Saturday, December 18, 2010

Jumping Through More Hoops: The L-Visa Trip to Mongolia

Several weeks ago I went through one of the initiation ritual of being a foreigner living in Beijing. It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever done…

Many foreigners are living and working here on a tourist (L) visa, because work visas are notoriously hard to get unless you already have a job with a foreign company before you arrive. It’s relatively easy to get a tourist visa for up to a year, but with the stipulation that you have to leave the country every 30, 60 or 90 days, depending on the type of visa you get (mine is 60 days).  When you are working a full time job and don’t have much extra money, the cheapest and quickest way to do this is to travel a few hundred miles north to the border of China and Mongolia, cross over and come back.

Before leaving, I thoroughly researching what my fellow foreigners had done in the past on one of these trips. “Take a bus – it’s the most convenient and one of the cheapest ways to get to the border,” one of my friends had said. “Once you get there, you just have to find one of the jeeps that can take you across, as you aren’t allowed to go on foot. You just have to paying them – but I don’t remember how much.”

So late one afternoon, I boarded a long distance bus from Beijing to Inner Mongolia. These busses come fully equipped with three rows of bunk beds (something I never thought possible given width of a standard bus, but the Chinese managed to squish them in) for the 12-hour, overnight journey to the small border town of Erlian. We set out as the sun was setting and stopped for dinner a few hours later near a large power plant on the edge of Inner Mongolia, one of China’s largest and most desolate provinces. As I climb out of the bus into the freezing night, I saw a giant cooling tower framed against a vividly starry sky – the first stars I’d seen since entering China two months earlier.

That night I didn’t get much sleep. Just as I saw starting to doze off in my tiny top bunk, the bus must have started going through some mountains, because we were suddenly twisting and turning all over the place. Between motion sickness and feeling as though I was going to fall out of my bed every time we went around a corner, I only managed to doze for a few hours. When I woke the next morning, I looked out the window to see the sun just beginning to rise over the endless, flat grassland of Inner Mongolia. Arriving in Erlian around 7am, everyone disembarked and immediately began pilling into several pick-up trucks parked around the bus. Many of my companions on the bus did not seem to speak any Mandarin, so I assumed most of them were from Mongolia and had arrived here to cross over the border as well. I went up to one of the drivers and asked him in English if he was going to Mongolia. “Ah, Mongolia!” He replied in a thick accent and nodded his head enthusiastically. “The jeeps will be pretty obvious when you arrive – you can’t miss them,” one of my friends had said before I left. Confused, tired and thinking that maybe my friend had really meant trucks instead of jeeps, I pilled into the back of the pickup along with three other passengers and a load of cargo.

The trucks parked at the bus station
After dropping our companions off at various places in town (this should have given me a clue), the driver set out for the border gate. But when we arrived he stopped before the gate and said “Mongolia! 100 kuai!” I had broken two of the cardinal rules of getting around in China: Never trust an overly enthusiastic Chinese man, and always clarify/ negotiate a price before getting into a car. In protest, I began saying in mandarin that he was “cheating me,” and discovered that this man also spoke some mandarin. I managed to negotiate the price down to 25 kuai, although this was still too expensive (the “fair” price for crossing the border as I found out later is about 30, and the price of traveling across town should be about 5). It was now about 7:30, but the gate didn’t open until 8:30. So I walked back toward town to see if I could find somewhere to eat. After about 20 minutes of walking through the almost deserted down, I realized that it would take me hours to find food at this rate. A man was park on the opposite side of the road watching me, so I over to ask him where I could get some food and where I could find one of these jeeps.

The man turned out to be a local taxi driver, and he knew a number of places I could get food. He also offered to help me stop one of the jeeps that would be coming through shortly. Just then one of these jeeps started coming down the road. We stopped the driver and my new friend had a brief conversation with him in Mongolian. Then he said to me in Mandarin that it would be 60 kuai. Something told me that this was too high, so I tried to negotiate, but he just shook his head and prepared to drive away. “This is the best price you will get,” my taxi driver friend said. I tried one more time to bring the price down, but the jeep driver wouldn’t have it. Finally I started to walk away, a common tactic that usually gets Chinese people to call you back and bring their price down. But this driver just drove away – a good sign that his price had in fact been the fair one. “I told you, that is the lowest price they will offer,” my new friend said. “Usually their price is higher, but I can help you get a discount.” Feeling silly, I apologized and told the taxi driver that I would appreciate his help getting the next one. Then I asked him to take me into town to find some food. As we drove I had a nice conversation with the taxi driver. He seemed as though he really just wanted to help me. I started to let my guard down.

We pulled into a parking lot, next to several small, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. The taxi driver told me I could leave my duffle back in his car, and led me toward the nearest restaurant. We soon learned that it was closed, and move on to the next one. Finally we found one that was open, and I ordered a breakfast of generic, white buns with meat in them and some kind of Mongolian milk tea. “Take your time eating,” the taxi driver said, “I’m going to go move the car closer.” I sat at a table, watching him walk out of the restaurant and across the parking lot. Then with a sudden jolt, my complacency disappeared and alarm set in…

How could I have been so stupid? Although he didn’t know what was in it, my duffle bag was sitting in his car with my ipod, camera, and about 1000 RMB in cash. He could easily drive off with my bag and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to ever find him again. I jumped up and ran out into the parking lot, just as he was starting to drive in my direction (the exit to the parking lot was also in the same direction though). But it turned out I had nothing to worry about. As he drove up and parked in front of the restaurant, he looked at me quizzically, and I made up the excuse that I’d forgotten my hand sanitizer to clean my hands before eating. As I rummaged around in my bag pretending to look for it, I grabbed my valuables and buried them in my coat pocket.

Returning to the roadside near the border gate, the taxi driver helped me to stop another jeep (this one packed to the bursting point with cargo), and “negotiated” another 60 kuai deal for me. I took out the money to give to the jeep driver, but instead the taxi driver accepted it and directed me to squeeze into the front seat (the jeep had so much cargo that the seat itself was already pushed all the way forward, with the head resting against the glass of the front windshield). As I climbed in I notice out of the corner of my eye that the taxi driver and jeep driver were quietly exchanging something.

