Slices of Life: Design, Ethnicity, and Domesticity

It’s been the longest time since I last posted, in part because the days have become more routine and are fading into one another, and in part because life’s been busy, and a lot has happened. I shan’t pay too much attention to chronology, but here are some stories that I’ve collected over the past few weeks.

10th July: Today Brady and I presented our proposal for the design of the next version of our gadget to our project team and some other designers in our department. Did up a fancy Powerpoint presentation, with renderings of our designs to boot, as well. It was certainly a trial by fire — it was grueling, and we were quizzed on many of our design decisions. We received feedback, and then as a team we discussed and developed ideas. Most importantly, it was great to talk with full-fledged designers and learn from the way they approach a problem. “Go and look at how IKEA makes xx mechanisms,” “Use readily-available components, which are already being produced in bulk,” for example.

One designer was recounting an incident when he was designing a new phone, which his boss wanted to be made even thinner. He protested that there was no way to make it thinner, and so the boss took the phone prototype and threw it into a pail of water! Bubbles came out of the phone and rose to the surface. “See, there’s still space,” said the boss.

!!! 满脸黑线 x___x

Certainly a relevant story to our current work, as we’re trying to make our device even thinner and compact.

On Ethnicity: It’s been an interesting experience so far. This may be surprising to some, but I’ve gotten questions from locals such as, “Are you an ethnic minority?” and “Where are you from?” (implying that I’m from another country, not asking where in China my family’s from) Even though I’m ethnically Chinese, apparently I don’t look Han Chinese enough. I’m also mis-typed back home in Singapore, to be fair, so it’s probably more about how I look than the people who are looking at me, but it’s still interesting to encounter.

On the other hand, it’s also strange to meet expatriates in China (many of whom are English teachers) and have them automatically assume that I’m a local or that I don’t speak English well, when in reality I probably have more in common with them (especially Americans, by virtue of having spent 3 years studying in the US) than with Chinese locals, and when my English is actually better than my Chinese, and pretty damn good too. Hard to blame them, but it’s also hard to feel that I don’t have to disprove their initial assumptions. I also find myself accentuating my American accent when conversing in English with them (which I usually talk with when hanging out with other Stanford students, though I revert back to my roots and my Singlish tongue within a week when I’m back home and/or talking with other Singaporeans), which I know is ridiculous. However, short of telling a complete stranger my life story and experiences, it seems to be the best way to show, “Hey, it’s never that simple.”

I’ve been meaning to comment about this for a while: the origin of Baidu’s name is really, really cool. One of our colleagues mentioned it when we were all walking home together. From their corporate page:

“Our name was inspired by a poem written more than 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty. The poem compares the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour with the search for one’s dream while confronted by life’s many obstacles. “…hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos, suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood.” Baidu, whose literal meaning is “hundreds of times”, represents a persistent search for the ideal.”

Here’s the original text:

青玉案
东风夜放花千树。更吹落,星如雨。宝马雕车香满路。凤箫声动,玉壶光转,一夜鱼龙舞。
蛾儿雪柳黄金缕,笑语盈盈暗香去。众里寻她千百度,——蓦然回首,那人却在,灯火阑珊处。

What a beautiful poem!

Speaking of Baidu, the bunch of us Stanford interns were able to meet Kaiser Kuo, Director of International Communications for Baidu, through a seminar organized by the Stanford Center at PKU. Even after everyone was done with lunch, we still sat around the table and talked for a good hour or so, enjoying some really fascinating conversation.

One of the joys of life right now is introducing people to new things, and by that I mean introducing Brady to new things. So far, the list includes:

  • Yakult
  • Sam Smith
  • Golden Needle Mushrooms
  • Hotpot
  • Chinese Pears
  • Bibimbap
  • Nata de coco
  • Wang Lao Ji/Jia Duo Bao
  • etc.

Although some recommendations have bombed (why oh why would anyone not like century egg with silken tofu?), most have been well-received, and it is a great feeling facilitating new and good experiences for friends.

Something the bunch of us interning here in Beijing have started doing is Tuesday dinners at interesting restaurants. Last week, we went to 小呆梨汤 on my recommendation, and it was really, really good. THEY HAVE PUDDING IN THE SHAPE OF A CARP.

