London White

I can’t get over London White.  It’s such a beautiful color, and is everywhere here in London:  lining window frames on stone buildings, coating interior walls, painted over elaborate moldings on hundred-year-old ceilings, stripped across black asphalt to tell you to ”Look Right –>” when crossing the street.  London White is a majestic white, that demonstrates its specialness, privilege and pride in a way so subtle and polite it could only be English.  In China, by contrast, pollution would turn the sides of any white building to a chalky grey by mid-afternoon.  London too was once as polluted, and not that long ago.  This London White tells that hopeful story too, of how much a place can change in just a few decades.  But not just by dreaming:  it’s a white that requires constant care, which here is done quietly.  Look closely, though, and you’ll see residents with a soapy sponge wiping down their window frames on a Saturday afternoon, or ”Wet Paint” signs taped to newly repainted white corner posts.  It’s a time consuming white, that requires patience that New Yorkers like me can’t be bothered to have;  we’d prefer indestructible, dirtiable, resilient black, thank you very much.  Since this white is so vulnerable, it’s a trusting color too.  It assumes the best in others:  that strangers won’t put their feet up on the white bench, or spill red wine on the white carpet.  For immigrants to the UK — who come in all colors — London White is useful:  a clean background upon which we can start painting the next chapter of our lives.

Leaving China

I leave China tomorrow, after four and a half years here.  I am heading out to get an MBA at London Business School (LBS), a two year program that has me graduating in the summer of 2012 (just in time for the London Olympics!). 

As my time in China comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a great deal about endings.  They don’t happen in a moment or even a day;  it’s not an “end,” after all, but an “ending.”  I am now, for instance, writing from a hotel in Beijing, as I moved out of my apartment this morning.  Did I stop living in Beijing this morning already; or will that happen tomorrow, maybe when my flight leaves the tarmac?  Ending three years at Kamsky Associates has also been a gradual ending.  While my last day was June 18th, I started transitioning most accounts to my colleagues long before, and will surely stay connected to the people I met there for many years to come.

But while my time in China is ending, there was a clear moment today when my time in Beijing abruptly ended:  when I walked away from my bike.  You see, China is a country — a concept. But Beijing is a place.  We tend to think that places are concepts too, perhaps defined by the people in them, their vibe, their ascetics, their history, their ideals.  But I would argue a place is just that:  a place, a physical location.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading Omnivore’s Dilemma and watching too much of BBC’s Life series, but I do think that our brains are hard-wired to pay particularly close attention to our physical surroundings.  It’s important for survival to know how to get home, where to find food, and where to avoid becoming food as well.  Or if that’s too caveman-esque of an example, how’s this:  what I suspect I remember most clearly from my childhood are the locations of the hidden “1-UPs” in Super Mario Brothers.  Indeed, now two decades later, if you put a Nintendo controller back in my hands, I bet I would still know that the 1-UP was hidden in the red brick four steps to the left of that pit (you know, the one near the two black-shelled turtles that hit each other and change direction just as you come on screen).

Like a Nintendo controller, my bicycle helped me understand Beijing by letting me understand its “placeness”.  When some people think of Beijing they think of the Olympics, or Communism, or cheap ties.  For me, though, Beijing was the (unnecessarily high) speed bump near my apartment, and the smooth and rewarding downgrade heading east off Dongsishitiao, and the patter of the packed ping pong tables near Jianguomenqiao that I would pass on my way to work.  And, since I could bike to most destinations in under half an hour, regardless of traffic, my bike helped make this sprawling and often congested city accessible.

So, you can imagine that abandoning my bike today (albeit to the kind ownership of a friend and colleague) was really hard.  I wasn’t just leaving a bike, I was leaving the tool that let me play in this amazing city, get around it, and, in my way, understand it.  Outside of Beijing, I can still read about the city’s economic and political developments.  But how will I know if they finally put a pedestrian traffic light on the western crosswalk of Xin Dong Lu and Dongzhimenwai?

Hmm, it’s getting to be that strange time between night and morning now.  A good time, it seems, for this Aabservation to come to an ending.

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The Elevator

I got into the elevator on my way to work the other morning, brow furrowed with something or other on my mind, and pushed “19” for my office’s floor.  On the fifth floor, when one of the passengers I hadn’t noticed got off, a cleaning lady stepped into the elevator with a cloth in hand.  She didn’t push any buttons, nor did she turn to face the doors like most elevator riders do.  The doors closed behind her, and she turned to polish the brass trim on the wall.  When we reached floor 19 and I got off, the cleaning lady remained inside, with no buttons pressed, indifferent to where the elevator would go next.  Instead she just continued polishing the brass, to make it a nicer place to spend the few moments of our journeys, a master of the art of riding elevators.

