Give me a call, or actually please don’t

One of the most fun things about being a certain generation, is getting mystified about the habits of others. Specifically in this case it’s about the modes of communication. I know I’m not alone when I say I often get sweaty hands when making or getting a phone call. But, growing up in an era when calling was the most instant way of communicating, I’m convinced of that it has certain advantages.

Does anybody outside of an office still use these?

This is definitely not the case for the next generation, Gen Z, who seem to abhor phone calls even more than we millennials do. A while ago, the intern at my previous company caught me by surprise when he told me a story about filling out a contact form and then ‘suddenly’ receiving a call. He’d preferred getting an email or chat message, or even an invitation to a video call. Anything but a phone call basically. And certainly not an unannounced one. When I made the argument that it was the most direct way of communicating, he very much disagreed. He found that there should be an immediate response, and otherwise an invitation to set up a meeting instead of a ‘random phone call’.

Now, apparently this is a clear generational shift. Looking into it a bit further, I think both generations apply different standards to our experiences. For those born after the 2000s, technology was omnipresent and there’s no need to wait on anything. Instant gratification are the key words. And I think in general, this now fuels the way we connect and contact each other. We’re used to putting things to our hand, or at least having the illusion of control over things. We decide when to share something, when to initiate a conversation and also when to be contacted.

At the same time, where digital communication is increasingly about being more visible, having blue checkmarks behind your messages, and showing your face, I think making a phone call has some sort of nostalgia to it. It brings me back to those early days of rambling with friends for hours on the phone (although in all honesty I’ve probably done that less than 5 times) and we valued hearing each others’ voices since it was the closest we could get when not in the same spot. A pixelated moving face adds something, but also detracts something from that experience somehow.

But I think one of the main reasons people don’t like to call, is because it’s a weird mix between high anonymity and complete personalization. You hear someone else’s voice, the inflections in what’s being said and can match that voice with a (more or less) accurate photo. But at the same time, you don’t see the other person, nor does she or he see you. If you want to emphasize something or be sarcastic about it, you can only convey that through your voice, not any other non-verbal communication.

I get it, we’re now used to have either more complete anonymity (email/chat) or full personalization (video call). Having someone call you out of the blue now makes me think of telemarketeers or donation requests. Communication has become exemplified by convenience. No waiting for weeks for a letter or saving up to make a monthly phone call to someone on the other side of the world. They are replaced by buffering speeds and noisy environments. But who knows, when generation Alpha or Beta (are we really starting from the beginning of the alphabet again?) become adults, there’s probably a whole new, better and convenient way of communicating. Perhaps Google Glass makes a comeback, you never know.

Concepts are the new products

We all need less stuff and clutter in our lives. That seems to be the general message we get nowadays. But you don’t need to spend less money, or companies don’t want you to at least. So earning money now is mainly conceptual.

A millennial is little more than just the concepts of its parts

Based on How MSCHF built a business out of squeaky chicken bongs

It’s really amazing to me how you can now make more money off the concept than the actual product. This struck me when I first read about MSCHF a while ago in the New York Times and sort of dismissed it as a quirky company. I read about drops and exclusive stuff for a high price, which reminded me of the white t-shirts and original Nikes that go around for thousands of dollars.

This particular company is solely focused on selling “hipness” though. In its own words, it’s “a startup that variously describes itself as an art collective, a band, or a creative label. Since last year, when this present iteration of the company was incorporated, the group has been putting out projects designed to do one thing: blow up online.”

And it’s no wonder that the company is gaining track now. My generation, the millennials, are perfectly positioned to give them a big boost of recognition and business. Research shows experiential services are a big seller now and if we have a positive experience millennials tend to be very loyal brand followers.

But besides these general trends, I really think my generation is much more focused on exclusivity than others. We grew up in a time where everything suddenly became available to everyone. And as a result we started to crave special and personalized experiences.

It’s the reason we pay extra for our Starbucks frappuccino. They may have misspelled it, but having your name written by someone on a cup still releases that dopamine. And I think it’s no wonder pop-up stores and mysterious drops have proliferated in the last 10 years. Millennials became adults, started to earn money, and kept the habit of wanting to spend it on unique, useless stuff.

On the one hand, I think it’s ridiculous to have ‘coolness’ as a brand. At the same time I can’t deny that I want to be part of the cool club as well. The marketization of experiences is a very powerful thing. We pretend to be the cool people who don’t really care about image or looks, but by buying into these viral concepts that’s exactly what we care about.

I guess we all become part of a cool club now with just a few clicks. I commend companies like MSCHF on their creativity and the way they’re turning this basic desire in somewhat artful products. They’re clearly very in touch with their audience.

But with trends moving on so much faster in this internet age, it can’t be sustainable in the long run. To be fair, coolness often isn’t either.

