Monthly Archives: January 2009

Pronouncing Chinese names

I am starting to learn Chinese so that I can fit in better here.  It is actually surprisingly easy to get by without learning a single word.  Many of the young people here speak English, most menus have pictures and the signs almost universally have English translations on them.  That said every time I utter even the most basic Chinese phrase I get a big smile of appreciation.  And getting by is great, but I want to actually meet people and learn about the culture here.

I thought it was worth chronicling this as a way to help me commit things to memory.  Also, if you have friends or work with anyone that has a Chinese name you are probably butchering the pronunciation.  There are a few letters that sound radically different:

q sounds like ‘ch’ in English
x sounds like ‘sh’ in English
zh sounds like ‘je’ in French
i sounds like ‘ee’ in tree

To put that in practice, here are some common last names and their pronunciation:

Li sounds like Lee
Zhang sounds like je + ahng
Xie sounds she + a

Speaking of last names, it is customary to say someone’s last name first, then their given name.  If you say someone’s first name only, it means you are good friends–giving new meaning to ‘on a first name basis’.

Those are the biggest gotchas.  For more details on pronounciation see Introduction to Pinyin which explains Tones and also has a recording of every phonic.

The meek shall not inherit the road

I just got into Beijing a few days ago.  One of the big differences from Shanghai is that there are fewer scooters and motorcycles around.  In Shanghai, these bikes had free reign over the sidewalk.

The one thing that’s still true in Beijing is that as a pedestrian, you are at the bottom of the food chain.  If you step into a cross walk, don’t expect cars to yield to you even if you have a green crossing sign.  Often you’ll want to cross and have to wait for a whole string of cars to go by you.

The good news is that j-walking is at a higher level of sophistication here.  When cars are making their left turns, people will walk diagonal across the intersection.  This is a nice time saver if you need to cross in both directions!

Shanghai day II

My first assignment this morning was to go to the Quarantine Bureau to get a physical exam.  I was a bit perturbed, because I had already gone through this process in the U.S. but they didn’t get my paperwork in time.  It turned out to be surprisingly easy.  Back home it took almost 2 hours for them to do my exam.  Here they had it down to a factory line and had me in and out in 20 minutes.  Most of the time was just waiting for my number to be called.  Again another case where they’ve been forced to figure out a better way, having 1 billion people—I was impressed.

After an expensive, but unremarkable lunch at the hotel it was time to do some walking.

Not surprisingly there are lots of bicyclists on the roads (they have special lanes on the side, but they go where they want pretty much).  And there are a slew of motorbikes, possibly more than cars themselves in fact.  At several of the cross walks there is actually a special 3rd state to the light where bikes and cycles are allowed to go from any direction—it’s a fun sight to watch as they all criss-cross.  The other thing, which I really liked, is that several of the street signs are actually digitally lit and show current traffic conditions.  We have signs in Seattle that show estimated commute times to certain areas, but these signs actually showed you exactly where the slow areas are and let you judge for yourself how to go—love it!

People had told me there is a bit of admiration for lighter skinned people, and sure enough many of the ads I saw on billboards and posters showed Caucasian people.  After nearly 2 hours of walking on the streets though, I did not see a single non-Asian person.  This surprised me for Shanghai, but it might also have been the neighborhood I was in.  My hotel is in the bar district, and outside the city-center.

Along the same vein, most of the younger women here have fancy brand name handbags and boots.  The men, not surprisingly, are a bit more generic and don’t wear so many of the western brands.

After the long walk, I chatted with Danielle a bit and went to grab an overpriced dinner in the hotel.  It’s plenty of motivation to learn more Chinese so I can get out and about more.

The team sent out Meng Tang from our Beijing office to go on customer visits with me.  This is great because we need someone with at least a little SharePoint experience who can help translate.  I met him n the hotel lobby to plan out our engagement with customers tomorrow.  He was very easy to get to know, and the team had apparently filled him in on my penchant for Starcraft :)

My clock is mostly on Chinese time, but I am still a bit tired.  Off to bed so I can get up energetic tomorrow.