干酪鱼
干酪鱼

Especially loved the fried potatoes, and the pig liver 🙂 We got the waiter to take a photo for us, which led to an interesting situation where he took a couple of shots and shouted catchy phrases like, “茄子!” (Say Cheese!),“中国万岁!” (Long Live China!) and “钓鱼岛是中国的!” (The Diaoyu Islands belong to China!) It was all fun and giggles till the last one, where Matt and I were the first few to get it, and then we started laughing, maybe a bit uncomfortably. On a serious note, China’s acting like a big bully over this whole issue, which really isn’t cool.

So, Brady’s started doing stand-up comedy every week at this place called the Hot Cat Club, which has an open mic every Wednesday. It’s located in Fangjia Hutong in 安定门, a pretty lively neighborhood that has my definite favorite cafe in Beijing, a place called Twin Cities, which serves up awesome panna cotta and has a stellar collection of art and design magazines for you to browse and read.

双城 Twin Cities
Brady preparing his stand-up set

A bunch of us have also been coerced into doing stand-up at Hot Cat one of these weekends, and so I will have to prepare some material for a set, and… we’ll see how it goes. I’m not very funny, and I find really strange stuff funny. Some times with friends I’ll laugh about something that no one else laughs at, and… then we move on. Eh, we’ll see. Hopefully the awkwardness will be so overwhelming that people feel inclined to laugh.

More Sightseeing in Bejing: In the past few weekends we have also covered the Temple of Heaven (天坛公园), 南锣鼓巷,and the Forbidden City (故宫). Photos below:

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

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Gardens of the Temple of Heaven
Gardens of the Temple of Heaven
Fence tiles at the Forbidden City
Fence tiles at the Forbidden City

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At the Temple of Heaven, we came across this huge choir of about 80 elderly people standing in a circle and singing their lungs out. Women stood on one side and men on the other; a lot of the songs involved some sort of call and response, or switching of lines between genders. I didn’t know the songs, but there was so much power generated by all these voices singing in unison. Later, I asked an old man what the song they were currently singing was called, to which he replied, “长征!”, referring to the Long March, the military retreat by the Red Army, which was being pursued by the KMT army. I’m not sure if all the songs they sang were songs of the revolution, though.

Something we also had to deal with a few weekends ago was not having electricity. What happened was that the account linked to our meter ran out of money, and so we had to top it up… but for some godawful reason, the machines just wouldn’t take our cards. We ended up sleeping over at a friend’s house and going straight to work the next day, where we then got our colleagues to help us figure it out. Machines still weren’t reading the card, but our colleague managed to call up the electricity company and figure out how to top it up by mobile phone payment. Finally, we headed back to the apartment, unlocked the door to the small closet in the lift landing with all the electricity meters, swiped our card at the meter to top it up, and… still no power. Finally, we tried lifting a lever, and it worked! Turns out that the electricity somehow also managed to trip, or perhaps that’s just what happens when you run out. It was a glorious, glorious moment when the lights flickered on, the fridge started humming, and the WiFi was back up.

On Domesticity: Something I’m really enjoying this summer is having an apartment of our own, with a kitchen, laundry machine, toilet, fridge, and TV (though we don’t use it much). Yes, life has had its ups and downs (such as not having running water one night, or not having power another night), but life’s also being incredibly exciting, new, independent, and challenging. Weekends, when we’re not out sightseeing in Beijing, are spent doing housekeeping chores like sweeping the floor, wiping down the tables, and doing laundry.

I’ve hung up postcards and photographs and paintings on the walls. I’ve also started growing green bean plants! When I was sick a few week back, I cooked a lot of green bean soup to try and cool my body down. Unfortunately, I soaked a batch of beans for a bit too long, and they started sprouting, so I grew them in a small plastic bag with a few pads of cotton wool. Later, I sliced two 1.5L water bottles into half and transplanted the sprouts there instead. Alas, our first batch has died out, but I’m germinating another batch; they bring life to the apartment.

