Postcards From The Edge

January 31st, 2009

Here are some oddball photos from Shanghai that have been stacking up for a while, in no particular order.


This was taken at Carrefour, a huge French conglomerate that’s popular in several Asian countries.  Two things were novel (to me) about this shopping cart:  a) it was on an escalator-ramp, which allowed for carts to move from floor to floor, and b) the wheels magnetically lock once you push the cart onto the escalator.  This latter feature is just so clever.  No struggling with the cart’s weight!  (When I first encountered this unexpected feature, though, I thought that the cart had gotten stuck somehow.)

IMG_0590The second picture is a billboard that I photographed inside a mall (the JLife Mall next to what used to be Shanghai’s tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower).  Call me a bigot, but I’m not sure that everyone gets the warm fuzzies when a sign claims to help you “enjoy” a “German dental experience.”  Are the Germans famous for dentistry in a way that I’ve not heard of before?

IMG_0385Then we have several food-related photos.  The first shows the cafeteria where many Microsoft employees eat.  The photo was taken at 1:20 pm, a time when in the US you’d still expect many people to be eating.  But as you can clearly see, the cafeteria was abandoned at this time.  No one would sell me any food, even though it was within the official opening hours of the cafeteria, because the workers were all eating and cleaning up.  In Redmond, you’d have employees eating well through the afternoon.  The China employee culture is very precise when it comes to lunch time.  People don’t eat at 11:50.  They stop heading to the cafeteria at 12:20.  The elevators are impossibly jammed at precisely 12 noon.  It’s like an unspoken agreement here.

IMG_0548IMG_0478The Lay’s chips, you’ll notice, are “Ziran Steak Flavor.”  I love market customization – like 7-Elevens selling tea eggs in Taiwan, or KFCs selling passionfruit juice in China.  The potato chips were pretty tasty.  Speaking of KFC, the one above is one of the most uniquely-decorated I’ve seen.  It’s on the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.  The Colonel sure gets around.

IMG_0222What’s a story about China without something being broken?  Left, you see a child seat.  The safety buckles are all broken, and the seat furthermore features several choice pinch points for little fingers.  What makes this seat truly awesome is that it’s essentially the same seat that we’ve been given in many restaurants, both native and foreign – complete with broken buckles each time.  In fact, I’ll go on record for saying that we have never once used a child seat in a Chinese restaurant that had working buckles.  This suggests perhaps some design feedback to the company that makes these seats (or alternatively, some feedback to parents who care about their children’s safety).

IMG_0214The red button you see on the left is meant for emergencies.  It calls the police or the guards in your apartment complex (you’ll remember from a previous post that there are guards everywhere in China).  It’s a sort of “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” type of button that features prominently in multiple rooms in many apartments.  The red button would be a pretty awesome idea – if it actually did anything.  I pressed an unlabelled one when I first got to Shanghai.  Nothing happened for days.  It reminds me of several friends who I’ve talked to over the years who, when dialing 911, got a busy signal.  Does this bother anyone?

IMG_0578These last two highlight subtle humor in language and culture.  “Wall Street English” is a huge chain that offers English tutoring.  They have video ads that feature hip Asian people confidently proclaiming, “I speak English – Wall Street English.”  This is perhaps only bested by their main competitor, “English First,” which loves featuring billboards of an Asian woman tied at the wrist with thick rope to a white man.  I guess it’s supposed to be a we’re-in-it-together sort of thing, but it strikes me as… odd.

IMG_0551Lastly, the trash cans.  Kudos to the Chinese for having trash cans that typically come separated between regular trash and recyclables.  This is a great move.  But you’ll note the particular recycle bin on the right is labeled “Unredeemable.”  True in literal meaning, comical in connotation.

Enjoy. Always. With a Twist.

November 18th, 2008

I’ve been a Coke fan (in preference over Pepsi) for many years now.  China’s the first place where I’ve experienced a truly new twist on its classic taste.

