The People. The People. The People.

I once picked up a book at my old college’s free book pile entitled, “The Real Meaning of Life”. It was a collection of answers to the question, “What is the real meaning of life?” from an online forum. The answer that I was most drawn to was a quote from the Maori, an indigenous people of New Zealand:

“Te Tegata. Te Tegata. Te Tegata”.
The people. The people. The people.

My time in the great city of Beijing has come to an end, but it is not the rich history of emperors living behind closed walls or the fried scorpions sold on the street that I’ll remember the most, it’s the people. Notably my colleagues in the Regional Transportation Planning department at China’s Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). They have been extremely welcoming from day one: indulging me in the most basic questions about traffic order, inviting me to an international transportation conference, and bringing me to a night out at the symphony. It’s only fair that I share these wonderful people with you too.

Without further ado, my colleagues, my friends.

Dr. Wang


The best boss you could ask for and I’m not just saying that– my internship is already over so he can’t fire me anymore! Dr. Wang took the time to sit and answer all my questions, talk about his career in planning, and share his overall life. His parents were both farmers before China’s rapid urbanization. So Dr. Wang was fortunate to grow up in the generation that has seen both worlds in China: the natural and the modern. Now he hopes for a different modern world. He believes as China’s urbanization rate slow down, the country will look inward, to its people. The future of planning will shift from building large scale infrastructure to enriching quality of life.

Dr. Wang is also an international man. He is coming to UCLA in the fall as a visiting urban planning scholar. I think he speaks English well, but he dubs his wife the “translator” since she speaks five languages including French and Italian. Welcome the Wang family to the US!

Xiao Ma (Little horse)

30.picXiao Ma promised me on day one to be my friend. And my friend she has become! She took it upon herself to teach me the few Mandarin phrases I know, show me the Bus Rapid Transit, and take Christine and I on an epic trip to Tianjin.

Xiao Ma is a fellow transportation intern, but she confessed she originally chose transportation for the money. She didn’t know what to do at the time when she was supposed to a choose a major, but chose rail because China was intensely developing its rail and subway system in 2008 . Luckily she realized that transportation does drive her, for all she wants to do is something that is, “close to life”. That is improve the daily life of the Chinese people and bring people closer together. Furthermore, she wants to help reduce inequality, notably the favoritism towards the wealthy who can afford the automobile. She is especially inspired by China’s new president’s, Xi Jinping, “very brave” anti-corruption campaign.

Xiao Ma is a free spirit. She says that “the Chinese live one life”: they find a job wherever they can, get married, buy a house (often in their hometown), and have children. But not her. Xiao Ma has a plan to visit multiple cities with strong transportation companies in the next few months. She will find the city she will thrive in. But NOKIA Lumia 900_000082she won’t stop there. She wants to travel, meet people, and gather knowledge because “I want to have stories to tell”. She held up one hand, parallel to the ground, and kept raising it.  “I want to become stronger”, to keep building as a person.

I told her, we have the same dreams. We want to help others, see more, be more. “Yes, but I have more risk here”. There are more fingers being pointed at her if she doesn’t follow the “one life”. And this is why she is the brave one.


31.picThere is no shortage of bravery here either. Carrie set out to achieve the “Chinese one life” plan: she went to a top university, received her Masters, and found a great job. This has recently provided her with a Beijing Hukou, an extremely coveted residency status that provide access to social services such as healthcare and education. The Hukou is also a main source of contention as several million migrants without a Hukou suffer without basic services. So life is good for Carrie right? Well.. sometimes like all great master plans, life doesn’t go according to plan.

Like Xiao Ma, Carrie confessed she kind of just fell into transportation because..well…that was the most reputable major at her university. She said she didn’t even know what “transportation engineering” was at the time. Carrie also admitted that when she studied for her Masters Degree in the United Kingdom, she barely left her room. She felt so much pressure to do well, especially as a foreign student. She was afraid of judgement from other students and Chinese society. Furthermore, she spent the last year working 12-14 hour days, six days a week.

Now as as she looks back? She says, “I would have left my room”. She would have tasted fish and chips, talked to people, and took time to find herself. To find the joys in life that she feels many in China have not been lucky enough to find. She has done what many have not— she has reevaluated her course in life, decided she doesn’t like what she sees, and despite society’s pressure, she will get hers. Carrie, at the age of 25 with a Masters degree in Transportation Engineering, will open her own art school next month. A facility nNOKIA Lumia 900_000191ear a college campus for the everyday student, not the professional artist. For she hopes that this generation can learn to look inwards, paint, draw, and create their own world.

Carrie says urban planning is an interest, but not her passion, I’m arguing that in fact it is. Like Dr. Wang suggested, what Carrie knows as planning, this technical/ mechanical version, may not be what planning is evolving into in China and the world. Alas, Carrie still has a heart of an urban planner- a will to improve the quality of life for her people.

