Contact

You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.
-Contact, 1997

Sometimes it feels like time drags, and other times it feels like I’ve been living in a dream that’s stuck on fast-forward.  Time flies when you’re having fun, so I must be having a blast lately.

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I just got back from a work trip to Beijing, my first time in all of Asia.  I sat by the window as we flew over Russia, then Mongolia and northern China, and I thought that it’s no wonder a culture of people who live there have integrated a mythology of dragons.  From high up, the twisting hills look like tiny like eroded sand dunes and rivers snaking through valleys, but for all the world they look just like sleeping dragons.

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We went straight from the airport to the symposium, which was supposed to start at 8.30am.  I had lost a screw out of my sunglasses while going through security and had been planning on buying a new pair, but I ended up not even needing sunglasses at all.  Something about the smoggy air filters out a lot of whatever it is in the sunlight that usually blinds me.  For the amount of smog though, there were a surprising amount of trees and other greenery, covering temperate, tropical, and boreal all at the same time.  The airport highway is lined with kataja , we were surprised to find, and boxwood hedges and lush, healthy rows of huge long-stemmed roses in every color.  As we drove into the city centre, I thought that more than anything, Beijing reminded me of Paris with its beige colored buildings, carefully tended medians with trees planted at regular intervals, and those roses.

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At Peking University we were greeted warmly and plied with good tea, instant coffee, and an array of fruit and snacks. Throughout the whole trip, our hosts’ hospitality was really stunning.  I tried several of the snacks and decided that these small pancakes sandwiched around bean paste were my favorite.  They have the texture of whoopie pies but taste almost exactly like Fig Newtons.  I also tried a crispy stick with nutty tasting filling, and a hard biscuit with what I think was white chocolate on it, but the icing had a grainy texture and coated the inside of my mouth in a really unpleasant way.  After that I decided to stick to the pancakes.  The university group had also arranged lunches for us during the two days of the Peking University symposium, which was beyond our expectations.  The first day was a sort of Chinese bento lunch with pork and carrots and Peking duck in soy sauce with rice.  The second day was pizza and we found it quite funny that the Chinese have the same blended-culture approach to pizza as the Finns: the Finns will top theirs with root vegetables and cabbage, and the Chinese pizza we had was topped with fruit and shrimp, its crust stuffed not with cheese but with yellow sweet potato paste.

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That night we were all too exhausted to think very hard about dinner, so we decided to try Hotpot, one of the restaurants inside the hotel.  It was a bit of a bizarre experience, in that the decor theme was apparently “sports bar” in the most literal sense.  The servers  all wore colourful track suits and there were plastic soccer balls on the table.  We went to the wrong part of the restaurant first; it was divided up into private rooms, and eventually we got the point across that we wanted hotpot.  So we were led into a fancy-looking room decorated with mahogany furniture upholstered with cream-coloured fabrics, beautiful watercolour paintings, and flower vases.  A large round glass table had a dais in the middle and each place setting had a flat-top burner on it which the servers turned on.  We each ordered either a tomato flavour or a mushroom flavour (at this point I wasn’t entirely sure what I was ordering that was mushroom flavoured, but hey, when in China…) and they brought out a beautiful little copper pot full of broth for each of us.  Throughout the meal, the servers brought platters of meats, mushrooms, vegetables, and condiments and put them on the dais.  The idea of hotpot is that you take which ingredients you want and cook them in your own little pot briefly, and then transfer a small amount to a tiny bowl and season it to taste with the condiments, which were chili and tomato and garlic and peanut.  The broth itself was so delicious, and the servers would come by periodically to refill our pots with water from a kettle.  I think by the end we were all stuffed, but in a really comfortable way.  I don’t think I’ve eaten so many mushrooms in my life, but they were amazing, especially those thin white enoki mushrooms which are expensive in Finland but which came with just about everything in Beijing.  After dinner I took a long bath, which due to the rareness of bathtubs in Helsinki, is a real treat.  The hotel provided some really nice toiletries including bath salts and bubble bath, so we felt very pampered!

