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Going from Canada to Changsha in the mid-90s was a culture shock for our team in almost every way. We were not only in a place where most of us knew little to none of the local language and were experiencing different food and culture, but we also needed to learn quickly what it meant to live under China’s communist rule. There is no protection there for citizens and laws are not in place to protect the individual, but instead the government and those in power.

At the time, I had never heard of the word ‘privilege’ and definitely didn’t understand what it meant. But this was the first time in my life when I really began to realize how different the circumstances that we are born into can be and how that can affect our fate.

Before we could start operations, we first had to equip our designated local Chinese team members with basic needs. This meant buying scooters for some and a car for the local company President who was selected by the two ministry partners from Beijing. We discovered that no member of our local team had a means of transportation of their own before this.

We also rented space in a nearby hotel undergoing refurbishment where we set up offices for our staff. Because it was hotel rooms and many of our team did not have hot water at their homes, we had to establish a wash schedule as to who could use the hotel tubs when, as you didn’t want to get to work in the morning and find your employees getting out of the shower. These new norms were not so normal for us from Canada, but we went with the flow.

The most difficult thing was that no one spoke English on their side, and we had only one person from our original team who spoke Mandarin (other than me, and mine was very basic). He was originally from China and always seemed to tread very carefully, truly afraid of offending his countrymen. A third person, the official translator, was an employee of the Beijing ministries.

After long hours of presentations and discussions in both languages, the interpreter would give Al (our temporary CEO until he hired someone permanent) a list of all the English words she did not understand and therefore was not able to translate to the local team. It was always long and frequently included key words to understanding the work that we were doing. Despite this, we were now quasi-operational and moving forward with our plans.

Outside of work, people on the streets stared at us like we were from another planet and honestly it felt a bit like that to us also. Our senior tech expert was, as he often said, born a big baby. He had a Buddha-like physique and equally engaging smile and personality. He’d even been a masked wrestler in an earlier career!

He was the last team member to arrive on a Sunday and I can still recall the commotion. We were out for a walk and saw this swell of locals moving towards us like a wave, hovering around a person as if he was a celebrity. They were smiling at him, touching him and pulling gently on the hairs on his arms. You guessed it; it was our IT guy with a huge smile across his face. The Chinese people view anyone who is big and well plump as being rich because they can eat well. He fit that bill and was taking it all in stride.

I have never been a foodie or someone with a very experienced palette, so one of the biggest difficulties for me was getting used to a whole new cuisine. In my first weeks in China, I would go into restaurants hoping that there would be something that I would recognize, but I was often disappointed.

I can remember one time when I was craving vegetables and saw that there was something called sea cucumber on the menu. I ordered it and didn’t like the texture or taste much, but figured it was the closest I would get to something I was used to. That was the moment that a colleague explained to me what sea cucumber really was.  I never ate it again and spent the rest of my time in China living off the same short list of foods. Sea cucumbers are scavengers that feed on small food items in the benthic zone (seafloor), as well as plankton floating in the water column. Algae, aquatic invertebrates, and waste particles make up their diet. They eat with tube feet that surround their mouths.

Now, looking back at this time, I have differing opinions on how I adjusted to life there. It was definitely a shock and as a pretty young person who did not have a lot of worldly experience, I think that I brought some judgment with me. But, I also met a lot of people who did not have a choice in how they were living their life and had great fear of the government. I can think of things I have done, both as a young person and even today, that might have me jailed, or worse.

For them, Mao was positioned as a hero who took care of his country, and if anyone talked badly about him they could be put in jail. No one was allowed to ever talk badly about the government. I snuck a book back from Hong Kong about Mao from a western perspective and gave it to my new friend, who unbeknown to me was seconded from the Communist Party to befriend me. I often wonder if he turned the book in before reading it.

As my son gets closer to the age I was when I first got on that plane, I wonder how different things would be for him and how he would handle this sort of situation. And would I even support him following in my footsteps? The world is a more complicated place now.

Back at work, the incumbent fixed line telecom company had been awarded the second mobile license and would not let us hire any of their staff or to even interconnect with their network. This was a clear violation of the license and international law, but hey it was their home and we figured our Beijing partners would resolve that impasse. An example would be if here in Canada Rogers Telecom was not allowed to connect with Bell Canada or other mobile operators and therefore only Rogers’s customers could talk with other Roger customers. We ended up being very wrong about our partners helping with this and the discovery would be what inevitably led us and other big telecoms to exit from China.

Part 3 coming next week!

~ Karla xoxo

Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC.  She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills.  Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach.  Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
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