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The Importance of Stories

sihui_sunnyday

Sihui parking garage.

This past week I have been reading the classic A Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Although it is quite academic, it is also an incredibly powerful book. (Hey- people are still reading it past the turn of the century- do you need more proof?)

The book is all about heroes and mythology. The journey a hero must go through, and how these patterns are played out time and time again.

The forward to the 2004 edition (I couldn’t find the author- sorry! – I believe it was Phil Cousineau) talks about how children in the Hungarian countryside were traditionally expected to learn 12 stories by the time they were twelve years old.

Here is the quote-

There was a serious piece of advice given by the very old people in our family. It was that every child ought to know twelve complete stories before that child was twelve years old. Those twelve tales were to be a group of heroic stories that covered a spectrum—of both the beautiful and the hellacious—from lifelong loves and loyalties, to descents, threats, and deaths, with rebirth ever affirmed. No matter how much “much” a person might otherwise possess, they were seen as poor—and worse, as imperiled—if they did not know stories they could turn to for advice, throughout and till the very end of life.

What are we without our stories? How can we live a decent live without this knowledge?

5 Reasons Why I Like Snow In Beijing

Just when I thought it was spring, boom! A day of snowflakes makes it’s way into my week. Wait a minute! I thought that I could put my winter jacket away… And what was that tangyuan article about earlier in the week?

I guess sometimes the lunar calendar is a bit misleading.

I wrote this as it was snowing outside of my office in Haidian (海淀). I even snapped a few pictures on my recently repaired iPhone 6 camera. 

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Beijing gets snow only a couple of times a year. And while we never get much, it does have a way of creating quite the picturesque landscapes. I guess history and snow go very well together.

Here are five reasons snow is a welcome distraction in Beijing.

1. Clear Skies

Snow means that it’s not polluted. As Beijing is often above 500 PM 2.5, especially in the winter from coal factories, this is a good thing. 

2. Reminds me of Home

Back home in New Hampshire we get quite a bit of snow. When it snows in Beijing it reminds me of all those moments spent looking out the window and delaying putting on my snow gear to go out and shovel the driveway. Except for here there is no driveway.

3. It’s cozy

Snow covers up everything and muffles all the noise. In this way it has a sense of insulating us from the world outside. Snowfall in Beijing is a good excuse to relax at home and curl up on the couch to watch a movie or read a book.

4. Timeless

Particularly in Beijing, snow is timeless. There is nothing quite like pictures of the Forbidden City (故宫) or Summer Palace (颐和园) covered in snow. It seems there is something about snow on historical objects that enhances their timelessness. 

5. Public Transportation

In America, snowfall normally means slowing down traffic and staying put. While that is true in Beijing to a certain extent, snow doesn’t stop an underground subway from moving. In Beijing, a city with a modern and developing rail system, you can get around quite easily while still enjoying the scenery.

It doesn’t snow often here, so when it does it is worth remembering. These are a few of the reasons why I enjoy the snow in Beijing!

Do you enjoy the snow? I bet a lot of readers enjoy it for the same reasons as me even though they don’t live in Beijing, or even China for that matter.

My Chinese New Year

春节 Chun Jie (Chinese New Year; CNY)

This Chinese New Year was good. Very low key. I stuck around Beijing for the week and enjoyed the quiet.

Of course you can’t only sit around during the holidays and on a couple of days my girlfriend and I went out to see some of the famous sites in Beijing. Even though I have been living here for almost three years now, I still enjoy visiting tourist spots.

 

Beijing is definitely not the most livable city in terms of modernity. It has high pollution, traffic is quite congested, and the weather is less than dry (it being located in a valley).

However, where Beijing loses in it’s fight for livability, it makes up for in rich history. Although it has not always been the capital of China, it has a number of remarkable sites that express Chinese culture. Some of the most famous are the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Lama Temple, and so on.

During our Chinese New Year we first visited the Lama Temple. This is an incredibly beautiful temple that is both pleasant to walk through and convenient to get to. I suppose that is one of the main reasons it’s so frequently visited. I have been there three times myself.

