Archives for August 2017

Getting to Know the City

My first month in Shanghai has been spent trying to get a grasp on the city. I began my internship just two days after my arrival, and jumped right into the swing of things at the Shanghaiist. I spend half my week in their office, approximately an hour long commute away from my housing, writing multiple articles each day on various topics surrounding the Chinese news.

I quickly realized that my normal approach to research, which is exceptionally thorough, but often painstakingly slow, wouldn’t work at the Shanghaiist. My job was to get a general grasp of the story, survey the opinions of a variety of different sources, and provide a brief, but insightful, summary of the subject. It was a challenge to say the least. More than anything, my time at the Shanghaiist thus far has shown me a new way to think. Rather than analyzing and inserting my opinion into a piece, I am simply collecting information, and then organizing and formatting it in a way that makes it easy for the reader to grasp. It is a skill which I imagine, if I can get good at it, will serve me well not just in my academic career, but in any work environment post-college.

My internship provides me with a unique opportunity to engage with issues facing contemporary Chinese society, but more than anything, my time spent in Shanghai has provided me with the perspective needed to understand the issues.

Shanghai has so much to offer that I have spent my first few weeks simply exploring its streets and neighborhoods. One of my favorite approaches to doing so thus far has been on my return trips from my internship. When I get out of work in the evening, hungry for dinner, I try to stop at a different subway stop each night that’s on my way home. Considering the fact that my commute is nearly an hour long, and considering the sheer size of Shanghai, the possibilities are seemingly endless. From posh neighborhoods with extensive, groomed gardens, to side streets with small family-owned restaurants, each region has an entirely different feel. The results of such excursions vary. If I stay within a certain parameter of my work, I find malls and shopping centers, with a variety of popular, but chain restaurants. But on my journeys I have also happened upon quiet, residential streets, Fifth-Avenue style roads, and historic districts.

Along with each of these neighborhoods come new people and new identities. One of the more striking aspects of the scale of this city is the variety of identities subsumed in its population.  And to think that the diversity which this single city encapsulates is a mere fraction of the cultural, linguistic, and geographic diversity which makes up the country of China is humbling, to say the least.

Although I know that I have yet to come anywhere close to exploring the entirety of Shanghai, I am excited to begin to visit other areas of the country before I go home. I am finally comfortable and confident enough to venture elsewhere, and I look forward to the experiences of the coming weeks.

Touchdown in S’pore

After a seemingly endless 16-hour flight from San Francisco to Singapore, I finally touched down at 6:12 am. Getting off the plane, I was energized and excited to see my home for the next 2.5 months; however, before even leaving the airport I encountered my first hurdle – housing. As all of my friends can attest to, my long-term travel planning often lacks foresight, so I didn’t have any housing planned upon arrival. Alas, there I was, sitting in the airport lobby at 6:30 am with my suitcases forming a barricade around me, googling hotels for the night. After finding a hotel in the downtown district, I hailed my first taxi and was on my way. Something that stood out to me during the ride, was how clean and well-maintained everything in the city was. Blooming flowers guided the car downtown with trees perfectly situated along the road. About halfway to the hotel, as we rounded a corner, I got my first glimpse of Singapore’s skyline and iconic Marina Bay Sands.

Once I was checked into my room, I departed for my first day of exploration. Even on this first day of travel, I experienced firsthand how friendly the residents of S’pore were. Having yet to purchase a SIM card, I navigated using map screenshots on my phone. After standing in one of the subway stations frustrated and lost, a local approached me and showed me which subway line to take for my desired destination. Over the next few days, I continued traversing different parts of the city and found a more permanent location to move into. At the house I moved into, I lived with a few other working college students from Thailand, Cambodia, and Italy. Living with them provided a great way to make friends my first weeks abroad which then carried on through my entire stay.

