Thursday, 28 October 2010

Inspection

Its been a few weeks since I last blogged, work has taken its toll and I have struggled to keep up to my once a week update. This weeks is symptomatically a couple of weeks behind, and is brought to you courtesy of another 12 hour flight with Mr Branson.

This blog is more of a infotainment piece, mainly inspired by the lack of information I found available on Google or Bing, when searching for "China Work Permit Physical Inspection", or "How to get a work permit in China", and "What does the physical inspection entail?" - I got very few usable returns, so I decided to create one myself that in a hope that it may help those poor unfortunate soles wishing to work in this god forsaken country - don't get me wrong god may have forsaken China - but to some of us its become a way of life.

To begin, I must look back - I have lived and worked in China for ever, and have never had to undergo a medical examination. Which to the majority of my compatriots is confusing, its pretty confusing to me also, I have held numerous residents permits and several work permits, in at least two provinces, each obtained without having to endure the misery or embarrassment of a medical examination. The norm. requires you to undergo the routine of a strip searched, finger up the bum cough and drop type of an entry examination (I thought). The Chinese like to put everyone through a throughly embarrassing medical examination to ensure they you do not bring any contagious diseases into their puritanical country, or at least was the answer given to me when asking the question "why?".

This is the bit that confuses and angers the majority of foreigners - how dare they think we are bringing extra diseases into a country already scorned with HIV, Hepatitis A,B and C, Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis and herpes to name but a few. Most (Well me) think it is more to do with seeing how much you catch whilst here - check them when they come in, check them when they go out scenario. A good way of gauging the interaction and 'pollution' these strange foreigners offer our population. Apparently we all have fatty livers, are overweight and exhibit a high tendency for premature death ( which is strange since we all come from countries with longer life expectancy than any province in China). Another explanation that always fits nicely, is the one that is used for countless cultural/social/regulatory indifference's exhibited by visitors to china. That is with such a large population you need to find them all something to do. This is the reason that Highway toll booths are maned (even the ones fitted with electronic tags), it takes 3 people to aid your purchase in a department store and why our gardner sits on the lawn for hours picking at the grass rather than using the lawnmower in the garage!

Anyway the reason for this post was to detail the process of examination rather than explore the reasons.

The first thing to identify is that the examination centre is in Hongqiao area (for those south of Beijing), quite easy to get to for the adventurous, an inconspicuous building you cant miss the entrance on the ground floor, met by well spoken receptionists who has seen every shape, size, nationality and deformed foreigner before. They instantly know when you haven't brought the obligatory 4 passport photos and required payment, take your number, clipboard and fill the forms in with the instructions - "DO NOT LIE", again "DO NOT LIE", although this is bollocks as I have previously said - I have obtained the required documentation twice previously without even smelling the burning plastic suppository gloves of the examination centre. still you complete the forms, before sitting in front of some surely women who converts your English into Chinese on a computer screen.

You are then ushered into a changing room - where you keep you trousers, skirts, pants on and adorn a fetching terry towelling gown sized for pigmy's and lepricorns, that barely covers your naked upper half. Hide your belongings into a locker and journey to the next office on the row of 6-8 innocuous rooms leading off the main alley. Here they will insert needles into your main blood vain, extracting 2 veils of pure Western nectar with such professionalism and panache that Dracula himself would have been proud, a jab, a suck and a plaster are the last you see of 10fl oz of bright red vampire juice.

Next the eye test, why this is such an important entry test I am not sure, but here you get the most miserable man in the world ask you to identify witch direction the capital letter E is pointing in, when asked did I have contact lenses in I playfully said "of course not" and subsequently performed brilliantly, passing with vision reserved for snippers and Kestrels. I thought my scam would have been discovered when he continued to shine a bright light in my eye to examine them, despite this he failed to notice the thin plastic dustbin lids in my eyes, which made me think that he was probably blinder than me - or just didn't care!

Next onto an examination reserved in the west for pregnant moms and drug smugglers - ultrasound, or scanning your belly with some cold gel and a strange shaped computer mouse - not sure what they are looking for but the women running it could easily play the part the wicked witch in the west. Not sure if she is trying to scan the size of your liver or read the bed sheet label beneath you, she has the bed side manner of hannibal lecture and Adolf himself would be impressed with her way of dealing with infidels.
A general examination follows, with contrastingly a man so nice he could be too nice??? He tests your blood pressure and has a good feel of your fat stomach before slapping you on the bum and wishing you all the best - the female version I am told requires a good old breast examination and search for the lost treasure of the Inca tribe - still you women will be complicated!

An X-Ray of your chest region is conducted by a couple of giggling girls - not sure if its over exposure to gamma radiation or the fact that they cant believe there luck every time they get paid to scan the insides of another dumb lowai, either way they are pleasant and don't require you to expose anything more than a smile whilst the radiation equivalent to Chernobyl drains into and out of your body.

Finally you are entertained by the electro cardiograph machine, which means being hooked up to the national grid by a couple of jump start plugs stollen from Carrefour, the equipment is akin to that used by the popular family game "operation" and requires you to clip a large grip to your ankle, one on each nipple and one in a region close to, well too close to anything. Finally you get changed back into your normal clothes and pay a bit more to have the results delivered to your home or office.

All in all it wasn't the horrendous debacle you anticipated, apart from the indignity of being pushed, prodded and shuffled from room to room the affair was tolerable, however your mind always comes back to the question why? I understand the need to control the influx of contagious diseases into a country, but since when has breast cancer or high blood pressure been contagious? There isn't a national health service like in the UK, so any required treatment wouldn't burden the state. This leaves most foreigners feeling suspicious to the real reasons behind the examination - apparently you can't fail the examination, in years gone by they would refuse a work permit to those carrying HIV, but now even this is accepted - I have been told that what ever disease or imperfection you do have is simply recorded on your work permit for all that wish to inspect it in the future - an indignity in itself I guess but as it's written in Chinese one I can, and will choose to ignore!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Suppliers

I have been traveling around China again this week, and despite having believed that I had been there, done that and caught the infection. This place never ceases to amaze me with every turn. Rather than get depressed by each sweltering journey, I cheer myself up with text messages to my wife, the odd phone call to a friend and a chat on MSN. This week my messages have been short (real txt msgs sent this week):

Hot, Sweaty and stuck in another queue from hell.
At Another sh*t supplier, in another sh*t hole place.
In a foundry, somewhere in shitsville china.
(My wife suggested these should by the titles for my next 3 books)

So as you can see I haven't exactly warmed to the need to visit as many of my new supply base in as short a period as possible. Perhaps i just need to get back into the swing of it, after all I spent 4 years touring suppliers in this country, and got used to waking up in another damp, clammy and smelly hotel, enduring a conch, noodle and hot orange cordial drink breakfast all in preparation for visiting a derelict factory, in the middle of a derelict village, down a road mountain goats would struggle to traverse.

On arrival at a factory you would need to step across the ocean like puddles, past the stinking bathrooms before sitting in a vast meeting room that is either freezing cold, or baking hot (dependent on time of year), handed a paper cup full of grass cuttings and boiling water, whilst waiting for the toothless, long filthy nailed, poorly dressed general manager or owner to appear.
Following a presentation that includes borrowed slides from his brothers company down the road, every western company logo available on google images and an English translation that is more complicated than the original 400 Chinese characters on the page, we head for the factory tour....

