03 December 2010

China, Day 1--Newark to Beijing

The morning of our departure, we awoke to a clear autumn day. The leaves were a little behind upstate NY, where they were nearly all off the trees, except for the oak tree in our front yard, which annoyingly clings to its leaves well into December, usually until after the first snowfall, and well beyond when it's anywhere near pleasant to be outside raking. In New Jersey, the trees were still in the middle of dropping their leaves, and my uncle pensively remarked that there would be much raking to do upon their return. But the leaves would wait. China filled our whole windshield--it would be our only concern for the foreseeable future.

We buzzed through breakfast. Between bites, we compared last minute notes on things we were bringing. A couple people were bringing something to help them sleep. Dad was still debating about bringing his Crocs, as was I. Not having been able to decide before leaving home, I had thrown two extra coats and three pairs of shoes in the trunk of the car. What to wear, what to wear... Although I was concerned that it would be cold and windy on the Great Wall, I decided the need for a warm coat would be brief.  A windbreaker with a hood for wind and with the hope we would not be forced out in the rain for too long would do.  I could layer for cold.  I went with my old broken-in sneakers for the Great Wall and in case it rained. As "ugly American" as they are, I decided to wear my Crocs on the plane--they were just too light and comfortable (and easy to take off) to leave behind.

The airport bus arrived, and it was time to go. Dave's wife Cheryl and their daughter Jeannette served as our farewell party, wishing us safe travels and waving us off.

The trip to the airport, checking in, getting through security, all were pretty routine. The big 777 waited for us at the end of the gangway. I gave the plane my customary pat on the fuselage as I got on: Good plane, trusty plane, I know you will get us there safely. I had a middle seat between my two cousins. We all like to play games, so there was some thought we might play cards--Lord knows I was prepared for that, with a half dozen games in my backpack--but it never happened. Continental gave us each our own personal entertainment system, with movies, TV shows, games, an in-flight map, music... We each took advantage and passed a great deal of the time watching our little screens. I didn't sleep more than half an hour, if that. I read a little, watched two movies, wrote in my journal a little, talked with Dave and Paul. I got up a couple of times to go to the bathroom and stretch my legs. I won't say 13 hours went quickly, but it went by pretty smoothly.

Our flight path took us north over Canada. After passing Hudson Bay, we crossed the Arctic circle, and passed within shouting distance of the north pole. We skirted the north coast of Alaska, then headed south over Siberia before making our descent into China. Flying almost seven miles high, it was hard to comprehend exactly how far we'd traveled. Nothing was really visible, and the flight was smooth as silk. The frozen wastes slid by under us, unseen beneath layers of clouds. Our screens glowed with information about our flightpath and the conditions outside our flying cocoon. The outside temperature, mere inches away from the faces of those by the windows, was -70 degrees F, but we were comfortable (if a little cramped) inside a technological wonder hurtling along at 600mph. What a far cry from the trip my father, my uncles and my grandmother made in the opposite direction in 1937, fleeing wartorn China across an ocean of danger in a cargo steamer.

We arrived in Beijing in the mid-afternoon. Locally, the time was nearly 26 hours after the time we left Newark, although we had been on the plane for about 14. We deplaned into the new Terminal 3 of the huge Beijing Capital International Airport. The massive Terminal 3 expansion, opened in 2008 to accomodate the influx of visitors to the 2008 Olympics, has made BCIA the world's second busiest airport in terms of passengers served. Terminal 3 was the third largest building in the world in terms of floor space when it opened--it is currently the fourth largest. It's also the cleanest airport I've ever been in. The floors--all of them--looked like they were just polished ten minutes before. The massive ceiling rose dozens if not a hundred feet overhead. We followed the crowd and the signs that directed us to the immigration check, where hundreds of people were gathered in several lines waiting to have their passports and visas checked. There were no questions, merely a brief, diligent glance to compare our pictures with our appearance and stamps in our passports indicating our arrival.

Heading down to baggage claim, there were a couple of indications that we weren't, as they say, in Kansas anymore.  First were the replicas of some of the terracotta warriors--those life-sized statues unearthed in the ancient capital of Xi'an. We paused there for some of us to hit a nearby rest room, and I noticed a sign that I couldn't resist photographing.  If I'm not mistaken, this is a sign advertising the 590th anniversary of, presumably, the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing.  A sign advertising the 590th anniversary of something is something you just don't see in the good old (but relatively young) U.S.A.

Once we claimed our bags, we had to run a gauntlet of drivers, business associates, friends and family members waiting with little signs with the names of travelers. There were hundreds of them, all crowded behind a rope, waiting just outside the inner terminal door. There was something almost chemical about the coming together of the fliers and those awaiting them--the fliers walking down the line until they recognize or are recognized, then the two parties, separated by the rope and the crowd, joining up with each other at the end of the line and peeling off to go to their cars or buses or the train to leave the airport together. Like floating electrons, we were gathered in by a nucleus--our tour guide, Jasmine--and we formed a new atom. We shuffled to one side of the stream of fliers and those awaiting them in order to make introductions and gather up to move on to the van waiting to take us to the hotel.

From the word "go," Jasmine was a dynamo. She already knew all of our names, and--this being a family trip for which she had helped to prepare for over a year--all of our relationships to each other. She was--is--the soul of preparation and anticipation. She was constantly in motion, as demonstrated in this, my first picture of her, in which she appears as a black-clad blur with a white headband. Throughout our trip, she was either in preparation for the next phase of the trip, watching over us like a mother hen, or telling us something interesting about our surroundings. In emails she sent before the trip, she had forewarned us about not drinking the tap water, not crossing the street alone, and keeping our travel documents with us at all times.  As promised, she had water waiting for us in the van, and also snacks. We would learn that we could rely on her to anticipate our every need, and to have an answer to nearly any question about our surroundings or about China.

Jasmine's first task was to shepherd her weary travelers down to the garage level where our van awaited. She introduced Mr. Tan, who would be our driver during our stay in Beijing, and as they packed our bags in the back, we packed ourselves into the front. On our drive into the city, I felt very little jet lag, eagerly staring out the windows to take in the look and feel of the city. Working our way towards the heart of the capital, we saw an urban landscape similar to that of most U.S. cities: raised highways passing rows of high-rise apartment houses. The difference was in scale. Most U.S. cities have a beltway or two that encircles them, providing a bypass for travelers who wish to go around the city, not through. Beijing, a city that has added approximately 10 million people since 2000 (current population estimate is over 22 million), is currently up to six beltways--known as ring roads--and is currently working on a seventh. As the kilometers of apartment buildings went by, we caught our second glimpse (Terminal 3 being the first) of the amazing modern architecture of the city: the CCTV tower, known colloquially (and for obvious reasons) as the "Big Pants."

