About 9 months ago, I got a pretty mundane email that said that my advisor “would like to take us to Guangzhou, China for an organic semiconductors workshop the week of January 10, 2016.” There was no fanfare or excitement in the wording, but inside, I was elated. During my short tenure as a researcher in graduate school and during my undergrad, I’ve been to a few major US cities and twice to Europe, but I had never imagined going to Asia. In America, naturally, I can get by fine as a native speaker. In Europe, it was easy enough because even if we couldn’t understand the language, the alphabet was the same. But in China, I would be in an entirely different culture. I knew it would be interesting. There were twelve of us crossing the Pacific, four professors and eight graduate students. The flight was 14 hours and for me, not a wink of sleep. But when the plane landed on Saturday evening in Guangzhou, the windows on both sides of the craft were open, and each of us travelling to China for the first time had our eyes glued to the passing lighted signs with the strange characters, hoping to get our first glance of this new world.
Our hosts were our Chinese counterparts, other researchers from South China University of Technology. They greeted us at the airport and took us to the university campus, which would be our temporary home in Guangzhou. I was not starving, which would end up being a recurring incidence at meal times while I was in China, but we were treated to dinner at a local restaurant. Still, I couldn’t pass up a chance to try something new; I ordered a hot pot, a stew of cured pork and grilled vegetables served simmering in a ceramic pot. I even braved a pickled chicken foot, which was only as bad as getting over the idea that it was a foot. The one thing I wanted though was a place to sleep. It had been just about 24 hours since I woke up in California, before my flight to China. After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel, where each of us graduate students had our own room, each with a beckoning bed. The mattresses were missing cushioning, almost as hard as plywood, but coupled with the plush pillows and my zombie catatonia, it was as comfortable as anything could have been.
The next morning we met in the hotel lobby to have breakfast together. A breakfast buffet, which ended up comprising every subsequent morning meal, was laid out for us. Eagerly, I began to pile things on my plate without question. It didn’t matter what kind of meat or noodle or vegetable was in those silver buffet hot water trays; I was going to sample it all. I learned that I should have been more patient; none of the food was going away in the next few days. Each day’s menu was the same as the last. But that first morning was an indulgent tasting of savory and salty chicken and pork, delicious red bean and egg custard pastries, and steamed buns filled with barbecue pork. It wasn’t too long after breakfast, after our hosts gave us a tour of their research facility, that we were back in the dining hall of the hotel for lunch. I was almost too full to try more food. Almost.
In the afternoon, we had our first glance of what probably fulfilled our preconceived notion of what “Chinese” was as we visited the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall. When we stepped off the bus, it was interesting to see worlds flipped. Growing up near San Francisco and the Bay Area and now living in Southern California, it was not uncommon to see tourists emerge one by one from a bus and begin to take pictures of anything and everything. But here we were, standing in the courtyard and taking pictures of everything and anything; red paper lanterns, elaborate stucco carvings, courtyard arches, and the floating roof. The hall was built as a temple for ancestral worship. Originally, anyone with the Chen name was welcome to stay in the building, pay their respects, and study for the Chinese imperial exam. Soon though, it became a place of learning. Now, it serves as a relic of the past and houses folk art from the surrounding areas. We were lucky enough to get an English-speaking tour guide who showed us around the inside and revealed interesting folk history. It was a whirlwind of information and visual stimuli, learning that bats in China were considered good luck and that dragon-fish hybrids can protect a house by swallowing fire and spitting out water, seeing how the gold foil and stucco carvings were so ornately fabricated, and getting a glimpse of historical art like the intricate carvings in ivory and the smooth, old inkstones. The hasty tour would be a good foreshadow of the week to come: so many little details to absorb but we barely had time to see the entire picture.