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The symposium itself was rather casual and small, but there was so much enthusiasm from both sides.  I had gone into the whole experience with my typical “say yes” attitude, but meanwhile feeling a bit out of place.  Everyone there was either Finnish or Chinese, so being the only native English speaker I was a little bit of an outsider.  Of course physically I can pass for a Finn, but I had been worried about the social atmosphere of the group.  My fears turned out to be unfounded, as my colleagues were more than happy to include me, even to speak English at times although I insisted that they not worry about it because it gave me a good opportunity to practice at least understanding Finnish.  Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the conversation, but I managed to understand about 80% when I really tried, enough to follow their thoughts about the presentations and even to laugh at some funny stories.

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My research, too, was slightly off-topic: the symposium was about education and technology, and while I thought I could make the point that it’s important for education to understand how language and music work in the brain, I’m not a teacher and the whole field of pedagogy is pretty opaque to me.  But I had a sudden stroke of insight during the Saturday presentations shortly before I gave my talk, and it was such a good feeling to have that professional Eureka! moment.  I’m usually pretty superstitious about ideas, in that I’m afraid of jinxing them or risking people thinking they’re stupid if I say them out loud too soon.  But I ended up throwing caution to the wind, and went around the whole trip telling everyone this idea I had.  To my great surprise, everyone was really interested and agreed that it was a great idea and a good basis for collaboration!

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I think we were all taken aback by how intent the Chinese group was on collaborating with us, and how warm and hospitable they were.  It’s not that we had a lot of preconceived reservations about Chinese people or their intentions toward us, although the expectation for a little culture clash was certainly there. But these things are a macrocosm of what happens when you suggest having coffee with an acquaintance: unless someone is really motivated to set down a firm schedule, things don’t happen quickly or at all.  But it was the opposite story: we couldn’t get enough contacts, make enough plans, express enough how pleased and grateful we were.  There have been many emails circulating already with concrete plans for collaboration, which just never happens, no matter who the collaboration idea is with. So Saturday ended with everyone very pleased and satisfied.

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That night we ended up all together at a restaurant close to the hotel.  We had most of our meals family-style, as these restaurants all had a large spinning dais in the middle of the tables and we would just have one of us order lots of different things.  One of the small plates was a plate of cold chicken, including the feet which I alone was brave enough to try!  It wasn’t bad at all really.  I told my colleagues that it tasted like chicken.  And feet.  The main unpleasantness about it was that it was cold.  I think if it were served warm, maybe with some wing sauce, it’d be a pretty good snack.  There was also sauteed Chinese spinach, beans in chilis, a really wonderful garlic soup, rice bowls, and sweet and sour chicken.  And Chinese beer, which I still think was a rice beer but we never asked.  Very light, served cold, fizzy, and slightly sweet.  Perfect for Chinese food in the summer.

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On Sunday there was an optional visit to the Silicon Valley of Beijing, and some of us had private meetings, but I ended up with no responsibilities for the day, so I decided to make an earnest search for tea.  I started the morning at the Yuanmingyuan old summer palace and gardens, which was only a few blocks away from our hotel.  Entrance was cheap, and the gardens were so huge I spent a few hours there and only saw a good portion of one of three gardens.

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After a few hours of walking in 38C heat and nice flats, my feet were already getting sore, so I thought I’d make a brave attempt at the metro.  It turned out to be extremely simple to use, basically identical to both London and Paris, but cleaner.  The announcements were all made in both Mandarin and English, and the maps had Pinyin names that were easy to match to the station announcements.  I really liked the layout of the train platforms, which was easier to use than the London tube in that there was a shared platform for both directions of a metro line.  In London you have to know ahead of time which direction you’re going, and then walk to that platform, and if you’ve made a mistake you have to walk all the way back and around.  In Beijing I could just head to the connecting line and then glance quickly at the maps on the wall to see which direction I should go.  The trains arrived every few minutes, and people formed orderly queues in marked boxes on the floor where the doors would open.  I felt like an expert after just a few trips, and each single ticket cost 3-5 yuan, mere cents of euros.  The ticket kiosks were the easiest I’ve ever seen–you just choose your final destination on the map and it calculates the fare based on zones just like in London.  There were x-ray security checks as you entered the main part of the station, but people walked straight through with no backups or problems.  I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be great to have this kind of public transport in the US?