 

First Week Takeaway:

The biggest cultural differences that initially stood out to me was Singapore’s meticulous city planning, humidity, and cost of living. Last fall I spent four months studying in Shanghai, so most of my preconceived notions before arriving in S’pore were rooted in my China experience; however, Singapore proved it was a different beast entirely. Unlike Shanghai, the sky was crystal clear in Singapore with no trash to be seen anywhere around the city. Both the humidity and the cost of living were noticeably more drastic in Singapore than Shanghai; however, despite the similarities and differences, I was ready for an entirely new experience and great memories in the months to come.

 

An Introduction to Shanghai

The view from The Bund, on my first full night in the city.

Coming from a small town in Vermont, city life has always intrigued me. When I was growing up, the most exciting part of going to a city was riding the escalators and elevators in buildings that had more than two floors. But, as I stepped off the plane at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, after a 14-hour flight, I was painfully aware that this city had more to offer than moving sidewalks and rotating doors. I was to spend nearly two months, primarily alone, halfway across the world, in a city that houses over 20 million people. Needless to say, by the time I made it through customs at the airport, I was running purely on adrenaline and anxiety.

The primary reason I was relatively petrified when I arrived in Shanghai was how unprepared I felt, as an inexperienced traveler who barely speaks the native language. The vocabulary and grammatical structures that I studied for three semesters at Davidson immediately eluded me when I stepped off the plane, to the point where all I could mumble was “对不起 (I’m sorry),” “听不懂 (I don’t understand),” or “谢谢 (thank you).” Ready to point and nod my way into a taxi to take me to my housing, I was met with an unexpected, but unbelievably gracious, surprise: an acquaintance from high school and her lovely parents were waiting at the airport gate to pick me up.  I stepped off that plane and immediately felt mothered. My temporary hosts were impressed when I said “thank you” in Mandarin, and gave me warm smiles as my friend translated during our conversation.

People’s Square on a sweltering hot afternoon.

The ride to my apartment was an introduction to Shanghai unto itself. After navigating our way through the traffic surrounding the airport, I finally saw it. Or at least I thought I saw it. I very quickly realized that it is simply not possible to see this city. I’m not sure it’s ever been done, even by Shanghai natives. This metropolis is unfathomably large and stretches far beyond any limits I ever had the chance to explore. But my friend and her family made sure that I made it to my apartment and got settled in, so I was able to go to bed on my first night in my new home with a full stomach and a functioning router.

Out to lunch with my coworkers and boss from the Shanghaiist.

I was entirely exhausted, enormously intimidated, but unbelievably excited. A year ago, if someone would have told me that I would get to spend the summer in China, I would have never believed them. But in those first few days, as I explored my neighborhood, figured out how to get around on the Metro, and began my internship, it all became incredibly real. Skyscrapers stretch endlessly in every direction until you forget what the horizon looks like. People traverse the city on subways below you, bikes next to you, and freeways above you, in a chaotic but seamlessly functional infrastructure. And although I am halfway across the world, although I am surrounded by more man-made structures than I ever have seen or ever will see, although I don’t really know anyone in this massive city, I am still surrounded by people. And people, wherever you go, are, for the most part, dependable, kind, and willing to help someone in need.

Off to a Quick Start: My Arrival In Beijing

I wish that I could say that my first few hours in China, a country that I have studied from afar for over six years, were full of wonder and intellectual intrigue. That would fit more conveniently with my self-perception as an adventurous and eager academic, itching for new experiences. Instead, however, the moment that I landed in Beijing I found myself confused, exhausted, and overwhelmed. Star Group, the company for which I interned, had their driver, Liu, pick me up from the airport. Liu is a Beijing native with a strong Beijing accent. He does not speak a word of English and he does NOT mess around. I think I can best describe Liu’s personality as a cross between a disgruntled honey badger and a Pats fan after a loss.  Needless to say, he didn’t entertain my sleep deprived attempts at a greeting in Mandarin. Instead, he grabbed my bag and starting speed walking away leaving my outstretched hand in the air and my poorly executed greeting still on my lips. Over the course of the following two months Liu would become one of my best friends in Beijing.

