A Monkey at McDonald’s

January 16, 2016

Happy New Year, albeit a bit late.  I must apologize for not writing the past two weeks, but my boss has been in town from the States and only left the other day.  While there were many things I have wanted to write about, it’s been a whirlwind with her here and there have been very few moments where I could sit down and write.  With her departure, things should return to normal and the pace of writing will pick up.  Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised, as I was out getting my coffee at the local Starbucks and some milk and apples to throw into a giant bowl of granola and yogurt, I saw a man with his monkey outside of McDonald’s.

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Outside the McDonald’s by my apartment a man with his monkey

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Yup, it was a monkey

 

More to come tomorrow.  I promise.

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Chengdu Cheating

December 28, 2015

I just returned to Shenzhen after what was mostly an awesome weekend in Chengdu, but today started off with an early morning cab ride to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (熊猫基地) where my cabbie tried to bilk me for double the fare.  My hotel hailed me a cab and when we were around the corner, he pulled out his phone and put a price in and said I should pay that.  I told him to turn the meter on and he told me it was too cheap.  Then I threatened to get of the cab, which was stopped at a light, and he finally agreed to turn the meter on.  Later on today, I ordered an Uber to go to the airport and at the toll plaza by the airport, the driver asked me for RMB14 for the toll.  Absent-mindedly, I handed him the money and he paid the toll.  When I was in line for security and received my Uber receipt via email, I saw that I was charged again for the same toll.  Now maybe my driver did not know that the app would include the toll or he decided the dumb foreigner would give him some extra cash.  I’m not sure, but I quickly fired off an email to Uber to alert them to what he did.

I spent a lot of time in cabs today, going to and from the pandas and then to the airport and ending the evening with a cab back to my room in Shenzhen.  I was stunned by the lack of road decorum in Chengdu and to a lesser extent, Shenzhen.  When I am here, I don’t take cabs often because I am not going all that far.  But in Chengdu, no one really follows the lanes noted on the road and at an intersection, cars weave in and out as they’re trying to make turns.  It’s sheer chaos, but somehow it generally works as long as everyone is refusing to play by the rules.  I think the likelihood of an accident goes up if someone actually attempts to drive safely.  It’s offensive driving at it’s best and worst.

This post is meant to tie up a lot of loose ends from the weekend, but I could not help but comment on the fact that China’s rubber stamp parliament passed the country’s first anti-terror law today.  It’s an odd concept in a state where the police and other public safety agencies already pretty much have carte blanche to do that they want to reign in the population when they’re acting out of line.  It will most likely be another way to justify repressing groups or individuals who take actions thought to be against the state.  After so many years, I should not be amazed, but I find myself baffled because upon reading that today, I had the thought that I am making a life for myself out here and interacting on the regular with a state that is seeking total control over or at least the ability to monitor its population in terms of thought, expression, and actions.

But really the best thing to happen today were the pandas.  I arrived at the Base right before 8:00am with the sun just coming up and at least 30 minutes before the first tour buses arrived, so I pretty much had the place to myself.  Though I saw more Westerners there than I had the entire weekend or even in Shenzhen for that matter.  I guess all us foreigners had the same idea to see the pandas on a cold winter’s morning right after Christmas.

So without writing anymore, here are some pictures and videos of today’s main attraction.

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A panda giving face before he tears into that bamboo

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Pandas

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More pandas

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Baby pandas sleeping

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And yet another

Controlling the Narrative

August 13, 2012

It’s been over a month since I returned to the States from China and I have been wrestling with how to come up with an appropriate epilogue to capture my thoughts on my most recent trip to that part of the world.   I have also been wondering how to wade back in and write about China all the way from the States.  Between all of the coverage of Gu Kailai’s trial in Hefei and countless articles about whether China’s economy is heading for a hard or soft landing, I feel the need to write.  I’m not weighing in because I’m just a guy sitting here in New York, but given the time I’ve spent on the mainland, it’s hard not to feel something when reading the news about what is going on in China.

