Life can disappear on us just like a cup of coffee consumed on autopilot. In other words, to really experience life itself, as opposed to just more thinking about life, we need to remember we’re having an experience.
The Alternative To Thinking All The Time
I turn 50 today. A fact I find very hard to believe as I feel the same as I always have, just lighter and faster.
The day started with hugs and handmade cards from the kids while I drank my first strong cup of coffee for the day. Next up was a slow 5K run around the nearby track – in this heat with each 5k I lose about 1kg of water weight.
The day continued with a trip to the FamilyMart to call a taxi from the service console there. Thanks to what must be a powerful lobby group, Taiwan seems to have outlawed Uber and has no real local alternative. I miss the convenience of 滴滴出行. The taxi delivered me to Fe21 where I watched the first of two ridiculous movies I had planned for the day, The Mummy and the slightly more torturous Transformers. I enjoy being entertained by the silliness of Hollywood movies with their high production values and sometimes great production art. Lunch was at my favorite coffee shop Ink Café where I enjoyed a latte, sandwich and salad, and some free sweet they were handing out.
The day ended takeout sashimi from our local favorite, cheesecake from again, Ink Café, and a late night glass of whiskey with a group of Sheryl’s colleagues. Being tired my introversion shined, but I was delighted to hear people talk about topics of a great deal more depth than what the youngsters I had the pleasure to be around in China talk about. Even more delightful, this was a group of people who actually paid attention to one another. In China, you could have diner with a group of people and they would spend the majority of their time looking at their phone screens.
But for an increased drive to see, experience, and do much more, I have no real change in plans for the 2nd half of my life. It’s more of a feeling that things are just getting started vs. starting to wind down.
I returned to China yesterday after a 3 month absence. There is much to write about the past 3 months and my return to working here, but I think the above video might be a good start. This was what I was greeted with at 5:55am today. Still suffering from the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced I was up at 3am anyway, but only here would they be allowed to produce such soul destroying noise this early in the day (and it’s been going non-stop for 8 months). This may be a contributing factor as why most of my colleagues are now spending there time away from this campus.
Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse. Ran away. And all the neighbors came ‘round that evening and said, “that’s too bad.”
And he said, “maybe.”
The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came around and said, “that’s great, isn’t it?”
And he said, “maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune. Or you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
This noise started shortly after my arrival at the campus here and has continued unabated for the past 3 months. It goes through walls and reverberates off all the buildings, that coupled with the fact that any repairs that need to be done to the facilities start at sunrise, means that unless you sleep like death, you get up with the sun. For the workers of China, there are no days off.
With regards to food, living in Taiwan, and now China, for the past 17 – 18 years I’ve just about seen it all. Living and traveling throughout the region has opened my eyes to all kinds oddities, but I still get surprised now and again. This past weekend when visiting for what passes as a high end grocery store here, I noticed tucked amongst the neatly packaged pork, a pair of hooves. It would be interesting to know what kind of recipe calls for sheep’s feet.
I’m very much the classic introvert, I love to talk and discuss all kinds of things, love being around people, but at any party, or room full of people, unless necessary, I would never naturally gravitate towards the centre. My voice doesn’t boom and I don’t seek out the attention of others (to a fault – you need to sell yourself). Often this is called shyness, or more rudely anti-social. I just explain that I like to be quiet, listen to, and observe others. Qualities I think also coincidently are good when being concerned with design.
I love my time alone and one of the benefits of being an avid runner is that I often get at least an hour everyday to recharge my mind, body and think through various situations or problems. Walking during lunch has the same or similar benefits, and I believe also improves a persons ability to think creatively. Unfortunately, creative ability hasn’t been in demand in Taiwan these last few years, and so I have no real proof of it’s effects. No correlation, or A/B test.
Being alone here is a state of mind, a perpetual choice, and an occasional imposition, a burden, and a gift — and sometimes the very best way to meet a fellow stranger. “Every form of human expressiveness is on display,” Vivian Gornick writes of walking the streets by herself, “and I am free to look it right in the face, or avert my eyes if I wish.”
But though I love my alone time, these days I am amazed at how strong the effects of being constantly alone have been on me. It’s feels like being stuck in a cabin in the woods in winter.
