Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why Tom & Katie REALLY broke it off / my strangest job yet

She strode gracefully out of 1949*, her long black dress flowing in slow motion behind her, gliding across the pavement toward the car where I stood waiting. A voice in my ear informed me, several seconds too late, that the “package is approaching,” but the voice only partially registered as I concentrated, my hand gripping the door handle. As she came around the corner of the car I checked every direction to make sure there were no paparazzi descending on her, then swung the door open smoothly, uttering a slow, calculated, “how did you enjoy your dinner, mam?” She swung her long, slender leg into the car, smiled and answered “fine, thank you.” Just like Rachael in Batman Begins, she projected an air of confidence and grace, combined with the slight hint of an innocent young girl. It would not be the last time her sweet voice gave me chills.

About a week earlier (sometime in mid June) I had received a text message from a friend, telling me that her friend had a short-term job available that I might be interested in. As I was unemployed at the time and waiting to start my new full time job two weeks later, the timing was perfect. I inquired what the job was, and in response was told that an international company based in Beijing needed someone to act as a tour guide of sorts for an important foreign “ambassador” who was coming to Beijing. “Ok,” I thought to myself, “this sounds like it could be fun.” Like everything in China though, I should have known (and did know on some level) that all was not as it seems.

I was put in contact with my friend’s friend, Alice (a Chinese girl), and she told me to come meet her at a café where we would discuss more of the details of the job. She also asked me if I knew any other foreign, white guys (yes, she was very specific about this) who might also be interested, as they actually needed three people. So I grabbed my friend Peter (“hey Pete, want to act as a tour guide for some foreign diplomat for a few days…? I know, sweet, right?”), and off we went to meet Alice.

We were about to see just how deep the rabbit hole really went.

When we arrived, Alice informed us that in fact they needed two white guys to act as security guards (and when I say act, I mean in the dramatic sense) for a famous American “artist” who was to be coming through Beijing for four days the following week. Trying to keep a straight face, I turned to Peter and projected what I think he was also thinking: “Did she really just ask us to act as security guards for an American celebrity… based solely on the qualification that we’re white men?”

Once again, I should have expected nothing less from China.

Alice assured us that the job would be quite simple. We would be escorting this celebrity around to a number of promotional events and at least one “performance” of some sort. There would be other security guards (real ones, I hoped) with us as well – our job would be mainly just to keep over-zealous fans and paparazzi at bay. If this were any other mega-city on earth I would have been afraid for my own safety acting as a security guard, not to mention the safety of the celebrity I was protecting. But Beijing is in all likelihood the most crime-free mega-city in the world. What could go wrong? So Peter and I decided to take a leap of faith and told Alice we would do it.

There was just one more step: Alice was not in fact the one hiring us for the job. She was acting as an agent for another company, and we would need to go for an interview with that company the following day. No sweat, Alice said, you just have to come up with a story to tell them about your “experience” as a security guard. Again, anywhere else I would have been nervous, but I learned a long time ago that these kinds of interviews in China are 90-100% about face. In other words, the people at this company probably didn’t really care that Alice was hiring two random white dudes off the street… but they had to at least pretend to care.

What happened at the interview blew my mind once again. It ended up being me and two other white guys who were both about 6’6’’ (a good head taller than me), and as it turned out the company only needed one person, so they decided to take one of the tall guys, because he “looked tough.” It was the first time I’d ever been hired for a job solely because I am a white male, and the first time I’ve ever been rejected for being too short. I was pissed, mainly cause they had wasted my time. But then I got a call back from Alice a day later. “Well, I felt bad about you not getting the job, since, you know, you’re a friend of my good friend (read: everything in China is about connections), so I talked to the company, and they actually decided the other guy will stand out too much because of his height, so they want you instead.” I was taken aback that Alice would go out of her way to secure the job for me, as we barely knew each other, but at the same time excited that I would get to escort this celebrity after all. Then Alice dropped the bombshell. “I just found out who the celebrity is that you’re going to be escorting. Her name is Katie Holmes.”

