A Constructive Summer
Room 409 in Block 4 of the new dormitory complex at United International College is a cozy room sleeping two; the building is so new that it is not even finished yet. It is substantially finished, meaning it will not fall over, and the fundamental pieces of its construction are complete. The windows shut, the doors lock, and all the furniture is installed. The walls are scuffed, however, because a paiting crew has not been around to paint them, and the tile floor in the hallway needs to be finished. The floor in room 409 is finished, but appears as if the college finished construction the moment before moving in the students. The furniture is assembled, but the drawers in the desk, armoire, and under the bed still have woodchips and other construction related debris lying on the bottom. The floor in the room needs a good sweeping as construction worker footprints can still be seen on the tile, and large piles of concrete dust and tile grout sit on either side of the armoire. In short, the building may not look sharp, but it is livable.
The room is small and crowded, and with three beds and desks. The other new buildings are still under construction so 409 has an excess of furniture because some of the rooms need to house three instead of the customary two. Two of the beds are bunked and sit opposite the window and balcony door. The two desks perpendicular to the bunked beds are separated only by a water cooler, the kind that might be found in an office, which serves up the only drinkable water in the room. Against the window is another desk and bed that looks into the adjoining room, 411. The concept of adjoining rooms doesn’t work very well as the excessive furniture blocks any and all movement between the two rooms. There is no open flow of traffic betweent the two rooms.411 is a mirrored image of room 409 and all of the furniture is made from the same maple-looking particle board, except the bed, which is really not much more than a sheet of plywood made up with blankets and a mattress pad bolted atop a cabinet like fixture with three drawers and two magnetic doors. Another desk sits outside on the balcony, apparently 411 decided to put their extra desk out there, and it will make for a great place to do homework or talk on skype while the rest of the room is asleep.
The bathroom is the first thing seen when entering the room. A frosted glass door separates the bathroom from the rest of the room, and a metallic latch on the inside keeps it closed. Contents of the bathroom include a lockerroom-style shower stall, but with a better showerhead, separated from the toilet and sink by a sheet of the same frosted glass as the door. No curtain, no door, only a sheet of glass just long enough to keep the shower water from spraying all over the sink and toilet. The sink is a plain looking stainless steel basin with a simple faucet. It seems pretty standard and reasonable for a dormitory, but when turned on it yields only a slow trickle of water, if anything at all. The floor in the bathroom is even dirtier than that of the actual room. Made from blue tile, there is a think layer of sandy soot: a mixture of grout, concrete and a myriad of other mystery dusts, covering the entire surface.
A large basin sits attached to the wall above the showerhead with highly insulated hoses jutting out from the wall into it. On the front face of the basin there is an oblong shaped object that looks something like a gas gague and a dial on the side with one end marked with a snowflake and the other marked 75°. It is turned all the way to the 75° mark. Apparently this is where hot water comes from. Part of the things still apparently on the list to complete in the building process is getting the water supply working properly. Until Saturday the shower barely squeezed out any water at all, and on Friday it was entirely shut off. Going into monday, the sink’s water pressure still hasn’t really kicked in.
Looking out the window presents a picture of the massive construction project that is blocks four and five of this complex. The whole scene contrasts sharply with any kind of construction project in the United States. The site begins right outside the entrance to block 4 and spreads all the way to the hill behind the dorms and is a massive expanse of high piled stacks of lumber, and piles of steel beams and rebar scattered around a large temporary building with a steel roof situated in the center of the commotion. There are maybe a hundred wheelbarrows tainted a greyish color from the cement they are designed to haul. Workers are running around this site, moving wood from one pile of lumber to the other, handing off wheelbarrows and other odd tasks. A buzzing noise can be heard from beneath the central site and a glance in its direction reveals a hardworking construction worker busily welding something. It is difficult to tell what exactly is being welded, but the flash is blinding, even from this distance.
The construction method described supra is typical of the work being done around this complex of dorms. The road leading up to the complex is also under construction and there is a high volume of life threatening activity giong on down there including more roadside welding, high pressure spray painting, and trench digging, presumably for the college’s sewage system. For most of these activities the workers are wearing the appropriate protective equipment, welding shields, face masks for painting, closed toed shoes for working with brick and shovels. The casual passersby do not have such luxuries, however, and walk through these areas completely unprotected, unshielded form the noxious fumes, bright flashes of light and flying brick. All of this construction seems haphazard and spur of the moment; as if someone suddenly told the supervisor there needed to be a sewage trench running across the path and that the crew needed to tear up the paver-stone path they just finished lying down to add it. The path running up to block four has been paved, torn up and repaved several times within the last two weeks and the path running from the complex to the campus has been torn up in at least a half dozen different places at various times this week.
