Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Delicate Sense of History – Part ll [Architecture & Design]

Whenever I meet new people and they find out that I work for a US based Architecture firm in Shanghai, invariably the first words out of everyone’s mouth (or some derivative of) is “wow, what an opportunity… you’re definitely in the right city for architecture”.

Shanghai is a curious beast; it’s Los Angeles (via size), New York (via density), Las Vegas (via glitz and glam) and Tijuana (via fuck-up-ed-ness). The Landscape of the city changes on a daily basis….no joke. I’ve been taking these long runs on Saturday mornings and I swear the street configuration changes with each hour and buildings get demolished and new construction begins from one Saturday to the next. This city, nay, this country is growing so fast that the taxi drivers don’t even now where they are going half the time. The taxi drivers are not trying to rip you off they are seriously lost. It’s probably because overnight the government decided that this area or this road needed to “disappear” for the good people’s economic growth.

Another interesting thing I was told is that Architecture (all design for that matter) here is viewed as a product and not a service. When a Chinese client hires you, they are buying a product. “Give me Architecture”, like it is something you unwrap and “viola”, architecture. In the West Architecture is a service. It’s a process of investigation, exploration, a study in aesthetics that hopefully, at the end of the process, yields a beautiful product.

Because of this mindset, The Chinese are buying “out of the box” architecture and design. Some government official will take a holiday in Tuscany, Italy for example and the next thing you know there are Tuscan Style Villas in his District. It’s ridiculous. They even take pride in the fact that they are at the forefront in creating these out of context monstrosities. I know we do this to in the States too. I remember sitting at a wedding and one of the guests found out that I was in architecture. Needless to say, she went on and on about the amazing design of her new house. She mentioned she “designed” it with her developer and that it was a blend of the developer’s Whispering Willow and the Meandering Stream Collection with a Tuscan turret entry (someone shoot me now!) I get it, but what’s happening in the US is not at the grand scale that it is occurring all over China.

In Shenzhen for example, there is a whole city being “created” replicating a Swiss Alpine village in the Alps. I mean this isn’t some cute small touristy town like Solvang which is on the road to nowhere. This is going to be a major metropolis. They are literally moving mountains to create a lake and fabricating mountains to re-create scenery from the frickin’ Sound of Music. On the way to Hangzhou or Suzhou you can see miles and miles of development with billboards ads that read, “Italian Villas, or Chateau Maison Villas or Mediterranean Villages or my personal favorite…”Homes just like Orange County California”. Oooh the humanity!!!

Currently I work under the umbrella of our sister company in China. The have a lot of talented designers here. In fact, their resumes are all very impressive. Lot’s of Ivy school grads. Name them (Harvard, Yale, MIT, Brown, etc... and all of them have at least bachelors or masters or multiple degrees from there). The thing is they all practice “paper architecture”. The thing missing is good ol’ “time put in”. The big “E”….experience….time in the field sweating it out, rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, yelling and screaming at contractors telling them that they don’t know what the fuck they are doing and showing them how it should be done. Or maybe the flip side, having the salty old contractors yell at you telling you that you don’t know shit and that even his 12 year old daughter knows the difference between a 6 penny nail and a lag bolt. So we have all these super smart designers designing a formal urban plan or landscape designs for a university in rural china that would look great in the middle of Oxford or some other Ivy League campus but has no business here or waterways and canals that meander through the city and look great but occur 10 meters above the water source so water has to flow upward for it to work.

This all does back to a country that is growing too fast and furious. The Chinese government takes what exists somewhere else and puts it here but without ever understanding its history and why it successfully existed in its initial context. China is becoming Disneyland on steroids. The only problem is we go to Disneyland to escape from our daily lives, we don’t go there to live our daily lives.

…to be continued…..

The Laundry Index

Beautiful clear sunny days are hard to come by here but when they do you can always tell by how much laundry in being hung outside windows, on the sidewalk, on electrical wires, wherever you can hang your “privates” for all the world to see. It actually makes the city quite colorful.

Very much like California where we have the UV (Ultraviolet) Index here it is the Laundry Index. You gotta love it!