We arrived at the border gate, where the driver stopped and began arguing with some Chinese people waiting nearby, who looked like they also were looking for a ride. Finally he agreed to let one Chinese guy also climb into his jeep for the ride across. I was a little annoyed, as my head was already pressed against the glass and I had barely enough room to wiggle my toes. But as this guy climbed in, I noticed he was dressed much more cosmopolitan than most of the others. “Do you speak English?” I asked him. “Of course,” he replied in an American accent. “I’m from Austin, Texas. My name’s Frank.”

It was a relief that I had finally found another foreigner going through this crazy ritual. And what’s more, he had already done it nine times. As we drove across the border, he told me about how all the taxi drivers and jeep drivers were in on this whole scam together – how my taxi driver “friend” probably got a cut of the 60 kuai for convincing me that it was the market price – as well as many other details from his past experiences. Within 30 minutes we had gone through the two border gates, gotten the stamps we needed on our passports to prove that we’d left the country, and arrived in the open grasslands of real (outer) Mongolia. And then we turned around and went back through into China. I was in Mongolia for about 10 minutes.

Driving back to Beijing in the van - there's apparently a dinosaur museum in Erlian, so they had these dinosaur statues to advertise it. As you can see, there's not much else for hundreds of miles.

When we came through the gate on the other side, there were some vans waiting that Frank said could take us back to Beijing for about the same price as the bus, but we would leave in the afternoon and get back that night. We asked the driver to pick us up in town around 2pm, and set out to go explore the bustling border town of Erlian. After about 20 minutes of walking down the main street we were already bored, but I had one last mission in mind for my trip to Mongolia: bring back some Mongolian vodka that I’d heard about, called Chinggis (native spelling of Genghis). My friend had told me you can get this stuff in Erlian for less than $10 a bottle, and the quality is about the same as some of the high-end brands you’d find in the US (it’s much better than Absolute, for example). I went into a few shops that were selling it, and eventually negotiated a good deal for eight bottles, which I planned to sell to people in Beijing when I got back.

A few hours later, Frank and I piled into the van, and started heading for Beijing at top speed. We arrived back around 10pm, and the driver dropped me at my apartment. Feeling very car sick (getting back in eight hours meant this guy was speeding everywhere) and hungry, I was glad to be back in Beijing (in time for Halloween the next night), having successfully completed my first ritual visa trip.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sino-American climate & energy relations

As many of you know, this is a topic of great interest to me. Recently I've been lucky enough to participate in the dialogue on this issue at a higher level than usual. A few weeks ago I had an article published in the first issue of the Collegiate Energy Association Journal, and next week I will be participating in a debate on China's support of its clean energy sector for the Beijing Energy & Environmental Roundtable. Finally, my job at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has given me the opportunity to give a presentation and write a policy memo (both in Chinese... gulp) on how the current political environment in the US is affecting its actions toward China on energy and climate change. My audience will be some of the Chinese delegates who will be attending the upcoming climate summit in Cancun in a few weeks, so its pretty important that I know my stuff.
I'll have more on how the debate and presentation went next week, but first here's the text of the article I wrote for the CEA Journal (it was written last spring):
“Why Moving to China is the Patriotic Thing To Do”
By Daniel Enking
I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a strategic discussion on energy innovation in Massachusetts, led by Congressman Markey and Undersecretary of Energy Johnson. Hosted at Tufts University, the discussion brought together several dozen of New England’s leading cleantech professionals to voice their concerns and give their input on how the Department of Energy and Congress could better support this sector.
Several times during this discussion, the specter of Chinese competition was raised. Far from just Thomas Friedman’s rhetoric, there seems to be real concern that China is beating the US in the global “cleantech race.” As Congressman Markey pointed out however, the “brain state” can help America to win this cleantech race by creating and retaining human capital and encouraging homegrown innovation.
Afterward I was taking with a prominent member of the Boston cleantech community who was asking me what I plan to do after I graduate. “Well,” I said, “I’m planning to look for a job in the cleantech sector in China.” His response caught be by surprise, “Oh, really…” he said, in a tone that implied it might as well have been the 1960s and I had just told him I was going to go build rockets for the Soviet Union. It suddenly dawned on me that this had probably been the wrong thing to say after what I had just heard. “Well, yes…” I stammered, “but my motivations are patriotic at heart.”
In fact, this was not the first time my motives for planning to move to China had been questioned. A few weeks ago, in response to hearing what I was planning to do after graduation, one of my friends had asked me in an only semi-mocking tone, “Why do you hate America?” The truth is, I believe there are two false assumptions underlying these statements.
First, the cleantech “race” between China and the US is not a zero-sum game. In a recent white paper, “Joined at the Hip: The US-China clean energy relationship,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance makes the case that both countries have their own comparative advantages when it comes to developing, manufacturing and installing clean energy systems, and these advantages are necessarily complementary (this is not a new concept, by the way). While China may be able to drive down the cost of manufacturing, many of the technologies and component parts for solar panels and wind turbines were and are still being developed in the US.
Second, moving to China does not make me an un-patriotic American. Rather than just seeing an opportunity to personally profit from the cleantech boom in China, I see an opportunity to gain skills and experience by working in China that I can then use to help these two countries to cooperate more on clean energy in the future. As many people have recognized, the Sino-American relationship will probably be the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, and energy is one of the most significant challenges we will face this century. But without a certain level of mutual understanding that can only be gleaned from cultural exchange, this relationship will not be able to flourish.
In the end, I believe I’m doing my country a great service by moving to China, and I hope that many other Chinese and American students see the same opportunity as I do. America may need to lead, but our energy challenges cannot be solved alone.

A thousand points of light…but where’s the course?

Well, it’s been almost a month and a half since I’ve had a chance to sit down and share what’s been going on. My only excuses are that I’ve been super busy, and that my daily life in Beijing has not made quite as interesting of a story as the time when I was traveling around Southeast Asia. But it hasn’t been boring either: in fact, my life nearly six months after graduating is anything but stable and routine. So here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to.

Apart from my full time job/ internship at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which I’ll detail in my next post), my spare time has been consumed by mainly by three things: Looking for an apartment, looking for an part time English teaching job, and going to lots of social/ networking events.