It turns out Katie Holmes was coming to Beijing as an “ambassador”  (hence the original confusion) for the women’s cosmetics company Artistry, which is making a big advertising push into China. The main event of Katie’s trip would be “Artistry on Ice,” a figure skating show that included world famous figure skaters from both China and other countries. She would also be going to a few other photo shoots and publicity events while in Beijing, and then spending the rest of her time seeing the sites.
Katie posing at one of the Artistry events

Fast-forward four days. I arrive at the hotel where I am to be staying for the next three nights with my fellow security guards. I walk into my room and find my roommate: a tall, hulky Australian dude wearing a muscle shirt, with tattoos running the length of both his arms. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, casually picking the logo off a shirt with his switchblade.

I was thinking to myself, “what have I gotten myself into this time?”

We were required to dress in back suits, and were given earpieces to communicate with each other. All I needed was a bulletproof vest and I’d feel just like the secret service. It turned out that, in addition to this ex-military Australian guy (who had just returned from protecting diplomats in Afghanistan), it was me, and two marketing representatives who worked full time for my employer. So between the four of us, only one had anything that even remotely resembled security experience. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, we all piled into a black van and headed to the airport to meet Katie’s plane.

Katie traveled with an entourage that included her publicist, manager, personal body guard (whew), hair stylist, make-up stylist, and a few other people who’s roles were somewhat unclear. We went everywhere in Beijing in a caravan of four vehicles, three of which were BMWs marked with the Artistry On Ice logo, and then our security van. Over the three days we spent escorting Katie and her party around Beijing, I often was in charge of opening Katie’s car door, had some brief conversations with her, and had one experience where I had to physically restrain a cameraman from getting too close to her. The job was actually not that difficult, and anyone with a little common sense could have done it. As a bonus, I got to watch the Artistry On Ice show, which was pretty awesome. There was also a very cute Korean TV star who also came to promote the event and was staying in the VIP room next to Katie’s. There were a few occasions where she came within a few centimeters of me as she walked by. Being a bodyguard certainly has its advantages.

The only disappointment from the experience is that the company let us go early on the last day, because they said they didn’t need us to return to the airport, so I had no opportunity to ask Katie for a picture. But it was quite an amazing experience nonetheless.

So did this experience give me some secret insights into why, a week later, Katie and Tom Cruise announced that they would be getting a divorce? Well, not really; that just seemed like a good tagline for this post. Maybe the breath of fresh air that comes with traveling to another part of the world made her start to think some things over. Maybe the splendor of China and all its ancient history made her decided to convert from Scientology to Buddhism. Or maybe when she looked at the young man opening her door, she was reminded of the once young, energetic Tom Cruise of the Top Gun years and realized what an old loony he’d become. We’ll probably never know. But I can tell you one thing: Katie Holmes is definitely even more beautiful in person than she looks in her pictures.

*1949 is the name of one of Beijing’s most upscale restaurants

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

You know you’re in China when…

My first night back in China I staid in Shanghai with my friend Owen. The next morning he took me to one of the many transportation offices around the city where you can buy tickets for the high speed train to Beijing. Owen travels to Beijing quite a bit, and had just bought a ticket there the week before. When we arrived at the intersection where the ticket office was, we could see the sign from the street, but the office itself looked dark. When we approached we found that it had been completely gutted. What had once been a storefront squished between other stores was now a gaping hole in the wall, with boards, bricks and other debris littering the floor.

It’s not so much the fact that the office had moved, but the sheer suddenness and frequency with which this happens in China that makes every day living here an “adventure.”

And this of course is not quite as strange as an experience my friend Calvin had last year. He had just moved to Beijing and was staying in a hotel until he found an apartment. One morning when he stepped out of the elevator into the lobby he found that the hotel lobby had been completely gutted overnight. All that remained was piles of debris on the floor and a man on a ladder taking out some electrical wires. Not sure if Calvin ever had to pay his hotel bill…

My most recent adventure after my return to Beijing was trying to register with the local police department. All foreigners staying in China have to register their residence with the local police within 24 hours of arriving in China (if you stay in a hotel, they will take care of this for you). Of course this is one of those bureaucratic regulations that ends up being a lot more complicated than it should be. Last time I had to do this, I went to a small police station just down the street from my apartment. It was pretty easy. This time however, finding the right police station proved to be more difficult.

