Making it big in Beijing

It is always a pleasure to read a book that resonates with me in some way, and last night, I read a book that did just that. The book was Big in China: My unlikely adventures raising a family, playing the blues, and becoming a star in Beijing, by Alan Paul. In 2005, Paul’s wife, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, gets a job as the paper’s bureau chief in China. Looking for an adventure and hoping to give their kids some international exposure, the couple decides to move their family of five to Beijing for a while. Paul, a freelance writer for Guitar World and Slam! (a magazine about basketball), is excited about the prospect of starting a new life in a new country, even if it is just for a few years.

When they get to Beijing, the family is put up in a gated expat community, but Paul and his wife Rebecca want to experience the “real” China, so they spend as much time outside the community walls as they do inside it. Aggressively traveling around China, the family visits many places that most foreigners never dare to venture. Paul records most of their adventures and shares them with the world on his blog for the Wall Street Journal. Both spouses eventually manage to get their drivers licenses and they buy a car, giving them an extra degree of freedom to explore.

The family has many of the normal challenges of adjusting to life in a new country. Paul writes about culture shock, about struggles learning the Chinese language, and about watching the transformation of his kids from reluctant participants to adventurers themselves. They all grow to love their new home, and Paul is surprised when the family travels back to the US and finds himself longing to go back “home” to China.

Life is not always wonderful inside the expat community, and Paul’s family must deal with some real heartbreak while they are in Beijing. The wife of one of the couple’s new expat friends becomes ill, and after some inconclusive medical exams returns to the US, where she is diagnosed with late-stage cancer. The speed at which the cancer takes the woman’s life is shocking. Meanwhile, Paul’s own father discovers he has cancer (not life-threatening), and Paul is struck by the realization that life continues to move forward in the states, even when he is not there.

Despite some difficult times, the family’s time in China is a positive experience. One of Paul’s observations is that it feels natural to reinvent oneself in a place that is changing as rapidly as China. In fact, it is necessary to change in order to feel like you fit in. In Paul’s case, he reinvents himself through music.

An amateur musician who is reluctant to play music in front of people, Paul is determined to overcome his fears while he is in China. He has an urge to get up on stage and play, to see what he can really do. The opportunity arises when an expat who owns a bar asks him to host an open mic night. Paul agrees to do it as soon as he can find a partner to play with.

Paul eventually finds someone to play with, though not in a conventional way. On one trip back to the United States, he purchases a new guitar to take to China with him. He carefully packs it in its case and checks it as baggage, but when he arrives at his house in Beijing, Paul opens the guitar case to find that the head is no longer attached to the rest of the guitar. This misfortune would profoundly change the rest of Paul’s time in China.

Paul ends up contacting Woodie Wu, a Chinese guitarist who also has an instrument repair business. When Paul brings him the broken guitar, the two discover they share a deep appreciation for American blues/roots music. Wu probes Paul for stories from all of the guitar players he has interviewed over the years, and the two become fast friends. They get together for a jam session and soon the pair starts playing gigs at local bars. Their band grows to include an American sax player (who also works for the US treasury department) and two Chinese musicians—a bassist and a drummer.

At first, the group is just out to have fun, but Wu challenges Paul to practice harder because he sees that they have potential. Paul agrees. He is nervous about going for it, but at the same time he feels like he could do great things if he would just let his inhibitions go. The effort to improve pays off. The band develops a camaraderie and rhythm, becoming a cohesive unit that plays great music.

Chinese audiences respond well to the Chinese-American blues band. Woodie Alan, as the band is called, is voted Beijing’s best band, and even does some touring in China. They are successful beyond what Paul thought possible when he began. When his wife receives a promotion that will require them to move back to New Jersey, he is deeply torn about leaving. Paul realizes that the only logical decision is to move back to the States, but it is still difficult.

Big in China describes the transition of an upper middle class family from New Jersey into a global family with an international perspective. It also tells the story of how one self-conscious American guy broke through his own resistance and grew into the musician he always hoped he was. At times, the book is funny (reporting the follies of trying to adapt to a new culture), serious (discussing the real anxieties of being far away from sick family members) and inspiring (describing Paul’s transformation).  It is an easy and accessible introduction to China, and when you get done reading it, you feel like you need to take your own journey abroad. At least I did.

Humans and pigeons

Humans are a lot like pigeons. Yes, pigeons. As I was walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed a line of pigeons sitting on an overhead electric wire, enjoying the warm morning sun. They looked quite content sitting on their perch and watching the world below them slowly wake up and start the day.

