A Random Day in London

While I was in the UK for the launch of Techstars in London, I held a “random day” where I met with 24 companies, back-to-back, for 15 minutes each at the awesome Warner Yard. Over the course of the day I met a lot of interesting people and gained a little more insight into the specific struggles and challenges of the UK startup community.

Random days of interactions with people I wouldn’t normally meet have led to all kinds of connections, friendships and even some investments. The idea for random days comes from Brad Feld, who has held them regularly for years. In fact, I met Brad on one of his random days, when I presented the idea for Techstars to him. He ended up not only being interested, but actually becoming a cofounder.

Of course the highlight was working with the 11 companies we’ve funded in our inaugural London program. Five of those companies are from the UK, and six are from other countries. I can tell you one thing from spending a month with them that it’s going to be a great class of companies. If you’re interested in checking out Demo Day in September, just let me know.

My London random day–and the entire month I spent talking with people involved in the startup community there–really highlighted the way that entrepreneurs all around the world are working on similar things. You see the same ideas in London as you see in New York. If there are two startups in London doing something, there are probably two or three in New York and a couple in Boulder doing the same thing. This kind of competition is happening all the time on a global scale. The ideas entrepreneurs are working on and how they’re thinking about the world aren’t all that different from one community to the next. (This certainly underscores the fact that if you have a great idea for a startup, other people probably have the same idea. What really makes the difference are things like execution, passion, vision and your team.)

Many people have asked me what major differences I’ve seen in London, compared with startup communities in the US. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is in the velocity of investment. Not necessarily the quantity of investment, but the slower speed, and how much friction is often involved with getting through a seed round. Companies in the UK that are raising a seed round typically have to go through the same diligence as a company raising an Series A round in the US. So there’s more diligence, more spreadsheet work and a lot more focus on actual valuations. There’s also a lot more scrutiny of the business model, as opposed to just finding good people with a good idea. I’m not saying this is better or worse than how seed funding happens in the US, but it does seem to cause more UK entrepreneurs to self-fund, bootstrap, focus on revenue earlier than might be natural–or simply decide to pursue their business in the US. I did notice that the London community seems to be starting to make a shift toward the notion that at seed stage you sometimes need to trust your gut more than the spreadsheets.

Entrepreneurs and investors in London are hungry for their community to continue to improve and they’re enthusiastic about all the things happening there. And we’re tremendously excited for Techstars London to be a part of it all.

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Volunteering in China with my son

Recently, I took my 11 year old (Andrew) to Beijing, China for 10 days. Inspired by Mark Solon, and organized through Globe Aware, we worked in a school for the children of migrant workers who have no government services. The goal was for my son to experience more of the world and to learn how many others are not as fortunate as we are. Mission accomplished.

I am breaking this up into one post per day of the trip and realize that this will be TLDR for almost everyone. But sometimes I blog for my memory and for my family and close friends, so suffice it to say that lessons were learned, friends were made, and perspective was gained by all (not just the 11 year old).

In this post you will see “shorthand” – that’s because I was capturing these words as it was happening on an ipad mini. These are emails daily to my wife while I was gone, lightly edited. I apologize for the lack of correct grammar in this post.

If you prefer to just see the photos, they’re here.

Day 1 and 2

Travel, international date line, etc. Writing from Beijing. This morning, we woke up at 545am in boulder. Andrew had been up since 5 with a bloody nose. On the way to the airport Andrew was silent. On arrival I asked if he was excited or scared. He said both. It seems Andrew does not like to fly. Sort of scared of it like when I was younger. On the flight I remember giving him his glasses and him actually wearing them. Looking outside at the view. He is reading his kindle and playing with the Itouch on this flight. We talk a little. On descent his sinuses give him sudden extreme pain which lasts until landing. Hopefully just related to his recent cold. It’s gone as fast as it came.

While in SF to get the connecting flight I learn the details of work issue. It’s ugly but I trust the team and remain off the grid.

Airport lounge in SFO

About to board for the 12 hour flight to Beijing in SFO.

