Monday, 29 December 2014


There are two ways with dealing with being alone during Christmas. One is to indulge in a spiral downward of self-pity and sadness. Whether triggered by the on-the-minute Facebook newsfeed of the latest tropical retreat your friend went to, the sequin and glitter clad party celebrations your friends back home are posting from, or the Instagram filtered turkey centerpiece family dinner photo, most people who have experienced the “fear of missing out” syndrome will recognize its symptoms. It begins with a pang of envy. Next comes the anxiety, the self-doubt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. Finally those feelings fizzle, leaving you bilious with a sense of sorrow.

The other is to refuse this holiday is a big deal anyway. You are living in China – where Christmas is not traditionally celebrated, and even those infamous Coca Cola trucks and Mariah Carey’s YouTube videos need a VPN connection. In homes and streets back home, the things that make Christmas different - from the special TV shows to the closed shops and the eerily quiet streets - all serve as constant reminders of what everyone else is doing that day. In China however, you soon forget what it is you're not doing. Christmas really does kind of disappear.

And I am pretty sure I have bounced back between big baby and wannabe adult depending on my mood. This Christmas, however, was when I had to practice the apparent grown up skill of “delayed gratification.”

At 8:45am on Christmas morning I awoke in my apartment in Shanghai, after a grueling three-day business trip in Hong Kong. I couldn’t wait for a cup of tea and honey toast in bed watching my all time favorite Christmas movie, ‘Elf,’ followed by Christmas mass service and finally arriving just in time for work at the office. All of this I would do alone.  

Spending Christmas alone is generally assumed to be a bad thing. Mine may sound desperately sad and lonely. But in my experience of this ultimately ‘different’ Christmas suggests that any mockery or pity is displaced. Inspiration might be more appropriate.

You see the truth is, I technically had a choice of whether or not to be in China for the holidays but due to work restraints and not wanting to exhaust my entire gasp ten (!) annual leave days, that choice was an unspoken bu (). So in that respect I did make a choice. But a choice for career prospects, personal development, future rewards and experiences.

These are known as the ‘promises’ of delayed gratification. In the life machine, you put in hard work and good things come in return – good karma, good grades, and a good pack on the back. The concept of  “delayed gratification” is admittedly a new one to me. “Don’t add sugar to your coffee,” “Don’t stay in; go out for a run,” “Don’t wait until the last minute.” Perhaps because deprivation is the way I live.    

But I have two forces that operate within me: the belief that in sacrifice I will attract good and the force of my desire that seeks instant gratification. To me, the first is honorable and instant gratification is slimy. In my attempt to balance these two impulses, I have formed my own habits, which have evolved into compulsions about what desires I can submit to and which I have to restrain. They tell me that I am twenty-three years old once, that this is the time to make mistakes. I can pay in sleepless nights for the possibility of engaging in the magical marginal behaviors that only occur between 2 and 4 am. I can go to parties almost naked because I will never look this good and I can still claim my youth. In a world that condemns the enactment of impulses, at twenty-three, I can get a free pass.

The truth is there is no foolproof formula and it takes a lot of work and a lot of waiting, before the good things come, and the good things are not always genuine. The observable results are mainly votes of affirmation that we are doing the right things and that we are decent people. I do not actually the feel the effects of intellectual or monetary stimulation when I turn in a proposal that I worked until midnight on, which is someone’s assessment that I have fulfilled an expectation. I expect pleasure to arrive to me after I toil, after I’ve received a pay rise and proceed to the next task. In other words, the promises require patience.

And there’s the rub. Patience is not a virtue that most hyper-connected, power-hungry humans today are accustomed to. Working for eventual pleasure may have risen in the mid-17th century as part of the “American Way” when the Puritan colonists settled in New England, believing in Calvinist ideals that the “hard worker” was part of the “elect” and thus going to heaven. The movement then was “work hard, play later.” Rather our culture has roots in religion and philosophy as “work now, play when you die.”

Puritanism is Christianity and Christianity worships martyrdom. Jesus after all, died for the sins of millions of people that he didn’t know, performing the ultimate delayed gratification. And to continue the retrospective biblical trajectory, Eve gave into the allure of the apple, consumed the instant sweet gratification, and so humans have been eternally condemned.

