We recently got the chance to travel to Yale University with three students as they took part in the ‘Tournament of Champions’ in the World Scholar’s Cup. As school trips go, this is a pretty exciting one to get the chance to run, and on the morning of November 17th, we arrived at reception at 6:45 to get a taxi and begin the trip. As it was raining, we realised taxis would be scarce, but we didn’t realise that the 10-minute journey to work would end up taking us 85 minutes to complete. It was an unfortunate Chinese confluence of events. It was raining for the first time in a fortnight, meaning all the taxis scarpered home (because obviously, nobody wants a taxi when it’s sheeting down with rain) and when one finally did turn up, an angry (and extremely patronising) Belgian woman stole it on the grounds that she had booked one last night and she had a meeting at work. “Maybe you should try booking in advance next time?” she ‘helpfully’ offered as I pleaded with her for some charity because we had a plane to catch. I do not know who she is, but next time I see her I will be sure to push her off something. So, on this timescale it was going to take us 102 hours to get to America. This might sound churlish since it obviously couldn’t possibly take 102 hours to get anywhere…but bear in mind we still had to fly with China Eastern airlines.
Ah, China Eastern. I don’t know where they got their fleet of planes, but given the noise they make when they take off, it’s easy to assume that they are simply leftover pipes from a roadworks project and fitted with plastic seats and powered by an engine that someone found hanging out the back of a 1903 Model T Ford. You know that planes will make some noise when they take off, that’s natural; but on China Eastern it sounds like a bag of spanners has been left on top of a washing machine. The inevitable nerves this generates might be calmed slightly by some music, or a book to read, but I found myself instructed by a steward (his face alive with all the joy of your average embalmer) that all electronics had to be switched off 40 minutes before take-off. There was no apparent reason for this. Flight mode, I understand. I’m sure that my phone couldn’t mangle the circuits of an airplane (although I’m less convinced of that when flying with China Eastern) but I have no issue with putting my phone into airplane mode, obviously. I promptly did this and put my music back on. This was met with a stern rebuke and a warning that all phones must not be used. I tried to point out that I wasn’t using my phone, but I should have realised that this wasn’t the time for nuanced debate. Having said all that, we did get airborne, and I am now writing this, so obviously we survived the flight.
Only just though. The turbulence on the way over was the worst I’d ever experienced. Admittedly, it could have been much worse, and it’s fair to say that any flight you get off in one piece has been a good one, but the weather shook our flying sewing machine around with unusual severity as we negotiated the Pacific. Not only that, but the movie choice was a bit limited. ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and the ‘Fast/Furious’ series were listed under ‘Classics’, which tells you everything you need to know there. Once on terra firma at JFK, we then had one more famed wonder of air travel to experience before getting to see America: the staggering unfriendliness of American customs control. It never fails to find a way to depress me further after getting off a long-haul flight. If people really are concerned that the ice caps are melting, maybe they should open an American immigration control border on each. The frost it generated would refreeze entire glaciers and could have everything sorted in a few weeks. I’m sure it’s a soul destroying job, and I wouldn’t want to do it myself, but still, as a welcome to the land of the free, it’s unsettling.
What has never depressed me though is realising I’m in America. I adore America with a naïve but gorgeous stupidity. And here we were in an East Coast fall. Autumn colours bold and bright reflected a November sun. I revelled in the juxtaposition of a gang of kids outside a run-down corner shop as luxurious cars went by in a neighbourhood where well to do houses line up next to tyre servicing grease yards. This was suburban New York and it was gorgeous, even in its ugliness. A schoolhouse and senior citizens’ clubhouse that looked like Mayflower passengers could have built them sat alongside grimy concrete walls and fences around the basketball courts in a mix of genteel pageantry and harsh reality. The day I am tired of seeing America be America, feel free to send me to Nebraska as punishment. I am, at heart, a hopeless idealist when it comes to America. Maybe I’ve watched too much Aaron Sorkin, or maybe the kid who saw it as a fantasy land far across the water never grew up. It is a richly layered, deeply conflicted, wounded and complex animal, but I love it dearly – even if I am destined to be disappointed by it eventually.
We drove along the interstate towards New Haven in a sleepy reverie, watching the world go by outside the window. As we crossed the bridge out of New York, we managed to glimpse a misty view of Manhattan. Like the idyllic dream of Jay Gatsby, the island was tantalisingly close but just out of reach. Powering 1776 feet into the air, I saw the new World Trade Center contrasting with an ancient, distant Statue of Liberty extending her hand into the sky, both symbols of remembrance and progress. Having never visited Manhattan, the sight of it just over the bay made it almost tangible but somehow so distant it couldn’t be real. Those views had been something, but even that hadn’t prepared us for the view from our hotel window of New Haven in the morning.
