After a week traveling in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Dongguan for The Public Radio, I wanted to post a few quick thoughts on China and other related stuff. There will be more to come (photos + detailed descriptions of the places we visited), but here are the things that struck me most prominently during the trip.
Reasons to pay attention to China
I feel like if you need reasons to pay attention then you're already lost. Nonetheless:
- I like China a *lot.* The places we visited ranged from visually striking (mostly in their scale & the obvious rate of change that they're going through) to absolutely beautiful; the people we visited and talked to expressed more raw enthusiasm and interest than almost anyone I know; and the culture is just fucking *cool.* I really enjoy being here, and can't wait to explore the vast expanse of geography and culture that I've so far had only fleeting exposure to.
- Even if you don't *enjoy* it as I do, I don't understand how anyone can be *disinterested* in China. It's an absolutely fascinating place, and is historically unique in that it has highly mature cultural systems (which are significantly older and more well documented than anything in Europe, for instance), *and* is at the same time navigating a totally unprecedented period of both cultural and technological development and turnover. Add to that the pure drama of the past century or two of Chinese history (I'm shocked that so many Westerners lack even a baseline understanding of, for instance, the Cultural Revolution), and you have what I believe to be the most compelling and spectacular narrative of our time. Even if you don't *like* it, I'd be shocked if every single person who reads this can't find a wealth of fascinating storylines to dive into here.
- IT'S BLOWING UP. This country is doing totally mind blowing things right now, and there's little doubt in my mind that the 21st century will see its total dominance of so many of the things (global economic systems; technological prowess; cultural influence) that the West has controlled so well over the past few hundred years. To not make a good faith effort to gain at least a basic understanding of Chinese history, culture, and growth would be to do a complete disservice to one's own future. It offends and saddens me to see my contemporaries doing just that.
A few observations about Chinese culture
- I've remarked on this before (in particular after visiting Taiwan), but the way that today's Chinese cities (to be specific, as I've visited only a few: Shanghai, Suzhuo, Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Hong Kong) integrate the many modes of life is both impressive and heartwarming to me. In the US, we vilified Robert Moses while never really heeding Jane Jacobs' ideas: our cities still separate commercial from residential spaces, and real manufacturing & logistics is rarely to be seen. But in my experience in China, these three aspects of human activity often exist in close proximity. Moreover, they're often done *as a family;* in the small manufacturing shops we saw in Shenzhen and Dongguan, it was evident that child care is no more complicated than... having your kids hang out while you work. It's possible that I'm a rare case, but this is very appealing to me.
- I'll write a longer thing about this sometime, but "distributed manufacturing" totally exists here - and it has *nothing* to do with 3D printing. Anyone who talks about how 3D printing is making it so that "regular" people can make stuff (a popular line in both the American press and VC communities) is full of shit, and the reality is that they probably don't understand even the most basic realities of what "manufacturing" looks like.
- It continues to surprise me how shocked Chinese people are when I have anything more than a passing interest in their culture, language, and customs. Admittedly, it's fair to say that in these things I'm an outlier among my contemporaries; still, the totality of my efforts amount to little more than being comfortable using chopsticks, being open to weird and/or spicy food, and being able to say "I cannot speak the Chinese language" in Mandarin. Meanwhile, most of the Chinese people I meet are often totally fluent in English, eat McDonalds and KFC, have at least some awareness of American culture, and own clothes and accessories made by (or at least copied from) trendy Western brands. I talked to my friend Dan Hui about this, and he pointed out that many Chinese people assume that learning about Chinese culture is as difficult in the US as learning about American culture is in China. Moreover, many of the people who I've come into contact with here are business contacts, and the stereotype of an American businessman isn't exactly someone who goes out of their way to eat random street food. Nonetheless, I continue to encounter people here who are cultured, outgoing, and genuinely interested - and their default assumption is that I am none of those.
- Everywhere I go in China, I'm struck with a willingness to accept short term discomfort with the promise of long term, lasting growth. This is something that the US (and Europe, for that matter) is really, really shitty about. A jackhammer in the morning; a closed sidewalk; ongoing construction on the BQE - all of these things are treated as unjust intrusions into civilized life. Never mind the NIMBYism that prevents the kind of municipal and regional scale infrastructure improvements going on in China today - in the US, those sorts of things went on a path parallel to Robert Moses' reputation. I'll admit, of course, that the tradeoffs between growth and stability are difficult to navigate. But it's truly inspiring to see a collective effort across Chinese society to *get the next hundred years right,* and I can't help but feel that Western conservatism isn't helping us compete.
General purpose travel notes
- I bring a handkerchief or bandana everywhere I go. Napkins aren't really a thing, and it's nice to have something to wipe off with.
- I don't know about you, but drinking outdoors, in public - especially in a subtropical climate - is one of my favorite things. Neither mainland China nor Taiwan have open container laws, and I take great pleasure at stopping in at a 7-Eleven or street stall and cracking open a Tsingtao as I explore a neighborhood on foot. The shocking thing is that nobody else - local or tourist - seems to be doing the same thing. Their loss.
- WeChat is a really, really great app. I think it'd be great if more people in the US used it.
- Most of the upscale (ish) hotels we stayed at had "gratuities" sections on their bills, but in general tipping is not a thing here. Which is fucking great, and I can't understand why the US won't follow suit.
Thanks *so* much to Dragon Innovation, who helped us plan & manage our trip - and to my friend Dan Hui, who was an excellent tour guide in Hong Kong & point of reference for our whole trip.