“Always wear sunscreen” and other bits of advice

I recall making a promise last year to continue documenting the less academic parts of research-life in China in a series of retrospectives, which never came to fruition. This year I make a second attempt, and will (try to) keep things bite-size for benefits yours and mine.

I shall be dreadful (dreadful because one of the rather Chinese sides of my upbringing state that “‘sorry’ means nothing” and “excuses are useless”) and start with two disclaimers:

1. For those interested in the intersectional (wherein it is noted that, for instance, a person who is black, a second person who is female, and a third person who is black AND female may all have different, mutually exclusive experiences of a situation) perspective, I have been called, by a bona fide Chinese person, a “banana”. A “banana” is yellow on the outside, and white on the inside. This is a label I grudgingly accept. The grudge comes more from the label than from the label’s implication: as a distinctly Oriental looking and SOUNDING person, with my quite European upbringing, I cannot (really) refute the label of “banana”.

2. As I am a human being, I make mistakes. (To err is human, to arr is pirate.) I am not beyond writing about my mistakes on the blog, and if anybody has constructive suggestions on avoiding future mistakes, please share your thoughts, and perhaps we can all learn together.

Disclaimers over, I thought we would begin at the preparation stage. Personally, I constantly feel like a rookie (until the moment when I suddenly want to prod somebody between the shoulder-blades because they are being daft about something that is obvious, inevitably, only to me) so some of these thoughts will be long standard procedures to many of you, although I believe in repetition as a method of enforced knowledge.

  • Start early. This means your applications. If your research proposal suggests that you may need to go abroad, start applying for things (or look for opportunities) in your first year. If at first you do not succeed, it is good practice. If you are successful but aren’t ready to go, deferring is usually an option. If you get it and can go, well done and enjoy!
  • Contacts. Of my two case studies, one was already arranged when I arrived, and I could start work from day one; the second, I had to spend time working my way in, which was eye-opening, and incredibly frustrating. If you can arrange contacts before you leave, do that. However, in my experience, be prepared that people may take their time with responding to your queries until you (o lowly research student) arrange a meeting in person, when your contacts will realise that you are a real person with very real deadlines (and genuine enthusiasm).
  • If you do not know anybody (at all), in your destination, be it your location for field work, your overseas host institution, or simply the city/village/town(/country?) you are going to, ask around to see if anybody “at home” can put you in touch with somebody. It could end up awkward, or you could end up with really good new friends. I consider that a worthy (non-)risk to take.
  • Find out all you can about your host institution (if you are going to one). Go through any information they have sent to you, or look them up online (if you did not do this during the application). If you are applying for a scholarship in a long-running scheme, see if anybody at your home institution has gone before, and ask for a low-down. I was contacted by a PhD student at Oxford who deferred their place last year and is about to head out this month, and we talked on skype. I am never certain that I am any useful, but the student said they felt more prepared ahead of the situation afterwards. They also offered me a tour of Oxford, that can’t be bad, right?
  •  If you are a big user of social media, find out any popular platforms that are used in your host country. For me, it was a jolly mix of Weixin (WeChat – Chinese whatsapp) for casual-ish exchanges, and QQ for work. China is apparently not big on emails, and people will suggest you add each other on either Weixin or QQ before they ask for an email or a phone number. Yes, even the university professors and museum directors. When in Rome…
  • Rehearse your “elevator pitch” (the quick intro to your research) in your host country’s language, or at least translate and memorise the key words. It will make you feel more confident, it will save time, and it will look like you really are trying.
  • Jabs, vaccinations, etc. You truly never know. We had a measles breakout in my building when I was in China and we all had to plod along to the medical centre to get our shots. Personally, I take issue with neither jabs nor needles, but why make things inconvenient?
  • The clothing-part of packing. For those of us in arts, humanities, social sciences… as in those who do not have field-specific uniforms (mechanical engineers’ boiler suits and doctors’ white coats come to mind): if your trip only lasts one “season”, pack for that season, with a few extra items for eventualities. If your stay is longer than six months combined (like mine), I suggest packing a capsule wardrobe, that you add to if/when you encounter freak weather once arrived. That way, you are already there, and can feel the climate for yourself, and shop according to your own needs.

One extra stand-alone paragraph about contacts, specific to my trip(s). China is a country where contacts seem to be a way of life, in a rather six-degrees-of-separation kind of way. If you don’t have contacts in the area where you wish to research, there is little wrong with asking for somebody you know to recommend you to a person, who will recommend you to another person, etc. This may sound commonplace in the West too, but the application of these arrangements somehow seemed really magnified in China. So, know your contacts. Especially if you are on a scheme attached to a governmental organisation (the “N” in “NGO” in China can be questionable) or a host institution, save numbers for whoever is in charge of your scholarship, your host-institution supervisor, and the International Students’ Division office (or indeed their Weixin or QQ) before you leave.