I work thus I am

For the longest time, I dreaded starting to work. To my young, ‘hip’ student self, sitting behind a desk all day seemed to be dreadful. Now that I’ve done that for a couple of years, it’s turned out to not be too bad. But something that is very clear, are the generational differences. I’ve different ideas on the work I want to do, with whom, and in which way than my younger and older peers.

Work’s life, am I right?

Fist bumping around the workplace, that’s what we millennials do all the time

Based on: How to lose your mind and build a treehouse

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Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee
Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

To me, ‘real life’ more or less was always about having a job.

In high school I was quite inept as to what was happening in the world and around me. In university, I tried to catch up all that fun I missed during high school and did some further soul-searching. I still remember the realization hitting me like a brick: in a few months I will graduate and need to do something for money. What can I do?

After living the ‘real life’ for a couple of years now, I am finally realizing how unreal my idea of the working life has been. Developments such as the open office, personal marketing and ‘fun’ workplaces seemed far-away, but the ultimate ideal when I was still studying. In reality, it’s been more difficult to really find my own place in the mix of startups and established institutions I’ve worked at.

Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee

Let’s take a look at the larger picture first, because I found this research report by KPMG about the millennial workforce. Especially the points about female millennials really spoke to me:

1. They’re more hesitant when it comes to job applications
2. They’re less confident and optimistic
3. They’re more sociable
4. They’re less keen on technology
5. They’re more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome
6. They’re less likely to actively pursue a promotion opportunity

Basically, it’s a hard yes on everything except point 5 and 4 since I’m (belatedly) learning and developing an interest in programming now. Point 2, 3 and 6 stick out the most to me. To be honest, confidence and optimism are things I’ve never had that much of, and it’s something I still point to as something to improve, personally and professionally.

Point 3 and 6 point to things that are at once making us different from previous generations and more connected to each other. When looking at companies, I’ve often looked at ‘people’ pages and felt I either really wanted to become part of the family or I wouldn’t fit at all. And even though I’ve worked in startup environments where ‘hustling’ was important, I didn’t feel that comfortable with the attitude and still needed something different from my employer.

Looking to the Medium article, I recognize a lot of the anxiety and questions the writer has. His highlighted quote is: “It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”” Although this doesn’t apply to me specifically, the mindset is recognizable. I’m very focused on my work mentality, but feel things should also happen spontaneously and above all, make me happy. I know I’m needy, but I want others to acknowledge it, while at the same time fulfilling them.

Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

Even though I tend to say I am more than my work, having no work at this moment feels as if I am incomplete. This frightens me as well, but I’ve learned to accept that it’s only natural the thing I’ll be doing at least 40 hours a week will be that meaningful to me. And that’s again leading me to search for a workplace that’s as cool as I dream it to be.

It’s been a paradoxical and bumpy road. I worked in startup environments, which were cool because we did something wholly new, but also very stressful. I cried a lot. I worked abroad, leading the expat life while working at an international organization. It was cool to attain a certain elite status and feel like I was actually doing long-term meaningful work instead of just making money. But it also made me complacent and lose a certain drive. I cried a lot. I had the opportunity to work in fast-paced, international business environments with smaller teams and directly trying to start something from zero. But I felt without the proper structure I was just building dream castles.

In the end, I’m now again looking to larger companies, more stability and mentorship. If I may need to forego beanbags or a Nintendo switch in the office, then I’ll take it. Mr. Pavelski said in an interview:

“The reason I wrote that essay in the first place was about catharsis, and I wanted to walk through my thought process and figure out what was going on with me.”

I’m not sure what’s going on with me yet either, but I guess I’ll enjoy the discovering it for now.

Mastering the pole and redefining masculinity

Head of the family, a scholar-soldier or in high heels and short pants. Masculinity takes on many forms and continues to change in contemporary China. Between communist values, beauty trends and boy bands, another kind of man is emerging. Twirling around the pole, hovering in mid-air. With pole dancing becoming hot and happening in the country, men are getting their game on.

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A male on male construct
The modern communist heros
A history of Chinese pole and men
Strong men in different forms

What do people think of Chinese men pole dancing? Before we can get to that, let’s first look at the history of Chinese masculinity and the ideal male image. In ancient China, the ideal man would combine the scholar, signified by wen and the soldier, signified by wu. Intellect and civility were equal, or sometimes even more important, than physical prowess.

Besides the scholar-soldier definition of masculinity, there’s actually another factor that played a role in creating the Chinese masculinity: homosexuality.

A male on male construct

Perhaps surprisingly, homosexuality and homosexual relations were quite common in ancient China. There was Chinese opera, where men played both male and female roles, as well as a catered sex industry towards elite men. Construction of masculinity was diverse.

