What’s Next?

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Surprise visit by Ellen, our “Chinese daughter”, to Austin where we now live.  South Congress Ave at dusk just before the bats fly!

Good question!  As I mentioned in my previous post, after 2 years in Yunnan Province my wife and I returned from China sooner than we had planned.  There are so many ways to approach the question: “What’s Next?”  For me, there are 3 key areas that are top-of-mind:

  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Mentoring

One of the things I missed most while in China was the opportunity to collaborate with others.  Yes, it’s true that learning language and culture has a collaborative element to it.  But, it’s not quite the same as working toward a common goal with a group of engineers, scientists, analysts, sourcing, marketing and other professionals.  And when that team (or group of collaborators) is culturally and geographically diverse, the challenge and reward of achieving great things together is something I find especially gratifying.

The second thing on my mind is innovation.  Working on new technologies and products that are on the forefront of a specific industry or market is hard to beat.  Translating untapped customer wants and needs into new products and services has a way of challenging the imagination and intellectual capacity of everyone involved.  Not to mention finding ways to do it faster while also managing the technical and market risks inherent in that type of activity.  For me, this activity has included working in the advanced vehicle technology field, and I am moving toward returning to that work on a more full-time basis.

Finally, the experience of reflection during our 2-year sabbatical reinforced for me how much I want to be able to invest in the next generation of collaborators, innovators and leaders.  I’ve always enjoyed coaching and seeing others grow professionally and personally.  Now, my hope is that at this point in my career, my work will include a greater level of intentionality (and impact) in the area of mentoring.

One of the over-arching lessons we took away from our time in China is the importance (and thrill) of continuing to learn – no matter what your age or where you are in life.  Each of the above topics are demanding, personally stretching endeavors and require ongoing learning in order to be effective and continue improving.  One of our favorite Chinese sayings really captures this notion beautifully:

“活到老,学到老”.

The literal translation is “Live ’til old, learn ’til old”, or as we say in America: “Lifelong learning”.  I hope that will be a good description of me for as long as God allows me to continue breathing.

If you’re in the Austin area and would like additional details, give me a call and I hope we’ll be able to connect in person.  Or, you can watch for updates on this blog.  We may not be “on-the-ground” in China any more, but we’re definitely “on-the-ground” in Central Texas and I look forward to sharing a few of the interesting twists and turns ahead.

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2017.  All rights reserved.

What happened? Why return?

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Our “family vehicle” while in China – the local city bus.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written (that’s putting it mildly!).  Here’s why:

To recap: my wife, Gienah, and I went to Yunnan Province, China in August of 2014 to spend 2 years studying Mandarin language and Chinese culture full-time.  That part of the plan went well and our 2 years ended in late June 2016.

The next part of the plan was to buy, start or join a small business in China’s Yunnan Province with plans of being there for the next 10-15 years (or more).  Ideally, that business would have a strong clean transportation element.  That’s where we encountered some headwinds (putting it mildly, again!).

I’ve been trying to decide how to explain the challenges to people who are not familiar with the economic, regulatory and market conditions in Yunnan Province, China.

The shortest version is:  Our plans failed.

There, I said it.

Was it a lack of vision?  A lack of confidence?  Lack of determination?  Lack of faith?  Lack of skill?  Lack of effort?  I’ve asked these questions over and over and there is probably some truth to each of these shortcomings and more.  There is also truth to the fact that, in life, things don’t always turn out according to plan.

There is a longer version of the story, but I’m not sure many folks have the time for that.  There is a really short version, but it lacks the nuance and contextual grasp of conditions on-the-ground, in-the-street.  So, one option is to just pass, not even try to explain.  In a way, that’s the option I chose during the first 6 months after returning to the States (which was probably a good approach to allow some time for reflection and perspective).  But, that ultimately seemed pretty lame to me, so just in case anyone is interested in our experience, read on!