The Delicate Sense of History – Part I

I’ve met so many amazing people since we’ve been here and it seems like everyone I meet, young or old, is doing something “big”. There is one person however, that stands out. Her name is Fu Xin. She’s about my age but when you meet her you get the sense that she is an old wise soul. Please don’t get me wrong, it’s her spirit that’s old and wise, Xin herself is quite beautiful. I get the sense that she used to be a fashion model in her younger days. She has the stature and poise of a polished model. There’s definitely something about how she carries her tall thin frame and the way she moves through space. There’ a quiet confidence and elegance, something that is innately acquired but also something that is quite calculated that it must have been groomed and honed on a catwalk somewhere.

Her story is as interesting as she is fascinating. From some of the brief conversations that we’ve had she’s led an interesting life (did I mention she is my age). She is originally from Shanghai but left to Hong Kong when she was 18. This is where I make the assumption she did her modeling (but this is all hearsay and interpolations from our talk) but according to her, she got into journalism and became a reporter for a local station. In our conversations she always has to remind me about how amazing and glamorous Hong Kong was right before the hand over of the British to the Chinese in 1998. From there she studied Art History at Oxford then off to Italy for her Masters and eventual PhD. She’s lived all over the world traveling, teaching and buying art. From this point the details get fuzzy but she did eventually end up back in Shanghai with a contract to teach Art history at one of the Universities.

Frustrated with the educational system in China, Xin broke her contract and on a whim opened up an Art Gallery in the Moganshan District. She’s been very successful in acquiring some amazing pieces from local artists and has become a tour de force in the Shanghai art scene. She has become a conduit to introducing local modern Chinese art to the West, namely Europe.

The point of all this unsolicited praise is that she is the one that brought up this idea of “A Delicate Sense of History” which has inspired me to write. When we discussed all the differences of East and West, Art and Architecture, socio-political issues, food, whatever…. this “thought” always seemed to make its way into conversation. As I’ve written in my journal and thought of why things are the way there are here, I’ve found that this idea is at the crux of it all.

A Delicate Sense of History is essentially the idea that History is a slow fragile process that needs time to evolve, develop and mature. History needs time to make mistakes and correct them. It needs time to weed out the insignificant details and refine the ones that stand the test of time. It needs time to learn and understand beauty, goodness, justice, and all those other things that make things great.

China as a nation and as a people has an old beautiful history. One that is comprised in all of those things mentioned above. Unfortunately with the advent of the Cultural Revolution and Communism all that has been nullified. Now with the introduction of Consumerism and Capitalism from the West without a another paradigm grounded in a conscience (i.e. religion or whatever construct you feel helps you determine right and wrong), China seems to be a nation of people utterly confused about who they are, where they are and where they are going…..in short, they are missing the Delicate Sense of History…..

….to be continued…

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Terminator’s Wife

I had so many misconceptions about China and what our life was going to be like before we moved here. In my mind’s eye I saw myself in a polluted overcrowded city where everyone was wearing the same grey outfit with a matching cap with that little red Communist star and that I would be hauled around in a Rickshaw and eating dumplings and noodles until I got sick of it all. Okay…Okay…there’s some of that here, namely the pollution and the overcrowding, but on the rest, well, I was totally off base....I mean waaayyy off base!

On its surface, Shanghai is one of the glitziest, materialistic, Uber-Capitalistic cities I’ve ever been too. I mean, when you can sit on the balcony of a bar called Bar Rouge drinking champagne chilling in an ice bucket filled with sparklers ablaze while watching revelers from all over the world party while TV advertisements play on the side of a 50 story building across the river…. you have to think to yourself, "you ain’t in Kansas anymore kiddo…."

We lived at the Ritz Carlton Hotel Shanghai when we first moved to China. It was rad! Because we lived at the hotel and because October and November was the high season for all the “high end” social events, we got invited to Fashions shows, movie premiers, launch parties and the sort. Our social life was kicked into high gear. I mean it made the New York and LA social scenes look like Maw and Paw’s backyard BBQ! For a short while here, life here was a bit decadent and over the top.

