I was to China, part 1

I’m back from China, and somewhat recovered. Time for the first part of the giant I-was-to-China post.

The necessary background: This was for a Monday to Friday academic conference (mathematics) of about 200 at a university in southern China. The farthest I’ve been from Finland before this is Prague, and I don’t speak a single word of Chinese.


I got up at about 5 am on Saturday the eighth of this June. I picked up a phone and called a taxi to my door.

I had been planning to take the airport bus; then late last night I had nerve-surfed yet again to the airport’s website and noticed the bus didn’t run on Saturdays. See, the benefit of nerves; or the disadvantage of not reading carefully what the page said in the first place.

This is a small city and a small airport, where this story begins. And a small country, Finland: the destination-city in China is not famous but has a population more than the whole five millions of Finland.

It may not even be famous in China; or then when I asked a Chinese graduate student I may have mangled the name too much.

Over the conference, I frequently joked that the proper unit for measuring populations in China was “finland”. Defined to be five million.

At the airport there were two familiar faces waiting, from the same math department as me: let us call them the Professor and the Comedian.

The Professor is ancient and full of anecdotes; he was in China for the first time 25 years ago, and he does not tire of telling how things have improved since then. They’ve improved a lot. He has former students like Abraham had descendants.

The Comedian is… well, he’s a person that could abuse you of the idea (after seeing the Professor) that mathematicians are dignified, slightly old-fashioned proper people. He’s a person that’s not averse to poop jokes.

He’s a person that’s not averse to poop anecdotes.

I like travelling with him; the horror of his jokes keeps us awake, and I am myself a man that somehow was stiff and proper at fifteen and is filthy, so filthy at thirty. Plus, if some government agent is spying, then carrying tapes to a translator to learn what the academic Finns are saying… well, I laugh at the idea of Comrade Translator’s forehead veins, popping. (The main problem is that after deriving much fun from speaking freely and rudely about the people around us, it’s necessary to adjust your volume after your return, or trouble.)

The first flight is an hour-hop to Helsinki, because in Finland all flights go to or from Helsinki. The Helsinki-Vantaa airport is a nice place; it’s called that because it’s located in the suburb/neighboring city of Vantaa — whether it’s a suburb or a city depends on if you ask someone from Helsinki, or someone from Vantaa.

The airport has a bookshop and several cafes; that’s nice enough for me.

It’s good the airport is nice, because we have a seven-hour wait for the next flight.

Professor and Comedian leave the airport — they have friends or interests. I like the airport, so I walk around. As a result, I end up with a two-month semi-electric subscription to Helsingin Sanomat (Finland’s leading newspaper), and a supporter membership with the Finnish Red Cross.

I tried walking past those spots a few times more, but the enticers remembered me. So much for going “Ha ha! You’re wasting your time! I already bought one! In your face conniving newspaper salesmen or people gathering money for… uh.”

I bought a book (The Wind Through The Keyhole, Stephen King); it’s now one of those objects that I feel ambivalent about: it’s been to China, to the other side of the world. Is it somehow special now? In the physical sense, no; in the emotional sense, who knows?

Something bought from China is a souvenir, and special, presumably because it’s a keepsake and something that is not available in closer places. But what about something you took to China and back? (Related thought: This is what I should have done. Gotten some Finnish items — t-shirts with slogans, maybe — and scattered them to random Chinese persons as “gifts obligated by Finnish culture”. Then, months later, some other Finn would be luxuriating in the exoticism of China, when a person in a “VITTU SAATANA” t-shirt walks by.)

Last summer I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and bought a fat Buddha (Budai?) statue there. Clearly it wasn’t a local speciality; not something Czech; just a made-in-Asia piece of painted plaster. You could probably find a similar statue in some Finnish art shop, with some digging. Does that thing qualify as a souvenir?

Anyway, after seven hours we got on a plane and headed towards Shanghai, 7400 kilometers and ten hours away.

Ten hours is a long fucking time. Especially when your knees are pressing against the seat in front of you, your flight left at six in the evening, and you’re tired and excited and trying to sleep.

In front of you there’s a bad touchscreen, which promises music, games and movies. Those movies I tried didn’t play. Those I didn’t try were blah. No matter; the screen was too tiny anyway, and the rowan berries were sour too. (And the flight safety video they showed in the beginning had jags and dancing discolorations like some 80s TV show’s idea of hacking — was this someone’s idea of a joke? On the flight safety video!)

As for the games, there didn’t seem to be any controls for them. Then, a few hours into the flight, I found where the control panel was: in my left thigh. Or, rather, on the inside of that side’s armrest; but since I’m a person of size, this means “embedded in my thigh”. A wonder I wasn’t squeezing the attendant-call button all the time. (Maybe I was. And they walked by, going, “Oh, a thigh caller!” and put a paper over that light on the board.)

