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please get your bone saw out of my body slam
singapore sunset
We need to talk about wrestling. Or, more specifically, the WWE.

Professional wrestling is one of my shameless pleasures. It's wonderful theater, a sort of wacky fantasy world where you get to see jacked athletes socking one another and performing crazy stunts. The best part is that the audience is in on the joke - it's not like combat sports where the competitors are aiming to seriously injure one another, or team sports which rival fans use as an excuse to go to war with one another. Wrestling is pure - a collaborative spectacle designed to entertain and that's it.

However, wrestling also has a reputation for being problematic. Many performers take steroids to build their physiques, and some are known to abuse other drugs too. The schedules of the top guys are absolutely punishing: full-time travel - no weekends, holidays or vacation. Plus the stunts they perform can be deadly if something goes wrong. Professional wrestlers tend to die young. But it's not just the working conditions that are problematic. With a background in vaudeville and traveling carnivals, the whole industry is known to be unscrupulous. And which sleazebag clawed his way to the top of the muck? Vince McMahon of the WWE.

The WWE is the pinnacle of professional wrestling. Although there are local promotions all over the world, none of them have produced globally-recognized personalities like Hulk Hogan or The Rock or John Cena.

The WWE is also run by a family who are well-known Republicans. They have featured Donald Trump as a face (hero) in a previous storyline, and Linda McMahon (former CEO) is Trump's current head of the Small Business Administration. (Let's not talk about the irony of a billionaire corporate exec representing small business.)

But hey, that's the way it is, right? Pretty much every CEO in America is either a stone cold Republican or a raging libertarian, so what are you going to do?

A few months ago WWE did a gig in Saudi Arabia. Not just a regular house gig, mind you. It was a televised Royal Rumble, which is one of the big-name annual theme events. It seems Mohammad bin Salman is a fan, so he paid the WWE a princely sum to have their biggest superstars perform in his back yard. The Greatest Royal Rumble, as the event was embarrassingly named, was roundly criticized for not allowing any women to appear. Despite leaving all their women at home, the WWE was still admonished for showing a video package that showed some in passing, such is the level of misogyny in that nation.

Of course, the management tried to explain away the concessions as respecting the values of a foreign culture. Sure, fine, whatever. We all know Saudi Arabia is shit. You're just trying to get paid, right? Money, money, money. Whatever.

But now MBS has taken things a step further. I mean, aside from bombing civilians in Yemen, blockading Qatar, engineering a famine and cholera outbreak, continuing the tradition of segregation and capital punishment that his country is famous for... Yeah, aside from those minor issues, he has now also brazenly ordered the torture and dismemberment of a journalist in a foreign country.

It's not surprising that Trump is being an apologist. Trump is an insecure little man who idolizes the most violent dictators of the world, presumably because he sees them as the kind of "tough guy" he wishes he could be himself. But one would expect the McMahons to be a little more reluctant to follow their friend on this. Unlike Trump they actually run a successful company with a multi-billion dollar market cap that cannot afford bad press.

Or so you would think. It turns out there is a second Saudi performance - even more embarrassingly named Crown Jewel - scheduled for November 2. Is the WWE going to cancel it? Of course they aren't. We have to respect cultural differences, you see.

And so, how unfortunate that right now NXT (a sub-brand of WWE) has some of its most compelling storytelling in years, and they just opened an exciting new UK division to boot. Should i stop watching? Should i watch Japanese wrestling instead? American indie shows? Does it really matter, since i don't pay for it anyway?

I mean, this is a small pleasure, man. I don't have many pleasures. Work... ugh, i will write another entry about work later. Let's just say outside of work i don't have much. Wrestling is supposed to be harmless fun. I can overlook some of the problematic shit in the industry, but seeing the top guys kowtow to a dictator who cheerfully orders his staff to chop people up with a fucking bone saw? Really? Way to ruin my escapism, fuckheads.

So, even if i never watch it again, Nikki Cross and Shayna Baszler are two of the baddest ass chicks ever to get in the squared circle and i'm glad i've gotten to see them build their characters over the past couple years. Too bad i'll miss Io Shirai coming on to kick everyone's ass.

Oh, who am i kidding? This summer's "who shot JR" arc is coming to its epic conclusion next week. In the storyline, Aleister Black - Dutch kickboxer and master of the occult - was attacked by a mystery assailant. (In real life he just busted his testicle during a house show.) The only witness to the attack was Nikki Cross, the Scottish lunatic who was seen perched on the roof when it all went down... No doubt when the culprit is revealed, it's going to set up a battle for the ages.

Goddamnit, i am hooked.

No ethical consumption under capitalism bla fucking bla. Why are people awful?

The Friday Five for 12 October 2018
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1. What was the best compliment you ever received?

I'm not sure if it was the "best" compliment, but one that has stuck with me for - gosh, it must be almost 20 years now - is a note that was passed to me by a stranger on the bus.

It was around the time i had just decided that i was transsexual. I was still working in my first ever office job, where i had to wear a collared shirt and a tie. I was young - a teenager - and had long hair that i tied up at the top of my head like Ariana Grande.

Like most transpeople early on, i was hyperconscious of traditional gender markers - everything from how i held my body to how i walked. Being an awkward kid just compounded it. I wore mascara and sat with my legs crossed and my hands gathered on my knees and looked out the window trying not to cry because i was so unhappy with having to play this role of a man out in the world.

That's when i got the note. I don't know who gave it, because she handed it to me in the confusion when everyone piled off. I can't even remember what it said, exactly, but it was something like "don't worry about what other people think, you look amazing".

At the time i was convinced it was a note from someone who has seen the "real woman inside" and it brought me confidence to go ahead in my transition. Nowadays i think it was probably just someone who had picked up on my teenage insecurity and wanted to assure me it would get better.

It did get better, but it took a long time to really stop worrying what other people thought.

2. What are your five best talents?

• Well, as it turns out, not giving a shit what other people think is a learned talent.
• Knowing how to cook, including how to cut things with a big-ass chef's knife, is a good talent.
• I think i am good at writing. Perhaps not here in LJ land, but in the office i take pride in the clarity of my communication. Granted, it's easy to stand out because so many techies are hopeless.
• Directions. If you give me a map and drop me anywhere, i won't get lost. If you don't give me a map i probably will get lost, but not in a way that would lead me to getting eaten by a grue.
• Perhaps being single is a talent? I don't know. It seems like it is, given how many people think it must be so brave (or so pitiful) to live and travel and do pretty much everything alone.

