China Diary - Part 6

Suzhou, a 21st century city, continues to preserve its precious past.


September 2, 2006

Judy Yang and I went to Shanghai on August 25 to see what we could find at the IKEA store, a huge multi-level home decorations mart like the U.S. IKEAs, only the prices are even cheaper in China. Judy thought it would be the perfect place for me to shop for apartment needs, such as a couple of lamps, some cooking untensils, and a kitchen utility cart. Mark suggested that since we were going to be in Shanghai, we take care of a little business for Neptco. Mark still doesn't know that I didn't buy that story, but if it makes him feel better to think that I thought the trip was for me with a smidge of business on the side instead of the trip being for business with a smidge of shopping on the side . . . well, so be it. I got a van full of stuff in the deal -- and the total cost was less than a couple pairs of new shoes from Tops (a great shoe store in Asheville, N.C.)

I also got the chance to interview Judy, Mark's right-hand woman (I've got that important behind-the-man position) and the first person in China with whom Mark and I have developed a close relationship. Judy is one of those rare people who got to be wise and mature while still young and beautiful. Most of us don't enjoy our first taste of wisdom until we're old and droopy-skinned.

Let me introduce you to Judy:

  • She's 26 and single.
  • She's an only child from Nantong, which is about 190 miles from Suzhou. Her mom and dad still live there.
  • She moved from Nantong to attend Suzhou University where she studied Business English.
  • She got her first job four months before she graduated and then stayed in Suzhou. She sees her parents and her pet parakeets, Mao Mao and Little Yellow, about four times a year.
  • She's thrifty. She's buying her own apartment, and when she travels, she uses the bus or train. She doesn't drive but may someday. When asked what kind of car she'd buy, she said to be practical, she'd buy a Golf. She prefers better-quality clothing but waits for a sale to make her purchases (my kind of girl!).
  • She's a good sport. She lets Mark and me joke with her, like the time she didn't pronounce the "b" in "crab" quite hard enough for our middle-aged ears, and we thought the function of a certain lovely lidded basket was to hold crap -- a momentarily believable concept since the basket was stored across the hall from a bathroom. She knows we're not serious when we joke, and she's even begun returning the favor, such as when she quizzes Mark on a new Chinese word she's taught him, and he doesn't pronounce it correctly. She mocks quietly, chuckling and looking amazed.
  • She's tough. Her petite, feminine appearance belies the inward tigress. She not only has shared her displeasure with one of her roommates who has a bad habit of spending more than his share of hours in the bathroom -- grooming -- but she also has "convinced" him that he needs to seek housing elsewhere. Judy already has secured tenants to move into his room once he's gone.
  • She's humane to Mark and me. She knows we are at her mercy and doesn't take advantage of the fact that she can speak Chinese and English, and we can speak only English. Imagine the jokes she could play on us in China!
  • She's clever. Judy's job is interpreter/administrative assistant, but her level of understanding of the English language goes much deeper than simple interpretation. She skimmed the surface of our language a long time ago and is quickly chipping away at layer after layer of nuance, figurative language, slang, and jargon. When Mark and I are with Judy -- who's barely older than our daughter and son -- I feel sometimes that we are the children because we cannot yet speak Chinese. Fortunately, Judy is a good "parent."
  • When asked to share what she imagines the U.S. to be like, she said she thinks China and the U.S. are alike in some ways. "Both countries are big countries covering a wide range of geological characters from ice-cold Alaska and tropical Hawaii. I think North Carolina is filled with green trees, grass and different houses," she described. "However, on the other hand, New York is a big city like Shanghai -- busy traffic and crowd of people... As far as government is concerned, I think America is more democratic, and people have more freedom to talk and see what is really going on while China's media are not flexible."
  • When asked to describe what she thinks Americans are like, she said, "I think most Americans are more optimistic and creative than Chinese people. I think it is because they had more fun when they were young. Chinese kids will have to suffer heavy pressure from education and later the employment. Because China has the family plan policy since 1980s, most kids nowadays are the single child in their family. Parents and grandparents adore them as a pearl in the palm.They can hardly learn to share with others and be less selfish. However, Chinese students are more disciplined."

So, enough accolades and comparisons. It's clear that Neptco is fortunate to have Judy, so on with the interview:

Mary: Judy, you began working for Neptco in March. What was your first duty?

Judy: Look for a better rate with Sheraton Suzhou.

FYI: Mark was staying at the Sheraton and would remain several more days, plus other Neptco people were coming, so the company needed a better rate -- a corporate rate.

Mary: Were you successful?

Judy: (smiling): Yes . . . better than Mark can get. Also I find a transportation company.

FYI: The fledgling business needed a driver and a car.

