My students in the Statics course, the engineering and English faculty, and the staff of the International Cooperation and Exchange Center (ICEC) at North China Institute of Aerospace Engineering (NCIAE) made my three week visit wonderful. It was my first visit to China—but I don’t think it’ll be my last! The people, the food, the culture: my visit was filled with unique and enjoyable experiences of each, often all at once!
I won’t properly do it justice in this post, but I’ll try to give you a taste. I’ll proceed thematically: people, food, and culture. Then I’ll conclude with the dubiously named “lessons,” which will be my attempt to describe what I learned about how the program seems to be working, what might be improved, and how to navigate the visit.
But first, a photo!
The Chinese people were as hospitable as any Benedictine! Despite my confident exterior, I was rather nervous to undertake three weeks in this country, so foreign to me. But Tristan, my fellow Saint Martin’s ambassador, and I were immediately and warmly greeted by Jim (it became clear to me that “English names” would be to me small nodal points to help me get some sense of orientation) of the ICEC.
The drive to Langfang from the Beijing airport, nominally about an hour, took closer to three on this Friday afternoon. Jim graciously took us out to my first Chinese dinner, pictured below.
The next day, we were given a tour of campus by the group of students pictured above. These students were warm, helpful, and enthusiastic! Without their help with questions like “where’s the Tea Room, again?” I would have been much more lost. And I certainly wouldn’t have had nearly as good of a time. Some other photos from this initial tour are included in the following slideshow.
I am very proud of the students, who worked hard to learn in their first engineering class—in English, no less. The students spend around 10 hours per day in the classroom, and this is not their only required, scheduled activities! At times they were tired, but five days per week for 100 minutes, they gave me what they could.
There were 50 students in the class, all of whom are in a special program in which they take English courses in addition to math, science, and engineering. Their levels of English varied, but some were sufficiently advanced to easily understand my lectures, which progressed at a relatively slow pace, due to communication speed bumps.
Professor Xu graciously allowed me to teach his Statics class during my stay. His indefatigable smile and handshake combination each morning was a nice way to start each day!
The International Office (ICEC) was incredible. I’ve already introduced Jim. Sophia (Chen Jian), Director and Associate Professor, pictured below, cheerfully led their efforts. Our frequent companion about campus and outside, Song Yang, pictured below, showed us about, made sure we made it where we wanted to go, and provided witticisms along the way.
We were also warmly received by the NCIAE administration. President Han Wenzhong and Vice President Li Guohong met and dined with us on multiple occasions. They expressed their enthusiasm for and commitment to the SMU-NCIAE collaboration. School of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering Dean and Professor Wang treated us to dinner and a tour of their impressive laboratory facilities.
The food deserves its own section because it was amazing. The richness and variety were a bit intimidating, at first, but I soon learned that most of it tasted great and was somehow gentle on my digestive system. I followed most of my travel doctor’s guidelines: water from bottles, nothing raw that can’t be peeled, avoid sketchy street food.
However, I was also adventurous. I had several types of seafood, including jellyfish, whole octopus, and some kind of large snail. Strange parts of animals were also attempted: pig’s feet, skin-based dishes, and some things I think I’ve repressed.
Among my surprise favorites were the mushrooms, especially the golden needles, which are my new favorite pasta substitute. Another favorite was the cicada! We had a plate of cicadas and grasshoppers, which are apparently only commonly eaten in some rural areas, and they blew me away. Ok, they look gross, but the texture! Firm and crisp, but with a dessicated softness to the mouthfeel.
And I can’t forget the classics: preserved duck eggs and Beijing duck! Both were enjoyed on several occasions, and once actually in Beijing.
The culture in the Hebei province has so much continuity with its past. I hesitate to comment on it, since I admit I’ve only begun understanding the culture. However, I very much appreciated a few specific aspects I can at least mention in passing.
- The hospitality. I was very warmly welcomed by students, faculty, staff, and administration. Moreover, often strangers were willing to help.
- The traditions around food. Eating a Chinese dinner is an event! Dishes are brought out over time, accompanied by multiple drinks. In fact, toasts are a significant aspect of the dinner. They seem to begin with the most authoritative member of the dinner party giving an elaborate toast to all. Then, everyone joins in, often toasting “down” the chain of authority, individuals and groups. People are fond of calling for “bottoms up!”
- The appreciation of performance. I was able to attend two performances: one by a troupe of acrobats in Beijing and one by the students of the School of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, who sang and danced and otherwise put on a show for the graduating class. These performances were both impressive and seemingly a significant aspect of the culture.
Through spending time in Langfang and taking trips to Beijing, the Great Wall, and (briefly) Tianjin, I was able to gain a better understanding of the culture. The following slideshow includes photos from the ICEC-led trip to the Great Wall.
This section is a conglomeration of ideas.
SMU student opportunities
There are a couple opportunities my hosts suggested for Saint Martin’s students to engage in this exchange.
- A short, intensive “study abroad” opportunity in which SMU students could engage in a lab course at NCIAE. I was very impressed with their Mechanics of Materials teaching laboratory. Perhaps SMU students could have the option to take a portion of our GE 207 at NCIAE.
- Internships at Jingdiao, a company that makes advanced CNC machines and has a presence on the NCIAE campus. I spoke with managers from the company who seemed excited by the prospect of our students visiting for internships. I was given a demonstration of their CNC capabilities and was very impressed.
