Maximilian is from the USA, but didn't find his La La Land until he discovered Shanghai

As a gifted squash athlete in America, Maximilian had big plans to be a collegiate athlete in the US. But he changed his mind after he came to Shanghai...

Holin’s words:

As a gifted squash athlete in America, Maximilian had big plans to be a collegiate athlete in the US. But he changed his mind after he came to Shanghai. Now, ambitious Maximilian wants to be an entrepreneur.

I got to know that Maximilian liked Shanghai’s shared bikes and wanted to introduce the idea to US campuses, and he's already been working on it – the 22-year-old has already received “the green light” to test the idea there, and he didn’t even mention that during our interview. What a low key person.

With a light blue shirt and dark blue jeans, Maximilian is already a true entrepreneur in my mind. But one thing impressed me most: he loves China's Xiaomi!

When we chatted about Google and Apple Inc., Maximilian excitedly pointed to his feet and strongly recommended the local electronics brand. “I love Xiaomi! It’s amazing. They sell everything," he said with a big smile. “I use all kinds of their products."

I’m looking forward to the day when shared bikes become a common thing on US campuses. And maybe Maximilian will create a US-style Xiaomi to beat Apple.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: Maximilian B. Reiff

Nationality: American

Job: Student

Years in Shanghai: 3

Holin: Do you have an impressive story related with Shanghai?

Maximilian: My most memorable moment was when I decided to come here. Back in 2013, during my first visit to Shanghai, I took a Bund night cruise, and the skyline, the first time I saw it was absolutely incredible. In that moment, I realized that there was a whole world to see and learn from and that China is a very important piece of it. I knew then and there that I had to come here.

But overall, I think Shanghai itself is one of the most amazing stories.

Since I started studying here four years ago (Maximilian left for a year during that time to study in Tel Aviv and New York at NYU Stern), Shanghai has changed significantly. In that time, it has added another Metro line, built an entire Disney World, completed one of tallest buildings in the world, and taken complete advantage of electronic wallets and payment. Since I have been here, I have witnessed Alipay and WeChat Pay become the standard method of payment for everything from a chocolate bar at Family Mart to street food outside. A standard wallet is no longer necessary.

Then there are the little things like the recent addition of (fresh) orange juice vending machines. Now, when I take the Metro, the addition of an instant fresh orange juice has become a standard part of my journey, and I love that.

But my absolute favorite is the (shared) bikes. That happened just one year ago, since I came back in 2016, and now there are bikes everywhere, and the city feels much more accessible; all of the sudden, there isn’t a place I cannot get to.

Holin: You mean you can reach everywhere in Shanghai with a shared bike? Wow! But Shanghai is so big, right?

Maximilian: That's the thing, Shanghai is big, but it doesn't feel that big anymore. The bikes make it much smaller. I am seeing parts of the city that I'd never seen before and that is something I really enjoy.

Holin: How do you spend weekends in Shanghai?

Maximilian:  I just shared part of my secret: I take bikes and I sightsee. Or sometimes I just Metro to various destinations and explore. I enjoy finding new places, discovering new things, and meeting new people as often as I can. It’s like a constant treasure hunt in this city; you never know what you’re going to find, but it is bound to be exciting.

When I am not doing that, I might venture to trade fairs and meet suppliers, go to markets and explore new trends, or just go out, talk to people and make new friends. You never know what you might learn from others or the hidden gems you might find when you go out and search. Shanghai is full of surprises.

Holin: You do this exploring alone?

Maximilian: Sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. Other times I may just go with my girlfriend and we make a date of it. She has been really great in that way, always curious to see new things and make the most of our time here. I think that is why we click.

And then other times, I travel outside of Shanghai. I mentioned that I like to go to trade fairs and meet new people. For example, Guang Jiao Hui (The Canton Fair), in Guangzhou. I like to go and connect with people, so that I can help others back home that need supply chain relations for efficient expansion into new markets. It also helps me refine my supply chain knowledge and allows me to work on my Chinese trade lingo should I decide to produce things in the future.

I went to a show in Shanghai this weekend actually. I have a lot of work right now so unfortunately my time is very limited, but I managed to take the day off and meet some great suppliers that are working on stuff that I would like to bring back to the US for a project I am working on. Adventures like these also allow me to discover new things, so when people ask, I can provide them the best recommendations.

Holin: Which place do you like best in Shanghai? 

Maximilian: My favorite place is Xiao Yang Sheng Jian (Yang's Fried Dumplings). I also really like a place called Lin Long Fang’s xiaolongbao (steamed dumpling). It’s a restaurant near Xintiandi, in the Luwan district, and they make the best xiaolongbao. It is delicious, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a true taste of Shanghai.

I also like various spots along the Bund where you can enjoy a nice view of the skyline.

Holin: The Bund area is very big. Which part of the Bund do you like best?

Maximilian: I like the area around Guangdong Road, from which the Pearl Tower stands directly across and all of Pudong shines brightly. For people who have never been to Shanghai, a visit is not complete without a night time view of the Bund from that area. I also enjoy walking around the streets behind there, like Nanjing Road E. The city comes alive at night and the lights tell its story in both of these areas.

The back streets and alleys are also fun, but it’s hard to say exactly where. I enjoy random parts, walking around areas like Xiaonanmen (Little South Gate), and seeing the other personalities of Shanghai, full of delicious street foods and completely random activities. I urge anyone exploring this side of the city to find a jianbing (pancake) stand and try one; it is one of my favorite Shanghai snacks.