All of this construction generates a genuine sense of appreciation for the regulations and safety precautions taken back home. Suddenly the idea of slowing down and diverting traffic down to one lane to fix some part of the road is no longer an inconvenience; neither does the idea of having a construction site completely blocked off, and higly secured seem exclusive and mysterious, even things as trivial as “wet paint” signs, alerting the possibility of paint-to-clothing or paint-to-face transfer, or “watch your step” signs, cautioning against immediately changing or uneven surfaces, have a renewed appreciation. China answers the question of why these things exist back home. It is not because people are stupid that “watch your step” signs are put, it is because when casually walking around, say, a college campus, it is easy to simply not notice a storm drain jutting out of the path, or a few missing paver stones amidst the rest of the path. Construction is finished before opening a road because it’s less inconvenient to keep a road closed than to bottleneck traffic through random parts of the road for extended periods of time. Jackhammering slabs of limestone out of the ground is not done outside of a place where people live because the dust wafting into people’s rooms is unhealthy to breathe.
The haphazard and hasty manufacture process exhibited at the construction sites is prototypical of the planning and management style at UIC (and possibly China in general?). This week a massive scheduling debacle in the Academic Registry’s office led to the Chinese class for international students to undergo a major rescheduling that involved comparing timetables and figuring out a time that worked for everyone, which, once agreed upon needed to be thrown out yet again when one of the students’ other classes had a similar scheduling conflict. It’s unclear how a scheudling problem like this occurs in the first place, and even more unclear how it isn’t caught until the end of the second week of classes but by the end of the day Sunday, the Chinese class, at least, is still unsure whether it will have one or two hours of class, if any at all, on Monday.
Monday rolls around and the Chinese class is interrupted when a sudden barrage of teachers from many different disciplines who apparently are supposed to have a meeting in that room. Ten minutes after class the teacher announces that for the rest of the semester class will be on Monday and Thursday, not Monday and Friday, as was originally the case. Class will be in the same classroom both days, which is helpful as most classes not only meet at different times, but also different places from day to day. The entire concept of time is worlds apart from the American concept of time. All students are expected to be in class, and on time, but meetings outside of class may not be announced until hours before they start, and sometimes are cancelled and rescheduled at the last minute.
Everything from cosntruction projects to meeting schedules seems to move quickly and randomly here. An article in The New Yorker suggests that this may be a distinctly Chinese style of infrastructure development and not unique to this college. The article, “Fobidden Cities,” written by Paul Goldberger describes the history of Beijing’s urban development. An architecht he spoke with said that “Beijing is incredibly strong in its ability to completely override its own history and yet not surrender its identity.” He describes new construction projects in the city in terms of how it reflects the changing culture of the city, rather than the historical qualities of the city. Old Beijing, he writes, was designed to cater to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Getting around Beijing in the 1930s, for example would have been difficult by car because Old Beijing “has turned out to be a bad framework on which to construct a modern city.” In stead of trying to adapt the city, or leave it the way it is, as many cities in Europe and the United States do, and protecting the historical layout of the city, Beijing tears up half the city. An article in the most recent issue of the Chinese equivalent of National Geographic shows this kind of development by way of aerial photographs going back fifty years.
In many ways, the highly centralized government is the reason things work this way. City planning is a lot easier when you don’t have to deal with the beuraucratic hassle of republican government. When you do not need hours of mind-numbing debate to agnoize over the placement of a new freeway, or the construction of the world’slargest hydro-electric plant, it is a lot easier to get the greenlight to build them. At UIC this means that four dormitories housing several hundred students allowing the school to grow it’s population at an incredibly fast rate were built in just one summer (the plan was six, but four is still better than any school of this size back home). To the uninitiated, a walk around UIC probably doens’t resemble a school that is only three years old. The school has over 3,500 students, and will graduate its first class ever next spring; the rapid development of the college is due to its direct public funding and ability to build quickly. Whereas a similar school in the US might need to raise funds and petition the various constituencies at the college before building, UIC can just build.
Update (11/7/2008): On my way back from lunch this afternoon there was a loud explosion coming from the direction of a highway tunnel dig located near campus. I’m pretty sure the people would have been notified if something was going to explode in their neighborhood back home. It’s definitely a learning experience.