Monthly Archives: October 2015

Happy National Day

Holiday Greetings from Tianjin!

China mapNational Day was October 1, and we’re still on holiday until Thursday. I’ve used the opportunity to get outside and take some pictures, and now I have time to compose them into a letter. And a reminder – clicking on the pictures will give you an enlarged version.

Class Started

Many have asked about the new campus, the gulag, or as one of my friends in Oregon put it, the “thought adjustment facility.”  Yes, class started there on September 30. However, the next day, October 1, started the week-long holiday for National Day, so classes are on hiatus until October 8.  And on October 9, I’ll have spent exactly a month in town and only actually worked two days.  What a rough life. On the other hand, there will be no more holidays, and no more breaks, until the third week of January. Since we’re starting so late, we’re finishing late, as well.

And why start so late? Because, as expected, they’re having trouble getting the new campus prepared. The Internet is still spotty, and the mobile phone service cuts in and out, and even the water supply isn’t always dependable.  However, all the students were moved out there, anyway.  Unlike at the old campus, there is no housing for regular staff.  The promised housing for foreign staff is not going to be finished until at least December.  None of the foreign staff that I know is unhappy about the delay.

And, yes, they did have the big opening ceremonies on the 120th anniversary of Tianjin University, the day after national day on October 2.  Nobody I know attended them, partly because it sounded like too big a hassle, and partly because these sorts of ceremonies are really intended mainly for the leadership and a few journalists, anyway. I did have the opportunity to go. But I would not have known anybody else there. They took place at the campus’s main entrance, which apparently had only been finished the night before. Or maybe it’s only provisionally finished.

Blocks of Bricks - library on left
Blocks of Bricks – library on left

Meanwhile, my Australian friend Jeanette, who works in the publicity department on the new campus, found herself, with no warning whatsoever, with a microphone in her hand and asked to Interview Ernesto Zedillo, one of the visiting dignitaries, whom many will remember as the former president of Mexico.  Such lack of preparation time is normal around here, where all job demands come at the last minute, often after waiting all day with nothing to do.

Thus, she wasn’t familiar with the ex-president’s current activities (I looked it up, though – he now teaches at Yale and sits on the boards of various international corporations), so she had no idea how to even address him!  But through skillful use of diplomatic language, she managed to pull off the feat of not actually addressing him at all. It turns out that he’s quite a nice guy. No surprise, really.

The Main Library
The Main Library

Her interview took place in the main library, a building so gigantic that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around it, let alone one’s camera lens.   As one can see in the picture, it’s not actually as huge as it first appears, because most of its “footprint” is a spacious, roofless interior courtyard.  The building itself, then, is shaped like a hollow square, and though the actual floor space is still generous, it’s not exactly the humongous structure that it seems to be when viewed from the street.

Remarkably, even though it’s the same rectangular shape as all the other buildings, it doesn’t have a faux-brick facade like them.  Apparently, that’s because it’s meant to act as a landmark, the one unique building in the center of campus.  Well, it’s certainly big enough for that.

The library dwarfs the building where I teach.
The library dwarfs building 44 where I teach.

I found out that the faux-brick facade is has been named the official facade for Tianjin University.  That’s fine with me, because I like it. It reminds me of my brick-laying grandfather, among other things.  Unfortunately most students really don’t like it, or so students have told me.  Well, what the students think is not important.

I found out that the architects of the new campus were mainly professors at our university.  This surprised me, because I thought that professors here would be capable of more inspired designs. However, they were under pressure from leadership to make the buildings look as big and grand as possible.  That’s why the library, like one of those disappointing chocolate Easter Bunnies, is mostly hollow space inside.  The architects had to assign their building-materials budget to buying just the basics in bulk, leaving few resources for innovations.

Well, the leaders got what they wanted. Grandiose vistas full of the largest, but simplest buildings possible, wasting a great amount of space, and lengthening the time one needs to walk anywhere. It’s like a warehouse district for giants.  My building, for example, is exactly three-quarters of a mile from the bus stop. There are some shuttles, and some rent-a-bikes, but it’s all still being organized, so we’ve never had a convenient opportunity so far to take one.

And though my friend Eileen will remind me that she walked a lot further than that to high school, (and mostly through driving Castro Valley snow, I believe),  I will still insist that my walk here works out to be much further in “Oldsters miles.”

Of course, leaders don’t generally walk at the new campus, nor have to catch a shuttle.  Luckily, by my apartment in town, the end of the bus line is only a couple hundred yards away. So at least the walk is convenient on this end.  And in the meantime, if the air is good, the exercise will improve my strength and health.  And my strength and health are, in fact, improving.

Ah, the bus.  It’s a city bus.  There is a university bus, but it’s too expensive and the schedule rather inconvenient, so nobody has considered taking it.

Anyway, the express city bus costs under $1 US, while the local-stop route is about half that. When I took the 6:30 am express, we arrived at the new campus in 35 minutes.  The trip is exactly 25 kilometers (15.6 miles).  Unfortunately, the trip back was longer due to traffic: an hour and forty minutes. I think that works out to an average speed of 9.4 miles per hour (15 km per hour).  Traffic is heavy because of all the cars, but also because most nights there are crashes.

