Life, Death and Radio

 

News today that longtime San Francisco music station KFOG is no more. It’s going to drop music and switch to simulcasting sports-talk from KNBR.

Gen-X Bay Area natives, like me, may remember KFOG as one of the seminal music stations of the eighties. Along with the long-dead KOME, of San Jose, it was pretty much the soundtrack of my high school years. My friends I and I would sometimes hang out at the Campus Shell gas station at Stanford, where one of our clique worked, and listen to KFOG in the evenings.

I barely listen to radio anymore. Commercial music radio is unlistenable, and even NPR’s Beltway-obsessed news has worn thin for me. Spotify and podcasts have filled the void. But I was a radio romantic when I was young. As a tween, I used to put the radio under my pillow at night and listen to AM talk radio and revivals of old radio dramas and comedies. For a few years, in the early nineties, I thought I might wind up working in radio. I did college radio while in grad school at SF State, and interned and later worked at the short-lived KDBK rock-talk station, a few other ill-fated music formats at the same transmitter, and later as a talk-radio producer at KSFO.

Boy, did I dodge a bullet. The Internet emerged while I was a grad student, and I ended up going to Singapore in 1995 to make online computer games and the rest, as they say, is history. Seventeen years later I returned to the U.S., and people I knew who had been playing seventies rock standards at weird hours of the weekend were still playing seventies rock standards at weird hours of the weekend, but for different stations. Thank Christ I didn’t do that.

Still, I look back on my brief flirtation with broadcasting with some affection. I met some lovely people, played some terrible music, and worked some ferociously shitty hours.

In 1992, before I started interning at KDBK ,I went down to their studios to interview one of their most famous DJs, M. Dung, for a school assignment. I was reminded of this today because Dung had spent essentially all of the eighties as a fixture on KFOG, doing morning shows and mid-days. I spoke to Dung for a couple of hours in between mic-breaks while he was doing his show. He was amazingly gracious and patient, philosophical, and a bit melancholy at the age of 35 after an already long career in radio.

A couple of years ago I stumbled on the transcript of the interview and I emailed Dung (real name: Mike Slavko) to ask if he would mind if I published the transcript here. I never heard back. Today, upon hearing the KFOG news, I checked online and it turns out that Dung died just a little over two years ago, following long-running health problems.

So long KFOG, and so-long, Dung.

Anyway, below is the transcript of that interview. This is 7000 words, so probably suitable only for radio hard-cores. But a bit of a time capsule of early nineties life in Bay Area radio.

Away!

December 3rd, 1992:

WM: I want to start with the basics. I’ve listened to you on and off since ’81 or ’82 I guess, when KFOG did its format switch… 

MD: January of ’83. 

Early high school for me. A long time. That’s one of the reasons why I was interested in talking to you, because I can remember you further back than just about anybody else on the air in the Bay Area. So, how did you come to be in radio? Why radio? Were you always attracted to it, or did you stumble [into it]? 

Well, actually, I used to listen to radio a lot when I was a kid, but it never occurred to me to be a DJ. I was going to be an actor. I started in theater in high school and continued that through college. I’ve always loved rock and roll, and a friend of mine —when I moved to college you had to spend your first year in the dorms, so I met this guy who worked in the radio station at the college—I started hanging out with him, and I started hanging out there, and one thing lead to another and I got an airshift, and that’s how I started being a DJ. I just kind of fell into it. I learned everything that I know by just hanging out and watching people do their thing. I never took a broadcasting class. Ever. From there I got my first job while I was still in school. That was in 1979. I started out at a tiny little AM daytime station doing adult contemporary music. It was the worst man, but it was big fun because it was my first job in radio, so that was exciting. 

And were on air from the beginning? 

Oh yeah. I started out doing the night-time shift 7 to midnight. I was just really tickled to be doing it, but it was the worst. They had a top 20, and you played all twenty every hour. Then you had a few oldies —golds as they called them— and you threw those in. By the end of the shift you’re ready to shoot yourself because you’re so sick of that music. And actually, while in college my dad worked at Chrysler in Detroit, and they had a student program that they would hire temporary people to fill in while others were on vacation, and so I would work at Chrysler in the summer. They would let you go just before you got seniority so you couldn’t join the union. You were just a temp. But I made some pretty good dough. Actually that experience of working on the line helped me in commercial radio because it’s the same trip. Put on one thing, take it off. Put another thing on, take it off. So that got me through my first gig in radio. From there I got a job —the station I worked at was an an AM and FM in the same company—WLAV AM was where l started, and then the FM was a 50,000 watt rock and roll station which served all of western Michigan. I was lucky enough to get a job there too, and I left the AM, and the guy that hired me had heard from several people that I was doing this crazy show on college radio called the All-Night Idiot Show.