Thumbs Up for Brazil

It’s late April and still winter in Beijing, but two months ago, I got a preview of summer when I was in Brazil. I used to think that New York was halfway around the world from Beijing. But after my 14 hour flight to JFK (where I stopped to have lunch in the airport with my dad), I boarded yet another 10 hour flight to Sao Paulo – 17,599km all told as the crow flies. Only Argentina would be farther away.

It’s now been a while since I was there and this interminable Beijing winter has messed with my mind, so I apologize for only sharing the impressions of Brazil that I can still recall. I was there for about a week, in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero, and some of the coastal beach towns, mostly to see a good friend and her fiancé who are living there this year, and partially to replenish my body’s store of Vitamin D. I was not there to observe anything intensely, except perhaps how to make a proper caipirinha.

Having said that, here’s what managed to stick in my mind:

1) Obrigada: I clearly don’t speak Portuguese. After living in China for 4 years, when I even tried to speak Spanish, it came out Mandarin. I did learn one word, obrigada, which means “thank you”, and think that’s all you really need. It’s said in the slow, chilled way that all Portuguese seems to spoken there — just enjoying the sound of itself. I don’t know if all Brazilian people are kind and helpful, but certainly the ones we met were (except that taxi driver that gave us a tour of all of Sao Paulo on “the way” back from the Carnival parade). People seemed happy to try to help everywhere we went — so really all you needed to be able to say was obrigada.

2) Diversity: When the flight attendant started speaking to me in Portuguese, I realized that — unlike in China — you cannot tell by looking at someone whether they are Brazilian. Brazil is full of immigrants. How well they get along I leave to other people to answer; the sun was too bright to tell from my beach blanket.

3) Food: Meat, fish, fruit — all amazingly fresh and well-prepared. No wonder my jeans were tight after a week there.

4) Carnival (Mardi Gras): We watched a Carnival parade in Sao Paulo the night we arrived, which lasted for 5 or 6 hours (longer than we did, anyway). The parade went down the middle of a street lined with stadium seats, to which one bought tickets. There were a thousands of people from the local communities wearing extremely elaborate costumes and dancing/shuffling to a repeating samba chorus. Ever few hundred dancers, there would be a fifty-foot tall float, often of a person dancing, with more people dancing on it. At the end, torn up costumes were lying around everywhere.

5) So pretty: Rio de Janiero must be the most beautiful city in the world, with tall buildings woven between green hills and blue lakes. And how our friend managed to keep his eye on the road when we were driving up the coast is a mystery — so pretty everywhere. I hear there’s a rain forest somewhere in there too…

6) Thumbs Up: This I loved: everyone gives each other a thumbs up after asking for directions, or having a door opened, or getting change back, whatever. There was just something really chilled out about the people there, and this thumbs up thing underscored it. Even before I arrived in Brazil, when I was getting my visa at the Brazilian Embassy here in Beijing, the Embassy guard just told me to swing the fence open and go on in. In the U.S. embassy, by contrast, you have to walk through four layers of xray machines, marines, and double-locked doors to get inside.

Sure, there’s more things to observe about a massive country like Brazil — poverty, development, BRIC status, sushi, churches and cemeteries, and helicopters come to mind — but let’s do this instead: when I see you next, I’ll make you a caipirinha, and we’ll find somewhere sunny to chat about it all. Would that work for you? Awesome. Obrigada.

About Stuff

Chasing after a rickshaw piled seven feet high with every item of my personal belongings last weekend, I remembered why I hate stuff.  I was just moving out of my apartment with the help of the guy who collects trash in my neighbor, and his dirty-but-sturdy leg-powered rickshaw.  Since I was living in a walk-up, last Sunday involved the rickshaw guy, me, my old roommate, and my new roommate (aka my sister) walking up and down five flights lugging ricebags of clothes, boxes with stereos, pillows, clothing racks, shoes, a camel pen my sister got me in Egypt, a pink felt cowboy hat I bought at the Houston Rodeo, squash rackets, a clay sculpture of myself that a colleague had made, a foot-thick queen size mattress, some Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered espresso beans, my high school prom dress, … and whatever else made up those 43 bags, boxes, or pieces of stuff.

