Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Blond Man's Travel Log

I have been requested to make a blog post both before and after the conference. The pre-conference post is to introduce "who [I am] and what [I expect] to get out of PLDI 2012." Other than that, I have been given no limits whatsoever on the nature of this post. I shall use roughly two paragraphs to satisfy the rather drab requirements, then, as laziness is next to godliness, I shall simply duplicate and slightly paraphrase my travel log. I've been in Beijing for five days now. Please note that these were written as separate entries, and, as such, will not come across as a single cohesive story.

My name is Gregor Richards and I am a student at Purdue University. Because it turned out rather relevant to my travels, I'll mention that I have long blond hair. To say that this is an unusual sight in Beijing would be an understatement. I always wear a hat, and typically wear a brightly-colored necktie. I suppose these are not the "who I am" details expected of me, are they? I'm a PhD student studying under Jan Vitek, and I've primarily done empirical studies of dynamic languages, focusing on JavaScript. I'm more recently looking at making a gradually-typed dialect of JavaScript given everything I've learned from the empirical studies.

What I expect to get out of PLDI is what I expect to get out of any conference: A few good ideas, a lot of good conversations, and some unfortunately dull food that's sort of an insult to the venue. In addition to attending PLDI, I'm the chair and host of the ECOOP 2012 Doctoral Symposium, which should be a fun experience.

Now, with no further ado, my travel log.

There was a man in the Toronto airport. He was wearing a pressed salmon-colored suit. The slacks matched the jacket. His hair was jet black and slicked. He looked like he had just stepped out of the seventies, and yet was ready to walk right into a board room and negotiate a hostile takeover.

He is my new personal hero.

We were on the same flight, myself and the man in the salmon-colored suit. He went through the customs line next to mine. He wore white leather shoes and a pink wristwatch, and carried a distinctively businesslike briefcase. A daring look to be sure, but one achieved flawlessly and with gusto. Somewhere in Beijing, the Salmon Man roams, being more awesome than I am.

Perhaps I am jealous of his splendor. Perhaps I simply revel in the idea that such a human being exists. Good journeys, man in the salmon-colored suit.

Today, I walked on the Great Wall of China.

My guide informed me that there were three options: The cable car, which was of course quite simple, the north path, which was relatively easy but crowded with tourists, or the south path, which was very steep but, naturally, less crowded. I tied back my hair, rolled up my sleeves, and chose the south path.

It was strenuous but not grueling. About forty minutes in, I took a break to visit a small pavilion. It was down a flight of stairs from the wall, buffeted by trees, the branches of which canopied the staircase giving it a very regal feel.

As I reached the bottom of the stairs, two cute, bubbly Chinese women about my age waved excitedly at me, hollering "Hello! Hello!"

"Ni hao," I replied simply.

I sat down and stretched my legs, glad to give myself a brief reprieve. One of the women was not especially inconspicuous as she snapped photographs of this unusual foreigner. I unbound my magnificent golden mane and tousled it slightly for her benefit. She did little to hide her enthusiasm.

I may never be able to pull off a salmon-colored suit, my friends. But I have my charms.

As I got up to leave, she built up the courage to ask me – or, as it were, gesture for me – to take a picture with her. Her friend did the same. I thought it odd, but they were only the first. By the time I lost count around the tenth such tourist, I was more amused than baffled.

At the Great Wall of China, I am the tourist attraction.

Today I had one, and only one, goal: to buy a hat. I asked the Internet for a good hat shop in Beijing, it told me one, and I went there. The shop was along the Wangfujing Street shopping district, and so I took the opportunity to do some touristy shopping as well.

The street itself was really quite dull. There were a few interesting stores and I almost bought an overpriced silk shirt, but overall it wasn't an exciting experience. The side streets were a whole other matter.

Branching from Wangfujing itself are three or four narrow passages which are absolutely packed with vendors selling either food or cheap novelty garbage. The crowds are incredible, but I'll talk about that more in the being-stared-at post. More to the point, the sheer variety of foods available was amazing. It was unfortunate that I had already eaten lunch, and wasn't hungry at all, because I could have packed myself with steamed buns, shish kabob, strange seafood and things I can't identify.

