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The Weekly Blab 5.13

The Weekly Blab

Volume 5, Issue 13—November 22, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving

I hope everyone at SPSU has a great Thanksgiving.  Don’t get sick from eating too much turkey!


Postcard from China

I just got back from 8 days in China, so if this Blab is a bit more incoherent than usual, feel free to ascribe it to jet lag on my part.  The trip encompassed visits to our partner schools of North China University of Technology (NCUT, Beijing), Northeast Normal University (NENU, Changchun, Manchuria), and Guangxi Normal University (GXNU, Guilin).  The entourage consisted of Rich Bennett, Mark Nunes, and me.


The Trip

We had originally planned on leaving at 2 PM on Saturday, November 13, but the flight got changed to 10 AM, which meant I had to cancel out of the Open House that morning.  We flew from Atlanta to Seattle, and had a five hour layover there before our flight from Seattle to Beijing.  Thank you Delta!  The flights were pretty full, but the seats were OK.  While I like the 3-3-3 seating layout on the plane (since this gives relatively few middle seats), the plane was of the older variety, with only a single movie choice being shown on little screens above the seats.  We arrived in Beijing on time, and got through immigration without a hitch. 



Our colleagues from NCUT were there waiting for us, and zipped us to the university’s hotel.  I’d stayed there on a previous trip, so the hotel was familiar to me, though I’d forgotten how hard the beds were.  The TV in the room got about 30 channels, of which only 1 was in English—CCTV news, a news channel from China.  In case you’re interested, the reportage of the news was in excellent English, and more or less corresponded to what you’d see on a network news show in the US, with more focus on Asia.  There was no particular ideological slant to the reporting, and there was reporting on disasters in China (there was a big apartment fire in Shanghai where some 50 people died).  Criticism of local or provincial officials, of corruption, and crime reporting are commonplace in the Chinese press (at least the press published in English—I’m not sure about the rest since I don’t read Chinese), though you almost never see any direct criticism of the central government or of the communist party.


We had breakfast together at the hotel (various kinds of vegetables, fried eggs, some dumplings, juice, yoghurt, tea), and then headed to downtown Beijing to see the YongHeGong Temple, one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world, which dates from 1694.  It’s a beautiful place, with lots of major halls holding representations of the Buddha.  The largest is called the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses, which has a statue of the Maitreya Buddha that’s 18 meters tall, and is included in the Guinness Book of World’s Records.  There are lots of shrines where people burn sticks of incense to ask for good fortune.  Oddly enough, I ran into a group of Israeli tourists there, and it was fun to have a conversation in Hebrew in the middle of China.


Then, it was off to lunch.  If you’ve never eaten a formal meal in China, you’ve missed a great treat—they consist of some 15-20 courses, all served on a lazy-Susan, and you take what you want as the plates rotate around.  Typical fare would include 4-5 plates of vegetables of various kinds (some plates would have several different types in a harmonious combination), several plates of cooked meat (chicken, beef, pork, mutton, duck, fish), several plates of dumplings, a soup of some kind, and always ending with a plate of fruit (watermelon, oranges, and others).  You don’t walk away hungry!


After lunch, it was “a little rest” in the hotel room, a tour of campus, and then a set of meetings with the leadership of NCUT, where we pledged to strengthen our relationship and to increase the number of students participating in our programs.  They want to have more students from SPSU studying in China, and would welcome faculty coming over to teach as well.  These types of meetings are very important, and serve to demonstrate the importance of the programs to both partners.  The expression of commitment on the part of senior administration from both sides is a critical element for relationships to be successful in China.


One of the cooler facilities at NCUT is a building in the shape of a camera that they call “Digiland”.  In it, they have some really advanced facilities for producing animation and film, as well as for sound editing, video editing, etc., including a screening room.  They do a lot of commercial work for Chinese television and movie studios with student interns (as well, I think, as professionals).  Mark and I talked about how we might be able to develop a similar facility (on a smaller scale) for SPSU.  Then it was time for dinner (another 20 course extravaganza, but this time with Chinese liquor for toasts as well), and back to the hotel.  I collapsed into bed at about 8:30 PM, which pretty much guaranteed that I’d wake up at 4:00 AM, which I did.



