Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The content of a/your character

Chen Mengjia and Bill Hicks never met. Except in my mind. I read of them two books apart but I'm sure, despite lacking a common tongue, might speak a common language. And despite being of different times and cultures, they might have had some common references. 
The two come to mind for many similarities - but mainly because I read them close together: Chen was a thread in a book, Oracle Bones (by Peter Hessler, mentioned in an earlier blog). He was vocal to prevent Chinese characters being discarded in favour of an alphabet and first got labelled a Rightist, then a Counter-Revolutionary and when the Cultural Revolution happened, he had one Struggle Session too many and leapt out a window to end it all.
He had a certain foolhardiness to be vocal about Chinese characters because it was Chairman Mao who was the proponent of using an alphabet. Speaking against an idea of the leader, is to speak against the leader. But he had something to say. And why not say it? Can holding opinions really be a crime? And what if they're transformed into words?
Bill Hicks lived in a more forgiving time although he still found the social climate of America in the 80s and early 90s a cross to bear. But if he didn't have that cross to bear perhaps he wouldn't have been a comedian. His opinions, probably most of them, were transformed into "sets" and rants that he did on stage to both entertained and appalled audiences. He did feel that he had a message of change. But perhaps, crudely, his work only pushed the boundaries of acceptability.
My introduction to him had been a strange one. A cassette album I bought about 12 years ago had a drawing of him on the inside cover (captioned: "another dead hero"), without explanation. I thought it was the band trying to create a mythology for their album and thought nothing of it. It was only later that I read that the weird stand-up clips that got spliced into songs on another album were said by the very same person, but without referencing where they came from. It is strange to know the words spoken by someone long before you know the person themselves.
Hicks died young from pancreatic cancer. A harrowing struggle session in itself, but not from the Man he railed against, and who swallowed Chen, but from the Nature that he venerated. Irony, I guess. His comedy wasn't terribly accessible. His words could be coarse, crude, brutal and violent. But that was part of his point: that there is freedom to say and do these things. When flag burning became a constitutional issue, he lit cigarettes with a burning flag. A symbol of what gives freedom should not be used to suppress freedom.
In the last phase of his life, Hicks had his own patch of being censored. He had huge admiration for David Letterman and felt it a privilege till the twelth and final time he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. The best way to tell this story is from the mouth, well, show, of one of the protagonists: Click on 1, 2, and 3. I'll take the apparent: David Letterman can be exceedingly humble in his apology. Truly, a lesson for us all. In the Hick's biography he was a paper thin character but I'd assume that he decided to seek this redemption off his own bat. 
Mao, our fourth protagonist, probably didn't specifically demand the persecution of Chen Mengjia. He didn't need to. (Society also doesn't need to, either, to snuff out undesireable voices.) But he pre-empted some of the Hicks irony with his own form: After being strongly of the mind that Chinese Characters should be done away with in order to increase literacy, he did an about-turn and decided they just needed to be simplified. At the time it wasn't explained why. But Mao had said it and thus it was done. Literacy didn't improve but in death, perhaps, Chen might feel better though not if he knew the whole story: According to Hessler, Mao wasn't swayed by the martyr-like words of people like Chen; he had a chat with Stalin who advised against it.
We can pipe up and pipe down but change often happens in its own way.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A chat with Chris

This could easily be re-named: a chat with Aaron, a side-stroll with Amy, a bumble with Ben, or a mumble with Matthew, although the latter hasn't happened yet; that will happen tomorrow morning, after all and I won't claim to comment yet what hasn't happened.
Growth often happens when the unending chaos and solipsism of the individual ends against the unbending face of another. I've lacked real chats until now. I've chatted with Ben. But that chat started and ended with others. I'm another to him, so incidentally it can lead to me. My chat with Aaron, though drunken as chats with Aaron must be, was all the more revealing because the more he opened his soul and thus the less I felt I held in my hand to play. He doesn't open his soul. Buy him beer he does. He also grabs my nipples, in an odd way to prove he's not gay, but that is an aside you understand.
Chris is and was a blank slate and too young to really read and be read. We hadn't talked for over a year. We may talk before he leaves for England. I'd for so long held the forced conception that I'd invited him once, he came so it was up to him to show initiative and organise something, or else I'd never put effort into trying to re-establish contact. It was great to talk to him. Maybe those rules are meant to be broken. Or else, are those rules meant to be kept for a simple life. I'd be happy without the chat. But what magic "chats" hold.
I'll talk to Matt about growth, about goals, about GROW: Goals, Reality, Options and the What, Where and hoW. Matt is my learning point in particular. How to make the thorny rose grow. He is a Rose. But he has to be held in the right way. He shouldn't want people to dance to help him. It is almost a contradiction that everyone must approach one in ceremonial indirectness to help. But thus.
Don called yesterday. Twice. Locally I'm wanted and needed. At least in the short-term. Don is a simple soul. He wants the best for all. He is confident with a losing hand. Or a winning hand. You only know once you get to the last round of betting.
I'll always win though. I have an ace in hand. My Christy. My unbeatable trump. I'll only hold her, never show her, never let them know how I win.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fallen Trees

