I was to China, part 2

(In part 1, our trepid mathematician left a small university in Finland on a happy, early Saturday morning, heading for a mathematics conference in China. The few Finns going the same way include Professor, a man of age, poise, grace, and occasional grump; and Comedian, who is younger and not given to good taste in humor. The flights have taken them to Helsinki. then to Shanghai, where most of the Sunday day has been spent running around in the company of local mathematicians. In the 36 hours since the departure, our protagonist hasn’t really slept.)

So, Shanghai airport, Sunday evening. The boarding stuff and the plane were the same they are the world over. I get to sit on the right side of the aisle; there are three seats to either side of it, and I’m next to the aisle, well away from the window. Then again, this is a non-polar region; the night comes early even in summer. Next to me is a slightly harried-looking young father with a wee infant. (As in “random Scots-flavored adjective”, not as in “spraying urea everywhere”.) This is lucky for me, because the infant officially occupies the seat between us, but stays in the father’s arms for the flight.

Not so luckily, as the two hours pass, the child gets more and more agitated, whimpering, crying and generally expressing its dislike of flight.

Then again, the approach to our oceanfront destination is from inland, where there are mountains, rain and gusts of air, so I am kind of envying the child’s social freedom to scream and clutch other people.

Mind you, I’m not saying the flight was badly flown or anything; but when I’m tired, any veering, banking excitement is too much for me; it doesn’t help that occasionally the announcements are only in Chinese; I keep looking at the other passengers, waiting to see them start screaming so it would be socially acceptable for me to do likewise.

A few times, I could swear the child was blubbering “Äiti!”, but probably most words for mother are similar, and similarly adopted from baby-talk. The father, on the other hand, was busy saying calming “no” and “noh” and the like; the same non-words and the same tone of voice a Finnish father would use.

We landed; I tried to look back if the plane had smoking engines, missing wings, but couldn’t see anything. It was dark and wet.

The organizers — a few graduate students, I suppose, short and callow — were waiting. Half an hour for the next them-organized bus to the hotels, they said.

Screw that, Professor said, except with more politeness and force; get us a taxi.

They got us a taxi; Professor really really doesn’t tolerate inefficiency gladly. Plus, obviously, what is a new and exciting adventure to me is old hat to him, and he’s seen it, because of the numbers, done better before.

The taxi is some old car; I keep thinking of Ladas and other Soviet models but that was its type and style, not strictly age or name. The driver is old, stocky, slightly unkempt; a few minutes into the drive he lights up a cigarette (on the other front seat, I roll my eyes and say nothing), and after a few drags tosses it out an open window. Then spits out the same window, too.

Oh, and open windows?

When we step out of the terminal, hot air hits us in the face. It’s dark by now, and the humidity and the heat are like a badly heated sauna. It’s that uncomfortable feeling of dashing through the sauna room to close a hatch, or retrieve a towel, when you’re clothed and your clothes are sticking to you, sweat is crawling out of your forehead, and — but this is no sauna, and this topsy-turvy alien climate extends to sweaty black infinities everywhere around you.

So the taxi driver — who has no air conditioning, because his is not a new car — drives with both front windows cranked fully open. Professor and Comedian are on the back seat, treating this all as old hat. Because I’m tall, I’m on the other front seat, clutching my shoulder bag and being busy being terrified.

Because the driver’s not driving by speed limits; he’s doing a hundred kilometers per hour or more. Now and then, there are flashes of light off the road; after a few I form the terrified hypothesis that these are traffic cams, each and every one flagging him for a ticket.

We’re on a highway, two lanes each way, separated by a hedge; there are no overhead lights: darkness above, ahead and after. There’s roadwork, here and there. The driver doesn’t slow for the speed limit 80 signs.

Or speed limit 60 signs.

Or speed limit 40 signs.

At speed limit 30, he slows. A little. And then accelerates again.

The road’s a highway, he’s doing a hundred kilometers per hour, and the highway has no lights.

It has big warning signs, though, repeating.

The first says fasten your seatbelts.

The second says beware of drunken drivers.

The third says don’t toss objects out of the car.

The third one worries me most, because it wouldn’t exist unless that was a problem. I don’t even know what I’m fearing will come out of the darkness and hit our windshield; but nothing pleasant, of that I’m sure.

Cigarettes? Spit? A sandwich? A poodle?

Eventually we get into the actual city. There are streets. There are lanes; nobody minds them. There are lots of cars, and two scooters for each car. No helmets; two or more people on each scooter. The scooters drive like cars. The cars drive like tanks. I’m fairly certain I’m in some sleep-deprived fugue state by now, and next fire-breathing dragons will erupt out of the ground and nobody will express the fuck I’m feeling even then.

Then we’re at the hotel, and I’m grateful.

The hotel’s tall, forty stories, big; the architecture doesn’t even hint where in the world it is. When you walk deeper into the lobby, there’s a statue, a sphere of constellations: the Western ones, executed by some Chinese artist. The conference organizers are here too. I walk dazedly along their table, checkbox my name, get my badge, and a cloth bag full of conference stuff — programs and notepads and like, plus cunningly hidden lunch tickets inside a folder that seems to hold just a pen if you’re tired and careless — and pay my conference fee in crisp, stick-to-each-other American dollars — pay for the conference dinner and the excursion too — the organizer-graduate student in charge of this is apologetic, they’ve ran out of change — I wave a hand and tell them to get my excess 25 USD to me when they have the time.


