[The whole series of blogs can be read here]
After 48 hours of traveling (14 hours of flight, from 11 am Monday in Newark until 2 pm Tuesday in China), one murder hotel Tuesday night and a Wednesday morning (June 26th) flight from Beijing, we got to Zhengzhou.
The capital of Henan province, Zhengzhou (pronounced like jen-joe, with a slight z before each syllable; zhen-zjoe) is an ancient city, with parts dating back to 5000 years ago. Chinese believe that the Yellow Emperor created Chinese culture here. It’s now a city of almost 8 million – the size of New York City. The city is huge. But in a country of over one billion, its not that big. Beijing is 16 million and Shanghai is over 20 million.
First impressions: driving edition. It’s chaos. 4 lanes of traffic feature 6 lanes of cars, and many of them actually travel in the same direction. Then throw in thousands of electric scooters whose drivers possess absolutely no regard for personal safety. Add massive construction detours. Chaos. It’s really a matter of who wants it more.
Oh, there are also watermelon trucks being driven by lawnmower engines.
Further, physics doesn’t seem to apply.
In China – as in life – connections are everything. We are the guests of the Zhang family, and on the evening of day three (8p Wednesday, June 26, in China) we were guests of Mr. Zhang at the very exclusive club of his school friend for a traditional Chinese dinner. This requires explanation.
Traditional dinners involve tables 14-15 feet in diameter with a 12-13 foot glass turntable at the center. Food items are served onto the glass, which is then turned to each guest.
Respect of tradition is very important, doubly so because we’re here on business. Mad skillz with the chopsticks are big sign of cultural respect, as is ‘taking a bite’ of each dish. Taking a bite simply means putting it on one’s plate. In the case of foods that are staring back at you – squid, for example – just pushing it around with the sticks suffices.
On Thursday we traveled to Zhengzhou University. It’s main campus is 14 years old, with 60,000 students – the size on Penn State. While there, Melanie was signing an agreement with Junbaio Chang to allow an exchange of students, faculty, and educational and research opportunities with ZU.
The school is massive. So massive that they have an entire hall dedicated to a diorama of the university campus. The new campus. There are 3 others.
It is ridiculously hot, 92 degrees with humidity in the 70’s. We’re in suits. This is brutal.
We’re lead into a room that makes this look more like a diplomatic reception than a university visit.
Side note: no matter how hot it is, we’re offered – and expected to drink – hot tea.
Mr. Junbaio (last name first in China) is the Vice President of the university. Chinese protocol says that equal meets equal; VP meets VP, and Melanie is the Vice President, Enrollment Services.
Also with us is Dr. Michael Speziale, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. Mike is responsible for Wilkes’ presence around the world, in Italy, Spain, Oman, Arizona and India. Mike’s wife, Dr. Kerry Speziale, will be my partner in the metaphorical sidecar during the business end of the trip.
Kerry is an exceedingly accomplished professional in her own right. She was the math teacher of the year in PA for 2004. Still, we’re expected to sit aside and look pretty while the spouses do business. Kerry has me one-upped on that, too.
We make small talk for a bit, which is difficult through interpreters, especially when Zhengzhou’s isn’t particularly good.
Following the signing, we were honored with a traditional lunch with the President of Zhengzhou, Yongkou Zheng, professor of philosophy and Communist party secretary in Henan province.
Chinese business culture revolves around drinking together. Traditional toasts of bai jou, a type of rice wine, are not optional. The most expensive bai jou, the one reserved for honored guests, is called Moutai. It tastes like gasoline, but you can’t not drink it. Trying to get out of it almost cost us the business arrangement.
The Moutai can be (and today was) part of what is called a fish head toast, which dates back to the emperors. A whole fish, intact, is on the table with the head facing towards the honored guest. The host offers a toast, everyone drinks the Moutai, and then everyone takes a piece of the fish.
Luckily, today’s lunch involved only one toast of bai jou.
As on Wednesday, we sat around a large round table with a glass turntable while literally dozens of dishes are brought out. Chinese food at this level is as much symbolic art as it is nourishment. This is not General Tso’s chicken.
Lunch thankfully finished, agreements in hand, we head back to town.
After lunch, our hosts have booked us for a photo shoot.
This requires (another) explanation.
In China, as in America, engaged couples get photos taken. In China, couples go to a salon where they try on wedding clothes, get hair and make up done and have a professional photo shoot done. In our case, we’ve been scheduled to get dressed up as an emperor and empress and go through the traditional poses of an ancient Chinese wedding.
I feel ridiculous, but as is the nature of the Chinese, the gifting is extravagant and to refuse is an insult.
Tonight, we ate at an “Italian food restaurant” in the hotel. The pizza isn’t that good, but given our lack of American food, it’s great. A frantic cross-cultural search ensues when we ask for some red pepper, garlic salt and oregano. Lets just say that they have no idea what we mean and we end up with ketchup, Tabasco and an actual red pepper.
This is China.
[The whole series of blogs can be read here]