The first typhoon of the Guangzhou summer passed through town in the past week. During the worst of it I was listening to the radio at home, sometimes momentarily trying to focus on the words of the host to grab a little Cantonese "practice". I heard lam syuu repeated and bounced it around my mind just as a sound, the intellect not really wanting to embrace it as something meaningful. Long after the sound stopped the translation is issued from a sleepy corner of my brain: fallen trees; they were reporting the traffic hazards to motorists and were mentioning where the storm had taken down trees.


Every time has its words. Storms have "fallen trees". When learning a language, to anticipate a few of these words is to grasp a lot. Once you know the context you are in you can apply the knowledge of these key words, signs and signals and understand more about where you are and where you're going.

Friday, July 20, 2012

In the darkest corner of the Prisoners' Dilemma

Every scenario and interaction in China tends to be influenced by culture and the guoqing, (a nice Chinese term: the factors specific to a country, usually China). It makes us all into sociologists; or just a bunch of angry, ranting foreigners. I'm the former only once the annoyance subsides.
At this point you can imagine me standing waiting for a lift. Lifts are very much a thing of the last ten years. Many residential housing areas don't have them. Even in our far-from-old complex certain buildings don't, which must make moving house and buying new furniture a difficult experience. Lifts, and any sort of convenience for that matter, are a resource and a resource that is always going to be scarce in China. Stairs in many complexes are neglected, dirty and full of shady types. Escalators for each floor are often not placed well for convenience, requiring you to walk a great distance, and incidentally past many shops. So lifts are the way to go, really.
So you can imagine now that I'm not the only one waiting for the lift. DING! The lift has arrived fairly full, and it's going down - I'm going up so I'll wait a bit longer. What little space that was freed up by alighting passengers is taken by people boarding. The surprise is to come when that same lift comes back up: most of the passengers who boarded, and some who had been inside from the start, are still there, jammed in like sardines for the upward leg of the journey. No one gets off. The doors shut probably up one floor before the same scene is repeated. Why would this be the case?
An easy mistake to think is that many people just mistakenly boarded a lift without checking whether it's going up or down. Maybe some do this, but not the majority. When the number of people waiting for the lift and are present in the lift rises to a particular point, the only way to be certain that you'll get to your floor soon is to board at any opportunity. Of course, this isn't pleasant. You'll have to squeeze in, be pushed around as other people leave but it's obviously viewed as worth the experience. Unfortunately, as soon as the strategy becomes rational (i.e. the lift is almost full), it causes problems. For every one person going in the wrong direction, there is one prevented from going in the right direction, a much shorter journey, from boarding. An example would be the lift mentioned, it got to the second basement carpark, the bottommost floor only for the waiting passengers to gasp in the realisation that no-one was getting off and no-one would be getting on. Except they don't gasp. It is an understandable strategy. Other people aren't hell, they're straw dogs, furniture, circumstance, the trees that hide the woods. It is ultimately an antisocial strategy, reducing the utility of the lift and the convenience.
Such situations remind me of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Objectively, option A is better than option B. When everyone would be better off if everyone was to choose option A, and everyone would be worse off if everyone chose option B. But they still choose option B because (1) they don't trust others to choose option A; or (2) they realise that choosing option B would have a more certain, definite, immediate benefit, whereas option A was slightly less certain.
Chinese are often at the bottom-right hand corner of the Prisoners' Dilemma. Resources will always be scarce and they'll always unapologetically, understandably take a life where their adverse effects on everyone else is far too clear to see.
Rain-laden clouds are traipsing in and out of Guangzhou; they growl and menace; zap and spark. My own clouds had barely moved out: My snag has pulled me off my horse. I'm a casualty of the changes that are afoot in my company. I'm on my feet again, a foot soldier. I think I'd better find another horse!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pearly whites

