Sunday, January 22, 2012

Shenzhen, Among Other Things

Hello!  Two posts in a relatively short time frame!  My, isn't this exciting.  In any case, I am currently celebrating the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong with a flight back to Beijing on Tuesday night and a flight back to the States on Wednesday night (with approximately 18 hours between said flights)!  It is simultaneously exciting and kind of sad.  I think I'll actually miss China, despite all its special bits.  :/

Anyways, I spent the last week (from January 14th until the 21st) in Shenzhen, China, which is... not a place especially known for tourism, probably rightly so.  I was there as a mentor for the Service Leadership Program (SLP) run by MIT's China Development Initiative group.  I didn't quite know what to expect, and to be frank, I was really nervous about the projects that I was supposed to run, especially as I don't particularly see myself as a good teacher.  :/  HOWEVER, everything went better than expected!  The kids ended up being super intelligent, funny, and generally awesome, and the other mentors were also great, each bringing his or her own personal strength to the program.  Overall, I think everyone really benefited, and I learned as much from the kids as they did from me, I'm sure.  At the very least, I have now added the words 山寨 and 卖萌 to my vocabulary.

I didn't take photos of all the activities, especially not on the first day, but ultimately we did a lot of the standard leadership/teamwork/icebreaker type games.  The first day I ran a sort of marketing project where the students had less than an hour to come up with a brand name, slogan, logo/poster, and commercial.  In retrospect, this may have been a lot for the time allotted, and in the future, I would use something more relevant to China as a product, i.e. maybe some 油条 instead of ice cream.  :)  The kids did really great though and came up with some really creative ideas.  I think this project was somewhat in line with the first day being slightly less organized than the rest of the week, purely because it was the first day.  Things definitely improved a lot as the week went on!  Mostly, as the kids got used to us and we got used to them, it became easier to plan activities that played to their strengths.

I took some pictures on Tuesday.  We did blindfolded paper-plane making in the morning.  Namely, two kids were blind-folded and because they had to hold hands, only had two hands to use between them.  They were directed by another team-mate (not blindfolded, obviously) to make a paper airplane.  The competition then was to have the farthest flying airplane.  Hilarity, naturally, ensued:

The winning team with their airplane!  A lot of the other airplanes ended up running straight into the wall.  >>  ALSO, that's Genevieve, Ivonne, and Victoria (a Mentor) from left to right.

We paused for a bit to enjoy Henry's mad hula-hooping skills.
And then back to work!  Yes, this is actually work.  The group had the task of coming up with a new rule that they would then implement at their school.  The catch was that every group had their own rule and only one of them could win.  They would decide this by first presenting, debating, and ultimately voting.  It was interesting for us, as mentors, because well, first of all, there were a lot of differences between the individual schools the students attended, and in addition, the needs they attempted to address were so very different from the ones American students would be concerned about.  Eileen (another mentor) and I were working with the group of kids below (Amy, Henry, Croft, and Tony in picture, Malina and Bowie are out of the frame), and we kept getting distracted because we found talking about the Chinese schools to be SO INCREDIBLY INTERESTING.  No really, I was fascinated.  The group ended up with a rule that would provide more educational field-trips for students.

That night we went out for fancy dessert (Nan, Eileen, Victoria, and I of the mentors went to meet up with one of Nan/Eileen's friends).   I like don't quite know how to describe this, but it was delicious.  I had the thing farther away from the camera.  It involved green tea ice cream, some sort of mango flavored ... broth... and tapioca pearls!  Delicious.  :)  The other dish was some sort of red-bean, possibly also mango delight.  I believe the restaurant was called Honeymoon Dessert.  It was super Chinese.

The following day we had a somewhat more relaxed day.  Namely, we played some games.  We did a question panel where we allowed the students to ask some questions to get to know the mentors a bit better, and at the end of the day, we even had a sort of free period where students could get together with mentors and do different activities.  Nan ran a game of Mafia, David T-S-E taught some kids to dance, Celena painted nails, and I taught some of them how to play SET.  I thought this was really great because a) SET is an amazing, amazing game,  and b) it allowed some of the more shy kids to really excel.  Also, oh my goodness, they picked it up SO QUICKLY.  I was somewhat astonished.

