Adventures in audio tape

Yesterday Bloomberg ran what was essentially a PR piece for Ballfinger, a German maker of rarefied audio equipment, including reel-to-reel stereo tape decks that start at $11,000. The thesis: reel to reel is making a comeback.

This is of course a bullshit trend story. I am sure the people who buy $10,000 glass-platter turntables will give these a look, but there is no way that reel-to-reel tape is coming back in any meaningful way. I say this as a recent returnee to vinyl (at a somewhat lower price point), and as someone with a fair tolerance for fiddly audio-visual equipment. But these are beautiful decks, and they remind me of a long-dormant soft-spot in my heart for reel-to-reel.

I’ve always appreciated the inherently mechanical aspect to music, and therefore I have some affection for elaborately mechanical analog reproduction methods. One of my earliest musical memories is my great-uncle David playing “Abbey Road” on a reel-to-reel deck when I was ten or so, sitting on the carpet in front of the stereo. To this day the opening measures of “Come Together” call to mind dreamily turning tape reels.

Uncle David was a German Jewish immigrant, a Holocaust survivor by way of the East End of London who found his way to business success and, ultimately, Palo Alto. He and my great aunt Anne, who was English, traveled extensively and radiated sophisticated late-seventies cosmopolitanism in an era when my own family was scruffily academic. David had the first electronic calculator that I ever saw, a delightful piece of technological sorcery. I will forever associate visits to his house with Japanese prints and the aroma of ginger ale. In such a context, reel-to-reel was almost inevitable.

David also used that reel-to-reel deck to introduce me to “The Goon Show”, the legendary BBC radio comedy starring Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. He ran me a cassette copy of his reel of four episodes, and I listened to that cassette for twenty-five years until, when it was on the threshold of disintegration, I finally digitized it.

David’s was the only reel-to-reel deck I ever saw that was part of someone’s everyday stereo setup. However, after a long detour through the benighted era of cassette tape (Mix tapes! Dolby B noise reduction!), reel-to-reel came back into my life during grad school, in the early nineties, when I did college radio. Most of our audio production was done on quarter-inch reel, and I spent countless pre-digital hours slicing up Ampex 456 with razor blades, hanging the clips from wires, and splicing them back together with Scotch Tape. I even made some money on the side editing for Antenna Theater, an outfit from Marin that recorded books on tape using reel-to-reel.

In those days my friends and I also used reel-to-reel for music production. My buddy Gabe and I had been college bandmates in my undergraduate days. That was the era of four-track cassette recorders, the production media of choice for threadbare ‘80s garage bands everywhere. If nothing else, four-tracks enforced a certain ingenuity, as you figured out how many generations you could ping-pong tracks before the only thing you heard was tape noise. Fortunately, this was a skill I’d honed in junior high school, recording audio science fiction epics on dual cassette decks with my nerdy tween friends.

After college Gabe and I kept jamming, and there was a brief moment between the Tascam four-tracks and the rise of digital when he had an eight-track reel-to-reel in his bedroom. This was the coolest bit of band equipment that any of my friends had ever owned, and it expanded our production horizons dramatically. We mixed down to Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes, another short-lived tape format that inhabited the lacuna between the fall of analog and the rise of accessible digital audio workstations.

Gabe’s eight-track also taught us the eternal lesson that, no matter how many recording tracks you have, it’s always exactly one less than you need. This was especially true when you had to give a track up to SMPTE time code, which we used to synchronize the analog tape deck with a digital keyboard and drum machine. SMTPE time code sounds like something Jeff Goldblum would tell you portends an alien invasion, and it would inevitably bleed into the neighboring tracks because we couldn’t spare a guard track between the time code and the music. I can still hear it when I listen to those songs. Gabe would soon abandon the analog eight-track for an Alesis ADAT, a contemporary of DAT that used VHS tapes to record eight digital audio tracks. This worked every bit as well as you imagine a recording technology based on VHS media would, but it had a digital sync clock and didn’t need SMPTE, so there’s one more recording track for you if you can un-jam the machine.

In that era I also spent time in SF State’s recording studio, working with two-inch, 24-track tape on a giant, two-horsepower deck. It was a beast the size of a Viking stove — the reels alone weighed ten pounds when fully wound. All of us with long hair, men and women alike, were advised to keep our ponytails and dreads well away from the reels during transport if we wanted to go through life with scalps. It was huge fun. Finally, we had all the tracks! The instructor, John Barsotti, who’d been a professional engineer, had a first-generation copy of the Billie Jean master on a half-inch stereo reel at 30-inches-per-second, basically the maximum useful ratio of tape surface area to signal achievable. He played it for us in the control room over the big Tannoy monitors and it absolutely blew my mind. I’d heard the song dozens of times before then and been indifferent to it, but I’ve been a fan of Billie Jean ever since. Ah-HOOO!

But, as anyone who remembers “be kind, rewind” knows, tape is a pain, and not just because it has to be rewound. Tape degrades. Tails in? Tails out? Where on the reel is the cut you’re looking for? Tape is not just the platonic example of a linear media, it’s actually linear. The deck jams and tape stretches and snaps. It’s bulky and weighs a ton. It fouls during rewind or fast forward and suddenly the studio is knee deep in tangles of it. Digital tape formats were only ever awkward placeholders for something better. For production purposes, tape was rightly displaced by random access digital. I went from cutting 456 to using SoundTools on an Intergraph workstation and it was like being born again.

I’m sure these new reel-to-reel decks will find their place. There is an eccentric for every audiophile market, no matter how niche. People do buy old TEAC decks and scour flea markets and e-Bay for secondhand reels. And I am sure there are people out there who will buy these Ballfinger decks, if for no other reason than they are gorgeous objects that also play analog music at ridiculously high quality. (And I live in Silicon Valley, a place with a well documented weakness for gorgeously over-engineered frippery.)

But it won’t be me. My wife has already warned me that under no circumstances am I to buy an expensive German tape deck. Or, for that matter, any tape deck. I’ve been enjoying my LPs, but, nostalgia notwithstanding, the old razor-nicks on my hands say I gotta draw the line at tape.

Also posted on Medium.

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The undefeated gangster squirrel and other first world problems

I hate a tree.

No one is more surprised than I am. Trees are green and wonderful. I love trees!

Except for this tree. I hate this tree.

The tree I hate is a big Douglas fir, about 100 feet tall. It grows in my neighbor’s yard, right up against the fence along the property line. It is thick and stout and extends half its canopy over my house and yard.

I didn’t start out hating the tree. When we first looked at the house I thought, hey! Nice and shady! Somehow my real estate agent, who was otherwise superb, did not bring himself to say, “You know, it looks great. But I gotta tell you, you’re going to hate that fucking tree.”

It didn’t take long. We moved into the house in November. By December the tree was dropping a continuous rain of desiccated needles and pinecones. The first time I went up onto the roof I thought I’d wandered into a campsite. I swept and bagged and spent a merry afternoon on my hands and knees mucking buckets of rotting needles and cones out of the gutters while trying not to teeter off of the edge and become one of those statistics about mundane things that are actually much more dangerous than terrorism.

The tree has perfected teleportation. It quantum-tunnels inch-long needles into my underwear drawer, under the couch cushions, into my bed, and into the carpet fibers. In summer the tree swaps the needles for drifts of weightless little fir blossoms. These have colonized the house like tribbles. There are always a few stuck to the bottom of my socks.