From Omsk (above) to Novosibirsk (above), I tried to sleep. I leaned back. I adjusted the neckrest. I put the pillow behind my head, then under my chin and gazed at my crotch, dreaming of sleep. I closed my eyes and thought of nothing, then of static, then of the optimization problem of the fractal relationship problems of Ranma 1/2. Nothing worked.

Then, somewhere above Novosibirsk, I found a way!

I leaned forwards and rested my forehead on the back of the seat in front of me, sure that I would wake up a Klingon.

Then I tried that position to about Abakan, and it almost worked. I did a very good pretense of sleep; anybody walking past along the aisle would have thought I was sleeping!

I wasn’t.

The plane went ahead at 900 km/h; I don’t even know how to think about that. When I’m in a plane, I rather don’t.

We left Finland at around six in the evening; as the night went on, I lost all sense of time. Somewhere along, five hours disappeared because of the time difference; after several black timeless infinities I reset my clocks for China time and began to wait for landing.

Oh, and the plane had eight seats abreast. I was in one of the middle ones, and it was night. I have no bloody idea what Russia looks like. Or Mongolia; I would have liked to see Mongolia, but no. And no idea of China either, blast it! (“Blast it!” is number 23 in the list of expressions to not use when in an airplane.)

Is there any more depressing log line than “somewhere south of Hohhot, after a sleepless night”?

We landed at Shanghai’s Pudong airport at seven in the morning, local time.


This is what Shanghai feels like: you walk down the tube into the airport. You collect your bag. And then for a few minutes you keep getting the thought that “what ho, that person’s Chinese too, what a coincidence!”, and then feeling stupid.

Everything’s written in Chinese first, then in English.

The floors, the doors, the buildings were what I was used to; no dramatic differences, just small local variations. Then again, the modern urban style is as removed from rustic European as it is from rustic Chinese; it’s not my style, the style of Europe, but the style of today.

There’s lining for immigration, and security checks. You fill in some arrival card, and keep the departure half for yourself. (If you lose it, you don’t depart?) You flash the passport, the visa; you walk through explosives detectors and whatsit. The officers are polite and quick; it makes me happy that many of them are women. (Not because, hey, drooling time! but because I can’t wait for the day when you can use the phrase “the Pope and her wife”. And the day after that, when the final (Catholic) Pope retires, and the Discordian popes take over.) The security check is more practised and efficient than in Finland; and thank all the local gods you don’t have to take your belt off. (And of course not your shoes; this is not some land of Banana Republic. I don’t know if they used any pornoscanners; I’ve been meaning to research paints opaque to those devices and the writing of incomplimentary messages on the inside of my shirt, but I haven’t found the time.)

Oh, and overall the Chinese are a friendly and cheerful people. At least to an obvious foreigner like me.

The first Chinese person we really meet is a local mathematician who is with the university of Shanghai and an old student of Professor’s. She has promised to arrange entertainment for the ten-hour wait for the next flight. It’s a little warm outside, but Shanghai’s not terribly warm. It’s raining. The local lady shoos us into a bus, and pays our tickets. The bus is dingy and almost empty, but the model and maker are familiar, and it wouldn’t be too out of place in Finland. It zooms off into rain and mist; when the rain eventually ends, I realize the mist is permanent, and probably not water-based.

This is what the Shanghai university (Shanghai University, actually) looks like: take three dozen architects and tell each to take a different tradition and build something big, four or five stories or so, and impressive. Walking around, it seems there’s something rustic-French, something classically Chinese, some growling concrete, then glass and darkness — it’s all impressive, but not unified. (Mind you, I liked it. Uniformity is for people who can’t deal with a bit of chaos.) And all this is surrounded by flowers, and exotic trees, and students: Monday to Wednesday is a big local holiday, so they’re working Saturday and Sunday to make up for it. (The thought boggles my lazy Finnish mind.)

Somewhere in the middle of the university there’s a building like the Empire State Building went a century back in time; in it there are mathematicians and a posh cafeteria. Also, on that Sunday, us being offered a breakfast. (It’s Chinese politeness, apparently, to offer everything, but as Finns it disturbs us a little that we don’t get to pay our share. And sometimes it leads to poor Professor showing what a fine bag of tea he got from Chinese Mathematician #1, only for Chinese Mathematician #2, of a slightly higher rank, to show up the next day with a much posher bag of tea and a satisfied smirk!)

As for breakfast, I took coffee — everybody else took tea. Tea is good and fine, but I wasn’t about to start altering my drug use after such a night. We went through the menu, and us Finns ordered sandwiches, which soon arrived: four hefty soft pieces, filling but not exciting.

Then a second platter arrived, with four more pieces.

Then a third… and since we’d all started eating from the first, and the last one was nominally mine, I must have seemed a wasteful git, what with so many pieces left over.

We walked around — the mathematics offices weren’t distinguishable from any at a Finnish university, except the computers were a bit older, and the book backs a little more incomprehensible.

Oh, and at our department you couldn’t stare out of a tenth-floor window over a haze-covered city of millions, boiling with life.

There’re some pretty nice trees, though.

