My job as a psuedo travel organizer

Part of my job involves reading travel guides. You know, the big fat Lonely Planet ones, and the TimeOut guides that have the colorful pictures. And more than that, the ten-or-so books on my desk are about Cuba: a place I never thought I'd visit. In my regular life, I would have no time to even peruse guidebooks on Cuba, because it's not even a place I could travel  if I had the money. As it stands, I don't even have the patience to read guidebooks on India, knowing I cannot actually plan a trip with any certainty, because I have no means to get myself to India anyway.

So that in these last five weeks I have been planning a two-week trip to Cuba--right down to writing the application to the Office of Foreign Assets for the license for travel--is beyond anything I could have imagined in a job. It felt entirely exhilarating to write the application letter to the feds, knowing that something I was producing was going to effect something much larger: this trip would not occur if we were denied a license. I was representing the entire university. I am excited to report that we just received notice yesterday that we have indeed been granted a license to travel to Cuba, good for one year for anyone, either faculty or student, who wishes to go to the Cuban island for academic purpose. The fact that I am being paid to perform this job strengthens my belief in their being "real" jobs that are both enjoyable and rewarding, and that employ many of the skills I have and use already.

This is my first semester in grad school. Besides showing up at an entirely foreign campus in downtown Atlanta, I had also moved into an apartment on my own several weeks earlier, and was naturally leaving my job at the campus bookstore at Kennesaw State (where I received my undergraduate degree) because it was simply too far to commute for a student position.

So naturally, I needed another job, and I was hoping that would come in the form of a graduate assistantship through the history and heritage preservation department of my school. By mid-July, I still hadn't gotten a definitive answer, and had begun applying to other full time jobs in the area, because grad school with no job was not an option. When I did finally hear from the director of my department, I was so excited just to be employed I was hardly concerned what I would be doing. Research or making copies, I didn't care.

Now though, I feel I have definitely lucked out; I am working with the director, and I am not making copies or filing paperwork (or organizing paperwork, or shredding paperwork, etc.) but am handling all the groundwork for next the Heritage Preservation Program's Maymester abroad. There is a lot of work involved, but I have yet to mind one task. To me, looking through old slides of Cuba, writing up brochure text, and manning a booth at the study abroad fair is not "work."

Oh, and with any luck, I'll be going on the trip too. What an amazing opportunity.

Snapshot Yangzhou: home

To end my series on Yangzhou, it is only right to leave you with my favorite image: a hut, full of character, perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking the valley and farms below. Above this humble and beautiful home was a temple that we visited, which was also stunning on the breezy, calm day we were there. If you look closely, you'll see the man tending to his crop (in the lower right-hand area of the photograph); I didn't even notice him until someone else pointed him out.

This is my favorite image that I collected that summer, and when I took the picture, I didn't even really notice the absolutely stunning hut. It is the star of this scene, which became clear to me once I looked back through all my pictures. But when I was standing there in the breeze, the mist that billowed down around the mountain and engulfed the fields and forests was what made me take the picture; it was ephemeral.

When I got back, and stumbled across this hut among the thousands of other images I had, I was taken aback at the yellow roof. I was also reminded of a joke my Dad had long told his wife and children, when the world got overwhelming: he'd say he was going to give it all up, and move to a hut on the side of a mountain, in China. I printed this image big--2' by 3'--and framed it, and gave it to my Dad as his "hut on the side of a mountain, in China," for a Christmas or birthday soon after. Now it resides on the wall opposite my parents' bed, reminding them of the goal for a simpler life.

(Sorry for the delay in this post-- I've been on vacation and attended a very important wedding, etc.--much needed rest.)

