Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You Don't Say....

So, for those of you familiar with online memes, surely you will have heard of/come across the now world-famous Nicholas Cage "You Don't Say" meme. However, for those of you who have not, a brief summary: The "You Don't Say" meme is a comic taken from the 1988 film "A Vampire's Kiss", starring none other than Nicholas Cage. The film was presumably terrible, as it involved both Nicholas Cage and the 1980's, however the meme taken therefrom has gained a lot of notoriety, generally used in a situation where someone is stating something incredibly obvious. For example, in the photo at right, you can see the very obvious "Do Not hold the wrong end of a chainsaw" on a warning label, accompanied by Nicholas Cage sarcastically saying "You Don't Say?" . Simple enough? OK then, let's move on.

Since moving back to Shenzhen, and in my last month of living here in 2012, my roommate Scutt and I have watched a lot of movies. These movies generally fall into one of several themes--British comedies (Four Lions, The Inbetweeners film, etc), documentaries (Inside Job, the Enron Film, and a variety of Ted Talks), or "crappy movies with crappy actors and loose plots centering around Thailand". The last category would include, but not be limited to The Beach, The Hangover II, and perhaps most importantly Bangkok Dangerous, a film so terrible, so badly put-together, and so wholly unbelievable and unrealistic, that it would be correct to say the only reason we ever watch it is because both Scutt and I have an unhealthy obsession with the city of Bangkok, and with laughing at bad acting (particularly the bad acting of the lead actor, Nicholas Cage). So, within our apartment, Nicholas Cage has become something of a cult hero, with the "You Don't Say" face taking a place among the pedestal of quasi-religious iconography in our incredibly sarcastic lives.

Taking this a step further, Scutt and I have trademarked a facial expression of rolling one's eyes into the back of one's head and looking slightly horrified whenever someone proposes something worthy of that expression. Given Scutt's excellent (read: better than mine) skills on Windows Paint, he decided to make some slightly changes to the Nicholas Cage "You Don't Say" meme to reflect this facial expression. See at left. So, for example, when the other day we saw some 4-ish year old kid walking around in the street completely naked, while his (presumably) father laid in a hammock being supported by two traffic columns---boom! Nicholas Cage face.

So, now that we have covered the Nicholas Cage face and the subsequent changes made by Scutt to reflect our lives seeing an increasing influence from Kurt Vonnegut-esque style humor, let's talk briefly about the picture at left in more detail.

Firstly--notice that the app we are using is likely unknown to anyone reading this blog outside of China. The app is called Wechat (Chinese name is Weixin, 微信). For anyone looking to do any sort of e-business in China ever, Wechat is a hugely important tool for getting word to people about anything and everything. For some further information on Wechat from an unbiased and interesting source, check out Quartz' take on them. 

Add photos, get likes, write
comments....sound familiar?
And now for my take--firstly, what exactly is Wechat? I would liken Wechat to something like Facebook Chat, with a sort of primitive "timeline" feature (see photo at right). And also, it's a lot more "rapisty" for lack of a better word. What the heck do I mean by "rapisty", you ask? Well, basically, on Wechat there is a feature called "look around", which lets you do just that--you look around the area near you for other users on Wechat. Anyone else using that feature at that point and time is visible to you, and you to them. So, for example, I can find out if there is a fellow 24 year old dragon-year born Chinese girl within 200 meters of me right here and now, find out what she looks like (based on posted photos, of course), where she is from, and can send a greeting trying to start a conversation. Creepy? Certainly. Socially acceptable and as common as black hair is in China? Yes, that too. So, there's that feature. The app also includes a "shake" feature, whereby you can shake your phone and it pairs you up with others shaking their phones nearby. Dangerous? In India, absolutely. In China, surprisingly not so much.

Furthermore, as it turns out, I am far more addicted to Wechat than Facebook. For example, a few weeks ago I lost my phone. I bought a new one later that day, and immediately was able to access everything because it was backed up to iCloud. Except!!! Wechat! I needed to wait 48hrs (in addition to the 12hrs between my losing my phone and my buying a new one) to access my account, because my account was linked to my old Korean cell phone number, which I no longer have. Let me tell you, that was an excruciating 48hrs. Why is this app so important, one might ask? Why, after a week of going cold-turkey on biting my nails (a proposal initially brought up by Scutt, who said he stopped biting his nails the day he came to Shenzhen, because his fingers spend all day in China), did I crumble and start to absolutely go to town on my newly-long and healthy-looking fingernails, the moment I found out I would have to go another 48hrs without Wechat? Well, a number of reasons, I guess. Namely:

1) I use Wechat to keep in touch with everyone in China. For example, I never end up exchanging phone numbers with a lot of the people I meet here--we just add each other on Wechat. So, once that goes down, my ability to contact most of the people I want to contact in China goes down with it, unless I have (unlikely) acquired some other form of communication with them (such as another Chinese social app like Momo, or maybe something like Whatsapp).

2) I use Wechat to keep up with the places I like to go. Bar I go to is running a special? They message me on Wechat. Starbucks is having a deal on Frapuccinos tomorrow? Starbucks China will most certainly send me a message informing me of this development.

3) It's more important to me now than Facebook. Now, don't get me wrong, I do miss all my friends back home, and I enjoy keeping in touch with them on Facebook. However, Facebook is NOT A FACTOR HERE AT ALL. Obviously the main reason for this is it's being blocked entirely in mainland China. Regardless, though, Facebook is just not a thing here. I never once have looked up someone I've met here on Facebook, and I don't use Facebook to keep in touch with anyone here. So, while going a few days to a week without using Facebook (which is no longer an issue for me) can be inconvenient for keeping in touch with the people 8,000 miles away, going a few days to a week without Wechat can be inconvenient for keeping in touch with the people 8 minutes walk away. Big difference in the relevance and overall utility to my everyday life, here and now.

So, now that we've all learned about the Chinese social app known as Wechat (and if you haven't clicked on the link to the Quartz articles by now, you should. Really. Interesting freaking stuff!), let's go into some other assorted musings:

1) This weekend I took my first foray into the Shenzhen live music scene. Through a friend that I've met recently, I found out about a show taking place in OCT Loft, an artsy part of town where they basically took a bunch of old factories and warehouses, and rather than destroying them, built them into art studios, cafes, and other such cultural things, perhaps in an attempt to rid Shenzhen of its "business city with absolutely no soul and less artistic sense than Blaine Curcio" reputation. Anyway, so went to a concert there on Saturday night. And an interesting concert it was. Some major takeaways:

  • The concert was sort of a rock/DJ/trumpet type band. That is, they had an Australian drummer, a British DJ, a guy from the US playing the trumpet, and a "token Chinese man" (their words, not mine) playing an electric keyboard. So, not like anything I'd ever seen. As such, it was kind of a surprise to see....
  • The number of children under the age of 9. The place had maybe 70 people there in total, of whom roughly 5-6 were small children. This was, as far as I can tell, a rock concert on a Saturday night. The musicians were swearing on stage. And yet, sure enough, the place had a handful of random small children dancing dramatically to the beat of a trumpet playing alongside an electronic mixing board
  • Overall, it was a really good show, and a welcome surprise compared to what I'm used to in Shenzhen (that is, the fact that the "business city with absolutely no soul and less artistic sense than Blaine Curcio" reputation is, by and large, true).
2) I've been taking Shenzhen busses lately. Interestingly, despite being old, decrepit-looking, generally crowded, bad-smelling, and otherwise unpleasant, they are, in fact, faster than the metro in many instances. For example, from my apartment to the office would involve a 10-minute walk to the metro station, 6 minute metro ride, and 5 minute walk to the office. Whereas by bus, it involves a 2 minute walk to the bus station, 6-8 minute bus ride, and 2 minute walk to the office. All for a magnificently cheap $0.35 or so.

