Day 8: Colibri, Great Wall Industry, Chaihuo

Guanxi in Asia, which is the idea that everything is relationships, is quite something. Our tours for the day were made possible by the following relation: my friend’s father’s elementary school friend and his wife. One of our visits from Day 6 was made possible by the relation: my father’s brother’s wife’s college classmate.

We visited Colibri, an automation machinery design company and a small quantity high precision machine shop, and Great Wall, a consumer electronics assembly company. Great Wall was our only company visit conducted primarily in Chinese. It seems like a bunch of the places we have seen are fairly empty because of a combination of a bad economy (needing to pay more for operators) and because of the seasonal migration home for many plant workers. It would be cool to see some of these places again at their full capacity. As we saw it this time around, there was plenty of space to operate and move around, but we’ve been told that the plant floor can also be a sea of people during the peak season.

Also, en route to Colibri, as we exited the subway station, we were greated by a long line of illegal motocycle taxis. The transportation / taxi situation is really interesting in Shenzhen; it was the greatest “culture shock” I felt during our short stay in China. It’s a huge mess of taxi meters that don’t mean anything, drivers colluding, black taxis, illegal motorcycle taxis, and official taxis with unethical practices.

Later that day, we were tipped off that the taxi ride back to the hotel should not cost more than a few tens of RMB, but we had happily paid 110RMB in the morning for the same distance, so Nancy and I resolved to fix this on the way back. We started our price at 40RMB, but were unsuccessful with the first taxi driver, and the price was bumped up to 80RMB almost immediately. The driver wasn’t willing to drive us for 80RMB, so we decided to move on, but by that point, there were about 6 other drivers hovering around us, taunting either us or the first driver — I couldn’t really tell. Probably nothing bad would have happened, but it was 6 of them and only 4 of us, so I felt some chills, stood up straight, and walked calmly out of the ring of drivers. Feeling uncomfortable, we proceeded to walk down the line of cabs and resolved to take the first cab that would drive us for 80RMB. Immediately, one of the drivers from the ring ran up to us and agreed to drive us for that rate, so we patted ourselves on the back, and headed over… but realized he was not an official taxi driver, so we started our task over. The taxi drivers seemed to be colluding! There was this ~100RMB barrier for foreigners that the taxi drivers seemed extremely opposed to breaking. I believe we ended up paying a driver 90RMB to take us home and away from all that mess.  

Our lunch was at a traditional Canton place with managers from both plants (+ friends), where there was basically a miniature market indoors with living sea creatures, tubs of vegetables, and counters stretching down a long corridor full of plates of potential dishes and you walk down ordering what you want. And then the sea creatures are slaughtered and the dishes are cooked, fresh. Our dinner, by contrast, was on our own, so being the college students that we are, we wandered into a giant supermarket and bought random pastries and things. We were later berated by real people for not eating a real meal.

We spent our evening at Chaihuo (柴火创客空间), the Shenzhen makerspace (our first makerspace visit in Asia!), where they had a show-and-tell organized, and they even advertised our attendance [src]. The space is very neat; it is divided in half, one part for working, the other for chilling and eating — ingenious. Their space is also super clean and organized, something I would not in a million years have expected. Attendance was in the 20s, and people talked about Seeed Studio, an upcoming Makerfaire in Shenzhen, a robot kit project, programmer board design, light sensors, etc. We talked about our projects and fielded questions about MITERS and MIT. Josh and Julian presented in English, and then Nancy and I presented in Chinese. Nancy was extremely well received, which was really nice to see. I mostly talked about my computer vision projects (Everything in the Kitchen Sink, Kinect Symphony Conductor, Maslab). Afterwards, we broke off into free form talking, and I was pleasantly surprised to see interest in my work. I feel like I don’t have a great sense of the place that software holds and its role in China. I know the strength of China in manufacturing, hardware, and electronics, so at first glance, software seems to be something on the backburner, something to get around to, something not quite valued. I very much hope to learn more about role of computer science in China. Anyway, I enjoyed our short time at Chaihuo very much.

I think at this point in the trip, I also started feeling super self-conscious about how Asian I looked — or rather, how Asian I don’t look. Multiple people were surprised that I spoke Chinese… and I’m in freaking Asia! Some combination of my height, my pale skin, my brightly colored clothing (why is everyone wearing dark clothing here?), my accent and lack of Chinese vocabulary, and my mannerisms probably gives it away, but I wish I knew the key factors that gave it away. I later felt redeemed (basically as soon as we left Shenzhen) because people started being surprised that I was from America. 🙂

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