After Asiatrip ended, we got back to MIT and immediately got hosed beyond belief. As such, we only just finally figured out our finances. I did a bit more number crunching, because I wanted to figure out my total spending and where all the money went. This is a rough per-person cost breakdown of our trip, which may be valuable to people planning similar trips. Among the four of us, costs vary basically based on how much each of us bought in electronics and souveniors, whether we went to Japan, visa processing time, and things like that. All costs have been converted into USD.
I spent about a day exploring China’s parallel universe internet. The fact that Weibo looks almost identical to Twitter and that RenRen looks almost like Facebook definitely made the parallel universe easier to explore. But everything being in Chinese is still discombobulating. I had been looking for a way to improve my technical Chinese (as well as my general Chinese), and I think that being a part of this parallel universe will help!
The following is a compilation of relevant links for our makerspace tour through Asia.
Friends of makerspaces we visited These are not makerspaces, but are organizations that support makerspaces and include or grow makers. Seeed Studio (open hardware advocate, component and kit supplier, in Shenzhen) [slidedeck] Toyhouse (visual and physical collaborative classrooms, Tsinghua University, in Beijing)
Others doing similar asiatrips Bunnie (Chumby founder; Feb 2009; 1 week; Shenzhen) Noisebrige (San Francisco makerspace; Oct 2009; 2 weeks; Shanghai and Beijing; ~$1K) Noisebridge 2 (Apr 2012; 3 weeks; Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing) Asiatrip (our trip for comparison; Dec 2011; 2 weeks; Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo; $2.0K)
Makerspace movement in China, government sanctioned What happens when a government is run by engineers [Shenzhen] [Shanghai]
First Open Hardware Summit [Beijing]
China Mobile Developer Conference [Beijing]
Chinese makerspace featured by CNN [Shanghai]
Makerspaces of the world Nancy’s initial plans [post]
China makerspaces [info] [info]
Makerspaces in the rest of the world [info]
Four MIT engineering undergrads, interested in just about everything, took our summer savings and threw it at Asia on a grand 2-week long Asiatrip in an effort to expand our horizons. We came back with so much more.
Nancy Ouyang, the mastermind of this journey, nyancat hacker, hexapod enthusiast, secretary of MIT makerspace MITERS. She was the point person for Hangzhou, all the flights, and the makerspace contacts. Josh Gordonson, makerspace advocate, EE + art hacker, analog electronics enthusiast, president of MITERS. He was the point person for New York City and part of our visit to Tsinghua in Beijing. Julian Merrick, eater of everything, motors hacker, power electronics enthusiast, core member of MITERS. Myself, documentor, computer vision hacker, intelligent transportation and data visualization enthusiast, friend of MITERS. I was the point person for Taipei and most of the manufacturing plant visits.
Nancy and I split responsibilities in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Tokyo was a free-for-all.
Tue 12/20/2011 to Thu 01/05/2012, just over 2 weeks.
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08
Legend Lost day (due to passing the dateline, excluded in indexing of blog posts) On a plane |On a bus/train Boston |Seattle|Taipei |ShenZhen Hangzhou |Shanghai |Beijing |Tokyo
City visits (9): NYC, Seattle, Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Detroit
University visits (3): Tsinghua University (Taipei), China Academy of Art (Hangzhou), Tshinghua University (Beijing)
Touristy vists (14): Night market, Long San Temple, Gondola, Maokong, Taipei 101, West Lake, Lingyin Temple, Chen Huang Temple, CMoDA New Media Museum, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Akiabhara, Shibuya, Asakusa
Company tours (3): Advantech, ZyXEL, Seeed Studio
Production line tours (10): Asia Optical (lens/prisms, scanner head, laser rangefinder, picoprojector, camera, molding), GTBF, Failong, Colibri, Great Wall
What and Why
Whereever we went, people welcomed us with open arms, but we had a bit of trouble at first answering the question “what is the purpose of your trip?” We came for a variety of reasons. We came for fun (it’s winter break, after all), we came to learn about manufacturing, we came to check out the makerspace movement, we came to visit relatives (well, just me), we came to grow up a bit (Nancy and me), we came to emmerse ourselves in a different culture, we came to eat good food, and we came to make friends and felt the world become a smaller place.