Apart from that, not an overwhelming number of updates since the last blog post. Meantime, will hopefully continue at least 2-3 days per week moving forward, so more updates to come as they develop. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Return to the Pearl River Delta (Again)

I just can't seem to get enough of South China. Which is quite interesting, given that I hate the temperature, hate the humidity, and hate the fact that, when on an escalator in a subway station, people adamantly REFUSE to STAND ON THE RIGHT AND WALK ON THE LEFT (they just stand on both sides like philistines taking up the entire escalator) . But, for all its minor faults, South China (or more specifically, Shenzhen), really is the place to be. I left this maddeningly interesting place back in November 2012 after a year of living here, and have since bounced around the Korean peninsula for a month on two separate occasions, spent some time living with old friends in Kuala Lumpur, spent a month living in a tiny dump of a bedroom in Central Hong Kong (for about $800US per month rent, no less.....), and sprinkled in stopovers in Chicago, Zurich, and Washington D.C. for good measure. I also ended up getting quoted in Yahoo Finance, which was pretty sexy.

But in spite of the busy-ness (I was going to write business, but realized this was not in fact an adjective to describe busy, but was in fact the word business....), or perhaps because of it, my mind was constantly wandering back to this blossoming megacity located in the delta of the Pearl River, just over the border from the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Hong Kong, and just far enough south of the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Guangzhou. Somewhere in-between--not quite Hong Kong, not quite China, just a weird hybrid of free market economies, Communist propaganda, wide boulevards, a blooming art scene, more parks than you could visit in a year (as I found out firsthand), and fleets of Ferraris, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys existing hand-in-hand with armies of downtrodden people earning less in a lifetime than the cost of any one of those cars, Shenzhen really is a city of contrasts and contradictions (a note on the previous 2 links....yes, living in China does make you slightly more Communist). Maybe that's why I found the place so darned interesting (anyone who can name the film from which I lifted that line will get a beer next time I see them).

So, anyway, having given an overly artistic and abstract account of Shenzhen, let's get to the facts and events that led to my coming back to this city. I ended up flying into Hong Kong on May 18th, with the intention of renting a short-term flat in HK, getting a China visa (and praying for multiple-entry, so that I could enter/exit China as I pleased without having to buy a new visa frequently--a $140-150 expense which adds up quickly!), and then moving over the border to Shenzhen. Easy enough. So upon arrival in HK, I met AlanKey--a regular character in this blog, and old friend from exchange in Hong Kong--near his flat in North Point. Alan is from Adelaide, South Australia, but has a certain propensity for all things Asian. He's also very good with making the most of an iPhone. Alan currently works as a tunnel engineer in Hong Kong, working on expanding their public transportation system, the MTR. He is perhaps the most resourceful and well-connected person I know, and as such I had full faith in him that he would be able to help me find an apartment without haste. What I didn't know at the time was how tremendous the lack of haste would be. That is--after landing in Hong Kong at about 5:00pm, I was signing a one-month lease on an apartment in Central by about 7:30pm, arranged by none other than the AlanKey. The apartment was, in short, a dump. A tiny room in a small flat in the center of the most expensive real-estate market in the world (or among them, anyway). Complete with 2 roommates--one of whom a French model, and one of whom a British wine salesman--I was settled in my temporary one-month abode--or at least as close to settled as one can get when the smell of mold permeates every square meter of your flat, and the space between your bed and the wall is roughly the length of your knee to your foot. But anyway, for $800US per month, it was a bargain worthy of the Price is Right!

So, that was that, and I was settled in Hong Kong for a month. During the month, not an overwhelming amount happened. I worked, I slept, I ate a lot of Pret a Manger, met a lot of really great people who I still keep in touch with, and I visited Chungking Mansions a lot. And I drank an obscene amount of Starbucks. I also miraculously acquired the mythical 6-month multiple entry China tourist visa, which was a huge victory. Other highlights included taking weekend excursions with the AlanKey to explore more remote areas of Hong Kong, including Tai O, random parts of Kowloon, and even the occasional border crossing to Shenzhen once my visa came through.

So, on June 19th, after 1 month and 1 day in Hong Kong, it was back over the border to Shenzhen. And here are the circumstances under which I returned to this crazy city--

My best friend from a year of previously living in Shenzhen, John Scutt (Scutt from here), is still living in Shenzhen. He recently returned to find a job, and got a good sales job with a computer-type company that manufactures components for tablets and that sort of thing. And his lease was just about to run out on his apartment. So, we got a 2-bedroom place in a more Chinese part of town (relatively's still quite western, with a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut within a 3 minute walk, but then again, anything is more Chinese than our previous accommodation--the Sheraton Hotel). So, with the help of my old co-worker, Lisa "the nicest and most helpful person in existence" Liu, we were able to find a nice flat for a decent price in a safe part of town that was convenient in terms of public transport and relation to other interesting areas. So there you go. The new apartment has a balcony, 2 bedrooms, a nice sitting room with a 3D TV, and a nice bathroom. It also has s full kitchen, which is already being put to good use--the refrigerator is currently home to a bottle of Tsingtao beer, 2 bottles of Chinese rice wine that neither of us can stomach, but which we bought for <$1 each just in case of a horrible bodily injury, as the stuff is a brilliant disinfectant, and a package of grapes. There's a very nice pool downstairs, and our neighbors include an 80 year old Chinese woman who cannot understand a word I am saying, even when I speak to her in Chinese. So there's that. Further, just outside of our apartment is the world famous "Super Market Greatly" (yes, that is the name of the supermarket), as well as the curious convenience store who's English name is simply a gigantic "E". Conveniently, there is also a mattress store just next door, which made finding a mattress less than difficult. After an IKEA run (yes, they have IKEA in China, complete with a Swedish woman living here as the store manager!), our apartment has come together quite nicely, and in addition to the fat buddha statue that the old owners left, we now have an assortment of posters, paintings, some cool lamps, and a wooden man scattered around the place (photos to come in the next post).

On the work front, I have lately been working from my old office in the CBD of Shenzhen. It's been going well, with me being able to do my new job around my old coworkers, and combining the convenience of having people with whom to banter, with the convenience of being able to not go to the office any time I want, and just work from home.

In other news, because this blog post has been extremely dry thus far, let's cut to some bizarre scenes I have seen since my return to China:

1) I was walking through a very central part of the city the other night. Keep in mind this is (arguably) the most developed city in China, and further, the central part of the city should, in theory, be quite developed. So, while walking through this area, I encountered one of those maybe 4ft tall cylinders which are built to keep cars from swerving off the road onto the sidewalk. The cylinder is made of concrete, with a diameter of maybe 8-10 inches. So picture this sort of concrete cylinder on the side of the road. Atop this cylinder, supported by his (presumably) father, was a 4-ish year old boy, proudly urinating off of the cylinder into the street as though this was the most normal and socially acceptable thing in the world. Welcome to China, circa 2013 folks.

2) Some friends and I were in a very expatty-bar (hence the name xpats) the other week. We were about to leave, but before doing so, I went to say goodbye to another friend sitting at the bar with some guy I didn't know. And here is how that went:

Me: "See you later Bob, nice seeing you"

Bob: "Yep, you too, have a nice weekend"

Unknown 50-ish year old man sitting next to Bob: "Do you have a name card (business card) for me?"

Me: "Actually, I'm sorry but I don't have any at the moment"

Guy: "Well then get out of here, you're useless!"

Me: "Sorry?"

Guy: "You heard me, you're interrupting our conversation, and you don't have a name card, so get out!"

Bob: (who, it should be noted, is the most laid-back, casual, easy-to-get-along-with Californian you could ever hope to meet) "Well wait a minute, he was just coming over to say goodbye, they're not interrupting anything"

Guy: "No, they're useless, get out of here"

Me: "Bob,  is this guy serious?"

