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  1. China is “quite relevant” to me and my life. Read this blog if you need more details.
  2. I used to work for one of the world’s largest “corporate travel management” conglomerates.

These are the reasons I’ve chosen the headline for this entry that I have.

If you don’t have the background yet, my headline answers the question I asked yesterday, in response to this AP story.

I seem to have found the answer in a Tacoma News Tribune story, “Travel nightmare made in Taiyuan,”which the rest of the folks commenting on Mr. Nelson’s experience hadn’t run across yet.

As you read what other bloggers, pundits and those commenting on their sites are saying, however, you’ll notice that several other headlines and angles are possible with this story, such as:

  • AP Editors Approve Story Unfit for Print
  • AP Writer Pens Xenophobic Drivel
  • Intel Employee’s Foibles in China Fuel Fire of ‘Inept Americans Abroad’ Mythology
  • Despite Help from Chinese Good Samaritans, U.S. Business Traveler and AP Writer Greeting Him at Airport Paint Disparaging Picture of Modern China
  • Intel Leaves U.S. Employees Unprepared for International Travel
  • Taiyuan Brothels Exhibit Tenacious Customer Acquisition Policies

There may be something to each of these angles–for me, it’s discouraging to see such an emphasis on the perceived “negatives” of Mr. Nelson’s Taiyuan adventure (dog meat, spitting locals, cockroaches, smell of sewage), as well as what can be perceived as an American traveler’s lack of resourcefulness (slept in his clothes, spent hours wandering around seemingly lost, unable to find sustenance apart from “boiled squid” and alleged “dog meat”).

In fact, Mr. Nelson has received quite a drumming on some China-related and travel-related blog sites, such as Shanghaiist and Peter Neville-Hadley’s “Away on Business” travel blog. And while I wish the original news stories made him look a bit more resourceful, I’m going to say the following in his defense.

He’s an Intel engineer of some sort, not a “China Expert” or even a seasoned traveler, necessarily. It is likely not part of his job description to “speak Chinese” or “be able to extract oneself from a foreign, unfamiliar location and return to the U.S. on one’s own resources.”

U.S. corporations routinely send employees on brief jaunts to foreign offices without “cultural preparation” because the expectation is that (1) they’ll be met, hosted and chauferred by other employees or partners whose job it is to do so and (2) they’re being sent for meetings or technical work or training…not impromptu cultural survival.

In short, this was not Mr. Nelson’s fault. His employer and the travel company it has contracted with are responsible for his travel arrangements. Nelson and other business travelers shouldn’t have to stop and wonder whether their next scheduled flight will erroneously land them in Timbuktu. Or Taiyuan. No, that responsibility has been outsourced and paid for.

Mr. Nelson even called the travel company that created his itinerary to double-check the next leg of his itinerary and was assured that all was well: Get on the plane; it will take you to Taiwan.

It didn’t.

Which brings me back to my headline and the initial cause of this unnecessary drama.

The company that’s making money from Mr. Nelson’s employer (American Express Travel and Intel, respectively, as we glean from the AP and News Tribune stories) made the following blunders:

First, American Express Travel booked Mr. Nelson a hotel room in Taiwan, where he should have been going next, but booked his flight to Taiyuan.

As one Shanghaiist reader pointed out, however, the airport in Taiwan, “in the neighboring city of Taoyuan…sounds almost exactly like Taiyuan” to some ears.

But because too many city and place names are similar or the same, travel agents are typically trained to deal with airports and cities in terms of their three-letter codes, not their proper names. (ORD for O’Hare. PEK for Beijing. SEA for Seattle and SeaTac. And so on.)

Taiyuan’s code is TYN.

Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek airport, in the neighboring city of Taoyuan, is TPE.

Yes, they both start with ‘T’, but….

The second American Express Travel miscue: In Hong Kong, thinking that the ‘Total Flight Time’ on his itinerary looked too long for a Hong Kong to Taiwan flight, Mr. Nelson called the travel agency and was assured (a different employee or the same one, we don’t know) that his itinerary was correct, and that after a pit-stop in Fuzhou, he’d hop right on over to Taiwan.

