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.
Mmm, blogging on the subway in Taipei (台北), 2 days behind. I’m on my way to visit my mom’s side of the family now, abandoning everyone else at the International House of Taipei, but we’ll all meet up at the airport in a few hours for our flight out.
Friday was our first day of company visits. We awoke to soy milk and my favorite variety of scallion pancakes (葱抓饼), as we got into the car with my uncle for the first company on our tour, Advantech (台湾研华). Advantech is a huge Taiwanese technology company that design business solutions for basically everything and about 1000 products (eeep!). They’re also focusing on hard on the Internet of Things and a smarter planet initiative (they actually work with IBM), which may turn out to be The Next Big Thing. They have a bit going on with traffic optimization and fleet management, which I’ll need to look into more. At Advantech, Secretary General Mr. Tsai emphasized quite a bit that Taiwan is amazing at hardware, but extremely weak in software. This is of course a very interesting point for me. Rather than computer science, apparently electrical engineering is what you study in Taiwan if you want to be basically guaranteed a job (thought studying to be a doctor is probably the most popular).
On the way to the next company, we got stuck in a traffic jam for 20-30 minutes, where the cars just didn’t move at all. We were conveniently stopped next to a bus with a lot of good-to-know Chinese characters (出口, 巴士, etc.), so we got out of the car and had a mini-Chinese lesson for Josh and Julian with the bus as our blackboard (not really). I’m impressed at how much Chinese they now know, after about 3 days. During our Chinese lesson, other people got out of their cars too and we were offered Binglang (槟榔), a pretty popular tobacco-like recreational substance here that turns your teeth funny colors.
We had lunch at 7-11, which is worlds apart from the ones in the US. Taipei has a 7-11 basically in every streetcorner, so it’s sort of like Starbucks in the US, but with your standard delicious Taiwanese food and convenience store things. I am told that 7-11s are only good in Taiwan and Japan. And for future reference, FamilyMart is also good, but HiLife is considered more low-end in terms of these convenience stores in Taiwan. Food is not as ridiculously cheap as I remember from 7 years ago, but it’s still way cheaper than in the US… and I could be looking in the wrong places without my parents around. Lunch was about 3USD for a bun and a big bowl of soup. Snacks on the street are commonly priced at about 0.33USD, which is simply wonderful.
The second company of the day was MitraStar, which recently merged with ZyXEL. They are a telecommunications design company based in Taiwan. That means routers, switches, network security, etc. For consumers, they do power over ethernet, ethernet over power, digital media centers, etc. Interestingly, two-thirds of the engineers work on software, and they seem to be better at software than other Taiwanese companies. They were wonderful and got us an impromptu tour of their quality assurance (QA) and software testing facility and we got a peak of their factory, but it was the Friday before Christmas, so there weren’t enough people around to actually give us a full tour. Testing the network configurations on the XBox is just part of the job of the facility. And just to be clear, both company visits were conducted in English (phew).
After the visits, we went off with my cousin Peter who is a junior at Tsinghua University (清华大学 in Taiwan, not in Beijing), which is known as the 2nd top college in Taiwan. We toured around a bit and went to his class on materials (semiconductors). Apparently, despite the fact that Taiwanese students don’t know English that well, about 90% of college materials are written in English. About 40% of EE classes are also taught in English. The one we went to was taught in Chinese, but the powerpoint presentation was all in English. All I can say is, I’m glad I know the language that my textbooks are written in.
We also went to a Night Market (台湾师大夜市), where we were joined by Jessica (a college Junior studying English Literature)! Night markets are just streets lined with little shops and food stands that run from about 5pm to 3am. Taiwan is famous for these, and they’re full of cheap delicious food, as well as endless shopping opportunities. We walked and ate and ate and ate. Broth o’ everything, bubble tea, chicken butts, sausages, butter buns, dumplings, stinky tofu. Nom.
At the end of the day, we all felt like we had been in Taiwan for way more than a day. I have a feeling our entire trip is going to be this jammed pack full of fun things.