When Hu Chunhua sees me coming she's working on the teeth of an old Cantonese fellow and tells me to leave my medical history on the table and wait outside. I barely read a paragraph before she calls me back in and tel;s me to sit in the dentist's chair. The old fellow isn't out of the seat so I hover. They talk as he takes the two inch steps of the elderly. "Come over and sit down!" she says again. He is still making his way through the narrow entrance so I wait patiently for him to be completely clear before I nip in and fulfill Dentist Hu's exhortation to sit.
She's an interesting one. She knows me from my numerous visits to treat ulcers but rarely remembers exactly where I'm from or what I do despite asking. She's always chirpy. She is practical too. Sometimes she does me the benefit of my treatment before payment at the counter. This is one of the most annoying process in the hospital. The doctor establishes your treatment but you'd have to go to another floor to queue and settle the bill before treatment can begin. She also has discreetly done small treatment for me without cost. Don't tell her boss.
She works on the second floor of the community clinic five minutes walk away from our apartment complex. It took us about half a year to be brave and go into the clinic. Chinese healthcare mainly uses horrendously big hospitals to administer the masses. Good doctors go to big hospitals. So there was some scepticism about the quality of care we'd get at this small, often shut, establishment. But it's use became quickly clear. In China, a doctor's note is required for paid sick leave. When you're sick, the thought of the large hospitals and the tribulation of going upstairs downstairs to the doctor, wheezing in queues and whatnot, would only get you sicker. At the clinic though, if you have a common cold, you could get a note within about ten minutes and the cost of about eighty New Zealand cents.
Hua Ming, a doctor, usually takes me for those visits. My susceptibility to colds and tropical flus has taken me out at least once every three months. She remembers me, too, but not my nationality, job or how long I've been in China, despite asking me some aspects of my identity on every visit. She shatters the idea that doctors overprescribe, sometimes giving me nothing, sometimes inquiring what is already in the medicine cabinet, usually she'll give me a blood test and that requires going upstairs to the phlebotomist.
I don't know his name - and he too asks me the same questions, especially where I'm from and what I do. He sometimes isn't even at his station. His station has no bell. His station is an office with a sliding window with a seat outside it. When I have a blood test I sit on that seat put my arm through the window so he can prick my finger and pipette the blood up for computer analysis. But if he isn't there, so I just sit on that seat. My diagnosis can't go any further without it. Someone else might spot me sitting on the seat and hear downstairs for him. I hear his footsteps and the pause in footsteps when he yells gossip back to the conversationalist he has just been dragged away from to attend to me. He looks at me as he disinfects my finger: "You're Russian, aren't you?"
I saw Dentist Hu today. She cleaned my teeth and dabbed an ulcer. She was fabulous. Out of all the places that I frequent, it is kind of sad that it is the hospital where I've maintained the longest Mandarin-based relationships. Reading another's experiences of life in a small town, I realise I'm missing a big part of the Chinese experience. With work worries, a surge to get fit and literature drawing me back, it is hard to find the time and energy for Chinese. At least I can get sick from time to time to rely on my Chinese for things that really matter.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Warm up Cool down

It has been only a week since my interview for survival. My mood has fluctuated in the aftermath to what I thought was a pretty average interview by myself. Within the coming week, I'll be served some sort of reality - maybe good maybe bad.

One of my friends/erstwhile competitors was philosophical about my criticism that our managers have higher managerial expectations of us than they have of themselves when it comes to change management. He said that we are all managers and need to be able to cope with more able subordinates. True - I'm out qualified by two of my subordinates. Well said, I guess, but it is hard to discern any technique or strategy that has been used to demote three of your most talented managers, and address the ripple effect down the chain. But it can be the worse, right? One has to ask, how would Chairman Mao manage? (HWCMM?)