In the beginning, there was no office. Judy worked at an Internet cafe. Mark worked out of his hotel room at the Sheraton.

The next big hurdle to cross was selecting a bank and then setting up an account, the accomplishment of which killed the proverbial two birds with one stone.

Judy: As part of the agreement, they (the Bank of China) provided us an office in the SND (Suzhou New District) EPZ (Export Processing Zone).

FYI: Having an office meant that Mark and Judy had someplace to call "office." Judy said it was about 40 square meters, a totally empty room.

Judy: No furniture, no telephone, no broadband. We borrowed furniture from the decoration company (four desks and five or six chairs), and we applied to install the broadband. It took us one day to furnish and clean the office (which meant cleaning the dirty, loaned furniture). We bought a kettle, a telephone multifunctional machine, some plugs, and stationery.

Mary: (Unaware that in China, "stationery" includes office supplies such as staplers and pens and pencils) Did you get office supplies?

Judy: Yeah like tea and coffee? . . .That period of time was funny. Only two of us were sitting in the office, and we could not find anywhere that we could have lunch except going back to the town.

FYI: Mark and Judy had to ride half an hour to town to eat and then half an hour back. Business continued in the car.

Judy: Not long after that, we signed the contract with the decoration company, Shenzhen Guangtian Decoration Engineering Company Limited.

Mary: Judy, how did you feel about working for a company whose facility didn't even exist yet?

Judy: That's the way I like. I can see things from nothing to real big.

Judy explained that she didn't know if "pioneer" was too big a word to describe what it was she liked being a part of. Personally, I think it's the perfect word. For Neptco, Mark and Judy are definitely pioneers. We'll call them Daniel Boone and Pocahontas.

Mary: So, Judy, what do you think about the people who work for Neptco? The Americans you've met.

Judy: The first group of people I met were a little bit different. Different from the British - more relaxed. (FYI: Prior to Neptco, Judy worked for a British company.)

I have more fun (working for Neptco) -- less pressure.

On an interesting note, Judy said at this point that she believed more is accomplished (business-wise) in her present working conditions.

Mary: Who were the first people you met who were a little bit different?

Judy: Ken Ho, Dave Lloyd, and Brian Mierau.

Mary: Let's take them one at a time. How was Ken Ho different?

Judy: He's just unique: his accent, he plays the joke all the time, and he makes everybody laugh. He's a food expert. I think he's knowledgeable and charming.

Mary: What about Dave Lloyd? I don't know him.

Judy: He likes to talk. He wants to know where the nearest fire--fighting bureau is.

Mary: Did you tell him?

Judy: No, I don't know.

Mary: Did Mark tell him?

Judy: No.

Mary: So what did (Dave Lloyd) do?

Judy: He kept asking. He asked officials at the EPZ.

Mary: Did he find the fire-fighting bureau?

Judy: Yes, actually, if we dial 119, they will go to our factory in ten minutes.

(Sounds familiar, but could get confusing to a Westerner: 911, 119, 191, 919, 999, 111 . . .

While I was busy being silly, Judy threw in, "110 is for the police."

Mary: Anything else about Dave Lloyd?

Judy: He collects all the documents. Even if they are in Chinese. Just so detailed.

Mary: OK, tell me about Brian Mierau. I don't know him either.

Judy: He's the engineer, likes to laugh, likes to laugh at me.

Mary: What would make him laugh the most?

Judy: He laughed at my English with the Chinese accent, and I laughed at him speaking Mandarin with the Vietnamese accent . . .I think he looks younger than he is. I think he's smart.

After a while, Judy looked at me and said, "I haven't commented on your husband?"

Mary: Do you want to comment? Is he different, too, like the rest?

Judy: No, he's more normal.

Mary: What is "more normal?"

Judy: He doesn't laugh as crazy as they do.

Mary: Does he ever laugh?

Judy: Yes!

Mary: What makes him laugh?

Judy: Ken.

After thinking for a minute -- and likely comparing Mark to her previous employer, Judy continued.

Judy: Mark is considerate and flexible.

Mary: Always?

Judy: Once he has his own opinion, which he thinks is right, he will not give in.

Mary: No comment.

Mary: What are you looking forward to as a member of the Neptco Suzhou team?

Judy: I am looking forward to starting the production as soon as possible . . . so that we'll not worry Ken Feroldi. The L statement will become P and L. Right now, we're just spending . . . We see things moving forward. We have our decoration finished. We have our water supply, and next week we'll get our power. And we've already received equipment and some start-up raw materials . . .It's been like watching a baby growing.

And Uncle Ken and Uncle Dave and Uncle Brian -- as well as many other uncles, aunts, grandmas, and grandpas -- have contributed to his -- or maybe her -- good health.

Love,


Derick S. Hartshorn - 2006-present
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