The tour is normally accompanied by a young girl so slight that she has to avoid cracks in the pavement, not because of bad luck, but in case she falls in and can't climb out. You get the feeling that she once watched an episode of Friends on TV and was instantly promoted to the position of company English translator and font of all western cultural awareness. I would swear that she is kept in a box under the bosses table when not needed, they seem so scared, nervous and demure that shadows cause them to curl up into a ball. Your desperate to ensure she doesn't get into trouble for not understanding your question, or more importantly understanding her answer. You nod convincingly to answers that have no connection or relevance to the critical, well thought out question you just asked, you try to ask it in 15 different ways so as not to cause offence only to become more and more confused. Finally you give up and hope your bosses don't ask you the same question.

During the tour you try desperately to ignore the workers cleaning the tool under the 75 tonne press, or the welders without face guards, pneumatic drill operators without ear protection and the casting operators in sandals. The piles of your damaged and broken products lying next to supposedly good stock, the variety of raw materials when you specified just one to be used, and the seemingly identical un-branded parts being made in the room next to where your 'exclusive' components are specially prepared!
Regardless of the time, the next thing on the agenda is lunch!

I have written about some of the things I have been 'invited to sample' before, but to recap for those not familiar with lunch at a rural factory, it firstly involves finding a restaurant - you would think that the treacherous drive to dead centre of nowhere would mean it was impossible to find somewhere for lunch? Well despite feeling like your in Vandor 1 of the Curuscant System from Star Wars, you will always find somewhere to eat within a 5 km radius of the factory (normally owned by the same person), and you will know it's a restaurant by the Porsche Cayenne, BMW 7 Series and Audi Q7's parked outside, whilst the bicycles, goats, pigs and other assorted forms of transport meander past, you can guarantee several 100 thousand pounds of motor vehicles will be parked outside the local eatery, including the one the poverty pleading factory owner just drove you there in.

Semi grand affairs you imagine them being quite nice on the day they opened, which seems like it must have been 300 years ago by how the decoration and furnishings have fared. Led to a private room, the fu wu yuan will quickly turn the heating/air conditioning on and pour some more grass cuttings and hot water. I won't go into the traditions of who sits where and why as I have covered this before, but if i say that this takes longer to decide than the actual ordering of the food, you will get an idea of the complex decision making process - especially if it is a state owned company or a number of local government officials are present.
Sometimes you may be asked if you like Chinese food, or if there is anything you don't like? This is a bit like asking if you like smells? You may love the smell of freshly baked bread or ground coffee, and dislike the smell of rotting flesh or bottom burps - the question is too open ended. The same is true of Chinese food, I defy anyone to say they like/dislike Chinese food as it covers everything from Pizza to Pancreas and Soup to Sparrows Tongue (a personal dislike of mine). However it is more often than not, the rejects from the dog food selection of ingredients. It's the only cuisine in the world that can ruin roast chicken, batter beef steak and crucify crab. The desire to grind a gob full of bone before spitting it out onto the plate you eat from, whilst trying to suck the marrow from a birds toe will always leave a westerner desiring something 'ordinary'. Pushing entrails around on your plate for 40 minutes only ends when the site of Mellon dawns the rotating food table to signify the end of the meal. Never a lover of this plain, oversized cucumber in the past, it now brings a smile to my face, and a delight to my stomach, having picked at the previous 30 dish banquet I now gorge on melon as if it was my last meal, I know my hosts look at me, and in their heads ask how I can be so overweight when all I eat is a watery fruit?

Was the food ok? Are you still hungry? Would you like rice or noodles? Are the next questions that you answer politely and smile while doing so. You then jump into the car and head back to the factory to cover the points of your visit, which can include project timing and price negotiations for a new supplier, or quality and delivery issues for an existing one. It doesn't really matter as all subjects are treated the same, the owner
Pulling in his sales, quality, logistics or engineering manager as each topic is raised, not letting them talk he himself answers the questions and instructs the responsible manager as to how important the request is and that it must take his full attention - all problems have been or will be resolved by the end of the day, promises are made and commitment assured - improvements in IT systems, a new factory, new employees or new machinery are always promised at the first review, and then again at the second, third, forth - well you get the picture.
The end of the meeting comes when the owner has an important matter to attend to, and is replaced by his number two, who also seconds as the companies sales, quality, logistics and engineering manager and happens to by the owners son-in-law. Devoid of any real responsibility you quickly realize you are wasting your time and may as well head back up the jungle track to the train station or airport, this provides an adrenaline rushed experience as you dodge overladen trucks, old women on scooters and various natural disasters to meet your transport onto the next supplier.
Successful meeting? Who knows, you did manage to come away with a box of oranges, Logan berries or depending on the time of year moon cake or boiled eggs, you got a free lunch and a ride in a fancy car - not quite what you set out to achieve, but there is always next time, oh joy.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Work

If like me you grew up during the eighties you will remember the song "Who wants to live forever" by Queen, well every now and again i have a similar feeling of anxiety and dread when i think about work. In my case i am not too bothered about living forever, but what i do worry about working forever.

I remember when i was much younger I wanted to earn some money for myself, especially when holidays beckoned or i needed some new clothes. My father had never seen the value in expensive training shoes or sportswear, probably because we didn't have the money, but also because he used to remind me of how he had to walk to school in bare feet on broken glass when he was small, because he couldn't afford shoes and even the glass had to be borrowed - if anything cost over $0.24 it had to come with 4 tyres and a steering wheel.
What he hadn't realised was that at school i was being ridiculed, beaten and traumatised for life by wearing Nicke' Abbibas and Pumar apparel. The chance to earn some money would enable me to buy my own clothes that didn't have "beat me senseless for wearing 'un-cool' clothes" blazoned on the back, however finding work at 14 wasn't so easy - I lived in an area where there weren't any paperboys (or girls), mainly because no one had a newspaper delivered - it was seen as POSH and frivolous, why pay someone to deliver your newspaper when you had 4 or 5 kids doing nothing in your own home, especially when fetching the newspaper for your dad might have meant he let you keep the 2 pence change - if you were lucky.

I remember once, one of my uncles (Ray) who to us lived in a posh area because they had trees, wanted someone to chop up some wood for his open fire (again posh), it was just before our summer holidays and me and Martin, my younger brother, jumped at the chance. We thought it was the perfect job. Letting a couple of juveniles cut, pull, break, smash and hammer a load of wood - and get paid for it!
Then the icing on the cake, he told us we would need to use the small chainsaw he had just brought - was this man crazy? We were known for burning anything that was flammable, smashing anything that was expensive and basically ruining anything good, and he was going to let us loose with a chainsaw.

"I want to go first - I'm the oldest" I yelled at my younger brother, who by this age was already taller and stronger than me. We argued for hours until he conceded, and our father dropped us at Ray's house, he was waiting for us with an open garage stacked to the roof with timber - Noah hadn't used as much wood when building the arc. Still we thought with a chainsaw we would make quick work of it and receive our bounty in full, er no. The chainsaw must have come from the same Chinese factory that made Christmas cracker toys, and was about as useful. We toiled for 8 hours trying to make a dent in the mountain of winter fuel, taking it in turns to slide the blunt instrument across the damp, green, knot ridden railway sleepers and 500 year old oak tree trunks. After what seemed an eternity our dad arrived to pick us up and we were released from our shackles. To get us threw the torture we had planned what we would spend the money on, a new computer game for the Sinclair Spectrum, a pair of Reebok trainers, a kite etc. Ray gave us our pay in a brown envelope, just like a factory worker might receive his weekly pay. I knew instantly it would not be enough to fulfill our dreams, even without opening it I could tell it contained coins - coins weren't good.