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I really wanted to find a traditional food market, having been an avid watcher of Andrew Zimmern and a bit of a bizarre foodie myself, so I had planned on visiting the nearest market shown on our maps.  That happened to be the Chang’an Market, near Fuxingmen metro station.  The area is a huge business district so when I arrived I was really confused.  I wandered around for a while and ended up not being able to find a market, but by then I was hungry, so I wandered down a residential district that had some shops and restaurants.  I found a little restaurant where I had a large bowl of good stir-fried noodles with bok choy and chili, and tea, for just 9 yuan (€1.33).  Some more wandering and I bought a fresh dragonfruit from a woman selling fruit on the sidewalk, and some apricots from a man on the corner with a rickshaw full of apricots and cherries.

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I gave up on Chang’an, realizing that if I wanted some tea, I should get a move on.  Next stop was the Maliandao Tea Street, which turned out to be very easy to find.  True to its name, it was a long, wide street lined entirely with tea shops.  I must have spent an hour just walking up and down the street, gazing at the stunning teapots in the windows.  There were simple ones and elaborate ones, clay and metal and porcelain, painted and unglazed, pots that cost thousands of yuan, broken and mismatched cups on sale, cakes and pearls and bags and boxes and tins of all kinds of tea.  Most of the shops had doors flung open or no doors at all, just a shady box where tea sellers and tea buyers chatted.  The whole street smelled like tea, as if it were steeping in the humid air.

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I’m a firm believer in intuition, so I let my instinct guide me.  Eventually I found a small shop at the far end of the street with a display of painted cups in the centre of the room, shelves of tea cakes on the right and wooden shelves of simple, elegant, unassuming clay pots on the left.  Pinned to the shelves were photographs of the clay pots being made, just the greenware and a pair of hands deftly manipulating little wooden tools.  Past the cups, there were two tea tables, and weaving around to the right was a back room filled with barrels, sacks, and huge boxes full of tea.  It smelled like heaven.

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A girl about my age or maybe a little older came to talk to me, and told me that the teacups came from Taiwan.  She patiently helped me pick out a pot that was a lighter color, very rough clay on the outside unlike others which had a slight patina and were stained red and dark brown. I liked the shape of the little pot, it fit well in my hand and there was a design of bamboo stalks carved into the handle, lid, and spout, with delicate clay bamboo leaves artfully laid onto the pot.  When I said I wanted to buy it and some tea as well, she told me to have a seat at the table.  There was an electric kettle on the sideboard where she boiled some water, and a small glass pitcher and a narrow water glass in the middle of the table.  She scooped some green tea leaves into the water glass, letting me smell them, and poured boiling water into the pitcher, then poured the water into the glass, spilling water around the edges of the glass.  She swirled the glass a little and then poured it out onto a small ceramic lotus flower with a frog on it that was sitting at the edge of the tea table.  She refilled the glass and let it steep only a moment, setting out two tiny, flared teacups.  She poured some into both cups and we sat for a while drinking tea.  Every so often she would refill the narrow glass.

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We exchanged a few words, and she told me where the tea is from.  I asked her to write it down for me, but she didn’t use Pinyin lettering so I don’t think I can Google it.  Surprisingly the hot tea really cooled me down, sitting in the shade of the shop, with the open wall for a door and watching people pass. I read somewhere that people in Africa and India drink hot tea all the time because ingesting hot things in a hot environment makes you sweat, which cools you down.

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I paid for the pots, the cups, and the tea, and the pot was packed into a beautiful red silk box in its own little silk drawstring bag.  The cups were wrapped in newspaper and the tea packed tightly in foil packages, all put into sturdy gold-colored gift bags.  Before packing up the pot, the girl took it to the tea table and poured hot water over the outside of the pot, gently wiping it away with a soft cloth.  Yixing style clay pots are very porous because of the kind of clay used to make them. When new, they go through a process of seasoning where they absorb some of the oils and flavours in the tea.  There are a variety of methods and opinions on this, and I’m totally new to it other than knowing that it’s a thing, but one method is to pour brewed tea over the outside of the pot, with or without some gentle rubbing with a cloth.  Over time, a light patina starts to form and the pot is uniquely fit for brewing one particular kind of tea.  I also read that this particular combination of tea and pot works best when you pour out the first brew, which takes away some of the bitterness and brings out more complex flavours, which would explain the pouring out over the lotus flower.  I think with this combination of information, and watching the girl in the tea shop make tea and prepare my pot, I can continue in this method.  And I really enjoy it–it means that I can’t just pop to the kitchen for a cuppa, but it turns the whole process of brewing and drinking tea into a little ritual of reflection, and a metaphor for things that are valuable in life.

