South Korea—Max

Currently in-transit back to Chicago, and I cannot wait to see everybody. I put in an official request with my mom for one-day-old potato salad, as I’ve been craving that more than any food this summer (potato salad is sooo much better after its been in the fridge for awhile). I made one final stop in South Korea to see the sites in Seoul before I head stateside, which made for a lovely weekend. Seoul is beautiful, and it was really interesting to compare and contrast the place with Shanghai. There were many differences, but most noticeable was the fact that I could access this blog without having to illegally rent a VPN (that is how I’ve been writing these posts all summer).

I met up with the cousin of a friend of mine, and she was nice enough to spend the day showing me the sites:

(Gyeongbokgung Palace) Yeah, good luck pronouncing that.

Street Market:

Seoul Tower:

View of Gangam (like the song) from the tower:

annah(my host) was incredibly kind. She studies animal theology, which I had no idea was a thing. So I had many questions, and conversation was not lacking.

6 more hours until I’m home! My final Kemper Conference is in two days, and I will produce one more post about those two days to close this blog out. Thank you to everybody that has followed me and commented this summer. It meant a lot to be able to share my experiences in real-time with supportive friends and family.

Max

Last Day at ENVIRON Shanghai—Max

(My last supper)

Last day here at ENVIRON, and I’m officially done with my internships associated with Kemper. Bittersweet. This summer was a very important one to me in terms of personal growth, and I think I need some time to let it digest before I attempt to write a serious reflection. Until then, here are some pictures of my summer habitat:

At lunch:

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Sitting at the cubes with Wang Qing, my co-worker:

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Rena (who helped me a bunch) in front of the ENVIRON sign:

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Me waiting in line for steam buns, an important staple of my diet:

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Max

Time Flies So Fast In Busy Daily Life—Max

Its been a great few days. After more than a month of loner-living in the biggest city in the world, I’m transitioning back into the familiar. Tracey(mom) arrived on Thursday, remarkably chipper after a 14 hour flight. Our meet-up went smoothly. We packed onto the subway, and were both kind of shell-shocked during the ride realizing that she had actually made it to China. 

Indeed, Mom is hilarious in China. People here aren’t exactly rude to each other, but they sure aren’t as polite as she is. She’ll give an emphatic “thank you!” to our waiters and doormen, who usually grin and nod back. I’ve found that I’ve built up a more callous attitude to people that are selling me things than at home, which helps when I’m trying to negotiate for a price. We were buying jewelry the other day, and the saleswoman and I were going head-to-head. Mom kind of blew my cover by saying, “oh, but she’s been very helpful and it is lovely,” right when I was using the “we can buy it somewhere else and it’s not that special” bluff. 

Mom gets a particular kick out of the Chinglish that is everywhere. One of her favorites came to be the title of this blog-Time Files So Fast In Busy Daily Life-that she saw on a backpack while window shopping.

Its been fun being able to be the “director” of this visit, as I’ve accumulated a list of sights and places over the summer that I get to experience with someone other than myself. We’ve made our way to the Bund, People’s Square, Jade Budda Temple, the art district, and the French Concession. Every place has been enjoyable, and we pepper our excursions with rests in art-deco cafes(there are a lot of them here) to escape the heat.

Tonight, we are going to the famous acrobatics show. We’re both excited to see the talent on display, but we’re equally excited about the AC in the auditorium. Tomorrow, we’ll head to Hangzhou to visit “West Lake.” The last days of my internship are this week, and it’s shaping up to be an excellent conclusion to my summer.

Max

Many Hats—Max

When I was growing up, I loved collecting hats. Wherever we seemed to go as a family, I would ask for a hat. I have hats from Philadelphia, California, and many places in between. Some people look good in a baseball hat, and I thought I was one of them. Unfortunately, I’m not. My head is just too damn big, and my ears stick out weirdly. When I chew gum with a hat on, it gives me a headache because the elastic band feels like it’s squeezing my brain. I’ve always been aware of the fact that my head was big, but there’s nothing like a hat to draw attention to the melon on my shoulders.

