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...