15 Years

Today is our fifteenth wedding anniversary. 15 years ago today, my wife and I gathered with friends and family to commit to join together as a couple and family.

We met five years before we got married, and we got engaged on Christmas Eve of 2002. I was a bit nervous about proposing, so I told the class of several hundred students I was teaching that day about my plans in order to give me some pressure. I knelt down in the snow in the middle of the PKU campus, and she said yes!

People often say that “marriage is hard”, and it’s true. Two people sharing their lives together requires a lot of communication and compromise, and in moments that can be challenging and painful. But it’s also a beautiful thing to work together on decisions, and to share memories that are collected over the years. We are building something together, even when we don’t know exactly what it is, and that something grows in importance and meaning as time goes on.

There used to be only two of us, and now there are four. Our boys have brought us more joy than we ever could have imagined, and also challenged us to grow in new ways. With one child, it suddenly became hard to find time alone, but we reveled in watching his every move. With two children, it’s hard to find time together with each child on their own, but it’s such a gift to watch them interact.

We’ve had many adventures over the last fifteen years. I am grateful for them, and I am grateful to have a partner to share adventures with in the years to come.

Caffeine

I didn’t use to drink coffee, but about ten years ago my office moved to a building with a Starbucks on the first floor, and my addiction began. For a while I was drinking two Venti Brewed Coffee per day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), which is roughly the equivalent of 10 Espressos, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I began to notice that if I didn’t drink coffee for more than a day, I started to have a terrible headache, and it would evolve into something that felt like the flu without a fever.

This was disconcerting, so I tried to stop several times, but it was so easy to just drift into a coffee shop and come out with a coffee. I found myself strategizing about where I would get my fix. I don’t mean to compare my addiction to addictions that ruin people’s lives or even kill them, but I could understand how a more dangerous addiction could be rationalized and take over a life.

Sometime before our first son was born, I quit cold turkey. It took about month of slowly receding agony and malaise, but it led to a period of relative calm and clarity over the first months of our son’s life. Then I slowly fell back into the addiction. It started with allowing myself to have a coffee whenever I met someone at a coffee shop, and grew into needing it every day.

I thought about cutting back, but the prospect of going through withdrawal was enough to keep me from making a serious effort. Then a friend explained that people can easily build a tolerance for caffeine, but they can also pretty easily scale back without much difficulty (not true with many other drugs). I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but it gave me a strategy, and I’ve slowly cut back all the way to one Decaf Americano per day.

Maybe it’s a mirage, but in general I feel calmer and more balanced. Sometimes I feel in a bit of a haze and want to use coffee to wipe out that haze, but I’m hoping that over time the haze will fade. I’ve heard, though, that prolonged usage of caffeine can change your brain for good, so we’ll we’ll see.

This struggle sounds sort of silly, but I’m glad not to be depending on a beverage to function. I do love coffee and tea, though, so I’m not sure how long it will last. Maybe this is an opportunity to understand moderation and self-control.

Blue Skies

One of the things that living in Beijing has done is give me an appreciation for blue skies and clean air. Yes, that appreciation comes from exposure to horrible pollution, but it’s an appreciation nonetheless.

Bad air days in Beijing are depressing. It actually took me a while to realize this–not only do 400 AQI days make for post-apocalyptic scenery, they also made me feel like the world was ending.

Fortunately, the overall air quality in Beijing seems to be improving. The average AQI is still pretty bleak, but there are fewer horrible days. I remember hearing a while back that the plan was for the air in Beijing to be healthy by 2035. Well, healthy is actually a pretty high bar, so it’s about time to turn the corner and head in that direction.

Maybe I’m kidding myself. I’m pretty sure that any increase in AQI is associated with decreased life expectancy, there was a study a while back that claimed pollution was shaving five years off of life expectancy in northern China, and I haven’t even mentioned food, water or soil safety. So we’re definitely making a health compromise by living in Beijing.

We planned to leave Beijing back in 2016. Our son was one year old, and checking the AQI each morning to see if we could take him outside just felt terrible. But we were reminded of the charms of Beijing in the year or so that we were gone, and by the time we were back here our son was old enough to enjoy more of the wonderful things about the city, so here we are for now.

Today the sky is blue and there is a smile on my face.

Change

There has been so much change in China over the past 40 years of “reform and opening“. Over the past 20 or so years that I’ve been coming here. Over the past 10 years. Over the past 5.

Of course, the whole world has changed, including the United States, where I am from. But the sheer scale and pace of change in China has been mind-boggling. Nearly everyone’s life is drastically different than it was a generation ago, and for most people, their quality of life is substantially better. I don’t think this is true in the US.