We also visited the Bird’s Nest, up north of the Fourth Ring Road. Although this area, like the Lama Temple, was swamped with tourists, it was still very nice to go and see.

The Bird’s Nest, a modern metal stadium originally used for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 has become a symbol of Chinese modernity in the 21st century. While we didn’t go inside, it is very nice to visit and walk around.

We also tried to go to the Forbidden City, but like every other time that I have attempted such a feat, the lines were too long and we decided against it.

It is interesting that while the Forbidden City is Beijing’s, (and arguably China’s), most well known cultural site, it is also a pain in the neck to visit. While some people might scoff at me for not having ever successfully entered the palace throughout the entirety of my stay in Beijing, I also know many Beijingers who have never entered in their entire lives.

On the last night of the Lunar Calendar we attended a friend’s Jiaozi celebration close by the Summer Palace. We didn’t go inside the park but we did ride a moped through the Tsinghua University and my girlfriend freaked out about the fireworks. Then our moped died after midnight on the way home and I had to push it back. 🙂

All in all, it was a good CNY. It’s funny how that the longer you stay here the more normal the celebration begins to feel.

I remember in my first years that it felt quite odd and I didn’t understand it. Now, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of relaxation when it approaches. Probably it is because the longer I am in China the more and more I adjust and adopt its culture.

Nian Hui; Annual Parties in China

Nian Hui( 年会)  is the Mandarin word for a company’s annual party. They are big company parties that happen at the end of the Lunar Calendar, right before Chinese New Year, the largest and most important festival in Chinese culture.

This means that they normally take place in second or third week of January. Close enough to the new year that it feels relevant, yet with enough space before so that those leaving for vacation are able to attend.

What Happens?

The Nian Hui is basically a company show where everyone goes to a conference center, sits with their department, and watches about three to four hours of speeches and acts. The CEO, along with other figureheads, will pontificate about what great progress was made throughout the past year and all of their great plans to come. After and throughout all of this everyone is encouraged to cheer and support the company in quintessential Chinese style.

Those higher up will also dress up and participate in silly performances. This is one of the most curious aspects of the Nian Hui. For example, Jack Ma, CEO of world famous Alibaba, once dressed up as a woman for a performance. Although most executives do not go as far, participation in song and dance by higher level employees is ubiqiutious.

Those on the lower rungs follow suit by coming together and creating smaller performances. Women have a tendency to lean towards more sexual dances. Men enjoy drama productions of their favorite reality TV shows.

Why Do They Have It?

It is important to understand the Nian Hui if you want to understand Chinese culture. Like many things here, it’s all about face. The company can gain face by showing all the employees how strong they are through a number of different criteria, such as location, facilities, presentation, and quality of food.

A Nian Hui that does well in these areas will give the company a lot of face. Employees will feel that the organization is strong enough to weather a storm and will be able to provide a good future. If it does not do well in these areas, well, mutiny- or at least abandonment- could be imminent.  

The longer I work in China, the more I dread going to these events. And it’s not just about being a foreigner either. Chinese and Foreign Experts alike both experience the same feeling of being dragged to a stuffy location and twiddling their thumbs for an evening. Most of the time, everyone feels like they are being indoctrinated by company propaganda.

Often at a Nian Hui, you will hear lines such as “We are the best company in the industry this year. Next year we will be even better. Who is with me? Our company is the most innovative and will out work all the others!”

The thing is, though, that employees don’t care about the long term portfolio performance of the company they work for. It just doesn’t effect them in any tangible way. The thing that is really important to them is their salary, benefits, and daily work lives. It is not so complicated. But these events often go so far into the bigger picture of the company that the worker bees are entirely left out.

If the food is poor and the words are stale, well, these events more often than not become quite a drag. It’s not that the staff doesn’t enjoy their jobs; it’s just that this type of event is very out of date in a workforce that is increasingly educated and self-aware.

Not to suggest that the Nian Hui is all bad. Seeing your bosses and coworkers get a little silly makes them more human. During the performance, the executives will comes around and toast everyone. Not because they enjoy it, but because it’s what they are supposed to do. The workers drink with them for the same reason.

The core tradition is strong, however it is becoming obvious to everyone that the format is more outdated every year.