Today, in a simple Beijing restaurant next to Tiananmen Square (motto:  “What tank treads?”), I ordered a Hot Coke Ginger Lemon Drink.  I confirmed twice, thinking that I must misunderstand the menu, then absolutely had to order this most creative of drinks.

As promised, it was Coke, but served boiling hot, having had fine threads of ginger cooked in it along with a few slices of lemon.  Coke, ginger, and lemon are, I’m happy to report, three great tastes that taste great together.  It was truly the most creative preparation of Coca-Cola I’ve ever been served.  (Coke, for those of you keeping track, averages 200+ 8-oz. servings per American per year.  The American Dental Association should positively own stock.)

The concoction was served fresh, with the hot Coke still fizzing.  One must consume it within the first few minutes of its production lest its inherent fizzy-ness be lost in scalding heat.  The ginger added delicate treble notes to the Coke’s slothful, sticky alto;  the lemon added carefree highlights at the onset and retreat of the main melody.

I’m told by the waitress that it’s quite a common drink in China.  I suppose by “common” she means “you could spend six months here without ever hearing of it.”  She claims that it’s often had during colds as a way to clear the sinuses.  All Chinese school kids no doubt want to get sick, and often.

The folks at Coca-Cola Enterprises are probably delighted by this development, which hearkens back to the early days of Coke in the 1900’s when its traces of cocaine were billed as revitalizing to the health.

All it needs is a clever name, like those of most alcoholic drinks, where the name guarantees half the success.  How about something enigmatic and insider, conveying a chummy sense of knowing camaraderie whenever it rolls off the tongue, like “Moses Simpson Coronary?”

Coke.  Enjoy.  Always.  Now, piping hot with ginger and lemon.  At your local Beijing restaurant.  Ask for it by name.

Free Falling

November 3rd, 2008

I’m still undecided whether, in net, living in Shanghai is safer than, say, New York City.  Sure, there are plenty of random chemical smells.  Yes, my office in the outskirts of Shanghai is right next to a nuclear power plant (“The…. Siimmmmmpppsons…”).  But personal safety (vis-a-vis violent crime) is much better in Shanghai than in most major US cities.  There’s, after all, no allowance for widespread gun ownership.  And in general things just feel much safer.  You can walk most places at night without feeling in danger.  You’re much more likely to be hurt in Shanghai by the general disregard for health and human life than by violent crime.

Then again, once in a while you run into things that make you think twice.  I spoke to a coworker in Beijing last week who, while living in Park Plaza Hotel near Zhongguancun, entered an elevator that fell 17 stories when its cable snapped.  He stepped in, heard some elevator workers overhead, then suddenly experienced a loud snapping noise followed by 12 stories of free-fall.

This was no amusement park ride.  This was Life in Shanghai.

After falling 12 stories, the emergency brakes kicked in near the fifth floor.  The elevator slowed a bit from its blistering downward path, but not enough to prevent a hard impact at the bottom of the shaft.  He bounced off the floor hard, getting cuts on his scalp, lips, and face.  He then staggered out of the elevator, bleeding everywhere, and simply went up to the concierge.

“You should really get that elevator fixed.”

And he limped away.  For several days afterwards he took the stairs.  But he’s now back to normal.

This is probably the closest first-hand account of a near-death experience that I have ever personally run into.  I’m amazed and fascinated by the possibility of being confronted with only a few seconds of time to square one’s life away and prepare for instant death.  This coworker of mine took it remarkably well.

It of course doesn’t help that I’ve stayed at the very same hotel in Beijing.  Perhaps next time I stay there, I’ll be sure to ask for a room on the lowest floor possible.  Then again, maybe that’d be a mistake:  since the elevator’s emergency brakes took 12 stories of free-fall to kick in, it’d probably be wisest for me to ask for a room on the highest floor possible, thereby giving the brakes a bit more time to work their magic.

