Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 28, 2012

So I'm now in the US on business. I arrived in Atlanta this afternoon after a 13-hour flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, a 4-hour layover involving lunch with my mom and grandmother, and then a 2-hour flight from Chicago to Atlanta. It was a pretty weird trip.

The day began at 8:00am China time on February 27th. I arrived at the office as planned at 8:00, which I thought was cutting it pretty close, as our flight from Hong Kong was at 11:00am, and it's like a 1.5 hour drive from the office to HK Int'l Airport. But Jacky and the other 2 guys I was traveling with seemed completely confident, so I figured it wasn't my place to say anything. Upon arrival, Jacky said we would be bringing with us $30,000. Now I assumed he meant 30,000 Hong Kong dollars, which is about $4,000US, a sum I thought was far more than we would need for 4 people's meals for 8 days in the US (hotel was paid for by company credit card, meals were paid for with company money, then we provided receipts). However, I was absolutely floored to see Jacky pull out 300 $100US bills from a bag. $30,000USD. The 2nd largest sum of money I have ever held in my life. Why in the hell were we bringing $30,000US cash to the US, I had no idea. We were unsure as to whether the limit for transporting US$ into the US was $10,000 (i.e. you must have <$10,000) or up to $10,000 (i.e. you can have $10,000), so we decided to play it safe--I got $9,999, Jacky got $9,999, James got $9,999, and Howard got $3. Apparently nobody trusts Howard.

So that was that, we had divided up enough cash to buy a decent car. Now to get to the airport. Of course, no one was actually ready to leave at 8:00am--rather, we ended up getting out of there around 8:20am. Again, this is a 1.5 hour drive, and our flight was at 11. So we got to HKIA at about 9:45, and thanks to my being United Premier, got to go to the front of the checkin line. We'd completed checkin by 10, everything was going well, we went to security. At which point they told us we couldn't carry on this sign sort of thing that we were bringing as an advertisement for the trade show we're going to here in ATL. And we had to go get it packaged up and checked. Now we were really in a crunch for time. By the time all that was done with, it was about 10:25. We ran through security, ran through the airport, and got to the gate about 5 minutes before they were closing the doors. Had it not been for my United Premier, Shinerich would have had 4 people miss a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. I think that alone calls for a substantial raise!

So the flight was pretty awesome. The in-flight entertainment for like 1/4 of the plane wasn't working, so consequently everyone got United Airlines vouchers for either A) $75 off one domestic US flight, B) 10% off any flight, anywhere in the world, or C) 3,000 miles free. Now for me, $75 one domestic flight doesn't really do any good. 3,000 bonus miles is not worth very much. So I went with the 10% off any flight anywhere. Not bad, hopefully I get to use it before it expires in a year.

So at O'Hare I was greeted by my Mom and Grandmother, who had come out for lunch during my layover. They generously brought the iPad that my grandpa had given me, as apparently he had an extra one lying around, so I now have a free iPad2...not too shabby! Lunch was good, headed back to the airport and hopped a flight to Atlanta. Upon arrival in Atlanta, we went to a pizza place near our hotel. On the walk over to the pizza place, the huge problem in Atlanta of homeless people became very apparent. At one point, a homeless guy just would not stop pestering us, so I basically said "you know what, good sir, I have $0US on me. HOWEVER, if you want, I will give you this 5 Chinese Yuan note. 5 Chinese Yuan (~$0.85)." And he took it. No sooner did this occur than a cop pulled up and asked us if this guy was asking us for money, to which I sort of sheepishly replied "yeah..." The cop started walking towards the homeless guy menacingly. I asked if the Chinese guys and I were free to go, to which he replied "y'all don't want to press charges?!"...."No....."

"Ah well yeah, then you're free to go"

Is that all?

Anyway, so eventually we got to the pizza place. It was absolutely hilarious seeing the awe of the three small Chinese men traveling with me when there was a large black man with dreadlocks making pizzas behind a counter. And consequently, here is the photo of the day:

However, I acknowledge that this is kind of a crappy photo, so here's another 2 from the airplane as an added bonus!
This is a photo of the Canadian Rockies from about 36,000 feet.

And finally, with all due respect to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and every other Asian megacity I've ever seen, it must be said that no image quite quickens the pulse like flying over Chicago coming off the lake and looking out at the skyline, as seen in a pretty poor quality photo below:

After our dinner at the pizza place, we went back to the hotel, only to run into 2 of the legends from the US branch of the company, Brian and Brandon, who were at the hotel bar. After a couple of drinks (I decided to take it very easy, as I'm horrendously jet-lagged and really don't understand the point in going hard on a Monday night with a bunch of guys when you need to work at 8:00am the next morning), Jacky and Brian decided they wanted to play pool. So we walked through the dodgiest part of town about 2miles in order to get to the nearest pool hall. Which was essentially this horribly grimy combination of a jazz club/pool hall/crack den/Dongguan. Really weird place. And the walk was just unbelievable. The fact that people tell me to make sure to be safe in China is pretty laughable--Atlanta seems to be infinitely more likely to get you stabbed, robbed, or killed than anywhere I've been in China--even freaking Dongguan! So the next time someone tells you to be safe when visiting a developing country, tell them to look at where you're coming from! If you can survive a major US city, you can survive anywhere!

So anyway, that's about it from the flight over to Atlanta. Earned another 10,000 or so frequent flier miles, carried $9,999 into the United States, saved my company several thousand dollars by being United Premier and allowing us to not miss our flight, and had lunch with my mom and grandmother in Chicago during a 3.5 hour layover. All in a day's work, really. Will be meeting up with one of my best friends from HS/university, Bryan, who now lives in Atlanta, tomorrow afternoon.

More to come from the other side of the world

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 27, 2012

OK, so I had some time this afternoon to crank out another post which will be automatically posted tomorrow morning at the time of my flight taking off from Hong Kong to Chicago. This post is actually quite appropriate, given my planned activities tomorrow of flying across the Pacific Ocean.

See, I have 4 hours in Chicago before I head to Atlanta. I would love to see my Mom and Grammy in the airport for a couple of hours before flying out, and this should, in theory, be very doable. However, I'm not 100% sure of the process for flying into the US then having a domestic connection--I'm about 95% sure I need to go through customs, pick up my checked bags, recheck them, and all that. Which, of course, is a practice that I have not encountered anywhere else. Because the US is really cool, efficient, and not paranoid at all about terrorism like that. Anyway, so I was trying to look online at the exact process that I will be going through at O'Hare on Monday. I consequently came across the O'Hare Airport Wikitravel article. This article was incredibly harsh. The author had clearly been abused as a child, because the amount of spite dripping from his/her every word was just shocking. Among the most grievous-"This is no Changi (Singapore--my parenthesis, not theirs), no Kansai; in other words, it's nobody's favorite airport." Just to make things very clear--I would bet every penny I have that I have flown to many, many more airports than the person that wrote this post. And I assure you, O'Hare is indeed my favorite airport, you clod.

Now let's just establish this right now: I am not biased towards the United States. I am about as far from you can get from one of those idiots from the US who goes abroad preaching the gospel of George Bush, or Barack Obama, or Ronald Reagan, or the greatness of the new quadruple cheeseburger supreme with extra helpings of death from McDonald's, or the glory of Wal-Mart coming into China with their shuttle busses and destroying the microeconomies of fringe cities just so the Walton family can earn another few million dollars per hour.

