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- November 29, 2003
This experience provided the location and core-experience, murder and terrorism aside, for my first novel.
(Click any picture for a full-size version.)
In 2003 after several months of unemployment, I accepted a generous contract from Wuhan University in mainland China. Over a two week span, I would present a seminar on embedded systems at their International School of Software. Presenting the same material twice in two consecutive weeks, the first session would be for “under-graduates” and the second for “graduates” (that turned out to be graduating seniors). Beginning Monday, October 27th, 2003, the school billed this as their annual “Foreign Expert” presentation.
Leaving Phoenix on the 23rd for San Francisco, my over-night flight across the Pacific put me in Shanghai for an over-night before flying on to Wuhan Saturday afternnon. Having travelled to Asia several times already, I intentionally gave myself the Shanghai break and then a full-day in Wuhan to acclimate to the local time. (One calendar day was lost crossing the International date line from east to west.)
This map doesn’t do Wuhan justice. The city of that name sits on the west side of the Yangtze River, but in practical terms, it extends across by many bridges and in every direction.
Metropolitan Wuhan, population more than 7,000,000, is divided into three parts by the Yangtze, flowing north through the city center then making a double-hump before heading southeast, and the much smaller Hanshui coming in from the west.
Collectively known as Wuhan, the three segregated land areas are named for the smaller cities that started in each section. Northwest is Hankou and holds the primary financial and non-manufacturing businesses. I thought of that as “downtown Wuhan.” The southwestern part of the city is Hanyang. And the eastern section across the Chiang Jiang, the proper name for the Yangtze River, is Wuchang.
Wuhan University is in this final section, Wuchang.
I was met at the Tianhe airport which is several miles north of the city. The school provided a driver with a private car. James’ english was sketchy at best. I was also assigned a student escort who was fluent in English.
The trip from the airport took nearly an hour. Initially on a lightly travelled Interstate-like highway, as we neared the city, traffic escalated. We crossed the broad Chang Jiang by the northernn-most of three bridges.
Passing over the muddy water, it reminded me of the Mississippi River at Memphis Tennessee where I grew up. But Wuhan is bigger–more than ten times bigger–than my home town. There were no river boats pushing long barges of raw materials. Instead, most of the river traffic consisted of self-contained ships of the type commonly sailing between Pacific ports before the container-era began.
Wuhan is, I was surprised to learn, a deep-water port. Ocean-going vessels ply the six hundred miles up the Yangtze from the river’s mouth at Shanghai to Wuhan’s docks.
Continuing from Wuhan, river traffic must pass through the locks at the Three Gorges dam (completed in 2006), the largest construction of its type in the world, before continuing farther inland.
This is the Feng Yi Hotel in Wuchang. (Behind the photographer is the main campus of Wuhan University.)
The Feng Yi is a modern 11 story structure. Inside are two restaurants, one Chinese and the other featuring a mixed, international menu. There’s also a lobby bar and a night club (with yet another bar).
As might be expected for central China, few of the staff were proficient in English. It didn’t take long to figure out which individuals to seek when needing assistance. And I quickly learned that face-to-face communication was always better than any use of the telephone. Even so, I sometimes had to defer a request until one of the English-speaking staff were available.
Indeed, my wife tried to telephone me but was unable to get past the Chinese-only operator at the hotel. In an emergency, this could’ve been a serious problem, but luckily for us, her call was to wish me a Happy Birthday which she did when I called her later at our previously agreed time.
The hotel’s location with the University right across the street was ideal. I could’ve easily walked to my classroom. But the weather–hot and muggy–made the air conditioned, door to door, accommodation quite welcome.
Wuhan is one of three Chinese cities collective known as “The Oven.” I arrived in the last days of October but the daytime temperatures were still in the 90s, and with humidity to match. In the photograph in “The Food” section of this report, you’ll see me in a long-sleeve shirt, such was my incorrect expectation for the climate. The long coat I’m wearing in other pictures is for the occasional rain, but those were exceptions. Most days were just plain “hot and humid.”
Wuhan University’s campus includes a mountain in its southeast corner, with East Lake, Donghu arching around from its far side and bounding the campus on the north.
Overall enrollment is more than 45,000 students and ranks the university with the largest such institutions world-wide.
Because of that mountain, and because the classroom I was to use was on the far side, and because of the very hot weather (in the 90s) even into early November, I was very happy that the school had arranged for a car and driver to take me back and forth between hotel and classroom twice each day, for the morning and then afternoon sessions.
Nor was it practical for me to eat lunch on campus: that would’ve required a walk of more than a mile each way to, and from, lunch and, because I teach standing up and get plenty of exercise moving around the classroom all day, I used the midday transportation and break to eat, rest and cool off. Additionally, prepaid meals were difficult to arrange anywhere other than at the hotel. Consequently, I got to know the hotel menu and wait-staff rather well.
My original booking, made by the University, was a suite of two rooms. I felt rather foolish with all that space (and two barely watchable televisions) and, as soon as one became available, moved to a standard room.
The television received 40-odd channels, in Chinese, Japanese and, I presume, Korean. The only time I heard English was during the newscasts when an English-speaking person was being interviewed, and then only beneath the Chinese overdubbing. In the evenings, most of the programming was dramas, Beijing-style Opera, or game shows. There was one sports channel and, although I’m not particularly a sports fan, it was the one channel where I could understand what was happening. If I watched TV at all, I watched whatever this one channel was presenting and I saw a lot of soccer, badminton, ping pong, volley ball and figure skating.