Instead of wearing them now, I’ve found a different way to indulge my love of hats. Through my time at a liberal arts college, I’ve extended wearing hats as a metaphor for the new experiences that I encounter. When I thought I was going to be an econ major, I wore an econ hat. It was uncomfortable, though, so I exchanged it for a writing hat. My writing hat is still new, but I like the fit, so I am going to break it in as much as I can.

The thing about hats, though, is that they are never really made for an individual. A ballcap is a ballcap is a ballcap, until it becomes your ballcap as the sweat stains and broken rim slowly evolve to the contours of your noggin. This kind of hat is impossible to buy; it will never be sold on a shelf.

At this juncture in my life, there are a lot of unknowns on the horizon. What will I do after graduation? Where do I want to work?  Life-what will I do with it? In answering these questions, there is often the pressure to produce an answer that feels like the “right” one. It’s not that I blame those who ask them. These are eternally engaging questions, after all. But what I’ve realized is that formulating an answer based on what I think sounds good is never satisfying.

It is from this question that the concept of “the dream job” seems to stem. If the question is being asked-what do you want to do-it implies that there is a singular answer. I often hear people talk about a “dream job” as if it’s some buried treasure that is just difficult to locate. As I prepare to take off my environmental consulting hat and reflect on my entire experience with the Kemper Foundation, a clearer picture of “work” and an individual’s relationship to said work has begun to form.

As I often find that people before me have expressed more clearly what I am feeling than I possibly can, I’d like to share a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Instead of operating under the presumption that there is a lone job that will define these things for me, my pursuit at this point is centered around developing a means of motivation that I can apply to many different contexts. I am more interested in establishing a set of values for myself to which I can derive substance and value from many experiences, as opposed to expecting them to be given by one particular source. While it seems like a relatively simple observation, its taken trying on many different hats to realize that there is no one perfect fit.

Max

Permanent Revolution—Max

There are times, here, that I’m so focused on getting an interaction “right” that I miss the more obvious context of a situation. I was ordering coffee the other day in a half-English half-Chinese sort of way, and the cashier asked “Americano?”

Wondering what gave my nationality away, I said “yep!” Luckily, the repercussions of that screw-up weren’t too dramatic.

In the spirit of Mao’s theory of permanent revolution-minus the brutality and overall atrociousness-I’m still forcing myself to explore somewhere new nearly every day. This weekend, that materialized with a trip to the previous Jewish Ghetto and the current People’s Square. The former was a haven for refugees during WWII, the latter is a nest of museums scattered amongst one of the few public parks in the center of the city. The hope is that these experiences will lead to a more enlightened state of Max.

With three weeks left in Shanghai, I feel like I finally have a decent lay of the land. Even if I’ve only scratched the surface, the borders of my neighborhood aren’t blackness, anymore. It turns out that I only live a couple blocks away from the western part of The French Concession. What luck! Seriously, I don’t know how I ever got work done without coffee. Had Mom been putting that stuff in my thermos instead of Raviolios, I would’ve been acing spelling tests and crunching multiplication tables like a whiz. Luckily, I was one of the few chosen ones to be blessed with unwrapping a holographic Charizard card in a Pokemon starter pack, so my elementary years were pretty much set from then on.

Speaking of Mom, I was quite surprised to receive an email the other day that said “Max- I’m coming to Shanghai.” Really exciting news! It still hasn’t sunk in that Tracey is actually going to be here in a little over a week. The visa application still has to go through, so more on those developments to come. But if you see my mom, wish her good luck in the People’s Republic!

Yesterday, I continued the saga of Max Eats Out Alone, and I added another bullet point to the growing list of strangely comfortable situations that should be awkward. I visited a popular 1950′s Hong-Kong era Cantonese restaurant called Cha’s, as both of my tour books recommended it. The Chinese are efficient people, and seeing that I was alone, the servers quickly escorted me to an empty table. An empty chair, more accurately, as half the table was occupied by a couple on a date. With an apologetic “nihao,” I sat down and ate my dinner with the two. We did not talk and the food was delicious. No regrets.

