November 29th, 2013
I am in Beijing again for the annual PhD workshop, about to interview, with a few colleagues, some 180 or more students with an interest in doing a doctoral program in Canada. As I always like to say, it’s really more about them interviewing us, because they are almost all smart, focused, and pretty sure of what they’re doing. Most of them speak excellent English, a fact that always makes me regret not knowing more than five grunts of comprehensible Mandarin. Last night Memorial hosted a large meal for our alumni and exchange students. One of the guests was a Canadian who ended up working and living in Beijing after he graduated. He has been here almost five years and his Mandarin sounded pretty impressive to me. He claims after a little Rosetta Stone he managed to learn by himself. Enviable.
I really enjoy coming here for so many reasons, but living here would be a challenge, especially because of the air pollution. Remarkably, the skies have been clear since I arrived, a function of high winds that blow out the bad stuff and reveal the rare blue sky. The picture above proves the point. I took the shot today from a cab. We were stuck in traffic for what seemed like forever and I had a perfect view of the famous CCTV Building, blue sky as backdrop. It’s the 44-floored headquarters of China television, the site of state-run broadcasting in every sense of the term. The building won the 2013 Best Tall Building Worldwide. It’s startling in its engineering weirdness. And to make things even more bizarre, it was built smack on top of a seismic zone. Local lore has it that a cab driver dubbed the building “boxer shorts” in Chinese and the name has stuck ever since. Our poor cab driver didn’t seem to possess any such creativity. He really didn’t know where he was going and so he stopped his beat-up old machine smack in the middle of traffic about four or five times to shout out after some random person for directions. I thought, for sure, we’d start a traffic accident chain, or at least a fist fight. He seemed at once indifferent and frustrated, but hardly attentive to the chaos of cars around him. He was from some earlier time, before the Olympics and all those tall buildings. Eventually we arrived at our destination, a web-platform office that boasts it is building China’s “educated elite.” While there, and with the assistance of the Canadian Embassy, who set it all up, I showed a power point presentation of Memorial and our grad programs to about 100 students who were connected by distance. I have no idea how far away they might have been but in Beijing you might as well be in another country if you live across town. Navigating through and among 30 million of your neighbours cannot be easy.
I am always amazed at the skyscraper spectacle that is much of central Beijing. The Chinese have been positively fearless in their contracting major modernist architects to do commanding things with their cityscapes, and so Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are noticeably flamboyant. The massively wide boulevards are flanked by one astonishing high rise after another. This all makes Toronto or New York seem straight and conservative, far more conformist and monotonous, ironically enough. Of course, there are so many contrasts and contradictions here. It’s my third trip and I am not even sure I am scratching the surface. Not knowing the language is one thing, but being Western is another. In the hotel lobby my ear is tuned to those Western businessmen who are speaking fluent Mandarin. It makes me feel as if I am inside some CNN commercial about venture capitalism.
What all the Chinese students we will meet know is that it’s important to connect with the wider world. Beijing is big, but the world is even bigger. It’s amusing to think that by leaving here and settling in tiny old Newfoundland they might actually be broadening their horizons. Certainly, the grads we ate dinner with last night think so. They miss Memorial, Newfoundlanders, and all the freedom that goes with that, and every time my Twitter account fails to update here I totally get that.