To travel is to take a journey into yourself. – Danny Kaye
The family is one of nature’s masterpieces. – George Santayana
This year, I’m happily spending the holidays with my extended family in Shanghai.
Like many other Asian Americans I know, I spent a few summers in China during my childhood. However, in recent times my summers got busy so this trip has been the first time I’ve visited China for over a week in many years.
Nonetheless, my family there has been incredibly warm and welcoming, reminding me of how much I appreciate their constant support and love. During my stay, I’ve also had the opportunity to form many new experiences, meet old and new friends, practice my rusty Mandarin and Shanghainese, and learn a surprising amount of new things about Shanghai culture and way of life.
Below are some quick observations I’ve had and things I’ve learned in Shanghai so far.
- Throngs of people everywhere — Shanghai is one of the most crowded cities I’ve ever been, comparable to NYC or Hong Kong. The subway gets packed like sardines in a can. Whether I was in a shopping center, restaurant, The Bund or another attraction, I ran into masses of people.
- Competition is in the air — Bring 14 million people into 1 city and there’s bound to be intense competition. This intensity seeps into everyday life. For example, as soon as the subway doors open, riders dash through the doors to pounce on a seat without allowing for inside riders to exit first. It’s no wonder congestion is a major issue for the subway. Similarly, people frequently push to the front on escalators and staircases. This behavior may seem rude from an American standpoint, but it’s considered normal in China.
- 紅包 (Hongbao) or red envelope etiquette — China has a huge culture for gift-giving with lots of rules surrounding the exchange. While many facets of Chinese culture are getting Westernized and more lax, gift-giving custom is not one of them. In particular, red envelopes holding large sums of fresh and crisp bills are given for many occasions including weddings, graduations, baby showers, etc. The red color symbolizes good luck, and the envelopes are usually given privately to avoid uncomfortable situations where someone feels left out.
- To judge the quality of 点心 (dianxin) or dim sum, order the 虾饺 (xiajiao) or shrimp dumpling first. Great shrimp dumplings have 1) soft tender wrappers that still don’t break easily upon picking them up and 2) are filled with fresh prawns. High-quality shrimp dumplings are a great indicator of whether or not the rest of the dumplings will be high-quality.
- Shanghai cuisine is unique in its uninhibited usage of oil in almost every dish.
Business and Leadership
My uncle shared with me some useful leadership lessons that he’s learned over his lifetime:
- Drawing from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, opportune moments (in warfare) are composed of 3 factors: 天时 (tianshi) or climate, 地利 (dili) or geography, and 人和 (renhuo) or people. The business analogy says the right opportunity lies at the intersection of the market “climate”, what skills you’re given and what people you’re surrounded by.
- Leadership is composed of 3 factors: the license (or necessary skills) to lead, interest in leading, and being selected as a leader.
- The key to relationships is 谦虚 (qianxu) or modesty. Put others interest at heart. Demonstrate you’re capable but aren’t trying to run their show. They’ll leave the door open for you so you can learn from them.
- There’s two kinds of people in this world — people who run fast but don’t see where they’re going and others who move slow but know where they’re going. Be the latter not the former.
- You don’t have to be the absolute best in the world right now at what you do — If you get to the summit too early, the only way to go is down. Instead, take smaller steps but always keep improving yourself.
I find myself agreeing with most of his lessons except for a couple points which I think are less useful and even counterproductive for modern Western society (i.e. waiting to be selected as a leader and being too modest).
Wishing everyone a Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!