3. What do you wish most people knew about you, and why?

I wish most people knew that i am quite easy-going. Often online i will get heated about things. Sometimes it's because i am briefly annoyed, but just as often it's because i am having fun with my writing. In real life i avoid conflict. As long as people aren't being complete assholes, i tend to believe in live and let live. Life's too short to spend it arguing or complaining.

4. What has been your biggest accomplishment so far, and why does it mean so much to you?

Getting divorced. It's not actually much of an accomplishment, per se, so i'm speaking more of the awakening that happened a year or two beforehand: the realization that a huge chunk of my life's stress, anxiety and depression was caused by trying be a good partner. When i realized that i didn't have to be a partner at all, suddenly everything started to make sense. My mood swings became my own. I never felt pulled in a direction i didn't want. God, i could leave the country, just on a whim! Literally everything about my life has improved since i decided relationships were not for me.

5. If you could achieve anything in your life, what would it be?

More than anything i would love to earn enough money to buy true freedom. I don't need a lot of money to be happy in my day-to-day life, but the problem is moving. Until the whole world adopts open borders, the amount of money required to truly be free is spectacularly high - beyond the reach of anything i (or anyone i know) will make in their lifetime. So i will continue with my nose to the grindstone and never achieve my dream. Hooray, nationalism.

Sheffield Wednesday
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I watched Doctor Who! I haven't watched Doctor Who since i was a tiny tot. But i saw in the paper a while ago that they decided to make a lady Doctor, and that sounded like something worth checking out. It was more or less exactly like i remember it. Scary alien. Silly make-up. English countryside. Smoke machine. Good music. Well, not enough good music. They should just play the theme all the way through. Wooeeeooooooo!

The other notable television I watched recently was Saturday night's finale of 中国新说唱/Rap of China. After my comments on the conspicuousness of the Xinjiang contingent this season, the finale turned out to be Xinjiang Urumqi vs Xinjiang Kashgar.

那吾克热 aka LIL-EM, the rapper i think should have taken the whole thing, came in runner-up because he failed to win the votes of his peers. The buzz was that he was a faker and an Eminem rip-off. I don't really get that. Chinese flow is so different you can't really bite an English rapper's style, and you obviously can't bite their rhymes. I think the real reason the scene dissed him is because he wasn't seen as underground enough - he seemed fine just being a regular guy who could rap extremely well. Whatever. Hip-hop beefs are stupid.

What was more interesting was jumping onto Weibo after the episode aired. It was a shitshow, because a huge chunk of the teenybopper audience who love Kris Wu (a former k-pop idol, and one of the judges) were behind the same guy as me. No one resents that 艾热 aka Air won, because he was also a great performer, but they just felt upset that the audience voted 那吾 first, the judges voted 那吾 first, and then he didn't win because the other contestants voted 75-to-25 against him. It felt petty. For the kids on social media who are already slammed for being Kris Wu fans instead of "real" hip-hop fans, a result like this probably hit especially close to home.

I'm not sure if it will continue next year. This year the heavy hand of the censors was everywhere, clumsily pushing themes of national pride and other "core socialist values". People's tattoos were blurred and so was one of the judge's T-shirts, presumably for including the word "Taipei" on it. Plus, as i mentioned in a previous post, a lot of the performers spent more time singing than they did rapping, which kind of defeats the point of a rap competition. So, with the purists already annoyed at the lack of serious rap, and a finish that annoyed the casual fans, what's left?

Here's another laowai's take: https://radiichina.com/xinjiang-born-uyghur-rapper-wins-the-rap-of-china-2018-as-kris-wu-calls-out-haters/

The amusing thing about that article is i can't fucking see any of the videos because Great Firewall. God forbid a foreign journalist in China actually writes an article that includes media people inside China can view.

Good thing obedient proles like me can still access high-quality media like the second season of 社会主义有点潮/Socialism Is a Bit Cool, which started as an incredibly not-hip panel show about socialism with Chinese characteristics. Last season it just bemused party skeptics. This season it's worrying them, because it's morphed into a gameshow about Xi Jinping trivia.

Speaking of propaganda, i also watched 战狼2/Wolf Warrior 2 over the National Day golden week. It was actually... pretty rad. Anyone who likes cheesy 80s action movies would probably enjoy it. You don't need to understand much Chinese. Basically the story is about a special ops guy, booted from the military for punching a greedy property developer in the nose, now works as a private security guard in a no-name African country. He gets caught up in a revolution and then single-handedly saves a whole bunch of African civilians and Chinese expats by using machine guns, kung fu and the awesome power of the 五星红旗. Great fun.

I also attempted to watch an anime called 凸变英雄/To Be Hero. Dear lord, i think i've been scarred forever by that one, and it was only the first episode. Something about naked babies, and they're naked because their clothes turn into warriors who fight one another, but when they lose their last piece of clothing they die. It's fucking weird. I might give it another try if i bounce off the Xi Jinping trivia show.

When's the next episode of Doctor Who?

a flurry of factories
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Yesterday i decided that Sunday would be the day i would finally get out.

Even waking up bright and early, sober and sharp, it still took me till after one to make it out the door. I will never be able to be one of those early hikers or travelers. Mornings should be reserved for coffee and TV and wikiholes.

Over the Golden Week, Mobike decided to shift a whole battery of bikes to directly out front of my apartment block. For some reason, my apartment has always been a bit of a dead zone - there are hundreds of bikes stacked in places around the city that appear to serve no purpose, then none at all in front of a complex with a cluster of 25 storey highrises. This is one of the reasons that the data mining of my travel history doesn't bother me. If they see me bike home from work and leave a bike in front of my apartment every single day, eventually they will move more bikes in front of my apartment.

Well, it's nice to think i'm that important.

It was certainly a pleasure to walk out the door and take my pick. When i go to work i don't care if i get a busted up clunker, but when i'm going on an adventure, i want one with good brakes and a seat that stays up.

