Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel Notes from Asia - July, 2013

Spoiled Brats?: In the first half of our trip, we travelled to and around Korea, generally flying on Korean Airlines. The flights were on-time and the people were quiet, friendly and polite. Lines, boardings, and customs and immigration dealings were efficient and agreeable. If not pleasant, travel was at least hassle-free. Except for the Kimchee, life was good. Halfway through the week we flew to Jeju (more on that later), and transferred to Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines. We were then surrounded by Chinese people on a Chinese airline. Immediately, I noticed a difference. The plane was late. Boarding was a nightmare. People hogged the armrest and left knees akimbo. You got knocked in the teeth by elbows as people wrestled their bags free, trying to beat you to deplane. If you missed your chance leave your row and walk down the aisle, you’d better wait until the plane was empty, lest you be trampled to death like a college kid at a Who concert. People ran over your toes with their luggage carts as they jockeyed to get through customs. We breathed a sigh of relief as we finally stepped into the van taking us to the plant.

I was travelling with five or six colleagues and everyone noted it after we’d arrived in Kunshan later that day. I chalked it up to Chinese air traveler’s recent emergence from the third world. Most of the people on that plane were less than one generation away from poverty – perhaps they were just used to fighting for everything they had. Later at dinner, I was assured by numerous colleagues, including several Chinese, that something else was at work. It was the One Child policy, they said. China had brought up two generations of spoiled brats. Every person under about forty years old had been coddled by their parents into thinking that everything was theirs for the taking. It’s an interesting theory, and one which I’d heard several times before. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between, plus a little bit of many other things.

Who is that Speckled Man?: Long business trips merit careful packing. Clean clothing is a valuable commodity. You need to keep yourself tidy. Unfortunately, I’m still a bit of a novice with the chopsticks. I’m getting better with each trip, and most of the time, it’s not much of problem. But there are certain foods which like to skitter out of my grasp rather than cooperate all the way into my mouth. Kimchee, boiled peanuts, peas and fried rice present a particular challenge. Some of these are the less threatening of Asian foods, so often I really want to get them into my rumbling tummy. But they’re often coated with a sauce or film of some sort, so when they end up in my lap, they leave a little mark. Napkins don’t rest in one’s lap in Asia, they rest next to the plate. I end up with little dots on my pants.

My shirts fared even worse. Three weeks ago while performing some final Sandy tree clearing at home, I chainsawed through several flourishing poison ivy vines. I was wearing shorts and an old holy shirt, so the self-created urushiol froth had unfettered access to pretty much all of me. My left arm was devastated and required Prednisone to clear up the blistering, oozing mess. This was accomplished on vacation before I left. But the rest of my body was covered with hundreds of itchy little sores that persisted well into the Asia trip. I’d wake up at night to find myself scratching the skin off my body like a heroin addict. As a result, a good many of those sores turned into tiny little scabs. In the daytime, the combination of the ungodly heat, the insufferable humidity, and the binding business clothing turned my itchiness into an exquisite torture. Sometimes I had no choice but to scratch all over again. This made the tiny scabs bleed a tiny bit. My nice white shirts became speckled with blood. I’d like to think I matched at least, with polka dots on both the top and bottom.

We were in Korea and China for a multi-day board meeting for one of our companies with plants in several Asian cities. Sometimes I like to fantasize that I cut an imposing figure in the boardroom. Alas, it’s quite impossible to be imposing while speckled with blood and foodbits.

The China Miracle: I continue to be awed by the continuing investment in China. I’ve always been impressed by the huge skyscrapers in Pudong and the edges of Beijing, but I’ve never before appreciated the breadth of modern development.
One day we approached the Bund from the West on Huyu Expressway, and passed what must have been 20 kilometers of newish, modern soaring skyscrapers. They were all surrounded by perfectly tended gardens and landscaping. It was mind boggling. I have been visiting China on and off for about 11 years now, and the changes which have occurred in that time are hard to comprehend.

That said, evidence of a real estate bubble abounds. As one travels around China, particularly in smaller cities (2-10 million people), it is not uncommon to find real estate housing developments consisting of ten to twenty skyscrapers, all complete and ready to go, with nary a lighted window at night. The apartments are all empty. To make matters worse, just down the road is another development under construction, with twenty cranes piling up these monster buildings as fast as the steel can be transported to the site. And down the road, another, and then another. And while the new buildings in city centers were initially filled by locals who’d already acquired middle class status, these new projects are presumably to be filled with people imported from the countryside. But these people are still desperately poor, and it’s entirely unclear whether they could ever afford the apartments being built for them. It’s a vexing conundrum, and seems unlikely to end well. Something’s got to give. But given the monolithic nature of China, its politics and its economics, I’m not sure there’s an economist in the world who can honestly tell us what a real estate bubble would mean to China and the rest of the world. Perhaps they can manage through it.

Holiday Fun: For some reason, the travel gods routed us through the island of Jeju on our way from Korea to China. Jeju is the Asian equivalent of our Hawaii: a mountainous, volcanic island in the middle of the sea, surrounded by crystal clear blue water and inviting beaches.
As otherworldy as it is to be jetlagging while traveling on a plane full of non-English speakers, it is doubly bizarre when you are wearing business attire and are surrounded by Korean revelers on their way to paradise. I felt like I was ruining their fun. It made me sad that I had to get right back on a plane and head west to China. It would have been much more fun if I’d been presented with a fruity drink and a canopied transport to the resort.

Bicycles, China-Style: The General Manager of our plant in Kunshan somehow scored a private tour of the Giant Bicycle manufacturing plant for me.
The plant is just down the road from our own facility, but an order of magnitude larger. With 2,500 employees, they manufacture 2.3 million bicycles a year, from cheap Chinese city bikes to the highly engineered carbon steeds ridden by the likes of Lance Armstrong and his various biking teams (Giant is the OEM producer for Trek, among others). They wouldn’t let me take any pictures, but I can tell you the process they use to manufacture 2.3 million bicycles is just goddamn cool. I was hoping that one of the finest carbon frames might “fall off the back of the truck” so I could take one home on the plane with me, but alas, the trucks were all securely fastened.