Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Trip to China - Mini Reunions

Any time we go to China, reunions with relatives, old friends or former teachers are always part of the trip. What is special this year was a reunion with some of my middle school classmates after nearly 30 years.

My years at No. 15 middle school of Wuhan was a wonderful time. The teachers and classmates from that time are special to me. Obviously many classmates shared my sentiment. When our class unit's website was created a few years back, almost all classmates, now spreaded all over the world, were located by a few activists, and signed up to the class unit's website. Ever since then, there have been reunions of sorts every year, when there is a classmate going back to Wuhan, either from out of the city, out of the province, or out of the country. One time they invited our classroom teacher, Ms. Peng, who survived a stroke, and now is at her 80s. How I envy those classmates who were at the reunions.

This time when we were planing the trip, I decided to make the reunion with my middle school classmates a central activity at Wuhan.

The Reunion

The evening of June 29th, 12 of the former classmates along with my family gathered at Nine Dragons Restaurant. I asked Justin to be the photographer of the event, so he would not be bored by the middle aged man and woman and I could enjoy the reunion. The event organizer, Ms. Chen, who was a classmate of mine from elementary school all the way to high school, booked a Zhuang-Yuan (i.e. winner in a comprehensive academic exam) stand-alone Dinning Room specifically. She explained that it was because I was the valedictorian of my class.

Despite the 30 year span, I could name all classmates there thanks to the photos uploaded to our class unit's website. After exchanging pleasantry, we naturally split into smaller group conversations, laughter went up now and then, here and there. Mr. Rong, who was once my desk mate, was as considerate as ever. As we sat down for dinner, he suggested to Ms. Li, who is talkative, "Prof. Li, would you please sit with Mrs. Allan?", so that Lily could have someone to talk to during the meal and would not feel being left out.

Jokes, old and new, were flying over the huge dinning table. Mr. Rong and Mr. Dai were especially good at quipping and teasing, others chipped in from time to time. It was a light hearted, very pleasant dinner.

One-to-One Meetings

In addition to the main reunion, I had three separate one to one meetings.

I met with Ms. Mei, who was the top female student of our class, the only classmate at Shanghai, the day we arrived at Shanghai.

The meeting with Ms. Li, who happens to teach at the same university as my sister, was at my sister's office the day before the reunion. She was very talkative. We talked a long time that day - old stories, shared memories, gossips and tragedies. I was sad to know that a close friend at middle school died young from an accident. I was amused that the sister of another close friend at middle school becomes Mrs. Rong. I was glad that our classroom teacher, Ms. Peng was well at the advanced age of 80s. I was pleased and flattered to know that I was a hero of sort among my fellow students during my middle school and high school years. I did not feel special from other students at all at the time.

Lily was there that day visiting my sister's labs. So she got a chance to know more about my past. Lily and Ms. Li talked about their children, exchanged thoughts on how to educate and prepare them for the future. Lily enjoyed talking to Li as I did.

The visit with Prof. Ye, another close friend at middle school, was more colorful.

He invited me to visit his lab and office at his university two days after the reunion, a Friday. the exchange with him was more about present: status of higher education in China, the usefulness of basic research, and a bit technical discussion on a phenomenon he and his students observed in their electrical-magnetic experiments which was believed to relate to fluid structural interaction - my area of expertise.

After a lunch with a friend of mine from my college time, Ye and I walked over to the entrance to the university, where Mao's granite statue stands, we recalled briefly on what happended there on the June 4th of 1989 and its aftermath. After taking a few pictures there, he suggested that we go to have a foot massage. I was a little bit surprised. "From what I read in America, foot massage in China is just another name for prostitution." He laughed, "It is just foot maasage at the place we will go to." We went to a place he frequented, and enjoyed shoulder and foot massages.

Changes were abundant after 30 years, especially several guys' potbellies, but the chemistry remained the same.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Trip to China - mini Miracles

During our trip, we had special visits to two senior relatives who are seriously ill. One is a cousin, who is at his mid sixties, and the other is an uncle-in-law, who is at his mid seventies.

My Cousin

The day before we left for China, I received an email informing me that the cousin was terminally ill, and in dire conditions. He was in a hospital at Shanghai. In the second morning of our stay at Shanghai, I called his cellphone. A weak, hoarse voice answered. I self identified after confirming his identity. He was surprised, his voice was much louder and clearer - "Is it really you? Are you calling from America?" 'It is me, cousin. My family and I are at Shanghai. Is it OK we visit you this morning?", I answered. He was apparently very pleased, "Yes! Yes!"

