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heading out to a factory
singapore sunset
amw
When i first started at this job i wasn't anticipating anything exciting or interesting. The technology is same old same old. The organizational problems are same old same old. I knew that going in. But one thing i hoped was that i could get a bit of exposure to the "heart" of the PRD in a way that working at one of the Chinese unicorns or at a multinational tech firm wouldn't grant me. Thursday i finally got that opportunity. Thursday i headed into a factory to spend a day on-site.

My company helps retailers manage early parts of their supply chain. Our clients include some well-known discount stores in the west, and they source vast amounts of their wares from factories dotted all around the PRD. On Wednesday night i got the call that i should report in to an electronics factory in Longgang District. Yep, this is the just-in-time nature of the modern supply chain - you get the call the night before and then you go.

I met up with a colleague at a subway station about 20 minutes from my place. The station was actually further from my house than our destination was, but he figured it would be easier for me if we traveled together. He used a car pool app to hitch a ride with a woman who was heading in the same direction. The nice thing about this app is as a rider you can select whether you want a ride from a full-time driver or simply someone heading to work anyway - the price for the latter is much lower; comparable to public transport. Knowing that made me feel slightly less guilty about sitting in a giant gas guzzler for another 20 minutes just to get to a location an hour's bike (or bus) ride from my house.

I guess the drivers see the opportunity to network as a perk for sharing their car, and our driver mentioned she worked at a logistics company that shipped stuff via Hong Kong out to the rest of the world. In lieu of a business card, we exchanged WeChat details. It reminds me of F, and T, and several other people i have met here whose jobs are things like writing Amazon descriptions, responding to emails from buyers in the US, etc. All those cheap products that appear as if by magic in stores in the west? This is how the sausage is made.

It surprised me when we passed by a familiar 沙县小吃 (shā xiàn xiǎo chī) - a cheap eats franchise with a recognizable Pacman logo. They're dotted all over the poorer parts of town. This one was familiar to me, because i sat down there a few weeks ago to eat 拌面 (bàn miàn). Turned out our destination was pretty much next door to it.

We jumped out and got to work. The place makes all sorts of chargers and hubs and dongles, but we were there to inspect a USB cable. I shit you not. We spent a whole day running quality assurance on a USB cable. Measuring the length, checking for any chips or flaws in the silk screen, frayed cords, a good fit in 5 different phones... Does it charge? Can you drop it from waist height a dozen times? What happens when it's been in the stress testing machine that bends and rocks it back and forth? Does it still charge? Are the colors right? Is the printing sharp? Is the box the right size? Is it the right weight? One micrometer off - that's a defect. We tested hundreds of cables plucked randomly out of a one-pallet shipment headed for a retailer in the EU.

Dude, i will never, ever complain about the price of a USB cable again.

On the factory floor, people (mostly women) were soldering and folding and wrapping and checking injection mold machines and whatnot. The men were taping up boxes and loading pallets. Everyone was dressed casually. There were no Communist propaganda posters. There was no stereotypical evil Taiwanese boss. Although, the boss was definitely a character.

He took us out to lunch at the kind of Chinese restaurant i am used to visiting outside of China but have never visited inside China. Big menu. Lazy susan. Lots of waiters. Free tea. No dishes under 20元. If i went to a place like this in Europe or Canada i'd be thrilled to find such an "authentic" Chinese restaurant. Here in China i just felt like a pretentious jackass. Especially after we had just been driven there in a Mercedes.

Our company is very fucking strict about avoiding bribery, which is challenging in China where it is a tradition to treat your (business) partners with lavish meals and gifts. So i felt kind of awkward on two levels - one because i would never go to a restaurant like that on my own here, and two because going there felt like it was breaking the ethics contract i had to sign on my first day. I was relieved at the end of the meal when - after letting the boss pick up the bill inside the restaurant - my colleague hit me up for some cash and we paid it back to him inside the elevator, profusely apologizing and explaining it was our company policy and we had no choice. Fucking. Awkward. I would have been much happier just walking down to the 沙县小吃 round the corner from the factory. But i guess that wouldn't have made the boss feel like he was treating us with the right level of respect, or something?

Sigh. So, yeah, perhaps that's an interesting cultural quirk. Friday night at after-work drinks a similar thing happened. It was around midnight at an outdoor 烧烤 (shāo kǎo) joint, and one of the guys at the next table over decided to come and make friends with us. Even though we had already eaten, our new friend followed up several rounds of beers with a round of imported oysters, then fucking foie gras. Like, seriously. This is, i think, the first time in my life i have ever eaten either oysters or foie gras. I associate both with rich people. They were both fine, i guess. I don't care to eat them again. But it's like... Dude, you don't need to show off to the white man how rich and cultured you are by spending ridiculous amounts of money on food for snobs. His girlfriend ended up dragging him away with a sour look, presumably unhappy at his drunken profligacy. That upset one of my other colleagues who had just ducked back to his apartment to fetch a stupendously expensive bottle of cognac to share with his new-found buddy.

The hilarious thing about that night was around 4am one of my colleagues ended up vomiting a few times and blaming the oyster, when in reality he almost certainly just drank too much. Just a reminder that it's not only Chinese who go to great lengths to try prove their worthiness to strangers. Probably it's just a young man thing. I cycled home when the lot of 'em flagged and briefly wished i still lived in Berlin around unpretentious people who know how to party for longer than 8 hours.

Anywho, back to Thursday and the factory. My colleague was a Zhuang from Guangxi province. His English was good - better than my Chinese - but he proudly told me he also speaks 5 other languages, including Zhuang, Cantonese, Putonghua and Hakka. He counted to 10 in Cantonese, much to the bemusement of the factory boss from Hunan province. He has a (Hakka) wife and kids here in Shenzhen - he was living over in Bao'an District and keen to get home as soon as possible because his daughter was sick. He said he likes to try get the work done quickly so he can get home in time to cook a proper dinner for his family. What a catch, eh?

It was the best day i have had at work since i started. For the first time, i got to speak Chinese pretty much all day. For the first time, i was actually working side-by-side with Chinese people. (Although my current office is mostly Chinese, i have frustratingly been teamed up with an Indian boss and Filipino colleagues, none of whom live in Shenzhen or speak a single word of Chinese.) For the first time, i actually felt like i was in the motherfucking Pearl River Delta. It was great.

Friday was back to the grind. After putting up with a frustrating drive-by from the CTO, the day descended into the aforementioned drinks with the expat crew. Yesterday was a write-off. Today i was going to head out on an adventure, but the skies opened up in the first big storm of the rainy season. I went out to pick up groceries and shared the elevator back up with three dudes from competing food delivery companies. The newspaper likes to pretend these guys are locked in some kind of epic war to own the streets of urban China, but really that's only the execs. The front-line troops were all dripping wet and made smalltalk about how much it sucks to work in the rain. One of them had a nifty waterproof bag thing to hold his smartphone, and it was the envy of the group. I stepped off and made soggy footprints back to my place where i cooked up my own lunch. After i post this i will eat some Hami melon and write my family. I guess the rain is forcing me to stop procrastinating on that. My oma is dying, i think, and i haven't been in touch with mom since i heard a couple months ago. Meh, family.

It smells clean out there. I hate rain in cold weather. In hot weather it's grand. I kinda want to go out there now and slide around in the mud and watch the sunset. Last night the sky was green and shone and i felt like a dying android.