Observations from Harbin, China – The Kirkpatrick Report
By Al Kirkpatrick, CISO for Firestorm’s The Kirkpatrick Report
Thursday August 4, 2011
So, I have been in Harbin (very northeast China, not far from Russia) for 2 days and am preparing to leave for the next stop. Harbin is another large, very modern city of about 8 million. Our vendor here has pulled out all the stops to make sure that we are hosted 24X7 and so transport, meals or any other item has not been an issue.
English is now a core subject in Chinese elementary schools, but that is recent enough that the majority of the population has not saturated. Interestingly, many Chinese read and write English fairly well, as that is a requirement for much of the thriving offshore business processing, but only those in call centers have the opportunity to hear it spoken and apparently that is a much more difficult task for them. To me, Chinese is a daunting language, so I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
In visiting a Chinese BPO (business process out-sourcer) I certainly did not find any kind of “sweat shop” atmosphere. Employee to office square footage ratio is certainly higher than our average in the U.S., but the atmosphere has been open, clean, bright and relatively comfortable.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m here to do computer security assessments. It’s a Microsoft Windows world over here. The computer workstations display some information in English and others in Chinese. The local anti-virus of choice is a Chinese brand which incorporates “360” in its name and we decided that was some cagey marketing since one of the Anti-Virus staples in the U.S. is Norton (Symantec) 360. One challenge is in assessing hard-copy (and some workstation-based) documents. Naturally they are written in Chinese – so once again, a reliable interpreter is key.
As is the case with many off-shore providers to the U.S. – Chinese companies are adept at working U.S. hours (it is exactly 12 hours earlier (yesterday) right now in my home state of Georgia). This impacts weekends and Chinese national holidays as well. Yesterday’s vendor’s workweek is Monday night through Saturday afternoon. Employees must agree in many cases to forgo China holidays (many of which are very family oriented) to accommodate U.S. business schedules.
Balance and Relationships
One thing is for certain – the Chinese value “balance” in all things. When they work, they
appear to work hard and consistently. On the other hand, when they play they go at it full steam. Also, it is evident that when doing business here, relationships are everything; so, we have worked during the day, and then dined and been entertained by our vendor/hosts in the evening. Courtesy and respect are evident in all things.
If you should come to China, be prepared for a national tradition known as “Gum Bai”. That translates to “bottoms up” and after office hours you will be presented with this challenge as an evening-long series of toasts. I am not a heavy drinker, but have engorged more beer in the past few days than probably the last five years. So, come prepared. If you do not drink alcohol, I sense that it no stigma, but your host will simply put multiple bottles of cola, or blueberry juice (really good) or just water and you will still be urged to join in the “Gum Bai” toasts.
Food appears to be about the same price as in the U.S. Hotels have a wide range of prices depending on how western-friendly. Travel books advise not to drink tap water and hotels have bottled water in the rooms at no charge. The tap water appears clear, but I’m not taking chances. Fruit here is similar to the U.S. – watermelon, a cantaloupe look-alike, blueberries, and the best fresh pineapple I’ve had outside of Hawaii.
Last night we had Chinese barbecue which is cooked at the table and it was delicious. While rural areas may be different, in the urban areas Chinese do not scrimp on food. Every meal so far has consisted of enough food to feed three to four times the number at the table. There’s always a ton of food remaining and I haven’t noticed doggie-bags as the norm. I think the average American can eat well here from a quantity, quality and choice perspective – with relative ease in finding something familiar. Do note that Chinese versions of American Chinese restaurant staples are generally on the menu – but look and taste different.
I am currently on my third China domestic flight and have had no problems of note. Airport security is similar to the U.S. – – laptops out of the case, but shoes get to stay on. Apparently everyone gets patted down with the scanner wand – but it’s quick and relatively painless. Check-in is a matter of an e-ticket or presenting your passport at the check-in counter; some lines, but not extensive waits.
Everyone at the airport is helpful and courteous (we could learn some lessons there). We are flying coach domestically and do note that Chinese coach seats have even less legroom than U.S. domestics. Same familiar airplanes, announcements, etc. in flight. Interestingly, food apparently gets served even in coach on every flight – I was handed a sandwich on our 45 minutes hop from Beijing to Dalian and I just finished an actually delicious lunch of roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots and rice on this one hour hop! Of note, the food tasted FRESH and was moist and totally appetizing. Desert of chocolate cake and some candied peanuts. Why can’t our U.S. carriers match this?
Change planes in Dalian and then on to Xi’an (pronounced “Shee-yan”).