Care of the Self
By on Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Work and career loom large in many young single professional women’s self-narrations and everyday practices in Shanghai, where competition is fierce and the pace of life is fast. This essay zooms in on the life of a female architect: how she understands her current life shaped by a high-demanding job, how she works hard to balance work and personal life in order to become happy.

I first met Lan Ting, an architect about to turn 30, last November for my Love Club case study. What impressed me most was her endless passion for her job as well as her detailed affection for Shanghai. In retrospect, she told me it only took her one moment to decide to move to Shanghai. At that time, she was standing along the Bund, and a sudden idea that “everything seemed so right” surged to her. Some people were in search of Mr. Right, but for her it was “Right City” and she found it. Besides all the cultural resources the metropolis commands, Shanghai was also a heaven for architects, according to Lan Ting. She would never be tired of its numerous alleys and old buildings, as well as of her highly-demanding job, even though it required her to always work overtime. In sum, she was enjoying her life to the utmost.

This year, I interviewed Lan Ting again. This time I noticed more complexities in her narrations. Her confidence in her career and life in Shanghai is now more tangled with uncertainties and ambiguities. As she explains, the recent slowdown in macro economy in China hit the real estate sector the most and many architecture firms go bankrupt. To survive the bad economy and fiercer competition, architects are loaded with much more work. And it becomes Lan Ting’s routine to work 6 days a week and 10 hours a day without any salary bump. The consequent shrinkage of personal time prompts Lan Ting to contemplate whether this career and this fast-paced way of life is truly bringing happiness to her. She has doubts: 1) whether her firm belief in architecture is in fact the result of long-time brainwash by the society that architect is a well-respected and rewarding occupation and not what she really desires; 2) and whether Shanghai is the right city for her to settle down.

An earlier relaxing holiday in Dali in southwestern China clearly impinged upon Lan Ting’s mind. Below are her self-reflections on her life in Shanghai compared to the alternative life mode in Dali.

I went to Dali during the Spring Festival this year and stayed there for one week. This week was excellent because every day the weather was quite good and the air quite fresh. Moreover, having a holiday was totally different from going to work as I didn’t need to answer phone calls from clients and could sleep till I woke up naturally. And people in Dali are all in this kind of mindset: they don’t rush to work and don’t feel the urge to do things.

…There I was not anxious at all and went to bed as I wished, at 8, 9, 10 or 12. I was not constrained by time and could abandon my watch. It felt so good to live according to my own biological rhythm. Because I was fully relaxed, it was easy to listen to the sounds of my body.

My working life in Shanghai is completely different. My schedule is extremely tight in Shanghai, i.e. I have to calculate every minute carefully, divide a day into segments and make one succeeds another seamlessly. If I fail to arrange well an earlier segment, or if I am not fully devoted to it, I cannot accomplish it well, which then can destroy my following plan of the whole day, or even the next two days. Then I have to reschedule and re-arrange everything. Therefore, I am basically very, very busy and concentrated while working.

And actually I cannot get thorough relaxation when I return home after work. I cannot do whatever I like disregard of time because my time is all fixed. For instance, to ensure my work efficiency I have to sleep 8 hours a day and the sleeping quality has to be good. So I go to bed early and get up early. Normally I go to bed at 9 in the evening and get up at 5 in the morning. Therefore I can arrive at my firm very early. I get up at 5, leave home at 6, and get to my office at around 6:30 or 7. From then I work till 6:30 in the afternoon. At around 6 pm, no matter how much work is piling up, I stop; I have to stop and go home. If I don’t leave, my evening rest routine would be affected and then my working abilities would be weakened the next day.

Moreover, I have also calculated my commuting time. To save time, I have done the math. If I take the subway, it takes one hour one-way, i.e. 2 hours a day. Although I could read or listen to audio books on the subway, I am not very efficient there because I need to change trains or it is too noisy inside the compartment. Then I start to take taxi. Well, the cost rockets to 2000 yuan (c.a. 285 euro) per month. But there is a great advantage: I can focus on reading in the car without disturbance and I am extremely efficient in this half-an-hour ride. Now it takes half an hour one way and I save one working hour every day. It is quite a lot of time actually. It equals around 40 8-hour working days a year. I can learn a lot during these 40 working days. So for the sake of saving time, I no longer care about transportation expenses. I take a taxi everywhere I go; this is of great help to me. It is because I still have time to learn things amid such busy schedules. Learning other things allows me to get out of the realm of architecture and perceive the world from another angle. It feels like breathing lots of fresh air.

Well then I return home. I have streamlined all things I do at home. This helps me to complete necessary things in the shortest time, and give me more time to do other things. Take putting on makeup in the morning for example, I have carefully designed the steps and the collection of basic tools, including the spatial structure and positions of the products, like what to be put on the left and what on the right, which two should be put together, etc. In the past, I had more time; so I could take my time to put on makeup. But now I really don’t have the spare time to work on it. So I streamline the whole process of putting on makeup and make sure minimizing the steps would not influence the quality. Now I can limit the whole process to 10 minutes, and the result is similar to the effect that is achieved by other people spending half an hour or so. Similarly, I have carefully categorized and systemized all chores at home. Basically I deploy management techniques to run my household [laugh]. In this way, I save a lot of time in doing household chores, and hence have much more time to dance, to go to karaoke bars, to find a quiet place along the river to watch birds, or to simply stroll around flower and bird markets. I have plenty of time to relax and am able to lead a peaceful life thanks to my highly efficient management of time. This is quite good since my life is very rich.

Conceding the discontents, Lan Ting however is not willing to think too negatively of her current life. In her understanding, this stressed phase of life is also an opportunity for self-growth. It is exactly all the demands and pressures to excel in work that stimulate her to seriously learn to manage time and take better care of herself. She is confident that if she quits her current job she will be competent for any other occupation and position. Through years of trials and adjustments, she has now subscribed to a life philosophy of simplicity, i.e. only keeping necessary and quality things and abandoning all others, and developed a personalized “regimen,” i.e. conforming to the following schedule every day:

Lan Ting Schedules2048

Lan Ting’s schedules for personal time [Photographer: PI Chenying; Year: 2015]

In the following video, Lan Ting shows me how she utilizes her time at home and maximizes comfort and happiness within limited personal time. (shot by PI Chenying in 2015)