Capn's Blog

Friday, January 25, 2008

Finishing work, now for the visa

I have two pieces of news. The first is that I finished working at my company today. Although the deadline we were working under was extremely tight, the team worked very hard and very well together, and the goal was reached. I feel proud of having been a part of this team.

The second news is that the invitation from 大连理工大学 (Dalian University of Technology) has arrived. What that means is that I can now apply for my visa. I'm not sure how I'm going to fit that in with the conference next week, but we'll see what happens.

I'm really under time pressure here! I have a placement exam at the university on February 29, and I'm flying out on February 24. After the conference, I have three weeks to fix everything up at home, and study Chinese like crazy!

Feeling very nervous!


Saturday, January 19, 2008


One way of lightening the weight of baggage when travelling is to take something which can do two (or more) jobs. For example, it's really no fun to have a bottle of something that needs opening, but you have no bottle opener. So it's a good idea to carry one. But for only a small increase in weight, you can take a multi-purpose tool that opens bottles, but does so much more. This picture shows one like I'm taking.

Electronic things are another good chance to double up on functions, and it applies not just to baggage, but everyday use. There are two areas I'm hoping to do this with:


Here are the things I will be using my phone for. (I already use it for most of these functions):
  • Camera (it's 2MP and good enough for everyday shots, as my Wilson's Promontory blog article shows).
  • File storage (2Gb card, which I can take out and put in someone's PC to copy files). I also use it for my spreadsheets of financial information, website passwords, photos of passport, credit cards, account details, ticket photos, etc, in case I lose them. It's all encrypted of course, so if I lose my phone, that information is not revealed to people.
  • Chinese character learning tool. I wrote my own program to help me learn and practice Chinese characters.
  • MP3 player, video player (I don't use these at the moment, but it may be useful for my course later).
  • Alarm clock, address book, countdown timer, calendar, and TO-DO list.
I think the biggest weight saving is in renot taking a separate camera, if I'm willing to put up with a drop in image quality, and poor low-light performance.


As well as doing the boring stuff such as email, chat and websurfing, I want a computer with Chinese input to work on assignments, and to use as a dictionary. The latter two don't need an internet connection. It would be really useful to take the computer with me to class, to a study room, downtown, etc. But one problem is that like most average laptops, the size of my laptop is just too large to carry conveniently. So I have been thinking about getting a smaller laptop for my trip.

The one I'm looking at is the ASUS Eee PC. I went to look at one in the shop today. It's seriously small! There are several good things about it:
  • Really small, this is something that can be easily thrown into a schoolbag.
  • Quite cheap as far as laptops go, about US$500 for the top model.
  • Has Chinese input.
  • Has English/Chinese dictionaries built in.
  • Uses Linux, which I'm very familiar with.
The biggest negative things are:
  • The size of the screen, only 7" from corner to corner.
  • The size of the keyboard. Those keys really are tiny! It's only just possible to touch-type on it, and when I tried it out today, I found that when I wanted to press the right Shift key, I always hit the up arrow instead. Still, people say they get used to it after a while.
Here are some pictures. I've tried to choose the pictures to really give an idea of how small it is.

An over-all view. The thing's about as wide as two hands next to each other.

Here's the Eee put on top of a regular laptop.

Here's someone's hand near the keys. That's not some giant freak of nature holding it, that's a regular person's hand. Fitting both hands onto the keyboard is a real squeeze.

Having said that,I really want one. Not sure whether to get it here, in Hong Kong, or in Beijing...

Continuing on with the theme of multi-purpose gadgets, I think the Eee, with an external keyboard and hard disk, might be able to do all the things I want a computer to do, plus I can take it with me to school, on the bus, etc, and if I get stuck with something, I can use it as a dictionary.

I'm almost certain I'll get one.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Going to China V: Vaccination

I went for my vaccinations today, against tetanus, polio, typhoid, pertussis and diptheria. My arm is a little sore, but I'm one step closer to China. Yay, I can cross something off! :-)


Going to China IV: Travel plans

I organised my tickets last Friday. So far my itinerary looks like this:

  • Depart Melbourne 1535 on Feb 24 arriving at Hong Kong 2145. Stay one night and day, visiting my mother-in-law.
  • Depart Hong Kong 1655 on Feb 25 arriving at Beijing 2010. Stay one night and day, visiting my Beijing friend.
  • Depart Beijing 2157 Feb 26 on the train, arriving at Dalian 0805. I'll be met at the station by someone from the company.
  • Depart Dalian 1825 on July 15 arriving at Hong Hong 22:05. Stay another night and day with my mother-in-law.
  • Depart Hong Kong 1915 on July 16 arriving Melbourne 0620. Happy day!
Apart from the joy of seeing my family again, I think the most enjoyable thing will be sleeping in my own comfy bed again.


Going to China III: Preparation

I'm going to be living in a foreign country for several months. I want to do whatever I can to make sure I'm prepared for it. I have been reading internet forums about living there, and asking people for their advice. And I have bought a notebook where I put my planning notes, so far adding about two or three every day. I have two categories:

"What to do before I go"

For example, fix the broken window frames, mulch all the garden beds, make sure all the insurance and my will is up-to-date, tidy the garage and several junk-filled rooms in the house, go to the dentist, have a haircut, arrange for continuing mortgage payments, put away all my beer-making stuff, get vaccinated, arrange a fee-free credit card so I can get money in China, get the possum out of the roof(!), put insulation in the roof, clip the nails of the guinea pigs, trim the trees outside, spray the weeds so they don't grow back, fix the holes in the flywire screens, replace any blown light bulbs in the house, return books I've borrowed from Greg, trim the hedge, fix the broken upholstry under the couch, and spray the perimeter of the house with bug spray. What a list! I think I've ticked off two so far, but the list keeps growing.