Finally, we reached our hotel. As we clustered together in the lobby and Jasmine gathered our passports to give them briefly to the hotel staff for recording (something we would have to do at every hotel), I felt a mixture of feelings: The uncertainty of being inexperienced at international travel, mitigated by the growing confidence that Jasmine had our back where the details of travel were concerned; excitement at realizing that I was a Chien in China (how cool!); topped off with a growing weariness from being awake for nearly 24 hours.

I must have been more tired than I realized because I'm fuzzy on the sequence of events for the rest of the day. I know we went out to eat, but I can't remember if we walked or drove. I remember that it was at this meal that I ate eggplant for the first time in my life and didn't hate it as I always imagined I would. There were oddities about our room at which my brother and I were either puzzled or surprised: There was an inch of water in the bottom of the waste basket in our bathroom; the beds were hard and our pillows were filled with buckwheat hulls or something similar and, while surprisingly comfortable, were decidedly not fluffable, making it difficult to sit up in bed; there was no Wi-Fi, so in order to let Lori and the girls know I was there and OK, I used my cellphone to call around 6:15pm, which was 6:15am for them--the middle of their getting-ready-for-school routine. With an early morning planned, we finally managed to settle down and get some sleep, which one would imagine would have been easy after being awake for over 24 hours, but was not: Knowing I was in China for the first time--where my father was born, land of my grandfather's family, land of how many unknown ancestors and current relatives, a land that was a mystery waiting to be unfolded--was enough to keep me awake well past a prudent bedtime.

13 November 2010

China, Day 0--RPI


My journey began on a bright October morning, when I left my home in Rome, NY for my brother's in Troy, and then my uncle's house in New Jersey. Parting from my wife and two daughters was harder than I thought it would be. The tears flowed and, although I knew an exciting adventure awaited me, I knew there would be times I missed them and wished for their beautiful faces to come around a corner and light up my day, as they always do.

The drive to Troy was occupied by a few phone calls (thank you, BlueTooth) and to listening to an audio recording of The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, which I had checked out via downloadable audio from my library. I had read the book many years ago, in college perhaps or maybe high school, and it seemed like an appropriate way occupy the first hours on a trip to a China that I only, to this point, knew through fiction, armchair travel, and my imagination. Though the China that awaited us was certainly less feudal the China of Buck's book, we were due to learn that its dependance on the earth and the lives of those who work it are just as real as it was to the nation and people depicted in the book.

I reached Troy and picked up my brother and his luggage. Before departing for our uncle's, our first order of business was to visit the campus of RPI--the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute--just up the hill from my brother's apartment in Troy. Our mission was to view and digitize portions of my grandfather's thesis. My grandfather completed his engineering schooling by studying for his master's degree at RPI.  He graduated in 1925, and his thesis won the Institute's prestigious MacDonald Prize, awarded to the top thesis from the graduating class. I had received the text of the thesis via interlibrary loan a few days before, but the large drawings, charts and maps bound into the back of the volume (as reported by my brother, who had seen these things on an earlier trip to the campus) were not included. Oddly, neither did my grandfather's name appear anywhere in the body of the document. Although we already had a photocopy and PDF of the thesis to bring to China, we wanted to photograph the remainder of the work to complete the record.

After a couple of tries, we finally got the students at the circulation desk to find a staff member who knew where the older theses were shelved and to retrieve it for us. It was a special moment, holding grandfather's thesis for the first time. How hard had he worked on this thing? How many hours had he spent working on it? I wondered, how proud was he of this accomplishment? What did his Chinese family know of this and what did they think? This document serves as a lasting beacon on the arc of his career--a monument of academic achievement and an indicator of his potential. Unlike a published book, it's a one-of-a-kind document. And here it was in my hands. Cool!

We looked for a well-lit table, but didn't find one that was large enough to accommodate the opened papers, which my brother knew were large.  We settled for laying it out on the floor, and carefully opening the papers. They were in a very fragile state--rather dry and brittle, especially the map at the end. It was difficult, too, to get far enough above them to get a straight-on picture. I think my brother might have a picture of the awkward pose I assumed in order to hover the camera above the documents. One chart was so large, I couldn't get it all in one picture. I made a special effort to get as clear a picture as possible of the name "Chang Kan Chien" stamped into the front cover since I had found it unsettling, when I received the scanned copy of the text of the thesis, that nowhere in the text was my grandfather's name! The only indication that this was his work was a name stamped in the front cover (hard to read if you don't know what it's supposed to say), the name "Chien, C.K." pencilled(!) inside the front cover, and his name in the library's catalog record for the volume.

Once we finished there we went to have some lunch--a good old diner lunch of Eggs Benedict. My mind went again to wondering what I'd be eating for the next week. Such trepidations seemed trivial, though; in 24 hours, we'd be winging our way over Canada on our way to China.

Our documentation in hand, we set off from lunch to my uncle's house in New Jersey. There, we'd meet up with the rest of the crew, have dinner, then settle in for some sleep before getting up early to drive to the airport. The great adventure was at hand!

05 November 2010

China, There and Back Again

We are back from our big adventure, and there are stories to tell. I am simultaneously anxious to organize the 1700+ pictures and videos I took, and exhausted from jet lag. Last night, riding the high of getting home and greeting everyone and answering questions and giving presents, I started an impromptu photo show for my wife and my mother-in-law, Pat, who had been visiting while I was gone, but was leaving for home in the morning. We started at around 10pm, and at 12:40am we had to stop when, about 2/3 through the pictures and my accompanying commentary, my camera batteries died. I have a lot of organizing and winnowing to do before I can give an organized presentation, which I have promised to do in December at the local senior center.

Problem number one in dealing with the pictures is that I forgot to change the date and time on the camera while there. Fortunately, after only a brief investigation, I've found that iPhoto has the ability to make the +12 hour adjustment on all the photos in one batch. The computer is busy changing the files now.

In the meantime, I can tell a bit about the traveling--specifically, what am I glad I brought, and what did I bring that I ended up not needing or not using.