I learned several valuable lessons that day, firstly my uncle was as tight as a fishes arse, secondly always agree the fee upfront and perhaps most importantly that the size of the remuneration received isn't necessarily connected to how much sweat you lose trying to earn it. Since then I have lived by these rules, and looked to find a job that meant I perspired little and earned a lot, I'm still looking!
Which brings me to the point of this blog, I am fast approaching 2 anniversaries, 40 years on the planet and 22 years in full time employment (albeit for a multitude of companies). The 40 doesn't bother me, however the 22 does, why? Well probably because according to recent reports, by the time I approach retirement, the UK government will have raised the pensionable age to 70. The thought of another 30 years working feels me with dread, don't get me wrong the first 22 have been a blast, 4 continents, a dozen countries and a bewildering variety of responsibilities and experiences. But to think I have to go and do it all again plus some more - pass the razor blades now.
I can't imagine another 30 years of getting up at 6.00am,working out how to keep my well paid job, please my bosses and stay ahead of the young pretenders, I'm already tired, grey and past it. Sleep is my favourite hobby, next to snoozing and 'resting my eyes'. I long for the weekend, and dream of lazy holidays spent sleeping in the sun, afternoon siestas and late mornings, I work for free time these days, not for money.

My children,  talk to me about wanting to start work and earn some money, my daughter already has her life mapped out, leave school at 16, get dad to buy her a chocolate shop and she will make millions devising new ways to form chocolate into ever more desirable shapes - she's 8 years old, and her one passion is to start work ASAP. I tell her not to leave school, college,or  university until they kick her out kicking and screaming - work is for dummies, leaving school at 16 will leave you with another 54 years of work! 54 years that's more than the average life expectancy in South Africa, Tanzania or Mada-bloody-Gascar. My elder son feels the same and despite owning everything a 12 year old boy could possibly need or want, he longs to earn his own money, sounding like an old fuddy I send him to his grandad who at 60 has just retired, 5 years before the current UK age for retirement as he was fortunate to have worked for the civil service (how does that work? They make the rules that tell us we must work longer, retire later and pay more into the state pension system, then they retire on inflated pensions younger than anyone!).
My father started work at the age of 14, plucking chickens in the back yard of the butchers shop his family lived above in Aston Cross, Birmingham. He covered 46 years of employment without a single sick day and no break between jobs. He is the epitome of what society wants - a tax paying, hard working, never complaining worker ant, stuff that -become a soldier ant, directing, organising and telling everyone else what to do, or better still go for the queen ants job, work for yourself, avoid as much tax as possible, fail to pay your debts on time, and pay yourself unrepresentative wages whilst everyone else does the work, if all that fails get a government job, be good at football or marry well!

For me, I have already planed my next move. It's a job I noticed about 10 years ago whilst on holiday in Cornwall. We were staying in a holiday home called the "little house" in St. Ives which is right on the harbour wall with uninterrupted views of the bay and the small town beach. Just outside of the front door a man with skin like a hippopotamus's backside and the colour of recently varnished mahogany, sits there day in day and day out, his trusty dog lies by his side and an old women brings him a freshly cooked bacon sandwich for elevenses, a cheese and pickle roll for lunch, and a cool pint of scrumpy cider for tea. He spends most of the day sucking on his pipe and snoring, only waking to take a couple of pounds off the visiting tourists for the days hire of a deck chair or windbreak. No employees, no bosses, shareholders or worries - ah that's the life, bring it on, only do it before those civil servants make me work another 40 years.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

ExPrat.

So one week into my move back to China, did I make the right decision? Well the answer to that one is a resounding NO, but then the answer was always going to be a NO, Clarkson once said that people only become expats because they cant get a job in their own country, or they are pedophiles or jobless child molesters. As with many things Clarkson says I don't necessarily agree, of course many of the foreigners (a term used here to describe westerners living in Asia) fit the bill, and I would struggle to argue against his description. However there are those that find the fast pace of life, the opportunity not to conform to expectations, and lets not forget the financial benefits a strong pull over fish and chips, rainy summers and Coronation Street.

Some come to enhance their career, a few years working in Asia learning the culture and picking up the language can be seen as a big advantage as the world gets smaller, and we all start working for Chinese Government owned companies. Others come to broaden their understanding of life outside of no. 43 Acacia Avenue, send their children to international schools and explore the surrounding areas of beauty, diversity and history. The rest are here for the money, the lifestyle and the fact that the concrete ceiling in their own companies meant that going sideways 6000 miles was a shorter distance than the 3 meters to an office upstairs. Then their are those whom my posting today is about - the pseudo expats. who leave their brains, conscience, dignity and respect at immigration control on entering the country.

I could write for days on what I hate about China, the things that frustrate me, wear me down and at times beg belief. I probably have and most definitely will again write about the bizarre and sometimes unbelievable things I see, do or have done to me whilst here, but none of these compare to how much I detest the groups of westerners who feel that when they land here, that the 12 hour flight somehow took them back in time to the turn of the last century. Virgin/BA/United etc. etc. do not advertise the fact that not only can their planes provide you with a choice of 500 movies, but they also equip their planes with a flux capacitor that will transport you back to the height of colonialism.

It all starts at the airport, most of us are used to queuing for a taxi, hiring a car or even booking a hotel vehicle to pick us up after a long flight. Of course all of us would like that car/taxi to be there the moment we disembark and collect us from the foot of the airplane - however we all recognise that we don't sing in a rock group or run a country somewhere off the cost of Africa. So we endure the heat, the queuing and the stroppy assistant at the hire car check-in, in the full knowledge that there are several thousand other people in the same boat and complaining will only prolong the agony What we don't do is huff, puff and generally make a scene when our personal driver hasn't laid a bed of white rose petals to the car door, cooled the vehicle to 18.64 degrees Celsius, flown-in young Timmy's favorite chocolate bar from Switzerland and organised the police motorcycle outriders to expedite the journey home.
Go to any international arrivals lounge in Asia and you will see a straw hatted women with a dozen cases, two mobile phones, a worn out husband and a couple of adolescent children all pacing up and down, shouting into mobile phones, and generally making an arse of themselves because their driver failed to predict that their (fake) Louis Vuiton luggage sailed through the airport security putting them 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

On arrival at there company provided, over-priced, over-sized and over-the-top homes behind the tall security fences, barbed wire and security cameras, they leave their 6 stone driver to carry in their luggage under one arm and their 14 year old son under the other, they immediately usher the Ayi (Maid) to unpack the cases, wash, dry and iron the contents, poor them both drinks, draw the curtains, prepare a meal, run a bath, feed the dog, fetch some fresh lemons, help with their sons school project, top up the credit on their phones, kill the lone mosquito that found its way in behind the electrified surgically enveloped home, massage their backs and remind them to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, whilst they recover from the first class flight, the 6 weeks holiday spent elsewhere because it "just gets too hot in the summer" and spending most of the time complaining about life, their driver and their maid.