Mama Said Knock You Out

October 13th, 2008

I’m told Spartans were pretty rugged folk.

Mongols weren’t exactly wimps either.  You don’t amass the largest continuous-land-mass empire in human history by smoking peace pipes.

I briefly considered this today as a taxi driver was being punched and kicked by three people at the airport on my way to Shenzhen.  Hongqiao airport is one of the two airports serving downtown Shanghai.  There were more cops there today than usual directing traffic.  I figure it’s because it was a Monday morning, with lots of commuter traffic.  They kept things moving along as well as could be expected.

It occurred to me that the safety barrier normally erected between a taxi driver and his passengers — presumably for the driver’s safety –could in limited circumstances become a liability.  Sure, barriers keep bad elements out.  But they also lock you in.  And therein lies the problem.  Three people pull open your door, start shouting, and swiftly decide to supplement their point of view with fists and boots.  The cops might be too busy to help you.  Or they might frankly not see it as their job to intervene.  There’s a lot of traffic that needs directing.  Or perhaps they subscribe to one observer’s comment that you probably deserved the “lesson” you were getting.  If this was Taxi University, class was definitely in session.

I haven’t decided whether the passenger — who not only fled when class began in earnest, but also got back into the taxi once class was dismissed — was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  After all, you don’t pay a new fare when you continue with a taxi after stopping.

It’s hard for me to imagine those first few sentences when getting back into the freshly-educated driver’s taxi, but perhaps that’s why my future’s not in fiction.  I’d guess it’d be a meek congratulations on the continuing education credits, then off to Concourse B.  The guilt would tempt me to tip a bit more.  Then again, you made me late.

I didn’t get out to help, though class was in session a mere two meters from me.  You can decide whether I was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  My flight was leaving in an hour.  I was not yet at the gate.  Traffic was made worse because people were conducting class in the middle of the airport entrance.  This was definitely not adding up to leaving for Shenzhen on time.

I’m told a woman was once beat to death on a crowded bridge stopped with traffic during rush hour in New York City.  If memory serves correctly, class went into overtime during that session, lasting much longer than usual.  No one helped.  Perhaps everyone was acutely aware that they had not registered for the course, and so would not want to intrude on what was rightfully someone else’s education.  No one even called the police.  I’m not sure if anyone called nearby friends.

It’s commonplace to encounter belligerent shouting in Shanghai.  You might be at a supermarket.  You might be at a bus stop.  You might be in a five-star hotel lobby.  The location doesn’t seem to matter much.  Escalation is lightning quick.  WHAT!?  My coffee is late?!  What sort of two-bit joint is this?!  You moron!  I’m convinced I derive less titillating pleasure than many folks from these encounters because I don’t enjoy Jerry Springer.  I could probably lighten up a bit about the visceral aspects of human nature.  If it’s good enough for Ultimate Fighting Championship, it should be good enough for me.  Call me high-brow.

Being a suburbanite, it’s hard for me to know whether this tendency towards shouting and mano-a-mano combat is simply an urban phenomenon or one that’s especially acute in the Chinese culture.  I’ve not lived in the heart of any major American city, though I can easily be convinced that LA or New York might be like this.

What I mostly think about when I bring the kids out — to, say, the park or the shopping mall — is what they’ll learn from all the shouting and fighting.  And, in a rare moment of honesty, what they think about my efficiency.

Sonicare Review Haiku (it’s true!)

August 15th, 2008

So I finally buckled down a few months ago and bought a Sonicare toothbrush.  Talk about “things I should have done ages ago.”  My teeth now feel squeaky clean.  I have to watch how quickly I smile, lest my head ring with the familiar squeaking of freshly washed Tupperware.  But enough about personal hygiene.

