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A picture of Christina Xu

Christina Xu

Ethnographer, organizational designer

in designer, mac, researcher

Who are you, and what do you do?

Hi! I'm Christina Xu. Back home in Brooklyn, I'm an independent ethnographer/organizational designer and a faculty member at SVA's Interaction Design graduate program. I'm also a trustee of Awesome Foundation's New York chapter and a member of the Orbital space/community in the Lower East Side. The common theme tying together everything I do is a fascination with communities, culture, technology, and how they all interact with and influence each other. I am most frequently vocal about these things on Twitter.

Right now, I'm in the middle of a 10 week trip around mainland China to do research for clients as well as for Multi Entry, a collection of stories and media I'm creating about contemporary Chinese culture. All I'm really trying to do on this trip is meet interesting people, talk to them, and take lots of pictures and videos. But even so, this kind of fieldwork is surprisingly challenging. I'm constantly observing and documenting and interviewing, often in places I've never been and for hours at a time. I have to stay in touch with family & friends, Kickstarter backers, clients, and contacts in both the US and China, using services on both sides of China's Great Firewall. I'm rarely in the same city for more than a week. Oh, and I only read Chinese at maybe a middle-school level.

I'm normally a pretty carefree, minimalist traveler. But all these factors combined with the length of the trip forced me to really put some effort into figuring out my gear. I need it to stay inspired, effective, and (mostly) sane for the rest of the trip!

What hardware do you use?

By far the two most important devices for my work are my two phones: a Samsung Galaxy S6 and an Oppo A11, both running Android.

Having two phones went out of style in China a few years ago because most phones for the Chinese market can use (at least) 2 SIM cards simultaneously, but no such luck the Galaxy S6 I got in the US. There's no way I'm giving up my T-Mobile SIM card, either: my plan comes with unlimited free data while roaming internationally, and while it's not terribly fast, it's a real lifesaver in China. You see, the Great Firewall is designed to limit access to information for locals, not foreigners, so it doesn't even bother blocking mobile data if you're roaming. This means that - wonder of wonders!! - I have slow but steady, constant access to Instagram, Twitter, and all of the Google services I use regularly.

But at the same time, having a local Chinese number is indispensable, not least because many local mobile and web services require one for verification purposes. And the Great Firewall goes in both directions: Chinese apps run incredibly slowly outside of it. My solution was to get a second phone in China that I could use just for phone calls and Chinese apps, and I ended up with the Oppo, a low-end Android smartphone designed for the Chinese and Indian market. It doesn't have my S6's bleeding edge specs, but it's a reliable workhorse that more than fulfills its duties for up to two days at a time on one charge. I find its operating system's hyper-paternalistic tendencies towards power and data usage - it identifies and pre-emptively neuters apps that it deems to be using too much of either, though you can revert the changes - charming and terrifying at the same time. I got a 100RMB (~USD$15) China Mobile plan that gives me 1 GB of data per month anywhere in China, though with no outgoing calls or texting included.

In addition to the phones, I also rarely leave the house without my camera bag, which is a normal tote bag fitted with a "Any Bag Camera Insert" from PhotoJojo cradling my trusty Canon T2I, and both a standard 18-55m kit lens and the 15mm/f1.8 pancake lens. (Fun fact: the pancake lens is nicknamed "the little spittoon" in Chinese!) It's a nicely discreet solution compared with the bulky dadcore camera bags that practically beg to be stolen. Stuffed into the bag is also an Anker power bank (it doesn't have a lot of juice, but I love the design of the LED indicator), my earphones (I lose or break nice headphones too often, and these are inconspicuous and portable), and some pocket tissues. Never travel through China without pocket tissues.

Back at headquarters (i.e. wherever I'm resting my head for the night), I recharge all my devices - even my laptop, if I'm not using it - off of an Anker USB power hub. I spend my nights and mornings reviewing notes and writing, mostly on my 12" Retina Macbook. When I need help waking up, I play some music on my [UE BOOM speaker][boom]. On the (frequent) days when I come home feeling defeated, having all my bathroom goods organized in an Eagle Creek hanging toiletry kit makes me feel unjustifiably triumphant.

