Day 242 (7th of November, 2016) – Harbin, China
My 7:30am flight to Harbin meant a 5:10am departure from the hotel in a Didi. I had organised the Didi the evening prior as I wrote about in my last blog, and was already very confident as to the driver’s commitment to pick me up on time. I made sure that I had some time to spare in case it didn’t work out.
The driver was so enthusiastic, in fact, that he called me at 3:10am to confirm the pick-up time in two hours. I answered the call in a confused half-asleep state, involuntarily responding to the caller to “wait on level one, I’ll come down in a second”. It seems that besides Taobao deliveries (and Todd until the other day), I don’t get many other calls from Chinese numbers these days. “Wait on level one” has just become such a reflex response.
I caught every last wink of sleep that I could before heading out on time with only a small backpack. Being a three day trip, I didn’t think that much more would be required.
Still tired from the night before, I slept all through the Didi and the flight.
Harbin is a city of almost 11 million people in China’s northeastern-most province, Heilongjiang. Evidence of human settlement there has been recorded back to 2200BC. What most Chinese people think of when they hear the word “Harbin” is one thing – cold. It has the most bitterly cold winter of any of China’s major cities. It therefore seems a perfect fit for the city’s sizeable population of Manchurians and Russian diaspora.
A quick Google search of “Harbin” rendered results which showed what most foreigners think of when they hear the name of the city.
That’s it. The Ice Festival.
Now despite this, I failed to realise the how cold the city was. One step off the plane sent one of the most breathtaking (literally) chills of cold wind up my peacoat.
A quick glance at the weather forecast confirmed my fears. It was, in fact, bloody cold.
By the time I reached the inside of the airport, I was shivering and my hands were numb. I ruffled through my bag to find my thin gloves and beanie, but they really didn’t do much. I decided that I could bear it until the hotel at which point I’d put on my thermals and another jumper.
Buying a ticket for the shuttle bus, I realised just how much I was in real China. Like, Xuzhou-level China. Not even a bus ticket had English on it anymore.
The smells of cold air mixed with steamy jackets reminded me instantly of being in a ski resort. I sat clutching my shoulders to keep warm while staring through the frost-encrusted windows of the bus.
My $5.80/night luxury hostel sat perched just next to the main street, so I hopped off the bus in the city centre. The feeling I got about the city was, very, very good. So much so that I got out my phone to try convince Angus to reconsider which city he should go to next year, but I gave up on it when my hands started hurting too much. I still managed to snap some pictures, somehow.
Had I been more prepared, I would have been dressed like this.
Before long, I had reached Harbin’s main street. It was the one from the desktop background which I used throughout much of my youth, so it was in some ways nostalgic to finally see it.
Zhongyang Da Jie.
There was one thing I knew for sure – this did not feel like China. It was colder than China, prettier than (inner-city) China, and more cobblestone-y than China.
Most amazingly, a lot of the signs were also printed in Russian.
During the first few conversations with some locals people were already beginning to guess that I was Russian.
One of the sights which I had yearned for without even realising was that of steam bellowing out of chimneys in the cold. It looks so “New York”.
For a measly $5.80, my room didn’t end up being so bad. I had all of the eight beds to myself, and the staff had told me that it should remain that way because it wasn’t yet the Ice Festival season.
I had an hour to thaw out my fingers and toes (which still wasn’t enough it turns out) before I received a message from Elliot. Elliot Johnson is a mutual friend introduced to me by my schoolmate, Sean Hogan, because of our similarities. In reality, though, Elliot is significantly more impressive than I am. After being born in Sydney and then schooled in both the Blue Mountains and Byron Bay, he later went on to the University of Queensland to study commerce and law, all whilst becoming one of the more successful student political figures to come out of St John’s College. While at university, he attended a university exchange in Hong Kong, and he describes his first reaction to the city with alarming similarity to my own. Massive metropolises with never-ending growth amidst a rich culture made us both smile uncontrollably. He said that it was at that moment when he knew that he needed to return to Asia for some more. That’s why, he tells me, he moved on from his jobs in the offices of Queensland politicians to instead go to Peking University in Beijing to finish his undergraduate degree and then to continue his studies post-university in Harbin. His Chinese is currently still in its elementary stages, but the sort of progress he’s had in Harbin would be unheard of for any other Westerner. It’s not long until he’ll be ahead of me. I have no doubt.
“And who did you come here with?” I asked.
“On my own.”
Yep, he passed the Xavier interview. No kid does that unless they’ve got thick skin.
“And I’m thinking of extending my stay by another year,” he added.
Thicker skin than I have, it seems.
I learned all of this over a warm lunch in one of the side streets off Zhongyang Da Jie, soaking up the familiar accent and laughing over our unexpected mutual connections.
“I’ll show you around the place. Let’s go for a walk to the Songhua river.” he suggested.
Armed with thermals, jeans, a shirt, a woollen jumper and a peacoat, I still only just managed to walk to the river without needing to take a break in a warm shop.I fended off tears (which would only freeze anyway) picturing my toasty-warm ski jacket, ski pants and an extra pair of thermals sitting unused in my Shanghai wardrobe. Elliot was well prepared with a ski jacket on.
Songhua River can be found at the northern tip of Zhongyang Da Jie. Amazingly, this huge river will actually freeze over in the next few weeks. It becomes the main ice-skating rink for the city. This is where many of the country’s seasoned national ice-skaters, including Yang Yang, first discovered their passion.
Alongside the river is “Stalin Park” in which sit many monuments and statues declaring some of the most important icons of the city. Unfortunately, one of those icons is terribly tragic, representing the great Harbin Flood of 1957.
