Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Zai jian!

Our last few days in Beijing were spent finishing up buying presents and visiting a few attractions like the Capital Museum. On August 1st, my international internet access got cut off (though interestingly Zach's was unaffected). At Peking University, access to websites out of China costs extra, so many students choose not to gain that access, but the UMPKU program had paid for our subscription for 3 months. Sometimes at the lab, this lack of internet became an annoyance if journal articles like Nature were hosted outside of China so we couldn't read them.

Our presentations on July 31 were unaffected by the lack of internet, but we were forced to attend the session via webcam. However, 10 pm in Beijing was probably peak internet usage time, so in the middle of my presentation, I was cut off and though the audience in Michigan could see me, I could not see them, which was slightly nerve-wracking. I also doubt they could hear me since Dr. Coppola had said the sound transmission was really bad. On our side in Beijing, we couldn't hear any of the presenters, and at certain points couldn't even see them. We did, however, get to go through the Powerpoint presentations that had been sent earlier and saw some of the work that other students completed, and overall the presentation session was probably the best that could be expected since the sound quality was much better during Zach and Melody's presentations.

The original plan had been to have a conference call, which would have been nicer, but due to the Olympics we had been unable to get a room on campus and bring in the necessary equipment. I'm not sure what the plan for the conference call had been, especially at 10 pm, but it probably would have been beneficial to present within the Beijing group while in Beijing, to our professors, graduate students, and other members of the UMPKU program, much like the professors had presented earlier in the summer.

So now, after a really hectic day, I am finally in Thailand and enjoying the family and food (only some of it spicy). We left Wanliu close to 5 am, and I was dropped off first at the new terminal in the airport, terminal 3 where Thai Airways is located, while everyone else went to terminal 2 for Northwest Airlines. When I got to the airport, I was told that the flight had been cancelled 4-5 days ago. The news really surprised me, as well as another passenger who told me that he'd called to confirm only 3 days ago and everything was still set. I called Julia to let her know what had happened, so she and Marko who had come to the airport to send us off despite staying in China later, came back to the airport. I had been really confused as the group of passengers on the cancelled flight were shuffled from one airline to another, but once Julia came, the Chinese speaking really helped everything get sorted out a lot faster. Finally, I was placed on a Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong that left earlier than I had planned, so I had to race through the terminal and security. Though it was a hassle going through multiple security and passport checks, it was all pretty efficient. At the x-ray scan one of the officials took my passport for no apparent reason since they didn't even want to open my bag, and returned with it a few minutes later saying everything was fine. From Hong Kong, I caught a Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, and everything worked out well.

Things I will miss about Beijing and this summer:

1. People - everyone in the program, my lab members, people at the Joint Institute
2. Lab - where else can I work with dangerous chemicals and create new molecules?
3. Food - the variety available in the dining halls, especially those specializing in noodles, bao zi, and jiao zi
4. Public transportation - buses and subways go everywhere and cost very little
5. Being able to walk or run outside late at night and feel perfectly safe

As much as I love being home, I will truly miss Beijing and this summer. If I have the opportunity, I would definitely participate in an international REU again because in addition to the research, I was able to learn so much more about Chinese culture and language than I could have in any other way. Much of our travel was limited to the city and the usual tourist attractions; it would have been really interesting to learn about rural life as well. Though it has only been a couple of days since I left Beijing, I am already hoping to visit again in the future.

Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments - I would love talking in more detail about this trip! I remember reading through the blogs of the people who went on this trip last year (it's not really that creepy; we all did it), and it was really helpful to know about their experiences before going to China.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


On Saturday, Donna's graduate student Yu Yue was really nice and took us to a tea shop at Wangfujing 王府井. The area was really busy with shopping centers, though the only store we went into after the tea shop (there was such a large selection of tea we spent a long time there) was the flagship Olympic store that was by far the largest of the stores. If we had found out about it earlier, we definitely would have gone there more often. Afterwards, we had planned on going back to Kro's Nest for dinner together as a group, but were very disappointed to find that it had closed 2 of its 3 locations during the Olympics. The closing seems to be a general trend here, as we noticed that night vendors who usually occupy the sidewalks of Wudaoko in the evenings were also gone and merchants in a clothing market near Wudaoko were being forced to shut down during the Olympics. I'm unsure of the motivation for closing these popular areas during the Olympics and wonder what the impact on those merchants will be - whether they are compensated for their losses.