After the last adventure where i went to the beach and then found out when i got there that i was outside the service zone, i decided to play it safe and head deep into Longgang District - the north-east corner of Shenzhen. Up until 2010 Longgang was outside the Special Economic Zone, so there was a soft border and checkpoints. Now those checkpoints have moved out to Dongguan.

How could i know this, dear reader?

As usual, i just took a look at the map and tried to find a blue or green patch i haven't been to yet, then headed in that direction. The green patch i chose was about 20km north, which didn't seem problematic to me because the last stop of the Longgang subway line is still a little north of there, just way out further east.

Today's lesson? Shenzhen is smiley-shaped, not oblong.

I headed off down my favorite starting road, the one that snakes along the west side of the Shenzhen reservoir. Yes, it would be better if all the reservoirs in this city weren't surrounded by 10-foot fences. Yes, it would be better if i didn't have to share the road with a bunch of cars. But every now and then there's a gap in the traffic and it's just you and the trees, zooming down a hill and then stomping back up... It's less than 10 minutes ride from my place and i keep forgetting how good of a getaway it is.

This afternoon the two-lane road was cut down to one lane at various points, as cleanup crews clipped trees and maneuvered logs into trucks. I guess it's still fallout from Mangkhut. Although downtown most of the cleanup is done, along the reservoir and in Longgang there were still huge piles of debris on the sidewalks.

Well, more than the usual amount anyway.

I decided not to loop through the village at the north end of the reservoir and take that BMX route under the eastbound freeway, over the barrier and up the unused off-ramp. One day they will open that off-ramp and i will be terribly upset.

Instead i headed up the freeway that heads out to Huizhou - the city north-east of Shenzhen. Although theoretically there is a wide sidewalk, due to various scheduled construction plus the aforementioned piles of typhoon debris, a good amount of the ride had to be on the road.

I like biking on the freeway because it's flat and wide and it feels a little bit naughty. Although greenway cycling is obviously much safer and arguably more aesthetically pleasing, there's something great about reclaiming the streets for human-powered vehicles.

China will be a much less interesting place when it develops to the point where freeways are great big ribbons of speed and misanthropy.

There were two guys waiting at the bus stop at one point where i had just done a sweaty hill climb. I ducked into a kiosk to get a sweet tea. The smell of burning wood was in the air, and it occurred to me that perhaps the haze and pollution of the past week is the city disposing of fallen trees.

I'm not sure if the guys were trying to flirt with me or what, but they both decided to jump on share bikes and head north along the highway like me. When i stopped, trying to figure out how i was going to get past the latest pile of branches, they stopped too. Then they bravely pedaled out into the freeway and looked back at me. So i followed.

If it had been another time of day or a more intimidating-looking couple of dudes it might have annoyed me. But they didn't leer or catcall. Once we were past the worst of it, they slowed down, watched me cycle off and called out 加油 (jiā yóu) - add oil! - the universal Chinese phrase for "keep it up", "crack on" etc. That was it. They melted away.

Eventually i peeled off the highway and down a small road with a nice view and some cleaner air. In spite of the narrowness of the road, it didn't stop a few truckers trying to sneak through.

There was a nice stretch along another (sadly, also fenced-off) reservoir before heading back into my favorite part of the PRD - that weird juxtaposition of run-down factories and shabby small-holds.

I don't know if it's poverty porn. When i see these guys fishing in the slurry, or still harvesting ong choy amongst piles of trash, i just think "these are some hard-nosed motherfuckers". It's one of my favorite aspects of the Chinese peasantry and working class - their lives are rather shit, but there is some kind of bloody-mindedness to it, like i won't fucking quit. It inspires me.

Of course i didn't talk to these guys so maybe they're just a couple of old folks quite happy with their lot, living in one of the last relatively "wild" places in Shenzhen.

Except, it turns out i wasn't in fucking Shenzhen any more, was i? God forbid Mobike gives you some kind of notification or indication you left the service zone. After cycling past some factory villages, where housing and shops and everything are provided inside the factory gates, i pulled up at the park and slid the lock shut.

It should have been a hint that i was riding along a road called South Park.

But it still didn't click, even when Mobike spanked me with a fine. I just got pissed that yet again they had decided to draw a contrived border where there shouldn't be one, paid the fine and grumbled my way up the mountain.

There was a pagoda at the top, which is less exciting than it sounds because i haven't found a single pagoda in China where you can go inside, so what's the point? I sat down at the base and did my flash cards.

On my way back, i noticed those "City of ..." signs that parks put up to tell you how great they are for maintaining the park. That's when it finally hit me. I looked on my map but still didn't believe it, so i asked some random guy where the fuck i was. Then proceeded to babble something about how Mobike docked me again for biking too far, ra ra ra. I'm not sure if i made any sense at all. Some girls asked to take a photo with me, though, so yeah. I guess i'll pop up on another Weibo thread about the ignorant foreigner.

Turns out Dongguan has a little spike of an area called Fenggang that protrudes between Shenzhen's Longhua and Longgang districts.

My bike was still there when i left the park - not really surprising, considering any Dongguan local taking it for a ride would immediately be fined when they locked it, so i decided to bike it back to Shenzhen in the hope that i could regain some cred with the Mobike helpdesk. (I should add the context that i have been emailing the Mobike helpdesk lately because one reactionary urban village right next to my work has decided to list itself as a no-share-bike zone, and due to imprecise location services i have been fined twice for leaving my bike in that village when i very fucking much didn't.)

I would have liked to stay in Dongguan longer. The people there felt more laid back. Probably not because their jobs were less stressful - Dongguan is factory central. It was also a hotbed for prostitution and gambling until the government shut all that shit down a couple years ago, but it still has a reputation for having lots of loose girls. That's probably not true, although it might seem that way because the gender split leans hard toward women. In China women do most of the factory work. (Men work construction and logistics.) There definitely seemed to be more bars and KTVs than in Shenzhen. And lots and lots of plastic stools. Perhaps that's why i liked it. It felt unpretentious.