First, the cost structure of doing business in Yunnan has been increasing dramatically over the past 5 years.  For example, many local (Chinese) business owners in Dali regularly close their doors because their rent has unexpectedly increased by 2x…or more.  Labor rates have also seen upward pressure and as a result, for a number of industries, exporting products from China has become less and less competitive vs. Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

Second, the local (micro) competitive environment among small businesses is extreme.  It is not uncommon to see a number of competitors (sometimes as many as 6 or more) open new businesses on the same street after a new business has achieved visible signs of success.  In some cases, these competitors are virtually next door and on the same side of the street!  Of course, if you’re the last person to open a store and struggle to differentiate your value proposition, the first thing you do is lower your price which often destroys the market for everyone, including the first mover.  These dynamics are common in the small (to medium) business space, but less common where the first mover has a clear technological advantage (as was the case in my previous work experience in China with clean transportation).  The bad news was that as a small (very small!) business investor, we were unlikely to enjoy even a fraction of the technological advantage I had previously experienced in the corporate world.

Third, the local regulatory environment and “business customs” were more difficult than anticipated, even for Chinese nationals.  I simply could not “get my head around” attempting to operate a small business as a Westerner with limited language skills and knowledge of local customs.  A quick example might help explain:  One of my local (Chinese) friends obtained the management contract for 3 boutique hotels around the local lake.  This lake is a major tourist destination for Chinese and international travelers (think Chinese version of Lake Tahoe).  Less than one year later, he was preparing to sell/exit these contracts and relocate to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Why?  According to him, the local authorities and sub-suppliers were impossible to do business with.  That was a daunting thing to hear, since he had over 28 years of tourism experience in Yunnan Province and as a native, he knew the local language and culture far better than I ever would.  And, he had relationships (关系 – guan xi)…something that is worth more than gold in the Chinese business context.  There are many more stories like this one, but to be fair, I must also say that we know several Westerners who have been doing business in Yunnan Province successfully for 5, 10 and even 20 years.  In some cases, they have recently closed their doors, or are struggling to figure out a sustainable strategy for keeping their doors open.  Others appear to be doing just fine.  I have a tremendous respect for these savvy entrepreneurs.  You know who you are…keep it up!  This experience has also produced in me a tremendous respect for those who immigrate to the US and start new businesses from scratch, often with very limited financial resources, limited local language skills and little knowledge of the local culture or regulatory requirements.

Fourth, it was really difficult to separate “fashion” from true “policy priorities” when it came to clean energy and clean transportation in our area.  Just before we arrived in Yunnan, the local government had taken on a visionary initiative to install wind/solar powered lighting around the lake – almost 100 miles of continuous solar- and wind-powered street lights.  After less than a year or two, it was not uncommon to see 50%, 70% or even 90% of the small wind turbines on top of these light poles no longer functioning.  And, I never could figure out where the batteries were located for storing the solar or wind energy to power the lights after dark (or when the wind was not blowing).  Yet, the lights continued to operate.  Were they simply connected to the grid and the wind/solar elements were just window-dressing?  Or, was each solar panel and wind generator tied to the grid to provide distributed power generation?  (Not likely).

Perhaps I could (should) have been part of the solution to help local officials turn these aging and non-functioning assets into much more productive elements of a clean-energy system.  On the other hand, the fact that they were visibly dysfunctional yet not receiving any maintenance or repair attention may have been a strong indicator that these devices were installed to achieve a goal that was not purely related to clean energy.  In addition to this example, I was daily reminded of the razor thin margins that local transportation companies faced and the direct impact these economics had on the level of technology in their fleet.  Our primary “family vehicle” (the local city bus) was so old and poorly maintained that it was hard to imagine clean technologies would be introduced in the near-term.  Like many things in China: so many questions…not so many answers.

 

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Yes, these are actual photos of the bus we often caught into town.

Finally, after 2 years of language study, my wife and I did pass the HSK Level 3 language fluency exam (thank you Li Laoshi, Zhou Laoshi and Ellen!).  Passing the HSK 3 was a real win for me since I struggled with the language much more than my wife.  Nevertheless, for me personally, HSK 3 hardly felt like sufficient language fluency for me to be competent doing business with financial investments in a responsible way.

