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 beach...no 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…

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Asian Century?

Today (August 29th) I accompanied my friend Jenna and her family to Church, located on the 79th story of one of the tallest buildings in Hong Kong. This was not the traditional church that I grew up with (and even less like the church that many of you grew up with). There was no alter, no pews – in fact nothing that resembled a church in the slightest. The pastor wore a suit and tie rather than a robe (although he was a 66 year old American – the one thing that made this believable) and stood at a transparent lectern. Behind him was a band that played and sang modern Christian songs rather than psalms, and a wide screen TV displaying the lyrics and passages from the scripture. The mass consisted of singing songs and the pastor’s sermon. There was no parading in, no alter boys, no communion, and no rituals. And I thought my church back in Freeport was progressive. This brought a whole new meaning to contemporary Christianity.

Anyway, after the mass was finished, I met another young American named Nick who had moved to Hong Kong a year ago to start a new life. We began talking and it turned out we are both interested in a lot of the same things – China, business, international affairs. Then he made a startling confession. He said he wasn’t planning to return to the US. “There’s no more opportunity in the US,” he said. “All the opportunity is here, in Asia.”

Looking out the window of the 79th story of one of the tallest buildings in Hong Kong, at the surrounding skyscrapers, trade ships, cranes and construction sites, at first it was hard to disagree with him.
View from Jenna's church
But his comment disturbed me, and for a while I couldn’t stop thinking about it. No more opportunity in the US? The US has always been the land of opportunity. For over 200 years it has welcomed immigrants from around the world seeking a better life, with more opportunities and freedoms than any other country. But other questions continued to plague me. Is the US political system and the US treasury, just like the investment banking sector, going bankrupt, as so many people are beginning to believe? The 20th century was the American Century, as Henry Luce stated in 1941, but these days everyone is talking about “the Asian Century.” China has grown at three times the pace of the US for the last 30 years, and some of its neighbors (i.e. Singapore, South Korea) have grown even faster.  An increasing number of young westerners looking to seek their fortune, like Nick and myself, are going to Asia where business is booming.

And as many of you may suspect, I have been thinking a lot recently about whether I could see myself permanently moving to Asia. And now I realize what really disturbed me about Nick’s comment: I used to think I would only move to Asia for a few years and then return to the US, but lately I have become increasingly uncertain. There's so much opportunity here that its tempting to consider staying.

Part of the reason I’m going to China is for the disorderliness, for the chaos, the discomfort, and the conflict – because it will be an adventure and because there is an almost endless number of problems to be solved there (check out this really cool video made by a friend of mine that does a better job at describing these issues than I ever could). But there are also plenty to be solved in the US – and plenty of conflict and chaos there as well. And I don’t believe that there is no longer any opportunity in the US. As long as American’s continue to hold their government truly accountable, and don’t let apathy and ignorance take hold, America will continue to be a dynamic, prosperous society. And above all, there is one thing that the US will most likely continue to have in the next century that Asian countries may not have: innovation and creativity – because unlike Asian societies, American society rewards and encourages initiative and independence. The rise of Asia presents a healthy new challenge of the US, and as long as we don’t give up on our core values, I think Americans will rise to the challenge.

But as this contemporary church at the top of a skyscraper demonstrates, Americans also need to make sure we don’t get stuck in our old ways, that we are aware of what is going on in the greater world, and that we continue to move forward, adapting to the changing world around us.

I think for now I’m still set on returning to the US after a few years. China is an adventure that will help me to see the larger world and bring some of the insights I gain back to the US, where we need it now more than ever. Asian Century or not, I still believe in the American system – it just needs some work. 

Returning to Hong Kong, August 22nd – 25th

I woke up Sunday morning in Lijiang to a wonderful sound: silence. For a minute the blue, semi-transparent curtains of my room tricked me into thinking the sky outside had turned blue, but when I pulled them back, the sky was just as foggy and gray as ever. Still, it wasn’t raining…yet. So I decided to suck it up and go hiking in the nearby mountains as I had planned. I set out around 8:30am on what was suppose to be a six-hour hike (round trip) to find a village in the mountains near a lake called Wenhai.