More domesticity: I’ve also been cooking some. Food is incredibly cheap and good in Beijing, but some days it’s real good (and cheaper) to be able to cook for yourself too. Arguably the same amount of work as if I were to walk out the apartment complex and and get something to go, but eh, I like to think it’s more convenient. Some dishes that have come out of the kitchen:

– Stir-fried bok choy / cabbage / mushrooms
– Scrambled eggs
– Soft-boiled eggs (usually for breakfast)
– Brady makes oatmeal for breakfast, if that counts
– Green bean soup (also for breakfast, and for sick people)
– FRENCH TOAST (So incredibly simple to make, and so darn good)
– Sweet potatoes (perfect for afternoon tea)
– Vermicelli with (frozen) dumplings
– Glutinous Rice Balls / Tang Yuan (glutinous rice balls, also frozen)

Not too shabby for a kitchen that’s stocked with only a pot, pan, stove-top, soy sauce, oil, salt, sugar, and of course, the ingredients above. I like to think I’ve been a good study under my mum and grandma… 🙂

Till next time, and I’ll try not to make it too long between posts!

Slices of Life: Design, Ethnicity, and Domesticity

On Entrepreneurship, 3D Printing, and the Great Wall

Wednesday, July 9 2014

It’s been a long time since the last update, and I apologize! Things have become significantly more busy in work and life, and I’m really starting to venture out and explore Beijing, so free time to sit down and write has become a little more scarce. Today, the sky cleared up and we can finally see blue sky, finally distinguish clouds from smog, which is a blessing. The past week has been really, really smoggy, and while I’m more-or-less recovered from my cold and cough, the air quality certainly did not contribute to a quick recovery. My nose is finally cleared up, and the good thing is that I can smell now. The bad thing, however, is that I can smell the epoxy that we’re working with now. That stuff’s nasty.

Anyway, here goes:

Monday – When I got into the office Monday morning, I found two boxes of cold/flu medicine on my desk. Turns out senior intern Yan Wenlin had gone to his school’s infirmary, faked illness, and gotten them for me, which was… unexpected, but appreciated. Not long after we got into the office, we went with Wenlin to the manufacturing/tooling company that produces our prototypes. By some huge feat of miscommunication, we only learned when we arrived at the company that they still hadn’t finished the piece we needed, as there was a power outage over the weekend. Dejected, we trekked back to the office, heated up our take-out leftovers, took our lunch break siesta, and continued on with work. We had our weekly team meeting after lunch, where everyone goes round and updates the team on what they accomplished in the past week and what they hope to work on in the week ahead. It’s good to take stock of what we’ve accomplished over the past week and to share it with the team, and I daresay we’ve been rather productive every week so far, which feels good.

Tuesday – On Tuesday morning, Yan Wenlin and I went to The Company (as Brady and I like to call it) again (Brady stayed in the office, which we figured would be better for him since all the meetings with The Company are always in English), but this time we stayed for lunch and into the afternoon, only getting back to the office at 5. Not much work got done on my end, but I definitely learned a lot about how business operates in China, got to hang around the finishing workshop (and poke around the paint hood, CNC mills, and etc.), observe the employees finish the various pieces they’re working on, and ensure that our piece was manufactured to our specifications — fantastic, fantastic exposure for a Product Design major. I’m definitely learning the importance of manufacturability and costs/price point when designing products, and it’s great to see both manufacturing and design come together in this internship.

I was definitely also struck by the ambition of The Company’s CEO and senior intern Wenlin. The CEO’s only 28, the company’s already about 3 years old, he’s recovered his initial investment and is looking to invest his profits back into his business and expand it. Wenlin’s got a shrewd mind on him too; he suggested that the CEO take every opportunity to document the products his company’s manufactured, and to use the association with Lenovo to boost his company’s prestige. We lounged on the sofa set and talked about Wenlin’s career plans (that he hopes to get a return offer at Lenovo, and to start his own business in 3 years, and to marry his girlfriend by the end of the year), about investing in stocks, about the costs associated with starting The Company, and many more. When I first sat myself down on a sofa, I let out a gaps of surprise, because it sank much deeper than I thought I would – turns out that one of The Company’s clients was severely overweight, and ended up spoiling the sofa. Wenlin asked the CEO if he had at least recuperated the cost of the sofa from the business deal, and the CEO confirmed that he had, and that he always brings up the sofa incident to tease the client when they meet for a meal! Before we left, 胡总 asked us how passports and visas work and how to apply for a passport, with an eye towards doing business in the US. In the face of such hunger and ambition, I’d be damned if I let myself fall into complacency, or if I don’t give my all towards being the best person I can be.

