book: On China

Kissinger’s On China tops all other books that I have ever read about China, whether it was a non-fiction or a fiction, whether it was written by Chinese, American, or Chinese-American. My view on this, though not authoritative, has some validities. For after all, I have lived 45% of my life in China and the other 55% here in the West.

The book provided no earth-shaking views of any kind, rather it showed Kissinger’s deep understanding of China. What is an understanding? It is knowing, the knowledge of something that transcends the barriers of language. Kissinger articulated complex, subtle and delicate topics at such an ease, that one was made to feel as if s/he was visiting an old friend. Every word was something one already knew, but only now being spoken out aloud. It was ingenious.

Apparently New York Times disagrees. But by googling to see what others thought of the book, I came across the news that Kissinger is in China today. How coincidental? I snipped his picture today and in 1971 from the web. He is now 90 years old.



i’m back

IMG_1193Forgive me for not posting for the past n days. As you might have guessed, the great firewall had prevented me from accessing blogs, yours, mine and everybody else’s. After a couple of days of writing without posting, I stopped writing all together, so it might take me a few days to make up the missing posts. Bear with me.

The good thing about not writing everyday and not writing right away is that I have time to digest information for days without having to describe my murky thoughts. But even after I had the time to sort through the field of disarray of my mind, such as 10+ hours on an airplane, I still feel that I’m unable to articulate any of them well. Yet, I have a feeling that I am on the verge of discovering something very important.

What I do know is that my heart was awaken. I was enthused, again and again, by people’s intelligence, self awareness, motivation, deftness in social settings and most of all, their authenticity. Even though I was only there for a week, I had grown. My perspective of life was refined through some amazing life stories I learned on the trip. And I’m looking at the world now through new light.

Yet, I’m not sure how to share these discoveries. At least not all of them at the present time. But trust me if you will — I had an unforgettable trip.

how many pigs today? (day 5 of 9)

China Trip – Day 5 of 9

In traditional Chinese culture, people greet each other by asking: “Have you eaten yet?” or in Shanghainese “侬吃了伐?” I don’t think this greeting is still used among the younger generation Chinese; at least I have not been greeted this way for as long as I could remember.

I, however, invented a different greeting during this trip to Shanghai.

Let me give you some background first. Huangpu River is the largest river that flows through Shanghai into the East China Sea. It is also a major source of the city’s drinking water. See my picture below, taken from Bund, looking out to Pudong on the other side of the Huangpu River. Can you imagine Pudong was just farmlands and warehouses and was virtually flat only 20 years ago? But I digressed. According to Baidu, the Chinese Google, dead pigs regularly float down the Huangpu River. This March though, it had made news finally because too many pigs came downstream. BBC first reported this on March 11th.

When I arrived in Shanghai a couple of days later, this was one of the first news stories I heard. My friend J.Y. immediately warned me not to drink tap water, as if I would ever do such a thing even without the pig story. And the number of pigs being fished out of the river were increasing daily. When I first arrived, it was 2,000 pigs and it was a big news then. When I left Shanghai 9 days later, the count had already gone up to 10,164 pigs.

So instead of greeting people with “Have you eaten yet?”, I greeted people with “How many pigs today, do you know?” And I had gotten great responses. People would pause for a second after receiving such an unexpected greeting, and instantly accepted me with knowing smiles as one of the locals/insiders and not that of a visitor. 😀

There were various responses to this issue, but what I liked most were the following two:

1. This shows progress in China, that the living standard is higher now even in the poorest areas, so that the dead pigs ended up in the Huangpu River and not in someone’s belly.
2. This shows progress in China, that news like this is actually made available to the public and not suppressed.

Bottom line, the dead pigs symbolize the progress in China!



Author’s Note: I stopped writing posts on day 5. It was hard to be motivated to write everyday when there was no way to post due to the Great Firewall. I’m making up the missing posts now. This one is written on 3/25/13 and will be backdated to 3/17/13.

snapshots of live scenes (day 4 of 9)

IMG_1233China Trip – Day 4 of 9

One interesting effect of dropping in and visiting friends in a different country is that you get to share a slice of their lives. Whether you are together for one hour or half a day, whether you meet at their homes or at outside venues, you would see the local life through your friends and could live vicariously through them as if you were have those adventures yourself.

The first days of this trip were serendipitous for me. First, one of my friends turned out to live just around the corner from me, so close that we could maybe even see each other’s building from each other’s window. In a vast city like Shanghai, that was an amazing coincident. And this morning, when I arrived at my other friends’ home, I felt goose bumps rising up on my arms. For the building they were living in, was the building that I had loved most in the entire Shanghai. It was an old 1920’s building* in a grand neo-classic architecture, fitting my perceived image of the old glory of Shanghai before WWII perfectly. They too liked the feel of the place, and had thought it would be wonderful to live there one day. Finally they managed to do it, largely due to the fact that in Shanghai rental price was in no way reflecting the market value of the real estate. Back in reality, the place had many shortcomings of what you would expect in an older building, such as heating and noise level. But nevertheless, since I had fantasized about living there, and that I could easily see myself there if we had made the same decision of going back to China to work, I felt that my friends were living out my fantasy for me. So I talked on without ends with my friends on this particular topic, complimenting them on their great taste like no tomorrow.

I then went yoga with my girlfriend N.P. I love doing yoga in English in a non-English speaking city. It is the best way to taste the expat’s local life. I also went to Tian Zi Fang, and was genuinely delighted by the place. Touristy for sure, but I still was happy that such a place exists.