The drive from the airport to the office was harrowing as it was entertaining. I quickly learned that the rules of the Beijing road are set by those who drive it, not those who created it. Anything goes as long as nobody gets hit. As it turns out, this philosophy applies to a good bit more than traffic laws.

Sunrise over Yuyuan Lake (right next to my office) during an early morning run

Eventually I arrived at the office (which conveniently doubled as a hotel and my home for the first three nights). I looked forward to dropping my bags in my room, taking a shower, and settling in. This was not to be. Within two hours of my plane landing in China I had taken a tour of the office facilities, met nearly all of the staff on site, had an individual meeting with my boss, and finally found myself sitting at a neon green desk with my first assignment. As I sat at that desk overlooking the Chines Military Museum and the Millennium Center I fully realized that I had not signed up for a 7 week cultural vacation to Beijing. I was here to work, and to work hard alongside a company full of people bent on getting ahead. I was here to learn from a culture that looked upon entitlement with contempt and that did not take off days. Most importantly I was here to observe the middle of a great transition in the Chinese sense of self and of the way that things should be.

 

Landmark Bridge by the far gate of the Summer Palace.

Over the course of the following week I helped facilitate an educator training for 30 Chinese graduate students who had just been hired by Song Qing Ling, the museum for which my company was contracting. Thankfully a group of Canadians were running the workshops and I was tasked with helping them get around Beijing. This gave me an opportunity to do some of the touristy things that I was worried would be pushed to the wayside by my work. During the first weekend we went to the Summer Palace and the Beijing Zoo. Admittedly, the Beijing Zoo was fairly depressing. The Summer Palace, on the other hand, totally blew me away. I was shocked by two things: first, the profound sense of meaning that was wrapped up in a frankly young (mid 1700’s) historical site. The second was the Chinese legacy of a decisive and powerful central government. This was, just as the malleability of traffic laws, to become an important theme in the weeks to come. At the very top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense, I and

View from the top of the Tower of Buddhist Incense

the two Canadians educators that I was with paused to take in a breath-taking view of the Palace behind us. In that moment I had a realization that took me by surprise, I was in China. China, land of my dreams and aspirations. China, home to my unending curiosity. There it was, laid out in front of me waiting to be discovered and known. In that moment I knew that I had arrived.

 

 

 

 

Summer in Nepal Part 3

My summer in Nepal has been such a formative experience as I was directly involved within the development of a large online library that would be utilized to provide educational content to students and educators all over Nepal.

Within my experience, I have found that a significant portion of developing a platform is research and adaptation.  While I was developing for E-Pustakalaya we chose to build it using the DSpace architecture, the reasons for this decision can be found here.  I had to draw from my experience with Java and SQL to implement and configure the desired features within DSpace architecture, but I also had to learn how to code in XSLT and learn the fundamentals of web development.  This is a common hurdle faced by anyone who is in development as platforms often utilize many computer languages to form their systems.  I have faced this issue in my computer science classes at Davidson but not to the scale of DSpace.  Many hours were spent combing through code documentation to fully understand the structure and functions provided by the DSpace architecture so that we could implement our desired features within that environment.  It hammered in the value of well-written, descriptive code documentation so that future developers could build off of what has been put initially put forth.  Manoj, one of the software developers I worked with, stressed the value of these good practices with all the code the team had written.  For instance, even the simple habit of switching to a different snapshot of the project dedicated to experimental code so that if everything went wrong there was always a back up we could roll back to has helped tremendously in troubleshooting problems and speeding up the process.  These are development habits that I have learned on the job and will have with me for future projects.

OLE and maybe even Nepal in general has opened my eyes to the world of the work environment.  Nepal has a certain reputation for being more laid back time wise within the work environment, which is a stark contrast to the type-A, get it done environment of Davidson. For instance, I did not feel the looming pressure of deadlines as our timelines for the project were very flexible which I felt contributed to a very productive and enthusiastic atmosphere.  It allowed me the option to take a step back and genuinely look at the bigger picture instead of just chugging out code for specific features for days on end.

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