But I do love O'Hare Airport more than any other airport on this planet. And while a small part of that probably is bias due to me just loving my hometown of Chicago, a large part of it is just that O'Hare is the freaking nuts (side note: I use the phrase "the nuts" pretty often in conversation with 2 of my best friends from HS/uni, Dan and Steve. It is a phrase indicating the best possible hand in poker, but we use it so much in the context of something being "good" that it's lost all meaning. I'm going to start using it in my blog. So from here on out, anything that's "the nuts" means very good). So anyway! O'Hare is the freaking nuts. Where else in the world can you find a massive underground tunnel taking you underneath the runway, complete with neon lights and moving walkways? Where else in the world can you find such a perfect compliment of really sleek, space-age architecture juxtaposed onto the very midwestern feel of Illinois? Where else can you find an airport which appeared in such iconic films as "Home Alone"?? What other airport code makes as little sense as O'Hare=ORD? (Though the origin of this does in fact make perfect sense--O'Hare was initially called Orchard Field, hence ORD. But nowadays no one knows this, except the 5 readers of this blog).

Furthermore, all I ever hear about from people badmouthing O'Hare are how every flight is delayed. Well, I have flown into/out of this airport literally dozens of times, and I'm pretty sure I've had like 2 delays. And yes, I understand that if the stats on on-time vs. delayed departures indicate a lot of flights are delayed, then there are indeed a lot of delayed flights, but I'm just saying, this is not a problem I have encountered ever, really.

Anyway, I'm beginning to realize that this blog post is pretty pointless, I'm basically just ranting aimlessly about how O'Hare doesn't suck, so I guess I'll just end it here. Photo of the day is not one of my own, but one I found on said Wikitravel site of O'Hare airport. Does THIS:

look like the crappiest airport in the world? Didn't think so! More to come from Atlanta (via the greatest airport in the world)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 26, 2012

I've certainly mentioned Dongmen before in this blog, and have basically just talked about how it's the most crowded, manic district in Shenzhen, a shoppers paradise that mixes McDonald's, pagodas, clubbing music, homeless people, and street food into one of the most explosive and amazing atmospheres you're likely to encounter on this planet. It is one of the oldest parts of town (so it's like 40 years old), with the subway station nearby, Laojie, meaning "Old Street". I first visited Dongmen in May of 2011 on a day trip to Shenzhen from Hong Kong, and immediately I was completely in love with the place. It's like a massive, outdoor, Chinese version of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

So anyway. I used to spend a good 2 nights per week wandering Dongmen. Lately I haven't been doing so as much, for whatever reason, and consequently there was this odd void in my life that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Last night, I went back to Dongmen. And my god is my life now complete. I instantly got nostalgic for all the things I'd missed about Dongmen, but not even thought about. Among others--

1) Every single shop in Dongmen has clubbing music on. Really. Loud. Clubbing music. Huge bass/subwoofers. And many shops have at least one employee standing on sort of a pulpit thing just bouncing up and down to the music. The most uncommon, illogical, and indeed probably ineffective method possible to get people into your store to come buy things. But so funny to see.

2) The lights. Particularly last night, as there was a light bit of rainfall, so you had some lights reflecting off the pavement. But yes, I would say the only place in the world I've ever seen with more neon lights per square foot than Dongmen is probably Shinjuku, Tokyo. Which, to be fair, outstrips Dongmen by a wide margin.

3) The food. I do not have sophisticated tastes. I am perfectly fine eating <$1 per meal street food. And for this, Dongmen is paradise. Anything you could possibly want. Dalian squid? Check. Lamb kebabs on skewers? Oh yes. Spicy noodle soup? Indeed. Absolutely glorious. I went to go see my noodle soup guy for the first time in a month, and he not only recognized/was pleased to see me, but commented on my slightly improved Chinese over the last month. The noodles there are brilliant, a dish called "Suen La Fen", which costs 6 yuan (<$1) and comes in a little paper bowl. Most western people don't care for it, because it's spicy as hell and tastes quite a bit like salt, but my god do I enjoy this magnificent, simple dish. And immediately after taking my first sip, I texted John saying "I am never going a month without spicy noodle soup ever again". Such a delicacy.

4) The mix of western and Chinese. That is, there is a 3-story KFC in Dongmen, built in a building meant to look like a pagoda. Now, given that this is Shenzhen, nothing is really "old", but it is still really really cool to see an old-style Chinese building housing the Colonel's finest fried chicken.

So anyway, last night I spent a good 2 hours wandering Dongmen until John woke up from his afternoon nap after that night out in Dongguan. It was unquestionably the most peaceful 2 hours I've had in a month, despite the fact that I was in the noisiest, smelliest, most crowded part of town. Absolutely much-needed way of just having a good thinking session. John ended up arriving a bit later on in the night, and we decided to walk from Dongmen to Children's Palace--about 10-11km across the city. That was interesting. We encountered this massive "Shenzhen Flower Market", which was basically a town within Shenzhen that had, among other things, lots of flower shops, a lot of creative-style businesses (i.e. graphic design, architecture, etc), and seafood restaurants. Very strange, but interesting.

On another note--due to my still being quite out of it yesterday when writing the blog post about Dongguan, I completely forgot that I did, indeed, have a worthwhile photo from there! So consider this yesterday's photo:

What is this photo, you ask? This is two construction workers using blowtorches, with face-protection masks made of, you guessed it, cardboard. Like you do. Welcome to China.

And today's photo:

This is Dongmen. I thought it was pretty cool to see all the red orbs hanging between the palm trees (yes, there are loads of palm trees here!) Notice the very wide sidewalks. Shenzhen, being a very well-planned city, tends to have some of the widest sidewalks you'll ever see. No joke, you could drive a 4-door sedan down one of these things. Kind of nice.

Anyway, that's about all for today. A bonus photo, a walk around Dongmen, then the old 10k across town. Tomorrow I'm off to the US, so unless I have time to write another post this afternoon then have it post automatically tomorrow, there will be no post, as I'm leaving my apartment at 7:15am to get to the office to have the driver take us to the airport. More to come later, from the opposite side of the world.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 25, 2012

Dongguan. Inarguably the most bizarre, messy, and completely indescribable city I have ever seen. Having only spent about 18 hours there, I can't decide if I want to quit my job and move to some dodgy apartment block in Dongguan...or never go back. This is how it went down--

So we took the train from Shenzhen to Dongguan Station. The first place we went in Dongguan was the McDonald's in the train station. As I mentioned yesterday, I'd heard a lot about rampant prostitution in Dongguan. We walked into the McDonald's, grabbed a table, and within literally 2 minutes, a ~15 year old girl at the next table just asked us "Can we have talk?" Now in this situation, I would usually just be like, "meh, what's the harm in a chat?" and just see what the heck she wanted to talk about. But before a word could be uttered by me, John said, with a mouth full of Big Mac, "I am eating." And that was the end of that. Time in Dongguan: 6 minutes. Prostitutes encountered: 1. Anyway, so we were at Dongguan station. Our hotel was in Dongguan. We assumed, therefore, that the station we arrived at would be at the very least, in the same city as our hotel, by virtue of it being in Dongguan. Bad assumption. Upon walking outside and showing cabs our address, the going rate was 150 yuan, or about $23US. This is an obscene amount of money to pay for a cab in China. Like, a 2-hour cab fare. So we said screw that, and asked around a bit in terrible Chinese where our hotel was. We found a kid who spoke good English, who informed us that our hotel was a 1.5 hour car ride from here, and that we were in Dongguan, not Dongguan City. What. The. Hell. It should also be noted that this was the only time, ever, that I have felt truly unsettled/borderline unsafe in China. This place was dodge. Like, worse than any part of Southeast Asia I've been to that isn't called Manila or Jakarta. So sketchy.

