Making it big in Beijing

It is always a pleasure to read a book that resonates with me in some way, and last night, I read a book that did just that. The book was Big in China: My unlikely adventures raising a family, playing the blues, and becoming a star in Beijing, by Alan Paul. In 2005, Paul’s wife, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, gets a job as the paper’s bureau chief in China. Looking for an adventure and hoping to give their kids some international exposure, the couple decides to move their family of five to Beijing for a while. Paul, a freelance writer for Guitar World and Slam! (a magazine about basketball), is excited about the prospect of starting a new life in a new country, even if it is just for a few years.

When they get to Beijing, the family is put up in a gated expat community, but Paul and his wife Rebecca want to experience the “real” China, so they spend as much time outside the community walls as they do inside it. Aggressively traveling around China, the family visits many places that most foreigners never dare to venture. Paul records most of their adventures and shares them with the world on his blog for the Wall Street Journal. Both spouses eventually manage to get their drivers licenses and they buy a car, giving them an extra degree of freedom to explore.

The family has many of the normal challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. Paul writes about culture shock, about struggles learning the Chinese language, and about watching the transformation of his kids from reluctant participants to adventurers themselves. They all grow to love their new home, and Paul is surprised when the family travels back to the US and finds himself longing to go back “home” to China.

Life is not always wonderful inside the expat community, and Paul’s family must deal with some real heartbreak while they are in Beijing. The wife of one of the couple’s new expat friends becomes ill, and after some inconclusive medical exams returns to the US, where she is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. The speed at which the cancer takes the woman’s life is shocking. Meanwhile, Paul’s own father discovers he has cancer (not life-threatening), and Paul is struck by the realization that life continues to move forward in the states, even when he is not there.

Despite some difficult times, the family’s time in China is a positive experience. One of Paul’s observations is that it feels natural to reinvent oneself in a place that is changing as rapidly as China. In fact, it is necessary to change in order to feel like you fit in. In Paul’s case, he reinvents himself through music.

An amateur musician who is reluctant to play music in front of people, Paul is determined to overcome his fears while he is in China. He has an urge to get up on stage and play, to see what he can really do. The opportunity arises when an expat who owns a bar asks him to host an open mic night. Paul agrees to do it as soon as he can find a partner to play with.

Paul eventually finds someone to play with, though not in a conventional way. On one trip back to the United States, he purchases a new guitar to take to China with him. He carefully packs it in its case and checks it as baggage, but when he arrives at his house in Beijing, Paul opens the guitar case to find that the head is no longer attached to the rest of the guitar. This misfortune would profoundly change the rest of Paul’s time in China.

Paul ends up contacting Woodie Wu, a Chinese guitarist who also has an instrument repair business. When Paul brings him the broken guitar, the two discover they share a deep appreciation for American blues/roots music. Wu probes Paul for stories from all of the guitar players he has interviewed over the years, and the two become fast friends. They get together for a jam session and soon the pair starts playing gigs at local bars. Their band grows to include an American sax player (who also works for the US treasury department) and two Chinese musicians—a bassist and a drummer.

At first, the group is just out to have fun, but Wu challenges Paul to practice harder because he sees that they have potential. Paul agrees. He is nervous about going for it, but at the same time he feels like he could do great things if he would just let his inhibitions go. The effort to improve pays off. The band develops a camaraderie and rhythm, becoming a cohesive unit that plays great music.

Chinese audiences respond well to the Chinese-American blues band. Woodie Alan, as the band is called, is voted Beijing’s best band, and even does some touring in China. They are successful beyond what Paul thought possible when he began. When his wife receives a promotion that will require them to move back to New Jersey, he is deeply torn about leaving. Paul realizes that the only logical decision is to move back to the States, but it is still difficult.

Big in China describes the transition of an upper middle class family from New Jersey into a global family with an international perspective. It also tells the story of how one self-conscious American guy broke through his own resistance and grew into the musician he always hoped he was. At times, the book is funny (reporting the follies of trying to adapt to a new culture), serious (discussing the real anxieties of being far away from sick family members) and inspiring (describing Paul’s transformation).  It is an easy and accessible introduction to China, and when you get done reading it, you feel like you need to take your own journey abroad. At least I did.

Sì, la bellezza ha un gusto

Going to business school, you get to learn all kinds of fun stuff, especially if you haven’t spent much time in the corporate world. Our first term of the MIM program we took marketing from Brian McCarthy, a former GM of marketing at Microsoft. His class was lots of fun and very informative, and it really opened my eyes to how companies try to reach customers. The biggest challenge that all companies have is trying to get people to try their products. Then they try to create some type of emotional bond with their customer. Most people are creatures of habit, and once they find something they like, it is hard to get them to try new things. You could say that marketing is the science (or art) of overcoming that resistance to change.