That’s the short(er) version.  Somehow it sounds a little better to me than the shortest version!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also say there were opportunities to do general management work in the major cities, including the possibility of work as a “New Energy” executive with some of the domestic vehicle OEMs.  But, the one part of our vision that never changed was a strong desire to live in Yunnan Province.  After 2 years on-the-ground in China, that part of the vision was only reinforced.  Our desire to live in one of China’s major cities and forge a completely new life with new friends, new communities, new utilities, new water supply companies, new markets, new transportation systems, etc. paled in comparison to our desire to be in Yunnan.  Furthermore, we did not go to China with the support network many expats experience, and if we were to stay, we would have wanted to remain in the local community where we had built close friendships and felt connected to the local community and culture.

All that to say that after 2 years in Dali, Yunnan Province, we returned to the States.  It broke our hearts to leave many special friends in Yunnan, and we continue to miss them and so many things about the local community and culture.  After spending several months in Colorado studying to take the HSK 3 exam, we migrated south to Texas where we are now much closer to family on both sides.  For those of you who have lived outside the US, you will appreciate the reality that “returning” culture-shock can be just as difficult as the “going” culture-shock.  We are living witnesses to that reality.  We are also living witnesses to the beauty and unique cultural elements that make the US, Colorado and Texas great places to live and visit!

Despite the disappointment of not seeing our plans come to fruition as we had envisioned, we are so thankful to God for our time in China.  It was truly one of the most enriching experiences of our lives.  Now, we’re excited to see what He has planned for us next.

If you’re interested, please watch for an upcoming post entitled:  “What’s Next?”

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2017.  All rights reserved.

Top 10 Things I will Miss

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Sunset in Dali Old Town our last night

As you may have noticed from my previous blog posting, we will be returning to the U.S. following our 2 year language and culture studies in China.  In fact, our departure date is today!

While it would be foolish to believe I can anticipate exactly how reverse culture-shock will impact me, there are several things I “think” will be true.  Here’s my best estimate for a Top 10 List of what I think I will miss and what I will enjoy about returning to the US after 2 years in SW China.

Obviously, I will miss the many special friends and relationships we have developed over the past 2 years.  This will be the hardest part of transitioning back to the US, and I am omitting this most important category to keep this article light and enjoyable (at least for me!).

I THINK I will miss:

  1. Noodle shops (especially “拉面/lamian” which means “hand-pulled” or hand-made noodles)
  2. LOTS of daily human interaction (the relaxed, outdoor lifestyle here includes interacting with people on the street, on the bus, in the vegetable market, shops, restaurants, etc…)
  3. Being able to practice Chinese (everywhere!)
  4. Weekly traditional Chinese massage (< $10/hr)
  5. Riding motorcycle in the crazy local traffic!
  6. Shopping/buying from local shop owners/vendors (not the self-check-out at “big box” stores)
  7. Creative, artsy culture of Dali
  8. Natural beauty of Dali (Cang Shan mountains, vibrant flowers/colors throughout the year, beautiful skyscapes with dramatic light from the clouds as they roll over the mountains near sunset…and of course, Lake Erhai!)
  9. Farmers working in their small village gardens/fields
  10. Time…for spending with friends and building relationships
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My favorite “egg lady” – How can buying eggs be so much fun?!

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My last bowl of hand-made noodles…couldn’t resist!

I THINK I will enjoy:

 

  1. No longer living behind the Great Firewall (see upcoming article for why this is #1 on the list!)
  2. Being closer to family
  3. Butterfingers
  4. Ability to communicate with majority of society!
  5. Steak (think Ribeye!)
  6. Riding motorcycle in more predictable traffic patterns
  7. Tacos, Chips, Salsa
  8. Central heating (or effective winter heat of any kind!)
  9. US “standard” height countertops, tables, chairs…even vehicles!
  10. Fewer fish bones and bone shards in meat!