Up ’till the 20th century, such relationships and behavior remained widely acceptable and out in the open. Furthermore, there was no specific term used to describe this. The common word for homosexuality, tongxinglian, literally love between the same sex, was only coined at the beginning of the 20th century.

At the same time, this laissez-faire attitude started to change during this war-ridden and humiliating period. As a means to further improve and develop its country, China accepted certain Western values and ideas. Among them was the idea that homosexuality is immoral. Thus, when all Western influences were denounced in the communist era, homosexuality was viewed as ‘Western import’ and also became criminalized.

The modern communist heros

How do these developments and images combine in a male ideal for modern China? Kam Louie and Louise Edwards write in a paper on masculinity and the wen-wu division:

"The wen-wu divide continues today. In the People's Republic of China the wu ideal has achieved increased prominence through the Communist leadership's bid to promote the peasant of working class 'hero' and more recently by images of masculinity from the West. (...) Despite the increasing credibility of wu it is still possible to see that the power of the softer, more refined, intellectual, masculine form lives on in the daily expression of self by Chinese men. Generally speaking, the dynamic tension created between the poles of wen and wu permits the production of a greater number of possible expressions of the secular male self than would be possible in the contemporary West."

In other words, the modern male ideal is that of a heterosexual working class ‘hero’. However, this masculinity is very much a combination of more traditional values (honor, loyalty, and physical toughness), combined with newer, postsocialist values (such as entrepreneurship and chauvinist patriotism).

And, true to Louie’s and Edwards’ statement above, alternatives do exist. Influenced by pop culture, an alternative male ideal emerged. These are nerdy or more sensitive male figures whose intense focus, sensitivity, and honesty may appear admirable and even attractive to women.

So on what end of the spectrum do we find Chinese male pole dancers?

A history of Chinese pole and men

Over the past 7 to 8 years, pole dancing has become very popular in China. It won’t be a surprise that Chinese men who pole dance are linked to femininity and homosexuality. In a Chinese interview, one male pole dancer says strangers will ask him if he’s homosexual. He rebukes this by saying that pole dancing is a difficult sport that requires quite some skill and strength. Thus, especially in Chinese coverage, male pole dancers are keen on emphasizing their heterosexual masculinity and their muscular strength.

Besides the ‘masculinisation’ of the sport through muscular strength, there is also a mental element. News stories describe young, directionless or nerdy men who are stuck at the bottom of the ladder. After being inspired by pole dancing, they garner success, muscle and strength. Although they are initially rejected by their family and friends, after winning big competitions, showing the pride and skill pole dancing requires, as well as how much fame and money it brought them, this changes. It is a trajectory from weak to strong, in body and mind.

Interestingly, one of pole dancing’s forefathers doesn’t have this explicit emphasis on masculinity. When you look into the history of pole dancing, the belief is that the sport was at least partly derived from Chinese pole. This is actually a male-dominated sport, although women do train and perform as well,  heavily based on acrobatic ability and strength. The acrobatic act, although linked to pole dancing historically, doesn’t share its shady image at all. Even though its most popular move, the human flag, takes an insane amount of training and practice, and looks very much like a pole dance move with the same name.

Chinese pole is still performed in the circus, but what’s interesting is that, as far as I have experienced, pole dancing is not linked to this acrobatic feat at all. I haven’t seen it being mentioned in interviews with men pole dancing, nor have I seen it advertised at pole dancing studios. In a country where acrobatics are still practiced and shown very often, I could imagine pole dancing’s image to benefit from this connection a lot.

But if that’s not happening, besides masculinisation, what other images are projected of this sport?

Strong men in different forms

We can also find the other side of the spectrum, a more sensitive male image, in male pole dancers. For example, Leon Yee, a Hong Kong homosexual male pole dancer, explicitly said that he finds pole dancing a feminine sport. In another interview, Yee mentions he would like to project himself as “an antihero, use a style that is neither male nor female to strengthen this image with everyone. Normal people might already be very surprised to see a man pole dancing, if they see a man with long hair doing it, this will even be a bigger reaction. In this way, I can attract much more people’s attention to this sport.”

Furthermore, one of China’s most prolific male pole dancers at the moment, Coco Ke Hong, also thrives on projecting a not-too-masculine image. He lists shopping among his hobbies, started pole dancing because it’s high paid (not specifying in which situation) and says pole dancing is as important to him as his underwear: “I need to have it with me everyday. I cannot live without it.” His Instagram is filled with pictures of him proudly wearing high heals, dress-like clothes and in feminine poses.

So we can see that male pole dancers are a small niche which show different images of Chinese masculinity. And what’s more, these men are accepted and even adores ’till a certain degree. Whether they are just showing of their skill and strength or wearing 15 centimeters high heals, and fancy makeup. It’s a kind of diversity that’s really necessary.