An interesting artefact that we found displayed on the coffee table: an almost-identical iPhone 4S shell. I commented that it even felt like it was the same weight as the iPhone 4S, to which the CEO replied that that was because they had matched the weight of the counterfeit to the actual iPhone 4S itself. While I don’t support counterfeiting, that’s definitely attention to detail!

I’m getting more responsibilities at work now, and it’s proving to be a greater test of my Chinese skills. Since I had been out the whole day and hadn’t gotten much done, I decided to stay later and pulled my first 加班 to design and prototype two solutions for the problem we were working on. The next day, I found out that one of my solutions would be implemented in the next version of the product, which makes me ridiculously happy.

Wednesday was a slow day at work, with its fair share of frustrations with the 3D printer. People think that 3D printers are going to revolutionize manufacturing, and while they are very cool, the truth is that they’re not always the best way to make something. We had to make a piece, the printing of which would have taken close to 2-hours, whereas it could have been done by a CNC, or even milled by hand, or even laser-cut and assembled, in 10 minutes. A pity we had no access to these tools. However, 3D printing’s still a very convenient prototyping tool, and it’s great to be able to CAD something up on my desktop and print it, all in less than 30 minutes.

After dinner, we went to Wudaokou to meet up with another Stanford student, Alex, whom Brady knew from social dance, and her friends, many of whom are studying abroad in the States. While the plan was to crash Lush’s trivia night, there wasn’t enough space for our group, and so we moved to a nearby club called Propaganda, which was a lot of fun as a big group of people. It’s funny when you first meet people on the dance floor (no euphemism) before you start talking in real-life, but the awkwardness passes soon enough.

Thursday passed in a blur; Brady and I took advantage of our lunch siesta to catch up on sleep, and headed straight back home for a chill night in.

Friday was July 4th! Work as pretty uneventful, but after work Brady and I headed to Wudaokou for dinner at this American restaurant called Grandma’s Kitchen. The Chinese couple next to us were speaking in (what I thought was) American-accented English, and I pointed this out to Brady. After a few minutes of hesitation, Brady reached out and started up a conversation:

B: Hey, happy Fourth of July!
Girl: We’re Canadian. But happy Fourth of July to you!

Ah, what a priceless moment. Later, when Brady and I were walking around in Sanlitun, we happened upon a group of dudes dressed in suits and generally being obnoxiously loud and bro-y. They’re definitely American, I thought to myself. They saw Brady’s garish American flag tank, and sure enough, all went and gave him a hi-five. “Fuck yeah America!” they shouted as they went on their merry way. The 4th of July’s not particularly significant for me, but the festive mood was very contagious, though there’re only so many “USA! USA!” chants you can take before it starts to grate on your nerves.

We met up with other Stanford interns in Beijing at a cosy cafe/bar called the Bookworm, and then adjourned to a rooftop bar to dance. All in all, definitely a good night out 🙂

Saturday started sleepy and slow and smogged in. I got up at about noon, cooked some dumplings and made a dipping sauce for lunch, did laundry, cleaned the house etc. And then Brady woke up. We decided to go get ourselves a massage, which was quite the experience. I’d quite forgotten, but the thing about Chinese massage is that it can really hurt. It’s not meant to feel good; it’s really meant to loosen the knots in your back. It hurt during and a little after, but my back feels so much better now, so it was definitely worth it. After, we had dinner (I tried to introduce Brady and Galina to tofu + century egg, which is a heavenly combination) and went to a stand-up comedy show, then headed back home.