From sfo we get our connection direct to Beijing. On the long 13 hour flight we got an upgrade to business class. Upper deck of the plane. Andrew thinks its cool. Tv with on demand movies will help on this flight as will power for the itouch. A strange departure pattern is announced which gives us a fly over of the Golden Gate Bridge at 3000 feet. Wow. Too much food offered, but we did have the ice cream sundaes. We both sleep about 2 hours near the end of the flight. Overall a long but good flight. landing in Beijing we see the dense smog and snow covered mountain peaks.

Exiting the plane walking towards customs Andrew develops a huge limp. He has to stop walking several times. We take our time. Stiffness from the flight or missing an alleve dose on time are the causes I hope. He’s been fighting swelling in his leg lately. 30 minutes through border patrol and we are in china. An enormous airport. Trains, busses, and finally to our hilton airport hotel. Everyone speaks english and everyone provides incredible service. andrew notices both. Andrews leg seems ok now. Hotel is huge and modern. Its now 6pm in beijing and about 4am in boulder. We are tired but now hungry. andrew tells me he has left his itouch on the plane. i remember asking him to check for his things before we left the plane. then he finds it in his bag. We go downstairs to dinner. It’s a buffet. Andrew gets Hawaiian pizza and penne. I get tomato penne. Chinese food will come later. A quick bath and Andrew reads his kindle. He is Asleep by 8pm here and I hope he can sleep most of the night. I cant help but check on the work problem on my phone during the bath. It’s hard to disconnect 100%. But I did no work on all those flights. I read most of the book “how will you measure your life?” Which I am really enjoying. I am fighting to stay up writing this until 9pm. It’s now 6am in boulder, 24 hours after I left. Andrew just rolled over to ask me what time it is. In the background airplanes are still taking off. I miss the rest of the family. We are far away. We spend night 1 in the Beijing airport hotel, not yet “in it”, but a good transition.

First sight in Beijing. You can stare at the sun due to the dense smog.

Chocolate milk at the airport hotel

Day 3

I had hard time sleeping last night at the airport hotel. I was awake from 12-2 and lying there think how far away from home I was. Andrew seemed to sleep well. We both woke up at 5am. We both read until 7 then showered and we went down to breakfast which was included with the room. it was actually pretty good. scrambled eggs and french toast etc. even ok bacon, i hope. we were done by 830.

back to the room to wait. this was a long stretch as there is nothing to do at that hotel with an 11 year old. 11am finally came when we were supposed to meet our volunteer coordinator, marcus. we went to the lobby to check out.

11am came and went and the thought crossed my mind to go get on a plane. 10 minutes later marcus appeared to pick us up. his ‘friend’ (who was never identified and spoke no english) was driving, probably his car. we loaded our luggage and got in, feeling like this was the real start of entering another world. it was.

no seat belts in the back seat. and hour and fifteen minutes of true gridlock on a late saturday morning. the smog was intense. yesterday when we had arrived i took a photo of andrew with the sun behind him. you could look right at it with no problem, the haze was so thick it looked like a harmless yellow light in the sky. today is the same, but now we are in the smog. marcus has his window partially open. andrew dawns his mask and buries his head under his blanket. “i dont trust this air” he tells me. i begin to wonder if this is bad for our health.

marcus answers a few basic questions in broken english. it takes me a while to realize this is english, and i have to listen very closely. on the drive we review the schedule. there is no work planned saturday (today) or sunday as the school is closed. we learn that today we will go to the temple of heaven although we have no idea what this is. tomorrow we will go to the Great Wall of china, and then have a tour of the school in the early evening. we learn that the school has 600 students from ages 12-14. they are all children of migrant workers. most live at the school all week and are with their parents on weekends. some are just day students. 100 foreign volunteers per year, last week were harvard students who come every year. the school is an old factory that is a labor of love of the founder and principal.

