priorities

I came to Australia specifically to focus on writing, but I didn’t count on how freaking expensive it is to live here. And while I do have enough money to live, I don’t really have enough to have much fun.

So I applied for a job as a Medical Scientist in Biochemistry at a hospital in a suburb of Melbourne called West Footscray. And as luck would have it, I managed to find a place to live in West Footscray as well, not too far from the hospital. And yeah, the job would definitely take time away from my writing, but it ends in early September and would also give me a little extra money so I could afford to actually go out and do stuff, which would be nice.

Well, I didn’t get the job. Which means I moved out to West Footscray for absolutely no reason. But hey, at least the rent is cheap and my housemates are really, really cool. So it’s not all bad.

Also, I did get offered another job.

Back in China.

Yeah, I ended up mentioning to my old boss that I didn’t get the postdoc I’d originally applied for in Australia, so he talked to our collaborator from my most recent research project and they somehow arranged it in a way I don’t fully understand for me to have a job as a Research Scientist at Beijing Normal University.

Which would mark the first time in quite a while that the word “normal” would be associated with me in any way, but regardless it was pretty flattering. I asked if I could start in November at the earliest, since my parents have already booked their non-refundable tickets to come visit me over here from late September to late October, and they said that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and no matter how I look at it I really don’t see what else I can do. If I get a job here in Australia, it defeats the whole purpose of coming here. But if I don’t work at all, I won’t be able to afford to have any fun, and I’ll be flat broke by the time I leave. If I must get a job, I’d rather do it in China, where I’ll be pretty much guaranteed to get more papers, and since they’re doubling my salary I’ll have plenty of money to have fun in Beijing. Plus I’ll be living downtown, which means I wouldn’t have to spend an hour standing on a subway to get anywhere interesting.

So now I have five months to become a commercially successful writer. Is this possible? Theoretically, yes. In his book on how he sold a million ebooks in five months, appropriately entitled How I sold a Million Ebooks in Five Months, John Locke explains how to, well, sell a million ebooks in five months.

Now that’s good advertizing right there.

A large part of his foolproof marketing scheme involves Twitter. I fucking hate Twitter. But I like money, so I signed up. It was just as bad as I expected. I started “following” other writers, which is like stalking but way less interesting, and I was immediately put off by all the blatant and incredibly lame self-promotion a lot of them were doing. (This is not, by the way, what John Locke encourages people to do.)

I quickly found that I could not take any of it seriously. Yes I want to sell my stories and make my living as a writer, but I just can’t bring myself to do a lot of the bullshit things people on Twitter are doing to promote their books.

And I don’t know why I’m doing this exactly, but more and more I’m finding my efforts turning into a parody of all the advice I’ve gotten so far. I honestly can’t bring myself to take it seriously, but it’s actually kind of fun to not take it seriously. I created a new blog (I now have four in total) to promote my writing and editing efforts, and I’m going to stick with Twitter because I actually have met some cool aspiring authors on there and if nothing else I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of using the phrase “penis goes there” in casual conversation, but I just can’t bring myself to be pushy or insincere.

But I do have a request to make of everyone reading this: if you have the time and inclination, go ahead and post random, funny, inappropriate, relevant, irrelevant, or meaningless comments on my other blog. The funnier or more random the better.

I do have my priorities, and it’s more important to me to have fun and (hopefully) entertain other people as well than to sell books at any cost.

Just in case you missed it, the link to my other blog is here:

 http://vizproductions.blogspot.com/

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a look back on my time in China

Before I came to China I had already decided that if I really liked it I would stay for two or three years, but even if I hated it I would still stay for at least one year. When I told this to my housemate last week he thought about it for a moment, then asked, “So what does it mean that you stayed for a year and a half?”

Heh.

No, the fact is, in a lot of ways I’m pretty sad about leaving China. I’ve made a lot of really cool friends here, and I’ve had a really good time. Plus I’ve definitely learned a lot, and not just about computational biochemistry.

I try not to have too many expectations when I go to a new continent, but I definitely have goals. And my goals for China were to write a good scientific paper and have it published in a respectable journal, learn Chinese to a basic conversational level, see as much of China as I could, learn as much as possible about Chinese culture, learn how to cook, finish my book, and date a Chinese girl.

Surprisingly, I succeeded at all but two of those things. Although I’m not entirely sure that I should really be calling my experience with dating a Chinese girl a ‘success’.