What you have to remember that these people are not some gentrified, blue blooded socialites who happen to have been posted to Asia to escape death duties on one of their estates. They are generally people who have no more class than Katie Price (Jordan), an upbringing similar to all of us who have had to share a stick of candy floss with our siblings whilst on holiday, and normally live in normal houses, with normal cars, and normal lives. Only for the grace of the ability to speak English, being born in the right country at the right time, wearing the 'correct' skin colour, and have the ability to sound as if they know what end of a spanner you should use when knocking a nail into a piece of plastic, are they given the opportunity to "be our man in China".

Wealth gives no one the right to act like Major Plum of the 4th Guards regiment stationed just outside Bugaracky in 1901 - especially when the wealth comes from an over generous multi-national company who for some unknown reason think that the 30 something Chinese engineer who graduated from Stanford, then spent 6 years working for Ford designing engine ECU's , happens to speak 4 languages, will work for 60 hours without question in any country and will only go home if you hold a gun to his head, is somehow incapable of managing a team of 5 chinese only speaking engineers making cornflake boxes - and cannot compete with their 40 something year old westerner who only ever got as far as smoking behind the bike sheds, barely speaks English without every other word ending in ***off, **nt and **stard, and claims company expenses for his wife's tennis lessons, massages and nail trimming due to the hardship endured living in a developing nation.

Some of this could be seen as jealousy, maybe it could, but I live in a nice house, drive a nice car and earn a nice wage. I do not object to anyone using a driver in China its only the crazy westerners who drive themselves (me included) in the dangerous, alien and the always congested roads. I don't even object to those who have an Ayi, sure we would all like someone to do the mundane washing up, ironing of clothes and popping up to the local market to pick up some fruit, vegetables or fresh flowers. I dont even mind when companies provide the spouses wife's with expense accounts for nasal hair bleaching treatment. What I do find disturbing is how these obvious trappings become a benchmark for all other people who work here, we all become measured by how much housing allowance we receive, how many staff we employ to arrange the flowers in our houses, and the size of our winter wardrobe budget. People are mocked for not living on the right compound, street or apartment block, they are harangued for only having one driver and disowned for not taking their Ayi on holiday with them to look after the children. All of this has created an upward spiral of decadence and bizarre 'one-upmanship' amongst expats in China. I know of 'friends' companies who have spent £60k on flights home at Christmas - for 4 people, children of 6 who have fired their drivers for being late, and childless couples who have 3 Ayi's because their house is to big for one to manage - er get a smaller house?



This is what I hate most about China, people who treat their companies generosity as a weapon against those who treat China as an adventure. They convince themselves that they do it to help the local people by 'giving something back' and that they need these comforts due to the trauma caused by missing "dancing with stars on ice" on TV at home. None of the them would send there children to Chinese schools, buy a Chinese brand car (or Chinese anything for that matter) or even fly first class on a Chinese airline, all of which provide the bulk of the money that their companies spend in China, and all of which employ more local people in value added employment. I could go onto talk about how when not being chauffeured around they let their 10 year old children drive motorbikes around roads they wouldn't normally drive Sherman tanks around themselves, how they complain when despite flapping their arms around like a demented fly swatter - the local chinese cannot understand that they wanted their eggs slightly runny not hard boiled, Or how they criticise other foreigners for leaving tips greater than $0.01, as it will increase expectations - however I will leave that for another blog in the future, as I will probably have plenty of time as I have just alienated have of my neighbours!

Friday, 27 August 2010

Bon Voyage

I guess I should get the apologies out of the way first and ask forgiveness for not posting over the last couple of weeks. I had written a pulitzer winning post about my holiday in Cornwall, only to discover my daughter had deleted it from my iPad - please add a trash bin to the next update Mr Apple! Losing something you have written is like losing a friend or a relative, yes you can remarry, adopt or try DNA cloning, but it never has the same passion, the same emotion or energy. Of course you should always make several copies - but as Dr Johnson said in Blackadder the Third - "Making a copy is like fitting wheels to a tomato, time consuming and completely unnecessary".




I couldn't bring myself to re-write the account of my holiday frustrations and memories of my childhood adventures. Sitting in our lounge overlooking Carbis Bay, St Ives and Godrevy Lighthouse provided inspiration, and conjured up memories of camp site discos, hours on the beach, and glorious moments in penny arcades that the back of a Virgin Atlantic seat simply cant match.

Yes you guessed it my inspiration for this weeks blog is another long haul trip on one of Richard Bransons finest. Although this time my journey is quite different, as I am joined on the 12 hour journey from hell with my family, as we are all moving back to China. When I started this new blog, I had intended not to write about myself or my family, but more about my thoughts, my ignorance and my observations whilst returning to the UK after a 4 year absence. I never expected to be sitting here writing about the move back to a country I thought I had left for good only 12 months earlier.

Of course the move has been on the cards for some time, and discussions started some 6 months ago when I was asked to help spec. a job in China for the Group Purchasing organisation. The resulting job spec. meant that apart from the twin brother I don't have, I was also the ideal candidate, ticking every box I had helped form, led to some heated conversations with both my current boss and the family. I thought I had got the Asian bug out of my system, whilst living there I had lived life to the full and had either encountered, observed or endured all that China could throw at me. My time in Nanjing saw me tasting real China, the frozen winters and the scorching summers with little in-between, the strength and power of people thrown into similar circumstances what it is like to have true friends, and how the desires and ambitions of a few individuals can turn dreams into reality when backed by the power of the state. Shanghai was quite different and introduced me to how destructive the differing desires of the west can destroy a company when clashing with the needs of the East, the extremes of China's super rich vs the super poor, and the worse excesses of expatriates.

For all of these and many, many more the decision to embark on another 3 year secondment to China was not taken lightly, my children are growing older fast, as are their grandparents. The need for an expat posting on my CV had already been achieved, and a further 3 years would only prove to pigeon hole me even further - one recruitment expert I talked with about the move even went as far as saying that I would be virtually unemployable in the UK if I returned after another 3-4 years. My son had found girls entertaining, and my daughter had just got to know her grandparents, we had moved to a village where locals still used the pub, horse riding was a job, and Sunday bikers still hadn't found the surrounding lanes exciting yet.

Perhaps it was unfinished business? I hadn't exactly left on my own terms last time and I knew I could offer more. Maybe it was the opportunity to escape a country which has turned into a cliche of itself, with increasing taxes, unemployment and reality TV shows. Everything I love about the UK has an equally annoying counterpart. Stephen Fry Vs Katie Price, Democracy Vs the Nanny state, Proud vs Yob, Class Vs Tattoos and Nationalism Vs Racism. Of course all countries suffer from the same in varying degrees, however maybe its the small size of the UK that leads to enjoying the beautiful gardens or gallery of a stately home, whilst trying to ignore or endure the tattooed, foul mouthed, frogmela and her broad of equally revolting overweight, uncouth brain dead offspring that leads to the feeling that the country isn't big enough for the both of us! Of course there are many things I equally hate about China - but at least I can put that down to them being foreign!

So here I am, flying towards a new job in an old city, moving back to the same home and the children starting back at a school they left last year. I cant promise that it will be as exciting as previous years, I wouldn't go as far as to say that it will be as adventurous, suprising or entertaining, but I am sure that it will conjure up plenty of material to keep me writing.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Population

An article in the free Newsweek magazine that accompanied me during my flight to Shanghai, inspired me to write this weeks journal. Newsweek is one of those magazines that reminds me of wikepedia, i'm never sure how true the facts, figures and numbers are? Having wrote the odd study myself, I know how much research is needed to put something together that talks about the differences across continents, countries and cultures. To get your facts correct takes months (or at least weeks) of investigation, analysis and confirmation. Yet Newsweek reals off story after story, full of facts, and figures. Either they have an army of writers, journalists and investigators or they make it up?

