One great aspect of being on assignment in a different country, is that you have the opportunity to get immersed in its culture and traditions. Last year at this time we were deep in preparation for the deployment of our HR SAP system for GCG and there wasn’t much time to step back and experience the Mid Autumn Festival.  This year has been a little different, and I  have been able to learn more about the festival, the meaning and the tradition.

The Mid-Autumn festival falls on the 15th day of the 8th month according to Chinese lunar calendar, the Mid-Autumn Festival is the second grandest festival after the Spring Festival in China. It takes its name from the fact that it is always celebrated in the middle of the autumn season. The day is also known as the Moon Festival, as at that time of the year the moon is at its roundest. On this day, family members gather to appreciate the bright full moon, eat moon cakes at night, express strong yearnings toward their homes and think of family members who live far away. A written collection of the rituals of the Western Zhou rituals , dating back 3000 years reference the Moon Festival. Mid-Autumn Day is connected with the China National Day holiday (October 1 – 7), so people enjoy an eight-day holiday from September 30 to October 7. The long holiday with pleasant autumn weather becomes a peak time for travel.

As with every Chinese holiday, the Mid-Autumn Festival has its own special food. People eat moon cakes at Mid-Autumn Festival. The moon cake is a kind of cookie with various  fillings and on the surface are printed different artistic patterns depicting the story of Chang E flying to the moon. People treated this kind of food as one of the sacrificial offerings to the moon in the old days. Today, it has become an indispensable food while appreciating the bright moon for every family. Moon cakes come in various flavors which change according to the region but common fillings are nuts, sugar, sesame, ham and egg yolk. As the moon cake is round in shape, it symbolizes the reunion of a family, so it is easy to understand how the eating of moon cakes under the round moon can inspire the missing of distant relatives. Nowadays, people present the moon cakes to relatives and friends to demonstrate that they wish them a long and happy life.

As Mid-Autumn festival approaches shops and hotels begin to stock up and offer “Moon Cakes” for sale. Today, it is customary for businessmen and families to present them to their clients or relatives as presents,which has helped to fuel a demand for high-end mooncake styles. There are so many different fillings that you can choose. Some moon cakes are sweet and others are savory. What I especially like are the containers that the moon cakes are presented in. The packaging is amazing and there is a wide variety of what you can choose (based on how much you want to spend!) You can choose leather, wood, metal tins or strong boxes made from cardboard. When you open the container the moon cakes are delicately sitting in fluffs of colorful silk material.

While we don’t have family in Shanghai, we do present these to people that are close to us and those that have been very helpful to us while we have been here. I do have to admit my selection is based on the packaging, so I am not sure exactly if the cakes I am selecting are good, but I personally haven’t encountered a bad moon cake as they are all quite delicious. I presume the selection of which moon cake you buy is similar to how some people by wine, according to the nicest looking label! (which I have done myself!) My personal favorite are the moon cakes filled with lotus seed (black sesame). On the Moon Festival day, the family cuts one moon cake in wedges and shares it with tea. While the cakes are almost too delicious to share, the calorie content will make you think twice about indulging too much as on average each cake is  about 1,000 calories.

The story of Chang E is the most widely accepted tale regarding the origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is said that in ancient times, ten suns existed and the extreme heat made people’s lives very difficult. It was the hero Hou Yi who, owing to his great strength, shot down nine of the ten suns. On hearing of this amazing feat and the hero who performed it, people came from far and wide to learn from him. Peng Meng was among these people. Later, Hou Yi married a beautiful and kind woman named Chang E and lived a happy life.

One day, Hou Yi came upon Wangmu (the queen of heaven) on the way to meet his old friend. Wangmu presented him an elixir which, if drunk, would cause him to ascend immediately to heaven and become an immortal. Instead of drinking the potion himself, Hou Yi took it home and presented it to Chang E to keep. Unfortunately, Peng Meng secretly saw Hou Yi give the potion to his wife and three days later, while Hou Yi was out hunting, Peng Meng rushed into the backyard and demanded that Chang E hand over the elixir. Knowing that she could not win, she took out the elixir and swallowed it immediately. The moment she drank it, she flew out of the window and up into the sky. Chang E’s great love for her husband drew her towards the Moon, which is the nearest heavenly body to the earth.