Seeing all the manufacturing has given me a new perspective on how the everyday items we use come to be. We saw factory workers putting together cameras that are the same make and model as Julian’s. We saw boards that dictate how many units the operators need to produce each hour. We learned about their wages and the overtime they need to work in order to make a living, and how social mobility is dictated almost solely by test scores. And then we learn about how little profit each unit makes for the plant, and yet, we saw the rising labor costs. We saw how cheap everything was sold locally; life is hard both domestically and abroad. Profit margins in the manufacturing sector are ridiculously low, and any and all inefficiencies must be engineered out.
Honestly, it was mostly the others who were interested in the makerspace movement in China as we were planning the trip, but I found our visits to be entirely worthwhile throughout. As a sort of outsider from makerspaces, I found it inspirational, seeing actual active communities, how much makerspaces could be, and seeing how fast China can make change.
I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit a good portion of my extended family and my entire immediate family this holiday season. It was far more than I bargained for. It was wonderful to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. The last time I saw most of them was 7.5 years ago, which is sort of baffling in my mind.
For Nancy and myself, this was our first time traveling abroad that didn’t simply consist of following our parents and extended family around the entire time. Instead, our family and friends kept a watchful eye on us from a distance nearly every step of the way, which I wanted to avoid at first, but later on realized that our trip would not have been possible without all of their help. Our trip began with our hands held as tightly as they could thousands of miles away, and it definitely made our transition from the States quite smooth. The intensity of our trip gradually increased, and towards the end of our trip, we were finding our own accomodations, doing our own research, and finding our own means of getting around. Everything we managed on our own and every mistake we made was a learning experience. With the last two weeks of experience, perhaps next time, we won’t need any hand-holding.
Statistics Length of trip: 16 days
Approximate total mileage: 19,390 miles (31,203 km; for perspective, the Earth has a circumference of 24,900 mi / 40100 km)
Travel by plane: 92.8%
Travel by train: 4.6%
Travel by car: 1.3%
Travel by bus: 1.2%
Photo count: 1416
Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights) Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)
Time spent traveling: 97 hours (6 hours / day) Time spent sleeping: 96 hours (6 hours / day)
Estimated cost: $1.8K (did not account for HangZhou) Actual cost: $2.0K (see the breakdown)
Suggestions for travellers going on similar trips Things to bring, some of which I forgot, others of which I found useful: Portable router: hotels often come with a single ethernet jack, so a router is essential for sharing internet between multiple travelers. Ear plugs: traveling means non-ideal sleeping situations, but sleeping is all the more important. Long beanie: doubles as a hat during the day and a light/noise blocker during the night. Toilet paper and toiletries for the first few days: otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time looking for these things while getting used to a new country. Cold/flu medication: you may get sick. Anti-diahhrea meds: the food may not agree with your stomach. Hand sanitizer: no need to waste precious time looking for soap and water whereever you go. Moisture cream and chapstick: hand sanitizer will dry out your hands; also, hotel rooms will sometimes be very dry. Underarmor: space efficient for keeping warm. Cash: withdraw lots of cash before leaving the country, or you’ll risk incurring a lot of fees on your ATM card.
Tips: Plan in advance: if you can help it, you don’t want to be spending precious journey time planning the trip. Plan in downtime: travelling is tiring, and time to relax a bit and take in what you’ve learned thus far is very meaningful.
Japan reminds me a lot of Las Vegas, with its glamour, its adult content.. and its horse race betting?
