8 Questions for Kai Lukoff, Tech Guru

It’s no stretch to say that Kai Lukoff is an expert on China’s tech scene. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with us on technology and living in China.

When and why did you first come to China?

I first came to China in fall 2007 as part of a terrific exchange program called FACES (Forum of American-Chinese Exchange at Stanford). It’s cheesy to say that an exchange program changed your life, but that’s exactly what it did for me. Three-and-a-half years later I’m still in China and loving it.

What cool projects have you worked on in China?

Together with friends, I launched TechRice.com in fall 2010 to address the severe shortage of English-language China Internet coverage. I’ve since become obsessed with covering the online lives of modern Chinese and the stories of the entrepreneurs behind the services they use. The Silicon Valley is still the best place on earth for technology, but China’s Zhongguancun is second and its stories are rarely if ever told.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced here?

So many foreigners in China have exclusively expats—and maybe a few Chinese girlfriends—as their circle of friends. I love my expat friends, but I’d have lost out if I didn’t have Chinese friends too. At times it’s been a real effort, particularly when at first my Chinese insulted the intelligence and grated the ears of the Chinese people.

Any advice on making Chinese friends?

Connect over something you both truly enjoy: it could be basketball, board games, yoga, improv comedy, punk music, or hiking. If your only “connection” is over stodgy karaoke or language exchange, it will be hard to maintain a friendship. And be persistent. In my experience, friendships with Chinese are slower to develop but can be deeply rewarding.

How has living in China influenced your work, career, or personal development?

China didn’t change my career; it is my career. After studying political science and economics in Silicon Valley, it took a move to China to realize that what I’m passionate about is the geeky and ever-changing world of technology. I fully expect to go back and forth between China and Silicon Valley in my lifetime.

Based on your experiences, what do you think is the biggest misconception about China?

I can’t possibly answer this question any better than the inimitable Kaiser Kuo. There is no one China. We say this about the US too, but take the difference between a Brooklyn hipster and a Houston oilman and multiply it by ten. The lives of the Shanghai real estate agent and the Shanxi coal miner are worlds apart, far far removed in degrees of connections. They might literally be unable to communicate. Yes, Chinese are overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous, but that only tricks many Westerners into thinking that everything else is too.

Can you describe one of your favorite or “most memorable” China experiences?

My single most memorable adventure was a trip to Gansu province. Two close friends and I bought the cheapest plane tickets we could find: 700 yuan round-trip to Lanzhou. The pollution in Lanzhou is abominable, but the surroundings are rich to explore. It was again another side of China I hadn’t seen before—in particular, the Tibetan grasslands and the fringes of the Mongolian desert. We watched the World Cup with a Tibetan monk—he was for England—and visited a mosque with an ethnic Hui minority.

What is your favorite hangout spot in China?

I try to get out of the big city when I can. One spot outside Shanghai, in rural Zhejiang province is my favorite escape: Taoyuan is a tiny village with no more than 20 family homes. The community is either aging or very young. All the middle-aged are away toiling in the cities, but they always welcome us into their homes, sometimes with delicious home-cooking topped off by a freshly harvested honeycomb. The small valley area features a babbling brook, a crystal-clear reservoir, and hills of fragrant tea leaves that make for lovely day hikes.

Photo courtesy of asiantalks.com.