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.

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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.

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.

getting out more

The other day I mentioned to a friend that I need to get out more. My friend found this amusing, considering the number of countries I’ve lived in or visited. He has a point. Just looking at my passport, I have stamps for America, England, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, Ireland, Panama, Spain, China, and Morocco. Plus resident visas for England and China. In fact, there’s only one page left that doesn’t have a stamp of some kind on it.

And this is the passport I got in 2005, so it doesn’t include my East Africa or Mediterranean misadventures.

So yeah, on paper (literally) it looks like I’m a pretty adventurous guy. And I am in some ways, but in other ways not so much.

For example, I traveled halfway across the world to China, and right as soon as I got here I immediately set forth and……did nothing. I mean, I went to work on the weekdays and everything, but on the weekends I just sat around my apartment by myself. Most weekends I did not even leave my apartment at all. And my apartment really isn’t that big.

And yeah, it is kind of a pain to go downtown. I live in a suburb north of Beijing, and I generally have to stand on the subway for about an hour to get to the heart of the city, but that’s not a very good excuse. Thousands of people do it every day. During rush hour. It’s not even that bad on the weekends.

My problem is that I get stuck in a routine far too easily. Even though I’m adventurous enough to pack up my entire life and move to a completely new continent, once I get there I tend to quickly find a new routine and fall right into it as if I’ve always been there.

And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Except for the fact that I have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see China through the eyes of a resident, and I’m not really taking full advantage of it.

Part of the reason for this is that I’m just not much of a solo adventurer. For the most part I like to wait until other people come up with cool ideas, and then I tag along. The problem with this is that most of my friends here don’t really have the time or the money for a vacation, and even if they did, they wouldn’t want to take it with the weird American guy who can’t really speak Chinese or remember the names of, well, pretty much anything.

The thing is, I look at my friends who are just a little older than me, and most of them are looking to settle down—if they haven’t already—and it’s reasonable to think that I’m probably going to reach that point within the next few years as well. So it stands to reason that if my adventuring days are indeed limited, I really should be doing everything I can to make the most of them, and even if no one is willing or able to go with me, I should strike out on my own. In fact, it’s probably better if I strike out on my own. Some lessons in independence and self-reliance would be good for me. And hell, if I’m going to be serious about this, I really need to make concrete plans, not just vague intentions. At the very least, I need to see Hong Kong, Shanghai, and maybe even a trip to Tokyo before I leave China. That’s about the bare minimum that I think I could be satisfied with. But most importantly, I need to do it on my own. I need to plan it on my own, and I need to go on my own. It’s the only way I’ll ever learn any self-reliance, and it’ll help me get into the habit of being more adventurous without waiting for someone else to plan everything.

Which is why I’m going to Hong Kong tomorrow.

With my housemate.

Yeah, less than a week after I made up my mind that I wanted to go to Hong Kong, he asked me if I wanted to go there with him. Funny how that works. He’s going for business, but while he’s in meetings during the day I can go out and explore the city, and we can meet up in the evening for dinner, and then hit the bars.

And yeah, this doesn’t help me with my independence and self-reliance, but I honestly can’t pass up the chance to see Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau with a friend who also likes to travel and enjoy good restaurants.

Plus the fact that he’s Chinese helps a lot too.

Anyway, I should probably go pack, or something. Despite all the traveling I’ve done, I’m still not good at packing, and I still always wait until the night before to even start thinking about it. You’d think by now I would’ve learned.

But hey, at least I’m getting out more.

The Alfred Award

I’m sure by now everyone is aware of the latest Alfred Award winners. After all, it’s hard to not get excited about a Prize given out in honor of the guy who invented dynamite.

As least for me it is. But I’m easily excited. By things that explode.

But what particularly interests me and the people I work with is the fact that one of the winners this year was a Chinese guy. And yeah, I think pretty much everyone I work with dreams of one day winning the Alfred Award in chemistry or medicine, but it seems to have caused a bit of a stir over here that this particular guy won the one given out for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and that other thing.

By the way, if you think I’m just trying to be cute here, I assure you that this is not the case. Well, it’s not the only reason, anyway. No, the reason for the not-so-cleverly disguised phrasing is that the Chinese government really doesn’t like people talking about this. It’s not mentioned in any newspapers, if you mention it on your blog your blog gets blocked, and I heard if you even write the guy’s name in an email, your email gets deleted. And then you get deleted.

