Day 14: PEK to NRT, toilets, Tokyo Hackerspace

Magically, we got on standby to the flight from Beijing to Tokyo. Earlier, they told us it was pretty much impossible because they switched out the normal plane with a smaller one and were thus having weight issues. The Seattle flight looked terrible too (as collateral damage). But magically, everything worked out. At this point in our trip, Julian took a gamble, split off, and stayed at the airport for the flight to Seattle, so that he could get back to familiar lands and hopefully recover better. Here, aside from anti-diahrrea medicine, we could only offer him old bagels from Seattle, some ginger tea from Boston (but probably China before that), and local Chinese herbal medicine. In retrospect, I might have been able to fly directly to Seattle as well, so I’d have a few days at home before headed back to school. Ah, well. The way to go when flying standby is to simply get on the first flight that you can. Among friends, I’m OK with the uncertainty.

I normally have a lot of trouble sleeping on moving things — cars, trains, subways, planes — but this trip has been exhausting enough that it’s been a piece of cake to sleep in these settings. Nancy claims that she’s taught me well. xD But I’m still not a pro like she is. During this trip, I found that sleeping with earplugs and pulling my new navy beanie over my eyes works like a charm in blocking out most noise and light.

We arrived in Tokyo, land of not only fancy toilets but also plentiful vending machines. They vend warm soups! And their toilets are fancy even in non-fancy places, and their fanciness varies. I’ve seen toilets with sinks attached that trigger upon flush so that guests can leave the bathroom untouched. I’ve seen toilets with special pepperminty spray things for cleaning the toilet seat and your hands. Of course there is the standard fancy toilet that squirts water to clean your butt and makes flushing noises to block out unwanted noises. Some toilets also have wonderful butt warmers. Not all toilets are created equal, and not all toilets are fancy. There are also non-fancy sitting toilets and squat toilets. I guess when you are building up a new building, you get to specify a lot more about your toilets in Japan than in most other places.

It’s clear that the Japanese are committed to overdesign. The subway was super smooth, though I can’t tell / can’t recall how different it is from the metro in Taipei. We visited a 7-11 in Tokyo (1 of 12,000 or so) and again, the selection far far exceeds that of 7-11s in the US. As compared to those in Taipei though, they are comparable. Maybe I just have very mundane interests, but I feel like it would be fun to tour the world checking out all the various subway systems and convenience stores. Of course, I have always found it fascinating to watch cars go by..

If Taiwan was preparation for China, then China was preparation for Japan, which has the least English support out of the three countries. Not knowing more than 20 words of the language, what saved us (aside from normal body gestures and looking absolutely clueless) was being able to read some of the Kanji (some are directly mapped to Chinese characters). On the subway, we also bumped into a couple speaking Chinese, and they helped us get to where we needed to go.
The Tokyo Hackerspace was perhaps what I’ve been looking for (without knowing it). We had the opportunity to attend their regular weekly meeting that evening. It was the first meeting of the new year and a lot of people were still away, so the attendance was slim (~10 throughout this evening, but normally on the order of 40 people), but I got the sense that they were really a community. They were all friends; they talked about technical things, but they also joked and talked about non-technical things. They were friendly, not at all exclusive. The emphasis, again, was on hardware, but I’m learning that computer vision is actually something of interest to hardware people. There was calming nature-y music in the background and the atmosphere was perfect, complete with tiramisu, and all I wanted to do was start a hackerspace in my dorm room. It’s the sense of community that has made MIT so awesome for me, but I’m here to learn, so what I want to see is a technical community at MIT, especially among undergraduates. Moar reading groups!

It was here that Josh and Nancy got their wish of crashing at a hackerspace.

And the fun fact for the day is that the Tokyo Hackerspace is comprised almost entirely of expats (who all speak English). Apparently, the Japanese aren’t accustomed to the idea of technical community either. We learned about a separate 4-member hackerspace in Japan that comprised of Japanese members but was closed to membership.

Day 13: Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Peking Duck

I thought I was all caught up with writing, but realized last night that I missed writing about Day 13. Oops. Well here it is, and the last 3 days will follow.