Some info from Ms. Wikipedia on Tian Zi Fang

Tian Zi Fang (Chinese: 田子坊) is an arts and crafts enclave that has developed from a renovated residential area in the French Concession area of Shanghai, China. …. known for small craft stores, coffee shops, trendy art studios and narrow alleys. … is largely hidden from the neighboring streets … The neighborhood was originally built in the 1930s as a Shikumen residential district. It remained very local until about 2006 when it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment. Opposition among local business owners and residents, as well as a famous artist Chen Yifei who had a studio in Tianzifang… journalists, visitors and local residents began to visit the area and spread the word about a cosy little lane district that housed some interesting and creative businesses. Additional articles in both local and foreign media such as the New York Times helped increase awareness of this older and unusual community, that stood out among the more modern and commercial shopping areas of Shanghai. Today, Tianzifang has become a major tourist attraction … Despite all the businesses selling trendy foreign goods, the area does not have the look of having been overly beautified – electricity cables are still strung overhead, and air conditioning units are obvious on the outside of the buildings. … it has managed to preserve its residential feel, adding to its appeal.

* My best guess

do I look local to you? (day 3 of 9)


China Trip – Day 3 of 9

Today was full of activities of visiting and hanging out with relatives, with great food and drinks, and even some games of Mahjongg. But I still made time to visit MOCA Shanghai. Honestly, it was a huge disappointment. I guess with contemporary art it is usually a hit and miss, as every installation is different. The guide-book was a few years old, and it had pictures taken from x exhibits ago and looked great. The current installation was not nearly as interesting.

I looked like what you would expect from a typical tourist, carrying my bag on one shoulder across my body, with a huge Canon 5D and heavy professional-grade zoom lens in one hand, and a map in the other. So why did all these people come and ask me for directions? Strangers might have done so because they saw I have maps and assumed (wrongly) that I was already familiar with the content of the map and was ready to give out consultations freely. But my local friends did the same! When I asked them where to go and showed them my guide-book of “The Secret Shanghai”, they said that being local prevented them from knowing the new and hot places, as they only frequent their usual spots. In fact, they said, they’d love to go to some new places where a tourist might find interesting, and they would like to accompany me, but could I please set the itinerary?

I now have requests for itinerary for next Monday to Wednesday, that’s like my whole rest of the trip in Shanghai. And I don’t want to visit a place more than once on such a short trip. Ahhh, what should I do? I have to lean heavily on my expat friends for advice, as they must know where to go and what to do. I can’t believe I got myself into such a predicament!

Author’s Note: The picture above is based on inside view of MOCA Shanghai.

lifetime vacation (day 2 of 9)


China Trip – Day 2 of 9

Even after all these years, I still marvel at any non-native-Chinese who can speak Chinese well, albeit the fact that half of the world have learned to speak English as a second language. So when my friend N.P. picked up the phone and said in Chinese, “你好討厭喔” (the literal translation would be “you are such an annoyance”, but used here as an intimate whine between friends), I was utterly impressed.  She and her husband had been in China for about 3 years, living in my favorite building in the chic Former French Concession district of Shanghai.  We went yoga together a couple of days later.  While I was traveling in Berlin last September, I also went for a “yoga in English” session.  I personally think that is the best trick up my sleeve in peeking into real local life as a tourist.  It did not disappoint me.

Later that day, I also met up with another friend of mine, J.Y., who had come to Shanghai only 6 months earlier with her husband and two kids as expats. It seemed to me that everyone treats their time in China as a chapter of their life experience, as something transitory. Somewhere else, their home awaits. Hence, they explore and get a taste of the culture and local life as an outsider, and they cherish the moments, even some unpleasant ones, as if their stay was a long and extended vacation, and they are dealing with the pleasures and irritations of a common excursion.

It’s quite different for most overseas Chinese, as we uprooted from China, and planted roots abroad. It was no vacation but real and serious life. But would it be such a bad idea to treat life as a long extended vacation anyway? One might stay in luxury hotels or backpack and camp-out due to economic differences, but the experiences would be all real and true, and it would be all yours to have and no one can take them away from you. And at the very least, it would be fun!

30 years river east, 30 years river west (day 1 of 9)

IMG_1253China Trip – Day 1 of 9

The journey was long but surprisingly pleasant. The entertainment options were abundant on board, rendering some of my own preparations useless. When the plane was lifting off from LAX, I finally breathed in deeply and started to feel that I was on vacation.

As I was traveling alone, somehow I had struck up several conversations with strangers. Naturally, one common theme was the comparison between today’s Chinese living with that of the overseas-Chinese’s. For instance, one guy told me the friend he visited in the U.S. was not happy, complaining that he had worked so hard for a better life for all these years, but he would have been better off if he hadn’t left China at all, evidenced by the people with lesser social standings when he left China were having more success than him in the present days.

I said to him that “ten years river east, ten years river west”, the Chinese proverb for the Western equivalent of “the pendulum swings both ways”. It literally means the world sometimes behaves like a river that flows east for 30 years and then west for the next 30. Due to my rusty Chinese, I had shortened the years from 30 to 10, but he got my points nevertheless.

“If he chooses not to be happy, he would find reasons to be unhappy under different circumstances.” I said to my follow passenger, “Does fresh air or the joy of learning a different culture and language count for something?”

He agreed wholeheartedly.

These type of “what if” complains I have heard often, and I myself had wondered the same in the back of my mind. Only after I had given the above consultation to the stranger, I realized the change that had occurred within me. As my advice was not only true to my ears, it was also true to my heart. And I know now that I have chosen well, for I chose to be happy.

Arthur’s Note: Written on 03/13/13, posted on 03/23/13.