[Mic break]

You had a transmitter though. 

Yeah. It was on top of our campus center. Ten watts isn’t that big of a deal, but Michigan is flat, so the signal goes out pretty good. 

Couldn’t do that around here. 

No. Not at all. That’s why radio reception is so fucked up in this place, because of the terrain. Anyway we could never figure out why we couldn’t get to Grand Rapids, which was only twelve miles away. Finally we figured it out. The first engineer who set up our station turned the antenna so he could listen to it where he lived. It was one of those antennae that was directional. So the FM signal [illustrates]—there’s the antenna—came out like this, and there was a blank space facing Grand Rapids. So we had to turn the antenna around so our reception was better in the city. That was pretty wild. Really had a lot of good times doing that college stuff. I literally lived at my radio station for a couple of months because I lost this place I was living in. It got demolished. It was this old farmhouse. Fucking thing just fell down. I had to move out, and it took me a while to get a place, so I was living in the campus center, which was totally weird. But it was a lot of fun.

[Mic break]

Anyway, it was great experience. The best thing about radio is that you learn a lot about people, because it’s like a family, all the people that work there.

[Answers calls]

I enjoyed getting to know all these different people, because everybody’s attracted to a radio station. It’s this whole mystique. Did you ever see the movie American Graffiti?

Long ago. 

Well there’s this scene where the kid goes to meet Wolfman Jack at the radio station, and he comes in there, and he’s talking with this guy who is Wolfman Jack, but he doesn’t realize it. And he’s going [imitates Wolfman Jack] “Yeah, the Wolfman gave me my job when I was just starting out…” And the kid says “I got to have this song played for this girl. It’s a major thing in my life.” And Wolfman goes [Wolfman voice] “Alright, I’ll try to play it for you.” Anyway, he’s walking down the hall, and the kid looks back in the mirror and he sees the guy talking into the mic, and he realizes that he was talking with the Wolfman. That’s the essence of radio, man. That’s the best scene about radio I’ve ever seen in my life. 

Still a little romance to it, I guess, depending on where you look. 

Well, you know, in this era a lot of that has been stripped away. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do what I do. I don’t understand it. Anyway, became the program director of my student station. I worked my way up in my senior year. My overnight guy quit showing up, and I really wanted the station to be on 24 hours, so I just did overnights myself. That lasted about a week. Then I got sick of just  being the normal guy playing the tunes, so I decided to have some fun. If I gotta be here all night I might as well have fun. So I got all my old records, and just went crazy…yelling, and playing music and just getting nuts. Just to get some kind of reaction, because everyone was half asleep. You always figure “no one is listening to me, right? I’m going to make them call me.” So that was my whole deal. I took the phone calls live on the air. It used to be pretty wild. I got some tapes somewhere of that stuff. It got me my job. The show was so out there that I never figured it could be on commercial radio. But my friend Dave gave me a break. I was on this FM station from midnight to 6 playing oldies. A six hour show! Yow! And all my songs were two minutes long, these old rock and roll tunes! So it was pretty wild. And [Dave] left to go here [San Francisco] to start up KFOG. KFOG started in September of ’82. In January he offered me the job to come out here to be assistant production director, and he gave me the weekend show on Sunday nights. So, I was told that San Francisco was real hard to break into…

They’re still saying that. 

I guess so. I don’t know. But I’ve been very lucky. I stayed at KFOG for almost ten years, and that helped to establish me. 

A ten year tenure in radio is pretty remarkable. It’s a notoriously volatile industry. 