On realising what happened to his wife, Hou Yi was so grief stricken that he shouted Chang E’ s name to the sky. He was amazed to see a figure which looked just like his wife appeared in the Moon. He took the food liked by Chang E to an altar and offered it as a sacrifice for her. Hou Yi’s neighbours also burned incense and prepared food to express their good wishes to the kind Chang E. This became a custom later every year.

*Footnote: Some content and the photo in this blog was taken from wikipedia


January 19th, 2011

I attended a coffee sponsored by “old” mothers at my son’s school this morning. They were going to share the information they had accumulated as “expats” with “new” mothers who had just arrived . When I received the invitation classifying me as “new”, my posture became more erect and I felt honored. You see, “new” is not an adjective that has been used in a very long time to describe me! At first I disregarded the invitation thinking I couldn’t afford to take the time out of my work day. The day the meeting was scheduled I also was flying to Beijing, so surely arranging to get to the school then to the airport in time for my flight would be an added complication. I had picked up and put down the invitation a number of times, finally deciding that it was an opportunity I needed to take advantage of. This group of mothers had taken their own personal time to make themselves available to share their first hand knowledge, which had taken each one of them a lot of time time, effort and learning to gain. Since sometimes the best knowledge is gained by making mistakes, any mistakes I could avoid in my new host country was a value proposition I couldn’t miss. In addition, I was interested in meeting other women where perhaps friendships would bloom.

The group was very warm and welcoming. In an hour and a half I learned more about the school system and living in Shanghai than I could have ever learned on my own. When I commented that we were looking for a car and driver service, one of the “old” mothers mentioned that it took her a month to research all the car and driver companies. She put all the information she had learned, company name, mileage charge, driver charge, lunch, cellphone fees, parking fees, etc in a spreadsheet and posted it on the blog, and said she would be happy to share the link with me. The meeting format was very conversational. They broke the mothers up into groups based on elementary, middle and high school. They made sure we each understood what happened during the course of the school day and school year. They addressed the special events and activities and asked the “new” mothers a lot of questions to see if we were aware of some of the most necessary bits of information. Did we know who the Grade 4 elementary school counselor was? Did we know about the “school house” system? Where could you find teachers for music lessons?

These ladies didn’t hold back anything, they even provided information on things they knew you wanted to ask but were too embarrassed to do so. For instance, why ladies must always carry a pack of tissues in their purse. Where could get your hair done Western style? Which market could you find a chicken with the head already removed? They threw in their answers to questions, gave their advice openly, and bounced off of each other adding more information or clarifying what someone else had said. They were also a bit competitive, especially when it came to who really knew where the best hairdressers were located. Some of them spoke as if they had been in Shanghai for years only to discover they too were newcomers living here less than six months. Knowledge is power and they had come together in an open and organized fashion sharing information with anyone that was interested. Every “new” mom that was able to start with the information and references provided by the “old” mothers as a base would experience a much faster and shorter learning curve. We were all becoming “living in Shanghai” experts faster. Imagine that.

One of my responsibilities at work is to provide methods and tools for IBMers to develop social networks that foster collaboration and information sharing and to drive the adoption of these capabilities across the company. Last year we conducted well over a hundred meetings with other companies sharing with them how we have embraced social networking, social computing, and social business in IBM. Many companies are still trying to understand what it is all about, and how to embrace the techniques and apply them to their businesses.

Reflecting on my experience this morning I realize that it was a practical example of social computing. It demonstrates how sharing, collaborating, and making information available to all in a centralized place, and dynamically updating with clarification or new information is the value proposition. New members to a group, a team or a business department can easily get acclimated to the community they are now part of. Its the ability to have open access and to be able to quickly locate information or experts around a topic you are interested in. The “moms” have developed a very strong social network and have created open communication processes. Anyone that is interested need only to read their blog to get pointed to a multitude of reference materials which is providing limitless value to others.

As we drive to the airport I am wondering if I had commented to these women about how impressed I was with their collaborative social network and information and expertise sharing, would they have understood what I was talking about? If they were asked to describe the impact and benefit of their “old” mothers community I don’t think they would say, “We created a social network and are collaborating and sharing our knowledge in order to push our platform forward.” I think they would have said, “We just want to help others learn what we have learned and to make it easier for them to go through a difficult time in getting acclimated in a new country, a new culture and a new language.” Isn’t this quite similar for people joining a new company or a new department? Isn’t each new business like a new country with its own rules and regulations, its own culture and in many ways its own language? These ladies are representing the best attributes of a social business and they aren’t even aware of it.