Guy: "Get out of here kids" (or something to this extent)

At this point, we left the place, only to come back an hour later, see that the guy was urinating outside the bar, go inside and find out that he was apparently molested by his father at some point (or so he had said at the bar), and thus was mentally not quite all there, or some garbage like this. To that, I would say, well, you should probably do one of two things:

1) Get over it (obviously this is much easier said than done)
2) Learn to handle your liquor sometime between the time you start to drink alcohol and the time you reach 50 years old.

Anyway....the people you meet in Shenzhen. Note: I realize that it is at best distasteful and at worst horrific that I mention the man's previous sexual abuse, but frankly speaking, when you go around a bar telling people how bad they should feel for you because you got molested by your father, that information becomes public knowledge. So, if anyone really took offense to that, I am more than willing to listen to why, and if the reasoning is compelling enough, I can remove it (that's a lie).

3) Some current obsessions lately:

  • Quartz--a brilliant news website that I have been using literally every day to get my daily dose of macroeconomic, business, financial, or otherwise interesting news. I even used it to steal the idea for having a "current obsessions" section to this blog.
  • Improving my Chinese--it is wonderful to be back in a country where I can go out any time of any day and practice Chinese. It's been improving pretty quickly, so that's nice.
  • The Ashes--a massive cricketing match between England and Australia which alternates between the two countries. Currently we are in day 2 of a series of 5 tests. Brilliant thus far. 
  • Teaching English--I am not a teacher. I generally don't care for teaching. I like getting up and talking in front of people, and am very comfortable doing it, but being asked to teach someone else at their pace of learning, which is generally incredibly slow, is really unpleasant. However, my old Chinese boss has asked me to tutor his daughter for 2hrs per day in English, in preparation of her going to the US for school. And in fact, it's been kind of enjoyable.
  • The TV shows The Newsroom and Entourage--I don't watch much TV, but lately have been watching these shows at the flat, and find them both to be well-written and generally entertaining to watch.
  • Expanding my consumption of different Chinese street foods. Lately has included 凉皮 (cold rice noodles)肉夹馍 (“Chinese Hamburger”),and various organ meats. Living the dream, I tell you.

So, with that, I apologize for the dry and generally unenjoyable nature of this blog post. It is intended as more of a transitionary blog post--basically I had to let you all know why I'm now writing from China and not Korea. I will be writing more regularly from here on out as I'm more or less settled in my current location, and will hopefully be able to bring back some stories from the last 6 months as I traveled across the world in search of a place that I like better than Shenzhen, only to come up empty-handed. Until next time, lay off the organ meats--they're definitely not as good as the Chinese hamburgers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2 Months and 2 Continents. A Tale of Absolut Vodka and Bombay Gin

So as it would turn out, I'm writing this blog post from Korea. How did we get here, and what happened during my last 2 weeks in China, you ask? Well, let's find out!

We left off with a retrospective of the 18 months of my life centered around China, culminating in about 13 months of in fact living in China. At the time of last writing, I was just finishing up my last few weeks of working for Shinerich in Shenzhen, and getting ready to move myself out of my beautiful apartment in the Sheraton Hotel Shenzhen, and fly back home for the holidays. And so I did.

However a (not at all) brief aside--it occurred to me that I never did share the story of the night that I got my new job. So it was a Friday night, the 9th of November. Because my company is based in Boston, they are 13 hours behind Shenzhen. A friend of mine was over, and it was around 11pm or so, when I received an email from the company president. The long and short of it was, "we'd like you to quit your intellectually unfulfilling job (OK so maybe they didn't call it that) in China and come work for us as an analyst". It took every ounce of restraint to not email him back immediately and say "You sir, have yourself an analyst". But I decided that might come off as desperate at 11pm on a Friday night local time. So instead my friend and I decided it was time to go out to Coco Park, the Shenzhen bar district. My good friend John, who's been written about in this blog many times (my personal favorite being here), was already out and about there at a newly opened club called LAX. To give you an idea of the magnitude and attitude of this club, at their grand opening, they had lingerie models walking around in....lingerie. Bizarre place.

An awesome place to celebrate with bottles of Absolut...
Anyway, John knew every bartender there already (this was about week number 3 of being open.....madman), and so I texted him just saying, and I quote, "I got the bloody job. Let's get some bottles". And so we did. First bottle of Absolut Vodka was gone in around 9 seconds. Second one lasted slightly longer. And then the other aforementioned friend I was with, a Chinese girl of about 5' 5" who had had enough drinks to where she could barely stand, informed us she wanted to put her name on the list for games of pool at this club's pool table. After exchanging humored glances, John put her name on there, and we waited a few minutes for her turn. When her turn came about, the person she was playing had won about 6 games in a row. He was a beast. Had the look of a pool shark, and had made everyone up to this point look disgraceful. And she racked him (I believe that's the term for knocking in all 7 of the opponents balls, plus the 8 ball, before they knock one in). Needless to say, neither John nor I could believe what we'd just seen. Beginner's luck? A miracle of God or science? We'd had just that much to drink and weren't seeing reality? None of the above....because she proceeded to win the next 6 games in convincing fashion. Unreal. Anyway, as the night progressed, the pool shark friend of ours did indeed have enough drinks to where she could not stand, and ended up indeed falling over, but that's not the point. The point is, this was like something out of a movie. And a couple of weeks later I left this magical place to fly back to the country with debt ceilings, insane levels of gun violence, and Rick Santorum....

Flying home via Frankfurt went as smoothly as it possibly could have. Having checked Lufthansa's website prior to departure, I was furious to find out that I was going to have to pay $75 for an extra checked bag. Why so serious (furious), you ask? Well, if I would have been United Airlines Premier Gold, I would have had a 2nd checked bag for free. OK, well, my fault, right? I'm not premier gold because I didn't fly enough. Not so fast! I had previously booked a flight on Lufthansa from Frankfurt-->Hong Kong back in September (which would have earned United Miles by virtue of being Star Alliance, thus putting me at Gold). But THEN, Lufthansa decided to go on strike, so we got rerouted from Frankfurt to HK via Helsinki on Finnair. Fine. But NOT Star Alliance. So basically because Lufthansa striked and inconvenienced me, I was going to pay an extra $75. But amazingly, at the airport, as I was there checking in, waiting for the hammer of God (or perhaps Angela Merkel) to come down upon me in the form of a $75 charge to my debit never came! The guy never asked for any money. So that was awesome.

Anyway, long story short, I got bumped to economy plus both flights (both very long flights, might I add.....11ish hrs followed by 10ish hrs...), and slept like a child after a handful of Strongbow Ciders during the first flight.

Upon arriving home, I was horribly disappointed to find no snow, and in fact the first week of my being in Chicago (in December, mind you), it hit like 70 DEGREES! (For my non-US friends....~21 degrees). A record high for Chicago in December. My month at home was decidedly uneventful. I started my new job at Northern Sky Research as an Analyst covering the satellite telecommunications market, and was immediately put onto 2 major projects (annual market research reports on energy market and global satellite manufacture/launch markets), as well as a consulting project. Really interesting stuff! Both challenging and rewarding, and making my own hours and working anywhere is pretty great.

Rather than going into detail of my month at home, though, I'll just give some of the highlights:

Christmas: obviously, the Christmas season was great, particularly as I spent Christmas 2011 in China (which was fine, just not very...Christmas-ey). Was really really nice to see family and friends and finally be of an age and of an income level where I had money to spend on proper gifts for people (which my family can certainly attest based on the new big screen HDTV, kitchen pots, huge haul of Japanese foods/drinks I bought my sister, and the various small gifts I got my grandmother).

