Worldwide, a record 3.2m people a year died from air pollution in 2010, compared with 800,000 in 2000. It [air pollution] now ranks for the first time in the world’s top 10 list of killer diseases, says the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study.
In 2010, more than 2.1m people in Asia died prematurely from air pollution, mostly from the minute particles of diesel soot and gasses emitted from cars and lorries. Other causes of air pollution include construction and industry. Of these deaths, says the study published in The Lancet, 1.2 million were in east Asia and China, and 712,000 in south Asia, including India.
If the figures for outdoor air pollution are combined with those of indoor air pollution, caused largely by people cooking indoors with wood, dirty air would now rank as the second highest killer in the world, behind only blood pressure.
Four MIT engineering undergrads, interested in just about everything, took our summer savings and threw it at Asia on a grand 2-week long Asiatrip in an effort to expand our horizons. We came back with so much more.
Nancy Ouyang, the mastermind of this journey, nyancat hacker, hexapod enthusiast, secretary of MIT makerspace MITERS. She was the point person for Hangzhou, all the flights, and the makerspace contacts. Josh Gordonson, makerspace advocate, EE + art hacker, analog electronics enthusiast, president of MITERS. He was the point person for New York City and part of our visit to Tsinghua in Beijing. Julian Merrick, eater of everything, motors hacker, power electronics enthusiast, core member of MITERS. Myself, documentor, computer vision hacker, intelligent transportation and data visualization enthusiast, friend of MITERS. I was the point person for Taipei and most of the manufacturing plant visits.
Nancy and I split responsibilities in Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Tokyo was a free-for-all.
Tue 12/20/2011 to Thu 01/05/2012, just over 2 weeks.
Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08
Legend Lost day (due to passing the dateline, excluded in indexing of blog posts) On a plane |On a bus/train Boston |Seattle|Taipei |ShenZhen Hangzhou |Shanghai |Beijing |Tokyo
City visits (9): NYC, Seattle, Taipei, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Detroit
University visits (3): Tsinghua University (Taipei), China Academy of Art (Hangzhou), Tshinghua University (Beijing)
Touristy vists (14): Night market, Long San Temple, Gondola, Maokong, Taipei 101, West Lake, Lingyin Temple, Chen Huang Temple, CMoDA New Media Museum, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace, Akiabhara, Shibuya, Asakusa
Company tours (3): Advantech, ZyXEL, Seeed Studio
Production line tours (10): Asia Optical (lens/prisms, scanner head, laser rangefinder, picoprojector, camera, molding), GTBF, Failong, Colibri, Great Wall
What and Why
Whereever we went, people welcomed us with open arms, but we had a bit of trouble at first answering the question “what is the purpose of your trip?” We came for a variety of reasons. We came for fun (it’s winter break, after all), we came to learn about manufacturing, we came to check out the makerspace movement, we came to visit relatives (well, just me), we came to grow up a bit (Nancy and me), we came to emmerse ourselves in a different culture, we came to eat good food, and we came to make friends and felt the world become a smaller place.
Seeing all the manufacturing has given me a new perspective on how the everyday items we use come to be. We saw factory workers putting together cameras that are the same make and model as Julian’s. We saw boards that dictate how many units the operators need to produce each hour. We learned about their wages and the overtime they need to work in order to make a living, and how social mobility is dictated almost solely by test scores. And then we learn about how little profit each unit makes for the plant, and yet, we saw the rising labor costs. We saw how cheap everything was sold locally; life is hard both domestically and abroad. Profit margins in the manufacturing sector are ridiculously low, and any and all inefficiencies must be engineered out.
Honestly, it was mostly the others who were interested in the makerspace movement in China as we were planning the trip, but I found our visits to be entirely worthwhile throughout. As a sort of outsider from makerspaces, I found it inspirational, seeing actual active communities, how much makerspaces could be, and seeing how fast China can make change.
I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit a good portion of my extended family and my entire immediate family this holiday season. It was far more than I bargained for. It was wonderful to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews. The last time I saw most of them was 7.5 years ago, which is sort of baffling in my mind.