I’m amazed at how quickly humans are able to adjust to new situations. We fear change and have uncertainty about the future, but once something becomes the new normal, it’s, well, normal. This is most apparent to me at the societal level rather than the individual level.

There’s the adage that we overestimate what can be accomplished in a year and underestimate what can be accomplished in ten years. I think the same is probably true for how we anticipate change–there is less change than we expect over a one-year period, and more than we expect over a ten-year period, although the change might be in different vectors than we expect.

The pace of change in China seems to have slowed, in part due to the fact that economic growth has naturally slowed as China has “caught up”. I suspect, though, that future changes will continue to be mind-boggling, particularly when viewed through a 5-10 year lens. But by then we’ll be used to it.

A question to think about: how will things be drastically different in 10 years?

Go Positive, Go First

I’ve actually only read the transcript, but this talk by Peter Kaufman is pretty great.

He’s talking about simple concepts, he has some professional speaker tics, and he sometimes compares things that aren’t directly comparable, but he does it in a way that left me with a deeper impression of these two simple concepts than I had before the I read the transcript: mirrored reciprocation and compound interest.

Mirrored reciprocation is the idea that you’re likely to get back what you put out. He uses Newton’s third law of motion to illustrate this, and while “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” doesn’t apply when I smile at you and you smile back, it’s helpful to illustrate his point, which is that the vast majority of the time people’s response to you in some way matches the way you interact with them. So “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not just a moral dictate, it’s also an effective way of living. By starting positive and going first, we can improve our own lives and the lives of others.

Compound interest usually refers to financial returns compounding over time, but Kaufman’s defines compound interest as “dogged incremental constant progress over a very long time frame”. Evolution, human society, and individual progress can be viewed through this lens.

Reciprocity and compound interest can seem like stale concepts, so it’s nice to be reminded in a vivid way that they are helpful frameworks through which to view daily actions.

School

Our 4-year-old son has been going to preschool for the past year. We’ve been thinking about what we want for his education. Certainly, he’ll take more responsibility for what he wants in the future, and I suppose in some ways he’s taking the most responsibility for it now (ok, most ways), but we would like to do our best to guide him, so we think a lot about the choices that we make for him.

His current school is part of a chain of Montessori-style schools that was founded by (and named after) an educator named Sun Ruixue. Its slogan is “??????????”, or “Love and Freedom, Rules and Equality”. I love the freedom it gives kids to learn amongst themselves, and the patient way that the teachers communicate with the kids. The first time I visited, the description that came to mind was “Lord of the Flies with teachers”. I actually liked that, but what I have discovered is that kids are learning social norms and how to interact with each other through the freedom that they are given, and the teachers are there to nudge and support when appropriate.

The main downside that we have struggled with is that Joe is the only “foreign” kid in the school. He’s half-Chinese, we live in Beijing, and he is the only kid in the school who doesn’t look Chinese.There are potential positives and negative to this, but overall it hasn’t been an issue. As he grows older, though, we think we’d like for him to be in a more international environment.

So, in the context of figuring out where “home” will be in the future, we’ve also been learning about various different education options in Beijing. He can attend the pre-school for two more years, with the last year being the equivalent to kindergarten. Sun Ruixue also has an elementary school in Beijing, but it’s not in a location that appeals to us. If we only stay in Beijing for a few more years, we might consider sending him to a public school to experience that, and we’ll probably go check out some of the international schools in Beijing.

As we go through this process, I also find myself thinking about the purpose of school. Is it to provide a social environment? Is it to learn a specific set of knowledge and skills? Is it to the best track for college and future employment? Is it daycare?

I certainly don’t equate school with learning. And I am not convinced that participating the factory school system is either the best way to learn or necessary for gainful employment, although it can be an effective path. The most important thing that school represents to me is a community of friends and peers, and repeated opportunities for meaningful mentorship.

Answers are eluding me so far, but I’m enjoying the process of watching our sons grow and learn, and I’m excited to continue to think about how we can best support them.

Free Speech

I live in a place where I don’t have free speech. I grew up in a place where people talk about free speech all of the time. And despite that first sentence, I would consider the right to free speech to be one of my core values.

There’s currently a lot of discussion of that right in the context of Cloudflare cancelling 8chan’s service, and Facebook and Twitter either banning or not banning various users (see Ben Thomson’s take here).

To me, the core of the right to free speech is that speech should not be limited by the government, and should in fact be protected by the government in public spaces (with some exceptions for things like threats of violence).

