Sunday, January 22, 2012

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Madame metro

Last Thursday I was heading out of the metro and walked past a guitarist who was packing up her stuff for the evening. "Are you free on Saturday," I asked, "I'm having a house party and we need to some live entertainment." So, we exchanged contact info and made the plans for her to come play for an hour at my party.

Saturday, 10 pm. With the lights dimmed and candles setup around the room, she began to play for the 20 or so people who came to my party. Her voice was strong and we all wondered how someone of her size projected her voice so powerfully. As she was playing, I sat back and thought about the randomness of hiring a metro musician. Is it typical to invite a metro musician to entertain? No, but why not try it?

The past two years, between living in China and New York, have been the most consistently happy and fulfilling time of my life. Now I'm starting to understand that "why not try it" has been driving a lot of that life satisfaction.

Why not pack up everything and pursue my dreams of living abroad in China and seeing the Great Wall? In the 18 months in China, I learned about an ancient culture and language, tasted wonderful food, traveled to 10 Chinese cities, got firsthand accounts of the nations recent and tumultuous history; and generally transformed my mindset into a truly international one.

Why not try out CouchSurfing? Now that I've tried it in Beijing, Sichuan, and Hong Kong, I can say that it was one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done in that I got to interact with people who have such open and trusting spirits.

Why not move to New York and try out investment banking? The first three months were risky: no insurance, no apartment, $1,500 per month, and no guarantee of a full time position. Taking the risk was worth it, however, and now I'm full time and having a wonderful experience learning how cross-border, mid-market mergers and acquisitions works.

We need to know that our friends and loved ones will be there for us, we need to know where our next meal will come from, we need some level of predictability and stability. Yet, as these past couple of years have reinforced, we must have variety, spontaneity and a little spice in our lives.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

NYC and Me

April 2009 was my last posting. Damn. It's interesting what happens to one's desire to blog when the Chinese government goes Commi on you and shuts down your blog. I digress.

NYC has been my new home since the first week of December when I landed here from the Pearl of the East. Simply put, New York is salsa. It's alive with spice and zest. The streets overflow with restaurants, cafes, and bars. It's alive at sunrise and it sizzles at sunset.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dinner with government officials

Late last year, I had the opportunity to coach some people that worked for the XuHui district office of the Association of Industry and Commerce--China's regulatory body for business. They were participating in a city-wide English competition with about 20 other district offices, and they took first pace. So, they invited me and four other people from EnglishFirst to attend a celebration dinner.

"This is going to be expensive" was one of the first things to cross my mind when entering the restaurant. As we walked to our private room, we passed chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, formally dressed hosts, and remarkably clean halls (without cigarette stains covering the floor--a rare sight). Our dining room was fully furnished with a TV, two couches, and a private, Western-styled bathroom. We then sat down into the cushy seats at the table for 15 and the waiters began pouring wine.

Based on the amount poured, I thought that these people are either uber-light-weights or there wasn't enough wine to go around. My curiosity was soon satisfied. One of the government leaders raised his glass, said a word or two, then everyone drank. This was only the beginning. One after another, someone would get up from their seat, and walk to a powerful or respected person to toast with them. This went on for about 45 minutes, and, needless to say, I requested that subsequent wine refills match the amount of my fellow diners.

To do business in China, colloquially speaking, you need to drink. It doesn't really matter whether or not you enjoy or hold your alcohol, it's socially compulsory. My friend from the AIC, who sat right next to me, is a case-in-point. He hates drinking, and even threw up some wine into his napkin, but he kept drinking because he needed to conform with the culture.

Winning business in China is mostly done at the dinner table, not aftering discussing actual business, but after you bond with the decision maker through endless toasts. It's about establishing (perceived) trust and credibility here.

Equally interesting was how the people were seated at the table. The most powerful man faced the room's entrance, and then people were seated according to power and respect.

Although the dinner was quite nice and I'm thankful for the opportunity, I am nevertheless confronted with the fact that the dinner was a waste of taxpayer money. Sure, it was cool for them to win an English competition, but did it necessitate spending over 2,000 RMB on dinner and 1,000 RMB on silk scarves for the EF people (of which I had no use). If these officials wine-and-dine for a (relatively) pointless event, what kind of waste happens at higher-levels of government. But, hey, why should the government care? There's really nothing for them to fear in terms of accountability to the people. The futility of the dinner was highlighted when I walked past beggars in the streets on the way home.