The sky is blue, lately, as a result of typhoon winds blowing the smog somewhere else. I’ve been enjoying my Skype sessions with Molly, and hearing about all her adventures in Chicago. Time is moving fast and slow, and I’m still riding with the current, going with the flow.

Max

It’s Really Very Hot Here—Max

I want to think of a more clever title, but it’s a pretty all-consuming subject here-the weather. As with small talk anywhere, a large percentage of lunchtime banter is spent devoted to the heat. It deserves the time, though. I feel like I should be given a goddamn medal every time I come gasping into the front door in the morning. It still takes me a while to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, so when my coworker asks me, “40 degrees, can you believe it?”, I have to think. Forty-two degrees, OK, that’s coat and jeans weather. Maybe a hat if you’re thin-skinned. But then I realize that it is nearly 102 degrees outside with like, 200% humidity, and a part of me wants to tear up as I sit at my desk in my own sweat:

Unlike CJ, I do not give the thumbs up to this prospect. That is the office, by the way.

I’m starting to feel like a regular here, which is nice. I like being able to notice people’s little idiosyncrasies, which takes time. She scuttles when she walks but keeps her head remarkably still; he picks up three or four different pieces of food with his chopsticks before choosing something to eat. I have more patience and appreciation for things I know relatively intimately, I’ve found, which makes working in a small office more rewarding. I also am not the biggest fan of cities, for this reason. I find myself inconceivably frustrated at somebody walking slower than I am on the way to the subway, and there’s really no reason for that.

This weekend, I’m planning on going to the former residence of Lu Xun, who is China’s most famous modern writer. Art and writing in China is traditionally marked by a very conservative and formal tone, which remained remarkably consistent looking back on centuries of Confucian influence. It wasn’t until the fall of the Qing dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century that language and art became more influenced by colloquial language, which is what contributes to the notion of the 20s and 30s here as being ripping and roaring. Obviously, the Communist reign from 1949 through the Cultural Revolution put a damper on both traditional practices and modern practices, and it has only been in the past few decades that Shanghai has started to embrace different artistic influences and concepts. I’m sure that the scene will grow, but historically speaking, it still seems in its infantile stages. That’s why I’m excited to learn more about Lu Xun, as he’s kind of a stand out.

Max

Riding the Current: The Art of Eating Alone—Max

Living in a foreign city holds the promise of escape, removal, and a freedom from known “responsibilities.” If you have a dog at home, you don’t have to walk it anymore. That sort of thing. On the one hand, this is an extremely attractive proposition. People are always waxing poetic about a clean slate, and what they would do if they could just go and start fresh. On the other hand, the reason why “home” is THE timeless destination throughout forever is because it is where the people are. The ones that care, at least.

Given that I plopped out of the sky into Shanghai quite abruptly, I’ve made it an intentional exercise to “ride the current.” They say that you’re less likely to get hurt in a car crash if you don’t stiffen your body, and given that this city can feel like a giant mass of flaming metal spiraling out of control, I think this advice is applicable to my summer. Just relax and let the car land where it will. Don’t stiffen up.

By “stiffen up”, I mean becoming paralyzed in how different a place is from home. “Why do all the men hock incredibly visceral loogies?” or “Are these traffic signals merely a suggestion?” Legitimate questions, but ones that distract from getting to the heart of a place. Shanghai is a junction of so many fascinating historical and economic forces, it’s hard not to be awed.

Given how much I love to read, it would be easy for me to come back to my room and keep myself entertained until the next time I had to go to work. Because hey, I’m introvert, and I like the company I keep with myself. Yesterday, though, I forced myself to go out alone at night. 6 hours, that was the goal. I’d done it with Weizhi, I’d done it with my coworkers, but never alone: the Final Frontier.