I walked around Asakusa (where we stayed) a bit in the morning. We stayed right next to a Buddhist (I think) temple and streets lined with little vendors. We’ve seen this kind of thing a few times now — in Hangzhou and in Shanghai — but this time, the items were more expensive and had a Japanese flare. Still cute and full of people, and it’s interesting to continue seeing this kind of thing. The American equivalent is… Fanueil Hall?
On the way to the airport, I completed my Asian transformation by putting on a dust mask as a social courtesy. It’s common for the Japanese to wear these when sick or when wanting to prevent getting sick. I happened to have one sitting in my backpack for the last 7.5 years, since the last time I was in Taiwan, and it finally came in useful. 😀
We took one last photo together at the airport, and now we’re en route back to Boston, with a connection through Detroit. It’s been an absolutely incredible trip, and I’ll follow up with a summary soon.
I’ll admit it was inane, but I insisted on finding a bookstore in order to find a common Japanese phrase book, so we found one before heading off anywhere else. Turns out, Japanese bookstores don’t sell those. They do have books for learning other languages though, including a lot of neat Chinese-Japanese books, an appropriate souvineur for this trip. At the bookstore, I attempted to ask for help finding books and happened to ask the right lady, who also spoke some Chinese (not that common in Japan). Score! At that point, I was very glad to be able to communicate in both English and Chinese.
I found us a capsule hotel for the night, which was going to be super exciting because I was looking forward to attempting to communicate with the hotel counter person with Japanese translations that I copied down from Google Translate. To my disappointment but perhaps for the better, we stayed in a pretty touristy area of Tokyo, so the hotel counter people all spoke a bit of English. The hotel experience was great though. We stayed in a “capsule dorm,” a room of 8 capsules and 8 lockers. The capsules reminded me of kennels that pet owners use to store and transport their dog. It was roughly the same shape and make, but person-sized. There was a curtain on the side that you could push aside and crawl in. The capsule is exactly enough room for 1 standard-sized Asian with some additional room to roll around, and it came equipped with a lamp, alarm clock, radio, TV, etc. The efficient space utilization was cool to see.
We explored Akihabara, Japan’s place of plentiful anime, manga, video games, arcades, and electronics. I feel like this is a true blend of technology and art, mixed with a hint of culture and youthfulness. It was a neat to see an oscilliscope store. But after the SEG and Minghe electronics markets, the component shops (and their high prices) were underwhelming. The arcades, on the otherhand, thriving. We walked through a 4-story building full of arcade machines, bustling with intense arcaders.
Magically, we got on standby to the flight from Beijing to Tokyo. Earlier, they told us it was pretty much impossible because they switched out the normal plane with a smaller one and were thus having weight issues. The Seattle flight looked terrible too (as collateral damage). But magically, everything worked out. At this point in our trip, Julian took a gamble, split off, and stayed at the airport for the flight to Seattle, so that he could get back to familiar lands and hopefully recover better. Here, aside from anti-diahrrea medicine, we could only offer him old bagels from Seattle, some ginger tea from Boston (but probably China before that), and local Chinese herbal medicine. In retrospect, I might have been able to fly directly to Seattle as well, so I’d have a few days at home before headed back to school. Ah, well. The way to go when flying standby is to simply get on the first flight that you can. Among friends, I’m OK with the uncertainty.
I normally have a lot of trouble sleeping on moving things — cars, trains, subways, planes — but this trip has been exhausting enough that it’s been a piece of cake to sleep in these settings. Nancy claims that she’s taught me well. xD But I’m still not a pro like she is. During this trip, I found that sleeping with earplugs and pulling my new navy beanie over my eyes works like a charm in blocking out most noise and light.
We arrived in Tokyo, land of not only fancy toilets but also plentiful vending machines. They vend warm soups! And their toilets are fancy even in non-fancy places, and their fanciness varies. I’ve seen toilets with sinks attached that trigger upon flush so that guests can leave the bathroom untouched. I’ve seen toilets with special pepperminty spray things for cleaning the toilet seat and your hands. Of course there is the standard fancy toilet that squirts water to clean your butt and makes flushing noises to block out unwanted noises. Some toilets also have wonderful butt warmers. Not all toilets are created equal, and not all toilets are fancy. There are also non-fancy sitting toilets and squat toilets. I guess when you are building up a new building, you get to specify a lot more about your toilets in Japan than in most other places.