On Sunday, I went with Spencer, Zach, and one of Zach's lab mates to 798, a modern art district in Dashanzi. The area was filled with galleries of artists displaying their works. One of the pieces that stuck out was a large plastic bust of a baby, painted red, a symbolically Chinese color. The author described the piece as a political statement representing China's one child policy and its possible implications for the society and the future. Politics seems to be a topic rarely discussed, so it was somewhat surprising yet refreshing to see it openly on display. On Monday, I walked around Yuan Ming Yuan Garden 圆明园 near the north side of campus where a Lotus Festival was being held, then also through Tsinghua University, which was larger and had a lot more plants and trees than Peking University's campus. Surprisingly, we were able to enter Tsinghua University's campus without any security check.

This Monday, we also had our last group lunch at the Japanese restaurant and went back to the Joint Institute for a group picture. It's really sad knowing that we are leaving this city that we've come to know, but at the same time we're sad and nostalgic for home. Looking back, I realize that I've learned a lot from the trip, much about organic chemistry from my work in the lab, but also about living in a foreign country. I'm more independent, open to new experiences, and better at communication, especially the non-verbal type. The first time I took a public bus and people started speaking to me in Chinese, I ran away (Marko found it really funny). Now, I definitely understand more basic Mandarin and can clearly give a taxi driver directions to Wanliu. I am really happy that I also picked up some important Chinese characters, enough so that I can figure out which bus line will take me to where I need to go, but sadly still not enough to read a menu. I know that when I first meet people, they expect me to speak perfect Mandarin, and when I do not, they look at me oddly. I am proud, however, to have gotten past this self-consciousness, but happier when I manage to say and get what I want without others realizing anything unusual.

Actually working in the lab was also really worthwhile because it allowed us to interact with locals, many of whom were similar to us in age, and learn about the issues and activities that interested them. Many of those activities were similar to our own, so hanging out with my lab mates during lab dinners or at the movies was a lot of fun. Coming into the program, I had anticipated the language barrier to be a larger problem, but my lab members Yan Qifan and Xiu Yuan actually knew a lot of English that language wasn't really a problem. I do wish, however, that I had practiced Chinese more often with my lab members to learn more from them. Nonetheless, this program has been a rewarding learning experience in ways I hadn't expected.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A star in the sky!

We saw a star in the sky tonight and the moon too. The clearing of pollution seems to be pretty effective, though the new restrictions on vehicles being allowed on the roads every other days are slightly inconvenient, especially during rush hour when the buses become packed. New subway lines have opened; there's an Olympic line to many of the Olympic venues, an airport line, and line 10 which is simply convenient because the Bagou stop is pretty close to the Wanliu apartment, within walking distance, but about 2-3 bus stops away.

Donna and I tested out the new subway lines on Tuesday, and we were unable to get onto the Olympic line (possibly still closed for security reasons?) but we did end up taking the light rail to see the Hutong in the outskirts of the city from view of the train, which was a suggestion given to us on the second week by the guest speaker on rural to urban migration. Security on the subway seemed to be making an attempt to get stricter, and though there were x-ray machines, they were easily bypassed and there were no metal detectors, so for the moment they seem pretty ineffective, but possibly that will change. Getting onto campus, however, is quite different, as all IDs are actually checked.

