I was born in Beijing. I don’t remember ever liking it. I remember as a kid being cold and hauled by my dad’s professor to get shots in my butt, constantly sick. I remember never knowing what was going on and being strangely uncurious why anything was happening (kids can be easy to control because they don’t know what’s normal and haven’t learned how to ask, and in some cases learn not to ask). I remember my uncle sending me on a bus ride and then a plane to go to America to reunite with my parents.
In the last quarter, I’ve flown to Beijing more times than I have before in my whole life. In June, I even stayed for 9 days at a stretch, longer than I ever stay on a trip. I had never gone to Asia for business before. I’d actually been in Beijing briefly a few weeks earlier right before Roby’s wedding in Italy because my uncle was dying, but visiting with my family is totally different because I’m never alone and they do everything E2E, from picking me up at the airport to dropping me off. I don’t even change currencies when I go- one time, I forgot my credit cards and it didn’t matter.
When I was there to see my uncle, it was cold and snowing and scary how bad the driver was. He couldn’t see in the snow, wouldn’t turn on the headlights, and drove in the middle of the road, everyone around us honking. My cousin had arranged for this driver but we suspected her contact had outsourced it to an inept buddy.
Now a few weeks later, I was back in Beijing and surprised to find it insanely hot. My dad got one of his students Bing Bing to get me from the airport, intending to have her drive me everywhere the whole time. Bing Bing was also a comically bad driver and I was trying to stay out of it but could not always resist the urge to say, “You need to be in the other lane.” Although I actually loved the resort she put me in on the first night, it was an inconvenient 1.5 hours away from CBD (Chinese Business District). Bing Bing seemed like a nice person, but I thought, “If millions of random Chinese people can surprise in Beijing, then I can too.” So, grouchy with sleep deprivation, I sent her off and embarked on my own. I remembered that, after all, I was born in Beijing- I’m a native!
China changes fast. People smile more, like we do in America because smiles are the best way for immigrants to communicate. I explored Tsing Hua University during Y Combinator’s conference. A fancy gym gave me a free pass and I discovered I’m incredibly physically strong for a Chinese woman- I was the only one who could do a plank or a pushup. All the trainers were hot Russians and Australians.
My dad had warned me of random dangers but hadn’t filled me in on any of the basics, like what apps to use or how to get a VPN. Dad wrote, “How was Beijing result? Beware of cheaters. Especially love-cheaters.” He eventually elaborated, “Now, more men became professional love-rats, taking advantage of the rich and beautiful.” I guess it’s flattering my dad thinks I’m rich and beautiful enough to be the target of a con artist, but it’s bizarre this is what he considers the biggest risk to me in Beijing, like I’m in a soap opera, when really the risk was the smog in my lungs. When I started to get “Beijing cough,” I wanted to come home. I couldn’t breathe, I had no internet, and I didn’t know anyone well- I felt like I was dying.
Luckily the people I met in China were super nice to me. My startup friend set me up with his company’s VPN (the VPN SDK’s Gemma kept sending me weren’t working and cost $50 each) and helped me get a SIM card, I went to 5 banks before one of them gave me a bank account, and the hotel lady helped me order a gas mask using the JD app. VPN, bank account, and SIM card unlock China because otherwise you’re in the China of 20 years ago.
At events, dozens of people clustered around my QR code and scanned me into their WeChat en masse. Wechat norms baffled me. I asked my friend, “Why don’t they use punctuation? Also, why does this guy keep rescinding the messages he sends me- is he in love with me and grappling with how to say it like in those sappy Taiwanese movies I saw on the plane? He should be open and just tell me because it’ll save everyone decades of grief and produce more interesting movies. Why do these peoples’ Wechat profiles look nothing like them bc I have no idea who I’m texting right now? Why can’t I use Wechat desktop and phone apps at the same time? I can’t share this data via Wechat lest everyone and the government reads it, right?”
My friend said gravely, “I keep a separate phone for my Chinese apps and have separate web and mobile accounts.”
Despite the pollution, privacy and government stuff, and cultural differences, I started to love Beijing. And I love that I love Beijing! I love loving more things and losing my fear, especially my fear / distaste for entire countries. I love realizing that when you listen to the news about a place, it always sounds more terrible than it actually is. I realized my family always warns me of weird dangers no matter where I’m going. I loved getting over learned helplessness in certain regards and revisiting cached thoughts.
I started to build deeper friendships and thought, “I can do business here- it’s a matter of time.” Walking from a meeting on a beautiful street, I thought, “If someone I loved were here, one true friend, I could live here,” a thought that shocked me because I’d always been convinced I could never leave America. Watching my face as I talked about China, Jonathan immediately asked, “So when are you moving to China?” I won’t leave SF! But I find myself cautiously excited about traveling. Visit China with me!