Why do I — why do we — have so much stuff?
One answer is that stuff is cheap.  Just a few minutes ago, for instance, the guy came with a fresh jug for the water cooler in our apartment.  The only place to put it right now is on a chair, which causes the cooler to tilt precariously.  My solution to this tilting problem is not to find another place to put it, or to try to level it, but instead to go tomorrow to buy a cheap flat-topped stool.  A stool that will be more of this very stuff that I supposedly hate.

And second, we like buying cheap stuff.  It seems obvious, but it’s not.  For a long, long time, we liked buying good stuff.  Cheap meant crappy, and no one liked crappy.  We liked buying a few good things that lasted, and then taking care of them well. 
But then things changed — at least in America:  First, quality stuff became cheap, thanks to the joys of mass production, efficient supply chains, competitive pressures — you name it.
Second, publication costs fell so much that media had to become dependent on advertising, not subscriptions. Those ads have accomplished their mission:  they help us want to buy cheap stuff (and expensive stuff, too).  Online newspapers are a great example of how cheaper publications costs have helped make ads a bigger part of our life.  For instance, newspapers can charge $0.10 per view per brick and mortar ad, but only $0.001 per view for digital ads on popular sites (for instance, with more than 100,000 views).  A friend who has worked on optimizing web-based ad displays believes that advertising will get better in time at targeting potential buyers, thereby permitting online newspapers to charge more for their content.  If so, newspapers can afford to keep providing content we want, and we’ll see more, and more effective, ads that make us want to buy stuff too.  The printed book — arguably the last domain of unadvertised content — will soon follow the ad-model as e-books gain popularity;  the next generation of e-books are already planning on serving ads.
And a third reason we have come to like cheap stuff is that we first learn to buy things when we are teenagers.  Teens face the tremendous task of figuring out who they are, and who everyone else is.  One great way to do that is to identify and buy the latest, most popular thing.  The “latest” part requires buying a lot as trends change.  “Popular” requires buying things that most people can afford to buy and then throw out a few months later.  In other words, teens learn quickly to like buying cheap stuff.

So looking my rickshaw wobbling down the street, I wondered whether having so much stuff is a bad thing, other than when moving, and if so, what, if anything, we can do about it.

I have some thoughts, but for another time.  Now, I have to get back to putting away all my stuff.

The Concrete Floor

The hare had escaped.  The farmer yelled at his hunting dog, “You’re a highly trained animal!  How could you let that little hare outrun you?”  The hunting dog replied, “Master, I was merely hunting for my lunch;  he was hunting for his life.”  — Aesop’s Fables

I recently went back to the U.S. on a business trip, and caught up with friends I haven’t seen in a while – so the usual ten minute synopsis of recent developments in their relationships, job, and education.  My friends are at the age now where summer is now just considered “wedding season,” but people don’t really have kids yet.  It’s a moment when we’ve finished processing all the norms our parents gave us, and are now deciding what ones we consider our own.

One such norm is gender equality, specifically in the workplace. Thanks to the women’s movement, men and women can, at least in theory, now do the same jobs, get paid the same for doing them, and advance to the same seniority at them.  My mother fought hard for that privilege.  She was one of ten women in her medical school class of over a hundred.  Thanks to my parent’s generation (and my parents!), I could attend a formerly all-boys school in New York, play baseball on a co-ed Little League team, work on a historically male Wall Street trading floor, and drink scotch at a formerly all-male New York Athletic Club.  I have been told me there’s a glass ceiling somewhere out there, but I haven’t yet felt it.  We women have my parents’ generation to thank for such liberty.

And yet, I don’t have to look too far ahead to see something that looks suspiciously like a glass ceiling still out there in the workplace.  I don’t need to barrage you with statistics proving that there are notably few female CEOs, directors of companies, or Congresswomen in the US.  Here’s one fun fact though: Lehman Brothers, where I used to work, promoted 199 people to Managing Director last year. 176 of them were men. Only 23 were women. 

So why, after all these decades of gender equality, are women – ambitious, talented, smart women – still not keeping up with men in the workplace?

It’s not just the “glass ceiling” preventing women from rising higher.  There’s also a “concrete floor” preventing men from falling behind, a floor built by you, and by me.