The real question is this:  Sonicare has a regular model, the e7300, priced at $75.  Then there’s the model marketed to “teens” (since we all know their teeth are way different from adults’), the e3000, priced at a meager $25.  What’s the real difference between the two models?  Well, dumb stuff.  Like the e7300 has several LEDs to tell you how much power is left.  Like the e7300 pauses every 30 seconds to say hi and help you count down your two-minute recommended brushing time (~which~ model is for teens again?!).  Like whereas the e3000 takes AA batteries, the e7300 has a sealed-in, completely un-replaceable, only-the-factory-knows-how-so-you-might-as-well-throw-the-whole-brush-away-when-it-goes-bad battery.  Talk about planned obsolescence.  The environmentally conscious among you can simply use rechargeable AA’s on the e3000 and essentially get the same toothbrush for a third the price.

At least that was my theory.  But ever the scientist, I had to find out empirically whether this holds true.  So three months ago I bought both brushes.  My wife and I used one each.  I figured I’d keep an eye on both brushes to see whether, indeed, buying the cheaper one is the slam-dunk, obvious thing to do.

Three months later, the cheaper brush suddenly stopped working.  No rust, no apparent damage, no other contraindications.  It simply stopped coming to life.

Now, the brand- and marketing-conscious among you will simply say, “I told you so.”  “You get what you pay for.”  That whole bit.  But I beg to differ.  Since the e3000 costs a third the price of the e7300, I’d have to have two more go bad before we’re even talking the same game.  I haven’t decided yet whether the e3000 was simply manufactured to die early.  But I plan to find out, once again empirically.  I will, yet again, buy an e3000.  In fact, even if that one dies, I plan to buy a third one.  At that point, if the third one dies before the first e7300, we can debate whether or not my fourth brush should still be the cheaper one.  That would be the apples-to-apples comparison.

In the meantime, I’ve written up my experience in Haiku form on Amazon (it’s pretty obvious which review is mine — look for the familiar Haiku spacing).  For all I know, it might be Amazon’s first Haiku review.  Click to it and vote it up!  Let’s see if we can make the Haiku review some sort of cult phenomenon, like flash mobbing.  You can say you were there when it all started.

Effective Communication for Engineers

July 24th, 2008

[I originally posted this internally at Microsoft, but there was so much positive response that I’ve decided to also make it available externally.  I hope you find it similarly helpful.]

It’s not possible to lay out all the elements of great communication in one article — the topic’s too rich and I am no expert.  But poor communication has been such a blocker to the careers of many engineers I’ve managed and mentored that I’d like to try to outline some of the tips I give.  Great communication is something that I continue to strive for and struggle with, so please take these suggestions merely as tips from one traveler to another on our collective journey towards awesome communication.

For this article, I’ll focus on interactive forms of communication like meetings, conversations, and emails.  I won’t focus on formal, one-way forms of communication like presentations (or this blog!), which require special considerations.

General Tips

Successful communication requires that the other person internalize what you meant to share.  Too many people assume that communication happens as long as they use accurate words.  This is what leads to conversations where one side keeps saying the same thing.

Joe: “Why did you change this code?”
Timmy:  “Sammy was OOF yesterday.”
Joe:  “I know, but why did you modify this code?”
Timmy:  “I said Sammy was out.”
Joe:  “What does Sammy being out have to do with you changing the code?”
Timmy:  “Sammy’s auto-checkin script broke the build while he was out, so he didn’t fix the build break.  I had to change the code to fix the break.”

Communication hasn’t happened unless the other person has internalized what you meant to convey.  What actually counts as communication is the cumulative effect of your words, tone, and body-language on the other person’s behavior.  The literal, factual correctness of the words you speak are only part of the equation.  Most Americans understand this in the use of sarcasm:  “I just love it when the boss makes us stay on weekends while he parties in Vegas,” actually means you hate it.  (Incidentally, many cultures do not employ sarcasm, thereby underlining this point’s importance.)

I have little sympathy for people who exclusively blame the listener for failure in communication (“I’ve sent Joey at least 5 emails outlining how to fix the build.  He just doesn’t learn!”).  At least some of the fault for each failure in communication must by placed on the speaker/writer.  You’re effective once the cumulative effect of your words, tone, and body-language affect the other person’s behavior the way you intended.

