Before we begin, let me say one thing about living in the future.  It’s pretty friggin’ sweet.  Yes, living 12 hours in the future doesn’t seem like much, but when I hit the ‘Publish’ button it’s Friday, and you’ll look at your clock and say… but that’s tomorrow!  And I’ll laugh because… well, I’m in the future!

Day 1: Arrival

I awoke around 8:00 a.m. to shower and prepare myself for my first day at IBM Shenzhen.  The night prior, I had arranged with Tony from IBM Taiwan (TSTL) to meet for breakfast on the third floor lounge before heading to the site.  Mi CamitaAs I took the elevator down from the 21st floor where my room was (club level baby), I noticed that at every floor, the elevator opens its doors before it has fully stopped moving.  This causes a momentary wave of vertigo that is quite unsettling at first.  The first time I noticed this behavior, I had a fleeting vision of a scene from Halflife where you step off the elevator and turn around to watch it fall into the abyss below.  This revelation also brought to light how tired I must have been the night prior, as I didn’t notice this happening on the way up to my room.

The breakfast on the third floor was buffet style.  Being as confused and unobservant as I am, I initially only saw a small table of platters from which to choose your food, and I took a little bit of each item: salted herring, mini french toast triangles, fried bread, sugar-maple ham. It was only shortly before leaving that I noticed the giant spread in the center of the room that featured the standard breakfast fare (eggs, sausage, bacon, sushi, etc.).  No matter, I thought.  Nobody ever regretted eating salted herring and french toast with syrup for breakfast before.  Right?

After meeting the other two representatives from TSTL (Stella with Quality and Emma with Manufacturing), we loaded up into a taxi and sped across town to the Fu Tian free trade zone, which is located directly across the river from Hong Kong.  In fact, directly across the street from the main entrance to the IBM/ISTC is the heavily razor wired fence that designates the opposite side as restricted.  Apparently you can occasionally catch guards patrolling this fence with AK-47’s, which is definitely something I would like to capture with my camera.

After a quick 30 minute taxi ride, we were dropped off at the entrance to the free trade zone, as taxis are not allowed within the confines of this space.  A quick note about the taxis here in China.  While the experience of riding in one doesn’t quite compare to the terror of riding in a taxi in Guadalajara, Mexico it is still a special treat to behold.  There is little regard, if any for the double yellow line in the middle of the road.  There also is a severe lack of turning lanes.  Imagine a four lane road, with two lanes for each direction of traffic.  This road intersects another four lane road at a right angle.  Now lets say every single car in front of you (in both lanes) wants to make a right turn.  Well both lanes will be jam packed with cars making that turn onto the adjoining road.  Your taxi driver is sitting there thinking, “Man, look at all this open road on the other side of that yellow line.  I think I’ll make use of that ample space and avoid sitting here in this traffic jam”, so he does as do a number of other drivers, which cuts the available oncoming traffic lanes down to one.

Now, imagine the confusion when somebody even further behind you intends to turn left.  Instead of getting in line in the newly added lane of available traffic they make another logical decision by taking advantage of the single remaining unoccupied lane, which is just sitting there begging to be used.  So now we have two lanes turning right, one lane going forward in an oncoming lane, and one lane making left turns in the final oncoming lane.  The most important thing to remember here is that the oncoming lanes weren’t exactly empty in the first place. Now, let’s take your mind on a journey and imagine that you’re a car coming in the opposite direction towards that same intersection. The wrong thing to do in this situation would be to slow down and allow the confusion up ahead clear out before entering the intersection.  This is not only incorrect, but it is disrespectful towards the other drivers.  The correct action is to speed up and try to cut everybody off. Why, you may ask? Well, because you’ve got places to be my friend, and no amount of grid lock is going to stop you.  Nor will you yield to pedestrians, as they are filthy riff-raff that cannot afford motorized transportation and must be punished for their crime.  But I digress…

After unloading from the taxi we walked through a small guard house and down one block to find a tiny shuttle bus, which would take us directly to the IBM site.  The bus became quickly overloaded with workers, and there were suddenly seats materializing out of armrests and seat-backs; however this was only a prelude to what was to come (don’t worry I’ll explain later, just think about sardines and elevators, and possibly watch the video below to prepare your mind).

It only took about 5 minutes to finally reach our destination, which was a seven story building with IBM & ISTC in big blue letters on top.  By this time, it was a little after 10 a.m. local time, and I was curious as to what time we’d leave to go home.  We hopped on the elevator and went up to the 7th floor to deposit our belongings and set up our computers.  My laptop wasn’t even done loading windows before Tony came to take me on a whirlwind tour of the building.