I left Taiwan over 3 weeks ago, part of that time has been spent in Hong Kong and Fuzhou, places teeming with people. These last 12 days have been spent at the company campus, where they had placed me (dumped) just before the long holiday. The campus is isolated, and though the facilities are first class, there is absolutely nothing to see or do. And no one to talk to or run in to. I think this just might be the first time in my life that I have felt being lonely for any significant period of time.
I don’t seek people out, I am terrible at striking up conversations with strangers and I am happy exploring a strange city alone. I don’t seek out political discourse with opinionated cab drivers or boozy bonding with locals over beers into the wee hours. By the time the hours get wee, I’m usually in bed in my hotel room …
Being away from family is a contributor (attachment theory), and all of the support system I have built in Taiwan over the past 17+ years. People are generally friendly here, in a different way than in Taiwan, they just naturally assume you speak Chinese and go from there. People in Taiwan don’t often greet you, and will not often speak for fear of a misunderstanding.
The effects have been noticeable, with a more general gloomy outlet and decreased productivity. It’s nothing serious, if anything it’s disappointing.
I’ve often dreamed of having an extended period of time alone where I could focus on getting things done. This was a small part of the motivation to come to China in the first place. Focus now so that later we might reap some kind of reward. When in music we would call it woodshedding, and I would often tell stories of how my trumpet instructor spent a long period of time in cabin alone relearning to play his instrument. He came back renewed and a new musician.
Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to work with me. Without some kind of social activity, or the inspiration of colleagues, the pressures of public failure, I don’t seem to function at 100%. There aren’t even many distractions here, during the day the connection to the outside work (VPN) is all but unusable.
Like many experiences this has been a great learning experience and a reminder of the importance of getting out and being around people. And the importance of having people nearby you to inspire and push you to do more things.
Typhoon Meradi arrived across the Taiwan Strait and brought with it high winds and flooding. Work was cancelled and the highway to ChangLe closed, so there was no moving to my more settled location. I spent the day indoors reading, the upside to not having Internet or interest in work.
Staying in all day wasn’t by choice, though by yesterday morning the typhoon had subsided, the flooding it caused resulted in water outside my door that was just below my waist. Not knowing the street and what might be under my feet I heeded the advice of the security guard and stayed in. I’ve lived through typhoons many times in Taiwan and we are usually quite prepared. This time I wasn’t. I hadn’t known how serious the flooding is here and that I wouldn’t be able to get to a store or restaurant for food.
So here I was in my room with 700ml of water, 4 bananas, and a small bag of almonds, wondering how long the flooding would last, and wishing I knew how to swim.
Company HR never got in touch during this time, to let me know about work closures, weather or if my meetings with them were cancelled during the day. It’s been obvious for a while that despite individually being nice people, that they have no systems in place for dealing with foreign hires. Luckily I reached out to them and my contacts to see what was going on.
There was running water that I could double boil. I had enough water and food to survive of course, and it’s nothing compared to the struggles of others, but in talking to the security guard I lamented that I hadn’t prepared well, and that I hadn’t eaten. So he gave me one of his dried packages of noodles to eat. And later in the evening showed up at my door with a hot lunch box. Fantastic guy! The cleaning lady kept me abreast of the weather situation. They were the bright points of my day.
Looking outside my window I see people busily starting to clean up all the sludge and garbage that remains. Strangely, despite it being on all day yesterday and though the storm, there is no water today.
I arrived in Fuzhou, Fujian via Hong Kong a few days ago for a work opportunity, a change which has been in the works since November of last year. This has involved the longest, most convoluted hiring process I have ever heard of. I plan on writing something down about the whole on-boarding experience after it has reached some sort of conclusion. I haven’t actually started working yet, and won’t for another couple weeks as HR goes through the process of making everything legal. Why in my case this takes so long hasn’t been communicated to me.
Its bit of an adventure, one in which I thought I needed. It’s difficult to move to a strange country alone, start a new job, and make your way. I thought this might be one of my last chances for this kind of personal growth before we head back to the quiet of Prince Edward Island. Being away from family makes it much more difficult.
Arriving in any strange place the first order of business is shelter and food. The company took care of the shelter part, and I have set out to find something edible. An HR rep. did graciously treat me to lunch/dinner, after hearing I hadn’t eaten all day. It was a delicious meal of dumplings and winter melon soup.
