A Visit to China

Travel matters. I write this on the way home from China, where I spent three days in nearly constant astonishment. 

Astonishment Number One

I learned that, unbeknownst to me at the time, my book The Elements was selected for an honor roughly translated as “One Hundred Excellent Books Recommended to the Youth of the Year 2012 by the General Administration of Press and Publication of the Peoples' Republic of China” (along with nine other Chinese national awards spread over the last few years).

I’m still wrapping my brain around this. I wrote most of The Elements sitting in an overstuffed green chair in my home in Central Illinois, much of the time with my children playing around me. I had hopes for the book, but no real expectations. Here I am just six years later, my children are nearly adults, and my book has been officially selected by the government of the largest country in the world as recommended reading for the precious children of their nation.

I didn’t even intend The Elements to be a children’s book, let alone one that people would encourage kids to read!

This goes double for my two crazy-chemistry-demonstrations books, Mad Science and Mad Science 2 (of which 30% of worldwide sales are in China). I always feel a bit of panic at the thought of some of the things in those books getting into the hands of impressionable youth. But I guess if the General Administration of Press and Publication of the Peoples' Republic of China thinks it’s OK, it must be OK.

Astonishment Number Two

Weiyi (my editor), 杨帆 (Yang Fan, my guide and translator, who also goes by Phoenix Young), me, 吴尔平 (Erping Wu), 刘华栋 (Huadong Liu) and 施凡 (Fan Shi)

Liquid Chlorine

I have fans in China! I knew this in theory, because they’ve sent me email, but it’s different meeting someone who’s traveled a great distance just to see me for a few minutes, and show me some of their own element collection. A collection that exists mainly because they read my book. 

One of them, 杨帆 (pronounced Yang Fan), acted as my guide and translator for my whole time in China, and it was a delight to learn that he has nearly finished his own book about crazy and beautiful chemical demonstrations, which will be published by the same company (Post and Telecommunications Press) that publishes my books in China.

A vial of lithium accidentally broken on the floor of an Apple store in Beijing. Totally worth the whole trip just for this experience.

That’s really wonderful. It’s all well and good that the Chinese like my books in translation, but they should really be writing their own books. Only one of their own can truly speak to their condition. To the extent that my work contributes anything of lasting value, it will be through the efforts of young people like 杨帆.

Of course this is also where the whole influencing-the-youth thing can get a bit scary. I mean, what if he hadn’t read my book? Maybe he would have decided to become a doctor and cured cancer instead of writing a book about chemistry. But I think I’m at peace with that possibility: He might also have decided that some dead end job was a good enough, instead of taking a chance on writing something of his own. His life will go on long after mine, and in its many twists and turns I will be but one small bend.

Astonishment Number Three

Annoyingly I didn't take a single picture of the electronics markets in Beijing, so this is a picture in the wholesale fabric market I also visited, but didn't write about.

The electronic components markets here are even more mind-blowing than the ones in Japan! When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time designing and building circuitry, and I read about a magical marketplace in Tokyo called 秋葉原 (Akihabara). I got to visit it about fifteen years ago, and almost cried at how much it both matched and exceeded my childhood dreams of the place. (Imagine a farmer’s market, except the vegetable stalls all sell capacitors, switches, servo motors, heat sinks, tape-fed surface mount chips, LEDs, connectors, board cameras, housings, and so on and on and on and on.)

Well, the markets in Beijing make 秋葉原 look like a little hole-in-the-wall shop. Floor after floor, building after building, nothing but parts and more parts. A place like this is far more than a market: It is a beacon of creative energy. I can hardly express the joy in walking past such an array of possibilities. Sometimes it is the joy of recognition: I know what that part is, what’s inside it, how it works, what it’s used for and why. Sometimes it’s the greater joy of finding something I didn’t know existed, and working out the unique brilliance of its purpose.

And every one of these hundreds of thousands of different parts is unique, beautiful, and brilliant in its own way. Beautiful mainly because each is so purposeful. Someone worked for years to design it, many more are involved in manufacturing vast numbers of it, and its existence enables the creation of countless new things unimagined by its makers. An electrical component is like a little book that speaks to the authors of our future, whispering stories of new machines.

Just as I worry about misguiding the young, I wonder how my own life might so easily have gone differently if not for a teacher here or there. What if I hadn’t switched from building circuits to studying chemistry and then writing software? What if I was visiting this market not casually for the sheer wonder of it, but as a designer for an aerospace company? It could so easily have been.

But at 50, I’m where I’m at, and I’m going to run with it. So I walked through the market thinking about what might have been, but happy because I knew where I was heading. Quite specifically: I was looking for an LED stall to get some strip lights for the quilting robot I share with my forever-girlfriend Nina. I don’t know where app designing or science writing or robotic stitching is going to take me, but when I look backwards and forwards from here, at least I feel at peace with my choices so far.

Postscript on the subject of China

Let me just say right up front that I am not going to get drawn into any discussion of Chinese politics. I’m talking about people, not government, and, say what you will about their politicians, the Chinese people are deserving of our greatest respect and support in their lives and in the difficult work they have building their country.

This place is the future, no question about it. I can only think that visiting China from America today must be what it was like for someone visiting America from the old world a century ago. At that time there must have existed the same palpable sense of explosive possibility, combined with great present difficulty, in places like Rochester, Dearborn, and Wilmington.

How must it have felt coming from a tired old world to see a place like Henry Ford’s River Rouge, or the vast, dirty, throbbing industries all up and down the East Coast? What a sense of awe and trepidation to watch them spilling poison into the air while they built a new world that was so clearly destined for ascendency?

If you want to know what that feels like, come to China and witness their century in the making.

(If you want a bit more of an opinion about China, you may want to read something that I wrote at the time of the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008, when by chance I was also in China.)