What happened? Why return?


Our “family vehicle” while in China – the local city bus.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written (that’s putting it mildly!).  Here’s why:

To recap: my wife, Gienah, and I went to Yunnan Province, China in August of 2014 to spend 2 years studying Mandarin language and Chinese culture full-time.  That part of the plan went well and our 2 years ended in late June 2016.

The next part of the plan was to buy, start or join a small business in China’s Yunnan Province with plans of being there for the next 10-15 years (or more).  Ideally, that business would have a strong clean transportation element.  That’s where we encountered some headwinds (putting it mildly, again!).

I’ve been trying to decide how to explain the challenges to people who are not familiar with the economic, regulatory and market conditions in Yunnan Province, China.

The shortest version is:  Our plans failed.

There, I said it.

Was it a lack of vision?  A lack of confidence?  Lack of determination?  Lack of faith?  Lack of skill?  Lack of effort?  I’ve asked these questions over and over and there is probably some truth to each of these shortcomings and more.  There is also truth to the fact that, in life, things don’t always turn out according to plan.

There is a longer version of the story, but I’m not sure many folks have the time for that.  There is a really short version, but it lacks the nuance and contextual grasp of conditions on-the-ground, in-the-street.  So, one option is to just pass, not even try to explain.  In a way, that’s the option I chose during the first 6 months after returning to the States (which was probably a good approach to allow some time for reflection and perspective).  But, that ultimately seemed pretty lame to me, so just in case anyone is interested in our experience, read on!

First, the cost structure of doing business in Yunnan has been increasing dramatically over the past 5 years.  For example, many local (Chinese) business owners in Dali regularly close their doors because their rent has unexpectedly increased by 2x…or more.  Labor rates have also seen upward pressure and as a result, for a number of industries, exporting products from China has become less and less competitive vs. Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

Second, the local (micro) competitive environment among small businesses is extreme.  It is not uncommon to see a number of competitors (sometimes as many as 6 or more) open new businesses on the same street after a new business has achieved visible signs of success.  In some cases, these competitors are virtually next door and on the same side of the street!  Of course, if you’re the last person to open a store and struggle to differentiate your value proposition, the first thing you do is lower your price which often destroys the market for everyone, including the first mover.  These dynamics are common in the small (to medium) business space, but less common where the first mover has a clear technological advantage (as was the case in my previous work experience in China with clean transportation).  The bad news was that as a small (very small!) business investor, we were unlikely to enjoy even a fraction of the technological advantage I had previously experienced in the corporate world.

Third, the local regulatory environment and “business customs” were more difficult than anticipated, even for Chinese nationals.  I simply could not “get my head around” attempting to operate a small business as a Westerner with limited language skills and knowledge of local customs.  A quick example might help explain:  One of my local (Chinese) friends obtained the management contract for 3 boutique hotels around the local lake.  This lake is a major tourist destination for Chinese and international travelers (think Chinese version of Lake Tahoe).  Less than one year later, he was preparing to sell/exit these contracts and relocate to Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Why?  According to him, the local authorities and sub-suppliers were impossible to do business with.  That was a daunting thing to hear, since he had over 28 years of tourism experience in Yunnan Province and as a native, he knew the local language and culture far better than I ever would.  And, he had relationships (关系 – guan xi)…something that is worth more than gold in the Chinese business context.  There are many more stories like this one, but to be fair, I must also say that we know several Westerners who have been doing business in Yunnan Province successfully for 5, 10 and even 20 years.  In some cases, they have recently closed their doors, or are struggling to figure out a sustainable strategy for keeping their doors open.  Others appear to be doing just fine.  I have a tremendous respect for these savvy entrepreneurs.  You know who you are…keep it up!  This experience has also produced in me a tremendous respect for those who immigrate to the US and start new businesses from scratch, often with very limited financial resources, limited local language skills and little knowledge of the local culture or regulatory requirements.

