More Impressions from Beijing

1. Beijing’s got blue sky. Here’s the proof on the left. 

  1. 2. Milk delivery and bill collection. My door bell rang at 5:40am this morning, I stumbled out of bed to peek through the keyhole, aha, it’s the milk delivery man.   I opened the door, and said, “That’s an early delivery.”. He said, “yes, but I am also here to collect payment!”.  “how much?” I asked. “RMB 840.” (USD 130) How was I supposed to have that much cash at this ungodly hour?  “I’ll pay you next week.” “OK” he said, and I closed the door behind me, and went back to bed.  I love the fact that I can get everything delivered at no extra charge, but what happened to online payment? Nope, it’s all cash upon delivery, at any hour of the day!

 

  1. 3. A permanent conversation topic – food safety It’s a safe conversation starter with any parents in China. where do you source healthy food items? Where do you buy chicken, celery, or milk.  Yes, the supermarket is stocked full with large varieties of these, but no one really trusts them. So, we searched, and found, Wonder milk (full or low fat), they don’t make them in skim or in cartons larger than half a quart.  Apparently, the organic chicken should come from BHG supertmarket. I had some super sweet chestnuts the other day, and wondered if they soaked the nuts in artificial sweetner ahead of time.  Eat, but keep on questioning.

4. A well thought through road sign.  This is the sign that’s in front of our apartment. My son discovered it.  Whoever made this sign gave it a lot of thoughts, and decided to lay out the letters from left to right to match the direction the sign was pointing to.  Reading from left to right, it says:  “Beijing of Hospital Force Police Armed People’s Chinese” , but try it the other way. Genius!

5. Every Chinese is traveling the world.  Went back home in Yunnan the other day, and my aunt told me that she was going on a leisure trip to Dubai! She’s usually a good parameter on where the hot destinations are.  A selection of a few places she went in the past 5 years: America,  新马泰 (Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand on one trip.), Japan, 欧洲10国 (10 European countries), and Russia. I have no doubt she’ll be headed towards the Maldives, and Maritius soon.  By the way, the 7 day Dubai, air inclusive journey costs around RMB 7000. (USD 1100).

 

6. The automated verification process on Chinese internet.  Usually, on craigslist, you are asked to key in a few jumbled letters to verify that you are a human, not a machine.  In China, the process requires higher level of intelligence. For example, 16+20=?, please type in two numbers that’s the answer to this equation.  Example two, what’s the capital city of Russia: please input 3 characters to answer this question. (莫斯科 is the right answer)。

6. Kids study hard. “Ayi, it only takes me two hours to complete my homework!” a nine year old boy told me proudly.  I had to ask his parents to make sure that I heard him right. “Yes, it takes other kids 3-4 hours to do homework, so he’s very proud!”. WOW, how are the American kids going to catch up?

 

 

Impressions of Beijing

It’s been 2 weeks since I landed in Beijing, with the whole family in tow, pursuing my dream of another startup in the land of opportunities.

Welcome to Beijing

Since when, China replaced the United States to be the land of opportunities? I don’t think I am alone with this view.  Someone from Mars Bar candy company rented my house in the US, and as it happened, he just relocated to America after a 4 year posting in Beijing. He and his wife looked at me with eyes of envy, and said, “oh, you’ll love it there in Beijing.  There are so many opportunities; it’s a lot easier to make money there. The US is too mature and steady, hard to find a break in the market.”

After one week in China, my son declared one morning. “I both hate China and love China! I hate China, because people drive insanely dangerously, and they don’t stop for you.  I love China, because China has awesome pools!”. Well, school hasn’t started, so the kids daily outing was to try out different fancy pools in different hotels/gyms before we decide which gym to join.  The pools all come with hot tub and fresh towels, and someone forever vigilantly wiping away water dripped on the floor.

Many Chinese friends from years ago have now prospered. Almost everyone has a car, and many have more than one child.  We went with one family to a fancy swimming pool in the CBD area. (Central Business District).  My 8 year old boy jumped into the pool like a fish, and went off with his laps.  He took off with butterfly stroke.  I watched him, with the smile of a proud mother. This is the whole summer’s work with the swim team in our local community pool in the US.

