This is a description of my trip to China in January 2007 from my book titled, “Sakai: Free as in Freedom”.
It would be my first trip to China and I would be accompanied by Zhen Qian from the University of Michgan. Zhen was a senior Sakai developer at the University of Michigan responsible for the Site Setup and Assignment tools. We figured that we needed a native Chinese speaker on the trip to make sure that the meetings were very productive.
Zhen had been involved in Sakai from the beginning and was an expert in Sakai from a programmer perspective as well as the open source governance perspective. Zhen made all of the travel arrangements and set up all of the meetings. I knew that I was mostly coming along as the symbolic ‘chief’ while Zhen would do most of the talking and answer most of the questions.
Here was our schedule
1/15: Beijing Normal University
1/16: Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication
1/17: Beijing University
1/18: China Open Resources for Education(CORE)
1/18: afternoon flight from Beijing to Wuhan
1/19: Huazhong Normal University
1/21: Flight from Wuhan to Shanghai
1/22: Shanghia Jiaotong University
1/23: Huadong Normal University
This trip was going to be a lot of fun for me as my job was pretty simple with Zhen as my guide.
The pattern for most of the meetings consisted of me giving a talk in English and answering a few questions and then we would go into a room with the leadership from each university and have in-depth discussions where Zhen would do all of the talking in Chinese. I was completely comfortable because I knew that Zhen and I were on the same page.
I was struck by the fact that the notion of open source was somewhat foreign to most of the people we spoke with. China was clearly inerested in opportunities to make money and we were pressured to sign some kind of ‘exclusive’ arrangement for distribution of Sakai in China. I kept reiterating that in an open source project, the notion of ‘exclusive distributor’ made no sense. It was cool to see the level of entrepreneurial activity at each of the universities we visited.
Outside the meetings, Zhen and I had a lot of fun. Because she was a native Chinese speaker, and very familiar with the cities we were visiting, we would often go off on some kind of adventure well off the beaten path.
One evening after we finished our discussions at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication (BUPT), Zhen decided she wanted a haircut. She claimed that the only people who could cut her hair properly were barbers in China. So we stopped into a hair salon so she could get a haircut. Zhen decided that I should get a head massage so I would not be bored while she got her hair cut. The woman who gave me the head massage had extremely strong fingers. While I was getting my head massaged, I could watch Zhen getting her hair cut and talking to her stylist. After a while I got the sense she was telling the entire story of our trip, who I was and what we were doing in China.
After a while her stylist started talking about me and pointing at me and it appeared that Zhen and the stylist were making some sort of plans. Of course, not knowing any Chinese, I had no idea what the detail of the plans might be. After Zhen’s hair cut and my head massage were finished, Zhen came over and told me that the stylist had suggested that she get a facial. Zhen said that I could wait or I could get a facial as well.
So we both went into the back room and were treated to an hour of face massage, some kind of skin peel, cleaning, steming, hot towels, the whole nine yards. It was great and it felt great. Zhen and I were in the back of the salon and we were talking on and on about Sakai, the trip and lots of other topics.
Afterwards, my skin felt great. I can see why people like facials and spa treatments the make you feel great. Perhaps I will get another facial sometime when no one is watching.
In another of our adventures, I wanted to buy a fake Mont Blanc pen. As you walk around in tourist areas, you are continuously approached by people selling you knock-offs of brand name items. But with Zhen as my guide, we actually went through a bunch of alleys to the little stores where they had a much wider selection of counterfeit items. I limited my purchase to a few fake Mont Blanc pens that actually broke even before we got back to the United States. It was fun to have a local guide.
Our trip was planned across three cities so I got to see a number of different views of China. And Zhen always had built in a litte spare time so we could explore each city.
Beijing is the traditional city with beautiful classic architecture. We visited Tiananmen Square, and toured the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace.
Our second stop was the City of Wuhan. Wuhan is a large and modern city and very crowded. It was an study in contrasts. Most of the automobiles were old and produced a lot of exhaust fumes which left a haze over most of the streets. But the stores were very nice with an amazing array of products and food items.
Our last city of our visit was Shanghai. Shanghai is an amazingly modern and impressive city. One day, we took a trip on the Shanghai Maglev Train. The Maglev train has a top speed of 258 miles per hour and travels between downtown Shanghai and the airport. Since we wanted to take a ride, we just booked a round trip ticket where we would get off at the airport and get back on for the ride back downtown. The train was very fast and since it was ‘floating’ on the magnetic fields, it moved from side to side with bouncing off the vertical magnetic fields that kept the train in the middle of the tracks.
Overall you got the feeling that you were not really connected to anything but you were flying along at almost 300 miles per hour. It felt like a very fast, flat roller coaster. It was very fun and exciting but it was not particularly relaxing because it was a little scary.