But i had a duty to return my trusty steed to its rightful home, so i headed south under the setting sun. I pulled over next to a couple of electric bike taxis who tried to sell me a trip to wherever i was going. When i said i was going back to Luohu District, in Shenzhen, they laughed their asses off. Who would cycle this far? They said it'd take me over an hour to get home! They could get me home for 20 kuai, but i said if i accepted their offer i wouldn't get the same enjoyment out of the ride.

On the Shenzhen border, i noticed there were still checkpoints. Not for small vehicles, but for trucks. That made me wonder if the truck i had run across earlier in the day had been trying to sneak round the back way.

I pedaled on, past factories where women in blue shirts streamed out, looking spent but happy to see the end of their shift. The street vendors were out in force, prepared for the waves of tired and hungry customers.

I hopped off when i caught sight of a woman making 煎饼 (jiān bǐng). That is, pancakes filled with random stuff and wrapped up like a burrito. Although there is a place right downstairs that makes them, like all the other trash fast food joints in my part of town, its food is bland and disappointing.

I asked how much, she said 10 for a full griddle or 5 for half. There was already a dude waiting and we agreed to split half each. When she asked for chili i said hell the fuck yes chili. Unlike the fast food places, when a street vendor puts chili, they actually put chili. I went along with the filling the other dude wanted, got my bing and cycled off to find a good spot to eat it.

It. Was. Fucking. Amazing. Usually the filling consists of a cracked egg, chili paste, crispy fried dough (something like corn chips), lettuce, pickle and meat - maybe a hotdog, or at my favorite place when i lived in Nanshan there was a guy who put soft tofu in it. But this woman did like the ultimate north-meets-south version (煎饼 is a northern snack): she added fucking char siu. Which is that fluorescent pink BBQ meat that normally comes inside pork buns. It's a speciality of Hongkongers and Guangdong guys, and it's one of the very few meats that i miss since going mostly vegan. So good.

In general the food smells were good up in Dongguan and Longgang. Like, i smelled "the Taiwan smell" (five-spice stewed meat), and "the Hong Kong smell" (char siu, which btw Hong Kong does not smell like any more in 2018), and other smells i don't know what they were. Sure, also the open sewage smell and the weird factory fumes smell and whatever else, but who cares? It saddens me how those smells have disappeared from Hong Kong, and how they don't really exist at all in Shenzhen or Shanghai or any of the big cities in China. It's like the city gets big, the smell police come along and turn it into a shopping mall.

When i got back to my home base, i decided to stop at a hipster restaurant i have been avoiding out of principle because i hate spending 20 kuai for a beer. It's called Chicken and Beer. They sell fried chicken and beer. It's actually not that hipster all. It's pretty awesome. I ordered beer.

And then i don't know if it was a security guard or the 城管 (not-cops who enforce city ordinance), but along came some bureaucrat to admonish the workers for leaving an electric bike out the front on a quiet Sunday night after the holidays. I wonder if it's these humorless motherfuckers and their never-ending harassment of street vendors and small shops that has caused the bigger Chinese cities to lose their smell.


But, you know what? It was a good day. I got a text message from Mobike saying thanks for bringing the bike back. They refunded the fine and told me to watch out next time.

Now i am home and trying not to think about the fact i will be back at work in 8 hours.

I wish i had this guy's job.

pondering family, work and home
singapore sunset

It seems like my mother is heading back to Europe for sure next year.

She "retired" this year, in the sense that she gave up her job with no intention of looking for another one. She also did that several years ago but it turned out to be a sabbatical. This time it might be for good.

If you recall about two months ago she shared that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Like, not just some whatever cancer, but excision and chemo and radiotherapy cancer. I sent her a couple of emails over the space of as many weeks - which for me is a lot - but she didn't reply. Then i stopped. I figured no news was good news.

She's two chemo sessions in now, with a third coming up and then on to radiotherapy. Two of her sisters flew down from Europe to look after her for the first few weeks, so at least she wasn't totally alone. That's pretty awesome of them.

I guess it would have been pretty awesome of me if i had offered. But i am the worst child. I feel like it would be a waste of my meager vacation allotment (not to mention my savings) to fly to a country i do not like to look after a sick person. Even if that sick person is my mom.

I was always the distant child. I love my parents, but i rarely speak to them - maybe one email every few months, sometimes even just one or two emails a year. We only meet in person once every few years. It never seemed to matter because my dad has a new family and my sister was always in deep with mom. They used to talk every week, spend holidays together and so on.

It seems, though, that something has happened between my mom and sister. Mom said she's living in her own world now and doesn't really want much to do with her. That's super-weird because if, compared to me, my sister is distant, that's like... estrange-o-rama.

Anyway, my mom had been talking about going back to Europe while i was still living there. I think part of it was because i was there, but even now i have left she still has the itch. I know she would like to be with her mother (my oma) who just turned 90 and is probably ready to go soon. Perhaps this cancer treatment has been a wake-up call that she doesn't have anyone at all in Australia besides my sister. One of her siblings lives in California but all the rest of her family lives in the Netherlands.

My mother left the Netherlands over 40 years ago. She was back there for a few years in the 90s - it's where i finished high school - but then she headed back down under. She's been living in Australia for over 20 years. She felt so at home there she gave up her Dutch citizenship to become an Aussie. But now? She is dead fucking serious about heading back not only to the Netherlands, but to Limburg province, where she was born and spent the first 18 years of her life.

Don't get me wrong, Limburg is nice. Maastricht is a lovely city, and the Dutch south feels rather more charming than the ultra-modern, densely packed polders up north. Europe is a great place to retire. Excellent public transport. Museums. Castles. Parks. And God knows i am much more likely to go visit mom in Europe than in Australia. But it still surprises me.

In Chinese they have the word 老家 which literally means "old home". It means... the place your family or clan is from. The place where your ancestors are buried. Even if you never lived there, it's still your 老家. My mom is 60ish, and it seems she is finally hearing the call back to her 老家. Well, sort of, considering her ancestors go back to Germany and Malta and God knows where else, but that's Europe for you - we're all mutts. Point is, it's not Australia.

Whatever her reasons are, it makes me happy she'll be living somewhere i actually want to go.


This Golden Week i have spent 5 days straight lying in bed. It feels like a waste. The weather has been fantastic. I should have at least gone out one day to climb a mountain or bike across the city or do something outside. But i was exhausted. I really needed to do nothing at all. I'm not sure the break has completely replenished my energy, but i do feel calmer than i have in weeks. It's sort of a lazy contentedness.