Either way the story entitled "The post-China world - The end of the boom is now in sight, and the ripple of slower growth will span the globe", made me think of another impeding crisis heading towards China's meteoric rise to arguably the most powerful nation in todays messed up world.

The story concentrated on the stabilisation of China's economy, slow down in growth and the similarities with Japans boom and bust economy 10 years earlier. It concedes that China's enormous population, and particularly the poor element of its vast human resource will probably continue to fuel cheap labour and cheap export for many years to come, but highlights the lack of passion for internal consumerism as a key reason why it will not be able to balance the drop in demand and competitive advantage it currently sees, as costs and particularly wages increase. True or not the story was backed up by the usual plethora of learned comments and W.H.O. Facts and figures.

The story I would like to tell is one that also suggests the demise of the country I am currently travelling to, and one that seems more like home than any other these days.
I had mentioned previously my old PA Hu Jin, a likeable character, educated in Malaysia and England he was amongst the 1st generation born as result of China's single child policy. Introduced in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, the Policy was introduced to try and reduce the enormous population growth that burgeoned the countries development, and proved a massive drain on available resources. Growth which led to an extra 15 million people every year! *Growth between 1961 and 1980 ran at 2.2%.

The positives of the initiative are only visible on a balance sheet, it is estimated that the policy has prevented an extra 400 million joining the throngs. However to the foreign visitor, people still hang on for dear life from every nook and cranny, for example, the entire population of Toronto pass through Shanghais underground system every day, and the monthly number of children born in China is equal to the population of some of Europe's major Cities. The effect of this staggering growth leads to numbers like 15,500 new vehicle registrations in Beijing alone - every day! The numbers are mind-blowing, however without the restrictions in place, the situation would be much, much worse.

The negatives of the single child policy are evident only when you know them, and then start to look hard at the situation through the eyes of the young, the elderly, the adopted and the aborted. For every 100 female children born there are 114 males born, which is as a result of unnatural selection. The sexing of unborn babies through scans is illegal, however China has become the home of selective abortion, with more than 15 million official abortions per year (unofficial figures are much higher) or to put it into context, the population of Los Angeles aborted every year, why? Well a multitude of reasons, but mainly because they were female. Like many developing countries, China values sons over daughters, the difference in China is that due to the single child policy - you only get one shot!

The need to have a male son is not as you imagine to do with family name or male dominance in the workplace, in fact in many of the new industries responsible for Chinas incredible growth, females workers are dominant. I once visited a Japanese company called Takarta in a Shanghai suburb, where of the 3000 employees 2980 were female! specifically recruited for their dexterity, obedience and loyalty. Ever since Mao, the female worker has had as many rights as the male, in fact recent changes in employment law favour the female employee - on paper at least.

The need to procreate a male offspring is more to do with a complacency towards the state pension system. It was always expected that the senior son would take up the role of bread winner, carer and provider to his elderly parents come retirement. This was fine when you had 3 or 4 children, the odds were that one of them would outlive the parent, and one of them would be male. The introduction of a single child rule, has led to a concern that if you have a daughter and they get married - that they will be required to support their husbands family in old age, and thus leave the daughters family without a sponsor. The dependance on a son has become enormous and has led to a share increase in both selective abortion and female children being put up for adoption.

This I would suggest is one of the biggest single threats to the continued growth of China. Hu Jin is approaching 30, and his parents have just entered their 50's. They are the lucky ones, they have a son who will continue to provide and care for his/her parents long into old age. for the tens of millions who only have a single daughter, they have to hope that her husbands family are` younger, richer or healthier than them? Added together with the fact that people are now starting to live a little bit longer, and the labour market is getting tougher for the normally less educated middle to late aged employee, a vast problem dawns on the horizon.

As with all metrics in China the numbers are amazing, it is estimated that a current 134 million people are in retirement, and that this will increase to 500 million by the year 2050, and as the national pension scheme only encourages around 15% of the population to contribute, the planned shortfall is catastrophic. The overall slowing of population growth is one thing, couple this with ageing, lack of pensions system and the imbalance of the sexes all add up to a worrying future.

Nobody knows what will happen when an extra 100 million or two are added to the retirement list each year, but it is a sure recipe for civil unrest, in a country facing so many more civil liberty and unrest issues I wouldn't be surprised if this is the one that tips it over the edge!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Delay

This week has been one of the most frustrating on record, all due to airline delays. It started well with my scheduled flight leaving London's Heathrow on Time last Friday, arriving early Saturday morning in Shanghai. And despite being greeted by a grey, wet an intolerably humid Shanghai my first few days went to schedule and quite smoothly for this side of Asia.

I had planed to travel to Shenzhen on the Wednesday from the newly opened Hongqiao Airport Terminal 2, I had been there during its opening week in March, and was extremely impressed by the cleanliness, efficiency and organisation - but then again after experiencing the worst of Chinese air travel - adding soft toilet paper to the toilets would have been considered an enormous improvement. I was dutifully informed at the check-in desk that flights were seeing some delay due to the volumes of air traffic, when seeking clarity on how long the delay could be, the corporate "at this time were unable to say" response always makes you wonder why you bothered asking. Not put off I quickly traversed the minefield of security and passport control - as a word of advice, don't bother taking off those watches, rings, metal hips and iron lungs when approaching the security metal detectors in China, they are set so sensitive that they can pick up the mercury content in your blood, either that or its just part of the PRC's job creation scheme. Having walked through literally thousands of metal detectors in dozens of airport I have, and have never seen anyone go through without being subjected to a full body frisk afterwards.

One change over the last couple of years in the local airports, has been the introduction of some commercial variety, with the opening of Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Burger King and McDonanld's, you now at least have the choice to clog you artery's with good old western cholesterol, rather than the Chinese fast food MSG. Pudong airport used to be one of the worst culprits with all of the concessions inside the airport being strictly controlled by the local government - which meant selling only noodles, wooden fans, noodles, chop sticks, noodles and tea. So with this in mind I headed to Starbucks for a large cup of Italian Cappuccino and a slice of New York Cheese Cake (try and find the irony there!).

One eye on the notice board I relaxed in the view that my plane would be delayed the regulatory 30 - 50 minutes, and as I was arriving the night before the meeting, any delay was eating into my time rather than the companies. Second bucket of coffee, and three hours later I started to worry that the TV screen in front of me must be broke or I had missed a Chinglish translation telling me that the flight had been canceled. I wondered down to the gate to find several hundred other hopeful passengers milling around the desk, checking watches and bawling into their mobile phones. I sent a few emails, answered some phone calls and made the next couple of hours as productive as I could, then all of a sudden movement, at first a trickle, then an awareness and finally a stampede. I gathered my things, and ran towards the scrum-down appearing in front of me. Fantastic, I thought - we would soon be on our way........er no. The stampede was actually the rush to get the free food that the airline was dishing out to quell the discord within the waiting passengers. You would have thought they were handing out life jackets on the Titanic, but yes you guessed it - Noodles.