One way ticket to Shanghai

I am joining our SharePoint Tools team in China for the next 5 months.  The back-story here is that SharePoint has been so wildly successful that customers want to stretch it beyond the limits of its current design.  We want to make sure our current customers our happy with the product so that by the time our next version comes around we still have customers to speak of.  Towards that end, we started a team of developers and testers in China that’s staffed to build tools against our in market product.  Up until now, they have had only spare resources from our Program Management team and even then only someone who’s half way around the globe in Redmond.

I left Monday morning from Seattle on Northwest Airlines.  I have never been outside of North America, so needless to say this was my longest flight ever.  I was near certain it was going to be a miserable experience being stuck on a plane for 10+ hours.  The company flew me out business class, which turned out to be a huge difference in experience.  The business class for international flights might as well be first class, if not more.  Your seat reclines nearly to the point of being fully vertical, and you have quite a bit of space.  I was for the first time the guy who got to board first and skips through all the nasty TSA lines, which was a great feeling.  The meals served on the flight as good as you can get with the cooking facilities on an airplane.  It was mainly just nice having a stewardess that was always there anytime you needed anything and it didn’t feel like you were taxing her along with 80 other people she was assigned to.  The main thing is having your own personal space to just relax and read without some guy’s elbows pinning you down.

I took a couple short cat naps, but spent most of the time diving through books my family had bought me.  A few nights before leaving I started to put together the details of how I was going to get from point A to B for my customers visits once I got in Shanghai.  I was quickly daunted since the only good mapping software for China is of course in Chinese ideograms, not pinyin or English.  Both Google Maps and Live Local were a disaster in terms of finding locations—whether by name or street address.  So even after boarding the plane I had no clue where my hotel actually was relative to the city center and whether a cab driver should be charging 10 RMB or 100 RMB.  Furthermore, I was told the cab drivers speak no English at all, and needed the location in Chinese ideograms.  Needless to say I was not happy with this and pretty stressed out.  The thought of being lost in some random city without a working cell phone, anyone I can talk to, etc. was entirely unappealing.  On the plane ride I finally reverse engineered where my hotel was from one of the maps in my book and this felt light years better.  I chatted up one of the stewardesses that lived in Shanghai and she helped me figure out the Maglev train out of the Shanghai airport followed by a shorter taxi ride was actually my best bet.

When the 10 hours for my flight from Seattle to Tokyo were over, I was in a hurry to get to my connection (we had left late from Seattle).  This was a bit of a bummer, since I wanted to explore the Tokyo airport and at least feel like I saw a tiny nibble of Japan.  Much to my pleasure, most everyone I worked with at the airport spoke English and was quite helpful when it came to getting to where I need to be.

The last leg of my trip was a relatively short 3 hour flight from Tokyo into the Shanghai airport.  This was the first 747 I have ever flown in, which was kind of cool.  My seat was right up in the nose of the plane.  Since the cockpit is on the 2nd level, we truly were right at the head of the plane.

When I got to Shanghai, I was relieved since almost all the signs had an English translation.  So it was easy to find my way around, get my baggage, and go through customs.  All of which was pretty uneventful.  I will say a 747 fits a ton of luggage, because despite it starting to crank out as soon as I got to the carousel, it took me forty minutes of waiting for my bags to pop out.

With 130 pounds of luggage in tow, I followed the signs to the Maglev train.  When I got there I noticed the detail and craftsmanship in the uniforms the attendants were wearing.  I will have to go back and take a picture some time, but suffice it to say I have never seen any uniforms in the U.S. that looked so nice, no doubt a result of having lots of hands available to do the work.  The train ride itself was great.  It got up to 300 km/h, which was pretty impressive, especially as you watched the oncoming traffic below the railway coming at you.  In 4 minutes we were near the core of Shanghai and I took my taxi to the hotel with ideogram address in hand.

The taxi was a Volkswagen of some sort, and 80% of the cars I saw were also Volkswagens.  I think I have seen 1 or 2 Japanese cars so far.  This was a bit of a surprise.  Inside my cab, the seat belts in the back were covered up by some sort of reupholstered seat (this appears to be a pattern in the other taxes I’ve ridden so far).  And the cab drivers take it as an insult to their driving if you sit up front to take advantage of the one working seat belt.

Tomorrow I will be off to the quarentine bureau to get checked out.  For now time to get some sleep, since I’ve been up for more than 20 hours now.