Over the weekend italki got to get away from Shanghai. We wanted to get away, see more of China, and get to know each other a little better. In the last year italki has doubled in the number of staff. The company filled up a bus and embarked on a two-day journey to the 牛头山 (Ox-head mountain) national park, in the heart of Zhejiang.
The area is a magical place. High, wild peaks are covered in a lush green that is rare to see in the sprawling city of Shanghai. The fog, seemingly present all day, but most poetic close to dawn, rolls down the steep inclines. Apparently shredded by the tops of the mountains, the fog dissipates into eddies and currents. It is a cloud that, much to its confusion, has suddenly discovering something entirely unfamiliar to it – the ground.
The entire italki collective sleepwalked onto the bus at 6:45 am, and embarked on our journey.
As the Chinese countryside rolled by in our windows, still half asleep, we could see the pace of life change, bustle of the city and it’s 21+ million disappeared in our rear window.
A few hours passed and the terrain changed, dramatically. The bus grunted and moaned its way up, fighting against the thin air against a steep grade. Out of the windows we could see the bottoms of the mountains. Seemingly close but sinking deeper and deeper into the earth. The mountain roads took us up and along. The bus huffed away, skirting around the edge of the precipice, giving us long, thoughtful look down.
As far as “corporate togetherness” events go, our trip was far from the usual fare. It was remote, physically challenging, and actually fun.
Our first stop was the “rafting” (not counting a very traditional Chinese lunch in a speck-on-the-map sort of town). If you have images of going down rapids, 6 – 8 people to a boat, anchoring yourself with your foot while you paddle – this was not it.
We separated into groups of two, picked a boat, picked a wooden paddle which resembled a two-by-four, and got into the water. The course of the river itself seemed to resemble a log flume ride more than river-rafting.
Each set of rapids was built up and secured with concrete, creating a … nozzle of a sort. Each of these choke-points was manned by several guys wearing conical straw hats, and operating a long stick of bamboo with a metal hook on the end. They would corral the hapless rafters towards the drops, regulating the timing to prevent collisions. Once your turn came up, the raft would be sent through the concrete nozzle and ride the vigorous foaming water through to the level a foot or three below, and further downstream.
italki went wild. Splashing each other and finding the best ways to obstruct the progress of their peers through the rapids.
We played in the water and sun, before finally settling into the hot baths with herbs stuffed in industrial-sized tea-bags made of fabric. There we socialized further. Moving between flavors of baths, one could hear the bantering in a dozen languages.
The Official Proceedings:
The next morning we had a typical company meeting. Each department presented their work for the month and quarter. We talked about the work we expect to do in the future. Each one of these meetings we get a little bit better, a little closer to new features, capabilities. Its a giddy feeling to see progress.
In a building on top of a mountain, here, in the depths of China, the atmosphere was also perfect for the next activity. We have almost doubled in size in terms of staff within one year. A quickly-growing company often risks its warm, personable atmosphere with rapid expansion. It’s also easy to lose a sense of history, of the team’s historical mission in these circumstances.
That’s why, at this celebration of our work and beautiful nature around us, we learned about the history of the Company. We heard stories from those who have started italki: the struggles, the numerous offices, the small, incremental triumphs that brought us here. We connected to our historical mission again, and took that momentum further – trying to envision our futures.
As always, the future is uncertain, but we see the impact of our work. In all the stories of success we hear from our students, in knowing the amount of struggle that went into creating the meaning behind the little pink speech bubble, we are reminded of what we stand for, and why we work.
Climbing the Mountain
This trip was fundamentally not about the usual “go team” exercise one expects from any sort of “corporate togetherness” event. Any “go team” moments came from a genuine enjoyment of the company and the sense of shared mission. More than that, though, it is the insights that we gained about one another that really created a sense of belonging. We finished up the meeting to get to the most challenging part of our trip: Climbing the mountain.
As an aside I must tell you that Chinese national parks are designed in an odd way. The slopes of natural mountains and lush greenery are crossed by well-paved concrete sidewalks. These often take the shape of an endless staircase. They are kept at altitude, resting on a series of blocks embedded directly into the the face of the mountain. Park visitors climb. There are no dirt trails marked off by logs. The contact with nature is not direct, and feels a bit like a set piece from Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”. Indeed, at times it feels like one can be looking hundreds years into the past, watching a side of the hill or a rivulet in the rock formation. Swaying to their own thoughts, the branches speak with the wind.
We set off to climb. Thousands of steps snaked endlessly through lush greenery. Breathtaking drops and sights interspersed with desperate sprints, up. The climb was brutal.
Before we got to the summit for our well-deserved rest, we had to brave the rope bridge. The wind breathed and the tension in the wires of the bridge groaned and strained. It’s hard not to be afraid with only a few wooden planks and steel cable separating you from the long drop down.
Still, the only way to get to the top is to move forward. Some shuffle forward inch-by-inch, some brave the bridge getting mid-jump photos.
Regardless of the style or the amount of fear, the only way to the top is forward, even though it’s a long way down.
By the end of the climb most of us were breathless. Not only did the climb pushed us physically, but the raw distances and the landscape that stretched out into the horizon left us breathless.
Climbing to the top is it’s own reward.
Exhausted but happy, we slept through most of the bus ride back.
If there is a metaphor to be drawn between what we do and this outing, it is that building a startup is akin to climbing a mountain: often it is just grueling taking step after step after step. Iterative development and gradual improvement is a grind. Taking those steps can seem endless, daunting.
Once in a while, though, you get to stop and look out, to see something new, from a new height.
Finally, in the end, the satisfaction of being at the top is transformative. Seeing the road taken there, far below, as it snakes in and out of view through the wilderness, gives a feeling of flight, of overcoming self and mountain, in order to attain that deep satisfaction of having accomplished something big.
We are looking ahead, shuffling or jumping, we are moving forward. Step after painful step, we are grinding through our ascent. Together we are climbing. We are climbing not only as a team or a company. We are climbing as language learners, as teachers, as innovators and curious people. We are climbing with and for everyone who has ever wanted to learn. For everyone who feels the draw of the wild, of new cultures, of the rare air of a new experience, we are climbing with you.
See you at the top.