God, i cannot wait till i can retire.

In the mean time, i started nosing around the job sites. There is a possibility that the new CTO will have enough of a positive effect on restructuring this company that my whole experience here will transform... but it's just as likely it won't. Even if it does i know it'll take 6 months or more to get traction.

I don't hate my job. It's not challenging or interesting, but i knew that going in. What i didn't know going in was that i wouldn't get to speak any Chinese at work and i wouldn't get to spend any time hanging out in the PRD factories where our software is used. And those were two things i thought were going to be major perks of the job.

So, i figure if i'm just going to be working the same old shit job i could have been doing in Berlin or Toronto or any other goddamn city in the world, perhaps i should look for one where i can speak more Chinese, or where i get paid more, or even just find one in a different city so i get a change of scenery and can "travel" without going on a visa-busting sabbatical.

That's how i ended up reading about Chengdu. If you look at a map of China, Chengdu is the last city on the left. Basically there are all the well-known cities of China along the east and south coast, then a whole bunch of inland cities you probably never heard of, then Chengdu, then fucking nothing. Well, nothing in the sense of the Tibetan plateau, which is over a thousand miles across and has about as many people in it as can fit in a football stadium. If you go up north a bit you can follow the silk road across the desert to Xinjiang and central Asia, but directly west of Chengdu is a brick wall. The roads just stop.

So Chengdu is the final frontier, but it also happens to be the only city in mainland China besides Shenzhen where i felt totally comfortable and relaxed walking around. I don't know why, because i didn't experience any memorable moments there and didn't enjoy a single vista. It just felt right. There were wide roads and greenways and canals and restaurants with plastic stools. So it was on my shortlist of places to learn Chinese, along with Kaohsiung and Shenzhen.

I added it to my LinkedIn search list, and it turns out there are quite a few companies up there i could work at. I immediately applied for a job at a games company, though the ad was over a month old so i doubt it's still open.

Then i decided to do some Chinese practice by doing the kind of search i would do in English if i was thinking about which Canadian city to move to. I typed in 成都深圳去哪儿 - Chengdu, Shenzhen, where should i go? And then i read.

One thing that has been a common thread through my conversations with everyone around mainland China and Taiwan is that Shenzhen is a soulless city full of people who only care about money. Chengdu, on the other hand, is portrayed as a laid-back, old-fashioned place where people go to retire. It's odd because between the gleaming skyscrapers and the giant Mao statue I didn't find Chengdu old-fashioned at all. Meanwhile Shenzhen is exactly the kind of city that would be great to retire in: good air, tons of greenspace, close to the ocean, excellent infrastructure... but, whatever.

The overwhelming wisdom of the 中国网民 (Chinese netizens) was go back to Chengdu. 好好过日子吧 - enjoy your days. Life is too short to spend it all earning money. Chengdu has better food, they say. Friendlier people, more affordable housing, and so on. Basically the only argument anyone had for staying in Shenzhen was that it'd be easier to find a new job if you lost your current one. Like... really, that's the only reason to live in Shenzhen?

Well, that and the air quality. Note: Chinese get into very long debates on the internet about the relative air quality of different cities. They pull out PM2.5 and PM this and PM that, all kinds of pollution numbers i never heard of. Shenzhen is considered one of the best cities in China because - in spite of it being right in the Pearl River Delta, factory capital of the world - it also has sea breezes, so the smog just blows away. Chengdu, on the other hand, is in geological depression that is renowned for trapping clouds.

I don't care too much about air pollution. I know it's very bad for your health and i know anywhere in China will be worse than here, but i also trust things are improving. Cleaning up the air is one of the top government priorities, and when the CPC is serious about something, it will get done.

But i do care about clouds. It turns out the Sichuan basin is the cloudiest place in the world. The only comparable spot is the Faroe fucking Islands. Seattle, nothing. Even Scotland isn't this bad. Chengdu and Chongqing get about 2 months of sunlight each year, total. For the rest it's overcast. Hot and cloudy. Cold and cloudy. Nothing and cloudy. Apparently that's why Sichuan cuisine is spicy, because it's supposed to balance out the clouds. I'm not sure any amount of spicy food could make me happy with never seeing the sun.

On the other hand, we just had 5 days straight of sun and i spent all of them inside with a desk lamp on. And at work i'm behind a screen all day too.

Anyway, the point is, the 网友 consensus is if you care about quality of life, Chengdu beats Shenzhen hands down. But what i found the most interesting was that the only people who asked the question were Sichuanese. Aside from Tibetans, nobody in China actually chooses to move to Chengdu as a destination in its own right. People in China choose between a good job in a tier one city or the comfort of their 老家.

And that's when i started thinking about my mom again. Because a lot of the positives about going back to Chengdu were things like being in a place where you can look after your parents when they get old, being in a place where you have your extended family and school friends, all that sort of stuff. And it made me marvel how strong it is, the tie that binds you back to your 老家, that even decades later you want to go back there.

And then i started wondering again - as i have many times before in this journal - where is my 老家? When i am 60, will i go back to somewhere? Will i consider my quality of life better in a place where my family is?

I guess not, because by the time i'm 60 all my family will be dead.

a cultural map of the world
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On one of my wiki jaunts of the last week i stumbled upon a fascinating chart called the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world. It plots several countries against two axes based on their residents' responses to a survey exploring cultural values. The wiki page is worth a read, but the short description is that the axes are survival/self-expression (left/right) and secular-rational/traditional (up/down).

One fun thing to do is follow countries along their parallel to see which countries they match in one aspect but not the other. If you are an international relations nerd like me, it seems to shed light on the reason why some very different countries get along: by keeping their dialog along the parallel.

Yesterday at lunch the noodle place was empty.

This weekend it's 中秋节 - Mid-Autumn Festival, aka Mooncake Day. Last year it coincided with the National Day golden week, so Shenzhen completely cleared out. This year it's an orphan, but even still it feels like a good bunch of people are taking the opportunity to head out of town.