Ever since taking Brian’s class, I pay more attention to ads and commercials. I try to figure out what they’re trying to communicate. For example, I will see a commercial for Chevrolet pickups and try to dissect it. What is it trying to say? Chevy Trucks (a more “manly” word than pickups) are tough, reliable and American. The message goes beyond the products being sold and moves into the realm of emotions and values.

One of the projects we had to do for class was to develop a marketing plan for some type of product. We could either choose to market our own business idea or we could take some company’s product that we liked and pick a country outside the US in which to market it. I chose to write a marketing plan for Illy coffee in China, probably because I was drinking a lot of Illy coffee at Park Avenue Café at the time.

One of the things I came across when I was creating the marketing plan was the following commercial (it’s much better if you play it with something that has good speakers and turn up the sound):

Elegance. Style. Art. Beauty. The finer things in life. These words describe what comes to mind when I watch that commercial. I was captivated when I saw it. The music (Atlantico by Roberto Cacciapaglia) was dramatic, the images were beautiful and graceful and the tagline, La bellezza ha un gusto (literally “beauty has a taste”), captured the spirit of both Italy and the company. Italians care deeply about the quality of the food and drink they consume, and their companies are well-known for their beautiful design (think Ferrari, Ducati, Gucci).

In the marketing plan, I wrote that the commercial would resonate in China too. The people in both countries have a strong appreciation for beauty. Italy and China are also the home of two of the world’s most important ancient civilizations and if done right, a campaign of “East meets West” over a cup of Illy could be very effective.

One question about the commercial is whether it ended up selling more coffee or not. I have no idea, but at the very least it provided me with some entertainment for a while. Two years later, I still haven’t forgotten about it, so Illy was effective at reaching at least one customer. My question is, does it capture your attention like it did mine?

China’s National Day

It has been a while since I talked about China, so today is a good day to return to the subject. October 1st is a very important day on the Chinese calendar. It is the day that China celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which happened in 1949 in a ceremony at Tiananmen Square.

Schools close for a week and many people travel to their hometowns to visit family and celebrate together. The Chinese government celebrates the day by organizing fireworks displays and other festivities, including turning Tiananmen Square into a huge flower garden (I hope the video loads more quickly for you than it did for me). This year China also launched a satellite to the moon on the same day. China wants to send astronauts to the moon and this mission was to test some of the technologies for that.

This year’s events did not receive the attention that last year’s did. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the republic, and the government put on a huge military parade on Changan Lu (Long Peace Road, ironically), showing off all of the new military hardware that China has developed in-country. It was a display of strength that made a great story for western media outlets looking to portray China’s military as a growing threat. Some, however, argued it also displayed weakness, since the Chinese government did not let Beijing residents anywhere near the parade, lest they disrupt the carefully-planned event. Whichever side you agree with, the scenes of tanks, trucks, armored personnel vehicles and thousands of soldiers passing in formation past Tiananmen Gate under the approving eyes of President Hu Jintao were striking. 

Discovering China

You might wonder why someone from a small town in Eastern Washington would ever be interested in going to spend a month in China to study Chinese. I had to think about that for a while to come up with an answer. When I came home to harvest last week, I remembered why. The answer can be traced back to Dayton and to my best friend from home, Ryan Rundell.

Ryan and I have known each other for more than 25 years. He has been one of my best friends for almost as far back as I can remember. Over the years, we spent hours playing sports together, rehearsing and performing in school musicals together, chasing girls together and rooming together in college. Ryan is the one who got me interested in China and learning Chinese. Here’s the story:


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Coming back from China

When I passed through security and walked into Terminal 3 at the Beijing International Airport, it struck me that my adventure was coming to an end. The terminal was cool, clean and quiet, three adjectives that have little to do with the China I experienced. I sighed deeply, preparing for the journey ahead. I was excited to return home, but not necessarily looking forward to the next 24 hours on the move.

The trip had started out well. After a couple more difficult farewells, I hopped into a taxi to the airport.. There were no traffic jams and not even a line at the check-in desk (for a full flight on a 747!). The only thing that almost went wrong was when I got to the airport, I didn’t know what flight I was supposed to be on, and I couldn’t find any  flights to San Francisco on the monitors. For a minute, I thought maybe I was supposed to fly out at 4am instead of 4pm and had arrived 10 hours late. My fears were premature, however. The flights to SFO did show up on the monitor a few minutes later. Whew! Crisis avoided.

I had arrived at the airport two hours early, so I wandered around a little, checking out some of the luxury good for sale in the duty-free shops and eating an overpriced dish of fried rice that wasn’t half as good as what you could get in the shops in the city center. I knew I would miss good Chinese food, but I was also excited to get some good home cooking. Living without a kitchen was hard and with all the walking I did, I probably lost 10lbs on the trip.

My last meal in China...could have done better

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