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.

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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.


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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

IMG_1909-300x225 Off to a Quick Start: My Arrival In Beijing

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 blew me away, 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.

Summer in Nepal Part 2

So this summer in Nepal I was an intern at this company called Open Learning Exchange Nepal (OLE). It is a non-profit focused on open, free access to quality education and innovative learning environments to children all over Nepal. I worked within the development team for their “E-Pustakalaya,” a free digital library, dedicated to closing the education accessibility gap by providing a collection of thousands of books, educational resources, course content, and reference materials directly to students and educators.

The development team included Manoj Gautam a systems engineer, Navin Rana a software developer, and me a development intern. We were charge of building the new iteration of this online library on a completely different architecture called DSpace. This library would be available online and would also be provided to schools throughout Nepal by distributing local server instances of the library to the schools directly. This would bypass the need for internet access and would provide schools with educational books, lessons, and videos. For the most part, my role within the development team was to code in the document streaming options for videos, audio, and books. My task was to ensure that all of the content within the library could be viewed without needing to be downloaded or require the user to have to download any external software to view the content. I also worked on other database configuration tasks like auto thumb-nailing items, running media filters through the website directly, and email setup.

This was my first time working within a development team environment and working on a project of such a large scale. I am incredibly thankful to my teammates as they really took me in under their wing and were extremely patient when I initially joined. It was a great learning atmosphere as we were all learning to code within the DSpace architecture and we were all unfamiliar with XSLT, the language used for the front-end web interface.

OLE is also a very small company filled with wonderful people that were very friendly to new incoming interns and genuinely cared about us feeling like a part of the company from day one. Most of the coworkers became my friends outside of work and we played futsal at least once a week.

If you’re interested in getting more details about the online library we were developing, I wrote a technical blog post about it here.

Summer in Nepal Part 1

After about a thirty hour journey, I arrived at Tribhuvan International Airport at Kathmandu, Nepal.  This was my first time in a foreign country in about five years and was welcomed by the organized chaos of Nepalis going about their business at the airport.  I was being picked up by Eve Dimagno, one of 85 Degrees East’s program directors and we took a taxi ride to my apartment.  Now, I’m from Miami so I’m fairly used to some dodgy driving, but never have a seen such maneuvers come from literally everyone on the street. It didn’t matter whether you were on foot, biking, or driving–the road was open game.  On the ride Eve welcomed me to Nepal and began walking me through the plan for the next couple of days and also talking about the culture of Nepal and its people.  Eve explained that Nepali people are very relaxed and are very friendly towards expats and tourists.  This was apparent when regular conflicts that would have resulted in heated screaming matches in the U.S. were wordlessly resolved calmly and efficiently.  For example, on a one lane road a car and two motor bikes almost rammed into each other when turning a corner, but instead of an angry outburst the men on motor bikes calmly backed up into a driveway and let the car pass.  Not a single honk of the horn was heard (honking your horn is actually illegal), or an insult thrown.  Just calm conflict resolution.

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Later that evening, Eve took me to see the Bauddha Stupa (pictured above) with some of her friends and I got insights on some Nepali traditions like walking around the Stupa seven times was supposed to bring good luck. I got to witness a heavily Buddhist influenced form of worship performed by the Nepalis which included walking around the Stupa in prayer periodically taking a few steps then prostrating completely.  There was a surreal, uplifting atmosphere that drove away my jet lag that came from the being there and walking around the Stupa and basking in its presence.  We then enjoyed a wonderful dinner on one of the rooftop cafes by the Stupa where the views of the Stupa, the sunset, and the distant mountains all met to form a perfect closure to my first day in Nepal.

The second day, Eve believed that getting lost in Nepal was part of the experience so she let me loose in the heart of the Kathmandu shopping district.  Now as a Filipino guy with a somewhat stern walking face, a lot of Nepalis thought I was also Nepali and did not treat me as a tourist. It was only after I exchanged my money and when I spoke that I revealed my true identity.  It was nice actually, after meeting up with Eve and Nimesh (The two co-program directors) many shop owners and locals thought I was Nepali like Nimesh.  So a confident stride, keeping my mouth shut, and letting Nimesh do the talking definitely had its benefits.

All in all, it has been a wonderful arrival in Nepal. It has an unbelievably welcoming atmosphere filled with friendly, relaxed people.  I am very excited to be living and working here for the next two and a half months.

Arrival: Hello Beijing!

There was a Chinese woman at the San Francisco airport during my layover who couldn’t speak any English. After about a minute of watching her futile attempt to order a drink from Starbucks using hand motions and grunts, I intervened. “What would to like to buy?” I asked her in Chinese. She looked at me with a puzzled stare and, after a moment, responded with a pronounced Beijing accent. I ordered her a large black coffee that, to the best of my understanding, she had requested. When she received her drink she looked frustrated and disappointed. Oh well… I tried.

I’ve taken four years of Chinese— three years in high school and two semesters at Davidson— and for three and a half of those years, my professors have been Taiwanese. I was warned that the Beijing accent would be different from what I was used to. Characterized by a lot of mumbling and the addition of a harsh rrrrr to the end of a lot of words, I knew to expect a lot of confusion.

I joked to my parents on a phone call home that each taxi ride I took on my first few days in Beijing was like a game of roulette. I would dictate my location to the drivers, but I had no clue until my arrival if where they were taking me was actually my desired location. I’ve come to appreciate the Beijing accent. It’s forced me to listen more intently, speak more clearly, and pay better attention to my tones. I am keenly aware that to them, I talk funny, too.

Almost everybody I’ve spoken to in Beijing has given me the same puzzled look as the woman in Starbucks. I guess they’re just taken aback to see a wairen (foreign person) speak Chinese. I live in 三里屯 (Sanlitun), which is a large expat area. Although restaurant workers and store clerks are accustomed to interacting with foreigners, many of them do not speak any English. The area is very commercial. There is a mall at every corner and restaurants that cater to the tastes of the neighborhood’s foreign residents. I’ve actually had to do a bit of research to find good, authentic Chinese restaurants that aren’t just tourist traps. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that if the sign is mostly in English, I probably won’t find many Beijingers eating there. For my first completely solo abroad experience, Sanlitun was a good area if I found myself tired of hot pot, zhajiang noodles, and jaozi. But I don’t expect that to happen!

I didn’t begin my internship until ten days after my arrival in Beijing because of the national holiday, Dragon Boat Festival. I took that time to do the bulk of my tourist activities in the city, but because I didn’t know when I’d be called into work I hit the ground running as soon as I arrived. I was able to hit many of the big destinations within my first three days: Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Olympic Park, and Wanfujing Snack Street. I loved riding the metro to each destination. Though a city of 22 million people, I immediately felt very immersed in the ebb and flow of transit in the city.

20597321_1538662626197735_5365832012062896232_n-225x300 Arrival: Hello Beijing! 20597321_1538662626197735_5365832012062896232_n-225x300 Arrival: Hello Beijing! 20597321_1538662626197735_5365832012062896232_n-225x300 Arrival: Hello Beijing!