Saturday, October 31, 2015

Little Sleep in Big China

I've been back from China for a couple of weeks now, which has been enough time to finally decompress, get reacclimated to my home and work lives, and get my body adjusted after the jet lag. It's been a hectic couple of weeks to say the least but I now have time to write about my trip and my thoughts on the entire experience. Since there's a lot to go over, I figured I would break this post into segments to make it a bit more palatable from a reading point of view. Also, I took a lot of pictures over the course of the trip, so I apologize in advance for slow loading times on your computers!

The Travel: When I left off in my previous post, I was sitting in the business class lounge at the Toronto airport killing time during my long layover before the flight to Shanghai. When it was time to get on the plane, I was able to board first since I was flying business class. What an experience! On Air Canada, each seat is its own individual "pod" and there are four rows in the cabin at the front of the plane. all arranged at an angle such that you get the entire section to yourself. It was plenty long to stretch my legs out fully, which at 6'5" is not an easy feat on a plane! There was an ottoman, plenty of space, a TV with loads of movies and TV shows to choose from, and lots of extra amenities. The second I sat down, a flight attendant put a glass of champagne in my hand. They handed out travel kits that had slipper-socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer and lotion, and more. Hot towels were passed out shortly after takeoff and again before landing, and the seat was able to be reclined for maximum comfort during the flight, which was great when I was reading or watching something. Even better for a guy who has never been able to sleep sitting upright on airplanes, the seat reclined completely flat so that I could actually get some sleep! On the flight over, I was able to take two three-hour catnaps...not great, but better than usual. The meals on the flight were great and the food and drink just kept coming; whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it, was available...all you had to do was ask. The flight to Shanghai took about 14 and 1/2 hours and we landed at 3pm Shanghai time. As we started our descent, I really started to get anxious since we were finally arriving in China. The flight attendants handed out Chinese entry and departure cards that we had to fill out. Once we landed, I got off of the plane and made my way down the tunnel to the airport...as I looked out of the window and onto the streets below, it finally hit me: "Wow, I'm in China!"

Barely in my seat and they gave me champagne!

I could stretch out...not typical for 6'5"guys on airplanes!


When I got to Chinese customs and immigration, I won't lie...I was quite intimidated. There were so many people and the lines were long. Luckily, all of the airport personnel spoke passable English and there were a lot of Westerners mixed in with the native Chinese so I didn't feel completely out of place. I eventually got up to the window and handed my passport and entry card to the agent, who looked it over, stamped it, and took my photo so they could match it when I left the country. After getting my suitcase at baggage claim and going through customs, I exited the airport and arrived to the main foyer. Now, I had been told by the conference organizers that transportation would be arranged and all I had to do was look for someone holding a sign with my company's logo on it...sounds easy enough, right? Well, nothing could have prepared me for the absolute crush of people standing behind the barriers on both side holding up signs and speaking in Chinese. As I walked down the long aisle, I started getting more and more nervous as I could not see any signs with our logo on it, I was getting near the end, and I didn't have any cell phone service (not that it would've mattered since I didn't have a number I could have called anyway). Finally, about 3/4 of the way down the line I saw a small piece of paper being held up with our logo on it. I rushed over and was greeted by two of the event staff who handed me off to a driver. He grabbed my suitcase and motioned for me to follow him. Once in the hired car, we started to drive through the insane traffic exiting Pudong Airport to make our way to the hotel.  I tried to make small talk with the him, but my first question was met with a response of "no...English" so I settled in for the silent forty-five minute drive. The landscape was similar to any urban sprawl you can see in the US but at the same time quite different. What was more striking to me were the areas of affluence right on top of areas of abject poverty. And the construction...one thing I noticed about Shanghai over the entire week was the construction going on EVERYWHERE, and at all hours of day and night. On my first night at the hotel, I met up with a few of my group members for dinner on an outside patio, and we heard a building being a knocked down a few blocks away...at almost ten o'clock at night.

My hotel room

View from my window...the smog...

A reminder that this wasn't like back home...

