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China Reflections

Note: This journal/reflection is schizophrenic in its tenses as it was written in the moment, and edited after my journey for typos and content. Most writing was completed before I got caught up with work in the region, and most talk of actual engineering work was written in an a posteriori fashion. Nevertheless, here it is, with appropriate photos inserted throughout.

Day 0 – Preparation

I spend the day preparing to travel to a land completely new to me, a land that someone thirty years my senior may have described in a deliciously non-pc way as, ‘oriental’. China.

As a white heretonormative male yuppie hearlding from silicon valley, I was told to expect to experience culture shock, though the way I was told this by my peers made it seem as though I was going to be visiting some sort of backward, twisted communist hell-hole. While I disregarded the ridiculously oversold China, I was eager to navigate new food, a new language, and the modern day descendant of an ancient society. As a twenty-something year old in America finally given an escape from a society which he and his peers grows more and more tired of, a temporary cultural diaspora seemed like something I was more than eager to embrace.

Though, as I think more deeply about this trip, and shed the Lawrence-of-Arabia type thoughts planted in my mind after watching the epic, and as I ponder my multiple-entry 10 year visa to the country, I start to realize that I have a lot of preconceived notions as to what it is I expect to experience during my time in China that have been impressed upon me through many cultural avenues.

I fear that the pretense that I travel under, to the Chinese government an ‘M’ designation, business, makes it such that I won’t easily be able to connect to those parts of the country that would provide to me that culture shock which my cultural American ancestors fetishized, and I pine after. Will I find myself seeing the results of a schizophrenic government? Are those deep fissures in the nation visible to outsiders? Do they exist at all, like western media has inspired me to believe which my questioning mind and a non-transparent government has qualified through its lack of commentary? Will my desire to search for these cracks blind me to the true culture of the area? Will I actually have my notions reinforced and see a facade of a city built to support an industry which is completely at odds with the fundamental tenets of the government in which it’s built? I don’t know, but the fact that these questions roll around in my mind bother me.

Socio-economic troubles, gender inequality, a duality between a classically agrarian society and a hunger for economic growth, a schizophrenic government, and a country with a society which still doesn’t believe itself to be a global super-power; these are the thoughts which have found their way into my mind. Much of this has been developed through living in largely liberal areas for most of my life. The same liberal areas which question the supply chain which provides to them creature comforts, and values US-made products, in a very armchair-patriot kind of way.

Maybe it all exists, maybe it doesn’t, I think that as a guest in this amazing, dynamic city of Shenzhen, that the true things which I wish to experience will be hidden from me, not out of necessity to save face, or out of Guanxi, but out convenience. Perhaps what I fear most is that in understanding the full supply-chain that fuels my passions, that I’ll find something morally objectionable enough that I begin to question if I can continue on this path which I’ve forged throughout my life thus-far. Will the armchair patriot liberals have it right, or will I be pleasantly surprised?

It’s no doubt that I’m enamored with the concept of Shenzhen. Many of my engineering idols have cut their teeth in this city, and have left with new views only to share them with the world, and leave us all inspired. Regardless of my fears and desires, and beyond my socio-economic heteronormative cis-gendered geo-political dilettante lens through which I will view the country, my gut says that I’ll enjoy myself, and learn a lot.

Day 1 (A Very Long Day 1) – Travel

I left my business cards and holder in my car in long-term parking. I spent a good couple hours trying to find a business card holder for my cards after I read that it’s considered rude to simply accept a business card and place it into one’s pocket. I didn’t think that it would be so difficult to find a business card holder in Santa Cruz, but apparently in 2015, some traditions have started to die off, as is evident by the lack of inventory in local stores. No matter, if I come across a printing store in Shenzhen, I’ll see if I can get them to make me some new cards, that should be fun.

I get through security after a ritual pat-down and end up at a mediocre bar with a sturdy, worn, wooden bar surface, comfortable chairs, and a well-placed foot-rest. I choose a corner seat as to be alone for a moment under the pretense of not bugging others. I hear a man lament about missing South Carolina, a woman a little too deep into her third bloody mary, and the latent rumble of A320 after A320 blowing down the runway, all Southwest airlines. I sit down to write a little, but think it better to practice taking out my single business card I was instructed to do by countless YouTube videos speaking the gospel of Guanxi, this is when I realized that I left my rarity of a business card holder behind. I start to practice with the single, mangled one, that I have in my wallet.