Well, it can be. There are people who’ve been on the same station for fifty years, thirty years. It’s not that unusual, but it’s kind of uncommon. It depends largely on who you work for. There’s a lot of shitty places to work in radio. There’s a ton of radio stations over the country. Not all of them are owned by reputable companies. Some of them are. So if you can get in with a good company, if you want, you can stay there. [Answers phone] Hello KFOG…uh, KDBK…

I have you thinking retro now.

Yeah. So, KFOG was owned by NBC when I first started working there. They sold it to Susquehanna, which owns several radio and TV stations throughout the country. Their main thing was making stoneware, plates and stuff. But then they also had a radio division. So they had great benefits and all sorts of stuff. 

So you actually came to the Bay Area through a contact, then. That was your in-road. 

Yeah. The guy who gave me my break right out of college hired me to come out here, and gave me my big break. 

So you did ten years at KFOG, and all of a sudden you came here [KDBK), and it was actually in the papers. You’ve become sort of a fixture. Now, a lot of my memories of you are from doing the morning show at KFOG. When did you move from just doing Sundays into doing a regular shift, and then into the morning? 

Lee “Baby” Simms was the original morning guy on KFOG, and they had a dispute of some sort where the relationship deteriorated. They wanted to get rid of him, but at the time KFOG was union shop so they couldn’t just fire him outright. They had to go through this large process of memos and reprimands, and it’s just a drag. So it took them a while, and Lee would fuck with them all the time. He’d call up a half hour before he was supposed to be on the air and say “I’m not coming in,” and that’s how I got my break doing mornings. They called me to fill in for him, and I’d never done mornings so it was all new to me. Then they finally got rid of him, and they figured, let’s just put Dung in the mornings. And they didn’t want me to be “Dung.” I had to be “M.” They figured that Dung was a bit offensive. They figured the advertisers wouldn’t want to buy time on “Dung’s” show. But everybody knew it was me anyway. It was kind of silly, but that was the deal. So my first morning stint was from ’84 to ’87, then I was totally burned out, and I said “I cannot do this anymore.” So I went to nights and then I went to afternoons, which was a great shift. I love doing afternoons. I like doing this shift [10:00-2:00]. And then they talked me back into going on the mornings, so I did that from ’89 to ’91 I was the morning guy. For two more years. Five years of mornings. 

When you were doing the morning show at KFOG and you were still doing the Idiot Show too, did you do that live Sunday evenings and then come back and do the morning show Mondays? 

Yup. 

That would kill me dead. 

It wasn’t a great way to start the week, that’s for sure. They wanted me to give it up, but I wouldn’t do it because I got to do what I wanted.

I guess the music you play on the Idiot show —a lot of the old R&B and Motown— doesn’t have much of an outlet on radio anymore.

Hardly any except for public stations. See that’s the thing with oldies and presenting music. A lot of music is as vital and exciting as it was back then. It’s all in the presentation. Most oldies stations, it’s always these “golden memories…remember when…” You make the people who do remember feel like fucking fossils, and the people who don’t remember you totally alienate…the young people. They can’t relate to that at all. How can you relate to that when you’re fifteen? It’s meaningless! So they tune it out. They don’t want to hear that stuff because it’s for old people. So if you just come on and say “Hey! Yow!” And just play, people get into it because it’s great music. So that’s how I try to present it, and it seems to work because I get listeners, old folks, and I get kids calling up. 

So after 10 years of KFOG, what was it like to suddenly end up here [KDBK]? 

Well, my contract was up, and they said they didn’t want to renew it. They had a new boss coming in, and he changed the station around. 

Didn’t they get a new music director too? 

Well, they just figured that I didn’t fit in there anymore. So it was a big trauma for me man, but it was cool, because it got to the point where I thought “God, am I going to work here for the rest of my life?” After I got let go they still had to pay me through the summer, so I was getting money coming in, and I got a huge severance check from them because I had worked for them for so long. So I took the money i went to Hawaii for a month and just hung out. I needed to really relax and just get away from everything. So I came back, and then Chris [KDBK program director Chris Miller], my boss now, called me up and said, “You want to do this, we got a whole new thing happening here?” And I said sure, let’s do it, so I got a job second day I was back in town. [Takes calls

We were talking about how it felt to switch after ten years at ΚFΟG. 