This monument marks the peak height of the floodwaters.
As it got darker, the monument began to light up.
Other symbols are the classic “children working for the nation”, reindeer and angels. The white stone gives it all a very wintery feel.
The cold fixed the muscles of my face in a single position, making conversation a struggle and holding my face expression in one, awkward smile.
The main street felt even more European as the evening grew darker.
We made sure to get another picture of the two of us before Elliot returned to his dormitory and I retreated to the hostel.
Meanwhile, Aimee made me aware that my “hometown” had made Australian news.
I spent most of my time back at the hostel tutoring. During my June-August holiday I ceased tutoring altogether, but this time I decided to keep it available for my more dedicated students with a somewhat overdue price rise to account for difficult time differences. As someone who runs off of little sleep as it is, some middle-of-the-night tutoring income once every few days could help delay my inevitably bankruptcy, currently due to occur right at the end of the gap year.
After that wrapped up, I braced for yet another expedition into the outdoors to track down something edible.
I do love the look of a fresh layer of snow on a parked car.
This didn’t make for a very convincing Mercedes Benz.
With a little more time on my hands this time, I took the opportunity to explore the main street more slowly.
The towering buildings lining the CBD streets felt even more New York than the chimney which I had seen earlier. Maybe it’s because I’ve only visited NYC in a freezing winter that it was conjuring up such images.
Some of the ice sculptures were already starting to find their way onto the streets in preparation for winter.
The public thermometers showed that there was no chance these guys would be melting for the next half a year.
It was 7:30pm, and it seemed like everything was already shut. To be fair, it had been dark for three hours. I guess most people are holed up in their homes in front of the fireplace by now.
I did manage to track down a skewer restaurant. I jumped at the opportunity to embrace some memories from nights out in Xuzhou. The restaurant was no warmer than the outside. The ayi who took care of me was watching Chinese Idol while breathing visible puffs of air onto her shaking hands.
I asked for “lamb kebabs” and “bread”, thinking that I could then assemble a sandwich. Well, this is what I got:
The lamb kebabs.
And the bread.
I couldn’t help but let out an audible laugh. The ayi looked at me confused and asked if something was wrong.
“No,” I said, “but I wouldn’t mind a second bread-on-a-stick, thanks.”
Soon enough I had my sandwich.
Before I headed to bed, I received a message from Elliot asking if I wanted him to show me around his university tomorrow. I jumped at the opportunity and set my alarm for an early morning.
Day 243 (8th of November, 2016) – Harbin, China
In China, the journey to your destination is often half the fun.
In my Didi, the driver told me that I had a Northern Chinese accent. That was promising to hear – Northern China is the origin of standard Mandarin. With neither Xuzhou nor Shanghai being in the north, I guess my accent stems from Mr Liu being from Tianjin, which is just near Beijing.
I eventually arrived at the Harbin Institute of Technology, one of the Chinese C9 (similar to a Chinese Ivy League), to Elliot’s Aussie smile.
It turns out that Elliot is struggling with an allergy to the cold (couldn’t think of a worse reason to choose Harbin, yet more evidence of his thick skin), so we quickly went by the university chemist to get him hooked up with some drugs.
We then took a stroll around the grounds past many of the snowed-over sports fields.
It certainly had a much more impressive stadium than Jiangsu Normal University or Shanghai International Studies University.
It was a mostly pleasant campus which embraced its six-month winter. But I must say, the exercise playground looked much more like a prison.
We eventually made it to Elliot’s dorm. It had a reception and a shop in the lobby – this was no Xuzhou.
Elliot and I found our way to his favourite café hangout for study. It was a few hundred metres beyond the side gates of the university, and inside it had a cozy selection of tables with no one but the two elderly fuwuyuans sleeping up the front. It reminded me of my café hangout in Xuzhou.
Elliot’s 2016 China experience is in effect mine but in reverse. He started from a 3rd-tier city and moved to a 1st-tier whereas he’s done the opposite. As a result, we both had so much to talk about and plenty of advice to offer each other.
While at Peking University (affectionately called PKU), Elliot gained the opportunity to follow the Australian government’s Chinese circuit for the trade conference earlier in the year. During the trip, he was lucky enough to meet Malcolm Turnbull. It turns out that Malcolm’s son, Alex, had actually studied mandarin in Harbin during his Harvard University years.
“If it’s good enough for Alex, it’s good enough for me,” Elliot quipped.
A few hours later, Elliot walked with me to the bus stop where I began my trip back to the hostel. We said our goodbyes and promised to meet up again in Sydney. I’ve no doubt that we’ll both go to some length to follow up on that promise.
I jumped off the bus a couple of stops early to allow me the opportunity to walk through some of Harbin’s inner-city suburbs.
After some more tutoring in the hostel’s lobby, I headed immediately to reception to ask for a recommendation for dinner.
I asked for something tese – characteristic of Harbin. The receptionist enthusiastically recommended 老昌春饼, which could be found just around the corner on Zhongyang Da Jie. I headed straight off.
Boy, was that a good recommendation. The concept was simple – Chinese bing (pancakes) with filling of your choice. Seeing the atrociously cheap prices (reminiscent of Xuzhou), I handed the menu to the waitress and gave her the freedom to order me whatever her favourite full dinner is. She excitedly yapped away at another waitress while they constructed my feast.
Presented before me was this.
Shredded beef, beans, chilli flakes and coriander in black bean sauce. Me all over.
I rolled it into a fully-packed chunbing and munched it down. These were like jumbo Lee’s duck pancakes.