The first is not as straightforward as it might sound. Rather than just bunking up with some other expats, which would have been the easy thing to do, I’ve been looking for a Chinese roommate that would be willing to speak mostly Chinese with me. Many people have told me this is by far the best way to immerse yourself in Chinese language, but its also pretty hard to connect with Chinese people in Beijing who don’t speak much English. As a result, I’ve continued to “couchsurf” around Beijing, staying mostly with my Tufts classmates and sometimes with people from

My first stab at looking for a Chinese roommate involved going on the Beijing Craigslist and a website called the Beijinger, which also allows people to post classified ads. But most of the people posting these spoke English, or were just real estate agents advertising apartments that were not guaranteed to also have Chinese people living in them. The few that were posted by Chinese people were often located in horribly inconvenient locations far away from the city center (in Beijing, that can mean over an hour to get to work on the subway, not to mention an expensive cab ride home after a late night out). I then tried a few of the all Chinese classified websites, but after I finally deciphered the specific terms describing the conditions of the apartments that were being offered, I realized almost all of these were being advertised by real estate agents as well. I finally found one category called “he zu,” which literally translates to “cooperative renting.” This seemed like a good shot, since it implied other Chinese people would be living in the apartment I would be renting. After looking at a few of these places however, I realized this wasn’t what I was looking for either. These apartments were designed for people who wanted to isolate themselves: they usually didn’t include a common room of any type, but instead had three or four bedrooms that might as well have been separate apartments. So that on to plan C…

I decided I might have to relax my standards a bit, and start looking for Chinese people who also spoke English. Just as I was starting to do this, I came across a classified written by a 23 year old Chinese guy who was looking for a roommate, and from the looks of the ad didn’t speak very good English. I gave him a call and the next day we met over dinner to discuss the potential for us to room together. His English name was Allen and he worked for a German NGO doing Corporate Social Responsibility work. Even better, we spent the entire dinner speaking Chinese. I thought I’d found my roommate at last…

But then he sent me an email a few days later saying his landlord wouldn’t let him out of his current apartment for another two months (or else he would lose the two months rent that he had already put down in advance, a common requirement in Beijing). With winter setting in the number of new places to couchsurf dwindling, this wasn’t an option for me. So I went back to Craigslist and almost immediately found an apartment being advertised by two young Chinese girls. They can both speak English, but at this point it’s probably the best I’m going to find. I’ll be moving in there in a few days, but I may still search for an apartment to live in with Allen after his two months rent is up.

About three weeks ago, I decided in order to make some extra cash, I should start doing some English tutoring on the side. There are tons of schools in Beijing looking for part time teachers to do one-on-one tutoring, and they pay pretty handsome hourly wages: about the equivalent of $30 per hour. After a quick search on the Beijinger, I found a few schools looking for part time English teachers. I sent my resume to one, and got a positive response in less than 24 hours. “All right,” I thought, “I’m on my way to some relatively easy extra income!”

Not exactly… after going into the school’s corporate-looking office for an “interview,” I was “hired” under the condition that the school would pair me with potential students, and I would do a free, 20 minute “demo” for each student before starting to teach them. Over the last three weeks I’ve done about seven demos, some of them taking nearly two hours because the students showed up late and demanded longer demos, and so far I don’t have a single student. What they didn’t tell me is that I would be competing with several other potential teachers for each student, and that even if the student liked me the best, there was no guarantee that they would even start taking lessons. Some had problems with the price – another wanted two demos and a week worth of free lessons before starting to pay. A few days ago I finally decided I’d had enough. I’m not looking for a school that will either pay me for the demos, or guarantee that I will have a certain number of students (other foreigners have told me these schools exist).

And finally, the more fun – although just as unfruitful – way I’ve spent my free time: going to Beijing social events. From bar trivia nights, to energy & environmental networking events, to Tufts alumni events, to Ultimate Frisbee pick-up, to concerts, to house parties – Beijing is full of opportunities to meet foreigners and Chinese alike. I’ve met a lot of cool people, but more of them seem to be in the same situation as me (either unemployed or unhappy with their current job) than have been able to offer me any leads.

And this is where I find myself at the moment: with less than two months until the official end of my internship (not to mention when my student loan payments kick in), I’m starting to wonder what my next move should be. I recently received some advice from a friend that I should consider looking for a job in one of China’s “second-tier” cities (i.e. not Beijing, Shanghai or Guangdong). This is not the first time I’ve been given this advice by a wise person who I look up to. It’s true that these three cities are becoming saturated with foreigners and repatriated Chinese students who have the advantage of being bilingual, and it would be a more unique/ immersive experience to go somewhere like Hangzhou, Kunming, Chengdu or Wuhan. But the main problems are 1) How do I find a job in one of these cities without going there first and 2) Is my Chinese good enough to get by in a work setting where almost no one speaks English? The answer to these two questions is still unclear, but I’m going to have to figure it out in the next month or so, or settle for what I can find in Beijing...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The World’s Toxic Waste Dump… or, One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

So far I’ve tried to devote most of my posts to travel stories, with an occasional commentary on my favorite topics: the environment, energy, international politics and culture. However I recently had an idea that I’m dying to share with you, even though it’s only marginally related to my current travel adventures.

I want to talk to you about trash. And pollution. And how we can turn these things into valuable resources.

Last year I saw a video about what happens to electronic waste from the United States and other western countries. It shows how most of it is exported to places like Africa, India and China, and how one city in China is overrun with electronic waste pilling up everywhere. It gets sorted through and “recycled” by Chinese workers, who suffer from mercury poisoning and breath in toxic fumes from burning plastic. I saw some of this pollution first hand last summer, and it is not pretty. You can see some pictures of China’s worst waste and pollution disasters here (warning: some of these photos are quite disturbing, so don’t look at them right before eating dinner).
E-waste dump in China. Image published by Time, 2009
If you are like me, looking at those pictures probably makes you at least a little queasy, and probably also makes you feel pretty pessimistic about the human race’s chances of survival if we keep doing things like this. From mountains of car tires, to millions of tons of food scraps, to electronic waste, to greenhouse gas emissions, our civilization is producing and dumping unimaginably large amounts of waste into the water, earth and atmosphere every day.