Chinese Coke, Sprite, and other drinks

Oreos in China

A Snickers bar in China

As for jet lag, I suffered really badly for the first three or four nights. There was a full twelve hour time difference from back home so my body was thrown completely off. I had a hard time staying awake past 9pm most nights but was then wide awake by 1am or 2am with no hope of going back to sleep. It got so bad that I would be falling asleep sitting at a table during a symposium in the middle of the day...luckily I found I wasn't alone as all of my colleagues from the US were having the same issues. It wasn't until the Wednesday night of that week when I was finally worn out enough that I managed to sleep from 11pm to 5am. Of course, once I adjusted for the rest of the week, it was time to go back home on Saturday afternoon. The one good thing about the twelve hour time difference was that it made it easy for my wife and I to set up times to FaceTime so that I could talk to her and the kids. Their minds were blown when I would be talking to them at breakfast time (for me) and they were getting ready to go to bed the night before!

As for traveling back to the US, I took a hired van with three of my groupmates to the airport after we had lunch at a burger bar (no joke) near our hotel. (As an aside, the burger place was...excellent! All organic Australian beef and while I had no expectations of having a decent burger in China, I was blown away by this one). After checking my suitcase and going through security, I proceeded to the business class lounge with the other member of our group who was also flying business so that we could relax, have a snack, and use the (much) cleaner restrooms before it was time to board (our flights departed within fifteen minutes of each other). This time I was flying United Airlines back to the US and the business class cabin was set up differently but I liked it better. This time, there were rows of two "pods" but they were even more spacious and comfortable than what I had on the way to Shanghai. To make it even more bizarre, I started chatting next to the fellow I was seated next to and it turns out not only was he from Massachusetts, but his sister lives in the same town as my parents. Add in the fact that I overheard the Chinese fellow behind me say that he was a chemist who commutes to Boston regularly for work and it was a very strange coincidence that I sat where I did surrounded by those two people! The flight was VERY smooth...I slept four hours, I watched two movies: the new Who documentary "Lambert and Stamp," which was excellent, and "This is Spinal Tap," a movie I've probably seen twenty times but still made me laugh so hard that I had to stifle it on the plane, tears running down my face and my sides aching from how funny it still was. 

On the flight back...even roomier!


We made great time on the flight and it was exactly thirteen hours from Shanghai to New Jersey. The only downside to arriving an hour earlier than expected was that my four hour layover before my connecting flight home was now a five hour layover. However, a computer system crash at immigration and customs meant that I had to wait in line for an hour and a half before being officially checked back into the country. At this point I was starving and exhausted, so I went to the business class lounge and killed time there with a cold beer and  a snack before grabbing a quick sandwich for dinner prior to boarding my final flight. Upon landing at home, I got my suitcase from baggage claim, found my limo driver, and valiantly fought to stay away awake on the ninety minute drive home before staggering into my house and falling into bed after 1am Sunday morning. Luckily, after being exhausted all day Sunday, I slept normally that night and was pretty much over the jet lag by Tuesday. Overall, the travel wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be although I do now know that I will only survive a flight that long in business class, if only for the ability to stretch my legs out and lay down during to sleep. I tend to get claustrophobic on planes if I'm on them for too long and business class certainly mitigated that.

The Conference: There's actually not too much detail I can get into with this since it was an internal research conference and everything that was discussed and presented is proprietary. However, the conference was great and I was able to finally meet a lot of my colleagues from around the world whom I had previously only interacted with over the phone or web conference. I presented my paper and it went very well...I got several compliments from colleagues throughout the week regarding it, which made me feel good especially as I've only been with the company a little over a year.  I also enjoyed all of the talks and symposia I attended during the week, learning a lot and reaffirming that I learn something new every day at this job, especially as I'm a chemist working at a predominantly engineering company.

My only complaint with the conference is that we were virtually trapped in the hotel the entire week. With a full schedule of talks, meals, and symposia, the entire day from 7am to 8pm was booked. Add in that those of us from the US and UK were suffering from severe jet lag (the folks from Europe adjusted easier and those from within China obviously had no problems) and it started to feel like we weren't ever going anywhere outside of the hotel. We even had two business unit outings for dinner on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights there, but they were literally get-on-the-bus-at-the-hotel-and-get-off-the-bus-at-the-restaurant outings which, while fun, didn't give us any feeling for what Shanghai was really like. That would have to wait until the final two days of my trip...

