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.

Hard knocks - listening to true stories of life at Albina Press (Hawthorne)

The Albina Press on Hawthorne is much hipster than the AP on Albina. Maybe it is the neighborhood, maybe it is the café space itself, or maybe it just happened to be the day I was there, but I stepped inside the café and quickly felt at home in the café.

The coffee bar is unique in its arrangement. Instead of having the bar up against one wall of the café, as most cafés do, at AP Hawthorne the bar is located in the center of the café. The cash register and espresso machine take up two sides of the rectangle, and an L-shaped table for seating form the other two sides. The open space allows patrons to check out the baristas’ operations from all sides.

AP Hawthorne

My espresso, served in a sunny yellow demitasse, was solid. AP is a Stumptown café, and every day I grow more and more accustomed to the Hair Bender blend. If I ever leave Portland, I’ll probably look back with affection on my time in the city, when I could get Stumptown’s tangy, chocolaty blend in nearly every part of the city (I never would have imagined saying that, based on my first impression of the blend, which was not favorable).

Although I did have a couple good shots of espresso while I was at the café, the enduring memory from my visit will be my conversation with “Ron” (not his real name). I was sitting at a window table, writing the next “great American novel” (more accurately, the next CPDX blog post), when to my left, I sensed someone staring at me. For a while, I avoided looking over, but the person didn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. Finally my resolve to avoid looking faltered and I lifted my eyes from the screen to figure out who it was staring my direction.

A gentleman in his late forties or early fifties, with a round build, a round, balding head and a scraggly beard was standing about five feet away holding a latte in his hand. He looked like he wanted to talk, and I apparently looked like a good person to talk to. Generally, I don’t mind listening to people. A lot of times they just have things they want to get off their chest, and you never know when they start talking what kinds of interesting things you might learn. My only hope is that they don’t end up asking me for money.

Ron’s first question, breaking the ice, was to ask me how to look someone up on the computer. According to him, he didn’t have any computer experience and he was trying to find his kids. It had been about 15 years since he had seen them. He and his wife had divorced years ago (on bad terms, I presume) and he had lost contact with them. Since they were now adults, he could contact them without any legal repercussions.

I vaguely gave him some advice on how to use Google, unsure if it was any of my business to help him find someone who had not seen him in over a decade—someone who might not want to be found. I thought that my advice would be the end of our conversation, but I was wrong. Ron was looking for someone to share his story with.

The story he told me was a sad one. Ron had been in the Navy for 12 years, and while he was there he met his wife. They married and had two kids, but then he had an accident on duty and his injuries made it impossible for him to perform his service, so he was discharged. His wife stayed in, and was deployed to the Persian Gulf during the war to liberate Kuwait. While over there, she fell prey to loneliness and the temptations of war, coming back pregnant with someone else’s child. When Ron found out, he “took off his ring, handed it to her and left.”

Out of the service, Ron tried to find a job, but the stress he was under and the alcohol he was drinking (heavily, in his words) weakened his heart to the point of having “four heart attacks.” His condition led the state to take away his driver’s license, making it impossible to keep a job, so he “retired,” going on state disability insurance and VA benefits to support himself. It was during these tough times that under duress (according to him), he signed over his parental rights, agreeing that he would not try to contact his sons until they were adults, with the threat of jail time for violating the agreement. Now that they were both over 18, Ron was hoping to contact them one more time to see if they would be interested in rebuilding some kind of relationship with their father.

It wasn’t easy to listen to the story, as I could imagine some of the struggles he has had over the last decade and a half. He did not seem as downbeat as he might have, though there was a lot of loneliness that came through in his voice. He probably was just looking for someone to listen to him.

During our conversation, Ron pulled out a blue folder and showed me a couple pictures of his sons and some other things that he had in his bag. He also showed me a copy of the birth certificate of one of his sons, his old marriage license and a copy of his VA benefit application from twenty years ago.

The stuff he carried with him was revealing. When our lives are filled with uncertainty, we cling to concrete things from our past that are unchanging—memories, documents and photographs that remind us of times when we thought we had life figured out. When life seems to slip from our grasp, our instinct is to find something to hold onto, an anchor that gives us a sense of stability. This can lead us to hold tightly to possessions that help us feel normal. At least that’s the impression I got from listening to him and seeing his documents.