My two favorite New Zealanders! (Note: I do in
 fact know more than two New Zealanders, so
 that is saying something! I actually know 3)
Meeting up with the Kiwis: Got to see 2 of my old friends from my days at University of Hong Kong, Oliver and Cindy. Briefly--Oliver is an economic juggernaut. He is attending (arguably) the best economics program in the world, the University of Chicago, for his PhD, and I have no doubt he'll do remarkably well. He stayed in Chicago for Christmas (apparently PhD students don't make enough money to fly to New Zealand for a few weeks.....shocking), and his wonderful girlfriend of many years, Cindy, came to visit him there. I went with some friend's to Oliver's "Ugly Sweater Christmas Party", on the South side of Chicago (for those who aren't familiar, picture an active warzone). That night happened to fall on the birthday of Sir Benjamin Hibbert, a great friend of both mine and Ollie's who is living in Adelaide, South Australia, and so as one can imagine, as the night progressed there were many a "here's to Benno, the greatest drinker HK has ever seen" (and how he was!) At the end of this night, I was driven home by a friend who remained sober. Ollie had given me a belated birthday present--a bottle of Bombay gin. A wonderfully generous gift. However, there was a problem--I had forgotten the bottle at Ollie's (apparently I'd had too much of it before leaving....) The next morning, my dad asked how the party was...

"Yeah it was great, had a lot of fun. Bit upset though, I accidentally left a nearly-full bottle of Bombay gin there that had been given as a gift"

"Really? Well then where the hell did the bottle of Bombay gin in the garage freezer come from"

"Ohhh.....well, at least I didn't forget the gin"

So there was also that.

A toast to Benno! Because it would be rude not to
Several days later I met up with Ollie and Cindy in Chicago, where we went to the Christkindelmarkt, and walked around the city for awhile. This was Cindy's first time outside of a reasonably temperate climate, as she was born in South China and had thus far only really lived there, NZ, and visited HK and a few other warm-weather needless to say she was not having fun (this was NOT the aforementioned 70 degree day....more like 20 degrees fahrenheit)

Bringing my sister to the Japanese Market: So nearby my house in Chicago is a really cool Japanese supermarket. Me being a fan of all things Asian (not that you'd ever know based on where I've been living on and off for the past 3 years.....), and having never been to this market, really wanted to check it out while I was home. I went and scoped it out with my dad and brother one day, though we could only stay briefly, and my sister was really upset that she didn't get to go. Consequently, one of my last days at home, and being the marvelous (on occasion) big brother that I am, decided to bring her, basically walk into the store, and say "your Christmas present anything you want. Any number of items, any type of items. I don't care what you buy". Fortunately, she didn't abuse the system, and in fact only spent around $50 (which, remarkably, bought around 25ish items varying from Japanese soda pop to candy to various noodles), and it was really enjoyable seeing a 17 year-old walking through this Asian store as though it was the greatest place ever (note: I do think it's one of the greatest places ever, but so much of the stuff there has completely lost its novelty to me since I've been living in various parts of Asia, so it was nice seeing someone perceive it all as novel and cool and unique. Reminded me of a certain writer of this blog about 3 years ago.....) Anyway, so that was a really enjoyable trip.

Catching Up with Old Friends: Not an overwhelming amount of detail to talk about here, basically was just really nice to catch up with old friends while I was at home.

And so just like that, having arrived home on November 30th, December 28th came along very soon, and I was off again, this time to Seoul, South Korea. I was asked (reasonably so) many times "How long will you be in Seoul?? Why Korea??", to which my two answers were "Until I get bored", and "I don't know, Chicago is kind of boring". So as I sit here writing this blog, I would like to establish once and for all that after 18 days in Korea thus far, I am far from bored. In fact, I am loving it here. I fell into an awesome situation within about 30 hours of landing.

To elaborate--when I arrived in Seoul, I had 1 friend in Seoul, an old friend from Hong Kong named Sophie. My 2nd night in Seoul, about 30hrs after arrival, Sophie let me know that she was going to an all-you-can-eat/drink thing with some friends of hers at a bar near the Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam) area of Seoul. I was horrifically jet-lagged, didn't know what day it was, and didn't speak a word of Korean, but at the same time, I also had 2 options--go out, or sleep. And as any of the alumni of the HKU 2010 exchange can tell you, you sleep when you're dead. Not when you've just arrived at Seoul and an all-you-can-drink event is proposed.

And so I met up with Sophie and off we went. Upon walking into the room, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that, among about 15ish Koreans sitting around a table, was a blond-haired, blue-eyed, extremely not Korean-looking girl (Note--I love Koreans. Their food, culture, and history is amazing. But it's also nice, when it's your 2nd day in Korea, to meet a fellow foreigner). Anyway, so the non-Korean girl ended up being Genine from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her Korean friend Angie also spoke perfect English, so I was thrilled, as I know that Korea/Japan tend to not have as high a level of proliferation of English as the major cities in China do. And so as we got to talking, I mentioned that I'm currently living in a hostel and have no plans on how long I'll be staying or where I'll be living.

"Well, I have a friend who happens to have a place where you can stay! But the thing is, he's only looking for someone for like two-ish months or so, then he has someone else moving in. How long do you think you'll be in Seoul for?"

"Well, I just got here yesterday, and will be here until I get bored. So that sounds just swell. How much is he looking to get in rent?"

"Around ₩500,000 per month."

" 500,000 won? I have that much money! Cool!"

Now for those who don't know, South Korea has a crazy exchange rate with the US$. About 1,080 won per $1, in fact. So for a bit less than $500 per month, I had a lease that I could basically cancel on less than a month's notice. How absolutely perfect.

To celebrate this amazing coincidence, the three of us proceeded to drink a staggering amount of Bombay gin and wine. Here's a picture of the place (with my thumb in the way)

Note the gin....
And so that was that. My 2nd night in Seoul, and my apartment situation had sorted itself. A few days later I met Brian (Genine's aforementioned friend with the room), and he and I got along quite well (he's a fellow Yank from Milwaukee), and I moved in a few days later. Here's a picture of my new room:

Note the fact that within 3 days of arriving in Seoul, I had already discovered the nearest Uni Qlo, hence the bag on the desk. Pointed out to me by the always lovely Miss Madlien Schenker
And so now I'm settled there. I've been working from home and from various coffee shops over the last few weeks and have been loving it. I've already met a handful of new friends here (including a lot of Chinese people, unsurprisingly). Also should be noted a funny little side note--I live about 7 minutes walk from a US/Korea joint-owned army base. So basically, I moved 7,000 miles away to live literally a stone's throw from US soil. Thus far I've found my way around the city, been able to tell my roommate and his friends a few cool places that I've found that they didn't know about, and been told a hugely larger number of places by them that I didn't know about. I am not yet bored, nor do I anticipate being bored anytime soon, so I guess I will be here awhile.

Some things I've noticed about Seoul:

Most things are cheap. Coffee is not most things: I pay around $4-6 on average for a meal here if it's just me eating. I pay about $4 for a cup of (horrible) coffee at a local shop. But I go anyway, because I sit there and use their (universally excellent) wifi for 3 hours in the process. But again, meals are quite cheap. At right, an example of Korean "Fast food"--tteokbokki (terribly misspelled I think), which is basically like a Korean gnocchi, tempura, and some soup. One might think that when a meal costs 5,000 of a currency, it would be expensive, but as we've already mentioned, I'm a millionaire many, many times over in Korea, and that 5,000 amounts to just under $5US.

I in fact do speak OK Chinese: when walking around the touristy districts of Seoul, I've found it very interesting to be hearing these garbled meaningless sounds that are Korean, having it all go in one ear and out the other, and then out of nowhere.....中文!!I hear Chinese, and it is music to my ears! I understand it, and it makes sense, and I feel cultured for knowing an East Asian language (yes that was an attempt at self-deprecating humor....albeit a poor one). 

Koreans love donuts: something I learned last time I was here. They have Dunkin Donuts, Mr Donut, and about 513 kinds of different bakeries on every corner. They have 4-story Dunkin Donuts, Dunkin Donuts in metro stations, Dunkin Donuts across the street from Dunkin Donuts. I also have a sneaking suspicion that my upstairs neighbor is opening a Dunkin Donuts in the near future. Crazy how popular donuts are, especially given how healthy Koreans tend to be.