Looking out my window to the North, I could see all of a secondary school. The three story yellow building, the taller seven story and the connected four story building were part of the complex. On Mondays, the entire student body would assemble in the open area that was surrounded by these buildings and a blue-cloth covered table would be placed in the entry way of the tallest building. Several different individuals would then speak to the students, in Chinese of course, amplified sufficiently for everyone in the hotel to hear, even with their windows closed and sealed.
The more distant buildings are student dormitories for the University with the mountain beyond.
In this picture can be seen more student housing but the apartments immediately next to the tree-lined street are not part of the University grounds. The University property is one row of buildings back from this main street.
Too small to be seen in detail, some of the ground floor shops are visible. Generally speaking, all street level frontage space is given over to various types of shops. Most of these spaces are the size of a single car garage with a roll-down steel door to secure the business in the evenings. During business hours, the door is rolled up and the shop completely open to passers-by. No glass or door got in the way.
The red and white building in the right foreground is a car wash, manned by three or four hard workers with hose, soap squirter, sponges, brushes and drying cloths.
Some of East Lake can be seen in this early morning picture, but the pollution is pretty bad as you can see and it stayed that way throughout my visit. Indeed, the last two days I was there the wind blew very hard as a Siberian cold front came through but, even though it dropped the temperature by forty degrees, the air still looked (and smelled) the same. I’d heard the air pollution there was bad but, well, reading about it and seeing (and breathing) it are two different things.
There are several things worth noting in this picture that looks northwest from my room. First, down in the intersection are several red cars. These are taxis and there’s not a single one of them without a significant number of dents, scrapes, tears and cracks.
In this picture, traffic is very light and, for the most part, relatively quiet, but it won’t stay that way. By the time rush hour arrives, traffic in all four directions through this intersection will be solid and the sound of horns is continuous. When one horn stops, another has already picked up the call. Once, out of curiosity, I counted the number of consecutive seconds during which I could hear the blaring of one or more horns. When I reached three minutes, I abandoned the effort.
Interestingly, it is this continuous horn blowing that is its own blessing because it becomes rather easy to mentally blot-out a continuous noise. I found I could even sleep through much of it.
A couple of city buses can be seen. Fare is 1 Yuan or 1.20 Yuan depending on the route. There are approximately 8 Yuan in a dollar so public transportation is 10-15 cents in Wuhan.
The side of the intersection where one white car is waiting is a gate into the University area. This is one of the minor gates which is locked between about 10:30PM and 5:30AM. The main entrance to the campus is about a mile to the left. It also closes at night but there’s a guard who will open it upon request (just honk!).
The two story building with the red front is the general market area. Vendors there sell produce, beef, fish, spices, and just about anything else that grows or walks about. I didn’t “discover” this market until the last minute so, unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures. I can say, however, that in my one quick walk-through, I saw only the usual animal products being sold, albeit in not what I would consider very sanitary surroundings.
The buildings behind that are student (and faculty) housing for the University.
The more downtown portions of Wuchang are in the distance to the left but invisible behind the air pollution. Similarly, downtown Wuhan (across the river) is even farther away and all the more impossible to see.
Coming out the front door of the hotel, the traffic is the first thing that catches the eye but that is almost immediately followed by the overhead wiring. The wiring on utility poles looked like the work of a drunken spider. New wires were wrapped around preexisting bundles for support, excess length was stored in loops hanging near some end point, and drops for individual use took off at all angles from no particular point in the run from pole to pole.
This haphazard approach to power cabling applied on a smaller scale as well. Fans in shops often hung precariously from ceilings by a single screw with the power cord draped over anything handy on its way to the open end of an extension cord that ultimately found its way to an outlet from a power strip festooned with multiway adapters.
In more general terms, workmanship in other areas such as painting and woodworking was similarly finished. Newly painted walls, for example, looked complete but the surrounding area would still show drips or over-painting on the unmasked surfaces. And bicycle repairs were adequate to the point of enabling the bike to be ridden but, beyond that, there was no attention to cosmetics.
The car wash adjacent to the hotel was a rare exception. Work there was meticulous and thorough even though the result only lasted a few hours before the soot regained a foot hold.
I sometimes wished for a video camera to capture movement or the juxtaposition of two nearby images that the still camera couldn’t hold in a single image, but even a fish-eye lense and full motion video would have been inadequate for the experience of traffic in central China.
At first, riding in a car was truly a stream of terrifying moments but, with more and more exposure, it decreased to simply a slightly apprehensive succession of marvels, and then finally to a feeling of marvel at how the drivers, riders and pedestrians collectively managed the near-continuous flow with only the occasional white knuckle moment.
Street traffic generally stayed to the right but if an opportunity to pass offered itself, no matter how wide or narrow the avenue, and sidewalk, the demarcations of the pavement, or sometimes even the curb, became meaningless. Drivers threaded their way through cross-traffic of pedestrians and bicycles by watching for the lowest density of obstacles and then nosing a path through the mass. Movement on smaller streets seemed to be accomplished by watching the flow of bicycles, pedestrians, scooters and the occasional car or truck by watching the movement of holes in the flow and matching one’s progress to them.