Upon returning, everyone asked me how my trip was and what was going on in China.  It was really nice of people to ask, but I felt at a loss for words because for anyone who has been following this blog, it’s hard for me to provide a succinct answer that accurately captures all my thoughts on China.  That loss for words was translated into “it was great” and “China was a crazy, chaotic, and fascinating as always”, but such top-level statements did little to capture what I really thought or felt about my time there.  It’s true that being in China was great and that it was crazy, chaotic, and fascinating, but whenever I am there my brain works at ten times its normal speed trying to process everything I am experiencing.  Being on the ground is an assault on the senses in the best way possible.  Reading about Gu Kailai’s trial, I wish I was still on the ground trying to take the pulse of the people around me and gauge how much the average Chinese person really knows about what is going on.  Instead I pick up my Financial Times or read the stories online and shake my head at how transparent it is that this trial is not about justice for Heywood’s death, but merely an act in a play that culminates in the once-in-a-decade transfer of power occurring this fall.  Even reading quotes of lawyers and residents in Hefei, where the trial is taking place, show how little the average person really gets what is going on.  It’s not a coincidence that Bo Xilai’s name was only mentioned once in the trial in connection with the name of the servant who helped Gu poison Heywood.  In China, it’s usually what is not said that clues people in as to what is really going on.  Keeping virtually silent on Bo Xilai and his connections to the various parties involved in the trial says more than almost anything else that came up in the trial, including the sensationalist detail that while Heywood was throwing up after drinking tea and alcohol that Gu poured poison down his throat.  By not mentioning Bo Xilai’s name, the government made it very clear that this trial is just part of the attempt on the part of the central government to smooth over any divisions before the upcoming transfer of power.

The trial is why I find China so interesting.  It captures a country obsessed with spinning a narrative that is supposed to only be edited by the powers that be.  The problem is that more and more people are trying to rewrite this narrative in their own words and the central government does not like it.  Bo Xilai was one of those people trying to gain power from his pulpit in Chongqing and he was taken down when his power became too great.  I am curious to see what or who the government targets next in its quest to consolidate control over the narrative.

The trial is only one of the many things running through my mind as I process my trip and my own relationship with China going forward, so this post will be the first of many mini-epilogues as I try to wrap up this part of my narrative on China.

It’s my last morning in Linyi and I am packing up my hotel room at the Linyi Hotel (临沂宾馆).  

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Packing up my hotel room

Hard to believe that this morning represents the end of three-plus weeks on the mainland.  Now I am off to Hong Kong for a week to meet with some law firms and catch up with old friends.  Last night I went to my favorite Sichuan restaurant for a farewell meal of sorts.  麻辣传说 (Mala Chuanshuo) has been my go-to in Linyi and last night did not disappoint.  

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My favorite Sichuan restaurant in Linyi

What was odd about last night was that perhaps because it was a Friday and more crowded than normal, everyone around me kept watching me eat and as people would pass to and from their tables, they felt the need to pause at my table and give me and my food a longing stare.  I was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  Just enjoying my yuxiang rousi (鱼香肉丝), some cold cooked spinach with peanuts, and a cold tofu dish where the tofu is light and airy, soaking up the flavor of the chilis and vinegar.  I was also celebrating the end of class with a Qingdao beer.  Perhaps it was the sight of a foreigner in his baseball cap and three dishes of food in front of him that he ordered in Chinese that prompted the stares, but everyone who passed by felt the need to run their eyes over my personal space.  I’m not complaining.  I just thought it was funny, kind of like a special farewell.

Now I must leave you to finish packing and get to the airport for a day of travel – Linyi to Shanghai, then a three-hour layover and change of terminals before heading on to Hong Kong.  

I’ll be back from the other side.

Four days to go and this time Saturday I will be in Hong Kong.  Though right now I am sitting here with a terrible head cold and all I want to do is lay down in bed.  However, the blogging continues because the thoughts do not stop.

Hollister, the U.S. clothing brand owned by Abercrombie opened its first store in China in Shanghai.  It’s a store that I would never set foot in when I am in the States, except that one time in Soho to see the shirtless models walking around, but then had to run out because the combination of the strong scent of cologne and low lights left me feeling woozy and claustrophobic.  I broke my own rule when I went in Shanghai this weekend, but I went purely out of curiosity to see who they would have working in their China store.  After a walk around the entire store, I noticed that there were no men working in the store, only scantily clad Chinese women.  Not sure what to make of this finding, but I’m left wondering if they had trouble finding Chinese guys to match their look.