I have some interesting stories about the weird sort of reverse culture shock (actually I have a new type of culture shock that I'd like to propose), but that would be a huge amount of writing, and this blog post is already insanely long. Consequently, I will save that for later this week! (That's right, 7 readers! I will be writing multiple blogs in the same month again, what in the heck is happening here?!) So anyway, that'll be all for now, anyone who's read this insanely long post, my thanks and a tip of the hat to you. I will leave you all with three things:

1) A photo of the main street in my neighborhood:

Telephone wires. Lots of telephone wires. And 1 Namsan. And 1 N Seoul Tower

2) A sensational TedTalk by Yochai Benkler on everything open-source. Topics include Apache, Wikipedia, and general awesomeness. Hugely, hugely recommend. 

3) In a shameless bit of self-promotion, my blog post from my last visit to Korea. Just in case you want more Blaine Curcio-written, Korea-related content. 

And with that, a good night or good morning or good day to you, depending on where you are in the world. Thanks for reading, more to come this week about things relating to me being eccentric. Until then, stay hungry, stay foolish. And don't eat the yellow snow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The 18 Months of China: A Retrospective

So, looking back at the last 3 years of my life, I've realized it can be pretty well divided into 2 approximately 18 month halves:

1) The ~18 months from December 26, 2009-->May 7th, 2011. We will call this the most important 18 months of my life, educationally speaking

2) The ~18 months from May 7, 2011-->November 29, 2012. We will call this the China months

The story of part 1 is well-documented in this blog, but to review: December 26, 2009, I got onto an airplane with one of my best friends to venture out to Asia. 36 hours later I was in Tokyo, and the ensuing 5 months I learned about life. I was on exchange in Hong Kong, traveled all over Asia, met the most amazing people in this world, learned how to prioritize, and learned how to enjoy myself while also getting important things done. From there I went to an internship in the Netherlands, where I learned to do office work with office work people from all over the world. I learned about passion in seeing the Dutch root their football team to a 2nd place finish at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I learned to cope with culture shock, something I hadn't experienced in Hong Kong. I learned to keep in touch with said amazing people I met in Hong Kong, even though they may have been a country, continent, or half a world away.

After this, I went to Colombia to meet one of the most special people I knew in Hong Kong, where I learned how to make the most of a relatively short reunion with close friends. From Colombia, I went home to the most intense academic year of my life, which included a semester with 26 credit hours of courses (15 is the norm). I took my learning to prioritize in Hong Kong and put it into practice during this time, in that of all my time at Illinois State, that 26 hour semester included not only the best social life, but also the best grades. This was a crucial 18 months that ended the day I graduated, May 7, 2011.

Part 2 started the very next day, when I got back onto an airplane and flew back to the most beautiful city on this planet, Hong Kong. I was in Hong Kong and China for a month for a consulting project. Here, I learned to be a leader. To apply pressure to people when pressure was needed, to use the power play. I learned to utilize people's strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and get the most from them. From there, I returned home for a few weeks before returning to Beijing, where I learned to cope with truly remarkable adversity. And it was back to the US....but not for long, as I returned to Shenzhen in November 2011. During the past year here in China, I've learned to keep my mouth shut, listen more than speak, but also to not back down to adversity. I've learned some Chinese. I've learned what it's like to be the only white guy in an office of 60 Chinese people. I've learned a lot.

And now this is all coming to an end, as I head back to Chicago in a week and a half to start a new cycle.

3 years ago, I would have had no idea what the ensuing 18 months would have contained. Nor would I have known on my graduation day what those ensuing 18 months would have contained. Just as now, I really have no idea what these coming 18 months (or for that matter, 18 weeks) will contain. But I would like to take this opportunity to summarize these past 18 months in a few stories, memorable events, and general themes that I've encountered.

Undoubtedly, the most important thing I have learned during these 18 months centered around the world's 2nd largest economy is anyone reading this blog: you are NOT poor. Or unlucky. The man has not screwed you over. Your life now is probably quite good. Even if you're reading this from your dungeon of a basement in Detroit, Michigan, odds are your life is infinitely better than the majority of people on this earth.

To clarify--by developing country standards, China is a juggernaut. They have superhighways, amazing airports, skyscrapers the likes of which you cannot imagine, and a relatively good social welfare program that provides reasonably OK education and healthcare to 95% of its 1.3 billion people. Compared to places like India, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Indonesia, poor people in China are remarkably well-off. And yet, compared to you and me, they are still what we would call decrepitly poor. I've learned here to appreciate, to an ungodly extent, the fact that I was born in the largest economy in the world, speaking a language that opens more doors for you throughout the world than anything else you have on your resume. I've learned to be grateful for what I have.

I've learned here that being on the outside looking in is really not so bad. To clarify--as I mentioned a moment ago, Hong Kong is the greatest city in the world. Living in Shenzhen, being only 1 hour from such a city, was initially a curse. Something of a "so close but so far" idea. I would go into Hong Kong on a weekend and return to Shenzhen, always dejected in trading the gleaming skyscrapers and their reflection off of Victoria Harbor, the palpable pulse of places like Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok, the views from the peak, the classy liveliness of SoHo, for the relative grayness of Shenzhen. It was heart-wrenching.

However, after a few months, I noticed something interesting. I grew quite fond of having everything in Shenzhen cost less than half of its equivalent in Hong Kong. I learned to love the fact that I could go into just about any bar or club, no matter how classy, wearing shorts and sandals, and not have to worry about feeling underdressed. I learned to appreciate my surroundings. And consequently, I've not made a leisure trip to Hong Kong in months, but for going to meet friends who happen to be passing through the fragrant harbor for a weekend trip. Indeed, perhaps being on the outside looking in is not so bad.

Most importantly, however, I learned to follow one's dreams and trust one's intuition. After I returned home from Beijing after encountering the aforementioned adversity, I knew I'd be heading back to China. I knew I'd be heading back sans job, sans many job prospects, and sans any plans beyond "meeting up with Douglon at HK Int'l Airport and sleeping on his couch for some undefined amount of time". I had no way of justifying it, nor any way of knowing whether it would work out, I did it because it seemed to be the right thing to do. I have absolutely no idea where I would be right now had I decided to stay in Chicagoland and work, but odds are I would not be nearly as content with my current situation had I made that choice. And consequently, I feel like the idea of following one's dreams, doing what seems to be the correct choice, and going with your gut are some of the most underrated and underutilized things in this life. Be unconventional. Or don't, I can't say I really care either way, I'll just continue doing it.

Some other assorted thoughts, particularly interesting moments, and takeaways from the China Months:

The idea that Chinese people don't like the United States is one that I heard a fair bit before coming here. This idea is moronic. The Chinese name for the US, 美国, literally means "beautiful country". Had I really wanted to during this year, I could have gone out every weekend and not paid for a single drink, because by virtue of being western, you will be given free drinks in many clubs in Shenzhen. The average Chinese person really does seem to like the United States, although in regard to our government the sentiment is not quite so easy to generalize. That said, as a US citizen in China, I can honestly say that by showing respect and interest in the Chinese culture, you will almost certainly be well-received by most anyone. It's amazing.

On that note--Chinese people are some of the most hospitable and genuinely nice people in the world. Yes, in any major city in China you will witness children urinating in the street. Yes, you will see people hocking disgusting loogies everywhere. And yes, an overwhelming number of people smoke an overwhelming number of cigarettes. But despite many of their unpleasant tendencies in this regard, Chinese people are amazingly friendly. I've had many a home-cooked meal by coworkers and friends, and really cannot say I'd expect the average person in the US to be nearly as friendly or open to strangers from other countries. It is an amazing phenomenon, and one that I will not easily forget.