Frequent honks were sounded not to blame others for doing something wrong but rather to warn those ahead to follow the straight and narrow until the honker had passed. Safety in traffic came to those who were predictable in their movements, to those who did the expected. And since everyone seemed to do this rather well, I concluded that everyone had either learned the rule of predictability that made this possible, or had been permanently scared off, or killed, in the effort.
Even so, there were frequent moments of confrontation when the predictability of several vehicles or, more commonly, of a car and a bicycle would clash. Then it became two simple questions to be answered in very rapid fashion: who got there first, and can the other guy turn or stop in time? As I watched this happen again and again between the van in which I rode and students on bicycles, dads on scooters with four year old children, and pedestrians working their way across rush-hour traffic I would repeat to myself in utter sincerity, “God is truly with these people.”
Charcoal vendors also ply the streets with their hand-carts. Because the charcoal is so black, it’s difficult to see in this picture but the fellow in the blue shirt and straw hat has his right foot propped on his hand-cart which is stacked with charcoal to sell. The charcoal itself is cylindrical in shape, about 3" in diameter and 4" long with holes running the length, presumably to increase the surface area for faster burning.
Down a small road next to the hotel, there were at least a dozen street vendors of various foods. Baked sweet potatoes, a kind of pan bread baked inside recycled 55 gallon drums, skewered meats and vegetables, and steamed as well as fried dumplings were among the offerings. Each vendor had a charcoal fire to prepare his product and it looked like the charcoal vendors had a prosperous business bringing their product on hand-driven carts directly to their customers. I can’t say if the more established but small sidewalk restaurants also used charcoal but, for the smallest, that seems the most likely.
When burned, most of the charcoal is consumed or converted into the fine white ash that fills the air, coats out onto cars, bicycles, buses and trucks, the walls of a room if the windows are left open, the leaves of trees and even the blades of grass.
Dirty grass: imagine that. [Cough!]
Hubei Provincial Museum
On Saturday morning, Aretha and Robin, two of the University students, accompanied me (and the driver) for some sight-seeing.
(Incidentally, the images in this section were taken by Aretha on her digital camera, transferred to my computer via a USB compact flash “dongle”, and then cropped and retouched after my return to the USA. I am most grateful to Aretha for taking these images as none of my interior pictures were any good. Thanks, Aretha!)
The first of our two stops was the Hubei provincial museum where artifacts from the tomb of Marquis Yi are displayed. I bought a CD at the museum (more on this later) and, in the liner notes, it says,
The bronze “bianzhong-chime” bells were capable of music with pentatonic (5 note), hextonic (6 note) and heptatonic (7 note) scales. Because of this, they can be used in foreign as well as Chinese music, both ancient and modern.
Each bell can produce two different pitches depending on where it is struck. As you may be able to tell, they are not in a traditional “bell” shape. Instead, when viewed from the mouth or handle, the body is elliptical in shape. When struck at the center of the long curve, one pitch is produced. But if the musician strikes that same bell about halfway to the sharp node of the curve, a different tone is made. Typically the pitches are a minor or major third apart.
Local musicians gave hourly concerts using a replica set instruments in the concert hall of the museum. As you can see, the costumes were very elegant. The bianzhone-Chime bells are arranged along the back of the stage behind the seated musicians.
The large bells along the bottom row are “played” with a long pole used like a ram, not a bat. The pole is wood, about eight feet (8’) long and two inches (2") in diameter with a leather-padded end. On fast tunes, the musician was very busy moving from one bell to the next and I dare say it looked like a workout as he ran back and forth carrying the pole and striking the appropriate location on each of the various bells at the correct moment in the music.
At the extreme right in this photograph and illuminated solely by a red flood light are the bianqing-chime stones. These have a metallic appearance but are, instead, very hard and smooth stones that have been shaped and sized for pitch. They hang from strings and are played by striking with a mallet. A large horizontal drum can be seen next to these stones.
Each song was announced in both Chinese and English. The announcer, in her formal attire (with glasses and a wireless microphone), can be seen in the foreground. Slightly behind her is a musician seated at a stringed instrument. The musician plucked or hammered the strings and she would occasionally press down on a string outside the bridge to ‘bend’ the pitch. Another of these instruments appears at the left as well.
Seated in the middle are three additional musicians. These gentlemen played a variety of instruments including a couple of different flutes, a ceramic instrument that reminded me of a large ocarina but was pronounced “Schuan” (possibly, “Xuan” in Chinese? – it is inside the small box sitting on the floor next to the right-most male performer), and two reed instruments that were held in front of the face. These had what appeared to be multiple pipes sticking upward about twelve inches (12").
Here are two different flutes.
First, the pan flute seen on the right is found in many cultures. It consists of many tubes, each a different length. Often made of bamboo because it is mostly hollow, the musician blows across the top of one pipe, and then shifts left or right to the correct pipe for the next. In quick passages, stopping and then restarting the airflow must be carefully synchronized with rapid shifts left and right. This particular musician gave a very impressive display of dexterity and coordination.
Centered upstage from this dancer, a musician plays a chi-flute. Western flautists will recognize this not only as a transverse flute, but also that it is held to the left, opposite that of european-designed flutes. (I played one from the fifth grade through high school.)