Furthermore, with an estimated 600,000 people dying from work related stress and its effects in China - currently ranked number one worldwide for exhaustion related deaths - this mantra transcends social and geo-political borders too.

But just how much self-control is too much?

I recall the famous psychological experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. In the Marshmallow Test, Mr. Mischel asked a preschool child to choose between receiving one small reward now (say, one marshmallow or one cookie) and waiting a short amount of time — about 10 minutes — to receive two rewards (two marshmallows or two cookies). The scientists were hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper. They were also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they searched for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.

The Marshmellow Test posits that children who possess the ability to voluntarily exercise self-restraint and delay instant gratification produce higher SAT scores, live a healthier lifestyle, and a possess a greater sense of self-worth later in life than their peers who were unable to resist temptation. Those of us (like myself) who have a natural inclination to resist the allure of instant gratification are in luck; the ability to delay gratification for the sake of future consequences is commended as an acquirable skill. 

Instant gratification is sketchy because at its extreme, it can lead to obesity, bankruptcy, and unwanted pregnancies, but deferred gratification might be over-valued. Waiting for future fulfillment might just be a practice that is necessary to thrive in our cultural structures that demand it, and not a virtue in itself. There is the common saying that life happens while you’re waiting. But where is the satisfaction in postponing satisfaction to a time when we probably will not care anymore? Any more importantly, just how many of us are actually waiting?

In an “anywhere, anytime” culture, choice can be an inherently stressful luxury; every time we make a choice, we’re turning down a myriad of options and outcomes. But with Facebook, say, we can decide to delay our want for instant gratification while remaining connected, taunting ourselves with glimpses of the wild evening that may have been instead of getting a good night’s sleep in time for tomorrow’s 9am meeting.

The truth was that Mischel wasn’t really measuring will power or self-control. But how well the kids made a situation work for them. Society’s equation of situations like ‘save now, enjoy later.’ Or ’being alone’ as ‘lonely’ is instead what should be questioned. Did I really need that company or did everyone else think I needed that company? After all I did have friends in the city to reach out to. Was I really at peace in my solitude or was I a tragic figure pretending I wasn’t? Who was running my life and my choices, me or “them”? 

The children want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can change how we think about it.

Since at the end, the problem with delayed gratification is that the “want” still remains. Learning to deal with impulses isn’t so much about building up self-control as it is training yourself to appeal to certain emotions – countering the ‘needs’ with the ‘wants’; distinguishing the importance of the ‘now’ from the ‘later.’ It's known, for example, that sadness can make us even more impatient than we are normally. When we are depressed, we tend to make decisions that devalue future promises in favor of the here and now. 

But what about other emotions? If sadness exacerbates impatience, is it possible that positive emotions might diminish it? David DeSteno of Northeastern University affirms that while happiness does not have any obvious connection to judgment or rewards, gratitude might. They decided to compare gratitude and global happiness, to see if either one boosts patience. His findings showed that the intensity of gratitude directly predicted the volunteers' increasing levels of patience. After all, gratitude is a discrete social emotion linked to cooperation and altruism, and as such might be instrumental in reinforcing a future perspective.

Part of being human is that effortful self-regulation can and does fail us, and such failures can leave us vulnerable to impatient decision-making. A better alternative can be seen in another practice well known as -- the gratitude list. Reflections on all that we have to be grateful for -- this exercise may be the most effortless and effective way to inoculate ourselves against the pernicious consequences of impatience. After all, isn’t this what Christmas is all about?

So on New Year’s Eve and in toast of my New Year resolutions I will try to focus more on “gratitude” as a means of “gratification.”

If you feel pity, there's no need. And if you feel inspired, there’s still 2015 to do something about it.

Thursday, 26 June 2014


“Wow, Shanghai is beautiful!” I exclaimed to my co-worker, Alex, as I stood bathed in the buzzing metropolis skylines. The lights. The energy. I was giddy with excitement.

“Yes it is,” he smiled. “But it’s getting too crowded. Too many people; It's the people who are ruining this city.”

