My Epic Cross-Country Move on Amtrak

I recently moved across the United States from Tucson, Arizona to Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1940 miles apart. Tucson is in the southwest; Gaithersburg is on the east coast just north of Washington, DC. The move was a long and complicated process, as well as an epic journey.

Choosing the Train

Most Americans would drive across the country. When my uncle graduated from University of Maryland, he spent two week driving from Maryland to California; during his trip, he visited Yellowstone National Park and many other places. Driving across the country would allow me to have a good look at the country, and seek geocaches in many states. All my clothes, computers, and other toys can be packed in the car.

While this option was attractive, I decided against it because of its high cost. Unlike my uncle, I did not purchase a vehicle during college, but relied on rental cars. Renting a car is inexpensive, but only if you return the vehicle to the same place. If I rent a car in Arizona and return it in Maryland, they are going to charge a "one way fee" that is approximately $1000, on top of the normal rental and insurance charges. Additionally, I have to spend on motels and meals. In total, the driving option would cost me between $2000 and $3000.

Google Maps estimated a driving distance of 2290 miles, or 33 hours non-stop. I am not accustomed to long drives. I felt exhausting on the 3-hour drive from Tucson to Yuma, and I couldn't imagine a 11x longer drive. This is another important factor for me to decide not to drive.

My Last Month in Tucson

I began my life as a Tucsonan on Aug 04, 2011, spent six years as a PhD student at The University of Arizona. However, everything has an end, and my life in Tucson ended on Aug 31, 2017, after I accepted a research job in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Move to Sahara Apartments

My apartment lease at University Arms Apartments ended on Aug 01, 2017. I needed one more month in order to finish editing my dissertation. I chose Sahara Apartments for my short-term accommodation.

On Jul 15, I went to Sahara Apartments to "apply for a room". I received a tour promptly, but I was told to apply online, because they do everything online. Despite being a small community, Sahara had a complicated website for all the business procedures, including new resident application, rent payment, maintenance requests, shuttle reservation, and policy violation reporting.

I put in my online application a day later, and received an invoice within a few hours. The invoice indicates that paying by credit card would incur a 4% convenience fee, and paying by personal check would incur a five-day delay to make sure the check clears. WTF?

Chinese Gym vs American Gym

After graduating from University of Arizona, I went back to China for six weeks to apply for a new U.S. visa. Since weightlifting has become a part of me, I continued my workouts in a Chinese gym. The experience there is significantly different from American gyms.

Annual Membership, Please

Most gyms in China only sell annual memberships. Gym managers are secretly wishing that you would give up your ambitious exercise plan after several weeks, so that they could profit off you without devoting resources. My stay in China was six weeks, so an annual membership would be overkill and prohibitively expensive. I had to find a gym that offers single tickets. My gym of choice was "Fitness Club" (菲特妮斯健身会所) located in the basement of a grocery store. They agreed to offer me single tickets at ¥50 per visit.

In United States, most gyms are happy to sell you a day pass. Some gyms even offers a few free tickets so that a potential customer can experience the facility; this is also perfect for short-term visitors.

In terms of price, ¥50 per visit is about as much as $8 charged by University of Arizona Campus Recreation Center. However, personal income in China is much lower than the United States, which means a Chinese gym costs more than an American gym for local people.

Shocking Changes in China

After six years in Arizona, I graduated from The University of Arizona, and returned to China on Sep 01, 2017. My previous returning to China was in 2014, and China has changed greatly during my three years of absence.

Swipe Your Face

Fraud is a serious problem in China. The "standard" countermeasure is two-factor authentication, i.e. a random code sent to your phone. However, fraudsters have been able to convince the victim to reveal the random code on their phone. A stronger countermeasure is doing all transaction in person: you have to show up at the bank or phone company, and present your ID card. However, there are usually long lines in those places and thus it's not a pleasant experience.

The regulators invented a new way: "swipe your face". I bought a SIM card for my smartphone online. To activate my account, I must upload a picture of my ID card, and record a video of me acting according to a series of random instructions. The instructions could be: "blink your eyes, open your mouth, rotate your head to the left". The system would then analyze the video to confirm that I am alive and am the same person as shown on the ID card.