One of the single- or double-reed instruments can be seen in playing position by the musician seated behind the dancer. From my readings, I think this is a sheng-pipe and it contains 12, 14 or 18 reeds. I could not tell how the musician was selecting one (or more) reeds while inhibiting the others. Regardless, it had a very interesting, albeit reedy sound.
And in the background in both images, somewhat in the dark, is the performer that plays the large bells. (Remember you can click on any picture on this web page to see a larger, more detailed version.)
After the live performance ended, I looked for a recording of these instruments in the gift shop. Finding a CD, I prepared to buy it but my companions said the price of the CD was exorbitant, almost $15.00 in the equivalent US currency. I said that this was the customary price of music CDs in the US and they both stepped back astonished. Music CDs in China, they said, cost an average of $2.00 US (in equivalent Chinese currency). Later, I would confirm this when I found a collection of “Madonna’s Greatest Hits” for about $1.50 new.
Regardless of the cost, however, the CD in the museum was almost certainly the only one of its kind and I wanted something to remind me of the performance. The sounds and the feeling it evoked were unique so I paid the asking price.
The songs on the CD are mostly folk melodies, the same as were performed in the museum concert hall, and have titles such as “Moonlit Flowers by the Spring River”, “Qu Yuan Asking About the Ferry” and “The Elegant Orchid”.
As luck would have it, ten minutes after leaving the museum we happened into a gift shop and found the same music CD for less than half what I had just paid.
(Note the do-not-litter sign on the wall next to the lion.)
On Saturday, we also visited a Buddhist temple in another area of Wuhan. Suppressed for so many years, the temple is much more a tourist attraction than anything else now. I am pictured here with one of the two lions that guards the entrance. Supposedly there are 40 Buddhists living and working in this temple but almost all of them stayed out of sight during our visit. I spoke with one of them briefly through one of the students but he seemed reluctant to answer questions.
I’ve been to other Buddhist temples in other parts of the world and must say I was very sadly disappointed, but not overly surprised, to see what has become of this one inside the People’s Republic of China. A significant component of Chinese history and culture is gone. That was sad to see. And this wasn’t the only gap in the student’s knowledge about their history, recent as well as ancient.
Across the street from the temple were these apartments. This was a fairly typical scene with laundry hung out to dry (and collect soot). Notice the blue-tinted windows. That was also very common. I don’t know if that is in reaction to the pollution that adds a yellowish cast to everything. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that I’ve had to re-balance the color in the pollution-focused pictures to get them looking like it really was. The photo lab’s color balancing “corrected”-out the yellowish cast of the pollution which I had to put back in. It doesn’t show much in the picture of the apartments but the earlier dawn picture looking east shows it more clearly.)
The norm for this row of shops reminds me of a series of single-stall garages with metal roll-up doors. The area immediately outside of each shop becomes a part of the owner’s turf as evidenced in many cases by a couple of chairs and a table, a pile of steel, or a partially disassembled motorcycle under repair. At night, of course, everything gets pulled inside and the metal roll-up is closed and locked. There’s no “window shopping” at night.
There were lots of restaurants, used bicycle sale and repair shops, clothing stores with western-faced mannequins displaying the wares for sale (often with no arms), metal-work shops with welding torches and hand-held grinders showering sparks out toward the street, and tiny little shops with a few soft drinks and snacks for sale.
It was sometimes difficult to figure out exactly what the shop was selling. Shoe repair shops were somewhat unusual but not unheard of. More commonly, shoe repair was seen on a street corner where the cobbler would use a hand-turned machine to do whatever stitching might be needed. All his supplies were hand carried and, at the end of the day, the shop and all its contents went home.
Sidewalks were sometimes interesting. Between the edge of the street and the front door of the shop there were often several distinct areas. First, and right next to the street but on the shop-side of the curb, would be a concrete slab-covered drainage ditch. Each slab measured about 1-2 feet and was 4-6 inches thick. These were laid over the top of the drainage ditch which was another foot deep. There was no rain to speak of while I was there but it looked like they could handle a moderate-size rainfall.
Inside that would be an area four to six feet wide in green pavers with large yellow arrows. You can see the tail end of one of the arrows in the “More Shops” picture. I watched the non-street traffic very carefully but never did figure out what these strips were for. Bicycles typically competed with cars and buses for the normal roadway and pedestrians walked everywhere and in every direction regardless of the paved yellow arrows.
When taking close up pictures, I almost always asked permission. This woman indicated neither “yes” nor “no” to my gestures so I finally just raised my camera and took the picture. Her expression tells me I didn’t violate her privacy too much.
She was preparing a large kettle of rice in this street-side restaurant. It was fairly early in the day and I don’t think they were open for business yet. The crates of produce are still sitting out to be prepared as well.
One thing that I did notice was that most people were wearing clean clothing that looked relatively new. By and large, everyone except the very small number of homeless wore nice things. Not overly dressy but, nonetheless, very nice.
I was curious about the leather bracelet the rice cooker woman was wearing on her left wrist but, of course, had no way to communicate in such detail with her. Interestingly, it makes her an individual, a unique person in my memory somewhat apart from the many other people I encountered.