we arrival at our hotel which is our new home for 8 days. basic is a good description. the toilet is in the shower. two beds, a tv with one english news channel. no time to unpack now, we are off to the temple of heaven. the car drops us off in a busy area. first, we stop at a chinese restaurant. dumplings with tomato and egg, chicken, and beef. the chicken platter is slightly disturbing, the head served with everything else. andrew and i eat very little until the rice comes. we are joined by marcus’s fiancee and one of the teachers from the school. luckily they eat most of it. andrew shows off his new chopstick skills which i taught him this morning at breakfast. there are no forks which helps him learn.

after lunch we get on a bus for 30 minutes. it is literally packed, so packed that getting on and off is an art. standing.

we arrive at the temple of heaven and it’s a huge park and we walk for about 5 miles while there. we explore all the buildings and take lots of pics. it’s about 600 years old, which i piont out to andew is much older than america. its from the ming dynasty.

some of the buildings there house displays of artifacts including some that are over 2000 years old.

when we leave, andrew asks if they have pizza there. he is hungry, he didn’t eat much at lunch but i gave him a granola bar during our tour. no pizza anywhere near us (shocker) so we go in a bakery and get a bunch of stuff for our room, including some breads with fruit in them, muffins, etc.

we take the bus back, this time less crowded and we get to sit for half. off the bus, and into the grocery store. we buy bottled water and a few fantas. taxi back to the hotel.

no english spoken at this hotel so marcus comes in to be sure we are ok. the heater is broken so we get a new room. good thing he came in (its quite cold out). he had a shouting match with the hotel people and apparantly he won. everything is a shouting match here. it’s just normal. we unpack and eat.

andrew is super beat. he falls asleep within 20 minutes of eating. i make him put on pjs. he’s out by 730. it’s almost 9 now and i am tired too. hopefully we sleep later than 5.

tomorrow the Great Wall of china.

i think of my family as i fall asleep, missing home already.

Mastering chopsticks. Kinda.

Andrew at the Chinese “Center of the Universe”

At the Temple of Heaven

Marcus, our host

Day 4

another rocky start to day 3. andrew was up at 2am for an hour, he says. then we were both up at 4. i thought that was it for the night. both of us laid awake restless until 5 and then we both slept until about 630. we started the morning slowly, showers, breakfast in the room (granola etc). marcus came to get us at 930.

off to the Great Wall, we were told it would take around an hour. this would turn out to be a very long day of busses, trains, and gondolas. we took a bus to another bus to the subway where we took a train, then walked 1/2 mile, then another bus. this took about 2 hours. and, just like that we were at the Great Wall. it was very cold there but luckily i had guessed that and we dressed well. we took the trolly (like a reverse slow roller coaster) up to the wall. we walked up and along the wall taking a million photos until we got the skyride. then we rode it down. we were on the wall for 90 minutes or so and had lunch up there from our coffee stop. then a bus ride from hell, over 2 hours in gridlock on a sunday afternoon. every one of these busses and trains and the wall itself were of course completely packed, so the long bus ride back was really tough. andrew had his kindle and read for half of it, and got tired of it. super long ride. then a train, then a bus back to the hotel. in the train station we got Pizza Hut to bring back to our room. yay. andrew was pretty happy about that.

that took the entire day.

andrew was in good spirits until the end, when he was just really tired and justifiably sick of busses. for sure he’s getting the idea here that overcrowding is the norm and public transportation is how the people here live.

i think andrew liked the wall itself, and the trains, but not the busses. he’s out now, just after 8pm. our wake up call is at 6am for our first day at the school, a full 12 hours planned helping with english, geography, etc. we’ll be taking the gifts for the school.

What a great wall, huh?

It was cooooold!

Personal space is not a familiar concept on public transit in Beijing.