My shopping spree over, I hailed a cab. I showed the driver the Chinese printed address of my hotel, and he offered me a price to get there.

Now, if you know Beijing, are coming to Beijing for the conference(s) yourself, or are just generally wise, there should be a klaxon in your mind going off. I assure you, I'm quite aware of this ruse myself. The taxis in Beijing are metered; if they offer you a fixed price, they're ripping you off.

I had taken a taxi the other way just that morning, and properly metered to boot. So I knew what the appropriate price was. He was offering about double, less than I would expect for a ripoff. Something about the gall and the whole lunacy of the moment amused me. So, I put on a bright grin, affected the role of the hopeless American tourist, and allowed myself to be had.

Probably that decision wouldn't have paid off in terms of entertainment, but for the fact that I knew I was being had. The way taxis work in Beijing is that they have a visible flag that shows they're for hire, and when the meter is running, the flag is down. As such, people still hailed this taxi. And that's when the beautiful interaction occurred.

Some native would hail the taxi. The driver would be hilariously unsubtle in waving them off. They'd see me in the back, and give a knowing look. Sometimes even a wink! As if to say, "Aha, good luck to you, intrepid cab-driver-cum-scam-artist. Let's not let Whitey get off easy."

Those looks were absolutely priceless. Enjoy my extra $6, cabbie. It was worth the price.

If being stared at were an Olympic sport, I would be its gold medalist. Unfortunately, I'm four years too late to compete at this venue.

Today, on a friend's recommendation, and in spite of my best judgment, I took the subway. The only real issue is that the nearest station is a 25 minute walk from my hotel. It is extremely inexpensive, at ¥2/trip (about 30¢). However, I was taking it at rush hour, and it was very, very crowded.

I'm not sure if I can explain satisfactorily what "crowded" means here. It's not so much an issue of personal space as it is coming to terms with the fact that you will be groping someone today, whether you wish to or not. I found myself entrenched in a female enclave, several of the members of which were gawking at their newly entrapped human curio. I tried not to think too carefully about the situation, for fear of the distinct, albeit unlikely, possibility of uniquely male consequences.

Nonetheless it was a straight shot to my stop, then a short walk to my destination, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. If you expect me to describe these attractions, you've forgotten who's writing these, consider reading Wikipedia.

In spite of the fact that sheer numbers would dictate that most visitors here should be Chinese, I still find it surprising just how few people of European descent there are. There are certainly a few, but there were probably no more than twenty who weren't associated with tour groups.

That fact, along with the complementary fact that I'm me, meant that I got a lot of attention. Now, I've been stared at in many countries, including my own, and by many people, but there is usually a pattern. When I catch someone staring at me, they stop. It's a very natural reaction. It's not that I'm offended, my eccentricities are, after all, quite intentional, but that's just the social norm. That is not, it would seem, the social norm here, or at least not with me.

Whenever someone stares at me, or I see someone trying to take candid photographs of me, I smile at them and say "ni hao!" This is the point at which a gawker in any other country would turn away. Not here. I have observed three reactions:

  1. The gawker does not react at all. That is to say, they just keep right on gawking.
  2. The gawker returns my greeting, but otherwise just continues to stare at me.
  3. The gawker asks to take my picture or have their picture taken with me.

I have never, not even once, observed the expected behavior of acting as if they were caught in the act.

That being said, it's not every tourist who builds up the courage to ask me for a photo. Many take photos of me with varying degrees of candidness, but only the brave few actually ask. The very fact that I'm writing this should seem bizarre to me, but after three days of this, it feels normal. That can't be good.

Every time someone asked to have their picture taken with me today, I insisted that they also take a picture on my camera. Unfortunately, most people just wanted a picture of me, not with me, a contingency I wasn't prepared for, so I only got five such pictures. Not quite enough for the "Gregor poses with random Chinese people" photo collage I had in mind.

We are more alike, my Chinese cousins, than unlike. But I suppose it is those un-likenesses that make life interesting.

A picture of me with two enthusiastic Chinese girls:

As an aside, I have a fondness for caricatures. Admit it: If you looked like me, you would have a fondness for caricatures as well. Here is me, as drawn by a caricaturist on a ceramic plate: . Perhaps a Chinese friend could tell me how horribly he mangled the transliteration my name?

