What I’ve Seen in China

Spending time in China is enough to convince you that you know nothing about it.

  • There is no architecture quite like the public architecture of the Communist Party.  Roads and sidewalks are massive, supposedly wide enough to drive tanks through.  The railroad stations are simply just the largest buildings I’ve ever seen or been in, looking like you could fly an A380 through them.  Government buildings are fronted by sidewalks that are like stadiums.  It communicates authority.  The scale is hard to comprehend if you’ve never been there.
  • The power of the state, in terms of it being manifested, is intermittent but ubiquitous.  After 950 AQI readings (~20 is healthy) on the air quality scale in Beijing, you can count on the next day being completely crystal blue.  How does this happen, is there a natural way?  It’s as if the air itself was reprimanded by the inner sanctum of the CCCP and told about the errors of its ways.
  • Blue skies are not taken for granted.  I once had a taxi driver take me from the airport in Chongqing to my hotel, and for the entire thirty minutes he was exclaiming loudly about how clear and blue the skies were, sticking his head out of the window, looking up, and yes – all while driving.  The air is indeed noxious, and during days when the readings are, say, above 300, visibility on the streets are as if you’re driving through fog.  Above 500, heavy fog.  Above 700, like you’re in a cloud.  The romantic side of me, on these days, can’t help but imagine myself back in London during the Industrial Revolution, or Chicago during the age of the railroads.  It must be what those cities were like: swarming seas of people, raucous roads, barely contained chaos, buildings rising impossibly fast, out of nowhere.
  • Is there another economy that has so many feverish booms and busts, in so compressed a timeframe?  Bubbles roil through the property market, then stock market, then private wealth products market, not necessarily in that order, but predictably every few years.  Technology companies are the same.  Two years ago, I started noticing a lot of green, orange, and yellow bikes on the road, with bike-sharing becoming huge there, way before it did anywhere else in the world.  A few months later, I saw entire sidewalks become parking lots for these bikes.  They were everywhere, the streets were filled with them.  A few months later still, I saw empty lots full of these bikes, rusting and old, unattended.  A few months later, I came back and saw nearly all of the bikes gone, and read that a lot of the companies had gone bankrupt.
  • Parts of the large cities – Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing – are more expensive, posh, and futuristic than equivalent places in London, Hong Kong, or New York.  And I will assume that they will only get even more so.
  • The line cutting is maddening and annoying.
  • But I can emphathize with some of it, as it is less a personal act of discourtesy, and more a symptom of an everyone-for-themselves, distrust of rules and the state that leads people to have this interesting mentality that there are rules and laws, there are taboos, and there are absolutely forbidden things that you must never do, and the intersection of those three things are like a Venn diagram – they are not one and the same.  I.e., everyone seems to use a VPN to access all the ‘forbidden’ websites, even at work, no one actually uses the metal detector machines in the subways, queues are optional, and most confoundingly to foreigners – contracts really don’t mean anything.
  • People are honest and straightforward.  They will tell you to your face that you look tired or if you’re fat, or if you need to eat.  In restaurants, you can regularly ask for things not on the menu.  You can ask and talk about anything, and people will tell you, as long as you avoid the subjects of Tibet and Taiwan.  Sometimes when we do market research, we literally go to our competitors and ask their frontline staff about stuff.  For a North/East Asian country, refreshingly informal and with a language devoid of hierarchy and formality.
  • When I first went to China, back in the winter of 2010, there was barely even a smartphone market.  I remember buying a used Nokia with a monochrome screen and using that.  Now just 7 years later, almost the entire population is on WeChat, which is a portal for everything from taxis, medical services, banking, and other payments.  Merchants in the middle of rural villages in China will prefer taking your cash over your credit card, but WeChat payments trump all.  In 2010, I remember my classmates telling me there was a huge difference between kids born in the late 80s and kids born in the 90s.  It was a seven-year difference we were talking about.  Now, you could probably feasibly move those endpoints to the 90s and aughts, and there would be even more of a generation gap still – think about it, two degrees of a generation gap in 20 years.
  • The resultant optimism, though, is refreshing.  This is a country that hasn’t had a major recession in twenty years – economic growth has always rounded to 10%.  Can you imagine that?  It means that everyone is down to try new things.  They’re figuring it out.  There’s no established tradition that needs to be followed, but nor are there established best practices.  In my field, it means that clients sometimes ask for – and expect – insane things that have never worked in the history of the world.  I’ve driven through 2nd and 3rd tier cities to the edge of the city, through rural villages, and then come face to face with resorts on the scale of Dubai.  I’ve driven deep into the mountains and seen waterslides and retail malls that wouldn’t be out of place in Orlando.  I’ve spelunked through entire cities where they built something, and no one showed up – yet.  To be clear, many of these insane projects and endeavors are destined for the dust-bin of history, but the risk-taking and dice-rolling is something to marvel at.
  • There seems to be no established dress code at most of the offices I visit.  Women wear skirts that are shorter than sexy nurse Halloween costumes, and tops that look like bright foliage.  Men wear business casual, loosely interpreted, like rocker boots and hawaiian shirts and whatever it is, it’s untucked.  Everyone is on their own phone during meetings.  Sometimes people answer their own phone during meetings and whisper into it without any repercussions from others.  Business cards were a thing for a few years, but it’s gone straight to WeChat.  Government officials will add you as contacts on WeChat and then send you funny memes.
  • It’s changing rapidly.  And on this note, a lot of the criticisms leveled against Chinese tourists abroad – rude, dismissive of lines, loud and obnoxious, pushy – I recall as things I thought about Koreans about 20 years ago.  Koreans of a certain age, say 50s, will fit this stereotype.  Social norms change and I can see them changing in China too.  Younger people have been abroad, studied abroad, and bring mores and expectations back home.