The disappointment caused me to do what any red blooded Englishman would do - head for the bar. After my 8th bottle of TsingTao, which I insisted stayed piled up on my table - much to the waitresses dismay and disgust, we entered our 8th hour of delay and midnight. Ushered from the bar as the whole airport came to a shutdown, I depressingly walked back to the gate. Still no action, until an hour later when we were told that in fact we would be leaving soon, however we all needed to collect a new boarding pass as the seat numbering was different on the replacement plane. (The original plane must have still be in pieces with engineers scratching their balls and their heads).
Exchanging boarding cards doesn't sound like scaling the Eiger or swimming the Atlantic but the ensuing riot would have made you think that the crowd had been asked to renounce religion, hand over there first born and accept Tibetan independence. The airport security were called in at first, and them the real police. The crowd displeased with the airline staff, and had taken it upon themselves to trash the check-in desk, tear the boarding passes from the 6 stone attendant, ridicule her to tears and try and storm the plane - I watched on, jaw open, mainly concerned about the additional delay they were causing me, and the handful of other sensible (punch drunk) passengers almost to the point of despair. I squeezed through the mela and finally seated on the plane. We finally took off 10 hours later than scheduled, but feeling relieved, tired, but relieved.

We arrived at out destination Shenzhen at around 4am, the temperature was 36 degrees in the airport, with a humidity similar to that of an under water sauna. Making my way to the luggage carousel I captured a strategic slot to embrace my case and escape to hopefully a waiting car and driver. 5 minutes passed, 10, 20, 40 - if your looking for the reason why the Chinese are so slim, stand in Shenzhen airport in July, and watch the fat literally ooze out of your skin.
The ground staff started to look bemused at this point and started pointing at the conveyor, they realised it had broke and they would have to man handle the luggage to overcome the problem. I finally arrived at the hotel at 6.00am, I had a meeting at 9am and collapsed on the bed. The alarm sang out at 8am and despite my body being tied to the bed with high tensile steel I managed to get into the shower,then just time for a shave - I looked into the mirror to wonder who the pimply teenage youth was staring back at me, then a quick inspection of the rest of my body revealed that the spots on my face were not the result of some adolescence hormone imbalance, in fact I looked like a child had sat there with a marker pen and tried to cover my whole body with red ink, I would have been better off sleeping in a bath of hungry Piranha - the Mosquitoes had attacked.

The return journey wasn't much better, a four hour delay, a process of unchecking and rechecking baggage, purchasing a 1st class seat on an alternative airline to try and beat another mammoth delay to find out that this flight would also be delayed, a 50 minute wait for a Taxi in the same sauna as before, and running out of cash to pay the driver, all culminated into a longing for a western airline, with western staff and a flight home. So as I sipped Champagne sitting in my Virgin Airways flight the following day, I relaxed in the smugness one can only feel as a true Brit. Only to be quickly punched in the face as the Pilot indicated a 3 hour delay due to Chinese air traffic control - oh joy!!!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Cars

Why do people drive crap cars? Now I'm not talking about the just left school rusting iron can that we all start off in, I too have been been there trying to squeeze the last drop of fuel out of what my son calls a "Nissan shitbox" ( actually I think the line is from the Transformer movie - but is still relevant, and must mean a great deal to him, as he gets a clip around the ear every time he says it, and he says it a lot!)

Like most red-blooded men I salivate over pictures of the Bugatti Veyron, or the Audi R8 Spyder , yes I know suggesting that car worship is only a male thing is sexist and old fashioned - but when you have been surrounded all your life by females who choose cars by what colour they are, if they have a pretty name, or look as if they have a smile on their face, you will forgive me thinking that women who like cars in the same pornographic way as men - must be either lesbians, transexuals or trying to impress a man, or all three! You see men like cars because we are immature, we are just big kids who think that a Ferrari will instantly make us a rock star, hide the fact that we are overweight, cover our bald spots, inflate our bank balances and lengthen our brain repository. We all want to be George Clooney, David Beckham, Mick Jagger or Jenson Button, and believe that owning a flash car is like putting on a magic cloak that instantly turns us into a Brad Pitt looking, Formula 1 driving, Glastonbury playing male porn star - doesn't it?

If you don't believe me, tell me why do car manufacturers, design, make, market and sell cars in this way? Why are billions poured into advertising penis extensions on wheels? Why does every Porsche 911 owner look like Danny De Vito rather than Pierce Bronson? And do you really think the scantily clad girls holding numbers on the race grid are there so the drivers know which car to get in? Yes more and more cars are being selected, paid for and driven by women - but most automotive PR and marketing directors are male, as are the designers, engineers, production staff, financiers and senior management. They make cars to satisfy their own manic craving for ego boosting satisfaction. If women ran the car industry we would all be driving sensible, fuel economic, environmentally friendly, practical, reasonably priced, comfortable, durable, reliable and safe vehicles that we kept for ten years and that would be just plain stupid!


Right, now I have that of my chest, and have just alienated more than half of the population, back to the topic - why do people drive crap cars? This question raised itself last night when trying to get home whilst following a Hyundai Theycouldntbebotheredtomakeanameupbecausethedesignerdiedofboredombeforefinishingthecar 1.1l Diesel, driving at 16.3 miles per hour along a 50 MPH limit route. Due to the speed I had a long time to look at the back of this vehicle which was new, and red, which is all i can remember as I might as well have been looking at a bowl of green pea soup. The car as it was new probably cost the best part of £10,000 to buy, and was worth exactly £0.64p in the nano second after the transaction was complete, which is reason number 1 not to buy something like this, reason number two is the brand, buy a Hyundai and your telling your neighbours you have terminal cancer and no longer see the value in living, either that or you couldn't afford the Golf. But what about the 5 years warranty I hear you scream, well that's like saying Aids is better than a cold because it lasts longer - why do you think Hyundai give 5 years warrant? - because that's the only way they can get people to buy them!

I'm not just having a go at Hyundai, add to the list Daihatsu, Mahindra, Geely, Fiat, Suzuki, Daewoo, Tata, Kia, Proton, Isuzu, and anything French. In fact any car that isn't Ford, GM, Japanese(excluding Suzuki), and European (excluding Fiat). . These are all going to seriously damage both your wallet, personal standing within the community and cause your kids to get beat up at school. You don't have to have lots of money to retain your dignity and prevent your children from being both mentally and physically scared for the rest of their lives. You just need to buy a car with your heart not your brain (or if your a man with your dick). Buy a second hand VW Golf, a newish Ford Mondeo, Fiesta or Focus, a Honda Civic or Toyota Yaris. if you have a bit more money get a second hand Audi A3 or the old style 3 series, and to be really extravagant go and get a high mileage Mercedes E class, Land Rover or Volvo, all of these are practical, and are at home outside Aldi or Harrods, buy them when they are a couple of years old and they will have already devalued like BP shares and are infinitely more reliable.

You will notice all of those cars are either saloons, hatchbacks or 4x4's, that is with good reason. If Diesel is the devils sperm, then People carriers and MPV's are the piles on the backside of Lucifer. They were invented by the French, just like the Guillotine, syphilis, Goneria and Gittes (which are barns for poor people, or alternatively luxury wood cabins for gullible British Tourist), and like anything French it probably started off as a joke that everyone else took seriously because they thought it must be fashionable, or "in-style", because as we know all French people exude style?

Buying an MPV is like saying "a car is just a means of transport", "driving is about getting from A to B", or alternatively it's like saying "I have nothing left to give, I am a hollow vestal devoid of emotion, pride, self esteem and self respect. I have given up hope of ever feeling emotion again and if I was a horse you would shoot me". You want lots of luggage space buy a hatchback or a roof rack, you want a high driving position buy a 4X4, you want 7 seats buy a Land Rover or a Volvo, you want lots of cubby space - stop buying so much crap and treating your car as a bedside cabinet.