The main thing I failed at was learning Chinese. At this moment my Chinese is about as good as my Italian, which means I can insult people, hit on girls, talk a little bit about coffee and food, and generally make an ass out of myself. I have many excuses for why I didn’t learn Chinese, but really it all boils down to one thing: Chinese is fucking hard.

The other thing I failed to do was learn how to cook, but I don’t like cooking anyway so I don’t really care about that.

As far as my successes though, aside from the dating debacle things went better than I could have ever possibly hoped. And hell, even the dating was good in a way, because it really was a profound learning experience.

Ostensibly I came to China to do postdoctoral research in computational biochemistry. That’s what got me the visa, anyway. And although I know I could’ve worked harder, learned more, and done a better job, I’m still pretty happy about how things worked out. I wrote a book chapter on drug design, a paper on selenium-modified DNA, and I helped a friend of mine get his paper published. I also gave a series of lectures to my research group on how to give a presentation, how to write a scientific paper, etc. And to be honest, I found that I like explaining things, editing papers, and helping other people a lot more than I like actually doing research.

Might’ve been nice if I’d learned this before spending $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry, but oh well.

And I know my experience would’ve been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the wonderful people in my research group. From the very beginning my boss was cool, patient, and understanding with me, and he’s always been a pleasure to work for. As far as the other members of my group, one of them became my best friend here and eventually my housemate, and I really hope to keep in touch with all the rest of them as well. They definitely are a great bunch.

And I’m not just saying that because I know some of them read this blog (hi guys).

China is a pretty damn big country, and while I certainly didn’t see all of it, I think I did manage to see a fairly decent portion of it. The Great Wall (twice), the Terra Cotta Army, Inner Mongolia, Hong Kong, and a bunch of other places with names that will be meaningless to almost everyone reading this, but they were pretty damn cool for me to see. What was especially cool was having my parents come visit, and getting to explore China with them. Because it’s highly unlikely they ever would’ve come here if it hadn’t been for me, so they got the opportunity to see some truly incredible things they never would’ve seen otherwise.

Plus they paid for a lot of my stuff too.

Before I left England I had this fantasy that once I got to China I would work during the day, then have the weekends and evenings to work on my writing. But like so many of my fantasies it really did not work out that way. Mostly because research took pretty much all my time and energy, and when I wasn’t working on that I was too exhausted to do anything else.

But finally, in November of last year, in a hotel room in Zhuhai, while smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking cheap liquor, both of which probably have taken a combined ten years off my life (but the shitty years at the end that I don’t want anyway), I managed to finish my book. And if nothing else, it showed me that if I really want to be a writer I’m going to have to make it my primary concern.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia tomorrow to spend a year on nothing but writing.

So yeah, I’m truly grateful for the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had, but I’m ready to move on. Ready for the next misadventure. And although I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of living my life based on a comic strip about a kid and his stuffed tiger, as I get ready to take off into the unknown…again…I can’t help but think of the last panel of the last strip of that comic.

It’s a magical world….let’s go exploring.

why Libya?

Quite a few of my Chinese friends have asked me why America is attacking Libya right now.

Yeah, that’s how they phrased it.

There’s basically three ways for me to respond to this: 1) Repeat the president’s official justification, 2) Explain why I think it’s happening, and 3) Widen my eyes, point to something just behind the person asking me and say, “Holy crap! What the hell is that??!!” Then run off when they turn around to look.

I usually take option 3.

But it is interesting to see the Chinese reaction to the situation. Because for me, my first impulse is always to support the plucky freedom fighters against an authoritarian and totalitarian regime. Especially when the leader of said regime is a thoroughly unrepentant douchebag.

That’s why I support the protesters in Wisconsin, anyway.

But as far as Libya is concerned, I really liked the idea of a revolution initiated and spearheaded by the people for the purpose of overthrowing their corrupt dictator. But when it started to look like they were going to be brutally crushed unless they got some external support, I was fully in favor of said support.

The Chinese don’t really understand this. As far as they’re concerned, each country should handle its internal affairs on its own, without external interference.

Hard to imagine why they feel that way.

But aside from the, ahem, obvious reasons of self-interest, it really is a fundamental part of the Chinese cultural outlook to avoid meddling in the affairs of others as much as possible. Contrast this to the general “Yay freedom” cultural outlook Americans tend to have.

Well, depending on who happens to be in the White House, apparently.