You might wonder why I'd even raise the fellow apart from this whole being-in-China thing. I've just finished Peter Hessler's two books River Town and Oracle Bones, lovely books that enrich the whole experience of being in China - to hear a voice that is insightful into the, dare I say it, Chinese mind. Mao is always there in the background. Mao is the baggage for a heck of a lot of Chinese people. Mao could manage a revolution! (Though perhaps not a country nor an economy.) And in some ways the new managers are handling a revolution.

Chairman Mao, according to Deng Xiaoping (his successor), was 70% right and 30% wrong, which is a nice way to cover for rather efficient mismanagement. He could run a good revolution - he declared the People's Republic on 1 October 1949 after all. But from that point on made management decisions that led to tens of millions of deaths. He would surely run the company into the ground. But management, especially of a large overpopulated poor nation, is hardly an easy thing. It's a modern fascination to wonder how people of the past would do in the present. We'd all want to know if Aristotle would handle the credit crisis with aplomb, or whether Napoleon would have been a great stock market trader. But my job is important to me so I want to imagine what Mao would do in the hot seat of my company.

So HWCMM? Well, the biggest thing is his dedication to a dogma: Mao hated even the notion of a class structure, of anything beyond the enforced egalitarian of the masses, those who were not class enemies or the communist upper tier. Perhaps Mao would flatten out the structure all together. We are a school and a school should just have teachers, plowing fields and fields of fertile minds. Make it simple: just have your farmers tilling - reduce the "upper class" of management (well, perhaps just the middle level) and occupy them with labour so that there is no chance of revolt. Er, well maybe he's still holding his own with this crowd. It is the way we're going...

Probably the aspect of the interview for my position that annoyed me the most is the difference between expectations and reality. It had happened before. We have been told that we have moved to a Competency Model. This is where every job should have its strengths which candidates are measured by. Sounded good. I entered my first interview with the faulty impression it applied to interviews. It wasn't the case. It wasn't surprising that it was a case for the most recent interview. I still prepared to show my worth under each of the competencies - but it wasn't required. They ask you questions from oblique angles to test out your reasoning - they did that even though they didn't have a thorough understanding of your past or present. I reflected with another friend/erstwhile competitor afterward that we both didn't say our biggest achievements because we were driven away from answering meaningfully by a style of questioning that rarely went near covering the stated competencies. It often was looking for our basic philosophies - which is good but the philosophy they were looking for wasn't stated. Do you conform with the thinking that we haven't told you about. My philosophical friend/erstwhile competitor took it as testing our ability to think, and if we were creative we could pull in our particular achievements.

But this all is speculation, what is more important is HWCMM? Well, the chairman was big on basic philosophy, too. Philosophy was the root of the problem. (But is it a problem?) Even your background may lead you astray. Ability can be misled by philosophy after all so we should evaluate whether people abide by the dogma of the Party. It makes it simpler after all. So, er, well comparing how he managed and the way the interview was run, I can see some similarities... I think he'd like the whole "tell them one thing and then attack them contrary to their expectations" strategy. Reminiscent of the Hundred Flowers campaign.

Maybe Mao wouldn't do a bad job after all... It might be a bit hasty to say that he'd run a company into the ground any faster or slower.

I should really drop this negativity. It isn't doing me any good than amusing me and driving me onto the recruitment websites? I just want the final decision out in the open so I can properly adjust and think what I really want. If I'm demoted, can I deal with a year without solid aspiration? It'd give me time to get qualified to diploma level. I can manage a school now in my sleep. (I'm not prone to boasting but I'm doing terrificly well right now with my school.) It's true that I'm still learning but I can stay in this school forever and my learning is only getting less and less.

I'm an innate optimist though. The thing that breaks me out of my negativity is currently the prospect of being one of the two left standing. It'd be mighty interesting. I do want it. It might be twice the work for the same money. But it'd be well earned money. Growth money. I would love the challenge. Just let me have the challenge. Please. All is forgiven. Mao. Whatever your name would be. I shall serve thee, the party and the company, and shan't make splashy wave-making arm movements apropos your leadership.

I should just work this out at the gym. Warm up. Work out. Cool down. Then and only then is it real.