We were packed like sardines onto the bus that night.  My three colleagues and I had to stand the whole way in searing hot-house humidity (many windows on the bus didn’t open)  Only one young man gave up his seat, and that was for his girlfriend.  I kept thinking “I’m retired. I really don’t have to be doing this.”  One advantage of the crowd was that it was impossible to fall over.

I’m hoping the crowd on the bus simply resulted from the date – the night of a major holiday.  And so, bored students, like bored sailors everywhere, were jumping at the chance to put into port and spend a wild weekend on shore leave, trying to forget their otherwise bleak existence out on the big briny. So on normal days, maybe I’ll find a seat on the night bus.  The suspense is not killing me.

"Give One, Get One" activity
“Give One, Get One” activity

My classes at the new campus, as per normal, went well. To this day, no matter what the rest of my life is doing, I’m always happy and light hearted when teaching.  It’s amazing, really.  It’s better than tonic.

Anyway, this picture shows some students on that first day of class doing a language-development activity that many will know:  “Give One, Get One.”  Yeah, good times.

Interestingly, I couldn’t find the surveillance camera in my classroom. Other classrooms have one.  I’ve seen them elsewhere in the building.  Probably, they just haven’t gotten around to installing it yet.  In fact, one day last month, we had to travel out to the new campus to get our identity-cards readjusted (their electronic innards didn’t work), and that service was located in a security room.

The cards are important because teachers need them to turn on the projectors in their rooms. Gone are the days (still here at the old campus) where you have to get the projector key from a guard at the door.  And yes, for a moment, we got to watch The Watchers.

Cameras to watch classroomsThey had a wall of TV screens, each of them prying into a different classroom – sometimes the view came from the front of the room and sometimes from the foot.  The resolution on the pictures was amazing. Had it been any better, I might have been able to check the accuracy of the notes that students were taking.  The Watchers also had their own screens at their desks with additional classrooms displayed.

When you combine all the classroom cameras with the omnipresent street-side cameras, you pretty much end up with a scene that Big Brother George would immediately recognize.   It makes wonder, in fact, about the dorms.  And all this on a campus so far from anywhere, that few thieves would be able to find it, let alone haul anything significant away.

Actually, The Watchers were, as we used to say in high school, bored out of their gourds.  One of them struggled mightily, though mainly failing, to maintain consciousness.  I think they were happy when we showed up with five identity cards to adjust. It took them an hour to do it, and they were 80% successful – only one card still wouldn’t work. That’s a solid B- in my book!

By the time classes actually started, the one faulty card had somehow been fixed. Unfortunately, one of the others (not mine) then stopped working for that day. Yeah, good times.

The cards also function as meal tickets. And yes, that means that the meal tickets at the old campus won’t work at the new one and vice versa.  One has to “charge” them with money to buy lunch.  Unfortunately, this can’t be done at the dining halls themselves. You have to walk half-way across campus to the only place where such transactions can be carried out. I did. And now I have about 25 meals worth on my card, more than enough for myself, so when you come visit me, I can take you to lunch. What a pain, though. I used up most of my lunch hour just walking over there.

To add insult to injury, the Chinese teachers have a subsidized lunch – often they pay nothing. That program is not available to us foreigners, though. Well, at the end of the day,  it’s not a matter of much money, so it’s only the symbolism that’s annoying.

Out on the Town

Entrance to Chang Hong
Entrance to Chang Hong Park

Last weekend I took advantage of the bike that Lonnie left me. It’s so much easier to ride than my old one that I’ve taken it all over town. Yesterday I rode out to my friends the Boogaards out in Hua Yuan – 4.6 miles each way, and it seemed like nothing.  The Boogaards, by the way, will be moving across town soon.

Anyway, one point of interest that I cycled to was Chang Hong Ecological Park, located just a couple miles from my apartment.  Chang Hong means “Long Rainbow.”  It’s like a miniature version of the water park south of here.

Boat Rentals
Boat Rentals

It’s really a nice little getaway from the surrounding city. I entered the park at the rear entrance, which is located at the end of a quaint little shopping street full of specialty gift shops and restaurants.  And there’s lots to do! Gazebos and corridors for sitting and talking. Basketball courts.  A plaza for kite flying. Extensive paths for walking among the greenery. Crafts for the younger set, as well as slow-speed carnival rides like bumper cars, also for the younger set.

Changhong Park Painting Activity
Painting plaster heads (sold in the background)

The park also contains extensive waterways. One can rent a paddle boat, or even fish.

Fish indeed! One of the fundamental laws of Chinese existence is that any body of water larger than a bathtub will attract fishermen.  And maybe even the bathtub.

In the fishing picture below, one can see some actual fachwerk (Half-timbered) houses.  Well, the visible timbers are actually just a facade, but still, they look nice. And they must be hugely expensive, occupied by rich tenants, and yet, when I got closer, I didn’t see any of the omnipresent bars that grace most windows in town, including mine at my apartment.

