Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beijing: The Saga Begins

One of the most common questions that I get from inquisitive Chinese friends is, "Have you travelled in China?" I don't know if this is a formal question to which no real answer is expected (like "Have you eaten?" Now that can be confusing if you're not ready for it, since it sounds to North American ears like an invitation). Whether it is or not, I have always reluctantly answered "Not much . . . but someday soon I will!"

It was with great anticipation, then, that I peered through the window as we trundled out of the Shanghai Railway Station and commenced our ten-day, mostly-inclusive, fully-featured tour of China's Highlights. Desiree and I were accompanied by her parents (seasoned world travellers in their own right, though this was their first trip to Asia) and our friend and fellow teacher Brian.

The first leg of our trip was an eleven-hour train ride to Beijing, the capitol city of China. The train was a "soft sleeper" which departed at eight-thirty p.m. or so, and the plan was to sleep all night on the train and arrive in Beijing feeling fresh, happy, and ready for a day of sight-seeing. I was skeptical. No matter how soft the included beds may be, I am far taller and wider than the average Chinese citizen for which they were designed. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the couch/beds on the train turned out to be just long enough for me to stretch out for a decent snooze. True, my slumber was more fitful than what I get from the average hotel bed, but the average hotel doesn't usually get up and walk 900 miles during the night.

We rolled into Beijing right on schedule, and as the train was slowing to a stop, an eager-looking young man with a backpack came jogging up alongside our carriage, banged on the window, and held up a sign with DAVID AND DESIREE TALBERT printed on it. He grinned widely and flashed us a thumbs-up. If his goal was to impress us, he had succeeded. Never before have I heard of someone being met by their local contact before the transportation they came in on had stopped moving.

The young man's name was Jeff, and he grabbed our bags and headed for the exit. Jeff was only our guide to and from the hotel, but he made up for it by talking non-stop all the while. His english was excellent, and while his topics of discussion were often politically incorrect to the point of being surreal, he was an engaging conversationalist. Jeff was widely read, especially in english-language newspapers and magazines, and he took a deep interest in discussing international politics as our driver weaved through traffic. He seemed particularly taken with the recent mortgage banking crisis in the US--something which (despite my background) I had not really followed with any interest--and he was not above cheerfully placing some personal blame at our feet for the recent downturn in his own fortunes. "I lost a lot of money in stock, you know," Jeff said, nodding sagely. "Thank you for that. The Chinese banks were together with the international banks, and they all lost money in your -- how to say it? -- housing. Your housing market. So now I am much poorer than before. Many Chinese are." I felt vaguely guilty, especially since he seemed to think that it was a conspiracy on the part of homeowning Americans to deprive Chinese citizens of their savings.

On the topic of the Olympics, Jeff was just as cavalier. "I am a guide, so I must work during the Olympics. But actually, I don't want to. It will be too crowded -- I would rather stay at home." Since those sentiments sum up my feelings on the Olympics exactly, I just nodded in agreement.

Jeff dropped us off at a plush hotel several blocks away from Tiananmen Square, wishing us well in our attempt to get to the Memorial in time to see Mao's body (in which attempt we failed), and took off, leaving us to our own devices.

Our own devices turned out to be a walking tour of Beijing that Desiree had printed out from an Internet site -- we tooled around a big lake where men were fishing with twenty-foot poles, saw a famous historical site of a famous historical person whose name I have already forgotten (though I do remember a line from the plaque in the garden: "This crabable tree was planted when here was a garden. Mrs. [Famous Historical Person] enjoyed make crab bubble preserves in her free time."), and watched some old people playing Turbo Nuclear Ping-Pong in a public exercise yard. We also stopped in and visited the home of a famous Beijing Opera performer. We were slightly disturbed that it took us ten minutes to figure out that this performer was, in fact, a man, rather than a woman.

After finishing our tour of Creepy Opera Thing's house, we immediately became lost (a crucial part of any holiday), and were saved by a passer-by who took pity on the four foreigners crowding around a map and arguing. She sent us to a nearby bus station and, as rain began to pour down on us, we finally set soggily out on the right path back to our hotel.

I concluded the day's exertions (somewhat dampened by the lack of solid sleep the night before) with a traditional McDonald's Chicken Sandwich, staggered into my room, and passed out with visions of the Forbidden City -- the next day's agenda -- dancing in my head.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

The End of the Semester: A Numerical Journey

June 20th to July 4th: the last two weeks of second semester two thousand eight

Final exams supervised: 3
Number of students caught cheating: 0
Number of students actually cheating: I will seriously pay you like fifty bucks to find out.
Number of words graded: 67,850
Average grade: Not high enough to make grading sixty-eight thousand words fun
Number of colleagues who helped grade multiple choice questions: 4
Amount of gratitude felt: 6x10^17
Number of wooden models of the Eiffel Tower given to us by students as parting gifts: 1

Birthday parties attended: 3
Weight of gourmet teppanyaki eaten at Matt's second birthday party (including reindeer and amphibian): 1.22 metric tonnes
Tab for said birthday party: A very large amount of RMB
Amount we paid: 0 RMB, thanks to Awesome Stephen The Awesome Guy of Awesomeness
Number of times I won Stephen's weird German boardgame: 1. I'm the king of the WORLD!
Number of times Matt was wrongfully executed during Mafia because of the prophetic indications of flourescent lighting: 1

Suitcases carried: 11
Hugs given: 6
Weepy moments: almost 1
Hours spent moping around in an empty dormitory building: 6
Colleagues who permanently left for the U.S.: 3
Large pairs of shoes that that the new people will have to fill: 3

Eras ended: 1