No sooner had I left Yuhu village then the rain began again. I was wearing all quick-drying athletic cloths, but in the interest of packing light, I had left my rain jacket in Hong Kong (real smart during the rainy season, I know…) and was only wearing a semi-water proof running jacket. I took shelter under a pine tree for about 20 minutes until the rain lightened up and then trekked on. The rain continued off and on all morning, and I continued to find shelter under trees and ledges. As I continued into the mountains, the trail began to diverge into several different paths. I had been given rough instructions on how to get to the lake (stay on the main trail, heading Southwest, and when you pass a dam you know you’re almost there), but it was getting increasingly difficult to tell which trail was the main trail, and on several occasions I found myself on the wrong trail and had to back track. It has already been two hours and I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.
One of my hiding places from the rain 
I began to hear a stream or river running in the distances. Was I supposed to cross a river? There was no indication of this on the very touristy-looking, imprecise map I had been given. As I crouched under yet another ledge in the middle of the forest, about ready to give up and go back, I began to hear voices shouting near the river. Even though it was still poring, I began running down the trail, hoping I would come across someone who could tell me which way to go. As I emerged from the trees at the edge of the stream, the rain began to stop and on the opposite bank I saw a group of men leading a family traveling on horseback. I crossed the stream and asked the men how to get to Wenhai. They told me they were heading in that direction and that I should follow them.

These men were local Naxi who had made a business out of leading tours on horseback of the valley and mountains surrounding Yuhu (I’d seen their office in the village earlier), and the family that they were leading had come from Kunming. As does every Chinese person I meet, they asked me what I was doing in China and where I had learned Chinese (I’ve gotten pretty good at answer these questions by now). Most of them were from other Naxi villages nearby. They walked this trail almost every day, which was evident by the horse tracks and droppings in the mud, and by how well they knew the trail. Every so often they would pick berries and nuts off the trees and give me some to eat. I’d normally never eat strange berries and nuts in an unfamiliar wilderness, but these men were native to the land and seemed to know it very well. When they stopped for lunch they also offered me a bun with meat and vegetables, which I gladly took since I realized I hadn’t brought enough food. Finally we reached the top of a pass between the mountains and the dam that was shown on my map came into view. The men pointed me along a road that circumvented the lake and disappeared off into the fog. “It’s about another 30 minute walk to Wenhai from here,” one of them told me.

Sure enough, after about a half hour of following a windy dirty road through another mountain pass, I spotted Wenhai lake down below me. I descended to the village, which was even more remote and ancient looking than Yuhu. There were horses grazing and farmers working in rice patties in the lush plane at the lake’s northern end. Aside from a few cars and electric wires, there was no evidence of modern civilization anywhere. It was already 3:00pm so I didn’t spend long in the village, but began following the road back to Yuhu. Suddenly as I came around a bend I was greeted by a startled pack of wild horses, who half trotted, half galloped off the trail. Still, I was able to get pretty close and take some good pictures.
Dam at the top of the mountain pass
Wenhai village - view other pictures from the hike here.
When I finally returned to Yuhu, the guesthouse was bustling with activity. It turned out it was Javad’s niece’s birthday, and his wife’s whole extended family had come over for dinner. Javad’s sister in law also had some friends visiting from Japan, and there were two more Americans who had come to stay at the guesthouse. As I was talking with one of the Americans named Conrad, he mentioned that he was currently at graduate school in Geneva. “Oh, I just spent the last two months not far from there, in Talloires, France,” I said. “I just graduated from a University called Tufts…have you heard of it?” “I just graduate from Tufts a few years ago.” Conrad said.  What a small world.