A few days after my arrival, I asked around and found a police station near my apartment complex. When I arrived however the police informed me that this was the wrong station, and in fact I had to travel several miles to a big police station that was supposedly in charge of registering people in my complex. This would involve riding my electric bike across a large highway and along a river, the policeman said vaguely. He gave me the name of the station and told me to ask people along the way where it was.

So I set out down the highway and 20 minutes later arrived in the general area where I thought I was supposed to be and started asking around. When asking directions in China, you should never rely completely on the directions of the first person you ask, even if he/she seems 100% certain of what they are telling you. Chinese people would sometimes rather lie and make up a story, than lose face by admitting that they don’t know the answer to your question. They also tend to give very vague directions. So after asking about 5 different people, I finally found myself starring at the gate of the police station about 100 meters in front of me. There was just one problem: a river lay between the police station and me.

Ironically I was standing under a giant bridge, but since this was a highway bridge there was no way to get on it and no pedestrian or bike crossing. Looking around, I went up to an old peasant, trollish-looking man who appeared to be camping out under the bridge and asked him how to get across the river. “I’ll take you across on my raft,” he said, “But you must promise to someday give me your first born child…”

Ok, I was kidding about that last part. He basically just told me there was a bridge a mile to my left, and a mile to my right, and I could pick one. Then he went into the normal “Chinese peasant who’s never seen a foreigner before” routine and started asking me all kinds of questions. I gave him the shortest answers possible and then took off before he had an opportunity to “make friends” (i.e. ask for my phone number).

After another 10 minutes riding up and down a series of bumpy, half paved, half dirt roads, I made it to the police station. I was anticipating some trouble, since I was technically late in registering and there is a fine associated with this offense. I told the officer that I’d had trouble finding the place (which is partly true), and she let me off the hook. Rules in China are generally flexible. After that I began the long journey back to my apartment…

Finally, this post was partly inspired by a thread that’s been passed around by email recently: 42 Things You’ll See Only in China. Check it out, it depicts quite accurately and humorously many of the strange things that happen here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the road again: A month back in America

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been traveling on airplanes, mostly to visit my mom’s family in the Midwest. I used to get airsickness back then, but somewhere in my teens I finally got used to flying. Recently it’s become even more a part of my routine, as I generally take a trip every few months. The last month has been quite a whirlwind – hence my failure to write since I first arrived in the US – filled with many flights, bus and train rides. I’ll share some of the highlights here, beginning with a summary of my trip in numbers:

79 friends & family members visited
55 hours of flying
34 hours of bus rides
30 days of travel
24 blue-sky days
15 nights out with friends
8 US cities
3 hiking trips
2 coastlines
1 priceless experience

First, I want to give a shout out to everyone who hosted my on my tour around the US, especially Don Parris, who has become like an uncle to me after generously hosting me three times on my various trips through LA. In Maine I staid with my lifelong friend Riley Roland and his parents, then with my sister in Baltimore, Lasha Leonov and her boyfriend in NYC, my brother in Amherst, and Artem Efremkin in Boston.

It was a strange and yet comforting experience meeting my parents in the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix. After 25 years of living in Maine, they had made the big move to Phoenix about four months earlier, but in a way it felt like we were just on vacation there. I spend a relaxing week with them hiking (in the Grand Canyon and mountains surrounding Phoenix) and sitting by the pool.

From Phoenix I told a bus back to LA, then a red eye to Boston and finally a bus up to Maine, to arrive just in time for Easter dinner with my dad’s family (but not before I collapsed on my grandma’s couch for a quick nap). I spent a relaxing few days in Maine, tossing Frisbees, getting re-acquainted with the beautiful New England countryside and slow-paced way of life.