As with most potentially awkward social situations, I googled “how to go out alone”, and as always, I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of information on the internet. Who would’ve guessed that there were so many people with social anxiety willing to write extensively about it on internet forums? Lol. After I gleaned what I needed from the net, I made my way to a coffee shop, which is an easy place to sit alone. I do it all the time, and love it, so it was a good introduction into the night. It was actually an antique store cum coffee shop, as evidenced by the conversation I had with my server. I wanted to go to the bathroom before I ordered a coffee:

Me: Toilet?

Him: Huh?

Me: Cesuo? (Toilet in Chinese)

Him: No. Coffee.

Me: Huh?

Him: Coffee and furniture. No toilet.

I guess it was a reasonable assumption that if I was at a furniture store, I was in the market for a toilet. But also, did he really think it would fit in my tiny backpack?

From there, I went to an upscale cafe in the French Concession. I had a book, and was enjoying my time eating pasta and reading. It’s important to look like you are enjoying yourself just as much as if you were if you were with someone else, when eating alone. That’s the first step. So I did that for an hour, chuckling to myself and making notes in the margin of my book.

Then, BOOM, approached. Just like the WikiHow said would happen. There had been an older gentleman eating with two younger women across the way, and I had noticed them simply for the jarring age gap between them. Actually, a better part of my dinner was spent guessing how they could possibly be associated. Turns out his name was Tom, one of the girls was his granddaughters and the other her friend. They were going to a 4th of July party just down the block. Tom invited me, randomly, and I went along. We met up with a bigger group of people, whom I already forgot their names, and generally reveled in merriment like you do on the 4th of July. Normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been eating alone in the first place.

The more that I ride the current, the more that I realize I’m a major homebody. But if comfort zones are made to be expanded, then mine will be elastic by the time I return to the states. No need to stiffen up, we’ll all land soon.

Max

Guilin and Yangshuo—Max

China is big. I had the romantic notion before I came that I would get to see a lot of the country, but judging by the density of my Lonely Planet guide, I’d need a solid year to fit everything in. Especially with a job, it’s a daunting prospect. That being said, I was afforded the opportunity during these last four days to travel to Guilin and Yangshuo, home of the idyllic Karst topography so often associated with China:

I met up with a friend and cross country teammate from Knox, Yaya Cody, on Friday. She has spent the last two months working at a company in Guangzhou called WeChat, teaching English to businessmen. It was quite refreshing to talk to her about working in China, but really it was just great to see a familiar face. We stayed at a hostel in Guilin overlooking the river:

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I love hostels:

With all of the bunk beds crammed into one room, they remind me of an Indian Guides’ campout from way back when.

We rented bikes in Guilin, and did our best to navigate traffic in a Chinese city, which seem to have no laws besides “yield to the bigger vehicle barreling towards you.” It was great to get on a bike for the first time in over a month, and for a little while, I was leading a pack of Chinese riders down the street. I took a video, but there are too many expletives to post it.

From Guilin, we took a bus to Yangshuo, which really has an other-worldly serenity about it. Here’s the view from the first coffee shop(of many in Yangshuo, for some reason) that we stopped at:

It felt like Shangri-La, which, by the way, was just 16 km north of the town. After coffee, we spent the rest of the night searching for our hostel, which we eventually found a few km outside of town in the country. It was dark, when we arrived, but in the morning we realized this was the view:

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It was unreal. Town was too far away to walk, so, as I had hoped when I took the class, my motorcycle license came in handy! We rented a moped, and spent the day traversing the mountains on a scooter:

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One of the places that we found in town was a foot massage parlor that had fish that would eat the dead skin off of your feet:

If you’ve ever jumped into a lake and accidentally hit a fish on your dive in, it felt like that. Except there were a bunch of them, and they were all nibbling at my feet. It was hard to get used to, but after a few minutes, it was disturbingly satisfying to watch them go at it.

Later that night, we went to a light show on the river, which had these in the background:

Totally sublime. I’m back at work now, with a little more color on my face. Great weekend though, and it was great to see some blue skies.

