I can haz international funds?

After seven years and change in China it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the purpose of the Chinese banking system is to keep you from doing anything useful with your money. It is widely said that the Railway Ministry in China is best surviving example of a reactionary Communist bureaucracy, and after recent events it’s hard to argue with that. But in my experience the big, state-owned banks are giving the Railway bureaucrats a run for their money.

Many people speak in (relatively) glowing terms of the service provided by some of the newer commercial banks, such as China Merchants Bank or Bank of Communications. I have no experience with that, because both of the companies I have worked for in China have limited my options for paycheck deposit to two of the “big four” state banks (the ones Gordon Chang is always telling people are about to implode). Yes, I suppose I could open an account at one of the smaller banks and then move my paycheck every month, but the thought of having any more Chinese bank accounts than I absolutely need makes my liver spasm. Due to a bank switch by my old company, my year in Shanghai, the fact that Chinese banks don’t actually function in any recognized sense of the word “nationally,” and their conviction that joint accounts are some kind of rightist plot,  I’ve already left a daisy-chain of zombie accounts scattered across the country. Each has about RMB2 in it and no doubt at least one will be used to hijack my identity at some point in the future.

I would bulldoze a field of spaniel puppies and nursery schoolgirls in fairy costumes to avoid a trip to the bank. Every trip to a big, state-owned bank is like the scene from the end of Beetlejuice where Michael Keaton is in the waiting room for hell with a ten-digit ticket while they serve number 14. It’s not so much the magnitude of the numbers as the glacial pace of the transactions. Teller window service numbers increment like Neptunian orbits – about one a century. If there are even two windows serving general business it’s your lucky day, and every transaction seems to involve a mortgage application in octuplicate and the structuring of some kind of derivative for a grandmother who speaks only a Guangxi provincial dialect, or the hand-counting of RMB100,000 in cash pulled from a man-bag. Surely no simple, retail banking transaction could take a freaking hour.

But of course it could. I myself have been the jerk at the window on many an occasion, while some pensioner laotou at the head of the line pisses and moans loudly about drag-ass foreigners tying up the teller windows with their sketchy international transactions. It’s not that I want the transaction to take forever. I have much better things to be doing than sitting at a teller window, like pulling out my own toenails with needlenose pliers or eating a sandwich made of Wonder Bread and used crankcase grease. But the system moves at the pace it moves at, which is roughly the same pace as continental drift. You know how in 150 million years the San Francisco Bay Area will be in Alaska? That’s the exact same time your transaction will be complete.

Given that using the ATM aside there is no such thing as a simple transaction at a Chinese bank, by far the most confounding thing I’ve had to do is to change large amounts of renminbi into foreign currency. Almost six years ago the CFO of my previous employer sat me down and explained that it would be in my best interest to switch my then US dollar salary into renminbi. Damn if he wasn’t right about that, because in the intervening years the renminbi has kicked the S&P500′s ass as an investment. In US dollar terms I’ve made out nicely since the renminbi started to appreciate back in ’05. Unfortunately my long-term savings currency is the Singapore dollar, which is basically flat in RMB terms, but I’m still killing it on the US dollar. Someday when I’m deported from the continent of Asia for writing uppity blogs that will come in useful.

The catch, of course, is that the renminbi isn’t freely convertible. Oh, sure, it’s nominally convertible, but only in the same sense that nominally I could become a Navy SEAL. The process is designed to be painful enough to discourage me from actually trying in order to save everyone the trouble and embarrassment of watching me fail miserably, or die. That’s why over the past five years I have subjected myself to this process a grand total of twice. The last time was in 2009. The two years since then had both enabled me to accumulate a fair wad of renminbi savings and had dulled my memory of events just enough for trying a conversion to seem reasonable again.

A sensible man suggested that I leave everything in renminbi. After all, the renminbi is still appreciating in US dollar terms, and it seems unlikely that the government will allow any of the big four banks to submarine. But the problem is that as useful as the renminbi is for settling bills in China (where a zero is added to my rent approximately every six months), it is completely illiquid as far as the rest of the world goes. Should I have a sudden need for money overseas, my accumulated renminbi savings in China would be worth about as much as a cargo container full of used cat litter. Interesting perhaps, but hard to pass off as legal tender. And the only thing more horrifying than trying a large-scale personal currency conversion in China is trying a large-scale personal currency conversion in China in a hurry.

I set about gathering the necessary documentation. This included a chopped copy of my work contract, a chopped income statement from my company indicating how much I had been paid in the period covering the income I wished to exchange, and a receipt from the personal income tax office serving my employer that certified the payment of taxes assessed on the income for that period. Plus my passport with current visa and my employment permit (a small, passport-like booklet), which, although I am officially required to carry it at all times, has never been used for any other purpose in all my years in China.

My first attempt was made at my bank branch in Wangjing. It ended in crushing failure when, after waiting an hour to be served, the bank informed me that my documentation would permit me to remit only 15% of the amount I actually wanted to send. Some squinting at the forms revealed that my HR department had procured the tax receipts for only a part of my tenure with the company, something I had somehow missed.

There was, of course, a complexity. Since joining Motorola the company had split, and I had been employed by two different corporate entities in my time there. This required another round of documentation wrangling as I gathered the various contractual addenda reflecting my transfer and a new and more comprehensive set of tax receipts. Then, just to be safe and because the income I wanted to remit extended far enough back, I decided it would be sensible to also assemble the documentation from my previous job. I had most of this from my previous remittance in 2009, but I needed updated tax receipts. So I went to down to Oriental Plaza with my identification and contracts to get the receipts from the appropriate office.

There was, of course, another complexity. I discovered that somehow the Oriental Plaza personal income tax bureau had a typo in my name, listing me as Dillon W. Moss instead of the correct Diccon W. Moss. Part of me wanted to laugh, as the Chinese tax bureau had suddenly transported me back to junior high-school, where the following was a typical first-roll-call-of-the-year experience:

Teacher: Janet Martinez?
Janet: Here!
Teacher: Shawn Meacham?
Shawn: Here!
Teacher (hesitantly): Um. Uh. Dillon? Dillon Moss?
Me: It’s Diccon.
Teacher (incredulous): Deacon?
Me: Diccon. Short “i”.
Teacher: “Diccon?”
Me: Yeah.
Teacher: Diccon William Moss?
Me (to the sound of tittering from other students): Yeah.
Teacher: Oh. (Pause.) Are you sure?

Repeat in next class, and so on. That’s why I started using my middle name.

I get why a junior high teacher in Westwood would assume that “Diccon” is a typo for “Dillon”, but how would a Chinese person know that “Diccon” is unusual any more than a typical American would know that 张艺谋 is a real Chinese name and 草泥马 is a rude pun? It would have been funny except I knew from experience that the bank would deny me for so much as a molecule out of place on my paperwork –This molecule is void! No cash for you! NEXT!–, let alone a suspicious misspelling of my name that might indicate fraud or attempted financing of international terrorism.

Fixing my name in the tax records required nothing so simple as me showing up with my ID or some other appropriate documentation. Instead, my prior employer had to re-file allthe paperwork from the period covered with my correct name. This took a month, during which I entertained dark visions of catastrophe detonating my Chinese savings. It wasn’t any more likely then than it was the prior two years, but that’s how the neurotic mind works. Now I can’t move my money at all? Weimar Republic, here we come!

 Eventually I got the corrected forms. In the end this is what I took to the bank:

  • Three chopped employment contracts
  • Two chopped income statements
  • Five tax bureau receipts covering different time periods and corporate entities
  • My savings passbook (they still use those here)
  • My passport (required for basically every transaction at a Chinese bank)
  • My employment permit
  • Two bank cards (just to be sure…)

I had everything in a big manila envelope that I carried around clutched to my chest like a teenage schoolgirl. I felt like I was applying for citizenship.

This system is needlessly complex. Many foreigners I know have no idea how to exchange large amounts of currency and no two expats I polled gave me the same verdict on the current state of requirements for buying large amounts foreign currency with legitimate income. Indeed, some foreigners I know have given up altogether and are simply waiting for China to open its capital account or have taken to flying cash out of the country (risky) and using money changers on the far end. Did you know that a money changer in Singapore will exchange 200,000 RMB for you if you give him a day’s notice? Now you do.

The system is so complex that even the bank seems to wrestle with it. At the Oriental Plaza branch of my bank, where I finally completed the transaction, there were several alarming huddles behind the counter where tellers and managers conferred about the paperwork. I am usually pretty good at handling bank transactions in Chinese, but this time I’d brought a Chinese friend along just in case. If there is one thing that I know can break my Chinese it’s an unexpected clot of bank bureaucracy. I kept looking at her and asking, “Should I worry now?” She comforted me by saying, “Maybe. It’s hard to tell.”

In the end they chopped all my applications for purchasing foreign currency and wiring it to Singapore and did that worrying thing where they bulldog-clip your completed paperwork together and toss it on a huge stack of similar paperwork. This the signal for you to depart and, if you’re me, compulsively check your online banking to see if the money appears at the far end, or if rats ate the paperwork before the data-entry trolls put it into the Babbage engine in the bank’s basement. 48 hours later, the correct amount of Singapore dollars appeared in my bank in Singapore. The whole process had taken three months to complete. I felt like running through the streets naked except for a party hat and an open bottle of Veuve Cliquot, but foreigners have been deported for much less so I settled for deep sigh of relief.

But not too deep. In 2013 I’ll have to do it again.

Note: The week I completed that transaction was a good one for the resolution of long-standing financial problems. I also received a refund check from the IRS for several thousand dollars following the incorrect assessment of extra taxes from 2009. It took me 13 months to get that check. But at least, unlike a Chinese bank account, the IRS paid a reasonable interest rate on the money.

Really?

Really?

Note: In reconstituting my archives, this was the only post for which I also copied the comments, just because this is obviously such a source of shared misery.