Day 5

our first day at the school. up at 5am, because everyone in this hotel is awake and yelling by that time. there is some sort of strange rush hour each day around 530am at this hotel. it seems to be the normal time to wake up and yell. it doesnt help that the walls are paper thin. because of this, and helped by the natural jet lag, we’re always in bed by 9pm when it seems to get reasonably quiet, so that when we’re inevitably awoken at 530am we have had a full nights sleep. andrew is usually beat from the days and asleep by 8 so he is often up at 5am anyway, reading his kindle when i wake up. today is no different.

we leave for the school at 645am, after a granola breakfast in the room. onto the bus, it’s supposed to be 10 minutes. but as with every day, it’s a packed bus, so we are standing but andrew gets a seat after a while. there is a huge traffic jam, as there is basically no order on the roads. cars, busses, people, bikes, animals everywhere. the area where the traffic jam occurs is close to school, marcus says. so we can walk. he gets the driver to open the door and we are out of the bus and into the streets. my first thought is that this looks like a war zone. incredible number of people around. it’s very poor here, worse than where the hotel is. everything, literally everything is in disrepair. there is junk and concrete and trash and crap everywhere. kids just pee on the street here. people working to repair scooters, with one year olds sitting a foot from traffic, watching it go by, but nobody watching the kids. one false move and one bus driver not paying attention, and those kids are done. there is shock and sadness as i walk. but somehow it all seems to work. the kid doesn’t move, he knows better. he seems content, not needing anything in the freezing cold, while he watches the adults work on the bike.

suddenly we are there. there is a big gate, with a security guard. they wave us in. our first view of the school is the open playground. a true oasis from the street, there are 6 outdoor basketball goals in what is called the “front yard”. it’s cold this morning, maybe 25 degrees. we go to the main office and we are told to sit. 10 minutes go by. we watch one of the kids being scolded by the people in the office. they grab his ear and pull it gently. they thump him on the forehead. the kid is laughing a little bit. he broke some rules, and there is a strictness but you can tell it’s not too much. i wonder if it’s for show for us, but i decide it’s not.

now it’s time for breakfast, and we’ll be eating with the teachers. the previous volunteers sent us a note that said that the food is fine except for the breakfast. luckily, we had eaten in the room and didn’t have any of the wet white slop that was being given out. we meet a few other teachers, and english is not widely understood or spoken by them.

we are taken next door the to english reading room. there are english books locked up, and two computers – one english and one chinese i think. there are english board games like boggle. this is our base for the day – the room is not used much. we meet “jade” who is the english teacher. we are supposed to be grading homework but one of the teachers is pregnant and not coming in today, so we sit there for 90 minutes or so. we are starting to understand that many people deal with very long stretches of boredom better than we do. these rooms are cold, i think there is heat but you’d barely notice it. i remember being cold the entire day.

time for a tour of the school. it’s bigger than it looks, once you go past the front yard and the buildings around it. it’s an old factory. we tour the boys dorms, which smell like boy, a sweet sort of stink. sort of like old sweat. there is room after room, and each room has exactly 12 beds. the only other thing in the room is a fan. there is no a/c so in the summer all they have is a window and a fan. we are told that 98% of the students board there during the week monday to friday, while their parents who are migrant workers work. they see their kids only on the weekend. the other 2% have no families – either abandoned or they have no parents. 15% of the students pay no school fees, because they are too poor. 85% pay about a dollar a day, which includes a bed, and three meals.

we tour the library, go by some classrooms, and are shown the teachers bathrooms which we are allowed to use. they are not nice, but they are modern fixtures. very dim light, and only cold water for washing hands. and no towels, you shake dry.

finally, the assembly. we are taken outside and lead to the side of the stage. at the back of the stage is a flagpole. songs sound instead of bells for the changing of the period. so the assembly song plays. 600 children, all between 12-14 run in lines perfectly formed to their places in the front yard, between the basketball goals. they are line up, and it happens in a strangely military sort of way. they are all in the school uniform. they look at us and giggle but have a seriousness too, as they know they are being watched. several men in suits walk the front of the line, checking uniforms and making sure faces are clean. once satisfied, a color guard of students with special armbands comes out with the flag, and national music plays. the students are called to attention again in a military way, and the flag goes up the pole while they sing. fireworks go off in the area, and nobody says anything about them. maybe it’s some sort of holiday, or maybe this is for us. we’re not sure, and nobody can really tell us.