Is this all patronising enough? It is? GOOD.

Also, find out about the weather. This picture and the one below were taken on two consecutive days, proving that the deities of the climate are confused sods.

This is Beijing during smog season. Arm your face-masks.

“I’M ALIVE!!!111!”

*sticks one hand out of grave*

There is currently an electrical storm going on quite near where I live (judging by the decipherable fork lightning outside my window) to provide an atmosphere. For anybody with a bit of time, or a severe need to procrastinate, I give you a 3-in-1 post. (For the impatient, the pictures are at the end.)

Quick update:

VPN issues mean that I have been stuck behind the arguably most famous firewall in the world, but I am now back from the (previously, I hope) forsaken. I am pleased to say that work is working, I am “enjoying” life as one of those people who hand out surveys about their research “in the field”.

I have also upgraded from constantly carrying a 500ml bottle of water around, to carrying a 1.5l bottle of water around with me. I have experienced 43 degrees Celsius in person for the first time. Didn’t like it much.

If anybody feels the need to mention my tan upon my return, I can inform you that I have not been “working on it” other than having commutes that mean I have to walk from A to B sometimes, where A and B represent any two of home, the bus, the canteen, the self-study area, the museum, the supermarket/mall area, and the karaoke bar*.

The work low-down:

I will be the first to call myself a survey-rookie. I have done interviews for work before. I have certainly conducted scientific experiments, and done the subsequent mathematics. But surveying on my own, and on this scale, is new. And because life is never hard enough, I am looking at a Chinese audience, who every academic and museum-staff will tell me will be “not very responsive at best (sic)”. Even with a helper on some days, things tend to go quite slowly, and occasionally I tell myself that at least I can count on the whole experience as things that will tell me audience attitudes towards the science museum, and by extension therefore, the science.

Of the visitors who want to avoid me, I will admit that the ones who carry the facial expressions “awkward, this-is-so-embarrassing-for-YOU, a la US teen movies, -smile”, or “smacked arse, ignoring-you, weird person” aggravate me quite a bit. Although I suspect this is because I am secretly a little old lady who thinks that rudeness is unnecessary. However, facial expressions I can overlook. Most often, I try once to persuade people who have given a wavering “no thank you” (note, those who are firm in their answer I leave alone) to “maybe have a look anyway?” before I move on. Quite a few of the avoiders will excuse themselves in various ways. Some seem legit (eyesight issues, just arrived, etc.), but one never really knows. I personally take it on the chin. After all, it’s not supposed to be personal (I hope). For fun though, here are some examples of what my targets have responded when they didn’t want to take the survey, let me know what you make of them:

  • “I don’t understand [the survey].” My friend here at PKU suggested that people get “confused” by the fact that my survey is bilingual. Although this has, in the past and also just earlier today, led to some people *taking* the survey because they wanted to look at the English. (As for the Chinese, I am willing to bet that all the survey-takers here are better at Chinese than yours truly.)
  • “I never had a proper look around.” This usually comes from matriarchs, who I’m guessing have brought younger members of the family. (This makes me, personally and as a member of club interactivity-with-other-people-is-the-best-type-of-interaction, a little sad. And also concerned about how common this sight is: children roaming the place, parents on the benches. Not really helping the “growing up” of the science museums has a science communication platform.)
  • “I’ve just arrived.” Uttered 30 minutes before closing time.
  • “I’m not interested.” I guess this is also legit, but if we take a step back, this is also them being disinterested in a place they trust to educate their children about science.
  • “I don’t have time.” From people who, as I have been working my way down one side of the “atrium”, I have seen sat at one end, chatting, and not looking like they will be looking at any exhibits anytime soon. And this was not at closing time. They can say what they want, but I say that chats are best carried out in coffee shops. Not least because there are fewer kids with nerf guns in those.
  • “I don’t have any thoughts.” Usually in response to my opening gambit, ending in “we welcome any and all opinions and thoughts on [the science communication work at the museum], would you be interested in contributing…? (sic, because I change it up sometimes).” No comment.

