Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Vietnamese Thanksgiving

It is always so refreshing to hang out with my little sister, Kelsey. We both have a silly side and when you put us together, the inner goof-ball just comes out! I had the opportunity to meet her down in Vietnam this year for the week of Thanksgiving while she was backpacking around SE Asia and I was working in China. What a lovely country! It is definitely poorer and more disorganized than China, but the people were kind, the landscapes were breathtaking, and the shopping was cheap!

We only spent time in North Vietnam, flying into Hanoi. The city is a typical SE Asian city, and I don't really recommend SE Asian cities to tourists because all the beauty in those countries is in the natural landscapes, mountains, islands and crystal clear water. The cities are typically hectic and stressful for a Westerner with millions of motorbikes, lawless traffic, dense populations and run-down housing. This pretty much goes for Jakarta, Hochimin, Bangkok, Manila, etc. You still have to stop there if you're a culture or museum buff, but just plan for more time outside of the city than in. The nice section of Hanoi is around the lake where there is good shopping, activities like Water Puppets and massages, and restaurants with a view.

After Hanoi we made our way to Halong Bay. Beautiful scenery with limestone karsts (peaks) jutting out of the water all around you, and it is a Unesco World Heritage Site to boot! We did a two-night cruise on a small, 16-guest boat. All activities, accommodation and food for the 3 days was included for $185! If you go to Halong Bay, I highly recommend doing more than the standard 1-night cruise. Most tourists come in and out in a rush and have a very canned experience. I recommend staying two nights on the boat or spending a couple of days on Cat Ba island in order to get a broader picture. Even better- find your way over to one of the other three bays in the area with similar views because Halong is the most crowded. Our second day on the cruise was the best because when the big boat took the 1-nighters back to the harbor, we took a smaller boat over to a cove in a different bay. We anchored there to kayak to the caves and multiple beaches, swim in the cove, and just lay on the top of the boat with a drink! That was my favorite part of the whole cruise.

From Halong Bay, we went to Ninh Binh via Hanoi. Ninh Binh was a small city surrounded by beautiful scenery. From there you go to Tam Coc or Trang Na to take a two-hour boat ride through the river, fields and peaks. 1-2 people occupy a boat while a local rows you down the river with their FEET! (Cost is $4 for the ride.) Our last night in Vietnam, I treated our crew to a night in the best resort in the area, which was itself a bargain. We had a private pool, comfy beds and a buffet breakfast to send us on our way! A great way to end a relaxing week. Although we were turkey-less during Thanksgiving, we had a lovely time and dined on the yummy local grub instead. Given the Thursday/Friday work holidays during Thanksgiving week (and the limited American vacation allotment), I'm considering making this a Thanksgiving travel tradition for the future!

The boat ride in Tam Coc:


Friday, November 16, 2012


Every now and then a light bulb comes on and we see what has been lurking right in front of us.  I've been working on this Joint Venture in China for 20 months now, and as most overly-motivated corporate citizens know, you should start looking for your next step at or around the 2-year mark.  As I've been thinking about what to do next, I've been presented with choices like: 

A)  Work in a politically-charged US corporate environment for a lot more money and status in the hierarchy,
B)  Work in a more relaxed US corporate environment for a smaller pay increase, less travel, and good development opportunities,
C)  Work as a China expat for a US corporation for the most financial benefit of all options while using my hard-learned language skills but dragging my boyfriend somewhat unwillingly, 
D)  Go into business with some high-risk, high-reward Chinese entrepreneurs that have expressed interest,
E)  Seek out a simpler, less mobile life and downgrade my salary and move to Charleston, SC while leaving the corporate world behind.

Before you South Carolinians get all excited, I'm not picking Option E.  (Although Charleston may still be in my 5-year plan, it's not my next move.)  I had my epiphany while I was thinking about these various options, and I didn't recognize it at first because it was so sacrilegious and counter to everything that I have focused on academically since 2007, but can be summed up in one sentence:  I don't love working in China!

WHAT?  For those of you that have worked or traveled with me in China, you have seen me hollering at a taxi driver in Chinese, squeezing the last $0.50 out of a street vendor, and terrorizing the waitstaff like only a local can do, and you thought, "this girl is in her element."  Minus the blonde hair, I can practically blend right in.  In fact, the ultimate complement I received in my Chinese studies was when a client (previously only communicated with me via the phone) couldn't find me in the hotel lobby because he was looking for a Chinese face!   So why would I not want to use that skill to the fullest? I could stay and grow in China until I have a small empire, or at least an impressive net worth.  But recently I was sitting in the back of a taxi, feeling car-sick, on the way to the office...and I thought:

"Ug, I really don't want to go to the office today. (in Shanghai)
Actually, I never want to go to the office.
In fact, I don't really enjoy Monday-Friday.
But....I'm supposed to love China!?
Hmm, I love my Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays in this city.
I've always had such a good time here with my friends, they are some of the best in the world.
And I really thrived here as a student...

I definitely loved studying in China.
And I will always love playing in China.
But the truth is, I really don't like working here!"

I don't think that I always disliked working in China.  There was a time when everything was new, challenging and exciting.  I think that as the years have passed and I've become an 'old China hand,' those things that used to be "new, challenging, and exciting" are now "exhausting, needlessly complex and frustrating."  I am also now far too experienced with phrases like "circular negotiations," "expected bribe" and "ulterior motives."  The crazy experiences are numerous, and most people in the US office would never believe it happened.  It can all be very exciting the first time you experience this stuff because you feel like you are seeing/learning/understanding a whole new world.  Then one day you realize...It's been a great experience, but you no longer want to operate in that environment longer than you have to.  

I am currently working in one of the most complex business models available in the business world:  a minority-share joint venture with a state-owned company in which the only customer is also the majority partner.  For those of you in international business, you know that there is nothing good about that sentence.  Therefore, I am aware that this particular situation I am in is contributing to heightened emotions, but I have still come to the conclusion that no matter how much money a corporation throws at me right now, I want my next position to be US-based.  I don't mind (and would actually prefer) the opportunity to travel to China each year for short trips, but I do not want a job that is 80-100% based in China.  All the cheap massages and pedicures in the world aren't going to make up for the levels of frustration that I would experience, and the stress of working both time zones as you try to accommodate US office hours.  

So what path am I going to take?  Probably Option B.  I will keep my China relationships and friends forever, but I just don't plan to co-locate with them for much longer.  This will be good for my sanity, my health, and my boyfriend.  However, I will be forever grateful that I learned Chinese and spent this many years here.  Besides giving me some of the best friends I could ask for, these experiences opened many doors for me in the university and corporate worlds.  I wouldn't be where I am today, with this many choices in front of me, without my China experiences.  So I thank you, China.  And Goodbye for a while.