March 21st, 2013, 6:56 am PDT by Greg

I have been trying to get another Chinese visa, so I can leave and re-enter the country. ZJU has a midterm break, and I’m hoping to make the most of it. There is a one week turnover to get the visa. I’m doing some travelling next weekend and the one after. The break is at the end of April and I need the visa before I can make any travel plans.

Long story short, after waiting for the various paperwork, I needed to apply for a visa today so I can get my passport back and leave town next Thursday afternoon.

A staff member from the University was going to go with me. (I don’t really want to name the staff member because it’s nobody’s business: I’ll call her X and if you think you know her, then yes, it’s her.) The department’s driver, Mr. Li was taking us.

After driving 25 minutes across town, we get to the visa office. We wait around for a bit, my number is called, and there is some defeated-sounding discussion between X and the visa person. Apparently, the University never checked me in with the police as living in ZJU residence. That means I have been living vaguely-illegally in China since foreigners have to register their address. It’s not a going-to-jail thing, but it’s clearly a no-visa-for-you thing.

Phone calls are made. Residence checks me in, but we need paperwork to confirm that it has been done. It’s 3:00 at this point, and the office closes at 5:00. Back in the van with Mr. Li: 25 minutes to the University, 25 minutes finding/printing paperwork.

During all of this, I’m doing the calculus of how bad it could be: basically, I’d have to cancel my trip next weekend, possibly eating the train and hotel costs, and annoying some people at SFU. Nobody else seems particularly worried, so I’m trying to assume things are going well, but am pretty sure today is a failure.

Towards the end of the paperwork-printing time, X starts talking to a student that has wandered into the office. Apparently, X has to go home and the student is being dispatched to go back to the visa office with me and make sure I get my visa.

His name is Frank. He had come in to ask something about his upcoming exchange to Singapore and apparently didn’t have anything else to do this afternoon. He seemed very good-natured about spending his afternoon helping me.

Back in the van with Mr. Li and Frank; 25 minutes back to the visa office. For those keeping track, it’s now 4:15 and I’m starting to wonder if it’s a “nobody gets in line after 5:00” or a “at 5:00 we leave and screw you all” closing time.

We take a number, but Frank wanders up to the counter “to see if we can go first”, for… reasons, I guess. It turned out the answer was yes. After more discussion of a nature I didn’t understand, I was given a receipt that said I could pick up my passport next Thursday. They totally promise that it will be ready in the morning.

As we’re driving away, I’m starting to feel optimistic about it all working out. Then Mr. Li turns around for some reason. At this point, I assume I’m screwed. Obviously, something wasn’t done, and the visa won’t happen until August. It turns out they just wanted to make sure I knew how to pick up my passport next Thursday.

Finally, a much slower drive back to campus in rush hour. Nice kid, that Frank. And I’m really starting to feel an affection for Mr. Li.

Will my visa and passport be there next Thursday at noon? At this point I’d give 3:1 odds on yes.

I remember a former DDP student characterizing things this way: “China, the land where anything is possible but nothing is easy.” Those words have been bouncing around my head a lot in the last month. Today they rang loudly all day.

An Idiot with Maibing

March 15th, 2013, 4:31 am PDT by Greg

I haven’t been blogging as much recently for the very good reason that I haven’t had as much to say. I have settled into a routine, so there’s not as much fodder for posts. I have been taking some time to explore the city. As the weather is slowly getting nicer, riding around is more and more inviting.

Today while riding around, I stopped at a street-side food stall (as I often do), decided what they were selling looked good, went up, and in the absence of literacy in the local language, pointed at the first picture on the menuboard and asked for one (as I often do). What I got could only be described as a Chinese pupusa. It was pretty good and new to me, so I saved the bag it came in in the hopes of figuring out what it was.

With the help of Pleco, I figured out that it was maibing. With the help of Google, I figured out… nothing.

Nothing useful for “maibing”. Searching for the Chinese, 麦饼, got some useful stuff that could be translated. They’re tasty: just look at them! They seem to come from Wenzhou and are prepared pretty much like pupusa: dough, dumpling, flatten, fry.

But here’s the thing: nobody seems to have ever written about them in English. There’s this food that I like, and will possibly never be able to find again (after I leave Hangzhou, at least).

I recall that this is something Karl Pilkington whinged about in An Idiot Abroad: what if I try something and like it, but then can’t every get it again. He took this as a reason to never travel.

Here I am agreeing with him: never try anything new. You might like it and then have your heart broken.

[But, I know somebody from Wenzhou. And his mom. Maybe I can bribe my way into a cooking lesson.]

One Week and my Comfort Zone

March 4th, 2013, 6:25 am PST by Greg

I have now officially completed one week of teaching: the discrete math course last Thursday and Monday morning. Web development Monday night.

The discrete math course is going fine. It’s material that should be near and dear to my heart: my undergrad was math and computer science after all. The problem is that it just isn’t. I have moved on and prefer my CS with computers in it now. Not that this is a serious problem, it’s just hard to get excited about discrete math at 8:00 am.

I’m just back from my first web development course. Having not taught the material for 6 months (or started the course for 10), I had started to forget the feeling. Teaching web stuff (or programming languages: CMPT 470 or 383 in the SFU lingo) feels good. It was like a old sweater (old boots? custom-tailored clothing? What’s the expression?). Finally, something that was right bang in the middle of my comfort zone.

After all the (good) weirdness of the trip, then adjusting to China, then to ZJU, then to discrete math, it was such a contrast. I could have stayed up there and talked about web development until I dropped from exhaustion.

My big worry about this class was their English level. The math course is DDP students, so they have taken extra English courses, but I wasn’t so sure about this group. Judging by my internal engagement meter, they seem just fine. That’s a load off.

At some point during the class, I asked (begged) if someone could get the campus VPN craziness to work under Linux. [I have been working in Windows, which is also not comfortable.] After class, about 10 kids came up and assured me that it was easy. In five minutes, my laptop connected to the VPN under Ubuntu. [To be fair, it was easy: if you already knew how, and were on the cc98 message board, and could read Chinese.] That’s one more big step into my comfort zone.

When I got home, I had a rum and diet coke, using the Tanduay we got in the Manila airport (for $2$4, double the in-town price). It isn’t much to sip straight, but mixed with coke, it’s a damn serviceable rum. More comfort. [Mom and Dad: you’ll be pleased to know that I still often give a thought to Glen when I have a rum and coke.]

So there you go: web development, Linux, and rum. That’s apparently my comfort zone.