Is this a bit mean? Perhaps I can counter it with the things I *have* tried in order to make this survey more digestible:

  • How I dress: dress up (looking good and professional… and a little up myself); dress casual (more friendly and less serious… but will then have to carry uni ID to prove I’m serious); borrow museum volunteer/staff outfit (could be good to look official, but some people are suspicious of large organisations and are *more* trustful if I’m just an independent researcher).
  • Where I say I’m from: “I work with the museum.” No extra questions asked, but see the above statement about belonging to the museum; “I’m jointly-trained by PKU and UoM (my two universities right now).” … … “Sorry say that again?”; “I’m a PhD at PKU.” Apparently people hold a grudge along the lines of “you think you’re something just because you’re at a top uni?”; “I’m a PhD at UoM.” This generally works the best, as I have a Manchester logo on my surveys, and somehow Chinese people still generally think favourably of the West (?). Another friend here at PKU even suggested I take a blond(e) friend to help me.
  • Opening gambit: it is currently “I’m from [whatever I say on the day], and I am investigating the public attitudes towards science communication in this museum.” *hands over survey and pen* “don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions about the survey or the project.” Seems to do the job. I used to have an info sheet as well, but that seemed to double the length of time it took to do one survey (yes, I have to stand by when they are filling it in to guarantee that they do it properly, and I that I will get it back).
  • This is the fifth or sixth edition of this survey. It has been edited, trialled, and edited again. It has now been reduced to almost all multiple choice.
  • It rests at a page and a half, because I’ve make the font bigger and easier to read under the low levels of lighting** that seems universal to science museums.
  • The above has the side effect of people skimming the questions and going “it’s so long!”
  • Can’t win.
  • Sometimes parents pass the survey to their children (below secondary school), and I force a smile as the kid eeny-meeny-miny-moes their way to answer questions involving words “political”, “corporate”, etc.
  • Now I’ve taken to gently nudging parents to fill the form themselves while I entertain their children by explaining exhibits to them.
  • Teachers, tour-guides (at rest), and young people 16-23ish seem most willing to take part.

Any thoughts at all about methods are supremely welcome in the comments.

The photos***:

At the beginning of my stay, it didn’t rain for weeks on end. (This is the planetarium. And a flagpole.)

And now. This is the rain falling into the canal in the Olympic Park. Yes, the science museum is in the Olympic Park here.

Also in the Olympic Park… What is this? One guess.


On more homely grounds: a broth with pork, lots of leafy greens, tofu skin, glass noodles, and rice.

“Are you going to the shop? Get me a drink?” What would you like?

I did indulge in a little road trip with the departmental friends. Here we are at a service station. Snazzy.

Here we are at a toll booth. Majestic.

Finally, here is a scenic spot on the border between provinces Hebei and Inner Mongolia. Be happy you can’t hear the traffic whizzing past my back as I took this.

*This one less often… … sadly.

**What is up with this, science museums? Is it because of all the lighting details? To add to the mystique? Hm.

***In true hipster spirit: I am also on instagram, where I post random photographs, mostly of food, with more urgency than I do on the blog.

Two things

Quite swamped at the moment, but you could probably have inferred that. I did promise myself that the blog wouldn’t suffer (too much) even when work-load surged, so here we are.

Thing one: academia (although I should not extrapolate beyond my knowledge, so this relates to academia in itself, and also collaborative work in/with/about museums) here in China really works like the bartering (or way of life?) system in “London Below” in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Many things get done by trading favours. It is therefore important to make sure nobody gets short-changed; but since you are the little fish in a big pond, balance the efforts and returns, before deciding on “yes” or “no”.

Thing two:

To not leave things hanging, the main subject of the previous post was one of the first bills of paper money*. Its home is the National Museum of China (NMC)**, which lines one side of the square in front of Tiananmen. My friend did very well in suggesting we go at lunchtime on a weekday, for traffic (of visitors and vehicles) reasons. Our main mission was to see the Ten Masterpieces of French Paintingjointly organized by the National Museum of China (NMC) and the Réunion des musées nationaux to “commemorate the 50th founding anniversary of the diplomatic ties between China and France and mark the opening of the ninth art festival Sino-French Culture Spring“, according to the official website. One of the masterpieces is Jean Honoré Fragonard’s Le Verrou (The Bolt)***. I was listening to the audioguide supplied through WeChat on my friend’s phone, and reading the label, when I saw that the Chinese for bolt is 门闩 (men2 shuan1). Have a close-up:

I guess this is what (partially, I’m not that kind or forgiving) makes spending Saturdays in Chinese school as a child, toiling with your ideographic mother-tongue worth it. The first character (men2) stands for door; and the second character (shuan1), a door with a bar across, is the bolt. Added together, you get “door bolt”. I was totally distracted by this through the second half of the audioguide description of the painting.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who strays from the point sometimes?



*Listen to A History of the World in 100 Objects’ podcast about paper bills here.

**When I can treat the subject with more justice, I will return to my afternoon at NMoC as a whole.

***It’s usual home is the Louvre, if anybody wants to see it in person.

Okay, academented clever clogs

… what is this?

Voilà, the source of an awful lot of modern-day problems, yet something we, arguably irrationally, trust. (You are welcome to use translators.)