So we got into a cab. And drove for 1.5 hours. From Dongguan Station. To Dongguan. Anyway, so we finally arrived at the hotel, to find a beautiful, as-advertised 5-star place. Really good stuff. The room was definitely not like a 5-star western hotel, but the building, location, and everything else was really nice, and the room was certainly not bad at all. And apparently, there was a random Indian man named Simplicio Egipto, who spoke fluent English and fluent Chinese, working the front desk. As you do.

After putting everything safely away into the room (certainly not going to be walking around Dongguan with passports, western bank cards, etc.), we ended up heading out into the city. For awhile we wandered, had a few beers, and tried to soak in the place. Which, as it were, is still being built. As in, the sidewalks are basically like walking through a minefield, or alternatively something like I would imagine the moon's surface is like--just large craters and mounds of dirt and piles of concrete slabs (which, of course, there are on the moon) that will, eventually, become a sidewalk. Good thing I wasn't wearing sandals. That would have been inconvenient! It turns out, also, that Dongguan, despite being a city of 10 million people, has no metro system. So basically we were forced to take cabs anywhere, which, really, was pretty fine, given that cab meters started at 6 yuan (~$1) and went up remarkably slowly. It was like <$4 to get anywhere.

We ended up at this street which is very appropriately named "Bar Street". I don't even know how to really properly sum up this crazy, crazy place. Basically, it was a mix of lots of Russian prostitutes, Chinese men looking for Russian prostitutes, lots of Chinese women (many of them prostitutes) and 2 white guys named John and Blaine, wondering why the hell they were in Dongguan. We met this really random group of Chinese people, one of whom was involved in the hardware industry with Sherwin Williams paint, so we chatted a bit about that over a good deal of Jack Daniel's. As the night continued, things got quite messy, and after taking a cab back to our hotel together, I somehow lost John. What? Yeah, we got to the hotel and all of a sudden John was gone. So I gave him a call. And he had no idea what part of town he was in. But it wasn't near our hotel (also, should be noted, our hotel was like 40 stories...so you could see it from quite far away).

Eventually I just went to bed, assuming John would return from wherever he was at some point throughout the night. This was as good an assumption as the one about Dongguan Station being in Dongguan. I awoke the next morning to find that John was not, in fact, in the hotel room. His bed remained completely made, so he hadn't been back at any point. I was, at the very least, quite sure he hadn't gotten involved with anything too seedy, as he's not a scumbag, and he has a wonderful girlfriend, but even so...bit iffy to find that your friend was apparently homeless last night in Dongguan.

I gave him a call to find that he was in "Southeast Asia". That is to say, he was in an 88 yuan ($15) per night hostel in a very, very shady part of town. Nowhere near the hotel. Well isn't that just peachy. So I went downstairs, found mad-dog Simplicio Egipto, and had him explain to John's cab driver where the hotel was. In his fluent Chinese. We never did find out where he had been exactly, why he had been there in the first place, or why there was an Indian man named Simplicio working at a hotel in Dongguan, China.

Our plan going into the trip was to do some sightseeing during the day, but we sort of came to the realization--there are no real sights to see in Dongguan, and furthermore, the city is so vast and so lacking of any public transport that, realistically, the few things worth seeing would be really inconvenient to get to. So we went to KFC. After enjoying some of the colonel's finest at one of the stranger KFC's I've ever been in, we started walking in some direction. John, struggling from last night, decided to hock a pretty substantial loogie onto the sidewalk. Now it should be noted, this is completely acceptable, common, and just standard in China. Chinese people do this ALL THE TIME. But, because this was Dongguan, and we had just had the most bizarre night of our lives, an enormous black woman walking by said "Ewww!"

Imagine that--you're in a pretty freaking Chinese part of China. You do something that's really Chinese/acceptable. And a...big? black? woman, who just happens to be in Dongguan, just says "Ewww!" It's possible that people reading this who haven't been to China won't really appreciate how unbelievable that is, but for anyone who has been, just one of the strangest things imaginable.

At this point we simply decided "well, we've seen part of Dongguan. Should we just cab it back to Shenzhen?" And in a move so cheeky that we had to pat ourselves on the back, we went straight up to a cab driver and just said "Women keyi qu Shenzhen ma?"--"Are we able to go to Shenzhen?" I gave him my business card, which has my office address in Chinese, and to our amazement, after a lot of Chinese that neither of us understood, he indicated that yes, he could take us to Shenzhen. For 120 yuan ($19). Now for those who recall, the cab ride from Dongguan Station to Dongguan City was 140 yuan. This is like double the distance. So we knew that we were going nowhere near Shenzhen. But it was also 11:30am on a Saturday in Dongguan, and we really didn't have any other pressing engagements, so into the car we got.

After about 15-20 minutes, it became pretty obvious that we were, in fact, going North. Shenzhen is South. Oh god...

We ended up in Shilong. Shilong is a random city a bit further North from Dongguan. He dropped us off at Shilong main train station, where, thankfully, we were able to get a train to Shenzhen. The strangeness did not stop there, however. Shortly after buying our tickets, John and I went to grab a drink/snack for the train ride. As we were walking back into the train station, John realized he had lost his train ticket. We started searching through his things, when all of a sudden out of nowhere, some small Chinese man walked up to John and handed him his ticket. Needless to say, this man was an absolute legend.

So anyway, that's the story of Dongguan. Having spent a whopping 18 hours there, I still can't quite understand how:
A) A city of 10 million has no metro
B) A city of 10 million has no airport
C) A city of 10 million can have the nearest major train station be like 45 minutes away
D) Why did we go to Dongguan?

Again, I thought it was a really interesting and bizarre place, but for anyone who read this blog with a critical eye, you will (correctly) point out--we went to Dongguan for some Jack Daniel's and KFC. And in John's case, an impromptu trip to Southeast Asia. Overall a really hilarious and worthwhile trip, and John put it quite well when he said "I need a night out like that every once in awhile to remind me why I love living in China so much".

And how right he is. Regarding the photo--nothing worth photographing in Dongguan can be captured with a photograph. That is, there is nothing to really see there, it's more the completely different/backward/insane nature of everything there. So unfortunately, today there is no photo! (Appropriate post title, of course). However, I am certainly a better writer than photographer, so it's not as though it's any great loss.

So that's Dongguan. Remember, if you ever go there, don't go to Dongguan train station. It's really freaking far from Dongguan.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 24, 2012

Today I'm going with Scutt to Dongguan. What is Dongguan, you may ask? Well, if Shenzhen is the wild west compared to Hong Kong, Dongguan is the wild west compared to Shenzhen...or anywhere else on this planet. A run-down city of about 10 million located about 1 hour northwest of Shenzhen, Dongguan had a population boom similar to that of Shenzhen in the 1980's-1990's. However, Shenzhen decided that with this influx of cash in the form of FDI should be built a real economy. Shenzhen built a stock exchange, Hi-Tech parks, great infrastructure, and other things which expanded its value proposition to potential investors to more than just "well, they have really cheap labor". Dongguan, on the other hand, did not.