A lot has also changed in the city, and the rapid speed at which improvements are being made is quite amazing. Within 2 weeks, we saw the shelter and the large hole where the new subway stations are being built completely disappear to be replaced by clean sidewalk, a trash can, and a public telephone. Trees and flowers are popping up everywhere, as are Olympic volunteers dressed in blue and white Adidas gear. Next year it will be interesting to see the remnants of the Olympics and whether the improvements remain in the long run.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hou Hai and Homo erectus

I had the last few days of last week off, which I tried to spend being productive, but that was only moderately successful. I did work on summarizing up the research that I've been doing on my days off, but in the end, boredom while being alone at Wanliu in a large city as Beijing while everyone else was at work finally took over. Work in the lab is such a large part of my life, and a meaningful and enjoyable one too, that on days that I was not required to go in, I found myself at the chemistry building anyways meeting people for dinner or making plans to hang out around the area.

This week at the lab I started what will likely be my last reaction, and my graduate student helped me with the poster, abstract, and presentation for the UMPKU program. For the Olympics, security will be checking for university IDs of everyone entering the campus starting July 21, but this week the checks were supposed to be random, and of course, I was called over for a check while entering the chemistry building gate. When the guard asked for an ID, I handed him my passport, but he kept repeating the request despite my saying in Chinese that I didn’t understand (which seems to be a general theme) until finally I said in English that I didn’t understand, and he just let me go. We sent in our pictures though, so hopefully by next week we will have proper IDs to wander the campus while it’s emptier.

The weekend was much more exciting, especially since we got two days of clear blue skies. Zhaleh, Kelly, Zach, Donna, Spencer, and I rented a pedal boat for a couple hours to go around the lake Hou Hai where we had gone through earlier in the trip to see Hutong, traditional Chinese houses. There were lots of other boats on the lake, as well as a group of men and boys swimming in it.

On Sunday, we went to the Peking Man site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at Zhoukoudian at Zach's suggestion and got a unique experience exploring suburban Beijing. The 3 hr bus trip there required three different buses, where each time we would have to ask the conductor to alert us at our stop since we didn't know what we were looking for, and bus stops in the suburbs seem to be unmarked. For knowing minimal Chinese, we did successfully get to our destination and back in an unknown territory, which definitely made us feel accomplished, though it also helped that Julia had written down our stops in Chinese and given us directions for the bus routes. The exhibit at Zhoukoudian was pretty interesting, especially walking around knowing that 200,000-500,000 years ago, Peking Man, or Homo erectus, had lived in the area. There weren't many tourists, and it was refreshing to walk through the trees and caves. We mostly walked through the different localities where fossils and bones had been discovered, and there was a museum containing replicas, since the original bones had been lost during WWII.

Since the Wanliu shuttle has stopped running, we've been forced to take the much more crowded, longer public bus route to the university. I've been taking it to the west gate in the mornings because of my slight obsession with the bao zi that they serve at the noodle cafeteria, though it's only a noodle cafeteria for lunch and dinner. Inside the bus, there's a sign saying "Please take the initiative for bringing invalidity pregnant parks." Interpretation - ? The picture seems to suggest that the seats should be given to the disabled, pregnant, elderly, or small children, but the English was just funny.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Na + H20 = Boom!

Work in the lab has been going well - I've been working on total synthesis and even though I've had experience with it in lab class, doing it in an actual lab is still exciting, especially since I have to be much more precise and careful. One of the reactions to convert an oxime to an amine involves sodium, which is very reactive/explosive when exposed to water, so my graduate student keeps a fire extinguisher nearby...just in case. Apparently there's a YouTube video showing what happens when cesium, another element in the same family as sodium, reacts with water. The other reactions are slightly less exciting, but their products are necessary in the overall synthesis, and I'm really sad that experiments are going to be cut short due to various factors because I would really like to make a significant contribution to Professor Zhao and Yan Qifan's research.

Even with another 3 weeks left on this trip, things are already slowing down, not only because of the dwindling supply of solvents. The labs on the fourth floor are being forced to vacate by Friday due to the beginning of renovations, so this week my lab will be working on packing things up and moving and working up the reactions that have already been started. Since we couldn't start any more reactions, we read journal articles and textbooks that were lying around, while doing our best to escape the heat, humidity, and rain engulfing the city.