Then it was off to Baltimore to visit my sister (who was originally going to meet me in NYC before she got sick). In one day I spent about 14 hours on and in between three different busses traveling half way down the East coast (note that in China that distance probably could have been covered in 5 hours on a high speed train). Still, I had the pleasure of watching and comparing the skylines of at least four major east coast cities, especially marveling at the uniqueness of the New York skyline and the new, almost completed “freedom tower.”

Two days in Baltimore with my sis. Two days in NYC visiting several friends. A walk along the Baltimore harbor front and bar hopping in Baltimore’s bar district. An NYU house party, coffee with a cleantech guru and drinks in the financial district. Then shipping up to Boston. Everything seems to be moving in fast motion now. Wish I had taken more pictures.

Six days in Boston & Amherst, and something happening every night. Drinks with my brother and his friends, then a hike to a hidden bunker the next day. Back to Boston and drinks with my cousin downtown, then Fenway Park 100-year anniversary tour the next day. Cleantech networking event and the Tufts Energy Conference. So nice to go to the Tufts Energy Conference and not have to worry about organizing it. Thanks to Conor Branch, Dan Resnick and Katie Walsh for keeping the legacy going, and great job to all this year’s organizers!

Then back to LA and up to San Francisco for a few days. In San Francisco I finally had a chance to meet a world famous parapsychologist and long time friend of my family (he went to high school with my grandmother!) named Stanley Krippner. Stanley was recently featured on the cover of the San Francisco Weekly and has done some pretty amazing things in his lifetime, not least of which was conducting dream experiments and being good friends with most of the members of the Grateful Dead. Also met some of the Beijing Energy Network founders, as well as another cleantech veteran, Caitlin Pollock.

One more day in LA with Don and my good friend Lisa Gilson, and then boarded a plane back to Shanghai, where I caught the train back to Beijing. Whew, what a trip.

To those of you who I didn’t have an opportunity to see, I wish you the best and look forward to crossing paths again at some point. For the near future though, I’m done with traveling for a bit and will be bunkering down for the summer in Beijing. I’ve still got a lot to accomplish in China before I consider a permanent return to the US. 

Reverse culture shock

Walking down the street, I spotted a small, hole-in-the-wall electronics store and peered in the window. Like so many of these in China, it contained just about everything you might expect: cell phones, smart phones, headphones, sim cards, memory cards, batteries, and much more. As I walked in I began trying to remember the Chinese words I would need to describe what I was looking for, and prepared myself for the blank looks and stubborn refusals that would inevitably follow. But as I walked up to the counter I realized I had entered a different reality. The clerk smiled at me, and speaking fluently in English, politely asked me what I needed. When I replied, he said “Yes, we can do that for you right away.”

Oh yeah, I’m back in America.

This is not meant to be a statement of patriotic pride, but simply to point out one of the key differences between my American and Chinese experience. While I was certainly happy to be back in America, in some ways southern California, where I first touched down, felt more like a foreign country to me than China. And it was about to get even stranger as I headed for Phoenix, where I’d be spending my first week back in the US with my parents.

During my first few days back in the US in a year and a half, I couldn’t help but start comparing things I like better about the US with those I like better about China. Here’s the short list I came up with:

Better in China
1.     Trains & subways: they’re newer, faster, cheaper, cleaner
2.     Busses: they leave and arrive on time
3.     Electronics: they’re cheaper
4.     Jobs: there’s more of them
5.     Fast food: it’s more abundant (you read correctly) and if possible, a little healthier
6.     Negotiating: everything can be negotiated
7.     Strip malls: they basically don’t exist here

Better in the US
1.     Customer service (restaurants, shops): it exists
2.     Banking: it’s faster and there are less restrictions
3.     Diversity: there’s more people who are different – on many levels
4.     Pollution: on a sunny day, I can always see every building less than a half a mile away
5.     Equity: you don’t feel like everyone is constantly sizing you up and fitting you into their narrow view of the world
6.     English: it’s not a struggle to communicate on a daily basis
7.     Space: you’re not constantly being squeezed into somewhere

It’s as if I’ve put my China life on hold, traveled through a time warp, and ended up back about where I left my American life in the summer of 2010. The time-warp lag is especially strong in this case, but after several days memories and habits of my old life started to come back to me. I’m sure by the time I return to China I’ll just be starting to feel right at home again.

