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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Sunday, December 09, 2001

Shang High Life, #11

Shang High Life, #11
December 9, 2001

(The following is a direct response to protests prompted by SHL#8, in which I promised to discuss what I did for a living. If you think that creating your own audience out of friends and family will save you from the knives of wannabe literary critics, think again. Several folks pointed out that I avoided the stated topic completely, spinning a tale, instead, about the whims and whimsies of the telecommunications industry. I plead for your forgiveness most solicitously, and beg your leave to rectify the wrongdoing presently.)

What I Do And Don’t Do For Money

The words “communist” and “communicator” share some etymology. “Comm” is, of course, the Latin root. Originally, it meant “sex with strangers”, which may be why Mao rode such a wave of popularity, not to mention a few nubile Red Guards. It is also why I chose my profession. At 18, sex with strangers sounded pretty good. Since then, I have learned that I am publicly to denounce such practices as distasteful, amoral and primitive.

My professional die was cast by a professor who, no doubt, had sex with strangers at least a few times in his youth. He may not have been a very good role model, but he was a hell of a teacher, and his class was my first exposure to the study of communication. From there, it wasn’t a very long road to becoming an honest-to-god social scientist (NOT socialist, as my father suspected), licensed in the great state of North Carolina---a state, incidentally, in which I believe sex with strangers is considered a crime against nature.

Having determined that, in the employment pages of every major metropolitan newspaper, there existed not even a single ad reading “Social scientist wanted. Exorbitant salary paid,” I ran way to go sailing in Australia. I intended for my sojourn in that greatest of island nations to include neither sex with strangers nor the practice of social science. I also intended to stay for no more than a year or two. Ten years later, I realized I had experienced a practicum in the paving materials on the road to hell.

There turned out to be a whole lot more social science than sex with strangers during my time in Australia. But the latter is so much more interesting to read about than the former, I figure I ought to keep mentioning it. I mean, how riveting is the sentence, “I worked as an applied social scientist for a consulting firm?” Yet, that is what I did, and people still ask about it.

I don’t kid myself that people find it interesting. When meeting people at cocktail parties, I used to enjoy timing how long they could sustain their pretended interest after they asked me what I did for a living. One guy cornered me for most of an evening to talk about how fascinating my work was. He was a tax auditor. I don’t think he’d ever had sex with strangers.

Unfortunately, my business card has never said “Applied Social Scientist”. That sounds kind of sexy, in a maxi-neo-zoom-dweebie kind of way, even a little mysterious. No such luck. The entire time I worked at McKinsey (Kinsey. . .now, *there* was a guy I bet had lots of sex with strangers), my business card said “Communication Specialist” or some close derivative, like “Senior Communication Consultant”, or “Grand Exalted Dragon Communications Guy”.

“Communication Specialist” does not sound sexy. It sounds vague, and perhaps even fake, you know, like those titles they give to check-out girls these days: “Customer Service Associate” or “Transaction Completion Expert”. “Communication Specialist” sounds a little like that: probably what you’d call a telephone operator in one of those American companies that espouses a phony “we’re all equals here” philosophy, and gives its minions overblown titles, accordingly. You just *know* those minions take their name badges off before they go out on the prowl to have sex with strangers.

Nevertheless, my years as a Communications Specialist were fantastically rewarding intellectually and professionally. I certainly don’t think the title ever helped me have sex with strangers, but it did get me into a club of extraordinary people. Some of my similarly dweebily titled colleagues were among the smartest folks I’ve ever met, and they generally eclipsed other big-brained business folk with their common sense and warmth.

What the club-members lacked, however, was an easy way to describe what they did for a living. I still don’t think my mother knows what I got paid for, all those years. It’s not like a cabinet maker, whose title is his job description, or a prostitute, who can simply say, “I have sex with strangers for money.” The closest I ever came was to say that I helped business people do two things. First, I helped them get complex messages across in ways that less self-deluded people could understand. An example: “Our previous market segmentation strategy has prompted sub-optimal performance in both TRS and cash-flow terms, so we have decided to re-focus at a lower point in the cost curve blah, blah, blah.” How do you get thousands of people to act on that? Second, I helped them get simple messages across in ways that would help them achieve their goals better than if they just said, for instance, “We’re going to fire half of you.”