China is unequal as hell, but people don't seem to care as much as they would in the US. Don't get me wrong, the income inequality in China is becoming a more hot-button political issue, particularly with the recent change of power here within the Communist Party. But think of this situation for a moment: in Shenzhen, you see at least 1 Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, etc., pretty much every day. The country has over 1 million millionaires (certainly even more when you account for grey income). And yet, there are over 100 million people in this country earning <$1 per day. Mind you, anyone in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, etc., who is seeing all these flashy cars is not on <$1 per day, but there are still some cripplingly poor people here. For example, one of the company bosses in my office building pulls up to the place every day in a brand new, gleaming, beige Rolls Royce. Easily a $500,000+US car. And just across from the office is a row of dormitories for workers that are constructing yet another gleaming office building just across the street. These workers are likely on ~$400US per month. This income inequality is as blatant, if not moreso, than anything you'd see in the west. And yet, by and large, the people here seem fairly OK with it. It's an amazing phenomenon. I feel like if this were the case in the US, there would be Occupy Wall Street in every city. Interesting stuff, anyway.

Chinese political scandals make our political scandals look pathetic by comparison. Perhaps this is an unfair generalization, but during my time here, China was rocked by one of the most remarkable and star-studded political scandals in the history of the Communist Party. In short, Chongqing (huge city in SW China) Party Boss Bo Xilai was brought down in a corruption scandal. Bo was a remarkably popular but polarizing charismatic party leader who had previously been considered a real rising star in the Communist Party.

This would be a fairly major event, akin to the mayor of a major US city being brought down in a scandal. Big news.

But this scandal went even deeper than that. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested and found guilty of murdering a British man with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and who was allegedly helping to launder money out of China for the Bo/Gu family. The scandal took another bizarre turn not long ago, when it was revealed that the British man, Neil Heywood, was also allegedly involved with the British spy organization MI5. Among other accusations, Bo was also accused of paying $1 million to famous Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (Westerners will know her from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as the main female villain in Rush Hour 2) for sex about 10 times. That is to say, $1 million per time. Ridiculous. Definitely makes the old Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair seem rather tame by comparison.

Obviously, these are only a few short examples of what living in China for 1 year will teach you. I can honestly say this has been one of the more interesting years of my life, and one that I am sad to see end, but as I learned very well after exchange in Hong Kong...all good things must eventually do just that; come to an end.

Anyway, this blog post has gone off on something of a tangent relating to the bizarre and interesting world of Chinese political scandals and income inequality, so I'll just go ahead and stop writing. In summation, I view the coming weeks as the end of yet another 18 month or so cycle in my life. I have no idea what the next 18 months will bring, including whether it will even bring about a logical chapter end 18 months from now as has been the case for the last 3 years, but we shall see.

More news to come as it develops. Most likely upon return to the US, I will post a decently long blog full of some of the more interesting pictures from these 18 months....with Chinese internet speeds being maddeningly slow, I will not be doing this now. Meantime, probably will write 1-2 more posts from Shenzhen, as I'm sure years from now I'll like to get some insight as to my thought process during this rather immense transition.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Big Catchup's been 3 months since I've written anything. What has transpired in these past three months, you ask? Well, more than you can imagine. A brief summary:

Went to Chicago for 10 days
Went to Germany for 8 days
Spent 24 hours in Amsterdam seeing old friends
Drove 200+km/hour on the German autobahn
Went to Finland
Went to Thailand to meet up with old friends for 9 days
Got the Job of my Dreams

I guess with that precursor, it would seem fair to explain how exactly all of this went down.

My last blog post was August 7th. As planned, on August 16th, I flew to Chicago, and was there for work/visiting family until August 25th. I then flew back to China, arriving on August 26th, before leaving for Germany August 29th. As you can imagine, my internal clock was a bit messed up for a few days.

Anyway, Germany was interesting. Despite my having formerly lived in their neighbor, the Netherlands, I'd never been to Germany, though I did connect in Frankfurt back in 2009 when flying Rome-->Istanbul on Lufthansa. We arrived in Frankfurt and took the train straight from there to Cologne for the SPOGA+GAFA trade fair, a major trade fair involving basically all outdoor-type products (and may others, though outdoor definitely seemed to be the emphasis). Our 9 days in Cologne were sensational, Cologne was a marvelous city of a decent size, full of great views of the Rhine River, nice historical sites, phenomenal beer, and a whole host of other German stereotypes including but not limited to lots of Volkswagens, a very efficient public transport system, an infinite selection of different meats, cheeses, and breads, and a whole host of surly (but in fact quite friendly) Germans! During our time in Cologne, we worked about 7 days at the convention center, and had a couple of days to sort of explore the city.

From Cologne, we had 2 days following the expo as "free time" before our flight back to Hong Kong. My boss, Jacky, and I pored over a map of Europe for about 20 minutes, talking about places that seemed to be within reasonable distance of Cologne. After intense debate centering around my hatred of Brussels, Belgium, we decided that the best thing to do would be to rent a car and drive to Amsterdam. As I was the only one of the 4 people there who knew how to drive, I was chosen as the driver. We got to Enterprise to pick up our reserved car, only to encounter a slight problem.....

The car was a stickshift. In the United States, we NEVER use manual cars. I would guess ~2% of the cars on the road in the US today are manual, and many of them are old and driven by either proper car enthusiasts, crazy people, or, up until about 5 years ago, my grandmother. So obviously I have no idea how to drive a stickshift car.

After making several sad attempts at getting the thing out of the parking lot, I decided to call it quits, and asked if they had another car. They did not, however a place down the road did, so down the road we went. After renting a little 4-door Renault, it was off to Amsterdam via the famed German Autobahn. And justifiably famed it was.

After reaching a speed of 201km/hr (this was literally the fastest the car could go....I was flooring it), I was amazed to see Mercedes's, BMWs, Audis, etc., flying by me in the left lane at what must have been 250+km/hr. Absolutely mental. The highway was remarkably well-paved and in excellent shape. Upon our arrival in Amsterdam, it took around 1hr of driving through the incredible narrow and confusing canal streets in order to find our hostel, which ended up being right in the center of town. It then took me another hour to find parking and return to the hostel.

Anyway, so our 24 hours in Amsterdam (as it were, it was exactly 24 hours, given that I parked the car, paid something like 45 euros for 24 hours of parking, and we got back to the car at the end of the parking time and hightailed it back to Frankfurt) was excellent. I was able to catch up with two old friends from exchange, Marije and Roald, and chatted a bit about their lives as young recent university graduates in the Netherlands. Interesting stuff.

The drive back to Frankfurt was fairly uneventful, however upon return to Frankfurt we did encounter a small problem--a flat tire. Now, this could have been a horrendous situation: we're in downtown Frankfurt, very far from the airport, very far from any car rental place, and we get a flat, five hours before our flight back to HK. Thankfully, we broke down right next to a car repair place.

"OK, well this could be worse, I assume they'll have tires here", I said, trying to sound optimistic.

As it would turn out, no, they did not have tires here. Nor did anyplace nearby. Well, we seemed screwed. However, in a miraculous turn of events, we called the rental car company. And this is how that went:

"Hi, we've just had a flat. We're at some car repair shop right next to the Commerzbank Tower"
"OK, here is what you should do: leave the car there. Give them the keys. We will have it towed later. You will have 120 euros (~$150) deducted from your deposit on the car to cover the cost of tire/towage. Get a cab or metro to the airport. Have a good day"

And Richard Dawkins cried out, "Thank Charles Darwin!"

And so we did.

Anyway, while I did feel slightly dodgy about just handing the car keys to some German guy and hoping for the best, we had few other options, so that's what we did. (update: they really did only take 120 euros from my account. Amazing)

So we got to the airport with time to spare. Only to find out Lufthansa had gone on strike over a decrease in the allowable consumption of German beer by flight crew during flights (flight crew members are now limited to consuming 10 pints on domestic flights, 15 on international). Among the flights affected....Frankfurt-->Hong Kong. So we were rerouted on Finnair via Helsinki. Consequently, I now have a Finland EU exit stamp in my passport, which is something I can't say I saw coming when I woke up that morning.

