I live in China, in Nanjing, which is not too far from Shanghai, and work at Nanjing University (NJU). This type of adventure becomes popular. China gains in popularity also among academics. It seems to become a viable career move. I have been by now off and on for 5 years in China and can attest that it booms at a frightening, literally scary speed. It cannot go on at this pace, but nothing stops people from coming to the cities except the slow choking of everything.

5 years ago, it seemed I was one of few foreigners here, although Nanjing is traditionally a beautiful university town popular with students and foreigners. The number of foreigners has increased a lot, very much so around NJU. I guess this is mostly due to a new US/China exchange initiative. But there are many nationalities; everybody finally realized: there is no stopping the red giant, let us try to profit from it.

NJU Campus

Already a three months stint is enough to find a better job at home. Even if your Chinese language capabilities are non-existent, many foreign firms are desperate for people with a sliver of China experience. So it is worth it, even if it is like explained here.

Studying a year here is probably best, but if you have no funds to do so, just teaching a year your mother tongue is just as good or maybe even better if you do it at a remote place – it proves you can fight your way through difficulties. I have a friend who found a job during the deepest recession in the US only because he taught English here for a year (his specific situation made him otherwise pretty much unemployable). He stated clearly during the interview process that he cannot speak Chinese properly. Nonetheless, he got the job and now tours China on business frequently.

However: These advantages are all only applicable to people outside of academia! Whether China is worth a go for academics, i.e. coming here to teach at a university or doing a postdoc, this, quite honestly, I questionable. There are just too many factors, and it really depends on one’s personal situation more than anything else. There are many downsides, and lets not beat around the bush: Chinese are nationalistic and not really open to people from other cultures. If you want funding as a foreigner, good luck wasting your time applying! If you want respect for your going into the world and offering cultural exchange, good luck convincing highly indoctrinated, super-competitive academics that you are not just a loser for coming to China, because, why would you? No, they do not understand our Western, individualist ways. Some do, but that most do not is enough to sour collaboration, and as a scientist, you need to collaborate.

Since many people consider the trip and consider learning the language, let me confer some of my experience. I start with the obvious: The language barrier. You may already know that Chinese is difficult, that the barrier is huge, but few are aware of how terribly huge it is. It is HUGE! “Cool dudes” lie about that they know some Chinese and how they just picked it up shagging around in Shanghai. Teachers tell you that Chinese is not so bad in order to take the fear from you or make you sign up for their class. “Easy 123 Chinese” courses promise quick progress. Do not be fooled! The language barrier is almost insurmountable, and here is why:

1) Learning Chinese requires studying 3 independent and strange languages at once: Written characters, spoken Mandarin, and Pinyin Romanization. Spanish as a second language is just one language. Reading Spanish tells you directly how to pronounce it. You talk internally while you read, training two things at the same time. For Mandarin, these are not just two; a third one, so called Pinyin, is needed to connect them, to use dictionaries for example.

2) Westerners have not got the neural networks developed that pick up on the four tones (–, /, \/, \) in spoken Mandarin. You hear, but the neural pathways to the language modules that can trigger semantic meaning are not existent. The present pathways mislead; tone is wired to mood, a strong tone implies a command or anger to us. The older you are, the less chance there is of ever rewiring these neural connections.

3) Similarly for the writing: You have not got the neural networks developed that pick up on the characters. You see them, but the neural pathways to the language centers are not existent – they respond only to letter sequences like abc. It takes quite a while to even just perceive the single characters’ different components. Perceiving them as one thing or “seeing” the pairings comes yet much later (3 characters in a row are mostly only 2 “words”; but whether the first two are paired or the last two depends).

4) Chinese is highly contextual. Isolated sentence parts or words have many, often even mutually contradicting meanings. It is not seldom at all to look up a word and find a list of ten different meanings including, say, “precise” and “fuzzy”, or “honorable” and “despicable”. Whole sentences may be meaningless without knowing who spoke when wanting to do what, which is difficult to know in such a strange culture.

5) Chinese almost all know English to some degree and give you no chance to improve/practice your Chinese. You are expected to be their free of charge English teacher.
(At the same time, their English is not nearly as good as they think it is, so forget about teaching difficult topics in English! I give talks in broken Chinese to get at least some of the important points across.)

6) Even if knowing common language; you still won’t understand official Chinese as used when filling in forms (I won’t even make classical Chinese, understanding poems a topic).

7) The better you become at Chinese, the more you realize that what is actually said does not matter much anyway (much more so than in Western cultures).

Obviously, some of these points are especially hazardous in academia. In this series on China, I plan to explain such issues in more detail and expose their relevance with so called “only in China” experiences. The next time I will get back to item number 1.