Yeah, it seems kind of funny to me to watch various individuals accuse each other of hypocrisy due to their various stances on the current situation. After all, how does one justify supporting this current action if they condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and conversely how does one condemn this current action if they supported overthrowing Saddam?

The similarities are striking. After all, both involve attacking an oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a malevolent dictator who has no problems with massacring his own people and could, in theory, be a threat to America or American interests and some point in the future.

Also, both have the color green on their flags.

But there are also some very important differences. For one thing, the current action in Libya is the result of a UN resolution, while the legality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is still debated. But more importantly, with Libya our help was requested, both by the rebels themselves and by the Arab League.

In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that I was strongly against the invasion of Iraq, while I’ve already mentioned that I support the current action in Libya. In my mind, this isn’t a contradiction because we’re coming to the aid of a group that has asked for our help, much like France and the Netherlands came to the aid of the American Revolutionaries when they fought the British for the right to drink coffee instead of tea and to get rid of all the superfluous vowels from our language.

Such is my understanding of the American Revolution, anyway.

Still, all this really proves is that human beings are good at rationalizing things. I would love to see a stable and democratic Libya allied with the United States in the future, but that outcome is by no means guaranteed. And I can’t pretend that America is doing this for purely altruistic reasons. After all, if we really cared so much about the lives of innocent civilians, why did we do nothing to prevent—or even mitigate—the staggering loss of life in the Second Congo War? Now you might argue that in the late 1940s we were just coming out of World War II and the Great Depression and were in no position to get involved in a war in Africa at that time, but if that’s your reasoning your knowledge of history is as bad as mine, because the Second Congo War started in 1998. And as of 2008, 5.4 million people have died because of it—mostly from disease and starvation. Had you even heard of it? I hadn’t until I came across the Wikipedia article while I was looking for something else.

5.4 million people, by the way, is only a little less than the current population of Libya.

So yeah, America only intervenes in conflicts when it’s convenient and in our own selfish interests, but that’s pretty much true for every country. After all, China doesn’t exactly continue to unconditionally support North Korea because they just love their wacky antics so much. But at the end of the day, I still support the action in Libya, even if it is a little hypocritical of me to do so. I really hope it ends up being a positive step for both the people of Libya, and the perception of America in the world.

For a much better analysis from a much brighter and funnier guy, I highly recommend Scott Adam’s post on the same topic.

why I came to China

I was planning on writing about something else today, but on the way home from work a friend of mine invited me over to his place and it’s not like I was going to tell him I couldn’t come because I had to go home write a blog entry about all the sex I’m not getting, or something.

I work from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday, and I get paid about a thousand dollars a month (after taxes and food). Most people at the Institute work more hours for less money. Because I could afford it, I rented a really nice (but small) 2-bedroom apartment for about $300 a month in Huilongguan, a suburb of Beijing. Most of the people at the Institute live in Huilongguan because it’s relatively cheap and close to where we work; there’s even a dedicated bus to take us to and from the Institute.

This particular friend doesn’t usually take the bus at 7:00, but he caught it today because he’d taken his wife out to dinner, so they hopped on when it passed for a free ride home. This friend is one of the guys I play football with on Fridays, and although we get along great, our conversations are pretty limited because he doesn’t speak much Chinese and I don’t speak much English.

I’m not even sure exactly what he does at the Institute, but I know he’s not a scientist. He’s part of the office/admin staff, I think. And while I’m pretty squarely middle-middle class, he’s closer to lower-middle class, by Chinese standards.

His apartment is on the fifth floor of a dull, listless concrete building; pretty much exactly the kind of stereotypical Communist thing you’d imagine. There’s no elevator, but the lights in the stairwell are sound-activated, which makes sense if you want to save electricity. His apartment is a lot bigger than mine, but that’s because it’s shared by at least eight people. It’s more like what you’d expect in a dormitory; a smallish communal area with an adjoining kitchen, surrounded by various stairs and hallways that lead to the bedrooms. I actually don’t know exactly how many people live there because I was trying to be polite and not gawk.

His room is a little larger than mine, but not by much. There’s a queen-sized bed, a coffee table, a single chair, and that’s it. But at least it has its own private bathroom. I didn’t ask, but I imagine he pays less than $50 a month for this. It’s illegal to subdivide an apartment in this manner, but the owners do it anyway because obviously they can make more money that way.