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Now after returning to Finland I think my favorite moment of the trip was sitting in this little shop, silently drinking tea with the shop girl.  I know I talk about it a lot, but these moments of connection with people, even perfect strangers in a country on the other side of the world from my hometown, mean a lot to me. She gave me her card, which is very professional-looking with a jade green logo that reads “YADIAN.”  I think it means something to build these little experiences of familiarity, to know something about a place even if you’re only there for a few days.  It’s one thing to visit as many sights as you can, and that’s one kind of knowing, the checking off of many extraordinary things.  But I think it stays on the surface, and you leave without leaving a mark, and often without any marks left on you.  I like to mark myself with a place, to go deeper into one thing and really experience something ordinary in a way that creates a personalized memory that bonds you to this place and this time.  I think it’s these little everyday special marks that are important.

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I couldn’t leave the tea street with just one kind of tea, but it was starting to get late.  Another small shop caught my eye and I walked in to see huge glass barrels filled with teas, cardboard boxes lined up underneath them similarly stuffed full, and fat burlap bags lying around the shop.  An older woman asked if I liked jasmine tea and had me smell a few different varieties. She had a large metal bowl, like a dog bowl, and scooped up some tea from the boxes so I could smell.  The first was woody and dense, with a heady kind of sense of rose or gardenia.  The second had more middle in it, and more structure–grassy and sweet and very floral, with a bright citrusy note at the end.  The best smell in the world, I think.  So I bought some from her and managed to use half the Mandarin I knew, xie xie.  Feeling exhilarated and suddenly energized, I decided I had time for one more adventure: the silk market.

It was a simple trip on the metro to another big financial district with wide streets and tall buildings, and posh-looking people walking around.  The silk market, as it turns out, is a giant shopping mall built upwards instead of outwards, with several floors of sterile-looking glass cubicles housing silk pajamas, trinkets, “antiques and handicrafts,” people who will draw your name in calligraphy, painted fans, regular clothes and plastic toys, and many, many international tourists.  It was loud and crowded and aggressively air-conditioned, and the salespeople shouted at me as I walked by, did I want to buy a silk scarf? Would I buy some pajamas or bedsheets? Best silk stuffs in China, and such a low price!

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After my very intimate and personal experience at the tea street, it felt disgusting.  I wandered around for a while, frowning, thinking that maybe there was an old market in the back.  There wasn’t.  I stopped to look at some chopsticks, but was immediately swarmed and pressed to buy them.  I walked away.  I might have bought some, but something about that building and the atmosphere really got to me, really made the whole experience feel cheap.  And the more I wandered, the more I wondered how these goods were being produced in such mass quantities that could be sold at such a discount.  And the more I wondered, the more I suspected that it wasn’t really an ethical operation going on.

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I was feeling a little woozy after so much walking, so I bought a small ice cream cone at a kiosk nearby (green tea flavour, of course!), and then I took the metro back to the hotel.  It was about sixteen stops, and I was exhausted, my feet burning.  The metro was crowded and I noticed an older couple leaning on the door.  A seat opened up and the older man, looking very unsteady, sat down.  After a few stops a seat near where I was standing opened up and I gestured to the woman to take it.  She tried to refuse but I insisted and she was grateful.  By this point I didn’t know if my feet would hold me till my stop, but just a few minutes later the seat next to the older woman opened up and she made sure I got it.  I’m sure I looked ragged, sweaty hair plastered to my forehead and shifting painfully from one foot to the other.  Karma, people.  It’s a thing.

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When I got to the hotel, my colleagues were all at the bar.  Some had also gone shopping and bought hair pins and jewelry, and silk things.  We ended up at a nicer restaurant inside the hotel, a sort of celebration. I had jellyfish soup, which came as a thin, creamy white broth of garlic and enoki mushrooms and strings of sliced jellyfish.  It was really delicious–jellyfish just tastes like slightly undercooked rice noodles, it turns out.