I believe video authentication provides much stronger authentication than asking for "mother's maiden name" and "last four digits of social security number" as most companies do in the United States. It is surely less convenient than answering a few questions, but this is a trade-off for China where fraud is more common.

Tucson's Museums

Visiting museums is a good way to learn about the culture of a region. During my six years living in Tucson, I found and visited many museums in this city, and here are some of my favorites.

5. Arizona State Museum

Arizona State Museum is located on University of Arizona campus. I knew about this museum since the beginning when I participated in ISA's very first campus race event, but I never paid a visit because I thought it is literally steps away from my office so I can visit "some time". In August 2017, when I'm days away from graduation, I finally visited this museum. My visit spanned two afternoons due to the rich content in this museum.

Paths of Life exhibit in Arizona State Museum

The main exhibit at Arizona State Museum, Paths of Life, presents the origins, histories, and contemporary lifeways of ten Native American cultures in Southwest America. While I have interacted with members of Tohono O'odham and Yaqui tribes through their presentations at Tucson Meet Yourself, I gained better understanding at this Paths of Life exhibit about their culture, religious beliefs, and struggles. I also learned about eight other indigenous tribes in the Southwest region but further from Tucson.

Hiking in Arizona

I was a couch potato before I came to the United States six years ago. There aren't many outdoor adventures in my hometown Shanghai, because Shanghai is located on a flat peninsula, and the only place that resembles a mountain is the 97-meter Sheshan Hill. In contrast, Tucson is surrounded by five mountain ranges, and it is a hiking paradise.

My First Hike

Among the grad students in computer science department, there is an organization called the Graduate Student Council (GSC). On the same week as orientations, I attended the first GSC meeting, and learned about various activities organized by GSC. One of them is a "hiking club". I joined their mailing list, although I did not know what I was signing up for.

The first hike was on Oct 01, 2011 going to Butterfly Trail. I took an early morning bus to school, and brought "plenty of water for yourself, sturdy hiking shoes, lunch, warm cloth" as instructed by the trip leader. We departed shortly after 09:15, and it was a long ride in Jeremy Wright's car.

Butterfly Trail, 01OCT2011

My Favorite Tucson Restaurants

During my six years living in Tucson, I visited hundreds of local restaurants. Here are my top picks. Those restaurants are all good, and their order within this article does not indicate my preference.

Best on campus: IQ Fresh

crispy fish wrap from IQ Fresh

Located in the main student union, IQ Fresh is my usual place for a quick lunch between classes. They mainly serve wraps: shredded meats and veggies rolled inside a piece of tortilla. They offer 14 different meats and veggies, and 10 tortilla flavors, giving 140 choices.

My favorite is the crispy fish wrap in spinach wrapper, with a side of sweet potato fries. Sadly, this particular item has been discontinued in 2015, and I stopped going there altogether.

Academic Papers

Writing and publishing academic papers is an essential part of PhD education. During my 6-year PhD career, I published three academic papers as first author in peer-reviewed conferences:

Publishing an academic paper is hard. In the process, I must:

  1. Come up with an idea.
  2. Confirm the idea is feasible.
  3. Design and execute experiments to show the design is superior to competitors.
  4. Write the paper to make others understand my idea and experiments.
  5. Submit the paper, and hope my paper is better than most submissions in the same conference.

The Idea Phase

Heat and Monsoon

Tucson has four seasons: spring, summer, monsoon, and winter. Located in the desert, the climate is very different from my hometown Shanghai. I have been accustomed to Tucson's climate after living here for six years.

Summer Heat

The summer is extra long. @TheTucsonHeat arrives in April or earlier, and would not leave until Halloween at end of October. Thus, seven of the twelve months belong to the summer.

Heat is the number one weather related killer in Arizona. House cooling is not optional. Heat warning signs are everywhere:

"the heat is on" sign in Joel D Valdez Main Library

Heavy Iron Stuff

I started going to the gym regularly during my fourth through sixth years at University of Arizona. Weight lifting helped me to lose weight of up to 30lb, and replaced some of my body fat with juicy muscles.