I’m sure there will be plenty of surprises during the coming months (and even years) as we experience life in our previous culture, but one that is no longer our only culture.  So, I hope to share some of those surprises in this blog with those who might be interested.

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2016.  All rights reserved.

Why Learning Chinese is 3x Harder than English

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Photo from our neighborhood.

Think about how long it took you to learn English.  Or, think about how long it typically takes an adult to learn English as a second language.  Now, triple that amount of time and you’ll have a good idea of how long it takes to learn Chinese…minimum.  Why so long?!

1. Vocabulary  and Grammar – and all the various rules, exceptions, measure words, and other language usage guidelines require a significant level of effort, no matter what language you’re learning.  Overall, let’s just say English and Chinese are similar in terms of their vocabulary and grammar.  In that regard, each one should take a similar level of effort to learn.  That’s 1X.

2. Toneseach Chinese syllable has one of (at least) four specific tones (in addition to the four standard tones, there is also a “neutral” tone, but for simplicity we’ll ignore that detail for now).  That means that in addition to learning how to produce/hear the sound and know the definition of each new word, you must also know that word’s tone.  For a mono-syllabic word, that means you need to know one tone.  A multi-syllabic word requires that you know the exact tone of each syllable.  If don’t know the tone(s), you don’t know the word…period.  That’s 2X.

3. Chinese Characters – the English alphabet contains 26 letters.  Those fundamental building blocks allow most of the 170,000+ words (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language) to be read somewhat “phonetically” by even an elementary language learner.  The Chinese language contains more than 200 “radicals”.  These are the building blocks used to create unique “characters” for each syllable of each Chinese word.  The majority of these characters are not phonetically based, and require predominantly rote memory learning techniques to acquire the roughly 1,700 characters used to write the basic 2,500 words (from a total of 370,000 words) needed for someone to read Chinese newspapers and magazines and watch Chinese films (http://www.lingholic.com/how-many-words-do-i-need-to-know-the-955-rule-in-language-learning-part-2/).  Oh, and did I mention that some characters have as many as 40 strokes…and the order in which each stroke is written is actually very important?!  That’s easily 3X!

Key Take-Aways:  Yes, there are a few Six Sigma people out there who learn even a difficult new language like Chinese in a relatively short period of time.  But if you’re like the rest of us, forget about the myth of finding a short cut!  If you’re considering learning Chinese, prepare yourself for the reality of a long, steady climb.  Setting realistic expectations should improve your ability to continue the journey.  Otherwise, you’re likely to join the ranks of those who began with great enthusiasm and gusto, then lost steam and eventually gave up.  Although I began this journey closer to the “enthusiastic” camp (and looking for any and every possible technique to reduce the learning curve), I’m thankful to have finally migrated toward a more realistic view without (yet) losing the drive or motivation to make this an enjoyable and sustainable life-long learning adventure.  This is not a test of IQ, it is a test of endurance!

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2016.  All rights reserved.

Language “Study” vs. Language “Learning”

Sometimes, you need more context to know where

Sometimes, you need a little more context to know where “here” actually is!

Is there a difference between language “study” and language “learning”?  That’s the question I’ve been asking myself more and more over the past few months.  Unfortunately, we have not had easy access to good objective measures of language learning, making it difficult to assess our learning progress (i.e., “where” are we on this journey of learning?).  As a result, I’ve become very interested in the standardized Chinese fluency exam called “HSK”.  This is the Chinese version of TOEFL and is the exam that many Chinese universities use as a prerequisite for entrance of foreign students into undergrad and graduate programs (as well as progression through medical school).

Here’s my take on HSK:  HSK tests for fluency at 6 levels of proficiency.  Levels 1 and 2 are essentially beginner level, with Levels 3 and 4 representing intermediate skills.  Levels 5 and 6 demonstrate advanced levels of fluency.  To illustrate how this test is used, foreign students are required to pass Level 3 before applying to many engineering graduate programs.  Passing Level 4 is required for some foreign medical school students before they are allowed to enter into their residency program.