My train of thought is broken by an average height woman with black, voluminous hair who sits down on the adjacent edge of the bar and greets me.

Her: “Hello there, I like your bow-tie, are you an attorney?”

Me: “I find bow-ties disarming, especially considering I’ve been told that I can have a rather severe look about me when I’m thinking, they let you get away with a lot, too.”

Her: “You must be an attorney.”

We bonded over travels plans, shared a few amusing anecdotes, commiserated over the greasy eggs and sad bacon which we happily ate, and parted ways, all without me getting to practice my card exchange.

I get to my gate, 7, the first of three which will eventually lead me to my destination, and I approach the Delta employees at the gate to get my final set of international boarding passes. They put me in a first class seat on the connecting flight from SJC to LAX for no apparent reason, and I thank them; I’ll be in the air for 49 minutes, in style.

The first plane I’ll ride on during this trip is the boeing 717-200, a short to mid-range aircraft with fuselage mounted engines, and a fairly large auxiliary power unit (the exhaust of which is visible in most planes from the tail when parked). Being my first flight in this aircraft, I was thoroughly entertained by all the new hardware and sounds during the short delay which we experienced. The APU’s are switched on at any point during the time when the plane is not being propelled by its own engines. The APU is a gas turbine engine that provides power for all the electrical and air-conditioning elements of the aircraft when the main-engines are shut off. Usually you can tell when they turn off the APU during the process of pulling away from the gate as the AC, the lights, and the intercom will shut off for approximately 50-100 milliseconds as the power is transitioned from the APU to the main engines.

Flying in smaller planes is always a treat. The engines sound interesting, they’re usually more agile, and often they find ways of integrating amenities in strange ways. The only thing that really bugs me about this plane is that the AC system output seems to be coupled to the output thrust of the engines, more likely that the AC is just cranked up to the maximum output, and that the maximum output is governed by how much thrust the engines are producing. While we were landing I could hear the pilot’s console beeping and wailing while complaining about things like, bank angle, and sink rates which was just a little disconcerting.

The plane lands as my flight to Shangai-Pudong starts boarding. I walk directly out of one gate, and into another, though pausing for a moment in the jet-way to call my parents before I board the plane completely.

Speaking of interesting planes, this B777-200LR is ridiculous. While it isn’t the world’s largest plane, it’s the world’s largest twin-engine commercial plane. Seriously, the engines on this thing are huge, the biggest made actually!

While I’m sitting here on the flight, I may as well reflect upon the notion of life lessons learned on my trip thus-far:

  • I think that I’m confident in claiming that the majority of pilots are completely unintelligible over an intercom, Chinese or American, it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is that they’re trying to tell me, all that comes through is ‘puhbt, buh buh bup, puh, puh puh. Thank you.’ In this case. only to be followed shortly afterward with something similar, though in Chinese rather than English, ‘puh buh buh sha mah buh buh puh bupt, shi-shi (thank you).’

  • A combination of being stuck in my mind for 13 hours and attempting to nap often creates a unique meditation experience. Something about being rocked gently by turbulence, an abundance of white-ish noise, a notable lack of oxygen/thin air, and dim, warm lighting puts me in a trance-like state where day-dreams, actual dreams, and my waking state transition effortlessly. I often found myself inspired to do work on a plane to keep out of that mindset, though these days I feel comfortable submitting to whatever emotional and mental state I slip into. There’s no doubt that stress exists in my mind, but I think that it’s healthier these days, and generated completely of my own working habits rather than by others. If there’s anything to take away from this experience, it’s that I feel grounded and emotionally well-adjusted. I may have realized that I’m truly falling in love, though that might be the oxygen deprivation speaking.

  • 13 hours in a plane is a long time, though isn’t awful. That being said, I have 28 seats around me all to myself, and the flight is half-empty. I have to be careful not expect this every time I fly overseas.

  • There is a lot of water on Earth.

