Words matter a lot - Speaking in images

Chinese is quite an interesting language. I'm now in China since end of June to coach several teams on Acceptance Test-Driven Development. So far I've not worked directly with a product team but instead have been working with a group of people tasked to provide tools and advanced concepts to product teams. We do spend quite a lot of time to make ATDD tools and teaching material suitable for Chinese developers. And it turns out that that in itself can be a challenge.

Language shapes how one things and the way of thinking shapes the language. Other factors, like culture and history, influence further. Before I left Germany for China I expected to encounter a lot of significant differences and was eager to find out what these were. After all the Chinese culture is more than 5000 years old.

Now that I'm in China I discover a few interesting points:

  • Chinese speak in images
  • Every image represented by a symbol has an associated sound
  • The meaning of all those images can be modified by other symbols
  • The current meaning of a symbol (image) is influenced/changed by contemporary culture and views

I don't speak Chinese. All that I say in this blog post is based on observation and conversations with native speakers.

As an example I'd like to use the English word collaborate. Collaboration is quite important to ATDD and agile development practices in general. I was quite surprised to learn the following.

Do we want to cooperate or collaborate?

One can use Google's translation service and it will tell you that collaboration in Chinese is:


However, I was told by my Chinese associates that this translation were not right. Instead they prefer to write:


合作 gets translated by the Baidu Translator to:

Baidu Translate Collaboration

Baidu is a Chinese search engine and the "official" search engine in China. Google Translate tells us that 合作 is:

Google Translate Collaborate

And just as Baidu says my Chinese associates told me that 合作 indeed has the meaning of cooperation in the sense that people or organizations work together while staying seperated from each other. Just as for me to them cooperation is a lesser form of working together than collaboration.

Worth noticing is that Google Translate shows a ranking for each potential meaning and while it seems to agree on cooperation as a noun it ranks cooperate and collaborate equally as a verb. Interesting is that other meanings of 合作 as a verb can be negative. Amonst the list of meanings is conspire and that is certainly not a good thing to do in the context of working as a team.

So let's try to translate 协同 using Baidu and Google. Baidu says:

Baidu Translation Collaboration 2

while Google knows just this about it:

Google Translate Collaborate 2

Which form of collaboration do we want in software development?

Learning about those differences in interpretation I am now thinking about which form of collaboration we want in a software development team.

I don't have an answer at the moment so this is going to be an ongoing process but I intend to come to this topic and follow up in a little while.

Do you take a nap after lunch?

As I write this it is lunch time here in China. I'm at the offices of my client in a very large office park with many buildings. Probably about 20,000 people are working here.

We just had lunch in the cafeteria and are back at the office, which is a big room with many cubicles that have low walls. And it is dark. The shades are down and the light has been turned off. You have to be careful where you step in the darkness. Only the main walkway in the center of the room is lit.

Everybody is having a nap.

They sleep with the head on the table sitting in their office chairs. They sleep on camping beds they brought in from home or they use some insulation mattress under their desk. Some are wrapped up under sheets or have put themselves inside a sleeping bag. The only sound you can hear is the air condition, some rare sneeze and some very light typing by people who don't want to sleep but continue to work or chat with someone via the internal messaging system.

Impressions of Chinese street life

Over the weekend I had an opportunity to stroll around and take some pictures of the life on the street. It was after dark and quite a bit cooler than during the day. So there is lots of people out on the streets. People sit in open air restaurants for dinner, shop or just meet with friends.

Street Life 1

Street Life 2

Street Life 3

Street Life 4

Street Life 5

Street Life 6

Street Life 7

Street Life 8

Street Life 9

Dance Show at Shenzhen Waterworld

My family and I went together with a Spanish speaking Chinese friend to Shenzhen Waterworld.

Amongst all the different attractions there was a dance show. To our surprise the performances demonstrated Latin American, Spanish and American music and dance styles.

Dance Show 1

Dance Show 2

Dance Show 3

Dance Show 4

Dance Show 5

Dance Show 6

Dance Show 7

Dance Show 8

Dance Show 9

Dance Show 10

Dance Show 11

Dance Show 12

Dance Show 13

Chinese Lunch

My client is a large enterprise. So far I've seen two corporate campuses and they are very nice. Very detailed landscaping that gets maintained quite well. And these campuses have a size that easily compares to something like a University campus. In fact, it has a certain feel of it as well - especially during lunch time when hundreds of young people walk from their offices to the cafeteria(s). I learned that they even use a slot system to be able to serve food to that many people. So for every building there is a time slot that is to be used as lunch break, if people want to eat in the cafeteria.

I have no idea how many people work in each of those two campuses I've seen so far. But given that each campus contains maybe 10 buildings with multiple stories ... I was told that the whole company has more than 130,000 employees.

In Beijing they even have what they call a theme restaurant in a separate corner of the very huge cafeteria. One can reserve a table and there are nicely dressed waitresses attending the patrons - just like in a regular restaurant outside.

