In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter
(telescopes, gymnastics, and kung fu)
While in China, we also had a number of interesting experiences unrelated to our dolphin project. We've described several of our favorites here...
Purple Mountain Observatory
At the time of our trip to China, we were both graduate students in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. While we were in Nanjing, we happened to spot a building on the Nanjing University campus with several telescope domes on its roof. This, we deduced, must be the home of the Astronomy Department of Nanjing University. Upon closer inspection (we wandered in, up the stairs, and out onto the roof), we found this to be the case.
We discovered two men repairing a small telescopes inside one of the domes on top of the building, and they located one of the astronomy professors, Dr. Zheng Xing-wu, for us. Dr. Zheng had spent six years as a visiting professor at Harvard University before returning to Nanjing. We had a pleasant conversation with Dr. Zheng regarding our various research interests (he specializes in radio-wavelength observations of molecular clouds, which are often referred to as “stellar nurseries” since stars form – or are “born” – inside them), and he demonstrated how Chinese computers work for us. Since there are far too many characters in the Chinese language to include on a reasonably-sized keyboard, the user must type out the English-alphabet pinyin translation of the desired character, then choose from a menu of the four possible tonal variations. Dr. Zheng also offered to arrange a tour of the nearby Purple Mountain Observatory for our return visit to Nanjing (on our way back to Shanghai from the Three Gorges).
When we returned to Nanjing, Dr. Zheng had arranged for two of his graduate students, Feng Bing and Zhang Qing-chun, to give us a guided tour of the Observatory. Purple Mountain Observatory is interesting mainly from a historical perspective – they have a small museum containing a number of artifacts relating to the history of astronomy in China. It's not a functional observatory in a modern sense, however, mostly because of the lack of funding and technology required to update the telescopes and other equipment.
It was also quite interesting to compare the life of an astronomy graduate student with our Chinese counterparts. Following our visit to the Observatory, we shared lunch with them back at their dormitory room. Although we discovered many familiar textbooks on the shelves in their room, much of their experience as graduate students is different from ours. For example, both of us specialize in observational astronomy, while both of the Chinese students specialize in theoretical astrophysics. They told us that they would like to do observational research, but there is only a small number of working telescopes in China, so observational data are hard to obtain.
In addition, we almost take it for granted that one of the advantages of being an astronomer is that you get to travel to many places, even to other countries, in order to attend conferences or use observing facilities. Feng and Zhang told us that astronomers are not allowed to leave China to attend conferences unless they are 30 years old and married, and leave their families in China while they are gone. Both Feng and Zhang are applying to universities in the United States to finish their graduate degrees. Yet, even if they are accepted somewhere, then before they will be allowed to leave China to attend, they must pay back the entire cost of their schooling, which has been funded by the government up to this point.
The Nanjing Wutaishan Rhythmic Gymnastics Team
While living in Seattle, Stefanie coached a rhythmic gymnastics team (Seastar Rhythmics) and Donald was a rhythmics competition judge. Competitors in rhythmics combine gymnastics and dance to perform routines set to music and involving the use of an apparatus such as a hoop, ball, or ribbon. While we were strolling through the Nanjing University campus one evening, we happened to notice a woman wearing a T-shirt that advertised a rhythmics meet. Stefanie introduced herself and learned that this woman also coached rhythmic gymnastics, at the Wutaishan Sports Center. We asked if we could come watch one of their practices, and she said yes. So, a few days later, we were able to observe while several young gymnasts had their morning practice. Stefanie was quite impressed with the skill level of the gymnasts, and also with their attitudes – she says her gymnasts complain much more and it's not even so hot in Seattle as it was in Nanjing!
The Kung Fu Master
During one of our numerous boat trips (this one from Wuhan to Nanjing), we met a Kung Fu Master. To Stefanie's extreme delight, he was the first person we had encountered wearing what looked like “traditional” Chinese clothing. He spoke absolutely no English, but through gestures, our few words of Chinese, and an English-Chinese phrase book, we managed to have a conversation. As near as we could determine, he and his old servant (who carried all of their belongings on his back) travel around the country competing in kung fu tournaments to earn a living.
We gave the kung fu master (we never did learn his real name) one of the postcards of Seattle that we had brought with us to show people the city from whence we came. In return, he reached inside his shirt and pulled out a well-worn photograph, laminated in plastic. It showed the kung fu master as a much younger man, along with two people who, if we understood correctly, are his father and sister. They are standing on the steps of a building that is the school at which the kung fu master learned the martial arts.
As we separated after boarding the ship (the kung fu master and his servant were riding in fourth class, in the bowels of the ship, while we were in a second class cabin reserved for foreigners – there is no first class in China, by the way, what with it being a classless socialist society and all), it occurred to us that this was probably his only photograph of his family and we couldn't possibly keep it. Once the ferry was underway, we tracked him down and tried to give the photo back the three times required by Chinese etiquette, only to be refused each time.
Unsure what to do next, we bought a round of cold sodas for the three of us from the ship's store and moved to the upper deck to watch the river go by, our conversational skills being somewhat limited. We managed to convince him to not give us a necklace he was wearing that Stefanie asked to look at more closely – it had a pendant with an engraving of his school on it. (We had visions of him leaving the ship naked, with all of his belongings piled in our cabin and us looking rather sheepish sitting on top of them.) We also gave him several U.S. dollars (he was willing to trade us for Chinese yuan at a fantastic rate for us, but we insisted – or tried to make this understood anyway – that it was a gift to help him pay for his travels).
When he and his servant got off during the night at a small city along the river, they stood on the dock outside our cabin and yelled until we came out to see what was happening, so they could wave good-bye. All in all, it was one of the most pleasant and memorable of our encounters with the people of China.