Ok, many of you already know this is happening. Some of you even have some ideas on how to solve it. But did you know there is an emerging school of thought that says that in fact we can recycle, reuse, and reduce our waste down to zero? When I was in elementary school, my 3rd grade teacher, Tom McKibben (brother of the climate activist Bill McKibben), asked me to draw an invention. So I drew what I called an “everything recycling machine.” You simply put all your trash into one end of the machine, and it would magically appear on the other side as something useful, like food or energy or water. Of course as I grew more mature, I realized that this was impossible… or was it?

Enter William McDonough, famous architect and author of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. I saw him speak at the World Future Energy Summit nearly three years ago, but his words have stuck with me every since: “If our design is for destruction, then we are doing a pretty good job. If not, then we need a new kind of design.” His idea is that everything from your house to your car to the soles of your shoes can be designed in a way that it can be reused in the future, or when it gets discarded, it will be able to seamlessly integrate back into nature without any harmful side effects. Here’s another interesting article on how companies can design their products and services to be fundamentally sustainable by thinking about the materials going into them.
Fully recyclable shoe based on the Cradle to Cradle method.  
So here’s my idea. After successfully starting a compost pile at the Tufts European Center this summer (thanks to George Ellmore’s expert and enthusiastic advice), I started thinking about compost. Compost can be made from many things, but especially from what in fact accounts for almost 50% of our trash: food and paper waste. What’s more, as that compost is breaking down, it’s producing more than just fertilizer for your organic garden: it’s also releasing heat – enough heat to boil water – as well as methane gas, and water. Harnessing these resources can be achieved simply with a closed storage container for your compost, with tubes to siphon off the methane into one tank, and heat water in another tank. So what was once considered trash – food scraps, paper, other organic materials – could now be used to heat and power your house, as well as fertilize and water your garden! That sounds pretty close to an “everything recycling machine” to me. The saddest part is that a Frenchman named Jean Pain came up with this idea back in the 1980s, and its only now being given serious attention by cities like Boston as a way of using waste to solve our waste and energy problems. I think there might be a potential business in this idea.
Jean Pain's compost to energy method. Image published by Reader's Digest, 1981
So I started thinking about where something like this would make sense. The first place that comes to mind is Dragon Spring Temple, the only temple in Beijing where there are still monks practicing Buddhism. My friend Bonnie, founder of an organization called Green Living, introduced me to the temple last summer. The temple is a beautiful and tranquil place, with an organic garden situated inside the walls. The only problem is that the inhabitants just set up a small coal power station to provide the temple with electricity. Since the temple houses nearly a hundred people in a nearby dorm, where they probably produce a lot of food scraps, an energy and organic fertilizer generating compost pile would make a perfect pilot project to replace the coal furnace.

This would be a great thing to implement on a large scale in China, because it addresses many of China’s environmental problems all at once: the need for waste disposal, clean energy and potable water (which can be extracted from the compost or added to fields with the fertilizer). But it would also make a lot of sense in my hometown of Freeport Maine, where the concentration of restaurants producing food waste (there are at least 30 in downtown alone), and organic farmers looking for non-industrial fertilizer right down the road, creates a perfect market. Going a step or two further, what if this technology were refined to the point where a small system could be retrofitted into every American home? In places like New England, where you are always raking leaves and hauling branches off your lawn, the products of these otherwise annoying chores could be put into a mini power plant to provide you with methane for producing electricity, heat for space heating and cooling, and fertilizer for your backyard garden! This could be the new Bloom Box, but unlike the Bloom Box it could probably be developed and scaled for much less money.

This might be my new project when I return to the US in a few years. For now though, I think being in China presents a great opportunity for a business like this. Now I just need to get my Chinese skills up to a business level…

Please comment and let me know what you think about this idea.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Breaking the “Expat Bubble”

So here I am, at last, in Beijing: my final destination in China and probably my home for the next few years. But making a new life here – one that allows me to become fluent in Chinese while also working in the clean energy sector – is much easier said then done.

In fact, I recently realized that my life for the past several years has been working toward this moment. Almost exactly eight years ago, at the start of my freshman year in high school, I walked into Sherman’s Book Store in Freeport, Maine and saw a book called The Hydrogen Economy. Intrigued by the title, I bought the book that would in the following months open my eyes to the ideas of climate change, peak oil, the conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the promise of renewable energy. My friends in high school will remember my constant obsession with hydrogen (many jokes were made about it around the lunch table) and my teachers will remember how I tried to tailor all my school projects to address this topic. During my senior year I did a project on the rise of China and the country’s quest for energy resources to fuel its economic development. When I got to Tufts, the natural course of action seemed to be to start studying Chinese so that I could one day go to the Far East to work on one of the world’s most daunting environmental challenges.

Studying languages has never come easy to me. I had quit French half way through high school to study Latin, and because Latin at Freeport High School is painfully easy, I never learned any good language study skills. So the first few years of studying one of the hardest languages for a westerner to learn were tough, to say the least. It was often difficult to remember why I had started and a few times I was close to giving up. But studying abroad and working in Beijing after my junior refreshed my memory and strengthened my language skills. As some of you will remember, I lived with a family on the outskirts of Beijing, an area dominated by one of Beijing’s largest steel mills, which is surrounded by coal power plants that extend all the way into the surrounding mountains. I wrote an article about the area’s environmental problems for an online news publication called GlobalPost, which you can view here.

So now I’ve graduated and finally returned to China to begin doing what I set out to do eight years ago: bringing the green revolution to China. But how exactly do I get started?

Since I arrived in Beijing I’ve encountered a few realities that have constantly challenged me to reassess what I need to do in order to meet my goals of becoming fluent in Chinese and getting to know the Chinese clean energy sector:

1)    The Expat Bubble. The community of foreigners, or “expatriates” in Beijing is very small in comparison to the city’s overall population, making it feel as though you are living in a small town when it comes to meeting expats. Furthermore, expats all like to do the same things, such as go to bars, attend lectures and networking events, play Ultimate Frisbee, go hiking, etc. So its very easy to meet other expats, and bond over the funny English translations that you see daily, or the Chinese peasant man that you saw pulling a cart down the street, or the part-time English teaching/ translating job that you just landed. But aside from a few Chinese people I met through my internship and a student-run conference last summer, it’s been difficult to meet any Chinese people, or hang out with them with any frequency. And the ones you do meet often speak English. I was warned about this phenomenon before I came here, but now dealing with the realities of it has proven challenging.
2)    A saturated market. It seems like everyone has gotten China fever every since foreigners really began to realize the vast potential of the Chinese market in the last 15 years. The energy and environmental sectors in particular have become a popular area for foreigners to work, as China is poring massive amounts of money into stimulating this area. This combined with the economic crisis that has driven many young Americans to China where they become “economic refugees,” has made clean energy jobs for foreigners in Beijing much more competitive.
3)    While my Chinese language ability is conversational, it is still not up to a level where I can use it in a professional setting. As the job market for foreigners becomes increasingly competitive here, Chinese language ability is becoming a critical skill that is required for most good, high paying jobs.

