Thursday, September 11, 2008

olympic curve

My view of the Olympic opening ceremony was at 140 degrees to a giant LCD screen partially blocked by rigging and lighting equipment. Yes, I was in Beijing, and no, I didn't even see so much as fireworks overhead that night.
I had returned to the hotel that week at the Chinese University of Mining Technology. It took some effort to find it at this point since I had been using all the construction sites as landmarks back in June and I was disoriented when I alit from the metro. No sun was in the sky that week to help either; the night of the ceremony swirled around in a haze the color of oyster flesh as my comrades and I schlepped back from a plaza on the southeast end of town.
The idea- I suppose it had started as one - was to take one of the brand spanking new subway lines to this area which boasted the largest television screen in all of Asia. The ceremony was starting just as we got on the train in freaking Wudaokou and Jacob would poke his head out the doors at every station to see how it was progressing. I'm still blaming him for this though I couldn't let my irritation show as he, his Lebanese girlfriend and Scottish labmate were all good company. It took us well over an hour to arrive at our stop, and perhaps thirty minutes of wandering before we discovered the Herculean display proudly scrolling nothing more than a Coca Cola ad the size of a football field. At the other end of the screen were more smaller screens that were clearly aimed at people who had paid money to sit in front of them. All the songs, acts and pageantry were over and we had to content ourselves standing on the outskirts watching the countries file into the Bird's Nest whilst drinking eight dollar Coronas.

As underwhelming as that experience had been there were plenty of adventures that occupied the other students. Three of them recounted their electric bicycle trip that past Sunday through the Olympic village. They successfully evaded four checkpoints by claiming over their shoulders that they were local residents and made it as far as the new six star hotel a caber toss from the Bird's Nest. That's where they stopped for lunch.
These students were blessed with an inordinate amount of luck to complement their chutzpah. The hotel hadn't really opened yet but was left with a sizeable staff puttering out in the lobby who were more than happy to show the American tourists up to the penthouse restaurant. That far into the building of course had been constructed right up until when the government threw the no-building switch and thus many features were missing. Like wiring and walls and so forth.
The hoteliers didn't have the menu prepared yet so the Americans guessed at dishes until they got lucky with dim sum and broccoli.

When I heard about this escapade on that Thursday I was glad that I had just eaten and that any jealousy-producing enzymes were concerned instead with digesting my vegetarian entrees. Lucky bastards.

Friday, September 5, 2008

So it's 4:00 freaking a.m....

...and I can't freaking sleep. I came back two nights ago and I'm at my family's home in Georgia and I have an awful lot to write about though my thoughts are disorganized so for the time being I'm just going to upload pictures. August turned out to be more busy than any August ever had a right to be. Ask someone what I'm doing they'll say, "Oh, he's dealing with August"...August, August Wilson oh God now I'm remembering high school drama class and I can't freaking sleep I'm freaking OUT
So anyway, there will be pictures this evening. Then more stuff.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Chinese Cuisine

I had this donut for breakfast at the hotel we stayed at last week. I'm honestly at a loss to explain this one but I'm looking forward to when we can import these to America.

Bai Juyi's Top Ten

Until the British started using it for their opium port in the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai was a minor Chinese city without historical significance. I haven't seen much in the way of ancient architecture and even the Jing-An temple is underwhelming compared to, say, New York's Metropolitan Library. The oldest neighborhoods along the river bank are neat but they're hardly in good shape and many are being demolished to prepare for the World Expo (hosted by none other than Toothpaste Man).

Because nothing says innovation like dental hygiene...

So there's an attitude that I vibe from the locals where they've evolved to a higher mental state, the sort that comes from years of hanging around coffeehouses before being picked by your dad to manage his air conditioner factory. Which isn't quite as bad as New Yorkers who get picked by their dad to manage other people's hedge funds, but it's the same idea. Wait, come to think of it, they have hedge funds here too.
But there's a city about 170 km to the west whose glories stretch back to the invention of rice, where gods and goddesses walked among men and divulged their secrets to the worthy. This is Hangzhou which, during three hundred years of the medieval era, was the largest city in the world with well over a million people. Today it still has a very cool lake that Lin and I visited last week.

The area was cultivated over the centuries by different governors and emperors and most recently by Mao Zedong. One of them was Bai Juyi, who had a half dozen other aliases and certainly some wicked special moves in Soul Caliber IV. He wrote the official poetry travel guide to the lake and enumerated ten scenes that were to be considered the most sublime, as in under the citrus. I recall that one of them required snowfall and another one required a harvest moon. I don't remember what the rest were but I took enough photos that I certainly pegged one by accident. Ohk, now I remember the rustling lotus blossoms that we encountered. Those were on the list.