I’m just kidding about that last part. Seriously, Chinese government people who monitor the internet, I’m only joking around here, of course.

Please don’t hurt me.

But this whole issue really does bring to light a fundamental difference between China and the West. And I’m not just talking about chopsticks or delicious food here. Or their incredibly hard to learn language. Or their constant drive to better themselves. Or the fact that I should just get on with it.

Anyway…

What I’m talking about is a difference in philosophy regarding how to treat other countries. See, when China wants to do business with another country, they just do that. Business, I mean. They exchange goods and services for money, or whatever, and leave it at that. They don’t try to force their morals or belief system on the other country. Of course, America never ever does that either, so I guess we’re the same in that respect.

But while a lot of Chinese people aren’t happy with the government, they’re also not too happy with the West trying to tell the Chinese government what it can or can’t do. Look at it this way: suppose you decided to do business with someone, and then suddenly they start telling you what you can or can’t do with your sex life. I know that’s not a great analogy (I suck at analogies), but unless you’re a prostitute, the person you’re doing business with really doesn’t get much of a say in who you have sex with. Again, I’m not saying this is a good analogy, but in a way this really is how a lot of Chinese people see it. Internal problems are just that—internal. They really don’t want ignorant Westerners poking their noses into their private affairs and telling them what they can or can’t do.

[Alright Chinese government guys, I typed it just like you told me to. Can I go home now?]

Of course, as a Westerner I can see the West’s side of things too. I mean, the guy who won does seem like a pretty cool person. All he wants is personal freedom, democratic elections, and government accountability. Hell, he’d fit right in with America’s temperament today. And while he’s been fighting against the government for decades now, he’s always done so nonviolently.

Ok, so maybe he wouldn’t fit in so well in America.

Here’s another interesting thing: the guy in the cubicle next to me at work actually participated in that big square dance-off back in 1989. I was pretty amazed when he told me about it. He was a student at the time, and he was right there in the thick of it. He actually participated in one of the defining moments of his generation. I thought that was pretty damn cool. I asked him how he managed to not get arrested.

His answer: “Well, there were hundreds of thousands of us.”

Ah. Fair enough.

So I asked him what the worst thing about the Chinese government was. His answer: that he’s not free…to start his own newspaper.

Seriously? That’s it? That’s the worst thing about the oppressive dictatorship fascist evil communist government?

Apparently. And that’s pretty much why we haven’t seen another square dance-off in recent years. Because the fact is, while the government is indeed corrupt and controls the media, if people are willing to work hard and keep their heads down and not make a big fuss, they can still find the opportunity to make a pretty good life for themselves. And that’s pretty much what’s keeping people in check right now. It’s just not worth for most people it to throw your whole life away just so you can run your own newspaper.

When the award was first announced, I found plenty of English-language sites that had the story, which means that anyone who could read English could have found it as well. In fact, everyone in my lab was talking about it for a while…but mostly because one of the guys happened to have the same name as the prizewinner. Apparently they care, but they don’t care that much. They’d be way more interested if the winner had been in chemistry or medicine. Because again, their lives are good enough that it’s just not worth it to risk everything for some vague concepts like “democracy” and “press freedom”.

Huh. I checked just now, and while it wasn’t like this before, now all Google searches for the guy are blocked, and even his Wikipedia entry is inaccessible. So maybe I’m not being paranoid after all. Regardless, it really would be unfathomably stupid of me to just come right out and say that Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize when it’s ridiculously easy for me to get my meaning across without doing so directly.

Wait a minute.

Government-sponsored speed dating in China

In retrospect, I really should’ve realized sooner that there was no possible way government-sponsored speed dating could be as cool as I imagined.

But I was pretty intrigued when my boss first mentioned it to me. I was even more intrigued when he told me that my presence was specifically requested—and not as an example of what not to date. Still, when he asked if I was interested in attending, I had to be honest: “The problem is that I’m not going to stay in China forever, and while I might be interested in something for the short term, it’s hard for me to imagine that’s what any of these girls are looking for. I think it’s just a fundamental cultural difference. In fact, I think it would be pretty disingenuous and irresponsible for me to even show up at all.”

Which is basically just a long-winded way of saying “Hell yes!”

So when the day arrived I put on my best shirt, shined my shoes (well, brushed some of the mud off, anyway) and headed to work. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the whole event was held at the Institute. I thought this was kind of interesting because, well, the Institute is not exactly the most romantic place. But it was convenient. And in a way, I suppose that sort of makes sense, since convenience often trumps romance in a relationship. Or so I’m told. Don’t have a whole lot of firsthand experience with relationships myself.