Shortly after moving in we called an arborist to thin out the fir branches over our property. He also pruned the Japanese maple in our front yard. It turns out you need a Japanese maple specialist to prune your Japanese maple or apparently you risk a diplomatic garden incident. A Japanese maple arborist is exactly like any other arborist, but more fabulously priced. But I don’t hate the Japanese maple because, being Japanese, it’s well engineered and punctual. In autumn it turns bright red for thirty days and then drops all of its leaves in one glorious, crimson sneeze.

The arborist pruned the fir tree ruthlessly, but it didn’t occur to him that, unlike a genteel Japanese maple, a thuggish fir tree would bear a grudge. First, one of the pruned branches pierced my roof, which we discovered during a freakishly heavy rainstorm in December when water started dripping into the master bedroom at two in the morning. But at least that was fixable. More insidiously, the tree leaked great gobbets of pinesap from every knot, nick and stump where it had been pruned.

Pinesap is like a mix of superglue and ground glass. It coats the wooden stairs between our dining area and the garden. It drips onto the skylights and hardens into dusty, sticky little humps that have to be etched off with a putty knife. It gets tracked into the house and leaves indelible pinesap marks on the floors. The cats hate it. It makes gravel stick to their feet. A cat with gravel cemented between its toes is not a happy cat. When it walks across the floor it goes click…click…click…click, and then, when it rabbits its foot against the floor to try to dislodge the pebble, clicketyclicketyclickety. This is funny and tragic in a way that only an aggrieved cat can achieve, and might almost be worth forgiving the tree for. But then the cat sulks away to the bedroom and hides under my comforter where, miraculously, the pebble and any needles also glued to its feet will dislodge so I can find them when I go to sleep. Have I mentioned the satanic combination of pinesap and cat hair?

At this point you may be thinking, hey, asshole, you managed to buy a house in the Valley, so excuse me if I don’t get all weepy about your tree and shit. And you’d be right to think that. In the playbook of humble-bragged first-world problems, this is dangerously close to complaining about having to get your Maserati tuned.

But the tree was the beginning of my education in the dark secrets of home ownership. When you buy your first house you stray into a foggy, rumsfeldian arena of unknown unknowns. Sure, you look for the obvious stuff. Closet space. Appliances. A history of gruesome axe murders. (Don’t laugh – a friend of mine got a deal on a murder house in Potrero Hill.) But if you’ve never owned a house before, there is a whole galaxy of things that simply don’t occur to you.

Crawl spaces don’t occur to you. I have some advice: if your house has a crawl space underneath it, never look there. It’s like gazing at Medusa. Nothing but darkness, hate and serpents. Or, to be more accurate, spiders. I sent an electrician in there to pull some Ethernet cable. It takes a brave and well-compensated man to enter Hades just so I can have better Internet in the bedroom. My strategy for the crawl space is to pretend it doesn’t exist, and isn’t two feet beneath my sleeping body every night. Nope, nothing beneath my head except a concrete slab and the San Andreas Fault, thank you very much.

Rat urine doesn’t occur to you. When we had the house checked, the inspector pointed out that there were some rat droppings on top of the furnace. We had rat-proofers seal up all the gaps, above and below. They also suggested that the old insulation was probably soaked in decades of rat urine. This might or might not have been true, but it definitely stuck in my head. No one wants to spend their nights sandwiched between spiders below and rat piss above. So, new insulation.

Then we had a guy come over to clean years of accumulated pine needles out of the air conditioning unit, which is at fir tree ground-zero and seemed likely to burst into flames. While he was there he checked the inside of the furnace and ducts. Full of rat turds. We’d pretty much been blowing atomized rat turds directly into our faces all winter. You can have a slick Nest thermostat and turn on your heat from another continent, but it’s not smart enough to send a message back warning you that your ducts are a rat outhouse and you’re probably going to die of leptospirosis so don’t bother coming home. For $250 you’d think they could engineer that in.

Squirrels don’t occur to you. And why would they? Squirrels are cute, harmless woodland creatures that eat nuts and stuff. But in the tree I hate there lives a squirrel I also hate. There is no bird feeder that he can’t get to and open. No wire he cannot scale. No barrier he cannot penetrate. He is the Savoir-Faire of squirrels. Which makes me poor old Klondike Kat.

And he has squirrel balls of solid brass. A couple of weeks ago Mrs. Imagethief and I were sitting at the dining room table when we heard a strange scrunching noise echoing through the house. It took us a minute to figure out where it was coming from. The squirrel was sitting on the alley gate under the tree and gnawing on my house. Just gnawing on my fucking house.

The squirrel is pure evil. The squirrel dug up the flower pots. The squirrel ate the strawberries off the vine. The squirrel emptied all of the sunflower seeds out of the bird feeder and then, I swear, he laughed at the birds. This squirrel would shoot a man just to watch him die. If he had opposable thumbs, that is, and not cute little squirrel hands.

I once though of houses as permanent, enduring objects. But now that I own a house, that turns out to be an illusion. The house is really just the contours of the front lines in a foolhardy war that I declared on nature the moment I signed my mortgage papers. Its shape is sustained only so long as I fight. Nature’s arsenal is earthquakes, weather, the tree, the squirrel, the rats, termites, mold, moisture, time and the simple inevitability of thermodynamics. Mine is whatever meager shekels are left in my bank account after a Silicon Valley down payment. In the long run, nature is going to win and claim the house. I win if nature claims me first.

So you can mock this for the privileged rant that it is. But the fact is that, rich man, poor man, somewhere out there is a squirrel with hard eyes and a shiv with your name on it. Maybe you haven’t found him yet.

But you will, my friend. You will.

Is that my soul in your mouth?

Is that my soul in your mouth?

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Escape from the cavern of the credit Morlocks

Note: Originally published on Medium.

There are two kinds of people in America: those with good credit, and Morlocks who live below ground and emerge at night to steal your children. Returning to the US after my years abroad I found myself condemned to the underworld by one of the big wireless operators. I was in a carrier store trying to open a billed mobile phone account for my wife. How hard could it be? I’m a US citizen with a well-paid job at a brand-name company. I wore a shirt and shoes.

The discussion went something like this:

How long have you been at your current address? Oh really, that short? Well, where did you live before that? I’m sorry, where? Are you sure? I didn’t know Americans could live there. Anyway, since you’ve been in your current address less than six months I’ll have to run a credit check. What was your last address in the United States? Really? THAT’S NOT WHAT THE CREDIT BUREAU SAYS.

And that was where things ground to non-negotiable halt. Twice.

Six months out of graduate school and flat broke, I hadn’t been a deft steward of my own finances when I left the United States in 1995. I was underemployed and maxed on three credit cards, all charging student-card interest rates that fell somewhere between payday loan and the guy who broke your uncle’s kneecaps. I was also carrying enough student loan debt to notice, although not enough to make me a heartbreaking case study in one of those stories about how student debt is ruining America.

In Singapore I got my first real paycheck ever, for an amount of money that seemed absurd at the time but was in fact a lowball tradeoff for the equity that was supposed to make me rich someday, but didn’t. I immediately did two things. Less responsibly, I ran out and bought a thousand-dollar, 29-inch 16×9 JVC tube television set. It weighed 80kg and seemed like a television from The Future. It had a remote control so complicated that the button-encrusted top flipped open like a door to reveal a whole second layer of buttons underneath.

More responsibly, I paid off all my debts. As long as I lived in Asia I was never in debt again. I was terrifically smug about this, but it was less the product of saintliness and more the product of living in places where home and car ownership were simply impractical.