43 Responses to I can haz international funds?

  1. jen says:

    Great Post. We had similar experiences, but with the additional steps of:
    1) Going to our home branch, only to be told that international transfers were only handled by the main branch in Wangfujing
    2) Going to the main branch in Wangfujing (1 1/2-2 hours by car) to be told that our home branch was wrong and these international bank-to-bank wire transfers can only be handled by your home branch
    3) Going to the Lido branch of our Hong Kong Bank, which technically only serves high rollers but they were willing to help us in our desperation. After a good laugh over our go around with a “countryside” bank (I was still under the assumption we lived in a city until that point), they told us exactly what forms our home bank needed to use to complete the transaction. Yes, the HK bank knew better the systems of the “Big Four” Chinese bank than the tellers.
    4) Return to “Countryside” branch, armed with Knowledge! Is Power! and after another two hours (seated, though), successfully moved the maximum amount to HK bank. The next day, within minutes, made secure transfers ONLINE from HK to our US banks.

  2. ge says:

    haha jesus, no wonder you were ecstatic when you tweeted, it is freakin’ TEDIOUS!! good to hear it went through though.

  3. Shannon says:

    Or you can take the easy route — as I and many, many other expats do — and simply spend every single fen you earn.

    RMB “savings”?!? Just you being able to say that phrase drops my sympathy with your banking odyssey to roughly zero.

    Just kidding. Kinda. ;-)

    At least you’re not dealing with incoming WOFE funds denominated in foreign currencies prior to 2010. Back in them there olden days the — well let’s just say a big state-owned bank — would (totally illegally) simply expropriate the money for an indeterminable period to play the short term money-market with it.

    Not kidding. Not at all.

  4. Will says:

    @shannon – Actually, on the subject of spending every fen I earn, no joke. I used to buy all my big ticket items, like new computers, overseas. One product of this experience is that I’ve resolved to buy such things here so that I don’t use my foreign currency any more than I have to. Air tickets, too. Used to book through airline websites using overseas credit cards. Probably through local agents now. Yes, I realize this is surrendering to the government’s agenda, but what the hell. Whatever minimizes my paperwork.

  5. Terence says:

    Now I realize that you’re probably dealing in much larger amounts than I – but even for tens of thousands of RMB, I have used the Uyghurs outside of the Bank of China and gotten better than state rate. Of course then I end up with more USD cash in my pocket than I’ve ever had in my life (enough to buy a used economy car) and I’m nervous like an MIT student on his way to Las Vegas to count blackjack cards.

  6. Will says:

    @Terence: I’ve thought about it, but that still leaves me with the problem of either having to get a brick of dollars out of the country (carry on, or check through? Discuss…), or re-depositing the dollars into the bank and trying to wire it out. Not sure how the big banks will react if I walk up with a shoebox full of black market dollars and a grin. But if I saw me do that, I’d probably call the cops on myself.

  7. David says:

    Sounds like your employer won’t let you have two employment contracts – a China one and overseas. That sucks.

    Another option – as far as I know Chinese passport holders are allowed to change $50,000 a year into foreign currency so get a local to help. Don’t think they care too much about foreign currency been carried out, but they don’t like people carrying lot’s of RMB out. A friend of mine got caught carrying about RMB150,000 to HK and was fined 10% of the total amount.

  8. Shannon says:

    David wrote: ” A friend of mine got caught carrying about RMB150,000 to HK and was fined 10% of the total amount.”

    Jeez! Is that all!? I was imagining confiscation or worse. For 10%, I think the risk becomes *far* less.

  9. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @Shannon

    I am dealing with incoming WOFE funds in foreign currency.

    After 6 weeks the bank eventually sent the money back to the US and started the transaction over from scratch but only after I found the US bank’s Guangzhou phone number so they could confirm that the form the Chinese bank wanted really really honestly didn’t exist and never had existed and that the lack of the existence of such a form made it quite impossible to fill it out.

    The US bank’s Guangzhou office also had to explain to the Chinese bank how to send my money back.

    And once my money was back in the States, I needed to show them the US bank’s bank statement to prove that:
    a) they still charged me a transaction fee
    b) the number was larger than they thought

    In the end they did refund me for the transaction fee but I’m more than slightly disturbed that my refund happened in the branch manager’s office, off camera, with no forms or paperwork of any kind, and came out of her wallet. Not that I’m going to claim that I was never refunded or anything sleazy like that but I’ve got to wonder whose salary (or what slush pile) my fee is coming out of. It also means that there is no official recognition that this branch messed up super big.

  10. SIDNEY says:

    if you are really desperate you can always take the Macau route .. I have not tried it before but you can get a “gambling account” with the Wynn casino and deposit money there.. then you can freely transfer it between the Wynn Macau and the Wynn Vegas .. doesnt matter how big the amounts are aslong as you can proof the source of the money

    you can even do all of this without breaking any Chinese laws ..

    – you have lots of RMBs in Chinese bank account
    – none of the money is “illegal” / you paid tax on all of it
    – clear out your account
    – you have multiple entry visa
    – go to Zhuhai
    – cross the border holding the maximum RMB cash amount allowed
    – deposit money in Wynn casino “gambling acount”
    – cross the border every day for a week or aslong as it takes

    people are used to LARGE cash amounts in Macau .. its all ok over there

    it might sound like impossible to do if you have truely large amounts .. but both Zhuhai and Macau are very nice cities , just take a two week holiday here and cross the border each day

  11. Frank Fomby says:

    Edutainment at it’s finest Will. While still living in China I took a 14 month contract in Malaysia. When they transferred me money, I would go stand in line at UMB to receive my money, and generally got 100% in ringgit (RM). Not thinking about it, I booked a week stay in Bangkok (never again, Phuket is my Thailand destination) and flew over. I was shocked, SHOCKED that the hotel would not take RM or RMB… So 8pm on a Sunday, and no local currency or non RMB bank cards. Luckily, a friend of a friend ran a bar on 20th Soy nearby. He poured me a beer and disappeared with 5000 of my RM. He returned about 20 minutes later with a printed page from a currency exchange website, and the exact amount in Thai baht. He took nothing off the top for the transaction. Land of a thousand smiles indeed.

  12. Matt O says:

    Hey Will,

    I can’t speak for Singapore, but if you’re trying to move money to the States, as long as you keep are carrying less than $10,000, then you don’t have to claim it. You’ll get a few looks at your Stateside bank, but it’s doable (and as far as I can tell, completely legal). Space this out over a couple family visits and voila… You do have to accept the fact that you will be carrying a wad of cash in a traveler’s money belt, but I’m fairly certain that pickpockets do not abound on trans-pacific flights.

    Also, I never once changed money through the Bank of China. I accompanied a friend who was doing that early on and the experience, despite being entirely vicarious, was painful enough that I couldn’t fathom going through it myself. I suggest you find a…*ahem*…private money changer who’s reliable and stick with him/her. I changed somewhere between $20k and $25k USD through the guy I used before I left (spaced out over a couple years). All bills were legit and accepted on the US side.

  13. Homer says:

    So, in your opinion what is the least hassle bank in China? Perhaps a HK bank is better? I recently started working for a medium size factory and need to open a bank account. I also should be getting salary soon. I need to be able to transfer money back to the States if need be. I guess I am going to have to double check and make sure that this place can provide all the above documents. Nothing is easy here is it..

  14. Shannon says:

    @Marian Rosenberg

    My thoughts are with you. Those transactions can be absolute hell. My hair went salt’n’pepper over 2006-2009, and I blame the WOFE incomings that I was doing once a quarter.

    I once, for shits and giggles, demanded to see the local bank’s internal receipt paperwork (foreign banks will give you this if you ask) and was told that such paperwork was a “commercial secret in China”.

    So the computer system confirming that you’ve received *my* money that *I* have sent you — and I have here in my hand the internal sending paperwork from the foreign bank — is a “secret” eh? Riiiiiiiight. Actually, we both know that it’s illegal under the international banking rules you’ve signed up to to deny me access to that paperwork, and we both know that the bank received the money days ago, but we also both know that there’s no chance in hell that you’re going to admit either of these things.

    Good luck!

  15. Great post. I’ve been pondering this issue because my wife insists we save and I’m wondering how to get the funds out of China towards buying a house in Scotland. Now I find it’s even more complicated than I anticipated…!

  16. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @Shannon

    When the money came back into China this time, it still took another 3 hours of bank time for it to hit my account. Of course, I had to be there throughout the whole process in case something needed to be signed or filled out or double checked or translated.

    My personal favorite was when I was handed a form that already had my essentials printed out (company name, account number, originating account holder’s name, etc…) and was asked to write ALL THE SAME INFORMATION by hand underneath the printing and sign it.

    -M

  17. FOARP says:

    The first time I had to send money home it literally took me a whole day being ping-ponged between branches of the same bank (BoC), standing in queue (always, ALWAYS with someone jumping the line), doing and re-doing forms (“here’s a mistake, you’ll have to re-do the whole three-page form”), but I got it done.

    Having gone through all that, I thought that things would be much easier the second time. WRONG! I had all the same paper-work that I had used before, I was at the same branch, talking to the same people, transfering a similar amount of money to the same account, but suddenly they were insisting that I could only transfer as much money out of the country as I had paid in taxes, no more. Since this was in Shenzhen back when people were still paying 8% tax, obviously no amount of tax receipts would have mollified the staff there – so what could I do?

    I argued with them. I then called up a friend of mine who worked for another bank, and she argued with them. I came back the next day with a friend of mine who argued with them. I then argued with them some more. In all I spent three days arguing with the staff there, but the story (which everyone I knew insisted was false) remained the same – I couldn’t transfer more money out of the country than I had paid in tax.

    I then made one call to someone I knew who worked in the accounting department at the company I worked for – a major customer of this particular bank -asking him to confirm what the people at the bank were saying. Funnily enough, the next day I received a phone-call from the bank-manager saying that he was very sorry for the inconvenience, and that a car would come from the bank to pick me up so they could sort things out for me. I was taken directly to the Bank’s VIP room, where the transaction took about ten minutes – no more.

    Now , I hate this kind of queue-jumping through using connections, and, even more, I hate troubling colleagues with my private affairs, but the lesson I learned from this is that things could be sorted out quickly if people simply knew their jobs and didn’t have such a bad attitude about confirming whether what they though was correct actually was.

  18. ChinaMatt says:

    This brings back memories that will require therapy.

    Fortunately, I never had to exchange large sums of money. When I did exchange money for my vacation to the US and my move back, my wife went to the bank. All she needed was her ID card, Chinese passport, and single form filled out–no questions asked.