Like most of the things that happen to me in China, I didn’t fully understand what was going on until someone explained it to me later, but apparently the whole idea was for these unmarried government workers to come to our Institute to pick up some unmarried scientists. And if that makes sense to you, please explain it to me.

There were both guys and girls from the government office, and from the Institute as well, which kind of made me wonder why the single government people didn’t just date each other, and the single scientists just date each other, since they’d be more likely to have things in common. But I guess if we were all normal, well-adjusted people who could form stable relationships on our own, we wouldn’t need government-sponsored speed dating in the first place.

I was a little surprised to see one of my friends there though. Not because she’s an attractive and socially competent person who certainly doesn’t need help finding a date, but because I happen to know for a fact that she has a boyfriend. She got pretty embarrassed when I asked her what she was doing there. Of course, I guess I did pretty loudly point out that she was already ‘taken’.

Her face went a little pink, and she hurriedly explained to me that because it was part of her job to coordinate all guests at the Institute, she had to be there. I could understand that.

“Ah, so you’re just here to look at all the hot guys, but not touch them.”

I think it’s funny to tease people who can’t defend themselves in English very easily. Because I’m an asshole.

No wonder I’m single.

The event in question was held on the badminton court (with the badminton net taken down, unfortunately. That would’ve made things more interesting) with chairs surrounding it. I wondered why they chose this particular setup, but the answer came soon enough.

Apparently, the government’s idea of a good way to get people to fall in love is to make them sit there and listen to a guy talk about…something…for about an hour. I didn’t know what it was because my Chinese vocabulary is limited to the subjects of food, hitting on girls, and profanity. Oh yeah, and I know how to say “down jacket”. But apparently this guy wasn’t talking about any of those things. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is lame. Yeah, he might’ve been talking about the profound and magical connection that can be formed between two loving people, but as my understanding of relationships is also limited to food, hitting on girls, profanity, and down jackets, it was way beyond me.

I also didn’t like the way he would occasionally point to me and everyone would laugh politely. Now I understand Chinese people well enough at this point to know that he probably wasn’t insulting me directly, but it still made me a little uncomfortable. But that’s ok, because I’ll get the last laugh in the end. You know why? Because I can go to America any time I want to. And stay for as long as I want.

So there.

But while I was sitting there listening to this guy go on and on and on about…whatever…something occurred to me: I really shouldn’t be there. Because as long as I didn’t actually open my mouth or give any other indication of the nature of my personality, a lot of those girls would consider me a pretty ideal catch. Basically, I’m their ticket to a better life. Seriously, when I go downtown and girls are checking me out constantly it’s not because I’m so devastatingly handsome (well I am, but that’s not why), it’s because it can still be a struggle to have a decent life here, and in a lot of their minds I represent a way out of toil and uncertainty. And while knowing this does make it slightly less cool when I see a hot girl checking me out, it does not in any way diminish my enjoyment of getting molested by cute female Chinese security guards. Which happens more than you might think.

So yeah, rather than have the Chinese Communist Party set me up with a potential love interest, I decided to just go ahead and ask one of my friends out for a drink. This has the disadvantage of her already knowing my personality, but the advantage of not having to listen to some dude go on for a freaking hour about something I don’t care about (by the way, I found out later he was giving them the history of the Institute. What the hell? The institute is only like 3 years old! And how does knowing it help them pick a potential partner? Oh well.) Anyway, she asked if she could bring some friends along. I asked if any of them were cute. Apparently this was not the right thing to say, and now I have that against me too.

But at least I always have government-sponsored speed dating to fall back on.

Chinese people

I love Chinese people. And I’m not just saying that because the Chinese government monitors all of my internet activity.

No, not really. From what my friends have told me, while the Great Firewall of China does block things like YouTube and Facebook, at the end of the day they really don’t care so much about what you say in English. Apparently, the one and only thing you’re not allowed to talk about in English is +++ SIGNAL LOST +++ NO CONNECTION +++ but aside from that, pretty much everything else seems to be ok.