So, the noodle place was empty and i ended up having a chat with one of the women who works there. I choose to eat at mom'n'pop joints because i like it when my money goes direct to the 老板 (boss), but it also means i see the same people every day and build up a relationship. This day the worker sat down with me and asked me when i was going "home".

That's a very common topic in China. Where are you from, and when are you going back there? We all know my struggles with answering both of those questions, because i am not "from" anywhere in particular and i have spent my whole life not really knowing where i am going to go next. But instead of my vague answer shutting down the conversation like it usually does, we started talking about visas.

I explained that the visa i am on is a working visa that is renewed yearly, and it's not unusual for people in my situation to live and work in China for several years. I'm not on some kind of gap year where i zip through to teach English for a semester and then head off to the next country on my list. I also explained that if i switch jobs i would need to reapply, so the visa encourages me to stick to one job in ways that a green card would not. (Side note: 绿卡 or "green card" is used in Chinese as a generic term for permanent residence.)

We talked about how much the visa cost and how long i had to wait to get it arranged. I moaned about all the paperwork, which is something every person in China can commiserate over. She asked me if other countries were the same, and she was surprised to hear that yes, they are. I think she assumed moving elsewhere might be less complicated but more expensive. Actually all over the world it's not so much the fees as the bureaucracy that will wear you down. Immigration is universally a giant fucking ass-pain.

Her questioning was angling toward how difficult it would be for someone like her to make their way overseas. I think if your only background is working in a restaurant, that avenue is pretty much closed. There are laborers in Asia and Africa working Chinese-run construction projects and providing support services, but i think if you want to migrate to North America or Europe you need to be rich. Theoretically skill-based immigration policy emphasizes education over money, but since a decent education costs money in the first place, the reality is that skill-based migrants will already be comfortably in the upper/middle class.

Her colleague and 老板 was more direct. She asked me why i would bother going through all the 麻烦 (hassle) of coming to work in China when the same job in Canada would most assuredly earn me more money. She is right. Even though the cost of living in Canada is much higher, i could probably build a sizable nest egg much faster than here. But - i explained - i would not enjoy my life as much. To me the experience is worth more than the money. She told me she had a completely different view: she would take a job anywhere if it offered more money.

I suspect that's a common view held by people living in poverty. "Any place is better, starting from zero got nothing to lose..." It's nice to have a roof that doesn't leak and a gas stove to cook on and shoes with soles and the freedom to get out of the city over a long weekend. But once you have your shelter and food and clothing and a modest entertainment budget? Well, to me it doesn't get much better whether your remaining surplus is $20 or $2000. To me, the only point of difference comes after you quit: a larger surplus allows you to live free of work for a bit longer. But very few people i meet - poor or not - care about sabbaticals. They don't want more surplus so they can NOT work, they want more surplus so they can buy nicer stuff while living essentially the same lifestyle they did when they were earning less. That seems like such a waste to me.

Trying to explain the nuance of this is beyond my level of lunch-break Chinese so i just said that 经验 (lived experience) was more important to me than 有钱 (wealth). But maybe i should have said that it was more important to me than 财产 (property), because most people with my salary are considered 有钱 by default, whereas amassing 财产 is a conscious lifestyle choice. I did say that i wish i could retire early, not like my parents who are only just now thinking about it. She said that 60 seemed like the right age to retire, rich or not.

I figure if i am going to have to work till i am 60 anyways, i might as well do it around the world.

One of the reasons i enjoy living in different countries is because i like trying to understand people on a societal level. I am not a fan of making generalizations about ethnicity because pretty much everyone in the world shares the same fundamental human characteristics, but societies do tend to develop a shared culture. It fascinates me how small differences in the value system of individuals can ripple out to create a sense of group identity and influence that group's place in the world.

That's why this Inglehart–Welzel map is so interesting to me.

Looking at the countries i have lived in, a lot of them are in the top-right - proudly secular and strongly supportive of self-expression. I think it's no accident that in those countries i felt like i could really flourish. They don't emphasize God, family or country. You can just do you, whatever that is.

The other cluster i have spent a lot of time in is the British diaspora, which still values self-expression but is substantially more traditional. I never really considered it before, but the underlying religiosity is something i found quite oppressive in the colonies.

America is the worst culprit for me. It's perhaps not so apparent when you live there, but when you leave and come back the sheer number of churches and other po-faced religious encroachments onto the public space is a bit disconcerting. I remember my German colleagues being shocked at how openly religious people were compared to back home. Those traditional values then bubble up to the national stage, where politicians face organized resistance to sex education, reproductive rights and scientific research - stuff that in countries closer to the top of the map is a non-issue.

China is the first country i have spent a significant amount of time in that is on the left-hand side of the map. They call that hemisphere survival-oriented. That explains the exchange i had with the 老板 at the noodle place - i said that i valued life experience over money, but perhaps what she was hearing was that i value life experience over security. Which is also true. I'd rather die penniless and free than build a miserly castle. To me it seems that if too many people in society place their personal survival (and in particular their financial security) über alles, it will inevitably lead to a society hobbled by fraud and corruption. Which China is.

I wonder if the graph also helps to illuminate why in China it's not considered especially controversial to be clamping down hard on Muslims. Recent news has also featured the busts of several underground Christian churches and the exposure of a major Buddhist leader as a sexual predator, all to the surprise and alarm of largely no-one. In countries that strongly value self-expression, freedom of religion is considered as important as any other personal freedom. In countries that are very traditional, attacking religion is prima facie not okay. But in countries that value survival over self-expression and rationality over tradition, suppressing movements that are backward, fraudulent and occasionally abusive does not feel like such an outrage.

I am definitely finding the older i get, the less patience i have for tradition. I get that religion and other superstitions provide great comfort to some people and i wouldn't want to deprive them of that, but i resent when those traditions get in the way of building a modern society. In this sense, i am right in line with the CPC. I would rather live in a country where religious people are forced to keep their beliefs out of the public space than live in a country where secular people are forced to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion.

Although it's also possible that just being here has led my core values to drift in ways that if i wasn't under the velvet jackboot they wouldn't have. Certainly i am under no illusion that i am immune to propaganda. I trust i will never become a CPC bootlicker (i have a whole rant about laowai bootlickers i should unleash some time), but i do wonder how malleable my values are.

