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.

6 tips traveling with kids in Asia

One of the perks of my job is traveling with my kids. Over the years, I’ve saved up a few tips to share.

Fish Spa in Cambodia

1. Slow down the Pace and allow kids (and yourself) down time.
We tend to feel pressured to pack too many things into one day’s travel plan. The pressure is well justified as we are often talking about thousands of dollars of plane rides for the family, so get as much as you can.  But, in the end, kids get grumpy, parents are exhausted. To me, that’s a lose/lose situation.  So, I often plan just one major outing for each day, and have the rest of the time for hanging out.  Take Cambodia as an example, the temples can get repetitive really quickly.  So, I made a deal with the kids, one temple a day! That plus the time they spent watching monkeys in the temple grounds would usually take us to noon, then, we grab a nice lunch in one of the road side restaurant, back to hotel for the baby to nap, the older kids for an afternoon movie, while I get a massage.  Then it’s pool time, followed by excursions for dinner and ice cream in local markets.
2. Stay put in a place at least 2-3 nights before moving.
city hopping was driven by the same pressure.  I got to see everything! . Wrong. it burns out the kids and you. Stay at a place a little longer so they develop a sense of routine, which calms them down.
3. Try to take 1 or 2 kids on a special “date” trip with mommy or daddy.
We often travel as a whole family entourage for chrismas and spring break, but through out the year, I try to take the kids on separate trips to match their time and interests. The younger ones could afford missing preschool for long stretches at a time. So, I took them to China with me for 6 weeks, slow pace of travel worked great. We covering Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Cambodia.  Then I didn’t want the older child to feel left out, took just him on a cruise to patagonia as observing animals/hiking in nature was his love, while if we had the little ones, we wouldn’t have been able to do as much.
4. Choose a hotel or cruise that’s kids friendly and also with family clientele.

A lodge or cruise sounds great, until you discover that your kid might be the only child among large groups of baby boomers. That puts too much pressure on the parents to constantly provide entertainment. It’s best, when on a cruise, your child finds a pal to play cards, chess or watch movie with.
5. Whenever it’s affordable, take a guide, sometimes they can double as sitter.
I’ve found this often possible on my travels. Most guides in China, Cambodia are so eager to help that they are willing to spend time to help out with the kids.  I had 3 kids with me at the Great Wall, the oldest one ran fast, while the baby was still in my arms. So the guide willingly took the hand of the middle child and helped her up and down those steep stairs. Same thing as in Cambodia, I hired a guide for the day, but was done with touring by lunch time, so the guide happily played games with the child back at the hotel. It’s often fun to see the kids learning different games from different cultures.
6. Favor houses and villas over hotel, favor places with a pool.
I always needed a microwave to heat up milk at 6 am.  Some times kids want to climb into my bed.  Hotels just don’t work as well with 3 kids.  Houses always! Pool is always a lifesaver!

Wedding Hike

For those of us with cross-border marriages, it often involves two weddings to cater to family and friends on each side. We had gotten married a year earlier in the States, but my grandma wouldn’t take the paper issued by some foreign government as my marriage certificate. It had to be done properly. Her granddaughter had to be married out respectably.

So it’s time to plan a wedding in Yunnan. The logistical challenges of organizing a wedding are many. Starting from the simple most, flowers and wines. I have always had a preference for a western floral arrangement rather than a rigid Chinese bouquet, same with wines. I’ll pick a glass of red wine over Maotai (the fancy Chinese white spirit).  So I ended up cutting out pictures from wedding magazines, and taking them to the flower market to find a talented florist to do them. Fortunately, Kunming is China’s cut flower center.

Then it’s the wines. It’s no longer an issue today, as  you can find many western wines in Chinese supermarkets. But back then, the only wine import channels was 5 star hotels. So that’s what I did.

The most fun part was designing activities so that my Chinese relatives and our western friends could mingle. We decided to invite our wedding party on a 9 day journey from theSalween River valley across the snow mountains to the Mekong River valley.  My husband’s best man probably didn’t quite expect the hike to be so rigorous at such high altitude (10,000 ft), so he didn’t waste his precious hours to prepare for it.  He eventually make it up the mountain top with the help of two Tibetan guide and a donkey.