My friend looked at him, and said, “He’s pretty good, he’ll be able to catch up with the swim team after a few sessions.”.  WHAT????  My friend didn’t notice my shock at all, and simply went on to recommend the best swim coach in town.   We signed on with the coach immediately.

After a few training sessions, my son started to whine about going to swim practice, trying to wiggle his way out of it. “He makes us swim more than 500 (ft), and we couldn’t get out of the pool in between laps. We were in the pool the whole hour!”

“Hey, this is China!” I said. “There are a lot of people and you have to try a lot harder to compete.”

“I don’t like China, I like America better.  I like swimming in America.  It’s more fun there.” He continued.

“Well, that’s why China is beating America in everything.” I felt like a Tiger mom/China hater/panda hugger/radical, all at the same time.

I quickly changed the topic, leaving no impression that he could get out of the swimming.  Of course, I chose not to mention that Michael Phelps came through a similar community pool system in Baltimore.

Parenthood exists in muddy water; bi-cultural living is also in muddy water. I’ll let the water be, hoping it’ll clear up somehow, maybe with the force of nature.

Travels that changed one’s life

I was munching on my chicken salad sandwich when my colleague popped into my office, “ Oh, sorry. Here you go. Conde Nast Traveler Magazine issue you’ve been waiting for!”.

I probably didn’t look my best in my small office in an old house on East West Highway.  At least, the munching image didn’t quite live up to the dream brought alive on the cover of the magazine:

“135 Travel Experts who can change your life (Trust Us!)

“FANTASTIC GETAWAYS! Living the Dream in Italy, India, Kenya, Eypt….”

I wiped away the crumbs, and turned the magazine to page 120.  Yes, there I was, for the first time, chosen by Conde Nast’s Wendy Perrin as one of the travel experts for China.

“Zhang wants to show you the “authentic China” beyond anything you’ll read about in guidebooks, and—as a Yunnan Province native, Harvard MBA, and former consultant for The Nature Conservancy—her vast Rolodex of in-country experts in nearly every field can make this happen…and get you farther off the beaten path than any other company can. Her cultural connections run deepest in Southwest China—Yunnan, Szechuan, and Guizhou provinces—where you might find yourself having tea with a practicing shaman, catching a private Naxi music concert at the home of the village head, or camping in luxury mobile tents on the Tibetan Plateau ”

This news reached me last week by email. So, the initial excitement has since settled, but never the less, the pride brought by this listing is still ringing.

It was exactly, almost to the date, 10 years ago that I started WildChina. At that time, I was a couple years out of business school, still owning a couple of black suits that I wore to glassy office buildings in Hong Kong, New York and Beijing. Still was quite used to flying business class.

Somehow, Travel changed my life. I took some time off McKinsey to travel around the world. Puff, 4 months was gone without a blink. I was sitting in the cabin of an oil tanker truck (only choice for a hitchhiker), rocking my way up to the Tibetan Plateau from Kashgar. We rocked and rocked, I fell asleep and woke up. Wow, a whole night was gone. The snow-covered landscape replaced the desert where we started. But the milestones said, 125 km!! A whole night, we covered 80 miles in distanced, but close to 15,000 feet in elevation.

My heart started to beat faster, breathing became more labored, the landscape increasingly looking austere and moonish. The Tibetan antelopes galloped in the distance. I started to cry, for no reason. One was just touched by being so close to pristine nature. I knew there were risks, for me, being the solo woman traveler on that route. But I knew I was one of the lucky few, who had the money, the time, and the right passport (Chinese) to travel to these remote corners of Tibet.

Sometimes, I, woke from sleep in that rocking truck, stared out the window, and asked myself, “What if the truck tumbled over the edge? Is there one thing I would regret for not doing?”

The answer came back loud and clear, “Building my own business”.  That was the beginning of WildChina.