“Ba-ling ba-ling” my blackberry’s alerting me. I have received a new message that contains the link from one of the mom’s to the car and driver spreadsheet. A quick review shows options I didn’t know were available, and some that could save us a bit of money. Sweet.

January 9, 2011

Our son starts school tomorrow and is in desperate need of a haircut. My husband suggests that we go to the mall next door where we will surely find a hair salon. I’m thinking this is not the best strategy and as we walk in the direction of the mall I check out the neighborhood for a stand-alone salon. Kitty-corner from the hotel I spot an attractive storefront that houses a modern looking hair and beauty salon and say “Hey, that looks nice, let’s just go over there.”

As we walk towards the salon we see a flurry of white on the other side of the doors. We stop at the steps and realize they are lining up to open the door and greet us. Stepping inside, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed because each of them is welcoming us and offering their service. I can’t respond quickly enough and can’t figure out which person is in charge. The four young women are dressed identically in white uniforms and are wearing their hair pulled back tightly in plump smooth buns. Like a choreographed dance their arms are extended gracefully toward the styling chairs. I am doing my best to explain that it is only the little guy that needs a cut. A little more scurrying and a paper is produced in which they have written two different numbers. With a bit of sign language and referencing the service menu I get it! One price is for cut only and the other for cut and wash.

I select cut only as they show my son to the chair and they begin to carefully drape him. Two of the young women take our coats and request that we sit. The chairs are very comfortable and give us a direct view of the back of our son’s head and his face through the reflection in the mirror. The salon is quite chic and immaculate. The décor is done in a shiny white marble with textured black leather and has a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just as we start to relax we are presented with Chinese tea which is being served in what looks like typical beverage glasses. We both nearly drop them as they are very very very hot.

It’s a sight to see my son draped and sitting there in this chair with his own cup of tea. I am warning him to wait until it cools when a very fashionable young man approaches the station. His own haircut is immediately eye-catching – extremely short all around with a section of very long and very black hair that starts from his forehead and hangs down well past his eyes. I am wondering if he can see clearly enough to cut. My husband is over there trying to control the situation and is using over exaggerated hand signals to demonstrate how he wants it cut. I’ve already accepted that this is going to be an adventure and it’s just going to be what it’s going to be. As he sits down he says, “Maybe I should get a cut too”, to which I reply “Maybe you should wait and see how this goes first.”

Watching the stylist cut I am pleased with his progress. My son’s hair grows in an uneven spiral which results in his hair never laying quite flat. (We called him Rooster when he was younger if that helps give a visual!) The stylist’s technique has all the hair laying flat, so far, and though I like what he is doing I think he needs to stop cutting now as it is really short in the back. He’s pulling the hair on the top of the head straight up which makes me think that he is giving him the same cut he has. It looks nice on him, but I’m not ready for a rocker style haircut on my 9-year old!!

I know the stylist has won my husband over because he just went to the counter and asked for a wash and cut too. One of the young women in white uniforms, #18 Wei Wei, takes him to the chair right next to our son. He is sitting down and she is draping him. This seems a bit odd as don’t you usually wash before you cut? Now she is lifting a bottle and applying something to his head, and as she rubs it in, it is really lathering up. Oh my gosh, she’s massaging his head with the shampoo. While I am sure I have a quizzical look on my face, I have to physically hold back my laughter as I catch a glimpse of my husband’s reaction in mirror. This is a man who has never wanted a massage in his life and has let expensive gift certificates for massages expire. Now he sits here, at Wei Wei’s mercy getting what seems to be a pretty intensive head and neck massage. I hear him sighing over there and wonder if he knows everyone else probably can too. Boy, I wish I was the one that asked for a wash!

I am quite comfortable and relaxed as I wait for them to be finished. My second tea was just delivered and it is just as hot. I’ve also noticed that at some point the sound track was changed from Asian pop to music they must think I would like. It hits me as being funny, and smiling to myself I quietly sing along ….Funny face, I love you, Funny face, I need you, These are the sweetest words I’ve ever heard, Funny face, don’t leave me, Funny face, believe me, My whole world’s wrapped up in you…

My son’s finished and the haircut looks really nice although the front is actually shorter than I would like it to be. I tell him it looks great and wonder if he has noticed that he looks a little like a baby porcupine. He’s entertaining himself by rolling back and forth on a clear lucite cutting stool and they seem to be getting a kick out of him. Every few minutes they offer him Chinese candies and I feel proud that he is not intimidated with the language barrier. His patience is getting a little thin though as he just asked “Mom, what the heck are they doing to Daddy?” Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee… Forty-five minutes have passed and the head, neck and shoulder massage must be done as they are strolling towards the back of the salon. My son follows them and returns shortly to report “Daddy’s laying down and the girl is rubbing his head again.”

