“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.

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