A week of introductions …

June 25th, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

7:40AM everyone’s on the bus in time. We’re sleepy and in probably our best shorts, but excited to see what the Ministry of Science and Technology has in store. Ushered into large conference hall that is overly formal yet has a dusty grey feel to it. We’re seated as if it’s going to be a 40 person panel discussion as each of us has a personal mic — the kind you press the button to activate and then the light indicates you can no longer talk without talking to the whole room. There is a cup on each table with a lid and the waitresses come around to serve tea, which is refilled more or less every time you take a sip.

The six hosts of the morning affair arrive in suits and ties and take their places at the podium in front of the stage. There is a representative each from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese National Science Foundation, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The is a Science and Technology Secretary from the US embassy. These are long institution names, and they get repeated a lot. This is an official press conference style meeting. Feeling is we’re here for show. There are photographers and photographs. Immediately we’re invited to the stage for a group photo. The photographer seems a little disappointed in our inability to self organize according to height for the photo, this is in contrast to our Chinese counterparts who are remarkably good at self-organization.

Return to seats. Short speech from each panelist. Each solemnly reiterates and thanks every ministry name involved on the US and China side. We are told about the beginnings of great collaborations. Some phrases I recorded verbatim:

“I commend the students and professors participating in the summer program with the unwavering help of [names of ten institutions]. You are the ones that will light the torch of science and technology collaboration. Together we shall conquer the sorrow and step out of the shadow caused by the disaster [sichuan earthquake] and rebuild our homeland.”

Two alumi of our program are invited to give a speech. They remarkably follow the format set by the hosts of contentless thank yous. Then our attention turns to the man with the powerpoint, who we are told is Mr. Li. He excitedly announces “This presentation has a 100 slides.” … and probably a million words. This pattern repeats at several other future visits, (as does the content , since it’s all from the national statistics office whose job it is to make such master presentations from which all others are assembled.) He reads through the entire presentation with his eyes and finger fixed on the screen of the laptop, tracking the text, starting from “Introduction to China: Science and Technology Development”

I doze off and imagine the powerpoint theory lesson that made this all be, “Every slide needs to be interesting! You must insert a logo, at least one other image, a graph, and a table. Fill in all empty space with bullet points. Make the text small so you can fit more of it in. Something must twirl.”

It has statistics about science investment, 5 year plan meeting goals, graphs about attainment of targets (with strange metrics like, high-tech independence is at 41% up from 26% just 5 years ago!) This is done for every science related discipline/field/administration/whatever you can imagine. I think the presentation strategy is to overwhelm us with thoroughness, and we are overwhelmed. The stresses are that China wants to move up the production value chain and bring technology and innovation to the fore, and that it’s doing it here, here, here, … and here.

Once he flips the last slide, the meeting host announces, “That’s all for this ceremony!” And like that, they disappear.

We wander unremarkably back on the bus which chauffeurs us back to the hotel at 11:30AM. Good bye. Enjoy your first day in China. See you tomorrow at 7:40AM! This feels delightfully unrewarding and sobering.

First Impression of Beijing

June 23rd, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Dizzyfyingly huge new terminal at the airport.

I fill out my arrival card in red ink — only pen I had on the plane — but the immigration official reprimands me, “You should use black pen next time.” I’m flattered by the possibility of a next time, and maybe this accounts for my reply that the red ink’s in honor of China.

On the ride to our hotel at the Institute of Mining Technology, it’s hard to make out anything country specific. Everything is new. Airport terminal, new. Cars, new. Big highways, new. New trees. New grass. Shiny electrical infrastructure. The whole scene is assembled from fresh pieces. We drive by the Olympics stadium, the birds nest and the water bubble, and within 10 minutes arrive with our bags in the lobby.

Now we’re back on the channel I thought I was watching. It’s a grey cement slabbed building with a fruit shack on the side and lots of parked/piled bikes. Students are making merry and loitering since it’s the last day of exams. A young girl asks me to sign my name and hands me a wad of cash wrapped in brown paper — supposed to last for the next two months, but doesn’t — and then asks for 10 RMB back as a deposit on the keys to my room. Says to meet in the lobby at 7:40AM.

My single room has THREE beds but no internet. Each bed is one third the size of my lofted nook in SF however. I push them together to make a master bed by the window. As I move the beds, I uncover mounds of sunflower, pumpkin and roasted watermelon seed shells — the work of previous occupants. I hide my wad of cash behind the radiator. (It’s no longer there as it is spent.)

Note about energy efficiency of hotel — after opening the door, the key is placed into a slot by the door to complete the electrical circuit. When you leave the room and take the key, the circuit is broken. So you can’t leave the AC blaring while you are gone. This also renders your refrigerator useless. All of us (fellow fellows on the hall) independently come up with a strategy to permanently close the circuit so that we can leave anything on while we are gone, such as chargers, rather than be constrained by the key nanny.

Hearing Chinese everywhere feels unusual. Feeling big eyed, confident and timid. Some of us trickle to the lobby or to the steps outside. Others are still trickling in from delayed flights. Jonah, a paleontologist, hands around a bottle of duty-free scotch. Sleep finds us soon and Ambian helps overcome jetlag.

Tokyo in 24 hours

June 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

I’m writing this on my flight to Beijing. I’m glad I got a day layover in Tokyo. It gave me an opportunity to recall our year long voyage of to the United States from Russia in 1989, through Austria and Italy. Other immigrants, after 1990, had stepped on the plane in Moscow and disembarked in New York, receiving the full impact of the cultural transition at once, and at the same time the illusion of a seamless transition.

I had the same opportunity now, to prepare for the culture shock of Beijing, by getting a dose of culture shock in Tokyo.

As I rode the escalator to baggage exchange, I saw a couple that were on the same plane as me from LAX speaking Japanese. The guy made a long drawn out exhalation of relief inserting the English phrase, “Well, back to reality.” For me it was the other way around.

The first amusement was in the airport bathroom. I had expected the bidet — the buttocks washing contraption. But I didn’t realize they had thought of adding a button to electronically generate a masking sound for “embarassing bathroom noises.”

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Wake up early or rehearse your singing …

June 5th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

I hope these cultural amusements do not stop. Today, we received a schedule for our first day in China. Following evening arrivals from 15 hour flights, we are expected to:

> Please meet at 7:40 am on June 16 at the lobby of hotel to take a bus to the Ministry of Science and Technology. The latest one would be invited to sing a song on the way. : )

What a public affair, and at the same time, what a great idea?! The public character of the punishment is a collective deterrent for future lateness but this also serves to increase the individual alertness in the over-sleeper.

Since I’m an over-sleeper this is likely to be me. And since I don’t have a singing voice, I choose to see this as a reward in disguise — I get some institutionally controlled practice for the inevitable Karaoke evenings while having the privilege of providing amusement for my peers, while saving face because “I’m only doing this because I have to”.

Question, does anyone have song suggestions for the occasion?

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