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I chatted with the colleague sitting next to me about my disappointment in the silk market.  She was familiar with Beijing and told me that it used to be a real market but that modernization and globalization had put pressure on the area to build up and become a centre for tourism with modern amenities, and that many of the traditional markets had been torn down.  She said that was probably what happened with the Chang’an market as well–that it may not have even been there anymore.  A quick Google tells me that’s most likely true.  I wondered for a moment if my reaction was a product of exoticism, if I wanted to see an old-fashioned market just for the sake of the spectacle.  But I think my motives are pure; after all, there are these traditional markets in Finland, and the best thing about them is the people who do their everyday shopping there, who build up a relationship with the vendors, and who understand that these vendors care about their product and their customers.  I too do my Saturday morning shopping at the Hakaniemenhalli, not because it’s a novelty, but because it’s everyday, and it’s a community.  It’s a beautiful symbiosis of care, and while I did want to try as many outrageous foods as possible, I feel a consonance with Andrew Zimmern and Alton Brown, who had a discussion about this on one of their podcasts.  They agreed that they both aren’t in the business for the food; at some level, it’s not the food that matters.  It’s the people, and their stories and history and traditions and everyday lives.

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This is also an explanation for why I don’t have pictures of the tea shops or the subway or the rickshaws filled with apricots or the street kiosks selling corn cobs or the picnic tables lined with pots of drinkable yogurt.  These things, to me, aren’t things I should be photographing. They’re not things to be watched, they’re things to be done.  Life is not a spectator sport, and I’m not the audience: I’m a team member.  It’s more important to me to be a part of this life even for a moment, and for me, taking photos removes me from the scene.  I become an observer, not a doer, a construct of omniscience rather than an agent within the environment.  It’s important for me to interact, and to be.

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Monday we left the hotel early and took taxis to Beijing Normal University, not too far away, for another symposium on playful learning in conjunction with Rovio, the company that built Angry Birds.  The campus was just as stunning as Peking University, and a couple of guides led us to the second floor of a large, beautiful building decorated with stone and marble.  In the symposium room we each had a stack of booklets, a name plate, water bottle, Angry Birds plushie keychain, and a large lidded Gaiwan-style cup emblazoned with the BNU seal with green tea pearls at the bottom.  After we were seated, two girls in uniforms came in and filled our cups with hot water from a large thermos and continued refilling them at intervals throughout the day.

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The professors in our group had private meetings in the late afternoon, so we split up.  One colleague and I decided to go to the Forbidden City near Tiananmen Square.  There was a security check on the sidewalk to even get into the area–they checked our visas as well as the x-ray bag scanner.  We found out from a woman in line near us that the Forbidden City was closed on Mondays, but right next to it lay the Zhongshan Gardens, which cost only 3 yuan to enter (€0.44).  We saw most of it, but it took a few hours.  The sun was just beginning to set and the light fell stunningly on the terrace walkways, the creek and willows.  Finally we went back to the hotel and couldn’t find the rest of the group, so we ended up having a quiet dinner at a restaurant nearby.  Nothing too exciting for the last night–I had a pot of glass noodles in chili broth, which hit the spot.

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We left for the airport just before 7am and arrived with plenty of time to spare.  I bought some candies to take back to the lab and a few sheets of paper cuts for decoration and gifts.  The flight was extra long because we sat on the runway for an hour before takeoff, and the effect of flying west in midday is that time simply stops. The light doesn’t change for eight hours, and it’s a weird sort of limbo.  I took several naps, finished my book, wrote some letters.  The man sitting behind me kept kicking and shaking the back of my seat, so maybe it felt even longer than it should have.  It was only just 4pm when I got home, and I kind of lazed around a bit.  I wasn’t tired at all on Wednesday, perhaps because I had a lot to do.  But Thursday was a normal day, and I’ve been unexpectedly sleepy.

Summer has suddenly come to Finland while we were gone, and it’s now warm and sunny.  The air has never smelled fresher or cleaner.  Tulips and daffodils line the sidewalks, and flowering trees are opening up their blossoms.  The saniaset , which were just getting momentum in unfurling their bottoms when we left, are now waist-high and stretching towards the sun.  Birds are chirping nonstop, and it’s not fully dark out until past eleven.  All the terraces are open and people dare to walk around without coats and hats.  Summer is here.

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I always have a mentally sore, stretched feeling after I travel, as if the brain and mind need recovery time as much as muscles after strenuous exercise.  But more than anything, it’s a feeling of openness and wideness, that I can now see things in the world that were opaque to me before.  If learning to understand another language feels like tuning a radio, experiencing another culture feels like wiping away frost from a window, and occasionally opening the window entirely to reach through.  There is so much to experience in the world, and I wish more people had the opportunity, but in the meantime, I think it’s important to share the stories we do have and remember those moments of contact.

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