In terms of moving equipment from the lab, I haven't been able to help much, so I joined Zhaleh's lab to play badminton on Wednesday afternoon. Peking University has a gymnasium behind the Olympic Table Tennis Stadium that has about 9 nets set up just for playing badminton. I'd like to play there more often since badminton is my favorite sport, but a student ID is required, and right now we don't have any unless we go with a student. Afterwards, Zhaleh and I decided to head home but the traffic was pretty slow even though it was only 3pm, so we walked towards a busy area with some malls that we usually pass on the bus. It was an electronics mall, and as soon as we stepped in, all the salespeople heckled us to buy computers and one even followed us up the escalator; I'm pretty sure he thought I was lying when I said I didn't understand Chinese just by that look of disbelief on his face. We ended up going back down the escalator right away anyways and headed instead for the "Wu-Mart Hypermarket" that was just a regular supermarket Wal-Mart type store. The traffic was still bad when we left, so we kept walking along the bus route to Carrefour where we found food from all over the world. They had cheese and pesto (sadly no hummus) but at pretty high prices compared to the Chinese goods, so all I got was a "meat floss bun."

On Friday my parents and my sister came from Thailand to visit me and see Beijing, so I met up with them and showed them around. Saturday evening, I attended a lab dinner with Donna hosted by Professor Zhao and Professor Ma, which was a good occasion for us to get to know our professors and lab members better...all 32 of them. On Sunday, I joined my parents' tour group to the Great Wall at Badaling, which also stopped at the Ming Tombs and Jade Factory. The section of Badaling that the tour took us to was much more crowded with tourists (and was a semi-zoo with bears that you could feed) than the place where Dr. Coppola had led us earlier in the trip, which definitely made me appreciate his experience of traveling in China. Even though that section was harder to walk on, the broken stones and lack of tourists made it feel more authentic and peaceful, though I still have mixed feelings about the Mongolians who had followed us since they were helpful in guiding us but pressured us into making unnecessary purchases. It was one of the few sunny "blue sky" days where you could see the clouds in Beijing though, so I decided that it was much too hot and didn't go up to the top of the Great Wall again.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Random Adventures in Beijing

The rumors are true, apparently – the solvent supply for the chemistry lab will be cut off at the beginning of July, leaving us unable to perform column chromatography, and thus, reactions, so we will have to perform other procedures such as spectroscopy. I’m not really sure what my lab will be doing specifically, but I’ll also be faced with difficulty as the fourth floor of the chemistry building is going to be renovated, so people on the fourth floor (my lab) will not be able to work there.

Last Saturday I attended a lunch with the other students from Professor Zhao’s lab to celebrate a birthday. The lunch was at a Korean BBQ restaurant about a block from the Wanliu apartment and lasted for about 4 hours. It was really nice to hang out with my lab members outside of the lab and talk with undergraduates my age. The food was fresh….really fresh – the crabs were still live, and we didn’t realize that when we opened the covered plate, so a crab came running out. As the girls scattered away, others tried to use chopsticks to catch it, but it eluded capture as it scampered off the grill until someone picked it up by hand and put it into the soup.

After hearing Xu talk about getting a good breakfast on campus in the morning, I decided this week to wake up a little earlier and catch the earlier shuttle to join him – best decision ever! Maybe it’s just because I miss having a good breakfast (it’s hard to heat food without a microwave or pot) but “bao zi,” which are steamed buns with pork, and a bowl of “huen dun,” which is essentially dumpling soup, with a cup of warm, fresh soy milk is definitely enough to wake me up.

At work, most undergraduates have returned to their labs after their final exams, so all the labs have gotten noticeably more crowded. I am also working with an undergraduate in my lab, Xiu Yuan, who has helped me perform reactions and understand more about my lab’s work. This week, editors from the American Chemical Society were visiting to get feedback from professors and graduate students. They also gave lectures on the journal publication and selection process, which was interesting for me to hear about. On Thursday I saw “Kung Fu Panda” with members of my lab, Donna’s lab, and Kelly, Xu, and Zhaleh, which was a lot of fun, and on Saturday I went into work since there was a reaction that I really wanted to perform.