In 2001, when I’d been in Singapore for five years, the state of California dunned my tiny brokerage account for money it thought I owed for 2000 taxes. This came as a surprise to me as I’d had no income in California since 1995, and precious little before then (though, as a self-employed writer, what income there was had been ferociously taxed). In a kind of reverse green card process, I assembled a mighty dossier to prove to the bureaucracy that I didn’t live in the US and had no interest in doing so. I eventually got the money back, but the episode convinced me that it might be a good idea to sever my remaining links to the suddenly grabby state of California. I closed my inactive brokerage account, cancelled all the credit cards and even let my driver’s license lapse.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I had a Singapore credit card and driver’s license, and was getting paid in Singapore dollars and living most of my life in Asia. And I had little interest in moving back to the United States. What could go wrong?

Smash cut to twelve years later as I stand in the Palo Alto shop of one of the major US wireless carriers, futilely explaining why I, an employee in good standing of a company they buy zillions of phones from, should be granted a post-paid account for my wife.

Sorry, this is America, comrade. We don’t care how they do things back in Whereveritwasistan that you were living in, or how good your credit is with the Communists. In America the credit bureaus are the unseeing judge. The power on high. The remote, Olympian force that casually dispenses destiny. Woe betide the mortal who has had no apparent credit for more than a decade, and who gives a prior address that that doesn’t match up with whatever is etched into the Great Stone Tablet.

What was etched into the Great Stone Tablet next to my name, I later discovered, was an address in Forest Hill, West Virginia. This was a surprise to me as I’d never been to West Virginia, let alone lived there. Apparently, one of my Singapore postal codes shared several digits with a zip code in Forest Hill, West Virginia. Who knew?

I did what one does when the gods are displeased with you. I submitted a request to have my records corrected. With the credit bureaus at least you can do this online, and no goat sacrifice is called for (though they are not actively discouraged). Amazingly enough, my prayers were heard and sort of answered. My prior US address was amended to the correct one, and on my third attempt to get a phone line all my information was confirmed by the Great Stone Tablet. There was rejoicing and 4G connectivity. I’d never been so happy to get a bill.

But a phone line was just the first, wobbly baby step in the reconstruction of my credit. After all, I was becoming a creature of the American suburbs again. Cars. A house. The respect and admiration of my peers. All of it would require credit.

Though I had dissolved nearly every other aspect of my US financial existence, I had fortunately kept the checking account I opened in San Francisco in 1991. I’d like to say that this was some great act of financial foresight, but it was mostly to avoid fees when spending money on visits home. An American debit card also came in handy for buying stuff on iTunes when I lived abroad. When I moved back to the US I wired all my savings into that account. After years of wrestling with Chinese banks I am hard pressed to say anything good about any bank anywhere, and my US bank was deeply soiled in the collapse of the housing bubble. But due to my suddenly swelling account of long-standing they were willing to give me a new Visa card on the spot. And you know how it is with credit card issuers. Like a flock of crows, once one of them has its beak in you they all want a taste.

The other cornerstone of my rising credit edifice was a car. My wife and I started car shopping in earnest a few weeks after arriving back in the US. We were prudent, restrained and utterly Silicon Valley in selecting a slightly used Prius in an un-manly shade of powder blue that demurely suggested, “I will never attract the attention of the police, so give it all you got.”

As happens in the car buying process, the backslapping salesman handed me over to the finance guy with the slightly-too-wide smile who tried to up-sell me on the warranties, anti-scratch film, Scotch-Guard, and so forth. I was prepared to write a check for the full price of the car when he made his one and only successful up-sell: a loan.

“We’ll finance it if you like,” he said.

I made a kind of Scooby-Doo surprise noise. Uhhrrrr? Having been cowed into total surrender by the wireless operator that wouldn’t let me open an 80-dollar-a-month billed account, it seemed astounding to me that I could casually finance a car to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Ah, but this is the American car business. A car is a secured loan. Cars are a pillar of the economy. They’ll finance a dead body to buy a car in the US of A as long as it can twitch enough to make an ink spot on the contract. They’ll even finance you, comrade, for the low, low rate of 4.5%.

This is a totally obscene rate for a car loan, but I wasn’t disposed to ask too many questions. “Hey,” Wide Smile said, reading my mind with uncanny accuracy, “if you want to take out a mortgage someday, this will help.” So I twitched enough to sign on the dotted line.

In fact, the ghosts of my no-credit years weren’t done haunting me. The Toyota dealer tried to pass my loan onto another giant, gruesome American bank. That bank sent me a letter that said, roughly, “We’d rather not, since you don’t seem to exist.” The dealer then tried their luck with a much smaller, regional bank, which was thrilled to take on my loan. I repaid their faith by paying off the loan in six months, before they could earn much from it. So maybe the big bank was on to something.

Last month the reconstruction of my US credit hit its logical peak. I took out a mortgage so my wife and I could buy a little ranch house in Redwood City. This was what everything else had been leading up to. The point behind re-establishing credit in the first place. When I started the mortgage process I had been back in the US for a year and a half. I had a colorful assortment of credit cards and two car loans, one paid off and one active. I had credit ratings in the high-respectable band. When the mortgage broker ran my numbers, he positively glowed. “You’re gold plated,” he said. “Start shopping.”

Ah, but we’d been here before.

I’d applied for a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage because, let’s face it, interest rates aren’t going to get any lower unless civilization collapses. It was all green lights until it wasn’t. The mortgage broker called me and explained that the tawdry investment bank that buys their thirty-year fixed loans wouldn’t buy one with my name on it because I didn’t have three lines of credit that had been open for at least two years. I only had one. This, I assumed, was my Singapore Citibank Visa card of long standing.

That meant switching to a ten-year adjustable mortgage because the broker’s company doesn’t resell those, and thus they require only one mature line of credit. And that, in turn, means refinancing sometime next year when my new credit lines are sufficiently grown-up, in order to not have to spend the next decade rooting for civilization to collapse so my ARM doesn’t blow up. Awesome. But at least the mortgage company ate the origination fees – a surprising display of remorse from a financial company, as all the evidence suggests that finance is the industry for which the term “remorseless” was invented.

It turned out that the one sufficiently old line of credit that I did have was not my Singapore Visa card. As I’d always suspected, my superb overseas credit remained invisible to the American credit-industrial complex, which views everything outside the United States as rumor and innuendo. That helpful, lone line of credit that was the slender difference between mortgage and no mortgage was an old Chase Visa account I’d thought among those cancelled when I’d dismantled my American finances in 2001. An account for which I no longer have any records at all and which, the mortgage broker told me, hadn’t actually been used in more than a decade. I’d been haunted by the ghost of my old credit one last time.

So here we are. Less than two years after failing to open a phone line for my wife, I have multiple credit cards. I have a car loan. I have a mortgage. I’ve gone from being debt-free and socking money into the bank to owing hundreds of thousands of dollars on an amortization schedule that lasts until my 77th birthday. All of this I desired.

I’m assimilated. I’m indebted. The system loves me now, and wants me to borrow. If that doesn’t complete my return to America, what does?

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Reverse Culture Shock and Other Myths

Early last year I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area after seventeen years in Asia. The number one thing people here asked me about that was, “What do you think of the Niners this year?” because, when push comes to shove, most of them would rather have a biopsy than hear about my weird foreign adventures in Far Far Away.

Occasionally, someone would be reckless enough to express polite interest. In these rare cases, they often asked the same thing: was there reverse culture shock coming back to the United States after so long away? The answer they wanted was, “Yes. After my time in the far Orient, your customs and ways are strange to me. Please, what is a ‘Chipotle’?”  Unfortunately for them, the answer they got was: Maybe.