ChangHong Park Fishermen

The West Train Station

I also, for the first time in many years, toured the West Train Station.  The panorama below shows  how it appeared the last time I had seen it in 2009.

090127 West Station Panorama 2 (Custom) I found almost the same spot and made an updated panorama this weekend.  Here’s what it looks like today:

1015-10-03 Tianjin West Train Station Panorama 3 cropped (Custom)The builders were nice enough to preserve the old station, even though they apparently haven’t figured out what to do with it yet. It’s all fenced up and locked down. Perhaps it will make a nice museum someday.  According to my maps, they haven’t moved it at all.

West Station Main Entrance
West Station Main Entrance

Meanwhile, that gray object to its left is the new West Station. It doesn’t look so big in the panorama, but here’s a shot of just the main entrance to give a better idea of its bulk.  Like some other buildings I can think of, its massive scale is meant to impress.  This building has some style, though.

In fact, I had taken that early 2009 panorama precisely because some of my students back then had given me a tour of the city planning museum.  There was a special exhibit of the plans and models that various architects had submitted to compete for the new station’s design job. I remember seeing the model of this design, as well as several others. My students correctly predicted that this design would win. So later that month I cycled over to take a “before” picture.

Cubist Floor patterns at the West Station. The slopes enclose escalators to the platforms.

Well, actually, I am late to taking the “after” picture. They finished the construction a couple years ago. They do work fast here. And now, the same kind of “fast trains” that fly all over the country, and that stop at the main train station, also stop here. However, the West Station trains generally go to different destinations than those from the Main Train Station.  The two stations, by the way, are connected through the city metro – it’s about a fifteen minute trip between them.

I was also surprised that one can gain access to the main departure waiting room without a ticket, just like at the Beijing station. That access is not allowed at Tianjin’s main station, another indication of how much more things are controlled here than in other parts of China, I guess.

The Time Tunnel Effect
The Time Tunnel Effect

I was also amazed at how empty the waiting room was. Again, both the Beijing and Tianjin main station have been crowded every time I’ve gone there.  But at the West Station, I could take an almost perfect “time tunnel” shot of the main room.  The structures to the sides are the entrances to the platforms.  It’s a pretty standard arrangement for new train stations in China.

I didn’t notice any fast train to Beijing on the departure list, but if there is one, I’m thinking it might be a whole lot more pleasant to wait for it here than at the main station.

Catching a few winks in the West Station.

I mean, look at the people in this shot. They don’t seem to be concerned about anything in the world.  Actually, they don’t seem to be even conscious. And still, there’s a KFC readily available!

And in addition to the two floors of grandiosity above ground, there’s a huge chamber underground with access to parking and to the city metro. All in all, it’s quite convenient, and not as confusing  to navigate as Tianjin’s main station.

Boats on the Grand CanalAnd there’s more!  Through the back windows, I caught a glance of an older way of life – a boating way of life – along the Grand Canal, the waterway that was built centuries ago to connect Beijing with cities along the Yangtze River.  I’ll acknowledge, though, that all the satellite dishes do tend to spoil the antique effect.

Yes, the West Station seems to have it all.

And here is a picture of that same canal, taken about a hundred years ago:

Bei He Canal, 1911

Mid-Autumn Festival

The mid-autumn festival was celebrated on September 27th and 28th this year, and for those who are counting, yes, that means there were only two possible work days last week, and I drew one of them.

Autumn Moon 20013The point of the festival is to go outside and enjoy the sight of the moon.  It’s nice, really, because when I go observe the moon on that night, it always brings to mind autumn moons from previous years.   Here, for example, is a picture from two years ago, showing building 25 on campus, where I used to have an office.  And no, I did not Photoshop the moon into that shot. That’s what it actually looked like.  And yes, building 25 is not shaped like a warehouse.

Autumn Moon 2015This year’s moon view was a bit different. I had just returned to Tianjin from Beijing with a group of friends which included Jeanette’s family. I had succeeded in getting everyone lost in the Tianjin Train station, so we gave up finding the exit and took the subway to a station near my home here.

When we came out of the subway, there was excitement!  Two of those cursed electric bikes had run into each other, and in the deflection, had scraped a passing car. Tempers flared, and entertainment for the whole street ensued! Anyway, that’s why there’s a crowd in the middle of the street in the picture. The distant moon is orange, kind of like the eclipsed moon in America earlier that afternoon, but in our case, the orange color resulted from sand and pollution in the air.

Han Tao's Moon CakeThe other point of the mid-autumn festival is to eat “moon cakes,” little sweet cakes that generally only appear this time of year. (So don’t buy any in January – they’re not likely to be fresh) This year, my friend and former student Han Tao gave me a homemade one to try, which naturally turned out to be even more delicious than the kind you buy in the stores.  Yes, it was an eventful festival this year.

I’ll finish this letter with a picture of the coolest tree I’ve seen in a long time. It was installed a couple weeks ago in back of the old Administration building here on the old campus, the one with character.  What an interesting trunk structure!