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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

FniIC profile X: The Entrepreneur - Pan of Hangzhou

NB: This is being posted for the benefit of the profiled Couchsurfing host, Pan. I'm not sure whether it was posted earlier, but if it was, it has since disappeared. So, here it is again!


I. The Entrepreneur

Pan is 25 but looks about 19. We met through Couchsurfing: I was heading to Hangzhou, looking to finally see the famed city's sights following a business trip to Shanghai and was looking to meet some interesting locals. While his profile featured very little personal information, he'd received dozens of positive references from other travelers that he's hosted, and so I trusted that he'd be a good host. His apartment is the epitome of sprawling post-collegiate XX: a gun (a traditional Chinese harp) lay on the living room table, covered by various debris; the kitchen table was amassed with books on Chinese e-commerce and bakery price tags; empty drink bottles were scattered like fallen soldiers.

I asked him what he does for a living and received a mumbled answer that involved selling clothing on Taobao, China's eBay, which is going through an incredible period of growth. I thought he said something (we spoke in Chinese, so it occasionally became unclear) about how he didn't have to work, because his parents provided financial support, and so received the impression that he was some sort of pampered single son, a product of the One Child policy. How wrong I turned out to be!

Pan began to open up at a Mexican bar that night which is run by an American who has lived in China for 16 years. This bar owner used to be my boss - I wrote food reviews for the Chengdu branch of his small English-language listings magazine business - and when I showed Pan the magazine, he burst into a long and highly rigorous analysis of the listings magazine market: costs, revenue streams, target audience. His mind is constantly analyzing ways to make money - a classic entrepreneur in a region famous for its business savvy - and he explained that his parents travel around the country constantly, trading in the fish market. He explained that he is opening a bakery next month, partly because he doesn't get along with his partner at the bakery which he currently manages.

As he flicked through another magazine, he peered at an English advertisement for the University of Nottingham in the UK.

“So you can read English magazines pretty well?” I asked him. When I'd asked how his English was, he'd responded instantly: “Not as good as your Chinese!”

“Yeah,” he replied casually: “I was just checking because I studied there…”

“Huh?! You used to live in England? Your English must be great!” I responded.

Thus began his free-flowing tale that unfurled like a handkerchief from a magician's sleeve, each turn becoming increasingly fantastical. Pan, though born in Hangzhou, has lived in over a dozen cities across China, largely due to his parents' work. He researched lilies for his bachelor's degree in biology, before moving to London to study art. Receiving less support from his parents, and having failed as a street-side guqin busker (the humor in such an effort lies in that the gun is, by its nature, a very quiet instrument traditionally played in solitude), Pan moved to Nottingham, completing a master's degree in food processing management. When I asked how he found it, he was honest.

“Incredibly boring,” he said. On the topic of English cuisine, he said he found it “frightful”, instead cooking huge Chinese feasts for his Western friends.

While a lot of young 'boomerang Chinese' - those who've studied in the West and returned to thrive in China's job market - often advertise their worldliness and Western savvy, Pan is the opposite. He dresses in simple, local brand clothing, he prefers to speak Chinese to English, and when asked about the differences between English and Chinese people, he told me that “they're basically the same.” I'm not sure how many English (or Chinese) would agree with his verdict, but such is his outlook.

After three years in the UK, Pan returned to China, where he has since started his flourishing wholesale market on Taobao, managed the bakery that he co-founded and worked as a Latin dance coach. The latin dance coaching caught me by surprise, but I gradually began to predict his response, whenever I asked why he started some seemingly random new hobby or venture.

“I was bored,” he would inevitably say. Bored of the piano, he learned the guqin. Bored in college, he became a trained Chinese masseuse and acupuncturist. Bored after returning to China, he took latin dance, won a championship and became a teacher. His interest piqued by the economic crisis, he is now completing a masters with Fudan University (one of the country's most famous), in economics. He rarely finds time to go to class, but seems to do OK. The next day after our bar conversation, he took a series of exams that began at 9:00 am and finished at 6:00 pm, working his way through one-and-a-half pens' worth of ink in the process.

“Have you ever considered just finding an office job at a multi-national?” I asked him at one point.

“There's not so many of those jobs,” he replied. “Besides, by starting my own company I can provide more jobs for other young Chinese, and give back to society.” Earlier, Pan had explained that the reason he came straight back to China, instead of lingering post-degree in England and building his savings, was that “the Motherland needs my help.” Such altruism though comes muted by a very honest sense of realism. When I ask if his entrepreneurialism is driven more by a desire to cure youth unemployment than simply to make money, he instantly quashes any such idealism.

“Of course my main goal is to make money for myself!” he acknowledges. “You've got to have 'made it' yourself before you can worry about helping others.”

Pan wants to go traveling for a year, and is interested in moving to the US, because “there are many things about the government here that I find annoying.” But he wants to have his businesses up and self-managing before he leaves. On the issue of marriage, he expresses interest in marrying a foreign woman, because “mixed children have better genetic make-up” and he is cynical on the notion of lifelong marriage. I also imagine that, given his freewheeling, omni-committed, city-hopping lifestyle, a lot of more traditional Chinese women would find Pan tough to keep up.

His house, when his parents aren't visiting, is a roundabout of Western and Chinese guests, and when I get back late on the second evening, he's hosting an American college student and his local friend. When we pressure him to perform the guqin for us, he easily relents, and his fingers slide and leap along the wooden instrument elegantly. He gives us a boyish, effete smile as we applaud: “But be warned,” he tells us, “playing the guqin is a deeply emotional experience. And all of the songs are so sad!”

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