Putting this aside, I enjoyed the food, the chance to listen to Chinese for 2 hours, and the cultural experience. And next time I'm out at a Chinese business dinner, I'll be sure to go easy with the first round of wine.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Trip to Beijing

Day 1: Monday
When I first arrived to Beijing and started walking the streets on Monday afternoon, I was surprised at some of the differences between Shanghai and Beijing. In Beijing, people are generally taller and more kind, the roads are bigger roads and city layout is more spacious, and the air is cleaner! Everyday last week, in fact, the sky was blue in the mornings and afternoons. It was a fabulous week for traveling.

After getting picked up at the metro station by a fellow couchsurfer who was staying a the same host’s apartment, we walked around a little bit until we met up with our host later that evening. When I first entered the host’s apartment, I was startled to see a huge-wooden-penis ashtray on the table. Brandon and I looked at each other with the kind of face that says, “Well, to each their own.”

My host, Alain, is flamboyantly gay and he’s very open about his lifestyle, which was admittedly awkward at first. After speaking with Alain over the 4 days I couchsurfed with him, I really came to appreciate him. He’s hosted over 30 couchsurfers and he was an incredible host who connected me with other people CSing in Beijing, told what places to see and where to eat, and he has an impeccably clean apartment, all of which made for an incredible first CouchSurf. Hanging out with Alain made me realize what CSing is all about: trusting that people are generally good and meeting a diversity of individuals.

Day 2: Tuesday
Policemen, surveillance cameras, and tons of tourists are how I can characterize Tian’anmen Square, which is simply a huge and unimpressive square of stones with a monument in the middle. What is impressive, however, is the entrance to the Forbidden City where Chairman Mao gave a speech on October 1, 1949, to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China. With the flags gloriously waving in the wind, it really hit me that I was in China and at the country’s cultural and political heart.

Before entering the Forbidden City, however, I wanted to see the location of China’s rubber-stamp congress at the Great Hall of the People. I will spare you from the boring details and simply state that the 30 RMB I paid was wasted.

Not to be deterred, my hopes were still high to see the sights Beijing had to offer, so I entered the Forbidden City (aka, the Palace Museum). This palace took over 15 years to build and I could see why. The grounds are huge and it was a great way to get a feel for how the emperor’s lavishly lived.

Heading the advice of other Couchsurfers, I soon walked north of the FC to climb to the top of Jingshan Park because the view of the Forbidden City is picturesque.

Beihai Park, to the northwest of the Forbidden City, was next of the list of sights. Upon entering the park, I stopped in my tracks to witness the beauty of the day and how majestic it made the park feel. Walking around the center island, I heard the sound of a flute play along with traditional Chinese music, and I eventually found an old man jamming out by himself with a small sound system he brought to the park.

Tuesday night was a time to meet up with more Couchsurfers, and I went to the college part of town (Wudaokou) to meet up with about 7 people, coming from England, the Netherlands, France, China, and Russia.

Day 3: Wednesday
When the sun rose early in the morning, I was still snoring the morning away. When I did awake, however, my fellow CSer and I headed to Military museum near the city-center. Filled with Communist propaganda, this 5-story museum did a pretty good job of showing the history of Chinese war.

Day 4: Thursday
Ring…ring, “Wei, ni hao.” It was 4:15 in the morning and a driver was coming to the apartment to pick me up. On a good day, my Chinese is somewhat intelligible when accompanied with sign language, but at 4:15 AM, my Chinese is horrendous. I’m still wondering how the heck the driver found me.

I opened the car door, piled into the seat, and we were off to pick up 3 more Chinese people (because I was on a Chinese tour to the Great Wall). Once they stepped into the car, I received this look that said, “What’s he doing here?” Undeterred, and with my electronic dictionary in hand, I started chatting with them to mitigate the awkwardness of ride we had left together.