How It All Started

I have been swimming since the second day I arrived in Tucson, but my body looked the same, because my roommate was cooking large bowls of white rice and fatty meats for me. Since I moved to University Arms and started living alone, I decided to change things up. I started running on treadmill and using the elliptical trainer on and off in the Campus Rec. I was thinking to eat less and cut back on ice creams.

I ate only one apple at the breakfast of Oct 14, 2014, and felt hungry two hours later. I wondered, am I eating too little? To find the answer, I decided to calculate how much calories I was eating on that day. I searched online for a "calorie calculator", and found MyFitnessPal. It is not only a "calculator", but also an app to keep track of how much I ate. I made my first entry:

MyFitnessPal food diary on Oct 14, 2014

On Two Wheels

Tucson is walkable when staying around UA campus and downtown area. To go farther, I often ride a bus with six wheels, hail a taxi with four wheels, or drive a rental car behind one wheel, all of which costs money. More frequently, I would ride a bike on two wheels. I enjoy riding a bike because it is free: I can go places without buying a ticket, and I have the freedom to go anywhere without worrying about being late for bus or issues in finding parking.

Rillito River Park, π day, 2015

First Ride on Cat Wheels

Cat Wheels bike sharing program, offered by Parking & Transportation Services, loans bikes to students for free. I can pick up a bike at any parking garage, ride for a whole day, and return by 16:00 the next day. Since garages are only open on weekdays, a bike borrowed on Friday won't be due until Monday, making this a plusgood deal.

my first Cat Wheels rental bike

Meet the World at International Student Association

Most of my social life during my six years at University of Arizona was at the International Student Association (ISA). I made friends, made frenemies, and had fun through events and gatherings organized by ISA.

ISA Trail Dust Town visit, Apr 04, 2013

The Very First Event

Every incoming international student is required to attend the International Student Orientation, organized by International Student Programs and Services (ISPS). In the 2011 orientation, ISPS recruited a group of student workers, called Peer Integrators (PIs), to assist with the orientation, and to plan and participate in orientation social events for new international students. One of the social events was a campus race on Aug 14, 2011, organized by Morris Zhou, a PI from China. I participated in this event because its name sounds like my favorite TV show The Amazing Race.

The goal of this event was to make students familiarize with the UA campus. Each team of two or three students were given a sheet of hints, each referring to a location on campus. Within one hour, the team must visit as many locations as they can, and take pictures of the team members in front of those locations. The team that gets the largest number of correct answers would be awarded the winner.

I am a Moviegoer

I watched over 150 movies during my six years at University of Arizona.

What did I Watch

My favorite genre is action and adventure. I love seeing superheroes save the world, because they bring hope to our world. My favorite character is Spider-Man, because he only does good things and is full of positive energy.

I also frequently watch science fiction films. I particularly enjoy films set in the outer space, such as The Space Between Us and Passengers, because the weightless shots are breathtaking.

My third favorite genre is drama. Some of my favorites are National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Nebraska, and Instructions Not Included. I can have a good laugh out of them.

How I Started Geocaching

Geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunt game. Participants, or "geocachers", use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches" or "caches", at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world. I learned about geocaching by accident in Jul 2013, and I was immediately hooked to this game. Since then, Geocaching had a strong influence in my weekend activities, gadget purchases, and travel choices.

selfie with GC5WHZV container

It All Started from Jenny

Grocery stores offer discounts with a loyalty card, but I forgot to bring mine on Jul 12, 2013. I complained on Facebook, and my friends told me that I could give my phone number to the cashier, and they would be able to apply the discounts. Daniel's answer mentioned that I could enter "area code + 867-5309" as the phone number, and there is usually a loyalty card associated with this phone number. I did not understand what's special about this phone number, so I started online searching.

Facebook post about forgotten grocery loyalty card

Hailing Taxis

When I was little, taxis were my favorite form of transportation. I could have my own seat in the taxi, and the taxi would go directly to the destination. I would not need to walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, get squeezed in the bus, and walk to the destination after getting off the bus. In early 1990s, taxi fare of a 5KM trip was about 30 times the bus fare. However, I didn't understand the value of money at that time, so I always wanted to travel by taxi.