    And for some reason, banks in the US are getting to be almost as maddening. Or maybe it’s just my neighborhood.

  19. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @FOARP

    I have a shade less than USD 6000 already deposited in a personal banking account at a Chinese bank that also needs to be transferred into my WOFE’s minimum registered capital account.

    Bank says not possible to do this transfer, you should withdraw it in cash and go make the deposit that way.

    Sorry – but the reason the money is in my personal account is because minimum registered capital accounts can’t accept cash deposits.

    Bank says but we’ll have to exchange your dollars for renminbi before we can put them in the account.

    Sorry – but the account on the other end is ALSO a dollar account.

    Bank says not possible, you should withdraw it in cash etc… etc…

    Sorry – but the leader at the Hainan Office of the Foreign Exchange Bureau of the Treasure Department whose mobile phone number I can give you if you want TOLD ME that this was how to do it…

    Bank says “let me talk to my manager”

    (five minute huddle later)

    Okay, no problem … you just need to fill out this form…

  20. richard says:

    Memories of a post I wrote in 2003, when it was even harder to transfer money out of China:

    I had an awful day today. A classically bad day. At one point I was sure I was going to simply resign and go home. Home, as in America. And why was my day so bad? Because I had to go to the bank, because I need to get money wired to America to pay my mortgage there. Only the banks in Beijing don’t like people trading RMB, the currency of the PRC, for US dollars. It means less money will be spent here in China. They like to keep the money here, as RMB, and they are masterful at erecting every conceivable obstacle to letting you change RMB and spend it in another country. It’s very easy to take US money and put it into a bank in China. But oh, is it hard getting it out, at least as dollars.

    The bottom line is that I simply could not do it. I failed. I thank God I recognized several weeks ago that this could become a huge headache for me, and my company has agreed to pay my salary directly into my not-in-China bank account starting February 1. I won’t go into how I finally got the money to wire to the US; let’s just say it wasn’t easy and I hope I never have to go through such an ordeal again.

    It is at moments like this, when I was in the bank nearly in tears, that I really wonder what the fuck I am doing here.

    Things had become a lot better when I returned in 2007. I only had to wait two hours and not all day, and I was actually able to transfer to my US bank after filling out tons of paperwork and supplying proof of employment, etc. Progress, of sorts.

  21. laomei says:

    Been there, done that… yes it’s absolute hell.
    The last (and only time) I attempted it I too was given the runaround of being told “no, not here, you have to go to some other bank”. I eventually said fuck it and got a connection to a money changer who gave better rates than the banks did.

    Even simpler solution now is to just dump it into the wife’s account, go online, click button and hello any currency I want. I strongly advise getting a Chinese wife, not only is it easier than exchanging money at the bank on your own, it’s also much faster and more straightforward.

  22. Homer says:

    That’s China.

    My friend had pretty much the same thing happen but with the birth of his child. No single rooms available, doctors are all busy, nothing is happening, wife is in labor.

    One phone call to our boss. A private doctor comes in just for the birth, he is from another hospital, 2 nurses, a private room, etc.

    I had a beer with him the other day just after the birth of his son. He first words were… If I hadn’t made that call, nothing would of happened and it would of been impossible to give birth here in this hospital. Even with my wife and her mother being Chinese..

    It’s all the same. It all moves at the same pace. It all has the same solution.. Guanxi.

  23. Will says:

    @laomei Good advice, although my current (Singaporean) wife might not be so thrilled with that approach. Still, if it helps cover the bills…

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  25. This would be a lot funnier and much less tragic had I not been in that similar situation many times over the past 7 years….. still, this sentence is a classic:

    “I would bulldoze a field of spaniel puppies and nursery schoolgirls in fairy costumes to avoid a trip to the bank. ”
    you made my day

  26. bab says:

    I recently wired 125,000usd out of china back to the usa to buy a house….surely there has to be other avenues then these processes…or being married to a Chinese citizen carries ridiculous benefits. The only catch we had, was each member of her family–my wife, her mother, and her father, each had to do a single transaction of 25-50,000usd (which was RMB only moments earlier)…

    Badabing badaboom…three days, three trips to the bank, money in USA bank account, house purchased in full…not a bad week.

  27. Max says:

    A few months ago I had a similarly fun experience getting my pathetically small 7 years of “life savings” out of China when leaving for Singapore. It was just substantial enough that carrying it out by hand would’ve meant declaring it, taking it out over several trips, or risking getting caught not declaring. I tried all legal means but apparently foreigners are limited to USD 500 per day in foreign bank transfers. The fees on each $500 transfer, not to mention the amount of time I would’ve had to spend hanging out in Chinese banks, made that one a non-starter. The Bank of China staff themselves, who were sincerely helpful despite being functionally useless, said my best option was to convert the money on the black market and get a Chinese friend to do the foreign transfer for me using their USD 50,000 annual limit on transfers abroad. I got a recommendation from a friend about a reliable black-market moneychanger- that’s a fun story for another day but mostly because it was amazingly smooth. Then I got a Chinese friend to use a portion of her USD 50,000 annual limit on transferring funds abroad to help me out. I had to sweat for a few days waiting to see if the transfer went through. If it didn’t go through, the money would’ve been returned to my friend’s account. I trust her, but having what would equal several years of her annual income sitting in her savings account would surely be a little tempting for anyone. Luckily no problems and my money is out of there. Just in time to miss out on the recent CNY appreciation…

    On the flip side, it is amazing how easy it is to open a bank account in China. Just show them a passport and voila. Chinese laws are designed to suck in money, making China the Hotel California (or Roach Motel) of banking. I contrast this with Singapore, where I can’t open a bank account, sign up for cable TV, or internet plans, borrow a book from a library, use public sports facilities, or perform a multitude of other mundane activities, without an Employment Pass. Fingers crossed, should be getting one of those by early September.

  28. Nick says:

    I used the CCCB when I was teaching, and although the sum we wanted to take home wasn’t considerable, it was a huge amount of money for us. Because we had always banked at the CCCB, we went to the main branch and when they said ‘oh, we can’t do that’, we just went to another department. Materials required: every piece of paper we had ever been given that had red ink or the yuan symbol on it, sense of outraged entitlement to our own money. Total expenditure: 3.5 hours. The final solution included:
    1) a guy with a man-bag full of USD who had been sitting (alone? in the dark?) in a small closet off the vestibule of the bank and who was summoned by a gesture to the security guard. He didn’t work for the bank, but everybody there knew him. He did the money changing, discounted a tiny amount off the bank rate, and the bank counted and verified the money he changed. This was done to avoid paperwork and was an ironclad requirement of the final solution.
    2) two trainees on the second floor of the bank who taught themselves to do an international transfer, step by step, occasionally asking questions like “is your Bank of America headquartered in New York, or in Flushing?” When they finished, they said “well, we think that worked. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to tell whether or not it went through.”
    3) repeated, sincere promises not to ever tell any of the other foreign teachers that this had been done or that it was even possible.
    4) 6 cigarettes (although I have to say, none of the most helpful employees smoked, and most of them went to people who stood by ‘giving advice’ that was basically useless) for everyone else, and about 10 for me.

    Now I see that we got off easy! Three months is less time than it would take to go to the US and EARN a similar amount of money.

  29. Jasmine says:

    Having just spent a semester abroad in China and doing everything possible to avoid walking into a Chinese bank if possible, I laughed out loud throughout this piece. I don’t think the Chinese banking experience could have been explained better (or as humorously).

  30. Will says:

    @Max: When my business partner and I opened our UOB accounts in Singapore in 1995 we had all the necessary materials required to open the accounts. However, to receive checkbooks (necessary in Singapore then) we needed letters of recommendation from a current account holder. We didn’t know anyone who was a current account holder. When four more of our US colleagues arrived, they could open their accounts, and we, as current account holders, could give them letters of recommendations for checkbooks even though we ourselves couldn’t have them. Our friends suggested we cancel our accounts, re-open them, and they could then recommend us. I wanted to shoot myself.

    I still use that account, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I wrote a check drawn on it. Maybe 2001 or so.

    @nick: Great story. The black market seems to be consensus approach (even from the banks!). Unfortunately, as a spokesman for a global corporation there are certain risks inherent in extra-legal solutions, even if the bank itself is recommending them. Alas, it seems paperwork is my future.

    @Jasmine: Thanks. Turning frustration into black humor is my coping mechanism. The alternative is Xanax and it’s hard to get a prescription here.

  31. Sascha says:

    I use a moneychanger in China who has stacks of Euros, Dollars, Aussie Dollars, Pounds and other currencies in a briefcase in his home. I have seen it. After he exchanges my shopping bag full of RMB into a small stack of green bills, I put those bills in my backpack and go to HK.

    Obviously this only works if the shopping bag is not ALL red bills and the green stack is less than 6 inches thick.

    Western Union is another option, with toothgrinding fees.

  32. Pingback: Money » The Peking Duck
  33. FOARP says:

    Anyone else noticed how many of the folk on this thread have seemingly been told different things about what they need to do a bank transfer?

    @Will, this post is an example of an almost-dead breed – the Bad China Day post. It’s hey-day was in 05-06, before the GFW came into full effect,it’s apogee was on the pages of Sinocidal. It once ruled hundreds of blogs, with more appearing every week. It is now almost no more, even if the source of its inspiration is still alive and kicking.

  34. CN says:

    A friend who taught in China found a relatively painless way to transfer money out of China.

    As you may or may not know Bank of America and China Construction Bank are heavily invested in each other and so its a little easier to do certain transfers between them (such as being able to withdraw fee-less RMB from a CCB ATM using a BoA card).

    My friend was advised by the CCB main headquarters in the city he worked in to transfer his RMB to a CCB account in his Chinese girlfriend’s name then transfer it to his BoA account for a relatively small fee. It apparently avoided a lot of paper work required when a foreigner wants to transfer money out of China. The only thing you need is a Chinese friend you can trust. At least the bank was a smart by helping him try to simplify things. Prevents a lot of headaches.