Basically, it’s growing at an exponential pace and everything you know about it now, will be wrong tomorrow.

If you are interested in the evolution of cultures, the study of cities, if you’re interested in seeing an economy and society change, if you’re interested in history or curious about what the future might look like, visit China.  Don’t miss it.

Things Korea Does Well

Underappreciated things about an already underappreciated country.

  • Korea is a textiles manufacturing powerhouse.  In most places in Asia, markets will sell a lot of cheap clothing.  But here, the off-price stuff sold for $3 or $5 in the subway stations comes from manufacturers who, on the other side, are making stuff for Patagonia, Zara, Nike, etc.  The Dongdaemun night market (wholesale clothing market, open to everyone) is literally the definition of a fast fashion nerve center, stocking retailers around the country every night (literally, retailers from all over Korea come to shop here starting at midnight to stock inventory for the next day), with production runs and test clothing that run in the single digits.  In common terms, this just means – bring an empty suitcase and load up on quality, off-brand, no brand outerwear – and innerwear.  Every subway station usually has a ‘sock store’ selling nothing more than socks for less than a dollar.
  • A lot of underappreciated and unknown ‘health’ food.  Korean traditional cuisine stems from a philosophy that food is medicine and vice versa.  While meat (Korean BBQ, fried chicken) gets all the attention, herbs, vegetables, and roots, usually served pickled, are staples of every meal.  Things like bean sprouts, Korean thistle, burdock, sesame leaves, pepper leaves, thorny ash, mallow, bellflower roots, not to mention mountain herbs for which there is no proper common translation, like Korean pimpinella, ainsliaea, ragwort, bog rhubarb, Korean angelica, sedum, etc. etc.  The list goes on and on; Koreans pickle anything that can be picked.  Not to say that all food in Korea is healthy, that’s far from the case, but a typical traditional meal is fairly well-balanced.  Some sort of fermented stew, served with a variety of pickled vegetables and herbs, carbs in the form of rice or noodles, and meat in the form of fish or pork.
  • An unbelievable cafe culture.  Koreans binge drink coffee the same way they binge drink alcohol, which if you think about it, might be a yin and yang phenomenon, with one not possible without the other.  The multitude of, and staggering variety of cafes and coffeeshops on every corner is mind-blowing.  Cafes and coffeeshops that serve alcohol alongside their coffee, dessert-specialty coffeeshops, coffeeshops that specialize only in giant portions, coffeeshops and cafes of every imaginable theme and configuration possible.  They say to show, not tell, and to do that, I suggest you just Google “Korean cafes” or “coffeeshops” on Google or Youtube.
  • This one is an element of Korea that I don’t think Koreans realize yet.  If Koreans didn’t spend all their time just studying, and their early to mid 20s in an insane cycle of work & drinking all-nighters, there would be more world-class athletes in every field from here.  I was part of two different gyms here, and having trained extensively in both the US and Asia, I will say that the number of physical specimens and giants in Korea is surprisingly high.  But years of study and atrophying behind a desk means that they don’t know it yet.  Also, the terrible diet and drinking doesn’t help.  This might be the only country I’ve trained where guys regularly smoke before and after workouts, and come in smashed from the night before.  And for the latter, I don’t mean young guys in youthful partying mode.  I mean salarymen in their 30s and 40s.
  • Lastly, Korea is a convenient country.  Things are efficient, quick, available.  Convenience, and a culture of service stems from its homogeneous society.  I’ll just point back to an earlier article I wrote about this.

