The Global China Connection Conference (…continued)
As I walked through New York’s Penn Station I had a sense of déjà vu. The physical structure of the place hasn’t changed much, nor has the atmosphere. Like most big city train stations — not including China’s super modern new high speed rail stations — it’s an old building, with people from every walk of life and stratum of society on the move through it, including some street sleepers and drunks who are not on the move.
I paid the US$33 for my round trip train ticket for the 90-minute (each way) journey, and waited at the gate for the train conductor’s boarding call. Once on board, I chose a window seat on the side of the train car facing west. Once again a sense of déjà vu — this train trip was a familiar one in my school days, but that was more than 30 years ago.
I was curious to see what had changed, and what had not. I had my notebook out, thinking ahead to today, anticipating that I would draw on my notes and impressions when writing this blog post. My eyes and attention were glued to the view outside the train as we pulled out of Penn Station and headed south into northern New Jersey.
One interesting difference between train travel and air or automobile travel is the optical illusion which makes it look as if outside objects closer to the train tracks are whooshing past you at a faster pace than objects located further away from the tracks.
This illusion is more pronounced from a train window rather than a car window because train tracks are much narrower than highways, so trees, lamp posts, fences, buildings, etc. are much closer to the train’s window than they are to a car window on a typical highway. As a result this optical illusion is amplified while riding in a train versus in a car.
This phenomenon is due to the way our eyes work, because of course the train is passing by all external objects or structures at the same speed, whether they are near or far from the tracks. But the perceived effect is quite different.
It’s interesting to reflect on how we perceive things in general. We all have certain biases and prejudices we have acquired along the way, and no doubt these tend to filter the way we interpret and understand what we observe. Perhaps this is a kind of corollary to the optical illusion effect which is so obvious from a train window.
There I sat, deeply absorbed in the northern New Jersey landscape, mixed urban and suburban, interspersed with industrial, and eventually more rural and some agricultural scenes. Other than more derelict factory buildings than I remember from times past, nothing seemed to me to have changed that much.
The great city of Trenton still proclaims its motto: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” Trenton was once the home of the world’s largest maker of fortune cookies, very widely served in Chinese restaurants in America yet unknown in China, a fact which surprises most Americans.
Gradually my ears caught up with my eyes in being awake. In the early morning rush to the train, I’d only had time for one cup of coffee. I began to experience a very strange sensation, as my attention shifted a bit from staring out the window to noticing what was going on inside of the train car.
There was a sound which gave me a familiar feeling, which at the same time seemed very out of place. I realized that many of my fellow passengers were speaking Chinese.
I looked up, and opposite me were two young women chatting away in Putonghua. Beyond and behind them were at least another 10 or 12 young people, all nicely dressed, also speaking Mandarin. For a moment, this was profoundly disorienting.
Wham. Bang. Maybe nothing had changed outside the train window, but something really big had changed on the inside. I don’t recall ever hearing Chinese spoken during this train ride in my school days, or at least not Mandarin. Cantonese or Taishan dialect, maybe. There just weren’t that many Chinese people around in those days, especially Mandarin speakers, outside of New York’s Chinatown.
My god, I thought, Chinese people really have taken over the world, even New Jersey!
I faced a slight dilemma. My initial instinct was to say “Hello” to the two college-aged women sitting next to me, and strike up a good neighborly conversation in Chinese. They were still chattering away, completely unaware and unlikely to guess that I could understand what they were saying.
On second thought it seemed kind of odd to strike up a conversation under the circumstances. I don’t normally talk to strangers across the aisle on trains or airplanes, and they were busily talking to each other. So what’s the point? I decided to mind my own business. (I silently thought I might later change my mind if one of them said something about “that old fart across the aisle” or some such; but this never came to pass.) I kept looking out the window.
By the time we arrived at Princeton, all the young Chinese passengers got off, and I eventually realized that many of them were also delegates to the GCC conference. The largest group was from Tsinghua University.
The Princeton campus is very pretty, and despite a lot of new buildings, looked very familiar. A representative from GCC met me at the train station and we walked across the snowy campus to the Woodrow Wilson School.
When I arrived at the conference hall I was surprised to find that the majority of the 200 or so delegates were ethnic Chinese students, many originally from the Chinese mainland. They spoke excellent English and carried themselves with poise and maturity. The non ethnic Chinese spoke good Chinese. This was a very bright group of young people.
The conference was extremely well organized — all through the hard work and effort of undergraduate student volunteers. Very impressive.
I think my presentation went fairly well. Readers interested in seeing it on video can click on this link:
I praised the organizers for the great job they were doing, not only with the conference but with helping each other better understand China’s developing relationship with the world, and to chart rewarding and productive career paths.
On the train trip back to New York that evening, my head was full of thoughts about how dramatically China’s integration with the world generally, and America in particular, has progressed since my school days. This is a very important development, with positive implications for the future.