Sunday 19th August
Today’s lectures show greater promise, though we have stalled at around the 15 page mark of James Norris’s canonical textbook. I think a change of direction may be called for on Monday, just to avoid getting bogged down in the same calculations every time. The main excitement today was the burst water pipe caused by yesterday evening’s extraordinary thunderstorm. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise this until after I had loaded my laundry into one of the alfresco washing machines, so won’t have any usable clothes until tomorrow at the earliest. Still, worse things happen at sea. I was surprised to realise that I have now been in China for over two weeks. My only real hardship at this point is the limited choice of carbohydrates. Ruadhai agrees – this the probably the longest time an Irishman has gone without a potato since the Famine.
Monday 20th August
The water has returned to an extent. The shower provides only hot, and the washing machine only cold, but now both me and my clothes are clean so my happiness knows no bounds. We cover invariant distributions in the fifth lecture. I am confused why the students choose to ask only today what ‘distribution’ means when it has featured several times in every session so far. Nonetheless, by talking about convergence to equilibrium, I am glad we are approaching a natural finishing point for the course, as there’s nothing worse than a story with a weak ending. Over dinner there are toasts of varying degrees of seriousness with the dean as Siu is leaving tomorrow. The beer of choice is unsubtly called ‘WHEAT’. Afterwards, Karolina does an excellent job of teaching some basic Latin dance steps to an unexpectedly large gathering of the Cambridge group and some students. The plan for teacher-student bonding over the cha cha cha is a huge success. My many left feet are in high demand, but not quite as much as Jonas’s – I think tall blond Germans are something of a rarity in these parts.
Tuesday 21st August
I decide against including too many examples in today’s lecture and instead race through some material so that I can finish early and leave my students some time to prepare for the presentations which they will give on Thursday. The teaching component of this trip has been a challenge. My main difficulty was that I found it very hard to gauge whether the students were understanding what I was doing. In other situations, you can sense what any problems might be from the audience’s real-time reaction, but in China it is clearly a show of disrespect to make any such demonstration. On the other hand, some of the questions they finally realised it was acceptable to ask towards the end of the course, for example about the eigendecomposition of stochastic matrices, showed that the enterprise might have had some positive effect. And in my final lecture, I managed to get through two hours without breaking either a stick of chalk or the blackboard pulley mechanism for the first time… To celebrate the end of the courses, the group is heading out to a karoake bar in town, but my voice and my brain are tired, and I’m mindful of needing to be in full tenor in a few days, so I refrain. Well that’s the excuse I give: mainly I just despise karoake.
Wednesday 22nd August
Another rest day. For a second time, our planned day trip to the Meng Shan mountain and national park is cancelled because of concerns over the potentially dangerous weather, despite both the forecasts and the actuality showing sun and moderate temperatures all day. I feel rather like the little boy in To the Lighthouse, doomed forever to wonder what might have been. Perhaps reflecting the lack of much to do other than foment, various extravagant conspiracy theories are proposed. Instead we play a great deal more table tennis, and I meet my students briefly to help them prepare their presentations. Disappointingly, it seems several have already gone home, but I am confident those who remain will do a good job tomorrow. After dinner, we find a bar beside the Yi river which seems to be the focal point for the few foreigners who live here. Two Americans, Dwayne and Tom, regale us with stories of a year teaching English privately to the city’s swelling middle class. Most of them seem to revolve around implementations of their patented three-step local seduction technique. Apparently white skin and knowing how to say ‘Hello you sexy bitch’, ‘I have food for two at my apartment’ and ‘I don’t understand’ (in response to any attempt at further conversation) in Mandarin, is enough for a sizeable number of the maidens of Linyi. In case you were wondering, they found their current employment advertised on Craigslist. We also meet a young lady who makes a florid but vaguely plausible claim to be the daughter of a local mafia boss then immediately invites us all to a private room she has booked in a nearby club. Despite extreme attempts at coersion, I feel I have already exceeded my surreality limits for the day.