Why baby animals help – when you bump a few too many walls

Today, I wrote on my facebook wall: “Could anyone send me a baby animal pic? I think Bubble tea’s not gonna do the trick. Bumped on the same-shape wall a few too many times.”

The last bump was with someone I work with, repeatedly saying: ‘I’ll do X,’ but actually just putting X on a list.  For some reason, I’ve been affected by the delays, slackness, slow responses, or just plain committing and never doing, which I’ve experienced recently. I guess, running a non-profit on passion and conviction that long-term benefits are significant, as I do, makes me vulnerable to disappointment – many people just do the job they get immediate money for, and not very well at that. I always forget.

Beside, this comes in a context of battling for funds among multiple bodies – never quite fitting their criteria – and encountering the self-centredness of constituted grant givers when allocating public money. Working in a small structure where I’m accountable for everything, I have become sensitive to bureaucratic slack and disengagement. And indeed, I have taken on some of it myself – if they don’t do their job, why should I do mine – and neglected things I should be doing. Add a layer of guilt and meta-guilt to the mix. Slack may be structural. Am I any better? Who am I to blame?

Three days ago, I bumped. I was tired, and at some level I wanted to give up the whole shebang – Marco Polo Project, the Festival I’m trying to organise, even life in Australia. But at some level, I knew there may be milder solutions. And so – wisely? – I just put everything down for a couple of hours, and got myself a cup of bubble tea, taro with pearl. Sometimes, all you need is a moment off, giving the brain time to find its balance. It worked in that instance.

Another problem today, another encounter with ‘I haven’t yet but it’s on my list’, and I found myself in a daze. So, I thought appealing to a sense of communal support – and watching pictures of baby animals – would help. And it did. Within seconds, I got a smiling cat, a puppy wearing a dinosaur suit, and a youtube video of an armadillo playing with a pink plastic bear. It made me laugh, it lifted my mood, and got me drafting this piece, which is better than the daze.

10471165_10152155830746816_6176680948228131589_nWhy do baby animals help? Why do we find them ‘cute’, and why does it lift up our mood to look at them? Some of it has to do simply with youth – any baby represents a future potentially different, better than the frustrating present. Although that baby cat is likely to turn into the usual grumpy adult – it still has the potential to be that perfect being, which will exactly match my expectations. Some of it has to do with animals – we forget about the human world, its anxieties, duties, pressures, and complex web of politeness. The baby animal expresses unrepressed emotions, joy, surprise, love – or at least we can project those on them.

And maybe, there is a meta-reason. When you’re frustrated at the narrowness of the world, how nobody will go that extra mile, not even that extra centimetre, how everybody’s busy, grumpy, depressed: well, someone had enough energy to take a baby animal pic, and enough generosity to share it on the web, making it available to others. And so, the sheer existence of baby animal pictures, their availability, testifies that the world has more to it, that we do have an extra little bit of energy to share, that we can go beyond. And I guess, that’s why I’m feeling better now.

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Chinese lowlights – internet and hardware

Internet has been the lowlight of my time in China. Unreliable, slow, and expensive. At home, I used a 3G stick from China Unicom: 300 yuan for nine gigabytes, three nationally, six locally. The first one went quickly – I bought a second from a small shop, which turned out to be registered in another province, and so ran out after three gigabytes of usage only. Neither anger nor diplomacy got any result from the shop ladies, so I bought a third stick, which has lasted me till now. Overall, the connection was highly unstable and slow, with or without VPN. As for cafes (or even youth hostels), WIFI quality was a regular source of frustration – it varied from place to place and from day to day, without any clear explanation. Bad internet connection affected my mood and productivity considerably. I run online projects, I have collaborators in Australia: if I can’t get online, I can’t work. As time passed, my patience wore off, and in the last month, I have seen myself give up a few times before midday, after spending long periods of time re-loading pages in between timeouts.