I messaged Elliot right away insisting that he visit here some time soon.
Day 244 (9th of November, 2016) – Shanghai, China
Today was the day of my flight out. I made sure to use the morning wisely. There isn’t too much to see in Harbin when it’s not the Ice Festival season, so there was only one major landmark which I had to tick off the list: Saint Sophia Cathedral.
Saint Sophia Cathedral is a former Russian Orthodox church located in Harbin’s central district of Daoli. It was built completely of timber in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway (which Aimee and I were at one point planning to catch) in 1903, which connected Vladivostok to northeast China.
I caught the bus out, enjoying Harbin’s white and yellow buildings against a clear blue sky on the way.
Upon arrival, things stepped up to a whole new level of “European”.
These were some entrances to an underground shopping mall.
At the end of the square was the stunning cathedral. It looked like it had been airlifted out of Russia and dropped on a small plot of land in the middle of the city.
I never saw this colour scheme used on any of the Russian Orthodox churches in the country itself. Perhaps this design is more of an Eastern Russian style. It’s incredible to think that Harbin is still closer to Moscow than some Russian cities despite it being on the other side of the world to Russia’s capital. The distance between Vladivostok and Moscow is a whopping 6,416km, or over nine hours by plane. Train journeys are measured in days, not hours. The country crosses nine timezones.
I used the rest of the time in my hostel before I had to leave for my flight booking my trip in the USA. I have noticed that my sudden continent jump has confused a fair few of you, so for the unenlightened, let me explain. After numerous attempts of showing what I’m made of to the-powers-that-be, I was able to score a few offers of work experience and company visits at various places. As soon as I found out about this, I hastily booked me week-long stay in California. All bar one of the opportunities bar one fell through by sheer bad luck. What I was left with was a full day in Silicon Valley. You can hardly complain when that day will be spent at Google’s main campus in Mountain View, though. It also meant that I’ll be able to see other parts of California which I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see.
Taking into account the recent changes in my itinerary, I embarked upon booking some things which would add some spice to the journey. I have visited San Francisco before, so much of the aim of the trip will be to venture through parts of California which I haven’t yet been exposed to. Anneke has seen more of this part of the world than I have!
I shortened my stay in Mountain View to only the required time and penciled in some plans to see other parts of Silicon Valley like Palo Alto, Stanford and Cupertino. I might even sneak in a trip to San Jose, which is less than half an hour away by car.
I then booked a hostel in San Francisco for two nights. Having already seen San Francisco’s city, I then booked some day trips out to Yosemite and the Redwood forest of Muir woods to see some of the world’s tallest trees. I also booked a ticket to Alcatraz which I am yet to see, but which Dad speaks highly of.
As for the LA part of the trip, I booked an overnight bus from San Francisco to the city (free WI-FI too!). I had already booked my LA accommodation, so I used the last few minutes before leaving for my Shanghai flight to book seats at the LA Clippers vs Chicago Bulls basketball match where I’ll get to see Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo amongst some other big names in action.
After making these bookings, I snagged the last seat on the airport shuttle and caught it all the way to the (relatively close) Harbin airport. My flight was scheduled for 5:00pm, but I arrived with plenty of time to spare at 3:20pm. As with practically ever afternoon domestic flight I’ve taken in China, the flight was delayed. In fact, every flight was delayed.
At least I received some compensation.
It was almost 9:00pm and I still hadn’t heard any news. Then suddenly, an announcement screeched out of the tinny speakers which caused the crowd of Chinese people waiting for the flight to jump out of their seats in frustration. They all ran to the gate to abusively yell at the attendants.
“Uh oh,” I thought.
People were yelling at a speed which was far too difficult for me to understand, so I asked someone nearby to explain the situation to me more slowly.
“The flight has been rescheduled to tomorrow at midday, they’re booking everyone a hotel for the night,” she lamented.
“Nope, nope, nope. That’s not happening. That can’t be happening.” I exclaimed, storming through the crowds to someone who could help me.
I was shooed away, and fair enough, but I quickly realised that this was a game of having the loudest voice. I don’t know how someone could have done this without speaking Chinese. These are the situation where it becomes a crucial tool.
It took half an hour of pressing one particular staff member just to get the information out of them that the airline wasn’t running any more flights in the evening, and that I’d have to buy my own ticket if I wanted to fly out tonight.
Yet another thing to add to my “expenses” list, but it had to be done. I had work experience starting at 9:30am tomorrow, and it’s something which I’ve been working towards for a long time. It would be incredibly embarrassing to have to call it off at such late notice. These are the times when you have to dig into your rainy day fund.
I sprinted through the airport and did what I had to do to get one of the last flights of the evening. It was scheduled to depart not long after I’d bought the ticket, but we didn’t actually take off until 11:30pm.
The hour spent on the tarmac was an absolutely needless waste of time. The chaos was performed as if it were a play for all of the tired and frustrated passengers on board.
ALL of the seats were full, and yet the staff somehow permitted another 30 or so people to board.
The result was an aisle full of passengers without seats.
I have no idea how that somehow got past the staff, but it did. Worst of all, the people standing in the aisle all seemed to be older people from rural Heilongjiang. They were just following their guide who was perched at the front of the plane with her flag hoisted high on her little metal pole.
I. Hate. These. Tour. Groups.
The group leader always yaps away on a ear-piercing waist speaker while the normally hat-wearing group of 50 or so old farmers follow the guide like lemmings and clog up whatever it is that they set foot into. In this case, it was a plane.
