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

IMG_8765

IMG_8768

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

IMG_8846 IMG_8844 IMG_8813

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!

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Slices of Life: Design, Ethnicity, and Domesticity

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