Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A snapshot in time

red candle offerings
Originally uploaded by theory27
"If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug around a camera." ~Lewis Hine

Reaching the top

buddha with thousand hands
Originally uploaded by theory27
Éméi Shān is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. The team climbed more than 900 steps and an elevation of 10,167 feet to see the sun rise over a sea of clouds. There, we posed for this photo.

Guān Yīn is the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. She is often depicted with 11 heads and one thousand arms with which to hear and reach out to those who suffer and need aid. Having similar quest, our work brought us to this place to help create social and economic improvement for a country where many people live in a place that lies somewhere between extreme hardship and extreme growth and abundance. Through a tremendous amount of hard work, dedication and even play, I know my team and I made a positive difference in Sichuan. We made a difference for students, citizens, government, business owners, workers and children. The ideas, methods and solutions we shared sprang from collaboration and the combined experience and knowledge that spans 7 cultures and 64 years with IBM. This CSC team is my family of sorts. All that we saw and learned together has been an extremely valuable experience and I can easily say that this has been the single most important and meaningful experience of my career -- the pinnacle.

In China, fishermen used to pray to Guān Yīn to ensure safe voyages. She may have been holding my hand as I am happy to report that I have finally come and gone. After 27 hours in route, I am now back home in beautiful Austin, Texas where I wait out the jet lag and munch on chips and salsa with my best friend and dog, Olive, at my side.

I will continue to make post-assignment updates as news may pop up. A link to the complete photo gallery will be coming soon. Most importantly, thank you for reading my blog. I am thrilled to be able to share this experience with you. Your comments have been the friendly 'voice from home' while I've been away.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Permission to speak freely

Originally uploaded by pots
The language barrier: Our team is 9 people from 7 countries speaking at least 13 languages. English is our common language. And, even my English deteriorates as I learn and use a few Mandarin words and phrases. Luckily, YY's second language is Mandarin. YY has saved our team on numerous occasions by managing restaurant bills, negotiating the laundry service, directing our taxi drivers and even helping us to navigate our way out of a less than desirable Karaoke locale. While Mandarin is preferred in China, Sichuanese is the dialect spoken here. I have not yet dared to attempt to decipher more than 8 of the 2,000 Simplified Chinese characters in existence. Pinyin diacritic helps me enough to make a worthy attempt at one of the four tones. In English, the tone of my speech is inextricably linked to my emotion. This could be disastrous if carried over to Mandarin.

The communication barrier: It is more than just the language barrier that has kept me on my toes. Business communication carries out using a poker face. Expressing slight emotion with facial expression can be interpreted as weakness. At times, there is more meaning behind that which is left unsaid. For the Chinese, "I don't know" is not an acceptable response. I might ask, "What is the reason the marketing plan did not achieve this goal?" for example. I may get a response like," Our operations extend into Japan." I could try to figure out what Japan has to do with anything. The interpretation is correct, however, and Japan has nothing to do with anything in this example. Some questions will not receive a direct answer from the client or associate in order to 'save face' (yao mianzi). The true and unspoken answer may be, "I don't know.", "We don't have a plan." or "I made a bad plan." Ultimately, one must find a creative way to identify actual root causes in order to come up with plausible solutions and offer recommendations.

The rights barrier: Language and culture are enough of a challenge in understanding people and getting your own message across. At the same time, the actual right to speak freely can be the most intimidating of all barriers. Government control and censorship is palpable here. When the press corps was introduced during our conference the other day, each agent was identified as representing a different newspaper or magazine. All were owned by the same media company and that media company was operated and run by the government. There is a strange sense of uneasiness that comes with speaking and writing in China. Certain topics must be avoided to form and maintain good relationships and to stay out of trouble. The Chinese government has programs and people in place to search and block web sites. Censorship has kept me from having direct access to and functionality with CNN, Blogspot, Facebook, YouTube and more. I have been using backdoor, web-based proxies to circumnavigate the system. Simple words like, "Taiwan", "Tibet" and "human rights" can be a sure fire way to get this blog instantly and permanently blocked by the Chinese government. Over the past week, decorations have been going up in preparation for National Day -- the 60th anniversary of the PRC. As part of that preparation, police and military presence increases day by day. When I had a cup of coffee in the downtown shopping district yesterday, I listened to the slow voice of Patsy Cline pipe through street speakers as I watched camo-clad, helmet-wearing gun-toting military personnel march on the mall. This is surreal. Local police and military are ramping up, along with civilian security volunteers, to prevent and manage expected demonstrations in support of the freedom of Tibet. The residents feel safe. I am alarmed.

I've never felt as grateful for U.S. freedom of speech as I do now. Today, I feel lucky to live in a country that grants this right. U.S. citizens owe it to ourselves to exercise this right with respectful, open sharing of information, ideas and beliefs.

Kung Pao what?