So yeah, Chinese people. Chinese people are very friendly. Don’t get me wrong, Americans are pretty friendly too, but Americans can also totally flip out at you if you happen to have the wrong religion, opinion, sexual preference, political affiliation, skin color, nationality, gender, birthday, or hairstyle. Chinese people don’t really do that. They don’t seem to have that American need to let everyone else know exactly what they think about each and every topic at all times. But this doesn’t always work out so well for them, because now that they’re the second largest economy in the world, people are starting to get suspicious. Why exactly do they keep selling cheap goods to America, and then turning around and loaning us more money to buy their cheap goods? They’d better have a damn good reason.

Being an American myself I can understand why many are so nervous about China’s growing power, but after living here in China for just over eight months now, I can honestly say that those fears are largely groundless. China is not a threat to us. At least not militarily. And it seems that the main reason we fear them is because we imagine what we would do if we were in their position. But they’re not like us. They have no desire to rule the world. As one of my colleagues at the Institute pointed out, “After 160 years of invasions by foreigners, Chinese people just want a safe place to try and make a good life for themselves.” And regardless of anything the government might say, that seems to be how most people feel.

I once mentioned to another friend that I assumed China’s plan was to get us so deeply in debt that one day they’d just come over and ‘repossess’ our entire country. He explained to me that this is definitely not the case. In fact, for Chinese people it’s the person who receives the loan that has all the power, because if the person who gave the loan isn’t nice enough, the person who received it will just refuse to pay it back. So in reality, when China loans us money, they’re technically giving us more power over them. And why would they do this? Because having a strong and stable American economy is in their best interests, so we can keep buying their stuff. At least for now.

I once asked yet another colleague (I try to talk to as many people as possible because I’m bored at work to get a broader picture), who happened to be a Communist Party Member, to explain to me why, if communism is so great, the more capitalist China becomes more prosperous it becomes. He quickly informed me that it is not, in fact, capitalism, but communism with Chinese flavor.

Ah. I see.

The thing is, a lot of people here don’t really seem to mind that their government isn’t a democracy. After all, they’ve been ruled by emperors for thousands of years. Everyone knows the current leaders are just emperors with different names. The only thing that really bothers them is the corruption. China actually has some of the strictest building codes in the world, but nobody follows them because the contractors simply bribe the officials to look the other way so they can build things cheaper and pocket the extra money. And if you’re wealthy, you’re essentially above the law here. A lot of people aren’t too happy about that. But the government knows that they only have to limit corruption just enough to keep the entire population from revolting against them, and nothing more. And that’s just weak.

But Americans seem to have a funny stereotype of Chinese people in general. Seriously, what do you think of when you think about Chinese people? Delicious food, good at math, can’t speak English, and socially retarded. That seems to be the general view. But now that I’ve been here for a while I can honestly say that, well, yeah, that’s pretty much right on. At least with the people I work with. But that’s because I work at the best biological institute in the country. Basically, everyone I work with is a Super-Dork (wait, what does this say about me?), and it’s only Super-Dorks like them who actually manage to get visas to America (um, except for one beautiful, brilliant, socially magnificent Chinese girl who just got a visa to America and may or may not read this blog. Whoops). So it’s no wonder America has such a skewed view of Chinese people in general. But I have to admit, I did find it funny that the biggest socially inept dorkus in my research group was the only guy who managed to get a visa to go to America. Sometimes I can’t help wondering if that’s intentional.

There does seem to be a sort of national sense of inadequacy and insecurity here though. I mean, everywhere you go in China, they always seem to be trying way too hard to point out that they have a rich cultural heritage, beautiful scenery, and are quickly becoming world leaders in science and technology. Sometimes I just want to pat the entire country on the back and say, “Hey man, it’s cool, you really do have a lot of things going for you. You just have to stop trying so hard and just be yourself, and people will like you for who you are.”

Regardless, if I’m being completely honest I have to say that my favorite thing about Chinese people is Chinese girls. Specifically, how they treat me. I know that probably sounds lecherous and creepy, but seriously, every time I go downtown, gorgeous Chinese girls are checking me out constantly. It’s AWESOME. Hell, it’s amazing I ever even bother going to work.

Last Friday I went to a benefit concert for the environment with a friend of mine because we were given free tickets. On the way in to the concert hall I was stopped by a cute female security guard and patted down. And by ‘patted down’ I mean ‘felt up while her hot colleague watched’. Actually, that was the best part of the whole evening. And if you think I might have just misinterpreted things, I’d just like to point out that this is not the first time that’s happened to me. Hell, being felt up by cute female Chinese security guards just might be my favorite thing about living in China.

I may never leave.