Now part of me feels bad – this was probably the first flight for some of these elderly people. But God were they disrespectful and rude. For an hour, we sat in our seats listening to these people try to convince the staff to let them SIT IN THE AISLE for the duration of the flight.
“I’m sorry, Sir, that’s not how flights work,” I felt like saying.
But no, I had to sit there unable to sleep because of the noise after having been at the airport since 3:20pm while this kerfuffle was sorted out.
Eventually, the tour group disembarked and we were on our way.
It wasn’t until 2:30am that we touched down in Shanghai. More than 11 hours since arriving at the airport. What a disaster.
Day 245 (10th of November, 2016) – Shanghai, China
With just over three hours of sleep under my belt, I marched out onto the Shanghai metro towards South Shaanxi Road for work experience. I’ve been lucky enough to secure two days of working with some teams at the Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal offices in Shanghai. It’s an opportunity which I’ve been incredibly excited for and have been communicating with one of the people in HR for a long time during the organisational process.
The metro during peak hour normally requires a fair amount of pushing just to squeeze on, but I eventually made it out to the Puxi offices. As with most Western companies, they choose Puxi for their China headquarters rather than the standard CBD of Pudong. It’s the expats’ area of choice.
On the way there I passed Dashijie, the area where I had been mugged. This is the rough spot where I remember stumbling in before being thrown into a taxi.
The Dow Jones office is located in Two ICC, the same building as King & Wood Mallesons.
It’s a luxurious setting to walk into.
As soon as I arrived at the offices I met Wendy, the HR person who I had been in contact with. This local Shanghainese woman had superb English and was surprised at my level of Chinese, saying it was better than most of the foreign employees (good start!).
One of the first questions I asked was why the Wall Street Journal edition on everyone’s desks was yesterday’s.
“We aren’t approved to get them printed in Shanghai, so we have to get them shipped in from Hong Kong. During that process, the government has to look at the papers for censorship.” she explained.
“Do things often get censored?” I asked. This was sounding remarkably similar to my HSC English creative writing, actually.
“Yes, every now and then we’ll receive our papers with pages torn out. Our website was blocked two years ago as well,” she said, clearly harbouring her own disappointment at the reality of things.
Work in a foreign media company in China. What a fascinating experience this was shaping up to be.
And the bathrooms. The bathrooms!
It turned out that Wendy had organised for each department in the office to give me a briefing of what they do so that I could work out which area fascinated me the most in order to inform my upcoming university decisions. It was very thoughtful of her.
We got started with the first meeting of the day. This was led by Ivy Guo, the Head of Private Market Primary Research in China.
Ivy deals exclusively with Dow Jones’ “professional information business”, whose customers are institutional investors. Specifically, she leads a team who perform the primary research for input into Dow Jones’ product known as “VentureSource”. VentureSource (previously “Venture One”) has an illustrious history – it was first created in 1987 and now serves as a critical tool for many thousands of investment firms in spotting deal and partnership opportunities, performing comprehensive due diligence and examining trends in private equity/venture capital investment and liquidity. It is extremely comprehensive, covering over 115,000 companies and over 37,000 investment firms with very up-to-date data. You can imagine the manpower which that requires to maintain. They were the people who I was about to meet.
Ivy’s team is responsible for tracking down data from companies backed by venture capital and private equity in China as well as some surrounding countries, including Australia. The team looks for things like mergers & acquisitions, personnel changes, financials, IPO’s and new rounds of fundraising. What differentiates Ivy’s Primary Research Team from Coco’s Secondary Research Team who I was to meet next was that she sourced her information by ringing the companies directly or sending surveys to their executives.
I was then introduced to Coco Zhu and her team, who performed a similar function but instead confirmed data through secondary sources. This included collecting news on Factiva (another Dow Jones product which we actually used during school) or sifting through Securities & Exchange Commission filings.
My high school economics and further reading from this year immediately fell into place more so than I had anticipated. I was keeping up with everything. She was speaking my language.
Browsing through VentureSource following the meetings was particularly interesting – one search of a random name from someone in the industry who I had heard of brought up a web of investments and board positions. It was fascinating to see how everything links up.
Following the first round of meetings, Wendy was kind enough to take me out to a Chinese lunch in the building with both Coco and Ivy. Conversation was held exclusively in Chinglish. I discovered that Coco holds residency in Australia after having studied at the University of Wollongong and that Wendy’s daughter is living in Melbourne. These were some of the most globalised Chinese people I have met on my trip thus far.
My contribution to the restaurant order was a little more exotic.
Following lunch there was one more session arranged for me – shadowing a Wall Street Journal writer. Shen Hong is the Shanghai Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, covering markets and finance in China. Some of his recent articles can be read here and here.
Shen’s session was much more informal than the first two, but no less insightful. He stepped me through the process of writing an article from the very first brief to the final output, sorting through his inbox and hastily written notes to backtrack on the process of writing the first of the two stories which I linked. It was a particularly interesting time to be witnessing his work, because he was covering the bounce-back of the Yuan after an initial slide following Donald Trump’s election. By the nature of the financial markets, his story was changing in front of my eyes as he adjusted it to suit ever-changing statistics. Just like I do with my tutoring students, his Editor was making adding constructive criticism to the article which he was attending to on the go.
I certainly developed a tremendous respect for the work of journalists like Shen, especially amidst a tough climate for print newspapers. But it did solidify my gut feeling that journalism should not extend further than a pastime for me – it would not be a career which would capture me as much as it does for other people.
Wendy made sure that I had my photo taken before I left for the day.
I only had time for one hour of tutoring before I was on my way to Paul and Soph’s house for the Last Supper. The two of them had invited Jeremy and I over since it was one of our last nights in Shanghai. It provided the best opportunity to say goodbye.
