I moved to the United States two years ago. Before that I lived in Beijing and Shanghai, so coming on this trip, I felt like I should know what to expect, at least more than one who has not been to China at all. However, after the first week here, there have been a significantly higher amount of unexpected events than expected events, which in itself is unexpected.
Walking the streets of Xiamen, things were very different from the big cities I’ve lived in. In Xiamen, even though there were still a lot of people, it was significantly easier to navigate the city. We visited GuLangYu which was a historical resort island. Gabby and I went to see the aquarium where they had all sorts of fish, but it was definitely not comparable to the New Orleans Aquarium (which was the last one I went to). In America, the tanks are always clean and the animals were the first priority. Gabby brought to my attention the zip-ties on the penguin’s wings and we saw an exhibit of dead piranhas which was shocking to say the least. The dead preserved piranhas were hung in a liquid by plastic string and put on display. It did not ever cross my mind that an aquarium would display something of that sort. However, I guess I have taken for granted the benefits of living in the United States for the past 2 years and that for some people here even dead piranhas are something special to look at.
Being Asian with the ability to speak mandarin and in the southern part of China also changed the way I thought of myself. I have never thought of myself as a local here, and having lived in the Beijing and Shanghai in the expatriate area, I was definitely not seen as a local. However, here everyone thinks that I am from Xiamen, which was flattering and shocking at the same time. This was brought to my attention when shopping with Gabby over the weekend when the staff at the shopping mall asked me if I was her translator.
From a lab point of view, having interned in a lab at LSU, this experience is definitely something very different. In the US, there is a 9 to 5 schedule. Sure, if the experiment calls for it, one would come in to the lab at odd hours of the night but there is still that unwritten 9 to 5 schedule where people are supposed to be at work. At Xiamen University, things are a little different. I get to the lab around 9 in the morning, and people are already here, they have started experiments and are in the middle of discussions. When I leave at 7 or 8 at night, they are still here, discussing, running experiments, or working on papers. This, to me, was an unexpected, even though I knew that the work ethic was different here and that people were generally willing to work long hours every day.
Another aspect that struck me as rather unexpected is how willingly the students here adopted me into their little “family”. I call it a family because they are, from multiple aspects, a family. First, there is family drama, where the people are struggling to get everything together before they graduate in 4 days or they have students that did not listen to what they said. When one person in the lab has something the rant about, they do it over lunch and everyone listening comforts them about it. I think this is very different from lab environments in the United States as people tend to live their own lives outside of the lab and not discuss anything but lab work with their lab mates. It made it very hard to get to know them and the relationship purely professional. Second, the entire lab, even the professor, eats together and exercises together. For lunch and dinner, we would all decide on a place to go. If someone from the lab is not in class but not in lab, one person would call them to let them know that it is lunch time. If people are busy doing experiments, then one person would be delegated to bring food back for them. As for exercise, basketball and badminton are played every week on a certain day. Everyone is encouraged to come and most use it as an excuse to get away from their work. This is definitely not the case in America. As mentioned before, going to lab is like a 9 to 5 job and eating together rarely ever happens. Even though there is definitely a hierarchy with undergrads being the little children in the lab, everyone is included in everything, which from my point of view is very much appreciated.
Overall, I think that speaking the language is definitely a big part of learning the culture of a place as I would not have been able to bond with my lab mates and feel at home here in the lab. From the research perspective, I think that the work ethic would definitely throw people off especially if they are expecting a 9 to 5 work day. However, I believe that if one arrives with an open mind and is willing to adapt, they would definitely be able to enjoy and excel here at Xiamen University.