Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Sorry for the long delay in updating my blog- for whatever reason, I was relatively uninspired when it came to writing during my time in South Africa.  It’s not because my month here hasn’t been thought-provoking- actually, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s a huge country, incredibly diverse, in what and who it contains, which makes it difficult for an outsider to completely understand and/or describe.  After traveling South Africa, I quickly realized nothing about this country is simple.  When it comes to employment, whites complain that affirmative action initiatives make it impossible for them to find jobs, blacks complain that their opportunities are limited because whites still have the highest paying positions.  The Apartheid and accompanying Bantu Education act (which prevented blacks from getting an education above what was needed for them to work as laborers) weren’t that long ago.  The xenophobic attacks on new African immigrants are an ongoing issue, and generally speaking clashes in the townships amongst people cramped together but all coming from different places, different values and different ways of living.  It’s a country with first world infrastructure (deceiving at face value) but third-world politics, with a significant amount of corruption. Since it’s my last morning in this crazy country, I have two extra hours before my plane takes off, I decided to down a second cup of instant coffee and write something.  That being said, yesterday was a crazy adventure and my mind is a bit fuzzy and still recovering.  After two days of severe food poisoning, I made an ambitious attempt at recovery: a damp, cold 12 km hike/rock scramble in the snow-covered Drakensburg Mountains.  I was dropped off alone at a smoky pool bar where I shared a beer with the South African equivalent of rednecks then spent hours in the cold drizzle waiting for a bus that was two hours late.  Around midnight, I successfully made it to Johannesburg Park Station just in time for insane adventure trying to find a hostel, hidden between industrial buildings.  Thankfully, my cab driver was the sweetest man who didn’t dump me on the streets of the city and eventually we were able to penetrate its fortress gates (he even offered for me to stay at his place if our efforts failed) so I’m leaving South Africa with my warm, fuzzy feelings about the country restored, even if I’m not happy about the atypically cold temperatures that make me a little delirious, as well as sleep deprived.  You are forewarned. For a bit of (boring but necessary) background about this journey that got me here.  I came to South Africa because I was offered a post-doc research position at the University of Johannesburg, looking at teacher training workshops in the famous Soweto township.  I was recruited by an enthusiastic but vague Brit retired professor who had been involved with the South African Institute of Physics.  Although I accepted the position after my defense in March, I was a bit skeptical that it was even real when they failed to produce a contract or provide me with useful information in the five months prior to my arrival.  But with some skillful flight coordination for my teaching gig in China, I was able to arrive in the country without paying a penny.  I figured I wanted to see South Africa anyway so what did I have to lose? “I love Johannesburg.  Every time my plane comes in to land, circling over the scruffy yellow mine dumps, the thin, thrusting skyscrapers and glinting glass of central Johannesburg, the snaking motorways encircling the city, the turquoise spangles of swimming pools and psychedelic splashes of bougainvillea in suburban gardens, the serried ranks of new township developments mushrooming out to the open veld, and the rashes of untidy squatter settlements, my chest tightens with excitement.  Jo’ burg is in your face, and overfamiliar from the moment you touch down” -As old as history itself, Sue Armstrong I arranged a workaway, tutoring 10th graders math in a township near Pretoria so I was close enough to check out the situation at the University but not tied to a sinking ship, so to speak.  I loved the area immediately.  I loved the subtle beauty of the grasslands- boring and barren at first glance, but containing a rainbow palette of warm hued vegetation.  Even though I haven’t been on a “real” safari yet, I’d encounter zebras, springboks, wildebeest on “average” hikes through nature reserves or private property.  I adored listening to lyrical melodies of Zulu and related African languages, laughed at the local slang (they call traffic lights “robots”) and the dainty accent that made me feel like adding “Cheerio!” to the end every conversation. I loved the spirit and spunk...