The fact that five of my classmates from Tufts are also in Beijing only intensifies the bubble. On the other hand, it also adds a level of familiarity and comfort to know that a little bit of Tufts came with me to Beijing. It has also made it much easier for me to live here while I search for an apartment and Chinese roommate(s). The first week I was here I staid with my friend Sam Goodman, whom I worked with last summer at JUCCCE, and who I brought to Tufts last year to talk about his new book, Where East Eats West: The Street-Smarts Guide to Business in China. This week I will be staying with my friend Alex Ornik, whose roommate is back in the US for a few weeks. I’ve also managed to get back in touch with a few other friends I made last summer through events like the Beijing Energy Network, Green Drinks and the International Youth Summit on Energy and Climate Change.

While they are still part of the expat bubble for the most part, rejoining these networks has helped me find several job opportunities so far. The Beijing Energy Network is a Google group that hosts regular speaking and networking events at venues in Beijing, and people posts lots of job opportunities on the group page. Green Drinks is an environmental networking event that has chapters in cities all over the world. Through these events I found a job opportunity to work as the Communications Manager for an NGO called the China Carbon Forum. In this role I would be helping to plan high level meetings and discussions among the Beijing energy communities top executives, do event follow up, work with sponsors and maintain the website. This sounds like a great opportunity, but the downsides are that I would be speaking English most of the time, and the pay is next to nothing. I also interviewed for an internship position with a firm called Sindicatum Carbon Capital, which develops clean energy projects to be registered under the Clean Development Mechanism, a global framework set up under the Kyoto Protocol that allows countries to meet their carbon reduction obligations by purchasing credits created by projects in other countries. Since China has no commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, but is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, there are dozens of companies that have sprung up in China solely to develop these projects.

It was a bit of a wake-up call however, when I was asked to conduct part of the interview with Sindicatum in Chinese, and I realized how much my Chinese skills have deteriorated in the last year. There is still a lot of advanced vocabulary that I haven’t learned or forgot since I stopped studying Chinese about a year ago. It’s going to be a steep learning curve to get my Chinese up to a professional level within the next few months.

The internship that I just accepted however is probably the most interesting among these and for the time being doesn’t require a professional level of Chinese ability. Before I came to China, Professor Gallagher at the Tufts Fletcher School introduced me to one of her colleagues, Professor Pan, who heads the Research Center for Sustainable Development, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and is also connected to Beijing University. In this role I would be working for an arm of the Chinese government (also at a very low salary) to put together a policy brief on energy policy in the US and Europe, and to help edit the Institute’s English language publications. While my work will be mostly in English, I will be exposed to the workings of a Chinese organization, and working pretty much exclusively with people whose native language is Chinese. The internship will last for a month, with a possible two-month extension and pay raise if things go well. This will pay me just enough to cover living expenses and will give me time to continue look for a full time job.

And speaking of full time jobs, I went in for an “informational interview” at Bloomberg New Energy Finance a few days ago. Of all the companies working on climate and energy in Beijing, this company is the one I want to work for the most. Bloomberg is an internationally recognized media and financial information company, which conducts in-depth research on the “new” energy market in China and sells it to leading investment firms and project developers. The Chinese office manager with whom I interviewed was very nice and enthusiastic, and was interested in considering me for a position at some point in the future if something should open up. It would probably require a higher level of Chinese than I have now, so this will give me a stronger incentive to find a way to break this expat bubble and start immersing myself in Chinese language and culture, the only sure way to learn.

Yesterday the Chinese celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival; a holiday where many Chinese people go home to be with their families, and everyone eats small pastries called “moon cakes.” Yesterday was also one of the cleanest days I’ve ever seen in Beijing. The sky was perfectly blue and a cool breeze began blowing in from the Northwest. As I went for a run in Ritan Park near Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD), it was hard not to be optimistic. But I’ve still got a lot of challenges ahead.

Around the World in a Day

Almost every country in the world has a pavilion displaying their country’s greatest achievements in Shanghai this summer, for an audience that will rank in the several tens of millions. As I write this, 55,368,100 people have visited the Shanghai World Expo according to their website, and with a month and a half left to go, close to 70 million are expected to have visited before the end. When measured by the number of visitors and duration of the event, the Expo easily surpasses the 2008 Beijing Olympics as China’s largest international event in history.

Advertisements in the subway
So what is the World Expo?

Remember the World's Fair that was hosted in New York in the 1930s and 1960s? Well, it’s kinda like that. Except rather than being dominated by corporations, each country has its own building (or in some cases groups of countries have one big building housing all their pavilions) which contain everything from miniature movie theaters playing videos about the country, to commercial and cultural exhibits, to interactive activities that help you learn about the country. Some of the pavilions have really cool interior and exterior design – you can see some really good pictures here.

Because the vast majority of the people coming to visit the Expo during its six months of operation are probably from what Tufts alumnus Dan Loeb identifies as China’s 100 million person ‘consumer class,’ most of the pavilions are designed for an audience that is well off, but not quite as worldly as most foreign travelers visiting the expo might be. As a result the material in the pavilions is a little basic, and many of them failed to follow the “Better city, better life” theme in favor of advertising their country’s best tourist destinations. I was lucky enough to get this and many other perspectives on the Expo before going to tour it from Scott and the many other students Ambassadors for the US pavilion. So when I finally went to the Expo, I knew what was worth seeing and what wasn’t (I was also able to cut a lot of the 2-3 hour lines when Scott showed his staff badge at the entrance – thanks Scott).