I started attending a boarding school since the seventh grade. Mom would give me ¥65 every week, and I was allowed to spend the money however I wish, but this money was all I have for meals, transportation, and anything else except books and school supplies. While I could spend ¥5 to take a taxi from the bus terminal to the school, I usually chose to walk 20 minutes and save the money for snacks. I got used to bus rides and long walks, and forgot about taxis, when money became a constraint. In fact, I got so used to public transportation that, even if I was on a business trip when I later worked for a company, I would prefer to take a bus instead of a taxi, and I sometimes had to explain to finance why I could not produce a receipt for a bus ride.

When I came to Tucson in 2011, having limited cash and being accustomed to public transportation, my primary form of transportation is of course the city bus. However, the operating hours of city buses are limited. When I stayed in Grant Inn during my first days, the last route 20 bus from UA campus back to Grant Inn was departing at 18:20. If I wanted to stay at school later than that, I would have to find my alternate transportation.

Clint's Taxi

When I was dropped off at Grant Inn, the volunteer gave each student a business card of "Clint's Taxi", and told us to call Clint when we need to go to school. Since buses are cheaper, I took the city bus most of the time. On Aug 14, 2011, I attended a "Campus Race" scavenger hunt activity, organized by an organization called Meet The World, which later became International Student Association (ISA). The activity lasted until 20:00, at which point there were no more buses available. This was when I called Clint for the first time.

Behind the Wheel

Sun Tran bus system was my primary form of transportation during my six years at University of Arizona, but it wasn't my only transportation. Sun Tran services city of Tucson, city of South Tucson, and select areas out of city limits. When I needed to go beyond the service boundary, or to haul cargo, it makes sense to get my own set of wheels.

I decided not to buy a car during graduate school early on. When I attended my first "grad tea", a social event among computer science grad students, I asked an American student the cost of owning a car, and the answer was $200 per month including "everything". A simple calculation indicated that owning a car would not be a good financial decision for me. Owning a car would allow me to rent an apartment far from the campus, but it is unlikely to find an apartment that is cheaper than $439/mo NorthPointe.

Zipcar Nissan Altima Brenton

Arizona Driver's License

Fast forward to spring 2014, when my life at NorthPointe went downhill due to a noisy roommate. I signed a lease at my new apartment, and moving was put on the agenda. I moved from Grant Inn to NorthPointe on a taxi, at which time all I had was two checked bags and two carry-on bags. Three years later, I had accumulated many more things than that, and the taxi driver would be charging by minute while I'm loading my stuff into his trunk. Thus, I need a driver's license!

My Story with Sun Tran

Tucson is a "small" town. Compared to my hometown Shanghai, Tucson is 10 times smaller in land area, and has 3% of Shanghai's metro population. Nevertheless, Tucson is still the second largest city in Arizona. You can't reasonably walk to everything, so transportation is a necessity.

America is a country on wheels, but Tucson has a nice public transportation system, Sun Tran. During my six years at University of Arizona, I never bought a car, but used Sun Tran bus system extensively.

Sun Tran bus 3000

City Bus in Shanghai vs Tucson

American city bus system do not have a good reputation: vehicles are old, schedules are infrequent, and operating hours are limited. Nevertheless, the first transportation service I experienced in Tucson is the city bus, when I visited UA campus for the first time.

Floating in the Pool

As it's said, if a foreign student does not have a girlfriend, he would start physical exercises sooner or later, because he has nothing else to do.

RT @Dtiberium 顺便有个定律:来了美国的中国留学生如果没有女朋友,迟早会开始健身。道理很简单:他们实在没什么别的事情可干。

This is very true of me.

Before I Came to Arizona

When I was an undergraduate student in Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), although the university has a gym, it only has a few treadmills and ellipticals, and students must pay an entrance fee upon each usage. I never went to this gym. There was no swimming pool at SJTU, and a security guard once warned me not to swim in the lake, when I stepped one foot into the lake trying to feel the water temperature.

Roommates or Not?

Food, water, shelter, and warmth are the basic needs of human beings. Food is available in any restaurant and grocery store. Tap water is safe to drink, as I asked at the orientation. Warmth is not an urgent problem when I arrive because I have enough clothes in my luggage. The biggest problem is: housing!