Nearing the flock, I saw one of them make a dive for the street in front of the group. There was some kind of food down on the street, and it looked like he had been the one chosen to go see if it was safe to eat—a king’s taster, so to speak. Maybe he was the cat bait. If he landed and a cat sprung out of the bushes, all of the rest of the pigeons would still be safe and sound. Of course, if no cat showed up, the first mover would get to eat the most (and best) food that was there. Not too long after the first pigeon landed, one more pigeon followed. The rest of the group, however, stayed up on the wire.

This might be the first life lesson you’ve ever heard using pigeons as the metaphor, but here goes: You have a choice. You can be the first pigeon to jump off the wire, the one who takes the most risk and ends up with the most reward, or you can be one of the flock, who sits there where it’s safe, taking your chances that there will be something left when the others are done.

Most people are like the pigeons on the wire. They are happy to sit on the sideline contentedly and let someone else go after the first bite. In their minds, it’s better to be safe and know there aren’t any cats lurking around before taking the plunge. They would rather be safe (and hungry) than risk uncertainty and the benefits that might (or might not) come with it. You are lucky because you get to choose which type of person you are.

Be bold. Jump off the wire.

The bold, and the not so bold

#Trust30-Day 5

[This is another post for the #Trust30 challenge. More information here.]

If we live truly, we shall see truly. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today's prompt:

Not everyone wants to travel the world, but most people can identify at least one place in the world they’d like to visit before they die. Where is that place for you, and what will you do to make sure you get there? – Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity

It’s a good thing that I can work on this question in the afternoon. I never like to think about travel at night, because usually what follows is several hours of staring at the ceiling, thinking about all the places left in the world to see. I can drink espresso at 10pm and sleep fine, but if someone gets me thinking about adventures abroad, it’s going to be a long night.

Traveling is one of the most enjoyable activities on the face of the earth. When you travel, you get the opportunity to get away from the familiar, the everyday routine. You notice more things. It is like the wonder that a child has as she wanders through a garden. She has to stop and inspect every flower, insect or rock she sees. The world is animated around her and she soaks it all in.

That’s kind of what travel does to me. It refreshes my sense of wonder about the world around me.

You may have experienced something like this too. Walking through an airport or train station, the excitement of adventure starts to creep into your body. You feel as if you are almost floating in a bubble, an unseen force lightening each step as you get closer to the departure area. You are surrounded with thousands of people, all going somewhere, but at the same time you are all alone. Waiting for your departure gives you time to watch the diversity of people around you and create stories in your mind for them. Occasionally, you meet a fellow traveler and find that someone has the same love of travel that you do. Traveling fills you a with a feeling of exhilaration and an inner calm at the same time.

Traveling also helps us remember how big the world is. It reminds us that there are a whole lot more people on this earth than just us. They have hopes and dreams for their futures that are just as real as ours. Traveling helps remind us of our humanity.

Trying to pick a single place to go is a difficult challenge, so I’ll start with a list of places I want to see and try to narrow it down from there. First is South America, a continent I have not yet visited. Brazil and Argentina are at the top of the list. I want to see the beaches of Ipanema and the Amazon and its vast forests. In Argentina, Buenos Aires, the Pampas and the Tierra del Fuego are calling. I would also like to see the Incan ruins in Ecuador, Bolivia or Chile.

Africa is not short of sights to see either. Egypt is my highest priority, for its pyramids and the Nile River. I want to see the savannas of Zambia and Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, then relax on the beaches of Mozambique.

In Europe, well, there are too many to name (I admit to being a Europhile). Greece and Turkey (yes, most of Turkey is in Asia, but it kind of straddles both continents) are high on the list of to see, though if I could go to Italy or Spain again, I would jump at the chance. I also don’t think that any traveler’s adventures are complete without a trip to St. Petersburg or Moscow.

In the Middle East and Asia, just a few places really catch my interest.  Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s attempt to build a sustainable city in the desert, is one of them. I would also like to see Beirut and maybe Riyadh. Moving farther east, a stop in India is a high priority, as is a stop (or several) in Thailand. Some good friends live there, and they would be able to show me the non-touristy side of the country. It would be a wonderful reunion to see them.

If I could somehow get into North Korea, I would like to see that country too. Visiting a country that has been so isolated from the rest of the world for the last 50 years would be fascinating. I just read Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, and the stories were heart-wrenching. A trip there would give me lots to write about.

Completing the round-the-world wishful tour, I hope to visit Newfoundland, Canada and Mexico City. If I could get to Havana that would be great too. I once took a few voice lessons from a man who had defected from Cuba and he told me that the beaches there are unbelievably beautiful. Havana almost has a mythical status as a place trapped in time. I want to see if the myth in my mind matches reality. In the U.S., I have yet to see Washington, D.C., New Orleans and the Grand Canyon.