Outside the massive "theme" pavilion
Scott and I ended up spending most of our time in the “theme pavilion,” the largest pavilion at the Expo, where a number of thought-provoking exhibits and videos told the story of urban living, pollution, and the path to sustainability. The first section had an exhibit focusing on the lives of six families from different cities around the world (Phoenix, AR, US; San Paulo, Brazil; Johannesburg, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia, Amsterdam, Holland and Lijiang, China). The exhibit included life-sized wax status of each family, and a short video documenting their everyday lives. The goal was to show how similar the lives of people are in cities around the world, despite all our cultural differences. 
A cool idea but a bad translation
The second portion of the pavilion had some very provocative displays demonstrating the problems of urban sprawl, urban waste and pollution. There were 50-foot tall models of apartment buildings made entirely out of beer crates and other urban structures constructed from materials that would otherwise end up in the trash. There was a mural depicting an urban landscape with famous buildings from every city in the world in the background, and mounds of trash in the foreground. Later on we came upon a room with a dome shaped ceiling playing a video depicting the evolution of a Chinese cityscape. It began with a small town in the countryside that quickly sprouted high-rises, skyscrapers and a concrete jungle of highways and overpasses. The sky turned dark and mounds of trash began to pile up. Then, out of the trash began to grow flowers. The buildings began to sprout solar panels and wind turbines grew out of a hillside that was previously lined with apartments. The sky turned blue again and a river flowing through the center turned from brown to blue. It was a very powerful image that I hope began to captivate the imaginations of the millions of Chinese people coming through the pavilion.
Vision of a better future
The “Better city, better life” theme of the World Expo is a great indication that the Chinese government has realized that it will have a serious problem on its hands if it doesn’t begin to address urban pollution and climate change. This is also evident in the many eco-city projects that have begun to sprout up around China. Whether this goal will be achieved and these projects will be successfully implemented however is another question.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A “high context” culture

Figuring out how to get around in China can often be a complicated and annoying process. Often times the signs don’t make any sense (today I saw a road sign that directed you either North or South on a road that was clearly running East-West), and the fact that the road signs are sometimes written with phonetic pronunciations often doesn’t help you communicate where you want to go to a Chinese person, unless you can read all the characters anyway – because without knowing the tones, you could be saying something completely different than what is written.

Asking Chinese people for directions can be an even more frustrating process than trying to navigate by yourself. The fact that China is a “high context” culture (you are always expected to read deeper than the actual words that people say) and that Chinese people are constantly worried about saving face makes the simple question of “how do I get to location A?” much more complex.  The most common response to this question is “It’s in that direction” with a tone that suggests the place is very easy to find, combined with a waving of an arm in the general direction, even if the place you are looking for involves turning onto several different streets. I’ve also discovered (the hard way) that even if a person has no idea, they will sometimes still point you in a random direction with an attitude of utmost certainty, in order to save face. The fact that my Chinese is still a bit rusty doesn’t help either.

The best way that I’ve discovered to insure yourself against being the victim of bad directions is to ask several people for directions to the same place and go with the greatest common denominator, and to ask multiple follow-up questions. Here’s an example from when I was trying to navigate my way back to the Hangzhou Train Station by bus. I had just boarded one bus and was trying to figure out to which bus I needed to go next.

(In Chinese)
Me: “Excuse me, do you know what bus I should take to get to Hanghou South Station?”
Old woman: “You want to go to the train station or bus station?”
Me: “Train station”
Old women: “Well, to get to the bus station…”
Me: “No, the train station…”
Old woman: “Oh… then you want to take the 76 bus.”
Old man next to her: “Yes, the 76 bus!”
Second old man next to him: “That’s right, it’s the 76 bus!”
Me: “ok, at what station should I change to that bus?”
[Old woman looks like she is pondering]
Old women: “You said you want to go to the train station?”
Me: “Yes, the train station.”
Old woman to a middle aged women standing nearby: “He wants to go to the train station…”[at this point they start arguing very fast and I can’t really understand them]
Middle aged woman: “You want to go to the train station? Then you should take the 315 bus.”
Me: “Ok, how do I get to that bus?”
Middle aged women: “Hmmm, how do you get there…?” [Puts her finger over her mouth and looks up, pondering. The old woman starts arguing with the old men. Then the middle-aged woman joins in]
Old women: “You want to take the 76 bus. I will take you there.”
Middle aged women: “No, it’s definitely the 305 or the 315 bus. I will take you there!”
Old man: “Yes, she will take you there, follow her!” [Said with no indication as to which women I should follow]
Second old man: [seeing the confused look on my face] “Do you understand what we are saying to you?”

I vaguely remembered seeing a 315 bus at the train station the day before. I looked at the old women, and she appeared to have lost the argument, because she didn’t object to the middle-aged woman’s offer. So I agreed to go with the middle-aged woman, and a few stops later I followed her off the bus. We walked for a few blocks and then came to the bus station, where a sign indicated that the bus did indeed go to Hangzhou South Train Station. When it comes to giving direction, Chinese people are either not very helpful, or overly helpful. There is rarely an in between. But if you want to get past the generalities in the ‘not very helpful’ stage, you have to be persistant.

Déjà vu in Hangzhou

There’s a famous Chinese saying that goes something like this: “Above there is heaven, below there is Hangzhou and Suzhou.”

Two years ago I studied abroad in what is considered one of the most beautiful cities in China. Hangzhou is only an hour and a half train ride from Shanghai, so I decided to take a day trip to visit my old Professor and my Alma Mater.