Consequently, nowadays, as factories continue to move north towards Shanghai, migrant workers are starting to change their tendencies to come to Guangdong. For example, if you're a migrant worker from Heilongjiang, in the far north of China, you could either travel several days and several thousand miles south to Guangdong province, or alternatively you could just go to Shanghai, which is about half the distance. As a result, I've been told that Dongguan's economy is starting to suffer due to the fact that they did nothing to develop a middle class/service sector during their boom years. As a result, once the unskilled, low-cost jobs move elsewhere, Dongguan's population declines.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Dongguan is the New South China Mall. This juggernaut of a building is nearly 700,000 square meters. This is approximately 3 times the size of McCormick Place, Chicago. That is to say, it's really really really really big. However! That does not mean that one can go to the New South China Mall and spend an entire weekend, entire day, or even entire afternoon shopping. Why, you ask? Well, the mall is almost 99% vacant. What? That's almost impressive, to be that bad. Well, yes, the New South China Mall, one of the largest structures in the world, with room for 2,350 stores, has a whopping......27! A very interesting short film was made recently showing the truly remarkable failure of the New South China Mall to be anything other than a really weird, big, empty ghost mall. But anyway, as you can imagine...if Dongguan's most noteworthy attraction is that...it will surely be an interesting place.

So what else is Dongguan noteworthy for? Well, to put it bluntly, prostitutes. Every day, thousands of people from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and the surrounding areas go to Dongguan for the..."services" rendered. Apart from the obviously morally reprehensible nature of this "industry", I just can't imagine ever feeling so brave as to basically play Russian roulette with a gun loaded with AIDS. Like, come on now. So shocking.

So why are we going to Dongguan? Well, for one, we are staying at an unbelievable-looking 5-star hotel for about $59US for the night. The hotel looks absolutely insane. Additionally, both Scutt and I have the tendency to find an unbelievable amount of entertainment/novelty/general interest in the bizarre, dodgy, and low-brow. Consequently, Dongguan seems to be the place to go! The fact that it's like a $9US train ride that takes about 45 minutes is also a decent reason to go. Plus, we didn't really have anything else to do this weekend. So that's the plan!

Work lately has been good--lots of prep for the US show season, will be leaving on Monday for Atlanta for the HPBA 2012 Expo, staying in the US for 10 days. Needless to say, going to Buffalo Wild Wings any less than 4 times is complete and utter failure. I will have a 4 hour layover in O'Hare on Monday, so if anyone I know in Chicagoland wants to come grab lunch, I will be there and jet-lagged from 11:15am-3:30pm! With an entourage of 3 legendary Chinese men.

So anyway, this blog post is starting to wind down, so before it's too late...the photo of the day!

This very photoshopped (Scutt said it was so photoshopped that it "looked as though someone had painted it") image is some rice paddies behind the factory out in Guangming. It was taken from the very unstable 5th story roof (unstable in the sense that, as I walked across it, my foot definitely made a couple of holes in what appeared to be like plaster roofing). There's a really interesting microeconomy in the factory area--there seem to be a handful of farmers who basically just farm for the slightly better-off, but still obviously quite poor factory workers. I have to wonder if many of the people working on these farms are migrants who want factory jobs, but for whatever reason can't get them, or if they're actually proper farmers by trade who just set up shop out there because of the few thousand people working in these factories. In any case, really interesting and rural area to be found 35 minutes outside of a city of over 10 million.

And with that, more to come tomorrow! Expect something dodgy :-D

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 23, 2012

Guangdong Province has been known as the "workshop of the world" for the last few decades, and for good reason. This behemoth of a province, with its 104 million inhabitants, was responsible for over 1/3 of China's exports up until a few years ago, when the cities around Shanghai began to grow in importance due to the Chinese government's efforts to make Shanghai the "Crown Jewel of the New China", and also due to rising labor costs in Guangdong. So basically, what I'm trying to say, is that odds are many things that you've bought in your life originated right here in Guangdong Province, in one of its innumerable factories.

And yet, unless your name is Griffin Curcio or Dalton Grambo, if you're reading this blog you probably haven't been to one of these factories, seen photos of one, or heard much about them. My company's factory is probably on the smaller end of the scale of Chinese factories--we employ between 500 and 700 factory workers, depending on time of year, and we occupy 3 pretty damned huge factory buildings in an industrial park outside of Shenzhen, in an area called Guangming New Area.

So what is life like in these factories, you ask? Well, it's interesting, that's for sure. I've really only noticed one glaring safety issue, that being the fact that in the hazardous painting room,there are a lot of signs showing people with big sort of like haz-mat masks on. I don't speak good Chinese, but I have to assume those signs indicate that not wearing a mask in these rooms could lead to death. That, and the fact that upon walking into the room, you're hit instantly with the smell of paint, and with an infinite number of infinitely small particles floating through the hazy air. So obviously, a place where masks are pretty necessary. ~25% of the people in there don't wear them. Oh god....

The factory workers are, for the most part, housed in dormitories on the factory property. These dorms are not luxurious. There are about 8 people to a dorm, and the conditions are a little bit cramped. Though overall, it's definitely not anywhere near as iffy as I was expecting. The factory is running 24 hours per day, 6 days per week--there are several shifts so there are always people in the factory working, though during daytime hours the number of workers is considerably higher than in the evening. The workers are also entitled to ridiculously cheap meals. The lunch served at the factory costs the line workers 1 yuan, and the administrative workers 4 yuan. 1 yuan=~$0.16, 4 yuan=~$0.66. So a 16 cent lunch if you're a line worker. The meals I've had at the factory are actually not that bad--certainly not gourmet, but decently palatable. Usually they consist of like 5 different dishes, usually 2 vegetable, 1 tofu, 1 pork, and 1 rice. I've noticed something fairly interesting--the workers all bring their own metal bowls. It's kind of cool, just seeing everyone after lunch washing out their metal bowl and putting it in this large metal bowl holding cabinet thing in the factory mess hall. And with that, the photo of the day:

And there you have it. Another pretty crappy photo. However, should be noted that I was at the office again quite late yesterday, and afterwards went out to a bar to meet a couple of businesspeople working in SZ, so really didn't have a whole lot of time to take a decent photo. HOWEVER, I do think that this photo does at least have some level of character. As I'm quite sure most of you have guessed, this is the cabinet for people's steel bowls. I think that in theory, it should be closed for a decent amount of time per day, and the thing probably "bathes" those bowls in UV light or something to disinfect them, but the fact is, in theory, fire extinguisher is spelled as such, but the sign immediately next to that cabinet spells it as "Extinouhier". Pretty sure that's not French, it's just wrong.

As far as factory wages are concerned, I don't know exactly what the wages are, but I'm pretty sure that for the more skilled positions, monthly salary is somewhere in the 3,000RMB per month range (about $500US). For very unskilled positions, I think it's more like <2,400RMB per month ($400). Again, estimates. The better-paid administrative people actually make pretty good money, I have no idea how much, but I know that when I went to the US with mad-dog James (a legendary 40-something Chinese man who I'm pretty sure has a handful of 20-something girlfriends), he bought an unlocked iPhone 4S...a $700US investment. He's sort of like the head of R&D, so it's very possible that he's on close to what I'm on, if not a bit more. It should be noted, he speaks absolutely 0 words of English. Which is why it was even more hilarious in the US when Jacky (my immediate boss, who speaks very good English) and I would be speaking with a customer and just be like... "Where did James go?" "Well, he can't get very far, he can't even say hello". This would inevitably lead to us finding him just wandering around some random parking lot or something in amazement, just having a great time wandering around. Legend.

