Near Yellow Mountain

Thursday, January 20, 2011

first trip back to China

January 19th - I made my first trip back to Shanghai exactly two months after I left.
My long time driver Philip's big smile as he saw me walk out the door from customs made me feel like I was, indeed, coming home. Despite being tired from the long flight, it was an enjoyable ride through the low cloud and gloom of a grimy, Shanghai winter afternoon.

I didn't get to say much as Philip provided non stop commentary on his view of both the wider world and the goings on at FMC - the company I work for. Best to sit back and enjoy the thoughts of a Chinese mind conveyed in a unique form of English.

An interesting week to return as China's leader is currently visiting the US. As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I turned on CNBC. As one of the pundits began to discuss a key topic of the Hu Jintao visit (RMB appreciation or lack of it). The screen went black until something more palatable to the censors was being said. China keeps a lid on what is communicated to the masses by the foreign press.

Despite the 30 hour trip,  I had to get right to a meeting and dinner. As I entered the office elevator bank where I had made an emotional departure just eight weeks prior, it felt very natural to come to the office - except for the fuss everyone made greeting me. After receiving a series of heartfelt "welcome back" greetings, we wrapped up a meeting with a major customer (three old friends) who in the normal fashion of their native Sichuan province insisted we rush to a restaurant so we could eat spicy Sichuan food but more importantly (to them) toast the return of a friend with "bai jo" - white alcohol. Despite crossing 13 time zones, I was a good sport. "Ganbei" after "ganbei began to take a toll. Rather than feeling a buzz. I felt a need to sleep which mercifully happened earlier than normal as my Sichuan friends had an early flight home the next day.

I sleep well on airplanes but never sleep normally the first few nights after a transpacific trip. My first night in China was no exception - I was up for good at 2:15 am just in time to turn on the TV and see the speeches and press conference by Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. As the human rights questions began, I expected a black screen to greet the increasingly intense questioning from US reporters. I was surprised and pleased that the screen retained its color and I was able to watch the entire press conference. Hu Jintao was deft in dodging questions and stating the well worn Chinese positions on "making human rights and RMB appreciation moves according to the 'internal schedule' of China and not on another country's timetable". Chinese politician's are much more disciplined than the average western elected official. Although President Obama tried to sound as if he was engaging in substantive discussions, he clearly was not coming out a winner vs the skillful mandarin.

I was out the door at 5:15am for a run and very surprised to be greeted by a blanket of snow - uncommon in Shanghai. Snow is viewed as a lucky event in a city like Shanghai where it doesn't stay on the ground overnight very often. Later in the day, the snow proved lucky for me as my flight to Changsha (in the center of the country) was grounded due to the snow and I was allowed to spend three straight days in Shanghai rather than change cities and hotels.

Instead of being on the road with part of my team, I spent a day in the office catching up with the entire office. Rather than the spicy fare of the previous night, we ate Shanghai food - two nights of spicy food in a row is too much for the normal Shanghai palate.

I am up again in the middle of the night writing this and listening to reports of Hu Jintao's last full day in America.

The emotions I felt yesterday were quite different than I expected. It was great to see my team but I know this isn't where I belong anymore. I have made the first mental transition that is part of the process of going home. My corner office is now occupied by a newly hired corporate person who is called "President of FMC Asia". The "50 something" Shanghai born, American educated - MBA and PhD now sits at the desk I had made to my specifications in a Shanghai factory. The meeting table and leather chairs I also specified were empty as I looked down the hall into my old office. Strangely I didn't feel a tinge of the anticipated emotion. Maybe it will come later but it seems I have crossed over. I am a visitor now not the boss. An America educated, Chinese person sits at my old desk - the wheel turns.

Last month I visited Japan, my first Asian home. Yesterday I completed the loop seeing Shanghai for the first time. It is good to be back.  On the other hand, even though I don't feel totally settled with being back in the US, I feel no need to be In China long term either.  I hired a good team in Shanghai, trained them and now it is time for me to move on and let them move on with new leadership. Two months after walking away, I finally know, leaving was the right thing.