Putting someone in jail for saying or writing something is a violation of free speech, and should not be legal. Kicking someone out of your restaurant for something they said, or kicking them off of your website or online platform for something they said (or didn’t say!) is also a violation of free speech, but it is not a violation of the core civic right that I see free speech to be, and so it shouldn’t be illegal.

However, that action can be judged in the public square. I’m happy that 8chan is no longer being served by Cloudflare, but if you’re not then you are free to complain about it. You’re also free to boycott Cloudflare, or set up an alternative to Cloudflare’s service that will serve sites like 8chan. Just like I should be free to choose not to use, and speak out against, organizations that do things that I don’t agree with.

This is the framework through which I see the right to free speech: it’s a right to not have my speech regulated by the government. The rest should essentially be a “free market”, in which private individual and entities are responsible for and allowed to make moral judgements and distinctions, and must deal with the consequences of those judgements.

Home

Sometimes I find myself thinking about where “home” is.

I’m from Durham, NC. I’ve lived in Beijing, China, almost nonstop since graduating from college. I’m 39 years old, so I think it works out that I’ve lived in China for about as long as I lived in North Carolina.

My wife was born in Hunan, but also spent time in Zhuhai, where her father served in the military. She went to university in Beijing, went back to Zhuhai to work for a couple of years, and then returned to Beijing for graduate school. She’s been here with me ever since.

Starting soon after our son turned one, we spent about a year traveling around to different cities. One reason for our travels was that we had always wanted to travel together, but another reason we talked about was looking for a place to live. A place to call home, at least for a while. We were intrigued by the idea of living in a “third country”. There were cities that we liked, but we ended up back in Beijing.

As our first son approaches elementary school, we feel a sense of urgency to decide where he is going to grow up.

Billy Joel has a song called “You’re My Home”. It’s kind of a cheesy love song (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I find myself returning to some of its lyrics:

Well I’ll never be a stranger
And I’ll never be alone
Wherever we’re together
That’s my home

Depending how you count, yesterday was our 15th wedding anniversary, and I’ve come to realize that home is where my family is. It’s where my wife is. It’s where my boys are. When we were traveling with our son Joe, whatever AirBnB we happened to be staying at was home.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to have a place that we have a strong identification with (in the way that North Carolina will always be home to me, in the way that Beijing may never really be home to us). It especially doesn’t mean that we don’t want to find a community for our kids to grow up in, where we can put down roots and build strong, long-term relationships. It just means that the specific place is a secondary factor, and I want to remember that.

I realize that I’m incredible fortunate to have the choice of choosing where home is, and also to have people that make me feel at home anywhere.

All slopes are slippery

When the topic of change comes up, a common argument against potentially reasonable change is, “Well, that’s a slippery slope.”

One example of this is income sharing agreements offered by companies like Lambda School. You pay no tuition upfront, then you pay the school back with 17% of your income if you make over $50,000, for a maximum of 24 months or $30,000 (see the link above for more details). “Well,” some people say, “that’s a slippery slope to indentured servitude.” But… isn’t it better than $30,000 of traditional debt?

Another example might be the wealth tax proposed by Elizabeth Warren. It’s a tax of 2% per year on wealth over $50 million. Again, many people invoke the specter of a “slippery slope”, calling the wealth tax theft and suggesting that it may eventually lead to much greater confiscations of assets (e.g., higher percentages or a lower starting point). I’m actually quite resistant to the idea of a wealth tax, and I’m pretty sure it’s the best way to deal with economic inequality, but it’s a reasonable topic to discuss, and the fact that the parameters could change in the future doesn’t mean the idea shouldn’t be discussed on its merits.

There are many, many other areas where the slippery slope argument comes up. Maybe it’s an effective political tactic to bring up the possibility of slippery slopes, but it seems intellectually (and maybe even morally?) lazy.

Just because you think something is bad when taken to the extreme doesn’t mean that there isn’t a point on the slope that is reasonable.

If we stay away from any slope that looks slippery, we’ll end up like this.

A Record of Thought

Well, in starting my new practice of mostly daily posts, I accidentally posted on my old Chinese blog. I went ahead and reposted it here.

One of the things that excites me about writing every day is having a record of what I was thinking about. For instance, I was on to something here. And I described this pretty well. But I was definitely wrong about this. I like the strategy I was proposing, but maybe it couldn’t have worked.

I wish I had a better record of what I’ve been thinking over the past ten years.

Five years from now, what will I look back on and say, “I can’t believe you thought that!”? What, if anything, was I prescient about that many others were missing? What did I miss?

Hopefully my thinking will improve over time. (Although I suppose at some point there may be an inevitable decline!)