Here’s another restaurant, this time with a much more reluctant subject. This woman neither nodded nor refused my request to take her picture (probably because she didn’t understand what I wanted, or was unsure of how to refuse). Regardless, she is not very happy that I took the picture anyway. (I left immediately after snapping the shutter and didn’t wait around for anyone to show their anger.)
The steamers she is tending are filled with “Bao” – the top is slightly ajar and you can see them nestled inside. “Bao” is a yeasty bun, served doughy and filled with various kinds of meat and spices. I ate and enjoyed them at the hotel but was hesitant to try them from the garage-size street-side restaurants. [Woof, woof! Meow, meow!]
The young man is stretching and re-stretching noodles again and again until they reach the proper thickness. Some of the smells coming from these noodle shops were wonderful and I came close to trying more than one but, always, the stained smocks and dirty floors put me off.
The caps worn by two of the men in this shop appeared a number of times, often in one of these small shops, and usually worn by all the men working in that shop. I presume this is indicative of either a religious preference or an ethnicity but I don’t know which.
Neighborhood Activity on the Weekend
On the weekend, vendors would spread a piece of red velvet on the sidewalk near the main entrance to the University and display the jewelry they were selling. Most of the wares were various designs of strung beads. Included were necklaces, bracelets and rings. A few would include a larger amulet of some type, sometimes a colorful stone but more often a wood carving of some type. Prices varied from a few Yuan to as much as 150, about 50 cents to 20 dollars.
The sellers were Tibetan and had a look that was not only very different from the Han Chinese (the largest racial group in China) but the Tibetans were, by and large, also quite stunning and beautiful. Unfortunately, they were also very shy of the camera and would turn away long before I could even attempt to ask permission.
Saturday afternoon was “get out and meet the neighbors” time. Card games were popular among the men and some of the gambling pots might have as much as 100 Yuan ($12), possibly more. Given the typical income level in these areas, that was a significant amount of money. This group was intensely following the play of cards and I made no attempt to ask permission before taking their picture. I did it as discretely as possible and then left the area in case anyone became annoyed. But they were so intensely watching the game that I don’t think they noticed me at all, much less my camera.
The cordial group seen in this picture was happy to let me snap a picture as they played Mahjong. The game is similar to Rummy but the rules for “going out” appear to be a little more complex. I watched as players would draw and discard hoping to make triplets of the same piece in their large hands. But someone would suddenly flip all their pieces forward and everyone else would start counting points from their own hands and exchanging money with the pot which seemed to run to about 50 Yuan ($8) per game.
Sunday morning was a good time to see University students out for an early sculling practice. A motorboat often led the way with a coach shouting instructions to the rowers.
The scene looks somewhat ethereal with the mist starting to shroud distant objects and the line of trees standing at attention in the background. But remember this isn’t mist: it is air pollution. And remember that the lake isn’t the sort of place you’d want to go swimming.
Still, all things considered, it was a nice morning and the scene was attractive as long as certain aspects could be shut out of mind.
Also popular on Sunday were these colorful boats. Young couples could rent a ride and be paddled around the lake while enjoying each others company. Remember, however, this is not the sort of lake where you might lazily dip your hand and mischievously flick a few drops on your partner. The few fishermen I watched would haul in their catch, clean it on the spot and throw the offal back into the lake. No doubt this is good for the environmental cycle but it did make for a nasty smell and disgusting floaters. I didn’t want to think of what else might be flowing into the lake but I did notice that it supported a lot of plant life, some of which looked like the “greens” that were sometimes served with dinner.
Sunday was also the day for weddings. The hotel had several in the middle of my stay and all cars in the entourage were brightly decorated with the bride and groom’s the most spectacular.
I presume the wedding took place in the reception hall on the mezzanine floor and, after enjoying the reception for an hour or so, all the guests would move to the lobby and the couple would descend the grand staircase, enter the first of several decorated cars and leave at the head of the motorcade.
Here’s a picture of one of the more interesting buildings on the campus. I didn’t have a lot of time to wander about the campus and, after lecturing for as much as six hours-I stand and move about the classroom when teaching-I didn’t feel like taking long hikes, so my explorations were minimal.
The campus is extensive and is spread around a mountain. The eastern and part of the northern edges of the campus border the large East Lake. The hotel is south of the campus and Wuchang (and then Wuhan) build up quickly to the west.
International School of Software
The International School of Software is new at the University. It started less than two years ago and has more of a practical emphasis in computer science and less of an academic one. Graduates are expected to work in the “IT” (Information Technology) industry, helping support the computing infrastructure as opposed to writing new software.
My classroom was in this building, on the top floor and taking up the left half as seen in this picture, starting just to the left of the blue window.
Wuhan University has the typical services you’d find at any other University. Student housing is available at various levels of community living, from dormitory shared-room through apartment dwellings. And many students chose to live off-campus but otherwise near their classes. There was the student union building with cafeteria-style food service, take-out food, a grocery with fresh vegetables (and a sweets aisle that was always crowded with students looking through the snacks), a clothing store, branches of a couple of different banks, etc…
The next images are of the left- and right-hand sides of the classroom of the first of the two sessions I presented at the University. These are the undergraduate students. Slightly more than eighty (80) attended this first class.
Their knowledge of computers and embedded systems was limited so I tended to talk in generalities more than about specifics of Linux. Even so, Linux was discussed at length since it will probably be an important part of what these students will be working on after graduation.