On Sunday, we were planning to go to the zoo, but when we saw rain in the forecast for the whole day, we decided to postpone the trip. After a few episodes of Desperate Housewives, however, we were ready to get out of Wanliu, so Donna, Zhaleh, Kelly, Zack, and I hopped on the first bus that we saw hoping to get off somewhere exciting and took it out to someplace along “Datong” road. We still haven’t quite figured out which direction we’d gone in, but it was probably near the edge of the city since people noticeably kept staring and the area seemed less urban. We stopped in for a snack at a small bakery, then took a different random bus and got off at a park where we played on exercise equipment and walked around taking pictures. Random traveling was definitely a great way to see the city beyond our comfort areas, and maybe on a less smoggy day we will do it again and see more of Beijing.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Start of Work

So finally I have started research in Dr. Dahui Zhao’s lab, the actual purpose for this trip. I am working with graduate student Qifan Yan in Dr. Zhao’s smaller lab in the old chemistry building. With the Olympics permeating most aspects of Beijing, chemistry is no different – the old building is being repainted to match with the new chemistry building, and most of the labs on the fourth floor where mine is located are empty as they are remodeled. I plan to work Monday-Friday, 9-5, staying later or coming in earlier as the experiments deem necessary. We have joint lab meetings with Dr. Pei and Dr. Ma’s lab groups Tuesdays at noon and Friday evenings. They’re normally in Chinese, but one of the presentations on Friday was given in English, allowing us to understand.

During the first week of research, I worked on learning my way around the lab, and the techniques in organic chemistry experiments that create better products. I had initially been scared of working in a chemistry lab, since my background has been in biology research, but observing my grad student doing the work then repeating it has made the task easier. Since I’m working in an organic lab, many of the procedures and syntheses I’ve performed are reminiscent of those that I’ve done in my organic chemistry lab class. I synthesized pretty pink crystals!

During this season in Beijing, carrying around an umbrella is a must, as I found out when Donna and I got caught at the cafeteria needing to get back to the chemistry building for the lab meeting as rain relentlessly poured down. After waiting for the rain to lighten for a good 45 minutes, we decided to make a run for it. Without a good drainage system, parts of the road were flooded, and there were huge puddles everywhere. Since there was construction of the new international student housing building next to the chemistry building, the road leading to the chemistry building was flooded with opaque brown water, and as I was running there, a group of security guards were yelling something in Chinese to me. Since I didn’t understand what they were saying and was trying to get out of the rain as fast as I could, I just kept running, and managed to step straight into a knee-deep ditch….which was probably why they were yelling. In trying to get out, I just stepped further into that ditch, and by the time I got out I was already wet and stopped caring about trying to stay dry. Looking at that ditch on my way out a few hours later after the rain had lightened, I realized the full hazard of the large unmarked ditch that I wouldn’t have missed in the daylight, and though now I can joke about the stupidity of falling into it, I will probably walk slower next time I’m caught in the rain.

Even though we’ve all looked forward to being able to sleep in and have a few days off this weekend, there is a guilt to being in such an exciting city and not exploring it that we try to find things to do. On Saturday, I met up with a friend from home who is currently in Beijing and speaks Chinese. She took me shopping and then to get my hair cut. The salon was pretty nice, and pampered their customers well with free drinks, and I got the longest haircut I’ve ever had, about an hour and a half long as the stylist kept being really picky and making the smallest adjustments. He had his own assistant, and I was lucky that my friend was able to explain in Chinese the style I wanted, so I came out really happy…all for the affordable price of 28 rmb. On Sunday, I went with Donna, Nicole, and Allison to Xi Dan, a place where our language teacher Liu Nian had mentioned was filled with shopping opportunities. After a ridiculously long bus then subway ride, we were thoroughly impressed by the large mall and shopping center filled with boutiques in that area. Shopping was hard to do in the crowd of people at the shopping center, and though it was easier to window shop at the mall, the prices were high even by American standards. Taking the taxi back was much faster and allowed us to stare in awe at the city we were in.