Tag Archives: Asia

Growth, at a Cost

Supposedly 40-50% of the world's construction cranes were in Shanghai to prepare for Expo 2010

While traveling through Asia, I marveled at the sheer amount of growth. I hadn’t really realized it, but in the US, the last couple of years haven’t seen much construction. Store fronts empty and aren’t replaced for months on end. There’s a lot of reusing existing resources rather than building from scratch. Heck, even Habitat for Humanity is rehabbing rather than building.

In all three cities we visited – Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei – the opposite was true. Rampant growth pervaded every city, with entire blocks being recast to serve the new economy. In Seoul, there were simply no vacant store fronts – occupancy had to be nearly 100%, with new buildings growing taller and taller around the mountain-ringed city.

In Shanghai, growth was most obvious. The city has been on a decade-long growth spurt, in part to prepare for last year’s Expo, in part driven by a voracious economy (and yet, the growth fuels the economy itself in a vicious whirligig).

On the surface, growth is groovy. It adds a veneer of flash and new sophistication to Shanghai, helping the city meet its boasts about joining – and leading – the world economy.

Meet George Jetson... Shanghai's Pudong section, all of which is brand new

But that veneer is easily scratched, and what’s below isn’t so pretty and shiny.

China’s growth is driven entirely by the government. The central state sets aggressive GDP targets, and since it controls the means of production, it will do anything it needs to do to meet those targets. Including building where the market doesn’t demand it.

In central Shanghai, it’s not as obvious, as the city teems with more than 23 million people. But in the outskirts – and out in the provinces – thousands of sparkling new buildings sit empty in China’s increasingly famous “ghost cities.” China has vowed to build 20 new cities a year for the next 20 years, many of which now sit completely empty. The Google Earth images are eerie: perfectly developed cities with schools, hospitals, malls, and housing developments – but no cars or people.

The Pudong section of Shanghai was boggy marshland a mere decade ago, and now it looks like something out of the Jetsons. New subway lines are opening nearly yearly, some stretching out to the middle of nowhere. Construction sites bustle with activity every day of the week, importing thousands of migrants every summer who live in small shacks on the building sites.

But what’s the cost of such uncontrolled, yet centrally planned, growth? It’s certainly not sustainable, and many fear a bubble is bordering on bursting.This growth displaces thousands, even millions, of families from their homes, all in the name of progress. The Three Gorges Dam project alone destroyed 1200 villages and displaced 1.3 million people. In Shanghai, some scoff that demolishing acres of traditional homes – and replacing them with highrises few Chinese can afford – is merely finishing what the Cultural Revolution started.

Big promises. Can China deliver?

And when the rush to build meets rampant corruption and bribery, corners are cut. Some call the results “blood-stained GDP.”

40 were killed and 200 injured when two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou in July. Just last month, two subway trains collided in Shanghai when signals failed, injuring 270.

We saw growth in all three cities, but in Shanghai, it felt the most feverish and, in a way, desperate. Desperate to prove to the world that China has arrived, eager to overcome the chip on the Chinese shoulder.

Growth is marvelous when there’s market demand for it. Construction companies stay busy and give businesses room to expand and hire additional employees to make more things that serve more people. But when the market demand wanes and you keep building, the bubble will eventually burst.

What happens then?

Street Eats

During my recent trip, the food was an integral part of the experience. And while we ate a lot of meals traditionally, at a table, we also did a lot of outdoor eating, carefully trying not to make too much of a mess.

In Seoul, we visited a couple of the big markets. In Namdaenum Market, we passed several stalls selling snacks. We avoided anything with meat – skewers of raw meat were sitting in the hot sun, unrefrigerated, waiting to be grilled to order. But the green onion crepes – thrown on the griddle to order – were tasty, and the brown sugar-filled pancakes (hoddeok) were definitely memorable and craveable.

For tourists only...

In Seoul, we also saw a very confused food cart at the N Tower, a major attraction: churros and Heineken. There was a Cold Stone directly across from this stand, too.

In China, we didn’t see nearly as much street food, other than people selling food to take home.

The markets sold everything else, though. Clothes – premade or tailored to order – of all varieties. There was an insane array of fake goods: sunglasses, purses, shoes, watches, pirated movies.

Chestnuts (or similar) and lotus roots

But food-wise, there were chickens and turtles and pig parts, fruits and vegetables and the like.