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Searching for Sightglass Coffee, or ‘the “honkey” incident'

Another story from San Francisco:

Anthony Salas, a barista at Paper Tiger Coffee in Vancouver, suggested that we try out Sightglass Coffee while we were in San Francisco. Always up for trying new places, we followed his recommendation. It turned out that finding the café was as memorable as the café itself.

Sightglass Coffee is located on Seventh Street, close the heart of downtown San Francisco. After lunch at the wharf, we hopped onto the cable car and rode it over the hill to Hallidie Plaza (For the record, the cable car is overrated—not much more than tourist transportation. I would estimate that 95% of the people on the car were tourists, and the other 5% were the driver and the ticket-taker. Call me a cynic, but it was not the “San Francisco treat” that you have seen on television). From the plaza, we walked down Market Street and turned onto Sixth Street. We could have walked one more block to Seventh ,  but I wanted to get off of Market because it was loud from all the traffic. Our chosen route made for a more interesting story, though at the time it was a little unsettling.

To give you a little background, when traveling, I do my best to not look like a tourist. Granted, this is not always possible, but I try to not saunter around gaping at tourist attractions, snapping lots of photos and being more conspicuous than necessary. I try to act like I know where I am going, and I do my best to avoid using maps in public. Tourists can be targets for mischievous or malevolent people, so it’s best to not look like one.

We probably should have done a little research about this part of the city before we went, because it would have been good to know its reputation. On Sixth Street, it was pretty much impossible to not look like a tourist. Theoretically, it could have been the safest part of San Francisco, but the neighborhood looked like it was going through a rough time. There were lots of shops that looked run down, with paint peeling off the walls, as well as many empty storefronts covered with old posters and graffiti. The shops that were open included several pawn shops and convenience stores. Groups of young black men stood around, crowding the sidewalk and watching us as we went by. It reminded me of walking around Datong, China, where the local people stared at the unfamiliar faces (us) passing by them. Even worse, I had a camera around my neck, flashing “TOURIST!” in big bold letters to everyone on the street.

I felt out of place, and asked myself if I was nervous because we appeared to be the only white people there, or if the area just gave off the impression that it was unfriendly. It was probably some of both. It can be unsettling when you visit a place where you stand out so much.

That said, I don’t think my uneasiness was much different than what people from outside Portland feel when they visit downtown and have to pass through the groups of homeless people crowding the sidewalk. Walking around downtown Portland doesn’t bother me anymore, but I have spent a lot of time there. Sixth Street in San Francisco was completely new to me.

To add to my unease, one of the things we saw as we were walking was likely a drug handoff. I could be mistaken, but seeing two men approach each other on the sidewalk and discretely pass a small paper bag between them without saying anything seemed a little suspicious. I commented to my wife that it didn’t look like they were sharing doughnuts. She agreed. We kept walking, pretending not to notice, or at least to not care.

The most memorable incident of our side trip took place a couple blocks later. As we came to the corner, a tall black man dressed in a red hat and a blue and white sweat suit looked at us in disapproval. He was talking to a group of men, and as we approached, he stepped out directly in front of us.

“. . .and someone like this honkey,” he said, glowering at me.

 “Oh, sh--,” I thought.

My heart jumped when he said that, though I tried to not show any fear. We stepped around him to the left, hoping that he wouldn’t try to stop us. If he had, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. I wasn’t looking for a fight, just a coffee shop. Fortunately, the man made no other moves to block us—he had already made it clear enough that we weren’t welcome in his neighborhood. We kept walking, glad to soon reach our destination.

Looking back on our misadventure, I doubt we were ever in any real danger. We were uncomfortable, but no harm came of it. After all, the man made no physical contact with us. All he did was call me a honkey, which is actually kind of funny. I haven’t been called that since the days when I used to play a lot of basketball. There was always lots of creative things said in the heat of the games.

All in all, our quick trip to Sightglass was a memorable one. We found some pretty good coffee and we came away with a story to tell.


Book Review-A Sense of the World

It has been a while since I last wrote about traveling. That is mainly because I have not done any traveling lately, something that I hope to change soon. After all, traveling is one of the most valuable and invigorating experiences a person can have in life, in my opinion. If you don’t travel, you lose the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the wider world.

In an effort to take to the road without actually taking to the road, I recently read A Sense of the World-How a Blind Man became History’s Greatest Traveler, written by Jason Roberts. The book is a biography of James Holman, a fearless traveling Englishman, who, in spite of his blindness, was able to travel all over the world. What makes the story even more compelling is that he did his traveling in the first half of the 19th century.

Holman was not blind from birth. He was born in 1787, one of six brothers and the son of a pharmacist. In those days, class structures were very rigid in England, and Holman’s father had high ambitions for his son, whom he wanted to become a gentleman. One way for a commoner to do this was to reach officer status in the military, which is what James Holman did.

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