In sum, I suppose my job was to find ways to get people to believe new things and act in new ways, but that really just begs the question, doesn’t it? If I had used that explanation, my mother wouldn’t have been any the wiser about what I did at work. And my friends would have been incredulous. If I was such an expert at getting people to believe and do new things, why, they might ask, was I such a dismal failure in my pursuit of sex with strangers? Fair point. I hate admitting that I’ve always been better in business than I’ve been in bars.

The thing that separates social scientists from *applied* social scientists is that social scientists mostly just tell you what people believe and do. The appliers try to change what people believe and do. So, we’re control freaks. But in a good way. In business, bosses are always going to try to make people do things differently than they’d do on their own. For me, the question is whether they do it well, with respect for the people they’re trying to influence, or whether they do it poorly. It’s better business to try to do things *with* people than to do things *to* them. Mostly, I get that message across to the bosses by convincing them that they’ll make more money with less hassle if they do things in ways I recommend. What I don’t tell them is that my clandestine caper is to get them to treat people with respect and dignity---in other words, treating all people in the business food chain as human beings. So, we have a little unstated bargain, the bosses and me: I don’t tell them that I’m trying to humanize business, and they don’t tell me about all the sex they had with strangers during the drugged-out years of their youth.

There may be a few of you who lead dull enough lives that you are still asking what I actually do day to day. My mother, frustrated at never getting a satisfactory reply, stopped asking that question almost as many years ago as she stopped enquiring about my sex life, which spared me the embarrassment of having to talk with her about sex with strangers. The answer hasn’t changed all that much in those years---I do very similar things now, with Alcatel, as I did with McKinsey---but I have more ownership of the outcome than I did when I was a consultant. My title certainly isn’t any sexier: Director of Internal Communication, Asia-Pacific. Which, again, begs the question.

Am I a writer? Well, yes and no. Do I work in HR? No. Do I run some kind of newsletter? God, no. Here’s what I do: I use any means necessary to make sure that everyone in the business knows what we’re trying to achieve, understands their part in it and how it relates to everyone else’s part, has the tools they need to connect with any number of those parts, and has a say in how to make things better. “Everyone” includes the most senior folks. I make sure they know more than their direct reports tell them by bringing messages up from the bottom of the food chain just as enthusiastically as I carry messages down. It’s like having sex with many strangers at once. But I’m doing it with words and data and pictures, rather than with . . . well, other tools.

The telecommunications industry is a particularly interesting place to do this job. The open irony is that telecoms is all about connecting people, but it is an industry populated by engineers, and engineers are notoriously bad communicators. Just look at the way they write:

“. . .A key advantage of the Anite systems are their dual-mode technology which enables existing GPRS protocol testers (SAT+) to be used with their new U-SAT UMTS testers.”

About as compelling as bad breath. At least bad breath doesn’t have crappy grammar. How about this one:

“The agreement allows licensing of AuroraNetics' silicon design to companies interested in producing and participating in the development of 10 gigabits-per-second Spatial Reuse Protocol resilient packet ring-based programs.”

It is easy to imagine that strangers are the only people these guys could ever have sex with. Their attempts at intimate conversation would clamp your legs together so tight diamonds would form. They make social science sound sexy. Which is, of course, why I hang around with them. Attractiveness is relative.

All this means there’s a lot of work for me. Add fourteen thousand people, sixteen countries and multiple languages to the mix and you have yourself a pot full of professional fun. On top of that, our industry is in the shitter and we’re attempting one of the biggest mergers in Chinese corporate history. What’s not to like? About the only thing that sounds like more fun is. . .