Before leaving for Hangzhou however, I returned to one of the areas in Shanghai that my friends and I had frequented when visiting Shanghai two years ago. Renmin Guangchang, or the “People’s Park” is situated across the river from Pudong (the famous part of Shanghai’s skyline that includes the Oriental Pearl Tower), in the heart of Shanghai’s financial district. There is a hostel near the park at which my friends and I staid, and a street with lots of good restaurants (the real reason why I came back here). Shanghai is famous for a certain type of dumplings, called “Xiao long bao,” otherwise known as Shanghai steamed dumplings, and there is a restaurant called Yang’s Fried Dumplings that makes an especially good Xiao long bao. The minute I arrived at People’s Park I was hit with major déjà vu. Although I remember the area well, I didn’t remember exactly where the restaurant street, or Yang’s, was located. I walked around in search of this place for almost an hour, returning to our old hostel at one point to ask for directions. I finally found what appeared to be Yang’s Fried Dumplings, but something didn’t seem right – the storefront looked the same, but the street it was on was not as I remembered it. The road was freshly paved and wider than I remember, and I didn’t recognize any of the other restaurants nearby. Perhaps I don’t remember it as well as I thought, or maybe a lot has just changed in two years – in China, this is very possible.
Area around People's Park
Line outside Yang's Friend Dumplings
I arrived at the Hangzhou South Railway Station in the early afternoon and got on a bus that I hoped would take me across the city to the edge of Xi hu, or the West Lake, where the campus for the International School of Zhejiang University is located. When I was studying abroad my friends and I had rarely taken the bus, as most of the places we went in Hangzhou were close enough to ride a bike, or it was more convenient to take a cab. Traveling across Hangzhou by bus though, I realized how large the city is and how much of the city I hadn’t seen. With a population of about 6 million, Hangzhou is still considered a medium sized city in China. It took me over an hour to cross Hangzhou’s sprawling outer rim into the heart of the city, situated on the east side of Xi hu. Arriving at the West Lake, I was reminded of why the Chinese compare Hangzhou to heaven: looking across the lake one can see several pagodas sitting atop the hills that turn into rolling mountains which form one of China’s largest nature reserves on the east coast. Lilly’s grow at the lake’s edge and a causeway lined with trees crosses the lake near its center. I bough some yang rou chuanr (lamb cabob) from a restaurant stand and ate lunch on a bench by the lakeside, remembering the time that I met a girl from Chengdu via couchsurfing and walked with her around the lake one afternoon.
The West Lake
View more pictures from Hangzhou and Shanghai here.

My old Professor and the Director of the Tufts in China study abroad program, Jay Yang, had asked me to come to his class that afternoon and give the students some advice about living in China. When I arrived at the Zhejiang University campus, flood of memories came rushing back; of walking to lunch with my classmates, riding my bike to class, and playing Frisbee on a field under the shadow of a 50 foot tall statue of Mao Zedong. I have a lot of great memories of that time, but as I walked across campus I realized most of them involved my Tufts classmates or other foreign students, and very few Chinese students. So my main piece of advice for Jay’s class was for the students to break out of their foreign student bubble and go find Chinese friends. This is difficult to do at Zhejiang University, where all the foreign students are housed in the same dorm and take language classes together. But during my time in China I’ve found other ways to make Chinese friends (on 25 hour train rides for starters). In the long run, meeting locals is the best way to improve any language and to really understand the culture.
Zhejiang University Foreign Student's Dorm

Contrary to my own advice however, I invited some of the students out that night to Reggae bar, a nightclub in Hangzhou that I had frequented as a student. Reggae bar has a relaxing atmosphere and often has live bands playing. Once again I was reminded of my nights out in Hangzhou, and all the good times spent there. One of the most vivid memories I had of my time in Hangzhou however was my apprehension toward speaking Chinese. As I visited all these places that I hadn’t seen for two years, I realized how far my ability and confidence in speaking Chinese has progressed. One sign of this was that although Jay spoke to me mostly in English, he sometimes drifted into Chinese, most of which I understood. The last time I was in Hangzhou I usually couldn’t understand what he was saying, so he always spoke to me in English. Hopefully by the next time I return to Hangzhou I will be able to speak with him entirely in Chinese.

Another travel “adventure”

Me and all my bags
I thought I had figured this out.

As I barreled through the Shenzhen train station, with 60 pounds of baggage hanging off me, I really felt like a bull in a china shop – pushing people aside, saying “rang yi xia, rang yixia!” (“allow me a second to pass”), and nearly taking out an old women with my garment bag. It was 1:20. My train was scheduled to leave at 1:28.

After my last trip I decided to start planning more in advance. I was going to wake up at 9:00, pack my bags, eat breakfast and head out by 11:00; plenty of time to take the subway from Hong Kong to Shenzhen and go through customs, then get a quick cab to the train station. At 9:00am on September 3rd, my phone began playing a really loud and obnoxious rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I turned it off and rolled back over, then thought better and turned back to reset my alarm for 9:10…

At 11:30am I finally woke up and looked at the clock. In alarm, I jumped out of bed and rushed into the living room, where I began frantically shoving my cloths and other belongings into my two backpacks’, duffle bag and garment bag. I couldn’t figure out what had happened until I looked at the clock on my phone and noticed it was 10 minutes fast. In my semi-conscious state earlier that morning I had accidentally reset my clock instead of my alarm. I finally left the apartment at 12:05pm and ran across the street through the poring rain to the subway. I still had enough time to make my train if I hurried, and taking a cab all the way to Shenzhen would have been almost as expensive as my train ticket, so I continued with my original plan.

Getting off the subway in Shenzhen, I rushed to the customs gate. Even though Hong Kong is technically part of China now, it still functions very much like its own country. You have to pass a customs office to exit Hong Kong, followed by a Chinese customs inspection to enter China. As I waited in the line market for “foreigners,” with my four large bags, I drew some stares even from foreigners (who I would think by this time are used to seeing strange sights like me in this crazy country). Finally reaching the other side, I rushed to the road and grabbed a cab at 12:45. I threw my backpacks and duffle bag into the trunk (I’ve gotten quite efficient at this by now) and jumped into the back seat with my garment bag. Seventeen minutes later we pulled up to the Shenzhen train station where I leaped out of the cab and ran around to open the trunk. I pushed the button but it wouldn’t open. The cab driver came around with his key and turned the lock, pushing in the button, but it still wouldn’t open. He kept pushing it, banging on the hood, and jiggling the key. It wouldn’t budge. The cab driver knew I how little time I had, and he began to start getting frantic (this is not to mention how I was feeling at this point). Two men selling carts for travelers to use to bring their luggage into the train station came over to see what was going on. “What time does your train leave?” One of them asked. “about 1:30” I replied. “1:30? Oh, you’re not going to make your train!” No sh*t. Thanks for your optimism.