After returning to the great People's Republic of China, I was here for about 3 weeks working before heading to Thailand for Chinese National Holiday to meet Dan, one of my good friends from High School who currently lives in Vegas. I also met with my friend Tina from Illinois State who is currently studying abroad at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Put bluntly, the trip to Bangkok was 9 days of drinking on Khao San Rd., chatting with Chinese tourists in Chinese while Dan watched and had me translate, and doing very little in the way of actual sightseeing. Though as I'd previously been to Bangkok twice and seen most of what there was to see, this was no great loss.

One very interesting thing to come out of the Thailand excursion, however, was an email from an old coworker of mine from SES WORLD SKIES in the Netherlands. She was short and to the point, something like:

Hi Blaine, how have you been doing lately? In case you haven't heard, I left SES, and am currently working for Company X. We're looking for new analysts, I was wondering if you'd be interested in applying?

I had a look at the job description. 3 things stood out at me:

1) I would be writing research papers for money. This is something I've previously done and would do for free
2) I can make my own hours/work from home
3) "We are very flexible in terms of location, provided there is sufficient internet and telephony services"

Well, as anyone who knows me can imagine, number 3 is a pretty dangerous proposition. So I applied. And interviewed. And interviewed again. And interviewed again. And on November 9th, 2012, I received an email making me an offer I couldn't refuse.

And I didn't refuse it.

So now I will be leaving Shenzhen. Having resigned earlier this week (which went remarkably well with my boss), my last day with my current company will be November 29th. I will be returning to Chicago the next day and staying through the holidays, before taking a 1-way trip I booked yesterday to Seoul, via San Francisco, on December 28th. Intention is to look at apartments in Seoul for a couple of weeks, and if I can find some decent ones for some decent prices, I will live in Seoul for probably a year or so, learn some Korean, eat some kimchi, and probably learn to Gangnam Style like you would not believe. If apartments in Seoul prove unreasonably expensive or cramped, plan is to head to Beijing or possibly somewhere in stupidly northern China like Harbin.

Anyway! So that's all, folks. It seems my year or so in Shenzhen will be coming to a rather abrupt and bittersweet end. I briefly toyed with the idea of staying in this city, as I really do love it, but at one point I realized that if a 2-years ago version of myself was told that at age 24, with a fair bit of cash saved up, I'd be told I can go live anywhere in the world, and that I chose a place that is 1) the city I've just spent the last year living in, and 2) Shenzhen, China, I would have thought this to be a terribly unimaginative choice. Consequently, Seoul it is, at least for now. I suppose I'll try to put at least one more post up here from Shenzhen, though who knows.

Some other assorted goings on and interesting events as of late:

1.) Text received from a good friend of mine here in Shenzhen the other day: "Most bizarre thing I've ever seen in Shenzhen. Just arrived at this technology park, fancy office complex and there is a homeless guy who looks like he arrived from feral middle of nowhere yesterday with his dick out walking around pissing on the pavement and no one is paying any attention"

Well, no one comes to China because it's the most civilized place in the world...

2.) 2 nights ago when walking home through a park, my friend and I witnessed what can only be described as a many hundred person dance orgy. Basically, there was a huge public square that was fairly logically divided into four areas. In what we'll call "area 1" were several hundred people following the lead of some guy doing the Gangnam Style, with the song itself blasting out. In "area 2", there were people doing the tango. "Area 3" was ballroom dancing, and "area 4" was a sort of traditional Chinese-ish Tai Chi sort of dance.

So I suppose you'd not find that at home.

3.) This article:

4.) I ate at a fairly traditional Cantonese restaurant a few weeks back. Outside the restaurant, they had a display case with dead dogs hanging there for purchase. This no longer unsettles me, as you see it all the time here. However, halfway through the meal I had to use the toilet. I went back to the toilet, which was on the side of the restaurant outside in an alleyway. I had to wait outside as it was in use. I saw, to my sort of perplexed but not so surprised amusement and horror, was a sheep's head, cut in half down the middle (imagine a human face cut in half right down the middle through your nose, sort of like a 2-face type of idea), sitting in a basket on the ground just next to the toilet. I have no idea what this sheep head was doing there, but I can only hope it was not waiting for someone to purchase the "boiled sheep head" and consume it, as it was just sitting outside in the horrendously filthy alleyway in the horrendously filthy part of Shenzhen known as Buji.

So obviously, it must be impossible for the readership consisting of 5 people to imagine why I'm a bit apprehensive to commit to another year in China, and am rather going to a much, much more developed, civilized, and generally pleasant place that is Seoul, South Korea.

So now that we've all caught up on what I've been up to, heard some other random and disgusting stories, and have become thoroughly bored of this blog post, I will wrap it up.

I will be leaving 2 weeks from yesterday for Chicago, and will be around for 4 weeks. So any friends of mine in Chicagoland, let me know if you'd like to get together during December. That's all for now, more to come as it develops.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The "Family Style Workshops" of Huizhou

So it's been an interesting week. One of our US employees, designer Brian, has been in China for meetings with subcontractor factories and our Chinese design team in preparation for our meeting with Lowe's Hardware next week. Consequently, we've been running around all of Guangdong Province to various factories big and small in order to make sure everything goes smoothly. In the last week, I've been to Huizhou twice, Foshan once, and the very famous district of Foshan, Shunde, which is home to some of the larger factories in China.

Yesterday was one of the more interesting factory visits of my life. Brian the US designer, Jacky the manager of the sales team, and a few other employees were heading out to Huizhou to visit a factory that produced stone/slate tabletops for some of our tabletop firepits. We weren't really given any information about the factory beforehand, and apparently no one from our company had ever visited this factory before. About an hour outside of Shenzhen, still around 20km from proper Huizhou, we pulled off the highway and through some dusty, winding sidestreets until we arrived at an impasse. We didn't know where we were going, per se. We called the factory owner, who came with his little 2-door Lexus from the mid-1990's, to meet us at our location. We followed him for about 3 minutes until we pulled up to the factory. He emerged from the car, a fairly stocky Chinese man in his late 30's, one of the thousands of entrepreneurs who had come to Guangdong province for  a chance to prove their mettle in the free-market experience of modern China.

This was the factory...Notice the very house-like nature of it
"Looks like this is someone's house...", said Brian, upon our pulling into what was very much a driveway of sorts

"Ah, factory very large", I muttered sarcastically in Chinese to our driver.

From what we could see on the outside, this factory literally was a 3-story rickety old house, complete with clotheslines hanging from the 2nd and 3rd floor balconies. Upon walking into the factory "office", it became increasingly apparent that this was, indeed, some guy's house. What made this so apparent, you ask?

Well, one of the rooms adjoining the office was a kitchen. And even more interestingly, another of the rooms adjoining the office was a bedroom....

So we were in some guy's house.

"Can we see the production area?", Jacky asked, which I was quite interested to hear the answer to.

This was where they got their supplies from...unclear whether
it was just a pile of stone that they'd found, or if they ordered it
We were led around the back of the house, where there was a largeish (maybe like 1,500 square feet) shed. The shed had an aluminum roof, a small forklift, and about 8 people working back there, cutting stone to make tabletops. This was, as it would turn out, the factory. After our tour of the production area, we were led across the street to the area where they stored their raw materials. As you can see from the photo at left, this was not quite what one would expect from any type of factory, even a Chinese one. It was more or less a pile of rubble on the side of the road. That said, they did have some very nice-looking stone samples, and overall it seemed to have a decent level of organization to it. The owner proudly showed us varying shades of stone, and explained that they hand-cut all stone in order to make their tabletops. The potential of an order from us would allow this factory owner to expand his operation and possibly buy up the property next door, which would more than double his production capacity. He seemed to have an air of want, but far from desperation, in regard to securing our business. Finally, having seen the production area and material storage, he showed us one of the samples of their final products. I must say, it was pretty freaking impressive. A beautifully done, hand-made stone tile tabletop, something that I could easily see on someone's patio in the US. Remarkable to think that it was produced here, in all places, a random little factory-house in Huizhou. I was speaking with a friend of mine about this last night, and she informed me that these are quite common. Apparently the Chinese name is 家庭式作坊, lit. "family style workshop". Really amazing stuff.

