The siren song of endurance sports

It’s a peculiar thing, endurance. Humans have an incredible ability to push themselves to unimaginable lengths, and then to keep on pushing past what seems possible. We love to see what we thought were boundaries in the rear view mirror.

Sometimes we like to push past those boundaries just because someone told us we couldn’t do it. Often it’s just because we thought we couldn’t do it. We are just rebellious like that.

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What Sino-Japanese tension looks like from China

Shanghaiist recently published an article about Japanese businessmen getting attacked by some drunken Chinese guys while having dinner on the Bund. If patriotism can overwhelm reason on the Bund, it can happen anywhere in China. Here’s what all this tension feels like from Shanghai.

For nearly a month, the news in China and the US seemed to only focus on the Sino-Japanese dispute about the small set of islands at the center of increasing tensions. Although I was in China when things started to get tense, at the height of the dispute my wife and I were on vacation in the US. But when we returned to Shanghai things were still tense, so I wanted to share how it feels for a foreigner living in China in the midst of this drama.

We live in a part of Shanghai that has a lot of Japanese residents, so I would expect tension in this part of town. Interestingly, I haven’t personally witnessed anything overt; though the attack referenced in the Shanghaiist article did occur while we were here. Despite not seeing anything recently, I’ve always felt like the majority of people in China are wound up so tight that they can snap at any moment.

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Maintain your sanity by occasionally visiting the expat bubble

While living abroad, if you’re making an effort to learn the language and about the culture, it’s ok to occasionally visit the expat bubble. I even recommend it to maintain your sanity and increase your endurance: a reprieve from the inevitable daily annoyances of living in China, or any other developing country.

I may have sounded a bit fanatical in my previous posts in this series. When I first moved to China, I probably was a bit of a zealot about immersing myself in the language and culture. But after becoming conversant in the language, and getting a feel for the culture, I realized I needed to find a balance. I was past the honeymoon phase and needed some space. That’s where the expat bubble came in.

I haven’t ever really lived in the expat bubble, so for me, rather than having to escape from it, I found it was my escape. If you’re only living abroad for 3–6 months — in China, or some other developing country — you should probably stay out of the bubble and soak up as much of the culture and language as you can.

But, if you’re going to be abroad for a while, you’ll need to make regular visits to the land of foreigners to maintain your sanity. If you don’t, one day, rather suddenly — you’ll have a meltdown. It might happen right after the thousandth time someone cuts in front of you in line, or maybe it’ll happen after you get nearly run over again, or it could happen after you have spent four hours in a Chinese bureau leading to no tangible results — one day, you’ll just hit the wall. While frequent escape won’t prevent the meltdown, it will help make it less severe.

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Going native — getting to know the locals while living in China

To understand China you need to get to know the people and the culture. You can do this by frequenting holes-in-the-wall, making friends with locals, and traveling throughout the country. You’ll have opportunities to use the language and get even farther out of that expat bubble.

Now that you’ve popped the expat bubble and are starting to speak the language, it’s time to take the next step: getting to know the people and the culture. There are many ways to do this, but the best one is to spend more time with locals. It’s time to go native.

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6 tips for learning Mandarin Chinese (or any other foreign language)

Learning a new language requires putting in a little effort every day, and practicing whenever you have the opportunity. In this post, you’ll find six tips you can use to learn Mandarin, or any other foreign language, on your own.

When I first moved to Beijing in 2001, I didn’t want to spend hours in classes learning how to say “I have a red pencil,” so I chose self-study over formal classes. (I do have a red pencil, though, and I talk about it all the time.) In this, the second post in the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series, you’ll get advice for learning a new language on your own. Along the way, you might also earn a restraining order, but by the end you’ll hopefully know how to talk your way out of it.

Even if you’ve already been living in a different country for a year, but don’t yet speak the language, these tips will help you get out of that expat bubble so you can learn the language, and get to know the people and culture of your temporary home.

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How to get the most out of living in China (or any other foreign country)

When you move to China, or any country with a different language and culture than your own, you can choose to live in an expat bubble, or you can try to get the most out of your time in that country. If you want to live in the expat bubble and not learn the language or experience the culture, you might want to just go back to watching cat videos on YouTube; this post probably isn’t for you. But hey, enjoy those cat videos!

This post is the first of a four-part series on how to get the most out of living abroad, whether you’re in China or some other foreign country. Let’s start by looking at two different foreigners, Erica and Lily, who have each been living in China for two years.