We had lunch there and again the food was coming and coming:

2014 06 25 Beijing 14

Some Beijing impressions

On the way from the hotel to the offices I was able to snap a few pictures of China morning life on the street. We were walking and that provided some good opportunities.

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2014 06 25 Beijing 7

Like this gentlemen, as I was told, many older people like to work in the garden and grow something for themselves. In a city of 80 million people like Beijing apparently they use any piece of soil that seems to available.

2014 06 25 Beijing 8

Along this water channel there were many small gardens. Some just planted with corn, others with smaller plants that are probably a bit more difficult to care for.

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2014 06 25 Beijing 10

This is a temporary home for construction workers:

2014 06 25 Beijing 11

In this area, which is located quite far away from the center of Beijing, there were many large signs explaining basic traffic rules. This one explains the meaning of traffic lights and how to behave.

2014 06 25 Beijing 12

Chinese breakfast

After our morning walk we arrived at the offices and went into the cafeteria for breakfast. This is how a typical Chinese breakfast looks like:

2014 06 25 Beijing 13

The content of the bowl is some kind of rice soup. It contains more water than rice and has a slightly bitter or sour flavor. The cafeteria offered two different kinds of this but I only tried this one.

Air pollution

The air in Beijing is definitely not the best in the world.

There is so much pollution in the air that you hardly can see very far. If you look closely at the following image, you can spot the blue sky and below it some milky white stuff.

2014 06 25 Beijing 1

All those particles in the air create some sort of fog - that is smog - that is even visible at a very short distance such as from the window of a building down to the street. Quite impressive and certainly not healthy.

A positive thing I noticed is that there are no motorcycles of any kind with a fossil fuel burning engine. They are all electric and move around silently.

Chinese business dinner

After I had given a talk about ATDD at my client's internal developers conference at their offices in Beijing I was invited to participate in a business dinner. I was not really well prepared for the experience. It was quite special.

The dinner turned out to be some sort of celebration. A department leader invited everybody who had participated in some project to celebrate the success and give thanks to the whole group.

The restaurant had two floors. On the lower floor it looked like a regular restaurant with tables of different size seating couples, groups of four or six people and there were some larger round tables. On the upper floor there were rooms with big round tables in them. Some of the rooms had a sliding door to open it to the adjacent room. We were in such a double room.

People arrived in batches, stood around and talked to each other. As I don't understand any Chinese, I can only guess from the sound and their facial expressions that they were quite happy and congratulating each other.

When people decided to sit down they carefully kept two seats empty. Those two seats were facing the door and had the wall in the back. I learned from earlier reading that in a formal setting seats facing the door are reserved for important persons. Further I was explained that people were waiting for their boss to arrive and nobody was to touch the food that started to arrive.

I expected people to act in a more formal way after the boss had arrived. But I was really wrong. Over the course of the dinner everybody was drinking heavily from the rice wine that was frequently brought into the rooms. The boss himself drank quite a lot and was raising his glass to praise everybody's heroic acts that contributed to the success of the project. He was sitting to my left side and explained a few bits and pieces to me. Quite interesting to be that close and be allowed to observe and participate.

But the most impressive element of that dinner celebration was the food itself.

2014 06 25 Beijing 6

Food arrived in large quantities and it basically never stopped coming in.

First, there were cold dishes that were all placed on the rotating center of the table. One uses chop sticks to pick whatever one likes and either puts it straight into one's mouth or first onto a small plate. There were salads, cold meat cut into thin slices, marinated eggs, some fish and many other things I didn't know.

At some point the food that was brought in turned into dishes prepared hot. All kinds of meat and vegetables, some fish again. Some food was a little bit spicy but most was quite mild. And it was tasty.

Eventually everything took the turn to the sweet side. That didn't mean that the other bowls and plates with the hot food had to disappear. Instead some things were taken out and brought back in on smaller plates so that people can continue to enjoy them.

In between waitresses served tea, plum juice and, of course, more rice wine.

First impressions and travel to Beijing

My Chinese business associate and I left Shenzhen in the afternoon for a trip to Beijing. The flight took about 3 and a half hours. We then took the airport shuttle bus from the Beijing airport to our hotel close to the offices in the North-West part of the city. That bus ride took almost 2 hours. It was comfortable and we had many things to talk about so time went by quickly. Still I started to wonder whether there isn't a faster form of transport. But then the city is quite large.

2014 06 23 Shenzhen

2014 06 25 Beijing 4

2014 06 25 Beijing 3

First impressions

The first impression my wife and I have so far is that a lot of things appear very familiar to us. She is Colombian and we have lived 8 years in Panama. To us it all has a feel of a Chinese language version of Latin America.

On the way to the airport I saw pedestrians crossing a multi-lane highway climbing over little fences. There were street vendors offering fruit on the entrances and exits - right were the cars drive.

Like in Panama there is construction of high-rise apartment buildings everywhere.