In public statements elsewhere, the Chinese government has expressed serious concern over the use of closed source, in general, and Microsoft products, in particular, within China. Cost is certainly one issue and as China moves to increase international trade, it is taking steps to begin observing copyrights better and, with that, to pay royalties on software it uses.
But, more important than cost, and especially to governments including the United States as well as the China government, is that without access to the source code, governments cannot ensure that the operating system (or other) software isn’t “stealing” their state secrets. Most US Government agencies that deal with these types of information have rigorous security precautions to prevent that information getting out. In many cases, the choice of operating system software is also restricted to either software products that have been proven to be secure, or that are “open source” (meaning that the source code is available) and which can, therefore, be independently verified as secure. Microsoft’s products do not fall into these categories. Hence, the rise of Linux and other “open source” software.
Indeed, several European governments have recently passed legislation against closed source software (and specifically prohibiting Microsoft and others). Instead, they have legislatively mandated the use of “open source” software.
Like Linux, But Not
China, Japan, and Korea (North or South, I’m not sure which) have agreed to develop an open source operating system “like Linux” for this purpose. Most analysts agree that the consortium will ultimately decide to throw their weight behind Linux itself rather than attempting to “reinvent the wheel.”
I am a strong advocate of “open source” and am convinced that within the next decade or two, it will displace most closed source software. I believe that Microsoft will eventually “open” most of its software in order to survive.
For several reasons, China may well play a decisive role in this overall change that is taking place in the software industry. They have a very large number of intelligent, well-educated software engineers, they want the much lower cost of open software, and are working hard to position themselves as a major provider of software services (and products) in the coming years.
China is already one of three extremely popular “off shore” locations for software-related services. If you have a telephone number to call for technical support for your computer or some software you are using, it is probable that the person on the other end of the telephone is in Russia, India or China. Of these three, China has the lowest costs, can charge the least, and is growing in this area faster than the other two.
But I am not blind nor deaf to the effect this is having on US-based software engineers. On the contrary, I am quite familiar with it. I was laid off at the end of February 2003, in conjunction with a layoff of software engineers. (I train software engineers and, when fewer of them are needed, fewer trainers are needed.) The market for US-based software engineers has been almost completely devoid of openings for more than a year. Only recently have a few companies resumed hiring, but even then at a profoundly reduced level.
Most large companies have already begun to use off-shore engineering services. Motorola, for example, has several hundreds (thousands, now?) of software and hardware engineers in Beijing. And my most recent employer, the one that laid me off back in February, MontaVista Software, was recently advertising for a manager to oversee a department of software engineers in the People’s Republic of China. Other companies (such as American Express) use independent engineering firms in China, Russia and India for the bulk of their software development. Their US-based staffs are much, much smaller than only five years ago.
Today, virtually no US companies are enlarging their software engineering departments and most are continuing their efforts to drastically reduce their US-based employee population in this area.
I am convinced that, as with the blue-collar work shifts to off-shore over the past few decades, the shift to off-shore white-collar workers in the computer software industry is going to continue. A US-based software engineer receives $80-$120 per hour. A comparable engineer in India is paid about $40 per hour, $30 per hour in Russia, and only $15-$20 per hour in China. No amount of legislation will stop this shift in services: the price difference is just too great and any company that attempts to keep its US-based staff will simply find its products undercut with more competitive and lower cost products that were developed outside of the US.
The bottom line is that the future for software engineering is off-shore.
This will all take time, of course, but I’m convinced it will happen. For myself, I’m working to shift my training business from US-based, instructor-led classes for small numbers of high-paying students, to off-shore delivered, computer-led instruction for a high-volume of low-cost classes. Fostering the acceptance of Linux and building a reputation for myself in China are important parts of building that future training business.
Here’s another set of images from the classroom. Seen from the back, you may be able to see a glimmer of the projected images on the front walls. The classroom had two ceiling-mounted projectors that were connected to my computer so students could see where I was in the lecture and also follow along during the demonstrations.
The image in this case, however, is of Makella, our granddaughter, in one of her soccer games. When asked about my family and living in America, I diverged from the course materials for an hour of highly interactive discussion of pictures from my personal collection. These included my immediate and extended family, several from my genealogical collection, and finally an extended and earnest discussion of my firearms and violence in America. The students were fascinated with this aspect, and across the classroom, demonstrated a wide range of opinion.
Since my “role” in presenting to these students had been explained as “so they can get to hear a real American,” I felt justified in talking about this aspect of who I am, and in explaining my beliefs in practices. But I must also admit I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had come in, shut down my discussion, and arrested me for discussing a forbidden topic.
But nothing of the sort happened, and in the second week with word having been spread from the first, the next batch of students specifically asked to see my gun collection, and to talk about my living in the “wild west” of America.
The second class (seen here) was half again as large as the first, over 120 students. This was too big for the first classroom and so we moved down to the third floor into a classroom without computers that allowed extra seating.
The second group, initially described to me as “Graduate” students turned out to be “graduating seniors.” Regardless, their interest in embedded systems was considerably higher than the earlier (freshman, sophomore and junior level) class, and their ability to use Linux (when we did the lab portions of the class) was much better. Consequently, I went into much more detail about Linux with this second class and was rewarded with much greater efforts and successes in the hands-on portions. (Not all of the students participated in the lab segments so we used the fourth floor computer-based classroom for those portions of the class.)