Sound pretty bleak? Well, it’s actually not as bad as you might think. He’s got a big-screen TV and a laptop, and while he initially complained about how small, rundown, and cheap his place was, he later admitted that he was actually pretty happy with it. He got married last May, and his wife is pregnant. He’s got a good, stable job, and while he’s not exactly rolling in luxury, he’s pretty damn comfortable. He has everything he needs to be happy. And a few things he doesn’t need, but enjoys.

And basically, he’s the reason I came to China. Well, not him specifically, because that would just be kinda weird, but people like him. Essentially, I came to China to see how regular Chinese people live, and to make friends with people who have different backgrounds and experiences.

It’s my personal view that you can’t really understand a culture unless you’ve lived within it for at least a year. I don’t really have any empirical evidence for this, but that’s just been my experience. But think about it; no one talks to a journalist the way they talk to a friend, and no journalist is going to have an easy time of understanding a culture unless they’ve actually lived in that culture as an equal and a participant, rather than merely an observer.

I don’t have a single non-Chinese friend in China. I’ve seen the way some Westerners act here, and frankly I’m not impressed. But hey, who am I to judge.

And yeah, I’m not suddenly an expert on China. At best I can say that I maybe have some small understanding of the life of an American postdoctoral researcher in a Chinese Institute, but that doesn’t mean I automatically understand the country as a whole. Still, I do feel like I have some small insight. For example, when you look at all the protests going on around the world in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain, the reason you don’t see anything like that happening in China it twofold: 1) for the middle-class people like my friend, life is actually comparatively good; he has more to lose than to gain by challenging the status quo. 2) the culture of China is such that the general idea is to work hard, keep your head down, don’t make a big fuss or draw attention to yourself, and you’ll be fine. So things would have to be pretty damn bad here indeed for people to riot on a large scale. And it may yet happen if food prices continue to increase the way they have. So who knows.

As I near the end of my 1.5 year misadventure in China, I can’t help but reflect that despite all I’ve done and seen, and all I’ve learned, getting repeatedly felt up by hot female Chinese security guards has definitely been the highlight of my experience here.

Seriously, the TSA could definitely learn a thing or two from China.

the elephant in the room (and me trying to have sex with it)

I’m faced with the nearly inescapable conclusion that there is almost no chance of me finding a girl who just wants to have sex with me any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong, there are actually plenty of girls here in China who would have sex with me, but the sex isn’t really what they’re looking for. No, what they want is a relationship. A relationship leading to marriage, where “marriage” is defined as locking me into taking care of them for the rest of their lives while they gradually devour my soul one criticism at a time.

Such is my understanding of relationships, anyway.

But seriously, the concept of sex for recreation here in China is about as foreign as, well, me, which makes it exceedingly frustrating when I see a cute girl checking me out. Because I know she’s not just interested in sex.

And it’s pretty confusing from their side as well. They don’t seem to understand that yeah, I can totally be interested in having sex with them, but that doesn’t mean I want to marry them—or even date them.

What’s really annoying is that despite my best efforts, I apparently do still have a conscience, and I just can’t bring myself to try and seduce a girl when I know for a fact that I have no real interest in her beyond sex. Because I know that no matter how honest I tried to be, she would still get the wrong idea.

I’m speaking from experience here, because I did briefly date a Chinese girl. Very briefly. I told her from the beginning that it would be a casual relationship as I was leaving for Australia before too long, and she agreed that this was fine. But almost immediately she started treating me like I was her boyfriend/fiancée and we’d been together for years. It seriously creeped me out. I guess she figured that she could change my mind once she got her claws deep enough into me, or something. And no, I don’t mean that as a criticism of women in general; just this particular one.

But really, when it comes down to it, are there any girls out there who would just have sex with me, and not be secretly wanting something more? No, seriously, this is not a rhetorical question. If they actually exist, where are they and what are their names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Honestly though, every girl I’ve ever had sex with (granted this is not an astronomical number we’re talking about here) wanted something more than just sex. But at the time, I wasn’t fully aware of this. I figured they were feeling the same thing I was feeling, and we were all on the same page.

My first clue that this was not the case came from my housemate in college. He pointed out to me that no, the girl in question did not drive all the way over from Seattle just to have sex with me. In fact, she was hoping that we were actually in the nascent period of a relationship.

Naturally, this came as quite shock to me. After all, I’d travel a hellova lot farther than 1,000 km to have sex with someone I was attracted to. In fact, I think my upper limit of travel for guaranteed sex is, um, well, how far away is Mars?