Another fifteen minutes passed until they returned. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw such a big smile on his face. Sitting there he really does look relaxed. From my vantage point I notice that Wei Wei is just standing there next to my husband and it doesn’t seem like she is doing anything. I am thinking “Let’s get this show on the road and what is she doing anyway?” I am starting to feel annoyed that this impromptu wash is taking so much time and the cut hasn’t even started yet. I think I am even more annoyed that he seems to be enjoying it so much. I turned down the offer of a third cup of tea and asked my son to roll over to see what she was doing. He quickly rolled back with a smirk on his face and his eyes stretched wide and declared “Mom, she’s cleaning his ears!.”

Now there are two ladies in white over there. Each is working an arm and a hand. I can hardly wait to have a debrief from my husband. Is that smile genuine? Is he really enjoying this as much as it looks like he is? Has he changed his view of massage? An hour has now passed and with their snapping of his the fingers, we seem to be at the end of the service. The stylist that did my son earlier has come back to cut my husband. As he cuts, it seems to me that he is going way too short for the shape of my husband’s head, but who am I to say? My son seems to be on the same wavelength as he rolls back over on the stool and whispers, “Daddy’s hair looks pretty stupid in the back.”  I agreed with him making a pact that we would never share that with Daddy.

It’s over, the stylist is done and my husband is finally getting up. Oh no, Wei Wei is coming back…hey where are they going? I can’t tell if I my agitation is due to this spending so much time waiting (which was unplanned) or from the envy of all this attention he is getting. Once again in the back room she gave him one last wash and massage before the stylist completed the service which now was upgraded to include wind. (which means blow dry)

As the stylist is finishing up, Wei Wei and two other young ladies come over to where I am sitting and offer me a VIP program. Even though I don’t speak Mandarin and they don’t speak English, I get it. If I prepay 1000RMB now all future services are 50% off. I repeatedly thank them saying “not today.” The bill for my son’s hair cut and my husband’s 60 minute massage, cut and wind is a whopping 115RMB ($17USD)! They write on a paper that if I buy the VIP pass today our services would only be 58RMB ($8.50USD). Can you imagine? I am still stunned that we received all this great service and hospitality for so little money. The VIP pass is a really good deal but we are in temporary housing and will not be living in this neighborhood too long. I am not ready to commit to the first Salon we have gone too…and besides, my husband hasn’t seen the back of his head yet.

Luxury Liner

December 30-31st, 2011

The stress of the month’s preparations, the difficult farewells and the final 24 hours were all behind us by the time we boarded the second leg of our flight in Chicago. Over the course of my career I’ve accumulated over a million miles with a particular airline. The number itself would make you think that I would have a lifetime of free travel and upgrades. Unfortunately the reality is just the opposite. The number of accumulated miles keeps growing and rarely do I get the opportunity to benefit from the miles, and from being away from home. When I attempt to redeem miles for tickets or for upgrades, it is always the same story. There are 101 reasons why I can’t use them (I forgot to read the fine print) and the person on the other end of the phone is seems surprised that I am not more aware that the date(s) I need to fly are blacked out. In addition, there isn’t the slightest chance for an upgrade as I am only a “gold” card member and there are  “platinums” and “elites” who are much more deserving than me.

The worst part of our preparation for departure was knowing we would have to spend another 16.5 hours in coach seats. Back in the day, a flight this long for business would qualify for upgrading to business class seats which made the flight tolerable and in some cases even enjoyable. My son had been after me to get business or first class seats for our next trip and couldn’t understand why we were “sitting in the back.” I explained how expensive those seats were and if I was able to use my miles to upgrade I would probably only get one seat. He didn’t see this as an issue and said “That’s okay Mommy, you and Daddy can just sit in the back, I can sit by myself. I’ll be fine.” He really did say that!

It would be cool to fly business class for this trip to our new home, and it would be quite memorable (not to mention comfortable) for our long journey. So I began to strategize on how I could make this happen. Of the times that I tried to redeem miles for tickets or upgrades and couldn’t, what did they have in common? Usually it comes down to supply and demand. The times I have tried to redeem miles for tickets were usually around normal vacation times, and requests for upgrades were usually during business trips. Would my chances be any better if I planned to travel on a day that most people wouldn’t chose to travel on and a date that I knew would have any business travelers?