As usual, the yarns at Paul’s lasted well into the evening. There was no shortage of laughs over the stalker incident of the week prior.
Typically you leave these brief relationships with the hollow words “this isn’t a goodbye – I’ll see you soon”. Sometimes one party really believes it, but typically you can look at the situation realistically and understand that the chances of properly continuing the friendship in full force are slight.
The friendship I’ve built with Paul, Soph and Jeremy was a significant exception to that. It has me questioning whether I’ve jumped to hollow conclusions as to the fate of far too many relationships in the past.
Hopefully the next time I see the crew again will be in Sydney over Chinese New Year or in China during a possible Sino-Immersions stint next year.
And let’s hope that upon each return back to Shanghai I’ll stay closer and closer to this amazing heart of the French Concession.
Day 246 (11th of November, 2016) – Shanghai, China
It was another early rise for Dow Jones.
Despite beginning to feel the pinch of an accumulating lack of sleep, it quickly faded when I became engaged in some interesting content in the office. I can tell that I have a genuine passion for both the work and the people here – it’s a really positive sign.
Finally yesterday’s historical edition of the WSJ had arrived at the offices.
The first session was with Tina Dong, the Research Manager of State Owned Companies (SOC’s) for China and nearby countries within Dow Jones’ Risk & Compliance department. Consider the magnitude of this job. The People’s Republic of China, by nature of being a Communist state, lends itself to the convoluted administration of countless SOC’s. What I didn’t realise was just how extensive this operation is. There are 245,000 SOC’s across the globe, 40% of which are Chinese.
Let me clarify what Dow Jones actually defines as an SOC. An SOC must have a corporate structure, a commercial purpose and have 1% or more of it be government-owned.
After a company is determined to be an SOC, a report is written up on it which includes details such as the country of ownership, the country of registration, government’s voting control, government’s appointing control, and most importantly, the overall “government owned percentage”. Consider how complicated of a task it is to figure out that last statistic – it involves a constant reevaluation of every company’s assets and subsidiaries, looking for even the most minor links to government-invested entities. And of course, it is the figure in highest demand by Dow Jones’ customers.
The purpose of Dow Jones providing these statistics to its clients is to assist in quickly and effectively checking whether a customer, vendor or other third party has any government connections, and therefore the potential to be involved in public corruption.
One of the other things which is clients request most often from this department is a comprehensive Due Diligence report on a company. I was able to see an example of how one is written for a Chinese SOC. Thank God these people don’t have do much travel and get down and dirty with these companies. I can’t imagine the bureaucratic spider webs they’d have to climb through just to get a shred of probably fabricated information. It’s a good thing that they’re locals and understand how to navigate the system.
It was an intense session. I was so gripped by it, in fact, that I think I was borderline overworking the team with my questions. Eventually Tina and I agreed to head to lunch together along with two other people I’d made friends with in the office – Carter and Audrey. Audrey had taken a particular fascination with me since the beginning of the day and she was insistent that I make my preferences clearer about what sort of food I would like. I refused to give in to providing any information, and so she gambled on taking us all to a Shanghai noodle restaurant. The gamble paid off.
The group was surprised when I nonchalantly ordered what I later realised was liver noodles. They were excellent, actually.
Back at the offices Wendy had organised one more session for me. It was a spectacular conclusion to what had been a very thoughtfully planned few days catered specifically to my interests. The last session was led by Audrey, and she brought in each member of her team for me to meet and had them present a description of their day-to-day work.
Audrey is in charge of Dow Jones’ Sanctions List (including terrorism, economic sanctions, embargoes, etc). It’s an area which, despite me having relatively little knowledge of compared to SOC’s or the basics of private equity, greatly fascinates me.
One of the lists which Dow Jones does it’s best to maintain is the terrorist wanted list from Xinjiang Autonomous Region. This part of North-Western China borders high risk countries like Afghanistan and has been known to be a hideout and breeding ground for groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Xinjiang gives China its best and worst elements. I can say conclusively from my visit there during Riverview’s 2014 Chinese Exchange that it is the most exciting province to visit in China (assuming you have already ticked off the essentials). The contrast of snowy mountains to endless sand dunes and lines of camels is unparalleled. I have fond memories of walking through cities built purely out of mud and clay in absolute disbelief with my peers. Just thinking about it now, I struggle to believe that the trip went ahead without significant protest. It was as off-the-beaten-track as any school trip in Australia would get, surely. Xinjiang also brings China some of its best food (many of my Xuzhou dinners can be credited to Xinjiang), and it also brings the Uyigur people, an ethnic minority which enhances China’s national identity to a significant degree.
Xinjiang isn’t all positive, though. Two days after we left Urumqi a terrorist attack occurred in the main marketplace. Uyghur Seperatists also stabbed 36 Han Chinese passengers disembarking their train at Kunming’s main station in Yunnan Province not more than a year or so after Vidya, Angus and I met in that very city.
The job of updating the Xinjiang Terrorist Wanted List had recently been made significantly harder by the government’s refusal to continue releasing any public records or notices on Uyghur-related issues, likely borne from an interest to deter public panic and create a perception of stability. I laughed when I heard this.
“Why can’t you just ask the government department for private access to the list? After all, Dow Jones is one of the only providers of the list to securities commissions, insurance regulators, industry regulators, banking supervisory bodies and the Central Bank. All of those organisations require that list in order to properly blacklist certain people from their services, thereby stopping the continued funding of any terrorist activity.” That was my first question.