Regardless, knowing what I know now makes it practically impossible for me to try and find someone to have sex with. Because I’ve been hurt in the past myself, and I never, ever want to make someone else feel the way I’ve felt.

Am I overreacting? Maybe I just have a big mental hang-up on this one, but I feel like a large quantity of guys who go out and seduce women just end up hurting those women (emotionally) because women simply don’t want sex for its own sake as much as men do.

Yeah. I once had a woman tell me that women want sex as much as men, but if that were true the human race would still be living in caves because nothing would ever, ever get done. Seriously, how many great discoveries and accomplishments achieved by men were because they were trying to increase their sex appeal to women? How many great songs, books, movies, and inventions were developed by men because they were thinking, “Yeah, this’ll totally get me laid!”

Pretty much all of them, I bet.

science in China

Not too long ago, China was 14th in the world for the number of scientific studies published. Now, according to the National Academy of Sciences, they’re second only to the United States.

In your face, Germany! And everywhere else.

I have the extraordinary and unbelievable privilege of working at the top biological institute in China. Extraordinary, because I’m the first—and up until recently the only—non-Chinese postdoc the Institute has ever had. Unbelievable, because, well, I’m really not that great of a scientist. The only reason I got the job is because I’m a Westerner, and right now they really want more Westerners to come and do science in China.

There’s a huge push in China right now to make science a national priority, and the Institute is an example of this. Because while most researchers have to spend a good chunk of their time and energy writing grants and looking for funding, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are basically just handed money from the government and told to go do science.

Of course, the heads of the research groups at the Institute are no ordinary scientists. They’re basically the top people—or nearly so—in their respective fields. And while none of them has ever won a Nobel Prize (yet), I’m pretty confident that within the next 5-10 years at least one of them is going to.

The funny thing is, every single one of them was educated in America.

And this is where I think America is making a huge mistake. Because while China (and India, and South Korea) are substantially increasing their investments in science and engineering, America is actually talking about cutting back on funding for science. And if that’s not bad enough, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology is currently being filled by people who, to say the least, are not exactly friends of the scientific community.

But there’s another far more subtle mistake I think America is making. A few months ago I met a very talented researcher from a University in Hong Kong. Like so many Chinese scientists he was educated in America, but was unable to find a permanent position in the States because he was Chinese, and had worked for a Chinese boss. Apparently there’s still a mindset in America that Chinese are very intelligent and hard-working, but narrow-minded, uncreative, and unable to think critically. As a result, many highly qualified and skilled Chinese scientists can’t find employment in the States.

Of course, China is more than happy to welcome them back.

Ironically, if you want to get a good research position in China, you have to do your PhD—or at least a postdoc or two—in America. Despite the growing prestige of places like Peking University and Tsinghua University (essentially the Harvard and MIT of China), it’s still believed that the best place you can get an education to prepare yourself for a career in science is in the United States.

At least for now.

Education in China is still primarily based on rote memorization, but I think that’s starting to change. As more and more Chinese people get exposed to Western education, they’re going to increasingly demand that their own children are taught critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in addition to the memorization of facts.

Regardless, I can honestly say without any feeling of shame that I am the single dumbest, most ignorant person in my research group. Because despite having gone through the Chinese education system, everyone I work with is freaking brilliant, dedicated, and in no way lacking critical thinking skills. In fact, the only advantage I have over my colleagues is that I’m a native English speaker. Which means I can read a scientific paper in a fraction of the time, and I can write a scientific paper better than anyone else in my group—including my boss.

But this advantage is fleeting. Every day the Chinese are improving their English skills, and every day they’re putting out more scientific papers. America may be number one at the moment, but if we’re not careful, China (and India, and South Korea) are going to fly right by us, maybe giving a condescending, “Thanks for all the help,” as they pass.

And maybe that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. America needs something to inspire us to value science and education, and if it takes China becoming the world leader in science, so be it. Because the thing is, when countries compete for scientific prestige, everybody wins.

But I’m glad I’m here learning Chinese and making connections in the scientific community of China, just in case.

Christmas in China

Christmas in China was pretty interesting.

I have to admit I was pretty surprised by the amount of Christmas decorations that had gone up around Beijing. Kind of made me wonder if people here really understand what the holiday is all about. I asked a few of my friends, and they all told me pretty much the same thing: Shopping.

So I guess they understand it pretty well.

I wasn’t planning on doing anything special for Christmas, but it seemed like a shame to just sit in my apartment on Christmas Eve alone and feeling sorry for myself, so I went downtown with some friends. In the spirit of Christmas, they took me to an ‘80s music concert. Not Western ‘80s music, mind you, but Chinese ‘80s music.