After an hour taxi ride, we arrived at his hospital room with a basket of flowers. He was being attended by a nurse. Laying on his bed, his eyes were closed, eyebrows frowned, his face was pale. My cousin-in-law greeted us. When the nurse left, she gently told him " Your cousin is here" His eyes opened, his face animated, he sat up, a big smile on his face - " I am so happy to see you. It has been a long long time". The last time we saw each other was 25 years ago at my maternal uncle's home!

During our conversation, his younger brother called, and wanted to talk to me when he knew I was there. The second cousin thanked me profusely and added "you are a kind man". My tears almost came out - I did not do anything special for them, how I could deserve this heartfelt compliment. As the second cousin and I talked on the side, the patient fell back to half asleep apparently exhausted by the excitements. "We should leave now to let my cousin to rest" I told my cousin-in-law. He woke up from his half sleep, shook my hand. As we were walking out, Lily reminded me " Pictures?" I motioned to have a group picture. My cousin's face lighted up again.

It is a mini miracle that our mere presence at the cousin's sick bed brought him and his wife a ray of sunshine. In a dire situation like this, a show of care, a genuine sympathy are all that mattered.


When we visited my aunt at Wuhan during the second leg of our China trip, my uncle-in-law had been in a coma from a stroke for nearly six months. After a lunch with her, we went to a senior care center with my aunt to visit her husband. We lined up by his bed silently, my aunt said loudly to her husband - "Your nephew Allan and his family are here to see you" hoping to somehow convey the fact to him. Of course there was no response from him, but I did see him scratching himself. The visit was for my aunt.

We stayed there a few more minutes as my aunt was busy with her routine. When I said goodbye to her, tears flew down her face, "I don't know if I will see you again" the old lady was sad and emotional, holding my hands. I pulled her closer to embrace her - "Aunt, you will see me again! Take care of yourself."

A week after we came back to America, my sister told me that my uncle-in-law woke up from his coma after our visit! She told me "Our aunt said that you have a magical power!" I was speechless. It was a miracle.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Trip to China - Atypical Snap Shots

China is a boisterous place, however I did find moments or places that were tranquil.

On the way to China, a few hours into the flight, I opened the window shield, I saw a massive blue-white ice covered landscape. I did not expect this scene even though I knew we were flying over Arctic. I was mesmorized.

Among the places we visited in Shanghai, the most memorable places were not the Nanjing Pedestrian Street ( a shopping mecca in China), not the tower of oriental pearl, not the Bund, not the skyscrapers. they were the hotel we stayed and the People's square.

Due to jet-lag, I was awake early on June 24 at the Kaibo Hotel in Shanghai, I dosed on and off afterwards. Then at the dawn, I heard this clear, rounded, beautiful bird chirpping outside the window. It turned out that there are a small patch of trees right outside our hotel room in this densely populated residential area. When there are trees, there are birds!

People's square is very much like the central park in new york city. It is smaller, and there are few people there, and many birds. Surrounded by grey high rises, it is green all around us here; With boisterous crowds just a few hundred yards away in the shopping areas, it is quiet here, it is an urban oasis.

Wuhan, with all the constructions going on there , it is literally a humming city. The early morning (~ 6am) of June 28th, as the kids and I were wathcing the highlights of the previous nights' FIFA world cup games at my sister's home, I heard a beautiful bird chirpping from the balcony. A black-white bird I had never seen before was perching on the balcony's guard rail and singing, I rushed to get my camera, and try to take a picture of it, it was too late. As I looked around, I was rewarded with a view of this early summer morning's court yard. The court yard at the entrance to the community was quiet, cool and beautiful.

My parents' cemetery is located in a beautiful, well maintained memorial park at outskirt of Wuhan. It was beautiful, quiet and very green there. Despite the stymieing heat that day, the kids, Lily and I were willing to stay at the park a bit longer - just to enjoy the outdoor, the tranqility and the greens.

Where my in-laws live, there is a small residential community park. On a day there was no scheduled activity for the whole family, Lily went shopping with her mom. My boys and their cousin, grandpa and I went to play at the park in the mid morning. It was a weekday, we were there by ourselves except the working gardeners. There were a lot of birds there - children's laughter and bird chirping made my day.

