August 1st, 2014
Harbin, China. I’m still not over it—not just the jet lag but the dizzying density. People, cars, shops, traffic, pollution, rice, rivers, and tigers. Lots of tigers. One afternoon we were taken to a huge expansive Siberian tiger park, where almost 1000 of these beasts roam openly in the middle of the city. Yes, it’s a carefully gated compound and the fences are meticulously controlled. Notice the bus going by as the tigers loll about in the heat. The windows on the buses are caged to prevent any of us from sticking our hands out too far. Picture-taking is a must but as soon as you indicate some flesh through those cages the tigers are keen to pounce. Imagine their boredom. Buses of Chinese visitors were more enthusiastic about feeding the animals. You can purchase buckets of chicken or red meat to dangle for the tigers but that’s a tricky thing to do. You have to avoid your wrist being taken with the meat. We watched a few of these scenes from our own bus and squirmed and squealed with horror at the spectacle.
I was recently there for a China-Canada Workshop on building dual PhD programs, not an easy ambition to realize. The Chinese are both like and unlike us. Their system is obviously not identical. Indeed, they claimed that theirs was far more rigorous than ours. I don’t know. They like to boast a lot about themselves, and rankings are very important to their sense of self-worth. We were hosted by the Harbin Institute of Technology which actually has an entire building dedicated to showcasing its history. In other words, there is an HIT Museum, complete with yearbooks, the clothing worn by the first rectors, sample textbooks, and the like. Makes you think we should be archiving and showcasing our institutions in the same way—constructing a strong record of what we are all about.
The leaders at HIT were very keen to engage us, want to have real exchanges and collaborative programs that bring our cultures and people together. It’s a noble idea but there are so many obstacles you wonder if we can ever open ourselves up to transcend language and cultural barriers and agree on protocol. As a grad dean, I’m all for it. I want more such initiatives, more to do with the rest of the world. I think it’s good for the health of our own programs, and good for us all to be more internationalized, to try to solve world problems with others. It’s good for our students to travel and experience other places. In particular, I think we all have to understand China better. Things are moving so fast there. Centuries are being advanced in the manner of the metaphorical opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the bone from an ape is transmuted into a cyber-monolith, making the leap from primitive to technological in a simple jump cut.
Harbin is near the Russian border and so there is a strange presence of that other country’s influence. You see Russian Orthodox churches next to gleaming Chinese-inspired buildings, rickshaws next to BMWs, and pagodas next to hi-rises of staggeringly tall doemnsion. Censorship is pervasive as far as internet usage goes, but yet the streets are blocked with the latest French designer houses. I am not sure even the Louis Vuitton in Paris is that large. You want to slap yourself into waking up from the confusion of signs and symbols in the urban scape. Just where am I, I had to keep asking myself. In a capitalist growth surge, is one handy answer.
I love going to China, pollution and all. This was my first time in that particular city and I would go back. China remains an immensely puzzling site of 21st century ingenuity and power and woe to those who are determined to ignore it.