And what software?

If I made a list of my 10 most used apps while in China, #1-5 would probably all be WeChat, China's most popular chat app. It's how I text and call my family and close friends back home, and also how I coordinate with and keep track of my new contacts and friends. Following official accounts - of magazines, blogs, venues, or communities - is how I learn out about what's happening and find new leads to investigate. I bought my train tickets to my next destination in its in-app payment portal, WeChat Wallet. I even use it to transfer files between my phones and laptop. Despite its shortcomings, I'm kind of an unabashed WeChat fangirl.

6 - 10 would be:

  • Pleco - a really great Chinese-English dictionary app. Machine translation for Chinese at a sentence-level is still horrendous, unfortunately, so I tend to look things up one word at a time. I find the OCR tool a little unreliable, so I spend a lot of time chicken-scratching unknown characters in its handwriting input mode.
  • Simplenote - my barebones writing app of choice for at least the last 3 years, which I use to take notes, keep track of tasks, and compose longer things. It syncs really quickly between mobile and desktop clients and is not (yet) blocked in China, so I use it to shuttle text back and forth between my devices. As Gmail is blocked, I've taken to composing long emails in Simplenote on my laptop, then opening it up on my phone and copy/pasting the text over into the mobile Gmail client. Unsurprisingly, I've gotten terrible at answering emails.
  • Dianping - The Chinese equivalent of Yelp/Foursquare + Groupon + Square is useful for finding a restaurant or venue, figuring out what to order there, and even paying for the meal at a discount. Unfortunately, it lacks an English interface.
  • Baidu Maps - More accurate and fleshed out than Google Maps here. I have a terrible sense of direction and China's road system is, uh, organic, so I burn a lot of data on this one.
  • Didi Dache - Uber's much bigger competitor in China has wider coverage and more options, including the option to hire a nearby certified driver to drive your own vehicle home if you're drunk. I lead a simple life, so I just use it to hail cabs.

Being by myself and doing this work, writing things down is CRUCIAL so that I have something to have a dialogue with. I take notes all day on the default Memo app on my phone (S Memo), furiously tapping away during every spare moment, and copy them over at night to a journal entry in Simplenote. In the morning, I add some rambling reflections about the day before, something I also do at home using 750 Words. Every week, I conduct a review of everything I've learned, give myself advice and assignments for the next week (sometimes out loud!), and cover whatever vertical surfaces I have access to with post-it notes in the process. This is also a great way to convince other people that you're a serial killer.

I wish I had a VPN service to recommend, but they're all kind of unreliable these days due to this year's crackdown. I'm grateful to have at least my phone to access the wider Internet, but it means a lot of file transfers between my devices. It's embarrassing how difficult this is in 2015 - Android File Transfer is incredibly unreliable with the USB C port on my Macbook, so I'm left with Bluetooth or WiFi options like AirDroid. Nothing is more frustrating than two devices that are literally touching, yet can't easily send each other files quickly.

The best way to follow along with my adventures is on Instagram, where I frequently post "live fieldnotes" - short snippets of findings from the field illustrated by a photo - as inspired by my friend and mentor Tricia Wang I'm also sending less frequent, but maybe more cogent updates on TinyLetter. Eventually, everything worth sharing with the world will end up, in one form or another, on

What would be your dream setup?

The privacy and surveillance ramifications would be horrific for society if these were widely available, BUT wow would my life be a lot easier if I just had cyborg eyes and automatically transcribing/translating ears. And if my brain was directly wired to the (unblocked) Internet. Basically, what I would really like is Iron Man's Extremis suit, but for documenting things rather than fighting evil geniuses. It'd be a great icebreaker, too.

Until then, I'd settle for a partner to work with and a hyper-effective but non-toxic form of mosquito repellant. I also wouldn't mind some kind of thin sleeping pad - you really don't appreciate mattresses enough until you travel somewhere where they aren't the norm.