All things considered, they do make bloody nice products
So overall a very interesting day in Huizhou. After the first factory, we went to a larger one which involved us doing a huge lunch with the factory 老板, or big boss. Designer Brian was slightly squeemish going into the meal based on his general bad luck with Chinese food, but he really enjoyed most of the dishes of what turned out to be a magnificent lunch. Will be returning to Chicago for 8 days a week from tomorrow, so that should be nice. Definitely looking forward to a deep dish pizza and some proper dessert (I love Chinese food, don't get me wrong, but that is the one place they lack to a staggering extent..dessert. Absolutely pitiful). So probably in store for some pie upon arrival in the US. And maybe some real proper ice cream (note: you can get like a nice Haagen Dazs ice cream here, it just costs like $9). Anyway, so dessert and deep-dish pizza are high on my list. And I assume I'll probably get China-sick about 4/5 days into my Chicago trip and have to make a run to Chinatown for some egg tarts, hot pot, and juice-boxed lemon tea. We'll see how that goes I guess.

Meantime, the next week should be good, I've been hanging out a fair bit with designer Brian, and it's been really nice having a fellow US citizen here to talk to while at the office. Very nice to be able to chat about the olympics, US politics, how much we both miss food in the US, and the like. Makes work more enjoyable. Apart from that, not much else going on, will try to post another blog tomorrow about some of the huge factories we visited in Foshan this past weekend. I've recently been inspired by the writing of a friend of mine who is turning his former HK blog into a book, and consequently will be trying to write more consistently for the time being...we'll see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Factory Audits, a Tron Reference, and a Calm in the Travel Storm

So, interesting week thus far, and it's only Tuesday.

I had one of those days yesterday where I honestly didn't know whether to be sick to my stomach at the fact that I've moved to China, or to be incredibly grateful for having done so. In short, I was to do a factory audit yesterday, on my own factory for a major customer that wants a "western mind" looking after the factory. For whatever reason, I approached the day in a more astute manner than usual. Consequently, I noticed a few things that I hadn't noticed before, and these things most certainly not only made me be indescribably thankful for having been born in a country which was (at the time, anyway) the unquestioned most powerful and influential nation in the world, and for having had the most universal business language as my native one.

The day began routinely enough--I arrived at the office at 9:00am and had a car arranged to take myself, Jacky, and a handful of other sales team members to the factory. I have been driven out to the factory dozens of times. I've always noticed the ample farm fields outside the factory, and seen the farmers farming their strawberries, rice, and various vegetables. However, until yesterday, I had never noticed their accommodation in the fields. As it would turn out, the farmers are more or less living in tin shacks near their fields. Thinking about this, I sort of came to the realization--these farmers are literally working for their livelihood--they farm every day in order to have food to eat (or I guess, in order to have a harvest with some surplus of whatever they are growing which they can then sell in order to buy food to eat), but in short, they are engaging in what many international organizations correctly call "sustenance agriculture", that is to say, they are basically working to survive. All the while living in their tin shacks....


The morning consisted of meeting with the engineers (all in Chinese...) and discussing the feasibility of creating several new products for a major customer in the US. At 11:30am we broke for lunch (factory, con=bland food), and afterwards we resumed the meeting with the engineers. Following this meeting, at about 2:30pm, Jacky, Brian Bai (Quality Control manager at the factory, and an absolute legend), and I began our "factory audit". This was a shocker.

As I mentioned, I've been to the factory dozens of times. And generally speaking, I'll keep a relatively watchful, but not overly observant eye on what's going on. However, as this was a proper audit, my purpose in being there was to really watch out for any violations in terms of health, safety, human rights, etc. Consequently, when we walked into one of the assembly rooms, I saw some guy standing atop the assembly line with no shirt on. This was from around 200ft away. My first thought was "well, this is a violation of general workplace behavior...that guy should have a shirt on". Upon getting closer to the guy, I realized that his job was to lift this enormous, 30-40lb machine up and down all day (in the ~80 degree factory heat, mind you), the purpose of the machine being to polish the stainless steel on all products. The look on this guy's face, upon further examination, was one of absolute and total physical exhaustion, one which basically said "you could kill me now and it would be a welcome diversion". I didn't have the heart to tell Jacky and Brian Bai to make the guy put a shirt on, and thankfully, I think they realized my general horror at this sight, and didn't say a word.

Following the factory audit, we went to speak with some engineers and quality control guys. At this point, I noticed for the first time that you could pretty easily understand which ones had worked on the assembly line before, and which ones had not. The remarkably easy (and horrifying) way to tell this fact was to look at their arms. If they had horrible scars and burn marks at some place on their arms, odds are they have worked the assembly lines. Shocking.

So anyway, it was a day to remember. Again, a day that will make me on one hand wish I'd never moved to China, yet one that will also make me so grateful for having done so, for I can now properly ascertain how lucky I am for having been born in a developed country and speak English as my first language. Statistically speaking, at the time of my birth, no less than 2/3 of the world was considered "Developing". Furthermore, the birth rates in developing countries are substantially higher than those in developed countries, in general. Consequently, at the time of my birth, maybe as many as 4/5 children born were born into developing countries...which really makes you realize how fortunate most of the readers of this blog are to have been born in a developed country and have opportunities that 80% of the people born on your birth date could only dream of.

Anyway, now that the morbid factory discussion is over with, let's talk about something more pleasant--the return of photo of the day (at least, for today). I've passed this huge colony of buildings near Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center just about every day during my time here. The other day, I finally came up with an adept way of describing them--it's as though Shenzhen has stolen a scene out of the movie Tron: Legacy. Basically, at night, you have this formation of 4 buildings that are jet-black, but for green criss-cross patterns going up the buildings, making them look eerily futuristic. I decided to snap a photo of them the other night during a walk home from the pub to my apartment--

So a bit Tron-ish....

Apart from the factory audit and the Tron realization, things in South China have been interesting enough. Definitely looking forward to a relatively quiet few weeks in Shenzhen before things start getting crazy in early August, which will entail--some hugely important customer meetings the 2nd week of August, followed by heading to Chicago for work in mid-August, coming back to Shenzhen for about 5 days, then heading to Germany, before coming back here for about 2 weeks, then heading to Bangladesh for holiday for 8-10 days, then back to Shenzhen for a week or so before Canton Fair in Guangzhou. Should be a busy 2 months, needless to say my internal clock will be destroyed completely somewhere between flying over the Pacific from Chicago back to China and flying over Asia from China to Cologne...

Meantime, tomorrow I'll be heading down to Hong Kong for a mini HKU reunion with AlanKey, Paris, Matias, Iain, etc. The last couple of weeks have involved a whole lot of going to Hong Kong, with Elliott having spent a week there from 4-11 July, and with AlanKey and Paris having been there since the 4th as well. It was great seeing Elliott and Paris for the first time since May 2010, and AlanKey for the first time since the infamous fake ID night in Bangkok in January 2011, so it's been a nice few weeks in the catching up with old friends department.

Not a whole lot else to write about at this very moment, I'm hoping to try to get more consistent with posting photos on here again, as my relatively quiet last few weeks have really allowed me to explore this city a lot more, and the coming few weeks should be relatively quiet but for obscene workload, so be on the lookout for more photos! Until then, stay hungry, stay foolish, and take it easy, more news to come as it develops.