What Chinese people do when they’re feeling blue

Wisdom from the head of China’s Academy of Engineering

“Hey, back there! Pay attention in class!” my college professor yells at my sister. She was napping at the back of our class. She was visiting all the way from Beijing. She wanted to sit in on my class, but was clearly too jet-lagged to. It’s uncharacteristic of her to be sleeping in class, as she loves college classes.

In fact, my sister started college 2 years early. At 15 she became a freshman at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She likes doing things early. She got married at 24 to her college sweetheart. She had a kid at 26. She studied petroleum engineering, and went to work for PetroChina, Asia’s most profitable company. She has been there ever since college.

My sister would give me tips for success in life, from trending hairstyles to when to have kids. She used to tell me:

To have a successful life, you should have your first kid at 26. Because that’s when you’re just starting your career and will have the time to take care of your baby. In your 30s your career will get busier, but by then your kid is older and will have their own activities going on, so you can spend more time with work.

In many ways, she’s the opposite of me. I took 2nd grade twice, because, well, long story. I had to repeat 3rd grade too, but let’s not go there. I dropped out of two PhD programs. I haven’t held a job for longer than three years. And, I never accomplished the mission she set for me to have a kid at 26.

But we don’t talk about those things. In Chinese culture, failure is not dwelled upon. Instead of dwelling in regret, Chinese people will eat more, where they can drown our sorrows in the pleasure of food.

Recently, my sister came for another visit. This time, she brought along a few friends. She emails me:

Hey Tia,
My friends and I are visiting California for a week. Among my friends are several important people: Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), the Vice President of China Petrochemical Corporation (SINOPEC Group), President of my Institute, etc. I am with great teachers. We want to take a tour of Google, Stanford, and Facebook.

Her email might sound ridiculous to you, but it is actually a very standard email from a traveling Chinese person. When Chinese travelers write emails to people they plan to visit, they use this three-step formula:

1) introduce the people you’re traveling with, by job title and company
2) acknowledge that you can learn from these people
3) state what you want from your host
My sister and her friends tour Google. From left to right: sister’s friends, Dr. X, sister, me, their translator. [circa 2014]

During their visit, in the typical style of Chinese travelers, my sister and her friends spent a lot of time dining at restaurants around San Francisco. One of her friends, Dr. Xu, is the head of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. According to my sister, Dr. Xu, renowned the scientific community in China, and is one of the sweetest people she knows and has an incredible mind. What struck me about Dr. Xu’s mind is his mental agility. For instance, during a conversation, he’d be speaking, and someone would interject with a comment, he’d process the new information and can then adapt his thoughts within a split second. Most people would have continued speaking, or continued their original thought, but Dr. Xu is constantly processing new information and adapting his thoughts.

Whenever possible, Dr. Xu would order crab at our meals. According to my sister, Dr. Xu loves to invite people to eat crab, even though he is allergic to crab himself.

At one dinner, I sat next to Dr. Xu.

He asks if I have kids. I shake my head.

He stare at me disappointedly.

“Alright then, you should eat some more crab.” He says sullenly, and points to the plate of Dungeness crab at our table, as an act of condolence.

I pull a crab leg onto my plate and start picking away at it …

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