Travel, somehow, has had magic powers over me. I met my husband hiking the sacred pilgrimage trail around Mt. Kawagebo in Yunnan, I took my wedding party to hike from Salween River to the Mekong.

Then travel helped to change other people’s lives.  Recently, two clients got married on a WildChina trip. Two clients got engaged on a WildChina trip. We’ve helped families retrace the Burma Road commemorating their father’s journey in WWII.

After all the years of traveling, I think I am starting to understand the magic of travels. Somehow, when one’s on the road, one’s attention is so outwardly focused, that all you notice are people and things around you. After the outward focus, the inward reflection of oneself is much gentler, and not so judgmental of whether my office is in an old house or a shishi building downtown, or whether my munching is embarrassing.

Travel elevates one above the daily routine, and allows one to see the beauty of other people’s daily routine. One of my favorite moment recently was jogging in front of Shangrila’s Songtsam Lodge, while watching the Tibetan farmers shepherding their cattle to the fields. I am sure they didn’t think of their life was poetic and charming, as it was just hard work. But as a traveler watching them, I was loving that moment. That’s the illusion of distance- distance of reality, distance of geography, and distance of time. That’s probably the art of travel.

Anyway, back to my sandwich. I didn’t think my munching a sandwich at desk was any bit poetic, but more embarrassing. But, I know, give it another 10 years, I will reflect back on this moment, as one of the defining moment of launching WildChina in America.

Taiqi lesson and fan making, are they tourist traps?

I saw a client email to my staff another day, requesting a series of changes to the itineraries we proposed. The clients email reads:

  1. There is a scheduled visit to the Temple of Heaven in the morning of the 3rd day, and it says learning Taiqi from a master. Please delete that, we are not interested in activities contrived for tourists
  2. There is a visit to a sturgeon farm in Yichang while I only want to go see the 3 gorges, and have no interest in sturgeons.
  3. Day 16 is a visit to Fuli. Fan making is of limited interest to us. What makes this an interesting place to visit?

As I read along, I knew we found the ideal clients – they are engaged, well traveled, and want to make sure they see the authentic China. Yet, I cringed, knowing very well that if my staff followed the email instruction to delete these activities, the clients will miss out exactly what they were seeking- the real china experience.  So I hopped on the phone.

Clients told me that they were seeking a couple of things: a/ a basic understanding of the history of China, b/contrast of the developed and developing parts of China to understand its diversity, c/ exposure to traditional China that’s unspoiled.

Why would WildChina staff arrange the guests to go to Temple of Heaven early in the morning to learn Taiqi? I remember the days when I lived in Beijing, one of my favorite activities is to go to Ritan Park at 6 am, and simply observe the Beijing residents do their morning exercises. Some would sing at the top of their lungs, some do fan dances, some would throw their bodies against a tree, some do Taiqi. It’s simply the best time to people watch and connect.

I went back to the park again with my 1 year old daughter strapped on my back in a carrier. Those old ladies in the park would walk up to me, grab my daughter’s thigh, and ask me in amazement? “孩子怎么这么胖?喂什么了?就喝你的奶呀?” (How can the baby be so fat? What do you feed her? She just drinks your milk?” I’ll save you the answer here, but the point is, these parks in the morning are the real china, fresh from a full nights sleep, people connect as real people, with little inhabitation or consideration of “cultural differences”.

Now the sturgeon farm near the Three Gorges. I was delighted to know when my staff first added this visit to the itinerary. My distaste for the Yangtze Cruise is well known at WildChina. I even spoke about this at the New York Times Travel Show earlier this year. There are better places to see the Yangtze River, but it’s most interesting to understand the environmental and economic challenges brought about by the dam. Visiting a sturgeon farm, for me, is a time when I get to meet the local entrepreneur to understand how their way of living changed because of the dam. When did they start the business, who do they sell to? How has that changed with the dam? To understand the real China, one has to get to these places that are off travel industry route to find out.