Strategy in hand, my assistant called the airline 30 days ahead and found out for 25,000 miles and $350 a ticket I could upgrade from coach to business IF they had availability, but unfortunately they did not. We had selected to fly on New Year’s Eve believing most people would already want to be at there destination. She was advised to book the flight which would at least put my requests in queue on the waiting list. Same old same old. Unbeknownst to me, my assistant was on a mission to make this a memorable flight for all of us. She called back the airlines back 20 minutes after booking and was able to get one upgrade released. An hour later she had the second one, and the third one came the next day. I can’t describe my excitement and decided to keep it from my son as my little secret.

I don’t know who was filled with more glee, me or my son. When we boarded and I stopped in row 9 he said “These are OUR seats???” When we told him they were his smile and facial expression made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t remember the last time I had flown business class and apparently when it comes to comfort a lot has changed. The seats actually reclined allowing one to lie down in prone position, and there was more than enough elbow and knee room. Each seat had easy to access compartments where you could store all the paraphernalia one needs during a flight so that you don’t have to keep getting up to go into the overhead and into your briefcase or backpack.  And oh yes, there was also the champagne served in real glasses! The service was wonderful with the flight attendants not being able to do enough for you. As I had anticipated (being it was a New Year’s) the flight was not crowded and business class travelers were rather sparse.  The three of us occupied a  row in the middle and the flight attendant addressed my son’s disappointment in not having a window seat by offering him to move over to the window where he had his two seats and his own private space. Sweet.

There is not much more I can say about how wonderful the flight was. Even the food and service was good! Really! It made me reminisce about the good ‘ole days of travel.  We had more than enough choices for personal entertainment and I watched 5 movies. (I have never been one to sleep during flights. Used to be I didn’t want to miss anything, and more recent history is that I am just too doggone uncomfortable to sleep).  One movie I actually watched twice. It was a strangely dark movie that was so intriguing I wasn’t sure if I got it or not, so I  just had to watch it again. I also watched “Social Network” which seemed like a coincidence to me since one of my main work objectives is to expand the adoption of social computing with our growth market workforce.

I was really happy that my son was able to have such a great experience. The length of the flight did him in and he did eventually fall asleep. I will have to make sure we level set his expectations for future flights because this situation probably won’t happen again anytime soon.  By the way, he did his math and calculated how many times 25K goes into 1M and thinks we are set for life.  Oh the lessons he will have to learn!

Ready For Departure?

December 30, 2010

Note: This posting is the chronology of our departure preparation over 30 days and is long. I hope you find it worth the read.

If you could earn points for task completion and redeem them for services, we would have earned enough for a month of spa treatments! We returned from our look see trip on November 30th and as experienced project managers we came up with the brilliant idea to create a project plan to insure our readiness for the December 30th departure. We created a spreadsheet, identified everything that needed to be done and assigned owners and time to complete. Talk about being proud of ourselves… we were so well organized and spreadsheet ready that nothing could possibly derail us.

We had 30 days and were working 20 of them. It quickly became clear that we had major prioritization conflicts. While I could understand the importance of having the septic system cleaned, the heating system winterized, the roof checked, the security system upgraded and the exterminator in, wasn’t it just as important for us to decorate for Christmas? Why couldn’t we multitask and put up the white lights for Christmas while taking down the orange ones from Halloween? Besides, if we didn’t decorate, what would the neighbors think?

The plan took on a life of its own. Each day a barrage of new items surfaced demanding to be accommodated in the already tight schedule. While I understand it may be difficult to believe, we had over 200 tasks to manage. There were items for Christmas preparation, to transition to a new school and church, household items like cleaning out the pantry and storing all the linens, household maintenance, banking, taxes, medical, home property management, and most importantly completing all the paperwork requested by the US sending and China hosting countries which when done was over 5” thick!

Appointing myself owner of Christmas and Assignment related tasks, left my husband in charge of…well…everything else. Focusing first on my son, we had planned the move to coincide with the US winter break and start of second semester in China for minimal impact. The terrific cooperation of our principal and the new school administration made this rather easy. The move would also disrupt my son’s preparation for First Communion and working with our priest he accelerated his Reconciliation and provided the necessary documentation for us to continue in Shanghai. The last item was a final visit to his orthodontist who prepared a recommendation for a continued treatment plan that we will share with the new orthodontist.

