Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

[China] Departure, Arrival

For the next ten days, I'll be in Beijing, China (specifically "The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China", I kid you not...) as a part of HSYLC, the (Harvard Association for US-China Relations) Summit for Young Leaders in China. Yeah, it's a mouthful.

More specifically, I'm here to teach math. I'll be teaching 3day*1.5hour seminars to four groups of 10-15 gifted students from high schools around China. In addition to that, I'll hold office hours, run a workshop on applying to college in the US, and lead extracurricular activities. (Mine will very likely be something dance-related.)

If you're curious about my actual curriculum, then rest assured that I'll write about it...later. Today's post is just a series of travel-journal snapshots from the past day-and-a-half-long day. Tomorrow, we begin checking in students, and on Thursday, we'll actually start classes. Until then, I'm adapting to life in a country where I literally can't communicate with most of the population... (On the bright side, they have air conditioning here, which couldn't be said of Cambridge.)

11-12 August

(1) JFK Airport

I walk up to the cash exchange. "Three hundred Chinese." The teller is bored half to death. "Three hundred dollar to Chinese?" "No, three hundred renminbi." I slide a credit card through the cash slit. "Cash only." Of course. "How much?" Sixty-six. Which is a problem, because I think I only have...sixty-nine. Okay.

There's still time to kill. Shopping list: power adapter, money belt, pepto-bismol. The store clerk tries to give me an all-in-one power adapter; I return it to the shelf in favor of a Chinese-specific one. Next time I'm in Europe, someone else can be in charge of wall adapters.

(2) Beijing Airport

"Train disinfected regularly." Okay. If you say so.

The plane landed an hour late, so there's no one from Harvard here to pick me up. That's fine, I have cash for a taxi.

I ask the taxi clerk for "English taxi, please" and she ignores me, turns around to talk to her friend. The man next to me laughs. "I don't think there is English taxi. Here, I help you. Where are you going?" He gives the taxi driver instructions to take the hapless tourist to "High School of Renmin University", checks with me that I wanted the High School (yes, I did), and sends me on my way. "Xièxiè," I murmur with a half-bow, "Thank you."

(3) Highway

Thought: Chinese characters just aren't very typographically compressible. (English, capitals and all, can be compressed to maybe five pixels vertically. Chinese? Not a chance.) So glyph-based text is probably lower-entropy than English character-strings. I'm not sure why that comes to mind.

Don't fall asleep; the driver doesn't speak my language.

He brings me to a gate, and the woman walking out knows enough English to respond that yes, the summer program was this building. Who was I looking for? "Harvard students?" All the students are -- how do you say it -- at home. "Oh, I'm a teacher." Of course. "I'm looking for Harvard teachers." Yes, then this is the right place.

The desk guard doesn't speak any English at all. But after we manage to agree on "Hava studen?", he nods and calls a room somewhere upstairs. One of the program staff comes down -- finally -- a welcome relief. I'm room 544, apparently. I follow her upstairs.

(4) Food Court

"B Food Safety Rating" and a :) face. The :D face is reserved for "A Food Safety Rating".

(5) Mall

"Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Cream" and a smiling Asian twenty-something man, holding a small bathtub-sized jar of 'snail cream'. Sure.

(6) Walk home

A sister and a brother singing into a tinny microphone and speaker. "You know, if they don't make quota, they'll get hurt." / "I don't know whether to help them or refuse to support the system." We shrug and walk past. Their cloth napkin has only a few coins, likely not yet at their quota.

A mother holds her daughter over a hole in the pavement that looks like it should have held a tree. The little one is urinating into the humid night.

Blinding sun-billboards splash the faces of my fellow-tourists, the pages of my notebook.

The other side of the too-wide street is so far away. The buildings a block down are behind more than a block of smog. Things are less close here.