It all depends what you mean by “culture shock.” If you mean grand mal culture shock, that overwhelming alienation and disorientation that leaves you babbling and wide-eyed, the answer is no. I know what that kind of culture shock feels like because I had it when I moved to Singapore in 1995 and again when I moved to Beijing in 2004. In both cases I was incoherent for weeks. I spent my first months in Beijing staggering around in a daze with my language school classmates like a herd of stunned, white sheep who could communicate only by bleating and clustering together for safety. Just ordering successfully in a restaurant was a nerve-wracking triumph.

It was also a huge amount of fun. Culture shock is inextricable from adventure, and I’m nostalgic for that time. One reason I moved to Beijing was to recapture the excitement that faded over the years in Singapore.

As cultural stunts go, China was an epic win. I became competent at living and working there, but the sense of adventure never did fade. One of China’s charms is an enduring, vaguely hallucinatory quality that drapes over even mundane experiences, like a paisley bedspread over an old, vinyl sofa. It has a way of keeping you just a bit off balance, which makes life interesting.

Or maybe it’s just me. But, at any rate, after nearly a decade there I left and returned to Silicon Valley, which has hallucinatory qualities of its own. Hence, one might think, reverse culture shock. America! Guns, God and Google busses!

But for modern expatriates I don’t think reverse culture shock is a thing. Maybe if, in the days of the British East India Company, you spent six months sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and thirty years in the malarial subcontinent surrounded by glowering sepoys while your family died of cholera one-by-one, you might have reverse culture shock when you got home to find that James Watt had invented the steam engine in your absence.

But in the twenty-first century? Hallucinations notwithstanding, I had the Internet, regular visits home, and easy if not always entirely legal access to the bounties of American media and pop culture. Say what you will about Facebook, but it keeps you from feeling all that far away. When I moved back to Palo Alto everything was pretty much right where I left it. The town was richer, sleeker and more self-infatuated, but, under the surface, recognizably the same place I’d grown up in.

The essence of expatriate life in China is overcoming friction and petty annoyances. Air. Traffic. Dubious food. Spitting. Temporary residence certificates. Endless massage and pirate satellite TV flyers under the front door. Banks. God help me, the banks. Ability to reconcile oneself all of this, and even to find the humor in it, separated the foreigners who would thrive in China from those who would stagger back to Hong Kong or home after six months.

With a few exceptions, like a nonexistent credit rating, life back in Palo Alto felt frictionless. And we didn’t just move back to my hometown, we moved back into my actual childhood home. Specifically, my mother’s house, where I had last lived in 1988. We did this because we were advised to not change our address while Mrs. Imagethief was applying for her green card, an experience that is not hallucinatory in the slightest unless you hallucinate paperwork.

Extended-family living led to some tension, several awkward weeks and a few intense discussions about boundaries and space. I’d venture that family shock was more traumatic than culture shock for me and Mrs. Imagethief, who had to deal with that most delicate of Asian family dynamics, that of the daugher-in-law parachuted into the mother-in-law’s home turf.

Still, it worked out OK, and proximity to family has been one of the great joys of the return. Especially since we got our own place, which is, neatly, close enough to my mother to be filial, but far enough away that she can’t smell the sambal frying.

As I think back on my first year back in the Valley, there were really only two moments when I was flummoxed into total immobility in a way that happened to me on a more or less daily basis my first few months in China. Both times involved that particular American pathology, overwhelming choice.

The first time was in the beer aisle of the Noe Valley Whole Foods in San Francisco, on my way to watch the 2013 Superbowl at my father’s house in the city. When I left the United States there was no craft beer movement, per se. In college we drank two-liter Sapporo mini-kegs. The less said about that the better. If we were particularly flush we might pick up a case of Henry Weinhardt’s or Moosehead, which was exotic because it was from far Canada. When I moved abroad, in 1995, you could demonstrate your upscale credentials by drinking Sam Adams, or Anchor Steam, or, if you were feeling dangerously sexy, Red Hawk or Sierra Nevada.

In Singapore we didn’t drink beer because it was too expensive. In China all we drank was Yanjing, the local brew from Beijing’s northern suburbs. It was cheap, watery swill, but that meant you could pack it away pretty much all evening long without becoming too wasted. This had certain advantages when devouring some incandescent Hunanese feast on Beijing’s sultry, summer evenings.

In the Noe Valley Whole Foods I stood staring at label after label, each of which was some variation on the formula eccentric behavior + humorous animal + character-filled-location + IPA. Prancing Piglet Barn Brewed IPA. 10% alcohol by volume, 90% hops. Take that, you lager-sipping, orientalist pansy. I hope your skull doesn’t cave in.

I stood there gawping at the beer menagerie for five minutes. As god was my witness, I had no idea what to buy. There wasn’t a case of Henry’s in sight. Mrs. Imagethief suggested I, you know, ask for a recommendation. But asking a supermarket clerk for a beer recommendation is like asking another man to measure your penis. It’s just not something you do outside of the Frat House. I’m an adult American man. I’m supposed to know which fucking beer to buy.

Mrs. Imagethief broke the logjam by picking more or less at random. It was fine (though hoppy), and after a year of intense counseling from my brothers I’ve developed a working familiarity with craft brews that enables me to function in San Francisco social circles without making too much of an ass of myself.

The second time I was paralyzed in my tracks was the first time I ate at one of the free employee restaurants at a glamorous Silicon Valley company that shall go nameless. I finished my meal and dutifully carried my tray to the drop-off, where I was confronted with the most dizzying array of waste receptacles I have ever seen. In China there was pretty much one waste receptacle. About two thirds of the time, it was the ground or a randomly placed pile. In the rare places that had multiple receptacles discipline was loosely observed since everyone understood that, regardless of what you threw where, China’s informal economy was going to handle the sorting more efficiently than you ever could.

In the employee cafeteria I gawped at six color-coded bins like a thunderstruck hillbilly while sleek young people effortlessly navigated according to some politically correct recycling code that my decrepit, Yanjing-poisoned brain failed to resolve. I waited for a lull, checked to see if anyone was looking, furtively tipped everything into “landfill”, and sidled out while trying to maintain a facade of earnest, environmental conscientiousness.

Beer and recycling. That’s what counted for culture shock upon returning to the Bay Area. There have been other struggles, but most of them have been logistical in nature rather than cultural. Coming home doesn’t have the glamour or romance of hurling oneself into the smog shrouded, neon-lit nights of Beijing. In its own way, the Valley may be every bit as strange. But even after so many years away, it’s still home.

Note: I have copied forward the comments from the original post.

10 Responses to Reverse Culture Shock and Other Myths

  1. Pingback: As Cultural Stunts Go | Simpson’s Paradox
  2. 阿江 says:

    Just to be an @$$, I make sure people know I’m foreign by asking about Chipotle, but pronouncing it as “Chuh-poe-tuhl”. Then, watch their eyes widen, and jaws drop.

    But seriously, even if you started getting a hankering for things from China, there are so many Chinese enclaves in California. You got a 99 Ranch Market in Mountainview, you can get your 火鍋 fix in Milpitas (where there’s another 99 Ranch market), the only difference would be paying bay area prices–that’ll make your wallet cry.

  3. Jen Brown says:

    What a great post. Great description of the joy of serious Asian culture shock. I laughed out loud at the bit about real reverse culture shock being returning and finding that the steam engine had been invented!

  4. Michael says:

    A very thoughtful post. Well done. I have sometimes wondered what going home would be like. Well, only wondered. Not enough to actually pack up and return the way you have.

