Jetlag, great for photo efficiency

Voila, 1000 photos from Xinjiang have been sorted, mercilessly deleted (well, I tried to axe mercilessly anyway) and selectively posted to Facebook:

The entire collection should be up on Laksa.Smugmug.Com for downloading some time…soon? Depends how I sleep tomorrow night, I suppose.

Q on the road: Xinjiang

After an incredible 11 days in Xinjiang during which time Q covered 2000 kilometers by bus; learned that mountain sickness is a real ailment on the highest altitude point in China (~5000 km); tried to correctly pronounce the words “Tajik”, “Kyrgyz” and “Uighur” in multiple languages (saving trying to correctly spell these ethnicities for next year); devoured more mutton than previously thought possible; encountered the most abominable toilet in the entirety of this vast nation; snacked, snapped and drunkenly sang with 30+ insanely fun retired Cantonese aunties and uncles; and smuggled kilos of lavender (yes, kilos) back to the “inland mainland”, Q is headed off again.

Posting will be slow in the coming six weeks, but look out for exciting words and photos.

Q with a family of Kyrgyz kids

Smurfs are in

I’m going to vainly claim that the WSJ took inspiration from my recent article about Smurfs in China and did their own coverage on the subject:

http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2010/09/07/the-smurfs-smurf-into-china/

My article:

http://qriouslife.com/2010/07/16/cartoon-politics-are-the-smurfs-communists/

One hundred things only

A few weeks ago, my long-awaited shipment of household items arrived from overseas. After battling with shady moving companies and customs agents for months, I could finally reclaim my stuff. But when it arrived at my doorstep, I didn’t feel a rush of joy. Instead, I panicked.

Where do I put nearly a household full of things when I’ve been doing fine for a year without them? I thought back to last summer, when I had just quit my corporate job and traveled through Europe for a few months. Normally a clotheshorse, I discovered then that I could be very happy with relatively little. I had packed light for the meandering holiday – some tank tops and pants in black and white, a nice dress for my college roommate’s wedding in Florence, plus accessories – and was finding enjoyment in taking good care of the few garments I had. At the time, I wrote on my blog about the blissful discovery “that I didn’t miss my Gucci bag or long for my crystal-studded heels.”

As movers piled box upon box into my Beijing apartment, I wondered, “How much stuff do I really need?”

According to a new movement in the US, I only need 100 things.

The “100 Thing Challenge” was started by a “guy named Dave” (that’s the name of his website) in San Diego who wanted to simplify his life. In 2008, Dave Bruno told Time magazine, “Stuff starts to overwhelm you,” and so he had begun to whittle down his material possessions to just 100 items (or, in the beginning, 100 groups of items). (Incidentally, Dave is so averse to “things” in the plural that he intentionally maintains the grammatically incorrect “100 Thing” title for his mission).

Over two years, Dave’s little adventure struck a chord with many Americans grappling with an over-consuming past and a recessionary present. A former yuppie interviewed by New York Times had changed her spending habits, job and lifestyle just by following the 100 things challenge. She said, “The idea that you need to go bigger to be happy is false. I really believe that the acquisition of material goods doesn’t bring about happiness.” The sentiments are echoed in popular culture, too. Peter Walsh, the host of a TV show called “Clean Sweep” that helps people purge extraneous belongings, said, “People are finding that their homes are full of stuff, but their lives are littered with unfulfilled promises.”

America has a history of over-consuming to levels unheard of elsewhere. I doubt quasi-professional terms for “diseases” like “hoarding” exist in other languages. I haven’t heard of anyone of Oprah’s public stature dedicating episodes to “de-cluttering” interventions. And I know for a fact that no other economy rivals America’s in getting people to buy things they don’t need through clever marketing.

The American consumption machine works so well that it’s hard not to fall prey to its lure. When I first landed in the US I was on a student budget, but I couldn’t resist buying things marked down from $20 to $1.99. I thought it was a good use of money because equivalent goods cost much more in China. But as time went by and I started accumulating possessions in my dorm room, I realized there was such a thing as a bad deal. Isn’t it an inefficient use of resources to manufacture goods, then mark them down to irresistibly low prices, just so consumers could buy them (thinking “Why not?”), use them twice and relegate them to the back corners of a storage room?

Before I get too far, let me pause and say that these are post-industrial problems. Why talk about “cutting back” in a country where, for the majority of the population, owning 100 things is still a luxury that people are striving toward? Is it relevant?

The popular Chinese website Youmi (www.umiwi.com) recently posted a Chinese article on Dave’s “100 Thing Challenge.” Judging by the more strongly-worded reader comments, it is too early to talk about a post-consumption cleanse in China.

One comment read, “These examples from developed countries only make us feel the discrepancy – ‘cutting the fat’? We still hesitate when it comes to buying a meal.”

Another said, “What kind of a challenge is this? 100 things sounds great!”

Lastly, “When we were students we only needed 50 things to make it through the year.”