once the flag is up, we are called onto stage to be welcomed. everyone claps enthusiastically. i am asked to say a few words – i say i am from america, we flew on a plane 15 hours to be here, my name is david, and i thank them for allowing us to visit. jade translates. andrew says he is andrew, he is also from america, and i am 11 years old. he looked like he wanted to say something else but didn’t, and some students giggled in the silence. then everyone clapped again after the translation of andrew. from the side, two little girls are running together up to us with gifts. they are tshirts, presented in ribbons, as a welcome gift. the girls are adorable.

the song plays for the next class, and we go back to the english room for another 60 minutes. i meet the geography teacher who asks us (through marcus’s translation) to prepare a geography lesson for his class later that day. he wants it to be on places in asia i’ve visited, and for me to tell some stories. so it will be singapore and japan. andrew has never been to china so he is off the hook. i use a computer to do some research and eventually a powerpoint for the classroom. but that will happen later today.

time for english class. andrew and i are put in front of the class, it’s about 30 students. andrew has prepared pencils and erasers to give out to students that participate. he really likes the part of teacher, i think. we talk with the class, working on words like airplane, and turtle. andrew drills the class to repeat words from a book, so they can hear him speak it. the time flies, andrew is really enjoying this part. he walks the room listening to them practice words and giving them feedback. he’s giving out pencils and erasers that we brought with us to students who answer.

the bell again. we notice that there is usually 5 minutes between classes. the basketball courts erupt with boys, as do the ping pong tables. the girls ignore it all. we take a bunch of photos but are not a part of this, yet.

lunchtime now. there is white rice in one bowl. cabbage in another, and various meat of some kind and vegetables in the third. i pick out some carrots, and ‘winter melon’ whatever that is, and eat it along with the rice. andrew eats some rice and nothing else. the winter melon was hot, so i figured it was ok, but i still have no idea what it was. i even tried a little cabbage, as it was also very hot. the rice was good, actually. just plain white rice but that was hot and it was cold.

walking back after lunch i nod towards one of the kids with a basketball. he throws it to me and i put up a terrible shot. andrew is standing next to me, so the next ball goes to him. we played basketball with these kids for 10 minutes. it was a blast. the kids are all incredibly nice and sweet.

next up is art class. this is a double class, so about 100 minutes long. we go to the art class and when we walk in the students are sitting at tables. immediately they all start patting on stools to try to get us to sit next to them. they’re calling ‘and ooo’ – the girls really like him. we both find seats. i sit between two girls that i remember from english class. one of them is really special and smart. she speaks english better than anyone but still not well. the teacher talks for a bit and then we go outside in the front yard. the project is to make passports. all the girls want to help andrew, he is participating and i am supposed to observe. this is kids stuff. andrew draws on his passport, and then some kind of game occurs. it’s a puzzle, there are various cut up pieces of paper and there appears to be some kind of challenge to assemble it. andrew works with a bunch of boys and his team assembles their flower first. they get their photo taken, the winners. andrew names the team “the pink flower people” when asked. that is chanted by the kids in english – ‘pink… flower… people!”

upstairs to the classroom again. we redo the passports, and this time i have to do it too. not really sure why it’s being done again, very little is explained to us. we just do stuff with a few clues. the two little girls give me hints and encouragement. i draw horrible stick figures playing ping pong, basketball, and snow skiing.

art class ends, now i have time to work on my geography lesson. i pull in some photos of harijuku girls in tokyo and the Ferris wheel in singapore, thinking the kids will like that. now to the geography class. kids present to their teacher about various regions. the work is impressive. they report on the areas with great pride. at the end they always say something like ‘we very much enjoyed this lesson because we got to learn about the people and culture of this place.” marcus is translating the activities for us.

now i present my slides. marcus translates. everyone claps. they liked the Ferris wheel but didn’t really seem to get the harijuku thing. girls here do not seem to care about shopping or cool outfits. not at all.