Course structure and student success
The partial Statics course I taught was very compact. Every weekday, I taught 100 minutes, including a ten minute break. This is a pace of about $3.3 \times$ the normal pace, even faster than SMU summer courses. Given the language barrier, the difficulty of taking one’s first engineering course, and the fact that students have very little time outside of class for homework, since they spend 10+ hours in class each weekday, it was difficult to move through material, quickly.
I was very proud of the students’ overall performance, but I hope the conditions can be improved in the future. These improvements might include the following suggestions:
- Students could have more “free” time for studying and working homework problems.
- The SMU professor could teach less of two different courses.
- Students could be given an introduction to the English technical vocabulary that will be used, before the SMU professor arrives.
A concern related to the second suggestion, above, is faculty load. A typical load for an SMU engineering professor is 450 minutes of teaching per week. During my trip, it was 500. Even 450 is a heavy load, especially when one is experiencing jet-lag and culture shock. I was quite tired for much of the trip, and was unable to find time and energy to make progress on my research, which is something I prioritize during summer breaks.
This concern propagates to the programmatic level: if SMU professors feel the load is too heavy and find themselves unable to make progress on research during three-plus (there are the edge-effects of preparation and jet-lag) weeks of summer, we will be less inclined to make the trip. It’s a wonderful experience I highly recommend, but, even if many of us initially decide to go, even repeatedly, fatigue may set in.
Social engagements, such as dinners and tours, while essential for the success of the trip, can also be fatiguing. This, of course, depends on the individual faculty. My recommendations are as follows:
- For faculty: review the schedule before the trip and try to determine if it looks too full. Rearrange or cancel activities in advance, if possible, but the ICEC is good about being receptive to late changes.
- For our International Office: make sure faculty know they can make late changes to the schedule, if needed. Fatigue and illness are common for international travelers, so letting them know it’s “ok” to change plans might reduce scheduling pressure.
Although there are many nuances to etiquette I did not pick up, I’d say the following three would be the most useful to future faculty:
- Bring small gifts. Your hosts will send you home with gifts, and gift-giving seems to be a significant aspect of the social fabric.
- Toast! At dinner, a significant aspect is the toasting protocol. Once drinks are flowing and toasts begin, toast, separately and/or in their respective groupings, the dinner guests. Toast the partnership. Toast everyone’s good fortune.
- Learn a few basics of the language. This was difficult for me, but learning even “thanks,” “yes,” and “toilet,” and periodically making a fool of oneself in attempts to learn words seemed to balance the asymmetry of lingual effort. English is hard for many of them, so showing how hard Chinese is for us seemed to make them feel more at-ease in their English. And, by the way, look up the symbols for “man” and “woman”—their restrooms are often marked with these, alone.
Oh, and don’t forget bring business cards. A slight bow accompanying their two-handed exchange is just plain good manners.
Personal items to bring
While they have many of the amenities we’re accustomed to (like yogurt!), there are certain items that, while they are probably available in some form there, are more convenient for us to just bring.
- Toilet paper. The hotel has it (along with Western toilets!), but I’m told public restrooms do not. So you should bring some specially-packaged “travel toilet paper” wherever you go.
- Medication. It’s pretty standard stuff, but I’d recommend bringing everything you think you might need. This includes travel doctor prescriptions, like azithromycin, and things you might need occasionally, like bismuth subsalicylate. I saw zero Walgreens (but there is a Walmart within walking distance).
- Hand sanitizer. Obviously.
- Celebrity status. Occasionally, strangers asked for their pictures with me. I assumed they recognized my obvious genius and future historical impact.
- Sewer gas. For whatever reason, the restrooms in most buildings seemed to not be properly vented for sewer gas. It sometimes makes the smell of these rooms rather foul. This was also true in the hotel, although it wasn’t always the case.
- I preferred eating at the hotel. The canteens (there are two) were hot and a bit hard for me to navigate. I preferred to have meals at the hotel restaurant(s). The food is good, but doesn’t change a lot from day-to-day (always buffet-style). Be prompt, since the food is served, conference attendees descend, and it’s over, within about 30 minutes. During our trip, lunch was at 11:30 and dinner 5:30. I never made it to breakfast. I would go to the convenience store in the nearby canteen for yogurt each morning. Try to make sure your class schedule allows you to make the meal times, promptly. I think the canteen schedule is more flexible.
- Internet. Lot’s of important things are blocked. Get a VPN before you go. I had success with ExpressVPN, but it is slower than non-VPN internet access.
- Cell phone. Make sure you can use a local SIM card. This means your cell phone needs to be “unlocked.” For what it’s worth, modern Verizon iPhones are all unlocked and SIM cards are easily swapped.
- Maps. Google Maps is just ok there, and I never got the offline maps to work. Alternatives I never completely loved are maps.me and Baidu maps.
- DiDi. It’s like Uber. I never tested mine, but that’s a long-term goal.
- Google Translate. There are other translation apps that are helpful, too.
- It’s hot and sunny. The hotel rooms have AC. Hover Google Translate (or whatever) over the remote control to figure out how to turn it on.
- Download offline Netflix shows before you go. Netflix blocks connections from VPNs. HBOGO still worked. I found it surprisingly comforting to watch American movies.