Yeah, I have no idea what this has to do with Christmas either.

Still, it was a lot of fun. The highlight for me was when a really hot girl in tight jeans and an exposed midriff came out and sang what I swear was the theme song to Final Fantasy V. It was pretty awesome.

But here’s the thing for me: I ran into this other Western guy, and he was devastated that it was going to be Chinese ‘80s music and not Western ‘80s music. He was dressed like some kind of Trendy Dweeb, which I guess is how he imagined people looked in the ‘80s.

His melodramatic dismay was pretty hard for me to understand. I mean, he was only in Beijing for a short time, and seemed to be really into Western ‘80s music, so I’m sure he’ll go to plenty of Western ‘80s music-themed events when he goes home. Yet there he was, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience ‘80s music from a Chinese perspective, and he was acting like it was the end of the world. It seemed pretty odd to me. Why come to China if you’re not even going to try to experience some Chinese stuff? It would be like going to Italy and eating only at McDonald’s. What’s the point?

Sometimes I feel like even though we share the same planet, I really just live in a different world than some people.

Anyway, Merry Christmas everyone!!

fresh tracks

The rest of the conference was actually pretty cool. Much better than I expected a conference on computational chemistry to be, anyway. I definitely learned a lot. And most of it had nothing to do with any of the talks.

Scientific conferences are pretty interesting in and of themselves. It’s a chance for people to present the results of their latest research, share and exchange ideas, and it’s a great opportunity for the younger folks—PhD students and postdocs like me—to get a feel for what the field is all about.

Plus there’s free food.

But I think the most important thing about scientific conferences, like conferences in any field, probably, is the chance to network. To get your name out there, to make connections, and to discuss possible collaborations. Because science is becoming so specialized that it’s practically impossible to be an expert in everything, and therefore it makes more sense to become very good at one specific thing, and to collaborate with people whose specialties complement yours.

In a way it’s kind of a shame that I’m leaving science, because I’m actually pretty good at the networking part of it. Of course, come to think of it if I were as good at my research as I am at interacting with people and talking about research, I probably wouldn’t be leaving science.

Regardless, it was pretty interesting to interact with some of the Big Guys in the field. One of the things that really struck me was when one of them mentioned that for the most part, scientists don’t do what they do for fame or fortune. They do it because discovering new things about the world we live in and how things work is their hobby.

And that’s just it. I’ve been planning on leaving science because I’m not passionate about it, but you don’t necessarily have to be passionate about it. But at the very least, you have to be, um, hobbiate about it. Is that a word? No? Damn.

But yeah, you do have to have at least some positive feelings about it. There has to be something that compels you to spend the vast majority of your time working on it. Because it’s definitely not for the money.

That’s what gets me. Writing is my hobby. And I could probably be a fairly decent writer if I devoted a serious amount of time to it—just like I’m pretty sure I could be a decent scientist if I really devoted myself to it—but I can’t do both. At least, I can’t do both well. And that’s where I’m at right now. At the moment, I’m just kind of a mediocre writer and a mediocre scientist, but that’s not what I want. I’d like to be as good as possible at either one or the other, and I just do not have the time to do both, so for me writing wins.

Which is why I’m moving to Australia. In six months. I do want to at least finish the project I’m working on right now, and write a good paper on it, because I’d rather leave science on a high note than just sort of wash out.

Yeah.

The actual conference only lasted three days. The last two days consisted of a trip to the “Snow Village”.

The Yabuli Ski Resort is only 200km from Harbin, has 20 runs and 17 lifts, and has the longest ski runs in China. In fact, it’s where the Chinese ski team trains.

Which makes me wonder why we didn’t go there instead.

No, the place we went to was a 7-hour bus ride away, and the “ski hill” only had a single run, with a t-bar lift. By the time we got there it was too late to ski, and we had to leave the next day by noon if we wanted to make it back to Harbin in time to catch the train back to Beijing.

But that didn’t stop us. We got up at 7:00, wolfed down some food, and made it to the base of the hill when it opened at 8:00. I thought I was going to have to babysit the guys I was with who had never skied before, but they actually had a dedicated group of instructors for that. So I was free to go off and hurt myself on my own.

I haven’t skied in 15 years. And even when I did do it regularly I was never particularly good at it. But naturally this didn’t stop me from going straight to the top of the mountain, going down full speed, and trying to hit a jump.