next to Chinese calligraphy class. note that it’s about 5pm now. classes started at 730. still going, and that’s normal. we practice calligraphy, and the teacher shows us how. it’s very difficult. we are told our chinese names, and shown the symbols. andrew quickly masters his and memorizes it. when he says it to other students, they say “androoo”. close enough.

on the way down the stairs one of the students slips and i hear what sounds like a horrible fall. he’s hit his head. everyone is laughing. they carry him away, i guess he will be fine. it scared me alot. i guess you have to be tough around here.

now to open play time. more basketball with the kids. super fun. there is no competitiveness, just fun and good sharing of the ball.

off the dinner. marcus takes us to town for dinner, afraid andrew is not getting enough food. little did he know about the clif bars etc that i’ve been giving him in the english reading room all day. we end up at kfc, and andrew gets some chicken nuggets. this is about a 25 minute detour to town. we also go to the ‘cookie shop’ (which we would call a bakery) for croissants for the morning and lunch the next day. a taxi back to the hotel. andrew hits the bed and is out by 8. i fight to stay away until 9 with my one English Channel – the news. there are some sports updates from america, mostly nba. that’s big here i guess. i ignore my email and fall asleep.

Our school schedule

Boarding of all the students is 12 to a room – pretty sparse.

The “front yard” at the school.

Andrew teaching English.

Art class in the front yard. The girls liked Andrews blue eyes.

The pink flower people.

"Andrew" and "David"

Day 6

up again with the masses at the hotel at 530am. andrew was already up at 5, reading.

today is a tour day, it’s tuesday. we are going to the summer palace. marcus is coming to get us at 9am. we hang in bed until 7, reading, or whatever. at 7 we have breakfast, a croissant or some granola.

we go to the summer palace. the bus, then the subway for 75 minutes. amazing how huge the city is that there is a 75 minute subway. and there were more stops. once we get there, lots of walking, hard climbing, up then down, then up. down to the lake. beautiful.

we eat lunch near the lake. we buy Delaney (my daughter) a little gift.

we finish the walk by about 1pm. subway back, then bus – 2 hours from there to the hotel. andrew reads his kindle well on the subway. marcus sleeps, and i think or listen to music.

back at the hotel by 3. we are to rest until 6. this is my chance to really talk to andrew about the school. andrew wants to venture out on our own to the store down the street. i have been a little scared to go out there (it’s not a nice neighborhood) without marcus. but it’s 430 so we do it, and we buy ritz crackers, bread, pretzel sticks, and pringles all for like 2 dollars or something crazy. it’s crazy how cheap stuff is here. we make it back alive. both of us feel a little liberated by shopping on our own. nobody speaks english here – i mean zero. and everyone stares at us everywhere we go, especially andrew. foreigners are rare, but foreign kids with blue eyes take the cake, i guess.

at 6pm marcus comes to get us. andrew wants kfc again – he found chicken nuggets there that are good. but that’s 25 minutes by bus – a hard ask of marcus. so we don’t ask. marcus takes us across the street for chinese food (everything here is chinese food – there are no choices anywhere nearby). i ask for plain noodles for andrew, and marcus orders chou mein noodles and chicken kung pow. both are amazing. i eat the whole plate of noodles (getting good at chopsticks now). i eat a bunch of the chicken, which has peanuts and veggies. it’s very good. now i’m crushing it with chopsticks, picking up slipper peanuts or tiny pieces of vegetable with no issue. andrew is getting better at it too. he eats some of the noodles and a few pieces of chicken.

back in the room by 7. andrew reading now, will fall asleep in the net 30-60 minutes. good bonding with andrew today and lots of discussion about what he’s seeing.

At the Summer palace

Andrew exploring the Summer Palace

After our exciting store run.

