Tag Archives: thoughts

The Heart of Summer in Beijing

I know that summer is coming when the peaches start to appear at the fruit stand in front of my compound. That is about the same time when I start to wear shorts and a t-shirt, although a jacket is still necessary when I ride my scooter into work early in the morning.

Those peaches are hard and bitter, and I often wonder why they even try to sell them in the first place.

As July approaches, the peaches soften up and become sweeter. And when the sun beats down on one’s brow in the heart of the summer, the peaches are sweetest.

I have never eaten a peach as sweet as the ones from Beijing in the heart of summer.

I wash them off in the sink and stand while I eat them. The best ones are so juicy that you have to hold them out in front of you so that the juices don’t drip down onto your t-shirt. When finished, I wash my face and hands to remove the remnants of peach flesh from my mouth.

When the peaches begin to harden and become bitter I start to think about wearing jeans again and where I will spend my golden week. That is the first week in October you get off in a Chinese company. Almost a whole year will need to pass before we can eat Beijing’s sweet peaches again.

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?”

Literary ADD

Will’s weekly update

Writing is such a curious thing. It is as if in the beginning there is a large boulder you need to push by yourself. Just you, your bare hands, and some geological components. 

WechatIMG2

This past week has been a big one in terms of writing. I finalized a piece of flash fiction that I have been working on for a while now (will be released in June). I finished a larger piece which I was just kind of stumbling through (not sure if that will ever be released 🙂 ). Finally, I also wrote the first draft of another which I think could be pretty entertaining.

In a way it feels like I have a little bit of literary ADD. So much so that I actually haven’t read anything longer than a web page- besides Robert Greene’s, “Mastery” (and even that I am listening to).

I decided to revisit this book because of a youtube talk show, Creative Live (featuring Robert Greene), that I watched the other day during lunch. (My last blog post was about some of the main ideas in the book).

Sidenote- Greene does not think there is necessarily a correlation between how many words you write a day and your ability to write.

I agree with the caveat that we are assuming said person is still a prolific writer. Interesting food for thought. Actually, to a certain extent, having a tight per day word count can be quite stifling and actually counterproductive.

It could, for example, be easy to fall into the trap of just trying to get words on the page. I know that sometimes we all have to do this, but still, there is a different environment when you are writing for a word count versus the story itself.

I was aiming for a minimum of 2,000 words per day on my most recent piece. I would occasionally find myself at the end of a chapter, only to realize that I needed a couple hundred more words. Eventually, I decided that I should just start on the next chapter, rather than extend the one I was working on. However, it took some trial and error before I came to this decision.

Anyhow, it was a productive week for me, and I am looking forward to an equally productive one this week. Hope all is well with y’all out there in cyberspace.

– Will

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.