This wedding hike was the first trip organized under WildChina’s brand name. The images from this adventure accompanied me through the first year of WildChina’s creation, as sales aid. It is now one of WildChina’s signature adventure travel to China product: Hiking the 19th Century French Explorer’s Route. It launched our local Tibetan guide into a successful lodge business in Dimaluo village near one of the most beautiful Catholic Tibetan Churches.

The wedding after the hike was probably the best party in my life. Also made my grandma happy.

Nowadays, I go back to Harvard Business Every year to discuss the case study on WildChina, and they ask me if I had any advice for future entrepreneurs. I always say, “Leverage whatever you can, your friends and family as your first clients, and your own wedding as your first product!”

Proof? WildChina now helps other people with their weddings at the beautiful Aman at the Summer Palace! This photo at the top is from a beautiful couple who are WildChina clients.  For more of their photos visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30359491@N08/sets/72157624138596972/

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.

Top places to visit if you travel to China for Modern Art

Had some Chinese friends over for dinner over the weekend, we were all lamenting the fact that we missed out buying a piece of Zhang Xiaogang’s portrait of a Chinese family. For those of us from the late 60s or 70s, the portraits remind us of the family photo albums we all had. Yes, those straight colored Mao’s jacket on Dad, and those pigtails we used to sport. One has to travel to China, and maybe find villages to go back in time to understand what those pictures meant to us.

Short of that, I can list my favorite places to shop (window shop) for modern art:

Shanghai: Moganshan 50, a trendy art district. Visit Shanghart, Eastlink, Island 6 galleries. Also, MOCA Museum, and Shanghai Art Museum are not to be missed.

Beijing: Dashanzi Contemporary Art District (aka 798). An old factory that was turned into an artists’ colony. Visit Xindong Cheng, Long March, etc.

Also Beijing: Cao Chang Di art district, a newer art gallery area close to 798. Visit Pekin Fine Arts, Urs Meile, Three Shadows, China Archives and Warehouse.

After these visits, you can consider going to Dali in Yunnan Province, to visit those working in private villas by Lake Erhai.

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For Breathable Air, Visit Beijing in October

A friend/WildChina client sent me the note:

“About China and the air quality in Beijing I think your statement “Loved the energy there, but worried about the air quality” sums up the problem. I believe it is this energy (human energy) that is creating, in part, the sources of air pollution. In other words to improve air quality this energy must be directed towards environmental friendly chores that is by their nature are less rewarding financially on the short term. This would not be acceptable for a population that is trying to improve their lots in life after so many years of poverty and lack of opportunities. Does this makes sense? You tell me.”

My husband labels me as a “patriotic Chinese” and I generally stay away from commenting on politics. But, for air quality, I do want to give my travel advice: If you are going to Beijing and Shanghai, go in the Fall (or Spring as second choice). I was in Beijing in July just before Olympics last year, and then again August this year, the air difference was night and day.  On the recent trip, I took my  kids out for walks to my favorite Ritan Park by the Friendship Store in Beijing at 5am (jetlag), and I couldn’t breathe! 5AM, it’s supposed to be the cleanest air of the day! Either my memory of lovely Beijing eluded me, or the air seriously deteriorated. Fall is the only time when you see crisp blue skies occasionally in Beijing. In the Spring, sometimes you can run into serious sand storms that turn the sky black.

To my friends comment, here is my response:

I can’t agree with you more on the energy vs. air quality tug and pull. The sad thing is, most of the people I know there are oblivious to it, precisely as you said, making money is more important. There are some friends who already have money, they are very pessimistic – oh, there is no hope, so why bother, just go live overseas. Then, there are the few who are dedicated to conservation, they care and want to do good, but their voices are often muted by the tide.

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Food for Your Picky Little Eaters in China

I don’t think anybody else can have a pickier eater than my son. I know, a lot of other mothers feel the same way about their own children. Well, traveling to China with picky eaters can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. The food choices in China broadens at an amazing rate both in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but also at unknown smaller cities or towns like Kunming or Dali. Rather than providing a complete restaurant review here, I will simply tell you how my son survived his three weeks in China.