On the way back to USA, as we were approaching Chicago, Lily asked me to look outside the airplane: the Sun was rising. What a view! Even better, We were back home!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A trip to China - random observations

Lily and I, along with our children, visited China from June 23 to July 8, for the first time as foreigners. During the trip, we visited Shanghai - the biggest city and financial center of China, Wuhan, the biggest city in central China, and Beijing, the Capital.

We entered the country from Shanghai, which I last visited 24 years ago, and Lily and the kids had never been to before. The change in the 24 years is dramatic! The changes in Wuhan and Beijing are impressive as well though we visited both cities only 5 years ago.

It is huge!

As we walked out of the airplane at Pu-Dong international airport around 3pm local time, we were amazed by the size of the terminal it feels like that it is more than 10 story tall, and 100s of meters long. It turns out that the Tian-He Airport at Wuhan, and the international terminal of Capital airport at Beijing are equally massive.

The biggest change at Shanghai occurs along Huang-Pu River and the east side of the river. The green belts along the river are replaced by a concrete forest of high rises and skyscrapers - Tower of Oriental Pearl, World Financial Center ... and the 100 meter wide century boulevard.

Considering that urban dwellers used to have 60 square meter apartments, now they are more likely to have apartments the size of 120 - 160 square meters. It is o wonder that old or traditional residential areas such as Li-Nong in Shanghai, Hu-Tong in Beijing have been demolished for 16 - 24 story apartment buildings.

In Beijing, there are several significant architectural additions, notably the Egg (i.e. The national center for performing arts) near the Tian-An-Men Square. We went into the Egg for a concert by national Orchestra the first night we were at Beijing.

The other significant and attractive new addition is the Olympic Park, which includes The Bird Nest (National Stadium ), and The Water Cube (National Swimming Center) for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. We happened to visit the park on the hottest day of the summer so far, it was worthwhile to take the heat.

The ground transportation

The traffic in the three cities is horrific, it is not only that there seems to have traffic jams all the time, but also that drivers, bikers and pedestrians do not treat traffic rules seriously. I saw 4 vehicles driven side by side in two lanes, left turn cars did not yield to through traffic, of course there is no way that a car would yield to pedestrians and vice versa. I also frequently observed that cars turn left from right most lane or turn right from left most lane! I did not observe lane changing signals from any vehicles. I believe that many off rush hour jams are due to the fact that drivers are not following traffic rules. Most people just drive by guts, cross streets by guts. I dare not to drive in any of the three cities but can cross a street gingerly.

Amazingly, despite the disorder, I only witnessed one small traffic incident in the 15 day stay in China. I guess that it is because that people are used to the situations and the traffic is slow in the cities - speed limit 25mph (40kmph). Among the three cities, traffic wise, Shanghai is the best, Wuhan is the worst.

A positive change in Beijing and Wuhan is that the smog is not as bad as it was 5 years ago.

Subways/light rails

Fortunately, both Shanghai and Beijing have highly developed subway and/or light rail system for us to avoid the mess on the surface roads. Shanghai has 10 subway/light rail lines, Beijing has 13 subway lines, in addition to their massive bus lines. I was told that Wuhan is to build its subway systems soon. We enjoyed Shanghai's light rail right off the airport terminal. It cost us just 28Yuan in a air conditioned rail cart, with one transfer to arrive at our hotel. It would have cost us 200Yuan if we took taxi.

Subway/light rail is my preferred means of transportation at these cities. It not only provides safe, inexpensive transportation, but also provides me chances for a closer observations of the general public .

The sea of People

A major event at Shanghai when we were there was World Trade Expo. Daily visitors to the Expo was numbered at above 400,000; during weekend or holiday the number rose above 500,000! We were told that one has to wait in line for 8 hours to get a ticket to visit an attractive exhibition hall, e.g. that of China or Saudi Arabia, and 2 more hours in line to get in to the exhibition the next day. Because of these, we did not even try to visit the Expo.

Subway trains are typically full most of the time; at rush hour, not only the trains are packed, the subway stations are packed. Fortunately we were vacationers, we could avoid the rush hours.

The day we visited Nanjing Road - the shopping magnet of Shanghai, despite rain, the street was full of people. The huge summer palace in Beijing was packed on the relatively cool, sunny day we visited there. As a matter of fact, it does not matter where we went, any interesting place would be full of people.