With almost no time for a break, we were whisked away for our next adventure: a river boat dinner. The rain followed us from California, and it sprinkled and a light wind blew near the waterways. The boat pushed away from the dock and dinner was ready. It was another buffet, and I was already missing the variety of food from the United States. The meals were always a mystery. I could hardly eat though, barely swallowing what I found out was a couple pieces of squid, salted ribs, and some steamed rice. I just wasn’t hungry. The view from the deck of the boat was one of our best of the trip. The Pearl River is a source of pride for locals in Guangzhou. The natural river cuts through the urban landscape of the major city. Modern skyscrapers watch over the river on both sides. We all stood under umbrellas on the top deck of the cruise watching as the river reflected the bright neon lights and LEDs from the buildings and bridges. We passed under bridges with neon fireworks and Chinese lettering and caught a glimpse of the rainbow-colored Canton Tower (or as the locals call it due to its curved shape, the “Sexy Lady”), which once measured as the tallest tower in the world. Our night ended fairly early; it had been a busy couple of days and the next morning would be the first day of our workshop.
The details of the workshop would only be interesting to those who went; Chinese and American researchers alternated giving talks on plastic solar cells and transistors. There were only two days of talks, one right after the other, but it never became overwhelming or dull. A night at the circus interrupted the conference on Monday night. Our hosts brought us to Chimelong Paradise, a tourist resort and the largest amusement park in China complete with a hotel on-site, roller coasters, a safari zone, and, where we went, the circus. Maybe we just hadn’t been to any circus in a long time, or maybe the low regulation and a something-to-prove attitude in China led to more fantastical displays, but the circus in China was an amazing show. Lasers and smoke and fire opened the showed as dancers marched around stage. Animals of all kinds, elephants, monkeys, tigers, giraffes, hippos, bears – riding bikes! – took the stage, and some even were led around in the audience areas. Stories of elephants rampaging and escaping the circus crossed my mind; nothing bad happened, of course, but the handlers and their small braided rope would have had no control over these multi-ton beasts. Acrobats hung from the ceiling; seven motorcyclists crammed into an orb of death; and riders on horseback used their ride as a platform to perform gymnastics. It was all incredible. By the end of the week, I wasn’t so surprised that they took us to such a grand show; it was a veritable summary of their hospitality.
Tuesday was another day of the workshop, another day of cutting edge research in organic electronics. It was the last day of the workshop, which also meant it was the day we would be having a banquet dinner to celebrate the event. The dinner, just like our first two events, was extravagant. The dinner was held at a very ritzy joint with a market on the bottom floor where our meal was still living. Fresh fish, crabs, even bugs swam around in small tanks. It was the world’s saddest aquarium, our dinner on display. For this event, unlike the others before, there was alcohol, and lots of it. Traditional mijiu was served in tiny glasses, smaller than a shot glass, but for good reason. The lowest alcohol content of the drink was 52% while our highest one was up to 70%. It seemed like a game there to see who could drink the most of the highest alcohol content drink. I managed to avoid playing for the most part, skipping drinks in between toasts and sometimes only drinking half. The higher content drink burnt your lips and felt like it was eating away at your esophagus on the way down. The aftertaste was what I imagined gasoline would be like. We attempted to segregate, Chinese sat next to American, and I sat next to two older Chinese professors, who clearly were much better at drinking than I was. The food spun around in front of us on a giant wheel – scallops still in shells, Alaskan crab, the freshest fish I’ve ever had, cuts of chicken and pork, durian, which is considered by some to be the world’s worst fruit (it’s definitely not great.) I tried it all, even the water bug. I took its wings in my hands and cracked off the head, then forced it into my mouth with chopsticks; it was a bit crunchy and flavored with the salt and oil it was cooked in. After the entire room went around and gave a toast and all the booze was polished off(5 small bottles of the 70% rice wine and 2 larger bottles of the 52% rice wine), we were bussed back to our hotel. Some of us stayed up a little while longer, sharing beers on the hotel roof and talking about research, traveling, and life.