  5. Loved this post! Thanks or sharing. I have no plans to return to the US anytime soon, but I often wonder what would “shock” me back there.

    I’ve experienced the craft beer reverse culture shock on trips home, too! Fortunately I’ve always gone to the grocery store armed with beer recommendations for friends, and didn’t get too beerstruck.

    Interesting about the cafeteria thing… Google in Shanghai has probably 2-3 waste receptacles in their cafeteria, which I imagine is a compromise between “normal China” and what happens in the California Google campus.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great post, 18 months was a long wait, but well worth it.

  7. Kate says:

    Great post! Most people that moved to California from China don’t seem to have culture shock, I’ve observed. Try moving somewhere else, it is a bit more difficult. China has a fuzzy, warm hallucination – any problems and ayi will take care of it. In the U.S., the hallucinations are like cold water in the face: Home Depot staff, insurance brokers. What language are they speaking? Good luck!

  8. FOARP says:

    Good post. Personally, if there was anything resembling reverse culture-shock, it was back in 2005 when I first returned to the UK for a few months after finishing my Chinese studies, when I discovered that:

    1) No-one wants to hear your humble-brag-laden expat stories.

    2) That protective blanket/fish-in-a-goldfish-bowl feeling you have as an expat is gone.

    3) People genuinely aren’t that impressed by the fact that you’ve lived overseas and learned the language. If anything it marks you out as a bit strange.

    Back in my Taiwan days, in 2001, when British beers and foods were almost impossible to come by, and when calling home involved standing in the middle of the street using the pay-phone at my local 7/11 waiting for my phone-card to run out, yeah it was just about possible to feel pretty far away from home. Globalisation and technological advances pretty much did away with that.

  9. Andy says:

    Interesting that your examples are both to do with choice. I also happened upon this TED talk today, that provides a window into cultural differences in perceptions of choice:

    For my part, I found that it was more of a ‘shock’ moving back to the UK from the US, than it was moving from China back to the UK. I put this down to my expectations of similarity – making the differences stand out all the more.

  10. GP says:

    Hi Will, we met a few years ago at AmCham’s MAP Forum through Zeke. I just moved back to Georgia a few months ago. Georgia feels pretty much the same as when we left. Most obvious changes to me were all related to food — similar to what you mentioned. My father-in-law remarked that his generation was all about the music. Ours is food. When in China, I loved calling myself a foodie. Here, I just whisper, “I love eating, that’s all”.

    Though my most embarrassing thing so far is going shopping, thinking I was signing up for one of those membership cards that give you discounts, and then exiting the store 15 mins later with a bloody new credit card, much to my husband’s chagrin.

    I miss China sometimes, but America’s pretty awesome. Have fun in San Francisco!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing

It started with the oven. In Singapore in 2001 I bought a used Sharp R-8H50(B)T Rotisserie combination microwave and convection oven from my buddy, Tuck Wai, for S$200. Say what you will about the Sharp Corporation, which is struggling, but that oven was The Bomb. It followed us from Singapore to Beijing to Shanghai and back to Beijing, proving its worth repeatedly in a country where most apartments don’t have ovens. It even survived one front panel change. It was the best S$200 I ever spent in my life. Tuck always regretted selling, a sure sign of a good deal.

Earlier this year the panel started to fail again, and no transplants were available. It was a protracted death, like a person with progressive organ failure. One by one, over the course of a couple of months, the buttons stopped working, slowly narrowing the list of things the oven could do. First we lost the grill. Then the convection function. Then the microwave time entry. The last gasp was the quick start. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Anyway, I’m not superstitious, and I don’t generally believe in portents, but if the death of our trusty Sharp Rotisserie isn’t a sign that change is in the wind, what is? So after eight and a half well-documented years in Beijing and 17 in Asia for me, we’re moving back to Palo Alto in January. I’m going because my company has asked me to move to the Silicon Valley office, very near where I grew up and where most of my family still live.

For a long time I resisted the idea of moving back to the United States. My self identity is largely based on being “the one who’s in Asia.” I was 27 when I left the US in 1995, six months out of graduate school and in most measurable ways a complete doofus. My personal and professional development has pretty much all been in Asia, and most of my friends and virtually all of my experience and network are out here.

Which, when you think about it, seems like a really good reason to do something different, even if that something is going home. Sometime in the last year or two my previously steadfast resistance to going home started to soften. Last May, when my boss proposed I come back to Sunnyvale, which is now where most of our senior execs are based, I found myself much more receptive to the idea than I would have expected.

There is no greater message behind our departure. I’m not disappointed in China. I haven’t been involved in public slanging matches with any Chinese celebrities. There is no shroud of legal action looming above me. I am, in fact, profoundly grateful to have been able to live and work in China for as long as I have. We all take it for granted, and piss and moan about the air and traffic and censored Internet and sketchy food because that’s our version of water-cooler sports talk. And we all rationalize a bit to be here. But step back and think about it for a moment. From your average suburban American perspective, who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who. It’s the stuff of fantasy and scarcely-believable tales from exotic relatives, like my mysterious uncle Stephen, who lived and worked in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. It has been a gift, and under other circumstances I would have remained here at least for a while.

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kittoand Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York Times, BusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story. For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.

In the end, there are only two possible outcomes for a foreigner in China: you either stay here for the rest of your life, or, sooner or later, you leave. If you were to diagram it, it would look something like this:

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

That little dot encompasses the handful of old communists who settled here for ideological reasons, such as Israel Epstein and Sidney Shapiro, and maybe Carl Crook, who was born in Beijing. One or two businessmen I’ve met have been here for thirty or more years, and a couple of journalists I know are edging in that direction. Maybe Kaiser is here forever(though I doubt it). But even Sidney Rittenberg, famously “The Man Who Stayed Behind,” didn’t actually stay behind. He retired to Washington State in 1980. Of course, he was thrown in jail in China. Twice. You’d probably retire to Washington State, too. According to the People’s Daily, China has granted permanent residency to less than 5000 foreigners since it started doing so in 2004, and it made the news when Shanghai issued its first batch of green cards in 2005. It’s a safe bet that granting citizenship is even rarer.

We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”

There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.

So they move on, and new people come in. That’s as it should be. Out with the old, in with the new. One thing that has not changed is the number of students and young professionals interested in working in China or studying Chinese. One of the fun parts of my job is speaking to MBA and undergraduate student groups, and I always ask who actually wants to live and work in China. Trust me; the supply of young westerners interested in China is not in danger of drying up.

I quit a perfectly good job in Singapore in 2004 and came to China with rudimentary Mandarin and the dream of living here. It was a crazy stunt that worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve not lived the hard-boiled life of my journalist friends, many of whom are forever getting tossed out of some hardscrabble village by local thugs. Nor did I arrive in the FEC era or spend two or three years in the boondocks. But I’ve had my share of adventures. I’ve bargained for long distance taxis in Yanji and ridden through the Zhalong Wetlands in the back of a xiaobengche, surrounded by crates of live fish. I got caught in a youthful waterfight in the alleys of old Kashgar. I’ve been invited into a Uighur house in Tuyoq for tea and sweets, and into the one-room hutong apartment of a family from Shanxi for homemade noodles. I stood on Tian’anmen Square with tens of thousands of Chinese people during the memorial a week after the Wenchuan earthquake. I was in the Bird’s Nest during its Olympic pomp. I helped companies wrestle with the melamine crisis and the acrimonious collapses of their Chinese joint ventures. I had huge stretches of unrestored Wall all to myself on spectacular, blue-sky days. I scuba dived on a sunken village in the dark and freezing depths of Qiandaohu, on sunken Great Wall in Tangshan, and with a whale shark in Dalian’s morose Tiger Bay aquarium. I walked from one-side of Beijing to the other and discovered neighborhoods I’d have never found any other way, and went for runs in the pre-dawn winter darkness when the city is as still and quiet as it ever gets. I spent a year in Shanghai and learned that it is every bit as cool as Beijing, in its own way. I made great friends and worked with amazingly talented Chinese colleagues who disabused me of every stereotype of Chinese employees. I wrote a silly blog that people actually read. And I raised a little boy who calls Beijing home and speaks Mandarin with an effortless fluency that I am scandalously jealous of.