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

Myths Debunked & Rumors Destroyed: Traveling China

“I have been groomed by media to expect walking into a smoke bomb of chemicals with images of smoke stacks in the back ground bellowing caustic chemicals so as to erode at the very people who work and put it in the air” -Friend #1 “There’s a ghost town in the most populous country in the world?  What is there to do in Shanghai except climb ever-growing skyscrapers?  Use and throw cheap stuff?” -Friend #2 “You’re in China?  Are you alive?  Chinese people are very hard to deal with.” -Friend #3 (Still not sure what specifically was meant by this…) Of all the places I’ve traveled, China has been the one that has truly blasted my stereotypes to smithereens.  In addition to the recent conversations I quoted above, I’ve had dozens of people made comments about visiting the communist kingdom that is stealing American jobs and flooding the market with cheap products that poison our babies.  I’ll openly admit that I held many incredibly misconceptions of China myself, partially from one day of teaching Chinese students in Durham but many from the American media.  I braced myself for mobs of people spitting and farting in public and eating cats like heathens.  I feared teaching would involve a lot of awkward silence as they tentatively typed on their translators, a refusal to get their hands dirty building things and robotic responses when I forced them to talk (granted I developed many of these fears after a day teaching Chinese high school students in Durham in February).  I expected dirty streets, stinky air and a month where smog strangled any sense of sunlight. I experienced some of these things.  Tourist attractions on the weekends were pretty packed, due to summer break and a growing middle class that wants to see their country.    At the Humble Administrator Garden in Suzhou, our experience of the UNESCO site was definitely hampered when we were stuck on skinny bridges, sandwiched and stuck between sweaty families shuffling slowly with minimal forward motion. “Sightseeing is one of the more doubtful aspects of travel and in China it is one of the least rewarding things a traveler can do- primarily a distraction and seldom even an amusement.  It has all the boredom and ritual of a pilgrimmage and none of the spiritual benefits”. -Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China Zhongshan Mountain in Nanjing epitomized what I expected tourism in China to be like: mediocre attractions artificially reconstructed for click-happy tourists, with the featured Ming Temple empty except for shops that sold postcards, waving cat statues and lucky knots.  But that happens anywhere and I’ve discovered that there’s more to China than just the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and simplistic way this large and complex country is portrayed in the media. During orientation week of nerd camp, the academic coordinator showed us a “Danger of a Single Story” TED talk from a Nigerian author that warned us about making generalizations from isolated experiences. “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Here’s what I learned about traveling China, based on a teaching month in Kunshan, traveling on the weekends to Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Nanjing with a few days in Huangshan, Yanqing and Beijing at the end of the program.  Most of the time I traveled with someone who spoke at least basic Chinese but I spent a couple  days in Shanghai and a day in Beijing exploring independently.  There’s truth to many of these rumors but there are extremely notable exceptions so I’ll share tips that I picked up that can help you have a better experience. “You know more about a road having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world” -William Hazlirt Rumor 1: It’s hard to travel around China if you don’t speak Chinese  As with most of these rumors, it depends where you are.  In general, I was impressed with the amount of English on signs and on announcements on trains and even local buses around Kunshan.   It’s really easy to navigate the high speed train and city metro systems.  Shanghai is extremely well-labelled with English street signs which even include the cardinal directions.  All the tourist attractions in Nanjing, Zhouzhang and Suzhou had English signage and were easy to navigate, although maps were typically in Chinese. I think the hardest part for modern travelers could be the internet situation.  Free wifi is “readily available” in many train stations, cafes and some main squares but often requires a Chinese SIM card to get the password to unlock it.  So for...