  • Whoever wrote the time to destination system on Delta flights didn’t make it very precise, and is using some measure other than distance, and speed to determine what value to present to you. For instance, we are currently 492 miles away, and our ground-speed is 490 MPH. There is no way that we’ll actually arrive in seven minutes. Some might be quick to say, “Aha, Pavlo, it’s simply a counter that’s set with a predetermined value and then started at take-off.” That sounds like what’s actually happening, though I swear that I’ve seen it update as we changed our routes to fly around storms. Hopefully we don’t drop out of the sky as soon as this counter hits zero.

In about an hour and 50 minutes I’ll be landing in Shanghai to catch the last of my connecting flights to Shenzhen, and to continue my slow immersion into China. My first taste of China was given to me by a tall trans-gendered stewardess in a bright communist-red dress, handing me a card to fill out. “Non-Chinese passport holder?” I nod, and she hands me the card which I will later use to register with the local police. Next on the checklist to immersion is currency. As soon as I land I’ll go fill my wallet with Yuan so that when I land in Shenzhen at midnight I can go grab a cab without worrying about finding someplace that’s open. I was hoping to try out the lubuao line (sp?), also known as the green line (even though the cars have a red stripe on them) but the last train runs at 2300 hours, and I get in at 00:10. At that point I’ll be fully immersed, asking the driver in broken Cantonese to bring me to an address written on a scrap of paper adorned by symbols written by an unpracticed hand.

I landed in Shanghai and I got my first real dose of foreign energy. I haven’t heard a word of English spoken by anybody not trying to help me navigate the airport, or the particular security regulations to China announced over various intercoms. I had to go through security two times and check my bag after going through customs to get on my connecting flight to Shenzhen. While the customs agents were pretty easy to work with, the security guards and police, all under the ages of 25-28, were meticulous and took offense to all of my tools. They pulled them out of my bags one by one with both an excited and surprised look, as though he were pulling out sabers and handguns. One of the security personnel was happy to escort me back to the main check-in area where I was handled well, though if not with some scrutiny. After checking my bags I went through the same security line and got to interact with all the same people a second time, this time they were all smiles, maybe not out of a friendly gesture, but out of relief. I’m worried about my baggage, and the precious cargo within. Hopefully it makes it into my plane, and back into my arms, safe and sound in Shenzhen.

In Shanghai, at least, I’m definitely the odd-one out. Tall, blue herringbone button-up with a blue bow-tie. There were a few people and couples in line who engaged me in some small talk, usually pointing at their necks, making a movement with their hands as to pretend to adjust a bow-tie, always with a smile. That’s a common theme so far. Whenever someone stares or says hello, there’s always a smile that follows. Often it seems as though people start to think about talking to me, but are stopped by something, maybe the language barrier. I’m glistening, the air is humid, and I can’t seem to escape the latent smell of tobacco, but some things about this place seem very comfortable thus-far. As I was honing in on the gate for my last connecting flight I was heralded in by the sound of a man blowing his nose into a garbage can and hacking up phlegm in a way which was actually very comforting to me, not only because I do this, as anyone who has ever lived with me knows, but my father does it too. While it didn’t quite have the same timbre as my father’s ritual, it actually made me smile and think to myself, “My people!” Even as I write this I hear someone else doing the same not but 20 meters away from me, it’s glorious.

Getting onto the plane from Shanghai to Shenzhen involved loading us onto bus which seemed to vibrate primarily rather than move, to bring us way out onto the taxiway where at least a hundred planes were parked. During my short ride on the bus and walk up to the plane I started talking to two very friendly 20-25 year olds who engaged me in conversation asking about the nature of my travels, my height, and if I had ever been to exotic Florida. I explained that I didn’t actually enjoy Florida as much as Hawaii or other parts of the USA, but I was met with quizzical stares. Note to self, next time just say, “Yeah, I love Long Beach!”

The bus stops, and we depart the vehicle in an orderly fashion, though as soon as we walk around the nose of the china-flavor A320, and the mobile-stairs come into view, everybody rushes to the first step and ‘queues’ in a giant blob, some waiting for a worker to do her job and check their boarding passes one last time, others electing skip the process entirely (seemingly compulsory operations which people treat as optional will become a another theme that I notice on this trip).

