Hŭ tóu shé wĕ

Hŭ tóu shé wĕ is translated “tiger’s head, snake’s body.” This Chinese saying describes how things can start out well with a project or partnership and then (all too soon) the quality fades. In the book Poorly Made in China, this saying is mentioned a lot as it is how the Chinese like to do things all too often.

I saw this at Xiang Jiang High School where I taught for Coastline Community College. They cut back on time spent teaching English, on resources, but not on tuition. It’s happened with the Australian program here and my program. When I first started teaching here students got 10 hours a week of English. Now they get 8. Next year some freshmen will get 4 hours with the others soon to follow suit as they did with the Univ. of Tasmanian students. When all the first years get 4, then all the other students will just get 6. They’ll have more time mainly for test prep with the Chinese English teachers, some are fine and others aren’t. The less skilled Chinese English teachers just talk about English in Chinese. It’s the best they can do. They use a lot of rote learning. As these hours with Western educators decreases, the students will be less prepared to take on the daunting task of business or technology classes in English.

The program becomes a Potemkin Village, with a high price tag.

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Poorly Made in China

Peter Midland studied Chinese language and history in college before moving to China. After a few years there he returned to the US to get his MBA at Wharton. While many of his peers went into finance, Midland took the path not taken and headed for Guangzhou to consult for US companies keen to find a manufacturer in China.Poorly Made in China chronicles Midland’s experiences helping US companies navigate these uncertain, often turbulent waters. It’s an engaging must-read for business people and consumers. It’ll make you think differently about China and Chinese goods.

I learned so much from this book that begins with an unforgettable anecdote. Midland is outside with a Chinese client and the industrial stench is unbearable. Reflexively, he exclaims in Chinese, “It stinks.” Calmly, the Chinese man exhales from his cigarette and slowly responds. “I don’t get you foreigners. To me this smells like money.”

Well, right, but the N.Y. Times reported that as many as 700,000 Chinese each year die prematurely due to pollution. So it also smells like death.

I learned new terms like quality fade, quality erosion and quality manipulation, that are all rather self-explanatory, but scary that it’s actually a business tactic in China. Dealings with a shampoo and body wash importer reveal how this works. The first order or so that Midland’s client made were fine. All according to spec. Then, gradually, things changed. The shampoo’s ingredients were modified little by little till eventually, there was a problem because the shampoo would freeze when it got a bit cold.

As time went on the molds for the plastic bottles got thinner and thinner, till when squeezed they broke releasing the shampoo all over. The cardboard for the shipment got cheaper and cheaper till it would break in transit. With the shoddy bottles this could lead to a major mess. Retailers like Walgreen’s and CVS sure wouldn’t tolerate much of these hassles so the importer is sure to lose orders. Yet the factory management couldn’t see that the poor quality might effect their own business.

Once Midland went to tour a factory and everything seemed nice. Clean environment, busy bee workers. A few were rather clumsy like they were very new to the job. When Midland asked a few questions he was whisked out. Then they had him waiting. When he got bored he got up and walked around. Through the window he saw that the factory was completely empty. He’d asked about breaks and this wasn’t a break time. When the woman in charge saw him looking out the window, she freaked. It turned out that this was a big charade and that many new factories have showplace factories for the foreign clients. Some old ones do this too and the foreigners never see the real factory.

Every chapter is engaging and revealing. You’ll laugh, cry and think twice about buying so much from China. Interestingly, Midland points out how China is not learning to value quality as Japan and Korea did when they were at this stage of development. Something to ponder.

After working for a US community college in Guangzhou, I could see so many parallels. Chilling parallels.

N.B. As my colleagues and I settle into China, note that two of us have broken toilets. We’re in newly renovated apartments and the plumbing just isn’t up to par. Today I had an agreement with my colleague that I could use her bathroom if need be. I’m happy to report that a plumber came today, but this is an example of the low quality of manufactured goods. It’s not just the items that are imported. It’s pervasive.

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
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