Things I'm Glad I Brought

  • A 16GB SDHC card for the camera. I used over 14GB taking about 1,740 pictures and videos. Glad, too, that I bought a class 6 card which reads and writes faster than lower-numbered classes.
  • Imodium. Never needed it in China, but it saved me at the very end when "the urge" struck just as the plane landed in Newark.
  • Ibuprophen. Helped me deal with a stiff back the first few days of the trip, although doing my back exercises was the real key.
  • A journal. Wrote quite a bit in it. I could have possibly typed it all into my iPod Touch, but it's nice to have the tangible object, which accompanied me to China and back and can serve as the record for the trip. I did fall behind in writing in it, so I have some catching up to do to complete it.
  • 2 pairs of shoes. I don't know. I just liked having sneakers when I needed them, and something lighter to wear on the plane and for bopping around. Crocs. Mortifying, isn't it? Well, I liked having them.
  • Gum. Good to have on the plane and nice thing to share with my traveling companions.
  • iPod Touch. I used it constantly to look up Chinese words (Qingwen Chinese Dictionary), take notes (PlainText), play games (Reiner Knizia's Money, Mü, Galcon Lite, Cut the Rope), and to call home for free when I had Wi-Fi access (Line2 free trial).
  • Cargo pants. Used them on the plane to stuff my extra pockets with things from my backpack so I didn't have to keep it under the seat. The extra leg room was priceless. Don't stuff the pockets until you are through security, though.
  • Gorilla Pod. It's a small flexible tripod you can set up almost anywhere. Used it to take the group shot on the great wall. Also good to have in the camera bag: a good lens brush and lens cleaner, and twice as many batteries as you think you'll need.
  • The book The Building of the Burma Road by Pei-ying Tán. The story of why will have to wait for the appropriate time in the narrative, which will come in another post.
Wish I'd Had (or remembered to bring)
  • Rechargeable battery charger (forgot mine--borrowed one from my Dad), or more batteries
  • One more pair each of socks and underwear (actually, I had them, but I forgot I'd stuffed them in my backpack)
  • Benadryl as a sleep aid and for allergy relief (borrowed from Dad and my cousin)

Things I Brought But Didn't Need or Use

  • Binoculars. I always think I'll use them, and I never do. Never again.
  • Sunglasses. I thought I'd use them. Never pulled them out of my backpack.
  • International adapter kit for the iPod. Every hotel had dual-voltage plugs that took both European- and US-style plugs. $40 down the drain. If you want to buy one, I'll be selling mine on Amazon. I give you good price.
  • ALL the games. Remember all that business about what games to bring? Never had time (or the desire) to play one once. In retrospect, the only thing one has to bring is a deck of cards, just in case.
  • Tripod. Could have used it if I had been determined to do so and took the time. Generally, was too rushed and didn't want to carry the weight around.
  • Swiss Army Knife: Another item that I always think I'll need but, A) Can't carry it on the plane, so I forget to fish it out of my luggage and put it in my pocket , probably because B) I never do end up wanting it. Now, if we were camping? Different story.
  • Earplugs: That's personal preference, though. Some of our group used EarPlanes. I had noise reducing earplugs for my iPod, which I also used with the entertainment system on the plane.
  • Toilet Paper.  Again, never had it with me when I could have used it, although, thankfully, I never wished I'd had it. Probably would still bring, just in case.
  • Book to read.  Alas, I bided my time on the Continental flights with the entertainment system and my iPod. Didn't even crack the book I brought, Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. And me, a librarian. Shame on me. To atone, I bought books in China to bring home.
Well, iPhoto is finished changing the time on my pictures. Time to get cracking at organizing and winnowing. The story of the trip will follow...

23 October 2010

You can't get here from there

A colleague was speaking to my wife the other day, and said that she heard that Blogger blogs may be banned or blocked in China. She did a little investigating and found out that it may be true. So this might be the last time I'm able to post until we get back from China. Just in case, though, I'm getting a little practice in by typing this one on my iPod Touch.

We are safely all in Emerson, NJ., our staging point for our flight tomorrow. It's then when we head out on our great adventure. This morning, my brother and I gathered the last information about our grandfather's academic career when we visited the library at RPI and photographed the large maps, charts and drawings at the back of his thesis. It was remarkable to hold the volume in our hands, knowing that he had once held it proudly. We had to take great care opening and refolding the papers because the had grown so fragile with age. I'm glad we digitized them before the became too brittle to handle.

It's hard at this point to put into words what we are all thinking. We who have not yet been to China are full of questions for those who have been before. For example, I wondered aloud what one has for breakfast in China (fried chicken feet is apparently an option). That prompted a long discussion of what our food options will be. Choices I will be looking for: noodles, fried rice, and broccoli.

We're watching a DVD of home movies of China that were made by a friend of my grandmother's while he was in the navy in the 1930s. The picture is a little fuzzy and my father is recounting the events of his escape from Shanghai, which was under bombardment at the time, to Hong Kong and beyond via freighter. Many of these stories I am hearing for the first time. Already, this trip is proving to be the opportunity to learn more about my dad and uncle than I have ever known or asked about. I am so grateful for this opportunity, and I will do my best to document it to share with my girls, first, and my wife, friends and extended family.

16 October 2010

Getting close, now

With only a few days until we depart for China, the list of things to do doesn't seem to be getting smaller.

A haphazard pile of things to bring is slowly gathering in my suitcase, which lies open on the living room floor, and into which I've been tossing random items over the past week as they came to hand or came to mind. There are a couple of long sleeved shirts, a pair of pants with legs that zip off (I want to have shorts if I need them, but also want to keep exposed skin to a minimum). There are a handful of games: No Thanks, a deck of cards, Farkle, San Juan, and a print-and-play game called Pocket Civ, which might be good for the airplane.  I'm trying not to let those take up too much space, being conscious of my tendency to bring way more games than it would be possible to play on any given trip. Besides, I have a ton of games on my iPod Touch, and the international adapter set for the charger, should taking in the bustling and historic ancestral land to which I'm travelling prove boring. Methinks I'm over-preparing.

In my backpack so far is my passport, small binoculars, a shrinkwrapped tin of spearmint Altoids, and my camera bag.  In my camera is a new 16GB Class 6 SDHC card, which should give me plenty of speed for video recording and lots of pictures. I just ordered a pair of headphones with a mic to use with my iPod Touch. With it, I hope to be able to use Skype or Google Voice to "call" home using VOIP. I'll also have my phone, but I won't use it except for emergencies due to the $1.99/minute roaming charge to call home from China.

I've applied for an absentee ballot since I will miss the general election. I've received a PDF of my grandfather's thesis, although a trip to RPI is in order the day before departure so my brother and I can photograph the large maps and drawings that weren't included in the PDF.

Things still to do: Get cash. Trim down the contents of my wallet. Wash some clothes in our new washer, which arrives on Sunday--the old one died over a week ago.  Stock up the iPods with music, games, a good Chinese phrase app, and maybe a recorded book.  Pack some more clothes appropriate for the weather in China. The long range forecast our first day in China says Beijing will top out at 58 degrees F, with a low of 38--very similar to what it is here in central NY in October. (The Kunming high is forecast to be 67, Dali 57. Although far south of Beijing, both are at much higher elevations--6,207 ft for Kunming, and 6,535 ft for Dali).

I have to pick a book to read on the plane. I finished Deborah Fallows book, Dreaming in Chinese. I highly recommend it to all of my traveling companions. It's a quick read with many observations and insights into the Chinese language and culture. I enjoyed it very much.