Oh, it’s all different here, you know. KFOG had really nice studios. We had just recently moved into the place—they’re a block away, just up the street. It was exciting. It was kind of scary. It was nice though, because this is a new format, and it’s always great to break in a new format so you can make it your own. It’s a new time period, a new station —Viacom owns this station— and after the first [of the year] we’re going to get new studios and new equipment, which we really need. 

They’re going to be in the same suite, here? 

Same space, just different. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’ve gotta do something. 

Yeah, I notice you’re playing everything on cartridge except for one CD player. I always thought that was sort of a top-forty station thing. 

Technically this place is in the stone age, man. That room in there is like a nightmare [gestures at adjacent production studio]. They have one turntable in this station. When I do the Idiot Show all my stuff is on records. So they had to bring in a new turntable. They have no remote starts, I have to start them by hand. It’s like I’m doing college radio. Worse than college radio. Half the shit here doesn’t work. It’s not that the engineers here aren’t…[pauses], they just haven’t had to do real radio here before. Everything was just real mellow and almost automated. It’s frustrating, but you’ve just got to roll with the punches. 

Well that leads into something else. This is a new format, and I know that at the radio program at San Francisco State it’s become very popular with the DJs. This station, by and large, actually stopped me channel switching. I bought a remote control receiver because I write for a living, and I just zap, zap, zap, every chance I get. When they switched format from Double 99, I stopped going zap. We’re all thrilled by it, we like it a lot, but I’ve heard that the books are still sort of weak, and it hasn’t been around long, and of course this transmitter doesn’t have the most storied history. Didn’t this used to be KQAK way back and ΚΚΟΥ?

Yeah. The quake and the City, and it used to be KMPX. 

So is KDBK going to have better luck? 

I hope so, man. I hope it takes off. This business is crazy the way it’s run. I mean, it’s just insane. Every ratings period you just throw your fate to the wind, you know? It’s like you’re going to school, study your ass off, pass all your tests, you get your report card, and you get an ‘E’. That’s what it’s like man, you work hard at something, but it’s not up to you. It’s up to this bizarre…thing, that this is where you stand, you know? It really is crazy. But you have to develop a little thick skin being in this business, and realize that that’s the nature of the business. And unfortunately, whether or not you like it, that’s the way it is, so you’re going to have to deal with it. It’s nice being in public radio because you don’t have to deal with that aspect of this job, but once you make the transition it can be scary, because your job is on the line. If the ratings say that you’re not happening, you’re not happening. That’s the deal, and it’s kind of hard to take sometimes. And it’s really frustrating when it never seems to happen, you know? So I hope we have some luck here. It takes a while. When I started working at KFOG they had no ratings either, man. They had a point six. That’s like nothing. And this place right now is at a point nine. However the Double was not doing well, and that’s why they switched the formats, and this place has only been on since August, which is not that long. There’s been no real promotional blitz; we got to wait ’till January for our new budget, and then I would expect you’re going see some TV ads, some billboards, shit like that. Bumper stickers would be nice. So it will all happen when it’s time. It took KFOG a good two years to make a dent in the ratings, and I think the company [Viacom] realizes that, and they’re going hang in here with us. Hopefully we’ll get some numbers. 

I hope it sticks around.

Me too. [Laughs

So, Bay Area radio. You’ve had an ear to it for the last ten years. Have you seen any dramatic overall changes or shifts in the whole radio scene in the Bay Area? 

Not really, you know. Except, I like Live 105 [KITS]. I think they’re a great station. I love Big Rick [Stewart]. Alex [Bennett]…actually he’s grown on me. I still don’t listen to [Alex] because I think he sucks…but actually Alex is very close to what’s happening in L.A. radio. If you go down to Los Angeles and listen to the morning shows there, it’s all talk. All they do is talk. Nobody plays any music. It’s all talk, comedy, that kind of shit. Alex is really the only one doing that, except for Blake and B.J. [KDBK’s then morning-show hosts], these guys who’ve just started up. Alex is good, I guess, but he’s not a D.J. I have my own personal…[pauses] He’s been my nemesis for ten years, man! I don’t want to get in trouble and say anything, but he’s an OK guy. But radio in general…it seems the bigger the market the more bland the radio gets, and the more sterile it gets. Predictable. Really just like background music. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Video…MTV…did a lot to shake radio up. 

