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 View from Workers Stadium

(I had written this on August 16th, but just got it off my Palm and into an email — sorry for the time lag.)

I am writing this on my Palm Treo outside Workers Stadium, drawn here by the occasional sound of cheering lifted up into the lit sky above an Olympic soccer match — according to the chinese, french and english announcements I just heard, apparently italy beat belgium.  I have heard this sound before and remembered where: 1990, when I was playing SimCity on a computer so slow it took 10 seconds for the screen to refresh when you scrolled across.  If your city was doing well, from time to time you would hear the simulated roar of fans screaming from football stadiums that would pop up across the city. It sounded exactly like Workers Stadium does now.

From time to time, societies get to lay out their visions of themselves so everyone can see.  In 1939, General Motors had a futuristic exhibit at the New York World Expo, at that time between the Depression and World War II, when mainstream America was still on its first awkward dates with the automobile.  In the GM exhibit, visitors could ride a little train around a scale map of the America of the future: wide open plains, covered with highways that didn’t yet exist — but one day would, as the visionaries proved true (or probably more accurately, ensured became true).  When I first saw the clips of excited spectators, I too became thrilled with the concepts of freedom and independence, of exploring the country and experiencing America’s natural beauty, in these awesome and powerful automobile machines.  But then a wave of sorrow passed over me: how this vision has evolved into suburban sprawl and stripmalls, fractured communities and energy crises, environmental devastation and solitary commutes that gobble up 10 pct of people’s working years.

In a few weeks, the flood of journalists that washed up on Beijing’s shores will recede back to Denver to cover the Democratic National Convention. This summer, first China and then the US will get to define their visions, build their futurama expos.  Here at the Olympics, I want to understand what is it that this ‘one world’ (and ‘One China’) cherish as its ‘one dream’? In Denver, what will Obama and the Democratic party themselves say they ‘hope’ for?
As for my dream: I hope that Beijing becomes the city it is today, this lovely August 16th.  The sky is blue with poofy white clouds. The flowers smell like honey and the grass smells freshly cut. People of every banner are here, cheering on themselves, and cheering China too.
The soccer game is over now and the crowds are gone. I am watching a man in a dirty orange jumpsuit with a broom made of straw sweeping up the Coke bottles and Tsingdao beer bottles, while a mosquito is biting at my ankle now.

It itches.  Anyway, it’s time to go.


Olympic Buzz

No time for editing and composing — here’s what it feels like to be
in Beijing now:


I am writing this at 12:45:07 am because it’s the second time in two
weeks I’ve been home before 1 a.m., fueled less by caffeine than by
pure adrenaline, the pace of the Olympics.

Here’s the thing:  for so long, so long, I’ve been thinking about the
Beijing Olympics as the BEIJING Olympics — this platform, this stage
for the world to get to know China.

But now that it’s here, it’s clear that this is just as much about the
OLYMPICS as it is about Beijing.  Now every day is riddled with
spectating Games in person, or listening to friends recount their
tales of Games they’ve seen, or meeting athletes on bars and in the
street and online, and hearing stories of people, these real live
people, and their families, that came here, to experience this week —
not China really — but this MOMENT IN TIME, to watch the flags of the
world collide in potpourri, a galaxy born out of cheering and
jiayou-ing and friendly rivalry, to feel the temperature drop in the
stadium as people go home after the first match of a double header
ends at 10:30 pm, to feel the heat and humidity of the Opening
Ceremony, to breathe in the welcome aroma of fresh cut grass and
blooming flowers under a blue sky, to feel out of step but secretly
glad at the emptiness of car-cleared streets, and welcomed by teams of
super friendly Olympic volunteers, and adorable Fuwa mascots.  These
weeks, the Beijing I write about has taken a back seat, and some sort
of international netherspace has arrived, a ground where people are
happy, and competitive, and excellent, and friendly, and curious, and
driven, and carefree, all in one.  So much fun!!!

And then, if this unparalleled atmosphere weren’t enough, Continue reading


At 8:20 am on Tuesday, June 24th, a train pulled out of Penn Station in New York heading north at 35 mph on an eleven hour journey through cornfields, cows and rainbows to Montreal.  On this train, my sister, 14 bags of her stuff, and me, completed the next stage in a story of immigration that, as family lore would have it, includes Genghis Khan, a potato famine in Ireland, fleeing from Odessa to Athens with only a baby carriage after overhearing some revolutionary sailors in a park, friendly USSR-Cuba relations, a cheap-season trip to Club Med and a fateful sunburn, and British poetry.  But this newest leg in the story of how my sister ended up migrating to francophone Canada was driven by a much better reason than some of the wars and famines that have moved the Aabs and Hawrylkos in the past:  some Canadian guy named Marc, who, after June 28th, I have been happy to call my brother-in-law, and whom my sister is happy to call her Happily Ever After.
But even with rainbows and misty gondola rides through mountains glimmering with fireflies and the Power of Love (yes, my sister’s wedding was indeed amazing), migrating ain’t easy.  It’s not easy for those who go, schlepping their strange accents and rice bags of shoes to countries that count kilometers instead of miles.  It’s not easy for those they leave behind, who wonder how long they have to store their high school textbooks.  And it’s not easy for those who were already there, who somehow have to make room in their closets and cities and subways for these strange new newcomers.
Because it isn’t easy, there has to be something really darn good about the place people migrate to, in order to make it worth all that disruption.  (And not every place is lucky enough to have a Marc.)  So come be awed with me for a moment at the march of the humans, more powerful and romantic than Morgan Freeman’s penguins ever could be.  Be awed with me at the ability and willingness of a population to get up and leave home to pursue a better life — a hallmark of significant societies throughout history. And the places these people go:  they have become the greatest civilizations of our time.  If you want to understand where the world is going next, look where its people are going.
Back now in China (as all Aabservations eventually migrate…), Continue reading