Those of us familiar with Chinese history, politics and contemporary affairs would know, of course, that there are no direct flights from Fuzhou to Taibei. American Express Travel apparently does not.

The third American Express Travel error, which the AP and News Tribune stories don’t address, but which I realized after just a few minutes of further research:

Instead of leaving Mr. Nelson essentially without help and helpless in Taiyuan, they could have…uh…just referred him to their American Express Travel/China International Travel Service affiliate office in Taiyuan.

Yes, unfortunately, you read that right.

And so to close:

Dear American Express Travel,

Just a note to let you know that you have an AMEX/CITS affiliate office in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, China (TYN).

It’s been in your network since December of 2002.

In case another of your managed corporate travelers is ever stranded there and calls you for help, you can refer them to this affiliate at: Shanxi CITS | CITS Building | Pingyang Road 38 |Taiyuan | (86351)4062090 | wss126@hotmail.com.

This contact information, in case it’s not in your records, can be found on http://cits.net/travel/tc.jsp, which is easily found via a quick Google search, and which also announces that:

On December 03, 2002, China International Travel Service Head Office and American Express entered into a new and exciting partnership to develop the growing leisure travel market in China. American Express Travel Service Network International (TSNI) will expand its existing network of travel offices in China by appointing CITS as the only lead franchise partner, to identify and acquire like-minded partner agencies to join the fastest growing CITS-Amex Leisure Travel Service Network.

Yes, it’s a “leisure” travel branch, but I suppose they could be bothered to help out the corporate travel colleagues on the other end of the phone.

And a final tip, as Mr. Nelson suggested to the News Tribune: “Some protective methods need to be put into place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Have a Nice Day!

Mark Baker

This phenomenon isn’t necessarily limited to Qingyang, but the pictures that follow are, sooo….

During previous visits here to the Jinjiang area, it was already possible to get a private dining room at some of the larger restaurants, but that’s all it was: A room. With plain white walls. With a table and chairs inside. With a door. Nothing fancy. Nothing to really set you apart from the people out in the main dining area. Except that you were in a room apart from people in the main dining area. WooHoo.

But now, in Qingyang, Anhai and other cities and towns in this region, getting a private dining room has become quite the gilded experience. Fancy tables and chairs, a private bathroom, large RTV and KTV setups, in-room karaoke, fancy, comfortable seating, waitstaff that stay in the room to refill your glasses as soon as they are empty, and so on. This is in contrast to “the good old days” when they would just show up, take the order, bring the food, and then bid you a perfunctory Hasta la Vista, Baby!

Many of the fancy private dining rooms are in hotels, and in more than one case, we found ourselves in private dining rooms that used to be hotel rooms. (That would explain why one of the private dining room bathrooms we encountered still has, uh, a bathtub and shower in it. Quite convenient. “Oh dear, I’ve spilled gravy on my tie. No matter. I’ll just go shower off…”.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are some photos from one of our dining out ventures in Qingyang, which included my Wife’s entire family, kids, my Mother-in-Law’s Younger Brother and his Wife, (deep breath) my Wife’s Younger Sister’s Husband’s Parents, and, and…Oh Yeah. The Waitresses.

As you look at these pictures, remember that the “cultural lesson” here is that just five years ago, getting a private dining room at a restaurant would more likely have meant a plain room with plain walls and so on.)

(Oh, and way down below, I’m also trying out that “YouTube” video service you see popping up everywhere these days….)

Our private dining room:

A close-up of the wallpaper behind the TV:

No, my Wife isn’t slapping her Older Sister; she’s just a very “animated” talker:

A waitress refills the kids’ glasses:

My Wife modeling the hand-carved “lounge” furniture at the back of the room:

My Wife’s Younger Sister finalizes our order with the head waitress:

A video view around the table from my chair:

I had intended to go to Beijing during this extended visit to China, but a few days before we were to go, both my daughters got sick. Quite sick. One to the point that we had to take her to the hospital, where the doctor she saw recommended getting her on an I.V. rehydration plan for three days. Nyet, we decided on that, so I stayed “home” in Anhai to nurse the girls back to health (they’re fine now, by the way) while my Wife and her Younger Sister instead made the trip to Beijing. If I had been along, the following story probably woudn’t have been possible.