Need help? Have a clue! It lives in the building whose “front-porch” view is as follows:

Students of Chinese politics, at the very least, should recognise this one.

Guesses in the comments! First correct answer wins the glory of being RIGHT. Whoa.

More pictures from this mid-week intervention to come. Alongside fanciful details about the object in the top photograph.

Overheard during break in class

This is the ranty way of showing anybody who had doubts that I am still alive.

Rants coming up:

1. The class yesterday overran from 21:30 to 22:30. Some kind of new record.

2. On to the title:

Me: “Are you still looking into use of language in telegraphy? There’s this text that you might find useful.” *goes to scramble through machine to look for it…*

(Younger) Fellow Student: *without waiting or asking for details* “I have enough material, thanks.”

Then I think, here I am, constantly worrying about having enough information to back up my own work.

The same fellow student later, after getting a ribbing from the teacher for not having done enough work  for class, says, “god this is a lot of bother.” During postgrad years? You don’t say! What were you expecting?

I’ve decided that I’m old enough, and low enough, to complain about this. I’m don’t think I’ve met a single researcher, whose work is in-progress, dismiss a potential new source. If we’re busy, or think we may indeed have enough readings to contend with, we’ll say “can you please email the article, or an abstract, to me?” and then at least skim the abstract/intro/conclusion, because it could be useful. That said, perhaps this constant running-over of class is getting to me.

Observation from the sidelines


(Almost) Daily Academentia -

“Audit some classes” they said. “It’ll be fun” they said.

Although in this case it was myself who said these things, so for the fact that I am in a weekly class on Tuesdays from 1830h to 2130h (and inevitably run over until around the 10pm mark, when everybody looks like they’re wilting a little bit), I can only thank/blame myself. It is a class for postgraduate researchers developing a topic where each week half of us present progress we have made on our work, and offer up any problems encountered or questions raised for debate. This renders it like a mixture of researcher development and also a nice, contributory working environment. Great!*

Yesterday, we discussed the communication of failure. (This is where I mentally made some note about the virtues of trial and improvement over trial and failure. I also coupled this with research into risk communication, and information regarding uncertainties in scientific research.) In my experience, the Chinese as a whole, is a country that favours the communication of successes (who doesn’t prefer this though, really). As a child, I was told not to show any weaknesses at any time. I see this reflected in my fellow students in that they are extremely prepared for all classes: anything requiring a form of presentation will be accompanied by several pages of handouts, and a rehearsed speech, no matter the degree of formality.

I can find this quite intimidating sometimes, but mainly feel that I should be equally prepared when it is my turn to present, which is all good.

The class leader certainly doesn’t think twice before raising their voice, or cutting somebody off mid-sentence. Another friend, who took this class in past years and is graduating in a month, suggests that the reason said leader cuts people off is because he has failed to see value in what they are saying, and does not want to waste any time listening to the next five minutes of speech. While I can understand the friend’s argument, a train of thought is a train of thought (only in China it is a 思路 -si1lu4 – a “thought road”), and as prepared as these students are, I feel fairly certain that there is something of a narrative in their presentations. Ergo, it may be frustrating to listen to a perceived “pointless” presentation, but it is equally disruptive to even a follower of a presentation when the presenter is cut off every 15 seconds. The constant cutting off makes it difficult to weigh in at the end, considering it is usually the thought process and topic approach that makes a difference to the successful development of a project. Fragmented renditions are harder to piece together for the purpose of providing feedback.

What this actually results in, is the fact that my fellow students, whenever I mention any research-based insecurities of my own, will say “but the teacher never shouts at you“, seemingly implying that my immunity (because I’m a visiting student or otherwise) to verbal admonishment from the teacher is a strength (as opposed to, dare I say, any presentation or research skills I may possess as somebody further along at university). The race is on to be the least scolded pupil in class, like in primary school. As far as I am concerned, this is entirely beside the point of what the class is actually trying to achieve, which is strengthening the abilities of young researchers through a small project before letting them loose on the big, bad masters thesis.

Otherwise, I am continuing the week with contemporary collection strategies in science museums and science centres; and also with getting an emergency measles jab, because there has been an outbreak in my building. Consider this your forceful reminder to GET THAT SECOND MMR INJECTION even though it’s easy to forget six months after the first shot.

Finally, to take the edge off this, for me, serious post:

Holla! (=/= Halal? Yes. Yes? No.)

Holla! (~ Halal? Yes. Yes? No.)

Very on point. Like a good presentation. (In the interest of full disclosure, those are chicken sausages.)

*Off the academic record, a social event with a bunch of international students brought up the topic of how “great” with a British accent cannot sound anything other than sarcastic, bar ironic. Unfortunately, I am finding this to be true. Sad times.