And the list goes on. There will seemingly always be one more thing that could be done before the trip. I haven't yet reached the tipping point, where the preparations that have been made outweigh what remains that could be done. The goal this week, then, is to reach that point, and avoid the moment when I will say, "D'OH! I forgot blahblahblah," at a point where it's either too late or too far to go back and get blahblahblah. However, as the trip looms larger in the windshield, so to speak, it becomes harder to plan for. I'm nearing the point at which the it will cease to be some future event for which preparations can be made, and will become something that is happening, regardless of preparations. Palpability, if you will. The moment is not far over the horizon. It's not 5:00pm on Friday or noon on Saturday, or even the moment of takeoff on Sunday. It looms around some nearby corner--one I will reach sometime this week. It will fill the whole windshield, and I'll be in the middle of it, and unable to think of anything else because it will here, it will be happening, a long-awaited event.

11 October 2010

Interest grows

Less than two weeks until our departure! As the time approaches for the Chien family visit to the Chang Kan Bridge, local and regional media interest in our visit is growing.

When I say "local media interest," I'm talking the TV station in Baoshan, near the bridge, and YNTV, which is a regional TV network in Yunnan Province. (If you know Mandarin, you can look at Yunnan TV's own website here.)

The original plan (and still the plan) is to have a ceremony at the Chang Kan bridge on October 29, the 60th anniversary of my grandfather's death.  My uncle and my father have written a statement commemorating my grandfather and our visit, which they plan to read at the ceremony. Our tour guide, Jasmine, has arranged for the ceremony to be covered by the Baoshan TV station. Recently, though, Yunnan TV got wind of our visit and has asked if they can conduct an hour-long interview with us on the day of the ceremony. They also upped the ante by proposing that they follow our entire trip, from our arrival in Beijing to our departure nine days later! 

This is an unexpected level of interest, and we're debating how much access we want to give the media. My uncle asked us all to weigh in on the proposal, but I haven't yet heard whether a consensus has been reached. On the one hand, it's nice to have so much interest in our visit from within China. We are honored in the interest in our grandfather and his family, and are pleased at this opportunity for a cross-cultural human interest story. It is very pleasing that CK's accomplishments and sacrifice are remembered in his homeland. Plus, if the coverage would mean we'd get a copy of the footage to take home, it could be a very nice way to document our visit.  

On the other hand, having TV cameras in our faces as we try to enjoy the sites in China is a bit more of a fuss than we were expecting or, frankly, are prepared for.  In their proposal, YNTV promised not to intrude too much on our trip, and that the coverage would not reflect badly on CK or our family. This is reassuring, but the thought of having cameras in our faces and having to be "on" throughout the trip is a little unsettling.

Meanwhile, we are preparing for the YNTV interview. My uncle has already sent copies of old family photos he has to the network.  More background material has been found in the form of old home movies that were made when a family friend visited my grandmother and grandfather in China in the 1930s. (How cool is that?!) Finally, my brother visited the library at RPI, where my grandfather received his engineering degree in 1925.  He was able to look at my grandfather's thesis, for which he won the McDonald Prize--RPI's award for the top graduating thesis of the year--but was unable to check it out. The librarian told my brother that the thesis may be available for inter-library loan, so I'm attempting to get the thesis so I can somehow copy it before our departure. If that fails, a colleague has sons who attended RPI and may be able to use their alumni privileges to borrow it.  If I can get my hands on the thesis, I will scan it if the binding will stand the strain. If not, I plan to photograph it.

We hope to bring digitized copies of all of this material when we go to China, in order to provide the TV stations with information they can use for background for whatever story they do about us.

03 October 2010

More information about CK and the bridge

As the trip approaches, it is clearer than ever that the bridge we are seeking--the Chang Kan bridge over the Mekong (aka Lancang) River in Yunnan P.--does still exist.

My uncle unearthed temporarily forgotten translations of information from websites in Chinese that were given to him while he was in China on his family's visit in 2009.  The translations provide information about CK's education, his engineering endeavors in China, and his death, as well as information about the bridge and the area surrounding the bridge.

An article called "Bridge expert Chien Chang Kan" says that, from 1934-37, CK was a supervising engineer on the Qiantang River bridge at Hangchou. This bridge was the first bridge of steel construction over a major river in China, and, according to the information translated for my uncle, the first double decker bridge in China, having a road bed on top of a rail bed. My grandfather was "very much dedicated to its construction," and was "on the site from the beginning to finish," according to the translated Chinese website.

At almost the same time the Qiantang River bridge was being completed, the war with Japan broke out. The article goes on to say that the Nationalist government in Chongqing entrusted CK with the construction of a new bridge over the Mekong River for the Burma Road. The old bridge over the Mekong (or Lancang River, as it is called in China)--the Gongguo bridge--was not strong enough to handle the volume of traffic that was to travel the road. The bridge that CK designed and built had a span of 135 meters and was "China's first suspended road bridge with cables." Starting in February of 1939, it took 21 months to design and construct, being completed in November, 1940. In the process, many young Chinese engineers received valuable training, and CK's design for the bridge was replicated for many other crossings on the Burma Road. Unfortunately, before construction was completed, CK was killed when a plane he was traveling in was shot down in a Japanese air raid near Qujing, northeast of Kunming, and the bridge was destroyed by Japanese aerial bombs only 42 days after it was completed. The bridge was rebuilt, although not to the original specifications: The deck was remade with wood, the load bearing capacity was reduced, and the surface of the bridge reduced to one lane.

Another article, entitled "The Forever Unbreakable Cable Bridges on the Burma Road—The Gong Guo Bridge and The Chang Kan Bridge," corroborates some of the information from the previous article, and provides additional detail. The Chang Kan bridge was built 700 meters upstream of the Gong Guo bridge. The original Chang Kan bridge was completed November 4, 1940. All the materials for the bridge were obtained from the U.S. and were brought in over the Burma road. (An interesting detail: to bring the suspension cables in, coils of cable one meter in diameter were suspended on a pole between two workers and walked in from Burma.) From October 18, 1940 to February 17, 1941, sixteen bombing attacks were made on the Gong Guo and Chang Kan bridges. The bridges were severely damaged several times, but each time, the Chinese were able to rebuild the bridges in days.

A brief article, "The Chang Kan Bridge," states, "Before the current Yong Bao Bridge was built, the Chang Kan Bridge was the most important traffic bridge between the Baoshan area and the Dali area on the Lancang River." The article concludes by stating, "The Chang Kan Bridge is still in use."

A final article gives details about the Baofeng area--the area where the Chang Kan bridge is located. Baofeng Township is located in Yun Long County, Dali Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Most of the people living in the Baofeng area are of the Bai minority. They live and farm on the side of the steep mountain banks of the swiftly flowing Lancang River and along the Bi River, a tributary of the Lancang that runs through the township.  The area is widely forested, both with native trees and vegetation and with cultivated olive, chestnut, walnut, eucalyptus and bamboo.  The article states, "The Chang Kan Bridge lies in the south of the town—local people call it the 'unbreakable bridge.' The remains of the anti-aircraft positions are still present on top of the mountain."