While boarding the aircraft I mock banging my head on the entry door and brush my hair against the ceiling much the amusement of everyone around me. While the flight itself was quick, someone did end up smoking in the bathroom, there was an hour long travel documentary on the cultural gem of America, Florida, and a man was thinking about vomiting into the vomit bags they provide on flights but only ended up hacking and spitting into it for an hour; I was less amused by this phlegmatic rendition.

Landing at Shenzhen was very much different than my experience at Shanghai-Pudong. We were given an air-conditioned gate that led directly into the massive airport, the airport was huge, the climate was notably more tropical, and the quality of the construction of the airport was in a completely different class. The service was quick, and I got my checked bag back without issue. Leaving the airport, I was asked by no less than 13 people, very aggressively, if I wanted a private car to get to my destination. I elected to take a taxi. The taxis in Shenzhen come in red, and green varieties. Red taxis can travel anywhere in Shenzhen and its surrounding cities, while green taxis are slightly cheaper and are used only for local travel. There are also blue taxis that are electric, though I believe that their range is limited to 20 kilometer trips.

A lady cuts me in line with a huge cart full of boxes, a taxi pulls up, and a taxi handler puts his hand in her face and gives her a look as if to say, “Really, all this?” He gestures me towards a taxi which is pulling up three lanes into traffic away from the curb and I jump into it, dodging people and cars to get to it. He pops the trunk, but it’s full of car bumpers, so he asks that I put my luggage in the back seat instead. I hop in, he looks at me, says something in the fastest Cantonese I have ever heard, I ask if he knows where my hotel is, and we both stop for a moment as we both realize that we have no idea what the other one is saying. I pull out a map with my Chinese annotations, he hits it with the back of his palm and goes, “Oooohhh, Hui! Hui, no hui.” Correcting me on my pronunciation of Hui in the most subtle way I could have ever imagined. I reach to put on my seatbelt, but when I look to find the receptacle, I find that they’ve both been cut off. We travel 37 kilometers passing many toll roads, and many flavors of surveillance equipment ranging from CCTV stations to cameras with flash-bulbs. Finally we arrive at our destination and park next to a Lamborghini, very Communist. I hand the man 150 Yuan for the long ride, get my change and head inside.

A bellman was quick to bring my bags in to the reception area, and two well dressed young women invite me in and begin the check-in procedure. While they’re waiting for the room deposit to clear on my credit card, 1000 Yuan, I notice tons of empty bird cages adorning the center of a very large sitting ottoman in the center of the room. The reception desk is a fully stocked bar, deep-house music is playing, and the entire building has a commercialized modern vibe that makes me think of a Hyatt hotel I once stayed at in Seattle where the annual pornographers awards have been held previously. An eastern twist on frosted glass, blue and pink LED lights, and stainless steel.

I welcome the fact that my room is comfortable and that the shower is powerful, if not a little cold, as I know that I’ll be able to retreat to this space and work from it if I ever find myself temporarily overwhelmed. I notice a distinct absence of smoke, though its aroma is ever present as it has found itself into the lining of my sinuses. I take a quick photo of myself, feeling as if I had achieved a small victory before falling asleep quickly on the large king bed.

Day 2 – Killing Time

After waking up and shaving, I head up to the eighth floor for breakfast. Again, the manufactured cool vibe is strong, though this time around reinforced by mellow jazz playing over hidden speakers featuring cosmic synths, and a lazy drum beat.

Omelette, musili, won-ton soup, great tea, a small salad, a cool view, nice ambiance, and amazing service, if not a little too respectful. From my table I was given my first real view of the city that I had snuck into during the witching hour. It didn’t look so intimidating, new trees, new sounds, new laws, though fundamentally still human. After giving them my room number and signing a receipt I took my laptop to the library adjacent to the restaurant and stared at some work related tasks, I glance up and notice a tall, dark-skinned man as he notices me after which we exchange a simple back-and forth like we would in the states, though this time I find that it’s rewarding in a way that usually wouldn’t hit me if I were at home in California.

