#tbt Kids Can Create Beauty Too


Zhouzhuang school, Zhouzhuang village, Zhecheng county, Henan province, China, April 2013

In this dusty school yard, water balloons shaped like plump apples with strings attached at the stems are hot commodities. Yet in the span of four days, I only saw a balloon thrown once in this school of almost 300 kids.

Since that is clearly suspicious and unnatural, I thought maybe the balloons were like Pokémon cards – you know, satisfaction from the simple act of possession and status conferred.

On the day I took this photo, kids had been shoving water balloons in the my hands in a show of affection, shyly grinning and then running off a little aways, delighted with their gifting. I was extremely touched, but also extremely unsure of what to do with the balloons as a ‘responsible adult.’

While trying to figure that out, I wandered around the school yard, awkwardly balancing three colorful balloons in each hand. A gaggle of little ones followed to see what I’d do or say next.

I turned the corner and saw this image between the gray, concrete school and the squat, concrete bathroom. Carefully tying the colorful balloons dangling against the bare backdrop are 13 to 16 year-old 6th grade boys, the only ones tall enough to reach the branches.

I love that I’m continually surprised – in a good way – by people. It’s inspiring.

The repeating second and fourth Chinese character 自 on the wall from left to right refers to the ‘self.’ Together those characters (including a missing 自 cut out of the photo on the far left) say: Self Reliance, Self Strength, Self Esteem.

This image sits on my bedroom bookshelf. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit defeated about something, I like to look at it and every time without fail, it gives me heart. Kids do pretty amazing things.

FYI: I was a PR / media / fundraising volunteer with the Shanghai-based education non-profit Stepping Stones for several years. They’re the ones that arranged this trip to the school. If you are interested in volunteering your time, expertise or money, check out their website here!

#tbt: Is America Or China Better?

yangrou mian family henan

Zhecheng county, Henan province, China, April 2013

In China, delicious street food is ubiquitous. Just look for slapdash food carts, makeshift roadside grills or dingy storefronts with battered wooden tables scattered on sidewalks.

I like to talk with vendors while checking out their food. They’re usually super friendly and up for a chat. These guys in the photo – a family serving the regional speciality of sheep noodle stew – were no exception, especially since I was with several foreigners in a town that rarely ever sees one.

As I was the only Chinese face and hailed them with a hearty ni hao, they directed my way all the usual questions locals ask foreigners:

Where are you guys from?
Are you guys here to film a movie*?
Are you the group’s translator or guide?
How could you be American??? (aka you have Chinese face, not white face)

And then, the main question I was waiting for: The Comparison Question.

The father asked, “Is China or America better?”
(literally translated, is China good or America good?)

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US Immigration: Indian-Americans Love Their Sweets

While waiting for my luggage at San Francisco airport, I chatted with an Indian-American woman who had just returned from a trip to India.

She asked: “What did the immigration officer ask you just now?”

Me: “What the purpose of my trip back to China was. Why, what did they ask you?”

Her, with a slight smile: “Whether I had brought any sweets.”

Indian-American woman standing next to her interjects: “Oh yeah, me too.”

Me: “Really? Does this happen often?”

Both of them nod vigorously: “Every time.”

So now you know. Apparently Indian-Americans are known to love carrying sweets back from their motherland. Can’t say I blame them, yum.

Interesting related tidbit from a friend of mine who’d done some contract work with TSA – the guy said he looks out for cookware when Mexican-Americans come back from Mexico. Why I have no idea, but perhaps specialized cookware to make authentic food?

Either way, I love how both Indians and Mexicans are known to bring back goods in the food category. I can absolutely understand that, having ferried handmade woks (I know, how more stereotypical can you get? Hah!) and countless bags of tea, speciality Hong Kong snacks and so forth.

I could go on and on and wax lyrical on how fundamental food is to culture and identity, but I’ll spare you. Basically, this is an empathic nod to others like us. :)


Payment, China-style

I used to get paid in cash, a whole crisp stack of it tucked into a bulging white paper envelope held somewhat closed by a rubber band. It sometimes got so unwieldy, it was like holding a loosely wrapped burrito with one hand.

I was chatting with a friend about freelance work today, and she was astonished to learn about how I got paid as a freelancer in Shanghai, especially when I told her one of the gigs was for an international arts festival put on by the Shanghai government.

As confusing as it sounds to people here, getting paid in cold, hard cash is absolutely legit…and makes you feel kinda like a baller (but not really).

The largest denomination in Mainland China is RMB 100 as a deterrent to rampant counterfeiting. RMB 100 is currently roughly equivalent to 6 US dollars. Add that conversion to a preference for cash, and you’ll realize why it’s common to conduct business transactions with literally briefcases of money across the Mainland.

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Hong Kongers really care about Whatsapp


This is on display at 1010, one of Hong Kong’s top phone service providers.

My 64 and 65 year old parents cited this specific service as a big reason for choosing to purchase a phone from 1010.

They use Whatsapp to stay in touch with their friends, also in their 60s, as well as the rest of our family, ranging from 20 to 50 year olds.

My mother even uses it with her vegetable seller at the wet market (at his request!) to chat about what’s fresh today, how much she wants to order, when is a good time to come by, etc. It’s pretty amazing. :)

#tbt: Haggling Granny

haggling granny

Zhouzhuang village, Zhecheng county, Henan province, April 2013

All the elderly women we saw were carrying bundles of straw. Deftly weaving the strands into long plaits, they told me these would eventually become hats. And by ‘told’, I really mean ‘gestured.’ Their village dialect was incredibly thick, so much so that even the Shanghai native in our group had difficulty discerning what they were saying.

I asked this granny in the photo how much the finished hat would cost. “1.80 RMB*.”

Out of habit (comparison shopping is something that any self-respecting shopper in China always does), I asked the next granny I encountered for her price. She looked up at my clearly out-of-town self, grinned, and cheerfully replied: “2 RMB.”

*1 USD = 6.25 RMB (for now, at least)