Ah, the food. I don't really have an anecdote here, so this post will be more of a series of observations.

Every time I go into a restaurant, it starts the same way. I say "ni you mei you yingwen caipu[sic]?" and they stare at me for a moment, trying to understand what I just said through my thick accent and poor intonation. Usually they figure it out, then open a menu and point to the iffy English translations. I make an "okay" gesture, indicate that I am alone, and am led to a seat.

(Note: My phrasebook lied to me. caipu is "cookbook", not "menu". So that's probably part of the confusion. Oh well.)

Food is stupidly inexpensive, from my perspective. I routinely order the most expensive thing on the menu simply because at most restaurants that still leaves every meal under $8, so from a western perspective, I'm getting a pretty good deal. I probably look like an ass, always ordering this way, but oh well. I've had some better meals run me around $25, but always for things that would have been more expensive and worse in the US.

It's probably racist of me to notice this, or perhaps it's just the influence of westernization on Chinese food, but the first thing that struck me is that there simply isn't any chicken. Occasionally there will be one chicken item on a menu, but it's not the norm. Mind, I probably wouldn't be eating chicken anyway, that just seems like a very idiot-western-tourist approach to food, but I still expected it to be an option.

I've had beef tendon and heart, ox tripe (whatever that is), intestines (the menu was not kind enough to inform me in English of what kind of intestines I would be enjoying), pork, crab and lamb, but no chicken. I actually don't eat much meat other than poultry normally, so it's been a bit odd.

They always bring me a fork. I refuse to use it. In spite of how much I like to complain, I'm actually perfecty competent with a pair of chopsticks. I have good dexterity, so it would be pretty pathetic if I couldn't use the utensil of choice of billions of people. I'm not offended by them offering me a fork, I understand, but there is one thing that irks me. Because I'm so routinely offered a fork, I've taken to grabbing the chopsticks on the table immediately upon sitting down, and clicking them idly in the air, just to be a very clear indication that I can use them. That doesn't make any difference. Sometimes I'll be a few minutes into a meal, successfully eating without making a mess, and then they'll bring me a fork. "Come on," I think to myself, "I'm doing just fine, don't patronize me!" I wave these offers off to the best of my ability.

Some restaurants don't even give me chopsticks. Ironically, the only restaurant I've been to that hasn't offered me a fork was a Thai restaurant. If you don't understand why this is ironic, then you're probably the kind of buffoon who asks for chopsticks in a Thai restaurant, and you should take a careful look at your life.

Cold water doesn't exist. Just to be clear, this isn't like many places in Europe, where iced water doesn't exist. Even lukewarm water is not an option. When possible I'm ordering soda simply because it's served chilled. The waiters sometimes seem baffled that an adult would order soda with a meal; I don't drink alcohol. If I ask for water, they will bring me that most unrefreshing of all possible beverages, hot water. I have no idea how to indicate to them that I would like cold water. On several occasions I've poured hot water for myself and waited for it to cool down to sufferable temperatures.

Normally I've tried to end these with something pithy. Unfortunately, I simply haven't any pith here. I've really enjoyed the food, and the culture gap has been entertaining. Eating in Beijing is a good thing to approach lightheartedly. I'm never quite sure what I'm going to get, but it's always been good.

(This entry resulted in a recommendation for a Peking Duck restuarant, leading to the next, and final, entry in my travel log thusfar.)

Authentic Peking Duck in Peking. Or is it Beijing Duck in Beijing? Fairly certain both options offend someone. Either way, it was a meal I frankly lack the magniloquence to describe sufficiently. Suffice it to say that it was excellent.

Plus, two added bonuses! For one, they did not presume to offer me a fork. Finally! And for two, when they had finished slicing the duck for both my table and the table next to it, and were left with deciding which would get the gizzard, liver and other assorted organ meat, they chose me! The white guy! Huzzah! Both of these felt like a (small) honor to me.

My travel log will probably be considerably less interesting as we get into the conference proper. Nonetheless, if you'd like to keep up, I'm posting it on Facebook,

With valediction,
 - Gregor Richards

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