Settling in to Life in Shenzhen

I am almost done with my third week of work at UPDIS. It has been a crazy few weeks. Since my last post I have become much more involved in several projects at work and am making great connections with the other interns and my coworkers.

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of UPDIS. This is pretty remarkable since Shenzhen became Shenzhen in 1979. UPDIS has been around for most of Shenzhen’s development. The company arranged an eventful beach day for all of the employees. We took three big buses out to a nearby beach and played a variety of games (like spin around 10 times [blindfolded] then hit the watermelon with a hammer and run on this spiky board things while carrying your boss)! The company provided food (barbeque) and drinks (including beer!!!) for all of the employees. They also hired five bands to play on the beach at night. It was definitely a memorable day and, although it may have been a bit cheesy by American standards, the Chinese absolutely loved it.

Last weekend I traveled to the Chaoshan area with two other interns where we visited Shantou and Chaozhou. This area is known for its mix of cultures – it is where many of the people who immigrated to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Southeast Asia lived before they left the mainland. They speak their own dialect and kind of live in their own world, by their own rules. Apparently back when the One Child Policy was implemented Shantou was one of the few cities where the department that was in charge of making sure jurisdictions were following the One Child Policy, was unable to actually make the people follow the Policy. It was normal for families to have four or five children and when the government tried to come in to do population control, the whole city would revolt and not let them in the city boundaries. It is pretty crazy to think about, and I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is, but it makes for a good story.

I learned two new words this week that are extremely popular in the Chinese planning world, 增量zeng liang and 存量 cun liang. Zengliang means increasing amount and cunliang means the existing (stored) amount. These two words are used to describe urban development and many of the associated issues. In general China is trying to transition from Zeng liang to Cun liang. These terms can be applied to environmental resources, property rights, etc. Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, said something that caught the public’s eye this week:


Reduce existing corruption while simultaneously keeping an eye on increasing corruption.

We had a good laugh about this at work because it doesn’t really make sense. Even in Chinese!

Week 1 Highlights

Wow what a first week! I have officially been in China for a little over a week now and it is amazing to think about how much I have already done. I started working at the Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen (UPDIS), pitched a research proposal to my coworkers, formed bonds with several of my colleagues, hiked Lotus Mountain in Shenzhen, traveled to Guangzhou and much more!

I went to two lectures this week—one on Detroit and the importance of budgeting for both the implementation and long-term maintenance of urban planning projects, given by George McCarthy, and one on community organizing and community planning, given by three Chinese, and one Taiwanese, professionals. The second lecture on community organizing really blew me away. The content of the lecture was not new to me (I took a public health course on community organizing this past Spring at PSU, taught by Noelle Wiggins), but the fact that Chinese planners are genuinely interested in empowering community members and getting them involved in the planning process was really exciting. The panelists discussed several examples. One of them (罗湖社区) involved the construction of a new subway line and the nearby residents being concerned about the level of noise pollution and amount of mud on the roads making it difficult to walk. The residents were able to voice their concerns and have their needs met. Link for more information:

I just started doing research on the urban villages 城中村 in Shenzhen. Urban villages are extremely dense, mostly residential areas located throughout the city. The architecture is called 握手楼 or hand-shake architecture because the buildings are so close together that if you reach out the window you can shake hands with your neighbor. There are currently over 200 of them in Shenzhen, however, this type of development is not unique to Shenzhen. Yesterday I traveled to Guangzhou, another city in Guangdong Province, with another intern and colleague and had the opportunity to walk through an urban village. It was probably one of the most powerful and influential urban planning experiences I have ever had. After doing a week of research I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it would be like in an urban village—the reality is far worse than I could have imagined. There are places where it is pitch black, even in the middle of a sunny summer day. There are pipes that empty liquids onto the tiny alleyways with essentially no drainage system. Standing water, electrical wires and trash fill the alleyways’ streetscape. This combination makes the air extremely stale. I felt like I was suffocating as I walked through the area and had several minor panic attacks. Before visiting the urban village in Guangzhou I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to research in regards to affordable housing, climate change, urban planning and public health in Shenzhen’s urban villages. Now I am ready to move forward with a more narrow research topic. I will be focusing on the link between crowded living conditions, poor air quality (caused by excess water, increasing temperatures and bad ventilation) and the development of adverse respiratory conditions in Shenzhen’s urban villages.

My Chinese is definitely a bit rusty but is coming back with a vengeance. Having not used my Mandarin in over two years and being in a different part of China where the accent is different, I am neither surprised nor worried about my minor language struggles over this past week. I am looking forward to improving my urban planning and public health vocabulary over the next nine weeks, as well as my yoga vocabulary when I start teaching as a guest yoga instructor at the company studio.

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.



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