Before you continue on that line of thought let me inject something else, because this is related to radio, the business as a whole and where it’s going, what with the advent of things like digital radio on the horizon, and DMX-which is being carried on Viacom now— and our orientation as a very visual society. We like our mediated messages to be visual. How do you think that’s going to affect radio into the future? 

Oh, everything like that is going to affect radio. The digital stuff…it depends on what age group you’re looking at. It’s pretty complicated when you think about it, but basically in radio you have morning drive and you have afternoon drive. Those are your two big dayparts. That’s when you want the big ratings because then you can command the most dollars for your spots…for your air time. Mid-days, doesn’t matter. Nights, forget about it. Overnights, you’re in the twilight zone. None of that shit matters. The two big dayparts are mornings and the afternoons. And basically, most of the audience is a commute kind of thing. It’s people in their cars listening to the radio…mostly. So you’re dealing with somebody who’s getting up, going to work on the morning… Now I’m going to play my Dave Edmunds tune, and I’m going to rock out. Can we talk after the Dave Edmunds song is over? 

[Pauses for mic break. Rocks out.]

Like I said, a lot of it depends on what age group the station is trying to reach. Traditionally, top 40 stations and stations like KMEL –urban— get big listenerships because a lot of their listeners are teenagers. And I think teenagers and younger people listen to radio more than people in their thirties and forties, or at least listen to the radio longer. You get into a situation where, with a classic rock station, or an oldies station especially, it’s like you’re appealing to an older audience that doesn’t listen to the radio that much anymore, so your ratings aren’t going to be that hot to begin with. You’re relying mostly on your personalities, which today is rare to have an established personality. And record companies, they don’t give a shit about oldies stations…classic rock. They want you to play new material because that’s how they make their dough. And if you’re playing catalog stuff they virtually ignore you. So if you’re playing current music like we’re playing, it’s somewhat of an advantage because people will listen to hear new songs that they wouldn’t normally hear. And I really believe that people will hear a new song on the radio before they see it on MTV. You’ll hear it on the radio or in a club. That’s probably where you’ll hear new music first. There’s only so many pieces of the pie. San Francisco has a large amount of radio, and actually AM radio does better than FM because of the terrain. FM signals don’t work well with mountains and shit, whereas with AM that doesn’t matter. That’s why AM is so strong here.

I guess KGO is the number one rated station here. 

They’ve been number one for twenty years. So you’ve got a long row to hoe if you’re going to be playing oldies on an FM station. It’s going to be an uphill struggle. 

KDBK not only plays new music, but they seem to reach for, not a hardcore alternative sound, but at least a mildly alternative sound. 

Well it’s still evolving. What we’re playing now is pretty different than what we were playing when we first started out. We’re being compared a lot to Live 105, but were basically a rock and roll station, whereas Live 105 plays mostly pop, new wave dance shit. Which is OK! I like that too. But it’s a little different. We don’t really play any of that…well we play some of it, but not like they do. The stations are different in that respect, but they’re similar in that we play new music. 

Did you ever listen to old time radio or radio drama?

I was a little too young for that. I grew up listening to the boss jocks back in the sixties. I grew up in Detroit. CKLW was a monster. Back in the old days you could tell what station you were listening to not because the DJ said the call letters every five minutes, but because of who was on…the personality. It was an entertainment thing, and DJs were almost as big and popular as the fucking rock stars back in the old days! So, you’re listening and you say “Oh, there’s so and so! This is the station I’m listening to.” Unfortunately, they’ve got consultants and all these test marketing, sampling, audience things. It’s just insane. Either you’re good or you’re not! You just get on there, and you can either do it or you can’t! No amount of posturing or rotation of music…that’s all beside the point as far as I’m Concerned. 

The reason that I ask about the old radio theater is because… obviously it hearkens back to the forties and fifties, and it expired in the early sixties I guess… But that was one of the things that I discovered when I was young —10, 12, 14— and I was still firmly convinced that I was going to be a scientist. They used to rerun them on KSFO AM here in the city, and that was one of the things that seduced me into radio, and I spent a lot of time making audio plays, and that led into my interest these days. 