Today we are all Sichuan people

Being here in China, now in the aftershock of the May 12 earthquake, has shown me proof that human beings are fundamentally good.  I have been floored by the outpouring, from my friends, my colleagues, my clients, of a compassionate and sincere desire to help in whatever way possible.
Whenever news of the earthquake has come on public TVs in Beijing, people gather round to watch — stopping mid-step in shopping malls, huddling together around the monitors on the bus.  Jo Kent has done a brilliant job in describing the tremendous generosity that Chinese people themselves have had, so just take a second to read her article here.   
As Jo notes, the Red Cross is one of the organizations tasked with disaster relief.  Another friend who studied with me in Chengdu in 2006 has done some digging and recommends donating through their international website at http://donate.ifrc.org/.

There’s much more to say, and much that has been said better by others, so I’ll stop here.  I just wanted to let you know how to donate, and give you a hint of how much people here have come together around this tragedy.  There’s a palatable sense of compassion, perseverance and hope — one I remember feeling in New York City in the days just after 9/11.
Stay well,

Becoming American-Asian

Growing up a cultural immigrant mutt, not European enough to smoke nor American enough to drive a car, I have spent the better part of the past two decades looking for a culture to latch on to.  When I was in high school, I tried to be Jewish.  My effort entailed spreading peanut butter and jelly on matzoth at Passover, singing hymns in Hebrew in front of 400 people, and, when required, kvetching.

I’ve tried other cultures since then of course.  Eating tofu and speaking C++ in California during the dot-com boom and drinking Cosmopolitans and speaking financial “greeks” in the derivative days of Wall Street.  So when I showed up in Beijing, I was ready for the next next thing:  I was determined to become an Asian-American. Continue reading

Take me out to the qiu game

I can’t do a better job than this NYT article at describing this Saturday’s baseball game between the LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres here in beautiful Beijing.  It was apparently the first time in history that Major League Baseball has played in China, a country that apparently only has 100 baseball diamonds, total. 

Yesterday was beautiful:  cherry blossoms in bloom, the crystal blue sky dotted with rare poofy white clouds:  the perfect day to sit in a Division III college sized baseball stadium and watch two professional teams up close and personal, with a handful of non-comprehending Chinese fans and a sizable chunk of Americans who were mostly there to see each other and enjoy the sunshine.  At Wukesong Stadium, you could forget about the other breaking news going on in China right now (that I don’t feel comfortable writing about on a blog or even email), and instead focus on the animated hot dogs racing each other across the Jumbotron, the inflatable Padres’ friar mascot dancing with minimalistically-clad Chinese cheerleaders, the programs that didn’t even list the team’s lineup, and every once in a while, the game itself.  My favorite part of the afternoon, which the article left out, was when the bleacher creatures started the Wave.  I didn’t expect that, especially since none of the other attempts to rally up the fans seemed to work.  But there it went, looping around the entire stadium two or three times, and even getting the normally too-cool VIP section to join in.

It was so odd being there, as baseball is an American sport, like apple pie is an American pie.  No one at the game I talked to thinks that baseball will take off in this country, with reasons given ranging from poverty (requires too much equipment), land constraints (requires a specialized field), image (too clean cut — Chinese students prefer the counter-culture of tough guy basketball), or even tensions with Japan (where the baseball is well loved).

But we’ll see.  Baseball is a game of patience, and we’re only in the bottom of the first.