  35. Jamar says:

    As someone who’s gone down the Western Union path before, as long as you have a little-used branch of Everbright (somewhat likely), the Agricultural Bank (less likely), or the Post Office (wishful thinking) near you, it’s relatively painless. Sure, if you’re handing them RMB it’s a max of $500 a day, including the sending fee that has to be paid in US$ as well, but better than the others in a pinch. Otherwise, there’s a reason my primary accounts are with Standard Chartered and BEA. The BOC account is only because school demands it for certain payments, and ICBC because no one else will issue me an unsecured RMB-denominated credit card.

  36. Will says:

    @FOARP: I consider myself a past-master of the bad China day post (and I remember Sinocidal well). Some of these still live under the “rants” tag. When I go through the more extensive offline archives it’s shocking how many involved banking in some way. Actually, to judge by the comment thread, this may be the single most painful thing for every expat in China. Or perhaps #2 after the GFW.

    As to this particular story being a bad China day, I like to think of it as the classic Hollywood arc, where an everyman hero encounters almost hopeless odds, but emerges battered but victorious at the end. It’s only missing Mila Kunis.

  37. Will says:

    Question to any and all: Does hawala exist in China, or is that just too freaky for the authorities here?

  38. Shannon says:

    Hawala: yes. But barring a mid-life religious experience that you haven’t told me about, you don’t qualify.

  39. Bob says:

    Oh life is SO tough when wondering what to do with our hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    So it takes time. Live in China? Just accept RMB is like this and get over it, thanking whoever that you have (1) money and (2) time.

  40. Will says:

    “Hundred of thousands”? Wow. I’d have accountants to handle this crap. Although then, to be fair, I’d probably write pay a ghost to write posts complaining about the accountants.

  41. mike says:

    “Good advice, although my current (Singaporean) wife might not be so thrilled with that approach. ”

    Current wife Will? Only current? Hope she is not reading this or could be a rolling pin on your return home

  42. Will says:

    @mike: What makes me think she hasn’t already clobbered me?

  43. trevelyan says:

    I will swear by China Merchant’s Bank. Not because they make it any easier to do this stuff, but because I’ve never had to wait more than about 45 minutes to see a teller at the Dongzhimen branch.

    In contrast, it once took three hours of waiting to withdraw the equivalent of about $2000 USD from my credit card from the main Yabaolu branch of the Bank of China. A number of people apparently complained about this, so they installed a large television that – to this day – plays endless re-runs of Tom and Jerry.

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In which I finally hire a car and driver

After seven years of taking taxis in Beijing I finally crossed the Rubicon of bourgeois colonialism and hired a car and driver. I now have two full time domestic employees, which seems somehow wrong. In the back of my mind lurks the ghost of the former graduate student adding up the cost of groceries as he shops so as not to exceed the cash in his wallet. What am I doing with domestic help? I’d hardly describe us as rich, but comfortably middle class by western standards goes a long way in Beijing. All the way to a car and driver, it turns out.

I’d resisted this maneuver for some time. For one thing, even in Beijing it’s rather a lot of money. Money that could significantly increase the floor space of our apartment if I wanted. Or go some ways toward covering an outrageous international school tuition bill. Or buy a lot of geeky toys. Or earn .00001% annual interest in a Chinese bank account. So why? Why burn thousands of RMB every month?

It wuz the taxis what done it.

I’ve taken a lot of taxis since arriving  in Beijing. But for the past year, since joining Motorola, my usage has skyrocketed thanks to a twice-daily 40 minute commute. I’ve tried public transportation twice. That turns the commute into a 90 minute odyssey that leaves me looking and feeling like a wino who’s been gang-rolled by a college football team after a 36 hour Ripple bender.

I always viewed taxis as a kind of proxy for the overall state of wherever they are from. In Beijing the taxis are functional, but rough around the edges, kind of like the city itself. Every country’s taxis have their idiosyncrasies, but you can glean some insight from the overall level of comfort, city knowledge, cleanliness and service. To some degree you get what you pay for. London and Tokyo have excellent taxis, but you could cover your monthly mortgage with an airport fare in either town. On the other hand, Singapore taxis are also excellent and remain a relative bargain, especially considering how expensive everything else in Singapore seems to be getting. In Kuala Lumpur bring patience and negotiating skills.

So here is my list of the positive attributes of Beijing taxis:

  • They’re cheap
  • They’re metered

This is nothing to dismiss. Cheap and metered is a good thing, as anyone who’s had to navigate unmetered taxis knows. That’s one reason why I’ve stuck with taxis so long, and used them for my commute.

However, returning to the “you get what you pay for” theorem, here are the problems:

After a wholesale fleet upgrade that started about five years ago, the state of the art among Beijing taxis is still a Hyundai Elantra with a rear-seat pitch designed for Munchkins. As a result, the magazine rack that hangs behind the shotgun sear etches a groove in my knees. My shoes get tangled up in the seat undercarriage and look like they’ve been scoured with Brillo pads and broken glass. I can’t keep a shine longer than 24 hours. First thing I now do in any taxi is tilt the shotgun seat forward a few notches. The second thing I do is turn off the annoying seat-back advertising screen. Thank god you can turn them off, or I’d have to carry a roll of opaque tape with me.

The Elantras are a stupendous upgrade from the miserable Xialis that represented the great bulk of Beijing taxis when I arrived. But that is the most subterranean of low bars. The Xialis were  only “cars” in the loosest sense of the word in that they had wheels and some variety of barely-internal combustion. Xialis vented their exhaust directly into the back seat. Xiali seatbelts used to leave black stripes on my white shirts. As small as the Elantras are, I had to dislocate my own hips to sit in the back seat of a Xiali, and risk electrocution from the wires and fuses dangling from the dashboard to sit in the front. If you slammed the door of a Xiali you might fly out the far side of the car. So the current cars are better, but not great.

This brings us to the other essential component: the drivers. There are some great taxi drivers in Beijing. But getting one has become sort of miraculous, like a surprise business class upgrade on a long-haul flight. And the good ones throw into sharp relief the dire service provided by so many drivers.

Beijing taxi drivers listen to the radio. Loud. Often to the gravelly-voiced storyteller who makes storm sounds with his mouth. When the front speakers are blown, back seat passengers get woofer-Sensurround storytelling.  Asking the driver to turn down the radio is just one of many requests that can land you in a purgatory of passive-aggressive swerving, brake-jamming and teeth-sucking. Other sins include: Not going far enough; going anywhere when traffic is bad, which is always; suggesting a route that the driver is unaccustomed to; suggesting the diver focus on driving rather than texting or having a roaring argument with someone on the phone; requesting a destination the driver doesn’t know (surprisingly frequent); asking for some change in the climate arrangements; using a large bill; or rumpling the seat covers.

What is with the damned seat covers? Taxis the world over use vinyl seat covers because, Einstein, they’re durable and easy to clean. But in Beijing they use white fabric seat covers and then squint at you when you bring a three year old into the taxi because he might scuff the upholstery. Dude, three year olds will scuff the upholstery. That’s what they do. Have you seen my furniture?

I understand why the drivers get upset about the upholstery. Apparently the taxi companies fine them if the upholstery is dirty. But why don’t the taxi companies fine them for driving like maniacs? Or hugging the right lane so they crawl through on-ramp traffic? Or stopping to take leaks while they’re carrying fares? (Twice, recently.) Or waving off foreigners for locals? Or eating raw cloves of garlic? Or smoking in their taxis? Or filling up the trunk with miscellaneous crap so your luggage won’t fit? Why is it wrong to scuff the upholstery but OK for the cab to smell like the corpse of a dog that died from a three-pack-a-day Changhong habit is pickling in a box of garlic under the rear seat? Why?

And what about seatbelts?

Imagethief once had his life saved by a seatbelt in a bad, high-speed rollover accident. So I take seatbelts seriously. In Beijing working rear-seat seatbelts are almost as rare as courteous, friendly drivers. Oh, there’s a seatbelt alright. Trapped behind the bench seat. Or maybe the shoulder belt is in front of the bench, but it will be purely for decoration because the buckle is under the cushion. You usually get one or the other. Rarely both.

I know it’s a hard life in the Beijing taxi drivers, offering brutally long working days for meager wages. It’s become a semi-migrant job, filled by men (and the very occasional woman) from the outlying areas of Beijing municipality. I sympathize. While in grad school in the ’70s my own father was briefly a Yellow Cab driver in San Francisco. To this day he still tells stories about how miserable it was. And that was in San Francisco! I’d cheerfully pay more if it meant more comfort and better service. I tip when I get good service. But no matter how rough the job, taking your frustrations out on customers isn’t a recipe for success.

So after a year of ninety minutes a day of tooth-sucking, brake-jamming, actuarially damning, argumentative frustration, I’ve largely abandoned the taxis. I hired the highly-recommended driver of an ex-colleague who left China. I’m paying RMB6,000 per month plus gas. Seems like a lot, and I agonized about it a bit.

Last Wednesday was his first day of work. When I left the apartment, he was waiting for me downstairs. His car is a VW Jetta Santana. Not glamorous, but clean and with a spacious rear seat. He drove me across town for an event, went back to the house to shuttle my wife around, then met me at the end of the day to take me home. The ride back across town was an hour-and-a-half crawl through the worst of Beijing rush hour traffic. But the radio was off, the air conditioning was on and the service polite. I had enough space to open my laptop and work. I had a seatbelt.

It seems like a lot of money. But, yeah, I could get used to it.

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Four lessons from the Burson-Facebook fiasco

I’m ridiculously late to this, as usual, but people keep asking me about the Burson-Facebook thing because of my years at Burson, so I thought I’d post the gist of the response I’ve been giving. If you’re not familiar with the story of Burson’s ill-fated project stirring up FUD about Google on behalf of Facebook, you can read about it here.

But first, some housekeeping. I worked for Burson-Marsteller for six years, all here in China. It was a great experience. Much of what I know about PR and virtually all of what I know about doing PR in China I learned at Burson. I still use Burson-Marsteller China as an agency, and hold the people there in the highest regard. All agencies make mistakes. No one in PR wants to damage the reputation of a client, or their own agency. When it happens, we try to learn from it.