Snapshot Yangzhou: future vision

On the outskirts of the bustling city lies some of the newest additions to the area, a modern development area that includes the enormous mall here, as well as the giant new museum that I was standing in when I took the picture. Surrounded by high rises, the mall contains at least six floors begging to be shopped, with ribbons and streamers and lots of busy displays and professional salesmen roaming the atrium at the bottom floor. There is a Dairy Queen, the only one I ever saw in China, and a Starbucks (fairly rare outside of Beijing and Shanghai), and lots of stores selling home goods, like dishes and bedding and child's play room equipment. The only problem was, the sales people far outnumbered the shoppers; it was a largely deserted mall on the two occasions I visited it. It was obviously a huge investment for the city, or the government, or whoever built it. And they built it for a time in the future, most likely, hoping that within a  few years the population of Yangzhou would find their pocketbooks able to handle consumer spending À la the western model.

I don't imagine the global economic situation has helped this mall in the years since I last saw it. Notice the many cranes gracing the skyline on both sides of the shopping mall, the ubiquitous sign of expansion and change throughout my time in the country. Every city has this crane skyline. I can only imagine what this mall and this same city will look like ten years from the time of this snapshot, for better or worse. I'll try to go back in 2017.

Snapshot Yangzhou: dorm room

We stayed in the international student dorms during our time in Yangzhou, and for a small monthly fee (around 5 dollars), a man would come by and hook up the internet for your computer. This was a huge relief after the horrors of the Zhengzhou computer labs with their limited hours, terribly slow and/or mostly broken computers, and other international students who wanted to play computer games endlessly. We didn't mind at all paying for two connections, which I'm pretty sure the building staff thought was an extreme luxury.

My desk is on the right, closer to the door. Collections of pantry food, schoolbooks, and schoolwork graced my shelves. The TV was as good as worthless unless you had an ear for Chinese or wanted to try to keep up with the lightning-fast dialogue for a bit of practice; I never even scratched the surface of comprehension when faced with a TV. Needless to say, it remained off.

Our beds were slightly improved from the slabs of wood with medium-thick cushioning that we'd had in Zhengzhou: we had mattresses, at least, but they felt as stiff as box springs. (I would be very surprised if they were not actually box springs.) We had two big wardrobes where we hung and stored all of our clothing and other possessions (not many). We'd keep our room cold, and after a long day of classes and trekking to site visits, it did become a haven of sorts, the way any room does if you live in it long enough.

Snapshot Yangzhou: eating up

A big steaming pot of freshly-made noodles with mushrooms and cabbage; add some cayenne pepper flakes and a soy-type sauce and you've got a delicious, satisfying dinner. That whole pot would cost me 8 yuan, about $1.14. Plus a few yuan for a cold water. YUM.

Our group ate regularly with various groups of our Chinese friends, including the boys' sports buddies and a girl who was studying abroad from California (so she sounded completely American). Food is always ordered for many, you order lots of dishes, and then it's served on the spinning lazy Susan in the center of the table, so everyone has access. It's a good way to try a lot of dishes and it's also so affordable to split. This restaurant was down a back alley, and filled with Christmas/Santa Claus memorabilia, but it was extra delicious-- and also very close to the store we liked that sold ice cold soy milk.

Snapshot Yangzhou: shortcut

It was Team China versus Team USA one hot day, and we were the sideline cheerleaders. They had kept this rivalry up for a number of sports: basketball, table tennis, and most certainly, soccer. We, the girls, were not the most cheery crowd, but we tried to be present when we had the time. Out of nowhere, this guy came across the soccer field, mid-game, on his bicycle, and we thought surely something important had happened, and he was either coming to tell us or the guys, or perhaps just trying to get somewhere quickly. None of the above. He pedaled lazily all the way across the field, right through the game, stopping to talk to no one and continuing on through the campus leisurely. It was moments like this that I appreciated and marveled most at the Chinese way of sharing space; who were we to say this green patch was entirely ours, anyway? It's kind of exhilarating and a bit frightening too, to live within a cultural sense of community space that is unheard of in my own country. No one cared at all, and the game was not affected.

Snapshot Yangzhou: beautiful vandalism

I saw it on the Great Wall, I saw it on dusty temple walls, and I saw it in the concrete surrounding any oft-visited site throughout China; but the graffiti on the members of this lush bamboo garden won the prize. It was a dewy, inviting, and enchanting garden--and it never takes too long to spot the evidence of visitors bygone.