Hardware issues made the matter worse. I bought a MacBook Air in October 2012 – it came highly recommended, and indeed, I found it amazingly practical to use. Then in October 2013, while I was visiting a friend in Tianjin, just before a week of back-to-back meetings in Beijing, my computer crashed: a flashing folder with a question mark appeared on the screen when I tried turning it on. The SanLiTun store delivered harsh news, my flash-drive needed changing – all data was lost. More annoying, they didn’t have a spare part. After much insistence, I got them to order the piece in a Shanghai store, and set up an external boot-disk, so I could use my computer in the mean time. Planning an appointment in Shanghai was another ordeal – their complicated and all-in-Mandarin online appointment system didn’t work, and the phone assistant refused to help. But in the end, I got my computer fixed, and an apology from the manager for the bad experience over the phone. All important data was on dropbox and google docs, and I got over the annoyance.

Then four days ago, as I was browsing the net at a friend’s house, my screen froze. The flashing folder was back. I went to the Shanghai Apple store this morning, and got the same harsh news: my flash-drive died.  They were decent enough to recognise that after three months, this was an embarrassment. ‘SSD drives never break’, said the guy from the Genius Bar. But they didn’t have a spare part for me, so I’ll have to get the thing fixed in Melbourne. Fortunately, I bought a warranty extension in October – so won’t have to pay extra. And fortunately, I did regular back ups on time-machine, so won’t lose much data. But the Shanghai people weren’t able to properly order the piece for me in Australia – though they did say they would try to send an email – which means possibly more back and forth trips to the Apple store in Chadstone.

These IT issues have been a constant drain of energy throughout my stay in China. It’s hard enough to deal with everyday interactions in Mandarin, get used to a new country, make a new set of social contacts, all this while preparing two collaborative international projects and studying the language at an advanced level. Now imagine the same thing with your tech cyclically breaking down, and no reliable service to fix it. I guess Apple was alright, in the context of China. Their phone service is a nightmare, their repair did last for only three months, and they’ve got a short stock of crucial spare parts. More generally, multiple details in attitude and expression, which could be summed up as ‘cultural differences’, added to the sense of frustration. But I did manage to get a temporary boot disk, and the technicians in store were polite, understanding, and helpful to an extent.

More importantly, though these IT issues were a great drain on my usual productivity, they were a great learning lesson on three fronts:

* I learnt to let stuff go. In general, I’m a reliable planner: I give myself a list of things to do, and then I do it all. For the last month, I slowed down, both socially and professionally. There’s emails I may never send, blog posts I’ll never write, New Year’s greetings I’ve missed, articles I will not translate. That’s OK, when I get back to Melbourne, ‘where things work and people smile’, I’ll take stock of my losses, and start afresh.

* The frustration of unreliable tech gave me direct emotional insight into the multiple frustrations that people in China live through every day. It explains the tired faces and the cynical words, both among locals and expats. The frustration extends beyond tech – it’s everywhere in a society where service and infrastructure is unreliable. I’ve come back to my reflections on trust – as I learnt, you can’t even trust an Apple computer to work here, or a repair from a genuine Apple store to last over three months. Gradually, you trust everything and everyone less.

* Finally, my interactions with Apple were a great opportunity to reflect on culturally hybrid spaces, and the particular challenges they pose to globalising economies. At every step, my relationship with technicians and customer service people was distorted through a number of lenses – my attempt at adopting a ‘Chinese’ mode, their attempt at servicing a ‘Westerner’, and our common struggle to fit these cross-cultural efforts within the framework of Apple’s generic service processes.

I came here to learn the language and the culture. These tech issues were very painful, and they did harm projects I was trying to set up from here. But they might have made my learning better – so that ultimately, I’m not unhappy that I had to face them. A four month stay abroad will have highlights and lowlights. And I believe the wisdom of a true cross-cultural learner is to take both of them in. Learning is not always pleasant in the moment it happens. Sometimes, what you learn is even slightly grim. But you’re still that little bit wiser, and better ready to face the future.