We left early that morning for the airport, and flew up to Changchun, about a 2 hour flight.  Going through security, the x-ray machine found the two bottles of liquid in my shoulder bag—mouthwash and some medicine for my foot.  The inspector decided that the mouthwash wasn’t of interest, but didn’t know what to make of the medicine.  First, she shook it.  Then she unscrewed the bottle and smelled the vapor.  Finally, she poured a little onto the countertop and tried to burn it with a lighter.  When it didn’t burn or explode, she passed me and the medicine through.


Changchun is in the north of China, and it gets pretty cold there in the winter.  It had snowed heavily a few days earlier, so there was lots of snow and ice on the ground, and a winter coat was definitely needed.  It did warm up a bit the days we were there, so things were pretty pleasant.  The NENU folks zipped us to lunch--hot pot, one of my favorites.  For those who have never had this, each person gets a container of boiling water (there are little stoves to keep it boiling), into which one puts the greens of one’s choice thereby making soup.  This is followed by adding mushrooms and various kinds of thinly sliced raw meats.  The meat immediately cooks in the boiling water, and you then take out the meat and greens, dredge them into a dipping sauce, and eat.  It’s great, especially in a colder climate. 


We went to the university’s hotel, containing another hard bed and another TV with one English channel—the same CCTV.  After “a little rest”, it was off to meetings with NENU’s leadership.  We had some differences that needed to be talked through, but we ultimately reached resolution in an amicable way.  Then off to dinner (another 20 course special), a few toasts, and off to bed.


The next morning, we visited the Palace of the Puppet Emperor.  Pu Yi was the last emperor of China, but was deposed at a very young age by the Chinese Republic.  He kept trying to regain the throne, ultimately aligning with the Japanese.  When Japan invaded Manchuria in the 1930’s, they installed him as emperor, though they really controlled things.  Thus, Pu Yi was a puppet emperor, and is considered a traitor by the Chinese.  His palace contains the artifacts of his rule there—meeting rooms, throne rooms, a billiards room, rooms for his wife and concubines, a formal garden, etc.  There is also a museum about Pu Yi’s life, telling the story more or less straight, though certainly from the communist point of view.  The end of his story is interesting—after Japan’s loss in the war, he fled and was captured and sent to Siberia.  After some time there, he was returned to China where the communists didn’t execute him.  Instead, they “re-educated” him into seeing the evils of his former complicity with Japan, and to his taking responsibility for the atrocities committed under his nominal rule.  He repented, and went on to a quiet life as a gardener and botanist, and as a representative for the People’s Republic.  There was a movie called The Last Emperor (winner of Best Picture in 1987) giving his life story as well.  There is an additional museum devoted to the Japanese invasion of China—a “never forget” museum.  It is a fascinating place.


In the afternoon, it was off to the new campus of the College of Humanities & Sciences of Northeast Normal University, which is actually an independent university affiliated with NENU.  The campus is truly impressive—founded in 2004, they have created a campus for 10,000 students, complete with beautiful new buildings, residence halls, and so on.  Their motto is “Be diligent, creative, competent and productive”.  (Every time I saw it, it made me laugh because it reminded me of the motto in the 2000 AD comic book for the dictatorial character Torquemada: “Be brave, be vigilant, behave!”).  After agreeing that we would work together to have students come to SPSU and to promote faculty exchange, it was off to their art facility, where we saw an exhibition of their students’ reproductions of classic Chinese art as well as other exhibitions of “Recycled Art” (art made of discarded materials) and of digital graphic art.  It was very impressive.  We then went to dinner for another feast with toasts to our working together.



We woke up early again, and headed to the airport for a 2-hour flight to Beijing, followed by a 3-hour flight to Guilin.  Guilin is a small city (small by Chinese standards—only 650,000 people) in Guangxi province in the south of China, close to Vietnam, from which GXNU draws a good number of students.  The temperature was very much like Atlanta, which was a marked contrast from Changchun.  Getting on the highway, we saw a sign that said “East or West, Guilin scenery is best”, which I thought was some Chinese tourism worker’s idea of a western advertising slogan, but turns out to be a saying from hundreds of years ago.  I guess everything has to start somewhere!  The highway itself is quite beautiful—it’s new and nicely landscaped down its center median, with lots of beautiful flowers and plantings the whole distance from the airport to the city.  Also visible along the highway are a series of small mountains which suddenly jut up from an otherwise flat landscape, a Chinese version of the Grand Tetons.