I don’t know what the chain of events involved in the Burson-Facebook project was, and I don’t know any of the people involved. I have no inside track. But as an industry observer, and in the spirit of learning from the situation, here are four lessons to take from this episode:

If it will embarrass you to have a pitch go public, it’s a bad pitch

The art of selling stories or viewpoints to journalists, bloggers or the public is a pitch. In writing or verbally, a pitch should stand alone as something you’d be comfortable going public on its own. If a pitch doesn’t pass that test, and its public release would embarrass you, your agency or your client, it’s a bad pitch. Any pitch that doesn’t identify the interest behind it is by definition a bad pitch, because lack of disclosure in a pitch suggests that someone would be embarrassed to be connected with it.  Rethink the strategy. Yes, this tars a whole branch of political PR based on anonymous leaks. So be it.

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a rival…transparently

It’s silly to pretend that slamming competitors isn’t part of PR. In the industry it’s called “depositioning”, a sanitized word that suggests some lingering discomfort. Outside it might be called smearing or, for those in the tech industry, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). So what’s the difference between a smear and a legit piece of competitive PR? Transparency, for one thing. There is nothing wrong with criticizing a rival (or a client’s rival) or pointing journalists at their shortcomings. But you’d better be prepared to stand behind your claims, and that means being well researched and transparent.

PR instincts and journalism instincts are not the same

PR agencies hire a lot of ex-journalists for their story instincts and their usefulness in media relations due to their contacts and credibility with other journalists (more on this below). But the fit isn’t always natural. Someone senior from a global agency other than Burson told me recently that they have about a ten percent long-term stick-rate from their senior journalist hires in the US. I’m not surprised.

One problem is that although they overlap, journalist instincts and PR instincts are not the same. Oversimplified, journalistic instincts emphasize spotting and piecing together stories while PR instincts often emphasize identifying and managing risks. We spend as many years and as much work developing our instincts as journalists spend developing theirs. Any crossover in either direction means a learning curve. The risk that should have been spotted in this particular case was that the backstory of the pitch –an anonymous client paying a major PR firm to slam Google on privacy– was more interesting than the pitch itself.

Set a thief to catch a thief

Despite the blurring of the line between mainstream media and blogging, journalists and bloggers are different. If you send a bad pitch to a mainstream journalist, generally it just dies (perhaps along with some of your credibility). If you send a bad pitch to a blogger, there’s every chance it’s going to published and ridiculed. Welcome to blogging. This isn’t 2003, and everyone should be up on this. I understand hiring mainstream journalists to pitch other mainstream journalists, but it seems to me that the PR industry has been slow to embrace using bloggers the same way. As a blogging PR person I don’t think bloggers are particularly more resistant to working in PR, but I definitely think they respond to PR differently than mainstream journalists. And that’s definitely true for tech bloggers.

Thoughts? Feel free to argue with me.

See also:

Lou Hoffman’s “Ishmael’s Corner”: More to the Facebook PR campaign against Google story

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What I learned when I shaved my head

I had a good run. I got more than forty years out of it. But I had to face the fact that my hair was in retreat and there was no going back. In fact, the front had already been beginning to thin as far back as 1999, when I (perhaps belatedly) cut off my long hair after sweating it out in Singapore for four years. Long hair in the tropics is, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid.

It was a slow retreat and I was able nurse fantasies of a front-loaded hairline for a few more years. But the last couple of years it seemed the pace was accelerating and back was also beginning to feel more fuzzy than full. I’m not into the male pattern baldness look, so after two years of cutting my hair progressively more severely and mumbling about going all the way, I finally did. As a public service to others blessed the with consequences of a surfeit of testosterone (or just plain bad genetic luck), here are the five most important things I learned when I shaved my head.

My skull is  weird

Seriously. There are all sorts of little divots, traps and undulations, like a challenging golf course. Except round. The back of my skull is kind of flat. Is this true for everyone, or am I some kind of phrenological freakshow? The practical consequence of this is that it’s almost impossible to shave myself to completion because there always spots that I miss. And, of course, I can’t see most of it. Mrs. Imagethief has to help with skull cleanup to ensure I don’t wind up with some bizarre, postapocalyptic style involving little tufts of hair out of an otherwise glossy pate.

Gillette should send me a dividend

We have a baby hair trimmer that I’ve used to buzz my head, but it’s designed for, well, babies and tends to choke on the thicker patches. It also doesn’t get all the way down. So I finish with a wet shave. I never really thought about it, but my head is damn big, and the parts of my face I’ve shaved for years seem to account for something like ten percent of the overall surface area. Like Australia on a globe. Or at least that’s what it feels like. The result is that I go through blades at a terrifying rate, which is worrying because as anyone who shaves knows, Gillette charges for blades like they’re milled out of platinum. I guess I could go generic on the blades, but, dude, this is my HEAD we’re talking about. You don’t want to walk into the office with your skull all covered in little, bloody bits of toilet paper. People will talk.

I am the human velcro

Even a hot, wet skull-shave leaves my scalp with the texture of sharkskin. Rub it one direction and its frictionless and smooth like a sphere of Teflon. Rub it in the other direction and it will peel the skin off your hands like a belt sander. The result is that my head snags on shirts, pillows, car headrests, and pretty much anything covered with fabric. It also collects cat hair, Beijing’s endemic poplar fuzz, and any other loose detritus it comes in contact with. I’m going to have to start carrying one of those sticky lint-rollers for my head and giving myself a quick going over before meetings.

My hair is fighting back

After years of what looked like slow surrender, the prospect of extinction has encouraged my hair to fight a valiant rearguard action. I mean, this stuff grows back instantly. I ruin yet another ten dollar chromium uber-blade on Sunday evening, and by Monday morning my hair is already sprouting again. By midweek it’s walking tall, like Buford freaking Pusser. Where was all this vigor when I actually wanted it? I know, I know. Five o’clock shadow and all. But still, it seems like a cruel joke.

I still don’t look like Vin Diesel

I mean, what’s the deal with that? Where are the chicks with the head fetishes?

Anyway, it’s refreshingly cool in summer. Try it out.

Then: Singapore, 1995.

Then: Singapore, 1995.

Now: Beijing, 2011.

Now: Beijing, 2011.

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China and the nature of Facebook

Reports have been percolating for a couple of weeks that Facebook will partner with Chinese search engine Baidu to launch Facebook China, or something similar. Anyone who has followed the history of foreign Internet firms in China knows that this is fraught territory. Chinese competitors are well established, and while many successful Chinese Internet firms have foreign backing of some kind (even Baidu once claimed Google as an investor), marquee marriages between Chinese and Foreign Internet companies have often been troubled.

There are others better placed than me to speculate on the likely business fortunes of a Facebook China (cf. Epstein, Bishop), but what really interests me are the communication challenge and reputational consequences. Some glimpse of those possible consequences came in a Wall Street Journal article about Facebook’s lobbying efforts that ran yesterday. It included the following:

[Facebook] is talking with potential Chinese partners about entering the huge China market, where the government has been cracking down on dissidents. That crackdown has come in response to the uprisings shaking authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, movements that have used U.S.-based social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools.

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

Yowza! Better work on those talking points and come up with something that doesn’t sound quite so paternalistic. Read as generously as possible, this is one quote from what one presumes was a larger discussion on the issues of running transnational social networks in countries with different approaches to censorship and freedom of speech. Read less generously, it sounds like a lobbyist for Facebook arrogating to his client the responsibility to decide what constitutes an appropriate amount of free speech in any given country. Risky territory.

From a business point of view deciding an appropriate amount of free speech might be a practical necessity. From a public communication point of view it’s dangerous. Five years ago, when Facebook was still a plucky upstart too trivial to be noticed, Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft were hauled in front of a congressional hearing to testify on their activities in China and their willingness to accommodate governments with illiberal approaches to free speech. It was not a banner moment for the American Internet industry. “Moral pygmies!” declared Tom Lantos, the principal congressional antagonist. Much of the cast has changed and Tom Lantos has since died, but the issue remains sensitive. (Not all the cast has changed. Facebook’s current head of communication, Elliott Schrage, represented Google in the 2007 hearings.)

Facebook itself has not committed publicly to anything in China. They also haven’t yet committed any of the blunders that those four firms did (most notoriously Yahoo, with the Shi Tao affair). Finally, Facebook hasn’t made nobility a part of their brand in the way that Google conspicuously did in its early days, something that was used against Google in its China engagement. In fact, if anything Facebook is known for a kind of calculating amorality that may be useful in the ruthlessly sharp-elbowed Chinese Internet world.

But what’s important here is not how Facebook sees itself, but rather how people at large see it, and how activists and politicians think they can use it to drive their own agendas. Whether Facebook likes it or not, it has been publicly associated with recent events in the Middle East and is widely seen as a force for enabling dissidents and protestors whose causes resonate with western publics and politicians. See for example New York Timesstories here, here and here. Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell might ridicule the notion of social media as democracy tools, but that won’t necessarily dispel a belief that was made clear in the 2007 hearings: American Internet firms should represent American values.

Companies’ decisions about China are revealing. Facebook’s decision on whether or not to formally enter China will be especially interesting. It will establish something fundamental about the identity of one of the two most powerful Internet companies on the planet. Is Facebook, as some have supposed, the great enabler of democracy? Or is it a company of business pragmatists willing to censor (or delegate censorship) in order to open a potentially lucrative market? The reality is probably more nuanced than either of those positions, but as far as public perception goes it will be difficult to have it both ways. How does one balance groups of stakeholders with completely incompatible views on what constitutes a responsible and conscientious Internet firm?

The nut of the problem is that, right or wrong, democracy activists, American politicians and the Chinese authorities all tend to see American Internet firms as standard bearers for western values. Facebook’s task is to convince the Chinese authorities otherwise while not making activists or western users in general feel betrayed. I can think of few more precarious communication challenges. The quote above is an unpromising start.

Update:

Obama hosted a town hall at Facebook HQ yesterday. Interesting. And likely to be noticed here in Beijing.

See also:

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Apocalypse box part two: Apocalypse box

Bummer, but at least I've got chili.

Bummer, but at least I’ve got chili.