Listening is (at least) half of effective communication.  Shouting matches happen when neither side understands this.  What does the other person want?  What’s important to them?  What is the other person trying to communicate back?  Why does the other person seem not to understand my point?  How can I say it in a way that they’ll understand?  Great communicators have a way of jumping quickly to the heart of the matter.  You may start by discussing something trivial but they quickly sense and raise underlying issues.  They understand you.  You feel a strong connection with them.  When you disagree with them, you continue to respect their point of view because you understand why they feel differently.  Part of what makes these communicators effective is that they listen.

I’m told that good basketball players don’t focus on their opponents’ upper body when guarding them — they watch their opponents’ feet.  Although it’s easy to feign intentions with the upper body, the feet continue to point the direction that the opponent will go.  So great players aren’t distracted by a bunch of upper-body misdirection.  They know where to look.

Great listening is similar.  The literal words that the other person uses are only part of the communication.  You need to watch the body language and listen to the tone.  You need to understand the person’s past experiences and their goals.  All of these go towards a more complete, accurate model of the other person, which then refines how you communicate with them.

Consider the audience.  We’ve all been in meetings where some developer loses the entire audience by using obscure terms and going into too much detail.  The best communicators understand why their audience wants to listen at all — why does the audience care? — and then targets what they say to address their audience’s interests and goals.  They build interest in what they’re about to say.  They don’t spend energy on what ultimately won’t be effectively heard.  They use words that have the right meanings to their audience.

Words matter.  Engineers often err in opposite directions in the choice of words.  Some engineers confuse precision with effectiveness when communicating.  They assume that the listener will receive their message effectively because the words they choose are literally correct and precise.  Other engineers hold the diametrically opposing view.  To them, the words they use don’t change the nature of the truth they’re describing.  It makes no difference to them whether a team is called the “Engineering Process Committee” or the “Engineering Best Practices Community.”

Words matter greatly in that each word causes a different response in a particular listener.  It’s counterproductive to use precise engineering terms with someone who doesn’t understand them.  But when speaking with someone who does understand those terms, it becomes critical to use them.  With such a person, it’d actually cause confusion not to use them.  So to get your point across, you must understand your listener’s model of what specific words mean and conform your communication to their words, not yours.  This is why a pedant’s frustration with “incorrect” word usage suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what communication is all about.

Tips for Introverts (and their managers)

Considering the bulk of the engineering community is introverted, I’ve included a few communication tips that have been helpful to introverts like me.

Communication needs to be proactive (timely).  Not speaking is communicating. There’s a reason that the smug response, “Well, you never asked!” always engenders frustration.  Silence is communication, every bit as much as shouting.  When a report of mine doesn’t mention a specific feature, I assume that it’s going well.  It’s painful when the burden of successful collaboration relies entirely on your knowing which questions to ask.  It’s important to raise issues as they arise, to speak when necessary even if it’s uncomfortable.

On that note, fall back on the medium that’s easiest for you if needed.  Many people are nervous about speaking in public.  Consider sending your feedback prior to the meeting to the organizer, or noting your feedback using IE’s Discussion feature or Word’s comment bubbles.  Follow up face-to-face with the organizer afterwards.  Contribute actively to email discussions.  Just remember that these are fallbacks.  There will be occasions, e.g. time-critical meetings, where speaking up in a group in real time is essential.

Misunderstandings tend to fester and spiral.  Speaking up at the right times, when a more timid person might choose to remain silent, goes a long way towards reducing misunderstandings.  Almost every Jane Austen novel relies on its main characters not speaking when they should.  It’s a sure way to cause drama.