Anyway, so I understand this blog post has been pretty fragmented, I've been writing it over the course of several hours during the morning between assorted work tasks (incidentally, I interviewed 2 people today for jobs within the company...how the hell I have the authority or qualifications to do that, I have no idea). So for that, I apologize, but again, it's not as though anyone's forcing you to read it, I'm just spamming the hell out of Facebook! So that's about all for today, see you all tomorrow :-D

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 22, 2012

So I've mentioned this no less than 100 billion times in this blog, but I'll say it again--Shenzhen's population in 1980 was about 300,000. Today it is about 14 million. Insane. But one question I have yet to ask in this blog is, where did all these people come from?

Now presumably they're mostly from more rural places in China, coming to the big city with big dreams to partake in Shenzhen's economic miracle on the banks of the Pearl River. And some of these people, indeed a surprisingly high percentage of them, are basically homeless/seemingly homeless vagabonds that do various things on the street for money. These various things range from being horrifically deformed (I told my brother before he came to visit that he should be prepared to see people with no faces. He basically told me "well what the hell does that mean? How can you not have a face?" If you ask him now, he will, without hesitation, tell you it is very possible for someone to not have a face. That was a long set of parenthesis) to being just really old and sad-looking to, in the case of the guy I often see on the walk into work, being a mad-dog Chinese man with a sick beard and a violin-like object made of what looks like a wooden box and a piece of bamboo.

Normally I walk right by this guy, given that I really can't be bothered to stay and enjoy his music on the way into work. Today, however, I was about 8 minutes early, and figured what the hey, dropped a 5 yuan note (about $0.82) into his bucket, and had a brief listen. Do I know anything about how to really distinguish good violin playing from bad? Not really. Even if I did, is it really possible to gauge one's violin skill when you're playing something that's as sophisticated an instrument as a string and 2 tin cans are a telephone? Presumably, no. But as I stood there on the street watching this 80-something year-old Chinese man play this matchbox attached to a stick and using fishing line as rope, I realized it really didn't matter if he was any good. This hero of an old Chinese man was here by choice, and odds are he was doing better financially here than he would be elsewhere, otherwise he wouldn't be here. And realistically, it's not that hard to make a livable salary performing like this on the streets, I assume.

For example--generally speaking, I try to live on about 100 yuan (~$14) per day, not including rent. This is for someone who is upper-middle class by Shenzhen standards. It's very safe to assume that someone who is literally playing a fiddle made of cardboard on the street can live on like 1/3 of that. So we'll round up and say 40 yuan per day in living expenses, not including his rent. Let's say this guy is either 1) completely homeless (unlikely), or 2) lives with a handful of other people in a very small space for about 1,000 yuan per month (even though it's very, very likely less than that, given that I pay 2,400 for a relatively enormous studio in the Sheraton Hotel. But better to overestimate than underestimate). Anyway, so that's a total of 2,200 yuan per month in living expenses. 70 yuan per day, give or take. I gave the guy 5 yuan. He needs 13 more people today to give him 5 yuan. 8 hour day=1.625 people per hour on average (1.75 per hour if you take out my 5 yuan donation, which I think is wise to do). I mean, I could be wrong, but that sounds pretty manageable, particularly if you're playing in an area like that of my office--lots and lots of upper-middle class people going to/from work.

Anyway, so that's just a little bit of a rant about the life of beggars in Shenzhen. And here is the photo of the day:

As you can see, just a heroic old Chinese man with a wooden box with a stick attached to it, playing what some could call a violin.

And now to change gears somewhat. I've been reading a good deal lately about the European bailout package for debt-ridden Greece. Reading, and thinking outside the box. Let me propose this idea--currently, Greece's debt is about 160% of their GDP. Wow. In the most optimistic scenarios presented, that number would be down to a whopping 120% by 2020. That's still insanely high. And presumably unsustainable given that their credit rating has got to be complete crap, and therefore their interest rates quite high. Now even in this most optimistic of scenarios, Greece is still A) giving up a decent amount of sovereignty, by the sound of it, B) having to make enormous cuts in government spending, and C) still suffering from a GDP that is contracting at a rate of like 6% per year.

Not good. So what would happen, I must ask, if they just say "well you know what, screw it. We're just going to declare bankruptcy and start over." Now one could argue that this would lead to devastating consequences, and one would probably be right (hell, just look at Iceland....graph at right showing their stock exchange up to/after the financial crisis.....)

However, is it really any more devastating than telling Greece "oh by the way, we're going to go ahead and loan you this money so you can make your payments on your debt, but we're also going to force you to do this and that in terms of cutting your budgets and selling off state-owned enterprises, etc"? I would argue that in the interest of preserving a high level of national sovereignty, this whole "we'll do whatever you want us to do, just don't kick us out of the Eurozone/let us default", it is at the very least worth looking into what would happen on a macroeconomic scale if they just said "to hell with it", defaulted, and consequently left the Eurozone. Again, I have to assume the consequences would be devastating in the short to medium term. But it is possible, maybe, that long-term, this could work out OK (maybe?). Greece, in theory, has a good location geographically to break from the EU--they have major potential trading partners nearby that aren't EU members, such as Turkey (yes, I know the Greeks and Turks don't get along, I worked for a Greek for 5 years and visited Turkey), Egypt (obviously in a state of political upheaval, but a population of 80 million is a pretty tempting market to get involved with), and Israel, among others. They are in a unique position in that, unlike France, Germany, Austria, and many other EU countries, they have non-EU countries very nearby. So is it possible to just say screw the EU and we'll do business elsewhere?

The short, conventional answer is no. But again, maybe this is worth a second look. Besides, how much worse can things possibly get over there? By the sound of things, not THAT much....

Anyway, another day, another photo, another completely unprecedented rant about something that few people really care about. Welcome to the mind of Blaine Curcio!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 21, 2012

I saw a very interesting video yesterday. I'm not one to post videos on Facebook, mainly because it's rare that I am so moved or impressed by a video that I want to share it with the world. Yesterday, however, I decided to make an exception to this, after having seen a video of Sam Harris speaking at the University of Notre Dame, and just spending 11 minutes and 16 seconds completely destroying the Catholic faith, as well as the set of morals put forward by William Lane Craig, a prominent philosopher/theologian.

Now am I a fan of raging, rampant atheism, and the personal quest that such people as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris seem (or I guess in the case of Hitchens, seemed...Rest in Peace you mad-dog) to be on to completely rid the world of all organized religion? Not really. I think that religion is a personal choice--if you want to be religious, fine, just don't you dare try to convince me that your beliefs are better than mine. What I do, however, not only endorse, but deem as absolutely necessary in order to ensure the long-term survival of humanity, is skepticism. The idea of blindly accepting something as fact just because it's told to you as such from the time you're born is one of the most dangerous concepts I can think of. Christopher Hitchens had a really interesting way of putting this, during an interview with Bill O'Reilly (or at least, it sounds like Bill O'Reilly's voice...)

O'Reilly: "What if God actually exists, sir? Would he not have been good to you?

Hitchens: "No, I don't think so. Because if that were true I would have an eternal, supervising parent. Who would never let me grow up, who would keep me under surveillance and supervision every minute of my life, and constantly asking me to be thanking and praising him. It would be like living in North Korea. It would be a horrible outcome."