The interaction rolls around in my head as I head back to my room and get ready to head out into the city for the first time. I don a pair of brown corduroys, roll up the pant legs, apply a generous amount of antiperspirant to my underarms and leave the hotel.

It was obvious that I had quickly left the ‘surging middle-class’ part of the city which would be my home for the next week and had placed myself directly into the hustle and bustle of a major, real urban area. A man on a scooter with six propane cannisters rattling around the back honks at a group of young men walking across the street while a young girl and her mother yell up to their father on the fourth floor of a large housing complex; these were the sounds that I craved, sounds which the smooth jazz and synths which I’ve associated with frosted glass and Hyatt hotels never could satisfy. The air is wet and flavorful, though the flavor is neither something can describe, nor fully enjoy, and I immediately begin to glisten with sweat.

My target is Huaqiangbei road, the Mecca to my electronics Hajj. I think back to the map of the area that I had memorized and begin my short mile walk, meandering at a comfortable pace as to give myself time to take it all in. Unlike the unbleached cotton and earthy toned linen which adorned the light-skinned transient individuals in the hotel, there was every color and material worn all around me, these were the people that call this place home. I was getting closer to Huaqiangbei, and the supporting infrastructure began to shift from housing related operations to food and cigarettes.

I started to contemplate eating the street-food which surrounded me and walked over to inspect what each booth had to offer. As to not draw too much attention, I stepped back about 20 meters and performed the third-world squat while looking at my phone. This seemingly satisfied those around me and their gazes returned to their food and the outstretched palms which were gesturing towards which food they wanted served to them. As I squatted on the ground, I had a hard time breaking my gaze from a man working over two large boiling pots of liquid who was having a heated argument with a woman about something. Attached to the edge of his lip, was a recently lit cigarette adhered only by the moisture of his skin against the filter. As his mouth opened and closed with each syllable, the cigarette flopped and swung like a toy in the mouth of a dog as it whips around. Like a dried scab held on by a single hair, a large chunk of ash threatened to fall off of the tip of it, eventually letting go and dropping right into the cauldron. It was then that I decided to explore the street food, but only after all of my work obligations have been fulfilled.

As to not reiterate everything that every tech writer has ever written about the wonders of the electronics markets of Futian, Shenzhen, I’ll simply include photos that I took and state that the humanity of the markets was refreshing and welcome.

I fall asleep at 5:00 PM, that was interesting.

Day 3 – Getting To Work

I wake up at 3 AM, close my eyes, open them again, this time leaving them that way. Rain begins to pound, lighting starts to crack, and thunder rolls in. While some thunder is faint and distant, other thunder is very close, and very loud. The sounds are familiar, though in a way you might remember the face of a childhood friend, distant. It’s nice to experience some rain for a change.

Today would be the first day that I went to see the factory at which we’d be producing our boards. I head downstairs after packing my things and ask the concierge to beckon a taxi for me. I notice today that the decorative cages which I had originally acknowledged were now full of white, musically inclined finches. I sit and watch them as I wait for my taxi to arrive, eventually it does, the driver and I exchange words and gestures, and I’m on my way.

honk from pavlo manovi on Vimeo.

While I would get to my destination on time, I did end up hitting Monday morning rush-hour on the roads from Futian to Nanshan, while it took almost half and hour to go 25 km, it did give me some time to appreciate the drivers of cars around me and the endless construction projects along the way.

I reach my destination ten minutes ahead of my scheduled meeting time, so I decide kill some time wandering through the various alleys and buildings surrounding the industrial district. The industrial buildings are squat and an ugly pale blue, I go to the 6th floor of building 2 of 4 to meet Mr. [REDACTED]. I execute my practiced Guanxi, and we delve into business conversations, eventually ending up with an offer to tour the facility that I’d be working in with them later in the week. I follow him through three doors after putting on some blue booties for my shoes. The top of the door-jambs gently kiss my scalp as I walk through them, and the pink ESD safe jacket that I put on barely fits me, leading me to question the label on the inside that clearly states, ‘XL’.