Address difficult issues openly.  I used to avoid difficult conversations.  Just the anticipation alone would keep me up at nights.  I’ve found over time that conversations are rarely as difficult as we might think, especially when approached openly.  Usually, the more difficult you think a conversation will be, the more tense and awkward it actually ends up being.  Your state of mind makes a huge difference.  Most people are quite approachable, even on difficult topics, as long as they see that you genuinely care about them.  By continually forcing myself to proactively address difficult issues openly, I’ve become far less anxious and far more confident when approaching tough conversations.

A note to managers:  leave “space” for your introverted employees.  Pause a bit longer before moving on to the next topic.  Actively solicit their point of view in 1-on-1’s.  Avoid forcibly “calling on them” in team meetings in order to “motivate participation.”  Provide alternative means to register their views (e.g. email, written comments, post-meeting 1-on-1’s).  It’s not helpful to only set a commitment that says, “Participate more actively in meetings.”  Introverts need to be coached with examples and practical tips.  Fundamental changes like this will take years of practice.  The goal shouldn’t be to change an introvert into an extrovert.  Instead, it’s to make both introverts and extroverts better communicators.

[This post is dedicated to Alec Ramsay, who, amongst many other things, taught me that Words Matter.  I first learned by his example the vast difference between speaking and communicating.]

Secret Ninja Moves

July 18th, 2008

Office Hours, the Microsoft Office Online site, has posted a new article by me, titled Top 10 Most Useful Secret Ninja Moves in Office.  I had no idea that it’s been a whole year since my first article there (Top 7 Employee Bungles Using Microsoft Office).

The Office Hours folks send me a summary of the page views, comments, and ratings on the articles.  Employee Bungles, a whimsical article that’s not overly helpful, is read by far more people per month despite being reviewed by some as “not helpful.”  On the other hand, Secret Ninja Moves is unanimously hailed as “extremely helpful,” but yet has little readership.

Odd, the way these things work.

One Small Step for Man…

July 14th, 2008

So, the following sign has been personally spotted by me in both Beijing and Shenzhen (a government-planted city that is directly across the China’s former border with Hong Kong):

Small step makes big success

I’ve spotted this sign in many places and found the context rather humorous.  The English translation doesn’t do justice to the cleverness of the verse.  I’d translate it more as “One small step forward for Man, one big step forward for Civility.”

Where do these signs occur?

Sweet urinal action

That’s right — exclusively over urinals.  The clever turn of phrase, appropriately matched to a pertinent situation, makes the whole situation pure comedic magic.  When I first saw the sign, I had to ask someone what it meant.  The implications of the English translation weren’t obvious to me.  I chuckled a bit when it was finally explained.

The empiricists amongst you will no doubt ask whether the signs are having an effect.  I can happily attest that indeed, in such bathrooms, these signs have resulted in positive change.  I trust that no more explanation is necessary.

Standards of Cleanliness

July 10th, 2008

One thing that’s a little different from the US about China is its standard of cleanliness.  Here are several nations on the International Scale of Cleanliness:

China -> US -> Canada -> Japan / Singapore

When I lived in the US, I thought some places were pretty dirty — say, Gary, Indiana.  Canada always seemed a bit cleaner.  Japan and Singapore are probably in a dead heat for first place, though I’ve never been to Singapore.  Japan, however, I have been to.  You can pretty much bet that any country where hotel toilets have 12-16 separate buttons/knobs/functions is going to be a pretty clean country (from bottom up, so to speak).

But in China the standards and expectations of cleanliness are different.  Everything seems just a bit grungy.  The outside of buildings might have black mold or gray scuff marks.  The windows in a glass elevator might have a thin film of mildew evenly filtering the sunlight.  Bathroom counters might have nondescript unevenness in color.  How, after all, are you going to clean things if the water itself is slightly yellow?  The cleanest you could possibly get a “white” linoleum floor is light yellow, unless you’re willing to mop with, say, bottled water.  So the entire country seems just slightly less clean than some other parts of the world.