O'Reilly: "Well I'm not sure if God is Kim Jong-Il"

Hitchens: "Well, ask Kim Jong-Il. He has a different opinion"

Just an absolutely brilliant/hilarious remark by Hitchens. And again, evidence that blindly accepting something that's being told to you since birth, without looking at dissenting opinions, is just like the most idiotic and devastating mistake you can possibly make. Now am I saying that the North Koreans are idiotic for not looking at dissenting opinions of Kim Jong-Il's divinity? No. They have no other options or opinions presented to them. You, by virtue of reading this blog, probably live in a country with decently free speech/media, and consequently have access to dissenting opinions on things that you've blindly accepted since birth if for no other reason than because it's the only thing that's been presented to you on a certain subject. I'm getting dangerously close to the realm of telling people what to do, which I despise, but I would suggest taking a look at yourself and your beliefs, and if you have many (or any) that are just completely baseless, at the very least have a good long think about it. Or not, I don't really care.

Anyway, now that I've bordered on politically incorrect, annoying, and religiously incendiary, without further ado, the Photo of the Day.

This photo is crap. I know that. Long story short, I was in the office for quite a bit longer than usual yesterday, and really didn't have time to go take a good photo. This photo was taken on the street I live on, Guihua Lu, walking towards Futian Checkpoint. Basically, this is the walk I take every morning. Between the arch, on the far left side towards the bottom, you can see the outline of Shun Hing Square, the 2nd tallest building in Shenzhen, 19th tallest in the world, and one of the ugliest structures you're likely to ever see.

Interestingly, the intersection at which I took this picture is like one of the most bizarre and dangerous places I've seen in Shenzhen. Basically, you have 2 lanes coming off a highway. These two lanes merge into Guihua Lu at the left of this photo. They are both one-way--that is, they are highway exit ramps. However, because this is China, cars frequently drive the wrong way down these lanes. Basically, imagine driving the wrong way up a highway exit ramp. Now imagine that taking place in a country with no real driving etiquette. I am amazed I have yet to see someone die in this way. It's also really funny to occasionally see a car drive up to these lanes intending to go down the exit ramp the wrong way, stop, have someone get out, take out two small pieces of like cardboard, and cover up both the front and back license plate so that the cameras do not catch them doing this blatantly illegal maneuver. Something I have seen happen a few times.

I've found the traffic laws in China to be pretty interesting--basically there are none, but it seems that people still get places very quickly and without issue. It's almost like a Wikipedian system--there is no governing body, people are basically left to make the decisions themselves about what is appropriate and what isn't, and rather than what any economist would tell you will happen, that is, the system will be an utter failure, it is indeed decently successful.

Rodney King update--I saw a small woman at that same street corner this morning selling what looked like omelettes in a bag (something which, at this point, seems pretty standard to me). She was using one of those same styrofoam boxes to carry them in...so it's possible that the woman yesterday had something similar? Anyway, who knows. Odds are that woman has been shot in the head by now. Is that all?

Other than that, to leave you all with a very appropriate quote--

"If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we're up for grabs"

-Carl Sagan, 1934-1996

More to come tomorrow.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 20, 2012

So had an interesting trip to work this morning. I got off the metro at the stop my office is located at, Civic Center (brilliant photo on the wiki article, really!), and walked out exit B onto Fuzhong 3rd Road as I do every day. Only today, there was something different about the walk. Instead of having a street food vendor be at the first corner I encounter, as there is every day, there were 3 police officers chasing a 55ish year old woman who was carrying with her a big styrofoam box. Really confusing. About 15 seconds after I first saw what was going on, one of the police officers full out tackled this 55 year old woman into a bush, only to have the styrofoam box go flying into the air to reveal what looked suspiciously like....

....steamed buns? Now I was pretty far away (like probably 60 feet) from this shocking event as it was going down. And my eyesight is not great. But I'm prettttty sure that I saw a pile of steamed buns fly out of this styrofoam box as the woman got taken out. Moments later, the situation got even more bizarre when a large sort of UHaul looking truck pulled up. And 6 more police officers ran (literally, ran) out of the truck to assist in apprehending this extremely dangerous menace to society that was the 55 year-old steamed bun woman. The last thing I saw before deciding I have no business standing here and watching this was the woman being put into the back of this truck and hauled off (and by this, of course, I mean the last thing I saw before deciding that there was nothing more worth seeing, as the woman was already apprehended). The jury is still out on whether I have just witnessed the Chinese equivalent of Rodney King.

So needless to say, not the most standard way to start one's work week. But welcome to China, all the same!

Today's photo of the day entitles Scutt to a fair bit of credit, as he's the one who spotted the opportunity last night in Dongmen (really frantic shopping area of Shenzhen). Anyway, without further ado--

Now upon first seeing this picture, one will probably react with a "what the hell is this?" Fair enough. This photo was taken at a knockoff DVD store in Dongmen, and if you will take the time to notice, even the fake Chinese DVD retailers are capitalizing on the Whitney Houston dying thing--top row 2nd from left, prominently displayed, is "The Bodyguard", her most famous artistic work. Now let's talk a bit about these DVD shops....

OK, so the going rate for DVDs here is about 9 Chinese Yuan. That equates to just less than $1.50US. This sort of forces me to wonder how these people make any money at all on this type of business model. I've had a look for some sample SZ real-estate prices for commercial real-estate, and in 2008 (most recent year for which I could find any even remotely reliable data...damned China), the cost per square foot for commercial real-estate in Luohu District (district in which Dongmen is) was, on average, about $1.75US per month per square foot. Now since 2008 Shenzhen has increased its population dramatically. Additionally, Dongmen is more likely one of the more expensive-ish areas of Luohu just based on the sheer insane amount of foot traffic the place receives (photos here and here of what it looks like literally every weekend, and many weekdays). That said, the Chinese RMB has appreciated compared to the US$ fairly considerably since 2008, which means that in US$ terms, the rent would be slightly less expensive. Anyway, all these things considered, let's just make the completely unscientific approximation of $3 per square foot per month today in 2012 for these DVD shops. The DVD shop we were in was probably about 5,000 square feet, so $15,000US per month in rent. OK, so we have a round number to work with now.

In addition to the cost of rent, the DVD sellers also need to pay bribes to Chinese police, because everything that they are doing is illegal. Let's say that 25% of their profits go to the police (again, complete guess, but I think it sounds reasonable...maybe?) Assuming that they pay about 2 Chinese Yuan ($0.33) per DVD, and again, sell them for an average of 9 Yuan, this of course gives us 7 Yuan profit per DVD, or $1.15 or so. Which means that in order to just pay off rent, they would need to sell approximately 13,000 DVDs per month in order to just cover rent. Or a bit less than 500 DVDs per day. Considering the investment of about $20,000 per month in buying inventory and paying rent, and based on the assumption that a 10% profit margin is acceptable, they would need to sell an additional 2,500 or so DVDs in order to reach an "acceptable" level of profitability, when considering that 25% of their profits will theoretically go to bribing the police. Obviously, this grossly oversimplified example doesn't account for labor costs, electricity, etc., but I really think these costs in this context are pretty incidental. Furthermore, I think that given the cost of real estate, no matter how approximate, is still staggeringly high relative to the cost of everything else, which is a pretty questionable piece of information given that, for example, if the economy were to hit a bump, they are stuck paying an insanely high rent relative to the actual value of the items that they are selling. That is, they need to sell like 13,000 DVDs to break even, and from that point each additional one sold is a relatively huge marginal increase in profitability, but if their sales dive by even like 10-15%, they will be getting dangerously close to not being able to cover overhead.

Again, this example is probably grossly inaccurate, oversimplified, and flawed, but I think it at least has some level of validity. And now at least the 3 people reading this post can say they have a better understanding of the Chinese counterfeit DVD market!