Now onto Fuli village near Guilin. The potential clients have never heard about this village, it’s not in tourist guidebooks, as most tourists on the Li River Cruise would bypass the village. That’s a blessing for the villagers, who still live a very traditional agrarian lifestyle, while hand make Chinese paper fans as a side business. Seeing how the local artisans carefully paint those fans is almost a Zen moment for me.

I remember when I was little, people told me that westerners pay more for hand-made things and less for machine-made things. I couldn’t understand why, because I was eager to trade in the cotton-soled shoes (棉底布鞋) that my grandma made under a dim light for a pair of pink plastic sandals! Now, I am willing to pay whatever to have one more pair of her 布鞋,if she were still around.

Strange how time changes, and how I long for the China I grew up with.

Interview with Yunnan Girl

I just did an interview by email with Chris Horton. His questions brought back so much nice memories of Yunnan. Thought I’d share them here. Chris just published it on gokunming.com. A nicely edited version here: http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1573/interview_mei_zhang.

1. Where in Dali did you grow up? What are some of your strongest memories of that time of your life?

I grew up in Dali until I was 9. That’s when my family moved to Kunming. My memories of that time that keep coming back are many. We used to go to a hot spring for baths near Xiaguan. There are always camellia blooming, and we’d climb the mountain behind the hot spring to pick big white flowers (Rhododendrons as I learned later). There were so many of those white flowers that we’d cook them for dinner!  I remember people in Dali loved flowers, there are wild jasmines and other fragrant flowers for sale in the market all the time. Talking about market, that’s my favorite. Many different ethnic people would also come to the market, the Yis or Bais, wearing beautiful clothes, selling fresh vegetables and eggs.  I still come back to Yunnan to search for those moments. (By the way, thank you for asking this question, it brought back so much nice memory)


2. What was the chain of events that led you from Dali to Harvard?

If this didn’t happen to me, I wouldn’t have believed events like this would ever happen. So my Dad, who was a worker building the hydropower station in Xiaguan, decided that the best thing he could do for me and my brothers was to give us the best education possible. He moved us to Kunming for better education. When I was testing for high school, he made me apply to the Foreign Languages school affiliated to Yunnan University, hoping that if I couldn’t get into college, at least I’d have some English to be a secretary.  I got it, but I cried and cried, believing that he robbed me of the opportunity to become Madam. Currie of China. After that, I got into Yunnan University, studying English and Law. I started taking part time jobs as an interpreter since college to pay for school. Then one day, at an usual official banquet hosted by Yunnan Government for Krung Thai Bank from Thailand, my life changed. The president of the bank decided to give a spontaneous speech. None of the government interpreters were willing to go up to the stage with him, as there was no preparation, no script.  They all recommend that I go up onto the stage, as I was the youngest interpreter with nothing to lose. So, I did. After that, the officials from the Bank invited me to sit at their table, and offered me a scholarship I couldn’t resist.  The rest is history.

3. What was the inspiration behind founding Wild China in 2000?
See here: http://www.wildchina.com/application/assets/img/press/pdfs/World-of-Chinese—See-a-Different-China.pdf

4. What are the most surprising or amazing places you’ve discovered in China since then?

There are many, so I’ll just pick a few from memory. I remember seeing the villages near the Yellow Mountains for the first time. I was struck by how beautiful the traditional architecture was, and how much history the places endured, and how sad the current state was – all adults gone to work in the city as migrant workers, with only grandparents and kids left in the village.  Guizhou Province also struck me an unbelievable place. It’s also in the Southwest of China, but incredibly poor and lack of development.  In a way, it reminds me of the Yunnan I grew up with. Rice terraced fields with ethnic hamlets scattered here and there. Traditional lifestyle that’s so beautiful and the hardship so challenging. That’s the China I knew and loved.