Addressing some tasks ended up creating even more. Like the visit from the exterminator. He was working in the house while my husband was leading a conference call. Trying to get my husband’s attention, the young man sheepishly inched his way into the office. My husband looked up but continued talking. He said he couldn’t help but notice that the young man looked nervous and was very fidgety. “Sir, excuse me Sir, Sir! ” My husband looked up but continued talking. “Sir, I need you to come…right now!” My husband jumped up and followed him to our open 2 story foyer where the sense of urgency was quite clear. Above the catwalk, in the once pristine ceiling, was a large gaping hole that was created by a mistep the young man took in the attic. Another 12 tasks had to be added to the plan.

On the 21st we packed up our offices and started vacation. Our friends and coworkers honored us with a bon voyage party and a close colleague hosted an intimate dinner party at his home. Our timeline was growing red! We had four days til Christmas and only nine days to departure. As if the stress wasn’t enough, Santa had delegated a ton of tasks to me with absolutely no assistance on how to explain to a 9 year old that his most wanted gift would not be under the tree because it couldn’t be shipped to China. I had the great idea of suggesting that Santa would probably leave a gift certificate to get the item in Shanghai, in which my son replied “Mom, that is just silly. Santa would never do that.” Oh well, points for trying?

I planned an early start for my first day off. Armed with a fresh copy of the spreadsheet sorted by tasks = Christmas and owner = Carol, I declared that I wouldn’t return until every item was done. Popping on my Santa hat and grabbing a mug of coffee, I went into the garage and got in the car. Pushing the garage door opener I waited for that familiar sound so I could back out. Nothing, I heard nothing. The door didn’t budge. Jumping out I checked the alignment of the motion sensors, they were fine. I pulled the manual arm but this didn’t work either. And then I saw it. The garage door spring had sprung. The garage had taken my van hostage and there was no way out. Realizing the injustice of it all, I tore off the Santa hat and stormed back into the house. This was now a household maintenance issue and I needed to find the man in charge! I tried to negotiate a reprioritzation of his morning tasks to no avail, so huffing and puffing I snatched his car keys, put the Santa hat back on and was on my way. Tis the season to be jolly!

The next day my husband went to the state department with my son to renew his passport since it was expiring in six months. He was concerned about the valid visa on my son’s passport and whether it would be transferred to the new one. He was told to travel with both passports and it would be fine as “everybody does it”. When he got home this exchange was not sitting right with him. He called a premiere visa service who told him that a new visa would indeed need to be issued, and with the Christmas holiday there was no guarantee it would arrive back in time. Applying for and processing the paperwork consumed another ½ day. This was a major gap that would probably derail us.

The family arrived on Thursday. Our aunt came that evening and prepared a traditional Croatian dish for me to serve as an easy Christmas meal. She also made a savory shrimp risotto for everyone’s dinner that evening. I greatly appreciated her generosity as it prevented adding more inventory to my pantry and greatly relieved the stress of meal preparation for the weekend.

By Christmas Eve we were so tired we took a family vote on attending midnite mass. The majority wanted to take the annual drive through the luminary lit neighborhoods, but opted to attend mass the following morning. This was not a very popular decision for our son who then tried every negotiation tactic possible to right the injustice of not being able to open presents until after mass on Christmas morning. Parents rule.

Christmas day was wonderfully calm and relaxing. Santa had delivered on all expectations. We had gotten through the holidays with most traditions in tact. They planned to get ahead of the snowstorm and leave early on Sunday morning.

It was a great help having extra hands through the weekend. My sister got the house back in order while my brother in law completed the electrical tasks. Somehow he also ended up being responsible for all the items that required being outside in the bitter cold! Grandpa kept the boys busy and my niece sorted the pantry and packaged up the remaining food.

We weren’t prepared to say goodbye. Dad was oddly following me around all morning and my sister was avoiding me. When I found her she was trying to hide the difficulty of leaving, especially to our son. Seeing her so distraught broke my heart. Had we made a selfish decision? It didn’t seem to me that two years was very long, but now I realized that to our son’s aunts, uncles and grandparents it could feel like a lifetime. It was a difficult farewell and even as they got into their car we were still making plans and shouting across the driveway through the horizontal snow of how they would come and visit us in Shanghai. I was a bit unsettled the rest of the day as all my thoughts were on the reality of being separated from the people we love so much.