16 new pick and place machines feed into one-another, in two days they have completed over 1000 boards of ten different designs. Each room has its own purpose. Two reflow-ovens, one for top-side and one for the bottom-side, it’s absolutely stunning how fast and precise the pick and place machine is. It uses an optical camera system to determine where the board is through fiducial means. There’s an optical inspection system that looks at the quality of solder joints, and there’s an entire separate floor for wave solder and through-hole components. Another stunning thing is just how many hardware designs I see while I’m there.

After giving my precious cargo to Mr. [REDACTED], we go to the warehouse room and meet with the production manager, a jovial guy that definitely has an alpha vibe about him. Very confident and cheerful, though shrewd and driving, this much was obvious even through the language barrier.

Mr. [REDACETED] and I talk again talk business, exchange information, exchange gifts, and then walk down to the main road to catch a cab.

I get back to the hotel and have a very nice lunch/dinner in the restaurant located on the bottom floor.

I write some emails and get some work done, trying to connect with my engineering team about the work completed and the work that has yet to be done. We’d be having a high-profile meeting during my travels back to the states, and I wanted to make sure that I could be as present as possible. Being 15 hours ahead, across an ocean, and behind a firewall made this very challenging.

Day 4 – Tele-communisting

I used ssh and a SOCKS5 proxy through an old server I still had root access to in the states to get access to some more material for work.

Since I was getting up at about 2-4 AM every day, I usually filled my mornings with responding to emails or finishing some coding work, though by Day 4 I had already run out of things to do until I got the hardware that I traveled to China for, even with my proxy. So, I decided to go out and explore. This time I’d walk 10 miles in one direction, and take a different path back.

tweet from pavlo manovi on Vimeo.

Ran into a really bourgeois area. I decided to have some Starbucks, and thought to try what was once the favorite drink of someone who used to be very close to me while I was there. As much as I’d like to joke about Chinese Starbucks, it was above-par, notably better than the standard USA flavor Starbucks that I had become accustomed to.

Day 5 – Exploring

I decided to walk in the opposite direction and found a slightly different Shenzhen, not bourgeois at all. By now, everything was starting to feel a lot less foreign. I had exercised my sense of direction, I could ask for the bare necessities in the local language, and my stress related to the manufacture of the autopilot and radio-boards was subsiding. My contact let me know that a manufacturing issue had been resolved, and that I’d be able to drop by the next day at 1000 hours to perform testing and to meet the test engineers.

A familiar view of Point Reyes!

beep from pavlo manovi on Vimeo.

Day 6 – Collaboration

The taxis were starting to become comfortable.

We shared red star.

180 proof.

I worked with the people in the trenches, all day. Good people.

New friends.

Feeling the strain of work even from out here in China.

Day 7 – Returning Home

Taxi ride to the airport, taxi driver was awesome, drove that thing like a race-car. I strain to continue my journal with the same sort of attention to detail and rhetoric that I had at the start of my journey, and in reflection of what I had previously written, I find it distressing that even close to 6000 words doesn’t begin to encapsulate all of the experiences and memories which I had accrued during this trip.

Getting through Shenzhen security isn’t bad, though I forgot that my clip-on bow-tie has a tiny metal clasp. When I get to Shanghai I’ll have to go through security again as they weren’t able to check me in for my entire flight. I really like the color of the boarding passes that they give you here, they’re really interesting, colorful, and made of surprising thick paper stock. What appear to be people that are veryr inefficient at traveling surround me, and while they may be objectively hilarious with their yelling and commotion, I find myself having a hard time keeping zen about it with the prospect of 30 hours of transit ahead of me. Especially when each person refusing to follow directions or common sense seems to delay you by a few minutes.

A familiar view of Point Reyes!


If it isn’t clear in my appreciation for the time that I’ve spent in China, it should be noted that I think that while the economy may be in flux, and that the kind of growth that they’ve sustained so far may very well be unsustainable, I believe that there is enough social momentum in China to make what is already great and powerful, become even more so. Whatever China may have been 30 years ago is not what China will ever be again. I met many talented, critically thinking individuals surrounded by a quality of living that was both high and including of a deep sense of personal security. I hope that I get a reason to travel back sooner rather than later.

© 2016 Pavlo Manovi