Friday, March 30, 2012

“Welcome to tour our factory!” A business trip to the Huangpu River Delta

As the train pulled into Changzhou city station, the view from my window was not of high-rise apartments or tall office buildings, but traditional, three-story tenements surrounded by small plots of farmland. Exactly 46 minutes ago, we had left Shanghai and traveled over 100 miles to a small city of 3 million people on the Northwest side of the Huangpu River Delta. It was a warm, spring day, and as I stepped off the train, a warm breeze blew across the platform. Wearing a smart business suit and aviators, I looked quite out of place among the Chinese businessmen in their leather jackets and peasants hauling large bags of who knows what off the train. “Welcome to Changzhou, Mr. Daniel!” was the greeting I received from the factory sales manager and the driver who would be taking me on my first factory tour of the week.

As some of you may remember, I made a decision several months ago to start a business trading solar water heaters between the US and China. I first discovered the Chinese solar hot water phenomenon when, driving through Zhejiang province back in 2008, I noticed that the roofs of almost every apartment building were covered with these strange looking devices. In fact, for decades China has been a world leader in this little-known renewable energy source. Tens of millions of buildings all over the country use these devices to make hot water, and as a result, China holds 80% of the global market. Now, as solar hot water is starting to become popular around the world, including in the US, the thousands of Chinese factories that make these panels are beginning to export their wares. All but the largest Chinese factories however, are too small to have overseas sales agents or to figure out the logistics of shipping to the US. At the same time, most US based solar installers are too small to source the solar water heaters they buy internationally, or to purchase them in bulk. Therefore, my business idea is quite simple: purchase inexpensive solar water heaters from these factories, and sell them to the contractors and installers in the US who put them on buildings.

But with literally thousands of these factories all over China, how does one go about selecting a factory to buy from? Well, the first step was to find out which factories’ products have been certified by the US-based Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC). Only solar water heaters with this certification are eligible for the 30% federal tax credit that is available to consumers who purchase these systems. In addition, SRCC certification guarantees a certain level of quality, ensuring that the systems won’t break down or have little output after being installed on the rooftop. In the course of my research, I found a strange phenomenon: the cities of Changzhou and Haining, both located in the Huangpu River Delta region near Shanghai, contained no less than 10 and 16 factories, respectively, with this certification. Furthermore, while there are several famous brands of solar water heaters in China, I had never heard of the names of any of these factories. Well, I knew where I was to be going on my first business trip…

So on March 21st, I boarded the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, where I planned to spend the next week touring factories in the region. Traveling from Beijing to Shanghai is similar to the distance traveled from Boston to Washington DC – a good 12 hour drive by car in the US. The new high-speed train line that opened last June however covers this distance in just five hours. As we set out from Beijing, I watched the speedometer on a screen at the front of the train car climb to 100, and then 200, then finally settle just above 300 kilometers per hour (about 170 miles per hour). It was quite a sight to watch the countryside race by at a speed I’d only seen when taking off or landing in an airplane. In fact, for just around 80 US dollars, one can get from Beijing to Shanghai in almost the same amount of time it would take to fly (when considering the time it takes to check in and go through security at the airport). It’s difficult to think of China as less developed then the US in light of transportation infrastructure marvels such as this.
power plant as seen from the high speed train
on board the train as our speed climbs

In Shanghai I staid with my good friend from Tufts, Scott Goldman, who is working for Duke University in Shanghai, helping them to start a university business program on a brand new campus that Duke is building there. We had a good weekend out on the town with a few other friends, and then on Monday morning, I boarded another high-speed train for Changzhou. Once again, I was amazed at how easy the trip was. Although most factories are based out in the rural countryside, transportation infrastructure in China is arguably more modern than in the US, making the trip a breeze. I arrived at the first factory two hours after leaving the railway station in Shanghai, and after visiting two factories in the same day, I was shuttled to the train station and shipped back to Shanghai before nightfall. The next day I repeated this same schedule traveling to Haining, a city about the same distance from Shanghai, and quite near to the city of Hangzhou, where I spent the first semester of my junior year at Tufts studying abroad.

