Friday, June 13, 2014

Train Travel is Best Travel

Since coming to China, I have found traveling by train extremely convenient, and I am more than satisfied. In a country full of bureaucratic difficulties, it was such a pleasant surprise to find out how easy it was to go traveling. With a super streamlined online ticket purchasing system, train stations located at city centers, immaculately maintained stations, all at a good price, I got to hand it to China. I have been extolling the virtues of taking the train for years now, but until I came here I had no idea that train travel could be so fantastic.

You average train trip looks like this:
1. Purchase your ticket about two to three days in advance online or at the station. Foreigners are allowed to sign up for web ticketing service!
2. Arrive at the station about an hour ahead of time to pick up your tickets.
3. Head to security check, should take a grand total of 2 minutes
4. Board the train, stow your luggage. Note that there is NO limit to the size or weight of your luggage!
5. Chill out until you arrive at your destination!

(disregard all of these rules if you are traveling during Chinese holidays, see article on Xichang)

This process is infinitely more simple that taking an airplane and has usually resulted in much less headache. I have only heard of a train being delayed once from all of my friends, as opposed to flying, where delays have seemed to me to be more of a rule than an exception. Also, as someone who moves around a lot, this unlimited luggage policy is really attractive.

Here in southwestern China, things go at a slower pace. Up in the more developed areas, there are regularly scheduled "D" trains, its speed only second to the "G" train, "gaotie" 高铁, meaning "high-speed rail." These trains are AMAZING- you can get from Beijing to Guangzhou in EIGHT HOURS, and costs about $150 USD. 1300 miles apart, thats like going from California to Kansas. I'm am just absolutely tickled when I think about it. They are hoping to extend high-speed rail service to Kunming by 2016, but for now we will have to be placated with th"T" for "tekuai" 特快 or "extra fast" and the "K" train, standing for "kuai" 快 meaning "Fast." These are glaring misnomers, as these trains are incredibly slow. But even though it takes 8 hours to get to the next cool city, they are still more convenient than flying.

I still am unable to understand why America has yet to understand the value of train travel. The last time I drove from San Francisco to Sacramento it took 4 1/2 HOURS. There is clearly no reason for this! I know that there is a rail line in this region, but archaically slow speeds coupled with stupidly expensive pricing makes people who own cars unwilling to use it. Imagine a world with no traffic and low risks for collisions. You just sit back and relax, unconcerned with any of the classic problems plaguing road or air travel. You guys, a well thought out train system is absolutely fabulous.

California is making baby steps towards getting a north-south rail, and there are plans to expand on a national level. I think it would be a valuable means of transportation in the US, and I encourage people to support development in this sector. Just seriously: trains are awesome.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Working in China: My Experience at a Yunnan NGO

My internship finished last Friday, and I am still wiping the sweat from my brow. I spent the weekend properly by lounging on my couch watching ancient episodes of The Simpsons, sort of in a state.

These past four months have really been something; I say something, because I still can't quite tell what. Working with my group has been incredibly challenging, and I am still figuring out which combination of factors made it so difficult for me to adjust. Foreigners in China are prone to blaming their problems on "China" with a capital C, but since China is such a large country with varying cultures I try to avoid doing this. I am more apt to say that maybe it's a Yunnan thing, but I also don't thinks so, because we are actually pretty relaxed out here in comparison with the more developed areas out on the coast. I am at an NGO, which are notoriously fast paced and 辛苦, according to all of my classmates in NGOs right now.  There is also the intern factor, where they were just piling on the work because, well, I work for free. But then again I'm not even really familiar with what real American work life is like, so maybe I am just being overly sensitive about the whole thing.

I remember arriving at my office with my two classmates on the first day. Us three, along with my two coworkers and my boss Amy sat around that giant dark wood conference table eating watermelon. There was a small whiteboard and a giant piece of white paper absolutely drowning under the ink of hastily written Chinese characters, which I would soon find out was the plans for my four months of work. My work was strange and nebulous, hard to pin down: about ten different long term projects were plunked down in front of me, some of them of types completely unfamiliar. "Just begin like you are starting a qualitative research report," Amy says to me. "You can interview news media reports, it should be fun," Amy says-- please imagine the my dear-in-headlights look that might accompany these intimidatingly offhand statements. After four months, many deadlines, and an excruciating number of meetings later, a large bulk of these plans, plus some other projects added on top, were only about halfway completed. I completed the major ones, but I was disappointed to see so many slip by the wayside.