After class that day, we went for dinner... at a toilet themed restaurant.  I just, I don't even know what to say about that.  First of all, there was a (wo)man in a giant poo costume outside of the restaurant:
From left-to-right, David T-S-E, Celena, Victoria, a giant piece of yellow poo, me, Kevin, David Ku, and Croft.  What?
 Then, the restaurant itself:
That's right, we sat on toilets.  Next to shower-heads.  And bathrobes.  BASICALLY I don't understand this restaurant.  Also, I don't understand my food being served in what is essentially a black toilet bowl.
Or my dessert being served in a FREAKIN URINAL!  Like, seriously.  How do people even come up with these ideas:
Afterwards, we went out for KTV!  :)  For those who don't know, and don't worry, I was not entirely sure myself, KTV is the easier-to-say alternative to ka-la-O-K (i.e. karaoke).  We sang a bunch of songs in English, Lady Gaga, Barbie Girl, etc., and the more Chinese among us (i.e., not me) sang some Chinese songs.  I must say that I am now, as a result, a huge fan of Taiwanese rap.  :P

My main contribution to the program was to prepare the final project with another mentor (David T-S-E).  In past years, the final project was to give the kids a number of specifications for a house and to have them construct the house, provide calculations for cost and energy efficiency, and present a proposal for the final design.  I believe that David (maybe Adrian, a mentor who ended up not going on the trip) came up with the idea to design an amusement park instead of a house, something that we thought might add an element of fun to the project.  Preparations for the project took longer than was ideal (plus we went out for dinner and KTV the night before), but I think it ended up going pretty well in the end!  There are definitely a number of things to tweak before next year, but overall, for a first-run, I think it was a huge success.

We divided the project into 3 parts.  For the first section, we provided the students with a large grid and a number of "playing pieces" which represented different rides, snack stands, arcades, games, etc.  Each square had its own unique cost, profit, fun, and safety values.  The students were given a limited budget and asked to maximize total profit.  Fun and safety would ultimately affect the park's profit as well, either positively through an increase in the number of returning customers or negatively through more maintenance visits.  The main takeaway was that the problem was complex enough that it would be difficult to mathematically optimize in the time period they had.  Therefore, another approach to the problem was needed.  I think we were a little unclear in what that approach was and even limited the kids by citing profit as the only end-goal, so I hope that in the future this can be improve.  They had around 2 hours to finish their layouts.  This was the winning design:

The second task for the final project was very open-ended, in contrast.  Namely, we gave the kids some paper, some tape, and told them that they had to construct three-dimensional, free standing roller coasters that would represent their parks.  I was a little nervous about this because we didn't provide any examples or anything, but the results were so creative and distinct, I was really pleased.
neeA, the ride.
You in Wonderland, the possibly fatal ride.  hahaha.  George and Arthur in the background.
Elder (Yes, that is his name) and a Brave New World... the ride.  Their group ended up winning People's Choice after a class vote.
The third part of the project was to present their theme park to the class, including their strategy and a sales pitch.  In the end, the class ended up voting on their favorite amusement parks.  Potentially my favorite moment throughout this project was when some of the groups realized that the 油条 (fried dough) snack stand was the most efficient snack stand in terms of cost-to-profit ratio.  ... The result was things like "Fried Dough Paradise", the amusement park.  Because I didn't want to have 6 copies of the same park (i.e. a park consisting of the bare essentials plus 100 油条 stands), we ended up limiting the amount of extra snack stands we would make.  Of course, people were angry, and ONE GROUP IN PARTICULAR ended up taking things into their own hands and making 山寨 (fake copies of known brand names, in true Chinese style) 油条 stands!  I was so angry (not actually).  Haha.  I did, however, confiscate the extra 油条 because copyright laws DO EXIST in the government run by me.
"Fried Dough Paradise" actually ended up consistently mainly of small arcades.
On Friday, we then had an activity called affirmatives where people had sheets of paper taped to their backs, and everyone ran around writing nice things on them.  It was actually quite fun, and I think everybody enjoyed reading their comments after the fact.  This is my personal favorite photo of the event, mainly because David Ku's facial expression is fairly amusing.  The idea is that after getting to know each other, the kids should all be able to write something nice about each other.  They also seemed to enjoy writing on the mentors' backs a lot.  I got a lot of "cute" written on mine.  :D
And this was our class photo!  We're so adorable.  :P