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When cars meet bikes

I got hit by a minivan yesterday while biking along the highway that makes a ring around inner Beijing.  It had just been raining.  The defined bike lane, usually separated by a row of trees, had just ended as a road branched off the highway.  To my right was a moped veering left to avoid a deep puddle, and to my left, a minivan that was veering right to exit.  Between them: me, hitting the brakes of my beloved bicycle;  my shoulder, hitting the moped;  my back wheel, hitting the minivan’s back wheel. And then my rear reflector clattering across the concrete.

The minivan pulled over, and a young couple came out.  After their initial confused emotional angst, they kindly asked if my bike was broken.  “Did you get hurt?” I hadn’t even tipped over and didn’t have a scratch.  Only the splashguard over my rear wheel was warped, so that it pinned the tire in place.  “If we had tools,” the wife said, “we’d definitely help to fix it.”  They seemed genuinely concerned.  Eventually there was nothing more to say, and they drove off, maybe a little slower this time.

I grabbed my bike with its immobile back wheel, careful not to get grease on the suit I was wearing, and carried it a few meters looking for a place to park it overnight until the bike repairmen returned to their street carts.  There, by chance:  a woman standing by the open hood of a car; a man crouched next to a fan and some piping;  and a wrench.  I asked the auto repairman if I could borrow his wrench, and he instead got up without ceremony, took out some tools, and expertly repaired my back wheel.  He refused a tip. Even the woman didn’t seem bothered that he interrupted fixing her car to help me. Eventually, there was nothing more to do, so I biked off, maybe a little slower this time.

Getting hit by a minivan reminded me why I love China.  There are so many people here that you can’t avoid bumping into them once in a while — sometimes they’ll break your bike, sometimes they’ll fix it. In Beijing too, there’s that same persistent “plodding along” that I felt in New York this March; despite the pounding pace of change, such patience.  Perhaps it’s because things have been so hard for so long, Chinese people I’ve met tend to recognize what’s horrible, and what’s really not — and then they shrug off the stuff that’s not.

Next week, the US and China, one land known for its cars, and one land known for its bikes, will meet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Washington, D.C.  The headlines, I suspect, will focus on the collisions, since people like to read about accidents.  Admit it.  You’ve been reading mine.

But I hope that the real story will be about how the US and China can help each other out anyway.  That sometime during those two days, Treasury Secretary Geithner turns to his counterpart at the SED, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and says, “Hey, sorry you got hit by this financial crisis thing.  Did you get hurt?”  And maybe in response Wang Qishan will look at his wounded economy, which isn’t really that horrible, shrug and say, “We’ll be alright.”  At some point, after all the tea and coffee is drunk, there’ll be nothing more to say.  And so the US and China will set off on their own ways as they work to rebuild the world economy in their own ways.

Maybe a little slower this time.

The Big Five

I had seen the Big Five before I knew what they were.  It happened Wednesday January 28th at 5:50pm in Kruger National Park in South Africa, the moment I caught sight of a leopard — the last of the “Five” — hidden in the grass and about to pounce on an African gazelle.  I had spent almost two full days scanning the horizon from our ten-person open-top safari Jeep, seeing zebras, giraffes, hippopotamuses, baboons, wildebeests, impalas, wart hogs, vultures, hawks, and the other Big Four — lions, elephants, water buffalo and cheetahs.  I really hadn’t been paying attention to what the Big Five were, too enraptured by the sunsets and the blue sky, the peaceful coexistence of zebras and warthogs and impalas grazing together — and an inexplicable affinity for a chicken-like bird with a huge red eye spot that would suicidally cross the road. Don’t ask why.

I might have overlooked this Big Five thing entirely, had not the manager of our lodge that evening asked a British couple in our Jeep how our magnificent day had been.  “It was pretty disappointing,” the glum bride-to-be replied. “We missed seeing the leopard, which ran away before we could spot it.  So we only saw four of the Big Five.”

I thought about her comment the next two days of my safari trip. I thought about it when I was back in New York last month, listening as people shared their concerns about their careers.  It echoed in the back of my mind when talking to friends about failing relationships, about challenging grad school applications, nerve-wracking job applications, indeterminate health checkups, volatile pension savings.  It seemed everywhere there were people looking for, and just missing, elements of their own Big Five, whatever they were — career, family, love, health, house, finances, future.

And yet, despite this financial crisis, despite illness, and breakups, and losing jobs and identities, so many of you, unlike the British couple, have found the good in all this.  You’ve come to appreciate the blueness of the wide open sky, and the vividness of the sunsets.  You’ve found your red-eyed chicken.  You’ve deepened your friendship with your fellow travellers.