For Nancy and myself, this was our first time traveling abroad that didn’t simply consist of following our parents and extended family around the entire time. Instead, our family and friends kept a watchful eye on us from a distance nearly every step of the way, which I wanted to avoid at first, but later on realized that our trip would not have been possible without all of their help. Our trip began with our hands held as tightly as they could thousands of miles away, and it definitely made our transition from the States quite smooth. The intensity of our trip gradually increased, and towards the end of our trip, we were finding our own accomodations, doing our own research, and finding our own means of getting around. Everything we managed on our own and every mistake we made was a learning experience. With the last two weeks of experience, perhaps next time, we won’t need any hand-holding.
Statistics Length of trip: 16 days
Approximate total mileage: 19,390 miles (31,203 km; for perspective, the Earth has a circumference of 24,900 mi / 40100 km)
Travel by plane: 92.8%
Travel by train: 4.6%
Travel by car: 1.3%
Travel by bus: 1.2%
Photo count: 1416
Times we were taken out for a meal: 21 (+ 5 provided by flights) Times we handled our own meals: 16 (+ 4 that we skipped)
Time spent traveling: 97 hours (6 hours / day) Time spent sleeping: 96 hours (6 hours / day)
Estimated cost: $1.8K (did not account for HangZhou) Actual cost: $2.0K (see the breakdown)
Suggestions for travellers going on similar trips Things to bring, some of which I forgot, others of which I found useful: Portable router: hotels often come with a single ethernet jack, so a router is essential for sharing internet between multiple travelers. Ear plugs: traveling means non-ideal sleeping situations, but sleeping is all the more important. Long beanie: doubles as a hat during the day and a light/noise blocker during the night. Toilet paper and toiletries for the first few days: otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time looking for these things while getting used to a new country. Cold/flu medication: you may get sick. Anti-diahhrea meds: the food may not agree with your stomach. Hand sanitizer: no need to waste precious time looking for soap and water whereever you go. Moisture cream and chapstick: hand sanitizer will dry out your hands; also, hotel rooms will sometimes be very dry. Underarmor: space efficient for keeping warm. Cash: withdraw lots of cash before leaving the country, or you’ll risk incurring a lot of fees on your ATM card.
Tips: Plan in advance: if you can help it, you don’t want to be spending precious journey time planning the trip. Plan in downtime: travelling is tiring, and time to relax a bit and take in what you’ve learned thus far is very meaningful.
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.
So, I’m leaving for a grand trip to China/Taiwan/Japan in about 5 days. A few friends and I decided to journey out east for ~3 weeks to visit hackerspaces and manufacturing plants. And there are so many things to experience culturally, crazy things to see, and delicious things to eat!
Even though I’m asian, asia seems pretty distant, and I look forward to closing that gap a bit. It’ll be really great to meet people out there, learn some things, see a bit more of the world. I want to know what life is like, what is the norm. I want to know what computer science means over there, what their engineers are like. Chinese class, though extremely time-consuming, has actually taught me a lot about China’s recent history, and really makes me want to see the real thing — complete with real people and real problems.
How to get a Chinese Visa
That said, though China has come a long way, Chinese websites are still difficult to navigate. Here’s a blurb on how to get yourself a Chinese Visa, quickly and easily. If you’re planning a similar trip, one of the first things you’ll want to do is apply for a visa to China. (Taiwan and Japan each allow visits from US citizens for up to 30 days without a visa.)
Pull the official Q1 form off of the Chinese Embassy website. The application must be filled out electronically. You will need your passport and a 2”x2” passport photo. If you’re a first-time applicant, you can only apply for double-entry at most (though they were generous and granted me multiple entry anyway). If you are a tourist, a random (-ahem- carefully selected) Holiday Inn in downtown Beijing will suffice for the fields asking for where you’ll be staying.
Unless you live in Washington DC, NYC, Chicago, SF, LA, or Houston, and can go directly to the consulate (where the fee is $130), you’ll want an agency to process your visa paperwork for you. I would avoid using mail-in visa agents, though they are probably legitimate, because they are expensive and/or slow. The cheapest option is $200 for 15 business days, whereas an expedited option puts you at $300 for “as soon as possible,” not counting the time it takes for you to mail your paperwork to them. Luckily, local travel agencies often process visas. If you are local to Boston, I went to Cross Culture Travel, where they got me my visa in just over a week for $175.