Our second day in Beijing was designated as one of our touristy days.  With Nancy’s family friend as our guide, we adventured through the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty Tombs, and the Summer Palace, and everything was super pretty.  Beijing is cold at this time of year (colder than Boston), and the Great Wall is a windy place. As soon as we arrived, we found a bunch of kids huddling behind a wall for warmth. Along the way, we were approached by a peddler selling Great Wall magnets, and we stopped to talk prices, not realizing that this kind of thing is prohibited. Part way through our haggling, the peddler grabbed back all the magnets and ran off. We thought he had gotten impatient with us, but then we saw two Great Wall security people running after him. So that was interesting, and we felt bad for getting him into trouble. I guess these peddlers need to make a certain amount of profit before getting kicked out. Anyway, we actually wanted those magnets, and luckily the gift shop at the entrance sells them too and gave us the price we asked for without any argument. The price went down from 1 magnet for 45 RMB to 3 magnets for 30 RMB (4.75USD). As usual, later on, we learned that that price was only OK. I did a bit worse haggling over a panda hat I spotted, but it was about 6 times cheaper than my giraffe hat. ><; We had a great time walking around the Ming Tombs and Summer Palace, but the entire time, I just wished I was more familiar with Chinese history. One day… We also drove around Tianmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, and the Birds Nest (Beijing National Stadium, Beijing Olympics 2008). As it turns out, we didn’t have time to really see anything at all.  And if I hadn’t mentioned this before, everything in major Chinese cities (buildings, streets, bridges, signs, etc.) are lined with LEDs. Shiny!

We had our first and only meal at an American fast food chain, but it was good because McDonalds (as well as KFC) is super popular in Asia. For dinner, we had authentic Peking Duck, and it was delicious. We had something like the 1.4 millionth duck that that particular restuaurant had prepared for human consumption, which is a crazy number. They explained that the ducks require 5 years to grow up and 45 minutes to cook. We had duck tongue, which was pretty funny to eat, duck blood soup, duck remains soup, and little duck-shaped desserts. And, of course, there was the actual duck meat, finely prepared.

Day 12: Yonghe King, Tsinghua University, Beijing Hackerspace, New Years Maker Party, emergency accommodations

Our first day in Beijing was a pretty crazy one as well. Our train arrived in Beijing around 8am, at which point we met up with Nancy’s family friend and went for breakfast at this food chain called Yonghe King. That was sort of freaking amazing because my family is actually largely from Yonghe, Taipei, Taiwan. I was already missing Taiwan food at that point, so it was great to have a Taiwan style breakfast. Learning about Yonghe King probably made my day. <3 food.

Day 12 was a real whirlwind of activities. We got a quick tour of Tsinghua University (China’s top tech school) with Nancy’s family friend, followed by meeting Professor Koo’s students at his Toyhouse, followed by meeting 6 Tsinghua CS students, followed by visiting SkyWorks (one of the hackerspaces at Tsinghua). I enjoyed SkyWorks a lot; they even had resources for software projects in the form of mobile phones and server hosting. The hackerspaces we’ve seen in China didn’t have as much in terms of machine tools as MITERS, but all of the hackerspaces that I have seen (except for SkyWorks and Noisebridge) seemed to lack software resources. Anyway, all of this was arranged fairly last minute, so I was surprised that we were able to meet people and have great conversation… on New Years Day, and also the week before their final exams. But, Tsinghua does have 30K students with an emphasis on engineering, so maybe that made it reasonable to find students. The Toyhouse students gave us their insights on Professor Koo’s “radical” teaching methods–essentially student-taught project-based classes instead of professor-blabber-based classes. A lot of work and suitable for only some areas of study, but they teach you how to learn on your own, they said. From the CS students, we learned that the college GPA of Chinese students pretty much determines exactly the next step (grad school, industry, studying abroad, going home), or at least that is the mindset of a lot of students. SkyWorks showed us that not all students focus 100% of their efforts on their GPA; some do work on projects of their own, for commercial purposes, etc. 
OK, so that was just the morning until early afternoon. Then, we visited Beijing Maxpace, the Beijing hackerspace (北京创客空间), a new media art exhibition, and attended a maker/hacker new years party. The Beijing hackerspace was tiny. It’s a room only slightly larger than my dorm room, and there were about 20 people there awaiting our arrival — space is hard to find in Beijing?We took a look around, chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged stickers. This trip has taught me that hackerspaces are crazy about stickers. And stamps. Here, I got a second stamp on my hackerspace passport (the first was at Chaihuo, the third in Tokyo). MITERS has neither stamps nor stickers yet, oops. The new media exhibit was neat; it was like the media lab, but orders of magnitude less cluttered. The new years party consisted of people from a whole bunch of different makerspaces and places. We did introductions, watched maker-y videos, and had good food and pleasant conversation. We pulled up yet another documentary of MITERS (produced by NYU students) and also the MASLAB 2011 highlights video, and I talked about MASLAB for a bit. Yay robots and presenting in broken Chinese! I need to find a way to learn/use technical vocabulary in Chinese.