The next day, a bunch of us went to climb the Great Wall (长城). We heeded the warnings of our co-workers and avoided the really touristy parts, opting instead for a more rugged hike. It was insanely tough, and a reminder to get more in shape! Unfortunately, the smog was pretty bad and obscured our view, which was a real shame. More photos next post! After the hike, we headed back home, showered, watched Game of Throne, cooked dinner, and rested.

Monday we were back to work. Not gonna lie, work can sometimes be very frustrating, because little amendments we make sometime result in other problems. It also does NOT help that whenever he discovers problems with the prototype senior intern Yan Wenlin will look at us with a grin on his face and a waggle in his brows, as if he’s somehow happy that things aren’t working out! Brady and I are in charge of the mechanics of our device, but there’s also a (pretty large) software team, and an electronics/circuitry team. This time, though, the mechanism was not screwing up; it was the software and electronics that were buggy, and so we waited around and worked on other tasks in the meantime.

Back to Wenlin — he’s a complex, sometimes nice, sometimes sadistic, often philosophical, slightly boastful person. He’s also a member of the CCP. This shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was, because about 6% of China’s population are CCP members, and apparently outstanding students are frequently invited to join the Party. But I definitely did not see that coming — I guess he now holds the honor of being the first person I know in the CCP. And I was just debating with him over Taiwan the other day…

Anyway, time for bed! More updates and photos next time 😀

On Entrepreneurship, 3D Printing, and the Great Wall

Weekend Wandering

The weekend flew by in a blur, like a hot dusty sandstorm that lifted us off our feet and dumped us in a heap on the ground. In my case, it also dumped me in a coughing, sneezing heap on my couch/bed, probably because Saturday was really really hot (scheißewarm), and the temperature fluctuations when going from subway to outdoors to subway again was probably what did me in. At any rate, I’m self-medicating, eating well, cooking myself batches and batches of green bean soup (it’s supposed to be good for recovery!). I’m well on the road to recovery; there’s no need to worry Mum, I can take care of myself.

Friday: After a tiring week of work (alas, ’twas too soon to celebrate; we clearly had no idea what we were in for this week) Brady and I wanted to get our groove on and hit up some clubs, and so we headed two subway stops down to Wudaokou, where we met up with some other Stanford interns in Beijing. After an awesome dinner of 生煎包 (sheng1 jian1 bao1, fried dumplings with soup inside), 小笼包 (xiao3 long2 bao1, similar but steamed), pork-cutlet-over-rice, and red date cake (fluffy, moist goodness), and after much debate, we decided to head to Sanlitun. Along the way, we passed (what seemed like) a never-ending line of Camaros with the same decal proclaiming them proud members of the Beijing Camaro Club, there must have been at least 15 of them!

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Galina, an intern at Microsoft who was also here in Beijing studying abroad Spring quarter, showed us around and introduced us to the Mojito Man — great mojitos at 15RMB, or 2.5USD! Que Pasa’s got nothing on this guy. We then adjourned to the Bookworm (书虫), a pretty cool bar + bookshop, where we chilled on the roof till we had to leave for the last train. After a particularly exhausting sprint through never-ending corridors and up countless steps, the bunch of us living in Haidian district managed to make our connection, but just barely! I ended up shedding my flats and running barefoot for the final stretch – this girl definitely needs to exercise more, and she’ll make an effort to go running when the air quality is good!

Saturday: Slept in till about 10, then met up with Bryson, another intern with the Stanford China Internship Program, at Wudaokou for lunch and bike-buying after. Bryson keeps a blog, too, which you can check out here! 🙂 After lunch, we walked over to Tsinghua University (清华大学) to buy bikes, and for Brady and I, to check out their campus. It’s a really impressive and huge campus, and I found myself liking its architecture and green spaces.

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ImageThe two lads, taking a stroll in the summer (hot as fuck) sunshine

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ImageDoesn’t this remind you of MIT? It was the season for graduation, so we guessed that these guys were taking graduation photos.

After purchasing our bikes (mine was but 200RMB – if it doesn’t get stolen by the end of summer I’m looking to sell it for cheap! If you’ll be in Beijing in the fall let me know!) we chilled in Bryson’s dorm for a while before biking to Wudaokou station, where we parked our bikes, and then headed to the nearby Summer Palace 颐和园. Our senior intern and co-worker, Yan Wenlin, had just finished his schoolwork, and so he decided to join us and show us around.