In the three months that we lived at the hotel I had the opportunity to have drinks with CEOs of large corporations, hang with basketball stars (okay maybe the b-ball players themselves but the scorekeepers and the guys that shoot the T-shirts from that air canon…hey, you take what you can get) and meet a few celebrities. I saw more celebs in the first three months here than I ever did in over 20 years living in LA. One of my favorite incidents (....here is where I begin to name drop…more than bumping into Vanessa Williams and Roger Federer or arguing over a cab with Colin Farrell or riding the elevator with Lebron James, Turkalou and a few other NBA stars) was working out with the Terminator’s wife. Yup, that’s what I said, the terminator’s wife. The “I’ll be back” dude’s main squeeze.

When the Special Olympics was in Shanghai, Maria Shriver and the rest of the Kennedy clan stayed at the hotel and every morning for a week I would run into her at the gym. I would hop onto the bike next to here and begin my workout. After that I would go over to the free weights section next to where so would do her stretches. I must say for a lady of her age she still looks damn good.

One morning I walked in the gym and began my same old routine. Mrs. Terminator walks in and hops on a bike two bikes away from me. About 10 minutes into my work out (I’m on the up cycle of my Hill workout so my head is down and I’m focused) I catch a hulking figure hop onto a bike next to me. I look over my shoulder and it’s the Termi….errr…I mean the Governator! I think to myself, this is way cool. Here I am 6000 miles away from frickin’ Sacramento (or Brentwood for that matter) and Arnold is working out next to me. Then I look again, and I think…mmmm…he’s not that big. I can take him. (Just kidding). Actually I just said “Hi Governor” which I think surprised him because on everyone thinks I’m Chinese and is surprised when I speak English and number two, wondered how the hell I knew he was Governor. When I explained that I was actually from California he smiled, we exchanged a nice few words and we both went about our workouts.

BTW, I still think I can take him………….

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Preschool, hookers and beer

I’ve been taking Chinese language class for about 5 months now and we recently finished up the first series of beginning Chinese class. The first few months, my learning curve shot up and my ability to speak “survival Chinese” was a pleasant surprise. I was so proud of myself that I could get into a cab and get to where I wanted to go or order food and end up with something relatively close to what I ordered.

Well, since class just ended we also had our Final Exam. The Final was broken into three parts. Part one was an easy enough and was a “complete the sentence by filling in the blank” section. The second part was comprised of two essays that I pretty much hacked through but was seemingly acceptable to our teacher. Then there was part three, the dialogue with the teacher. First, I must give props to Neko, our language teacher. Not only has she been patient and very tolerant with me and the other goof balls in class (all we do is ask her how to say cuss words and make fun of all the situations we’ve experienced in China), she has made our class quite enjoyable.

After Neko and I go through part three of the Final Exam and after five months of blood sweat and a half ass effort on my part, Neko’s response to me was (as she rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust)…”Victor you speak like a preschooler that can order hookers and beer…”

That said, on to Beginning Chinese: Part II. Hopefully I can do as well as I did in Part I.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hey that’s my cab!

I’m still trying to figure out this town and its nuances. I had a couple of experiences when we first moved here that totally blew my mind. Both happened in the first weeks that I started working.

I wouldn’t dare attempt to drive in this town. Number one, I don’t think I could afford a car here but even if I could it’s the rules of the road that scare the living daylights out of me….there are no rules, at least none that I can make any sense of. Cars, buses and people just go wherever and somehow it all works out. That being said I’m one of the millions of people trying to flag cabs down in the middle of rush hour. Catching a cab in the middle of rush hour on a cold rainy Friday night is almost impossible. When you are fortunate to see the Holy Grail (an empty cab) on a Friday night (or any night during rush hour) you make you mad dash for it…literally! Well, this is something that I didn’t know.