I was starving from my hike, and wolfed down my food as I listened to people speaking Japanese, Naxi, Mandarin and English around the table. I also talked with Javad’s brother in law, who was originally from Chengdu and was quite an avid mountain climber. He told me that he had climbed the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a 4,000 meter (12,000 foot) mountain that boarders Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s one of the largest mountains in the region and also is the most southern, glacier-covered mountain in the region. He told me that if I returned to Lijiang again he would guide me up the mountain. After dinner we had a birthday cake for the little girl, who had just turned nine, and who insisted that we all perform something for each other (she was really taking advantage of being the only kid among 15 or so adults). For my performance I told the story (in Mandarin and English) of how I got “married” to one of my classmates in a role-play of a traditional wedding ceremony in Lishui, China. I’m not sure if the story made sense to the Japanese speakers (who spoke very little English and Mandarin), but it was fun and confidence building to know that I could tell this story in Chinese.

After wondering why I had come to Lijiang the night before, this day had turned out to be quite an adventure. I may not have found Shangri La, but I did find a small, tranquil Chinese village in the mountains, and meet some really interesting people. And in the end, that’s what really counts.

The next morning I began the long journey back to Hong Kong. This time I took a train rather than a bus from Lijiang back to Kunming. Once again I was squished into a series of seats crowded around a table with five Chinese people. It turned out that these people were all traveling together and had never met a foreigner before. I spent a good part of 10 hours answering their questions and talking about differences between China and the US. It was really interesting to see what Chinese people who are not as exposed to the international community (unlike a lot of the Chinese people I’ve met in the past) think about Americans and the US. We even talked about the war in Iraq and the US Presidential elections.

When I arrived in Kunming it was late at night, and I immediately headed for the ticket window to buy a ticket back to Guangzhou before going to my hostel for the night. I first went to the ATM to withdraw some money, and noticed a homeless man sitting outside the door to the ATM room. There are so many of these types of people around the streets of China’s cities that I did what I usually do and ignored him. Fifteen minutes later I opened my wallet at the ticket counter to pay for my ticket, and noticed that my ATM card was missing. I suddenly realized I’d left the card in the ATM! Cursing myself (I’ve done this before in a foreign country) I ran back to the ATM, vainly searching to see if I’d dropped it on the ground or by some miracle someone had taken it out and left it near the machine. When I arrive at the ATM the homeless man suddenly got up and started excitedly babbling in what I think was Mandarin, but his accent was so thick it was hard to tell. He pointed off down the plaza and I eventually realized that he was pointing to a police car. I ran over to the car and asked the police if they had found an ATM card. They thought for a minute, and then one of them reached into his pocket and pulled out my card! Thanking them I ran back to the homeless man, preparing to give him a 10 or 20 kuai note so he could go buy some food. But when I got there he refused my money. “If you want to thank me, go buy me a cigarette!” is what I finally discerned from his babbling. So for the first time in my life, I went to a convenience store and bought a pack of cigarettes. I returned and handed one to the man, who nodded his approval and told me to continue on my way.

The rest of my journey back to Hong Kong was pretty uneventful. I had a bed this time on the 26-hour train ride, so I spent most of the time reading and sleeping. When I arrived in Hong Kong I retrieved my other backpacks from Jenna’s mom’s office (with quite a bit of difficulty as my phone battery had died and I didn’t have any way of getting in touch with her) and finally arrived at the home of my new host Sean, whom I’d found on couchsurfing.org, at 10pm. Sean lives in a small apartment with his mother and two brothers. On top of this however, his apartment has become couchsurfing central in Hong Kong in the last few weeks, as his endless generosity has made it difficult for him to say no to anyone (in fact me and the other couchsurfers staying there began calling his place “hostel Sean”). So the night I arrive there was also an Australian and three Germans staying at his apartment. I slept on a yoga mat on the floor. But it was an improvement from Chungking Mansions, and I was just happy to be staying in one place after a week of traveling.