6 min read

5 things I learned from PhDing in China

My home institution is in the Netherlands, but since we don’t have mangroves back home I spend quite some time in China to run experiments and field campaigns. When I’m here, I work on a campus in Zhuhai, a “small” city located close to Hong Kong and Macao. Right now I’m here for two months running a big seedling establishment experiment. It’s interesting, sometimes exhausting and often quite funny trying to figure out how to things work and how to get things done here.

1. Everything is communal – including the toilet paper

Things are shared here a lot more than I am used to. When going out for dinner, dishes are often placed on a revolving plate so everyone has easy access. Bedrooms are shared too – when I asked if I could move into a private room, I got some surprised reactions– ‘it’s much safer to share with people!’. As for toilet paper, that’s communal here as well. Don’t forget to grab some before you go into your stall (if there is any)! Now I am not sure if this stems from the same thing, but what I think I’ve learned – I’m not entirely sure – is that when you are in charge of the group, people expect you to look after them, and a lot more than I am used, individualistic westerner as I am. One day, I had two students working with me at the lab. One of them was thirsty and he asked for water. When I didn’t offer any, he appeared rather uncomfortable and confused, and I didn’t understand why. Instead I thought to myself, why didn’t he bring his own water? He’s an adult, right, he can look out for himself? Later, I realised that I might have been considered in charge and it was my job to have water ready for everyone. Oops!

The mangrove lab - where it all happens!

2. Long lunchbreaks with naps are the best

Two-hour lunch breaks and sleeping at your desk, or if you live on campus, in your dorm room, are normal here. At first, I found this strange and a little annoying, everyone would just disappear for half the day, couldn’t get anything done! Not much later I realised it’s really quite nice to take a nap after lunch, so now I am fully committed to this whenever I am in China. But that is as far as I’ve gone with adapting to Chinese working hours. Here, it seems expected that you work not only days, but also nights and weekends. I regularly get messaged to organise work stuff while I am having dinner or trying to enjoy my weekend. Because I have no life here outside of work, and everyone else is also just working, it’s dangerously easy to go along with this work-nolife balance, especially when running a demanding experiment. I try to be wary though – luckily I got my naps.

3. More people is better, or so they say?

It appears to me that the Chinese firmly believe that the more people you have working on something, the better. There’s a local bakery here that has at least five people working at any time, even though there is hardly ever more than one customer. This baffles me, how are they possibly making money?

I have been on the receiving end of this more people = better attitude a couple of times as well. It is very nice when you are given a lot of helping hands, but sometimes it doesn’t quite work. I remember just starting out on my first experiment earlier this year. One day, about a week in or so, I was told out of the blue that I would have five bachelor students working with me from the next day onwards. This was meant in the nicest way, but my jetlagged, culture-shocked head thought “holy hell I have to keep five students busy and I don’t even know what I am doing myself – I’ve never done this experiment before!”. Considering that half of the students didn’t understand my English instructions, you can imagine it was a bit of a stress-inducing experience.

Flash-forward seven months and I can see the upsides as well: I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting myself (literally, I work with over 200 pots of 10 kg each that all need to be lifted in and out of tidal tanks) and stuff really goes a lot faster. I do limit the help I get to stuff that is easy to explain, because translations apps are impossible to use when you are elbow deep in salty mud.

4. Tea with Cheese is delicious

The first time I saw tea with cheese written on the menu in my favourite campus café I thought it was one of those typical Chinese translation errors. I was curious what it was supposed to be, so I ordered a cold Matcha Tea with Cheese. Turns out it was literally tea with cheese and it is delicious! From careful inspection and many further tries I have deduced that the cheese is a thin, sweetened type of cream cheese that floats on top of tea. Tea with cheese isn’t the only funny thing I’ve tried. Sometimes I just go for a stroll through the aisles of the campus shop to pick a new strange snack for that day, and I am never disappointed by the range of seaweed snacks, flavoured sunflower seeds and dried fruits I can buy. I’ve also been instructed in the art cooking cow stomach in a hot pot, although I am still no good at that. The trick is to dangle your piece of cow stomach in the spicy broth so that it is cooked through, but not a second longer, because than it becomes so chewy you can’t eat it anymore. And then there’s of course the occasional cooked chicken head staring at me from my plate!

Hot pot. Very delicious, very spicy

5. Having a hard time is totally ok

My experience here is, unfortunately, quite lonely. I am the only foreigner, only PhD student and only ecologist I know here, so I don’t have anyone to talk with about strange Chinese habits like eating slippery tofu with chopsticks, complain about odd new plans from supervisors or get all excited about a visit to the mangrove forest. What doesn’t help is that I don’t speak any Mandarin past hello and thank you.

Feeling this isolated isn’t great for my mental health. This time around I knew what I was getting into, but the first time I went here alone for an extended period was very hard. Back home I’d heard stories about co-workers having great adventures in exotic locations, so when I found myself stressed-out and lonely, I thought I was kind of a failure. This of course made the whole experience even worse! At some point I realised I should probably tell people what’s up, because it wasn’t going to get any better. Luckily, I am working with some great people who were very understanding, and things got a little better. Right now, it’s still quite lonely (though thankfully I have skype and awesome friends and family back home), but having accepted that I just won’t have a good time here makes it easier. To my past self and everyone out there who is struggling too: don’t worry, sometimes shit just sucks and that’s ok.

That’s it for now. I have so much more to say, but this post is getting rather long and I have papers to write. Hope you enjoyed the read!