Working with my organization sure had its quirks. We are made up of university professors in the area who come together several times a week to plan and do projects. This makes for much running around between universities, extended meeting times, company meals, and rescheduling. Much different from the classic nine to five scenario, I didn't have a classic boss who came to check in on me very much, and sometimes I felt like I didn't have all the support I needed to get my work done. It even dawned on me that the professors themselves might not be entirely clear about the organizational structure of the group. Three to four meetings per week was not only a total time sink, but would also make it difficult to keep priorities straight as they would add on new and "important" projects for me to do.

On a more positive note, being with my NGO also gave me some really interesting opportunities to learn about Chinese life. I will never forget the ability of my coworker Geng to be able to buzz around gracefully keeping everyone's teacup full, or Yin to be able to graciously fill everyone's rice bowls at our lunch meetings. I reflected to my classmate that it was really foreign for me to pour tea for the professors and serve them as needed and took some adjusting, whereupon he cried "I would never do that!" Our workplace had an unspoken hierarchy in which I and my two coworkers were much below our teachers. Another very interesting experience I had was listening to my professors speak openly to each other about their opinions on the Chinese government and Tibet and other topics which I thought were off limits. There was even one of these discussions in which a government worker participated in! I was surprised and delighted to be included in on these talks, and to find that contrary to popular belief, intellectual Chinese people have no qualms about talking politics. Another major discovery I had was that academics are cool. It's where the young people are and it where the interesting progress is happening. I'm not sure why this surprised me, because America is similar in this respect, but I always sort of had a tendency to think that academia is stuffy and snobby. It's part of the reason why I never had the urge to immediately enter graduate school. But in this country where so many people don't even make it into high school, college students clearly have an advantage for understanding the global zeitgeist, and they were crowd with which I felt most comfortable and welcomed.

Overall my experience was surprising, interesting, and challenging. I am really thankful to my organization for accepting me into their group and having me work alongside. I feel that a position at another NGO is not in my immediate future, but they have successfully launched me on a good trajectory, and I am looking forward to new employment in a similar vein. Maybe getting a job that actually pays me money will put my work into a more positive light? We shall see! I am fast in pursuit of a new job, and hopefully I will be able to answer that question very soon!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

June in Kunming

I am 22 years old right now, and have spent almost as many years in public school, and I am obsessed with the month of June. These two things are no doubt related--after years of pavlovian training that June = Summer Vacation, I simply had no choice in the matter. 

And here we are again, June. I have been waiting for you.  June means that it is still warm and light outside even well into the evening. It means swimming in the lake. It means sleeping with just a sheet on and with the windows open, and taking cold showers.  

June is usually the month when I quit my job and leave where ever I happen to be staying to go to the mystical OUTDOORS. Ah yes, you might have heard of it. It is everything which is the opposite of being indoors: cramped spaces, stuffy air, computer screens, beeping electronics-- none of these things are allowed during the month of June. They are all replaced with the warm smell of hot dirt and pine needles, big mouthfuls of tart lemonade, and the sounds of a choruses of buzzing bees.  

I remember this time last year I was cruising down Highway 101 heading north with my family, looking out of the open backseat window of our car and over the ocean, feeling the cool coastal air. My silly family--we just drove and drove and drove until we decided to head home. 

This June, I will be much farther above sea level than I was last year. My Mom is going to brave the trip to come see me here in Yunnan, and we are going to have a look around down here. We will do some hiking in Dali, lounge for a few days in Lijiang, and check out Lugu Lake where the mysterious Lugu people live. Think Chinese cottage towns with criss-crossing cobblestoned alleyways, and great green plains where livestock graze underneath towering mountains peaks. Mostly I am excited to be with my mom, and for us to just wander around out there together. We will have a lot of time to spend taking rides on the slow train to remote locations, sitting around in tea houses eating sunflower seeds, and seeing the sights. We can enjoy the sun again, and be free. 

Now that I am graduating, I suspect that me continuing to asking for June off into my professional life will not be as socially acceptable. I've been applying for what have been known to me in college as "real jobs." But seeing as I am unemployed for the time being, I will continue to indulge myself, if not at least for just one last time, in June.