Monday, May 25, 2015

The same yet different

One of the strange feelings about being back in Nanjing is one of stagnation, like nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. It feels like I’ve taken a time machine back a few years, to another world now foreign to me, yet it feels like time is standing still and nothing is moving forward. That is one of the most difficult aspects for me when I go back and forth from China to the US: on the one hand, everything is the same as I left it and life goes on as normal, seemingly as if nothing has changed. This is comforting on many levels. At the same time, I’ve had to say goodbye to countless friends each time I move, many friends that I haven’t seen in years. And inevitably, like all friendships, I’ve watched many of my friendships dissolve simply because of the time and space between us.

This time around, I’m back in Nanjing. I’m in the same house, in the same neighborhood, with the same roommate and same host family from my Fulbright research (when I was writing on this blog before). The same noodle shop is serving the same salty, soup with soy sauce and a huge slab of fatty pork. The duck blood soup restaurant is down the street, serving exactly the same food with the friendly auntie and uncle I chat with about their daughters’ marriage prospects (though one of their daughters is married now). The same street food vendors are selling fried tofu and the same scandalous shows by the city wall are attracting crowds of men. The same vegetable sellers are screaming about their products as they ride through the alleys in the morning. Their voices haven’t changed at all--they’re still screaming about their potatoes and bok choy in the exact same voice, intonation, and cadence as I remember. It’s kind of eery, yet comforting at the same time.

The same scrap collector gathers recyclable materials, and the same fights ensue between my neighbors. I go to the the same public toilet and shower house. The shower house auntie still remembers me, and we catch up about her son and my school work. The same people play mahjong for hours every day. The same old ladies are do their daily exercises of slapping various parts of their body in the pagoda by the river at 9 am everyday. The neighborhood is filled with the same sounds of motorbikes speeding past and cars honking their horns. The same busses barrell past at dangerous speeds. The same bicycles weave through the alleyway. The same bird at my next-door neighbor’s squaks out a few Chinese phrases. I eat the same spicy Muslim noodles and talk to the fruit sellers; I walk the same routes through town and the same markets. I eat the same steaming hot bowl of noodles, and dumplings, and spicy fried rice from the same carts that spring up early in the morning and late at night. I smell the same sewage smells. The read the same posters threatening the demolition that never comes.

And there are a lot of differences in the neighborhood too, of course. The neighbors next door lost their grandma but welcomed in a new baby 2 months ago. The other next door neighbors’ daughter is in 3rd grade now, and as independent and sassy as ever. My roommate Xie Rui has graduated and is working several odd jobs trying to keep ends meet--one tutoring middle school students and one working at a fruit stand--and finding herself bored with her jobs and her life. My host family is planning on moving into a new apartment next year. The houses on the other side of town have been demolished and a new ritzy tourist attraction with fake new “old” houses have been built, with shops selling expensive Buddhist decor, a Starbucks, and a German restaurant in their place. Some businesses have closed and new ones opened in their place, and the frantic pace of development brought on by building a new subway for the 2014 Youth Olympics has slowed a bit. There is still ongoing demolition in various parts of the neighborhood. My neighbors continue to wait eagerly for their demolition and the compensation that will come with that. One of the young girls down the street has moved to another city for work. The kids have grown taller.

And I’ve changed too.

I’m no longer a long-term resident here. It’s a different feeling, less like being around friends and family, and more like acquaintances. It’s awkward that way. Not with my roommate or my next-door neighbors: to me they are still family. But with everyone else. There’s a distance, perhaps more on my part than anyone else. I’m just passing through this time. I do hope to bring Xie Rui and Zhang Chongyang to the States someday, even if it’s just for travel. But I don’t have the same kind of investment in this place and its people anymore and that creates a natural drift. My research project has moved to the opposite side of the country, and my focus has changed from demolition and displacement to migration and ethnicity. It’s no longer my home. It feels like home, but… at the same time then again it feels more like I’m a traveler passing through on a journey, not like I’m settled here the way I was before.

Staying sane in graduate school: coping strategies for academic life

One of the purposes of this blog is to give and receive advice from other PhD students on how they are surviving/have survived graduate school--both academically, professionally, and personally. I hope some of these strategies are useful to my professional young adult working friends as well. Leave comments below on how you stayed sane in graduate school!