“Well, you can’t just ‘ask’ the government,” one of the team responded.
“What do you mean? It’s just an email to the relevant department or accessing one of your contacts in the government, of which I’m sure you have many.” I fired back.
I genuinely didn’t understand. Blocking all services from terrorists seemed like it would be in the government’s interests.
“We did email them. No response. When the government doesn’t respond, you stop hassling them. Otherwise they’ll start asking questions of you, and soon you’ll be out on your arse,” he replied, very seriously.
THAT’S scary. And very, very sad. Any sane person would tiptoe very carefully through government regulations – it makes you realise that it’s remarkably easy for a government to gain a firm grip on the media.
One of the more trivial jobs of this department is to assign Chinese names to Uyghur terrorists who don’t have one. It turns out that there’s an official dictionary for ascribing Chinese names to foreigners. Apparently my Chinese name should be 泽维尔 (pronounced zuh-way-err) rather than my chosen one, 尹利丹 (pronounced ee-lee-darn). I took photos of Bianca and Annie’s Chinese names in case the Chinese government ever needed to ascribe them one (let’s hope that won’t happen). Unfortunately the picture of Anneke’s was too blurry, so I just got Bianca’s.
“比安卡” (pronounced bee-arn-ka).
I once again found myself pushing hard with questions driven by my sheer fascination with the subject at hand. It was a really rare insight into the way the Chinese criminal underworld works and the government’s response to these problems. that’s not something an ordinary tourist or student in China would see!
I decided to end with a more lighthearted question.
“What type of milk tea is that? I want to get one.” I said, pointing to one of the staffer’s cups.
They all looked astonished. It was the first Chinese I had spoken all session. If you time your Chinese right, you can get people when they least expect it to maximise the impact. They suddenly all became excited that I knew about the Chinese milk tea craze, and before long I had Audrey and Yuki rushing me around South Shaanxi Road to feed me Oolong milk tea and an egg yolk bun.
The three of us had some really fascinating conversations during the walk. They couldn’t wrap their head around some of the countries which I’d travelled to, some of which (like Iran) they had been reporting on for years but had never been to. They quickly called their employees in for some photos.
Before I knew it, I was the star of everyones WeChats.
As soon as the final part of the work experience finished, I rushed home for what would be my last two hours in my room while in Shanghai. In those two hours I had to pack and iron everything which I would need until January 29. I only just managed to do it, and I was able to fit everything fairly comfortably into the suitcase due to some killer packing techniques.
For a reason which still defeats me, the bag weighed 28kg. I dumped 2kg worth of things which I could go without and then didn’t have any more time, so I decided to call it and day and see what I could do at the airport to rearrange things into my hand luggage.
I left my now mostly empty room and threw on a jumper for my trip to Carrie’s hotel to go with her to my (second) Last Supper. This is the dinner which I organised at an Indonesian restaurant. By now, the group had inflated to the size of 14 and everyone was coming. It was a great selection of people, spread between ACYA and Shanghai International Studies University. The personalities were a perfect mix and the restaurant was superb – I made sure that I based my choice on some very reassuring reviews from friends.
From left to right (so that you can start putting some names to faces from this blog): Joe, Carrie, me, Jake, Ellie, Bronagh, Dion, Isla, Ellen, Jack and Emma.
While the passing Chinese woman was taking our photo, Ellie taught me something which apparently adults will yell to young children when they’re taking their photo in a kind of back-and-forth:
“帅不帅？” – Are ya handsome?
“帅！” – Yes!
“美不美？” – Are ya beautiful?
“美！” – Yes!
The dinner ended with perfect timing to kick on to “Daliyah”, a venue where our friend Kelly was going to perform at a Feminist Event. Apparently, one of the activities at this Feminist Event is the “Date Monologue”. Each one of the burgeoning comedians receives a recount of a Shanghai date gone awry submitted anonymously by an audience member, and they must present it in as humorous of a way as they can to the audience. Unfortunately, Kelly arrived just after her section had been called and she missed the opportunity to perform. It didn’t matter at all, though. We were already preoccupied with the hidden bar upstairs and the slippery slide joining the two levels. Roars of laughter came out of different rooms where various female-empowering X-rated games had been set up to entertain the masses.
I spent most of the time at Daliyah talking to Jack, a recent law graduate from Melbourne University, about his efforts to obtain funding and set up a website which automatically generates legal essay bibliographies. An impressive project which seemed to be taking off.
Latisha and Su along with a few more of my friends showed up and dragged us off to the next location – Rooster. This foreigner hangout was as much about sitting on the sidewalk with a drink as it was about the heavenly burgers contained within. It was great fun.
Despite my need to depart at 5:30am the next morning for my flight out, I was somehow convinced to kick on to yet another location despite the fact that I had already had my last drink some time ago. I’m glad I did continue, though. I met some more Sydneysiders at the next venue, Dada, which was probably the second grungiest dive bar I have seen in the city. Deep hip hop beats could only get so entertaining until I decided to call it a night.
Carrie found it the toughest to say goodbye. I knew that it would be difficult saying goodbye to everyone, but in many ways I had been mentally preparing for it during my time in Harbin, and I had come to accept that in effect, I had already left Shanghai. I remembered the joys of travelling and not having a permanent base, and suddenly leaving the city didn’t seem so daunting. Seeing Carrie get emotional did bring me back down to Earth, though. I’m incredibly lucky to have ended up in a place where I have made so many lifelong friends. Yet more relationships which won’t be ending any time soon.
It’s good to know that I’ll always have contacts to come and visit in this great city.
