Tag Archives: philosophy

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.

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.

Is it better to burn out than to fade away?

Neil Young famously sang “It’s better to burn out than to fade away. “

Well, right now I feel burned out like a candle burning at both ends. Or the ashes at the bottom of a fire. A book of matches, or a…. ah, just forget it.

While I have no regrets, I do have a few questions and possibly some concerns. To what point is it advisable to push the human body? And at what point is this process counterproductive?

Admittedly, I have a difficult time self-regulating. Maybe some of my readers can empathize. Surely they can sympathize. It can’t just be me, can it? 

Sometimes I get all these ideas in my head and all I want to do is create-create-create.

As if I could only make enough things, then I could get “It” out of me.

“It” is my special drug.

I am always chasing “It”. I am always trying to show people what “It” is. “It” wears me out but there is nothing to be done about it.

Even at this moment I should be getting ready for work tomorrow. That’s what the clock says anyways. But here I am at my keyboard again just smashing away. My little obsession.

The process is a peculiar thing though because sometimes, if only for a moment, you are successful. The stars align and you can see “It”, right there, in front of you. You feel happy and fulfilled; like you are walking on a cloud.

But then “It” eventually fades away, (always does), like grains of sand through your fingertips. And then you’re back to square one. Just a man with a pencil and a blank piece of paper, or a woman with a chisel, or… anyways you get my point.

Once you understand “It” then you have to ask yourself…

“Was Young right?”

The Power of Simple Language + a Poem

The verb “to like” is simple and powerful. Often we don’t understand the weight of simple language. We think that if it’s simple then it’s boring and accordingly write it off.

Oh, I would much prefer to use prettier words like enjoy, love, or obsession. 

But perhaps the power of the verb “to like” lies in it’s simplicity. That is to say, almost everyone understands a smile or a frown. (Sure, there are probably exceptions to this in some country, but I rest easy in spouting this as a truism.)

I wrote this poem on a whim. It’s about my likes and dislikes. There is a slight anti-technologist edge which I think resides in all of us.

Anyhow, here it is. 🙂

I like to Write

I like to write late at night and early in the morning.
I like to burn incense in my fake stone incense holder.
I like the way it makes the room smell.
Sometimes I pretend I am in an opium den.

I like to listen to electronic music and run down by the river.
I like to wear my sunglasses and a t-shirt while I cruise on my scooter.
I like to walk in my sandals and drink milk tea.

I don’t like emails and text messages and phone calls.
I don’t like how many social media accounts I have.
I don’t like the sound of my refrigerator running all night.

I do like rainy days and drinking coffee.
Reading a book, not the kindle version.
Talking with a pretty girl who smiles like the Californian sunshine.

Why Writing Is Like Plumbing

Some people want to be writers. Others want to be plumbers. But the way I see it, plumber or writer, we’re learning similar crafts.

Both plumbers and writers are just trying to figure out how everything fits together. And neither of these jobs is glamorous. In fact, odds are clearly in the plumbers favor in terms of money and security.

The downfall of an amateur writer is trying to be a writer when he should be learning the trade of plumbing.

Step by step the amateur progresses. He learns how to line-edit, write to a beat, and use grammar. He thinks about his audience and method of distribution.

I guess the only difference between a plumber and a writer is that people like to be called the latter.

Plumber, writer, pediatrician… the words are just labels in the end. And labels are for soup cans and filing cabinets. Don’t confuse the label with the skill-set.

Better To Stay Loose

Leaving Seoul today. I knew that it was coming but still, for some reason or another, it’s hard. I don’t want to go back to Beijing. I have responsibilities there.

I am writing this while sitting on the airport express train. That old, peculiar feeling of leaving a place or a friend has sprung up again.

For some reason it always feels like it’s raining on the last day of a trip. Rain drops splatter against the sides of window panes as the questions run through my mind.

What if I don’t leave?

What if I do?

What if it’s all a mistake?

seoul black and white

Hill top in Itaewon, Seoul.

Traveling to a new city is always like living in a dream. You meet new people and see new things. You walk around and imagine yourself in every cafe and on every street corner.

But you know you’re just kidding yourself. You don’t love this city anymore than the last. It’s all just that hopeless romantic side of you. Not made to fit in anywhere because, actually, you enjoy not fitting in.

I mean… what I mean to say is, you don’t like staying anywhere too long. Then the shine wears off and you see that everyone is human again.

Better to stay loose. Better to keep moving.