. . .which is, of course, something I do not condone. Terrible thing, sex with strangers. No fun at all. . .you know, from what I hear.

Saturday, December 01, 2001

Shang High Life, #10

* * *

Thanks to everyone for the flood of support you extended in response to SHL#9, about my friend, Chris. As several of you guessed, I wasn’t looking for comfort so much as for a place to grieve. I got both, and I’m very grateful. This mailing list is my community as much as any of the places I’ve lived---perhaps more, since it bridges them all---and I feel very lucky. My place to grieve may be a computer screen, and the strands of the net into which I fall may be distributed across continents, but I feel very loved, indeed. Thank you, again.

* * *

Shang High Life, #10
December 1, 2001

________Eat first, ask questions later________

The bowl is set down, some kind of fluid mystery spilling over its rim. It is made of Chinese porcelain, and big enough to qualify in the urn division of the Bowl Olympics. This is the bowl after which American college football games were named. There are wading pools smaller than this bowl. I sit at a bachelor’s table for one.

I can only see into the bowl when the waitress lowers it below my eye level. Across the top, covering whatever other contents like a quilt, are bisected chili peppers about the size of walnuts. It is a field of the Devil’s tulips floating like jammed bumper boats on a pond of obscenely red-orange chili oil.

“Feess!” the waitress effuses. A mighty smile.

The self-conscious, proud presentation is familiar. I get it a lot. It means, “We hope you’re impressed with what we chose for you.” Impressed or not, my reaction is practiced and sincere. “Xie xie. Duo xie.” It is thanks so sincere, in Chinese, that it is almost a prayer. Anything that shows up looking unlike some animal’s genitals is a relief.

There are three kinds of restaurants in Shanghai. First are the restaurants meant for White Boy. These are fascinating recreations of other places. They seem almost to scream, “You are not in Shanghai! Ignore the city outside the window! And, if possible, consider it a fluke that the entire staff is Chinese. Notice, instead, how cute they look all dressed up like gondoliers.” Sometimes, in White Boy restaurants, there’s hardly a written Chinese character to be found. You can order a Foster’s or a Budweiser or a Heineken in your broadest Strine or Good ‘Ole Boy, and you’ll probably get something in the beer category. You are meant to feel at home. Not here, of course, but at HOME.

The second type of restaurant we’ll call “the opportunist.” This is not a restaurant set up with White Boy in mind but, hey, if he happens to stumble in, they’re gonna be ready to grab his hunger-inspired largesse. The menus vary dramatically, from local fare to all manner of foreign foods. That comment, alone, should tip you off that these aren’t spots frequented exclusively by locals. White Boy knows the menus vary because he can read them. That makes a restaurant an opportunist: it has attempted to translate its menu for White Boy---or provide an album of snapshots of the popular dishes---just in case he comes in. They don’t rely on you for their livelihood, but they know what to do with you if you show up.

The third type of restaurant is, as you’ll have surmised, the truly local eatery. These are the spots, most numerous by far, high-class and low-brow alike, that at first appear not to give a hoot about White Boy. No English menu. No English-speaking wait staff. Walking into one of these places in most countries, you’d get the feeling you weren’t supposed to be there, and that you weren’t particularly welcome. In Shanghai, however, people are so gracious and friendly, they act as though it’s their fault they aren’t prepared for your linguistic limitations. The waiters and waitresses are actually embarrassed not to be able to serve you better.

I am in a local joint. There is no English menu. I am being served dangerous-looking food. The wait staff is fawning over me, trying desperately to communicate, extending long, slow, smiling sentences and making hand gestures intended, from what I can tell, to convey various foodstuffs. All I perceive, however, is this young woman performing a petroglyphic hula kind of like “itsy bitsy spider” on acid, as she says the same few phrases over and over again. I don’t understand a word, of course.