It’s no secret that “foreigners” often get “overcharged” when souvenier-shopping in China, but how to know how much one is getting overcharged?

Well, thanks to my (native Chinese) Wife’s astute undercover reporting recent shopping spree in Beijing, I have some some anecdotes and numbers to report.

The first small snippet: while bargaining with one seller for an even lower price on an item, the seller used the following statement as part of her bargaining technique: “You apparently don’t trust me. I’m offering you a great price already. Why should I go lower when I could sell this same thing to the next foreigner who comes in here for ten times what I’m asking from you.”

Whoa. We might guess that “ten times” could be an exaggeration, part of her haggling technique, but still. Whoa.

But then during another leg of this shopping spree, my Wife and her Younger Sister visited what we’ll call a “Jade Emporium.” It includes a sales showroom, an artisan workshop, and a “training center” to train other Chinese in the art of jade carving. I have names and addresses, but they’re really not important to this story, since what I’m about to describe isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s just the best of several examples I have….

Here, as told to me by my Wife, is her experience at this “Emporium.”

This Jade Emporium is included as a stop on a number of tour group itineraries. Visitors get off their buses, check out the showroom, maybe see a demonstration of some sort if they’re lucky, and–the whole point of being taken there in the first place–buy lots of jade stuff (if the tour operators are lucky, that is, since they get a commission on all purchases).

My Wife and her Younger Sister were asked by one of the shop girls where they were from, and they replied “Fujian Province,” and the girl said, “Oh, our general manager is from Fujian Province. Let me go get him…”.

A bit later, said general manager arrived, dressed in his best spiffies, and greeted his fellow Fujianese in a way that didn’t exactly make them feel he was their long lost cousin–too much stereotypical “used car salesman” stuff.

Anyway, to the point–and if you plan on shopping in Beijing (or anywhere in China) around the 2008 Olympics, pay attention. This post’s for you–they got around to talking prices with this fellow on a piece that had a price tag for 6000 RMB attached to it. My wife said she was interested in the piece, but 6000 RMB seemed high.

And again, if you think you might be inclinced to pay sticker price on some nice looking thing just because “You like it,” or because “Well, it’s worth that to me,” then perk up!

He just gave a little smile, picked up the piece, and whispered to them, “Follow me.”

He took them away to an area where the rest of the tour group–other travelers from all over China–couldn’t hear them talk, and told them something like this:

“Look, of course 6000 RMB is too high for this, that’s just fishing for big dumb fish with a small worm. We get a lot of tourists here from Japan and Korea, and we’ll let them haggle the price down 50% on this sort of piece, to 3000 RMB. They think they’re getting a great half-price deal, but even that is ‘killing them down to the last drop of blood’. How much do you think this piece costs me? No idea? Would you pay 2000RMB for it? Would you feel that’s a good deal? Look, because we’re from the same province, I’m going to level with you. You can take it at just over my cost. For 350 RMB, it’s yours. But I want you to do three things for me: First, live a good life. Second, don’t hesitate to share this jade piece with others [Note: He had also explained the “curative powers of jade” to them.]; and third, tell anyone back in Fujian Province that if they’re looking to learn the jade craft to come up here. We can give them the training they need.”

He also explained that this sort of pricing–for example, putting a sticker price equal to $750 US for a piece that cost the seller less than $40.00–is going to be the norm for sellers around Beijing during the 2008 Olympic period, and many sellers are already warming up with tour groups, which are typically more “captive” buyers.

Phenomenal.

And me, I feel torn between (1) trying to warn tourists going to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics and (2) opening a shop in Beijing to sell Chinese arts and crafts to tourists coming to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. 😉

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