This is the general level of common sense that I have. It’s no wonder I’m not a very good scientist.

at a conference

Right now I’m at the International Symposium on Theoretical and Computational Chemistry – 2010: High Performance Computing Simulations.

Yeah, I don’t know what any of that means either.

The conference is in Harbin, which is in the northern part of China, in the province adjacent to Russia. And yeah, it’s pretty damn cold here. In fact, one of my friends told me that the name “Harbin” comes from the fact that when you walk outside it’s so cold you immediately go “Hhhaaaarrr” and your breath turns to ice, which in Chinese is “bin“.

Makes sense to me.

We took the overnight train to get here. This seems like a good idea in theory because it’s an 11-hour trip, so if you take the train at night it’s like you’re getting free lodging for the price of your transportation. Unfortunately it doesn’t actually work that way because some silly asshole had their phone going off like every 10 minutes the entire freaking night, and another guy was snoring. So it was more like free sleepless misery for the price of transportation, but it was cheaper than flying and I didn’t pay for it anyway.

We arrived in Harbin early Saturday morning. A total of eight of us from our research group came to the conference–another postdoc like me, plus six students. I was the last to exit the train, but when I looked around I couldn’t find my colleagues anywhere. All I managed to spot was a huddled group of figures with no skin showing whatsoever and fogged-over glasses where their eyes should’ve been.

Yes, it’s that cold here.

Regardless, we made it to the hotel, got checked in and situated, and since the first day was just orientation and registration for the conference, we decided despite the cold to go play outside.

Our hotel is not far from the river, which is naturally frozen over at this time of year, so we went and slid around on the ice for a while. I tried to start a snowball fight since I figured I was the only one who had ever played baseball and thus would have a tactical advantage, but then the sole girl in our group picked up a largish chunk of ice and threatened to bludgeon me with it if I threw any more snow at her, so that was pretty much the end of that.

After we got tired of walking around on the ice, we decided to go visit the Siberian Tiger Park. Apparently there’s only like 500 Siberian Tigers left in the wild, but there are around 100 at this park. And despite the fact that it was basically like going to a zoo, it was still pretty cool to see them. You can actually buy live animals to throw to the tigers and watch them devour. I thought about asking if I could feed one of the students to the tigers, but unfortunately I actually really like the students in my group, and in the end I wouldn’t really want to see any of them get eaten by a tiger. I thought I heard them ask if they could feed the laowai to the tigers, but I don’t know what that means. Must be some kind of exotic bird, or something.

Today was the first day of the actual conference. And I hate to say it, but I was actually surprised by how interesting I found the talks to be. I hate to say this because I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that the main reason I wanted to come here in the first place was for a chance to see the Siberian Tigers and the “Snow City” we’re going to on Thursday. But I guess despite my plans to throw away what’s actually becoming a pretty promising future in the field of computational chemistry, I still am a scientist at heart. Because I really do find things like quantum computing, using GPUs instead of CPUs (graphics cards instead of traditional central processors) to run simulations, and the latest advances in computational methods interesting.

I can’t help feeling like a bit of a fraud. Some of the people at this conference are literally pioneers in the new and exciting field of computational chemistry. Seriously, the Chinese researchers are pretty excited by the fact that the Tianhe-1a is now the fastest computer cluster in the world, and the research they’re doing on it is pretty cutting-edge. Even the American researchers here are pretty enthused, I think, to be attending a conference in China and getting a chance to share their thoughts and ideas with their Chinese colleagues. Because despite how some people might feel, researchers everywhere in the world, regardless of nationality, are united by the same common and tremendous purpose–to get funding for their research.

And to do good science. Not just for the prestige and recognition, but to add something to the collective knowledge of the human race. To expand the understanding and information base that we as a species have of the world around us.

With that it mind, it’s pretty hard for me to admit that I plan to move to Australia in six months to write a novel based primarily on stupid humor.

I got out more

To five cities in eight days, to be exact. Although I suppose I really shouldn’t count Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of the six Special Economic Zones of China, where they’re allowed to follow slightly different rules in order to maximize profitability, and the only reason we even went there at all was that the plane tickets were cheaper. In fact, I didn’t get to see much of the city except through a plane or bus window, because as soon as we got there we headed straight for the border crossing.