Anyways, this has gotten a bit long-winded so I will leave off for now, but I will post soon about my rainy, foggy, gross adventures in Hong Kong.  >>  Hahahaha.

Happy Chinese New Year!  新年快乐!

hearts and stars,

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Couple of Cloudy Days

Happy 2012!  It's been a while, but I do have a ridiculous number of pictures in tow... so I will probably soon create a large quantity of new posts and backdate them appropriately.  In recent times, I started interviewing for jobs, my parents and sister visited Beijing, I had finals, and began my January travels.  Quite surprisingly, I had absolutely no trouble with transportation this time around.  The two times of year where travel in China is most difficult (specifically train travel) are October Holiday, which I experienced to the fullest with my trip to Xi'an, and around the Chinese New Year, which this year, happens to fall on January 23rd.  Basically, something like over 120 million Chinese people travel home for the New Year, generally by train, making it exceptionally difficult to buy tickets.  Fortunately, I think that not only has my Chinese improved significantly since October, but I also learned how the system works!  So, ten days in advance, at 8:30am, I lined myself up at the train ticket office, and purchased my tickets to Guilin for the 9th.  I also managed to get my ticket from Guilin to Shenzhen for the 13th so it all worked out beautifully.  Finally, I was a bit worried about getting back to Beijing to fly home, BUT managed to find a cheap(ish) plane ticket on so it all worked out perfectly.  Glorious.

Anyways, my parents left Beijing on the 8th, which left me with an approximately 15 hour period to accomplish EVERYTHING before I had to leave the next day.  So I packed, bought all the necessary things, dropped off most of my luggage with a friend in Sanlitun, met with my language partner, had dinner with a friend, answered all my emails, AND still nearly overslept and missed my train in the morning.  Haha.  Fortunately, I did not, and boarded my train at 8:18am and then spent the next 30 hours IN TRANSIT.  That's right, the train from Beijing to Guilin takes exactly 27 hours and 28 minutes, followed by another 90 minute bus excursion to get to Yangshuo itself.  I am quite happy that I ended up spending the whole three days in Yangshuo, instead of returning to Guilin as I had planned, given that approximately 15 minutes after arriving in Guilin, someone tried to pickpocket me (BADLY, I might add).  Not a super awesome city, although perhaps the experience of others may differ.

Yangshuo (阳朔) is insanely beautiful, by the way.  It was apparently one of the first locations in China opened up to backpackers back in the 80s and so has kind of developed into a full-blown tourist town, but that really doesn't detract from it in my opinion, despite what people may say.  The scenery is beautiful, full of these strange rocky, mountains that seem to burst out of an otherwise flat area and rivers and small, yet-undeveloped villages.  The primary activities in Yangshuo are outdoors ones: biking, climbing, hiking, rafting, etc.  I have a feeling my sister, Olga, would love it.
I stayed at the En Attendant Godot Youth Hostel, an homage to an absurdist, 20th century play by Samuel Beckett.  The owners were young and really friendly and in general, very helpful.  What's more, I was sharing a room with some other westerners (Chris, Amy, and Stan) who I ended up spending most of the trip with. The first night I arrived, we went out for some tasty local beer fish (啤酒鱼) together.  The next day we embarked on a bike journey to see the Dragon Bridge (not nearly as impressive as it sounds), and up to the town of Baishao (白沙 ... I think) to see the local market.  It ended up being a 30 km bike ride that continue to pain my body for the next couple of days, but it was also really lovely.

