Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Taking a Stab At It

Reflecting back on my stay in China, I've been able to come up with a list of some aspects of living there that were good and others that weren't.

The Good:
Everyone was friendly – Especially the people who I worked with. Even with the language barriers, everyone in the Shi group was very helpful. When I mentioned that I needed a bicycle for transportation around campus, Chun-Xiao had posted on their network for one, and when that failed Bi-Jie Li gave me one to use for my stay here (unfortunately, a pedal broke and then it was stolen later on, but all was well...).

Chemistry – I learned more chemistry and laboratory techniques there than I would have under any other circumstances. Long hours and dedicated, friendly group members contributed to that for sure. Additionally, my name was submitted on the Fe catalyzed sp3 C-H bond activation paper after I demonstrated competency in the project early on. What will come of that I do not know. Either way, I had a good time in the lab. Granted, it was extremely stressful at times.

Active – Beijing was a pretty happening city with plenty to do as long as you're willing to find it. However, my work hours and M-F, Sunday schedule often left me too dead on Saturday to do anything too adventurous.

Prices – Even the tanking US dollar can get you very far in China. With what I paid for lunch when I returned to the US I could have purchased about 6 lunches at the Wan liu apartment restaurant; on campus, possibly more. If you can haggle well, the markets offer a wide selection of cheap goods as well.

Language – Since everyone there speaks Chinese, it's fairly easy to attempt to practice. I managed to get free food a number of times by using my limited Chinese and by helping them learn English.

The Not So Good:
Pollution – On some days I couldn't see down the street. Most days I never saw the sky, and I could easily glance at the sun because it was covered in enough smog (not that I recommend directly looking at the sun, of course).

Internet Access – Internet access was spotty at best. It took forever to get a reliable connection, and even then reliable is a relative term because it was anything but. Outages were frequent, sites were blocked haphazardly, rates were slow, and a lot of times I never bothered to turn on my computer because I didn't feel like dealing with the hassle.

Food – Until the second week of July experiencing China's assortment of food was fairly interesting. After that, however, I dreaded eating anything aside from egg-fried rice and watermelon. Even when eating other foods, I felt like I wasn't getting the appropriate nutrients as I would when I shop for myself in the US. Toward the last week I really couldn't stomach it. It doesn't help that my options were also fairly limited. Wan liu didn't have many restaurants around it, campus food was repetitive (and eventually mostly shut down), and it was difficult to travel around the chemistry building for food in a way that would coincide with my schedule. The closest options tended to be either worse than what was on campus or comparatively expensive. Additionally, since we had neither an oven nor a reliable stove (or even a microwave for that matter), preparing our own meals was also quite restricted.

Transit – Although public transit prices were excellent, actually traveling on a bus in Beijing can be a nightmare. If you don't time it right, you'll end up crammed into a scorching hot bus, sweating to death, and having others drip their deathly sweat on you too. Going to work was usually terrible, but coming home was all right because most sane people were already home by the time I left the chemistry building. The subway was pretty good, especially since it sported air conditioning.

Weather – Beijing seemed to like to handle weather at the extremes. For the first few weeks there it rained frequently. Although it wasn't as hot as usual, the place was practically flooding at the most inopportune times. After that it was mostly hot and dry. Overall, it made my sinus problems a consistent mess.

Olympics – The Olympics were a headache before we even came to China. The closer it came to the Olympics, the more difficult life in Beijing became. Just trying to get the appropriate stamps to get in both the chemistry building and on campus became a bureaucratic nightmare.

Overall, it was an opportunity I certainly wouldn't pass up. China is definitely moving quickly, and developing ties with its scientific community is of utmost importance.

Seizing the Blog, pt. 2

It has been brought to my attention that my sense of humor doesn't carry well over the internet. I should have expected this was the case, but I went for it anyway. After all, it's only natural.

With that said, I owe the blag some much needed love regarding my experiences in the People's Republic of China (China/中国). It's a duty I've mostly neglected due to a variety of circumstances, but I won't go into them. If it has been unclear, I spent my summer working under the guidance of Professor Zhang-Jie Shi.