The Hotel and the Food: The conference center was on the 3rd level of the hotel so it was very convenient. It was a five-star hotel and while it was certainly quite nice, it wasn't the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. I suspect five-stars in China is on a different scale relative to elsewhere. Even at such a nice hotel, we were instructed not to drink any of the water or even brush our teeth with it, and instead only drink or brush with bottled water, of which there was an abundance throughout the hotel. As for the food, all of our meals were prepared by the hotel and spaced out throughout each day of the conference. While overall it was good, it tended to be quite heavy. Even stranger, it was a mix of Chinese and Western food, but skewed more heavily toward the latter. Now, I understand the reason for this as not everyone traveling to Shanghai is as adventurous an eater as I and many others are, but I didn't want to be in China only to eat spaghetti, mashed potatoes, and hot dogs. The Chinese food they did have was quite good and fairly authentic, but after eating the same dishes for a week, I was tired of it. I made up for it as much as I could in my final two days in Shanghai when I actually got to explore the city... 

Spicy stir-fried shrimp and vegetables

An assortment of Chinese dishes...and a Coke

More Chinese food (the duck and cabbage wraps were amazing!)

The City of Shanghai and China in General: Having felt trapped in the hotel all week, I finally got a chance to actually see a bit of Shanghai on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. With the conference ending on Thursday night, the only thing left I had to do for work was to visit one of our facilities on the other side of Shanghai on Friday morning.  Arriving back at the hotel at noon, I met up with five of my colleagues and we decided to go into the city to have lunch and sightsee. One of the most advantageous aspects of our day out was that two of my colleagues, while US citizens working in our California facilities, were both originally from China and spoke the language fluently. This paid huge dividends almost immediately as we were all very hungry and wanted to eat lunch first. After a cab ride to the Yu Gardens/Old City Shanghai section, we made our way up to the famous Nanking Dumpling House restaurant to have a traditional Shanghai meal. The line was ridiculously long and the wait was on the order of hours, but my colleagues who spoke the language managed to talk our way into the VIP room in the back and an all-inclusive meal for a fairly hefty (by Chinese) standards. Even better, they managed to talk them down on the final bill so it ended up being very reasonable, especially given the quality and quantity of the food. Dumplings of every filling, a whole fish (shown to us live in a bag for approval before cooking), soups, vegetables, appetizers, tea, beer...we were absolutely stuffed after eating and I can say that personally it was one of the best meals I've ever had and tied with dinner later that night, which I'll discuss in a bit...

Yu Yuan Gardens in Old City Shanghai


Beautiful although not peaceful...so many people around!




After lunch, we walked through the Yu Yuan Gardens market area, not only for the experience but because a few of us wanted to buy souvenirs for our spouses and kids before heading home the next day. The area was teeming with people, Chinese as well as Western tourists from the US, Europe, and Australia. I managed to get some great gifts for my family: I got my wife a wall-hanging for our new house, my son a traditional Chinese clay flute (a Xun), my youngest daughter a traditional Shanghai costume, my oldest daughter a stuffed panda bear wearing a traditional Chinese shirt and a good-luck panda wall ornament (she loves anything with panda bears), and my second oldest daughter a carved Chinese dragon. What made the experience so much fun is that, through my two colleagues, we were able to barter everything down to get better prices. It certainly felt like many of the merchants were initially thinking they could sucker the American tourists who didn't speak the language (most of the merchants spoke broken English at best) before our colleagues stepped in to haggle over prices. It was an absolute blast and I am forever grateful to my friends and coworkers who helped us out. Beers and meals as repayment have been promised!

Amazing dumplings and a broth-filled mega-dumpling

Shrimp steamed in green tea

Sea bass cooked whole for us...they brought it to us alive in a bag to approve before cooking

You want my Yuan?
That evening, one of my colleagues with whom I'd spent the afternoon with came with me and my boss as we set out for dinner. My boss had lived in Hong Kong off and on for several years when at his previous job and he even speaks and reads Mandarin (a most impressive feat as he's originally from the UK!) so he was a great asset to have in addition to being a great guy. We took the subway to the middle of the city and just walked and walked to see where we would end up. We eventually made our way into the fashion district, which was full of lights and people and glamor...at night, it reminded me of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. Feeling quite hungry, my boss read the sign of a nearby hole in the wall restaurant and told us it was a Cantonese place (Cantonese being the primary language and cuisine of Hong Kong, where not only had he lived but where his wife hails from). Being familiar with the food, he said we should try it, so in we went and up the stairs to a table. We let him order for us and we were not disappointed. What a fantastic meal it was, with pickled cucumbers and sauteed cabbages and leeks for appetizers, barbecue pork and seafood. I also had one of the best non-alcoholic drinks I've ever had with that meal: a concoction of lime sherbet, fresh mint, freshly ground lime, and soda water. It was delicious and refreshing and I'm dying to try my hand at making one here at home!

