Wine Expo in Rimini, Italy

Last month, through a temporary importing project I was working on, I got the privilege to accompany a Chinese investor on a trip to Europe for the procurement of antique furniture and wine. After about 5 days of buying antiques in Germany, we headed to Rimini Italy to attend a food and beverage (but mostly wine) Expo. We were part of the foreign buyers group that had our plane ticket and hotel covered by the organizing entity, so long as we attended all the meetings they set up for us with the wineries. As the only foreign buyers representing China, we received a lot of attention; almost all the wineries we spoke were more than anxious to get their foot in the China market.

The expo was a great way to get exposed to the many different varieties of Italian wine. Even more important, as I tried the many wines with the Chinese investor I was working with and got his opinion, I learned more about the Chinese tastes and demand for wine. First of all, where the wine is from is very important. For example, a Bordeaux wine will have a much higher selling price in China than a Chilean wine partly just because of the name. The Chinese happen to prefer reds to whites, though the demand for whites is growing. Interestingly, just like in the US market sweet wines do very well in China.

Its also important to note that the Chinese tastes are not static; they are evolving rapidly and becoming much more discriminating. Country of origin is becoming less important, while quality is becoming more important. Chinese are learning quickly which foods complement which wines. This is possibly a reason why the popularity of white wines is on the rise – because the Chinese consume a lot of seafood. With the trajectory of the Chinese wine market, finding good value wines is very important and the Wine Expo did just that.

In the end, we found a very suitable winery to do business with that was already involved in the China market. They knew what would sell well and offered us a very high quality to price ratio. We were also extremely impressed by the sweet sparkling dessert wines they had that did very well in the US market. Those wines are not yet in the China market, but we feel they will do very well in Shandong, as people there tend to prefer sweeter foods.

Chinese New Year in Dongbei

Happy Chinese New Year everybody! And what better year than my year — the year of the Rabbit — to spend my first Spring Festival in China. Since arriving in China just after the Western new year, I had been quite busy, so spending a few days in a rural village in Liaoning to visit my friend Bob’s family was an idea I was quickly sold on.

Taking the 24 hour sleeper train north from Qingdao to Qingyuan was predictably uncomfortable not only physically but also socially, as I attracted a lot of attention being the only foreigner on the train. Upon detraining in Qingyuan I was immediately reminded of Michigan; not so much in the lack of pollution as in the blistering coldness. I could clearly see my breath in front me as I walked through the small town. We eventually got a cab that took us for an hour through the beautiful mountains to the village where Bobs family lived.

Normally these villages would have never had a foreign visitor, but Bob brought many of his Western friends in the past. Slightly jaded by those experiences (and especially the time Bob brought a black friend of his), I received less attention for my blonde hair and blue eyes than I expected, which to me is a good thing that makes my time and conversation more enjoyable in China.

I was extremely interested to explore this rural lifestyle, as over the years I have been overexposed to the bustling and rapidly changing city life in China. People in the town lived a much simpler life than those in the city, but they were not without the necessary amenities for a developing society. Most houses had television, some form of heating, and many people had cell phones — some even internet. Thats not to say I did not have to sacrifice some luxuries I enjoy in the cities. But for just a few days the joys experiencing the Chinese New Year and eating great food outweighed the inconveniences of lack of internet and bad cell phone reception.

Bob’s mother and father were extremely hospitable; they seemed truly happy to have a guest with them for such a special occasion and took joy in showing me such an important part of Chinese culture. Bob’s mother made absolutely delicious food all from food grown and animals raised in their village. And there was no shortage of it either; my plate and beer glass were constantly being refilled by others as I ate, drank and happily conversed about the spirit of CNY. Many of the dumplings, to provide financial luck in the new year, were stuffed with coins (yes currency, however, they had been washed thoroughly beforehand) as in often done in China. Most of the coins found their way to Bob’s or my plate, hopefully foreshadowing our business success in the coming year.