Clarkson continually derides the bus lanes, saying no one ever uses them, and they should be abolished. I say let's make it law that all crap cars should be allowed to use it. At least then they can continue on their "journey from A to B" without getting in the way of those of us who still live for a short section of clear Tarmac. While we are at it, why don't we include all MPV, caravan towing and St Georges flag waving vehicles into driving in this select lane, at least then they can bask in their smugness and continue to pretend that they really couldn't care what car they drive, or what people think about them.

Calm down Paul, take 3 Aspirin and count to ten!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

60000

Following the euphoria of iPad heaven and the move over to Wordpress, I failed to mention that my blog(s) had also reached a milestone – 60,000+ hits or visits or people who had searched for something completely different and had Google mistakenly divert them to my ramblings.

I started the blog on the 2nd April 2007 with an account of my move from Nanjing HQ to the new MG Production facility in Pukou. (First Day in the New Factory).

I felt that this episode in MG’s long history should not have been missed and even if it was down to someone who had only ever written cheques before, the next chapter in this famous British brand needed capturing.

Since I started blogging it has been enjoyable, sometimes painful, but has almost always been done with a sense of release. However for every blog published there are another 10 sitting on my hard drive. These are the blogs about what I really think of the Pheonix Four (Five), the car with Zero ENCAP rating, my explanation for the demise of Longbridge and MG-R, the time I met the people investigating the ‘missing millions’, exploding Taxi’s, the real reason why Chinese Senior Managers have male PA’s, journalist tantrums, sharing showers with 10 other men and all about Li ShuFu, the man, the entrepreneur, the lunatic, to name but a few. The blogs will have to wait until I am either financially secure or have been entered into a witness protection program, for now they sit guarded on my hard drive waiting for me to grow a new set of balls.

One of the fascinating things about my blogs, is that I haven’t got a clue who reads them, my wife confesses to have never found them interesting – which is amazing since she has made this assessment without ever actually reading them, there isn’t enough death, blood and guts in them for my Xbox crazed son to bother with, and the rest of my extended family cant understand how to change the web page from facebook. I don’t have what you could traditionally call ‘friends’ as I have always been such a miserable bastard. So I guess it could be past work colleagues, as I have had enough of those to form an army equal in size only to Kim Jong II’s. Who reads my blog has always been a mystery to me, so I employed the help of IP technology! A little piece of software that sits on your web site and records everything about who, when, where, what and how.

The application I have been using is called ‘sitemeter’, and scarily it can hunt down whoever visits your website. I only take the free offering which only identifies new IP addresses (for those who are not network literate – this is the individual address assigned to a computer on a network) and how many times they visit, stay online etc. whilst I only see the city, state and country of my visitors – I only subscribe to the free service, god knows what you can find out is you actually pay for the search?

So now I know that people in:

USA
Allamuchy, New Jersey and Laurence, Massachusetts

Australia
Caboolture, Queensland, Brisbane, Melbourne and Ashfield NSW

Canada
Picton and Belleville, Ontario

Auckland, New Zealand

France
Limoux, Languedoc-Roussillon

And, all over the UK people have at least mistakenly ventured onto these pages, and a whole host of "location unknown" which I presume are from behind the great fire wall of China? The fact that at least someone out there reads this, makes me continue to spend the odd couple of hours putting finger to keyboard, but before I get carried away with the popularity i did some simple maths;

60,000 hits in 38 months or
1578 per month or
394 per week or
52.6 per day
2.3 per hour or
0.04 per minute

If I take away down time, the hours people sleep, all of the times I have posted, edited, looked at and read my own blog then i come up with a figure closer to 1 hit every every week - so I was right, nobody does read it!

(Just in-case anyone does - drop me a note, and cheer me up, after all it is fathers day!)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Speed


The arrival of the postman these days nearly always means another bill, or a flyer from someone trying to sell you insurance cover for the pet gerbil you haven't got. since the introduction of mobile phones, text messaging, and email took over the worlds communication the art of writing with ink on paper has become the sole domain of school children and doctors, the fact that in both cases whatever written is barely illegible, probably makes most of us thankful for the cell phone, computer and printer.

It was predicted that the explosion in alternative communication would decrease direct contact with others and a drop in interaction, however talking, sharing views and exchanging ideas has increased in volumes way beyond anyones expectations, and in ways that none of us could have anticipated or even dreamed of just a few years ago.

I started traveling abroad with work about 15 years ago, and on those week long trips we were allowed a single phone call back to our families to say that we had arrived safely. more frequent interaction would have required either computers the size of your average industrial estate, or smoke, a blanket and a high mountain. Soon after this I did a stint in Georgia, USA, this involved spending 3 months or so at a time in a place just around the corner from the dark side of Jupiter called Brunswick, and aside from the initial phone call the only other means of communication was via a 56k dial up modem and email, although as we never had a computer in our home this proved fairly pointless for communicating anything other that telling work that you were still alive, and hadn't spent all of your company expenses - yet.

In contrast I am now able to tell my family when I am about to go to sleep, when i have woken up, what I had for lunch, how bad the taxi driver smelt, and how soft the toilet paper is in the hotel, in fact technology allows us all to record, display and share every second of our day to anyone anywhere in the world, as it happens, and in full colour. Whilst I can not deny helping my son do his maths via msn, as I travel in a taxi somewhere in the middle of Swaziland is useful, or that checking-in online for a flight to allow yourself the luxury of an extra 30 minutes in bed is a great treat. However i do think that this can all go too far, first we had email, then text messaging, instant messaging, blogging and now twittering.

As a blogger myself it may seem hypocritical for me to dispel twittering as a fad or a craze that doesn't have any real merit. However (although it may not always seem like it) I only use email, texts, or instant messaging if I want to tell somebody something, or conversely find something out. You could still argue that blogging in this context is pointless? I suppose, my original purpose was to let family and friends know what I was up to, However i found that I enjoyed writing and have used it as a way to capture what was going on in my life, my thoughts, ideas and at least it gives me something to do at the airport.

I don't twit, or twat or whatever the correct term is, and I don't post pictures of my shoelaces on Facebook. The idea of twittering doesn't fill me with any excitement, knowing the precise time when your next door neighbour has emptied his bowels or brought a new dishcloth, isn't top of my "things to understand before I die" list. I can see the appeal of following a 'celebrity' if that's your bag, but trying to fit my life into 120 words would be a big problem for me, and besides I have enough problems trying to make my blog interesting using 1000+ words each week, let alone making every 5 minutes seem at all worthy of publishing.

So for the moment I will still to my blog, although a couple of things will/have changed recently, the first is that I am slowly defecting to wordpress, after several years of sticking with Blogger, i have grown tired of not being able to access it in China without engaging the type of technology used by the worlds espionage fraternity. I have also had many problems with reading blogger via Internet explorer and having to revert to the more accommodating Mozilla. Which despite being superior to Microsofts offering, isn't as widely used or even known by many people.

The other event is one that I am bursting to tell, just like a small child would be when wishing to tell everyone where the last friend is hiding in a game of hide and seek, or if his brother had just kicked the football through the kitchen window and his burgeoning desire to denounce any responsibility to his parents. Some people in the press have suggested that the event I am talking about can compare with the feeling they had at the birth of their first born, how stupid - it is far more important and emotional than that, and it doesn't require feeding every five minutes, it doesn't smell like the devils armpit and isn't subject to screaming fits.

