Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You Don't Say....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 19, 2013

Return to the Pearl River Delta (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: "Sorry?"

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

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

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

Me: "Bob,  is this guy serious?"

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

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

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

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

3) Some current obsessions lately:

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

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