I’m not fanatical about it but I do have a strict dietary regime, if in Prince Edward Island in summer one should eat Cows Ice Cream and go to Strawberry Socials. But I as a rule don’t eat processed foods, nor do I often eat bread, noodles, rice or deep fried things. I tend to eat simple whole foods make up of vegetables and meat, followed by my indulgence of too much fresh fruit. I love curries but generally like to recognise what I am eating.
Thanks to the news, before landing I had already formed an opinion of the food in China, it’s an overly simplistic view that much of the food here contains some kind of poison. I have towards Taiwan’s food a similar perception but to a lesser degree.
Of course, there is also what I can see with my own eyes. The quality of some of the food I have seen is not that great. The steak, well my initial impression is that I don’t think I’ll be eating any cheap beef anytime soon. So I have been very cautious when trying new things and it’s been difficult finding restaurants that serve food that fit my criteria.
I have had some luck. One of the La Veritas chain restaurants nearby has a salad bar, with lettuce and tomatoes comprising what I consider salad. Chicken and salad bar is a bit expensive by local standards but I found it acceptable. I found a Japanese restaurant in the same building, one of the department stores with poor interior design called WangFuJin, that had food similar to what I find in Taiwan. Subway salads due in a pinch, and there is a Taiwanese style buffet nearby that has some egg dishes I like. My lunches have always been a coffee, lots of nuts and fruit. Imported nuts are expensive here, like everywhere, but at least they can be found.
The biggest problem is breakfasts. I tend to eat eggs, meat, fish or occasionally a home made cereal made from ground nuts. But people here seem to carb load. Lots of bread, noodles, or rice. In Taiwan there are breakfast shops galore, and it’s easy to ask the boss to simply fry you some eggs, if you don’t mind the oil. 7-11 has some ok options – tea eggs, fruit, and even salad. Unfortunately in this area none of this is possible. I haven’t even come across breakfast sandwiches, food that is ubiquitous in Taiwan.
Hopefully this is temporary, and when I move to my new place next week I’ll be able to find food closely resembling what I grew accustomed to in Taiwan and Canada.
Sometimes amongst the noise of Facebook a signal appears; some great advice from a high school classmate.
I’ve always taken risks in my life, sometimes they didn’t work out and I was embarrassed. I learned from every one, because I looked for the learning. And I didn’t stop taking risks. Over time, they stopped feeling so much like risks and it’s gotten harder to embarrass me. I’ve learned a lot.
What are you afraid to do? Be bold today. Do something you’ve always wanted to do, something you’ve been scared to try. Look for the learning and do it again next week.
Fear of embarrassment has long been a motivator for me but also an inhibitor to stepping outside my bubble and trying something new. I think I’ll take her advice.
Contrary to the views of the Taiwan Ministry of Education, who believe that genius magically appears in children prior to entering elementary school, a recent New York times column by David Brooks entitled Genius – The Modern View leaves behind the more romantic view of a divine spark, and takes a more prosaic view which emphasizes genius as something to be learned through effort and application.
We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.
What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had – the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.
According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.
Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)
I think I am still recovering from Catriona’s birthday party at Hong Kong Disneyland and our camping trip to Hualian. Traveling used to be far less exhausting.
Dates seem to be playing a larger role in my life than at any time in the past. The past is something that I spend far too much time thinking about as well. Perhaps this is a symptom of my advancing age or more likely I have allowed myself to settle into the boredom of ordinary life.
Either way the next few months seem to represent a number of milestones:
- this month I have been married for 12 years
- this month marks my 10th year of living in Taiwan (9 of it in Hsinchu)
- next month my daughter turns 5
- the month after that marks 19 years that I have been with my wife (we lived in sin for 7 years)
Writing it down makes it seem less auspicious. I’m not convinced that having spent 10 years on this rock is something to be proud of. It feels like an endurance test more than anything.
The title comes from Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle (songza) which for some reason started playing in my head when I was jotting this down. Perhaps Daniel Levitin’s book has an answer as to why.
I’ll start this month with this thought:
“Any man who is attached to things of this world is one who lives in ignorance and is being consumed by the snakes of his own passions.” – Black Elk