What’s Up With This Sharing Economy Thing?

“What’s up with this sharing economy thing?” I say to my friend Mike as I stare at the line of beat-up yellow bicycles parked at the foot of my apartment building.

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“It’s kind of like an agreement. We all put in some money and then share something.” Mike gestures to the line of yellow bicycles. “It’s kind of like everyone in the city buys a bicycle, but doesn’t lock them.”

“I see. Still, it seems a little odd to me. There are so many of them now.”

“Yeah, I know. Seems like people really like to share when everyone benefits.”

I nod my head to Mike. I guess I can’t argue with that. It’s nice to be able to ride a bicycle in any part of the city and not worry if someone is going to steal it or not. When you have a good subway system and access to bicycles at every stop it makes you wonder why someone would want to buy a car in the first place.

Then you get on the subway in the heat of summer. Everyone is sweaty and you can’t find a seat. Your clothes stick to your skin like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth and you suddenly don’t wonder so much why people still drive cars.

Mike and I ride our yellow bicycles out of the compound and down a dusty street in search of some stir-fried vegetables over rice. Still, I think to myself, there have been much worse ideas.

小黄车 xiǎo huángchē- a new word with Min老师

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A Respectable Way To Waste Your Time (2 More Fiction Pieces Up!)

Hey everyone!

There are now two more stories up under the short stories section of my blog ^^^

The longer piece is called “Happy Chinese Donut Corp” and is a satire about all the foreign companies who try to enter China and don’t understand what they are getting themselves into.

anthill photo

The piece was originally inspired by the US company Dunkin’ Donuts’ first two failed attempts both in 1994 and 2008 prior to their current endeavor (which seems to be doing quite well by the way).

It’s a good story for anyone looking for a laugh and/or some general China business perspective. And, I think it’s safe to say, that it’s only a matter of time before Wharton and HBS make it required reading for all incoming MBA students.

The other piece is called “Born in a Dongguan Factory” and it’s a flash piece (sub 500 words)  about the journey of a Motorola Razor cellphone from the factory to the junkyard. You know, the ones that were really popular for a couple years back around 2005 before the stock market crashed.

As for the title, it’s a work in progress. Feel free to mention a different one in the comment section if you have a good idea.

Of course, if you haven’t read Grassroots, definitely have a look at it. It was the first short story I put up on the site, and it is also above the fold on the Anthill this month, which is a great literary site dedicated to showcasing China related fiction and non-fiction.


Does Beijing Still Believe Foreign Technology Is “Clever But Useless”?

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Beijing has never been known for its hospital weather. Sandstorms, arid conditions, and pollution are all commonplace in the capital of the People’s Republic of China.

When you look at Beijing’s location on a map, next to the Gobi Desert and Mongolian Plains, it is incredibly difficult to understand why it is such a populous city in the first place.

That is to say, throughout history prosperous cities have had an ecological reason. Shanghai started out as a fishing town and Guangzhou made it’s name via port trade and industry, for example.

So, why are there so many people in Beijing today?

Beijing’s Political Clout

Beijing has little in terms of ecological advantage. In fact, the biggest reason for it’s importance today is the city’s colorful history.

  • Beijing was first dubbed a capital from 1264 until 1267 under the Khans’ Mongol empire.
  • In the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1421 until 1912, Beijing again regained its status as the center of China, only to be displaced by Sun Yat-sen in the forming of the Repulic of China via the Xinhai Revolution.
  • Finally, in 1949 it was made the capital again, as it remains today, when Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army won out in a civil way against Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (Singh, 2007).

These dates and the significance behind them illustrate why Beijing has had both incredible strategic and political significance through the past millennium in China. And while the strategic importance of Beijing’s position as a military location has decreased somewhat over the years as military technology has advanced, its political clout remains as strong to today as ever.

As mentioned above, the city’s geographical position is less than ideal. The air quality is abysmal and the climate perpetually arid. Yet, the Chinese still flock to the capital in search of opportunity, exacerbating  its overpopulation problems.