Day 247 (12th of November, 2016) – Hong Kong, China
I woke up just before 5:00am after a couple of hours of sleep only to realise that in China’s airport system, despite Hong Kong being considered a domestic flight, it requires arriving to the airport two hours prior to departure. The oversight meant that I quickly rescheduled my Didi to come ASAP. I gathered together all of my belongings and ran out of the door. Frustratingly, the Didi had to fill up on petrol which was in the opposite direction of the airport.
I used the 40-minute drive to catch an extra few minutes of sleep before rushing through Pudong airport and getting to my gate with a bit of time to spare. It was a painful wait in the check-in and customs queues, though.
I was flying to Hong Kong because it is where I booked my flight to San Francisco from, thinking that the Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal experience would be based there. The mistake had the silver lining of meaning that I could visit one of the people which Paul put me in touch with in the city – Jono Horan.
And besides, you can never complain about being able to see the beautiful scenes of Hong Kong another time. This stunning picture taken in the recent rainstorms found its way onto my computer screen a few weeks ago.
We had organised to meet as soon as I could after my flight on Hong Kong Island in the IFC. I carted my luggage onto the Airport Express and was in the city in under 25 minutes. That same rush hit me as it does every time when entering Hong Kong’s city. The contrast of Hong Kong’s deep greens against its colourful apartments and chaotic skyscrapers is so, so unique.
I quickly found Isola Bar – the place where I was meeting Jono.
Jono is another Riverview old boy who graduated alongside Paul. Jono actually dropped his Chinese early on in high school, but he ended up making the jump across to Asia and picking up the skill again after finding a good opportunity in the city. Jono studied the exact same degree as I will be studying at the University of Sydney – our backgrounds are very similar. He held a position with Freehills in Sydney for much of his early adulthood before finding a spot at Linklaters in Singapore and later in Hong Kong, where he now specialises in capital and equity markets. He tells me that Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where a lawyer specialising in such an area can get a lot of work. He doesn’t see himself being able to practice the same kind of law back in Sydney. He absolutely adores his lifestyle in Hong Kong, and it made my salivate just listening to it. The emotions he described of living in Hong Kong, from his family’s first apartment in the Central Mid-Levels to their current spot on the Western side of Hong Kong Island sounded incredibly thrilling. This really is such a global city, and the thing which I realise about Hong Kong is that it can be a completely different city depending on how you approach it. I go days on end in Hong Kong feeling like I’m in New York, and then when I venture closer to the Chinese mainland I feel like I’m deep in the heart of Bangkok or suburban Beijing. You can pick and choose the lifestyle you want. That’s a luxurious offer.
Jono has a young family and has recently been made partner at the firm, so he was able to share some particularly helpful insights into the career and what it’s like to live with a young family overseas. He also assured me in no uncertain terms that my spiking and mugging wasn’t out of the ordinary – he hears of it happening a lot when his clients are in town, especially when they steer towards shadier activities.
Jono and I got along with ease and I’ve no doubt that I’ll be seeing him or his brother Dan the next time I’m in the region.
It wasn’t long before Jono had to head off to take his children camping on one of the nearby islands with a group of other Riverview families while all the wives were on a holiday in Bali.
I found my way to my hotel in Wan Chai on the metro.
I threw my bags into the share room before heading straight back out to refill my now growling stomach. I was on a strict schedule because one of my tutoring students was having a bit of an academic emergency which needed attending to. I still found the opportunity to take a few detours and get to see the Wan Chai area.
The best snack which I bought was this mango squishy roll. I must say, I have completely forgotten what it was called. But it was unbelievably refreshing. I will no doubt be buying another one before I leave.
I turned off the main street, and suddenly it felt like I was in real China again. But hidden beneath the stained walls were some of the most luxurious cafés and bars. That’s one of the things I really love about Hong Kong – commercial establishments do a good job of blending into their surroundings.
I also forgot how good everyone’s English was here. While waiting for my take-away dumplings and pancakes, I was talking with a 50-something year old businessman about his recent trip to Australia. He had a near perfect accent, and a few other locals joined the conversation who were equally as proficient.
The meal was a good addition to the tutoring session. I found this well air-conditioned spot with a good view for work.
After lunch and some tutoring, I went in to explore a bit more of my room. It was quite an impressively designed hostel room. It’s amazing what they can fit in such small spaces in this city. You feel like you’re sleeping in your own little capsule. The room slept six, but it felt incredibly quiet. Most people seemed to be here on business – they weren’t seeking the party vibe which some of the hostels on the mainland tend to offer.
While sitting on my bed, I passed out into a deep sleep and didn’t awake until 4am the next morning, missing dinner. When I woke up, it was to the sound of snoring akin to Il-Kwon’s in Xuzhouo.
Day 248 (13th of November, 2016) – Mountain View, CA, USA
I arose just after 7am for my morning breakfast stroll. This is one of my favourite parts about not being in a set place when I’m travelling – I don’t fall into a routine with breakfast. In Xuzhou and Shanghai it’s easy to become lazy and eat cereal or fruit every morning in your room, but when I’m on the road, breakfast becomes another highlight of the day.
I browsed the selection in nearby streets before settling on some rolls to see me through until my flight.
The morning provided the best views of the surrounding streets. There was relatively few cars out and about – a rare sight in this part of the city.
That last picture is the perfect example of how Hong Kong can become Paris if you so choose.
I caught the metro to the IFC from which I could hop back on the airport express to the international airport for my flight to San Francisco. The flight was going via Beijing. So in effect, over the span of two days I was flying from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Beijing to San Francisco. Very counterintuitive, I know, but it’s what you’ve got to do to chase the cheapest airfares!