While the websites are unknown and the translations are undated, they provide a clearer picture of the area we are to visit and evidence that the bridge is still there, waiting for us to arrive.

[Edited for grammar, spelling and clarity 10/4/10]

19 September 2010

Learning Chinese is no walk in the park

Two posts in two days!  I'm on a roll!

I heard a report on NPR a couple of weeks ago about the book Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows.  Since I'm in the process of learning some Mandarin before the trip, the lead-in to Melissa Block's interview of the author caught my attention: She said, "When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin lessons. But when she got to Shanghai, she found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying." (I recommend giving the report a listen, and I plan to read the book.)

My heart sank when I heard this. If she, with months of classroom study, could not speak a single word of understandable Mandarin, how could I, with a few weeks of sporadic lessons in Rosetta Stone and some flash cards of Chinese characters have any hope of successful communication on our trip?

Well... So what?

I've enjoyed--still enjoy--learning a few words. I can recognize some characters. I'm even interested in trying to write some characters, although the simplified characters I'm learning may be less aesthetically pleasing than the traditional characters one is used to seeing in Chinese calligraphy. Pronunciation is is what I've found to be the most challenging. The tones are killers! If I have the Pinyin transliteration, I stand a chance of reading a word or short sentence correctly (well, to my ear, anyway--and Rosetta Stone approves, most of the time). But remembering the pronunciation, meaning and tone of a random character, let alone enough to formulate a sentence? Fuggedaboudit. Not there, yet. I will have fun recognizing a few characters on the trip, recognizing a few words or phrases, and maybe speaking a few phrases. Hey, I can say hello (ni hao), goodbye (zai jian) and thank you (xie xie). One can go far with just that. And if I ever have to say, "These women are eating rice" (Zhe xie nu ren zai chi mi fan.), I'm all set.

(I know I'm learning because the other day I was channel surfing and ran across the movie Red Corner, which stars Richard Gere as an American attorney on business in China who gets arrested after a Chinese woman he met the night before is murdered in his hotel room. He must stand trial in Chinese court, and things look grim when the young defense lawyer he is assigned has trouble believing his story. Anyway, at one point, the lawyer, played by Ling Bai, gets a phone call late one night. When she obviously receives some news she wasn't expecting, she says, "Shen ma?," which I immediately recognized as, "What?" It's only one little word, I know, but that moment of understanding told me that I'm making progress.)

Some other books I've purchased: The Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary is a terrific basic dictionary. Clearly laid out, readable, with many useful tables and explanations. It includes an index to characters by radical and a handful of useful phrases, and is reasonably priced.

I also purchased the Mandarin Chinese-English Bilingual Visual Dictionary published by Dorling Kindersley. Well organized and visually appealing (the hallmark of all DK books) it suffers from its small format. Although its size makes the book more portable, the labels for the visual elements are so small that I need a magnifying glass to read them, limiting its usefulness.

I've also downloaded a half dozen apps for my iPod Touch. The one I'm using most, whenever I can, is the Flashcard Fu app, which features 5,000 flashcards of simplified characters arranged into decks of 20 characters each. I've mastered 66 characters so far, although I would not say "mastery" is the best word to describe the ability to pick the right answer for the name or meaning of a character from a list of four possible answers on a flashcard. I am making progress, though, and enjoying the process. Also downloaded: Qingwen Chinese Dictionary, Marty McDonough's Mandarin Chinese Free, My Chinese Library by TrainChinese, Chinese Learner (for learning how to write characters), and a few others not used so often.

Anyone have any other recommendations for books or apps about China or learning Mandarin? Leave a comment!

18 September 2010

When you have the occasional 15 minutes to kill...

Since my last post, I've been reading China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture by May-lee Chai and Winberg Chai. As much as I learned from reading Going Dutch in Beijing, there was much more to learn in the Chai book. The brief chapters are arranged, as promised, in alphabetical order, which I found great for browsing the book randomly--you know, when you have the occasional need to find something to read for 15 minutes or so (wink wink)--or when you can settle into reading for a spell.

Some of the information was immediately relevant to me. In the "Pinyin Spelling System" chapter, for instance, I was schooled in the most confusing Pinyin sounds for English speakers.  Right up there: C is pronounced "ts" like the end of "bats," never like "kuh," which explains some confusing pronunciations I've heard in Rosetta Stone. Also, Yi is pronounced "ee," not "yee," and "J" and "Zh" both carry the hard "j" sound, never the soft "j," but Z is pronounced "dz," like the end of "buds."  X is pronounced "sh," and Q is pronounced "ch" as in "church." Finally, G is pronounced with a hard "g," never like "juh."

Some if it is just fun: In the "Names" chapter, I learned that Ronald McDonald is called Uncle McDonald in China. From a marketing standpoint, giving ol' Ronald a family apellation makes him seem more familiar and friendly.  The book says he even has a partner to abet him in perpetrating American fast food cuisine on the Chinese--Auntie (or maybe Aunt) McDonald--although I've been unable to confirm her existence.

The chapter entitled "Hand Gestures" was enlightening. For instance, the correct way to say "Come" is not to extend a hand palm up and curl the index finger, as we do in the U.S., but to extend the hand palm down and curl all the fingers toward's oneself, which may look like a wave if one isn't familiar with the gesture.  Speaking of the index finger, I forgot to mention in the last post that the author of Going Dutch in Beijing says that pointing is a no-no in the East, including China. The China A to Z book says, if one does point at oneself or another, one points at the nose, not the chest. Finally, when indicating numbers from one to ten with one's fingers, numbers 1-5 are the same as in the U.S., but numbers six through 10 are very different. The Chinese gestures are designed to resemble the Chinese characters for those numbers. Thanks to American movies, most Chinese know the meaning of the ol' middle finger, although the gesture is not a traditional Chinese gesture. In China, the preferred offensive gesture is the extended pinky, which means, "You have a small..." you know. So, no raising your pinky when drinking tea!

There's a section called "How to Avoid Eating Unbearable Things" in the "Banquets" chapter. Now here is crucial information! Tip number one: Feign chopstick incompetence. Thrash those chopsticks around in your food and never let anything quite reach your mouth before you drop it. According to the authors, "Your hosts will be so embarrassed for you, you will become truly invisible." If your hosts send a server to help you, quietly whisper to the server to take the offensive dish away.  This will save the face of the server, who, after all, didn't order the food. On a tour, the book says, be sure to let your guide know your diet preferences.  I will be trying to think of a way to tell our guide, Jasmine: No fish heads or pig's faces, please.

China A to Z has many more interesting chapters about Chinese customs, history, personalities, politics and places. As a heretofore armchair traveler to China, I found it very interesting and informative.  I look forward to comparing what I learned from it to my actual experiences.