We arrived in Tian’an Men Square around 6:10 AM to see the flag raising. About 1,000 people packed around the flagpole to see the color guards patiently and methodically pace out of the Meridian Gate and into the Square. The flag rose, a song played, and then it was over. Despite the simplicity, it was interesting to witness the culture and observe the observers.

The ride to the Great Wall was quick because I was counting Chinese characters in my sleep—the 4:15 wake up was catching up to me. I was awoken by the sound of the tour guide’s voice rambling on about the Great Wall, of which I understood a little. And then we approached the Great Wall—my energy levels began to increase.

Like cattle walking through a bottleneck, we eagerly exited the bus and prepared to head to the Wall for the climb. The Great Wall challenges visitors with a climb up its daunting steps from the very beginning. And from the look of the smoothed steps, millions of people have been here. It took a while to climb to the top, where a Communist-red flag waved in the wind, but upon reaching the peak, my breath was taken away.

For about 4 years, I’ve carried a piece of paper in my wallet with a list of my dreams. One of those was to see the Great Wall. Timely as it was, I pulled out the list and ceremonially checked off and dated the dream.

Climbing the Great Wall is about more than witnessing humanity’s ability to construct awe-inspiring structures. For me, standing atop the Wall was one of those reality-checking moments. It made me stop and realize that I was not only fulfilling my dreams by living in a foreign country and seeing the Wall, but that my life was significantly different from one year ago.

Later that evening, as I was about to open the apartment door, I heard people singing next door. Being the insatiably curious cat that I am, I knocked on the door to find people singing Karaoke to the TV and found my fellow Couchsurfer joining the fun. We sang a couple of numbers, then headed back to the apartment.

We didn’t want the fun to stop, so it was time for a little movie making. Dressed with rainbow wigs on our heads, we decided to make a pseudo-infomercial for Couchsurfing. Needless to say, we won’t be airing the infomercial.

Day 5: Friday
It was time to switch hosts because my host and fellow CSer were heading out of town, so I backed my bags and headed to a coffee shop early in the morning, waiting for a good time to head to my new host’s house.

My new host was 27 years old and co-owned a carbon-credit trading business that had about 5 employees. Her apartment, like my previous host’s, was spacious and clean. We talked for a little bit, then she handed me the spare key before she went to her office.

It’s worth noting the ease with which she handed me a key to her private residence despite knowing relatively nothing about me. It was one example of what Couchsurfing truly represents. The whole CS idea is predicated on the notion that people are essentially good and trustworthy. It took a tremendous amount of good faith for her to open her home to me and it reassured me that there are plenty of good, trustworthy people on this earth.

Around 6:30 it was BBQ time! Beijing CSers were having a BBQ on the roof of a bar that overlooked a beautiful lake. Forty-or-so people joined the party that night and it was good to meet people who either lived in Beijing or were CSing.

With beer and BBQ in the belly, I needed to lose a couple of calories, so I went salsa dancing with a group of people around 10:30.

Day 6: Saturday
Early (aka 8:30 am) the next morning, I took the metro to see the Beijing Capital Museum and met up with my buddy Kai with whom I went to the Great Wall. The museum did a great job of showing the history of Beijing and it showed how and why the capital of China has changed over time.

Being cooped up a little too long inside the museum on a beautiful, we need to get outside and enjoy the day, so we headed to the famous Summer Palace. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with that brilliant idea because the place was packed with foreigners and Chinese. It was a fabulous day to walk around the lake and the palace grounds.

My host had a break in her busy schedule, so later on that evening we had a chance to sit down, eating chocolate and drinking a bottle of wine for a couple of hours.

Day 7: Sunday
It was time to get on the plane back to Shanghai after a long week of meeting new people and wearing in my new sneakers walking around Beijing. In many ways, I think Beijing is a better city than Shanghai, but I feel that Shanghai would be a better home for me in the next 2 years as I study Chinese and try to continue working here in the People’s Republic of China.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CouchSurfing Video Request


CouchSurfing Request (English version)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Teacher photo!

Nine months have passed since I left the sunny shores of a San Diego for the ever-changing environment of Communist China. Here's a picture of the teaching staff I've shared these months with.