Our first stop was the 2nd floor, which is one of the two entrances to the manufacturing floor (the other is on the 4th floor).  After some confusion at the guard station and some name signing (which looked totally out of place since the rest of the sheet was littered with Chinese characters), we were allowed to access the vast space of the manufacturing floor.  This area was at least twice as big as the manufacturing floor in Guadalajara, Mexico and this was only one of the 5 levels of manufacturing.  We toured the Test Engineering (TE) labs on this second floor and saw a few of the production lines before taking one of the massive cargo elevators up to the 4th floor, to visit with even more local TEs.  This floor also housed the production lines for my newly acquired babies: the Blade Center chassis.  This is where the magic happens, folks.  This is also where I get calls in the middle of the night from talking about broken code and incorrect configurations that shouldn’t have been able to be ordered in the first place (these calls also emanate from the future, by the way).  Another section of this floor was dedicated to Linux Cluster manufacturing, which is always awesome to see.

After making our rounds and shaking lots of hands and meeting lots of people, we finally returned to our desks up on the seventh floor, only to find that it was noon and time to take lunch!  So far so good I guess… I opened my laptop lid just to let it finish loading my email while we took off for a little nom nom.  One of the local TEs Michael drove myself and two others to an undisclosed location about 5 minutes outside of Fu Tian to a restaurant that was called “a bunch of symbols that I can’t read”.  Everybody inside this restaurant spoke words that I couldn’t understand and the menu was filled with delicious symbols that I had no comprehension of.  The only thing that I was confidant about in the entire restaurant was the picture of a chicken on the wall.  It was not like chicken that you normally see depicted however, as the chicken was whole and cooked, with the head folded back against the body as if right before they dipped the living creature into the frying vat it tried to let out a garbled death rattle that was suddenly extinguished by 400 degrees of cooking oil, effectively sealing shut its air passage. Poor guy.

My cohorts ordered on my behalf, knowing only that I liked spicy food and wanted chicken.  After they finished ordering, Bin looked at me and exclaimed, “You like spicy food?!”, to which I replied, “Oh hell yes!  The spicier the better!”. Little did I know that the response that I gave was interpreted as a challenge to my newly acquired Chinese friends.  But more on that later, because our food arrived.  Well, their food arrived…  Apparently the ridiculously spicy dish that was ordered for me takes a very long time to make because nobody really ever orders it, so none of the cooks remembered how to make it.

Finally, after a good ten minutes my plate was set in front of me, immediately singeing my nose hairs from the ridiculous level of spiciness that it was emanating .  The easiest way for me to describe this dish is the following: you know those red shriveled peppers that you get in Chinese food that everybody says you shouldn’t eat?  Well this was literally a plate of those, with some sliced chili peppers thrown in to tone down the heat.  Oh and there was probably four little chunks of fried chicken that all featured broken chicken bones making them extremely unpleasant to eat. I’m not going to lie; I wasn’t happy with my first day of meals in China.

In fact, just thinking about that lunch time delight that left my stomach 20 degrees hotter than the rest of my body for the remainder of the day makes me get uncomfortable.  It was as if I could feel an ulcer materializing inside of my stomach and then immediately being scorched into a pile of ash every five minutes.  This ash was then digested and put into my blood stream, only to flow through my heart and brain giving me minor hallucinations for the remainder of the day.  Because honestly, I don’t remember what I did for the rest of the day.  I may have written some code or I may have gone to the production line and fixed some broken systems but I really don’t remember.

At some point, I do remember getting a new meeting invitation that was in all Looking out the 7th floor windowChinese characters.  I had no idea what it was that I was accepting until I asked Tony, who told me that the TE manager Antony had invited me to a TE dinner, at which we would celebrate my arrival.  I was pretty excited about this because I figured I’d be able to eat something normal for once and give my body some restitution for the torture that had already been imparted upon it so far.  I don’t think I need to tell you that I was wrong in thinking this.

A handful of us loaded up into the same car that we went to lunch in, and drove over to a Mao Jia restaurant, which is apparently a chain that originated in the home town of Chairman Mao, which also just so happened to be Antony’s hometown meaning that we were having some of Antony’s home-cooking.  Right. So this restaurant was crazy extravagant.  Lots of decorations and shrines to Mao and statues and shrubberies and a little waterfall and red lights and large Chinese characters that I couldn’t read.  Basically it was like that scene in the 2nd Indiana Jones movie (Temple of Doom) with the giant gong that was used as a bullet shield at one point.  It’s hard to describe, as I may have still been hallucinating.

Our party was ushered into one of the back rooms that was reserved for parties and had a large number 1 on the door.  The partition wall was opened to reveal the room numbered 3, where the System-P folks that Antony also manages filed in and took their seats.  The tables in these two rooms were humongous and had one of those awesome rotating circular glass pieces in the middle, which were also featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indiana Jones and Lao Che had an exchange of some gold, a diamond and the antidote for the poison that was so unceremoniously added to Indy’s drink.  That dastardly Lao Che and his schenanigans.