"What to take"

Here's a partial list: Deodorant (apparently it's hard to get. One person I emailed told me, "they don't believe in it"!), shaver, traveller's cheques, credit card, tissues, toilet paper, gifts, coffee, drugs for pain, asthma, fibre, nasal drops for hay fever and colds, anti-diarrhoea pills, vitamins, my pillow (I get neck-aches unless I have my pillow), first-aid, moisturiser, lip balm, sunscreen, phrase book, multi-purpose tool, cassette player (the school still uses tapes), batteries, battery charger, gloves, hat, coat, raincoat, computer (I'm thinking of getting a newer, much smaller one), card reader, shampoo, Vegemite, sunglasses, and Tabasco.

So far, I haven't been able to cross any of these off! So the lists get longer and longer and longer. (It's not as bad as it looks - the second list will be ticked off as I pack them into my suitcase).

How can I possibly get all this done before I go???


Going to China II: My job

I've been thinking of going to study in China for several years, but it never seemed to be the right time. At the end of last August, my previous company decided to change its business, and as a result, the team I was in was disbanded. At that time, I was considering the China idea, but didn't feel comfortable making such a big decision so quickly. Meanwhile, word got out that I was available, and another company made me an offer I couldn't refuse. But before I accepted with them, I told the boss that I was considering this China decision, and that I'd know what I wanted to do around January. Knowing this, he still wanted to employ me, and I've been working there since then.

There are a number of dates which are driving my timetable:
  • School starts in Dalian on March 1, and I need time to travel there and settle in.
  • I want to spend a few weeks at home fixing up the gardens, doing handyman things, and revising my rusty Chinese.
  • There's a Linux conference during the week of January 28-February 1.
  • The date for finishing my three-month probation with this new company ends on January 25.
  • The team I'm part of are desperately working to finish some software ready for January 21.
For that reason, I chose January 25 as my last day, and told the boss about it on December 28. Surprisingly, he wasn't angry. In fact, he said to me "you don't have to resign, you can just take a 'leave of absence'". Knowing they have appreciated me being there, plus having already discussed the China possibility with them before joining, makes me feel better about leaving them after only three months.

The other members of my team don't know about my China plans, and I think that when they find out, they'll be a bit shocked. For this reason, my boss and I decided that we wouldn't tell the other team-members yet. Partly this is so we can avoid distractions and concentrate on our software for January 21, and partly because I think that if I tell them I'm going, it's human nature that they will start to make an emotional distance between me and them. Since I'm trying hard to make cultural improvements within the team, I don't think I can do that as well if they know. It's been a difficult few weeks, pretending that I'm going to be with them for quite some time. I hope it all works out well in the end.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Going to China I: Making the decision

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction. One has to go abroad in order to find the home one has lost.
Franz Kafka, Austrian author (1883-1924)

A few weeks ago I wrote that I have been considering going to China to improve my Chinese. After a lot of deliberation, I have made my decision. I'm going!

Two natural questions are, when, and where?

Regarding the when, my plan is to study there for the first half of 2008. And about the where, well, I investigated many places within China, but have finally settled on the city of Dalian.


There are a number of reasons why I've chosen Dalian:
  • Being on a peninsula and next to the sea, Dalian isn't as polluted as many Chinese cities.
  • The sea makes the weather more moderate. It snows a few times in winter, and summer temperatures are in the high 20s.
  • Living costs are cheaper than Beijing and Shanghai.
  • I'm told the people are friendly and the crime rate is comparitively low.
  • For a language learner, Dalian doesn't have the problem of "too many" foreigners that Shanghai and Beijing has. And the language people speak on the street is close to Mandarin.
Most of the foreigners in Dalian are either from Korea, Russia or Japan. The buses run every 10 minutes or so, which sounds like their public transport system is useful, not dysfunctional like here!

This is the company that I am going with:

They act as a middle-man, doing the organising, finding accomodation and tutors, arranging social activities, and being there for advice or when something goes wrong. I wrote an email to some of the current students going through this company, and the responses were very very positive.


Leaving my family isn't something I choose to do lightly, and I couldn't do it unless I had their full support, especially from Jenny. It's funny really - she jokes about it as if she can't wait to get rid of me! Maybe it's true. Maybe it's her way of being supportive, and not holding me back. Either way, her support is a comfort. And my boys are now at an age when they are capable of doing a lot of things on their own, so the workload on Jenny, while it will be hard, won't be impossible.

I'm planning to use my computer and webcam to keep in touch with them, daily if I can.

By going, there's one thing I will certainly be missing out on. My good mate Greg says that there is a position opening soon at his company, and by the sound of it, it would be a very good match for me. Unfortunately it won't be there when I return from China. This is perhaps the one thing that made the decision about going to China difficult for me, as job satisfaction is very important to me, and I don't think an opportunity quite like that is likely to come again soon. Curiously enough, Greg, whose opinion I rate highly, is the only person I've told who hasn't been completely supportive. My family, parents, family friends and work colleagues have all been excited and approving when I've told them of my plans. I guess that for Greg, being there for your kids is the most important thing of all, and in terms of my role in the raising of my boys, there will be a cost to going. Well yes, there will be. But I think the cost won't be greater than we can accept, and I hope the benefit will outweigh it.