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 14: PEK to NRT, toilets, Tokyo Hackerspace

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.

Day 12: Yonghe King, Tsinghua University, Beijing Hackerspace, New Years Maker Party, emergency accommodations

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.


Day 5: More relatives, then TPE to SZX

I feel like every day, we are ramping up for what is to come next.  We’re getting more accustomed to Asia with each experience and having our hands held less and less every step of the way.

I have also noticed a tactic that my relatives often use to get me to accept gifts. They tell me that a particular gift is for my dad, friend, etc., and then I don’t even think to refuse it! This has happened 4 times on this trip now, and I can’t think of any way to counter it. Sigh.

Christmas Day, our last day in Taiwan, I started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll down the small mountain from the International House of Taipei. It was beautiful and low-traffic, with the occasional funny-looking bus.

I went and visited my relatives on my mom’s side, and of course they were wonderful. We went for hot pot, and it was a style of hot pot where each individual has their own little pot for cooking whatever. Everything was so delicious and I definitely forgot to take pictures. Apparently, at the moment, the cabbage was the most expensive thing there, even more expensive than all of the various meats. Afterward, I visited Jenny, my favorite dog in the entire world, and I think she might still remember me, even after 7.5 years!

Then it was off to the airport for our flight out to Shenzhen.  By the way, everything is so cute in Taipei, including at the airport.

The travels to Shenzhen was pretty uneventful, and we were all a bit intimidated by the amount of smog we saw upon landing. A short car ride later, we met my dad at our hotel, which had been operating without power for the entire day.  But about 15 minutes after our arrival, the power came back and everything was well. Also, the rooms are extremely nice (Western style, clean, etc.), and I feel like we’re getting spoiled. We are staying in Changan (…), about 40 minutes from Shenzhen.  Changan is sort of like Vegas in that the government there has a lot of money, and the people who reside and work here don’t necessarily have much money, but the native peoples of the area get a lot of benefits for existing. We walked around Changan a bit, and it’s pretty amazing. There are 800K residents, and roughly 700K of them are young people (roughly college age).

Day 4: Taipei Metro, Long San Temple, gondola, and relatives

One day behind. We’re on our way to China now, the land of the Great Firewall. The plane should be landing in Shenzhen (深圳) soon.  To be honest, I’m nervous… and cautiously super excited, if that makes sense.  I’ve been told for the last several weeks how much of a mess China is around this time of year (migrant workers, pollution, food and water safety), especially Shenzhen.

Julian didn’t join us for our adventuring on Saturday due to his architecture paper (from this past semester), but it sounds like he’s almost done so that hopefully won’t ruin any more fun for his trip.

We started the day off by making our way through the Taipei Metro subway system.  The subway system is actually amazing, the best I’ve seen yet; everything is super clean and orderly. No food is allowed, and indeed, I never saw any food in the stations. The escalator has a sign that tells people to hold the handrail, and indeed all the way up, everyone was holding the handrail. The other amazing thing is that there are marked queues on the platform for entering the train, and people line up along them waiting for the train. Sometimes, the lines are so long that they extend down the platform to the next line / train door, but even when it is boarding time and there is another opening nearer to someone, the people still follow the queue they are in! No one seems to be particularly in a hurry, and everyone is amazingly friendly. Once, we got off a train and only looked around for about 3 seconds before an employee came over to ask us where we wanted to go.

The trains are beautiful too, and some lines have trains that don’t have doors between cars. I can’t comment much on the train engineering, but the stations and station maps are extremely well designed. Everything is intuitive and labeled well. After taking the subway just 1 stop the day before with Peter and Jessica, I felt like there was absolutely no problem navigating the subway system, even with only a vague grasp of the language. On the contrary, Boston’s MBTA took a bit of getting use to (inbound, outbound), and NYC’s MTA is still too much for me. Some of the bathrooms even have panels that indicate occupancy.

Later, we even visited the (or just one of?) Taipei Metro gift shop! They have a gift shop for their subway system! I appreciate their value of public transportation.

Anyway, we met up with Peter and Jessica again and had wonderful Shaobing (烧饼) and rice milk (米浆) for breakfast, followed by a visit to Long San Temple (龙山寺), a beautiful Daoist temple for Guanyin (观音), goddess of mercy. It’s about half tourists, half locals, and it houses shrines for all kinds of gods/dieties (I’m not sure the proper term). Sometimes, parents will come to pray that their kids do well on their college entrance exams, and so they will place a copy of their kid’s exam paper with their offerings. There are posters that inform you of whether you will experience bad luck in the coming year and it instructs you on how to best pray. Praying has been a bit commercialized as well. Essentially, people can pay for more luck and consolation, in the form of a small light that holds a person’s name is placed and lit around the temple for the new year.

We took a gondola (cable car) ride up a few hundred meters to Maokong (貓空) into the mountains of Taiwan and saw pretty trees and things. I saw (probably) the tallest giraffe in the world, which was painted onto a smoke stack sticking out of a garbage processing facility that we could see from a distance on the gondola. Unfortunately, I can’t find the picture now, but it definitely made my day. By the way, the gondola is just a part of the metro system in Taipei. The awesome view doesn’t cost much more than a normal subway ride (about 1.3USD instead of 0.60USD).

I rode a scooter for the first time on the way to visit my paternal grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle’s dog Happy, and that was really really great.

Red bean bing (红豆饼), oyster omelette (蚵仔煎), small sausage in large sausage (大腸包小腸). More nom!

Another thing. Taiwan is crazy about recycling. They hit about 45% recycling rate in 2009, higher than the rate in the US (but I couldn’t find by how much).  Almost 100% of people sort and discard their trash properly. Beautiful.

Somewhere along the way, we snuck off and got Jessica a cake because it happened to be her birthday!  Happy 21st, Jessica!!

Day 3: Advantech, ZyXEL, Tsinghua University, and the Night Market

Merry Christmas! 大家圣诞快乐!

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.

Day 2: SEA to NRT to TPE

I’m behind on blogging already; this does not bode well for the next few weeks.

Got on the flight from Seattle (SEA) to Narita, Japan (NRT) without a hitch.  They’ve been having weight issues on this flight for the past few weeks, but everyone (including people who had been waiting 3-4 days) got on.  w00t.  Also, unlimited free alcohol for international flights?  I’m not so sure about this.  Also, I’m glad there is still food on 13-hour flights.

13 or so hours later, we were in Japan, land of the fancy toilets and numerous vending machines.  I don’t think the vending machines are actually that particular, but… I can imagine them to be. Anyway, the toilets squirt your butt!  With water, to clean it!  They also play flushing sounds to cover up other sounds you might create, and they have a built-in deodorizer.  There were also squat toilets, but they were super clean and expectation defying. Even the sinks were well-designed in the airport bathrooms.

In Narita, we met these other nice people (Tim and Molly) who were also headed to Taiwan — also students studying in the US.  This began my long chain of saying “EVERYONE IS SO NICE” every time we talk to anyone about anything.

We all got first-class seats on our flight to Taipei, Taiwan (TPE), and they had very interesting pods for seats.  They reminded me of the chairs at the dentist’s office where the dentist could put you in different positions, except this time you’re in control, there’s no fear of getting shots of anesthesia, and there’s a television.  They handed out Chinese newspapers on the flight, and I spent a good hour puzzling over the articles, trying to make sense of any of it.  The most comprehensible part of it was the political campaigns.

We’re now staying at the International House of Taipei, which is a boarding house for international students studying Chinese. This translates to everyone being able to speak English, which makes the language barrier less awkward for us. Yay!