Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dispatch from Beijing

Note: I wrote this on July 26 when I was still in Beijing. However, it appears that I didn't succeed in actually posting it, since I was working with a clumsy text-based interface to get around the fact that blogger is blocked from China. Hence, I'm posting it now, 26 Aug, from Maine.

I've now been in Beijing a little bit more than three weeks. Hard to believe that I still have another month in China. I had expected that the trip would be an interesting mental and psychological challenge, as this is the longest that I've been away from home in one stretch in a very long time, if ever.

I've read and heard that the three to four week point in a foreign culture is a time when "culture shock" often sets in. The newness and novelty of a place wears off, and customs and habits that once seemed wonderfully new and become old and start to grate. I think this is happening to me a little bit. I've spent a month in China each of the last two summers, so this year China isn't that new. Thus, it's not as if I'm coming down from a big burst of adrenaline. But it does feel that I've hit a bit of a wall.

Beijing is a wonderful city. It's huge and buzzing and crowded and smoggy and restless. Beijing is big in a way that makes me feel small. In contrast, New York City is big in a way that makes me feel big, too. The rate of transition in Beijing is difficult to describe. There is construction everywhere; it seems as if they're rebuilding the entire city. But as amazing as the physical changes are, my sense is that the social and economic changes are even greater. I can't even begin to understand all that's going on, but it seems that there is a growing consumerist middle class, and simultaneously a gap between rich and poor that is staggering. And I can't even imagine the changes and upheaval caused by demolishing so many buildings and neighborhoods.

So Beijing makes me feel small not only because it is so physically huge, but because there are such huge social and economic forces rapidly at work. I've only seen the Northern Lights a few times. But every time I see them I have a powerful sense of smallness -- an awareness that I'm just a tiny part of huge object hurtling through an even huger space. It's a good small feeling. The Beijing small feeling isn't so good.

I fear that the above sounds too negative toward Beijing. It's wonderful in the way cities can be. There is a bizarre Mexican restaurant a short walk from us. I saw around one hundred people doing some cross between aerobics and line dancing to a mostly modern beat at night outside on a plaza above a very modern underground mall. Beijing has the biggest and most crowded bookstore I've ever been in. And there are people and bicycles and cars and trucks and buses and more people everywhere.

In any event, Beijing has me feeling small. And I also just miss home. I've been tired and I've had a cold and I've found myself thinking of home a lot. Tonight around dinnertime I had an intense craving for spaghetti. Tomorrow I might go out in search of some for dinner.

When I agreed to co-direct the Complex Systems Summer School in Beijing, one of the aspects of the work that I was most excited about was the opportunity to work with staff and faculty who weren't involved with College of the Atlantic. So far this has indeed been one of the best parts. I've really enjoyed getting to know better and work with some of the staff who are helping organize the CSSS. There are some remarkably kind, smart, and thoughtful people here who are really fun to work with. COA -- probably like almost any good job -- can be remarkably consuming. Being here -- and not there -- has given me a good perspective on some things.

Monday, July 17, 2006

More Wiki info

A friend emailed me with a link to a Washington Post article about China and Wikipedia. It's pretty interesting.

Today one of the lecturers mentioned wikipedia, recommending it as an excellent resource to get some quick, clear technical information on a topic. A few students then mentioned that it was blocked. The tenor of the response was interesting. The students seemed amused that the lecturer didn't know that wiki was blocked, and also the students seemed somehow cheerfully resigned to the fact that they can't get wiki , at least for now.

Ultimately, it's hard to imagine that China will be able to keep wiki blocked. It will be interesting to see how long China tries to keep it up, and if the censorship gets worse before it gets better.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Wiki Blocked, too

So it seems as if wikipedia is also blocked from China. This is interesting, because this is a recent development. When I was here last summer I could get to wikipedia without any problem.

I suppose I should be somewhat outraged. Mostly, though, it's just kinda sad. Wikipedia is cool -- it's a great way to learn about stuff. It's a drag to think that 1.3 billion people are denied the pleasures of browsing and learning stuff via wiki.

I'm accessing blogger (which is also blocked form China) by telnetting to one of my accounts in the U.S. (Actually I ssh instead of telnet, for security reasons.) I then access blogger from my U.S. account using a text-based web browser.

Right now I'm using the browser lynx, which seem to work ok with blogger. However, somehow the text interface won't let me write paragraphs beyond a certain length. This is annoying, but it might help my prose be more readable by preventing super long paragraphs.

The first week of the CSSS is over now. I think things are going quite well thus far. The lecturers this week were very strong, and the students seem excellent. Now that my lectures are done -- I spoke Monday-Thursday -- I should have more time and will try to post here more frequently, provided that my trick of accessing blogger through lynx via a US shell account continues to work

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Blogger blocked?

It appears as if URLs are blocked from China. This will make posting here difficult. But not impossible...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Heading off

In a little over three hours I head to the airport. A quick flight to Newark, a four hour layover, and then 13.5 hours and I'm in Beijing.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Frantically Getting Ready for China

I leave for China in around 36 hours. I'll be there for seven weeks. So I'm frantically trying to get ready. Lots of loose ends to tie up, errands, packing, etc. I'm having to face the fact that I'm not going to finish everything that I had imagined I would finish. For the most part, this is fine. All the undone tasks will be waiting for me when I return. And many of the tasks I can do while I'm away. I will have better internet access during my month in Beijing than I do at my home on Mount Desert Island.

My itinerary is a good one. I fly from Bangor to Newark, and then direct to Beijing. The flight is almost fourteen hours and takes me almost directly over the North Pole.

I will try to post here regularly during my time in China.