As I probed his statement further I discovered Alex had one eight-year old daughter, he family owned a toy manufacturing company and like many born and bred Shanghainese he was not particularly fond of the city’s migrants from neighboring towns or villages or ‘peasants.’

Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system are put in place to control this influx of migrants from other cities.  Essentially a social management system that ties benefits like health care and pensions to a person’s place of birth, it even requires students to take the college entrance exam in the place where their parents are registered. And very few migrant workers can move their hukous to the cities where they work.

So some 260 million Chinese migrants — about 20 percent of China’s total population — live as second-class citizens in their adopted cities. In them, but not belonging to them.

This has caused many controversial and complex ethnic issues within China, especially in first tier cities like Shanghai, where its citizens have since the 1930s was known as a mixed blood metropolis that upended every notion of East meets West. In this strange way, the window the Shanghainese want to portray to the West is also a window into a China that many other Chinese are unwilling to imagine.

Contributed by the fact that most people feel that too little of the country's spectacular growth is trickling down to them, it has created a wall between Shanghai and the rest of China.

“Our public transportation is crowded with migrants,” Alex continued. “Our hospitals are overburdened. We don't have the resources designed for a city of 10 million — not the 23 million or more we have now.”

It can be hard to comprehend the notion of racism towards one’s own people but you must first come to understand the fundamental changes in people’s lives here over the past 20 years or so.

China has had a hukou system for at least a couple thousand years, mostly, to keep track of who was in what family. But it was only under Communist Party rule, starting in the late 1950s, that the hukou system started to be used to restrict movement and enforce a kind of economic apartheid.

The change came because the Party wanted to speed the process of industrializing and modernizing China. The idea was that if farmers could be kept on the farms, producing food for factory workers in cities, the urban workers could be paid little, but compensated with an ‘iron rice bowl’ of benefits — free education, health care, subsidized food and pensions.

However due to rising labour costs, risks of instability Shanghai has come to realize that its consumer base will continue to shrink if at least some of its migrants are allowed to stay, work and spend.

So Shanghai has started dividing migrant workers into classes. The ones who are the most educated or talented – Class A — get the Shanghai hukou. The slightly less talented – Class B — might get a hukou after seven years of paying into the social security system. And the worst off who clean the apartments and sweep the streets? They’ll just have to wait longer.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion as relic of an era of Communist China that probably doesn’t fit the modern times.

To explain this we must remember the almost religious devotion people had to Chairman Mao over the course of a generation which all of a sudden disappeared overnight. But for the average person, the effect was transformative. All of a sudden people were told to go off on their own, find work for themselves and build lives with the little bit of money that they were accumulating. Like a bird or prisoner held for so long in captivity, they had been released from the system and were sent out on their own.

“There was no religion after that – money became religion,” he chuckles. “The Mao administration made many mistakes in values that still unfortunately live on today.”

“The current government will have a lot of socio-economic issues to deal with: Land grabs by local officials, unrestrained industrialization, growing corruption.”

And angry people can talk to each other, as they never could before, through the Internet. Or can they?

 “What’s worse is that after all these reforms, modernizations and urbanization, everyone in China cannot or worse, doesn’t want to voice out their opinions and frustrations.”

In this way China is a country of many paradoxes; a country that's transformed radically economically and incredible growth of new businesses and prosperity, It is still, at its heart, an authoritarian state.

Home to some of the world’s largest tech companies in the world, like Tencent and Alibaba, all of its media is censored and controlled by the government.

While the government encourages innovation and entrepreneurship through the ‘China Dream’ campaign and mobility with reforms to the hukou system, it still attempts to suppress speech and assembly.

“Living here you simply don’t know what to believe any more. What lie is more believable than the next lie.”

One would assume increasingly educated and affluent people travelling overseas would take note on other comrades and speak up. “Yet Chinese people have always valued stability over freedoms and rights,” he reminds me. “After all, if my family and myself have clothes on our backs and food on the table, why should we complain?” as he tries to explain their attitude.

Paradoxically again, today, even though their children are free of hunger and starvation, they face new dangers: they search for the latest air filters and pollution masks to reduce the effects of the environment; they shop for organic food to cut down on the risk of adulterated ingredients; and they evaluate new cars based on supposed safety ratings.

Of course, those who are ‘privileged’ enough to have the option.