In front of the “luxury mall” on the main shopping street – where every single store, without exception, was a big name, Western brand (Prada, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, etc), people stood outside with baskets, peddling chestnuts and what I learned were lotus roots.

But Taiwan… oh, Taiwan knew how to do street food. After 5 PM, night markets spring up in several locations throughout Taipei, varying in size and specialties.

Rows of stalls served everything from bao and grilled kebabs to fish balls and waffles filled with everything from chocolate to red bean paste.

Snails.

Most things were snack-sized servings, often for less than US$1, so you could assemble a meal by trying several different things. Going with people also meant you could try more things.

Shaved ice with mango. OMG.

And of course, you have to end the experience with a shaved ice, topped with fruit or candy and condensed milk. This mango shaved ice was incredible and giant, so I shared it with several people.

Waffles. These were filled with either chocolate or custard.

Yes, those are corndogs.

Some stalls had helpful pictures so you knew what you were eating. Other times, not so much.

The incredible thing to me about Taipei was that they do this every single night. In the US, we’re finally starting to maybe allow some food trucks, but for the most part, “street food” is a rare occurrence, tied to festivals. (And Christkindlmarket. But even that is temporary.)

Read on for more food stories.

Eating Local – Wherever “Local” May Be

Eating local is one of the best ways to understand a town, a city or a culture. In Elgin, we have lots of great local options, from In the Neighborhood Deli, where each sandwich is named for a local institution (schools, churches, etc) to the Walnut Speakeasy in my own neighborhood, which has become almost Cheers-like in its familiarity.

Lately, we’ve been reminded about how important it is to eat locally. Local restaurants don’t have the advertising dollars of their national chain competitors. Nick’s Pizza & Pub, which just announced their financial troubles stemming from a shaky economy and construction, competes against national chains who can run TV commercials or far-reaching campaigns. While social media helps build local community, it also provides an unrivaled platform for national brands to share their message nationwide. Whether your Facebook friends live in Dubuque, Albuquerque or Seattle, they know the same national brands you do.

While traveling in Asia, we talked a lot about food and its role in culture. I was bound and determined to eat as much fantastic local food as possible. And since you have to eat multiple times a day, it’s a natural way to easily experience local flavors and culture.

Good - and fun.

In Seoul, it was Korean BBQ. I went twice. The first time, my roommate, Inggrid, and I went to a place packed with locals on a Monday night,which we figured was a good sign. It was. The menu was entirely in Korean, with no pictures. Inggrid was able to use her smidgeon of Mandarin to order us a terrific meal. They bring raw beef, which you cook on the grill built into the table, using the heatlamp. Then you wrap it in lettuce leaves with a sauce, garlic, and veggies. Divine. And a lot of fun. The next night, we went to another place where the garlic- and spiced meat was even better.

Suckers!

Of course, Korea was also my first “surprise” meal of the trip. One day, between meetings with marketing executives, we were given an hour to find lunch nearby. Inggrid and I took off down one of the small alleys off the main street, finding a row of restaurants with alluring aromas. We went inside and ordered by pointing and smiling. When it was served – she got chicken ginseng soup and I ordered bim bam bop – everything smelled so good. But as I stirred my lunch, I discovered tentacles and suckers! I had somehow assumed I was getting pork or chicken in my bim bam bop – not octopus. But after the initial shock, and surrounded by office workers who inhaled their lunches, I tried it. And it was actually pretty good, though a bit rubbery. I wouldn’t order octopus, but it wasn’t terrible.

In Shanghai, we saw an incredible array of food that seemed impossibly far removed from the Americanized Chinese food most of us are familiar with. We saw lots of jellied seafoods and chicken feet, and in the markets, buckets of live turtles or fish made you wonder if they were selling pets or dinner. We ate very well, though sometimes I didn’t want to know what I was eating. And it was in China that we discovered the lazy susan style of eating: absolutely everything is served family style and spun around the table to share. While this is a great way to try a lot of things, by the eighth consecutive day, you just want to order your own thing. While all the stir-fried veggies were great, and I fell in love with xiao long bao dumplings, I was really craving a big salad by the time we left.

I had no preconceived notions of what Taiwanese food would be. Every guidebook promised it would be delicious, heavy on fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. And it was. Again, many of our meals were banquet-style, with 8-10 people at a table and a giant lazy susan spinning 10 or more courses. The shrimp and fish were so good, and so fresh, especially to a Midwest girl. The mangoes were the juiciest I’ve ever had, and we tried a “milk pineapple,” a variety only available in Taiwan with incredibly sweet white flesh. Everywhere we went, there were stands selling fresh juice – mango, watermelon, pineapple, everything, squeezed to order.