My visit to the bank this morning to exchange US Dollars into Rinmimbi (RMB) took an hour. The major obstacle was that the teller apparently has not seen a European passport before and couldn't figure out what country the passport is from. I showed him where the country name is written and he got confused. European passports have the country name written in all languages of the European Union. So he was not able to understand the first line, it was a in Greek, and then gave up. I was sent two times with a guard to a machine that was supposed to exchange money and also scan passports. However, the machine was broken and every time they told me they fixed it now. Eventually I had to insist that they do the transaction manually. I was right back to Panama - only in Chinese :-)

This is going to be an interesting adventure.

I believe that countries that develop very quickly and adapt many new things in a short amount of time all face the same challenge. So what we experienced and observed so far are not bad things. They are simply signs of fast development.

I will keep my eyes open and learn as much as I can about the local culture. Today my Chinese associate even taught me a bit of Chinese character symbols. She even showed me a poem about the moon and we talked about the meaning of the moon and its light. Very interesting and I am grateful for the insights into the culture she provided.

Transfer from Hong Kong to Shenzhen

After we boarded Friday in Frankfurt for the 12 hours flight on Lufthansa to Hong Kong we arrived Saturday shortly after 3 pm. The good thing was that it was a late evening flight and one is able to find some sleep and awake in the "morning". Of course, at the destination it was late afternoon, which then starts to feel kind of strange after the while.

Later on you won't be able to sleep, because the body is still on European time. That made us sleep through most of Sunday. We eventually woke up by 2 pm. Just in time to get ready, find some food and meet the driver who takes us over the border to Shenzhen on the mainland.

I managed to snap a few pictures from the moving vehicle, but they are not very good. We basically only saw the road, crossed many bridges and very tall apartment buildings. The interesting thing to notice is that Hong Kong is a multitude of islands connected through bridges. Every island is some kind of mountain and most buildings have been erected very close to the water.

In a little while we will take some time to visit Hong Kong again to explore it a bit more. For now this was just a place to relax after the long flight and adapt a bit to the local timezone. We also had a European style meal in the hotel the other evening - probably the last one in quite some time.

On the way to the mainland one checks out at the Hong Kong side where your passports gets looked at thoroughly and multiple cameras observe everything. The office doing the inspection sits inside something like a toll booth between the lanes of the highway.

After that you reach the actual border. It is a real border with the whole area closed off, barb wire on top of the fence, many signs, some officers do nothing but look at the movement of vehicles and so on.

We decided to use a cross-border limousine service. They use minivans for that and that was a wise choice, because we were traveling with 5 pieces of luggage. There were many other minivans of the same type - so it appears to be quite a common form of cross-border transport. We were allowed to sit in the car while the driver took our passports to the window where the officer checked our paperwork. You get looked at briefly to match your picture ID with your actual face and that's about it. The driver gets in and after turning the corner you are in China.

About half an hour later we arrived at our destination, where we were greeted by our contact person and checked into the hotel. Next, we made our first "inside China" experience.

No rice in China

By now it was past regular dinner time and our Chinese friend took us across the street to a small eatery. It was a place where many families eat and you can see the food as you order. Chinese don't order a specific dish but instead take a small plate of that, another small plate of this, and then everything is shared at the table. So we tried to find two things of something that looked familiar and expected to receive a bowl of rice as well.

Well... It turned out that they were out of rice!

Our friend started to talk fast to several of the employees. After a minute she told us "let's go" and we were heading for the door after the two plates with food were given back to the cooks behind the counter. As soon as we were heading out things changed and it appeared that someone told our friend that there might be rice somewhere. So we turned out, were told to have a seat at a table where chopsticks and tea were waiting. Some more fast talking in Chinese started and after two minutes or so we were told "let's go" again. On the way out another employee showed up, dressed differently and probably a supervisor, and there was more fast talking. We watched and after a third time "let's go" we passed the door and were on the street again.

Pizza Hut to the rescue

Around the corner there was a Pizza Hut. We went in, as it seemed to be the best alternative. I wasn't expecting that kind of Pizza Hut. Unlike the Pizza Hut restaurants I've been to in the US, this one was quite luxurious and served much more than just pizza. The menu with lots of pictures had a lot of local looking dishes. We still decided on pizza and some fruit juices, which were very good. The check turned out as 186 RMB, which seems pricy. The other patrons, as was my impression, were enjoying the place as some kind of place to take the special someone to but there were also a few families on a late Sunday dinner.

Next. Coaching software developers in China

Lampions Having the opportunity to combine travel and work is wonderful. It is the best and most intense way of getting to know other cultures. One gets to know upclose the good and pleasant things but also the ugly parts of the culture one lives temporarily in.

It is also a good way to understand one's own culture much better. After being somewhere else one starts to see things back home from the outside and that is always eye opening.

So far I've been providing the professional service of coaching software development teams in Central America (Panama), North America (USA) and Europe (Germany). While doing it in the US I learned a good deal about Indian and Korean (work) culture as well.

In just two days my family and I will travel to China for a few months.

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