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“How’s China?”, a friend Facebook chatted me. “Uhhh… I’m fine”.  I snuggled further in my sweater in my air conditioned room as I listened to Spotify, responded to work emails on Gmail and drank out of my water bottle.  “I’ll have to get back to you about China”, I responded.  Despite having lived five days at Duke-Kunshan University in China, I honestly have no idea what China is like. I landed in Shanghai’s Pudong airport which was like any airport but with infinitely more instructions- how to ride the escalator, how to board the train to the arrival terminal, how to get off the train, how to sit on the toilet, how to wash your hands… I waited for my co-workers in Starbucks, where I flipped through the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan.  Despite the foreign characters, the Western models and celebrity gossip in their version made the magazine familiar, even though there was a blaring void of sexy stuff, so much so that they renamed the publication “Cosmopolitan Success”.  Behind my magazine, I engaged in my favorite activity of people watching, which didn’t undercover anything too interesting.  The march of men in suits didn’t surprise me but I definitely giggled at teenage boys with sequin-splashed shirts and technicolor pants so colorful that I wanted a pair.  My boss encouraged us to grab dinner, so we went upstairs for pizza at an Italian Restaurant since we thought our access to Western Food might be limited (it isn’t… there’s a Western option for every meal on campus).  Besides the fact that the waitress insisted on unfolding our napkins onto our lap and pouring a shot-size glass of Evian water as if it were liquid gold (it almost costs that much), we could have been eating at any Italian chain restaurant in the US. A driver shuttled us to the Duke-Kunshan University campus which would be our home for the next month.  As a bit of background, Duke University has a Talent Identification Program where a talent search identifies gifted students who qualify for a 3-week academic summer camp (or as I affectionately call it, “nerd camp”).  I’ve taught for this program in India for two summers but this will be the first pilot of the China program, hosted at a brand new collaborative university developed under collaboration with Duke. Security guards in suits dramatically opened the doors to the “conference center”, whose white marble floors, spacious reception desk and colorful modern furniture made us all feel like CEOs.  Campus is located in an area of China known as the “Venice of the East” because of all the rivers in canals.  The architects designed the campus to appear floating on lakes with lily pads to embrace the ambiance of the surrounding area.  Staff helped us with our bags across the connecting bridges and directed us to suites so new that I had to check the wall to make sure the paint had dried.  Our two-floor room (designed for four people but inhabited by two for this program) had high ceilings, a flat screen TV, vanity sink section and so much space that I couldn’t even talk to my roommate without voyaging from one corner to another.  Instructions on the desk taught us to connect to the high speed internet without problems (although I first thought it was broken because Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and all the websites I normally go to were blocked by the government but a Duke VPN quickly took care of that) and provided a cup so we could take advantage of the filtered water spigot to quench our thirst.  I hopped in the shower, half bracing myself for cold water (as was typical in Vietnam and Hong Kong) but instantly relaxed with the warm stream coming from the “water massage” shower heads. All this felt great to my semi-homeless gypsy self, especially after living out of a backpack for so long.  I’ve enjoyed being able to enjoy a shower instead of view it as a necessary evil, to eat raw vegetables and put ice in beverages without having to worry about whether it’ll make me sick and to unpack for a bit in a place where I have access to all modern conveniences.  Staff from the university has even taken us out to the town to spoil us with a traditional Cantonese meal and allow us to stock up on supplies at the local shopping mall but all we saw were relatively empty streets, nice cars and modern looking buildings. Kushan feels like a wealthy suburb and business center, where everything is neat, organized and efficient.  Is this China? Not really.  We’re at an international university with top-tier resources and being able to drink the water, have consistent (and unfiltered) internet...

Stereotypical exit from India: infection, sand storm, police commissioner visit and Bollywood

Stereotypical exit from India: infection, sand storm, police commissioner visit and Bollywood

My last few days in India flew by in a blur. The first half of the week, a stomach infection ruined my dreams for an illness-free stay in Delhi. Fortunately, between an injection to stop my vomiting and three days of Cipro, I bounced back pretty quickly. Class wrapped up with a flurry of solar powered boast making and showing off all the students’ work at the academic fair. Sandstorm! We had to end the fair slightly early when hurricane winds started blowing the posters off the wall in the open reception area where the students showed off their work from the past three weeks. The RAs and TAs corralled the kids and tried to move them toward the dining hall, past the OP Jindal workers struggled to take down the massive flag which threaten to take flight with them in tow. I headed back to the classroom to finish packing up our supplies when the sky went black, the wind startled whistling and the power went out. After having survived two sand storms in sonipat already, I tried to take a deep breath and relax but with doors and windows flapping and water flooding the hallways, uneasiness was inevitable. I jumped when my TA, Surya, burst threw the door with a crumpled paper tea cup. “I spilled his tea and it saved my life”, he explained breathlessly. Apparently, the wind blew the tea on to his shirt which slowed his gangly gait long enough so when the picture blew off the wall, shattering glass all around, it missed him. Apparently the staff trained the campers in the dining hall to run back and forth, from one side of the room to the other to avoid the worst of the gusts, like sailors bailing out a boat in a high seas storm. We later learned that the storm was one of the worst in Delhi’s recent history: it’s 140 km/hr winds downed several light posts around campus, caused day long power outages throughout the city and twelve people died during it. One more visit to the police commissioner After surviving the storm, the remainder of camp went pretty smoothly: I bid farewell to the campers at parent pick-up and went on one last trip to downtown Sonipat with some other instructors just in case we might maybe need the signature of the police commissioner on the visa form. As per usual with visa related things, it was a wild goose chase around the police/governmental compound as people pointed us in random directions before we returned to a room we’ve been twice below, piled high with papers that no one probably looks at. Some men talked, scrutinized our passports and the previously awarded letter, flipped through in the paper register, pow-wowed again and decided to add a new stamp to our paper. Of course, when I finally got to leave India, no one asked about any of this but after previous instructors for this job got detained, the administration didn’t want to take any chances. After three weeks of not being allowed of campus without an excessive amount of accompaniment, I finally could meet up with the family of one of my best friends in Raleigh. Since I didn’t have an “out pass”, his mom ritu and I had to argue with the guards then try to sneak away, with me shouting, “I’m not coming back!! I don’t need an out pass”. Then finally, we were off and I was free! Freedom!   Hanging out with Atul’s family was just what I needed after three weeks in “jindal jail”, where everything was gates, barbed wire and we lived in cell blocks. To be let in places, we had to flag down wardens whose pants sagged with the enormous weight of their metal key rings. We had curfews and policies prohibiting visitors, alcohol and escape. In atul’s family’s home, his parents and super-cool 12th grade sister treated me with such warmth and unrestrained hospitality. Nice conversation and endless amount of food preceded a trip to the cinema to watch heropani, one of the latest Bollywood flicks. They worried that I wouldn’t understand the movie since it was in Hindi, with no subtitles, but the dramatic soundtrack and longing looks was all I needed to decode the boy-meets-girl storyline. What made the movie even better than cheesy dance numbers and a very attractive cast, was that it was set in Haryana (the kind of “backward” state where I stayed in sonipat), where fathers are infamously reluctant to let their daughters chose their husbands. Throughout the movie, I recognized flashes of Delhi: the qutab minar, India gate and...

