The China-US Young Scientist Forum was not my favorite part of the EAPSI experience. Perhaps least fave, actually. The whole day just left me wondering what the point was. I was excited to hear what my colleagues had done in the far-flung parts of China that they had been in, but . . . . Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day started with us on a bus at 7:20 for the hour-long slog through Beijing traffic to a different [read: nicer] hotel. Best part was getting to catch up with said colleagues from said far-flung parts of China. My favorite story: one girl was in Yunnan, and during orientation week I gave her some tips on survival when you don’t know Chinese. For instance, in a restaurant, look around and tell the waiter you want “what they’re having”, basically. She told me it worked for her so many times, but once the family whose food she pointed to insisted on giving her that actual meal, as if she were starving instead of unable to communicate. Haha!
There was no food at the hotel when we got there. Come on, 8am start time? I don’t even drink coffee and that seemed cruel. The first activity was short research presentations given in small groups (the 40 of us divided into three groups of ~13). Each person had about 5 minutes, which was insane, but largely resulted in us hearing the big-picture motivation and takeaways, which is more enjoyable than getting bogged down in details. I say “largely” because one person went way over time due to a completely unecessary explanation of, among other things, eigenvalues and the meaning of every parameter in their very complicated set of equations. The most important skill on display today seemed to be knowing your audience – what they want to hear, and what they are capable of understanding.
After these short summaries, we all gathered together to hear a summary of the summaries. Six students, two from each group, gave 20-minute overviews of the ~13 presentations they had heard. It was like a public game of research telephone, and for all the valiant effort the reporters demonstrated, it was pretty painful to listen to. Also, since this took an hour, we could have heard another twelve 5-minute presentations, which I would have much rather done . . .
We then had a short ceremony in which we got Certificates of Completion and letters from Ambassador Baucus. He’s proud of me!
We had lunch in the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel. It sounds nice, but in Beijing it’s really just a panoramic, 360-degree view of gray.
But there was ice cream, and macaroons!
The afternoon was technically the US-China Young Scientists Forum. Some of us had brought labmates (Cheng came with me) and some tech people joined for small-group discussions on cross-cultural communication. (We were also supposed to talk about entrepreneurship, but at least none of the Americans had anything to say so we just ignored that topic. It was an odd attempt to shove this topic into a seemingly unrelated discussion – where did entrepreneurship come from? Was Zhongguancun a sponsor?)
This discussion was another example of the excessive summarizing that went on today. We had a 30-minute discussion, then my fellow reporter and I had 20 minutes to discuss the discussion, then we addressed the entire body to give a 15-minute summary of our discussion. Thirty minutes of discussion, 45 minutes of summary.
Our discussion was actually kind of interesting, though. My Chinese co-reporter was a Uighur man from Xinjiang – as a fellow non-native speaker of Mandarin, we had a sort of shared comraderie that I don’t usually find with Chinese people. Our group spoke extensively about language, and I heard echoes of thoughts I’ve had over the years. From American students: I felt like a hassle, When I was there I was forcing them to use their second language. From Chinese students (actually, from my own labmate Cheng!): I wish we had spoken more English.
Hearing these views expressed one after the other was very interesting to me. I attribute my Chinese 80% to the situations I’ve been placed in where I had no choice other than to speak Chinese. These were difficult moments. I wasted money, I ate weird stuff that I didn’t like because I ordered wrong, I got on buses going the wrong way, I got taken advantage of, I embarrassed myself on a daily or hourly basis. The easy times, when I had American friends around or more fluent people with me or Chinese who spoke passable English, I learned nothing. It’s not just that knowledge comes from struggle – lots of people realize this – but (for language in particular?) if the struggle is avoidable, we will avoid it. I am weak, and I know it. If I had studied abroud with a group of American college students, I would not be the Mandarin speaker I am today. I have paid for my language skills with, if not blood and sweat, definitely tears.
So, there’s this uncomfortable truth of language learning – it’s a hassle, almost necessarily. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “A language-learning opportunity is only a hassle rightly considered. A hassle is only a language-learning opportunity wrongly considered.” It depends completely on mindset. When I speak Chinese with my labmates, am I being considerate of them and saving them the hassle of using their second language? Or am I being selfish, robbing them of the opportunity to speak English with a native speaker? Cheng surprised me today by saying that she wished we had spoken more English. I didn’t know quite how to feel about that. They could – and did – speak English with me any time, and I generally responded in English. But, it’s a hassle, and unless compelled to do so by outside forces or propelled by habit, people generally avoid hassle.
It’s all part of the “language tug of war”, which occasionally becomes a “language game of push and shove”. There’s great potential for arbitrage, here, of course, in which determined language learners seek out native speakers of the target language who prize convenience over fluency, but this is somehow underexploited.
The other topic of conversation was somewhat related. One Chinese participant echoed the confusion and perhaps resentment that I’d heard before, about this being an “exchange” program . . . in which no Chinese went to US institutions. To the American students, this reaction is logical but also slightly ignorant of the reality. One of my colleagues here said that sometimes he forgets he’s in China, because his average day in Beijing is just like his average day in grad school in Tennessee – get up, go to work, put on headphones to drown out everyone else speaking Chinese. There are whole labs in the US that are Chinese, from PI to grad students. Most of us were the first international visitor in our labs.
We also discussed the topic of self-segregatation, because my co-reporter pointed out that most Chinese students, when they go to the US, hang out with other Chinese students. (It’s a generalization, but as true as they ever are. My roommate is Chinese and if she didn’t live with me, I sometimes wonder if she would have a single non-Chinese friend. There are enough students here from her undergrad alone that she doesn’t need to meet new people and, as I said above, doing so is a hassle that is gratefully avoided when possible. The number of Chinese students in the US makes it possible. Blessing or curse? It’s in the attitude.) I pointed out that foreigners do it in China; how many nights did my Beijing colleagues spend in American bars with each other? I love the option of American/Western companionship after a “Bad China Day”, but due to a combination of stubbornness and habit I generally don’t seek it out. It’s human nature, to seek out the familiar. Unfortunately.
Cheng left in the afternoon, and we said goodbye until we meet in the US soon!
Then the worst part of the day – a random tour of the Zhongguancun technology park, basically China’s Silicon Valley. We visited a Maker Lab, and some company that makes cell phone games and I just stood in the back and wondered why we there. It had been a long day for everyone, made longer when the tour went over schedule. And more importantly, it had been a long 8 weeks without a single mention of entrepreneurship until today . . . . . .
Then a long bus ride back to the hotel. There was a bit of nostalgia when our bus did a U-turn in the middle of the busy intersection by our hotel. Probably the last time for that!
We got home at 7. Ugh. I had major packing to do. The other EAPSI girl who was at Tsinghua came over to chat while I packed. After seven weeks of being politely ignored, she became really popular her last week in the lab. It was a little sad, because she really didn’t have a lot of great interactions with her labmates. Her stories were like, “One time we talked about the weather.” It reminded me of the Mean Girls quote – “She punched me in the face once. It was awesome.”
I finished packing at 10 and took my two larger suitcases over to Tsinghua to drop them off in the lab. I ran into Zhao Yan and, when I expressed surprise at finding him there on a Friday night, he said that 10 was still quite early. #chinesegradstudentlife
I walked across campus to get a taxi, and went straight to Liudaokou to join some other EAPSIers for karaoke. It was a very different karaoke experience than my others – all Americans except for one Chinese guy, and almost exclusively English songs. All upbeat ones, too, none of these people-crying-and-rain-pouring-down-windows music videos. I ended with I’m on a Boat :)