Should be a fairly interesting and uneventful work week, Richard (the company owner) is in the US, and we got most everything done for trade show season last week, so hopefully it's a fairly laid-back week in the office. Will be leaving a week from today for the old US of A, so should be good. And by good, I mean I'm quite pleased to be getting out of China for just a little while....

More to come tomorrow

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 19, 2012--Macau

So I've been to Macau three times in my life now, the last time being yesterday/this morning. I must say, this time around I really got a lot more feel for the culture and mindset of the place than I'd gotten on my previous visits. Among other things, some fairly interesting things I noticed:

1) The last two times I was in Macau, they had a pretty awkward situation with their currency, the Macau Pataca. Essentially, 2 years ago when I was there last, the Pataca was rarely, rarely used. Rather, the de facto currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, which is constantly pegged at a 1:1 ratio with Macau Pataca. The last time I was there, I withdrew money from an ATM in HKD due to that being the only option (though mind you, it would be idiotic to withdraw in Patacas--it's just a completely useless currency). Anyway, this time around, I noticed a lot more wide usage of the Pataca. I only had like 1 transaction where the change was given in HKD, everything else was given in Patacas. Fairly interesting, I'm not entirely sure why they're using this currency system, it would probably make more sense to just say "OK, we're going to make the Hong Kong Dollar our currency, the Pataca is no longer valid", or say "OK, we're going to have the Petaca be our currency, we no longer accept HKD". This would eliminate the really awkward getting/giving money in 2 different currencies at routine transactions, and just make things much easier. Could this acknowledgement and embracing of their own currency be an indication of enhanced nationalism by Macau? It would be an interesting thing to look into--I would imagine it would be that or alternatively just really strong encouragement by the Macau Central Bank, I doubt it's just incidental. Anyway, something to think about.

2) Macau is not Vegas. Obviously I already knew this to a certain extent, but I really noticed this time around that Macau lacks fun. Between my last trip to Macau and this one, I spent a week in Vegas with my friend Dan, and I just noticed that everything there was fun. Even when you're in the poker room, the banter is fantastic, the dealers generally pretty talkative/casual, and just a generally merry atmosphere. In Macau, people are not there to have fun. They are there to gamble. The Chinese take gambling more seriously than anyone I'd ever seen--and really I didn't care for it. Whether you're winning or losing money in a casino, it will almost always be more enjoyable if there's just a cheery, friendly atmosphere. In Macau it's sort of like "well thanks for your money, if you don't have any more then you're welcome to leave right now". This assertion is reflected in a statistic that I recall which said that in Vegas, about 40-50% of casino revenues come from gambling. In Macau, that number is >90%. And Macau being 5x the size of Vegas in terms of overall revenue anyway (~$40B to ~$8B....incredible!), this just means the amount of gambling going on in Macau is insane relative to Vegas.

3) Poker is not an option in Macau. Jeff and I got on 4 different lists for 4 different poker rooms, and the shortest of them all was about 2 hours--this meaning that we had to wait 2 hours before we got into a poker game, because there were like 40 people on the list. Now I'm not 100% sure on this, but I have to assume that in Vegas, when the list gets to like 6-7 people, they just start a new game with those stakes and have those people sit at a new table. Apparently this does not happen in Macau. Pretty disappointing, given that I just really prefer poker to literally any casino game--and I'm better at it (that is to say, it's not a losing game, in general). So kind of a bummer on that front.

Ended up losing a fairly substantial amount of money--a few hundred US$--but eh, what can you do, and I suppose a good lesson that I should probably never play craps while on about 4 hours of sleep and you've just learned the rules of the game. So goes without saying, I will not be gambling again for awhile, with the exception of sports bets/prop betting with friends.

Anyway, the trip back from Macau ended up being really bizarre--we finished up playing about 6:00am, and found out the first boat back to Shenzhen wasn't until 9:45am. So we went to Hong Kong. Ended up catching a 7:15am boat to HK, then from there taking the metro into Shenzhen--lots of completely unnecessary passport stamps! (So it's a good thing I'm not quickly running out of passport pages for the 2nd time in the last 18 months...or that would be inconvenient!) I ended up getting home shortly past 10:00am, and am currently about to go to bed for a couple of hours. But first...the Photo of the Day from Macau....

This photo is of the ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral, a cathedral built by the Portuguese (Macau being a former Portuguese colony) in the late 1500's. The cathedral was destroyed in 1821, but the facade is still there (and in remarkably good shape!) At the time it was one of the largest cathedrals in Asia, and is still a pretty impressive sight.

And just because I have a few more, here are some extra, non-photo-of-the-day photos from Macau :-D

As I said, Macau was a former Portuguese colony, and as you can see, signs are bilingual Portuguese/Cantonese. Interesting note about Portuguese...I feel like I could learn the language fluently in like 6 months of living in Brazil, given how decently I know Italian and Spanish now. I was able to read most of the street signs, as well as a fair bit of menus, pretty freaking similar to Italian/Spanish. But anyway, yes, some tricycles outside the Casino Lisboa

This photo is of the downtown-ish area of Macau, taken from the facade of the Ruins of St Paul's. Notice the Grand Lisboa at the far left, as well as the pretty vibrant, Southern-European style colors of the buildings. Really really interesting mix of Chinese and Southern European, Macau. It was, after all, the first European colony in Asia, and the last one in Asia, with the Portuguese establishing presence there in 1557 and not leaving until 1999. But anyway, whether it's the abundance of Vespas or the very Southern European style food or the cobblestone shopping streets, it really reminded me quite a bit of Italy, which isn't too surprising given that I assume Italy and Portugal are pretty similar in terms of lifestyle/attitude.

This was on the inside of the Venetian Hotel on Cotai Strip, just an absolutely ridiculous building. Casino can be seen below.

Anyway, so that's about it from Macau. Lot of passport stamps, petacas, and Portuguese.

Interesting song shown to me by my friend Sabutai the other week--it's called Mole by an Indian band called Baageshri, not bad at all, I would highly recommend giving it a listen. Other than that, will see all 6 of you tomorrow, with another photo of the day.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 18, 2012

Heading to Macau in about 15 minutes, so not a whole lot of time to write anything terribly insightful or brilliant. If you feel the need to fullfil your "Blaine Curcio-Authored Writing" for the day...yesterday's post was pretty good, so feel free to have a look at that! Alternatively, there are some decently interesting posts from my times in Hong Kong, Netherlands, Colombia, etc., so have a browse :-D (shameless self-promotion, I know!)

Anyway, without further ado, the photo of the day:

This is a photo from the restaurant just near my apartment. Very interesting place, sort of upper-class, but at the same time, the shameless gaudiness and just weird decorations make it a bit awkward. Every time I go there I get the same thing--this unbelievable dish of asparagus (as it turns out, you were right Dalton!) with some really hot peppers, sort of like pan-fried I think. Absolutely phenomenal, by a wide margin my favorite Chinese dish. So the next time you're in China, make sure to grab some pan-fried asparagus!

Other than that, was Dylan's (another teacher from the CTLC program) birthday last night, so that ended in going to Guomao (really Chinese clubbing district) and having a shocking evening there. Leaving for Atlanta a week from Monday, which should be good. If nothing else, I'll get about 20,000 frequent flier miles, so certainly can't complain. And if any of my friends in Chicagoland are going to be around, I'll be in O'Hare Airport for about 4 hours on Monday the 27th! So come on out for lunch!