06 September 2010

What not to do when in China

One of the perks of being a librarian is that one has an opportunity to peruse the new books that come into the library. Every morning, we spend time straightening up the new books and pulling off titles that need to be moved to the regular shelves. This can be looked on as either a blessing or a curse. On one hand--as many people who love books imagine working in a library or bookstore can be--it's a little like being a kid in a candy store.  On the other hand, if, like me, you are not a fast reader, such a wide and unending selection sometimes feels like a curse. It is the proverbial case of "too many books, too little time."

Recently, I was straightening in the 300s--the section of the Dewey decimal system that includes customs from around the world--and I came across a fascinating book called Going Dutch in Beijing: How to Behave Properly When Far Away From Home by Mark McCrum (Henry Holt, 2008). I immediately flipped to the index to see what was listed for China and found several entries. While perusing the pages over the next several days (OK, how long has it been since my last post? That long), I compiled an enlightening list of "dos and don'ts" for the trip.

For example, Mr. McCrum says that Westerners tend to find the Chinese interpretation of "personal space" to be quite different than our own.  He says to expect that Chinese may stand very close while talking, and may come right up to investigate someone who is, for instance, blonde, as my cousin and his wife discovered last year when their daughter was constantly approached and photographed by strangers while they were in China.

More don'ts: Don't make eye contact for too long when shaking hands--it's considered disrespectful.  Don't talk about Tibet, human rights, sex, religion, bureaucracy, or refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China or, God forbid, "Free China."

Don't give a clock as a gift. (Good gifts to give are a fine Cognac or a fancy pen.)  Don't lose your temper in public, which would be considered an embarrassing loss of face. More no-nos in the face-saving department : Acting confrontational, calling attention to someone's error, or bringing embarrassment upon oneself or others.

Don't rearrange the furniture or other items in a room--especially in southern China: You may be upsetting a carefully planned Feng Shui arrangement. Don't use green (unlucky) or blue (funereal) as backgrounds in a PowerPoint presentation (or, presumably, for other purposes). And try not to get sick in China. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is used widely, and the concoctions Mr. McCrum describes are decidedly unappealing (then again, isn't medicine supposed to be unappealing? Maybe I'll pack a few spoonfuls of sugar).

Now for some DOs: Do wear socks with sandals--bare feet are not acceptable. Do things in threes, sixes or eights (six and eight are lucky numbers), but not fours, which is considered unlucky. Do expect to haggle for things--the Chinese are all about finding the Tao--the way--between two sides.

If applauded, the appropriate response is to applaud in return. If you have a business card, keep it in a breast or hip pocket of a jacket--never in a pants pocket--and offer it (or accept someone else's) with both hands.

I learned two other interesting facts from perusing this book: Chinese names, as many westerners already know, are arranged in reverse of the western order: The surname comes first, and the given name last. The middle name is used to indicate the generation of the individual. Presumably, family members of the same generation in a family will have the same middle name.

Also, when Chinese women get married, they keep their maiden names. This answered the obvious question that arose about this photo of my grandfather's parents, which listed them as Yin-ching Chien and Van Hsien Mao.

08 August 2010

I can't say "no" (or can I?)

For our 21st anniversary this week, my wife, Lori, gave me Rosetta Stone for Mandarin Chinese. A most excellent gift from a most excellent (and lovely) spouse. Rosetta Stone is software for a PC or Mac that is top-rated for effective teaching of languages.  I'm very excited to have the opportunity to have an effective method for learning a little bit of the language before visiting China in October.

Typical of my way of over-thinking things, though, the prospect of knowing a little of the language is not without pitfalls.  For example, I know that China is a land of many languages. Mandarin is the official language of China, and is spoken in Beijing, where we'll be spending the first couple of days, but is it widely spoken where we'll be spending most of our time, in Yunnan Province?  (WikiTravel.com assures me that Mandarin is the official language of Yunnan P., although ethnic minority populations, of which there are many in Yunnan P., speak their own languages.)

Another concern: I've read in numerous sources that Chinese/Mandarin is a tonal language.  This means that, even if one knows the correct word for something, using a different tone to utter that word can make it unto a completely different word. An example of this concept can be found in this article on Wikipedia (click on the box that says "listen to the tones" to hear the same syllable pronounced in four different tones to mean four different things). This means that there is a great danger that one might mean to say, "You remind me of my mother," but actually say, "You remind me of my horse." The thought of making such an embarrassing mistake, no matter how innocent, makes my stomach turn. The phrase, "I know enough to be dangerous," comes to mind--for novice speakers of Chinese, it's not just a quip.

Then there are other, less rational fears. The fear of practicing in front of other people. The fear of being the only one who "knows some Chinese" on the trip and being called upon to be the family spokesperson. The fear of forgetting everything I've learned... The list goes irrationally on.

It might be typical of me to use such fears as an excuse to put off taking a first step; however, in this case, there is no such option because that would mean wasting my wife's most excellent gift, which I had asked for, no less. So, setting fears aside (for the time being), I install the software and give it a go.

After brief hiccups installing the software (couldn't install the software updates from within the program) and setting up the headset (must plug the headset in first, then launch the application for the headset to be recognized by the software), I'm finally ready to start.  And it goes really well. It's fun. There's no pressure. (Of course, I did my first lesson at 2:30 in the morning, well after everyone was in bed and asleep, thus averting "fear of practicing in front of others."). The software is totally immersive. There is no translation involved. Everything is in Mandarin, from the very first screen (picture of friendly people walking toward you and waving--Ni hao!) to the last screen of the first lesson (picture of people in a car driving away and waving--Zai jian!). I'm excited by to go on, so I take my computer to work the following day so I can work on the next lesson at lunchtime. I score 86% on the first lesson, then 92%, then 100%! I'm on a roll.

Moving on to the second level of lessons, I reached a point where the software took it upon itself to teach me now to say "yes" and "no." Simple enough to learn, right? The software starts by first acquainting me with the interrogative form--after all, one must have a question first before one can answer "yes" or "no." Rosetta Stone shows some picture sequences. A horse galloping. Is the horse galloping? Dui (yes).  A woman drinking water. Is the woman eating? Mei you (no). OK, I've got it. Then the software asks me to repeat the words. In the first few lessons, I had trouble repeating a few phrases, but eventually got them. This time, though, I can't get past pronouncing mei you (roughly pron. may'-ee yoo-oh'). I tried and tried, my voice higher, my voice lower, tilting up at the end of you, tilting down, louder, softer, faster, slower. Nothing worked. I can't say "no." What am I saying, I wonder?  "Maybe?" "Garbage can?" "Booger?"  God forbid I'm saying some swear word or the ONE insult you can't say without starting an international incident. Finally, I decide that there might be a computer glitch.  I quit the application and restart. This time, it takes my "mei you" just fine.

So, to my great relief, I can say "no" after all. Onward.

03 August 2010

Games on a Plane

As always, one of the first thoughts I entertain when planning for a long trip is what games I will bring with me.  I love games and own a lot of them--particularly board games and card games.  The thought of a sixteen hour flight has me wondering what the in-flight gaming possibilities are, especially since my brother and my game-lovin' cousins will be flying the friendly skies with me.