Wednesday was probably my favorite day in China. The first stop was Baomo Garden, which was more of a museum than a garden. Lucky for us, our Chinese hosts and one of my coworkers, who grew up near Guangzhou, knew much of the history and was happy to share their knowledge. We learned about old Chinese religions and Buddhism, gazed upon art and structures, and fed fish and watched turtles basking in the sun. On an early Wednesday morning as it was, not many locals or other tourists were out. We had nearly the entire garden to ourselves. Toward the end, we found our way to some shops where we haggled for souvenirs. Our next stop was another museum of sorts; it was an old Cantonese town built in the middle of the industrial city. Buildings and streets were constructed with grey brick and topped with skinny logs all parallel and curved. We had lunch there, traditional Cantonese food, which was not much different from what we had been eating at our hotel (hot soup, steamed vegetables, squid fried in oil, grilled pork ribs) and spent some more time wandering through temples and the garden before making our way back to the hotel.
There was another banquet dinner awaiting us, more drinking, and finally, to end the night, karaoke. My boss is known to attempt to embarrass group members by taking them to karaoke, and I was eagerly anticipating going out and giving it a try. Since my dad had a karaoke machine when I was younger, on Friday and Saturday nights when I was a child, the walls would often be echoing the sound of our not-so-great renditions of karaoke classics. So I was definitely game. Over summer, when we visited Seattle, we hadn’t made time for an official karaoke night, but I knew we would go in China. The Chinese take their karaoke seriously, and we found ourselves in what could have been the world’s swankiest brothel (but was just an over-the-top karaoke bar.) There were multiple floors; in the teens, I would guess and presumably all with karaoke. We had our own private room, and the six or so of our Chinese hosts and the twelve or so of us had a great time playing dice games and singing terribly (or, for our Chinese hosts, amazingly!)
The last day was more history of southern China. The Western Han Dynasty ruled this part of China about 2000 years ago. In 1983, while excavating a hill to build a hotel in the center of the city, Guangzhou unearthed a tomb of the Nanyue King. The tomb had remained hidden for at least 1800 years, and when it was discovered, the untouched and well-preserved relics of bronze, terra cotta, jade, gold, and silver became the main attraction for this new museum. We wandered around and gazed upon ceramic pillows and silk garments sewn with jade before entering the tomb, which today, is just hardened dirt. It was interesting though, to think about the concubines, chefs, servants and musician who were all buried with the king. Presumably they didn’t die of a natural death like the king did. What was considered the remains of one concubine sits in a sealed container; just nearly-decomposed bone remains. Afterwards, we had what might have been the best lunch of the week. Our hosts took us to a shopping district. The sidewalks were crowded with mostly Chinese shoppers darting in and out of the small shops owned by locals, selling cheap goods and knock-offs. Lunch was in a little hole in the wall in between one of these shops. This little Chinese café was crowded; our large group squeezed between patrons, staff, and tables and chairs to find our way to the top floor, which was just as crowded as the bottom. We split up and ended up sharing tables with some locals. Warm tea, hot soup, stewed chicken came to our table. But the sweet mango wrapped in rice and a pudding made from buffalo milk just completely had me spinning in my chair. After lunch, we had the chance to shop, haggle some more, and giggle at poor translations that ended up being hilarious (but I can’t really blame them; it’s not like I know any Chinese, let alone enough to get my point across, even if it is in a funnily wrong way.)
Finally, we were on our way to the airport. The plane ride home, thankfully, was a little shorter than the plane ride there. I managed to accomplish a lot of movie watching on both those rides (didn’t get much sleep.) But without a doubt, I was ready to be home, even after just a few short days there. I missed my own bed. I missed variety in my meals. I missed my other half still in Santa Barbara. I missed our little pup wagging his tail. I watched the on-flight map tracking our progress as we flew past San Francisco. The map showed California green, land below, as we flew over Salinas and Santa Cruz toward Bakersfield. I felt my stomach lift as the plane descended; I was happy for my incredible experiences in China, but I was also excited to be back home.