They’re the experiences of a lifetime. Some scruffy air and occasional difficulty with Facebook seems a small price to bear. I’ll miss it, but it’s time to go. Here’s to the next generation of young westerners who are dreaming of living in China. May they all get the chance, and may their lives in China be as amazing and rewarding as mine has been.

See Also:

Note: Because of the significance of this post to me I have copied forward the comments from the original.

54 Responses to I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing

  1. “Who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who.” A great line from the post and one that reminds me of how fortunate I am to have lucked into my own “crazy stunt” to show up mid-career in China–with 3 kids and wife in tow–hoping to make a difference here. Hope your next leg of your journey is as exciting as your last, and that we get to share more of this next leg together as well!

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  3. Kai says:

    Great post, Will. You already know I’ve always enjoyed your blog posts and your humor. Hope you’ll still be in Silicon Valley whenever I make the big move back to the Bay Area! Cheers!

  4. Anna Coffeysays:

    Oh Will! I’ve loved reading your blog as I’ve moved back and forth from China. I’m sad to see it end. Thank you so much for your delightful commentary on the vagaries of life in China!

  1. Kevin Mcgeary says:

    Actually, I preferred this to Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer’s farewell articles.

  2. Ryan says:

    Best of luck with what comes next Will. Imagethief has been an insightful source of commentary on living and working in China. I hope we get to follow you into the next chapter here too.

  3. Will –

    And so the world turns. Life’s like that. I am sure the move back to the US will have new experiences that I’m sure you will write about and I look forward to reading.


  4. Excellent farewell post Will. Must be a good feeling to know that so many people were reading this article that your server couldn’t handle the traffic right after you posted it.

    I wish you a good transition to the Valley and I hope you’ll keep documenting your experiences on Imagethief. Good luck!

  5. Liz Choi says:

    This is so fascinating considering I’m a 26-year old from California who just moved to Hong Kong three months ago. I must be part of the trend of young westerners aspiring to live in Asia. In my mind I’ve only given myself a few years to live here but in the end, who knows? Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. Ben Ross says:

    Excellent post Will. Glad our paths crossed in summer of 2008. Best of luck in the Bay Area, and hit me up if you ever pass through Chicago.

  7. Erica Jiang says:

    Best of luck Will~~~ You are one of the most interesting people in the B-M office~ Salute to the “moldy” pears ^^

  8. Thanks for the writing. Your piece on wiring money out of China was truly inspired. All the best.

  9. Great post, Will. It’s been a pleasure to know you and your family both on a personal and on a blogging level. I’m sure we will be keeping in touch!

  10. Great post, Will. I’ll always regret that we never met up during that year you were in Shanghai. (As I remember it, you pretty much left right after you arrived… I only had time to get like one text message in.)

    And, in keeping with the “no drama” tone of your post… you can always come back.

  11. Kedafu says:

    Another one bites the dust.

  12. I’ve never posted a comment on this blog, but I wanted to wish you the best on your transition and let you know that you’ve provided some wonderful insights across the years. They will be missed.

  13. Hey Will, just stumbled across your blog today via a RT on twitter. This is my first visit to your website, your a great writer and look forward to reading more of your posts. You give an interesting insight into the long term life in China! Great Article!

  14. Braedon Links says:

    Sad that your particular insights will be missed on the Sinica podcast. Best of luck!

  15. You’ll be dearly missed, Will. Imagethief has been one of the best blogs on China. You have written a beautiful post.

  16. I’ve really enjoyed following your posts about China over the years. As you say, we mostly end up leaving after a time – in my case because of the children’s education. At the moment it only seems possible to live short term in China (10 years at most), and there is a predominance of people who are either just out of college or have retired. expats are . I do wonder whether China will ever become residence- friendly for those of us in the 30+ age group.


  17. Will says:

    Big thanks to everybody for the kind words here. With any luck, moving home will give me a rich, new vein of material to mine. After nearly two decades away the US seems approximately as weird to me now as China did when I first got here.

    It’s been a serious ride.

  18. Clay Burell says:

    Bless your heart, you’re one of the few fellow Westerners in China whose drama-queening departures haven’t made me feel I owe China an apology for the rude-guest behavior of my compatriots. Thanks for going out with grace, and good luck.

  19. Alex says:

    Many thanks for hours of laughter and thinking. You’ve deepened all of our stay with insightful anaecdote as I’m sure you do wherever you go. Much appreciated.

  20. Sergio says:

    What a cool laowai. You seem to leave China happy and full of some wonderfull experiences. I wish you a happy life in California!

  21. Elyssa Rae says:

    I really appreciate how you articulated how so many of us really feel about China – we all complain about the air quality, the traffic, the sketchy food … but, in the end, I’m so grateful for the unbelievable experience I had living in one of the most fascinating countries in the world (though I could have done without the bug in my 西红柿炒鸡蛋 ;) .

    I’m also grateful for being one of the young professionals you spoke with – your insights and wisdom into both China and the PR realm has had a large effect on me and has helped me as I continue my journey. China may not have been forever, but it was an incredible and insightful chapter.

    Good luck in Palo Alto. Let me know if business ever brings you to DC!

  22. Ann Lynch says:

    Will, I so enjoyed your BLOG post about leaving China. My husband and I lived in Shanghai for 3 years – 2008-2011 – LOVED IT. We are now back in Pittsburgh – living the life of grandparents and missing the mei meis and our fabulous Chinese friends. I think of them often and wonder if I will ever see them again. I hope so. Good luck in Sunnyvale – repatriating is very difficult.

  23. Pingback: » Top-of-the-Week Links: More sex tapes of Chongqing officials exist, if you can stand them; China is killing manta rays, and Ai Weiwei screws with Party Congress Beijing Cream
  24. Enjoyed your articles over the years, your articles along with Alan Paul’s gave me a different point of view and more insight into life in other parts of China other than Dongguan where I was based. If I had a written a “Why I Left China” post back in 2009 when I left it would have been a lot like this. Without the broken oven part. Sometimes, like when you’re at a good party, or visiting relatives, it’s just time to leave.

    Keep writing though, the transition to living in U.S. is going to be a surprise, be interesting to see your take on the changes.

  25. Shannon says:

    Great post, Will! Glad that the decision you were pondering has been made, and looking forward to catching up just about as often, now that I’m in Chicago and you’re in the Bay Area, as we did when we were both in Beijing! ;-)

  26. Ac says:

    You hit the nail on the head right about here:

    “There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.”

    I thought the same to myself when the first round of “leaving China” letters did the rounds. People are just growing up.

  27. That´s a way to say goodbye to China… congratulations!! and thanks for sharing it!!

  28. David Fieldman says:

    I regret that during my 15 years in China, 13 of them in Beijing, we have never met. But thank you for this uplifting post of your experience and the knowledge that you are leaving with a happy heart full of memories that you cherish and which will linger for the rest of your life.
    Easy transition to your hometown.
    Warm regards,

  29. claudia says:

    Great comment I could feel how is your relationship with Asia and China, you have had amazing advedntures so you know china inside and out if that is possible but at least you can said you saw China more than others and the most important you had an open mind about China no an idea what China should be and you are not leaving with a bitter taste you are leaving with sorrow. China will always be in your heart and your boy who knows if he would be one of those future western to come back to his child coutry. Good luck back to EEUU, long life, I will look for you blog.