It was Friday my first week at work. It wasn’t raining but it was cold. By chance I walked up to the corner of Huaihai Zhong Lu and Longmen Lu where I had been lucky to catch cabs my first 2 days. Low and behold, a cab pulls up to drop a patron off. I think to myself “what’s everyone talking about, it’s not that bad trying to hail a cab on Friday night”. So I casually walk up to the passenger side door patiently waiting for the patron to pay and get his change back. I have my hand on the door latch so I could open it, let him out and step into the cab myself. At the corner of my eye, I see a man running towards my cab. Mind you, I’m standing next to the cab with my hand on the door so I know he sees me. He knows that I have this cab. By now the patron of the cab is opening the door and I’m helping him and yet the other man is now in full sprint towards the cab. The patron steps out and as he does the other man reaches “my” cab and goes for the shotgun seat door...gets in and slams the car door shut ...."POOF", the cab takes off! I’m standing there with my hand in front of me still in mid action of holding the door thinking to myself “what the F**k just happened….about 5 seconds later I go…”Hey! That was my cab damn it!

Another time I couldn’t catch a cab so I decided to take a bus. Yup that’s right, me, LA resident in a local Shanghainese bus. Who would have thunk it. So after putting my time in on the streets trying to hail a cab I said to myself I’m either walking home or catching a bus. So I walk over to Pu an Road where the bus stop is. Well, another thing I learned is how to line up for a bus in Shanghai. You can get in the back of the line like a normal person would in a civilized society or you can line up right in front of the first person in line facing him. If you pick the latter the proper protocol is you wait for everyone from the legitimate line to get in first then you go in (yeah I don’t get it either. Wouldn’t it just make sense to get in the back of the line…whatever). At any rate, the bus was loading up and I had just made it in time. The first line had just gone in and the second line was pushing its way through. Anyway, there were a couple of older ladies caught in the mix so I decided to use my body to shield them from the rest of the pushy crowd so they could get in safely. As I did this, they got in and so did some other punk asses that shoved their way through. Now it was my turn to get on but because the bus was now full, the door shut right in front of me and the bus took off ….”Hey that was my bus damn it!”….

Another interesting incident occurred another day when I decided to take the bus home. I was early this time getting on the bus so I was able to get a good seat. 5 minutes later the bus was packed. Standing next to me was a pregnant lady and her son who was about 5 or 6 years old. As any other gentlemen would do in a civilized society I got up and offered her my seat. As I was standing next to my empty seat trying to explain to her in English (which she obviously didn’t understand and was puzzled why I was giving up my seat), Some jerk off starts shoving his way through the crowded bus and sits his ass on my chair. I looked at him and tried explaining to him (in English again…hey, it was my first 2 weeks here, what do you expect) that the seat was for the pregnant lady. He just looked at me an ignored me. Then I tried the “signing” thing, you know …” seat for her…big belly…etc….” All I get back is a blank stare. Then I lose it, grab his shirt and started pulling on him and saying “for her…seat not for you… seat for her you idiot”. I don’t think he got the idiot part but he finally stood his ass up and let the lady have the seat.

Because of all these types of incidents, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching people and how they react. China and more specifically Shanghai is an amazing case study on the collision of the East and West. As one friend put it China is an old beautiful culture that has lost her “Delicate sense of History”. This concept of a “delicate sense of history” is something that I have been thinking a lot about recently.

Will the real Slim Shady please stand up…

I’m in a quandary….. this quandary Is the genesis to the title of my blog from which I took from a book by Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian.

As I mentioned previously, I’m of Filipino descent but born and raised in West Africa, educated in the United States and currently living and working in Shanghai, China. Now, just in that statement most people would think that I would have some sort of cultural identity crisis. Well that’s not the case, in fact, it’s quite the contrary. I think the vast diversity of my youth gave me the context in which to strengthen who and what I am. That being said, my cultural and ethnic ambivalence did not really manifest until I moved to China a few months ago.

You see, I’ve always been able to navigate through all the different cultures growing up precisely due to the color of my skin. I recall growing up in Liberia and being aware that I was “dark” enough to play with all the “native” Liberian kids and “light” enough to play with the white expat kids.

Moving to Los Angeles was an even easier transition. LA is the epitome of a melting pot. Hell, finding a true California native is difficult task onto itself. Everyone is from somewhere else so needless to say people are just people and they didn’t have huge signs posted on thier foreheads and all this cultural baggage in which to define them. Contrary to popular thought it was easy to be colorblind in LA or for that matter, color and culture blind in the US.