The best thing about going via the IFC on Hong Kong Island is that you’re able to do something called “In Town Check-In”.
This is an incredibly convenient service. There’s no queues, and they’ll check in your luggage and hand you your boarding pass all the way over in Hong Kong so that you can spend your waiting time strolling through the city or just simply skip the queues when you eventually arrive at the airport.
I relaxed with a book on the train to the airport.
Arriving there, I was suddenly hit with a flashback from 2009 when I first saw the huge, double-layered design of this airport. It was like no airport I had ever seen before.
I somehow forgot that I had already checked-in in the city, and I spent my first half an hour at the airport waiting in line at economy check-in before realising halfway through that I had already completed that process. Laughing, I continued through one of the quickest customs processes I’ve ever been through.
Before I knew it, I had slept through the entire three hour hop to Beijing International Airport. The airfield was heavily polluted as always.
I didn’t get to take in the view (or lack thereof) for too long, though. The academic emergency from one of my students was continuing, and I conducted another tutoring session outside the gate to try and fix the situation up. Thank God for the internet. Without it, I don’t know how any of this gap year would go ahead.
The Air China flight to San Francisco took off on time and I was seated next to a lovely woman from New York. We talked throughout all of our meals and exchanged stories from travel in China – it’s always a relief when you get seated next to someone who makes a long-haul flight bearable (except when they’re too talkative… which can be just as annoying).
It was just after 11:00am on Sunday when I arrived in San Francisco following a very botchy sleep. Practically the same time as when I took off in Hong Kong.
The US Homeland Security process was a nightmare as expected. I know that they have a reputation for being thorough and strict, but it was on a level which I did not expect. As in, this was (almost) Israel level stuff. After a long wait, I was shuffled through what was clearly a “high risk” aisle right down to a customs officer who told me that he would be unpacking all of my bags and searching through each item individually, and that I could repack everything once he was done going through them. The whole process took another 40 minutes, because it also involved going into an interview and going through the usual routine of explaining why on Earth I had gone to places like Iran.
One of the more awkward parts of the luggage search was when the officer, Guzman, was going through my hand luggage. He pulled out a book titled “Narconomics”, a gift from Aimee, which explores the economics of Mexican drug cartels exporting cocaine to the USA. I laughed at the irony, and luckily the customs officer also found it funny. He noted that I would be the clumsiest drug mule ever if I were to have smuggled something inside of that book.
While I was packing up my bags, I noticed that the customs officers were trying to communicate to a Chinese woman who had absolutely no English ability. I jokingly offered my translation services, and they actually took me up on it. For the next 20 minutes, I sat in one of the officers’ chairs acting as the conduit between the woman and the team. It was a funny turn of events. It turns out the woman was holding more than US$10,000 in cash which was a bit odd. At that point I was told to leave.
I had officially entered the USA a free man. I followed all the signs to the Caltrain where I would transit into Silicon Valley for the night. To get to the Caltrain station, you actually have to catch a BART (metro) to Millbrae first. I entered the rusting, smoke-stained carriage passing the American flags emblazoned on the outside.
It was only a couple of minutes until the US$5 ride plopped me off at Millbrae.
I was thrown right into the warm but mild sun with the cool breeze of NorCal’s Autumn. It’s an incredible feeling. What perfect weather. This part of the world has my sort of climate – slightly cooler seasons than Sydney with a clear distinction between each one, but mild overall.
It wasn’t too long until one of the monster Caltrain’s had rolled up. This is the famous line which links San Francisco and San Jose, dropping many of the tech-heads off at their Silicon Valley companies each morning.
On the way we passed through many of the Bay Area’s more famous areas such as Palo Alto and Stanford.
The train quickly filled up with youngsters donning their red Stanford T-shirts displaying their various schools of education.
I disembarked at San Antonio which was just slightly closer to my AirBnB accommodation than Mountain View, the location of Google’s headquarters.
Walking through the streets near San Antonio station was undoubtedly one of the more surreal experiences of my gap year. It was just so… perfect. Very utopic. So much so that it was almost eerie. It just seemed like there were no problems here. I wasn’t sure if I would be the happiest man on Earth living here or just plain bored. I’d imagine it’d be closer to the former considering the proximity to San Francisco (just over a half an hour drive away) and all of the big tech firms nearby.
Just look at these leafy trees and cute, perfectly maintained rows of houses.
Just seeing the place has me seriously considering looking into what pathways I could have to some post-graduate study at Stanford.
I eventually found my way to my Mountain View share house and borrowed someone’s phone to ring the tenant. I was let in promptly. Certainly not the flashiest of houses, but the flatmates are nice (stereotypical coders who stay up all night, very funny guys). I assure you we will not make for very good alternatives to the main characters of HBO’s Silicon Valley.
It didn’t take long for it to become dark. By the time I left for a stroll around the surrounding area, the sun was setting. I decided to delay my big walk to Mountain View’s main Castro Street until tomorrow in preference of finding an AT&T to buy a SIM card and to locate some dinner closer by. I saw a few more iconic neighbourhood American views on the way.
I noticed that the vast majority of people who I passed in the street were speaking Spanish. The guys at AT&T also told me that with 40% of the area being Hispanic, it was probably a good choice to go and find some Mexican tonight. I tracked down a local taco joint for my first of many Mexican meals for the coming week.
Even the menu was in Spanish. I needed to point just to overcome the language barrier.
Tomorrow is my day at Googleplex. I’m not often this nervous and excited. It’ll definitely kickstart my Californian experience. I look forward to blogging all about it next week.
Until next time,