We were taken to the University’s International Student Center, which is also a hotel for international students.  We each had a nice suite on the top (11th) floor, consisting of a double bedroom, a single bedroom, a nice living room, and in the European model, separate bathroom and toilet rooms.  Much to my surprise, the TV got four channels in English, including the ubiquitous CCTV, HBO, another movie channel, and an MTV type of channel.  Since we were up so high, there was a nice view of the city from the windows.

After “a little rest”, we went out to dinner. 


The next day started with a tour of one of the University’s campuses—the Wangcheng Campus which dates back to the Ming Dynasty, more than 700 years ago, and was the site of Prince Jingjiang’s mansion.  This is a really cool place, where many of the buildings are museums, and some of these have various live performers.  The campus was one of the locations that people could take the imperial examinations, which allowed one to obtain a government job and determined what level of job.  Performers re-enacted the call for students to take the exam (and the admonition to not be an “arrogant student”!).  Rich, Mark, and I all took the exam (which was in Chinese, so we were at a bit of a disadvantage), and in an obvious bit of favoritism, I was informed that I had passed and was dressed up in the traditional scholarly robes and given a diploma.  You can see a picture of this august occasion below, if I linked this correctly.





A little further on, they had a location where one could dress up like the emperor of China (complete with two lovely attendants).  Of course, I had to take them up on the opportunity!




Mark and I then climbed Single Beauty Peak, located in the middle of the campus.  We had been told that there were 3000 steps, but fortunately for my heart and lungs, that was a mistranslation of 300.  I wouldn’t have made that climb either, but our tour guide shamed me into it.  The view from the top was well worth the climb.


After lunch, we had the usual meetings with the higher ups, and pledged to expand our relationship.  They had found out that I was a chemist, so a tour of their chemistry laboratory followed.  I was expecting an undergraduate type lab or group of labs.  Instead, we were brought to a major chemistry research facility on their campus—seven stories of first-class research labs and very high end equipment.  They do a lot of natural product analysis there, and have as fine a facility for doing so as I have seen anywhere.  I was told that there’s a second chemistry building as well, for teaching and undergraduate research purposes.  They invited us to send some chemistry students from SPSU for internships, and it’s obvious that this would be a wonderful opportunity.  Another festive dinner concluded the day.



We left Guilin early in the morning and flew to Shanghai, where we stayed on our last leg of the journey.  Rich and Linda had wisely booked us into a hotel located at the airport, and it was quite modern and a bit funky in its layout—a round room with a round bed and an interesting bathroom with very modernistic fixtures including a round shower behind rounded glass.  Very cool.  Three English channels on the TV—CCTV, CNN, and the BBC news channel.  We took a taxi the 50 km into downtown Shanghai to People’s Square, which is their 5th Avenue type area.  There were a lot of interesting stores, mobs of people, and constant invitations from vendors to go with them, because they could sell us watches, purses, and luggage very cheaply.  We bought a few gifts for the family, had a beer and watched the world go by, and had dinner.


The next morning, it was back through security and onto a flight to Tokyo.  After a 2 hour layover (where Mark bought some sea urchin flavored rice cakes for us to enjoy—better than you might think), it was home to Atlanta on another full flight.  This was a new plane, with individual TV screens that allowed you to choose from among more than 100 movies, as well as games, TV shows, and other stuff.  The flight arrived on time, and I picked up my car, drove home, and collapsed in a pitiful heap!


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Apropos of the trip, last week’s contest focused on China.  Several people got all five correct, but Mark Vickrey (SIS) was the first, winning the CD.


1.  What is the capital of China? Beijing

2.  Who was the last emperor of China (there was a movie about this)? Pu-Yi.  See above for a recap of his interesting life’s story.

3.  What is the main river in China?  The Yang-tze

4.  What was the name of the volunteer American fliers that supported China against Japan at the beginning of World War II? The Flying Tigers

5.  What was the last dynasty of China? Qing Dynasty (pronounced “Ching”)


Another trivia contest in next week’s issue!