There was, also, outside, a big statue of Mao Zedong. Under which we, with some off-color jokes, waited for another local former student of Professor’s — with his career it seemed at times that every mathematician in China was his student or had visited our university for a few months or years, previously. We — well, me and Comedian — aren’t very good with veneration. Or respect. I think it’s being Finnish, and a mathematician, and… well, us happening to be a horrid filthy-minded bunch. For me, this is a part of my personal philosophy: every idol of yours shat and masturbated. If they didn’t, that’s an even more grounding and disturbing thought than them on the toilet, or with a hand in their pants.

But speaking of idols, whether modern or lingering, Mao. His face was on all major local bills. Once you got below one yuan (a seventh of a euro), there were jiao bills (a jiao is a tenth of a yuan, one-seventieth of a euro); the one-jiao had two sour-faced (probably stern, if you do stern) ethnic minority examples, whose expressions seemed to convey this conversation:

“Brother, this bill isn’t worth shit.”

“Truly, brother, communism has betrayed us.”

The word “yuan” is said like I think the word “yen” (Japanese unit of currency) would be said; this was unexpected and confusing; I kept wondering, for a confused quarter-second, why they wanted Japanese money in China.

I said this was a ten-hour wait, right? Eventually there were as many Chinese as there were Finns, and we retired to a cabinet off their cafeteria. It was a round table; the other Finns told me we shouldn’t take the places with our backs towards the door, because that wasn’t where the guests sat. (Apparently in old days anybody in such a spot could be assassinated; and since most conventions don’t make sense this is as good a reason as any.) The table was round, with a rotating glass disk in the middle. For the next hour, a server would come every five minutes and drop a small plate of something weird on the glass, and it would go round and round and I would feel very shy and scared.

I’m not an adventurous man, you see. A plane flight, with the banking and pitching and yawing, is just about as much excitement as I’ve ever wanted; turbulence is too much, because I have an active imagination and I’ve watched all of Mayday, Air Crash Investigations and Seconds from Disaster.

And foreign food is a very specific type of excitement: here’s this weird thing, why don’t you put it inside you?

Plus: I’m not a friend of good food. I usually give good food a scowl and walk to the McDonald’s counter instead. Or take a pizza. Or mix hamburger and pasta and squirt mustard on top, and devour that with milk or ice tea. There’s a place in my city where you can get Chinese food. I’ve never been there; I’ve never even felt tempted to go there. There are proper restaurants in my city; I think I’ve been to one, once, and that was for some official thing. I — heck, I don’t even go to the university cafeteria that much, because I don’t like having to choose between things I haven’t eaten before.

So, me facing Chinese food is something of an excess of culinary excitement.

I didn’t become brave: I nibbled, hid pieces in the mercifully deep food-bowl provided, nodded and smiled, shredded oddly fried fishes, spun the glass in the direction of the other Finns, and hoped I wasn’t perceived as being an ungrateful prick.

I don’t know how to feel about this: I feel that as impolite as I might have been — if anybody was paying attention to how much I ate instead of how much I smiled and made true if not personally felt compliments — there’s still something cheerfully evil and not nice in pushing dish after dish of alien bits at people and acting as if that’s good fun. (“Welcome to among us mathematicians. Why don’t you try our pastimes! Here, integrate this. Do you like it? Would you like some more? Here, try this contour integral, it’s really good!”) If I was hosting people, I would give them something easy and universal, like pizza, and concentrate on the conversation; this no doubt is why I don’t get asked to host anybody.

There was talk, also: I didn’t make notes, I was tired, and I was busy with creating the appearance of polite interest in the food, instead of hysterical panic or sullen closemouthedness. I think the talk was mild academic tidings and cultural learnings.

Also, occasionally one of the Chinese people pushed something on my plate, while I smiled back, said thanks, and told myself it would be impolite to stick a chopstick in their eye. (Also, chopsticks: I didn’t know how to use them. I still don’t know how to use them. One time out of two, I could use them to get something flat off the glass and to my plate.)

Mind you, the food didn’t taste bad — but neither did it taste good. I’m not a gourmet, or a master of senses, common or taste; I’m incapable of appreciating the goodness or badness or novelty of food; and I’m not terribly interested in someone expanding my horizons for me.

After the lunch, we got into a taxi and zoomed to Shanghai’s other airport, the one that handled the more local flights, for a two-hour hop to the conference city. (The taxi was paid for us; and since this wasn’t any official visit, probably by the local mathematicians — again, this makes me more uneasy than grateful, but what are you supposed to do when big courtesy clashes with small ethics?)

The flights so far had been with Finnair, the Finnish airline. The one ahead was with some southern Chinese airline; the difference was psychological, but my psychology is what I have to live with. I had been awake for 36 hours if you don’t count the few hours of hibernation over Omsk; and I knew that when I’m tired, I believe all drivers and pilots are not reliable professionals but suicidal maniacs; and there is no turbulence, only the wings coming off.

So, yes, this flight was going to suck.

(To be continued.)

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