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!

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