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Lost In Translation

My knees were shaking as two guys stood in front of me with knives. It was the first time on this trip I was truly nervous. Audrey was out of harms way as one of them blindfolded me while the other prepared to throw a knife. Minutes earlier we were both enjoying the evening, smiling, laughing and holding hands when I was plucked from the audience of the Shanghai Acrobats performance during the knife throwing demonstration. 1,000 people were now staring at me and knifes were soon coming toward me. The disadvantage of front row seats near the stage entrance.

When I become Supreme Leader of the People’s Republic of China, I am going to implement Three Rules: 1) No Spitting, 2) No Pushing, and 3) No Smoking. Apparently these aren’t taught in school. I may hold off on that last rule since I’m sure most of my mutual funds invest in RJR but definitely the other two. Yes, they spit everywhere.  The sound of a loogey being formed then discharged is no longer shocking. Everywhere. Trains, office buildings, restaurants. And when you have 1.4 Billion people all moving about, there is bound to be pushing – lots of it. Getting on the train is like being in the heart of the mosh pit at a Green Day concert. Oh, let’s not forget the PJs. if China wants to become a World Power, I recommend they outlaw wearing pajamas in public. It’s not a good image. Grown men, walking out of the subway in the middle of the day will not impress foreign dignitaries or CEOs. At home we’d wonder how they escaped. Here, no one cares. I walked into a store at 5pm and five men of non-senile age were playing cards in their PJs on the street. Odd? No, China.

Eighteen months ago when we started planning this trip and Audrey suggested China, my enthusiasm meter barely registered. But after one month here, I’ll most likely be back. And since it will be the next Super Power, unless Microsoft takes that spot, the opportunities will be great. It was good to learn so much about a country whose future impact on the world will be so great.

Entering China from Vietnam on a 20-hour train ride was an adventure. After passing through the highly inefficient Vietnamese border crossing at midnight we boarded a new train in China. And unfortunately, Audrey and I were inexplicably put in separate sleeping compartments. I tried to get us together but it was pretty clear the conductor was saying NO at my request. At 2am, one of my four bunkmates got off the train. So, I thought I’d try again. My Chinese vocabulary consisted of one word so I needed to pantomime the following, “I am sleeping in this compartment and the women in that compartment is with me and we would like to sleep in the same compartment so can I go in there and get her and move her and her luggage from that compartment to my compartment and have her stay with me until we get to our destination at 3pm?” They didn’t understand my Charade. So, I performed it again. But slower. It worked and they agreed on the switch. After a month in China, I can now mime anything including buying deodorant, getting to airport, and copying pictures to CDs.

At 2:30am with the room dark and everyone asleep, I entered Audrey’s cabin and leaned down to say, “Honey, you can move to…” when a small Chinese woman, scared out of her wits, opened her eyes and looked at me quizzically. Oops, Audrey was in the top bunk, not the bottom. Unfortunately, “I’m Sorry” was not yet in my vocabulary, but I did say, “Ni Hao.” Chinese relations were not starting off well.

Things improved as we arrived in one of the prettiest places I’ve been: Yangshuo near Guilin. This is where all the US Presidents come when they visit China. Unlike Bill, George, Jimmy or Dick, we rented bikes and rode around the countryside. Also took a dumpling (a.k.a. pot sticker) cooking class at the restaurant we’d been eating at for a few days. I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never go into the restaurant’s kitchen of your dining establishment. Some things are better left unknown.

As we moved north by trains, planes, and automobiles, we continued renting bikes which is my favorite way to explore. Riding bicycles through Beijing with 14 million people was a blast.

With such a large country and so many people, you’d think everything would be big. Not so. We SuperSIZE, they Midgetize.  I duck down to take showers and squeeze my western-sized legs into buses. Even the cars are smaller. One city had an eight seater golf cart police paddy wagon. And the ambulance made our minivans seem full size. When we rented bikes to ride in the country side, I adjusted the seat as high as it could go and my knees still bounced of my chin on each upstroke. The cities, however are massive and growing exponentially. Shanghai is littered with skyscrapers under construction while Beijing the same. Most of Beijing is shrouded with scaffolding as it cleans, paints, or refurbishes everything for the Olympics starting on 8/8/08 at 8pm. Eight is a lucky number. They are so far ahead of schedule the IOC asked them to slow down construction. Athens could have learned a few lessons.