Notably the CCP doesn’t seem to be sitting on their laurels when it comes to the issue of making Beijing more livable. In fact, it is rapidly expanding and building more subway lines as part of its plan to help workers commute from the suburbs and mitigate the myriad of problems that come from so many people living in one area. 

A Short History Of Beijing’s Railways

train station

Beijing’s recent love affair with rail networks is very interesting when you consider their attitude historically towards outside influence. Moreover it is incredibly telling when discussed in terms of China’s march towards modernization and its relationship to the outside world.

When the British first tried to sell railways to the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, one mandarin was famously quoted as having said that the trains were “clever but useless”.

(Sidenote: The source for this quote is broken on the wikipedia page where I originally read it. Perhaps it is misreported, but nevertheless is a good metaphor for how the Qing Dynasty viewed trains in the 19th century).

The British did not let their initial attempts to sale rail technology disuade them, and in 1876 the British trading firm “Jardine, Matheson, and Co.” built the “Woosung Road” railway. This ran from the American Concession to Zhunbei District in Shanghai. Presumably this was an attempt to market the such railway systems to the Chinese. But, it ultimately failed when the government decided to pull it up after two weeks of operation. 

In 1881, the Kaiping Tramway was completed by the imperial Railways in north China to transport Coal from Tangsun mines. This time the project was not undone, as it was backed by powerful government supporters. However, they did need the direction and guidance of the English engineer, Robert Reginald Burnett. 

Interestingly enough, in order to secure support for the railway, a government official made a present of a smaller railway for the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888. This rail was built between her residence in Zhongnanhai and dining hall in Beihai.

The Empress Dowager, however, was concerned that the sound of the train would disturb the fengshui of the imperial city. She therefore decided to have her eunuchs pull the train, rather than use a steam powered engine .

Foreign Technology, Still “Clever but Useless”?

Today, it is safe to say that the original “clever but useless” sentiment towards foreign influence in China has made a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Now, we see both the CCP and private enterprise adopting foreign technology and partnering with foreign companies to help advance both the country’s and their own interests. 

In fact, the Chinese railway system, once decried as “clever but useless”, is now centerpiece to the governments modernization plan.

In 2016 “China’s top economic planner approved a 247 billion-yuan ($36 billion) railway plan to link Beijing to neighboring cities as part of a government effort to improve connectivity around the nation’s capital” (Lyu, 2016).

This rail system will effectively link Beijing with the neighboring cities of Tianjin as well as other cities in Hebei Province. If completed, it will represent a a project which is the first of its kind both in intricacy as well as scale.

Moreover, this project is just one of many in which the government plans to use foreign technology as the solution to their unique situation. The Bohai Strait Tunnel, subways and bridges in Guangdong, as well as the Gansu Wind Farm project are just some of the many examples taken from the governments thirteenth Five Year Plan.

With so many problems caused by overpopulation and the Party’s determination to meet GDP targets, China seems to have adopted a strategy in complete opposite to the late Qing Dynasty.

These projects, if completed, will certainly put China “on the map” and give them even more credibility in a time of uncertain global affairs. The question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, is if Chinese organizations can properly manage these types of never-been-done projects.


Singh, R. (2007, Jan 20). When did Beijing become the capital of China?
Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/When-did-Beijing-become-the-capital-of-China/articleshow/1343312.cms

Lyu, D. (2016, Nov 28). China Approves $36 Billion Rail Plan for Cities Around Beijing
Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-28/china-approves-36-billion-rail-plan-for-cities-around-beijing

Wiki Background Reading






Making My Peace with Hongbao Culture in China

As of writing this article, the population of China is just over one and a quarter billion people. That makes it the most populous country in the world. It also makes it hard to get special attention or treatment for any problem you might have. 

dragon and boy

Chinese have developed a way to get that attention and its called the hongbao (red envelope stuffed with money).  This is both literal (yes sometimes you have to bribe people), as well as metaphorical (more often the case that your “hongbao” will look like a special gift or service). 

