumscribed little world it is if you want to have a richer life around here.

Even having to speak Mandarin all day is like being forced to walk on crutches – going out with English-speaking friends after work or on the weekends is like throwing off the crutches and going dancing. I relish complex conversations in English. I engage in verbal pugilism. I purposely select the more obscure term for something when I have the choice. I speak more quickly than normal and hack off the final consonants of words just because I know I can get away with it and still be understood. I’m punny, for god’s sake. Be glad you don’t have to have dinner with me these days.

Now, all of this is not to say that I have any big plans for learning another Chinese dialect; I think it’s probably still more important for me to get my Mandarin in order. How else am I meant to deal with the situation I faced yesterday at lunch when a colleague asked me why the Germans hated the Jews in WWII, and wanted to know if Jews consider themselves to be a shao shu minzu (the Mandarin term for the concept of Chinese ethnic minorities)? I will admit that it was difficult to get through this in Mandarin or rather, that I got through it giving a much less complex answer than I am capable of in English. My curious colleague seemed satisfied with my response, but I was left feeling like my explanation had been so simplistic as to be almost meaningless.

So. English fluency: I love you. You are my constant and faithful companion.

And what else is there to say really, but:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

Linguistically Significant

Today I completed my first piece of actual work at the office: I wrote a draft report on the progress of our malaria project.

Wait – did you catch that? Did you see how I made that sound so nice and SIMPLE? The reality is that one of my coworkers sat me down to explain the status of the project and show me the monitoring data on which my report would be based… and then I proceeded to torture her for the best part of 45 minutes trying to understand what she was talking about.

The problem turned out to be very simple: either somewhere in her explanation she forgot to mention the words “statistically significant” (in Chinese? anyone?), or I failed to hear them, but either way I just kept saying, “What do you mean these pieces of data are the same? They’re clearly not the same!” and she just kept saying, “They’re the same! There’s almost no difference!”

By way of explanation: most people in the office can speak some amount of English, but nobody does unless they have to – which is never, unless speaking to our boss since she doesn’t speak Chinese (that’s a whole other mysterious issue). I understand most of what is said to me and answer in Chinese – and then run away back to my desk to write down the words that were just said that I didn’t understand. It’s kind of exhausting.

I have a feeling this won’t make sense to you from afar, so I’ll lay off. But let me say this: I only wish all days could be as simple as not knowing the word for “camel” or “scissors”. The amount that I don’t know is staggering and pokes holes of panic and embarrassment in otherwise confident days.

While I was walking home tonight (hooray 10 minute commute!) I put my finger on why this bothers me so much: I’m not a tourist here. I’m trying to be professional and impressive! In English, I have a very specific set of ways that I attempt to convey professionalism, intelligence, maturity and general impressiveness – it took me a lot of effort cultivate this way of being and I like being able to deploy it effectively. In Chinese, I’m robbed of that.

When you’re ordering in a restaurant or buying a bus ticket or even having a chat with a curious stranger, that way of being doesn’t matter. If you’re American, you figure that if you’re just friendly and open people will respond well to you – I have found this to be generally true. But when you’re trying to impress people in the office, friendliness only gets you so far – eventually you have to understand what’s being asked of you and write the damn report.

So it took basically all day to understand and complete, but I wrote the report.

I have decided that, until my Chinese improves enough for me to be generally awesome, there are a couple things in my control that I can do to be impressive:

  • come to the office early and stay late
  • answer all communication quickly
  • look up words I don’t understand every day so that I don’t make the same mistakes twice

Was this boring for you guys? Sorry. It was a tough day. Tomorrow I’m going to write a post about Chinese people and how they love to share! It’ll be super fluffy – you’re gonna love it. I’m also going to write a post about how I tried to fix my broken internet by eating a bunch of coconut candy but how that didn’t have the intended effect. Actually that’s the end of that story.

P.S. Statistical significance = 统计学意义 (tǒng jì xué yì yì). Blech.

Mushroom Haze

I can’t believe I’ve only been here for two days; they’ve been so packed with new information to process that I’m on sensory overload. I’m also totally exhausted after my first day of work, so I think this will be brief. The highlights of the day were:

1) The aspects of my full physical at the international hospital that involved checking me for color blindness. Here my Chinese failed me. Picture me looking at a series of color-blindness-test-pattern dots (I guess my English is failing me also) and correctly seeing images that I don’t know the Chinese words for. It’s a pair of scissors! “Um – it’s the thing that you use to cut stuff!” It’s a camel! “Er – it’s that big hairy animal with a lumpy back!” They also checked my sense of smell by sticking a jar of rubbing alcohol under my nose. Why not?

2) Going to XYZ’s drop-in center for drug users with one of my new co-workers. There I got a full tour of the drop-in center’s services (HIV testing, health education, room for weight-lifting, giant TV, etc.), met some of the “members” who come to the drop-in center – often bringing their small children – and was given a lengthy and animated speech on the history of the drop-in center by one of the head Peer Educators with a heavy Kunming accent. She wore a lacey see-through top, a giant bouffant hairdo and penciled-on eyebrows. (I will leave you to consider what her former profession was.) I understood maybe 10% of what she said – don’t tell anyone.

3) My first awesome meal in Kunming: Mushroom Hotpot. This is a Yunnan specialty, but hotpot is a China-wide meal featuring a giant boiling pot of broth/oil into which you throw various things; in this case, all mushrooms. As I was sitting with a few of my new co-worker buddies and trying to flex my Chinese small talk muscles, I couldn’t help but think of how RP would have been in dire misery faced with a meal consisting entirely of fungus – but I was in heaven. Unfortunately, I have no pictures, even though I promised a one Mr. N. Rich that I would take some of my tasty meals here. Next time.

And now to bed. Happy July!

P.S. Camel = 骆驼 (luò tuo). Scissors = 剪刀 (jiǎn dāo). HA!