The factory tours themselves were in many ways what I expected. Having read many books written for businessmen sourcing in China, and having spent the last year dealing with Chinese business practices during my corporate training assignments, I felt quite well prepared for what awaited me. In fact, the biggest surprise of these visits was how few surprises I encountered. After reading Poorly Made in China, an account by an American who’s spent the last 10+ years helping trading companies source contract manufacturing in China, I was half expecting the worst: fake production lines set up to hide the real ones, “five star” factories with charades where visitors are asked to wear lab coats and gloves, only to later discover that these are not in fact standard practice for the factory. What I saw however seemed quite realistic: small, somewhat shabby looking buildings that housed the factories; production lines that had some quality control systems in place, but were far from perfect; defective products sitting out in carts in the middle of the factory floor. The floors of most factories were also covered in broken glass from the tubes used to make the solar collectors. No gloves, lab coats or clean rooms. Probably the strangest sight I saw was a female worker on a production line wearing a blouse, high heals and makeup!
making solar thermal evacuated tubes

I also received mixed reactions from the factory owners. On some of the tours, I was only introduced to the owner at the end of the tour, and our interaction was brief. At one factory however, the owner spent nearly an hour talking with me about what made their factory special, and how enthusiastic he was to do business with me. At the last and largest factory I visited, I didn’t even meet the owner, as he was in Shanghai on business that day.

All in all, the visits were quite educational. The most important discovery however was the confirmation that my instincts about the solar water heater export market were correct: most of these factories only received SRCC certification about a year ago, and many of them do not yet have US customers, although they are eager to get them. It seems that I’m entering the market at just the right time.

As I write, I’m on the plane from Shanghai to LA, where I’ll be starting a month long tour in the US. This trip is partly a long-delayed trip home to visit family and friends, and partly a business trip to scope out the US solar water heater market and start finding potential customers. And hopefully, my instincts about the US market will be as on target as they were about China…

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Life in the third tier

As we cross the bridge spanning China’s largest river that runs through the heart of Changsha, for the first time I could see what China’s third tier cities really look like. Even in Hangzhou, what most would consider a second tier city, I had never seen so many buildings under construction. 30+ story apartment complexes and skyscrapers seemed to be sprouting up wherever I looked. Massive six lane highways were being paved through the middle of town. As we drove to the edge of the city, I could see rows of identical apartments stretching across the landscape, like American Mid-western suburbs, gobbling up farmland and transforming it into a concrete jungle…

My month living in Changsha gave me a glimpse into what life is like for the majority of the new urban Chinese. It also made me realize how much living in Beijing is like living in a developed country. Unlike Beijing, the changes taking place in these cities are massive.

The term “tier” is used to describe the level of development in Chinese cities. There are basically three first tier cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These cities contain all the modern conveniences of a developed country: there are hypermarkets with imported foods from around the world, internationals restaurant chains like Starbucks, Coldstone and TGI Fridays, bars, pubs and other forms of entertainment, Apple stores and outlet stores like Adidas and H&M, luxury stores (lots of them) like Prada and Gucci, giant malls that would dwarf many malls in America, modern apartments and offices, large theaters, libraries, museums, art galleries and other signs of high culture. Each of these cities has a population between 20-30 million people and is among the largest cities in the world. Perhaps most notably, these cities are also full of non-Chinese from around the world and many people can speak English.
Apple mania: anxious customers push and shove outside
Apple's flagship store in Beijing to be the first to claim the new iphone

Second tier cities – like Hangzhou, where I spent the first semester of my junior year studying abroad – are just a little less developed, but still have most of those modern conveniences. They range in population between 5-20 million (with the exception of Chongqing, a second tier city in central China which most people outside China have never heard of but claims a staggering population of 30 million).