Puzzling Over Indian Newspapers

Puzzling Over Indian Newspapers

In the United States, I rarely pick up newspapers, except to attempt the Sudoku in cases of extreme boredom. In India, reading the newspaper is one of the highlights of my day and a helpful information source in my quest to understand this incomprehensible place. Ever since a horoscope instructed me to “get any skin inflammation investigated immediately” on the morning that my shingles rash arrived on my first trip to India, I always consult the astrology section first. After that, I always enjoy flipping through stories that range from somber to quite comical, usually told in a matter-of-fact manner. This week I read an incredibly informative piece about the discovery of fifty species of dancing frog. In the middle of the human rights section. You can count on strangely-arranged pieces containing an assortment of practical, symbolic and hilarious insights into Indian society and culture. As an example, here’s what I learned the past two days: Practical: Worst Pollution than Beijing Sure, tangerine colored suns look neat and my nose always knows where I am when I go outside where it always smells like something is burning. But, ultimately, when you want to go for a jog outdoors or have the kids play cricket, the ever-present pollution becomes a little less fun. Having lived through a pollution scare in Singapore last summer, the air felt equally heavy (even without a high level of humidity) and thanks to the newspapers I learned why. Delhi ranks #1 for pollution worldwide and now, twenty five of India’s cities have higher pollution levels than Beijing. Where Beijing averages around 56 microgram per cubic meter of pollution, Delhi averages three times as much: 156 micrograms per cubic meter! Aaron’s been tracking it on his phone and says yesterday the pollution exceeded 200. And just like the fire in the field during our first sandstorm here, it appears to be “no big deal”, a fact of life accepted with a shrug and a head bobble. In the meantime, I think I’ll be sticking to exercising inside the gym! Insightful (and tragic): Suicide Over Cell-Phone Scolding Despite silly tabloids and an absurd amount of information on hair care, Indian newspapers depress me more than watching the news in America. Almost every day, some sort of suicide makes front-page news- often stressed out students or frustrated lovers. Yesterday, a high school student got caught typing a “slightly scandalous” text message (probably not very…) to a male acquaintance. The teacher caught her and planned to notify her parents. That night afternoon around lunchtime, the girl hung herself in the school bathroom. As I mentioned previously, this type of incident happens almost every day. Why is suicide so common in India? I hardly claim to know the answer, except parents in India tend to be extremely involved in the lives of their children and often have high expectations for their futures. Anne, the social entrepreneur instructor, learned from a JGU economic professor that India doesn’t have a social security retirement plan so many parents depend on their off-spring to ensure their financial stability as they age. Whatever the reason, stories like this make me nervous about teaching India’s top talent, especially at the tender age of 12-13. How could an American anticipate that scolding a student using their cell phone would lead to premature death? Woof! Teachers in the US love to complain but that’s something that they don’t usually need to worry about. Bizarre: “Love Calls at Metro Station” And some articles are just bizarre. In the serious “Sunday Express”, buried amidst editorials and a piece about two men dying during a TV poll, a feature in the corner shed light on “A Day in the Life: Metro Condom Machine, Delhi”. What followed was an almost scientific account of the observed interactions of metro-travelers with this new machine. As one of the area’s first public condom machines (they plan to add 24 more throughout Delhi’s metro), it is apparently adorned with pictures of happy couples and carries “ultra sheer, dotted, coffee, rose-water, all-night and ‘Velvet’” varieties. In addition to condoms, these machines carry water bottles, deodorants, joint pain cream tubes and hair oil bottles. The writer vigilantly observes the machine over the course of business hours, carefully watching the contents and interviewing passerbys. Overall, the machine elicited several giggles, was completely ignored by many and the stock of water bottles was depleted by the end of the day (unlike the condoms, which just sat there). I enjoyed reading an interview from a gate guard who recalled, “seeing a young boy buy a Happy Days sanitary napkin (for Rs 10) thinking it was bread....