Oh really? Well, when I was in college…as I said, I was in acting, and I kept up my acting career. I appeared in several plays, and for my senior project I directed and wrote my own play. While at SRX [student station WSRX] I taught a course in radio drama. So I was the instructor…with a regular teacher. But I was the guy who taught the class, with his help. Basically, what we did was every week we wrote a one act play radio script and we produced it on the radio station with sound effects, and it was just like radio drama. That was for a whole semester. It was a great experience. It’s a lot of fun. Radio is a very potent medium. Hearing is perhaps your strongest sense. It’s the last to go when you die, as opposed to sight and smell. It’s a direct link to your brain. And that’s how it [radio] differs from TV, which is a passive thing. You watch TV and you don’t have to think because its just laid out there. Radio gets inside your head, and you have to use your imagination. And you can really do some stuff, man! It’s like theater of the mind. That’s why radio makes such an impression on people if it’s done correctly. 

[Breaks to talk with his producer, who has brought an admiring friend to meet him.]

It’s your celebrity, man. 

When people meet me they freak out! I mean, who I am and what I do are two different things. I don’t walk around screaming and saying “Oday!” [An M. Dung signature exclamation.] But when I’m on the air it’s what I do. For my listeners that’s who I am. In their minds they have this image of what M. Dung is. On the Idiot Show I’m larger than life, so when they meet me it’s like ‘ak’ [feigns awe]. It’s really weird you know! I’ve come to terms with it, man. It used to freak me out so much that I became a hermit. I wouldn’t even go out because I couldn’t handle it. But they only react that way because they like me and they don’t know any other way to react because they don’t know me. So either I play up to it and become what they think I am so they feel good about this, or I just totally confuse them and be myself, which throws them off. It’s funny. It’s just one of the things that comes with this job. 

That’s funny because you were talking a moment ago about how radio forces you to use your head and develop a picture. One thing that is very strong is that when people listen to an air personality for any length of time they will always develop some sort of image of who that personality is. It’s often interesting when they first encounter each other. My father thought you were Asian because of the last name “Dung”. I told him I was going to interview you, and I said something about Mimi Chen being at this station now, and he mentioned something about you both being Asian, and I said “I don’t think so!” So for various reasons, be it the name or the accent, or whatever, people really do develop an image. 

Sure, and there’s no way around that. That was my saving grace in college, because I was so obnoxious on the radio that a lot of people threatened me with physical violence. When I first started out I got death threats…all sorts of weirdness, man. It was pretty intense to garner that kind of reaction from people. But that’s good! I think the worst thing in this business is to have people who have no opinion of what you do. I mean a negative reaction is just…[pauses] That’s why Alex [Bennett] is so popular. Everyone I talk to says “I hate him! He’s an asshole!” But everyone listens to the guy! Some people just listen to people to hate them. So a good or bad reaction…if you get a reaction you’re doing a good job as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not I like what you do. Like Howard Stern! I hate the guy, you know. That’s not my style. But he’s number one in fucking New York and L.A. in morning drive!

And Philadelphia too. 

I know! I may not like him personally, but I can’t deny that he’s good at what he does. 

So I’m curious. What exactly did you do in college radio to garner death threats?

Not much different than what I’m doing now. I wasn’t [imitates soporific FM DJ voice] “WLAV FM with…Styx…” I was screaming my brains out and playing Little Richard. Whoever called up, I would put ’em right on the air and if I didn’t like their request I wouldn’t play it, or I’d force ’em to listen to something else. If somebody was saying “God I hate you!” I’d stick the phone receiver right in the trash can and shake it up. Made a great noise over the radio. I just used to be…not a dick…but just obnoxious. That’s the only way I can say it. And it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Once, I remember, this group of jocks came down, and they were going to beat the shit out of Dung. They were sick of Dung. I had just ended my shift and I was coming out, and there was a group of guys in front of the station, and they say “Where’s that Dung guy?” And I said “He’s in there!” And they went in there! They didn’t know it was me! And that’s the best thing. I don’t look like whatever they think Dung is! So that was great. And actually, before I started getting real popular here and getting my face on billboards and doing TV —once you do TV everyone knows what you look like, so your cover is blown—but until that point I was relatively anonymous. No one would know it was me, so it was kind of fun. 

So speaking of your wild college radio days, a friend of mine —and this might be apocryphal— told me not to ask you about the hot dogs. So I’m going to ask you about the hot dogs. 

