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.