Dust storms and Other Spontaneous Happenings in Sonipat

Dust storms and Other Spontaneous Happenings in Sonipat

Setting the Scene Trapped in a little TIP bubble in India, this week wasn’t the most exciting of my life but when in India, everything is adventure. They stretched orientation out over six days, an endless assortment of meetings, spiced up by presentations to different permutations of instructors, teaching assistants and residential staff. TIP (Talent Identification Program) has been operating in India long enough to know that creating schedules are pointless so administrators plan the day one hour at a time and the whole time, it feels like the “blind leading the blind”. During the awkward length breaks between sessions, Aaron (an old friend from a research fellowship and the cryptography instructor) explore the maze-like academic building. In India, you have to walk up a floor to get to the first time… unless you have a mezzanine above the first floor. So we wander, the first floor turning into the second, a spacious hallway welcoming you to a dead end, the place you want to go right within eye sight but no place to get there. The architect in our group concludes that the building is designed very creatively but shoddily built. Perfectly designed to be a death trap for curious 7th and 8th graders… dimly lit staircases, random 4” gaps between sidewalks, piles of crap at key intersections (that may or may not be important) and a pack of mangy dogs in the surrounding field. So it should be interesting to see what happens when the “notorious” kids arrive tomorrow. Finding Entertainment in Isolation Our program has curfews, dress codes and strict rules about leaving campus (up until yesterday, when the instructors got to go on a supply run, we’ve been stuck here) so we’ve had to get creative about entertaining ourselves. Aaron busts out the card game “SET” every chance that he gets and we’ve assembled a good gym group (of course, the Americans crazies working out at 6 AM) where Aaron sometimes teaches yoga. There, we met another crazy American, a blonde who kept sneaking suspicious glances at us other white people, while striding along on the elliptical. Eventually, she burst out, “I just have to ask. What are you all DOING here?? I haven’t seen this many white people on campus since I got here!”. Since we wondered the exact same thing about here, we became fast friends. As a recent law school graduate from California, Kimberly teaches a health and gender class here, as a research fellow with a specialty in Southeast Asian Sexuality. She invited me and the other instructors to her monthly “make-fun-of-Americans-party” and promised beer, buckets of greasy KFC and plenty of politically incorrectness. And she let out a let shriek of excitement at the thought of having actual Americans present! The night of the party, I holed up in my room working on some lesson preparation before dinner. Suddenly, it got so dark that I thought the power went out again (as it does at least a half dozen times a day) but an illuminated computer-charging light discounted that explanation. This sudden darkening was soon accompanied by whirls and wooshes of wind pounding against the door, followed by pellets of something peppering the windows. When I heard a crack of lightening, I chalked it up as a rainstorm but then a burning smell and sandy ash started blowing under my door. When the door’s vibrations slowed slightly, I peered outside and realized there was no rain, just dirt swirling around. I consulted with my next-door neighbor Anne and we decided to seize the window of calm to make a run for dinner. We got to the dining hall, which was covered in dirt (because windows here don’t close tightly) and the staff busily swept off tables with straw brooms and tape together the windows. Some of the admin called security when they noticed a lightening strike started a fire in the neighboring field but apparently that’s N.B.D. (no big deal) and they weren’t worried. The excitement of our first dust storm exhausted some of my colleagues too much to trek to faculty housing for the American party.  However, Aaron and I donned our headlamps, gathered our ponchos and headed over. We got there about 10 minutes after the party was supposed to start and a gang was already assembled! Then we knew it was a function for foreigners, because in a country that operates on “Indian Standard Time”, nothing starts on time. An Israeli, two other Americans and a couple Indians greeted us enthusiastically, thrilled to find out what our mysterious blue lanyards were for and to meet people who weren’t lawyers. Between playing with...