Wednesday, May 20, 2015

China 2015 | Arrival in China

Billy Spitzer, Ph.D., is Vice President for Programs, Planning, and Exhibits at the New England Aquarium and Principal Investigator for the Aquarium’s climate change education initiatives. He is traveling to China on invitation from the U.S. State Department to discuss the Aquarium's climate change education work with several aquariums and zoos. 

I was recently invited by the US State Dept to travel to China to share our climate change education work with aquariums, zoos, and museums in China. (Learn more about the Aquarium's climate change education initiatives here and here.) The trip will take me to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chengdu, and then back to Beijing.

Along the way I will be meeting with officials from the local US consulates, and meeting and giving talks to education staff and the public. At first, I had was a little skeptical about whether a visit like this could have an impact given the language and cultural challenges, but I think this is a particularly interesting time to visit China given the recent US-China agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. Hopefully it will result in some new collaborations.

Beijing is very warm, smoggy and overcast. A walk around the neighborhood near the hotel reveals a mix of tall buildings, small shops, and a local rollerblading team getting some laps in around the park.

Beijing neighborhood

Local rollerblading team

Guangzhou (also known as Canton, and the source of much Chinese cuisine in the US) is a city of more than 10 million, and one of the Chinese cities most open to foreign trade and business. It has grown extremely rapidly in the last decade, with large areas of the city built only recently.

I made it through my first full day of engagements today – talks morning (Guangzhou zoo and aquarium staff), afternoon (museum staff from all around the region gathered at the Guandong Provincial Museum), and evening (public lecture at the consulate). The first two talks involved a translator, which was interesting, in terms of how to simplify language and pause for her to translate. The weather is very warm, humid, and swampy (like Washington, DC, in the summer) but there is finally a bit of sunshine today and I can see the city from the huge windows in the hotel tower.

The bright Guangzhou skyline at night in the clouds

In touring the zoo, I was able to see chimpanzees, lemurs , white pandas and redtailed pandas, langurs, tigers, camels, elephants, etc. and got to feed the giraffes (which was really fun—including feeding some little ones). The zoo, built in the 1950s and being renovated, was a mix of old (a bit depressing) and some new. The aquarium was interesting, and had some nice exhibits, and even a mermaid show in one of their larger tanks (two women in swim suits with tails holding their breath and swimming around).

Feeding the giraffes at Guangzhou Zoo
The big tank at the Guangzhou Aquarium

Giving the talk was an interesting experience in learning about the hierarchy of a government run zoo in China. The key people were the zoo director (who made introductory remarks and asked some questions) and the local party secretary (who said nothing and vanished quickly afterwards, only to reappear afterwards for lunch). I managed to eke some questions out of the staff, but they were pretty quiet – probably a combination of the language barrier, hierarchy, and the nature of the subject matter.

Explaining climate change impacts to the zoo staff,
pausing frequently for the interpreter (on the right) to translate

After the talk and some gift exchanging and photos, I was invited out to lunch by the zoo folks at a nearby restaurant. We went into an elaborate private room with an enormous round table with a huge lazy susan turntable in the center. I was escorted to the seat of honor facing the door. There were all sorts of protocols about who sat where, who ate first, and so on. More and more platters of food started emerging and landing on the tray, all very beautifully presented and most of it quite good (I passed on the duck tongues and preserved duck eggs though). Then the drinking started. I pretty much declined as I had to give two more talks, and wasn’t really interested in drinking the baijiu (a Chinese grain alcohol which smells like lighter fluid, comes in the kind of metal bottle you would see for kerosene, and is served from beakers—just like you would use in chemistry lab). The zoo director and the party official started getting more talkative and sociable.

Eventually we staggered out (and I think the zoo folks went back for an afternoon nap) and left for the Guandong Provincial Museum, a huge modern building with exhibits on many topics including Chinese ceramics, natural history, history, artwork and a temporary exhibit on Cambodia (including many Buddhas and very beautiful and intricate small figurines). For my talk, staff had come from museums all around the province, some having traveled as much as 7-8 hours to get there. The audience was very interested in how museums can address social issues, and asked many insightful questions.

Answering questions at the Guandong Provincial Museum

The day wrapped up with a public lecture at the US Consulate. It was an interesting mix, with a number of young journalism students who were really interested in how China can address climate change. There was a lot of discussion about how to reconcile environmental protection and economic development, which seems like the big challenge for China and other rapidly developing countries – how can they make progress without making all the mistakes that developed countries have made?

Evening public lecture at the consulate. Booths to the right are used
during the day for visa applications, apparently this consulate
provides the most US visas in China.

Billy will be sending periodic updates throughout his trip. Check back here for more updates.  

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