So perhaps we in China are not at a point yet when we can widely discuss “scaling back.” But there’s no reason not to bring up the issue. Economists sometimes talk about the “late mover advantage,” referring to the benefit of learning from the mistakes of countries that industrialized earlier. On a personal level, it’s not a bad idea to start thinking about the state of over-consumption before we get there. What I really want to say here is this:

To all the affluent Chinese (of which there are many) shopping up a storm, thank you for supporting the economy, but do you really need another pair of shoes? If we must emulate one developed country’s model of personal spending, let’s go for the French model: “buy quality, not quantity.”

Check out Dave Bruno’s latest version of his “100 things list”: http://www.guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge.html

Time Magazine’s take on “100 things”: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1812048,00.html

New York Times story on the social trend: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html?pagewanted=2&sq=100%20things&st=cse&scp=7

How do Chinese people live?

I’ve always had trouble reconciling average income in China with the high cost of living and rampant evidence conspicuous spending. How are Chinese people doing it? This week, I found some answers (the data is very interesting though I couldn’t write about it extensively without it being axed on the editor’s chopping block). Read it here or on China Daily:

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2010-09/02/content_11245996.htm

(A report with lots of numbers for the data geeks among you:
http://www.eeo.com.cn/ens/homepage/briefs/2010/08/18/178536.shtml)

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After a year of being back, I’m starting to come out of my honeymoon with Beijing.

I no longer rave about fantastic manicures for RMB30 to friends in New York who still pay $20, because I realize it cost me another RMB40 in roundtrip cab fare to get to and from the nail salon. And how do I assess the value of forty minutes spent inhaling exhaust fumes in gridlock traffic under Changhong Bridge?

The bargain deals at Yaxiu have also lost their appeal because I’ve now tossed out two batches of trendy clothing articles that fell apart after a few washes and shoes with heels that needed to be re-glued after one season. Luckily, my signature “Ray-Ban” glasses are still holding up, but when the legs on these RMB15 babies give out, I’ll probably replace them with authentic specs. As they say, “yi fen qian yi fen huo,” “what you pay for is what you get.”

When I started apartment hunting for digs in the heart of town, I was shocked at how quickly prices have risen. Nominally, renting in Beijing is still cheaper than renting in Manhattan, but living alone with modern amenities is a luxury in both cities. Six months ago, a friend of mine was living in a posh studio at The Place for RMB4500. When I checked out the building last month, real estate agents scoffed at the idea of finding anything under RMB6500.

“But, but, but what about the global economic slowdown and all the empty apartments idling in Beijing?”

“Sorry, sweetheart, this is China and asset bubbles are still de rigueur.”

The bottom line: Beijing is expensive. If a former financial industry peon and “sea turtle” like me finds the city pricey, then how do Chinese people live?

With a lot of stress.

Everyone feels the pressure of high living costs, but no one has the solution. The government keeps a constant hand on the gears, shifting up or down to balance between affordable housing and economic growth. Young people fret over their (in)ability to fulfill the Chinese dream – own a home – all over the internet. Last week, I was invited to host a talk show on Youmi, a popular Chinese online broadcaster. While my show (about studying abroad) garnered interest, the episode that drew record viewership numbers on Youmi that week featured Ren Zhiqiang, the real estate tycoon. People wanted to hear what he has to say about property prices – so much so that he will be on for another episode this week.

Besides housing, which is also a big expenditure in markets outside of Beijing and China, other goods are costly as well. Cars and luxury goods, for example, are heavily taxed. Food, a basic life staple, is deceptively dear. A meal for two average office workers going on a week night date could easily cost $10 at a Beijing fast food restaurant. The same meal would probably cost $20 in New York.

Yes, Beijing is cheaper but the spending ratios are out of whack. The CIA’s official estimate for per capita GDP in the US (in purchasing power parity terms) is about 7.5 times more than that of China’s. So, how do Chinese people live when they make one-seventh of what Americans make, but spend half as much as Americans do on their meals?

The question piques my curiosity even more when I try to reconcile relatively low income figures – an average office worker with a “decent” job in Beijing makes somewhere between RMB5000-8000 a month – with the rampant consumption I see around me. (A friend who works as an anchorwoman for a well-known television station confirmed the salary numbers, adding that even prestigious presenters are “very poor” going off salary alone). From orange Lamborghinis to RMB80 cocktails in Sanlitun – are Chinese people living beyond their means?

Partly, yes. Chinese people do believe in having the appropriate “pai chang” (“set up”). To get business done, you need to spring for the necessary expenses, like lavish dinners and fancy wheels, even if it means going into debt.

But the bigger part of the answer, I believe, lies in the “grey.” From school-teachers moonlighting as private tutors to office workers earning “wai kuai” (“outside income”), everyone in China seems to have more than one paying gig. And some of it may not be dutifully accounted. A new report by an economist estimated that real per capita GDP in 2008 in China was about twice the level estimated by the National Bureau of Statistics.

Perhaps it’s the other fifty percent of “grey income” that is helping Chinese people get by. If that’s the case, someone sign me up for some “wai kuai” quick!