It's the same human proclivity for wanting to claim and object in nature, or to prove our presence in a space, but I was surprised and charmed by it in Chinese characters, almost like they were somehow more respectable than the English "I wuz here" scratched into a bathroom stall (for the record, I did not, to my recollection, find Chinese phrases scribbled in bathrooms). And that's probably all the Chinese is saying too, but it has more innate beauty, for sure.

Snapshot Yangzhou: crazy rickshaw driver

It was a regular afternoon, and Stacey and I were either sweaty or exhausted or (probably) both, and we decided to spring for the 3-yuan (42-cent) rickshaw ride back to campus. He was confused, rightly so, by our feeble Chinese language skills, and we had tried to tell him we wanted to go to Yangzhou University, but were less successful in communicating which entrance. I don't remember all the details, but I recall that he was stubbornly determined to get us as close to campus as possible as soon as he could--which in this case meant that we rode the length of the campus (it's behind the trees on the left, in the photo) right at the edge, on the wrong side of the road.

Now, Chinese roadways are already overwhelming to an American used to driving with ample road laws and safety measures, and the concept of a right-of-way. Chinese roads function under the general rule that if you think you can make, go for it--and do it fast. This applies both to number of lanes as well as intersections and stoplights. I actually found it exhilarating and pretty easy to navigate; and if I was in doubt, I just tagged along with a group of Chinese people when they crossed the street. And since there were enormous lanes for pedestrians and bicycles running on the edges of the actual roads (think of sidewalks but equally as wide as the whole road), there was plenty of space for everyone to share the road. More than a few times, I saw actual cars driving in those pedestrian/bike lanes, and no one seemed to mind.

But this particular day, we were rendered pretty nervous when our driver did not simply turn and then adjust his lane. Nope, he rode on the wrong side of the road for about two miles, heeding no car, bus, truck, or motorcycle that stood in his way. Cars swerved past us and we sat embarrassed and half-laughing as we flew past them. Eventually, we made it to campus and gratefully wished our driver farewell, no worse for the wear but laughing all the way to our dorm.

Snapshot Yangzhou: Shouxi Lake and its gardens

The very first day that the whole group was together, we spent a disgustingly humid day at Shouxi Lake that almost made us forget the sticky heat. Little enclaves were built in random spots, with wide-open window frames and benches and tables; old Chinese men were playing checkers and women could be spotted chatting in a shady corner. Bamboo grew alongside the water and the paths wound unendingly around the lake and its greenery and gardens. Right up there with temples, gardens were a common destination for us visitors, and if I ever mentioned visiting any of them to a Chinese friend, they would beam with pride at their nation's beautiful entities and the care the collective people took to preserve them.

Suzhou, a city we spent several days in near the end of our trip (after leaving Yangzhou), is famous for its gardens. Chinese tourists come from all over in trains, planes, and even cars to revel in their world-renowned beauty. This was something I never knew until I went, but every Chinese person I heard speak of gardens had either seen or desired to visit Suzhou's. Having seen several of those as well, I think this one in Yangzhou rivals them; and it has a personality all its own.

Snapshot Yangzhou: art students' retreat

As part of our "cultural education," we spent weekday afternoons on little excursions to museums, paper-making studios, calligraphy lessons, table tennis games, and tai chi sessions--to name a few. One of my favorites was our trek to one of the Yangzhou University art buildings, and this studio in particular. I got the impression it was shared by about a dozen students at once, and projects at every level of completion were laid on tables, hung on walls, or propped somewhere between. Art was a combination of contemporary images and portraiture, like the girl above, and traditional skilled Chinese landscapes and scenes, like the one in the background behind her, mounted on the wall. The art students were some of the most calming and friendly people I encountered; and I loved that they bashed the stereotype of the Asian science and mathematics student.