Of course the event is the introduction of my new new toy, I am writing this blog on the equivalent of Moses tablets of stone - the Apple iPad. Yes I must be crazy to buy into an unproven technology and of course this isn't as revolutionary as we may have all hoped and dreamed of during the longest labour in history, but it is pretty spectacular.

But surely it's just an overweight iPod touch? But that's like saying the Bugatti Veyron is just a faster Fiat Panda, Concorde was just a sleeker Bi-plane or Buckingham Palace is just a large house. the iPod touch and it's brother the iPhone reinvented the mobile phone market, love or hate Apple you cannot deny the impact these products have had on the industry - especially now that everyone is running to try and catch up.
I have had all 3 generations of iPhone and despite the obvious limitations have loved each one, the iPad just does everything the same just bigger and better - ask any women if size matters, and if they say no, they are trying to protect your ego!

With a desire not to sound like an Apple nerd I won't jump into a 5000 word essay on why it's brilliant, but I will sum my views into one word - speed. Any one who has lived with a windows laptop, will know that the boot-up time can feel like passing a kidney stone, as can the time to find a document, or switch between applications. I can now understand why Steve (The Messiah) Jobs couldn't understand the need to run multiple applications at once, he obviously hasn't used one of Mr Gates windows products, if you don't keep your applications all open at the same time, you die of boredom between waiting for one to open up. The introduction of running multiple applications on the next OS 4.0 may make some people happy - I just hope it doesn't kill the ipads single biggest advantage - speed!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Sleep

One of life’s real pleasures is sleep, although for most its not until you have been through the ‘joys’ of parenting that you realise just how precious those 8 hours of slumber really are. Sleep can be overlooked as an inconvenience, getting in the way of our busy lives, interrupting schedules and quality time, we take it for granted and abuse our bodies by preventing what should come naturally.



As an infant you have no recollection and no control (it seems) of when you wake up and subsequently when you wake your parents up. According to research, new born baby’s sleep for 16 hours a day, reducing to 13 hours by the age of 3. I am not sure who investigates, researches and prints such tripe, but my experience suggests that babies don’t sleep - ever, and when they are awake they have some incomprehensible power to suck the energy from their parents with a force greater than that of a collapsing star!

I have suffered from mild insomnia and have therefore been used to only sleeping for 3-4 hours a day for months on end, however even this could not prepare me for the worst form of Nazi/Japanese 2nd World War prisoner of war torture, dished up by the cute bundle of love in the pink bunny suit! If you see a women or a man walking the street splattered in food, excrement, and puke, looking as if they haven’t slept for 6 weeks, with creased clothes, un-cut, uncombed hair, odd socks and grey lifeless skin – don’t worry its not an invasion of zombies its merely the result of having a baby in the family.



Things change as you grow from a baby / infant into a child, this is when your parents send you to bed when you’re wide awake, and wake you up when you’re in deep sleep – the value of sleep when your young is not necessarily recognised or appreciated. Sleep gets in the way of fun, in the way of playing with friends, riding your bike, building dens and generally enjoying life. The fact that your parents pull you out of bed with a full 5 minutes before school starts amazes most kids, as does the need to shout the time every 30 seconds just in case you never heard the 120 decibel scream the first 18 times. I do remember being a child’s (honest), and I do remember being pulled out of bed by my toenails as my parents tried to extract me from the pit of foul teenage smells. With the resurgence in vampire movies this has become even harder, my son is only 12 and thinks he is one of the Nosferatu, staying up so late we pass on the stairs – me off to work, him off to bed.




As you get older and enter your late teens, sleep is only essential for recovery from hangovers, relationship disasters, and other activities that will endanger my ‘child safe’ website status. Previously the role of university dorms, bed sits and flat shares, it has moved more mainstream family homes, as more and more ‘young adults’ stay home festering and leaching on their parents goodwill rather than risk spending a Saturday nights money on rent or mortgage repayments. Acceptable and almost expected behaviour in your own (or shared) abode is becoming the norm in family households. Including the half naked friends wandering around at all times, the drive festooned with all sorts of scrap iron dressed in spoilers and GTI badges alongside the ‘man’ of the houses Volvo, watching your utility bills treble despite spending more time away from home, and resigning yourself to the fact that you will never find any food in the cupboard despite spending the entire Royal Navy’s canteen budget each week. The dream of repossessing your home, your bed and most importantly some sleep, like the dreams of retirement have to be shelved and put back to a point where they cross and happen sometime after death.




As you hit middle age, you find that sleep is addictive, although somewhat untouchable. I crave for 8 hours deep sleep, and then find myself guilty after only 6. Panic sets in that you are being selfish and ‘sleeping’ your life away. I get out of bed at 6.00am every weekday morning, weekend, bank holiday even whilst on vacation it takes about the same amount of time for me to start to relax, as it does for the early morning start to catch the plane back. Your body becomes conditioned to rising early, and if my father is anything to go by, I have another 20-30 years of this. That is not to say you don’t grab a sly afternoon snooze once in a while, my favourite is to snuggle down on a winters Sunday afternoon following a large lunch and a copy of Harry Potter or Pirates of the Caribbean on the TV – both instant insomnia cures, not that they are bad films, just that my ability to watch a film longer than 36 seconds without snoring is legendary.



Grabbing 20 minutes on a Weekend afternoon, between flights or train journeys is like earning a bonus, buying something decadent or receiving an email from someone thought lost. Those small moments of pleasure when your snoring causes other airline passengers to ask flight attendants to check the aircraft status with for fear of a mechanical disaster, the awkward looks thrown at you from the train passenger next to you as they wipe the remains of your dribble from their shoulder, and the groans from your children as you jump up and declare that you were only resting your eyes as Hermione Granger turns Jack Sparrow into a toad.



As all of my anecdotes and stories recount my times in China, it would be wrong of me to ignore one story that links in with this blog quite well. I remember travelling with a group of senior Chinese colleagues between Nanjing and Beijing, accompanied by my trusty assistant, translator and friend (Hu Jin), we boarded the plane, took our seats and were being served noodles for breakfast before you could say “why is everyone wearing 15 layers of clothes, and asking for the cabin temperature to be increased”. Soon after breakfast the rest of my colleagues (about 8 people in all) kept their tray tables down and proceeded to lean forward and rest their heads on the trays falling to sleep soon after. I had seen this many times before in China, on planes, trains and automobile journeys. It seemed that in every possible circumstance the Chinese would take the opportunity to rest their eyes and recharge their battery’s. I put this down to a harsh life and poor diet, rather than just being lazy. What I was surprised at was my assistant’s insistence that I do likewise and sleep for the next 30 to 40 minutes despite not being tired, when asking why? I was told that taking ‘dead’ time out to sleep shows that you are being efficient with the company’s time, and that you must be working very hard at other times to need the rest. I just continued to pick the weevils out of the bread roll served with the noodles.



I can t really finish my journey of sleep through life by talking about how sleep affects you in old’er age, as I haven’t quite reached it yet. However If I read the most recent research into sleep from the University’s of Warwick and Naples I will get all the sleep I need soon. The research conducted across Europe, Asia and the US suggests that people sleeping less than 6 hours per day are 12% more likely to suffer from premature death. Looks like I had better get my head down!