Hah! Well, at one point I was program director at WSRX, the student station, I did a shift at WEHB which was a community radio station in Grand Rapids, and I also worked at commercial station WLAV. Like this radio Czar! WEHB…the call letters stood for “Where Every Hour’s Better”. Right! It was run by all these liberals. Nobody could make a decision, and they knew absolutely nothing about radio. After hanging out at the station and trying to get to know people, nobody would commit to letting me do a show. It was this insane politics to get on the air. I was this controversial character in their eyes. They had to deal with me, but they didn’t really want me to be on the station because they thought I was some kind of subversive or something. All I was doing was playing oldies and yelling. I mean, it’s not that big of a deal. But this is back in 1980, and nobody was doing that. I don’t know, I don’t think what I do is that big of a deal. Anyway, they finally gave me a shot. It was during the week sometime. I was on for an hour from like four to five or something like that. And I got a pretty big reaction, mostly negative. And these guys were so lame they couldn’t even tell me to go away. It got so that they had a member of their committee outside the studio taking notes while I was on the airl I just thought, “Man these people are fucking ridiculous!” So WEHB was right across the street from this place called Yesterdogs, this hot dog joint. So I ate a ton of hot dogs, and I went to work to do my show, and I said, “well I’m going to throw up on the air to raise money for the station, so make your pledges.” This is at dinnertime! Some guy calls and says “I’ll give you five bucks if you throw up!” So I stuck my finger down my throat and puked into a bucket on the air. That was my last show at WEHBI. [Laughs] But I’ve got an aircheck of it somewhere. It’s pretty wild. 

I don’t think I’ll go quite that far, myself. 

Well, you know. I was twenty-one years old. What do you know when you’re twenty-one years old? [Laughs] I wouldn’t do that today. 

Well, okay. That might have been the nadir. What was your best moment in radio? What stands out something you really enjoyed, or just a seminal moment in the studio? 

Well, you know, there’s lots. Getting my first job was a lot of fun. That was exciting. Coming here to San Francisco was very exciting. That was very scary. I was totally out of sync, coming from Grand Rapids to San Francisco was like culture-shock to the max. I didn’t know a soul in this place, but it was really exciting. I always enjoy meeting people that I admire and like. Meeting Wolfman Jack was big thrill for me. I met him a few years ago. He did a show at the Concord Pavilion, and I got an interview with him. And the thing that blew me away was that he had heard of me. [Imitates Wolfman Jack] “I’ve heard of you, baby!” And it was so…I almost shit in my pants, man. It was heavy! Going to London a couple of times. Doing my show from London and New York was a lot of fun. It’s a fun job you know. There can be a lot of good moments. But it’s work you know? Sometimes I just don’t want to do it. But, you just do it. 

How about the worst meltdown you ever experienced in a radio studio? 

I don’t…[pauses] I’m my worst critic. I’m not as bad as I used to be. If I made a mistake or flubbed a word…that’s basically how I started making all my stupid noises, you know: “Ayy!” All that stuff. 

That’s good. I was going to ask you about the evolution of Dung-speak. 

Well, it’s because I was such a lousy DJ, I kept making mistakes and mispronouncing words, flubbing my words. So to cover my slips I’d make dumb noises because you can’t swear on the air. I’ve since gotten better. 

You also seemed to have toned it down. 

Well, you know, I’m thirty-five years old now. I started doing this when I was nineteen. I still like it. I can’t really do my show [the Idiot Show] in here [KDBK]. My show now is different. They don’t have a way for me to talk to the phone. There’s no phone in there [gestures at the production studio]. I gotta do my show from the production studio [because of the turntables], and there’s no phone in there to put on the air, so I can’t do the listener request thing I always do. And it’s hard to do my show because I have to reach [no remote starts]…It’s just a struggle. So instead of talking with people all the time, I just play music. I don’t know. I hate to say I’m getting older, but that’s basically what the deal is. I love rock and roll, but it’s like, you can’t maintain a hard-on that long, you know what I mean? I’ve been doing this for so long. I mean, I still dig it and stuff, but I’ve been doing this for a long time. And I still dig it, and I still have great shows and stuff, but it’s not like earlier. Listen to tapes of me when I was in college or even when I was on KFOG, and it’s totally different.