On this afternoon, we each paired up with an art student and learned some techniques in traditional Chinese painting--which involves much more methodical, patient strokes than anything I'd ever attempted. Accordingly, my buddy was extremely patient with me, and after several botched scenes, he backtracked and we began painting a bunch of grapes, something I was able to grasp more quickly than sweeping landscapes or trees or stallions. I proudly carried the rolled up paper containing my creations home with me, and brought them carry-on all the way home to the U.S., where I only recently rediscovered them and decided to display my grape bunch. My artistic friend also gave me one of his own paintings, which I also intend to finally mount and display in my home. His is a traditional scene, containing huge, large scale scenery, man nearly unrepresented in this homage to nature that is itself an homage to ancient Chinese art.

Snapshot Yangzhou: under construction

Walking down the street right outside the north campus entrance felt a little bit third-world, a little bit plain dangerous. But it was just construction-- in this case, widening of the road. The way it was so exposed shocked me nearly every time I walked it. And unlike in the United States, plenty of vehicles and pedestrians other than automobiles take the road, making it precarious indeed for the bicyclist or rickshaw driver riding along. The over-sized mounds of dirt piled higher than the road and taller than most people grew out of the valleys at each side of the road. Farther down from this spot, tents had been erected for the migrant workers who would stay to complete this project and then move on to the next.

What was truly breathtaking though was the utter speed with which this road was widened. The construction workers must have taken turns with their shifts, working around the clock, because in the four weeks I was there, they completed nearly half a mile--to my eyes. And they were working on both sides. In America, I am always puzzled driving by highway and roadwork projects, for they seem to lack both a plan and a deadline of any sort. Widening can take months, and bigger things, many years to complete. Now, I know we can chalk some of this up to the concessions road workers have to make to keep traffic flowing, so they must keep lanes open and work in the night when fewer people are on the road. But countless forms and numbers of vehicles and people passed through this each day, behaving as though this was absolutely normal and just another part of life--which, really, it is just that. And amongst this continuation of daily life, Yangzhou was expanding at lightning speed.

Snapshot Yangzhou: the bright temple

Of all the temples I visited across China--Daoist, Buddhist, old, new, or a combination of all these--this one was my favorite. I cannot even remember its name, but it was just outside Yangzhou and was surrounded by squared off rice patties. In the farther distance stood the growing cityscape, extending out towards the temple with its threatening cranes on the horizon. We visited the temple on a hot June afternoon, and my camera worked overtime as the countless collection of bright yellow buildings enchanted and inspired me. The meandering buildings were open and breezy, most of them without doors entirely, and they seemed never-ending as we climbed and climbed through their layers.


I love that the sun has soaked the yellow of the buildings in this picture, making the day seem much darker than it really was, and giving it a bit of the mysterious, magical character that it has in real life. I was also very excited to get this shot without anyone on this staircase or at its landing, because there were actually a ton of visitors and tourists. But you'd never know it here.

Squared off farms surrounded the temple and the city loomed farther off on the horizon. The rich red visible at the right edge in the railings added the exact pop that ketchup adds to mustard-- an amazing combination when done right. These colors were stunning.

One of the things that makes China such a lovely place is its cracks, and also its ability to bashfully apologize for and brazenly display its imperfections--simultaneously. Plenty was published on the nation's effort to clean itself up in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, and more is being said now on Shanghai's world image as it hosts the Shanghai Expo; but really, in this temple, the neglected backside of a building and its collection of multicolored bottles and trash made me like it even more. Not for the egocentric point-and-stare comparisons that may be common of a westerner visiting the Far East, nor for the oh-how-tragic condescension that others might dump on sites like this one. No; just for its juxtaposition, no strings attached. This was something I discovered daily in my time there, and I am certainly not the first or last visitor to appreciate this relationship, this side-by-side existence of development the Chinese way, remnants of the pasts both imperial and communist, and the realistic underbelly of a huge population combined with breathtaking economic growth. I cannot explain this properly, nor do I plan to, because I do not claim to have any brilliant insight into the complexity of China and its people. I can claim a tiny bit of knowledge, and the two months I spent observing this place.

(Photos 2007)

Snapshot Yangzhou: daily life

Against the drab beige of the dorm buildings, laundry popped like little pieces of art brightening an empty canvas. We also hung our laundry out to dry in the international dorms, but in a little courtyard area, not out our windows. I really loved the way it was sort of all on display, bras and all.