Holin: Which road do you like best here?

Maximilian: There is no particular road I like best; I more so prefer general areas. For example, the former French Concession, Xintiandi, The Bund, etc. But like I said, areas like Xiaonanmen are also very fun.

If I had to choose one area though, it would probably be Xintiandi due to its proximity to everything and the historic yet modern feel it has.

Holin: What do you really love about Shanghai?

Maximilian: I love that it never really ends. You can never grow bored here because there is always something to do and see. The city has a ton of history and yet it is constantly changing and embracing new things. Plus, now there are bikes everywhere, so even though the city is large, it is very accessible due to the intense pace of change and innovation. And if you happen to want a break, budget airlines are plentiful and several other countries are within close proximity.

But I also like food, and the food is delicious here. Sure, I am not a real fan of chicken feet, but I tried it because it seemed interesting and I get to try many things like that here. Shanghai manages to fulfill my curiosity due to its never-ending, and ever-changing, menu of food and activities, and that's what I love about it.

I also love that I have access to Xiaomi and Taobao!

Holin: Now the opposite, what do you hate?

Maximilian: I've got one, but I wouldn't say I "hate" it, rather I’m still just not used to it – and it's a very small detail. For example, I like cold water but at restaurants I often get served hot water… boiling hot water. Traditionally, I’m not too fond of hot water unless I am drinking tea. I prefer cold water for drinking. In foreign-friendly restaurants yes, you can sometimes get cold water, but I like to go to the Chinese restaurants, and that’s just not how they do things.

And one more thing that is hard. I live in the Lujiabang area – it is a good place and I love it. But like anywhere in China, there is a lot of new construction taking place and it can be loud – especially when it is taking place right above your ceiling like what happened to me. While at times it is a great alarm clock, a majority of the time it is unpleasant to be woken up by before sunrise.

Holin: Did you go upstairs to talk to them?

Maximilian: Yes, but they don't stop. They quiet down for a little and then resume a day or two later in the same fashion. A lot of my friends have had similar experiences, so I think it tends to be a bit of a theme in certain areas.

Otherwise though, Shanghai is a magical place; it is kind of like a “La La Land” of sorts.

Holin: Compared to your country, are there any shortages in Shanghai? Any solutions for Shanghai to borrow from?

Maximilian: Actually, I think that Shanghai has things my country can learn from. As a US citizen, of course I love the US and I will head there following graduation, but I think living in Shanghai is more interesting. Society is more advanced in terms of structure and technological progress here.

When I go to the restaurant or stores, if I forget my wallet I use Alipay. Actually, I use Alipay whether I have my wallet or not. In the US, such concepts (non-cash payments) are not very popular or widely accepted. People here have shown a lot of trust and acceptance towards change in Shanghai and as a result things happen a lot quicker. So far this mentality has worked for China and been its magic charm, and I think America can learn a lot from it.

And that is the thing. That is why living in Shanghai has been so interesting; because I have seen what is possible. There are a lot of concepts here that could work really well in the US and that would benefit society tremendously, but unfortunately time consuming regulatory procedures slow down US implementation. For better or worse, this limits the US and its ability to pivot or change quickly.

Holin: Thank you for your praise! But I want to know whether there’s something we can borrow from your country?

Maximilian: Honestly, it is hard to say. Other than getting rid of pollution, which I feel has gotten better in recent years, perhaps China could find a way to better stabilize the housing market. In the short time that I have been here I have witnessed housing prices rise exponentially. Parts of Shanghai are now more expensive than Manhattan, yet the average wage remains comparatively low. I don't see how housing can remain affordable at such growth rates. 

Holin: Any memory from your life that really impressed on you?

Maximilian: I have a few, actually – I've had a crazy life. When I was around 5 to 6 years old, I went on a cruise ship with my family. We encountered a hurricane off the tip of Cape Horn (the southern most tip of Chile, known for rough seas). At the storm's peak the boat nearly capsized, and a few people aboard lost their lives. I thought I was going to die that night, and I think that was something that changed my life forever. It helped me realize that we don't have a lot of time on this earth and that we should make the most of it.

Then in 2009, I went and lived in Egypt for three months to train in squash. I was young at the time, maybe only 14, yet I went alone and lived with an Egyptian family in a little village outside of Cairo. To give some perspective, the Arab Spring – the period of intense civil unrest in North Africa and the Middle East – took place in 2010. I was there the year before it all took place and witnessed everything brewing. I witnessed things that no kid my age should ever have to see.

The reason it was such an interesting experience though is because some of my ancestors had to flee Egypt because they were Jewish. Thus, I was essentially returning back to my roots in Egypt, but unfortunately antisemitism was still somewhat present, so as a precaution I had to cut off all of my curly hair and lead a secret life of sorts. I couldn't be who I really was and it was scary at times.

Regarding my training though, it was excessive and I was continually pushed beyond my limits. Prior to leaving for Egypt, I was pretty good (at squash) and a decently ranked player in the USA. But in Egypt – to my surprise – my skill was only comparable to that of an 11-year-old. So needless to say, by the time I returned home, my game had improved substantially and I was easily a top player (ranked top 30 in the USA).

Overall, it was tough but I learned a lot and it was a great experience. Sure, it wasn't always fun and comfortable, but it taught me perseverance and proved to me that anything is possible if we work hard enough.

What does Maximilian want to say to his future self? Have a look! Maximilian is sending a message to his future self to watch ten years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang and Joan Zheng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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