American James and getting to know Shanghai on buses and skateboards
I first saw James through his WeChat profile picture: a happy, father-like, curly haired man with thick eyebrows and a heavy mustache, lovingly holding a kid with a skateboard.
When I met the real James, he told me he was not a father at all, just a coach enjoying teaching kids how to ride skateboards. The coach has his own company in the West Bund area, and also designs skateboards and skating areas sometimes.
“I designed the skateboard practice area downstairs by myself," he told me proudly.
We did the interview on the second floor of James’ company, where dozens of skateboards for sale are on display.
James shared with me some picturesque ways of enjoying a strange city, and he even gave me a crash course on how to ride a skateboard.
Then our talk started just where you thought it would: skateboards.
Name: James Herrmann
Job: Coach / Entrepreneur / Designer
Years in Shanghai: 5
Holin: How did you start as a skateboard coach? Was it your major?
James: No. I am not a professional athlete, but I have been a coach of many different sports, and I've played many different sports in my life time, so it means that I had a lot of coaches to learn from.
As a young person, I always questioned why coaches were doing certain thing to me, so I was learning how they were doing it.
When I was a high school student, I began to become a coach. I coached a small team for different sports.
Holin: Besides skateboarding, which kind of sports do you play?
James: I have swum for 15 years. Every day of the summer I will teach swimming lessons in the morning, like a life guide, and then I will swim for two hours.
I also played soccer through high school. I also play baseball, basketball, American football and running. I like running long distance, like 10 miles, 15 kilometers. I just do that as my workout if I feel that I haven't been active enough, I just run for two hours.
Holin: Would you please share with me the reason you came to Shanghai and why you chose this city to live in?
James: I was originally trying to be here for the World Expo, but I didn't make it. I got a job, stayed in the US and ended up working in California. After that I went to get a Master Degree.
Holin: Why did you want to be here especially for the Expo?
James: Because I have an architecture background, it is a big deal to see the industry, and even more to see Shanghai. Lots of crazy things were created at that time. But I didn't make it.
And then I came to Shanghai. I had never thought of Asia before. I was looking for my next job. I have an uncle who lives in Shanghai. I didn’t get a job, I just travelled to see his way of life.
Holin: Do you remember the moment you first time came to Shanghai?
James: My uncle picked me up at the airport. It's a completely foreign area. I had many experiences going to new places — I knew the feeling of going to a new city. I took the bus in Shanghai, and I found the most interesting experiences just taking the bus. You see everything — if you take the subway, you miss all that. You don't have the feeling of where you are, so the bus is the better experience.
For the first couple weeks, I just walked around Shanghai, and got to know Shanghai and got lost in Shanghai. The very first thing I learnt that I did in any new city was I learnt the word for "subway." Five years ago, I carried around an actual map, also just in case.
Holin: Do you have some impressive story with Shanghai during these years?
James: Usually something involving the police... With foreigners, police are always involved at some point, not necessarily because it's bad.
My cousin came to visit me in the first week. He was in the police station three times for three different reasons in the first two weeks. When I think of memorable and impressive stories, in the US I couldn’t imagine going to the police station ever, the police station is kinda used differently here. Here it's like an information center for foreigners.
Another thing is that I went to the hospital and had my appendix removed here. It's an organ but nobody knows what it does. It doesn't really do anything but it is part of your system. Usually in the West, if you have pain there, you find out from the doctor it's because of your appendix, so they would remove it. If it explodes, it will kill you. If you remove it, it is easy. The Chinese way is to try to make you feel better and then only remove it if it is the last thing you can possibly do.
It took me six months of going in and out of the hospital, and the pain always came back. I went to three different hospitals. The last time I came to them and told them I needed surgery.
"I would like you to take the organ out of my body. I would like this to happen next week. What time can it happen?”
It was interesting because I had become educated with my problem enough to tell the doctor what to do. Because of this experience, I learnt the different levels of Chinese hospitals, Chinese doctors and prices. I am an expert because I went through it.
Holin: Sounds really impressive! How do you spend your weekends in Shanghai?
James: There are two patterns. One is active and the other is not that active. Active is going out and gathering with friends. The other one is just doing chores around the house and getting ready for the next week, like if it's raining or bad weather. Watching a US movie is also very relaxing especially when living in Shanghai and thinking the Chinese way all the time.
Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like best? Why?
James: Tianzifang was the most impressive place in the first couple weeks when I first came to Shanghai. It's got the Chinese chaos but it's very clean and Western as well.
Now if I want to have my own time, I would just go to the former French Concession because it's slower and quiet. I will find a seat in a coffee shop.
Holin: What do you love about Shanghai?
James: Architecture and family. My uncle is still here. He has been here for 30 years. He and many other people have been here for 20 some years are more like part of the first generation of guys. They all kinda know each other. They are more Shanghainese than we are.
And I tried to do business. The business always changes and is dynamic. Shanghai is not the same Shanghai I came to five years ago. I focus on sports a lot. I focus on the kids a lot. I think the kids that are seven years old now are very different from the kids I saw five years ago. They are another generation of kids. They are cross bred because of the Western influence and the Chinese way they were raised by their parents.
Holin: And what do you hate about Shanghai? Any suggestions to change it or make it better?
James: My favorite things always disappear. If I like something, usually it's gone very quickly. Stuff like my favorite food at Family Mart, my favorite restaurant, my favorite store, my favorite park... They all disappear at some point.
I used to have a Taiwanese restaurant I really liked but now it's gone. It disappeared in one year. I was there like once a week and I went there one day and it was not there. And there was a park I used to teach skateboarding in. It disappeared overnight. They just took it out.
Holin: I thought there were many skateboard parks in Shanghai...
James: Not many. There is one in the north, which is called SMP. It is the third biggest in the world I think, used to be the biggest in the world. It is too big for anyone to use, so no one likes it.
West Bund is free, but they took out the park in the middle, so it is no longer a skate park as a hole in the ground, and people can't do anything now.
A skate park is a place for skaters to meet. This city is big, but very very short of skate parks.
As far as I know, New York has 25 skate parks while Shanghai only has three, including West Bund, SMP, and a new one in Pudong. Maybe there's are fourth or fifth in the city, I don't know. Still, five is not enough for this kind of city.
Holin: Do you have some impressed memory during your life till now?
James: I spent half a year travelling throughout Europe. I did it when I was 23. It was in between my internship and my study. I travelled to 35 different cities. I went to different cities every couple days. My goal was just to see west Europe as much as I could. I was studying architecture, so I was looking at the buildings. I was trying to learn and grab stuff as much as I could.
I really enjoyed Norway because the way of life is simplified. It's a lot of nature around. It's very impressive. Everything is very clean and simple, but everyone is still happy and thoughtful. Japan is similar to that. It's also very clean and well organized. The cities and even the countryside are very organized. Both of the countries happen to be small islands. Both of the countries are water oriented.
I also thought about the western side of Asia. I have never been there. I came to China not knowing much of anything about China. Now I know quite a lot about China. I have been to probably 20 different cities in China like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen among others. I haven't gone farther than Wuhan. My next goal would be Chengdu. The city is very delicious — everyone talks about the food in Chengdu.
As a teenager, I used to go hiking a lot. I was very into boy scouts. I got to the highest rank being a boy scout. Scouting teaches you how to deal with people younger than you and how to teach them. You are the oldest one and you have to be the leader here. It's about community and leadership driving you to learn how to get other people to do something.
What does James want to say to himself in the future? Have a look! James is sending a message to himself 10 years from now!