Now fast forward to present day. Living and working in Asia (mostly China) has proven to be very difficult precisely because of the color of my skin and the way I look. I have been judged and patronized more times (on a daily basis) in 8 months here than I have in over 20 years in the US and 13 years in Africa. The irony is that the more I try and assimilate the more negative feedback I get. I guess it’s because the locals think I’m Chinese and they view me as a weak link to the Chinese Culture or a spoiled ABC (American Born Chinese) doing the whole “Roots” thing. After a while it’s become more humorous more than anything. All my friends that are Lawai (foreigners) have a great time with this quandary and it provides great fun and entertainment for them to watch me “sweat it out” with the locals as they cruise on by on their “golden pass” of having blond hair and blue eyes.

I’ve had this experience several times already where I would be having lunch with others that are Lawai but have all lived in various parts of China for a while and can speak fluent Mandarin; I’d be the only one at the table that does not speak Mandarin and the waiter or waitress will walk up to me and ask me to order. I get that part. The part that I’m still trying to figure out is after my terrible attempt in broken Mandarin to explain that I cannot speak the language and after all the Lawais tell the server in perfect and flawless Mandarin that I cannot speak and they will be the one to order, the server will always come back to me numerous times during our meal to ask me questions while the Lawais answer them for me.

Then there is the blatant mistreatment. Through work Christina scored some sweet VIP tickets to both the NBA games and the BMW golf finals. Both times I invited Americans since my co-workers expressed no interest at all. At the entry gates at both events I get hauled off to the side and almost given a full cavity search while Cole, Eric and Jeff breeze right in. While I’m trying to explain that I am the one that gave the tickets to the Lawais they insist on continuing to yell at me in Chinese. Good grief!

Then there's Japan, nothing too bad. It’s just that when we travel there, Christina (who’s half Korean by the way which is more Asian than I am), gets that same “golden pass” when we walk into the plane, store, restaurant (fill in the blank) and I get the local treatment which I must say is much nicer than the local treatment in China. Like I said earlier, I get it but it’s just not some thing that I’ve ever experienced in the States.

Finally there’s my Motherland, the Good ole Philippine Islands. I haven’t been there since 1976 when we were there on a 2 week family vacation. I was sure that this would be the one place that I could count on to feel right at home. Well, I was wrong again, this one is priceless because in my parents own little township, no one believed that I was Filipino. I had to convince my own people that I am one of them and that I have some sort of birth right to be here. Everyone thought that I was Chinese, Japanese or Korean. Fortunately here it worked to my advantage. I could understand the language (which was a pleasant surprise that I will elaborate on) yet not get treated like a local.

Doing the whole “Prodigal Son returns home” thing was an amazing experience for me. I even think Christina was profoundly affected by my homecoming. Although I would not consider myself culturally conflicted due to my upbringing, I’ve always thought of myself as a “weak link” to my ethnicity. My parents didn’t raise us Filipino (whatever that means) and never taught us our mother tongue. I’m still pissed about that but that’s another story. However, my parents did speak Visaya to one another and to friends and older members of our family. Because of that I could understand a little (I think by osmosis, which by the way is how I got through school…but I digress once again) but what I could not do was think of the words to speak the language or differentiate between Visaya and Tagalog (the national dialect) because the 2 dialects were always intermingled in everyday speak.

When Christina and I went to Cebu I had an amazing experience. We were walking through Carbon which is one of the local outdoor markets and to my surprise I understood almost everything that everyone was saying. Imagine, you’re a stranger in a strange land (relatively speaking of course) with a foreign language but you can understand about 90% of everything that someone is saying. I didn’t think I understood my parent’s language but once it is distilled into its purest form and not used with English or Tagalog, I got it!

These new experiences in Asia have really opened my eyes to a whole new meaning of diversity and the relevance of our external appearance. I must give kudos to the West for really attempting (although not perfect) to be color and culture blind. Here, on a side of the world where everyone looks like me, my quandary is “…mmmm…who am I going to be today”….will the real slim shady please stand up….