My current goal is to demonstrate solid capability at Level 2 by the end of this summer, and work toward passing HSK 3 in January/February 2016.  There are plenty of critics who argue HSK is not a good indicator of fluency in Chinese, but it’s the most readily-available, widely-used objective measure I’ve been able to find.  HSK has been around for 30 years and has been used more than 100 million times (www.fluentu.com).

Having just completed our first year of language classes, I must admit the results are less than I had hoped in terms of my ability to speak and hear the language.  On the other hand, I am pleased with my ability to read and write Chinese characters.

Handwriting Homework Sample - beginning of Year 1

Handwriting Homework Sample – beginning of Year 1

Handwriting Homework Sample - end of Year 1

Handwriting Homework Sample – end of Year 1

The good news is our language teacher assures me that we are building a strong foundation for future (life-long) learning.  That’s good, because I think that’s what it’s going to take to really become fluent in Chinese!

If you’ve wondered why my blog postings have declined over the past few months, the primary reason is that I’ve been increasingly pre-occupied with language study and learning.

Note:  This post was written from Shanghai en route to the US for a short summer visit between semesters.  We’re looking forward to this brief break from the classroom and hope to be able to reinforce all those new words we’ve been learning, as well as me preparing to assess at HSK Level 2.

Pecan Pie – A New Global Sourcing Challenge?!

Pecan Pie I will miss tomorrow (at parents'  home in Tyler, Texas)

The actual Pecan Pie I will miss tomorrow (at my parents’ home in Tyler, Texas)  Photo used with permission from K. Anderson.

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?  One of my personal favorites is Pecan Pie – Texas style.  However, as we learned from our language helper last night, it might be a long time before we get Pecan Pie in China.

Turns out her dictionary (with tens of thousands of Chinese words) did not even have a word for “pecan”.  Our electronic dictionary also failed to find a Chinese word for “pecan”.  So, easy access to pecan pie does not look promising in the near future.

Naturally, our response to this sourcing challenge was to go with a dual-source strategy which worked out beautifully.  In a rare moment of cultural adaptability and flexibility, we enjoyed both apple pie and pumpkin pie as a fitting end to a delicious traditional Thanksgiving Dinner today at the Serendipity Diner (Dali’s local “New York style diner”).

Serendipity Diner - Dali Old Town

Serendipity Diner – Dali Old Town

Feb 15, 2015 – Pecan Update:

As often happens here, things change.  Since the original “pecan” post was published (above), a couple of things happened.

First, we began to notice “pecans” in the marketplace where they had not existed before (despite the fact that the closest Chinese word for “pecans” actually means “walnut”).  In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that these local “pecans” do have “Chinese characteristics“…meaning that the shell is typically already cracked (not shelled) and the meat itself has a sweet, buttery taste.  They are very nice…but different.

Pecans in local market

Pecans in local market

Then, a shipment of pecans arrived in a special package from Texas…what I would call the “real thing“!  So, our logistics crisis has been solved for now.  A fun reminder that it is always a tricky business to report on circumstances here in Yunnan, as they can often be quite different elsewhere in China and are subject to change here in Yunnan and everywhere else in China!

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2015.  All rights reserved.

Dumber than a Dog?!

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Imagine discovering your communication skills are below that of a common dog!  Well, that’s exactly how I felt recently.  The owners of a local dog (off leash) were shouting several commands to their dog who was straying just a bit too far.  The dog turned, looked at the owners, and I could just see the wheels turning in the dog’s mind as it considered whether or not to obey.  Then, the dog made the right decision and returned to the owners.  I had heard and listened to the exact same words, but they meant nothing to me.

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That’s when it hit me:  Kevin, you are “dumber than a dog”!  Of course, that’s not exactly true, but my communication skills in that particular situation were absolutely inferior.  So, as Thanksgiving arrives on this side of the world, I am thankful for the big slice of “humble pie” this dog provided, and looking forward to enjoying a real slice of apple pie!

Also thankful my language skills have improved since then!

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2014-2015.  All rights reserved.