Even though Hong Kong is fully part of China (under the “one country, two systems” system) the border crossing is exactly the same as if you were traveling to a foreign country. They even stamped my passport and everything. And as Hong Kong is one of the two Special Administrative Regions of China, they’re allowed to do pretty much whatever they want, excepting defense and foreign affairs. I thought it was interesting that while I didn’t need any sort of visa or special permission to go there, my Chinese friend who I was traveling with did. Apparently they have to regulate things or else too many people from the mainland would go to Hong Kong for a visit, and then just never go back. As one of my work colleagues put it, “Yeah it’s one country, two systems—but their system is better!”

I was glad I’d been to England before going to Hong Kong, because there were some similarities between Hong Kong and an English city that I never would have picked up on if I had never been to England. Mostly the trains, train stations, and pubs. And if that seems pretty trivial, I’d just like to point out that trains, train stations, and pubs are a pretty major part of an English person’s life, so that’s no small thing.

The friend I was traveling with was making the trip as part of his job, so I did manage to fulfill at least part of my goal of getting out more, because even though I got to stay in a 5-star hotel at night (my friend was able to change the room his company booked for him to one with two beds at no extra cost), during the day my friend had to work, so I had to fend for myself.

And I have to say that the thing that surprised me most about Hong Kong was the sheer number of Pakistani tailors insisting I buy suits from them. I thought this was odd, since they should’ve been able to tell from the map in my hand and perplexed look on my face that I was clearly a tourist—and a poor one at that—but that didn’t seem to deter them at all. Honestly though, I have a hard time imagining that harassing tourists on the street is an effective business model. I just don’t see how that would work for them. It certainly didn’t work on me.

I only had one full day in Hong Kong, and I wanted to make the most of it, so I did what any reasonable person would do and took the World’s Longest Escalator. Not to get anywhere in particular, but because out of all the interesting things to see and do in Hong Kong, the one thing I wanted to do the most—the single thing I absolutely had to do—was ride the World’s Longest Escalator.

Yeah, there’s definitely something wrong with me.

Still, from the top of the escalator I took a walk through the Botanical Gardens to get to the tram that goes to the top of Victoria Peak which allows for a view of almost all of Hong Kong in its entirety, so I did end up doing some things other people might consider normal, but the highlight of my trip to Hong Kong was still the World’s Longest Escalator.

The next day I took the ferry to Macao. Just like Hong Kong was a former British colony, Macao is a former Portuguese colony. And like Hong Kong has some distinctly English elements to it, Macao definitely has Mediterranean European elements to it. I say “Mediterranean European” because I’ve never actually been to Portugal, but I’m assuming it’s similar to Spain in terms of narrow, winding streets in older parts of cities, and so on.

There was one square in the old part of Macao where if you looked at it just right, you could swear you were in Europe. Aside from the teeming masses of Asians taking pictures, of course.

(And of course at least one person who’s reading this will be thinking that yeah, sometimes you see teeming masses of Asians taking pictures in cities in Europe as well, but I’m not going to go there.)

Like Hong Kong, I had only a day in Macao, and then it was back to China proper. To Zhuhai, another Special Economic Zone. And this may seem like a pretty odd way to spend my vacation, but I basically spent two full days in Zhuhai barely leaving the hotel room at all while I finished the first draft of my first novel. But the thing is, that’s exactly how I wanted to spend my time, and I have absolutely no regrets.

After Zhuhai we went to Guangzhou, where quite a few of my friend’s friends live. Really, really good people. Really, really good people who drink way, way too much, and as part of their “hospitality” expect their guests to drink as much as they do. Or more. Whether their guests want to or not.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it was totally AWESOME. Hell, it’s a small miracle I ever came back to Beijing.

The culture in the south of China is definitely distinct from that of the north. Sure, pretty much everywhere in China you can find people who are pretty nuts about food, but in the south they really go all out. After about 10 or 11 at night, the narrow streets and alleys of pretty much every southern city become filled with cheap, outdoor restaurants and pretty much everyone, no matter how poor they are, manages to scrounge up the time and the money to meet their friends for good food and good times. It’s pretty cool. It’s a shame, but you don’t really see that so much in Beijing. The people are too serious, and work too hard. Plus, an outdoor restaurant in Beijing would get pretty cold during the winter.

So yeah, it was an incredible trip. And it was incredibly hard to come back to Beijing and try to get back to work. In fact, as soon as I have the time and the money, I really want to go back to see more of the south of China.

Also, I have this inexplicable yet burning desire to go back to Hong Kong and buy as suit.