Beijing Nights

The cold wind rips down over the Mongolian plateau and hits our fair city. Here in the heartland, all is silent. I look out over endless apartment complexes and 24 hour massage parlors. These are the Beijing nights.

Oh to be young, to be alive in such a time.

Winter is here. Last day was the official start of winter according to the solar calendar. Still, the temperature has risen since only a few days before the end of October, and I can now ride my bike without two layers of pants

We are all buckled down in our offices trying to finish out the last three months before Chinese New Year. Projects to be finished, KPIs to be assessed, bosses to appease.

I am excited for this week. I will be reading a short piece of flash fiction on Thursday night at the Other Place in the hutongs. I have written a few different stories and still have yet to decided which one will be in my hands come Thursday night.

The event is being put on by Spittoon Literary group. A small, indie magazine startup that is trying to make a splash in the English literary scene. Good for them. I’m psyched to be a part of it.

These cold Beijing nights make me feel at home. It reminds me of my first months living in the city, when I couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese and was teaching all the way out on the west side of the city. A lot has changed since then. But I still love jianbing.

So much history here I will never fully comprehend. That’s OK. It doesn’t detract from the old man carrying pigeons in cages to the park, or the young children in yellow caps running to school each day.

I wake up with the city every morning. And I fall asleep in the same way. Millions of people just trying to etch out their lives somewhere in between. Sometimes we get so caught up in it and we forget to laugh.

I forget to laugh. I forget to laugh at the funny way my life has turned out. How much I love a city I once hated. How much I cherish these Beijing nights.

The Rise of Dunkin’ Donuts in Beijing

The pink frosted donut parted between my teeth as I brought up my jaw, simultaneously chewing and guiding the pastry into my mouth. It was sugary and soft and vaguely tasted of strawberries. Mostly it was really sweet.

Recently there has been a surge of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shops opening in Beijing. 

Perhaps the best part about eating Dunkin’ Donuts in China is the logo. When I see the two D’s pasted against brown and pink backgrounds it reminds me of driving from New Hampshire to Logan Airport in Boston.

Actually I have never really enjoyed Dunkin’ Donuts back home. Their coffee is watered down and donuts are too sweet. I think I stopped eating them after I turned nine years old.

I remember the first time I went to Dunkin’ Donuts in China. It was in Shanghai’s Hong Qiao airport and I ordered a coffee coolatta out of nostalagia. I remember the dread I felt, lifting the lid to my mouth, only to have it spill all over me and the floor.

They were kind enough to give me a refill but I didn’t have a change of clothes. I was traveling on business alone and only had a small rolling suitcase with me at the time. So I sat there, alone, trying to remember why I had decided against Starbucks.

Going to cafes in China is quite interesting. Because of the odd dynamic between old and new they have become somewhat of a haven for people looking for a more relaxing atmosphere. Unlike in America, where many places are relaxing and a good place for a conversation, coffee shops in China seem to have sprouted like the water shooting from killer whale’s blow hole.

However, Dunkin Donuts success in China has not mirrored competitors such as Starbucks or Costa Coffee. It seems to have had a fairly rough time and just three years since the coolata incident at Hong Qiao airport I am beginning to see them enter again into the fray.

In the past year or so they have opened up three Dunkin Donuts in Wudaokou, Houshayu Plaza, and U-Town mall. Furthermore these shops are noticeably different from the “hole in the wall” airport location. It really seems like they have rebranded and altered the menu (very important for success in China).

Anyways, I am not a businessperson but I do think DD has serious potential in China. The novelty of their donuts and childish branding could spin well with Chinese customers. It just needs to hit that fine line between luxury and Chinese that can be so elusive.

Personally I have started frequenting the local DD near my apartment in Wudaokou weekly. Interestingly enough it seems to have been very popular initially with foreigners (mostly students probably feeling tired of the hum-drum blandness of Starbucks). However each week I tend to see more and more locals there.

The tides could be turning on this one and I have my fingers crossed. I suppose you always have to route for the home team (remember DD is most popular in the Northeast of America). Besides, it seems that the coffee they make here is much stronger than back home.