5. What notable changes have you seen in China’s travel industry since 2000?

The extraordinary growth of domestic travelers spurred incredible growth in the travel industry. There have been some great advances, for example, I just visited Heshun village near Tengchong in Yunnan. I have to give the development company a lot of credit and respect. I think they did an amazing job keeping the beauty of the place while making it accessible to the general public. The landscaping is beautiful and tastefully done, and the written materials are interesting and well done. There are more and more lodges and hotels that are also tastefully done around the country. These are all great. But, I feel sorry for sites and places that are too quickly run over by tourist crowds. Lijiang old town is a prime example.


6. How often does Yunnan figure into your clients’ travel plans? What are the most popular destinations?

Very often. It’s one of our top destinations. Before I traveled the world, I thought I was just biased because I was from Yunnan. Now that I have been to Mt. Everest, South Africa, Italy, Peru, you name it, I know Yunnan IS one of the most extraordinary destinations in the world!

7. What are your favorite places in Yunnan?
My favorites are: Cizhong in Diqing, I find the catholic Tibetan cultures fascinating; Shaxi Jianchuan Grottoes, I loved the long history behind the whole Tea and Horse caravan road; Tengchong and Gaoligong Mountain, I love the incredible bio diversity there and the WWII history. I just hiked across Gaoligong from Baoshan to Tengchong last week, and thought it’s one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever had. After the hike, I called Gaoligong Nature Reserve, and told them that I’d sponsor them in publishing a birding book! Look for it, it’s coming out next year.

8. Wild China has carved out a niche for itself as a provider of sustainable and socially responsible tourism in China for foreigners, do you see these concepts ever becoming important to the domestic tourism market?
Absolutely, we want to get involved in the domestic tourism market as well, but we have a wait a little bit for the demand to build up more. In the meantime, we are speaking at different forums etc to influence Chinese travelers.

9. Spending much of your time between Beijing and the US, you’re usually far away from Yunnan… what Yunnan dishes do you miss the most?

actually make it to Yunnan a lot! At least twice a year, and spending some solid time in the mountains.  Yunnan Rice Noodles (mixian) is probably the one dish I miss most. I am a good cook, so can fabricate most items including suancai (pickled greens) myself, but the noodle is beyond me.


What’s similar between a Chinese a funeral and a wedding

” We sat around the table on stools, lunching on simple foods, stir-fried greens, meats and rice. Nainai had her bowl as well – placed by one of her grandsons at the foot of her coffin. There a wick, in peanut oil, had burned for the past three days.

It is an eerie and poignant feeling to eat with a coffin at one’s back, a last supper with the dead, but it made sense. So much of my Chinese family’s world revolves around the dinner table and Nainai was such a grand cook, what better way to see her from this world to the next than with a meal?”

These were words written by my husband in 2003 documenting the passing of my 84 year old grandma in China. Strangely enough, all memories came back last night, when a close friend of mine lost her mother yesterday at age 99. We did exactly the same thing, we gathered, a small group of friends, each of us brought food. We sat around, ate, and drank some fine French wine, talked about our earliest memories of our own mothers. Frequently, there would be a phone call of condolence that broke the pace, then we all returned to the topic, then we drifted away to talk about Kate Blanchard’s performance at the Kennedy Center and babies. We talked about how miracles happened that on that same day, my 1 year old baby looked at me in the eye, and called me “Mama” for the first time. We simply had a good time.

I wondered if we should feel guilty for having a good time when someone just died? Then I decided, no! It was the right thing to do, to celebrate the passing of a beautiful life one year short of a century. And that is ok with Chinese culture, and that’s alright by me.

I learned when Grandma passed away. There are two most important celebrations in Chinese life – the red celebration and the white celebration. The red one is the wedding and the white one is the funeral for people who lived longer than 80 years. The commonality of the two? – family and friends gathering around lots of good food and good wine! The only difference is in color. A Chinese bride wears all red, and everything is decorated red, as red color will fend off any evil spirits. (I know, I know, all the young Chinese brides today wear white. don’t get me started on the diminishing Chinese cultural traditions!) A white funeral is celebrating the end of long life, a person leaves the world in white, as pure as he or she entered the world.

In the end, both weddings and funerals celebrate the glory of life.

Bookmark and Share