Third tier cities are considerably less developed and internationalized. Most provincial capitals around China would be considered third tier. These are the cities that are going through the most rapid change and will probably absorb a large amount of the 300 million Chinese people expected to migrate to cities in the next 20 years (to put that in perspective, imagine the entire population of the United States migrating from the countryside to cities in 20 years).

Like Changsha, most of these cities have a have a larger commercial district than a major US city like Chicago, Philadelphia or Houston. Besides the tall buildings and sprawling highways though, the only sign of modernization is a shopping district in the center of the city with some luxury stores, a Walmart and Carrefour, a few coffee shops, bars and clubs. Once you get outside this relatively small area, the clash between these new cities and the traditional Chinese way of life becomes evident. Landscapes are transformed before your very eyes in a frenzy of modernization madness. Everything and everyone is speeding forward in high gear, all 1.4 billion people clamoring to get away from the farmland and to snatch up a piece of China’s newfound wealth.

The attitudes of the people, too, reflect this optimism. Everyone I met in Changsha seems to have dreams of a better future. The families for which I was teaching are quite representative of China’s new middle class. They grew wealthy mainly through the export business and finally saved enough money to buy apartments in the city and purchase their own cars. The wealth accumulation doesn’t end their, as those apartments will likely double in value in the next 10 years. While none of the parents are very well educated and can’t speak much English, they have dreams of their children going to school in America and some day having even more opportunities available to them. The ability to speak English and to have an international education is seen by many Chinese as the way out of the working class and into a new arena of prosperity. Their dream is in some ways an American dream, but with Chinese characteristics.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Fog of Development

Looking out my window, I can barely see the buildings just across the street. “I was suppose to be escaping this by leaving Beijing,” I think to myself. Still, even down in a third tier, provincial city in the heart of Southern China, one cannot escape the relentless fog that covers this country. And when I say fog… well, if you’ve been reading the news about China building a coal fired power plant every week, or if you paid any attention to my blog before this, you know what I’m talking about.

So, how did I get from being in trouble with the police to living in Southern China? Well, it’s been quite a turbulent six months, and since many of you already know the story, I’m not going to dwell on it. Let’s just say I hope I never end up in Chinese court again.

What some of you may not know is that while I was suffering through court settlement hell, I was lucky enough to become acquainted with a beautiful Chinese lady who helped to take my mind off some of my troubles. While she wishes to remain anonymous for various reasons, I will say that she is a banker, and so she was able to “finance” a few weekend trips for us over the last few months to some of the more remote and tropical parts of China. That was enough to at least take some of the sting out of a difficult situation.

Then something happened that was quite… well, as my former mentor Sherman Teichman might say, serendipitous. Or as my mom would probably say, it was the law of attraction.

No sooner had I paid the settlement to the court, than I got an email from one of the school’s I recently started teaching for. They were looking for someone to move to Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, for a month to teach SAT prep to a small group of high school students. I’d be teaching six hours a day, but the pay was substantial: nearly three times what I would make in a normal month. I replied to their email 16 minutes after it had been sent, and within the hour I was signed up to move to Changsha. Just like that. When opportunity knocks, especially in this country, you’ve got to grab it by the horns.

And finally, here I am, five weeks later, preparing to fly back to Beijing in two days. While those days of teaching crawled by, when I look back it really seems like I just got here. This experience has given me a glimpse of what it’s like living in a real Chinese city; a third-tier Chinese city, where you still feel like you’re in a developing country. Where a new gated community and six-lane highway ends, abruptly, and gives way to farmhouses. And where, just like every other city in China, the fog of development hangs heavily. Of course, the locals don’t notice the fog. They only notice the new cars, houses and shopping malls. But maybe that fog will be lifting soon…

This entry is the first in what I’m hoping will be a series of shorter and more frequent posts than before. I hope you’ll stay tuned.