Amazing Cantonese food (and the legendary lime and mint drink!)


The only other time we went out into the city during the week for dinner was for a group dinner on Tuesday night to the Bund area of Shanghai. The restaurant was excellent but rather strange: an Italian-style farmhouse winery and eatery in the middle of China's largest city! I did get a very nice souvenir for our house: a Chinese fan with our last name written in Chinese calligraphy, done by a very old man who wrote the characters in a very beautiful style. Also, we had dessert and drinks on the roof and the view of the Pudong skyline across the river was breathtaking (although how much of the taking of breath was due to the smog is up for debate). On Wednesday night, we had a group outing to a bowling alley for bowling, billiards, pizza, wings and beer. Being in China, I didn't bowl since there weren't any shoes in my size (I wear a US size 15), so I settled for billiards, beer, and conversation. The pizza was...interesting. Not good, not bad, just...interesting. Ditto the wings.

So smoggy...

The Budweiser of Chinese beer...still, not bad

Chinese pizza and wings were...interesting


As for China itself, the smog that we've all read and heard about was real and it was pretty bad for the first half of the week. By Thursday the skies were clear and beautiful and the air was clean, but earlier in the week it was an issue. Not only did it make the views perpetually hazy, but it burned my nose, sinuses, and throat. Worse than that, I could taste it and it was not pleasant...think of a mix of automobile exhaust and chemicals. Combined with the regular wafts of sewer stench throughout the city, it didn't make for a pleasant experience. When I blew my nose, the tissue was black and I noticed a definite improvement upon landing in New Jersey (yes, New Jersey, which usually stinks in its own right! Go figure.). It was a common site to see Chinese citizens wearing masks around the city and I can only imagine the elevated rates of cancer and respiratory conditions people who live there have compared to here  in America. I hope they can fix their pollution problem (the river looked awful as well) because the landscape is quite beautiful.

The stunning view of the Pudong skyline from the Bund

The Rock and Roll Chemist in the Bund

Fan with our last name written in Chinese

The smog clearing away as the week went on...

Wow! Blue sky!


After a while in Shanghai, it started to feel like any other big city. It wasn't until I would go past one of the imposing government buildings with the red star emblems or would see soldiers guarding the doors dressed in their green uniforms with red stars under a huge Chinese flag when I would remember that I was not in a free country. Combined with the government censoring of the internet, it made for a subtle reminder than for all of the apparent similarities in our freedoms, China is still very different from America. Sure, we joked about not being able to access Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube (among other sites), and many of our Chinese colleagues joined in, but the chilling feeling that you were being monitored was always there. Even when I was texting or FaceTiming with my wife and kids over the hotel wifi, it was in the back of my mind. Shanghai was a great city to visit and I'm sure I'll be back for business in the future, but as with any trip, it was so good to get back home to the USA, to my house, my amazing wife, our beautiful kids, our two cats, and my regular routine. I have more business trips on the horizon...who knows where they will take me? As the adage says, it's not the destination so much as it's the journey, and this is something I've definitely understood more the older I've gotten and the further I've traveled.

1 o'clock in the morning, sneaking in the back door...and this was the best part of the entire trip!

2 comments:

  1. Sounds like an educational, fulfilling trip that went fairly well without many mishaps. I don't know what to do about jet lag, I think it's probably inevitable, and the further you go the more it's pronounced. Some melatonin might have helped to readjust the body clock, but it seems for the most part you wore it well. That traveling stuff tends to wear me down anyway.

    Boy their air pollution is bad! I can see why some of those people wear mask, particularly if they have to work outside. I can't imagine putting up with that on a daily basis particularly if you have respiratory or allergy problems. I've been watching a show on PBS called I'll Have What Phil is Having, which takes this guy named Phil (a writer for TV comedy shows like Everybody Loves Raymond) to different parts of the globe and is treated to some pretty amazing meals. Some of them look great, while others I'd have a hard time about trying like the old black duck eggs.

    I've got that Lambert & Stamp video in the queue but haven't seen it yet. Watched a Bruce Springsteen video over the weekend. What a performer. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yes, the pollution was AWFUL over there. The scary thing is my colleagues who've been over there before said it was actually pretty good compared to what it's been like in the past. I can only imagine because like I wrote, I could taste it and my nose and throat BURNED.

      The trip overall was very good...I just missed my wife and kids like crazy.

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