I, you see, have very patrician instincts for money for someone of as plebeian origins and means as I am; a graduate student without desires or money, a rural high school teacher father and before that only farmers and darkness. And when I’m tired, I rapidly stop giving a toss about things like money.

Sometime the next day that helpful graduate student brings me my USD change; I smile and thank him and reflect that if he had forgotten I would have forgotten too. (Then again, to me it’s just the price of a book, and travelling is supposed to be an unreasonable money sink; for him it’s official duty, and 25 USD in China is more than I think — but hey, since I’ve never been really poor, I don’t value money.)

Next I go to the hotel desk and get my reservation turned to an actual room; number 2001, first room on the twentieth floor; I feel a sudden urge to make Clarke-Kubrick jokes and get a sudden feeling they might require more explanation than is good for a joke. I hand in my bank card, unsure if it will work here — I’m laden with cash, in case it doesn’t — and before I know it, I’ve signed over a 4500 CNY deposit, twice what the room will cost in the end. (And, some 50 euros per night in what is pretty nice luxury? Nothing to sneeze at.)

The room is full of nice semi-hidden features; I will be in too much hurry to use all of them. The bathroom has a tub; I don’t have the time. A closet has bathrobes; with my shoulders I don’t even want to try them; and slippers, which are just a touch too small. (I don’t complain; with my frame I’d have no time for anything else if I did. The whole world is built for 180 cm dwarves, and when I try to explain this everybody just laughs!) Over the tub on the wall is something like a bell, the sort you would ring at a reception; closer inspection shows the nipple in the middle of it lets out a clothesline the attaches to the opposite wall. The sink is in a nice wooden table; one drawer slides open showing three different kinds of a shaving machine socket. (I don’t need none; I’m going for an Esko Valtaoja look; I’m still busy on the bottom part.)

The view outside — well, I’ll have a look at it when morning comes and I get up, refreshed and full of new anxieties. The travel part’s over, and went fine; now’s the time to make a fool of myself among my own people!

The view outside is partly obscured by droplets of water trailing down the window, outside: it’s a lot more hot and humid outside than here in the air-conditioned hotel. (Actually, towards the end of the week the air conditioning seemed to turn towards chilly, instead of nice; I didn’t have the time or energy to look for a switch. Besides I’m from Finland; chilly, it spells home.)

The bed is double-sized, with a mountain of pillows at the head, nice but not super comfy; every day I’m too played out to undo it, and just fall asleep on top on the covers, positioned corner to corner because the mountain of pillows takes up so much of the length of the bed.

Every evening, I come back to find the covers flipped over at one corner, as if in a hint: “You’re supposed to sleep under this one, foreigner!” — but I don’t take the hint.

There’s a TV, too, and an old desktop computer. Didn’t have the energy. Had a tablet; the hotel wi-fi’s password was a string of lucky number eights and your room number. Each evening, when I extracted myself from conference-related business around nine o’clock, I depressurized by reading few pages of manga (Nononono) or watching an episode of anime (Honey and Clover), scribbled a few notes (hence, this text) and then went to Z-land. My sleep schedule tends to be so silly and random I don’t even notice if the time difference was affecting me.

Come Monday morning, I was up early: there was nobody at the breakfast except Professor.

He’s kind of scary: it took me until Thursday to be at the breakfast before him. (Pro tip: when the hotel says the breakfast starts at seven o’clock, it really opens twenty minutes before. And the experienced travellers are there; and also people like me, who compensate for social ineptness by trying to get everywhere early just so they can commandeer the scene.)

Slowly, people with badges on green ribbons round their necks gathered in the hotel lobby; people of all ages and colors, chatting with each other, occasionally taking hold of a badge, squinting at the name and minusculed university and country on it. Finland — China — Saudi Arabia — India — Germany — AMERICA! — Japan — Lebanon — Russia. (There are mathematicians everywhere, because we don’t need big expensive machines to do our work; or big difficult environments to observe. And affiliations lie: some of these people are of Chinese origin, working in Finland; or of Russian origin, working in America; not a particularly interesting point, unless you are a foaming-at-the-mouth nationalist.) Some of those here were old friends; some new acquaintances. Some were dressed casually; some very casually. Some were in suits; the older ones, usually. Some had a bag, or the conference’s canvas bag, holding papers or a laptop or a tablet. Most were slightly befuddled, beaming with excitement or unfocused good cheer. As far as I know, every single one of these people was honest, not given to formalities, of good sense of humor and proportion, an expert in esoteric things they liked but didn’t get to talk about much except at events like this. These were mathematicians; my people.

Well, not exactly my people. Professor is a god among these people, the advisor of dozens, but he is not my advisor. This conference is more about the thing I’ve seen Professor and Comedian tell about in their seminar; though I’m going to give a talk and my subject is under the conference headline it’s not the speciality that the conference has mostly been always about. If the conference title is “Forest animals” and it has been always mostly about moose, I’m an expert in squirrels.

No matter; these are mathematicians; I am a mathematician (when your thesis defense is two months away, I suppose you’re allowed that self-identification); these are my people. I like my people, and they haven’t yet driven me away with sticks, so all is fine.

(To be continued: with boring conference descriptions!)

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