Overall, it was an extremely refreshing and educational experience to 过 the 年 in rural China. I discovered that lack of technology and luxury, does not necessarily suggest a lack of happiness — unless its North Korea and people are starving to death and eating tree bark, then it does. And though I certainly enjoy city life, something about lighting off fireworks while drinking baijiu in the middle of the night in a mountain village to pass the Chinese New Year is an experience I would trade for nothing.

The case of waste plastics trade: US/China

Many in the West fear the economic rise of China as a disruptive force in the world. In the US we often accredit China’s growth with the rise in trade imbalances and the increase in environmental degradation. Although its impossible to ignore that these judgements are partly reflective of reality, we should not through fear nor anger allow them form the lens that we view the infinitely complex economic relationship between China and the West.

I have just recently graduated and moved to China from the state of Michigan, where I have been somewhat overexposed to the cries for protectionism and blaming of China for economic turmoil. However, now that I am out here working in the importing business, I have observed many ways that the US-China economic relationship helps both countries, in a way more than maximizing profits. Take for example recycled plastics:

Like the clip from the classic movie “The Graduate” suggests, plastics at one point was a growing industry in the US. That movie was made in 1967; since then the US has evolved economically from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, with about 80% of jobs belonging to the service sector at the present. Much of the world’s manufacturing capacity exists in China now, and these factories have enormous demand for plastic materials in the manufacturing process.

As these trends described above manifested themselves, another process has simultaneously occurred: the recycling movement in North America and Europe. As people in the West began to realize greater standards of living, the environment has become a larger concern. Many governments reacting to these concerns have found it in their political interests to enact policies to increase recycling and protect the environment.

The trend towards a greater environmental commitment on the part of people and government is certainly admirable, but in many aspects the costs to society are too high and the actual positive impact on the environmental is negligible. Many people these days are very committed to recycling — things like plastics (bottles, bags, etc.) — but do not realize the process to refashion those materials in the US is very high, and after the recent economic downturn, the federal government has often had to pay factories to accept these materials, when in theory they were expected to pay for them.

Fortunately many entities in the West have found a better customer for recycled plastics than the unwilling taxpayer: China. Already China has become the largest consumer of the world’s waste, mainly due to lower costs of reprocessing and the giant demand for manufacturing materials. This supply and demand phenomenon has led the very high price of recycled plastics in China. Importers can count on making a profit arbitraging waste plastic from North America or Europe to China even after burdening the transportation, storage, customs, and port expenses.

The Chinese Importer and I at the waste plastics storage unit in Huangdao

I met with one of these importers last week in Qingdao, a city on China’s cost built on the import/export industry, who has been quite successful in this business. He took me to a storage unit in near the port in Huangdao, where I got to see first hand what bagged plastics, shipping containers, and storage facilities actually looked like. I also became more familiar with the entire process of selling the goods to factories from the point of them arriving at the port, and the numerous fees and costs involved with that process. The importer took the time to show me the facility and explain the process in detail because he believes there is enormous profit to be made with the US market due to the very high recycling rates. His largest barriers, though, to penetrating this market are language, culture and the excessive commission rates demanded by intermediaries and agents. If Chinese importers could create more direct relationships with factories in the US, he could make a greater profit and the recycling process would run much smoother and more efficiently.

Here I believe the profit mechanism has led quite beautifully to the greater social good; the greater the efficiency in this transfer of waste resources, the greater confidence we can have in our recycling systems to ensure the reuse of waste materials at the lowest cost to society and through this process we even can see the lowering of trade imbalances as goods are being shipped from the West to the East through free market transactions. If anyone has any ideas for potential exporters to China of waste plastics please contact me at thank you!

New York, New York the city so nice they named it twice

I think I got that title from an episode of the office or something, just to be straight.

With spending the last 3 summers in various cities in China, while also periodically traveling throughout China and sometimes making it as far as Thailand, South Korea, etc, I have often been called a ‘world traveler’ by friends and family. However, though I have spent a good deal of time outside of the United States experiencing other cultures, I never felt I had a wholesome appreciation for my own society and culture until last weekend, when I went to New York City for the first time.