So what is Alex’s China Dream, I ask?

“I want to migrate outside of China – show my daughter Europe, show her the world. I am afraid as she grows older, she will have questions I cannot answer. Because I don’t even know the truth any more.”

“So funny,” he laughs. “All you foreigners keep wanting to come to China. And all the Chinese want to move outside.”

“As soon as I get the opportunity I will. But until then you could say, I am just as immobile as the migrant workers.”


Once I became aware of the growing importance of Mandarin Chinese (or Putonghua) and China’s positioning in the world, I flew to Shanghai beginning of this year to spend half a year studying it. I had made multiple trips to the city in the past and with the blessing of the company I was working with I had the opportunity to study and work from our offices there.

The historic French Concession. The gleaming lights. The beautiful elegance of the streets I had so fell in love with.  I couldn't wait.

However, as I soon found out, the advertorials and my brief weekend trip’s camera roll failed to convey how much in actuality it can feel much closer to the spirit and geography of the windswept plains of inner Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong.

In the claptrap taxi ride from the airport to the company flat where I was staying, with the windows sealed and the heat cranked up, the stench of tobacco and pretense stuck to the roof of my mouth. Shanghai’s weather is notoriously of two extremes. With temperatures often reaching to 40 degrees in the summer, in the winter, the merciless wind that rose high in the North China plains whistled down and lashed your face.

The flat was located in the Pudong area, a futuristic vision that from what I remembered overlooking across the river sparkled as the city’s new financial district on what were marshland and rice paddy fields some 15 years ago.

The taxi driver finally pulled up outside a noodle stand shop and opposite a crumbling brick row block of flats, which looked like small boats in a sea of rubble. My doe eyes soon became filled with disbelief.

“Are we here?” I asked, secretly wishing he had made a wrong turn or lost his way.

I crossed the road with my luggage in tow, and after a couple serendipitous misses from a passing by motor scooter, I walked slowly past the flat entrance, double-checking the address I had was correct. Residents and some onlookers must have picked up on my desperateness or my foreignness staring at me with their intense eyes. Now looking back it could have been both.

A flight of crumbling stairs and poorly lit hall after, the countryside felt nearer than the affluent commercial district, only a few streets north.

That evening, desperate for some contact and sense of familiarity I set out to look for a café or anywhere with public Wi-Fi. Only to discover few miles down the street was a series of high-rise buildings, a subway station and a Starbucks. Even the Intercontinental hotel was nearby. 

I had never looked more forward to an Americano before. The barista greeted me cheerfully and in English too. She then prompted to ask me where I was from.

“Wow,” she said. “You’re far away from home.”

Indeed I was.


“So how’s living in China?” my friends from back home in Europe often ask me. And with every question I always find myself reeling with a simple, let alone accurate answer.

Words like “crazy,” “insane” or “different” always seemed to come to mind as I tried my best to tactfully muster.

It comes naturally from a sense of humility, I hope. That’s the sense anyone who spends time in China quickly realizes. The truth is you can only hope to get an understanding of a very limited part; your view of China is consequently determined by who you are, and mostly where you happen to be focused at that given moment.
I decided early on that the only honest way I could write about this country was by setting aside these generalizations, about how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ China is, how ‘different’ Chinese people are from ‘us’ or what Chinese people are experiencing.
My mother who is of Chinese descent – it is an inherent ethnical subconscious decision. For years having lived and raised in the Western world from a mixed cultural background, where the Westerner’s often-privileged guide to talking about the ‘rest of the world,’ includes all-purpose labels like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ as an unquestionable given to bring comfort and order to an otherwise overwhelming world. 

And then it’s a career-led decision, because on some level, I do believe that China – whether in politics, in economics or in society – has become increasingly important in a way that it has never been in the past. So if we want to understand the country, we first have to understand what it means to be a Chinese individual. 
I often find myself wishing for shutter shot camera-like eyes to effectively capture my surroundings and happenings here before they slip away.
Until technology catches up to this fantastical dream, I will instead try to write about the individual moments and encounters, and try to dignify them with the meaning they deserve.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later.

So if I had to how would I sum up living in China?

“You need to come here for yourself and see.”