It’s clear that the Japanese are committed to overdesign. The subway was super smooth, though I can’t tell / can’t recall how different it is from the metro in Taipei. We visited a 7-11 in Tokyo (1 of 12,000 or so) and again, the selection far far exceeds that of 7-11s in the US. As compared to those in Taipei though, they are comparable. Maybe I just have very mundane interests, but I feel like it would be fun to tour the world checking out all the various subway systems and convenience stores. Of course, I have always found it fascinating to watch cars go by..
If Taiwan was preparation for China, then China was preparation for Japan, which has the least English support out of the three countries. Not knowing more than 20 words of the language, what saved us (aside from normal body gestures and looking absolutely clueless) was being able to read some of the Kanji (some are directly mapped to Chinese characters). On the subway, we also bumped into a couple speaking Chinese, and they helped us get to where we needed to go.
The Tokyo Hackerspace was perhaps what I’ve been looking for (without knowing it). We had the opportunity to attend their regular weekly meeting that evening. It was the first meeting of the new year and a lot of people were still away, so the attendance was slim (~10 throughout this evening, but normally on the order of 40 people), but I got the sense that they were really a community. They were all friends; they talked about technical things, but they also joked and talked about non-technical things. They were friendly, not at all exclusive. The emphasis, again, was on hardware, but I’m learning that computer vision is actually something of interest to hardware people. There was calming nature-y music in the background and the atmosphere was perfect, complete with tiramisu, and all I wanted to do was start a hackerspace in my dorm room. It’s the sense of community that has made MIT so awesome for me, but I’m here to learn, so what I want to see is a technical community at MIT, especially among undergraduates. Moar reading groups!
It was here that Josh and Nancy got their wish of crashing at a hackerspace.
And the fun fact for the day is that the Tokyo Hackerspace is comprised almost entirely of expats (who all speak English). Apparently, the Japanese aren’t accustomed to the idea of technical community either. We learned about a separate 4-member hackerspace in Japan that comprised of Japanese members but was closed to membership.
I thought I was all caught up with writing, but realized last night that I missed writing about Day 13. Oops. Well here it is, and the last 3 days will follow.
Our second day in Beijing was designated as one of our touristy days. With Nancy’s family friend as our guide, we adventured through the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty Tombs, and the Summer Palace, and everything was super pretty. Beijing is cold at this time of year (colder than Boston), and the Great Wall is a windy place. As soon as we arrived, we found a bunch of kids huddling behind a wall for warmth. Along the way, we were approached by a peddler selling Great Wall magnets, and we stopped to talk prices, not realizing that this kind of thing is prohibited. Part way through our haggling, the peddler grabbed back all the magnets and ran off. We thought he had gotten impatient with us, but then we saw two Great Wall security people running after him. So that was interesting, and we felt bad for getting him into trouble. I guess these peddlers need to make a certain amount of profit before getting kicked out. Anyway, we actually wanted those magnets, and luckily the gift shop at the entrance sells them too and gave us the price we asked for without any argument. The price went down from 1 magnet for 45 RMB to 3 magnets for 30 RMB (4.75USD). As usual, later on, we learned that that price was only OK. I did a bit worse haggling over a panda hat I spotted, but it was about 6 times cheaper than my giraffe hat. ><; We had a great time walking around the Ming Tombs and Summer Palace, but the entire time, I just wished I was more familiar with Chinese history. One day… We also drove around Tianmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, and the Birds Nest (Beijing National Stadium, Beijing Olympics 2008). As it turns out, we didn’t have time to really see anything at all. And if I hadn’t mentioned this before, everything in major Chinese cities (buildings, streets, bridges, signs, etc.) are lined with LEDs. Shiny!
