April 5th, 2013, 9:55 am PDT by Greg

I decided to go to Shanghai this weekend, for various half-reasons, but mostly because I wanted to see more of it. We previously spent about two days here on a tour. That’s not enough time to experience a city of 23 million.

Random tourist crap I did aside, I’m glad I came. It has really put my China experiences into perspective. Basically, Shanghai is a global city in a way that Hangzhou really isn’t.

Sure, Wikipedia has a very in-depth definition of “global city” but here’s my functional definition. A global city is one in which the ethnicity of the food people are eating is not well correlated with their ethnicity.

As an example, take Starbucks. There are a couple of Starbucks (Starbuckses? Starbucki?) in Hangzhou, but in them I get a vibe of “let’s try the coffee drinks westerners have”. In Shanghai, it feels like people got there by saying “let’s have Starbucks”. Starbucks is part of the culture here.

In the same way, dim sum, sushi, Thai and Indian are part of Vancouver. To my mind, Beijing is less of a “global city” than Vancouver. Manila more than Montreal (I daresay).

So I think what I’m really getting here is something I didn’t know I was missing: time in a global city. I can have a burger if I want because I fit in exactly as well as the Shanghaiese group at the next table. Same at the xiaolongbao place, or an Indian place. Damn… I should find an Indian place.

It also puts Hangzhou into better perspective for me. Despite having a population of 6 million, it really is a small town. That’s not a bad thing, just a thing that’s true. The outside world is still a bit of a novelty, because the world hasn’t all come to visit yet. Some of the difficulties I have had living there boil down to that, and I think I have a better understanding of the place with that in mind.

April Fools

April 1st, 2013, 12:18 am PDT by Greg

Having too much time on my hands here, and realizing that I teach both courses on April 1 this year, I decided I needed to do something about that.

I’m giving my lectures here differently than I always have at home. Here, I’m doing my notes as HTML, in decent point form, as I always have given lectures. I’m posting the notes for the class and basically using them as lecture slides. I just bump the font size up three or four notches, and scroll through them as I talk.

It’s working pretty well: they have something they can review later if they don’t catch the English of it all. It’s causing exactly the problem that kept me from this experiment at home: without having to write, I can say too much in one lecture. It’s very easy to cover material at an unreasonable pace.

I decided that for April Fools, I wanted to have the characters on screen move around, just subtly enough that they initially wouldn’t be sure if they really saw anything or not. After a little Javascripting, I had something I’m pretty happy with. You can see what I ended up with on a demo page. If you’re into Javascript code, I have posted that as well.

What you see in the demo is a character being animated every two seconds. I left it at every five seconds during lecture, so it was more subtle. They had plenty of time to look at it, after all.

I think it worked out pretty well in the discrete math course. I could see the occasional student do a double take. A couple of times, one fired near a part of the screen I was pointing at, and I had to ignore it. I let it run for the first half of the lecture and them told them what was going on: it seemed to be appreciated. There seemed to be a mix of “yeah I saw it” and “I thought I was going crazy at first”, which is about what I wanted.

Now to see how the web development course takes it…

Edit: The web course was probably more split. I think some of them noticed right away, but some never did. It’s also possible they’re just more expressive than the 8am group.


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.

ZJU Internet

February 26th, 2013, 6:21 am PST by Greg

After more than a week, I have Internet in my apartment. Until now, I was subsisting on my phone’s data plan.

Here is how I seem to have to connect to the Internet in ZJU residences (and I think elsewhere on campus):

  1. My netbook doesn’t have a built-in Ethernet port, but came with a USB ethernet dongle. Plug it in.
  2. Plug an ethernet cable into the wall jack (not the one on the side of the room close to my computer, the other one).
  3. Manually set an IP address that was given to me by someone in a residence office and is linked to my hardware (MAC) address. It took a week to get this, because everyone was on vacation. It took overnight to activate it once it was assigned to me.

    At this point, I can access an utterly nonsensical collection of sites that are perhaps whilelisted somehow. These include SFU’s web server,, and this site, but not SFU Connect or Renren. These connections seem to be HTTP only, so probably no easy way to tunnel through.

  4. Connect to a campus VPN server over IPSEC.
  5. Log in to the IPSEC layer with a campus VPN username/password. I don’t have one of these, and nobody seems to know how to get me one. Luckily, someone was kind enough to lend me theirs.
  6. The VPN server with tunnels over L2TP. This provides Internet access that is as complete as one might reasonably hope in the current locale.

Even given the national demand to keep track of who accesses what, there is at least one layer too many in there. There’s some crazy design-by-committee going on to think of all that. Can anyone spot the weak point?

Those last three steps are supported in Windows only, and early attempts to get the VPN working in Linux have failed. There is also a campus proxy server that can be accessed without the VPN, but it seems to use some entirely different account and I can’t log into it.

Thus my proposed further steps may be:

  1. Open a virtual machine running Linux in Windows. Let the VM’s network magic bridge the Windows network into the VM.
  2. Probably use sshuttle or similar to secure the whole stack back to a host I trust. There are too many moving parts and possible points of privacy loss in there.
  3. Internet.