As a foreigner, I naturally stand out and therefore receive special treatment more easily than others. However, I also see the constant exchange of this both literal and figurative hongbaos as I mentioned above. 

They are given to people like doctors, teachers, policemen, and government officials in exchange for things like heightened attention on a loved one or the expedition of an important document.

For outsiders, and even for many Chinese themselves, this practice can be particularly hard to live with. It undermines the law and seems unfair. However anyone who stays here for a longer period of time must understand and adapt to this practice or else risk insanity.

For the time being, it is a part of life in China.

Hongbao Plus One

This past weekend my girlfriend received a red envelope in the form of an invitation to a resort in the north of the city: on the border of Beijing and Hebei. The parents of some students in her class wanted to solidify their relationship with their children’s caregivers and therefore offered the invitation to the student’s homeroom teachers. I went as the plus one.

The resort was the recently opened water town called Gu Bei Shui Zhen (古北水镇), which is basically a replica of a water town that you might find in the southern city of Suzhou.

For people not familiar with China, this is like saying that somebody built a replica Virginia tobacco farm in upstate New York. I don’t really like these kinds of places. They feel very fake, like the very soul of the place is missing.

Normally when I travel, I like to visit local places. I don’t stay in fancy hotels, and opt for budget accommodation like a hostel or cheap hotel. I like to focus my time and resources on visiting places, rather than staying in my room. To me this is what traveling is all about- talking and experiencing life as the locals would see it- rather than an airbrushed resort version. 

Chinese, and coincidentally enough my girlfriend, are the opposite. They don’t mind if something was made particularly for them. The most important thing is that it’s beautiful. If a place’s architecture doesn’t match the geography and history of an area, well, so what!

At least there is a nice pool. 

Moreover I found the entire situation slightly unnerving. The parents essentially decided the schedule and, even though they were very nice people, it felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around them. It’s not that I don’t think it was very generous of them, it just felt a little odd to me.

The differences in our expectations of teacher-student relationships as well as travelling experiences tell us a lot about Chinese and American culture.

I would never choose to go to a place like Gu Bei Shui Zhen on my own. As I said above, something about its in-authenticity repels me.

I would also never invite my child’s teacher on vacation with me. Just like Gu Bei Shui Zhen, it feels slightly unauthentic and uncomfortable. 

How to Develop Cultural Literacy

The challenges posed by a clash of cultures here is a great metaphor for the challenges of living in another country. When confronted with these types of situations, the best thing you can do is to adapt- if only for the sake of preserving harmony- which is perhaps the most you can hope for when living abroad.

Even though I often feel like speaking out against these types of cultural practices in china (specifically the practice of giving envelopes and superficial relationships), doing so would accomplish nothing. In fact, it would make me more stressed out.

In the end I am not in China to change it. I am here as a visitor. I hope that my presence and interactions help to open them up a little bit to outside ideas; but ultimately I don’t plan on naturalizing.

The Result

As a result of practicing this cultural literacy I was able to lay back and relax with my girlfriend. Even though I did have the urge to criticize both the resort and circumstances under which I had come, I restrained myself and am very happy that I did. The most important thing was that she enjoyed herself and the parents felt like we were being reciprocative of their generosity.

This experience served as further proof that I rarely have all of the answers, and my own expectations are often wrong. I can’t change the way I feel about these types of places and relationships, but I can seek first to understand and not to be understood.

Yes, that is a Stephen Covey line. And while I am not promoting his whole system, I do think it is an important building block of living in another culture happily.

Thanks for Reading My Fiction, Now Let’s Talk About FOMO

It’s hot again and as Friday winds down I am typing up this one from my apartment in Beijing, China. Luckily the air isn’t that polluted and I can open up all of the windows to get a little cross breeze going. So, in my gym shorts and with a half cup of ice coffee I sit down ready to open my heart to the world.