[At this point, I go on the air with Dung and do a Mic break. During the break, Dung explains how he got his name.]

…and that’s how I got the name Dung. Because the guy who was station manager at the time hated my guts. It was a personality clash. It was not really anything we’d done to each other, it was just like, you meet people and “I don’t like you!” It was that kind of thing. But he couldn’t make me go away! So that was great, you know? So I would just not go away! So he had to deal with me, and they finally put me…they figured out “Alright, we’ve got to deal with this guy.” They put me on Sunday morning from 3 AM to 6 AM. That was my shift. Like the absolute twilight zone! They figured no one on Earth is gonna be listening to this guy. 

So who did you dredge up at those hours? 

Oh, well, at the time WSRX was a ten watt FM station in Allendale Michigan, which is basically a farm community in Western Michigan. So I talked to a lot of farmers who were milking cows, and there were a few students in the dorms. And I had a lot of people basically like these farmer guys, man. It was a trip. And when they finally gave me my shift it was like, “Alright, I know I’m the low man on the totem pole, but I’m gonna make the best of it, you know.” So I gave it all i got and I finally worked myself up and got a decent shift. Actually I became the program director of the station eventually. But I wanted to irk this guy off, so I wanted to come up with a name that would be very offensive to him, particularly, yet I could say on the air. So I was trying to figure out what I was going to call myself, and I was looking through the dictionary and I found “dung,” and I thought, this is perfect man! It means “crap,” but I can say it on the air. And it worked! He hated it! But he’s gone now.

The name’s still around! 

I’m still around, so I can’t complain. So my advice to all you guys over there at the [college] radio station is just, if you want to do your thing, don’t let anybody get in your way, or tell you you’re not good enough, or tell you that you can’t do it, you know. Just stick to your guns and keep on going. That’s what I did.

[Back to the Interview.]

Your daughter. I’ve heard you bring her on the air a couple of times. If she was to come to you and tell you, “Dad, I want to work in radio,” what would you tell her? 

I’d be as supportive as I could and try to give her some advice. 

Which would be? 

Which would be…listen to radio, listen to music, practice your diction. Believe it or not, you know, with my style and everything —you were talking about it earlier and how I’ve toned down— I’ve listened to airchecks man, and Dung was such an intense character, it’s hard to listen to it for a long period of time, because it’s like [makes loud buzzing noise]. There was very few valleys and hills. It was like this one barrage of sound. And I used to be totally schized, because I was like shy and quiet, but when i was behind the mic I would just scream my brains out, and people would go, “What’s this guy’s trip?” But over the years I guess they kind of incorporated themselves in my psyche, so I don’t know. I try to be myself more rather than trying to portray someone I’m not. But, as far as my daughter goes, coming from a theater background helped out a lot. Projecting your voice, learning how to speak properly. That’s a very essential skill in this business. You have to enunciate and be able to be understood, because you’re trying to communicate. And I would try to help her develop those skills if that’s what she wanted to do. 

So how long do you think you’ll continue to work in radio? You said you’ve been doing it since you were nineteen. You’re thirty-five now.

Just had a birthday. The 22nd [of November].

Well, happy birthday! 

Thank you. I don’t know man. I never wanted to be a DJ, I never expected to be one. I never thought I’d be in San Francisco. I never wanted to come here. I’m just going to do it for as long as it happens, you know. I like it. It’s a good way to make a living. It’s great working with people. I enjoy what I do. I’d kind of like to get back into acting at some point, to do something different. I can’t picture myself being fifty years old saying “Oday!” and “Away!” So I don’t know. Nobody stays the same all their life. Things change. That’s the only thing you can really count on. Things are going to change, and I’ll change along with them.

###

Note: Also on Medium.

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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:http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing

    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!

  2. Pingback: 4 Recent Trends In China Expat Blogging | MandMX.com
  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.

    Harish

  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.

    Michael

  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.

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  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:

    Will,
    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,
    David

  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.

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  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.

    Cheers!

    Eric

  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 (http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/09/the-china-expat-in-exile-a-response-to-the-mark-kitto-debate/). 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.
    Best,
    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 :)

    Best,

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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 Rectified.name.

In the ghetto.

In the ghetto.

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