I dunno. This is all just another reason why i think it's interesting to be here. It's a gonzo approach to understanding the world, i guess. Just go out there and live it for a while. That's one area where it does seem i am different to many of my fellow Shenzheners: i'm just here to see what i can see. That's enough for me.

I'm still here
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So this is what it looks like outside now.

Almost every tree is gone, it's shocking. The cleanup crews must have been working all through the night to drag the trunks off the road and onto the sidewalk so the buses can run. I found a busted up Mobike in the gutter. It still worked, so I pedalled into the city.

A few windows blown out. All the trees are over. Trash everywhere. Our apartment block courtyard was covered in broken tiles and smashed bricks.

Now i don't feel so bad about feeling scared yesterday. The wind was rattling the windows and front door so much I spent about 4 hours convinced if I breathed too hard I'd get sliced open by a flying shard of glass. My windows held up, but plenty of rain came in the cracks. And grass and dirt. How the fuck does grass and dirt get up to the 13th floor?

Seeing how bad it is over here I'm surprised there's only two reported dead, because the west side of the PRD must have been a clusterfuck. I'm also very happy the power only went out for half an hour, so I got to eat real food and watch some TV and then read internet posts from millions of other people stuck in the same boat as me. Score one for Chinese infrastructure and preparedness.

Now it's off to work. The new CTO is due in today but I won't be surprised if his flight was delayed. Oh well. Life goes on. I want another weekend to recover from this one.

Why i should never plan
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So it looks like we are going to take a glancing blow from super typhoon Mangkhut.

Last year Hato made landfall in the PRD and i was living in a hotel in Shekou. I didn't follow any local media so wasn't caught up in the hype. I went out in the morning for a coffee and somehow timed it perfectly to be sitting in the coffee shop when the glass door blew off its hinges and smashed into a million pieces. That was enough to persuade me to stock up on snacks that didn't need refrigeration and hide in my windowless room for the rest of the day.

I have been well caught up in the Mangkhut hype. The Hong Kong press has been hysterical all week - worst storm ever, bla bla bla. It's already hit Guam and the Philippines and now looks to be heading toward the Guangdong coast, maybe a couple hundred km west of here. So, on Thursday, i did a shopping run to pick up some storm snacks and a 2L bottle of sweet tea. I also did my laundry. Not sure what else i can do since i live several km inland on the 13th floor of a building that's already on a bit of a hill.

My plan was to get some bottled water too, but that failed. Work yesterday left me exhausted, so i decided to head out to the pub. After a few beers near work, i went on a night bike tour. Somehow i ended up in a weird industrial area along the railroad following an old wall covered in street art. I will have to go back during the day sometime because it seemed like a cool spot.

Then, at the end of my tour, i stumbled upon a fucking bar not two blocks from my house!

I mean, it must be new. It has to be new, because i have lived here over 6 months now and it never showed up on my map before. It was blasting EDM on the patio and you could order beers one-at-a-time instead of getting a bucket. I started with a Kronenbourg in a nifty blue bottle and then had a Corona. Ordering was a challenge because the whole menu was in Chinese and used phonetic translations of fancy European brands i probably wouldn't even recognize in their native language. Of course it didn't take long till i was shelling peanuts, playing dice and throwing back Buds.

I was approached by a well put together Jiangsu gentleman who invited me to play darts, but i wanted to stay outside and enjoy the summer night. The table next to me was a much rowdier bunch chattering in Cantonese. They turned out to be a group of real "Samjan" locals out for after work drinks. They taught me how to count in Cantonese. I got incredibly drunk. I forgot how to count in Cantonese.

Anyway, today i was a wreck. At least i wasn't a vomiting wreck, but it's still been a miserable day and i got nothing done. Which means i don't have any bottled water. Fortunately i haven't yet recycled my previous 2L bottle of sweet ice tea, so i am slowly filling that from the kettle this evening.

I think a part of me knew that because of my prep on Thursday i didn't really, really need to go to the store today. Perhaps that's why i let myself have a big night. With a bit of luck i will still be able to go the store tomorrow morning and pick up some other odds and ends. In particular, i am out of moisturizer.

Landfall is tomorrow afternoon, but they say the wind and rain will start around midnight. I already received an emergency broadcast text message urging everyone to shut down their businesses, though i know from last year mainland Chinese are much less likely to heed that warning than Hongkongers. Worst case, at least i have clean underwear and sweet tea. We'll see how bad it is tomorrow.

"Where do you work?"
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Where do you work?

Before reading on, pause to have a think about that.

I guess this is one of the more common pieces of smalltalk we encounter. I get "where are you from?" a lot, especially here in China where i am obviously a foreigner. In the rave scene one of the classic ones is "how's your night been?" Bars have "come here often?" But on city streets everywhere, "where do you work?" is king.

I realized the other day i might have been understanding that question incorrectly my whole life.

You see, when i hear "where", i think about directions. When people ask me where i work, i invariably tell them the general area of town and maybe try to recall some nearby street names or landmarks. Then when they press me on it, i excuse myself for not having been able to describe it very clearly.

That's worth a tangent.

I grew up an army brat, so some of my earliest memories involve the wonderful sport of orienteering. Basically: you are given a map and a compass, then you are dumped in the country and have to find all the checkpoints marked on the map and make it back to the finish with the fastest time. You can plot your own route and the starts are staggered. I doubt the military have much use for paper maps and magnetic compasses these days, but out in the civilian world i think even armed with a smartphone a lot of people don't know where the fuck they are most of the time. I guess orienteering got me comfortable with the idea of wandering around places i've never been with just a map and a water bottle.

So, perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps because i did a lot of (computer) gaming as a kid, or i dunno... i'm not great at explaining routes in a way that most people i meet can navigate. I tend to express the destination in terms of compass direction and kilometers. Sometimes i will translate to walking time, since that's reasonably constant no matter what the terrain. But unless the route is very simple i don't tend to think in lefts or rights, or count traffic lights or bus stops or whatever. I also find it weird when people turn their maps around so that north isn't up, incidentally.