Photo from Macau to come tomorrow

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 17, 2012

So I was speaking a couple of weeks ago with my friend John about why we were in China. That is, what the hell had motivated us to, unlike 99.9999% of our friends, colleagues, etc., just pick up and move to China? It's an interesting question--I would say the simple answer is "well it's a nice combination of adventure, resume building, and having a good deal of disposable income", but I think I came up with a more accurate and insightful answer during our conversation.

Basically, if I wanted to live an easy life, I would have stayed in the US, taken a job with Allstate for around $50,000 per year, and just hung out around Chicago saving money for a few years. It would have been good, I would have had close friends and family nearby, been in a familiar environment, and would have just blended in with everyone else.

None of these are the case in China. Therefore, why am I here? I believe that I am here not because life is easy here (though really, it's not bad at all), not because it's a good resume builder, not even really to learn Chinese. I am here precisely because living in a place like China allows you to really appreciate life. I put it this way to John--living in China, there are many, many instances per day where I am inconvenienced in some way. Whether that means I have trouble because I speak horrible Chinese, get stared at by people on the subway for being a big white guy, or just buy something that I assume is some sort of known food, only to have it be some feral concoction of fish, red bean, or something similar, there are a lot of inconveniences about living in China. And the pollution kind of sucks. None of this would be an issue living in the US.

HOWEVER! It should be noted that in China, every single day, generally several times per day, I see something that just makes me say "wow, I love living in this country". Whether that means I see 4 people balancing on a single motorbike going down the highway, a guy doing heavy-duty road construction wearing like a full suit, or the subtly beautiful architecture of this bizarrely well-planned city, not a day goes by in my life without something about this place truly amazing me. And that, friends, would not be happening if I were living in the US.

So in summation, yes, living abroad (particularly in a developing/really freaking foreign country) does have inconveniences. But I believe that facing these inconveniences and taking them with the unbelievable and incredible things you tend to see, allows you to get a better understanding of yourself and the world in which you live. And so therefore, I guess I am living in China not because it is easy, but because it's just so much more intense, polarizing, and generally fuller. And so for those of you who are thinking about relocating abroad, consider that--odds are you'll have to take a lot of bad with the good, but I sincerely believe that it's well worth it.

Anyway, so without further ado, the photo of the day!

Kind of a weird/random/terrible photo, but I was intrigued/amused by a few things about this, most notably the fact that there is a box next to the truck's front-right tire just labeled "TROUT". This was taken just outside my office, in one of the nicer parts of town, and apparently these mad-dogs had just set up a vegetable/trout stand on the sidewalk.

Looks like tomorrow I'll be heading to Macau with Jeff and a few others, staying Saturday night and coming back Sunday afternoon. Plan at the moment is to gamble through the night and do some sightseeing Sunday. Having been there twice before, I suppose I'm the de facto tour guide. Presumably the photo of the day(s) from Macau will be substantially more interesting than the above one.

Showed Scutt the most insane and mind-blowing TedTalk I've ever seen last night--Richard Dawkins on the Queerness of our Universe. Would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in not being a complete philistine in regard to human evolution, subatomic particles, and a host of other topics covered by this brilliantly atheist man in a 20 minute span. So yeah.

That's about all for now, another photo to come tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, etc., until I either get bored of it or end up on an airplane for a 24 hour period (which will be occurring on February 27th, so there's a chance I won't be putting up a photo that day. Just so you can all plan in advance on how else to take up 7 minutes during your work/school/unemployed and have nothing to do day).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Photo of the Day--February 16, 2012

We went out last night. Oh did we go out last night.


I was told earlier this week that on Wednesday night, the company owners, brothers Richard and Steven, would be taking the Sales/Marketing team out for dinner. Fair enough, and a very nice gesture. I was told yesterday (Wednesday here in China) morning that the dinner would be followed by 3 of the most terrifying letters in the history of acronyms.... KTV. That is, Chinese-style karaoke. That is, karaoke which involves horrendous amounts of baijiu (Chinese rice wine that's usually ~50% by volume), whiskey, and Chinese songs. Thankfully, it was a Wednesday, so things wouldn't get THAT out of hand....

Or so I assumed. 10 minutes into the dinner, Flora, one of the fairly higher-ups in the Sales/MKT department, announced that she couldn't drink because she was pregnant. And with that announcement came the first round of baijiu. Then Steven, one of the owners, realized that he really likes baijiu. And consequently more rounds of baijiu were done. By this time, we'd all had around 5-6 shots of this 50% by volume concoction. It should be noted that Steven, a 40-something year old (I guess 47-48 year old, as he is also Year of the Dragon), was by far the most legendary baijiu drinker I have ever seen. It was like a child at dinner wanting ice cream...every five minutes I would just hear "Baijiu! Baijiu! Baijiu!", and a round would be poured. And he would always just down it like an absolute champion.

A brief aside about baijiu--it is the most feral beverage known to man. That is to say, it tastes as though you're drinking tequila mixed with vodka mixed with gin mixed with urine mixed with radiation--it is horrendous. The best quote I ever heard about baijiu came from the book Mr. China by Tim Clissold. He says something to the effect of "every time I go out with Chinese businessmen and have too much baijiu, my wife tells me I smell like an oil-soaked rag the next morning". Yeah, it's that appetizing. So anyway!

After a dinner that included a lot of baijiu, beer, Chinese food, and Chinese people smoking indoors, we headed down the street to KTV. Where it got very messy. The two company owners immediately ordered an array of food, as well as several towers of whiskey and green tea (a wonderful combination when preparing for a hangover, the antioxidants in the green tea work wonders, really!) And the dice came out.

A popular Chinese dice game, particularly at KTV--basically, everyone gets a cup and 5 dice. You put the cup over the dice (as the picture shows) and shake the cup to roll the dice. You then say some number of some number, i.e. there are five 6's. This number indicates the number of 6's you think that everyone has, combined. 1's are wild. Whatever number you say, the person after you must either increase the first or the second number (i.e. if I say there are five 4's, next person must either say five 5's, five 6's, or six+ of anything). Anyway, if someone thinks you're bluffing, they call you out. If they're right, you drink. If you're right, they drink. It will always, 100% of the time, without fail, end in tears. And so it did.

So after about 2 hours of drinking and karaoke (I did indeed end up singing a few songs, though to be entirely honest I have absolutely no recollection of what any of them were), we called it a night. And just to emphasize that no, I was not a lonesome raging alcoholic, on the walk out of the KTV bar, someone mentioned that they didn't know where Jacky, my boss, the company's #3 guy behind only the brothers Jin, the head of the entire Sales/Marketing department was. We ended up going into a side room to find him passed out on the couch, with a puddle of vomit at his feet. Like the absolute legend that he is. A brief aside--he ended up rolling into work at 8:59am this morning, as he is well within his rights to do. But I digress--Jacky was passed out, so I literally carried this Chinese man out of the bar and into a cab.

So anyway, that's the photo of the day, and the story behind it. Lessons learned--drink green tea with your baijiu and whiskey. Make sure to set an alarm before going out (which I did, and was consequently early for work this morning despite still being somewhat drunk...though excusable given that everyone at the dinner/KTV needed to have a drink with the token laowai. And given that the last major event of last night was carrying my boss from the fetal position into a taxi, I feel like it's fair enough.

Work has been picking up a lot lately (this being in spite of the fact that I'm currently writing this at work). But yes, US show season is coming up, so we've been doing a ton of work on catalogs, marketing, and general sales planning, it just so happens that I had an extra 20 minutes this morning to throw this gem out into cyberspace.

That's about all for now, more poor-quality photos to come.