We, as planners, try so hard to create a sense of place and belonging by changing the use of space. However, more often then not, a place is its people. You know that feeling you get when you first meet someone and it’s like you’ve known them for years? Like one of your girls? That was Carrie. She was like finding home.

So as you can see, the heart of all my experiences here in China are: 

The people. The people. The people. 

Thank you my friends.


Quality of life and semantics

For those who may be interested, I have been placed as an intern in the International Cooperation Department at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). The main role of the department is to coordinate activities with CAUPD’s international partners. The department staff also provides support to the organization through various research projects.

This chow chow enjoys his life in the vibrant hutongs of Beijing.

During my second week in the office, my department invited me to present about my past life. For those not familiar with my background, prior to enrolling in the MURP program at PSU I worked in the non-profit sector for several years supporting community-led movements for various environmental justice and health equity issues. Following the presentation, several of my coworkers at CAUPD noted that my interests in social justice issues, community development and urban planning are in sharp contrast to China where urban planning is primarily concerned with physical design. However, one of my coworkers believes that things are beginning to change as interests are growing in the application of urban planning to address social issues in China.

For instance, one of the major research projects wrapping up this summer in my department is a quality of life study. As an intern for the department, I am assisting with research around several topics related to urban quality of life, such as:

  • Measuring and operationalizing “quality of life” indicators
  • Relocation planning for urban redevelopment in inner cities
  • Theory, models and case studies of “vibrant” cities

These past couple of weeks I have been researching up a storm on these super interesting topics. The main challenge throughout my thought process has been focused on one critical question on semantics: what does it all mean?!

Ok. So maybe not just one question, more like a million. Like… What does “quality of life” mean and to whom? Who decides how it is defined and measured? What are the implications of operationalizing certain measures and indicators versus others? What does urban redevelopment mean for China? Is “vibrant” a universal concept when applied to urban development and growth?

Does a beautiful waterfront and skyline equal “vibrant”? This is Tianjin, just outside of Beijing.


I struggle with these questions because on a fundamental level I recognize the pervasive influence of western thought on eastern development. I can see myself and fellow interns as agents delivering western ideas in neatly packaged powerpoint presentations. However, I’m hoping these ideas will be received and consumed with a critical lens on the current and future needs of China and its people.

Though challenging, I feel like the research has been rewarding. I have about two weeks left to wrap up my work at CAUPD, so if any of you readers out there have suggestions for literature or case studies I should look at for inspiration, please feel free to leave links and citations for me!

谢谢 | Xièxiè | Thank you! :)

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Incredibly instructive signage

China never fails to disappoint when it comes to instructive [and entertaining] signage. Here are a couple of my favorite instructional signs.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“A small step close toward urinal, a big step toward civilization!”

Until I saw this sign (a male companion brought it to my attention- I did not discover it by being in the urinals myself), I would not have equated urinal usage with civilization. That being said, I totally get it. Hardly a day goes by without observing a child’s bare bum, often relieving itself in the public right-of-way. If you’ve been to China, you are likely familiar with crotchless pants that young children adorn. Also likely, you’ve observed some questionable parental judgment when it comes to excretion. While I understand many of the benefits of not diapering a small child, there’s a critical age at which public excretion just seems like a slap in the face (let’s hope not literally). And of course, not just children are to blame for human waste in the right-of-way. So yes, perhaps, a small step close toward urinal is a big step toward civilization.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“The slight effort to do environmental protection gives our children a beautiful earth”

Beautifully put. It may take a bit more than a “slight effort”, but stewardship, personal responsibility and trans-generational thinking are always good lessons.

All your emergency provisions in one park

This way to all of your various emergency service needs. And, just in case, please feel free to vend an emergency life jacket should the man-made pond reach one thousand year floodplain levels.

Shenzhen's Lichee Park

Shenzhen’s Lichee Park


Guangzhou MTR

Safe escalator use

I’ve always been a cautious escalator user, but I was not fully aware of the dangers and responsibilities of escalator use. Thanks to this example of incredibly instructive signage, I now am. The messages conveyed here may be too numerous by our signage standards, but, hey, this is China (“TIC”).  

Wayfinding on Hong Kong MTR

Some more incredibly instructive MTR signage (although, quite a bit more useful)…

Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong MTR

Shenzhen performing arts center

Shenzhen performing arts center

“Dry your hands, keep away drops” Yes, while drying your hands certainly will keep away drops, I can’t help but to wonder if this is the most important message to disseminate at the sink basin. Yes, I have an agenda. So far in mainland China, I have yet to see a sign about the importance of washing hands with soap- or the oh-so-familiar signs about washing before returning to work. I’ve been conducting my own study of sorts. At my office, males and females share the sinks in an area outside of the squat toilets. Covertly, I watch the handwashing behaviors of my fellow office workers. Over the past four weeks, on only two occasions have I seen anyone use soap, despite the fact that it is conveniently placed beside each basin. I try to withhold my public health reflex of repulsion. Back to the sign at hand (pun not intended): while entertaining, for me, this sign states the obvious, but misses the point.

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