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.

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