Yesterday I posted part one of Apocalypse Box, in which I wrote a bit about the communication problems surrounding the reactor disaster in Japan. I concluded with saying that just because something is unthinkable doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

It was with the unthinkable in mind (as it were) that Mrs. Imagethief and I set about reconstituting our household emergency kit in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Six years ago, when all the world believed that lethal bird flu was but a sneeze away, the wife and I assembled a reasonably comprehensive household emergency kit. This consisted of two weeks of non-perishable food, drinking water, and various household supplies such as batteries, candles, gloves and such. I called this our “apocalypse box.” To be clear, the box (technically, two boxes) was not really designed for the apocalypse, so much as it was designed to enable us to withstand a run on supermarkets and a temporary disruption of services. But “apocalypse box” sounds cooler than “temporary disruption of services box.”

There was a return-on-investment calculation at work. Let’s face it: If civilization actually collapses Roland Emmerich style, a couple of cans of Dinty Moore stew and a Bic lighter are probably not going to make the difference between survival and being devoured by feral dogs (just for example). For that kind of Mad Maxery you need a crate of assault rifles, a cave in Wyoming and, of course, the last of the V8 interceptors*. And liquor. Lots of liquor.

But the investment required for that level of extreme preparation measured against my relatively low estimate of the chances civilization actually collapsing Mad Max-style in my lifetime rings up no-sale. Two plastic bins of food and general supplies measured against the possibility of a run on supermarkets or a temporary disruption in power and goods distribution looks much more rational and less militia-nutcase. Especially in China. It’s not that it might not be useful to have a crate of assault rifles and a fully stocked cave in Wyoming, just in case. It’s just that it seems to me that the resources I would have to invest in such a level of preparation is better spent on, oh, health insurance or rent or cat food (can always eat the cats).

There is some family precedent for this preparation. I grew up in California where we all heard as children that someday the Big One would come, the state would drop into the sea and that would just be tough shit. Or variations on that story. When I was in high school my mom used to keep a large bin of provisions and bottled water in the garage. My brother used to keep beer hidden in the tool closet. But that wasn’t really for survival purposes so much as to keep my mom from finding it.

In 1989 I was living in Santa Cruz during the nearby 7.1 Loma Prieta quake. Crouched on my kitchen floor as the cupboards emptied out I actually rather expected to drop into the sea, which wasn’t very far away. (Although as we have learned a couple of times in recent years, in these situations it turns out the sea may come to you.) In any event, Loma Prieta wasn’t The Big One, though it was Pretty Big and did do a lot of damage. There was in fact a smallish run on supermarkets in Santa Cruz after the quake, although everything was back to normal within a day or two. Having also been in Singapore during the  SARS epidemic, I’ve long thought it made sense to have a certain basic level of preparation for extra-weird times. It took the bird flu phantom to kick us into actual preparation, but then we moved to Shanghai and back in 2007 and the apocalypse box went by the wayside for four years.

I had actually been thinking about the old emergency kit quite a bit over the last few months, and mumbling about doing something about it in the same way that one mumbles about getting one’s teeth cleaned or other disagreeable but virtuous chores. But Fukushima and the great Beijing salt run of ’11 kicked us into high gear. I know from experience that I can go without food for some time, but to leave Mrs. Imagethief hungry is to dice with death. We made a pass through Wal-Mart and Jenny Lou’s and assessed where we stood. Where we stood was on a pile of mostly canned legumes and absolutely no Beano. This begged the question, if the apocalypse actually did strike, would anyone in our house still want to be alive after 24 hours of the farts?

In fact, on review the whole assortment seemed very conventionally western. If you’re really going hardcore, you’d want to lay in some things with local value so that they could be traded for ammunition, gasoline, breeding age females, or whatever it is you may need for your bunker. In China that argues for an emergency kit stocked with dried cuttlefish, melon seeds and baijiu. But one of our guiding principles was that the apocalypse box should contain food we’d actually want to eat. This is both so that we’re not completely miserable in the event of an emergency (who wants to be sitting in the light of one guttering candle, banging your hands together for heat and morosely staring at a bag of deep-fried crab snax?), and also because things need to be rotated out and eaten periodically as they reach their expiry dates. Yes, I have a spreadsheet with all the expiry dates.

Some recalibrating of the supplies yielded a more balanced though rather salty mix of canned meats and vegetables, and calorie-dense dried fruits, nuts and chocolate and such, with the idea being that at least some of the supplies be easily portable in the event of an evacuation.

That’s right, evacuation. Perhaps I’ll regret this someday, but I am not actually paranoid enough to keep a “go-bag,” a pack with the essentials you’d need to carry in the event of  sudden evacuation. Like the cave in Wyoming, this is just a touch too Jack Bauer for me. But I am paranoid enough to keep a “go-list”, which is designed to save me the trouble of thinking under pressure and tells me exactly what we should pack for two kinds of evacuation.

The first is a walking trip to the airport (roughly a day’s walk from where we live). The other is an indefinite walking evacuation to points unknown. Both include essential documents, specifics on clothing, a list of easily portable food items, basic tools and such. The indefinite one trades laptops for more food and clothing and some backpacking supplies and such. Alas, the cats come out poorly in both scenarios. I also keep current documents in the cloud and an annual backup of all my important data in the United States, just in case. I mean, who wants to re-rip all those CDs just because someone dropped The Bomb?

Let me be clear: I don’t think my family is in danger. If I did, we wouldn’t live here. The point behind the apocalypse box is to take a reasonable level of precaution for unforeseen events. It was a couple thousand RMB plus some things I already owned, and it all fits into two stacked bins that double as an end-table in my son’s room. The evacuation go-list has a marginal cost of zero, other than a little thinking ahead. Two weeks ago I had lunch with a journalist friend who’d just returned from reporting in Japan, and he showed me the unused bunny suit his newspaper had issued him. This made me feel completely rational.

The spreadsheet on which I keep track of all this stuff is public on Google Docs. Feel free to check it out – there are three sheets (hold your jokes). Don’t take that document as definitive – it’s just where we stand now and not meant to constitute advice to you or your family. But maybe it will give you some ideas. Or maybe you’ll see stuff we’ve missed. Or maybe you’ll think –perhaps with some justification– that I’m a complete idiot. But, should the worst ever happen and the supermarkets empty out for a few days, I’m gonna be loving me that chili. And when you’re trading your children to me for chocolate bars, we’ll see who’s laughing.

*A piece of history. Be a shame to blow it up.

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Apocalypse box part one: Thinking unthinkable thoughts

Note: This is part one. Part two is here.

Apropos of today’s escalation of the Fukushima reactor disaster to “7″ (Chernobyl) on the international scale, there is something about the word “radiation” that bypasses rationality and whispers right to the lizard brain. Perhaps one or two other words have the same power to spook. “Pandemic” comes to mind. But that aside, there is little else I that has quite the same potency as “radiation.” Almost all the connotations are negative: Contamination; the atom bomb; fallout; nuclear waste disposal; dirty bombs; Godzilla; the ugly, yellow trefoil symbol. Even radiation’s positive connotations are negative. Nuclear medicine might save you…if you have cancer! And the New York Times has spent the past year running a series of stories about nuclear medicine gone horribly wrong. Radiation? Duck and cover.*

All this would seem to make any public communication about radiation hazards tricky. I can’t, however, speak from experience. Perhaps fortunately, Imagethief has never been called upon to participate in crisis communications involving radiation. Or nerve gas leaks or alien invasion or anything with quite the same pilo-erective zing. I’ve done food problems a couple of times. Also, years ago I helped an insurance industry association roll out a chain of inspection centers for mandatory post-collision inspections, which may actually be the closest I have ever come to being between a client and a torch-bearing mob. In terms of public sentiment, insurance and radiation aren’t actually all that different.

The challenge in a public safety communication situation is to find that delicate line between keeping people well informed and prepared for the worst, and going overboard and triggering a destructive panic. This isn’t a trivial thing. To get an idea of how easy it is for hysteria to blossom in the right circumstances, recall that at the height of the Japan nuclear issue there was a run on table salt (rumored to prevent radiation sickness) in Beijing, 2000 kilometers upwind of the Fukushima reactors.

What’s the worst that could happen?

The natural tendency in crisis communications is to undershoot and be tight-lipped. This happens for all kinds of reasons, of which avoidance of panic is perhaps the only noble one. The others include optimism or wishful thinking that the worst is over, poor communication planning, bad communication culture, and the general tendency to choose ass-coverage over ‘fessing up for any number of legal, reputational and personal reasons.

The problem with undershooting communication in an escalating crisis is that you wind up making a series of hopeful the-worst-is-over pronouncements, each of which is rapidly obliterated by events. TEPCO is a case study of this syndrome. So is BP from last year. Both companies wound up in a kind of reverse-Chicken-Little situation, where public trust evaporated and no one believed them anymore. In both situations, government wrested much of the public communication responsibility away. Getting publicly ejected from the drivers’ seat is not good for credibility.

If you were forced to choose between timidity and risk of panic, you might choose timidity as the lesser of two evils. But in public safety situations the rumors and misinformation that can drive hysteria are likely to thrive in the vacuum created by poor communication or lack of trust. The Beijing salt-run is illustrative. Ask yourself: strictly hypothetically speaking, how conducive would it be to public order to have an escalating radiation crisis being managed by an organization that no one believes?

This is the situation that TEPCO appears to have found itself in. A good analysis of their situation from a communication point of view can be found in PR trade The Holmes Report. Paul Holmes introduces consultant Peter Sandman’s useful “hazard vs. outrage” model of risk communication. Hazard is the actual danger to people. Outrage is the emotional reaction provoked. Varying ratios of hazard and outrage inform communication strategies in risk situations. The irony for TEPCO is that the actual hazard has to this point been pretty low. But the outrage factor is, if you’ll pardon the pun, nuclear. Holmes lists some of the key factors driving that outrage:

  • Coerced risk causes more outrage than voluntary risk, and the majority of people living close to nuclear plants did not volunteer to be exposed to the risk;
  • Industrial risk causes more outrage than natural risk, and nuclear is pretty obviously industrial;
  • Exotic risk causes more outrage than familiar risk, and most people are far less familiar with nuclear power than they are with oil and gas;
  • Memorable risk causes more outrage than unmemorable risk, and nuclear incidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl—are extremely memorable;
  • Dreaded risk causes more outrage than undreaded risk, and activist groups have been successful in creating and nurturing nuclear dread;
  • Catastrophic risk causes more outrage than chronic risk, which may be the biggest challenge, since nuclear incidents tend to be catastrophic, while fossil fuels do their damage primarily by creating chronic illnesses and environmental problems;
  • Risk controlled by others causes more outrage than risk controlled by individuals (which is why people fear air travel more than car travel), and nuclear power is completely beyond an individual’s control.