Look, I am glad that we have the Big Five to look for:  it’s a great excuse to go on safari. 

But I guess I’m not too bothered if we don’t spot that last leopard.  In the end, I just really enjoy being here, watching chickens cross the road, spending time with you on this ride together.

Wearing Black in New York

The upside of this financial crisis was that my friend was able to join me shoe shopping last Thursday at Harry’s Shoes on 83rd and Broadway.  He still had his severance package in hand from that morning’s trip to his firm’s “16th floor,” a blue folder that those kind people in human resources suggested he put in a white envelope to be more (you know) discreet.

I really wasn’t expecting New York to be quite so bad.  We read about it in the news here in China, but just aren’t feeling the financial crisis quite that hard.  China’s GDP is still growing a “worrying” 6 to 8%, people estimate — multiples of the pace of the developed world even during the good years. 

But as soon as I landed in New York last week, even before I crossed the tunnel from Newark airport into Manhattan, it became clear this crisis was as bad as the papers were saying, if not worse: my cab driver told me that I was just his second ride during his 12 hour shift, when he used to average 5 rides a day;  he thinks this will last so long that he’s considering moving back to Turkey after 5 years here in the States.  Later my parents took me to a good restaurant which normally required reservations;  it was so empty they let the three of us sit at a booth normally reserved for 8 on a Friday night.  When I met up with friends in a bar last Thursday for a brief “what are you up to” drink, the stats were depressing — a full quarter of my friends had been laid off in the past few months, and another quarter were worrying about their jobs or working extra jobs for colleagues of theirs that were laid off.

I went home that night feeling like Scarlett O’Hara picking her way through the bodies laid out near the hospital in Atlanta, grateful that I could at least return to the still surviving economy of China.  It felt that night that New York had fundamentally changed.  Even after 9/11, New York had a fighting spirit to it, a rallying passion.  Last Thursday, though, walking between the vacant office towers of midtown, it felt like New Yorkers were getting ready to abandon the city, and take its soul with them.

The next day, I walked through Columbus Circle.  The subway station is a mess:  construction marked out by blue plywood boards, walling in passages and blocking exits.  Up on the street, yellow cabs jolted over potholed pavement that had been poured quickly in patches during the black night — overused roads that never have enough of a break to heal fully.  No one else noticed the constricting plywood walls or the mutilated streets, though.  New Yorkers just deal with it, and move on anyway.  Watching them pick their way through the hazards of this urban jungle, I realized they would get through this too.

E.B. White wrote “Here is New York” in 1949 to describe this very same city that swept me through its tunnels and spit me out onto its streets last week.  He noted, “Mass hysteria is a terrible force, yet New Yorkers seem always to escape it by some tiny margin: they sit in stalled subways without claustrophobia, they extricate themselves from panic situations by some lucky wisecrack, they meet confusion and congestion with patience and grit — a sort of perpetual muddling through.”

When I left New York last weekend, the sky was blue and spring was in the air.  I left dreaming of lazy flocks of unemployed bankers and lawyers, with a falling reservoir of savings and a rising surplus of time, soaking up the free things with which New York summers drench its citizens:  free movies at Bryant Park, cherry blossom festivals in Brooklyn, Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater, Philharmonic in the park, swing dancing at Lincoln Center, free concerts everywhere.  They will gather amongst errant frisbees and oversized dogs, and spend the time they wished they had when the churning economy was rushing them along.  They will spend more time with each other, now, and ask themselves what it was that they imagined their life and world would look like before all this, before they became corporate assets that travel up and down in elevators each day.  And from the supernova dust of this financial crisis, new constellations will form that I can’t imagine yet.  But they will.

And while they rebuild the economy through this solemn time, they will wear black. Not because they are mourning the passage of something wonderful, that moment in time when life was good and hard and easy.  They’ll wear black because they are New Yorkers, who have always worn black, and have been ready — always ready — to muddle through.

Civilization in the West


If you want to see the exposed gears of civilization, come to China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, where the ancient cultures of the silk road mix with the seven countries that still border it today – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan/ India.  Visit the ruins of Jiaohe city, a trade center on a plateau until the water dried up seven centuries ago; visit the vineyards still using the irrigation systems dug in China’s “Death Valley” two-thousand years ago; eat raisins dried on trellises in brick-walled homes.  Time seems to have stood still, told out only by the site of motorcycles, cellphone towers, tour buses, and impeccably paved roads. Continue reading