Which one want do you want to be like?
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Chickens on the cart, expats across the street

I left early a few days ago to catch a train to Hangzhou, a city about 100 miles from Shanghai. Just outside our apartment complex’s gate, beside the usual guys selling vegetables from the back of tricycle carts, I came across a woman selling live chickens. While most of the chickens were in wooden cages held together by wire, one of her roosters was walking around like a neighborhood watch patrolman, unaware that local residents took his heroics as a sign that he’d make for a great dinner.

Our sidewalk-cum-farmer’s market isn’t like one you would find in LA, with young farmers, organic fare, and hipster customers. In front of our building we have the old school kind of farmer’s market that has been around for centuries, where the salespeople are one step away from the farmers and the customers are local residents who often hang out in the old person’s park and senior center during the day.

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Brainstorming with the introverted and critical

I recently read a thought-provoking article on the Harvard Business Review blog network about how to avoid groupthink while brainstorming. I am always interested in effective idea generation and problem solving techniques because we use a variety of these when developing mobile and web applications for China. While “classic” brainstorming[1] can be effective, I have learned that it’s often best to identify the specific challenges your team faces and tweak this template accordingly.

Our team is made up of over 20 Chinese mobile and web application developers who have limited experience with brainstorming, at least when compared to the average American employee. While developers are usually great at problem solving and are often very creative, they can also be somewhat introverted. In China, we also face a unique challenge in that, while our staff understands the benefits of brainstorming and other creative problem solving techniques, they are fighting the current of decades of schooling that focused on individual rote learning rather than collaboration and creativity. They also struggle with how to effectively and safely contribute their ideas with a group of often very critical peers. While the root cause of these feelings may be unique, I’ve been in brainstorming sessions with enough groups to know that having critical team members is certainly not unique to teams in China, and doubting your own ideas plagues team members everywhere.
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How Chinese stereotypes could influence your business

“Shanghainese only care about money.” “Beijingers are really pretentious.” “People from Shanxi are really cheap.” These are a few of the numerous stereotypes I have heard Chinese people say about other Chinese people while living in China. I even often hear Chinese people use these stereotypes to explain their own views: “Of course that’s how I see it; I’m from Beijing.”

I used to just get frustrated and think of how detrimental stereotypes can be since, as an American, I have been trained to find them abhorrent in any form.[1] However, I have recently been considering how these stereotypes could affect businesses operating in China, whether foreign or domestic. Even if the stereotypes don’t apply to every individual, when people from a given area believe a stereotype is a cultural trait then it may just turn into a self-fulfilling reality as they play the cultural role expressed in the stereotype. This is something businesses need to be acutely aware of as they formulate their strategies in China.

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1.3 billion people drawing you in

I frequently ask business people why they are interested in doing business in China. The most common response I hear involves the promise of 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with rapidly rising disposable incomes. While this may be factually accurate, in my experience I’ve found that it’s safer for businesses to think of China as having many demographic subsets, rather than thinking of it as one country with a homogenous population.
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Requiring Weibo users to register their accounts

According to new Chinese regulations going into affect on March 16th, all weibo (microblog) users in China will be required to register their real identities to continue posting weibo messages. With the pace of new user signups already slowing, there are predictions that Sina and Tencent, the two major weibo services in China, will see a significant drop in the number of users once we reach the deadline and that this will severely limit what has become a relatively open platform for speech in China.

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Increase your productivity in 2012

Check out this helpful post on The Social Media Monthly blog about increasing your productivity in 2012. The post includes 15 tips to help you keep proactive as you progress through the items on your to-do list.

Expanding your network

Many people feel an aversion towards “networking” because it feels too forced. If this is how you feel about networking, then maybe it’ll make it easier if you just think about it as meeting people rather than “networking”. Networking doesn’t have to be about wanting to get something from the people you meet, you can make it about either helping the people you meet, or even just making friends for its own sake. In fact, I find that the latter two are often the best ways to think about networking. Meet people, see what you can do to help them, and then just see what other opportunities may come up in the future.

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how friendly other foreigners living in China are, and how willing they are to just strike up a conversation. If nothing else, you always one have thing in common: that you are both living in a foreign land. So one great way to expand your social or business network is simply to strike up conversations with a lot of people. You simply never know what will come of it, be it a long-term, close friendship or a long-term business relationship that wasn’t even conceived of when you first met.
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Moving to China

First of all, let me state the obvious: the physical act of moving is never easy. I have moved a lot during my adult life, and while moving has gotten slightly easier over time, it’s always an incredibly painful process. This is true for moves even within one city. I have moved from one apartment to another apartment that was just 1/2 mile away and it was terribly painful. Now take a normal move and multiply it by a very large number; that’s what moving abroad entails. And, if you’re doing it on your own (without a multinational corporation that’s paying for professional international movers), go ahead and exponentially increase the pain involved again.
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