Monday’s gift to us was a sparkling winter wonderland. The ATV in the snow kept the boys entertained and outside all day. My husband postponed his appointment in NYC and used the time to take stock of the remaining critical path items. I used the weather induced lockdown to organize and set aside the personal and household items we would be taking while my niece did the horrendous task of dissembling the tree and decorations.

By Tuesday the roads were clear again and the movers were to arrive at 2pm. Waiting, we adjusted our piles, taking some things away, adding others. Determining the most essential things to take wasn’t easy especially with an allocation of only one 4x4x5ft box each. By 3pm the movers called and told us that they’d be late due to the snow storm. And so the day passed with frequent time adjustments until finally at 8:30pm they arrived. It was obviously clear how tired they were, but they were still friendly and professional and couldn’t do enough to please us. By 11:30 the shipment was loaded on the truck, the inventory sheet was signed and we bade farewell to the most essential of our possessions.

Wednesday, this was it. We needed delivery of my son’s visa and we would be ready for liftoff. My husband left early for appt in NYC and my son was sleeping in. The house was uncharacteristically still. A good friend had offered to take my son for the day and came to pick him up. I left the house at 10 completed all the running around and was even able to get a last minute hair appointment. When I drove up the driveway around 5 I immediately spotted the familiar UPS envelope at the front door and knew that we did it! We were on our way! The remainder of the day was dedicated to shutting down the house. There was a final purge and clean of the refridgerator, all the furniture was covered, the house vacuumed and a final load of laundry. Our Aunt came by with her new laptop to learn how to use video conferencing and to take home the remaining poinsettias and houseplants. Over the past 10 years, on weekly basis, we have shared cooking, gardening and simply enjoying each others company and I knew how difficult this last goodbye was going to be.

We never went to bed that night. The car came at 4am and we were ready. While the luggage was loaded my husband drained the pipes, shut off the valves and set the alarm. Unfortunately our project plan didn’t address the 30 minutes that this consumed. It also didn’t take into consideration the increased toll on the Whitestone Bridge that took affect that morning. Stuck in traffic, with less than 50 minutes to make the flight we were already discussing Plan B. Thanks to the skills of our driver and his aggressive pursuit of a porter, we did make it. Stress to the very last minute.

Lessons learned? Don’t start an assignment on Jan 1 especially if Christmas is important to you! Stay true to your family traditions as it helps buffer the impact to your loved ones. Investing the time with our family and friends was the right thing to do. Mechanical aspects of our project plan with its 200+ items was superb, but nowhere had we accounted for the emotional and human aspects. Being in task management mode made us fail to recognize the significant human and emotional component to our departure. Simple things like the arguments with your spouse over a task not completed when all you really want is recognition for all the things you have gotten done. Your Dad following you around and you don’t realize it’s because he doesn’t know how to say goodbye, the time that you didnt’ make to talk to dear friends that had called to see how it was going, or the look in our Aunt’s eyes that reveals how much she was hurting and the gentle touch to her forehead was to draw attention away from her tears. We were so focused and excited about what we were moving to, that we lost sight of who we would leave behind.

For our little family, change is good. We are comfortable with it and thrive in it. What we understand now and should have been more sensitive to is that in our decision to move, our desire for change, we in effect created change in the lives of our loved ones who would have just preferred that we stay where we were.

Java with John

December 10, 2010

I’ve mentioned before how much I love my work and I love to talk about it even more. I had an opportunity to chat with John Iasiuolo, of the radio show, “Java with John” on Friday about a project we’ve been working on this year called, “Workplace of the Future.” As the executive responsible for the workplace at IBM, my role is all about strategy, and the “Workplace of the Future” project is about imagining, strategically, what guidelines, processes, and technology our globally-integrated workforce will need to be successful in the future. It’s an exciting topic that I enjoy sharing with clients and it was a pleasure to chat with John about it on Friday. He’s a big supporter of IBM and a nice man too. Check out the interview.

What Matters Most

November 26, 2010

The television program “Househunters International” makes finding a home look so easy. In each episode a couple identifies their requirements and 3 perfect solutions are provided by the agent. With our experience from numerous moves as well as completing extensive Internet research, we had high hopes of quickly finding our perfect new Shanghai home. Since this is our first move with a child in elementary school, we weren’t prepared for the additional considerations this would bring to the table.