Sichuan Province is famous for its spicy cuisine. Kung Pao chicken originated here and Hot Pot is the main attraction for visitors. I would be remiss if I didn't tell you about the food which is such a major part of Sichuan culture. And because I couldn't have said it better myself, please read Rajat Pal's blog post on the local food. Rajat's blog, "Famous Sichuan food in Chengdu, China":

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another typical day

Originally uploaded by theory27
In the past 24 hours I have:

1. fielded questions at a press conference
2. eaten a yummy Thai dinner
3. watched Chinese acrobats
4. sipped green tea
5. dodged the teahouse ear-cleaning man
6. seen Sichuan face-changing opera performers
7. danced on tables
8. played poker
9. taken a ride on the jam-packed city bus
10. shopped for Bright
11. visited the city's Chairman Mao statue
12. joined students on a trip to the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum
13. had more than one tearful goodbye

Yep ... just another typical day in Chengdu. Now, the end is drawing near and I know I will be sad to see my team and new family depart.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jincheng College of Sichuan University

On Tuesday, the bus dropped us off at Jincheng College. Two ushers with red and gold silk sashes led us into an amphitheater-style auditorium in the round. We took our seats at the round table. Name cards, water bottles and microphones were placed at each of our seats. 30 students observed while Zhang Zhi Min, Dean of Computer Science and Software Engineering offered his welcome and careful description of the college vision, goals and teaching methodology. Interpretation mediated the slow and deliberate exchange of introductions, teaching methods and questions and answers. After our round table discussion, we adjourned to the customary Sichuan-stye lunch. More than 12 spicy dishes of some recognizable and some not-so recognizable meats and vegetables were stacked on the spinning ‘Lazy Susan’ in the center of the table. Our lunch time conversation was punctuated and muffled by the periodic rush of Chinese fighter jets passing overhead. Local government and military outfits are preparing for Oct 1st, National Day -- a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the formation of the People's Republic of China. After lunch, we took a tour of the campus and various labs. We also met with Zou Guangyan, the President of Jincheng College of Sichuan University. The team has elected me to be our spokesperson on most occasions. I value these speaking opportunities. The experience of receiving and reciprocating the warm welcome and respect of such provincial figure heads as Zou Guangyan is really something to treasure.

On Wednesday, the bus dropped Alfred, YY, Bright and myself off at Jincheng College again. It must have been the same two ushers with red and gold silk sashes that led us into a different lecture hall this time. Imagine our surprise when the echo of applause revealed the ‘small student workshop’ we were to lead was actually a room filled with 275 eager young students standing and clapping. The room was decorated with balloons and gold streamers and a red-fringed table cloth. Bowing and clapping occurred at every pause in our speech. Camera flashes abound. I can honestly say that I have been photographed and filmed more times in the last four weeks than I have in the whole of my life. You would have thought a rock-star reputation preceded us. Yet, when I posed the question, “How many of you are know who IBM is?” only 3 hands popped up. I learned later that this was due to shyness as students feared I would call on them with a question. When asked, “How many of you would be interested in working for IBM?”, all 275 students raised their hands. For an hour and a half we introduced IBM and presented technology trends, skills development and mentoring. Just when I thought the audience had calmed, my favorite point in presentation occurred. Our secret was revealed. YY broke his cadence of English and started speaking fluent Mandarin. All of the students stood up smiling and erupted in applause. During the question and answer session, we found students curious to know:

“Can I be join IBM Corporate Service Corps team?”
“What is do to have IBM see my university degree?”
“How do you collaborate with work team each day?”
“Can you teach English of me?”

In the afternoon, we shared our specific recommendations with Dean Zhang Zhi Min and the professors of the Computer Science and Software Engineering department. We discussed ideas and solutions for helping to develop students into not just job-ready IT experts but the independent, innovative and free thinkers that they truly are. The dean accepted our talent development model instantly. There was much realization and agreement on the value of cross-discipline collaboration and foundational competencies such as adaptability, critical thinking and communication.

For me, this trip to China has reinforced the value of respect and diplomacy. My job while I am here is to live up to the reputation that precedes me and the respect I am given. The planet is our classroom. Cross ocean and culture, we have much to learn from one another. I hope that guests in my country will be treated with as much regard as I have while a guest in this country.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Flu

The Swine Flu is a major concern for China right now. As we speak, 40 schools in Dujiangyan are closed for preventative measure. China has just announced that it will be the first country to deliver mass inoculations. It is not uncommon to see people in the streets wearing face masks.

While I was delivering a presentation to 14 professors and a handful of department heads at Neusoft College this week, I started to feel those somewhat familiar hot, cold sweat and dizzy sensations. I was hoping that the broken air-conditioning was the only reason. By the time I woke up yesterday morning, I was pretty sure I had "the flu". Imagine my slight bit of nervousness. I was more concerned about speaking the words than having the illness.

Our NGO partner directed Bright, my trusty interpreter, to take me to the best local hospital in Dujiangyan. When Bright and I arrived at the best local hospital, we found the most horrifying vision of a hospital I have ever seen in my life. Dirt and broken tile covered every square foot of celing, wall and floor. The first floor area with labs and doctors offices was all open-air and outdoor. People were smoking, puking and moaning as they stood in line. I stepped over fresh bloody footprints to enter the doctor's office. While I sat at the doctor's desk answering the routine questions, other patients came and went at the same time. The old moaning man joined for a bit until a gurney took him away. A young moaning girl waited in the office with me. My lab showed I did have the flu, but I do not have the swine flu. Phew!! The total visit, prescriptions and labs cost about $10 USD and took only one hour.

We took the taxi back to the hotel where Bright helped me identify medications and dosages, make tea, find a thermometer and obtain dumplings for dinner. What would I do without this kid. Now, 24 hours later I am happy to report that my fever has broken and I am feeling much, much better now.