Breakfast: All major hotels in China provide a mix of Chinese and Western dishes. You can easily find bacon and eggs, or corn flakes and yogurt at breakfast buffet table. The situation changes immediately if you are headed towards any cities lesser known than their provincial capitals. For example, in the panda nature reserve I visited near Xi’an, I was served 4 dishes of cold and spicy salads, a bowl of Zhou (very watery rice porridge), a couple of steamed bread. In situations like this, my goes for his default backup-
White Rice –available at every single Chinese restaurant, and the cheapest solution. Usually costs less than RMB4 (US$0.5)/bowl.

Lunch: One of the things that frustrate me most at WildChina is that our local guides still insist on serving a HUGE 8 course meal for lunch, regardless of how much we tried to change that. This is true for most foreign visitors, alarmed by how big those lunches are. Only on hiking trips, are we able to really change things around and provide only sandwiches and chilled drinks. If you are traveling on your own, go for local noodle soups and dumplings. Those are tasty and more than sufficient for lunch. My son would touch any of the Chinese dishes, despite the fresh green beans, broccolis, and noodle soups, he opts for –

McDonalds Happy Meals. Yes, McDonalds is practically around every major corner in Beijing, and widely available in all provincial capitals. In fact, KFC is even more successful than McDonalds, because most Chinese finds KFC more similar to Chinese tastes. That said, KFC also made some amazing localization in their menu. For example, they serve youtiao (fried dough) and Zhou (the watery rice porridge I mentioned above) on their breakfast menu too! My son was happy with McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, but didn’t like any of the toys, since they are local toys based on Japanese or Korean figures. My daughter on the other hand, LOVED those RMB10/piece Hello Kitties.

Dinner: Dinner in China is a big deal, particularly with guests. All the meals that I went to served on average 20 dishes on the table! I don’t remember any dish being completely finished off. Quite a bit wastage. In Yunnan, it’s wild mushroom season – enough reason for me to travel there just for the mushrooms. My son didn’t even taste any of that, instead, his grandfather went to fetch him a –

Pizza from Pizza Hut every single day. Yes, Pizza Hut also made successful entries into China. Although the restaurants are all regarded as high-end places that are 50% empty at all times. If you go in there to order a pizza, they ALL tell you that it’s a 17 minutes wait time for the pizza to cook. I bet their management drilled this sentence into every server’s mind. So, my dad would call the Pizza hut that’s right next door to the Carrefour Supermarket, then take a 20 minutes round trip walk to bring back dinner for his grandson. The 乳酪大汇 (rulao dahui) on a round dish is the same as a regular crusted cheese pizza here. It costs RMB 76 ($11) for a 12 inch pizza.

After all grandpa’s effort. My son made the conclusion in the end: America is better than China because there is clean air and youtube here. What can I say?

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Best Shaolin Kungfu Performance in China

I used to think that watching a show surrounded by hundreds of western tourists is not my thing at all. I am Chinese so I know China already, why would I even want to watch the same show with tourists?

Well, glad I put away that silly bias of mine, and enjoyed a great show tonight. My 6 year old boy is a die-hard fan of Kungfu Panda. So being a good mother, I took him to the Shaolin Kungfu Show at the Red Theatre.

The show’s choreography, stage production, sound production are all of international quality. The performers’ Kungfu are at par with the real kungfu show at the Shaolin Temple itself. For any of Kungfu Panda’s young fans, this is a must see in Beijing. Here are a few logistical details:

The show is on at the Red Theatre daily at 7:30pm. You can buy tickets at the door or online. If you are a WildChina client, this show is recommended to families traveling with children. But, I would even suggest adding this to anyone who’s coming to China for the first time.

Family get together in China with kids

A friend and I are considering bringing both of our families to China for a reunion next summer. My kids are 6 yr, 3 yr, and 9 month old. His 3 girls are 9, 7 and 3.  So here is his questions ” Should we take Josh’s Tangula express to Lhasa?   Or do we want WildChina to organize a princess tour of the wonders of China? Tibet?”

Here are my answers:

Tangula express would be cool, but not for kids. It’s too long a ride and kids get antsy. I know mine can’t handle it. I actually think it’s best to anchor kids at one place for 3 days, have lots of little fun stuff for them to venture from one base.  I would say, hang out somewhere near Guilin or Dali, go on short hikes, bike rides, fishing, crafts, etc.

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