—Max

First Site Visit; Marketable Marx—Max

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This is where I spent my Monday-Shanghai Industrial Park. After this visit, I feel comfortable in adding “industrial park” to the list of all-time oxymorons, right behind jumbo shrimp and rubber cement. I can’t say much more about the specific site, as I signed a confidentiality agreement, but I can reasonably assume that at some point during my visit I passed the factory that makes those googly-eyes for crafts.

As we made our way along the street lined with identically austere industrial buildings, I was struck by the range of functionality that the structures offered. “That building houses cakes and cookies,” said my coworker, “and that one melts plastic.” Hmm.

Based on the length of time that we walked around taking pictures of the bleak landscape, I finally understood why the process is called “due diligence.” It takes a certain kind of patience to examine every inch of a property for cracks and fissures. Ultimately, though, I came to see exactly a Phase 1 Site Assessment entails, and that is an important experience for the summer. These type of investigations are a major component of the kind of work that environmental consulting firms do. If anything, it reinforced an idea that I’ve started to internalize at Knox. That is, to be an effective environmentalist, one must possess at least a preliminary knowledge of how environmental regulations are produced and enforced. Even if it’s not as engaging as, like, hiking, it is important.

In the non-work related sphere, I met up with a co-worker to walk around the French Concession this past Sunday. I’d been asking all of my co-workers where the French Concession was since I arrived, and none of them knew. It wasn’t until I looked at one of my guide books that I learned that the office is in the French Concession. In retrospect, it makes sense that locals would have a different name for it. Add that to the list of clumsy cultural faux pas, right next to when I tried to buy steamed buns with a Japanese coin.

The walk was lovely. We visited the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Kuomintang Party, which was established to replace the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century. This is him:

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We also visited Fuxing Park, which has a benevolent statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels overlooking it:

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The statue was built in the 1990s, around the same time as the shopping mall just down the street. It’s hard for me to believe these two would be smiling at the proposition.

—Max

First Days of Work—Max

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It’s officially the first weekend after my first two days of official work. Feels good to be saddling up and hittin’ the daily grind. I arrived to work early Thursday morning with all of the first day of work/school/little league butterflies in my stomach, and was surprised to find that my office is in the back of of a shopping mall. Well, on top of the shopping mall, but the elevator is in the back.

My initial fears of not having anything to do were immediately, albeit briefly, realized. I walked into the office, and the woman who I had been corresponding with for the past few months greeted me. After a brief conversation with my boss and a quick run around the office, they told me I could read a book until lunch time. Alright with me, I guess.

Lunch was when things really picked up. We had a lively hour-long introduction over Kung Pao Chicken, some sort of egg soup, and a fish that was still on the bone. People were having a pretty good time, but I was in that first day mode where there is no clear distinction between what is funny and what isn’t. I was pretty much operating at a “haha..Ha..hahaha..Ha,” depending on how the tone of the conversation felt. Lunch is provided everyday, which is awesome.

There are about eleven people in the office, and I’m at about five in terms of names. The closest person to my peer is CJ, a 28-year-old Taiwanese dude who was raised in Toronto. My boss, Zhou, is very quick-witted and fun to talk to, when he has time to talk. They have a “fund” going that if anybody doesn’t speak English to me, they have to put money into a pot. It kind of makes me feel dumb/bad, but most of them speak English very well, so I don’t feel the weight of being catered to as a foreigner. I’d feel bad if there was one guy that lost his shirt because he couldn’t speak any English.

So lunchtime is where all of the conversation happens. It is amazing how rigid the schedule is. From 12-1, it feels like a party, but once that clock strikes the hour, it’s back to the cubes. I do indeed have a cubicle, which I actually don’t mind for the time being. While I appreciate the “cooler” offices that might have their employees sit in a circle or on Resist-A-Balls or whatever, I don’t think I’d like that very much here. Last summer in our Kemper meetings, we talked a lot about office culture. It’s going to take me a while to tell the difference between office culture at ENVIRON Shanghai and culture culture. Because it does feel different.

I take the Metro to work every day, and it is just as crowded as seems like it would be:

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On my very first train ride, a woman passed out.

—Max