We had our first and only meal at an American fast food chain, but it was good because McDonalds (as well as KFC) is super popular in Asia. For dinner, we had authentic Peking Duck, and it was delicious. We had something like the 1.4 millionth duck that that particular restuaurant had prepared for human consumption, which is a crazy number. They explained that the ducks require 5 years to grow up and 45 minutes to cook. We had duck tongue, which was pretty funny to eat, duck blood soup, duck remains soup, and little duck-shaped desserts. And, of course, there was the actual duck meat, finely prepared.
Our first day in Beijing was a pretty crazy one as well. Our train arrived in Beijing around 8am, at which point we met up with Nancy’s family friend and went for breakfast at this food chain called Yonghe King. That was sort of freaking amazing because my family is actually largely from Yonghe, Taipei, Taiwan. I was already missing Taiwan food at that point, so it was great to have a Taiwan style breakfast. Learning about Yonghe King probably made my day. <3 food.
Day 12 was a real whirlwind of activities. We got a quick tour of Tsinghua University (China’s top tech school) with Nancy’s family friend, followed by meeting Professor Koo’s students at his Toyhouse, followed by meeting 6 Tsinghua CS students, followed by visiting SkyWorks (one of the hackerspaces at Tsinghua). I enjoyed SkyWorks a lot; they even had resources for software projects in the form of mobile phones and server hosting. The hackerspaces we’ve seen in China didn’t have as much in terms of machine tools as MITERS, but all of the hackerspaces that I have seen (except for SkyWorks and Noisebridge) seemed to lack software resources. Anyway, all of this was arranged fairly last minute, so I was surprised that we were able to meet people and have great conversation… on New Years Day, and also the week before their final exams. But, Tsinghua does have 30K students with an emphasis on engineering, so maybe that made it reasonable to find students. The Toyhouse students gave us their insights on Professor Koo’s “radical” teaching methods–essentially student-taught project-based classes instead of professor-blabber-based classes. A lot of work and suitable for only some areas of study, but they teach you how to learn on your own, they said. From the CS students, we learned that the college GPA of Chinese students pretty much determines exactly the next step (grad school, industry, studying abroad, going home), or at least that is the mindset of a lot of students. SkyWorks showed us that not all students focus 100% of their efforts on their GPA; some do work on projects of their own, for commercial purposes, etc.
OK, so that was just the morning until early afternoon. Then, we visited Beijing Maxpace, the Beijing hackerspace (北京创客空间), a new media art exhibition, and attended a maker/hacker new years party. The Beijing hackerspace was tiny. It’s a room only slightly larger than my dorm room, and there were about 20 people there awaiting our arrival — space is hard to find in Beijing?We took a look around, chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged stickers. This trip has taught me that hackerspaces are crazy about stickers. And stamps. Here, I got a second stamp on my hackerspace passport (the first was at Chaihuo, the third in Tokyo). MITERS has neither stamps nor stickers yet, oops. The new media exhibit was neat; it was like the media lab, but orders of magnitude less cluttered. The new years party consisted of people from a whole bunch of different makerspaces and places. We did introductions, watched maker-y videos, and had good food and pleasant conversation. We pulled up yet another documentary of MITERS (produced by NYU students) and also the MASLAB 2011 highlights video, and I talked about MASLAB for a bit. Yay robots and presenting in broken Chinese! I need to find a way to learn/use technical vocabulary in Chinese.
At this point, Julian was seriously food poisoned (probably got infected on Day 10), and so we scrambled to find a suitable place to stay for the night. Originally, Josh and Nancy wanted to crash on the concrete floor of the place of the party, which I wasn’t too crazy about but was willing to entertain. Amazingly, with a lot of help from the Beijing hackers, especially Wang ZhenFei (王振飞), we made our way to our home for the next two nights.
At the end of the day, I was just confused at how we managed to do so much and meet so many people in a single day.