It was a very hot day that we rode around the lake. The humidity wasn't stifling but by the time we made it halfway around I realized that I'd spent nearly thirty yuan just on liquids. We explored a bit of the hills and came across a grotto clustered with locals. They were happily lying on blankets, playing cards in the shade. It seemed a whole lot more comfortable than a day at the beach.

For the most part I've been taking it easy until my professor and my coworkers return from their vacations. After I return to Beijing next week I'll have more time to travel and I'm currently deciding between the Yunnan highlands or the Borneo jungle. It's about time I had a vacation where I packed a machete and a flare gun.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dollar Medical Care

Last Wednesday I was worried that my big toenail was finally getting infected from some kind of split that I got a few weeks ago. It's summer vacation now so I figured that the campus clinic would have light waits to tend to a minor injury. Plus, I could visit the Chinese doctors and blog about it! I hobbled there before breakfast with my girlfriend who tried to explaining what I needed to know as simply as she could.
I paid the receptionist eight yuan and she handed me a pocket-sized medical chartbook that I stuffed in my back pocket along with a few other stamped receipts. My girlfriend then led me into an adjacent building whose waiting room consisted of a three-seated bench in a hall outside an administrative office. There were four other men in line with me and I was led into the office within five or six minutes. It resembled strikingly that of my high school counselor's office. Two desks were placed back to back where two women in white discussed things with three patients who sat on nearby stools. After fifteen seconds one of the patients left and I was given his seat. My sock and shoe dangled from laces in my hand while the nurse glanced at it, exchanged a few words with my girlfriend, and led me around the corner to a larger room with a table big enough to lie on that was covered in white butcher paper. So far so good.
The patients outside had been wandering around with tiny thermometers in their mouths but I was neither weighed nor pulse-checked as the nurse got straight to work. Again, there's a certain unfamiliarity with the medical system here that prevents me from calling my caretaker a doctor. She wore no nametag and I've gotten into the habit of identifying doctors by their stethoscopes and starched collars. She wore a simple white smock and spoke to me in English as she rummaged through a tin toolbox on the counter. "You're a big baby," she said, "you need a mother to cut those toenails."
"That's not something that my mother ever did," I chuckled.
"Call her up and tell her you have a new one," she squeezed my nail between a pair of scissors that would have had trouble with a manila envelope. On good days my toenails are hideous yellow crinkled scoops that I attend to with a variety of power sanders. Cutting close to the toe hurts a bit, but by the time she had cut enough away to get at the infected cut I had swooned and was delivering short, rapid breaths. The nurse administered iodine and bandaged the digit up snugly, dabbing away the fresh blood that she had spilled. I was allowed to recover in the adjacent room and while my mind was hazy at this point I don't recall her washing her hands before the next patient came through the door.
The term 'developing nation' was dropped a dozen times a day while discussing things with the Party officials and their lackeys, an asterisk that accompanied admitted moral or procedural shortcomings. But seriously, how developed do you need to be to wash your frigging hands? My mother would have washed her hands, even if she would have done it with recycled bathwater. Yeah, I know I should stop complaining and visit Wenchuan where things are now completely undeveloped.

I met a couple of Canadian folks yesterday up in Zhongshan Park at the expat coffee get-together. They'd arrived from BC on Friday and for a while I was the only other westerner they could talk to about the lay of the land. They were the classic mech-e/schoolteacher combo with matching forest green shirts and a pair of toddlers poking around. Yeah, I've been here for seventy days and I could tell them about what to pay for food, taxis, how to get around and find a good illegal cab and cheap handsome suits. I told them to enjoy the weather now that the rains had passed and the smog had yet to return. The man commented that so far the air was cleaner than he had expected.
"No, it's really not. My snot has finally turned black. Yours probably will too after a few months."
The schoolteacher blanched as she pulled her son away from the decor. "That... must have been very upsetting. To blow your nose one day and see it turn black."
"Not that upsetting. It's more of a gradual thing," I said.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Collaboration Happy Bus of International Prosperity