A longer and very interesting analysis of the Fukushima situation by Mr. Sandman himself can be found on his website. Mr. Sandman’s conclusion with regard to crisis communication is: Always err on the alarming side, until you are absolutely 100% certain the situation cannot get any worse. Else risk your credibility and thus your ability to respond. Communications professionals would also do well to read security expert Bruce Schneier’s writings about how people evaluate and respond to risks, which dovetails with many of Mr. Sandman’s points. I recommend Schneier’s book, Beyond Fear. It’s a few years old, but still relevant.

In TEPCO’s defense, the playbook for nuclear catastrophe communication in the midst of a general natural disaster is pretty thin. There are exactly zero precedents. Even absent the natural disaster component, there have been only three previous reactor accidents of any scope: Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Only Three Mile Island is really analogous to Fukushima, but the communication there was also blown, as Mr. Sandman points out. But it shouldn’t really matter whether there is a precedent or not. Nuclear power, which has always had a bigger outrage than hazard problem, really deserves over-preparation.

In his book The Big Short author Michael Lewis proposes that the people who made fortunes betting on the collapse of the American housing bubble shared the iconoclastic traits of both being able to envision the worst happening (the bubble collapsing) and, in the face of social pressure, to act on that vision. It struck me upon reading that book that being able to envision the worst happening and preparing for such an outcome is a really valuable skill for communications professionals. To come back to Chicken Little, it’s not that a PR person should run around screaming that the sky is falling, but a PR person –and indeed any member of a company’s crisis management team– should be able to pose the question, what would we do if the sky fell?

Even if –and this is important– even if others in the organization suggest that such a thing is unthinkable. After all, just because something is unthinkable doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

In part two: What the hell is an “apocalypse box” anyway?

Note:

*If you haven’t seen the “Bert the Turtle” public service announcement on how to survive an atomic attack, it’s well worth watching. A surreal mix of 1950′s cold war terror and sunny “you can survive” optimism with a Ward Cleaver voice-over that must be somewhere in Billy West’s stack of reference material. “It’s such a big explosion that it can…break windows all over town.” Indeed. It’s a YouTube link, so get your VPN ready. If it’s working.

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Could better PR have prevented Groupon’s China gaffe?

Unless you live on Pluto and you’re just in town for the temple fairs you probably know the situation with Groupon and their notorious Tibet ad. From within the China echo chamber it can be tricky to calibrate your reaction to this kind of thing. Those of us who live here are prone to flinch at things that people living in America don’t give a damn about. But we often learn that flinch reaction the hard way, over years of doing business in China and wrestling the occasional PR crisis.

Groupon, it turns out, is trying to build a business in China. Their well-established irreverent sense of humor aside, you’d think they’d thus have some radar for the things that are likely to get them in trouble here. Media 101: In 2011, all media is global media. Culture 101: What plays in Chicago (where Groupon is from) may not play in Changchun, as it were. Think Tommy Lee Jones in the first Men in Black: “We in the FBI have no sense of humor that we are aware of.” Now replace him in your head with just about any Chinese government bureaucracy, and consider the direct and substantial influence that those bureaucracies have over the fortunes of businesses operating in China. And this doesn’t even get into the reaction of Groupon’s potential customers here. They do have a sense of humor, but not necessarily the same one as customers back home.

I’m not going to get into the details of how screwed Groupon may or may not be in China. For that, read posts from ChinaGeeks, Techrice or Shanghaiist. Suffice to say that most of us who live and work here in China think the Tibet ad increased the risks to any mainland China operation that Groupon launches.

The question that preoccupies me as a China PR man is, where was the PR team in all of this? One of the things I learned in my years at Burson-Marsteller was that a good PR person is one who can, among other things, look at business decisions being made and tell the management what those decisions will mean for the company’s reputation among all the audiences that matter. A good senior PR person will use a team and agencies to extend that ability beyond what any one person can cover, and be able to bring that information back to management at a level that can shape decisions. If a company is just using PR to pitch journalists and grind out press releases, then it is missing a big part of the point of a good PR team.

In the best of all possible worlds, Groupon would have had a senior PR person who was aware of the company’s China plans, was tied into what the marketing group was doing, and was smart enough to spot a risk and bring it to management ahead of time. Message: Run this ad if you want, but it will create real risks in China at exactly the wrong time. Maybe this happened. Maybe the company went ahead anyway, in which case they assumed those risks with their eyes open. Maybe it didn’t happen at all. In the end, they went to market with an ad that has real potential to damage their business ambitions.

The point here is not to change Groupon’s irreverent corporate personality, but to tune that personality so that it stays an asset as they grow into a global company. Startups often grow their businesses and ambitions faster than their PR capabilities. I have personal experience with this from before I was in PR, when I worked as a project manager and operations chief in a fast growing e-commerce company in Singapore in the late nineties. I thought the PR woman’s main contribution was to introduce bureaucracy and slow down things we had to do right now, and I was full of disdain for her and her work. Nothing like ten years on the opposite side of the tracks to broaden your perspective. I’ve often thought I should write her a letter to apologize for the former me. Come to think of it, some of my prior girlfriends could use similar letters. If any of you are reading this, I’m sorry.

I have no idea how Groupon runs its PR. I do know that Venturebeat offered them some pretty sound advice on PR late last year, and an industry blogger critiqued their response to the ads in the US. I also know that in the wake of the Tibet issue, they’ve expanded Fleischman-Hillard’s remit from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is better than nothing but a bit after the fact and in a galaxy far, far away from headquarters. If you’re entertaining multibillion dollar buyout offers from Google, planning a public listing, and hoping to expand your business in China, you’d better put some really strong PR people right at the center of management decision making. And if you’re going to try to build your business in China, you’d better have someone on the ground here in the mainland who knows what the company is up to and who has the phone number of the key decision makers in the US.

If Groupon wasn’t doing it before, now would be a good time to start.

Update: Word on the street (by which I mean Twitter) is that Groupon is also suing this lookalike site in China. Hope they have a China trademark registered.

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Physics in the gaze of a thousand grannies

Imagethief was an indifferent student in high school. My success in any given class was dictated by my level of personal interest in the topic. So I did OK at biology, which I liked, great in English and composition once I found a class that wasn’t numbingly dull, and appallingly in math, which held no appeal for me at all. God bless the University of California for weighing SAT scores so heavily in 1984, because if they only looked at my grades they probably would have assumed I applied by mistake and not even bothered to send me a rejection note. But, befitting someone who lives in China, I was a brilliant test taker and thus built the foundation for the success I enjoy to this day, such as it is.

Among the courses I blew at was physics, in which I eked a passing grade out by minuscule fractions of point. My problem with physics was that it was largely math, in which I already had little interest, and I really couldn’t see how any of it was going to be relevant to the rest of my life. I mean, figuring out planetary orbits? Isn’t that what NASA is for?

Life is, of course, all physics, as we discover when we get older and start banging into things. Not that it would help me to be able to work out how many newtons of force are generated when I bang my shin into the coffee table, but at least I’d have a layer of academic appreciation to filter the curse words through. This would be important as I have a young son who has (biology again) the three-year-old’s stupendous capacity to remember all words he hears and repeat them  at inopportune times, like in front of his grandmother.

Children are also a regular reminder of influence of physics in daily life. Ballistics, gravity, impact, thermodynamics, and, during the diaper years, even radioactivity. My son is the remedial version of the high school physics class I doodled my way through all those years ago. This became apparent a week or two ago when we went down to Houhai to fool around on the ice. I generally enjoy a day on the frozen lakes once or twice a year, although it can get a bit nasty close to the thaw when a season’s worth of dead fish and turtles emerge from entombment. This year, we figured Zach was old enough to appreciate it as well. We didn’t do anything as silly as putting him on ice skates, or letting him walk around on the ice. Instead, I rented one of those sled-chairs that you nudge along with a couple of slender, metal poles. The chairs seat two people, so I put Zach in front and went stroking off across the ice.

People who haven’t tried them don’t appreciate how rigorous using the sled chairs is. The little poles are designed to make your hands cramp, and the chairs offer a spectacular combination of fairly high speed and a complete lack of steerability. The lakes get pretty crowded on midwinter weekends, and frankly it amazes me that more people don’t wind up in the hospital with chair runners through their calf muscles.

But you don’t have to have a collision to get in trouble with the chairs. You can get in trouble all by yourself. I discovered this when I had a brainstorm to make the chair spin in place. Now, this is where the physics really become interesting. I’d like to introduce you to two equations that I know were covered in my high school physics class, but which I dismissed at the time as being completely irrelevant to any experience I’d ever have.

First is the equation for centripetal force. This is the force that makes a body follow a curved path, and is often mistakenly referred to as “centrifugal force.” In the absence of a centripetal force, an object previously following a curved path will suddenly fly off on a path tangential to the curve. If you were on the Tilt-a-Whirl at some sketchy Chinese carnival, and the metal mesh behind you that was supplying the centripetal force keeping you on a curved path was suddenly to vanish (bad rust, let’s say), you would fly off on a path tangential to the curve defined by the edge of the Tilt-a-whirl. If you were lucky, you might land on a plush toy. If you were unlucky, you might land in a malatang or roast squid stall. Poor you. Anyway, the equation, courtesy of Wikipedia, looks like this:

formula 1

We can ignore the center part. For our purposes force (F) = mass (m) times the velocity squared (v2) divided by the radius of the rotation. In this case, mass is the mass of my son, about 13 kilograms, velocity is (an off-the-cuff estimate) about 1.2 meters per second, and r is about 0.6 meters from the center of rotation to the seat of his pants. So F = 13kg x (1.44 meters per second squared) / .6 meters or 18.72 kg-m-s2 / .6 meters or 31 kg/m/s2. That’s 31 newtons of centripetal force if I’ve canceled the units correctly. But, remember, I nearly failed physics, so this could all be completely wrong. Suffice to say, a distinct degree of centripetal force was required to keep my son from suddenly flying off on a trajectory tangential to the curve.