Surprisingly, our trip has been pretty full of Taiwanese people. This is undoubtedly biased because I am on this trip and most of our factory tour relations were tied to Taiwan, but I have been told that a lot of the hackerspace people in China are Taiwanese too. The night of Day 10 consisted of a dinner at a Taiwanese place with my family friend. Yay Taiwan food. We were in some area of Shanghai where there is a large concentration of people from Taiwan… imagine Chinatown, except with Taiwanese people… and in China.
The family friend we stayed with ordered in breakfast for us, which was super nice and tasty. After a lot of hours of figuring out the rest of the day, we parted and went off to Chenghuang Temple (城隍庙) for some culture, touristy shopping, and good eats. At this point in our trip, we started thinking about purchasing souvenirs, so we obtained quite a few stuffed dragons. I just realized that we forgot to haggle, but we did walk around asking 4-5 different vendors for their prices before settling on one. It’s pretty neat to see what different vendors will quote depending on how foreign / touristy we look. I had the best luck when I asked without the others around. This particular vendor actually had 2 clerics who gave me 2 different prices — yes, I asked them both and then took the lower one. We also had soup buns, which are like bread bowls, but replace the bread with a bun.
We only had about an hour there before we rushed off for our (but really Nancy’s) presentation at Xinchejian (新车间), the Shanghai makerspace. Attendance was around 50, which was pretty freaking incredible. We showed my (actually Ben’s) MITERS documentary from my anthropology class, and I’m very glad that finally came in useful. There I met Professor Ben Koo at Tsinghua University in Beijing (as mentioned before, also Taiwanese), who gave us a lot of helpful information and even helped us with our plans the next day in Beijing! After the presentation, we had about 45 minutes of mingling before we rushed off to the train station to catch our train to Beijing. Everyone was very awesome, and everything was way way too rushed. As usual, we almost missed the train (this really needs to stop happening), but the traffic cleared up about halfway there and our 100USD tickets were saved. We got a soft sleeper compartment, which consists of 4 soft bunks for sleeping and a communal table that we used to pile all of our food. On the train, I realized that, for sanitary reasons, I actually prefer squat toilets to sitting toilets in Asia (this does not apply in Japan). Then the new year came (at least on this side of the planet), and though everyone else was already asleep, I found the train ride to be a very nice way to welcome the new year.
On the highrail from Hangzhou to Shanghai to meet friends of my relatives, a bit later than planned. This trip has been full of experiences and good things, but also full of fails. We might all be nearing the end of our tolerances of one another, as does happen when people spend too much time together. I just threw a temper tantrum of sorts (which is my fail and no one else’s), but there is a limit to how much aggregate fail I can take. Being impatient or annoyed, ignoring or disregarding me, losing tickets and things, walking off and getting separated, getting off the taxi early and then getting lost, being 1.5 hours late to a meeting or two, not buying train tickets in advance, not making it on our train, taking a slower train than necessary, having absolutely no time (negative?) buffer. This was just within the last 24 hours… I don’t understand how these things can happen, but they tell me that there’s no choice. If we’re talking about culture shock, I can say without a doubt that traveling with these people have given me much more culture shock than anything I’ve seen yet in Asia, with the possible exception of all the taxi drivers hovering around us and colluding (I’ll write about this later). These things have been alright so far, because they haven’t really affected any of my engagements. Well, now it has, and I really hate being late (especially with people I don’t know, who are graciously housing us, and even fronted our train tickets to Beijing).
Next time I go on a trip like this, we are going to plan our activities more than 1 day in advance (or me contributing absolutely nothing to the planning would work too).
Anyway, I don’t have much to say about Hangzhou. I have some pretty pictures, and I wanted it to be a relaxing day, but I spent most of the day being stressed about making it to Shanghai, which I guess was reasonable because we missed our train. I should have just gone off seperately in the morning, bought our tickets, and then just wandered the pretty sights by myself.