As you might imagine, I got a lot of exercise hiking up and down those four tall flights of steps (where the ceilings were about 20’ so each story was almost double the norm).
Here’s a restaurant we went to on the weekend. If you look at the signage up at the very top over the entrance, you can see that the first two Chinese characters are the same. The name of the restaurant was “Tsing, Tsing” and is pronounced almost like “Sing, Sing” except that the “S” sound is begun with the space between the tongue and roof of the mouth closed as when saying the letter “T”.
Here we are waiting for our order at the “Tsing, Tsing” restaurant.
I am on the left and next to me is Robin, then my driver and finally Aretha (who supplied all the pictures taken inside the museum).
All meals are served “family style” which, of course, would be more appropriately described here as “Chinese style.” Dishes are placed in the middle of the table, often on a lazy-Susan turntable (but not at our smaller table here). Each diner has a small bowl, chopsticks and a flat plate. To eat, if you see something you want you simply reach out with your chopsticks and pick up (or pull-away) a few bites. If the food is drippy or prone to coming apart, the small bowl may be picked up and held underneath the bites as they are brought from the serving dish. In many cases, diners would continue to hold the small bowl while eating. This bowl is also used for soups which are ladled out from the large serving bowl as desired.
The small flat plate can be used to hold solid chunks of foods prior to being eaten but, more importantly, it is also the “bone yard.” Dishes containing chicken meat are not de-boned. Instead, the bird is cut into bite-sized pieces by slicing directly through the bone. This means that the bite of chicken you just put into your mouth is still on the bone and you must carefully chew and manipulate the bite inside your mouth to remove all the flesh and, when complete, carefully push the bones out and hold them between your lips, take them in your chopsticks from your lips (and not drop into your lap), and then put the cleaned bones on the small white plate. As you might imagine, this is no small feat of dexterity with chopsticks!
Fish is similarly served “bone in” and, for the much talked about “Wuhan fish”, this consisted of hundreds of tiny bones in addition to the obvious backbone. Unlike the chicken, however, many of the bones could be removed before eating by placing a bite in the small bowl and using the chopsticks to remove and place them on the white plate. Nonetheless, chopstick expertise was required and although my associates were polite, they did get a couple of laughs from my efforts.
Lunch started with smoked whitefish which, for once, was easily pushed away from the bone and eaten with little fear of choking and death. (Although I enjoyed “Wuhan fish” three different ways, the effort of removing all the little bones was tiring and, as a result, I really enjoyed this easy to eat smoked whitefish.)
Four dishes were then presented. A chicken-in-soup dish, beef with tomatoes (like a stew), goat meat with green onions and red chilies (Zounds!) and a mix of local vegetables in a light sauce. Everything was excellent although the Szechuan dish (goat meat) was exceedingly spicy: everyone sampled it but much was leftover when everyone was full.
Drinks with lunch were often fruit-based soft drinks or beer. “Tsing Tao” seemed to be the beer the Chinese give to tourists but not drink themselves. Instead, I found a local brand, “King Long” that I liked very much. It was mild, not overly bitter, and came in half-liter bottles which were just about the right size for a meal. It was also relatively cheap, about one-third the price of imported beers.
Translations into English were sometimes amusing. These are commonly referred to as Chinglish. I learned to appreciate the spirit of the message rather than the literal words. On the airplane from Shanghai to Wuhan, for example, we were given small moist towels to wash our hands before the meal. This was a great idea because Shanghai, like Wuhan, has a constant layer of pollution in the air and most things have a thin layer of ash on them. Printed on the outside of the towel’s package was this double message, “Washing Hands Is Needless.”
Eating at the Feng Yi
Chinglish sometimes came up in spoken language as well.
My meals in the hotel were paid by the University. This included breakfast, lunch and dinner. I could go out to eat if I wished but would have to not only bear the expense, but also figure out how to order from a menu that was totally illegible. And worse, Chinese restaurants other than the hotel are unable to deal with single diners. All dishes are for group presentation and even if you order a single dish (which makes the meal rather monotonous), there’s too much food.
Consequently, I ate at the hotel more often than not and, learning which of the staff could communication (some) in English, I quickly found one server and always gravitated toward her. Sometimes our communications were straight-forward: “Hot water, please” always succeeded in getting me a glass (!) of boiling hot water (which was, therefore, safe to drink).
Other communications succeeded but with interesting twists. The dining room menu had a Chinese and an English section but only the western dishes were described in English. The hotel prided itself on having a relatively long western menu. After several Chinese meals, I was ready for a break and turned to this part of the menu. There was peppercorn steak, fried chicken, sauteed pork cutlet in brown sauce and several other non-Chinese meals.
That evening, I pointed to the fried chicken meal on the menu as my order. My server nodded, took the menu and left.
Two minutes later, she returned, handed me the menu and said, “Chef say you no can have that.”
I assumed the chef wasn’t trying to lower my cholesterol but rather that the kitchen was out of some essential ingredient (or knowledge). Looking over the menu again, I pointed to the Japanese Udon soup and asked, “This, please?”
She nodded, took the menu and left.
