May 2010

One in a Land of 1,338,612,968

Life “On the Road”

What do Germany and China have in Common?

Both Germany and China have, in recent years, launched major national higher education and research initiatives that focus both on science infrastructure development and science and technology human resource (HRST) development. How these HRST initiatives are designed to overcome systemic and situational handicaps and boost national competitiveness is what intrigues me. Furthermore, my instincts to come to China originated when I noticed serious efforts to build Sino-German partnerships. It was clear that Germany, a strong science nation with robust aspirations, sees much advantage in strong partnerships with China. Now that I am in China, the evidence of international collaboration— including with Germany— is impossible to miss.

Despite my apprehensions, I took the leap. I left my post, renewed my passport, packed my bags and hopped on a plane to Bonn, Germany. Once there, I enjoyed my new international colleagues and relished the opportunities to learn about the many facets of German life, culture and history by traveling on my own or as part of a formal group.

Professionally, I always had been involved with science and education policy. In Germany, I was able to learn how the Germans orchestrate their science system, but I also had free reign to explore issues more broadly related to science and technology and education policy. In China, I focus my energies on the Chinese postdoctoral system. This system is interesting to learn about and try to characterize given its short 25-year history in a country that is developing so rapidly and forcefully.

In China, I try to be conscientious about building on my experience in Germany. I came here on my own initiative, seeking additional experiences in a nation that is on the rise, is in the news and is largely unfamiliar to me. In Germany, many professionals emphasized how culture impacts education— something I previously was not sensitive to. I am seeing this again in China as the nation works to build a globally competitive and integrated system “with Chinese characteristics.”

More so than when at home in the U.S., I find that how I choose to spend my personal time impacts my professional well-being. I knew from my time in Germany that an important element of a life abroad is learning the language. Despite being “wise” to this, my initial attempts to learn Mandarin were casual, somewhat haphazard and, as a result, inadequate. Formal schooling, while time-consuming and difficult to fit into my daily life, has improved my speaking skills and my quality of life drastically. The most significant impact has been on my relationship with my colleagues. Although I still work exclusively in English, being able to understand even a little of the conversation in more social work settings has helped me feel more integrated and at ease. Moreover, my colleagues are interested in my progress. Often, after asking how I am doing, they inquire about my Chinese!

Building Relationships

Guanxì, or relationships and networks, is an important aspect of Chinese life. I have benefited from it in so many ways. In my work environment, I often can’t manage the smallest tasks without it. Even when presented with a problem in my personal life, a solution almost always begins with a phone call to a work friend.

As my personal and professional network expands beyond the workplace, I am amazed by the diversity of people with whom I have common interests. Especially amongst the community of expatriates, I find that fostering new relationships is a way of life. This network is valuable to me here in China, and I expect that a number of these relationships will continue to hold value as I move on in life and work.

The Future

In some ways, I wish I could be writing this article a couple of years from now— speaking with assurance about how my international escapades have impacted me. Currently, I am in the middle of this journey, immersed in an experience that I know will shape my life and career.

I am open to the opportunities that lie ahead. However, after my return to the United States in the next year, I will remain committed to the international element of my work. It is the skills, knowledge and perspectives that I have gained from my years abroad that I want to build upon in my future.

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