Friday, August 20, 2010

Chinese Bhel

It was a student’s dream come true. One genius spark somewhere in the middle of Semester-III exams, a few months of research and development, and a bit thought to put in a paper on it worked well. We packed our bags and were ready to fly out to attend an IEEE conference somewhere in the middle of nowhere in China. After a grueling trip planning session (most of which consisted of laughing at the etymology of weird names of Chinese cities), we were off to Chengdu in early July, 2010.

We chose to take the path less treaded. Our journey to the military and educational capital of China took a checkpoint at Hong Kong, probably the only place where English is not an alien language. This half of the journey was pretty calm: one sleepy overnight Kingfisher flight with awesome Indian food. Possibly the last edible intake we were going to have in the next few days. The second half of the journey was slightly more challenging. It involved a train journey across the China-Hong Kong border followed by a flight to our destination. We got off at the magnificent airport which is built completely on an island. After a decent meal with whatever ‘safe’ we could find out, we headed for the Hong Kong train station by taxi.

After first getting on the wrong train and returning, we had the misfortune of some foolish custom officials who needed an hour and a half to determine that our baggage had nothing in it that would make the mighty Chinese economy bleed. Needless to say, despite our rushing to the Shenzhen airport, we missed our flight. Luckily, the sympathetic flight officials put us on another flight that would take off in the middle of the night. We spent the rest of the day exploring the Shenzhen terminal and eating fries off McDonalds, which was the only vegetarian food we could find there. Finally, we reached Chengdu in the dead of the night and took a ride to the hotel in a scary taxi, with the driver trying to take another passenger from the middle of the highway. Safe and sound, the journey was complete.

However, the very next morning, it all began again. With enthusiasm we hurried to our hotel breakfast, only to be dismayed. A plethora of scary and unimaginably inedible substances graced the dining hall. Very rarely, we come across a situation in life which hits us hard. We realized the impossibility of getting anything close to our liking, forget a decent vegetarian meal. After much debate with the chef, which involved extensive use of a Chinese dictionary, we managed to procure some milk and cheese, and that was breakfast!

We proceeded to the conference venue which was a setup at the local university. Before that, it took us almost 15 minutes to try and explain the taxi which university to go to. At the registration desk, we finally found, what were probably the only few English speaking outcasts of China. We also bumped into people of many different ethnicities, cultures and renowned researchers from around the world. Then, we were off to the market to shop. One thing that struck us immediately was how neat and clean the roads were. We also realized how rash and crazy the taxi drivers were. Well, some things never change!

The malls we visited were massive storehouses of gadgets, Chinese copies of international products and “Anmani”s, all at dirt cheap rates: a shopper’s paradise. Back at the hotel we got down to our final preparation for the following morning’s presentation. However, there was one more hurdle still to be crossed.
The Chinese government regulates everything, including freedom and privacy. We were shocked to find a government note saying “All internet activities are being monitored” followed by a long list of what’s legal and what’s not. And slightly disgruntled when we found Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all blocked. To counteract these policies, there are many sleeper cell movements running in and outside of China which allow citizens to bypass these firewalls using proxy servers. We used one of these to finally post a status on Facebook. After much deliberation we were well prepared for the D-Day.

At the university next day, we met more Chinese students who shared their side of the story. A lot many of them were actively pursuing English as a major. Clearly, they realize the need to learn a true global language. We feasted on the cake and coke that was in an unlimited supply at the venue. Our presentation went smoothly and there was a considerable applause for our idea. It turned out to be a superb exposure to young minds like us and we even got to interact with some of the bigwigs from IEEE.

Finally, it was time to return. Our return journey thankfully wasn’t as eventful or adventurous as last time. A safe flight with Indian food again brought us back to home sweet home. Once again we were submerged in the fumes of rickshaws and littered roads. In retrospect, it was a great learning experience and we await another day when we get a chance to visit China again.

Signing off, from the land where Google searches for “citizen freedom movement” redirects to the Chinese government policy’s homepage.