About half of my funding this summer is coming from an NSF fellowship along the lines of a science project and research report. The program required me to go to Beijing a few weeks back to meet the other fellows (grantees?), take a goodwill tour of the city, and sit through what seemed like a dozen lectures on China's growing research infrastructure. And I actually had a lot of fun which was all the more unusual since I was hanging out with a bunch of Americans.
All the problems in Shanghai seem like they're multiplied in Beijing. The traffic's gnarlier with work crews, earth movers, jaywalkers and jaydrivers. There are fewer metro cars with more people packed onto them and the stations have enough crowd control barriers that it feels like navigating an ant farm. All the surfaces seem coated with grit; the air is dustier and by the end of the week I was waking up with asthma problems. Despite what I thought earlier about the construction, July 11 is the official cutoff date according to an architect friend-of-a-friend and until then crews are working nonstop.
This was all a source of pride to the government reps who greeted us the morning after our arrival. We had been bussed to a panel at seven-thirty, with most of us not getting breakfast, to attend a series of presentations where every other powerpoint slide was an exponential curve to demonstrate China's exponential-ness. I was getting edgy though and snuck out near the beginning of the third talk. It had been a few days since my last Lexapro and I needed some vodka and razor blades.
I didn't find either though I did come across a short-order place where I bought an entire basket of dumplings for four kuai, like fifty-six cents. By the time I made it back to the lecture hall the last talk was wrapping up and half the attendees were rolling their heads around on their desks.

I could have fed the entire contingent for six bucks but we were about to head back to the cafeteria at base camp anyway. We were staying on the campus of the Chinese University of Mining Technology located in the northwest of the city. Our hotel was labeled as a cultural exchange center and other than our group I noticed a few American students there, some of whom could have been teenagers. The accommodations were decent enough with each of us assigned to separate rooms that had multiple beds. The concrete floors were covered with a thin municipal building sort of red carpet and while the beds were hard and uncomfortable we were so exhausted each evening that falling asleep wasn't a problem. A long-banged fuwuyuan was stationed at the end of the hallway to attend to our needs provided we look up the appropriate words in our pocket dictionaries.

The niftiest feature of my hotel room was that switching on the main power required inserting a dongle on the room key into a breaker slot. There was also a console built into the bedside table that controlled the AC and room lights. Supposedly no hot water was available between 10 and 5 in the afternoon though I didn't really notice if that was true. My room overlooked a chunk of campus that was unremarkable and occasionally traversed by clusters of students in their graduation gowns.

I know I'm in the habit of hating on Americans but this fellowship turned out a fine group of Yanks. The metiers weren't skewed towards engineering either-- there were linguists, geologists, a couple evolutionary biologists and a bona fide paleontologist. Within the first day or so the so-called 'dynamic' had set in. A tall, charismatic Indian mechanical engineer (I have actually met mechanical engineers who don't fit this description) revealed his past travels of the area and became the defacto student body rep (though officially this title belonged to the entomologist). He wore a different club t-shirt each day of the week and had the most exquisite eyelashes I've recalled seeing on a man.

There was a six-foot-four narrow-faced vegetarian whose studies had taken him to Iowa State, though for what I remain uncertain. The only things I know about my home state university are its condensed matter program and its prohibition of alcohol. The tall vegetarian enjoyed frisbee, knew how to juggle, and took special care to place his go stones in the proper manner between the middle and index fingers. His t-shirt proclaimed the 10th anniversary of the Onion Creek Cloggers' Festival.

For on the spot translation we relied on a USC ABC woman to communicate with clerks and a Princeton Hong Kong native to read menus. The chatty SoCal linguist and Jane Austen fan was fluent in Mandarin but couldn't read it, while the more subdued atmospheric scientist and Pink Floyd aficionado could read thousands of characters but spoke only Cantonese.

Only time prevents me from going into more detail of the personalities involved in the contingent. It was really such a full week that I knew would take several posts to recount, so if you check back later there will be more to come.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Monster Ant! Run!!

Occasionally I take pictures of the Insects of Unusual Size around here but Junjian brought a new champion into my office the other day. Our air conditioning units have been broken since I've arrived here so we've been leaving our windows open (it doesn't help that much) to make drafts. The one in our office was finally fixed last Thursday but Junjian's has yet to be installed so we think this critter crawled in through her window. So far it's devoured three undergrads and a black special ops captain who was three weeks away from retirement. Once it reaches the chemical stockroom it will be all over....

Other than work not much is happening in Shanghai. The rains here seem to have come to an end and our air conditioning has arrived just in time for the heat. The sky is clearer than it's ever been and I can even see stars in the night sky.
My bike was stolen again last night, cable locks and all. It happened while I went to play badminton. By the time I had showered and returned to the lab it was dark so I ran downstairs to bring my bike inside. I spent ten minutes looking through the hutches but it had vanished. I realize that it's a common problem around here but really the campus could go a long way by installing lights in the freaking plazas. A couple nights ago I passed a girl as I was walking through the hedges and as I said "Excuse me," she shrieked and leaped backward into the hedge. She probably thought I was a giant tree ant, an albino one anyway.