Shanghai covers a very large area (6.2km2 or 2.4Ksq mi) and is split by the Huangpu River. The historic area to the west of the river is known as Puxi and the new financial center to the east Pudong. Our desire was to live and work in the heart of this city and to be part of her steady beating pulse. My husband had even commented that he felt so alive in her presence.

But first, before zeroing in on where we would live, we had to finalize the school and campus selection. One of the most popular areas to live is called JinXiu. With its large expatriate community, convenient shopping, restaurants, community center, and a variety of international schools all in the vicinity, the attraction is obvious. The Shanghai American School campuses are located 30 minutes from JinXiu, making it  ideally located midway between school and office.

On the first day we met the relocation coordinator at our work location and then drove to the school. The time to get there was longer than we had anticipated and traffic certainly didn’t help matters. When we arrived our son quickly noticed that golf carts were used on campus, peaking his interest. Throughout the tour, meeting teachers and visiting classrooms, our son was quiet, but we sensed that he was liking this school. The facility included an Olympic-sized swimming pool and when told that he could be on the swim team, they entirely had him, hook, line and sinker!  The last stop was the track field and as we walked out to the track he shot a look at us, and zoom he was gone. He ran that entire course without stopping and approached the finish line laughing and totally breathless! The joy on his face told us that this was the exact moment he decided this would be his school.

With the school campus decided now we could focus on the housing location. The real estate agent proposed three options:
1) the city and close to the office,
2) JinXiu midway between school and office and
3) close to the school


During the first two days of our search, we visited properties with the intent of narrowing down to three top choices, which we would revisit on the third day for a final decision. Our choices were limited as we learned that most assignments start and end in the summer, leaving little choice for available houses in January.  Our preferred JinXiu neighborhoods did not have any homes that met our requirements available and the wait list for those that did meet our requirements was quite long. Expanding the radius of our search resulted in us finding a lovely house closer to the school and further from the city.  We decided to add it to our short list and focused the balance of our search on looking at apartments in the city.

This wasn’t easy either. Satisfying our wants in an apartment would blow the budget. We grudgingly agreed to be open-minded and to lower our expectations. As you’d have it, the last apartment of the day blew us away.  The perimeter of the entire apartment was glass and each room had wall to wall windows. The windows framed the river and the breathtaking skyline like portraits on the wall.  There she was, this gorgeous city in all her splendor beckoning us to come and join her.  In our lust for this beautiful view, we started dismissing requirements that a day earlier left us systematically crossing homes off the list.  After all, did we really have to have 2 separate work spaces? Couldn’t we share one office even though we would both regularly have evening calls with the US? Surely we could figure out how to manage. Did we really have to have a guest room? After all, would anyone really come and visit? Couldn’t we just put them up in a hotel? This apartment was just steps away from the river walk, and minutes away from restaurants, stores and night life. As her lights came on it was as if she was winking at us and asking us to come and live with her. And we were ready, oh so ready, to join her.

Our shortlist, in prioritized order, was expected the next morning. To help us make our decision, we created a “Pros and Cons” list.   As we looked at our list, we realized our choices had the same major con regarding distance: the house was 45 minutes from the city and the apartment was 45 minutes from the school. If we went with the apartment, it would be a long ride for our son (but he would love the ride in the high-end coach buses!) If we lived in the city, we would actually have more family time as we would only be a 10-minute walk from the office, getting us home much earlier than if we were to commute to the house (If we actually left the office on time!) We were working hard at rationalizing our way into the apartment in the city!

As it was Thanksgiving, I made two calls home: one to my sister and one to my Dad. They were anxious to hear how my husband and son liked Shanghai and how our house search was working out.  I felt awkward and hesitated to share our decision about the apartment in the city, so I described the short list possibilities instead. I shared that the house was a 45-minute commute to the office, and the apartment a 45-minute commute to the school as well as a variety of pros and cons. Both my sister and my Dad said exactly the same thing: “Well then, that should make it an easy decision.” I grasped the full impact of what they had just said, and responded, “Well, yes, it does.”

Hanging up I shared this with my husband. They didn’t voice their opinions, they had just simply stated the obvious. We reflected on why we had come up with our list of requirements in the first place, and what the pros/cons list actually had revealed. What were we thinking? The excitement and beauty of the city had made us simply lose our grounding.

In my heart I knew what the right choice was and the clarity my family provided from thousands of miles away reminded me of what matters most: doing what’s best for our family, which means being close to school, where we know our son will be spending a lot of time running, swimming, making new friends and learning.