I’m not sure how to frame this. A few weeks ago, when I started writing this Aabservation in my head, while wedged between people (thankfully shorter than me) on Bus 120 going to work, I planned to write about the value of framing things.  I was going to talk about the photo contest — whose results are going on display in the Ginza Gallery next Saturday, March 22nd at 8:30 (come if you’re in Beijing!) — and how the art of a photograph wasn’t just noticing something and shooting it, but cropping it and putting it against the right background.  That in framing something, you add your own personality to someone else’s experience.  In the Aabservation I was going to write, I would’ve talked in saturated tones about how the red edging I added when matting some dreary grey photographs of China to bring out the a sense of hope in these shots.  Then, like in all Aabservations, I was going to expand out on this little micrometaphor, talk expansively about human nature, drop in a reference to China and gratuitously comment on how cute pandas are (well, c’mon, they are so cute!), before closing with some profound-sounding play on words intended to play on your mind for days to come.
Or that was the plan, until I had some black coffee.  Continue reading

Buying Resolutions

This New Year, I made a resolution to buy stuff.
One of the great things about being an American living in China is that you get two chances to make and break resolutions — one for the Jan 1st new year, and the other about a month later for the Chinese lunar new year.  For months, I have needed a new cell phone, some new clothes, a sofa that doesn’t resemble a wooden plank, earphones for my iPod to replace the ones that broke, and a bicycle to replace the one that broke my heart.  After a full week of commitment-free vacation days spent in Beijing, I succeeded in none of the above.  I did, however, buy three energy-saving light bulbs.  And some toothpaste.
If you know me, you know that I tend to hate stuff.  Or more specifically, I hate shopping.  I used to think this problem was a form of well-rounded cheapskateness: Slavic thriftiness passed down to me from my immigrant grandparents, people who fled a soon-to-be famine-filled Soviet Union to end up in a soon-to-be Depression Era America.  But then one day after college, I realized I was spending a lot of money, despite living rent-free with my parents.  According to Microsoft Money, which tracked every credit card swipe I had made during the year, I was spending almost all my disposable income on traveling and eating/drinking out (and business suits).
I am, as a friend once put it, an “experience spender.”  I will never spend $200 on a really nice shirt, but would definitely spend $200 on a really nice meal.  I like to think that I’m not alone, that being an experience spender is a hallmark of the nouveau jetset.  Having stuff makes it hard to move, and the more you move, the more you abhor stuff.  Thank goodness for alumni email address, because most people I know don’t have any other permanent address.  My current mailing address is my work address, as I’m more certain I’ll be a my company in a couple years than in this apartment.  So buying a lot of things that I will have to schlep around the world, sell or throw out is highly unappealing.
But what about buying a few really nice things?  I admit, I have a Juicy Couture leather bag given to me when my friend was moving out of Hong Kong (and abhorring having stuff).  While I first fell in love with the bag for how the leather and metal chains swing obnoxiously into passersby, especially if you saunter down the street wearing (knock off) Prada sunglasses, I quickly came to admire it for its utility.  It has toted variously my laptop, two bottles of wine, an entire pomelo, and my bike helmet.  It’s a really sturdy and well-made bag.  So the other night, it wasn’t much of a surprise that I found myself (sarcastically?) extolling the virtues of Gucci:  “A luxury bag is the great equalizer,”   I waxed poetically, straight-faced and perhaps even sincere. “Some people who don’t have much money, but can still muster together enough to buy one really nice bag, can skip over the middle class and enter the magical world of the elite.  A bag lets them enter the fantasy vision they have seen in magazines and billboards and ads.  It lets them live the dream.”
Buying stuff has been the American dream for generations now.  And this year, the Fed and the US government have made a new year’s resolution itself: to resolve the coming recession by getting Americans to buy more stuff.  Over here in China, in the manufacturing trenches of the world economy, where people are chocking on the pollution created by factories selling said “stuff” to America, I sort of wonder if America doesn’t need more stuff right now.  America extols itself as being a service economy, in terms of what it produces.  But it seems to me to still be a stuff economy in terms of what it consumes.  I don’t really want to buy the world a Coke.  I’d rather go buy you a drink.
China has leapfrogged a lot of development steps, and maybe will leapfrog growth through buying stuff too.  China’s leaders are starting to talk up shifting into services as the next engine of development; maybe they’ll try to encourage consumption of services too.  Tourism’s growth has been explosive in China, and coffee shops are flourishing like blue algae in Lake Tai.  So maybe…
As always, it’s a fascinating time to be here.  I’m finally going to go buy a bike now, so I can go out and experience it for myself.
Yours as always,

Hang time

It’s quiet now. 

Of course, the sound of fireworks is incessant as Beijing-ren celebrate the New Year, tossing fireworks like grenades above the roof of my six story apartment complex.  But between each explosion echoes into hollowness.  As China goes on vacation this week, the silence is overwhelming.

I took a bus on New Year’s Eve day across Chang’An Jie, the main drag in Beijing, and a street usually jammed with traffic.  But this week, when the 15+ million people of Beijing stop building, driving, and working to go home to their families, this “Long Peace Street” finally earns its name.  My empty bus flew past the brand new egg-shaped Opera House and the army of red flags fluttering over Tiananmen Square.  The sky is so blue, with factories closed and cars eerily absent from the street, that from across town you can see clearly the two steel frames of the CCTV towers, slowly winding together like Pyramus and Thisbe into a permanent embrace.

Being here in Beijing, you can’t help but feel that we are on the cusp of history this year.  Someday Continue reading