In anticipation of the trip, I asked for the game Chang Cheng for my birthday. Chang Cheng is a board game about the building of the Great Wall of China. Players try to build up sections of the wall, increasing their reputation in the eyes of the emperor, while at the same time defending the most important parts of the wall from the ever-threatening Mongol raiders. The theme is apropos, but the box is huge, which prohibits its inclusion in what promises to be a challenging packing job.  This one is best left to the Chien family reunion later this month.

The challenge is to find a game or games that will be popular, but will pack down to a manageable and portable size without significantly weighing down the carryon luggage.  My ever-reliable source on all things board game, boardgamegeek.com, yields some promising suggestions. Plus, I have a few ideas of my own.

High on the suggestion list is cribbage. Board and cards are all that are required. Fits the bill for being packable and somewhat light. Not sure how long I can play it, though, before tiring of it. However, even if a cribbage board doesn't make the trip, a standard deck of playing cards is a must.

Another one high on the list is a small, magnetic chess set. However, I'm not much of a chess player, and would get frustrated by it quickly. Much more appropriate would be Go, the ancient "surrounding game" invented in China over 4000 years ago--the game played by Confucius and Sun Tzu. I first played Go in college (I particularly remember playing a game against my dorm-mate, Jeff P., while watching the Yankees win the World Series in 1978). I'm not very good at Go, either, but it is an absolute must that I get a small magnetic set to bring on the trip.

Another game on the suggestion list is one of my favorite games, San Juan. I had practice packing San Juan into a smaller container than it's box when I took it to Florida earlier this year.  It's well worth the effort to bring it. Travel Blokus is another one I own and like, although it would be ever-so-slightly more awkward to get in and out of the carry-on. Although the pieces "lock" into place, a brief bout of turbulence might send the little plastic bits flying.

There are several suggestions of games I don't own, but might consider: Hive--one of the most highly rated games on boardgamegeek.com--is a consideration, although the pieces are a bit large for travel. There are suggestions for construction of a smaller, more portable set, though. Another suggested game I don't own is Roll Through the Ages: Bronze Age.  It's a dice rolling game of ancient civilization building--I've enjoyed playing the iPhone version for a while.  I'm a little concerned about the constant rolling of dice disturbing my fellow passengers, although with a little ingenuity that might be minimized. If not, it would rule out other dice rolling games, like Farkel, Phase 10 Dice, and Catan Dice Game.  For solitaire play, I'd like to try the print-and-play game Pocket Civ, a pencil and paper civilization building game.

Not on the suggestion list, but under consideration are Treehouse, Munchkin or it's western counterpart, The Good, The Bad, and the Munchkin (my cousins know the Munchkin games), and Pocket Scrabble.

Only a handful of these games can make the cut. I don't want to be lugging a backpack full of games, most of which we'll probably never find time to play, around China. So it looks like I've got some game trading to do in order to get those titles I don't own, some checking with my fellow travelers, and then some winnowing down of the candidates. I welcome other suggestions readers might have, as well.

25 July 2010

What, me worry?

I've settled into a period of general acceptance about the upcoming trip. I'm now the guy who's going to China. It's as if I developed an excitingly new condition, like growing an eleventh finger or hair after being bald. The trip is actually only three months away, though–in fact, we leave three months from yesterday.  But sometimes I feel like it might as well be five years from now. Seems like anything that's more than a week away is just something that will happen someday, and that I'll face when the time comes. What has happened to my ability to plan ahead?

Actually, I have been taking steps. I got my passport. I purchased my traveller's insurance. Airline tickets: Check.  I have the trip agreement to fill out and send to Uncle George with payment–must do that this week, as well as call my doctor about immunizations.  (Good grief, did I pay Cheryl for the airline tickets, yet??)  I need to figure out how I'm going to get to New Jersey in order to make my noon flight on the Saturday we're leaving, and, equally important, how am I going to get back to Rome after a 16 hour flight from Beijing?  Do I drive down Friday night or take a flight Saturday morning? Driving down would necessitate driving back–not a very appealing prospect after the long flight back. I could pick up Chris and drive down to NJ and back with him, though. That would make the drive easier.  One good thing: Lori is going to arrange for me not to work the day after I get back.

There are other things: I'm worried about not speaking the language. This isn't like going to Austria after taking four years of German. I'm not going to have ANY idea what people are saying. The idea that I'll be totally dependent on someone translating for me makes me nervous.  I checked out a book called "Getting Around in Chinese" and found it about as easy to follow as a book written in... well, Chinese.

The food is another thing. I'm pretty much down with Chinese-American cuisine, but the thought of someone offering me a fish head or a pig's face has me a little queasy.  Anthony Bourdain may be able to dig into whatever is put in front of him anywhere in the world (although I did see him struggle with something like monkey testicles one time), but I'm a not so sanguine about by intestinal fortitude.  My plan: Stick to noodles, rice and chicken wherever possible. Something tells me I won't be able to get Moo Shoo pork when we're over there.

12 June 2010

Reading maps of China

I've been using Google Maps to examine the locales on our nine-day itinerary, particularly those places we'll be visiting in Yunnan province.  I noticed an odd thing when trying to zoom in on the places--the cities--we'll be visiting. If one looks at an overview of the area of Yunnan P. on our itinerary, one can see the names of the cities we'll be visiting: Kunming, Baoshan, Dali. When one zooms in, though, the names of the cities disappear.  Huh.

Take Baoshan, for example. When one looks at the region surrounding Baoshan, one sees "Baoshan" on the map. Zoom in any further, though, and the city seems to disappear. It suddenly becomes Longyang. Zoom in some more and one can see the Baoshan airport, but there is no obvious city of Baoshan.  What gives?

Well, it turns out that it has to do with the regional and local levels of government, and the way those administrative divisions are displayed on the map. Baoshan and Kunming are what are called "prefecture-level cities." Think of a prefecture-level city as what would be the county surrounding a major city in the U.S. For example, Chicago is in Cook County. If it were a prefecture-level city in China, Cook County would be what is called Chicago. Within the prefecture-level city would be urban centers and possibly rural surroundings, but all of it would be called "Chicago."

The librarian in me wants to know how Baoshan compares to other metropolitan areas in the U.S.  Baoshan prefecture-level city covers an area of nearly 20,000 square km (~7,700 sq. miles) and has a population of about 2.5 million, about the same as the Denver-Aurora-Broomfield metropolitan area. The Longyang district of Baoshan, the urban center of the prefecture-level city, has a population of 850,000, or about the same population as the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area or the city of San Francisco.  Kunming prefecture-level city has a population of 6.8 million with an urban population of over three million--the 23rd largest in China--which would make it the third largest city in the U.S.