Despite the large crowd everywhere, the main streets and attractions in all three cities were basically free of littering and reasonably clean and tidy - a huge improvement over the past; though not quite so at minor/side streets. Again Shanghai is the best of the 3 for cleanness, it is clean even at side streets.

Under the surface

People seems to be busy to make more money and enjoy the prosperity. But I did sense some sort of tension and discontent beneath the surface from two small observations.

In Beijing, after a dinner of our extended family at Quan Ju De - the famous restaurant for roasted Beijing duck, in-laws went home, we strolled along the famous Chang An Je road to Tian An Men square. We were surprised to see SWAT teams were deploying at every Major intersections along the road at dusk. When we reached Tian An Men square, we were told by security that it was closed at dusk. I was not aware of any special event or terrorist alert.

The tour guide for our Shanghai-in-a-day tour, while marveling the most expensive apartment buildings in Shanghai, told us about the new 5 classes in urban China - grey collar - non-skilled migrant labours, blue collar - skilled labours, white collar - professionals, gold collar - executives making over 1 million yuan a year and then she stopped and quizzed the group - what is the name of the fifth and top class? Platinum? I guessed. No, it is black collar! Who belongs to the class? "public servant", a.k.a. the government employees - they may make much less than gold collar - but most powerful - may be better labeled as people's masters. The group laughed and to tone down her most political comment of the tour, she jokingly said those in the group reacting to to her comments with a straight face must be black collars.

Coincidentally a guy named Wen Qiang, a former police chief of the City of Chong Qing, whose death penalty for corruption was upheld by Chinese Supreme Court, was executed on July 7. People in Chong Qing celebrated the execution.

The still deepening huge chasm between rich and poor and the prevalent corruptions of government officials are among the most serious issues facing the Chinese government.

I pray for my relatives and friends that China will continue its economic growth while making peaceful political reform.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

My offices

From graduate school, to postdoc, to corporate America, from tiny cubicles, to shared office, to my own office, I have always managed to make my office clean, tidy and beautiful.

When I was a graduate student, my cubical was so tiny, and the wall was so tall, I felt suffocated the first time I sat down at my desk. I bought a poster and placed it in front of the desk. So when I sat down, instead of facing a grey metal wall, I looked at a trail in a forest. It felt open, outdoor, fresh and infinite possibilities - I kept it there in front of the desk for the whole four year of my Ph.D. study and research.

I am pretty lucky - I have a reasonably sized office with a window. The furniture in my office is quite standard - a big U shaped desk (for a big workstation, a lap top and space for desk work), a big bookshelf and a file cabinet/bookshelf combo. I also have an additional steel file cabinet.

My office is well known for its tidiness and cleanness in the technical center. I remember several years ago, an old engineer, who had not worked with me on any project yet, came to visit me at my office just to have a look. He marvelled at how I could make it so tidy, clean and visually pleasing.

Keep things tidy is my habit. No clutter for me - I put the books on shelf, I file engineering drawings, technical notes daily. I don't have "post it" all over the places - I keep a work diary in big notebook, I write down almost all work related notes there, I also maintain an excel spread sheet to keep record of time spent on each project, the status of all projects along with brief notes. I throw scratch papers to a recycle bin at the end of each day - sometimes a little bit too fast:).

Since I almost stay in my office all day long. I try to make it as beautiful and lively as possible - I brought an unused artificial green plant from home and placed it on the top of the big book shelf in my first month at work. Two years ago, Lily gave me a flower for my office as a father's day present. Due to plenty of sunshine and more or less constant temperature, the flower just blooms again and again nonstop with only once a week watering. I have always had a blooming flower in the office ever since.

In addition to degree diploma, training certificates, awards, family pictures are an important part of my office decorations. I regularly change the pictures in my office, from winter holiday portraits, to great pictures from a trip. The pictures of the kids, of Lily and of the whole family make the office homey. They are also frequently topics for casual conversations. My colleagues know me more, and I know them more - from family, vacation trip to hobbies.

I also brought a couple of lightly damaged framed posters from home. One is a smaller poster of King Fisher in a canyon, another is a big frame of Grand Teton. They really help to brighten the office and apparently are envies of some colleagues. During my last office move, the frames were not hang up for a few days. A colleague jokingly told me that someone might "steal" the Grand Teton frame from my office.

A major deficiency of my office is the fan noise from my high performance work station. To suppress the noise, and also because of my habit, I play classical music from online stations first thing when I get to work.

The homey, visually comforting, acoustically pleasing office helps me to take a day's work with ease.