Anyway, that was a digression, but one that I am still thinking about three days later because it was so bizarre.  What’s really been on my mind lately, especially as my time out here starts heading into the final stretch, is the sense of isolation that creeps up on me after spending a few weeks away from home.  Isolation is not necessarily a bad thing and it does not mean that I do not communicate with people back home, whether via text, phone, or email. It’s more of an internal isolation where I feel cut off from what is going on back home.  This time around has not been as extreme as two years ago because I am still doing work and plugged in to the office back in New York, so that serves as an additional tether.  It’s more of a mental isolation.  I can’t trouble myself with things back home because there is not much that I can do about them when I am 7000 miles away.  In some ways it’s liberating because I can’t do anything about dating, which preoccupies so much of my time back in New York. The same goes for any of life’s other pressing questions that vex me on a daily basis when I am home.  I think back to my year in Guangzhou and that was extreme isolation because it was like pushing the pause button on my life and having a completely separate existence in China for a year’s time.  Anyone who has spent significant periods abroad has probably experienced this feeling.  It’s also probably more acute in places like China or Japan that are culturally so different from the States, least of all because of the language barrier that exists for even the most fluent speakers of the local language.  When you live overseas for a long, but fixed period of time, you make friends, re-create semblances of your life back home, but at the back of your mind is the knowledge that at some point you will release the pause button and resume your life back in the States, leaving behind much of what you built in your adopted country and really only taking the experience with you when you board that plane home.  I’m not discounting these experiences because I would not trade my years away for anything, but as I get older and I have a few experiences being way under my belt, it’s something I think about because it’s hard when you are doing it for the first time.  I know what to expect and I am lucky to be able to have these three to four week bursts of isolation that are more therapeutic than anything else, but I also empathize with those people who are doing this for the first time and went somewhere for the experience and are wrestling with the consequences of their actions as they navigate life after pushing the pause button.

Yes, this post was a bit self-indulgent, but I am sick and it’s something I have been thinking a lot about because so many people I know have picked up and moved overseas at some point in their lives and while everyone may be affected to different degrees by pushing the pause button, they have still pushed that button because it’s still impossible to be in two places at once.

With that said, I am going to turn in soon and hopefully make a dent in this cold.  Until tomorrow . . . 

I’m back in Linyi after a three day weekend in Shanghai and determined to finish what I started over five hours ago over a coffee at a Wagas in Shanghai and then tried to finish in the airport, but to no avail when my flight actually left ten minutes early.

When I exited the airport in Linyi, there was a row of taxis just sitting there with the engines off and the drivers gathered in a circle talking.  Unlike taxis at airports in the States, these guys were just waiting to screw around with me.  I went to the first taxi in the queue and he offered to take me to my hotel for 80 renminbi.  I knew the trip to the airport last Thursday was only 45 renminbi, so there was no way I was going to pay nearly double for the same trip.  I went down the line and asked if they would use the meter and they said they would, but then would quote me an exorbitant price.  Frustration setting in, I found a cabbie who was honest and willing to take me to my hotel with a meter running.  The cost to get back?  30 renminbi.

I am beginning my final week of teaching tomorrow and it’s not even a full week because Thursday is going to be wrap-up/review and Friday I am giving my final.  Then it’s off to Hong Kong Saturday.  But that’s next weekend, so I am going to focus on sucking up as much of Linyi as possible in the remaining days.

Shanghai was great for a quick weekend getaway.  My time in the city felt so disconnected from the previous two weeks in Linyi and even different than the few days I spent in Beijing at the start of my trip.  Having already seen two of China’s “showcase” cities, I am going to end my time away in Hong Kong, arguably the third such “showcase” city.  What’s interesting is that two of the three have strong historical foreign influences (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and today remain meccas for expats looking to set up shop in Asia, so whenever I am in places like Shanghai or Hong Kong, I am always wondering how Chinese these cities really are.  Having not been back in Hong Kong for nearly two years, I am going to reserve judgment on that locale, but will most certainly weigh in once I am there.

Before I launch into my Shanghai thoughts, I must say I am amazed at how prevalent wifi is in China.  Two years ago Starbucks, hotels, and a few trendy cafes would have offered it.  But now it’s everywhere.  Hotels offer for free, most restaurants and cafes have networks set up, and even in the lobby of my hotel in Linyi, I can get free wifi.  One thing that’s interesting, but not surprising is the arbitrariness of having to register to use the network.  The government has made a big deal about stepping up its efforts to police the internet and monitor its users.  The previous incarnation of this overbearing policy was the crackdown on internet bars, which now seem like a quaint part of the not-so-distant past with the advent of smartphones and the ability to get online wherever and whenever you want.  In public places like airports, Starbucks, and hotels you either need to register with your mobile phone number (airports and Starbucks) or click through policies in a browser window and agree to abide by certain policies (hotels).  However, many cafes and restaurants dispense with identifying who is using their network, which is in violation of the law and makes it impossible to trace back users of those networks.  Just a little musing on the whimsical nature of law enforcement in China, much akin to how mobile phone providers are supposed to take a copy of your ID when buying a sim card, but yet someone like me can wind up with four sim cards and not once having had to show my idea to procure them.