  30. Justin Mitchell says:

    Vaya con Doritos. I’m sorry we never met, but have enjoyed your blog immensely and learned a helluva lot from it. You are one of the good guys and will be greatly missed.

  31. Michael & Cynthia says:

    Well written Will – as always.
    All the Best for you and your family back home. Enjoy the rest of your time here and hopefully see you again sometime.

    Michael & Cynthia

  32. JH says:

    A great post, and I wish you all the best. I’ve enjoyed your posts for years and hope you keep writing on Asia-related topics.
    If you were six months out of grad school today and planning a career in Asia, what would be your advice? How are the opportunities different in China today for someone at that stage of life than they were in ’95?
    Best wishes for life back in the US…

  33. What a fantastic read. Thanks Will. As a fellow expat in Asia, I wish you all the best. You’re very inspiring.

  34. Pingback: Another expat leaves Beijing » The Peking Duck
  35. Richard Lai says:

    This isn’t a goodbye (you know how much I travel these days), but I’m just super grateful to have met you while you were still in town. This blog post is a prime example of what one can learn from you, and that’s what makes you awesome, wise buddy.

    Now I’m going to vomit in penance for saying something nice.

  36. Edna says:

    You were one of the first China expats I followed on twitter way back before twitter was cool, and it’s great to see you finish your China years on a sweet note, with little fanfare or drama. Life moves on, people move on. Shame we never met during my three years in Asia, though. Best of luck in California!

  37. Bob Page says:

    Will, thank you for this blog and for writing about your experience in China.

  38. Eric says:

    Happy trails, Will. And I am sure you are right: the U.S. will be every bit as weird as China, and then some. Hope to hear about it on the blog.



  39. Michael D. Wallace says:

    Wow, just finished reading you are leaving China and heading where I live and work. I only spent three years living in China and still consider it my second home. In fact I brought part of China with me on my return, my wife. Welcome back to the Silicon Valley grind.

  40. steven says:

    you’ll regret it. there’s so much more to do in china !

  41. n says:

    i moved to china in 1998 when i was 21 and will leave in early 2013 after 15 yrs. thx for the encouraging words and evoking poignant memories. good luck.

  42. Thanks for this post, Will — I wish I found your site earlier.
    As someone who has lived in China off and on since 1996 and has witnessed nearly three decades of changes there, I certainly agree with many of your points, especially that “There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change.” I wrote about this very topic in a recent essay entitled ‘The China Expat in Exile’ in The World of Chinese Magazine ( To me, it seems arbitrary to talk about expats ‘leaving China’ as if the only way we are connected to China is by living there permanently. Many of us do not have that *luxury* (due to family or work), but China is always a part of our lives; in fact, I find that living between borders had allowed me even greater access and understanding of both sides of the Pacific, something I may be too jaded to see if I lived permanently in the PRC.
    Thank you for adding to the dialogue and I look forward to reading more here soon. And welcome to California — I’m sure you’ll like it here.
    Kaitlin Solimine
    Los Angeles, CA

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  46. Samuel Yu says:

    Many people are keeping moving, that’s true.
    You are lucky you can back home easily.

  47. Frank Fomby says:

    Will – Great post. I’ve been back a little over 4 years now, and trust me in that you will find no shortage of material when you get back :) When I left I had spent (at that time) 30% of my life in Asia. Obviously the number will only get smaller, but the experience remains larger than life.
    I wish continued success in the future!

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  49. Xavier R says:

    Best of luck for what comes next.
    I’ll be landing in Beijing around the time you’re leaving, we might even bump into each other at the airport :)
    I plan on staying there for at least 5 years, already landed a job there, I consider myself among the lucky one in this regard.

    I sure hope my time (that I hope will be much longer than 5 years, but it’s the girlfriend who’ll decide on that ;-) ) will be at least 25% as great as what you’ve just told us, and I would be pretty happy with less :)

    This was a much better post than the two previous “expats leaving china” you were mentioning, and it bodes well for my future, so thank you again :)

    Wish you continued success in the future (not being native english, I’m getting my inspiration from previous comments :D ), and please please please continue on writing like that. I’m sure Palo Alto is no less source of wonder than China was :)


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How Shanghai Saved the Jews

I spent National day in Shanghai with my family, our first leisure trip back since we lived there in 2007. Like Beijing, Shanghai has caught a serious case of fabulous in the past five years. The French Concession, already precious when I lived there, now has more coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars per hectare than San Francisco’s Mission District, which is no mean feat given SOMA’s hipster factor.

Case in point: the street behind the apartment I lived in while I was in Shanghai used to be a wet market where you could have your Sunday chickens slaughtered and plucked while-u-wait (very convenient). It’s now a strip of coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars. The apartment block itself is as dingy and miserable as ever, but I’m sure rents have gone up.

I have no philosophical objection to this transformation. Wet markets and Shanghai summers go together exactly like you’d expect a bunch of unrefrigerated animal carcasses, dismembered frogs and fish innards to go with 35C temperatures and relentless humidity. And I have a taste for coffee and fine baked goods. Anyway, such is progress.

My mom, who had never been to Shanghai, was in tow, so we made a round of The Sites, braving the staggering holiday crowds at the Bund, Luzjiazui, and so on. But one place where the crowds were not staggering was the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, in stubbornly un-fabulous Hongkou district. Jews, it turns out, have an extensive history in Shanghai, originating from the Iraqi Jews who established trading houses there in the 19th century. Although I’m not observant, I am mostly Ukrainian Jew by ethnicity — Moss comes from my great grandfather, Abraham Mosiusnik, who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century — so it seemed something worth exploring.

Before and during World War II tens of thousands of Jews fled Europe and arrived in Shanghai. Stateless, and disconnected from the established Jewish communities, they were settled in a ghetto in Hongkou, north of Suzhou Creek. Constructed in 1927, the elegant, brick Ohel Moishe synagogue served the Russian Jewish refugee community in the ghetto. About ten years ago it was converted to a museum with the support of the Shanghai city government.

I don’t generally hold Chinese museums in high regard (though there are some exceptions, such as the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xi’an). Many Chinese museums have spectacular artifacts, whether lacquerware or locomotives, but, regardless of language, they are often bad at explanation and storytelling and beholden to the imperatives of The Official Narrative. This is a minor tragedy. The Forbidden City should be one of the great museums of the planet. It’s not. It’s a glorious structure holding a bunch of disconnected and poorly explained stuff. And, no, it’s not because Chiang Kai Shek took a lot of the good stuff to Taiwan (although he did).

Following a Chinese volunteer docent on a tour, it didn’t take long to see that the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum suffers from a variety of the Chinese museum syndrome. Among other things, the tour led off with a comprehensive review of the awards and honors that have been bestowed upon the museum by Jewish groups and diplomats, and a recounting of the Chinese notables who have graced the premises. Always a worrying sign.

The museum does, however, have a very clear and effectively transmitted narrative. It is this: the east-European Jewish refugees were saved by the charity and benevolence of China, welcomed in Shanghai when the so-called leaders of the free world, the United States and the United Kingdom, turned them away. This point is drummed home by multiple exhibits, including a brief but eye-catching movie presented on multiple overlapping translucent screens.