Yale positively reeks of privilege and history, steeped as it is in both. The Battell Chapel (the location for the opening ceremony) is ornate, colourful, beautiful and softly creaking under the weight of its own age. Names like ‘Kingman Brewster’ and ‘Alfred Whitney Griswold’ line the walls, making the place feel somewhere between Hogwarts and a Dickens novel.
The Yale Environs haven’t changed much since the university was founded in 1790, based as they are in the original pilgrims’ plan for the city of New Haven which was settled in 1638 with an ‘eight-street grid’ that still exists to this day. One thing that has changed though is where people come from to visit and study there. There were 40 different countries represented by schools that had made the journey to this conference, and they made up quite the eager crowd of brilliant young minds keen to learn, and excited to be there by the way – when it was announced that everyone would be given a free cuddly alpaca the cheer that went up made me wonder if a pop star I’d never heard of had just walked in. This is a place where education is valued; the library has over 15 million books and there are 14 different schools under the umbrella of Yale College. It was exciting to be on campus (as much for me as for the students) and we got a glimpse of ‘real’ college life in the Pierson canteen; but it felt a far cry from how I used to eat at university, although in fairness that’s no bad thing. Yale may have had 5 presidents and 52 Nobel Laureates study in its hallowed halls, but you simply cannot get a decent kebab-meat pizza there for love nor money. At any rate, the lunch buffet prepared us nicely for a visit to Five Guys for dinner, and if ever your love for America is in doubt, just remember that Five Guys is a place you can go, which should cheer your soul.
Day two saw the students begin with an exam of some kind (which also somehow excited them all just as much as the free alpaca had) before I was taken to my briefing on how to judge debates later in the day.
10 hours of debate judging later, and I had some time to stroll back to the hotel. Maybe my love for America is naive and myopic but being among the streets of this beautiful town genuinely revitalised me. I’m sure it helps that the architecture in New Haven is so beautiful and the air was a fresh, crisp contrast to Shanghai, but I felt like I could have walked around for hours. At Thanksgiving dinner, I was seated with young girl from Chennai who wants to be a neurosurgeon one day. Within 5 minutes of speaking to her it was clear that she was about 800 times smarter than me (which is still not necessarily smart enough to be a neurosurgeon I suppose) and I asked if she would consider coming to a university like Yale. With a look in her eye so sad it could have melted a glacier (don’t worry, a US immigration officer will be along to refreeze it soon) she told me that she would never be able to afford it; she lived at home with her mother and grandmother who had basically sold everything they could to give her the education she was getting now. Anything more than that would surely be beyond them. It was a heart-breaking reminder of just how lucky most of the people I’ve ever known are, and one of the great flaws of the system. This blog is not ever going to be a political ranting site, but I must admit, the thought of this girl being denied the chance to go to Yale by her circumstances should give us all pause for thought.
Our third day was our day off around the town. We decided to take the students to the shopping hub of New Haven, before discovering that it doesn’t have one. Undeterred, we promptly pillaged the university shop for memorabilia, clothes, and anything we could find with Yale branding on. We even found time to call in at the gym and have our picture taken with the official mascot of the College, although he didn’t look too impressed with us.
In the evening came the closing ceremony of the weekend’s festivities. Parents and teachers were herded upstairs, and the students given free reign downstairs to be excited and cheer which they did in a kind of ‘we are excited but also preternaturally inclined to behave well’ way. Still, it made for a pleasant end to an exciting trip. The last leg was our (thankfully uneventful) 24-hour journey back to Shanghai on the world’s 20th longest direct flight of just under 15 hours. All was as it had been; America shone resplendent in its beautiful wonder and China Eastern made me take my headphones off 8 hours before we landed in case I was playing a song that could crash the plane. Between fresh air, great food, beautiful scenery, nice people, and a midterm rekindling of my love for all things Americana, I had taken a lot from the trip, but perhaps most excitingly is the fact that I now have a Yale sweater I can wear with pride, and when people ask if I went to Yale, I can ‘honestly’ answer “Yes.”
Airplane pic from: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2009/07/17/article-1200178-05914FAD000005DC-937_634x286.jpg