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ImageAs designers and engineers, we marveled at the wood-joining techniques and patterns.

ImageThe view from way up, proving that Beijing can be quite stunning when ze decides to be not-smoggy

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Later, we stopped at a small pavilion to rest our legs and take in the view, chatted, and learned more about our senior intern co-worker, Wenlin. Even though he creeps me out a bit (actually, quite a fair bit) sometimes, I must say that I deeply admire his ambition, his drive to succeed, design & engineering skills, and principles. He’s now a second-year Master’s student. He told us he put himself through college by tutoring other people, by designing printed circuit boards, and through scholarships (half of the amount he donates to other people who similarly need it). I mentioned how I hope my parents can come to my graduation next year, to which he replied that during his 4 years of high school, his family never once came to visit and never attended his graduation. And that his parents’ wish for him was for him to be independent and able to live on his own; that this was also a form of love, tough love. While I understand tough love, and I can understand not visiting during the school term, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad – graduation still is something that comes once in a lifetime, after all.

Later, as we were leaving the Summer Palace, we happened to observe a scene that really illustrated what we had just talked about earlier. We heard a little girl crying, and so turned to look. Turns out that her parents had left her on one end of the courtyard, and were beckoning at her to walk, all alone, across the vast (for a toddler) courtyard towards them. She was bawling and bawling as she teetered towards them, and at one point she sat down, and wet herself. But she kept going (though her father had to come closer to guide her the right way), and eventually made it. Wenlin: “If you always cradle a child in your hands, the child’s never going to learn how to stand on their two feet.” I definitely had mixed feelings while watching the whole scene unfold – I remember thinking that that must have been very traumatizing for the child. A while later, though, she was laughing and bouncing around with her playmate, having overcome this hurdle, and it seemed that my worry was pretty much for naught.

We then headed back to Wudaokou, where Wenlin brought us to eat dumplings with his friends at the nearby 中国地质大学 (China University of Geosciences). Brady definitely stood out like a sore thumb, but no-one seemed to care. The shop was filled with local students, the dumplings were delicious, and it was good to hang out with new friends and chat, in a mixture of English and Chinese. As it was too late, we left our bikes at a bike storage at Wudaokou and took the subway back home instead.

The next day, I fell sick 😦 We headed to Wudaokou for lunch, picked up our bikes, biked about 45 minutes to get home, and I basically passed out on the couch for the rest of the afternoon. Since we were both lazy and I was in no condition to go anywhere, we ordered take-out for dinner on ele.me (wonderful wonderful food-delivery service, with delivery free with minimum purchase), which arrived in about 20 minutes. We took our dinner down to the big communal square in our apartment complex, ate while watching elderly and middle-aged women line-dance, and finally did a little dancing of our own, swing-dancing to their last song of the night. 😀 I’ve really missed dancing, and it was great to get into the swing 😉 of things again – I can’t wait to find swing and salsa clubs in Beijing!

… and that was our hot dusty sandstorm of a weekend. Here, have a photo of Wenlin and Brady:

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Lastly, something that caught my eye, and then my breath (I hope I’m not butchering the layout; the enjambment is so very beautiful and it works so well):

HERE IS A FLOWER THAT NEEDS NO WATER
by Pooja Nansi

You with the cracks running through you,
I know you think you will never be whole enough
to fill the leaky holes of someone else’s heart.

You with the fractures in the places that teach you how to love,
the fissured kisses and the broken cart of wishes,

You with the sad blue of goodbyes hidden always behind your
eyes.
You, releasing those constant yearning for the lost choices of
yesterday sighs,

You with the thunderstorm that you carry in the heart you’ve
jammed close so hard,
all the words in all the world couldn’t pry it apart.

You with the overcast laugh. You with the fists that open only
in your sleep
marked with lines that looks like irrigation tracks to a land
where you are clearly

lost.

Stop. Look at me. Breathe.

My lips are not cement and they cannot seal these wounds
but I am here, palms held open and I
love you.

Weekend Wandering