Screen Printing at Idle Beats Shanghai, July 2013

Screen Printing at Idle Beats Shanghai, July 2013. I was making a screenprint for my brother as a wedding present.

A good more than five years ago, I wrote a post about my experiences after 4 and a half months to date in China. I find it fitting to reflect on what I've experienced since then, or, as I wrote the following, how you might consider five years of your own time, as after more than five and a half years in China is quite an achievement in its own right:

  • Build-able Design is Hard to Achieve. It would be truly remarkable to go from concept design to construction documents and have your idea 100% preserved and realized. For that matter, I'm not even writing about whether the design is "good" or not, just realizing the fact that so many different factors will batter it -- almost always client decisions, and to a lesser but usually quite potent influence, other consultants and their engineers (especially lazy engineers), and quite unfortunately the people who execute your design and I really mean "execute" because the end result is not what you drew!
  • Don't make it complicated. Since it's so hard to get to the "finish line", keep the design simple. That also has the potential effect of designing something that is timeless and not a passing trend, like designing a park in North America to celebrate water drainage.
  • Common Sense is usually the Best Sense. Fascinating how rarely that it can be used in some situations.
  • Stick to your (past) decisions as much as possible. You might come across an image reference or precedent that you think is the coolest thing since dimension stone but resist the urge to suddenly integrate that cool but kind of complicated thing into a past design. Really, resist. And try to hide your designs from senior design principals who like doing that kind of thing.
  • Leading a Design Team is Like Herding Cats. I've been doing this recently -- coordinating work for others in the office -- and it can be so aggravating sometimes. As much as people think I behave like a teacher or even think that I am one when they first meet me, I don't think I could ever really be one. I believe I would give the highest average of failing grades at whichever institution.
  • Preserving Your Sanity is a Worthwhile Endeavor. When I first arrived in China, my intern mentor kept taking of his flat cap when we foreigners went out to lunch or dinner and often brought up the state of his sanity. I thought at the time it was part joke and part coping with reality of living in China. But, I think, after awhile, the ridiculousness of client demands in this country just starts getting to you. That it starts driving you insane, especially when the client committee in question thinks its perfectly normal to ask for the nearly impossible. All the time. It's important to know when it's time to step back or to say no. A project manager I worked with EADG went on to work at another company after I left to join WAA and very sadly suffered a heart attack from overworking sometime afterwards. He was a nice guy (too nice because he always said yes and worked late when I was with him) and he certainly didn't deserve such a fate so short into his life. He was only in his 30s. Fatigue can kill you, and in this industry it's a very real danger.
  • Travel. A lot. It helps to preserve your sanity -- getting away from it all --, it gives you perspective, it lets you live or experience life in a different way (which you may choose to adopt when you get back home), and it can inspire you, like if ever travel to Lijiang in Yunnan Province. Beautiful place.
  • Cultural Differences Make Life Interesting. Globalization not so much. But it's nice to be able to buy organic milk from Australia and 75% chocolate from Europe. In China, take note of the following faux pas and do not give these things as gifts: Clocks, Umbrellas, Shoes, Wallets, and Green Hats (to name a few). Clocks mean your hours are numbered, Umbrellas and Shoes that a relationship is at end, Wallets also about relationship and losing money, and green hats are bad because the Chinese word 戴绿帽子 means "an expression that Chinese use when a woman cheats on her husband or boyfriend because the phrase sounds similar to the word for cuckold. This apparently dates back to the Yuan dynasty when the relatives of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats." Although if you wear a green hat with a red star, you're okay. Well, lots of nuances with these things. Giving watches, unlike clocks, is okay for example.
  • Walk around randomly. Never know what you might find. Pyschogeography is an interesting concept.
  • Drink tea. It's good for you, of course, but it's also a relaxing pastime. But none of that bagged tea nonsense, I'm talking about drinking tea the gongfu way (功夫茶), or what people in the west call "Tea Ceremony".  There is tea that is salty, there is tea that is naturally sweet, there is tea that earthy and there is tea that is not.
  • Learn to Play the 古琴 (Guqin). It goes well with drinking tea. It also makes you travel back to simpler times.
  • Learn a traditional Japanese martial art. It helps to know how to defend yourself in that wild, wild, world out there. Nowadays whenever I'm on the street and someone gives me that shifty-eyed look, I immediately start to analyze positions and distances, especially in relation to the environment. For example, there's a space of few meters over there and there's a hot potato (purple yam) vendor over here; if worst came to worst, I could make the guy tumble backwards into the hot food cart here and make my escape over there. (You could also learn a traditional Chinese martial art, but be careful of any art that requires heavy conditioning to get you where you need to be because it can cause severe arthritis after 30 years continuous practice).
  • Get Married. It shifts your world view, priorities and a great excuse to use when needing to retreat from awkward social situations. Also makes you think about your own 5-year plans about what's next. There can be lot, financially speaking.
  • Create Five-Year Plans. The Chinese government does it, and so can you. It's both a short enough time that it can be realized and reflected upon and a long enough time not to feel too pressured. It's really a great idea.
  • Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously. Can you have some pride for what you've accomplished? Of course. But just don't take yourself too seriously. Don't have too much dignity. It's good to be the fool sometimes, for perspective, to bolster morale in the office, and to let some things go because they're too complicated right now and you need to preserve your sanity.
  • Learn to Do with Less. Because you just don't have the availability of more. No information from the client? No problem!
  • Learn to Adapt and Never Stop Creating. Even when things get tough or start fraying around the edges, or all hell breaks loose, always create something, especially for yourself.
  • Learn to Believe. In something, someplace, someone or sometime.
  • Change is Good. You might try to avoid as much as possible, kicking and screaming, but change is good. The particular reason I write this here, at the end of this reflection list, is simply an observation that I've changed since my 4 1/2 month reflection as a person, and I've changed considerably as designer since I graduated from Design School thinking I knew what design is. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that Design has remained the same, but that I've moved forward with different interests and interpretations of what I think is Right and Good.

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Reflections on 5.75 Years in China”

  • Rem

    May 29, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Haha, yes, well… My “great excuse” is the best “excuse” 😀

  • Fans

    May 22, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    Lihai hippo~ tasted tea, played Guqing, stamped your steps on lots of beautiful views, met your “great excuse”‘and being lead of cats and influenced china *^_^* ~~~wahoho!