There was one section where the path stopped completely, and in fact, the only way to continue biking was to hire a bamboo raft to cross the river blocking the route.  So, for around 40块, we embarked on a wholly terrifying journey across this river.  Stan, the resident Dutchman, went across first with the bikes.
Stan with the bikes

Meanwhile, Chris really, truly, empatically, did not want to buy any oranges off this one
super persistant women

The view from the Dragon Bridge, which again was not as impressive as the name implied.
 At 白沙, we grabbed a quick lunch and explored the market, which was... an experience.  It resembled an Eastern European Bazaar of sorts, from my childhood, where they sold quite literally everything.  Clothes, cosmetics, food, toys, New Years decorations, etc.  The most interesting, and simultaneously disgusting, was the meat section.  They just had chunks of meat hanging out in the open, along with intestines, whole birds, pigs' heads, etc.  What's more, I learned just how removed from my food I am as at this market, you could buy super FRESH meat, as in you would choose a live chicken and they would butcher it for you on the spot.  The fish were also all very fresh, but much more intent on their freedom and so we saw MANY jumping out of their shallow tubs and eventually flapping around on the ground until the 'shop' owner decided to notice and toss them back in.  The fish, by the way, were made somewhat more hilarious, and perhaps I'm a terrible person for saying this, by Amy's apparent fish phobia... In any case, it was certainly an interesting experience.

The next day, we decided to charter a bamboo raft up the Li river to the town of Fuli (福利).  This is the first time I've been in China where I actually felt like I was ripping someone off and not the other way around.  The woman offered us a trip to the village for 100块, not per person, total.  The trip itself is about 1 hour each way, and when we got there, the guy did not even demand half the money and what's more, waited on us for TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS while we explored the city.  We (and by we, I mean, Amy and I) felt so bad we tacked on an extra 30块 when we paid.  In any case it was wonderful, and we saw some truly beautiful sights.

The town of 福利 itself, was like most villages, an interesting juxtaposition of new and old, and generally representative of a stereotypical run-down Chinese village, with perhaps the slight stipulation that it was a bit more tourist-friendly.  In any case, as for the buildings, it seems like instead of maintaining or fixing up the already existing buildings, the people of this town (as well as the many others we saw on our bike ride the previous day) were content to just throw up new ones right next to the old ones.  Bizarre.  

 We bought some things at the village that were also ludicrously cheap.  For instance, 8 pairs of decorated chopsticks for 10块, scrolls for 20块, etc. There was also a market in 福利 the day we went.
The entrance to the market in 福利.

We decided that eating at one of the stalls in the market was a bit on the sketchy side and would possibly give us food poisoning, so we found what looked like a hostel or very cheap hotel and ate some hot pot there.  Better, right?  WRONG.  I know that innards are supposed to be a delicacy or something, but the fact is we got an entire plate of intestines, liver, stomach, and more to dip into our hot pot and absolutely no real meat.  The veggies and tofu were not exceptionally tasty either, and when we asked for noodles, the owner dispatched his son to run to the market and buy some.  It was... special.
Potentially the world's worst hot pot.  ever.
 We felt bad about leaving out bamboo raft guy waiting for so long, so we got a little motorized rickshaw thing to take us back, also for only 10块.  It was quite a bumpy ride as he very quickly turned off the main road and onto these alleyways... which were so narrows that two of these cars did not in fact fit.
 Overall, a day well spent, although somewhat chilly near the end.  We ended up in Lucy's, a small cafe in the touristy part of town, for drinks and dice and cards.  This was... possibly the way we spent every evening and every morning (for breakfast, of course) as well.  We were well on our way to becoming regular customers.  :)
Lastly, for your amusement, I present "Minnie Mao's Cafe".  Yes, that is a picture of Minnie Mouse in a Mao cap.  No, I do not pretend to understand.  That is all for this post.  I do have to say that Blogger's new interface really is the bee's knees and that creating this post was SO MUCH EASIER than in the past.  Expect a lot more back-dated posts in the near future as I have a lot of photos and stories to share.  hearts and stars,马雅