I’m getting off track here, and I’m sorry.  So initially I had chosen the seat closest to the door, as it was the first seat I saw; however I was almost immediately told that I could not sit there and that it was customary for the guest of honor to sit in the seat to the right of the host (Antony), and it was customary for the host to sit facing the door.  So after moving to my new seat I noticed that there was only one single gigantic purple menu on the glass spin top.  I then thought back to lunch when there was also only a single menu on the table that we had been seated at.  This led me to the conclusion that ordering food was a communal effort in China, which I’m pretty sure is accurate, as for the next fifteen minutes there was much discussion and pointing at the menu between everyone at the table.  I had pointed to a picture of octopus tentacles in a pot and indicated that I would be devouring that particular plate.

Much to my dismay, the discussions that I could not decipher mostly revolved around, “What’s the hottest thing on the menu?  Let’s see how much he can really handle”.  I did hear somebody parrot “the spicier the better” in the middle of a Chinese sentence, so I had a very good early indication that my choice of words had not quite left their thoughts yet, and that perhaps I was in for some kind of spicy eating challenge; however I had no early indication that I was also going to be challenged to a drinking competition as well.

In China they have a saying.  Well it’s actually a word, or a phrase or something.  I don’t know the Chinese symbols for it, but it’s pronounces Gambe (with the final e making a long A sound), and it means “bottom’s up”.  But when you say it, you mean it.  You cannot stop drinking until you have finished your glass, as it would be dishonorable to do so. Fortunately for me, the glasses we were drinking beer out of were very tiny, and probably only four to six ounces in volume.  In the beginning of the night, everybody was taking part in the gambe festivities; however as the night went on, less and less people would partake, until it devolved into a one-on-one event, with a different person taking up the gauntlet (as it were) each time.

At one point the drinking stopped, and nobody wanted to gambe with me anymore.  It was at this point that somebody clued me into the fact that word had gotten around that I had a generous capacity for drinking, a.k.a. a large tolerance.  To explain this, we must travel back in time to when a TSTL engineer visited us in RTP for a little training.  His name was Kevin and he was a very nice guy, so I took him out for a night of drinking.  After a few beers and a shot, Kevin may or may not have been puking in the bathroom.  Fast forward a few months to when Michael came to visit from ISTC (Shenzhen).  Michael too was a very nice guy, so I took him out for a night of drinking as well.  After about two hours, Michael may or may not have been in the bathroom puking as well.  I really can’t say for sure.

Back to the future.  Yes, I know that was awesome what just happened.  You traveled in time, much like myself.  Welcome.  Except I’m still in your future, so don’t get too excited… Anyway, let’s forget about all this drinking business and talk about the food.  Oh, what delightful items I devoured that night.  There were many dishes, and many bowls, and many platters that were placed on that large glass spinning table top; however the one thing that the majority of them had in common was that they were spicy.  So spicy in fact, that every single person around the table was sniffling, and breathing quickly and taking large swigs of tea.  Occasionally you could hear them exclaim, “Whooo-how this is a spicy!!”, to which I would reply, “Meh”.  I didn’t particularly find any of the dishes to be spicy except for the first one, which was some type of juicy beef strips that tasted like they had been soaked in Habanero juice for a week.

I wish I had more details about the food, but I had no idea what any of it was, and furthermore none if it made that good of an impression on me to be remembered.  There was one item however, that was some type of potato-like vegetable mashed between two graham cracker cookies and then rolled in sesame seeds, which was a fantastic little delight.  Another item that I recall was a “Chinese bread” that looked like a mushroom cap and was soft like marshmallow.  Sadly, it wasn’t all that good, and neither were the octopus tentacles that I ordered, as they were ridiculously firm and did not provide much joy in eating them.

That’s about it really. I was very impressed by the way that I had been received so far on this first day, and greatly appreciated all the warmness with which everybody greeted me.  I enjoyed our conversations and learning small tidbits about Chinese culture throughout the day, it was just a shame that the food hadn’t been quite what I had initially expected; however it wasn’t bad… it just wasn’t anything to write home about. And no, this doesn’t count as writing home, you nit picker, you.

Upon returning to the hotel it was about 11 p.m. and I was rather spent, so I got my jammies on, took out my contacts, brushed my teefers and went to bed.  Meanwhile, 7 floors down in the very same hotel, Tony was experiencing what we in the industry call Burning Acid Belly™, which would effectively forbid him from being able to make it to work the next day.  Apparently Tony wasn’t up to the Spice Challenge of the Century. Poor guy.