At this point, Julian was seriously food poisoned (probably got infected on Day 10), and so we scrambled to find a suitable place to stay for the night. Originally, Josh and Nancy wanted to crash on the concrete floor of the place of the party, which I wasn’t too crazy about but was willing to entertain. Amazingly, with a lot of help from the Beijing hackers, especially Wang ZhenFei (王振飞), we made our way to our home for the next two nights.

At the end of the day, I was just confused at how we managed to do so much and meet so many people in a single day.


Day 11: Chenghuang Temple, Shanghai Hackerspace, Shanghai to Beijing, the New Year

Surprisingly, our trip has been pretty full of Taiwanese people. This is undoubtedly biased because I am on this trip and most of our factory tour relations were tied to Taiwan, but I have been told that a lot of the hackerspace people in China are Taiwanese too. The night of Day 10 consisted of a dinner at a Taiwanese place with my family friend. Yay Taiwan food. We were in some area of Shanghai where there is a large concentration of people from Taiwan… imagine Chinatown, except with Taiwanese people… and in China.

The family friend we stayed with ordered in breakfast for us, which was super nice and tasty. After a lot of hours of figuring out the rest of the day, we parted and went off to Chenghuang Temple (城隍庙) for some culture, touristy shopping, and good eats. At this point in our trip, we started thinking about purchasing souvenirs, so we obtained quite a few stuffed dragons. I just realized that we forgot to haggle, but we did walk around asking 4-5 different vendors for their prices before settling on one. It’s pretty neat to see what different vendors will quote depending on how foreign / touristy we look. I had the best luck when I asked without the others around. This particular vendor actually had 2 clerics who gave me 2 different prices — yes, I asked them both and then took the lower one. We also had soup buns, which are like bread bowls, but replace the bread with a bun.

We only had about an hour there before we rushed off for our (but really Nancy’s) presentation at Xinchejian (新车间), the Shanghai makerspace. Attendance was around 50, which was pretty freaking incredible. We showed my (actually Ben’s) MITERS documentary from my anthropology class, and I’m very glad that finally came in useful. There I met Professor Ben Koo at Tsinghua University in Beijing (as mentioned before, also Taiwanese), who gave us a lot of helpful information and even helped us with our plans the next day in Beijing! After the presentation, we had about 45 minutes of mingling before we rushed off to the train station to catch our train to Beijing. Everyone was very awesome, and everything was way way too rushed. As usual, we almost missed the train (this really needs to stop happening), but the traffic cleared up about halfway there and our 100USD tickets were saved. We got a soft sleeper compartment, which consists of 4 soft bunks for sleeping and a communal table that we used to pile all of our food. On the train, I realized that, for sanitary reasons, I actually prefer squat toilets to sitting toilets in Asia (this does not apply in Japan). Then the new year came (at least on this side of the planet), and though everyone else was already asleep, I found the train ride to be a very nice way to welcome the new year.