When I initially showed up to the laboratory I was only given three instructions from Professor Shi: 1) Read his papers 2) Clean glassware 3) Talk to people. Immediately afterward he spent the week tending to business matters and rarely showed up to the laboratory. In a sense, I was on my own right from the get go.

So I did what I thought was most appropriate and scanned through the articles enough to gain an understanding of what went on, and moved on to befriending any of the group members and deciphering what exactly was going on in their C-H, C=O bond activation divisions. It worked, and soon enough I found myself consistently talking to Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song (undergrad), Bi-Jie Li (grad), and Da-Gang Yu (grad). For what it's worth, I ended up not cleaning much glassware. Only Miss Gui-Xin Cai (grad) was eager to have to me clean for her.

As it turned out, within a few days I was already in one specific laboratory room at the very end of the 5th floor of the old, run-down chemistry building reserved for pesky organic chemists. Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song, and Miss Cai primarily worked there on C-H bond activation. It was then that Chun-Xiao Song took me under his wing. He had been preparing for his undergraduate thesis defense, and he had shown me his presentation since it was written in English. His work for the past year consisted of C-H bond activation at the benzylic position catalyzed by Fe (iron). In turn, my work was to expand on these reactions, but before I could get anywhere I needed to learn the ropes. My task was to perform the general reaction he had developed, so that I could compare my results with the expected yield. Since my results were within the experimental error range, I was able to rapidly advance to the chemistry.

For what it's worth, I'm fairly certain that Professor Shi didn't know that Chun-Xiao was already having me do the chemistry. By the time I saw Professor Shi again, he said I should learn how to use the GC machine, and Spencer could help me out with that if necessary. However, by that time the GC machine to me was just another tool at my disposal, and I had already used it a number of times that day to monitor my reactions.

Nevertheless, I continued about on this path for the rest of the summer. I became quite good friends with Chun-Xiao and Dr. Zhang, and our time in between tasks or during clean-up mostly consisted of Chinese/English language exchange and Chinese history lessons. As it turned out, Dr. Zhang obtained his PhD for physical chemistry, and jumped over to organic for his postdoctoral research. He was also always fixing machinery that broke down. His family also could make traditional Chinese food. In other words, he's a fully competent jack of all trades who also happens to be the nicest person I've ever met in my life.

Come the second week of July, however, my laboratory was set to lose a member. My main man Chun-Xiao graduated and had to leave Beijing for his home in Southern China. Eventually, he'll be in the US for graduate school at the University of Chicago, but at the time I had to say goodbye to him and continue where he and I left off. His project was formally transferred to Miss Cai, and she and I worked together for the rest of the trip. To be honest, I barely understood a word of what she said to me, and she couldn't understand me either. Sometimes it was easier to use Chinese, but my knowledge of chemistry specific Chinese was very limited. For example, there was once a bit of a dilemma after a long day of work when she excitedly said to me: “Han-Song! There is a small animal in the refrigerator!” (Han-Song Li is my Chinese name). You can only imagine what went through my head until I discovered she meant an insect. I thought I was going to have to remove a squirrel or something absurd like that.

Given all the circumstances and Olympics nonsense, my work in the laboratory went reasonably well. The hours were excessive at times, and the heat toward the end of July nearly killed me. Nothing good comes of trying to work in an organic lab that's hotter than the temperature outside with no way of cooling. Thankfully, this occurred when I was wrapping up my work.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dear Blag

Yes, I called it a blag. It's an XKCD reference for you nerds out there.

For what it's worth, I'm no blogger. I find the whole thing to be an annoyance. Nevertheless, I expected to keep to it as a way to chronicle my (mis)adventures in Beijing. Of course, it turned out that I merely became a chemistry zombie, working long hours in a disgustingly hot laboratory all in the name of science. Without a doubt, I'd do it again in the name of science. That's what I'm here for, is it not?

Being in China has been pretty fun. My work day was typically between 8am-10pm, M-F and Sunday. Saturday was our day of rest, as they liked to call it. Regardless, a fair amount of people showed up on Saturday and some Saturdays I too had to come in to finish hammering out a purification or a presentation, maybe sift through some publications.