07 June 2010

Dreams and plans

Had my first dream about China last night. In it, we were driving either to or from Baoshan. The roads were narrow--can't remember if they were asphalt or dirt. The van was a VW bus... and yet, in the way it happens in dreams, it was also my Dodge Caravan.  At one point, I was driving over the top of a dam, a narrow way that made me nervous that I was going to drive off the edge. Then the road began to climb into the mountains. The road disappeared--that is, there were no shoulders or pavement, or even dirt, only rock. The road went up and up into towering mountains and the old bus climbed and climbed. The rock "road" had ruts and raised veins of rocks that made me think the bus/van was going to lose a wheel or get hung up, yet it kept climbing. I wasn't sure I was going the right way at times, but at one point I had to pull over to let a yellow school bus go by. There were a few pickups and cars behind the schoolbus, so I figured I was still on the road. I don't know where it was leading, but we were on the road.

With apologies to my uncle for not heeding his advice to do this sooner, I finally purchased trip insurance yesterday for both me and my brother. The party is now up to eight, which I hear will please Jasmine, our tour guide, because eight is considered a very lucky number in China. (Remember the 2008 Olympics? They started on 8/8/08 for a reason.)  It's now my aunt and uncle, two cousins, my dad and my stepmother, and my brother Chris and I who are going. People are excited when they hear I'm going to China, and I'm excited to tell everyone.

I've been wondering how I'm going to keep in touch with home.  Will my phone work?  Will I be able to write blog posts either with my iPod Touch over the Internet or by SMS message from my phone. Something to look into.

03 June 2010

Some background

My grandfather, Chang Kan Chien, designed and built bridges on the Burma Road during China's war with Japan (known to Western history as the Second Sino-Japanese War and in China as the Anti-Japanese War) in the 1930s and 40s. After Japan overran the Chinese seaports in 1937, China had no way to receive allied supplies for its war efforts. The Burma Road was built to connect the Chinese railhead at Kunming with the railhead at Lashio in Burma, then a British colony. The road crossed over 700 miles of rugged Yunnan landscape, including three major rivers, ridges rising thousands of feet, and miles of mosquito-infested jungle. Two hundred thousand Chinese men, women and even children carved the road out of the imposing terrain using not much more than their bare hands. My grandfather helped to direct part of that effort.

Known as CK to his American descendants, my grandfather was born in 1904 at Chongming, Shanghai, China. After graduating from college in Beijing in 1920, he came to the U.S. for advanced training in engineering. He graduated in 1925 from RPI with a degree in civil engineering, and was awarded that college's prestigious MacDonald Prize. Before returning to China in 1927, he worked in the U.S., helping to design and build the Peace Bridge between Buffalo, NY and Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada, along the way. He married my grandmother, Alice Ryder (whom he met while a student at RPI) in 1929, and founded the Eastern Asia Foundation Company, Ltd., in China in 1933. In 1937, when the Japanese invaded China at the onset of the Anti-Japanese War, CK sent my grandmother and their three sons, Alan (my Dad), Philip and George, back to the U.S. for safety while he remained in China to assist with the war effort. His work included designing and constructing bridges on the Burma Road, including a notable bridge across the Mekong River. In 1940, after this bridge was bombed by the Japanese, the story goes that CK was returning by plane from Chungking to Kunming to assist with the rebuilding of the bridge when his plane was shot down by the Japanese.

On the trip to Yunnan province, a major goal will be to visit sites where my grandfather left his mark, particularly the bridge across the Mekong River (or Lancang River as it is called in China) and hopefully his burial site, which has proven to be elusive, but which we hope is in the vicinity of Kunming.

27 May 2010

In which I decide I am going to China

So, in early April, I discovered I might have an opportunity to go to China--land of my ancestors and my father's birth--with my father, my uncle and other family members.

I immediately want to go. My only thought is, if my father's going, I want to be there with him.

My cousin mentioned it to my uncle George, and my uncle sent me the itinerary. We'd be leaving on October 24 and returning November 2. In between, we'd be visiting Beijing and the Great Wall, then flying to the capital of Yunnan province, Kunming, and traveling to various sites in Yunnan, including Baoshan and Dali. But the main reason for travelling to Yunnan is to visit sites that have great family significance--a bridge my grandfather built and his burial site.

I am nervous as I broach the trip to my wife, Lori. It's not cheap: nearly $3,000 between air fare, the tour package, and travel insurance. My fears are dispelled as she enthusiastically agrees I should go. A family trip with a genealogical aim is her kind of trip. However, between cost and the timing of the trip, only I would be able to go from our family. Other Chiens are lining up to go, too--my brother, another cousin, my step-mother--and the traveling party can't be larger than eight without impacting its cost. It's also at a time of year when our kids are in school. Finally, the cost would be prohibitive for my wife and two children to go, too. While a dream is to travel with them to China, the cost and the timing of this trip prevents it from being the trip that fulfills that dream. Finally, I must scrounge the time off at work. Thankfully, my boss at the library is flexible about time off, and I am able to put together enough time off earned in order to make the trip.

Unbelievably, astonishingly, joyfully, excitedly, I am now committed to going to China!

24 May 2010

A Journey Begins

Each year, the first weekend in April brings one of my favorite days of the year.

Draft Day.

You see, in 1984, I read a book by Lee Eisenberg and Glenn Waggoner called Rotisserie League Baseball, and I convinced my friend, Steve, my cousins, Dave and Paul, my father, and another friend from college to start a Rotisserie baseball league. Rotisserie Baseball is the original game in the now booming fantasy sports industry. 2010 marks our 27th straight year of playing our league. Once a year we gather--14 of us, representing 12 teams--to draft at auction the players that will be on our team in the coming season. The Baker's Dozen, we call ourselves, and my four-time champion team is called Chien Music. That's an ongoing journey that might merit some posts at a later time. However, this post is about the beginning of another journey.

The 2010 draft was held in Poughkeepsie. Afterwards, a few of the team owners gathered at a local pub overlooking the Hudson River to catch up. For some of us, it’s the only time each year that we actually see each other. My cousins Dave and Paul were among the revelers at this post-draft gathering, and at one point, my cousin David said to me, “So, did Paul tell you he’s going to China again?” (He went last year with Dave and his sister, Judy, his mom and dad, and Dave’s wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Jeannette.) “No,” I said. “Tell me about it. Is this a business trip?” (Paul works for UPS.) “No,” Paul tells me, “I’m going with my mom and dad and your father.”

If this were a scene in a movie, a spit take would have been appropriate at this point. “Wait a minute,” I say. ”My father is going to China? How come I don’t know about this?” I pressed Paul for details, but I don’t think I was listening at that point. All I could think was, my father is going to China. For the first time since he was seven years old, when his mother and two brothers fled in the face of Japan’s 1937 invasion, my 80-year-old father is returning to the land of his birth.

Holy crap, I thought. I want to go to China.