I had my favorite little campus store where I would buy bottled water for 1 RMB each (that means seven of them for one dollar!) and "fiber cookies" (my breakfast/snack food essential) and peanut butter Oreos, among other things. This little walk-up, however, was a popular stop for Chinese students, a cafeteria-of-sorts that was open longer into the night than the larger eatery. Little things like this made the campus charming in a way that American universities are not; then again, the dreary exterior building and the white sky were not as sunny as their American counterparts. Even so, people and life seemed to drift through the campus, under the spell of its steady calm and beautiful greenery. (2007)

Snapshot Yangzhou: university campus

Trees that reach out and up like open hands lined the long, winding entrance road to Yangzhou University. There was a bit of debate as to why the trunks were painted white, but the most logical conclusion is that they reflect for better night vision. Hallways and roadways are dark at night in most Chinese cities, as these extra lights would be huge electricity hogs. I walked down this corridor at night several times, at least once by myself, and never once felt at all unsafe; the same can be said for the hallways of my dorm building. It was just a superfluous electrical function. I don't know how much that will change in the future, but I found the white stripes added even more character to the welcoming road into campus, and actually did make the road's edges show up. It was refreshing to see such alternatives to long electrical wires and light poles snaking all the way down the vista. And the road was rarely used to cars, as no students had them, and cabs were not allowed past the main gates; this made meandering walks more tranquil. (Photos, 2007)

I was always charmed and delighted by the various art created by students that was positioned throughout the campus. This was an open exhibition, but I was also lucky enough to be shown one of their studios. Pictures of that to come.

Snapshot Yangzhou: Yangzhou Times Square

All sides of China, its street vendors and rickshaws and nouveau mall and stores all side by side; we once happened upon a Saturday break-dancing festival right in the open area there, with full stages and the only heavily-tattooed Chinese boys I saw anywhere in the country. Some of them were very good, and they performed in troupes, with choreographed acts. Stores inside were nearly all Chinese brands. It was the "big city" element of the inner city, without trying to be too terribly western. 2007

Snapshot Yangzhou: on the street, 2007

Three years ago this month, I was living in the international student dorms at Yangzhou University, Yangzhou, China. By the time June hit, I had been in a selection of other Chinese cities for three weeks, and so I had adjusted to the country and its food. A bit of the novelty had worn off, and those of us who were on the joint program felt like old pros when our anxious classmates showed up weary with travel fatigue and looking to sustain their picky diets. My roommate Stacey even bought some additional clothing from a Chinese store, whose clerk complained publicly of the difficulty in fitting her size (and she was about 5'4," much shorter than me...). We had our favorite tea thermoses, knew our favorite dishes to order at restaurants, and were thrilled to finally have internet access hooked up in our dorm rooms (which had not been the case for the first part of the trip, in Zhengzhou). We stocked our bookcases with the snacks we'd tried out and approved by this time.

The city itself is much smaller than Zhengzhou, our previous locale, with half as many residents, and the university is nestled right in the middle of everything, so we could just wander around and explore. Again, this had not been the case in Zhengzhou because the university's newly-built campus was positioned far outside the city, requiring a twenty-minute cab ride, and with limited language skills, there were only so many places we could tell the driver to go without getting totally lost. In Yangzhou, I loved the way I could walk through campus, out into the city, across to my favorite noodle shop or to the park where people actually roller skated in the outdoor roller rink. There was charm in this city that I hadn't seen yet elsewhere in China, and didn't really see again. (Although Suzhou was a contender, with its misty and romantic traditional gardens--and its TGI Friday's). Since we stayed there a full four weeks, it felt like a home, a community to which I belonged, for however short a time. I can only imagine the additional joy and engagement had I been better at speaking Chinese. Guess that's what the next trip will be for.

This month, I will honor the city with some of my favorite pictures from my time there. Most will have stories, but some may not. All will be representative of my experience there, of my perceptions as an outsider.