The story is accurate, insofar as it goes, but as with many Chinese museums the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is interesting less for what it includes than for what it elides. For example, it is true that Shanghai accepted the Jewish refugees at a time when the US and UK shamefully didn’t. But that was because Shanghai didn’t require an entry visa, so anyone could (and did) land there. Left unmentioned is that the open borders were the result of Shanghai’s status as foreign treaty port under the infamous Treaty of Nanking (the same one that ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War – and we know how the Chinese felt about that).

Also absent is a full explanation of the reason why the Hongkou Jewish ghetto wasn’t liquidated late in the war, as the Germans were demanding. The decision to spare the Jews was made by the Japanese, who actually administered the city during the war. As the story goes, the Japanese were persuaded by the Shanghai rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish. When asked by the Japanese government why the Germans hated Jews, the rabbi replied it was because, “we are orientals.” Or words to that effect; exactly what he said is a matter of dispute. But Chinese museums aren’t in the business of giving credit to the Japanese. It’s not their thing.

Finally, due recognition is given to Ho Fengshan, the Chinese diplomat in Vienna who defied the orders of his superiors and distributed possibly thousands of exit visas to European Jews, allowing them to depart Europe for Shanghai. Nowhere, as far as I recall, is it mentioned that he was a Nationalist diplomat (or that he retired to the United States). This strikes me as a missed opportunity, given that defying the orders of your Nationalist superiors in support of something the Communists claim as a triumph would seem worth mentioning. (It’s also possible I misremember that display, as I didn’t take notes when I was there.)

Whether or not the museum is worth a visit depends upon what you’re looking for. The ghetto is still there, in a row of tenements with graceful, Georgian facades, but it’s an unreclaimed Chinese ghetto now. The building housing the Ohel Moishe synagogue is beautiful, and some of the exhibits are interesting despite the layer of Chinese-style political correctness. The third floor is a sort of mini-Holocaust museum, which doesn’t add much to the story of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but does illustrate the perfidy of Europeans toward each other and explains why the refugees fled. The history of the Jews in Shanghai is genuinely interesting, and I was inspired by the museum to learn more about it, which is a good thing.

Ultimately the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum may teach you less about the Jewish ghetto in wartime Shanghai than about how the Shanghai government wants to use that part of history in service of its own agenda. Still, if you’re willing to read between the lines, that’s pretty interesting in itself.

Note: This post originally published on the defunct group blog

In the ghetto.

In the ghetto.

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Coverup? Huawei Should Send Its PR Bill to ZTE

I’ve never been much for conspiracy theories. Not that I don’t like a touch of the fantastic in my daily life (I live in China, after all). But when you think about the sheer logistics involved in most of the major conspiracy theories things start to break down pretty quickly.

Consider that old favorite of the tinfoil hat brigade, that NASA faked the American moon landings, and think about what it would have required. It’s not just the fakery of the photographs and video, but also that everyone who worked on all the aspects of the fakery, from the astronauts to the guys who would have had to doctor the photos and fake the moon rocks and telemetry (depending upon whether you think mission control was in on it or not) would have had to keep their mouths shut. For going on 45 years. For six successful lunar landings involving eighteen astronauts, twelve of whom have allegedly walked on the moon. Not only does everyone who knows about the fraud have to keep his mouth shut, but everyone who has a public face has to keep his story aligned. Especially that attention-junkie Aldrin. It only takes one person to blow the lid off, intentionally or accidentally. Frankly, it’s just easier to go to the goddamned moon.

I’m not particularly interested in getting into a pissing match with conspiracy theorists (like thermonuclear war, it’s not “winnable” in the conventional sense of the word), so much as I am in setting up a problem. Coverups pose similar problems to conspiracies in that, like a big pile of sweaty dynamite, they are unstable by nature and easily detonated, sometimes by the tiniest of disturbances. That’s why they don’t tend to make good PR strategy.

Of course, by definition no one knows when a coverup succeeds. Small ones involving one or two people? Probably a fair number. Big ones involving lots of people and big stakes? Not so many, I’d guess. “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, perhaps optimistically. In most cases, the participants aren’t Navy Seals or the CIA or other kinds of people who are indoctrinated and trained into cultures of secrecy (and yet still sometimes blow it). We’re talking about just folks who are easily pressured by law enforcement, or who just get drunk on lychee martinis at Centro and shoot off their mouths. Sooner or later someone is going to slip up and the dynamite is going to blow.

Then everyone in serious trouble because, as the old truism goes, the coverup is worse than the crime. Technically, it’s more accurate to say that the coverup significantly aggravates the crime. Coverups turn mistakes into crimes and crimes into enormities. Think of the devastation inflicted on Penn State by the recently published Freeh inquiry, which was most damning for revealing the efforts taken to protect the institution over the victims. Or think of your own toddler, if you have one. If he uses a sharpie to draw all over the wallpaper, you’re angry. If he lies about it, well, then you’re disappointed. Anger is over in minutes. Disappointment leads to years of therapy and careers in bitter standup comedy.

A big pile of sweaty dynamite might be blowing up in the face of Chinese telecoms equipment company ZTE right now. The fuse was lit by a Reuters report back in March (blocked in China), which showed how ZTE was acting as a middleman for relaying restricted American technology to Iran for use in a national Internet monitoring system. The explosion may have started last week when the aptly named website The Smoking Gun reported that the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the sale. The FBI has not confirmed the investigation, but The Smoking Gun has posted an affidavit that makes fun reading because it includes grubby details of the alleged covering-up. Much of it has the desperate, furtive feel of the third reel of an Abel Ferrara film (or, apropros of the lunar landing discussion above, a Peter Hyams film). You can feel the options narrowing as they talk through them. I don’t know how this situation will turn out, but I do know this: As bad as ZTE looked for shipping US surveillance gear to Iran, they look worse for the discussion of the coverup.

Two other thoughts about this case. First, the FBI case is apparently based on the deposition of a young, American lawyer who was in ZTE’s employ. I find myself reminded of something I heard from a relative who was once highly placed in the empire of a wealthy Hong Konger: White people don’t handle the money. One wonders how much trust ZTE will invest in its white people after this.

Second, the organization that should be most annoyed about this alleged coverup isn’t the US government, the FBI or Internet-freedom activists; it’s ZTE’s Chinese competitor and Shenzhen neighbor, Huawei. Huawei has been busting its assthrough an extensive lobbying and PR campaign to impress US politicians and regulators with its trustworthiness and thus extend its limited access to the huge American market. So far it has met with conspicuously limited success not least because US politicians stubbornly refuse to trust it due to its, well, Chineseness.

Huawei and ZTE are different companies, and illegal shipments to Iran aren’t spy-friendly backdoors in routers, but it will be very easy for American politicians and lobbyists to conflate the two Chinese companies and use this situation against Huawei as well. After all, they’re both giant, state-linked Chinese telecoms equipment companies. From an American political point of view, both carry all the reputation baggage that comes with the pedigree. They’re suspected –sometimes with a dose of hysteria– of being instruments of Chinese policy and possibly vectors for cyberwar attacks. If one is caught with an uncapped sharpie…well, the argument will be, you do the math.

Given the effort its expended over the last few years and the collateral damage it is likely to sustain if the investigation of ZTE’s alleged coverup gathers steam, perhaps Huawei should send its PR and Lobbying bill for the last few years to ZTE. And as for the rest of us? I’m sure we’re all very disappointed.

Note: this post originally published on the defunct group blog

Not shocked. Just disappointed.

Not shocked. Just disappointed.

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