So that’s about 8 steps between my computer and some Internet. Any bets on the fraction of the time all of those actually work?

I’m leaving a note here: Huge success!

February 25th, 2013, 2:53 am PST by Greg

Not much to update in general. Continued to explore the city and pick up a few things. Weather is a little warmer, so I can say that I have actually been warm somewhere other than under my many blankets.

The university was open today, so I have a little more support from that side.

My huge success that just happened: I walked into a place that seemed to serve noodles, and had some characters that looked familiar on the menu board. I walked confidently up to the counter and did my best “牛肉面条” (beef noodles). The clerk responded positively and charged me the amount of money I expected.

I am now looking at a damn tasty bowl of beef noodles. Huzzah!

Edit: I also just enjoyed “一个蛋挞” (an egg tart). It had a little dollop of jelly on it, which was new to me, but not unwelcome.

Getting settled

February 22nd, 2013, 3:30 am PST by Greg

I did manage to get a bike yesterday, so getting around the city suddenly became much easier. Went out and got a USB hub (that I should have thought to bring with me) and wireless router (for when I actually get some internets in the apartment).

The International Student Cafeteria is across the road from my apartment. I ate there once so far. I was the only non-Chinese person there, the food was all Chinese, and the menu on the wall was entirely in Chinese. (They did have an English menu if you walked up and looked confused at them.) The food was pretty good, but I’m unclear on what’s “international” about it. There did seem to be a lot of non-local Chinese food. (I had a fish thing I had clearly involved Sichuan peppers and something described as “Shanghai greens”.) My theory is that “international” in this context means “not from Hangzhou”, but it’s just a theory.

As a result of that (I suspect), there is a block of shops just off campus near me that I think of as the “things international students want” strip. There are a couple of coffee shops and restaurants that seem very non-Chinese. Out of curiosity, I wandered into a panini place there last night. Not a half bad panini and a beer for $8.

What I’m realizing is that in Vancouver, it’s astonishingly rare for us to eat food from the same country more than about three days in a row. The trip was good: we spent 4–5 days in each place and didn’t get bored with the food. But looking at more than four months here, no matter how much I like the food (and I do), “all Chinese all the time” isn’t going to cut it. It’s nice to know there are soem options. There’s a Mexican place called Pancho’s not too far away. I’m saving that so it’s a treat.

I actually got a little work done on some course notes today. I’m teaching discrete math here, which I haven’t done at SFU for probably 7 or 8 years. It’s nice to get back to something a little “normal”.

I also stopped by my local Wal-Mart (a <5 minute ride from here). Wal-mart here, like ones at home, has everythign you need. Other shops have some of what you need, and it’s probably cheaper/better, but I’d have to find each shop. So, Wal-Mart it is. I got a few more basics. Not exactly a fully-stocked kitchen, but at least I’ve got something in the place.

Note the sad-bachelor-ware: one spoon, one knife, and a pair of chopsticks. I bought one bowl and one cup on a previous outing. Not like I’m having guests over. 🙂

Mould update

February 21st, 2013, 5:26 am PST by Greg

There has been a lot of perfectly justifiable concern about what I described as black mould in my bathroom. Having taken a closer look, there is more going on there. Here’s what happened…

At some point, there was a leak from a pipe, or the apartment above, or something. A Chinese Mr. Fixit was called. Some of the ceiling was chipped away, and replaced with possibly roofing tar. That’s the black centre of the mess: it’s not angry mould.

The surrounding smear is mould from the leak. But, since the whole building is poured concrete, it’s only in the paint, and cannot possibly be deeper. If I try to clean it, the mess will just aerosolize, with the cheap-ass paint. (A DDP student relates that it comes off with a gentle rub to remove simple dirt: it’s basically tempra paint from kindergarten.)

So I return to my my original plan of action: live and let live.

Hangzhou: first days

February 20th, 2013, 6:02 am PST by Greg

I have basically done the equivalent of getting to SFU on December 27: it’s not officially a holiday, but there isn’t anybody around.

For example, the people that can set up the Internet connection in my room aren’t back until the 25th. So glad I got the data SIM for my phone. There’s a huge comfort in being able to email, message Kat (Viber or WhatsApp: lifesavers), use Google Maps/Translate, etc.

Speaking of which, I have no idea how much I’m paying for data. They have a 2GB for 100 yuan which I thought I had subscribed to. Then I checked my balance and the money was still there as a credit. I’m hoping to find a China Mobile store tomorrow and try to pantomime my problem.

I’m feeling a little more settled now. My mood has gone from “I have to find X, Y, and Z so I can survive” to “I can explore the city and find stuff I need.” The difference is subtle, but significant. I even managed to take a little time to work on my courses today.

I took some pictures of my apartment. The bathroom and heating situations are a little rustic, but I’ll survive.

I’m questioning the wisdom off taking the vacation before hitting China. On one hand, it was awesome. But, the moment I got here, I’m already wanting western food and missing my friends. [I really like you guys, even the annoying ones. You know who you are.]

Goal for tomorrow: get a bike so I can expand the circle of the city I can explore.

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