Friday, November 9, 2007

Zhuhai to Shenzhen

The school held a big campus-wide sports event on Thursday and Friday — students from the various departments competed against each other in various games — so C***o, R****i, and I took advantage of the cancelation of classes to travel to Shenzhen — the huge, thriving city that was the first of China's Special Economic Zones — and Hong Kong. After my travel travails earlier in the week, I was perfectly willing to let the two of them arrange the itinerary and handle the bookings.

We took an early-morning bus to Zhuhai, where we caught a high-speed ferry for the hour-long voyage to Shenzhen . . .

. . . where we were met at the ferry terminal by Mr. Gao, a colleague of Ling's and C***o's from back when Ling was teaching at Jilin University. He took us to a swanky hotel for lunch at a fancy buffet that was loaded with not only Chinese dishes but other Asian fare like salmon sashimi, maki, and Malaysian skewers as well as a few Western items. Just for variety, I supplemented my selection of Asian food with a plate of leafy lettuce from the salad bar and several rolls from the bread basket (crusty bread is one of the things I've missed here the most). It was the first time I'd used a knife and fork in five weeks.

We then were given a brief tour of downtown Shenzhen, which was enough to confirm what I'd read about the city: Compared to the rest of China, it's a soulless place that's given itself over to Mammon. Since being designated an SEZ iun 1979, it's burgeoned from a tiny fishing village to a metropolis of over 9 million. With a few horizontal exceptions like a massive government bulding and an even larger exhibition hall, the central area is nothing but office towers. Even the most modern sections of central Beijing and Shanghai have older structures interspersed among the new ones; but without the signage, there'd be nothing much in downtown Shenzhen to indicate that you were in China — or anyplace in particular. It's even largely barren of the subtropical plam trees that are everywhere else in the region.

Gao is dean of Shenzhen University's International Office. The school was founded in 1983 and Gao joined the faculty in 1987, which makes him something of a pioneer here. He proudly showed us around the campus, which is quite a contrast with the college in Zhuhai where I'm teaching: Unlike the sterile, utilitarian architecture, sparse and unimaginative landscaping, and flattened topography of Jilin University Zhuhai College, SZU has an impressive variety of buildings, plenty of trees lining the streets (including a small section of forest they left intact in the center of the campus), and gentle hills that don't impede the students' bicycles. Where the dormitories in Zhuhai are identical, massive barracks lined up next to one another, the ones at SZU are smaller facilities scattered around the grounds. Even the artificial lake — a requisite for campuses here, I'm guessing — is genuinely charming, unlike Zhuhai's rather dull version. Around 30,000 students are enrolled, about twice as many as JUZC.

The library was the campus's very first building, constructed in 1987, and the exterior is remarkably like the Brutalist style of Walter Nesch's libraries at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago from the same period.

The growth of the university has been such that they're constructing a new library, across from the existing one; Gao said the old facility will continue to be used once the new one opens.

Inside, the library looked much like modern ones in the States (and better-maintained than many). It holds well over 3 million volumes, along with many electronic resourses — another vast contrast with Zhuhai College (whose library I've been embarrassed to blog about, although I expect to get to it before I leave).

I would like to have taken a full tour of the library, but that wasn't high on anyyone else's agenda. I did notice a lot of public-access computers, OPACs, and these self-checkout stations.

Gao put us up overnight in the dorm that houses international students as well as foreign faculty — and this was one area in which Zhuhai seesm to outshine SZU: My faculty apartment in Zhuhai is new and spacious, but this room was something of a dump. True, it was on one of the students' floors, but I got the impression that the faculty quarters were little better. And I was unpleasantly surprised by something I'd never expect in Zhuhai: rowdy students carousing until well after midnight. I was told the next morning that they were the international dorm's Korean students; the behavior did strike me as very un-Chinese (or at least un-Chinese-student) .

After settling into our rooms, we went out to explore the surroundings outside the campus. While C***o and R****i browsed at a department store, I wandered the streets, but I didn't find any markets or particularly interesting shops (of course, it's all relative — if this were my initial visit to China, I'm sure I would have found every storefront fascinating; but at this point it takes more than a kitschy botique or a downhome-looking restuarant to divert me. The only thing I found worth photographing was this fellow selling pastries he made on a burner on the back of his bicycle.

I'd been hoping to do some serious shopping while in Shenzhen —there's an area near the border where Hong Kong residents, as well as foreigners like me, come to buy cheap knockoff clothing and DVDs; but once again, that wasn't on anyone's agenda but mine. And unfortunately, I don't foresee coming back to Shenzhen, at least not on this visit to China.

I met up with C***o and R****i at a Yunan restaurant where we had a simple dinner of noodles, and then we headed back to our dorm and turned in early so we could get an early start the next morning (for all the good that did us, thanks to the noisy students).

Next: Shenzhen to Hong Kong.

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