Thursday, March 29, 2012

On Pattern Recognition

Today, I had McDonald's for lunch.  Healthy, I know.  After finishing lunch, I started walking to the bus stop to head to the office for the afternoon; I had spent the morning working at home.  This McDonald's is located in Garden City (a shopping mall), right across from Walmart and a KFC where I also bought an ice cream cone.  By the way, isn't this supposed to be China?  Anyway, the bus stop is located just outside the Walmart.

On the way to the bus stop, I bought my ice cream cone.  I curiously watched a little girl sitting by a pillar under a covered path from the Walmart to Garden City.  She had dirty clothes and dirty skin, looked like she hadn't taken a bath for days.  Looked about eight years old.  It's not unusual to see little kids walking around by themselves in China, sometimes with unfortunate results.  This girl sat alone and calmly.  As I watched her, something looked wrong.

I'm not sure I can say exactly what I felt was wrong.  In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the research of psychological thinslicing, which enables experts to instantaneously figure out the right answer for a situation just by looking at it.  A tennis coach who can tell right away whether a player will fault on serve.  Secret Service agents who can tell right away which people in a crowd are major risks.  Psychologists who can identify couples with high probability of relationship failure just by examining facial expressions and body language.

I'm not saying I'm such an expert at being able to identify situations correctly.  But I have learned over the years that it's an invaluable skill to be able to look at a situation and zero in on the problem.  Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, but if you proceed with caution and the right questions, you will be right more often than not, and subsequently be able to resolve the problem efficiently and quickly.  This is true for resolving high-pressure crisis situations in the workplace, relationship conflicts with family and friends, and random confrontations on the street.  It's a skill that requires practice, poise, and a constantly questioning mind that does not make any assumptions.  I find not enough people understand this.  Develop this skill, and your pattern recognition ability shoots through the roof, enabling you to solve difficult problems with ease.  I am always trying to improve it, as my friend always needles me about a Vancouver Skytrain incident where I was jumping to wrong conclusions.

So what was weird about this girl?  Again, she wasn't crying, and you see lots of kids walking about alone all the time.  Well, I think the thing that really made my radar go on red alert was the fact that she was so dirty.  Some girl waiting for her parents in such a crowded cosmopolitan area would not be so dirty.  I think?  But with this thought in mind, I worried and actually came to the wrong conclusion that maybe she was a street kid with no home.  This is when you need to proceed with caution and ask questions.  People often assess a situation and come to the wrong conclusion; they know that something is not right, but they're incorrect about what is not right.  Then they take the wrong actions accordingly because they fail to verify their conclusions.

So I asked the girl, "Hey kiddo, where are your parents?"  The girl said something about her parents not being there and started crying.  At this stage, one might get information that leads them in a certain direction, without waiting for complete information.  Then they create a situation even worse than before.  For me, my mind automatically switched to thinking that the parents had abandoned the kid, probably due to not having enough money to raise the kid (or maybe something even worse happened).  But I wanted to be sure I understood what the kid was saying, and my Mandarin still needs to improve.

So I called up my friend and told the kid to tell my friend her problem, then my friend would explain it to me.  For what seemed like forever, the kid explained what had happened, crying the whole time.  She gave my friend her mom's phone number, and I told my friend where the two of us were waiting.  My friend called her mom, who then called her brother; these kids were darker-skinned, definitely not Han Chinese people, so they don't have the one-child restriction.  Or maybe he was only a cousin, but kids still say brother and sister instead of cousin.  Anyway, the brother came on his bike to pick her up; he looked only eleven.  I asked if this was her brother, she nodded, got on the back of the bike, smiled at me, and waved while they rode away.

While we were waiting for her brother, she explained to me how she had gotten lost.  She had been playing on the second floor of the Walmart and lost sight of her brother.  We played a game while waiting called 3-6-9 (a game I learned as a kid from other Korean kids).  She even started smiling a bit, which was good.  What's most interesting is that she said she had been waiting there for about two hours.  Two hours, and nobody thought to ask her what's going on?  Well, this kid had probably been calm and well-behaved the entire time.  She didn't start crying until she tried to explain to me her problem.  Since kids are often seen alone, why should have anyone thought something was wrong here?

Pattern recognition for being able to recognize when something feels strange is a good thing.  With this skill, you can resolve problems before they happen, or before they grow too big, whether those problems be in personal relationships, work, or anything else.  It's a really important skill to have.  Some autistic people have the unfortunate condition of not being able to read body language or facial expressions very well, but for anyone who can develop this skill, they should.  Besides, not all problems are identified through body language anyway.  Again, while I'm not sure what compelled me to talk with her (well, thanks, God!), I think the key clue was that the kid's dirty clothes and face didn't fit her surrounding environment with so many well-dressed people bustling around.  But good pattern recognition needs to be balanced with a cautious approach so that we don't jump to wrong conclusions.  That goes double for poor pattern recognition.  Again, my original conclusion was that she was a street kid.

Well, the story had a happy ending.  Coming just out of a McDonald's, maybe it could have been a McDonald's commercial.  Except I was holding a KFC ice cream cone the whole time.  I offered to buy her lunch too, but she said she wasn't hungry.  Maybe she was just being wise because her parents told her not to accept candy from strangers.  The smile on her face as she rode away on the bike was great.  I'm going to wear a superhero costume next time.  With a cape.

Yes, I know, I still haven't written about that kid that was run over.  It's a sad but complicated issue.  Most difficult things are.  I have seven different blog posts in draft mode right now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We're not in Shenzhen anymore, Toto

Five signals that demonstrate you're not in a major Chinese city anymore.

5.  The taxis are a lot cheaper.
4.  The taxi drivers are a lot crazier.
3.  There are direct competitors to McDonald's and KFC that you prefer over McDonald's and KFC.
2.  You can find pasta noodles in only specialty foreign food shops, rather than the supermarkets.
1.  A lot of people don't understand your Mandarin and you don't understand their local dialect.

Welcome to Chengdu.  The land of Sichuanhua and Dico's.  :)