After leaving the café, Ron’s next stop was going to be the coin store that was next door (he was looking for some collector quarters), and then it was on to the VA and the library. At least that was what he said. You never know with someone like Ron how much of their story is based in reality an how much has been elaborated in his mind. Watching him leave, I could only hope for the best for him as I resumed my writing.

By and large, I enjoyed my visit to the Hawthorne incarnation of the Albina Press. The café is large, with ample seating. You can comfortably gather with a large group or you can hide yourself in a corner with a good book or your laptop if you don’t feel like talking to anyone. Then again, you might find yourself in an unexpected conversation, ready or not.


Address: 5012 SE Hawthorne, Portland, OR 97215 (map)

Coffee: Stumptown

Free Wi-Fi? Fast

Recommendations? Sitting outside and enjoying the last vestiges of summer, coffee in hand

Website: nope

Pursuing success with the Harada Method

Over the last year, I have occasionally talked about creating a new path for yourself, following dreams and doing something that gives you a sense of satisfaction and success. Along those lines, today I am sharing a video that I put together from a talk that Norman Bodek recently gave at George Fox University.

Bodek is the founder of Productivity, Inc. and Productivity Press. Around 1980, he started the two companies to bring the best of Japanese management to America. Through them, he brought what we call Lean Manufacturing to this country. I have been working with Norman for the last couple years, helping manage his newsletter and website and doing some writing/editing for him. In the video below, Norman discusses the Harada Method, a personal/professional development system that he is now bringing to America for the first time.

The method is named after Takashi Harada, who developed the system. Harada is a former teacher/coach in Japan who teaches companies and individuals how to be successful. By starting with a goal in mind, the Harada Method helps you become self-reliant and create a clear path toward reaching your goals. The video gives you a better idea of how the method works.

(If the video doesn't show up in your browser, click here.)

This coming October, we are holding a workshop at the Marriott on the Waterfront and I wanted to share the video with you, in case you might like to attend, or in case you just happen to be interested in reaching your fullest potential in life. Whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or are thinking about starting your own corner coffee shop, the method can help you be successful. If you have any questions about it, you can send an email to or and we will send you some more information.

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 25 - Overcoming false expectations

Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are our most potent at our most ordinary. And yet most of us discount our “ordinary” because it is, well, ordinary. Or so we believe. But my ordinary is not yours. Three things block us from putting down our clever and picking up our ordinary: false comparisons with others (I’m not as good a writer as _____), false expectations of ourselves (I should be on the NYTimes best seller list or not write at all), and false investments in a story (it’s all been written before, I shouldn’t bother). What are your false comparisons? What are your false expectations? What are your false investments in a story? List them. Each keep you from that internal knowing about which Emerson writes. Each keeps you from making your strong offer to the world. Put down your clever, and pick up your ordinary.Patti Digh

If I were to rewrite the first sentence of this prompt, I would remove the word ordinary and in its place use the word authentic, because in this context, ordinary is far from ordinary. However, I do understand what she is saying—that we should harness the power of our uniqueness. There is absolute scarcity in the competition to be us (since there is only one) and therefore, the gifts we bring to the world carry great value.

The disease of comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous malady. It is human nature, but it can be deadly. We all do it. I am guilty. From time to time, I catch myself comparing myself to:

  1. People with successful websites, who have written books or have been able to promote their online businesses better than I have.
  2. My brother, who is a successful farmer. He has found exactly what he wants to do in life.
  3. Other coffee authors. I often wonder about the wisdom of writing about coffee. There are many sites and many books that have been written about the industry. Why would anyone bother to read something that I write?
  4. When I was at music school, I compared my guitar skills to those of my classmates and many of my professors. Those comparisons drove me out of school.
  5. I compare myself to people who have thousands and thousands of “followers” on Twitter or who have built up engaged, active communities online. Those people are “successful” in social media.
  6. I compare myself to entrepreneurs who have a talent and a special drive for creating businesses. They seem fearless in selling themselves or their ideas.
  7. I compare myself with people who have put up websites and had remarkable success very quickly. Their stories are encouraging, but at the same time frustrating because I compare myself to them. I would prefer to find success quickly, but I am receiving the valuable lesson of perseverance.

These expectations and comparisons may be false, but they are real. The challenge is remembering they are not true.

When we are able to accept who we are, when we are comfortable in our own skin, we can just be. Not many people can  do that, but the state of mind is worth aiming for. It is what makes our “ordinary” exceptional.