Same, same but different – What makes one city better than another?

Recently, I moved from Beijing to Shanghai. An inevitable question almost everyone asks is: Which city do you like better?

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Capital or not
Trade and tourism, change or continuity
A never ending story

The rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is quite real. Of course, this is not limited to China. Worldwide many cities compete within a country to be ‘the best’, whatever that might mean. But where do these comparisons come from?

This blog is a short quest to see what I can find out about the orgins of these city rivalries. Coming from the Netherlands, my first thought is to compare the competition between Beijing and Shanghai, to the one between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Let’s look at some aspects of these cities to find an answer.

Capital or not

Type in “Beijing vs Shanghai” in Google and you get 179 million hits. Many articles talk about the best sightseeing spots in both places, differences in food and varying characters of their citizens. But something that I’m more interested in, is what we can find in their history.

Beijing became China’s capital during the Yuan dynasty, in the 13th century. The Yuan dynasty was one of China’s foreign dynasties, in this case established by the Mongols. Ever since, Beijing has been the capital or one of the capitals.

Being the capital of a country, is of course an important element of a city’s identity. BBC reported earlier this year that “the capital needs to be protected, but also able to exert control and project unity. For that reason many capitals are built in the center of countries – they need to be seen as representative and accessible.”

Since the capital is often also the place where the government resides, that adds another element to the mix. A research paper from the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) mentions that “Beijing has benefited from efforts by the Chinese government and Beijing’s municipal government to elevate the city’s international reputation, and from Beijing’s legacy and position as China’s political and cultural center.”

Shanghai, on the other hand, has never been China’s capital. It has, however, been the backdrop for important historical events, especially in the 20th century. When the first Opium War ended and foreign powers started to enter China, Shanghai was named a treaty port by the British. With foreign powers such as Great Britain, France and the United States entering the city, it became the center for art, architecture and business.

After several wars, it resumed its position as being a prime spot for business, fashion and finance. It’s currently China’s largest city and its regional economy is growing faster than Beijing’s, with its Gross Domestic Product hitting 3 trillion RMB last year.

Thus, it’s no wonder that these tensions arise between both cities. Are the reasons the same on the other side of the ocean?

Trade and tourism, change or continuity

Amsterdam and Rotterdam are quite antagonistic. Luckily, most people don’t hate each other as much as the soccer fans do, but there’s definitely competition. However, in this case the different images of the cities are even clearer. Amsterdam is the capital city, with a rich history and well-known among international tourists. Whether it’s the canals, tulips or weed, Amsterdam is sure to be most people’s first association with the Netherlands.

On the other hand, although it’s winning popularity as a touristic hotspot, Rotterdam is first and foremost a trade city. With its huge port, it attracts many international businesses. Due to the bombing of its city center during the Second World War, the buildings and environment are literally newer. Compared to Amsterdam’s more traditional, historic city center, Rotterdam has a more modern, creative vibe.

Reportedly, rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam can be traced back as early as the 17th century. This Golden Age period brought about unparalleled wealth and riches to a large part of the Northern Netherlands. This was of course earned by the lucrative slave trade and rich colonies, which were heavily exploited.

But the two cities not only competed in trade, they also did so in infrastructure. However, even with being heavily bombed, Rotterdam managed to revive quicker from this blowback than Amsterdam and prospered after this period.

In Dutch newspaper NRC, cultural history researcher Patricia van Ulzen thinks part of this rivalry is fueled strongly because both cities have always been the largest in the country, and are thus compared to each other all the time. She adds: “Amsterdam has a glorious history and benefits the most by keeping the status quo. (…) However, Rotterdam as the second city has had to prove itself all the time and is thus better off with continuous changes.”

A never ending story

Looking from a historical perspective, we can see that there are clear differences between the Chinese and Dutch cities. Shanghai and Beijing were of a very different size up until the middle of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the Chinese case there’s an emphasis on geography. Beijing and other former capital cities like Xi’an were partly chosen because of their strategic location. Shanghai is of course near the sea and thus much more vulnerable in that sense.

On the other hand, Amsterdam and Rotterdam have a similar size but also a very different character. The rivalry between these two seems to stem from a difference in values and city images. Amsterdam emphasizes its rich history with its canals and well-preserved heritage. Rotterdam focuses on trade and exuding its modern vibes with innovative architecture.

For all the differences and (friendly) rivalry between these cities, it does seem that there’s no real position being challenged. And perhaps that’s what lies at the bottom of it all. It’s a way to make cities’ characteristics clearer by juxtaposing them to each other. Comparing a large metropole to another one, can elevate its position and legitimize its importance. And in this day and age, city marketing also takes a smart approach in nurturing a city’s image.

So, just to add some fuel to the fire I’ll say it on the record: Beijing wins in my book.