With that said, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head about Shanghai, China, the future of this country, and being a rock star expat and not all of them will make down on this page because I am still processing. I made it clear the other day that I am more of a half-assed expat flying in and out of Chnia, but walking through Xintiandi earlier this afternoon with Amy, we stumbled upon a bunch of white guys screaming on stage as they played their instruments.
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These guys were screaming so loudly that it was impossible to tell if they were singing in Chinese or  English. They also were not very good, yet drew quite a large crowd. If these guys were playing in Sydney, London, or New York, they would have been a nuisance. But in Shanghai expats and locals were bopping along with little kids dancing and everyone enjoying the ruckus.  Shanghai has that feeling of a city where anything is possible. People leaving behind their lives back home to start over. I noticed this in Beijing, too, but Shanghai is a far more comfortable city to live in than even Beijing.  Beijing is more comfortable with being Chinese and could be seen as more provincial when compared to Shanghai, which is open to the world and can come across as seeking to be anything but Chinese. These white guys rocking out in Xintandi, the expats we saw out at the bars and clubs last night, the 外国人 (white guy in Chinese – waiguo ren) with the local girlfriend, or the European or American with a business idea, there are so many people who have converged on this city to try and make their dreams come true.  Such a convergence gives the city a surreal feel because the energy is really unlike anywhere else, even New York with its constant influx of people trying to make it there.

Shanghai feels like it is still on the expressway of development and in the four years since I was last here, new buildings and fads have popped up creating new wants and desires.  I’m sure in four more years, there will be more new buildings and fads, but is this change deeper than just new buildings?  I’m not sure.  The changes I saw this visit are for the most part on the surface, including this massive construction site just south of Nanjing Xi Lu being developed by the same people who did Sanlitun in Beijing.  Seeing a site like this one makes me wonder not only who is going to make use of this planned mix-use development, but what it all means for a city and country that seems to be preoccupied with the next best, brightest, and biggest thing.
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But the deeper question that hangs over all of this development is whether all of this development will be accompanied by something longer-lasting such as a change in mindset.
Last night’s dinner was a fairly international crowd. Five out of six were American, with some of Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese descent, as well as a native Korean and myself. All but two were or are lawyers and four currently live in Shanghai with Amy and myself coming from Tokyo and New York, respectively. With the scene set, I can now discuss one part of the conversation that stuck with me.  I was talking about my students and how they were struggling with the objective theory of contracts and the reasonable person standard that is so common in American law because it leaves room for case by case analysis.  Such analysis creates a gray area, as opposed to the black and white answers I find my students are more comfortable with.  One of my dining companions was talking about providing legal advice to his Chinese clients and how even when he raises the the possibility that something may not go as planned when drafting an agreement, his clients merely respond that it will get done the way they want it to get done because that is how it is going to get done.  There is no room for the possibility of contingencies and caveats, which require thinking hypothetically and creatively about a problem.  The other people at the table generally agreed with the assessment that in China it can be hard to get people to think about this gray area when posed with questions or problems.  It’s like when I ask my students a question and they start to give the wrong answer and I encourage them to explain the logic behind their answer, even if it’s wrong.  I can see that they do not want to continue down this path if they think the answer is wrong and quickly back down rather than try to make a case for their answer.  When I have given short answer questions on tests, my students ask what would be be the right answer and I tell them that there is no right answer.  I swear that you can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to comprehend this reply.  I then try to explain that their grade will depend on their reasoning, not if the answer is right or wrong.  It’s a mindf&$k for them and I know it does not register when I explain.  I am not saying that no one in China thinks this way because that would be an absolute statement and there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to matters like this one.  However, I will say that such thinking is endemic to Chinese society because it is the way the education system is designed and perpetuated in the workplace, village, and other social settings.  Thinking outside of the box would be anathema to the government’s attempt to control the flow of information and the thoughts formed from such information. I think back to all of my encounters with students and the difficulty they tend to have with critical thinking. It’s what I also hear from U.S. law firms with whom I speak when they are recruiting in Asia – the holy grail when hiring Chinese lawyers is someone raised in China who received their law degree in the States, or even better their undergrad and law degrees in the States. The rationale is that such people are more able to seamlessly go back and forth between Chinese and western clients because they can easily switch their mindset.
Shanghai gives off the impression that it wants to be anything but Chinese with an outlook towards the rest of the world instead of inward towards the rest of China, but is this orientation enough to change what lies beneath – a way of thinking that does not readily tackle problems flexibly and critically?  There is certainly going to be some more unpacking of my action-packed weekend in Shanghai, but now I must get prepare for the week ahead and catch up on my sleep after staying out too late the previous night and dabbling in the city’s rock star expat scene.

Just wanted to write an addendum to my last post. After an amazing Thai dinner catching up with my friend Paul and his wife, Nicha, I returned to my new hotel on the Bund to this view.

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The Bund is the waterfront promenade built by the Germans and now is a stylish area of Shanghai filled with luxury hotels, designer stores, bars, and restaurants. The view is across the Huangpu River towards Pudong, the new part of Shanghai that was only built up starting in the 1990s and is today home to many multinational companies.