I am a fourth year neuroscience student and my lab examines, among other things, how the brain changes when you learn a second language. We have numerous collaborators, many of whom are international. One of our collaborators works at Jiangsu Normal University in Xuzhou, China, and this summer, my labmate Angela Grant and I were invited to work there for a little over 7 weeks. Our purpose for travel was twofold: 1) we had funding from the NSF to collect data on English monolinguals learning Chinese in China and 2) we were invited to deliver lectures for a workshop on how to conduct MRI analyses. As I recount my experiences to you all, I will also impart some suggestions for travelers if they plan on going abroad, especially to China.
So the first thing we had to do before going to china was to acquire a visa. Unless you are traveling to Taiwan or Hong Kong, you will need a visa if you want to go to China. Let me warn you, I applied a month in advance (which is the current recommended amount) and I was still only approved a few days before I was scheduled to depart. So here is where I learned lesson #1: Apply for your visa at least 1.5 months ahead of your departure date. If you are applying for work visa, I’d apply 2-3 months in advance. Importantly, unless you’re getting paid by China (for which you would need a work visa), I highly recommend trying for a tourist visa. These are much simpler and have a lower rejection rate. I originally applied for a non-business visa and had to re-apply 3 times and even had to go to the China Consulate in NY in person to petition my case, where I was actually granted a Business Visa while my labmate was granted a Non-Business Visa. To be honest, I still do not fully understand the visa process.
Okay, so a long car ride, 2 planes, a bus, a high-speed train (which I highly recommend taking!) and a taxi later, we finally arrive in the small town of Xuzhou, China, home of the origin of the Han Dynasty.
Since Xuzhou is such a small town, the majority of the locals did not speak any English, and none of the menus from any place we ate had any English at all. Therefore, if you travel for an extended period in any place besides Beijing and Shanghai, I highly recommend that you learn Chinese before arriving. Not only will you have the opportunity to order more tasty food, you will be able to better appreciate and fully experience China. Also, you will be able to bargain more effectively, which is a necessity. I had just finished comps before I left for China, so my exposure to Mandarin was limited. Regardless of your Chinese skills, I would highly recommend that you get apps including translation apps like Pleco (which I used constantly), and Baidu, apps for talking to friends and family such as WeChat or Skype, as well as apps that will help you when you travel such as Metroman and China Trains. Of course, if you want to access sites that are banned in China, you should get a VPN. I used ExpressVPN and it worked pretty well. I will also add that most vendors, especially in smaller towns, only accept cash. Finally, if you will be visiting China for an extended trip, a SIM card is an excellent purchase to make.
On the whole, I would recommend that you try to be open minded and understanding that different countries have different customs, taboos, and priorities. Since the town we were in spoke barely any English, we also had to be cognizant that as hard as it was for us to communicate what we wanted, it was equally hard for the local vendors to understand us. Therefore, I would also recommend that you compliment the cooking/product when you go to a place, especially if you plan on re-visiting. Trust me: being nice goes a long way. When I said “hao chi” (delicious) in a restaurant, the response was usually a beaming face.
I would also add that working with international collaborators in general has its perks and its drawbacks. Some of the perks include getting to see amazing sights, meeting incredibly nice people, being able to eat tasty and cheap food (like, the equivalent of 1-3 dollars for any meal), getting to see the plazas turn into a sort of fair at night, where kids play on small rides and young and old couples dance, and the transportation is always cheap (we never paid more than the equivalent of $7 even for a taxi).
You might also encounter some cultural differences. In small towns, if you are not Chinese, you will most likely get a lot of looks since it’s sort of a homogeneous population. Sometimes this means you can get special treatment, which is pretty great, but sometimes it may also feel a bit ostracizing. There might also be some significant drawbacks in terms of your research. For example, sometimes even if your collaborator is well-meaning, their hands might be tied by higher up administrators, and data collection might not go as you originally planned. This is why I recommend that you have several contingency plans for data collection. We had to change several components of our study to adjust for last minute changes imparted by the university. Therefore, I would be especially vigilant if the data you are collecting is for your dissertation.
The biggest recommendation I have for possible travelers? Visit as much of China as you can while you are there, and don’t be afraid to try new things!
I mean, I ate a fried cicada and it was actually quite tasty. I also had the opportunity to visit Shanghai and Beijing, where I had an incredible time. If you go to Shanghai, you must try Yang’s Fried Dumplings, preferably in the People’s Square.They are delicious dumplings filled with meat and soup broth and then fried on the bottom. They might just be the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Also try Happy Lemon, a common venue for getting the tastiest drinks like bubble tea and kumquat lemon ginger drinks.
I would definitely recommend that you take public transportation anytime you can. The high speed trains are great and the subway systems in both Shanghai and Beijing are incredibly easy to follow and efficient. Sometimes they will even get you to your destination faster than a taxi.
If you go to Beijing, you’re in for a series of amazing things to do. The most breathtaking and awe-inspiring thing I did in China was undoubtedly climbing the Great Wall. I would highly recommend people go to BeijingHikers.com, where people plan out entire hikes and can let you see more remote regions with spectacular views. I went on the Gubeikou Great Wall Loop, about 2 hours north of Beijing where I went on a 3-4 hour hike across restored and unrestored sections of the wall. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll just let the photographs below speak for my experiences there. Also, going to the 798 Art District was a great decision since they basically have an entire neighborhood of art shops and unique boutiques.
All in all, I feel that one of the major perks of being a graduate student is the possibility to travel to new places and experience new cultures. Going to China was fascinating, humbling, and admittedly, sometimes frustrating, so I think I grew a lot from my time in China. I would definitely advise people that sometimes, the best plan is to understand that plans can and will get messed up (we once ordered enough food to feed 5 people when there were only two of us, one of the better translation errors to have-dumplings for days!), and the ability to improvise and accept that some things will be out of your control is key. So let go, try to enjoy and understand new cultures, and eat as much as you can!