Here in Shenzhen most people think in terms of subway line, then station, then exit. God help them if the place they need to get to is further than half a block from a subway exit. I've even been given directions to a lunch place by the office, like literally one block due east, on the north side of the same road our building is on. But the directions i get are "oh, it's by Xyz station, near the E exit". What?

Tangent over.

The other day, when i was trying (and failing) to explain to a street vendor how to get to my office, it occurred to me she really didn't care how to get to my office.

Because perhaps when people ask where you work, they aren't asking about the location of your work. Could it be they are asking about the... the company? Or subtly trying to ask you what exactly your job is? I've heard the same question repeated in so many different languages over the years, i was sure it was meant literally. But, really, who cares about the location of someone else's job? Like, how does the conversation progress from there? Good lunch spots over a side of town that you never visit? It makes a lot more sense if the question is actually for whom you work.

So. Yeah. How do you answer?

floating in limbo
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Okay, underachievement. I was binge-watching Lodge 49 last week and this topic bubbled up.

For those of you who haven't heard about Lodge 49 - it's an AMC show centered around a slacker whose father recently died and left him and his sister with a serious debt. His sister waits tables at a theme restaurant and he doesn't work at all after a surfing accident. A series of events leads him to discover a secret society slash social club where he meets a diverse set of working class folks who are also all struggling thanks to the city's major employer shutting down. Shenanigans ensue. Apparently the main influence is Thomas Pynchon but i'm an illiterate slob so i don't know who that is. It reminds me of other light-hearted surreal shows like Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Being Erica, Bored to Death... Totally up my alley.

Anyway, one of the things i like about the show is that there are no kids, no love triangles, no gunfights - nothing gratuitous or melodramatic. It's basically just a bunch of regular joes going to work, drinking beer and trying to find a little magic in the nooks and crannies of their thunderingly mediocre lives. In other words, the story of me.

Very vague spoilers in the next paragraph.

There was one storyline in the show where a character gets handed the opportunity to better their lot, and they repeatedly decline the opportunity, eventually outright fleeing from it. I felt like the kid in Velvet Goldmine who, on seeing his glam rock idols mime fellatio on stage, wanted to leap up and come out: "That's me, mum! Dad! That's me!"

I guess from a certain point of view i'm doing just fine. I graduated high school. I got a university degree. I work in an embarrassingly well-paid industry. I am debt-free and have been employed almost 20 years, on and off. However...

Although i did graduate high school, i graduated from the "low" stream that did not qualify me to attend university. I never went to "real" university - i completed my degree through correspondence/home learning and it took me almost 8 years. At work, time and time again i have turned down promotions or up and left companies when one was heading my way. I spend all my money on sabbaticals and restart from zip.

Most recently i turned down an offer to jump a level at this company and become a director. I.e. the middle management to whom the line managers would report. I came into this company on the lowest salary rung as a basic software developer - no "senior" prefix, no nothing. My last company had me on the CTO track.

I was thinking about CTOs because my current company's CTO moved on about a month ago. Ours was his second C-level position and it seems to have earned him enough cash to live on Lantau Island (one of Hong Kong's more beautiful spots). His new thing is some mobile app start-up. It's nothing groundbreaking, but really who cares if it fails? If you can afford to live by the beach in Hong Kong you already won at life.

That could have been me. If i had accepted the opportunities offered to me in the past, or if i had worked my network harder... yeah maybe i could be sipping cocktails under a palm tree too. I have a young ex-colleague living in Bali earning a ton of money doing remote work for European companies. He's built a personal brand through his blog and he sells e-books and whatnot. A Facebook slash rave scene acquaintance who was one of my inspirations to head to China has been living in Taiwan for a few years now just doing web pages for clients in Canada. Several ex-colleagues who used to be under me, rookies that i mentored and nurtured are now VPs and C-levels. A whole host of my ex-colleagues are in consulting, earning spectacular amounts of money just for walking into a company and telling them everything they are doing wrong. Why isn't that me? Why did i get stuck?

I'll tell you what didn't get me stuck - my ability. I know i am a solid programmer with enough experience under my belt to avoid the sorts of mistakes even "senior" guys make. I know for sure i understand management better than a lot of line managers who stumbled into the role and have no interest in helping their subordinates excel. And while i would struggle to schmooze at the C-level, i am pretty confident i could slot into middle management and at least straighten out a department full of the sorts of ineffective line managers and team leads that the tech industry is famous for.

But i don't fucking want to.

I don't even really enjoy being a line manager very much. I mean, i like helping my guys improve. It's nice when you can get the team aligned and kicking ass. Certainly it's nicer than being stuck on the bottom and struggling with a bad manager and teammates who are incompetent or unmotivated. But it is exhausting. As a kid i never thought to myself "i want to be a manager when i grow up". Hell, i never even wanted to be a computer programmer. Not after i found out how boring it is, anyway.

Still, there are lots of things i don't want to do yet do anyway because that's part of being a grown-up. I hate working. If i had my way i would do nothing at all. I still get up every day and toil, though, because i have to. So what's stopping me from toiling in a different role that would net me a lot more money and set me up for early retirement?

Me being an underachiever, that's what.

I don't feel comfortable when i am up there in the clouds, lording it over the plebs. I already feel uncomfortable amongst my current colleagues because their lifestyles are so bourgeois. Get me up to the income level of consultants and C-levels and it's a whole nother level of decadence. I would feel like a fraud. Or... i don't know. Dirty?

Sure, i get it, you can be rich and woke too. As my rich colleagues go to great pains to point out, it's really the rich who are the biggest philanthropists. Just imagine where the poor would be if the rich weren't around to throw them table scraps!

But in all seriousness, of course i know you can be wealthy and not a complete asshole. My parents are wealthy, relatively speaking, and they're not assholes. Meanwhile there are also plenty of poor people who are almighty tossers.

The thing is, there's no point trying to reason with myself over it. It seems my discomfort with being "successful" (whatever that means) is as irrational as my discomfort with buying clothes or people visiting my house or whatever. It's irrational, but there it is. My material life is objectively less comfortable, but my mental health feels less strained.

Some day i might regret it. In 20 years when i still have no house and no savings and my job gets given to someone younger, more attractive or more ambitious... Then i guess i will just have to find myself a secret society where i can get drunk and ponder the mysteries of the universe with a bunch of people in the same boat.