Day 7

up at 530 again – when the ruckus started.

at school by 7am. at 7 andrew and i helped students with morning reading (english) and then had a great abacus lesson. it’s really interesting how it works. the abacus teacher was a cool old man. he said they used to have to learn it in school, but now the kids learn it just as tradition. he spoke no english, but marcus translated. everything takes five times as long this way.

next we had to teach the kids a dance or a song. andrew had a dance he wanted to teach. it was fun, i even did it. i wasn’t good, of course. he was. the kids got it in about 20 minutes. then they taught us a dance too. lots of video.

at lunch, andrew had rice only and i was able to pick out a few vegetables to identify and eat. i didn’t eat the meat, which i think was supposed to be pork. random parts.

next up was english class. andrew loves this part. he taught the class, and we both helped with pronunciation. he gave out more pencils. i think he will remember english class as his favorite thing from this trip.

then lots of basketball with the kids. an extended pe/recess. it was good to do sporty stuff with andrew and the other kids. i could tell he was getting better as basketball as the day went on. it’s really fun to play with the kids – reminded me of qamea in fiji with volleyball. just good simple fun, nobody trying to dog anyone, just sharing the ball and being happy for each other making shots. no competition, no drama, just fun.

there was a 2 hour basketball game, where they called different students to play against each other, co-ed. the whole school watching their friends and cheering for the almost made baskets and occasionally even made ones. super fun and funny to watch.

dinner at a chinese restaurant. that’s all they have here, pretty much. marcus took us and the chow mein was good again. andrew was even able to eat a little. also chicken kung pow was very good. and spicy green beans. no health issues so far, knock wood.

andrew fell asleep by 8. the day at the school was very long.

Just outside the school gates.

Learning the abacus.

Andrew teaching “popcorn” dance.

School lunch!

Hoops

Day 8

it’s thursday, and its a tour day. marcus is coming to get us at 9, so we can sleep in. good thing, because andrew sleeps until 8. yep, 12 hours! i guess he was exhausted. i was up at 530 with the hallway screamers, but fell back asleep until 7. it’s so strange, there’s like a 530 hotel rush hour followed by another quiet hour. every day.

anyway, marcus came at 915, and we were off to the forbidden city. we stopped at the ‘cookie shop’ for bread/lunch stuff, which i kept in my backpack. bus, subway, jam packed, etc – the usual drill. this city is constantly moving. 20 million people and i swear half of them are on busses at any given time. face pressed to the side of the bus sometimes. it’s just how it is here. sometimes you have to wait 2 or 3 busses to even fit on. so everything takes forever to go do. it was 2 hours to get to the forbidden city, including the walk from the subway. marcus lives cheaply, it’s the way of life here. you don’t take a bus if you can walk 2 or bus stops, you walk. so we passed on the bus alot. the forbidden city is a huge walk too, and not much in it for andrew. he had seen enough chinese buildings pretty quickly. he was a sport, just said he was tired of walking. not my favorite stop either, but interesting to be in such a historic place. we entered view tienanmen square so saw that too.

exiting the forbidden city, holy crap, a billion people waiting on busses. taxis rip you off here, marcus says. so we wait and wait. then jam onto the most crowded bus yet. inhale, and climb onto your neighbors back. that’s the plan. so tight you can’t even wear the backpack, it has to go down on the ground by your legs where there is more room. 4 stops to the subway station and you can exhale. except it’s a 10 block walk to the subway, actually. luckily this is fine because it’s downtown, the shopping district. very touristy, but cool to see. feels like Chinese 5th avenue. we stop at kfc for chicken nuggets (yay!) which are good. this time i have them too. marcus grins and bears it by ordering kfc chinese food. fried chicken and rice.

subway to cctv tower, the tallest building in beijing. except a 2 mile walk after you get off the subway – yep, right past all the bus stops. andrew is really tired, i’m guessing we’ve walked 10 miles now today. he hangs in there. my legs are literally started to hurt. backpack hurting my back. we arrive at the tower, go up to the top. amazing view of the city, and ring of mountains. but lots of smog. i get andrew an ice cream bar, he’s earned that. down to the basement of the tower, there is an aquarium which is actually pretty great. shark tunnel, etc.