There are two main housing options for University of Arizona students: on campus housing and off campus housing. If I live on campus, I can walk to class and enjoy all the good vibes, but the room is small and costs a ton of money. Thus, during my six years in Arizona, I lived exclusively in off-campus housing. This article describes the two apartments I lived in, shares my experiences of living with or without roommates, and includes reviews of NorthPointe Student Apartments and University Arms Apartments from a real tenant.

How I Evaluate Off-Campus Housing

When I started surveying off-campus housing options, I set a few requirements:

  • I must have my own bedroom. When I was an undergraduate in Shanghai Jiao Tong University, I shared an on-campus dormitory with three other boys. We lived in the same bedroom, went to class together, and were good friends. The dorm manager enforced strict rules such as "lights off" time. However, American off-campus housing has no such strict rules, so sharing a bedroom is going to cause roommate conflicts in the long term, and I'm not really into cohabiting.
  • I want to have my own bathroom. I saw too many TV episodes about how American kids make a mess in the bathroom, or spend too long time in the shower in the morning when I would need to go to class.
  • I prefer to have individual leases. Some property owners would rent out a big house to multiple students on one lease. If any tenant quits, the remaining tenants still must pay the full rent. I would not want to get into such trouble.
  • I can get to school without a car. Owning a car is too much hassle for me.

My First Days in Tucson

Six years ago, on Apr 12, 2011, I was admitted as a PhD student in the Computer Science PhD program at The University of Arizona. After a round of paperwork and an interview for the US visa, I flew from Shanghai, China to Tucson, Arizona on Aug 04, 2011. This was when it all began.

The Flight and Arrival

My uncle bought me an one-way flight ticket. I was booked on United flight 588 departing PVG at 20:10, transfering to United flight 6458 arriving TUS at 21:10. The time difference between Shanghai and Tucson is 15 hours, so this seemingly 1-hour flight route is actually 16 hours.

My dad drove me to the airport, with mom and grandpa also in the car. After saying goodbye to my family, an officer stamped my passport indicating that I had left China territory. I had two checked bags full of clothing and cookware, a duffle bag with more clothes, and a briefcase containing an old laptop. I also had thirteen $100 bills, a few $20 and $10 bills, and several quarter-dollar coins; this was all the cash I had.

say goodbye to grandpa


六年前,在2011年8月4日,我从上海飞赴美国亚利桑那州图森市(Tucson, Arizona),到亚利桑那大学(The University of Arizona)攻读博士学位。 六年后,我已经通过了论文答辩,正在准备毕业。


  • 我作为第一作者在各大学术会议上发表了三篇论文,并且出席了其中一次学术会议演讲了我的论文。
  • 我上了88学分的课程,保持了全A的优异成绩。
  • 我获得了三次奖学金,其中包括科学学院只授予最优秀的学生的Galileo Circle Scholar称号。
  • 我参加了国际学生协会(International Student Association)的社团活动,遇见了一批极棒的朋友,并曾担任该社团的干事。
  • 我开始了定期体育锻炼,包括游泳与负重训练。
  • 作为一项兴趣爱好,我开始了地谜藏宝。
  • 我观看了150余部电影。
  • 我享受了徒步登山、野营、皮划艇等户外运动的乐趣。
  • 我骑自行车或搭乘公共汽车走遍了图森每一个角落,参与了本地的各种节日庆典,并尝试了许多本地的餐馆。
  • 我前往加利福尼亚州、科罗拉多州、哥伦比亚特区、夏威夷州、马萨诸塞州、内华达州、纽约州、宾夕法尼亚州、田纳西州、得克萨斯州、犹他州、华盛顿州旅行。
  • 我考出了亚利桑那州驾驶执照,在波士顿、凤凰城、圣地亚哥、旧金山湾区、西雅图、图森和尤马开过租来的汽车。
  • 作为亚利桑那大学的留学生, 作为图森市的居民, 我感到很自豪。

English version

Six Years in Arizona

Six years ago, on Aug 04, 2011, I flew from Shanghai, China to Tucson, Arizona, and began my life as a PhD student in The University of Arizona. Six years later, I have defended my dissertation, and am on my way to graduation.