And was back in the next minute.
“You no can have that, either.”
I thought for a moment and then asked, “What can I have?”
She flipped the menu in my fingers to the Chinese section and announced, “You will like Chinese noodles with beef soup.” She then plucked away the menu and disappeared before I could argue.
And she was right: I enjoyed it.
When I wanted a Chinese meal at the hotel, I found that the best approach was simply to turn to the page of complete Chinese dinners (for one person) and point to one of them at random. This was pretty scarey because I never knew what I’d see placed before me to eat. Would it be looking back? Would it still be moving? Would it be too slippery for chopsticks?
All of these fears proved to be true, but only in small measure and typically for only one part of the meal. The scariest meal was, of course, when things might still be moving. This only took place for the “hot pot” dinner which is a Chinese smorgasbord and, to my relief, all the creatures had been summarily dispatched before reaching the table. I saw no wiggles or squirms.
In the “hot pot” dinner, a metal bowl of chicken broth is placed over a Sterno flame and brought to a boil. Community serving tables contain a wide assortment of ingredients and, after filling a plate with them, they are added to the soup which is allowed to come back to a boil during which time the ingredients are cooked, and then eaten. Soup is replenished throughout the meal as needed.
About half the ingredients were vegetable and the other half fish. There were only one or two “land animal” ingredients such as small sausages or what might have been liver pate presented in bite-size slices. These didn’t go well with the soup so I regarded them more as appetizers and ate them while waiting for my “concoction du jour” to boil.
The vegetables included a dozen things that were only remotely familiar including bok choy and green onions. Most were local and described as “our favorite” but, to me, tasted much like the polluted air. These were most akin to different kinds of “greens” which, before discovering pepper sauce, I never cared for in the US. Unfortunately, this sauce is unknown in China and no matter how these local “green” were prepared, I didn’t care for them.
The raw fish that was available for my “hot pot” included a dozen different shell fish (which I avoided completely for health reasons), eels about six inches in length that had been decapitated in the kitchen (thank you) but leaving a bloody stump (no thank you) and loaded with tiny bones (!), a platter of octopus carcasses with clipped tentacles, and small, gutted catfish still bearing eyes and whiskers.
Octopus Hot Pot
Of these, the little pink balloon-looking octopi were my first risk in the “hot pot.” I’d had these before cooked several different ways and, invariably, they had the texture of squares cut from an old bicycle tire.
“Perhaps it’s the cooking,” I reasoned and decided to experiment and see if I could do better. (My wife is probably snickering already – she knows I’m not a very good cook. Still, I was determined to try and do better with the pink octopus.)
I tried one lightly cooked: unpleasantly fishy tasting with a rubbery texture.
I tried another one, medium cooked this time. It came out with an unpleasant but indescribable taste, and with a rubbery texture.
And then I tried one very well done but ended up with no taste, and a toughness that reminded me of a highway-thrown tread from a semi.
So much for pink octopus. But at least those experiments (and my growing hunger) propelled me to the next level, to the skinny little catfish.
The main question to be answered was, “skin on or off?” Watching the other diners was a great way to discover that, after cooking, catfish is eaten like an ear of corn, skin on and, thankfully, leaving the head untouched. I boiled my experimental catfish until it looked done, gave it another two minutes of boiling, and then nibbled a bite. Pretty good and certainly much better than the octopus.
Finally, I was left to contemplate the headless eels. To be honest, I had avoided this moment for more than an hour by going back for various “seconds.” (Most diners would spend at least two hours at dinner, sometimes three.)
But finally, I found enough courage (or had drunk sufficient “King Long” beer) to try an eel. And I must say that you get very little meat for all that consternation, but what I did taste was much like any other fish – perhaps a tad fishier than catfish but, nonetheless, quite acceptable. There just wasn’t much of it. From that, I can understand why the eel-lovers I saw all filled up their bowls with half a dozen or more in one dunk and then tended the brew pushing errant tails back in to the bubbling cauldron.
Struggles aside, the “hot pot” style of Chinese meal was a hit with me. Not only was it very inexpensive (the “hot pot” dinner in the hotel was 38 Yuan, about $3.75 – for dinner), and I could pick and choose the ingredients I wanted, but also because it took a long time to eat in the evening and, therefore, it rescued me from an evening of flipping through forty (40) TV channels I could not understand.
Near the end of my two week stay in Wuhan, the waitress knew I would be leaving soon. Her English had been adequate, she remembered my preferences, and was able to guess what I might find pleasing.
Feeling somewhat prideful at my last dinner, she asked, “I service you very good, yes?”
I could only nod in full agreement. She was intelligent, observant, and when necessary, polite but assertive. She captured my business and then saw to it that I became a happy, and frequently returning, customer.
The same was true of the students I met at the University. They were well-trained, intelligent, curious, and not averse to suggesting by word, gesture, or glance, that their knowledge was not solely bounded by Party literature. Their knowledge of humanity was not proscribed to the boundaries of their country’s extents.
I have little doubt they are going to have significant influence over the coming decades. How that will affect their local politics, the Chinese Communist Party, China as a player in the larger world…
“May you live in interesting times.”
Indeed, we do.
© Copyright 2003 by Ed Skinner
All Rights Reserved
Revised: 2-August-2005 and 12-July-2023