My travails with the Chinese language will have to be left to another missive. You may surmise, however, that I ain’t doin’ so good. At least, with Chinese, I have the excuse of its widespread reputation as a bitch to learn, a face-saving luxury I didn’t have when I did a complete linguistic pratfall over Spanish. So, I cannot yet converse with waiters, and reading menus is, I’m afraid, years away. (“Don’t worry,” a White Boy friend, fluent in Mandarin, reassured me, “you only need a couple thousand characters to read a newspaper.”)

Of the many worthy adventures in this life, one has got to be going into a Chinese restaurant, in China, randomly pointing at items on the menu, and seeing what emerges from the kitchen. It is a matter of honour---both yours and that of the restaurateur---that you be prepared to eat whatever arrives. In all seriousness, if a local joint isn’t frequented by foreigners, it is quite likely a big deal to the proprietor that you’re there. You will probably be seated at a window-side table, so people on the street can see that a westerner is dining at the establishment. You don’t have to make a big deal of being there. You *are* a big deal being there. Your failure to eat the food would likely be a loss of face for the host. . .not to mention making your fellow big-noses look bad by association. (Yes, that is the translated local slang for Westerners: “big noses.”)

Random pointing is but one approach to ordering in the local eatery. You can also put yourself wholly in the hands of the waiters. The easy-to-smile, easy-to-embarrass Shanghainese waiters are quite likely to think this the strangest thing that has ever happened to them. And it may well be. Up until not long ago, Shanghai was a boring, tightly controlled, grey town with few foreigners. Now, here you are, in their restaurant, gesticulating madly that you haven’t a clue and you’d like them to choose for you. Comparatively, you’re rich and worldly. Yet, you’re completely in their hands. In my experience, they relish the challenge and, over their initial embarrassment, do their damndest to impress your socks off with the yummiest stuff on the menu. . . .even if the yummiest stuff on the menu is boiled frogs. (Been there. Done that.)

The thing is, it might not matter all that much whether you go for random pointing or for trusting your waitress. You may end up with a plate full of I-have-no-fucking-idea-what-that-is. There are people in the world who can’t decide whether or not they like a dish without knowing what’s in it. China is their hell.

Much of the potential for befuddlement is simply a matter of language. The language of food is famously complex. Plenty of fancy restaurants have menus supposedly written in English but requiring culino-linguistic anthropologists to decipher. In Chinese, however, the problems of figuring out what you’re eating multiply geometrically. First off, there’s the stuff that you’ve never thought was food, but gets eaten plenty, here. Snake entrails come to mind. Then, there’s stuff that you wouldn’t know what it was even if someone gave you the English name for it. And, of course, there’s all the stuff for which there is no English name.

The problem doesn’t stop with translation, however. Chinese cuisine, like all the great cuisines of the world, has a language of its own that adds another layer of mystery on top of complex Chinese vocabulary. It stir fries food and culture in the great wok of Chinese culinary history, and delivers dishes with names that sound more like poetry than like labels for dinner. I asked a bi-lingual colleague, one evening, what I was eating. Turns out I had a plate of “Monk jumps over the wall as two virgins dance in moonlight”. It tasted sort of like chicken.

This evening, I am not bothered that the bowl my waitress sets down looks like the wading pool of the damned. It doesn’t deter me that it is, like a Bond girl, beautiful but perhaps deadly. I am simply pleased that the mystery of what I’m about to eat is so easily decrypted. I know what’s in there, ‘cause I saw it flopping about ten minutes ago. And I heard it thrown against the ceramic tile floor of the kitchen about nine minutes ago, to be stunned on its way to the pot. Feess. Indeed. Sichuan style.

* * *

A fun note about my last few weeks. I got a call from a friend at Natural HealthLink, my previous company. They have launched a bunch of the products I was working on when I was there. He walked me through them, and they look hot! Indeed, they’ve changed mightily since I left and are so much better for it. I felt, again, after several months away, a small part of the magic that place generates. Nice when your past haunts you in such a great way.