now 4pm, we head home to the hotel. i tell marcus no dinner for us tonight, we’ll eat what’s in my backpack and be fine. we get to the hotel around 530pm, we’re both beat. we watch field of dreams on the ipad, our first tv or movie since we got here. 730 now, andrew is reading as i write this. he’s read a ton on his kindle on this trip.

in the morning, we will pack up and leave the dumpy hotel. i decided that we deserve a night at the hilton at the airport. before our flight saturday. so we are packing up in the morning and will take our bags to school for the day. we are done at 3pm and marcus will put us into a taxi to the airport hotel. it has a pool, i may see if andrew can go swimming. i’m looking forward to a strong shower.

last day at the school tomorrow. i wonder if that will be my favorite part too.

i’m thinking about big things on this trip. i finished the book ‘how will you measure your life?’ last night.

Looking out at 20 million people.

A long way from home.

Doing the weather.

Day 9

friday. our sleep is now normal (of course) and we wake up at 645a for school. we are packed and checking out of the dumpy hotel. i decided mid week that we needed one night in the airport hotel before our flight on saturday. marcus comes to get us at 730a for our final day at the school.

we learn the chinese game GO from the older dude with the abacus. another english class. more basketball. lunch, this time andrew just skips it completely. usually he eats a little rice. time for the farewell party. this is very touching. everyone has to perform. the chinese kids read english tongue twisters for us. she sells sea shells, peter piper, we all scream for ice cream. andrew leads the room in his dance one last time. i juggle for the kids. then the kids sing us songs. tears are welling up at this point since this is goodbye. then they play a 3 minute video that marcus has made of me and andrew at the school and sightseeing. i have it but only on a cd. we get handwritten english notes from the kids thanking us for coming, and a special pillow to keep us more comfortable on our journey home. now it’s time for photos in the front yard with the kids. this seems to be their favorite part. they take our camera and start taking a billion photos. us with them, us posing silly poses, group photos of our class, the kids are very excited to have control of the camera. there are lots of cutouts that have randomly been placed on the playground, so we are all taking photos of us with our heads in characters like rabbits, etc. everyone is clowning, arms around each other (us and them). pretty awesome.

only one thing left before we go. a home visit. marcus, andrew and i go to one of the students homes. remember they are at the school all week and only see family on the weekend. the little girl is really excited to go home. she’s 13. home is just a mile or so away. we get there, there are 7 people in the family including her, across 3 generations. they all live here. it’s two rooms, more like one normal sized room with a divider in the middle. cold stone concrete. i thought it was a garage, in fact maybe it used to be. but it’s their home. one bed. they must take turns sleeping. the family moved here 7 years ago for work. the father fixes cars for a living. the family is very nice and you can tell they’ve tried to clean up a bit. the bed is made, toys are put away. they do have a computer with internet, which surprised me. the second room without the bed is really a panty of sorts. they have some eggs and water, etc there. the neighborhood is the typical war zone feel. i’m not sure where they go to the bathroom, there is not one in the house. andrew sits on the bed and i can tell he’s in shock. this hit home for him – and me too honestly.

back into the car and we drop marcus back at school and say our goodbyes. he is a very nice kid – just 23, and does a good job. our driver takes us to the airport. its 2 hours in nightmare traffic, but finally we arrive. the contrast is stark. our hotel room is 5 times larger than that home, and 1000x nicer. that family has never seen anything like this. we order room service, pizza! it tastes like the most amazing thing ever. andrew has a sprite. we talk about that family, the school, and how lucky we are and how it’s important to try to think of and help others. i feel like he got it.

he falls asleep at 8. i make it until 9, barely. in a weird way, we miss those kids already.

Go

Class 1 says goodbye

Clowning

Day 10

We fly home. We land in SFO before we take off in Beijing, time-wise. Andrew feels we have broken physics. Tomorrow he hides easter eggs, like a normal American kid.

Airport Hotel pool before flight home.

Home.

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