During these years,

In this month, I am going to write a series of articles about my life in Arizona, to record the good memories of the past six years.


How to Survive a Weekend Offline?

I'm a heavy smartphone user. I read emails, access Twitter, check in on Swarm/Foursquare, watch YouTube, and look at weather forecast, multiple times a day. I use smartphones so much that my primary phone, the Nexus 5, needs to be charged 2~3 times per day, and I am reluctant to stay in places without free WiFi.

But, everything is changing in the past weekend: I joined a camping trip to Grand Canyon National Park. There is no electricity. There is no cellular signal, because national parks do not want cell towers to ruin the beautiful landscape. There is no WiFi, except in the cafeteria which we may or may not visit. Without electricity, I cannot keep my smartphones charged. Without cellular or WiFi, I cannot receive emails, access Twitter, check in on Swarm/Foursquare, watch YouTube, or use weather forecast apps. How can I survive the weekend in the national park, without electricity or Internet access?


Internet access is unavailable, but it's not the only way to communication with the outside world. On many smartphones, there's a forgotten app called the FM radio, which allows you to receive information without Internet access or cellular signal. Therefore, I packed an old smartphone, the T-Mobile Comet, which has an FM radio tuner. This would allow me to listen to the weather forecast, and maybe some news and music.

My camping trip is a short one: we depart on Friday and return on Sunday. The lack of electricity can be solved by a few USB PowerBanks. I brought two USB PowerBanks, which contain a total of 12800mAh of electricity, enough to charge the Nexus 5 five times, or the T-Mobile Comet ten times.

My Experience at Hack Arizona 2016

Hack Arizona is the largest collegiate hackathon in southwestern United States. I attended Hack Arizona 2016 and had a great experience, and I want to share what I experienced during this event.

Why I didn't attend in 2015

I heard about Hack Arizona when it started in 2015, but I decided against attending last year because 37 sleepless hours is harmful for health and won't produce high quality project.

Many of my friends went in 2015, and they shared their experiences and showed me their projects. The situation sounds less scary than I imagined:

  • Although you are provided enough coffee and Red Bull energy drinks to stay up, you are permitted to leave and re-enter at anytime, and you can sleep in the venue as well.
  • There's free food, and it's not just pizza.
  • Projects aren't of poor quality.





























阳光男孩精神 sunny boy spirit

乐观 optimistic

“阳光”的原意就是乐观。真正的阳光男孩,总是可以精神愉快,对事物的发展充满信心。他可以永不言败,因为,只要心跳还在,不管已沦落到什么地步,都有可能东山再起。 在阳光男孩的心里,不存在什么“悲观”。他可以伤心,可以哭,但那只是暂时的,因为,他不会绝望。只要有理想,就应该坚信自己的理想在某一天终会实现!

正直 upright

正直,就是没有偏私、心地坦白。世界上不可能存在绝对的公正,但阳光男孩总是尽力地使他周围的世界变得公平,至少他不会偏袒哪一个人而伤害另一些人。他尽力避免别人受伤害,同时也尽力保护自己。不要说他不勇于牺牲,他不怕死,只是他不死,从而来保护别人。 阳光男孩始终追求着真理。真理固然是相对的,而他有他自己的价值观。他会拥护他认定的真理,并为之奋斗。他也会帮助同样追求真理的人们。

善良 kind-hearted
























“班班有歌声”活动即将举行,可是我们高一⑵班还没有选好到底唱哪两首歌。星期二下午团队课,宣传委员周艳同学跑到讲台上对大家说:“我初步定了雪绒花和橄榄树两首歌。谁有更好的请提出来。”唐沂同学提出了My Love,他对周艳唱了一遍;顾放想出了他最爱的第一次,也对周艳唱了一遍。我想向大家推荐得民心者得天下(电视剧雍正王朝的主题曲),我就站到讲台上用铿锵有力的声音对全班唱了一遍,博得一片掌声,有22人表示这首歌好听。

一段时间的沉默以后,没有人再推荐其他歌曲,周艳说:“现在举手表决。请大家每人选两首歌。”结果,第一轮有6人投了我这首歌的票,第二轮只有9人,这首歌被淘汰了。入选曲目是橄榄树和My Love。