This was driven home to me yesterday in the company cafeteria.  The checkout lady was about to hand me my napkin (yes, napkins are tightly guarded in this cafeteria) when she spotted an insect crawling on the counter near the register.  In one smooth motion, she dropped the napkin, smashed the bug with her palm, and handed my napkin to me while saying the Chinese equivalent of, “Thank you for your patronage.  Come again!”

The food tasted good.  I used my single napkin with pride.  It’s not often that you know where your dinnerware has truly been.

But of course this sort of thing happens in the US as well.  In the company cafeteria in Seattle, the cook making my panini spotted some gunk on the spatula he was using to make my sandwich.  He swiftly banged it once or twice on the inside surface of the nearby trash can, then immediately used it to shovel my panini onto a plate.  So yes, there are horror stories to tell about food service everywhere in the world.

But as a generalization, China’s accepted standards of cleanliness are lower than the US.  I’m sure in the coming years as the Chinese populace gets ever more wealthy the expectations for cleanliness will rise.  In the meantime, my sincerest wishes to you on receiving a bug-free napkin at your next meal.

"It’s Not Fixable"

July 5th, 2008

In the course of getting the house repaired, the ADSL repaired, and a variety of other things fixed, it’s become apparent that there’s a trend in Shanghai of repairmen saying things can’t be repaired.

Situation:  House window won’t close.  Big 2″ gap potentially letting the cool breezes and the occasional enterprising burglar into the house.
Repairman:  “Can’t be fixed.  That window can’t be closed.  Not fixable.”

Situation:  Phone line not working upstairs.  Repairman takes a look inside the wall, discovers several long wires, and sighs.
Repairman (mind you, the phone company’s repairman):  “Can’t be fixed.  Actually, it’s not even my job.  You’ll have to do without.  What’s wrong with using the one phone in the foyer?”  (I’ve been practicing doing two flights of stairs within four rings of the telephone.  I think I’m close.)

Situation:  Internet not working.  The line gets disconnected every 2-3 minutes.  As you know from my previous post, I’ve already entered the magic numbers that should make it work.
Repairman (Internet Specialist):  “Can’t be fixed.  I mean, look at this jumble of wires!”  (He shows me, clearly expecting my years of phone-repair experience to empathize.  I nod knowingly.)  “Can’t you just use the Internet from somewhere else?  This won’t work.”

Some of these issues were only fixed after intense cajoling and negotiation of the Can’t-You-See-That-I-Need-A-Telephone, I-Can’t-Walk-To-An-Internet-Cafe-Every-Time-I-Check-Email variety.  Through this, I’ve learned two things:

  1. In China, there’s an expectation of negotiation during repair services.  It’s not that things truly can’t be fixed — it’s just that the repairmen, like good actors, want a good reason for trying.  “What’s my motivation?”  You’ll find that most are reasonable after they are convinced of your predicament.  “Really — and here I’m not joshing you — it’s pretty hard to use ‘The Internet’ when the superhighway shuts down every 2-3 minutes.  Can you imagine all the data backups and fender-benders?  This is what I’m saying, my man.”
  2. There’s a chance you may not be burgled immediately.  I mean, look at us:  our window’s been “irreparable” for at least a few weeks here.  We’re still “open for business,” so to speak.  When a repairman won’t be convinced, no amount of logic will sway him otherwise.  “The window must have worked at some point, right?  Like immediately after installation?”  These arguments ring hollow to repairmen of great faith.  Don’t tempt them with facts.  It won’t work.

Instead of just caving in whenever someone says something can’t be done, I’ve learned to push back a little.  “Really?  This will never again work, in this house, ever?”  “If it’s not the telephone company’s job to fix the telephone line, could you help me find the right people to contact?” 

I truly don’t believe repairmen do this to be malicious.  I think debate and argumentation is an expected part of the social contract between homeowner/renter and repairman.  I now almost enjoy the prospect of this near-guaranteed confrontation when anything needs to be fixed.


Almost fixed, that is.  Some things still don’t work.