I climbed into the back seat of the cab to see if the seat would pull down and I could get my bags that way, but after prying down the seat, there was only one small opening, far to small to fit my bags through. Finally, after banging and jiggling for about fifteen minutes, the trunk finally came open. It was now 1:18. I threw my forty-pound backpack on my back, grabbed my other bags, and started running toward the entrance. The entrance to every train station in China has a security check point, with a metal detector and conveyer belt for luggage like in an airport. Thankfully these lines always move fast, but the speed at which they move and the chaos that ensues as people queue to go through them only reinforces their pointlessness. As I threw my bags onto the conveyer belt and began walking through the metal detector, a little girl ran between my legs, setting off the detector. The security guard didn’t even flinch however, and I quickly grabbed my bags (nearly getting knocked over in the process by people frantically trying to grab their own bags behind me) and began running toward the escalator to the platform. I arrived at the platform at 1:27 and ran toward a closed gate with a women standing on the other side. “Open the gate!” I shouted. “I can’t” she replied. “The train has already left.”

Frustrated and exhausted, I slumped down on the floor by the gate, panting. I pulled an orange out of my bag and began pealing it, hoping to retain some energy before I figured out my next move. A security guard came over and told me I had to move, but at that moment I physically couldn’t carry my bags any further. “Wo xian chi, ranhou qu.” I said rather forcefully (I’m going to eat first, then I’ll go). The guard didn’t like that, but one of the other guards seemed to take pity on me and told me I could stay for the time being. He asked me what had happened and I told him. He took my ticket and wrote something on the back, telling me to go down to the ticket office and ask them to change my ticket. Thirty minutes later, after I had regained my strength, I lugged my bags downstairs and waited in the ticket line to see what my fate would be. The lady at the counter looked at what was written on the back, and then gave me a new sleeper ticket for the next day, with no additional charge.

I found a cheap hotel and spent the night in Shenzhen. Sitting in the hotel room, I considered the fact that things could have been worse. At least I still had a bed for the 25-hour train ride the next day. I knew these kinds of things would happen when I started on this adventure, and I’m sure there will be more before the end. But someday I’ll laugh about this. For now I’m just glad to have a shower and a bed. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Couchsurfing & sight seeing in Hong Kong

It’s amazing to see all the different types of people, from different walks of life, that you meet when you are traveling. Staying at Sean’s tiny apartment on the outskirts of Hong Kong, with his mother, two brothers and lots of other couchsurfers, it really was like staying at a busy hostel. For a few days you cross paths with very different people from all over the world and connect through the one thing you have in common: a passion for travel (for those of you that aren’t familiar with couchsurfing, check out their website).
Out to dinner with Sean's couchsurfers. More pictures from Hong Kong here.
For the first few days of my stay, Sean was also hosting an Australian man, three German men, and a girl from the Netherlands. In his tiny apartment, that meant 2 people in a full-size bed, one on a cot, and two on the floor. So for the first two nights I slept on a yoga mat. But it was better than that hard seat on the train ride, and Sean’s family was quite generous, cooking me a few meals, helping me to wash cloths, and allowing me to stay for nine days. Through couch surfing I also met up with another women from Hong Kong named Margot, a very friendly, lively character who is conversant in several languages and is thinking about starting a business to bring street art into mass the main stream through a unique marketing campaign. She also offered to introduced me to several people she knows in Shanghai so that I have some people to meet when I get there.

A few days after I arrived, one the Germans, Marko, and I took a day trip to Lantau Island, Hong Kong’s second biggest island. Lantau is probably the least developed of Hong Kong’s Islands, aside from the airport. We first took a cable car that brought us from the train station half way across the island, up over the tops of some 2,000+ foot tall mountains, to end at the world’s largest statue of the Budda. This thing must have been over 100 feet tall and sits up on a cliff overlooking the ocean and nearby islands. After seeing the Budda, we traveled by bus down into a small fishing village, one of the few areas that has been minimally impacted by Hong Kong’s rapid development. We went for a boat ride through the village and then out into the open ocean where we saw dozens of large trade ships coming into dock at Hong Kong’s port. As we zoomed across the water, I was momentarily brought back to zooming across lake Annecy in a sporty little sailboat. Finally, as we rode the bus back around the island to the train station, Marko and I saw some beaches and stopped for a quick look that turned into three hours of hanging out on the beach and eating dinner in a little café on the beach’s edge. When I decided to go for a swim, I discovered that the water was a warm as a heated pool. “I could get used to living in Hong Kong,” I thought to myself. Unfortunately virtually no one in Hong Kong speaks Mandarin as a first language. I’d be hard pressed to perfect my Chinese here.
A refreshing, cold beer on the I was not paid by Carlsberg to include this.  
See more pictures of Lantau Island here.

I also was beginning to realize that Hong Kong has a lot of opportunity, but not much in the way of clean energy (at least not that I could find in a week). This was confirmed when I met with two Tufts alumni to get some career searching advice. Michael Fung, the Chairman of JP Morgan Asia, has an office on the 29th floor of a building in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial center. After meeting him in France this summer (the Tufts Board of Overseers had their annual meeting at the European Center in Talloires), he agreed to meet with me to give me some career advice when I arrived in Hong Kong. He said if I wanted to work in clean energy, and practice mandarin at the same time, I should go to Shanghai or Beijing. He also gave me some helpful advice on networking and presenting myself, commenting on how I was dressed that day (I scored pretty high marks except for not having a blazer), and how I could make myself memorable to people. The whole meeting was quite fast paced and formal, but went quite well overall. If I ever want to get a job in banking I might have an in…

My interaction with Tufts Overseer James Soutar on the other hand was quite different. One night he invited me to a “party” at a bar he owns in Hong Kong called “Home.” The party turned out to be a gathering of an organization called “Internations,” an organization that organizes social events for expats in hundreds of cities around the world. While James had to leave before I arrived, I met him the next day at his bar, in a very casual atmosphere. He gave me some similar advice, and especially emphasized that I should “do what I love, and the money will follow,” a mantra that I continuously try to live by. Hearing it from a successful hedge fund manager and bar owner though was quite insightful…

During one of my last days in Hong Kong I met up with my friend from Dan Resnick, a current graduate student at the Tufts Fletcher School. Dan was traveling through China with his girlfriend after doing an internship with the Clinton Global Initiative for two months in Swaziland. We spent most of the day walking around in Hong Kong’s various outdoor markets, taking a ferry across the Pearl River, and eating a delicious seafood dinner of crab and lobster (Though Dan thinks all lobster tastes the same, I insisted that Maine lobster is the world’s best).

And finally, I am off to Shanghai to continue my job search and see China’s current pride and joy, the Shanghai World Expo…