If you are visiting my site today because you read my recent flash fiction post on the Anthill, well, thank you! A lot of work went into that piece and I am more or less happy with how it came out. Although it was originally a bit more tongue and cheek, I think the edits did in the end make it better. If you haven’t check it out, then here is a link for you.

Now that all the PR stuff is out of the way I want to get around to a topic that has been on my mind as of late. Namely, FOMO (fear of missing out). This is something that writers and professionals alike need to think about because it is seriously wearing down our attention span. I am betting that I am not the only one who suffers from FOMO.

For those who don’t know, FOMO refers to constantly checking social media because of the feeling that something is happening which we aren’t privy to. This has always existed (think of the friend who comes out on a Friday night- even though he has a fever of 102 degrees), but now with the advent of technology it has been seriously amplified.

We get FOMO because of all these messaging services and social media accounts. The internet is incredibly interesting and there always seems to be more and more ways to access it. But it’s important to remember that these physical devices and their connection to the internet can be a potential black hole of procrastination.

Of course, it’s also very important to stay connected and interact with the world. So the question arises… how do we manage it?

One idea is to set up a time during the day which you commit to not being on social networks. You could, for example, disable all social accounts until after five pm when you leave work. This could be done with an adblocker or “good ol’ self control”. (Sidenote- I don’t think “good ol’ self-control” is actually effective as we might think. So, yeah, maybe adblocker is best).

Another way could be to cut down on our accounts. That means deleting all the useless accounts that we have and ultimately not signing up for the new ones in the first place. This is a hassle in the beginning, but there is also a strength in learning how to say no.

The reason I bring this up today is that I have noticed how much FOMO cuts into the quality of my own work. This is to say that I do my best work when I have no distractions and can focus from 2-3 hours uninterrupted on a project.

If you are reading this post and saying “Ah, jeez Will I am an excellent multitasker” well, I’m sorry but you are not. Research has shown that multitasking really just means switching our attention from one thing to another, and therefore reducing our overall span of attention on one particular thing.

But I digress.

I hope that I was able to bring up some awareness about the importance of managing your own attention span in relation to social media as well as the internet. Because while I mainly discussed interacting with people on social networks here, this also applies to just surfing the web in general.

I will go out on a limb here and say that I really haven’t learned that many useful things from just surfing the web aimlessly. Normally, the most useful bits of information come from conversations with other people, lectures, and books. The web is certainly an awesome tool, but you need to make sure that you are using it, and not the other way around.

Lynch’s Magellan Fund (Stock Picking and Stories)

Peter Lynch ran the Magellan Fund for 13 years and achieved a 29.3% average annual return from 1977 to 1990. He is a legend in the financial world. 

When investing, Lynch advises doing research and developing a story about the target stock. If through your research and analysis you can develop a good story about why the stock is a good buy, then chances are you are on the right track.

Stories and stocks? Yes, you read that correctly. That’s because stories are one of the oldest forms of communication and an excellent tool to examine our own thinking. 

Whether people are eating lunch, in the line at the grocery store, or just watching the game, they are always telling stories. Stories about success and failures. Stories about the ups and downs of life. It seems only natural that someone would adapt the technique for picking stocks. 

Stories and stocks? Well, why not. Hard to argue with Lynch’s track record.

PS. Lynch is also famous for saying to “Invest in what you know.” Reminds me of the phrase “Write about what you know.” There seems to be a pattern!

Every oak tree started out as an acorn.

Inch by inch by inch,

step by step,

we go,

further and further.

People want results fast. They want to find the short cut,  a bypass, or a diet pill. But shortcuts only lead to shortcomings. And did I mention that diet pills don’t work anyways?

Good things come to those who wait. Now, where have I heard that before?

Yes, it’s true. The best things in life take a long time to nurture. They also need water, sunshine, and positive thoughts.

Every oak tree started out as an acorn.