Summary: Asiatrip

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
120 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 230 31 01
02 03 04 0
06 07 08

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


View the path of our journey on this Travel Map and check out the makerspace link dump!

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
Hackerspace visits (6): Chaihuo, OnionCapsule, Xinchejian, SkyWorks, Beijing Maxpace, Tokyo Hackerspace
[Some photo credit: Nancy Ouyang and my dad]

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.

Length of trip: 16 days

Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights)
Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)

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.

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.

Day 11: Chenghuang Temple, Shanghai Hackerspace, Shanghai to Beijing, the New Year

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.



Day 10: Hangzhou tourism, then off to Shanghai

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.