Fourth, it was really difficult to separate “fashion” from true “policy priorities” when it came to clean energy and clean transportation in our area.  Just before we arrived in Yunnan, the local government had taken on a visionary initiative to install wind/solar powered lighting around the lake – almost 100 miles of continuous solar- and wind-powered street lights.  After less than a year or two, it was not uncommon to see 50%, 70% or even 90% of the small wind turbines on top of these light poles no longer functioning.  And, I never could figure out where the batteries were located for storing the solar or wind energy to power the lights after dark (or when the wind was not blowing).  Yet, the lights continued to operate.  Were they simply connected to the grid and the wind/solar elements were just window-dressing?  Or, was each solar panel and wind generator tied to the grid to provide distributed power generation?  (Not likely).

Perhaps I could (should) have been part of the solution to help local officials turn these aging and non-functioning assets into much more productive elements of a clean-energy system.  On the other hand, the fact that they were visibly dysfunctional yet not receiving any maintenance or repair attention may have been a strong indicator that these devices were installed to achieve a goal that was not purely related to clean energy.  In addition to this example, I was daily reminded of the razor thin margins that local transportation companies faced and the direct impact these economics had on the level of technology in their fleet.  Our primary “family vehicle” (the local city bus) was so old and poorly maintained that it was hard to imagine clean technologies would be introduced in the near-term.  Like many things in China: so many questions…not so many answers.



Yes, these are actual photos of the bus we often caught into town.

Finally, after 2 years of language study, my wife and I did pass the HSK Level 3 language fluency exam (thank you Li Laoshi, Zhou Laoshi and Ellen!).  Passing the HSK 3 was a real win for me since I struggled with the language much more than my wife.  Nevertheless, for me personally, HSK 3 hardly felt like sufficient language fluency for me to be competent doing business with financial investments in a responsible way.

That’s the short(er) version.  Somehow it sounds a little better to me than the shortest version!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also say there were opportunities to do general management work in the major cities, including the possibility of work as a “New Energy” executive with some of the domestic vehicle OEMs.  But, the one part of our vision that never changed was a strong desire to live in Yunnan Province.  After 2 years on-the-ground in China, that part of the vision was only reinforced.  Our desire to live in one of China’s major cities and forge a completely new life with new friends, new communities, new utilities, new water supply companies, new markets, new transportation systems, etc. paled in comparison to our desire to be in Yunnan.  Furthermore, we did not go to China with the support network many expats experience, and if we were to stay, we would have wanted to remain in the local community where we had built close friendships and felt connected to the local community and culture.

All that to say that after 2 years in Dali, Yunnan Province, we returned to the States.  It broke our hearts to leave many special friends in Yunnan, and we continue to miss them and so many things about the local community and culture.  After spending several months in Colorado studying to take the HSK 3 exam, we migrated south to Texas where we are now much closer to family on both sides.  For those of you who have lived outside the US, you will appreciate the reality that “returning” culture-shock can be just as difficult as the “going” culture-shock.  We are living witnesses to that reality.  We are also living witnesses to the beauty and unique cultural elements that make the US, Colorado and Texas great places to live and visit!

Despite the disappointment of not seeing our plans come to fruition as we had envisioned, we are so thankful to God for our time in China.  It was truly one of the most enriching experiences of our lives.  Now, we’re excited to see what He has planned for us next.

If you’re interested, please watch for an upcoming post entitled:  “What’s Next?”

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2017.  All rights reserved.

San Yue Jie

1-San Yue Jie GateEach year, our local town, Dali, hosts an event called 三月节 (or “San Yue Jie” which literally means “3rd full moon festival”).  Because it is based on the lunar calendar, this festival is usually held in late April or early May.  For over 1,000 years, people from across China and neighboring countries like Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam and Tibet* have made the trek to Dali for this annual event!  Today, over 1M people come to Dali for this event each year.
Historically, this was the time when people from the region’s villages gathered to buy and sell handmade crafts, tools, Chinese medicine and other special items that would last for the next year.  One source says this is the largest fair of its kind in all of China.
This year, I managed to attend the opening ceremony which features a variety of local minority songs and dances, including the traditional Chinese dragon dance.  One of the things that makes this type of festival special to me is the realization that most of these dancers are local parents, daughters, sons, siblings, shopkeepers, farmers and students.  These are our neighbors!
Horse races are also a big draw each year and this year I went on Day 1 (which features much better horses than Day 2).  With all these people coming to town from all over the SW part of China and beyond, it’s a great opportunity for people-watching.
Rather than write too much more about this event, I’ll share some of this year’s pics in a photo-essay format.  Hope you enjoy!