The centripetal force in this case was supplied by the friction of my son’s jeans-clad rear end on the smooth, vinyl seat of the ice chair. It turns out that there is an equation for this as well. In this case, the equation for static, dry friction, which looks like this (also from Wikipedia):

formula 2

Where the force of friction (Ff) is less than or equal to  the coefficient of friction for the two surfaces involved (mu – the Greek letter that looks like “u” with a hernia) x  the “normal” or perpendicular force (Fn), in this case, the weight of my son. The problem I have here is determining the coefficient of friction. It depends on the combination of surfaces involved, and is often looked up on a table that cross-references different kinds of materials likely to be in contact. Despite a thorough search of the Internet, however, I have been unable to locate the coefficient that describes new denim against worn vinyl, which seems like an oversight (hello, Detroit). There’s lots of stuff for metals, plastics, and even leather. But not my exact requirements. Also, there is obviously some deformation of the surfaces involved since neither is entirely rigid, and that would complicate this equation, but is probably unimportant for our purposes.

Anyway, the upshot was that close to the end of the first revolution of the chair, the friction of my son’s rear end on the vinyl seat proved unable to provide the necessary centripetal force to maintain a curved path, static friction became trickier kinetic friction (I don’t even want to go here, mathematically speaking), and eventually no friction, at which point Zachary assumed a ballistic trajectory tangential to the curve, at least until he landed face down on the ice. In fact, the coefficient of friction of just about anything on ice being rather low, he may have continued to slide for some time after impact.

At this point we leave the hard-and-fast world of physics, and enter the much grayer realm of shame. The first thing I did was check for broken teeth, since Zach has already cracked two in the course of regular, boy-like behavior. All teeth were intact, but he had split his lip and lost some skin on the ice. As lip wounds do, it  bled copiously.

This being China, there is no shortage of aunties and grandmothers willing to tell anyone, especially foreigners, how miserable their parenting technique is. I have been admonished repeatedly for, among other things, bringing Zach out to the Summer Palace when he was an infant (too young!), dressing him inappropriately (he’ll freeze!) and swinging him around in the courtyard (you’ll pull his little arms out!). My wife has got to the point where she scolds people who provide unsolicited parenting advice. I usually take the more zen “I can’t understand you, I’m smiling and moving on” approach.

In the eyes of Chinese aunties I am sure there is a particularly sweaty corner of hell for people (read: foreigners) who drop their sons face down on the ice. And I could feel dozens of pairs of eyes on me as I slowly poled the chair back to the edge of the lake with my son holding a very bloody tissue to his mouth. This is now one of the three longest journeys of my life. The other two are both aviation-related.

The good news is that Zach had no injury that a cup of hot chocolate and a trip to Hutong Pizza couldn’t cure, and we were back to winter activities last weekend, riding inner tubes down the slope at the Chaoyang Park snow field without incident. But even now I can imagine what those aunties at the lake were thinking to themselves as they watched me bundle a bleeding Zach back to his mom: If he’d studied his physics in high school, this never would have happened.

Note: A little knowledge is obviously a dangerous thing, and it’s possible that the math above is completely wrong in ways I can’t begin to guess. Corrections welcome, but don’t overdo the pedantry. This is, after all, a humor post and not an actual physics lesson. Plus, I’m fragile.

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I suck at Christmas trees

So I’m back in the US of A for Christmas and based on a sample size of two (my parents), I can report that the political mood here is bleak. My mom’s dog of many years died a week or two ago and one of the pressing post-mortem issues is what to do with the now faintly embarrassing “Obama” dog leash. Two years ago this was the shizznet. Today, like the word shizznet, it pretty much just annoys people.

When you only come home occasionally, you notice strange things. Tonight I noticed that mom’s new oven, part of her recent kitchen renovations, displays not just the time, but also the day and date. Today, the oven announces, is Tuesday, December 21st, 2010. Why the hell does an oven need to know the date? It’s not like you’re going to put a turkey in and then program the thing to start it three weeks hence, right before you get back from London. I mean, you could, but no matter how you dress that turkey, it’s coming out stew.

Still, it’s always nice to be back for Christmas. But now that we have a child it’s a much more fraught exercise. There’s nothing wrong with the child himself. He’s handsome, charming and funny — at least, inasmuch as any three year old can be. But he is also, like any three year old, the Amazing Human Vector, capable of introducing disease into any population anywhere. If we dropped him out of a B-2 over Afghanistan, our problems there would be over. Indiscriminate use of biological weapons is technically a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but that kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother us so much any more, so the US Air Force can contact me care of this blog if they’re interested in picking him up for, oh, let’s say 200 million bucks. It seems like a lot for a small boy, but is totally reasonable when you consider the strategic impact and the $2.2 billion sticker on the B2.

Anyway, speaking of coming out stew, last year the Human Vector gave my entire family some kind of awful stomach illness that destroyed Christmas as thoroughly as if I’d filled the stockings with an emulsion of dogshit and gasoline and set them alight, presents and all. On one particularly bleak night Imagethief read all of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower” in the bathroom, and that is not a svelte read. So we were pretty sure that by comparison this Christmas would be candy canes and cinnamon pixie-farts.

With cinnamon pixie-farts in mind, we went over to the little-league field where the Sea Scouts run their Christmas tree lot. My mom’s current tenant had actually left an artificial Christmas tree, but I think artificial Christmas trees are like fat-free ice cream: unnatural simulacra of things that should be by nature joyous and indulgent. If you described a Christmas tree to a police sketch artist from Mars, you might get something that looked like this artificial tree.

The Sea Scouts were in high spirits, busy dragging one of the volunteer clerks through the ring-like device they use to “net” Christmas trees so they are more compact for driving home. “It’s a boy!” yelled one, capturing in a nutshell what the scene was spookily reminiscent of. But it’s Christmas, so you have to celebrate a virgin birth, even if it’s the simulated virgin birth of an eighteen year old man being passed through a hoop of disposable red-and white netting. While they were cutting him out of the net we found a suitable tree: a six foot noble fir for $51. “Would you like the stand with that?” asked our clerk, who had not been run through the netting machine and was therefore still able to serve us.

All the Sea Scouts trees come already mounted on broad stands made of green rebar and plastic buckets. The stands cost an extra twenty bucks, but make the tree “ready to trim”, as it were. My mom already has a Christmas tree stand that dates approximately from the Lyndon Johnson administration (really), but which has always been serviceable if a bit fiddly. It seemed excessive to me to pay an extra twenty bucks for a big hunk of rebar that would just get heaved into the recycling along with the tree two weeks hence, so I declined.

Dumbest mistake ever.

Here’s a bit of straightforward advice: get the stand. Just swallow the environmental consequences and the measly two bills and get the goddamned included stand. The tree will come in the front door and be ready for trimming and presents. No hassle. And no back problems.

Ah, the back problems. Part of Imagethief’s genetic inheritance, along with a big schnozz, sweet tooth and tendency to wordy rants, is a gimpy back passed down from my father and exacerbated by years of sloppy gym technique and poor work posture. I am, it must be confessed, a sloucher. This has been my year of back problems. At 43, I should probably be grateful. My father blew his back out like a discount whitewall when he was ten years younger than I am now, and I’ve never found myself laid out on a living room floor for three days like he was. But I did have several spells of pain and stiffness culminating in a stinging pinched nerve that popped up a month ago after an ill-advised encounter with a leg-press machine (never again) and a weekend of vigorous walking, of all things. This made it impossible to run for two weeks.

I like to run. With my eye on taking advantage of the pristine Bay Area air for some running (while I write this in fragrant Palo Alto, Beijing’s air is once again “hazardous”), I spent the last month carrying myself like an octogenarian grandmother in a Venetian glass factory. I bent from the knees to pick up lint. I even managed to preserve my back while handling my son, who is probably the single biggest factor in its recent deterioration. Three year olds, unlike dumbbells, are prone to suddenly squirm and throw you off balance in ways that can cause discs to rocket out of your spine like ninja throwing stars. They think this is funny and they learn interesting new words when it happens.

I was rewarded for my care with a pain free back and more or less full range of motion. I even managed to get our two 23 kilo suitcases into PEK out of SFO without re-injuring myself, a feat roughly on par with creating cold fusion using two glasses of flat Dr. Pepper, some kidney beans and a soiled fork.

But then I had to set up the Christmas tree.

When you think about it, a Christmas tree is a really ungainly thing. It’s heavy, asymmetrical and the best handholds are buried deep inside, especially when you pay extra for a lush noble fir instead of some threadbare, piece-of-crap douglas fir. I lugged the thing awkwardly from the garage to the living room, only to find that the trunk was too short to fit into the LBJ retro-stand. This meant laying the tree down, going into the garage to dig the hacksaw out from behind the stack of plastic tubs in which my mom’s tenant is apparently storing his collection of lead ingots and anvils, and then getting on my hands and knees to saw the bottom ring of branches off of the tree so it would fit in the stand. Then a little more time on my hands and knees tightening the little collar bolts that hold the tree upright.

When I was done with this, the tree stood proudly erect but I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame after a night of rejection and a vicious beating by dockworkers drunk on mezcal shooters. An ill-advised attempt to take an afternoon run lasted exactly one half a block before I had to stop because every step felt like I was driving lemon-zest tent pegs into my hips. With fitness clearly out of the picture, I’ve pretty much been confined to an armchair and living on a diet of chocolate and ibuprofen ever since. I really, really wish I’d just paid the twenty bucks and got the tree with its included stand.

But the good news is that it’s Christmas and my son, for all his proven lethality, was old enough to enjoy helping with the trimming of the tree and appears to have not imported some terrifying Chinese nursery school pathogen this year. Tomorrow my brothers arrive and the whole family will be together for the first time since last Christmas. In the face of so much good cheer, pissing and moaning about not having a working spine just seems like so much crabbiness. And we won’t be having any of that, will we?

A merry Christmas to all Imagethief readers.

Merry Christmas from the human vector.

Merry Christmas from the human vector.

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