On our free evenings in Taiwan, we usually went to the night markets for dinner. Such street food merits its very own blog post.

However, despite all the eating local, familiar American options abounded. KFC is extraordinarily popular in China, where they’re open 24-7 and have adapted to the local palette, serving things like congee with pork. (The day we visited Yum Brands’ headquarters, we had lunch at KFC. I felt worse that night than any other on the trip.) McDonald’s exists, but is less popular than KFC. There were a meal at Macaroni Grill our first night in Taiwan, when hunger, tiredness and frustration had us craving something familiar.

I tried to eat local, but I did often hit Starbucks in the morning, as finding a decent cup of coffee could be difficult. In fact, finding what we consider “breakfast” foods was often tough, as many Asian cultures don’t have a distinct difference between breakfast and lunch or dinner foods. So, Inggrid and I often went out for dumplings or soup. On time-pressed mornings when we had meetings with companies, I often did a quick trip to whatever coffee shop was closest to get some type of breakfast sandwich.

Overall, though, I loved my culinary adventures through Asia, suckers and all. And now that I’m home, I’m happy to get back to Domani and its fantastic coffee. Because eating local is the most familiar and comforting of all, regardless of where “local” is.

Read more about the Street Eats. 

The Cost – and Joy – of Disconnecting

I plan to hit "Mark all as read."

586 work emails. 770 emails awaiting me in Gmail. 2700+ Google Reader posts. And untold thousands of tweets.

But it was so very worth it.

I just returned from 19 days in Asia. When originally planning the trip – as part of a class for my Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications through Northwestern University’s Medill School – I had thought about how great it would be to travel this time while remaining connected to life back home.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that this 19 day trek provided a very real opportunity to escape from the fog of social media. And since Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, that automatically made 8 days possible.

Could I do it? The thought made me nervous. Sure, I often pick a weekend day and cut myself off. 19 days is a very different animal, though, especially while traveling and likely encountering great pictures and Twitter fodder. And imagine the FourSquare points I could accrue!

I decided to go whole-hog and cut myself off entirely. I was bringing my netbook so I could write about my experiences – several blog posts coming as soon as I finish them – but I didn’t get an international data plan for my phone.

My plan was to not touch the internet for three weeks. No social media, no email, no phone. I communicated my plan to everyone who needed to know, providing emergency contact numbers. I scheduled things to auto-publish for work. And then I packed my bags and left home.

Landing at San Francisco after the first leg of my flight to Seoul, I checked in on FourSquare and texted a few people, nervous about the looming cut off.

The first couple of days, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone during lulls while waiting in line or riding the bus. I kept trying to fill the downtime. Once I got through the digital shakes, though, it was fantastic. I was much more present, much more aware of and in tune with my surroundings. I observed things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I stared out windows. I relaxed and wrote – some by hand, some on the netbook.

I didn’t completely attain internet-free nirvana, though. Since I was traveling for class, I did need to connect to email a few times to access files, prepare for presentations and send thank you notes. But when I did, I refused to open any emails not related to the tasks at hand, cringing a bit as I watched the unread count climb each time I logged in. (I’m thankful I proactively unsubscribed to several different email lists in the weeks before my trip.)

In China, I tried accessing several websites, just to test the limits of the Great Firewall. (Verdict: nope, you can’t access Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia or certain books on Amazon.com. Some news sites were strangely “unavailable.” And even Gmail mysteriously went down for a two-day period in Shanghai.) Never fear, though, the Chinese government operates 16 TV channels to ensure you’re well informed!

Sadly, I can't mark all my work emails as read. But once I clear out all the newsletters, notifications and expired meetings, it should be manageable.

On the long trip home – nearly 28 hours from my hotel in Taipei to home, via Tokyo and DFW – I thought about my break from social media. My head is clear of distractions and detritus, and full of new ideas and connections that may not have been made if I was busy scrolling through Twitter.

Since my job as a social media strategist entails a lot of Twitter time, I know I’ll likely never get another such break again, at least not to this magnitude. But I’m glad to know that I can do it, and that I’ve been reminded that it’s possible to just be without needing a digital crutch.

And now to tackle my inboxes.