The issue with blogging all of these interesting occurrences is that I rarely bother to turn on my personal computer. With such long work hours, I attempted to speak to random Chinese people in various settings on my time off. My experience with the language, however, has been a bit of a mixed blessing. I've studied it for about an academic year with very little practical use, but somehow I managed to get the pronunciation down pretty well. The end result is that rapid-fire Chinese usually comes at me in a very excited manner when Chinese people see that this blue-eyed, curly-haired student from France (Most people here assume I'm from France for some reason or another) is speaking Mandarin. As a result of my smiling and attempts at speaking Mandarin, I've often received free food and occasionally gifts.

Nonetheless, I've found that it can be quite hard to understand some people. People have all different sorts of accents on their Chinese, and this is further complicated when Mandarin isn't even their first language; people from my lab often tell me that their hometown has its own native tongue and that Mandarin is simply their common language for communicating with other Chinese. As far as accents go, I find thick Beijing accents to be harsh sounding and they ruin whatever clarity or beauty the language might have had; to imitate, try to curl your tongue and then attempt to swallow it or gargle while adding 'er' to everything.

At any rate, that's all the blogging I can handle. I only have a few notes left. None of my email accounts have been working so I haven't received any email for several days. Also, private information doesn't belong on blogs, especially not on ones regarding a research experience in a foreign country. I do not appreciate private matters being extended to the vast openness of the internet. It is, at best, inappropriate.

Monday, June 2, 2008


We have been in Beijing for about a week now, but it really feels like I have been here for much longer than that. It's been a whirlwind of events since the day after the plane landed. Just this past weekend we were touring temples and the Great wall, and pretty soon we'll all be working in our respective labs.

The average day for me has been a busy one; usually, during the week, we have a language lesson in the morning and a culture lesson in the afternoon. In between we typically have lunch, and after we're busy exploring or getting something else necessary for survival done.

For all the fun so far, there have been a couple of walls in our path. Our apartment lacked internet access for several days and we don't really have any sort of meal cards for on campus eating or even eating in the cafeteria in our apartment. Compounded with a lack of a kitchen, this means scrounging around the locale for restaurants. I tend to load up on foodstuffs from the supermarket to combat this problem, but the food selection there is a story in and of itself (for another time).

The city also has its ups and downs. Beijing is definitely a polluted city. At some times it's unreal; on a bad day I can barely see down the road, and the city perpetually seems to be covered in unsightly smog. I need to wear my sunglasses to shield my eyes from the particles in the air. Unfortunately, unless I purchase some sort of mask as some natives seem to do, there's no way to shield my mouth and nose. Aside from that, it has what most major big cities have: lots of activity. Relatively cheap goods too, if haggling is your game. Food is also cheap, but restaurants are of very questionable sanitation...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ready To Go

Although I'm pumped for the voyage to the East, I'm still in a state of disbelief. It has yet to sink in that I'm flying to China tomorrow afternoon. It will probably hit me when I'm en route to Tokyo (the stopover before Beijing).

All in all, I'm looking forward to being in a completely different setting and getting the chance to meet people across the globe and work in the labs there.

For quite some time, however, I was worried about our visas. It took until the very last minute, and after a lot of work by many dedicated people, to obtain them. I haven't had time to think about what my worries will be in China because for a while I was very unsure of if I would end up getting there. At the end of the day, I'm afraid I'm going to insult the natives while butchering their language.

Nevertheless, I found it puzzling that the international REU programs aren't as popular as their domestic counterparts. Perhaps a certain type of candidate opt for these international programs. For me, the kicker was killing two birds with one stone. On one hand, I wanted to do chemistry research, and on the other I wanted to continue my Chinese studies.

When I arrived in Michigan I was pleased to meet my fellow students of chemistry. Everyone seemed to get along well from the get-go. I'm glad the pre-program period lasted about 5 days. Some of the group discussion activities to facilitate group work were drawn out and continually beat a dead horse, but otherwise all was well. Simply having time to get to know one another was probably the most effective aspect of this period.

At any rate, see you in Beijing!