It truly had been eating away at me for years that I am a well traveled American, who studies international relations and economics, but has not been to the cultural and economic capital of my own country. So last weekend was as enlightening as it was refreshing. I got to see a few friends that had recently moved out to Queens, one trying his luck with acting and the doing a volunteer teaching program in the Bronx. In that way I saw New York the way so many immigrants have seen in over the centuries — as a city of opportunity where dreams can come true with a little of hard work and risk-taking.

When I got to New York I had an afternoon free before I was going to meet with some Chinese friends of mine that were flying in later that evening. I took the subway from Astoria, Queens to 57th Street and 5th Avenue, near the south end of Central Park. The subway itself vastly differed from my expectations. Since I am used to the newly constructed subway systems in Beijing and Shanghai, I thought the ancient New York subway would be flithy, dangerous (both in terms of crime and chiropractic concerns) and just overall inconvenient — nothing could have been further from the truth.

Once in the center of Manhattan I felt overwhelmed by the many places both from movies and television that I had to see. I decided to start with a stroll through Central Park and then explore the famous streets of 5th Avenue and Park Avenue. I had remembered hearing in books and movies of the glamour and exclusivity of living or working on Park Avenue; this particular expectation was confirmed by reality, as I got the feeling walking down Park Avenue that I was in the movie American Psycho and surrounded by people competing for the better haircut or Brooks Brothers’ peacoat. Times Square was a bit anti-climatic; I had seen it in just about all my friends’ Facebook albums, and from the expressions in those pictures I guess I was expecting something more like the pyramids in Egypt or something — Times Square is not one of the 8 wonders of the world. The Brooklyn Bridge, however, did offer the aesthetic pleasure and iconicity I was seeking. Walking up Wall Street was also quite a powerful experience, as I conceptualized the magnitude of economic influence the activity in this small area has on the world economic system. And then of course I came to Ground Zero, a place where the activity of one day changed the world forever. It was not until then, 10 years after the tragic event, that I realized what such a catastrophe must have meant to New Yorkers at the time. Two buildings that had partly defined their skyline came down in just 2 hours killing and injuring many people and paralyzing parts of the city for months. It was sad to see where it happened and it was also sad to see that 10 years later little had been done to reconstruct, it seemed like a blackhole in the midst of bustling activity.

I met my friends that evening at the Roosevelt hotel where they stayed, near Times Square. We ate at a Thai restaurant nearby and then hit the town. New York City at night is quite an amazing experience. The architecture in some parts of Manhattan is so gothic that I felt like I was on the streets of Gotham City, except fortunately with much less crime. Concrete jungle is definitely the best way to describe Manhattan, unlike the large modernized Asian metropolises I have spent time in, New York offered a much more dense skyline and jungle-like experience for someone inside (something I have previously only found in the downtown areas of Chicago and San Francisco).

The next day my Chinese friends did what Chinese people do in New York — spend hours after hours shopping on 5th Avenue. In the LV store an associate told us that most of their business these days came from Chinese travelers. Its weird how all the statistics say the Chinese are so frugal and over save, but my direct experience suggests the opposite is true. Later we visited an Italian friend of theirs wo had an apartment with a terrace that overlooked though whole city. At that point I really felt privileged to see the magnificent skyline from so many angles and vantage points. It is my dream to someday enjoy that kind of luxury and beauty.

The last day in New York we made a special trip to the China town in Flushing, Queens. It was as refreshing for me, as it was for them to be in a Chinese speaking environment and enjoy a hotpot dinner accompanied by Tsingtao beer. The Flushing Chinatown was much better than its Manhattan counterpart, which seemed to me to be more commercial and diluted by many non-Asian vendors and tourists. After the dinner we walked around the town for a while and then took the very convenient New York subway — still safe, even after 7 pm — back to Manhattan.

Later that night I met with my 2 Americans friends I mentioned above at a bar in the Lower East Side. It seems New York is still the destination both for people trying to find their dreams, and for those looking for a good time over the weekend. It is a microcosm of many of the things America should be: diverse, hardworking, risk taking, unyielding, proud and open. In the 3 days I spent in New York I felt to have learned more about my country than in years of schooling; it is truly a great world city.

Mostly Good to be Home ~ Dome Magazine Article

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