What You Get in a Homogeneous Society

Culture, not ethnicity, is the determining factor of a society’s outcomes.  Korea has a homogeneous culture.  Policymakers in the US will often cite Scandinavian countries or East Asian countries to rationalize their opinions, but usually these statements have miniscule merit, as what you get in a homogeneous society is not what can be gotten in a free-for-all like the US.

Here are some notes from being in Korea for over a year now.  In a homogeneous society, you get:

  • Lower crime, and kids under the age of 10 riding the subway or bus by themselves, and walking home after leaving their tutoring academies at midnight.
  • A social problem with people inflicting physical violence on police officers, ambulance workers, firefighters, and medics.
  • Informal credit systems where neighborhood grocers will tell you to pay them for groceries later, with no mention of when or even of a deadline.  This extends to modern restaurants when the POS system is down, and they tell you to come back later to pay them back.
  • Less of a litigious society, with personal lawsuits over bodily injuries, medical malpractice, etc., not very common or pursued – mostly, these types of things are settled out of the courts or person-to-person over the phone.  Correspondingly, a lower cost of social services like child daycares ($100/mo.) or medical care.
  • A society/major city with a higher average level of service for most things.  A city that is so prosperous, that sometimes it gives out bus and subway rides for free.
  • The culinary custom of serving an entire table-full of side dishes for free, which can be refilled to your stomach’s content.  This has been going on for decades, if not centuries, and abuse has not caused it to stop.
  • An inherent-not-explicitly stated business oligarchic class that has implicit societal objectives such as high employment at the expense of productivity and margins and ROE, although none of the Korean conglomerates would ever admit to this.
  • Rampant double-parking on the street, with cars put in neutral and their owners’ cell phone numbers either printed or otherwise left on the dashboard.  If a car is blocking another driver, then the other driver is expected to push the car (which is in neutral) out of the way – and if it doesn’t work, then to call the owner, whether at 6 am or 6 pm.
  • The laxest public transportation security measures and ticket checks in the world, in my opinion.  For domestic flights, you can show up 10 minutes before the actual flight to check in and get waved through.  On trains, you can book a ticket and waltz onto the train and pass zero security checks and zero ticket attendants.  Your relatives can get on the train with you to say their goodbyes, until a message over the intercom helpfully announces that any well-wishers should deboard or risk being taken halfway across the country.
  • Older men who often communicate in a series of grunts or gestures at restaurants.
  • In playrooms (note: not schools), the moms come by with kids as young as 3 and just drop them off for a few hours.  Just drop them off.  If the kids need to go to the bathroom, one of the frontline staff, regardless of gender, takes them to the bathroom.
  • Kids who come out to the public parks on the weekend, alone, to play.  As it should be, probably.

But what you also get is:

  • An invisible pressure to conform to social norms and mores, including that of physical beauty, and a huge plastic surgery and aesthetic care industry.
  • Rampant copying and gauntlet-style jousting as the prevailing method of competition in every facet of life, from education, to restaurants, to business in general.
  • Highest average spending on education in the OECD, with high average test scores on math and science to match, but limited innovation and creativity, a lot of which is directly related to the oligarchic business complex that stifles / crushes SME’s and mom and pop stores.
  • An entertainment-industrial complex that churns out pop stars as if on an assembly line, with artists at the mercy and whim of their producers, who create, produce, prettify, write the songs, house, feed, and choreograph the dances for them.
  • High rates of suicide as people who don’t feel they have succeeded along the narrow metrics of defined success, feel they have failed in life.
  • Barriers to immigration that are causing the society to age, and die – with deaths outnumbering births, the population will soon plummet.
  • Insane FOMO, as evidenced during the cryptocurrency boom and bust within a span of a few months last year (2017), that drives speculative bubbles.  See 1997, 2007 as well for eerie rhyming.
  • Binge drinking at a societal level, and despite repeated regulations telling employers not to force employees to go on forced outings where some people die from an excessive amount of alcohol consumption, the highest in the world on a per-capita basis.  Resultant lack of productivity in the mornings after is socially accepted, as is workers showing up at 10am, red-faced and smelling like alcohol, and wasting the entire morning.
  • Liver failure and stomach cancer common from the excess amount of drinking that is required for such social situations, in combination with the spicy paste that pervades everything.