Well, we went 143 days before eating a full meal in McDonalds and was it an experience. It was a zoo when we entered at 12:02pm. After fighting our way through the screaming Chinese kids looking for their McMeal, we quickly realized the need for a plan. Audrey would stand in line to order our McLunch while I would find a table. As we departed, I could see her fighting her way toward the front like a fish trying to get up a waterfall. Chinese don’t queue well. Ten minutes later after scrolling this massive McBuilding like a shopper at Christmastime looking for a parking spot in the mall, I returned, without a table. Audrey was still not at the front. The McSecurity Guards were surrounding the joint like it was a prison and trying to bring some semblance of calm to the swarms of kids fighting to the front of the line. Unsuccessfully, I might add. I ventured back out for a table after gaining eye contact with Audrey and minutes later found one. Not used to the vulture-like characteristic of a hungry patron, I returned to tell Audrey where our table was. Mistake. Towering over the throngs of customers, it was easy to find her and point to our location. Then 19 seconds after spotting our table, I returned to claim my prize. But was cut off by some unsuspecting Chinese girl who was on a mission to sit down at the vacancy. Not wanting to cause another international incident, I backed off. Unsuccessful at my chore, Audrey successfully obtained lunch. We enjoyed it outside on the steps away from all those screamin’ McChinese kids. Ahhhh, a Big Mac and Fries. And to think, earlier that day we were actually at a zoo. A Panda Zoo which was more orderly.

Darwin’s Theory on evolution must have been formed while he was studying the Panda. These cuddly little creatures are not extinct for one reason: Humans. Without our involvement, they would have been gone long ago. We visited the Panda Preservation Center in Chengdu and learned some very interesting facts. First, their diet consists mainly of bamboo — not every type of bamboo but only 20 of the 300 species as they’re finicky. And, since bamboo has very little nutritional value, they need to eat about 45 pounds just to get enough energy to keep eating. Second, they sleep a lot making cats look active. Any type of activity will obviously wear them out so sex is rare which significantly impacts their reproductive capabilities. Third, and worst of all, the male’s penis is too short to reach the appropriate female reproductive organs making it hard for the sperm to penetrate the egg. It’s a wonder they are still around. And in the even rarer instance when they do give birth, the palm-sized creature is foreign, so Mom bats it around like a hockey puck. Fortunately, Pandas are cute or we’d have no Ling Ling or Sing Sing.

The Panda Preserve was just one of many wonderful places we visited. Also were impressed with the Terracotta Warriors, the massive dam on the Yangtze River and the Forbidden City. However, the highlight was hiking 6 miles of The Great Wall. It truly is awesome stretching the distance of San Francisco to Boston. Our four hours will forever be ingrained in our memories as Audrey said “Yes” when I got down on my knees and asked her to marry me. And despite all the negotiations we’ve been doing with hotels and vendors throughout Asia, she took my first offer and didn’t haggle. Whew.

With less than 45 days left, we are starting to think about transitioning home. Not by choice as I could stay out longer, but by necessity. However, our adventures are far from over. I expect the next 10 days to be filled with many stories as we will be traveling by train across China, Mongolia, Siberia and finishing in Moscow. It won’t be the remoteness or the language or the sleeping in a Gers, but being in a 10 x 10 compartment with a soon-to-be bride and soon-to-be mother-in-law. We met Audrey’s parents in Beijing who will travel with us to Moscow. It’s nice to have them here. Wish me luck.

Bryan and Audrey

Bryan Gillette

Bryan Gillette is the founder and principal consultant for The Summiting Group focusing on Executive and Leadership Development. He has traveled extensively for both work and personal visiting over 50 countries and 30 United States. He is an avid runner and cyclist and ran 200 miles around Lake Tahoe in 76 hours as well as cycled across the United States. Currently spending one year traveling the world with his family.

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