Opening ceremony crowd


After watching this officer for an extended period, I concluded he was genuinely serious about giving his very best to the job of providing public security.  Impressive, since crowd control in China can be a seemingly impossible task!


These are not “costumes” per se.  They are traditional ethnic minority clothing, still worn by many local minorities.  These are local Bai ladies.


My favorite minority dress at this event.  So colorful!



Dragon ladies waiting patiently for the official start.


Local Bai ladies having fun with their dragon dance!




I thought the umbrella and flowers really completed these men’s pretty outfits!


Boys from the “hood”


Boys all lined up for their dance.


My guess: beauty queens for the event.


And the winner is…?!


What’s a big event without the local VIP’s?!


Even after a long event, these local ladies were willing to pose for pics…thanks!


Modern-day Zacchaeus!




This little girl was so tired and bored while waiting for the event to begin.  I watched as she tried SO many emotions and distractions to deal with the long wait!



Couldn’t resist sharing 2 pics of this cute girl!


At times, she seemed fascinated with her new balloon!


So glad these ladies were willing to stop and allow me to take their photo.  Thanks!


What would a fair be without a clown making balloons!


Such a sweet granddaughter just sitting on the curb with her grandpa.


This lady was very friendly, did not mind me taking her picture and even happy to chat!





Young muslim girl…she seemed to have such a gentle, quiet spirit.


Look, an “old-fashioned” selfie without a stick!


I watched this man for a long time, as he stood near me…likely waiting for family or friends.


It took a long time to get a picture of this elegant lady…and it was worth the wait as the camera captured her having a friendly banter with a man who seemed to her husband.


Too bad this photo could not capture this woman’s walk…not to mention the stories I’m sure she could tell of living in China over the past 65+ years.



Even in a crowd of thousands, it would have been difficult not to notice this striking man walking by!



Not sure “who” or “what” she sees…just glad it’s not me!



The photo that almost got me in big trouble!


The photo that saved me:  June with her husband (they are from LA!)


Entrance gate to the horse races


Crowd-watching at the horse races…



Parting shot of the entrance gate to San Yue Jie


This view tells you this is “Bai country”…more on that later!

In case you’re interested, there are two leading versions of the historical origin of San Yue Jie.  The following story is the most popular among locals today:
“Once upon a time, a young fisherman near Er Sea married Third Princess of Dragon King.  On March 15, the moon was round and bright.  The Princess looked at the moon, and remembered the Yue Jie held by Chang E.  Therefore, she and her husband went to Yue Jie by riding a dragon.  She liked all the goods on the moon, but she couldn’t buy them.  The couple made up their mind to hold a Yue Jie of their own at the foot of the Diancang Hill, so that the civilians could buy anything they liked.  Subsequently, they planted a tree on the slope of the Zhonghe Hill and the fair was held every March 15.”

*NOTE:  Today, Tibet is an Autonomous Region under Chinese government authority.

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2016.  All rights reserved.

Mighty Ducks!

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 3.56.02 PM

No, I’m not referring to Oregon’s football team or Anaheim’s hockey team!  I’m talking about real ducks!  I recently traveled to Tengchong, the last real Chinese city before reaching Myanmar on the Old Burma Road.  Tengchong’s ancient town is less commercial than Dali or Lijiang and it’s a great place to visit.

To get a feel for how simple and quiet this ancient town is, check out the video (above) of some locals taking their ducks out for a walk in the evening!  (be sure your volume is turned up so you don’t miss the great sound of the duck’s web feet on the old street stones)

Here’s another video of a second group of ducks that came by shortly after the first group, including an interaction with local dogs (including 1 dog off-leash).

I’ve asked several local friends what these duck outings are all about…but no one seems to know.  Apparently, it’s an unusual sight, even for locals.

Hope you enjoy!

Copyright © Kevin Beaty, YUNEV and “Feet on the Ground…”, 2015.  All rights reserved.