Frankly speaking, if you think you don’t need consistent mental health care and emotional support while you’re in graduate school, then you’re just kidding yourself. We all need it, whether it’s professional counseling or self-help books or journaling or meditation or working groups or partners, we all need some kind of external support network and strategies for surviving--and staying sane--as graduate students. Everybody is different and the same strategies won't work for everyone. And if you think you don’t need to pay conscious attention to your mental health, then you’re going to be more vulnerable to a crash later on down the road. It’s better to recognize and acknowledge this fact and be prepared for the challenges to come than to pretend that you’re immune to mental breakdowns. Because let’s face it: crises are going to happen, and they’re probably going to happen at least once a semester. Over the past 3 years, I’ve developed a lot of different coping strategies for dealing with the stress of graduate school. Here are my tips, but I want to hear from you about what does and doesn't work for you. At any one point in the semester I am oscillating between these different strategies, not any one or all of these strategies is appropriate at any given time. Depending on how I am feeling I employ either all or none of these strategies. Please add your own in the comments section!

  • WATER, FOOD, SLEEP: These are the three elements to living that are so important and yet rarely do we pay enough attention to them. These three things should be on top of our to-do lists every single day. These are your top priorities. Get enough water and sleep, and eat nutritious food. Bam. All your problems will be solved. Okay, not really, but it helps a lot! This will help immensely in your level of productivity, but also in your health and happiness. These three things have proven very elusive to me; I still struggle everyday with these three things. They are so key to our health, and yet so difficult to maintain on a regular basis. That’s why I put them at the top of this list.  
  • Professional counseling and mental health care through one-on-one therapy and/or support groups: this is the first step. Talking to a professional once a week isn’t going to cure all your problems. But it provides a foundation and structure of care that can help focus your mental health goals and help direct you in figuring out how to move forward in your recovery (because let’s face it, we’ve all been through some stuff), as well setting up your own strategies for coping with your personal and specific tendencies and behaviors.
  • I’m a self-help book junkie. I highly recommend supplementing professional counseling with the myriad of books out there for every kind of mental health concern possible. Some of my favorites are Eating by the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, and Feeling Good by David Burns. 
  • There are also a lot of academic self-help books out there for PhD students, like Aspiring Academics by Solem, Foote, and Monk and a myriad of dissertation writing guides. Also books like Using Social Theory by Pyrke, Rose and Whatmore, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword, “How to talk about books you haven’t read” by Pierre Bayard, and How to Write A Lot by Paul Silvia are some useful academic self-help books that I’ve read and found helpful.  
  • Form working groups and/or find writing partners! These can be incredibly helpful for being productive and having accountability for getting work done, but also for alleviating feelings of isolation and cultivating connections with colleagues. It helps to not feel so alone in the writing process--writing does not have to be a solitary, lonely, isolating process that it so often is for many of us. I attend Dr. Glenda Russell’s Dissertation Working Group every week in C4C (operated through CAPS). Click here for more information. This has been instrumental for me in getting my work done, and provides another form of external support that has helped immensely in maintaining my emotional and mental health. Though it should be noted that the group is not meant to serve as mental health support, but rather it is meant to help get the dissertation finished.
  • Practice self-nurturing and self-compassion every single day! This means two things: first, no negative self-talk! No more putting yourself down! Rather, talking to yourself in kind and loving words. No more, “I’m so stupid and lazy” talks to yourself. This is counter-productive and will not make you work any harder or make you more productive. Second, I try to do nice things for myself every day, whether it’s enjoying a cup of coffee, painting my nails, taking a 20-minute power nap, meditation, or taking a walk at lunchtime. Just random stuff where you can stop, breathe, and enjoy life for a few minutes. Also check out
  • Get a hobby. It can be anything: yoga, ceramics, painting, knitting, basketball, hiking, swimming, Pilates, kickboxing, rock climbing… Something non-academic that requires learning a skill that you enjoy doing on a regular basis.
  • Exercise! At least 30 minutes a day. Just do it. Even if it’s just walking. Do 30 minutes of activity a day. It will make you feel better physically and mentally. I promise it's worth the time.
  • Keep a gratitude journal! I have a note on my phone called “gratitude.” At the end of every day I write down three things I’m thankful for. Every Monday morning and read through the entries from the week before and it always makes me smile. Kinda corny but it really works.
  • Inspirational music! When I’m feeling down or tired, I have a playlist of happy, upbeat, inspiring music that always makes me smile… and even dance in my cubicle sometimes. At the top of the list? Let It Go from the Frozen soundtrack, Roar by Katy Perry, Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding, Watch Yo Back by Trina, and Blank Space by Taylor Swift. No shame. Power women all day long.
  • PhD comics. These always make me laugh out loud and remind me that I’m not alone.
  • FRIENDS! As grad students, we tend to be introverted hermits. Which is great most of the time. But make time each week for friends! Whether it’s grabbing coffee during the week, or going out to a movie or dinner on the weekend, consciously make an effort to connect with at least one other person in real life (ie, texting or facebooking doesn’t count) for at least an hour every week.
  • Journal! Acknowledge, accept, and express your feelings every single day in writing. It does wonders not only to rid your mind and heart of burdensome worries, but also recording your thoughts every day helps you to notice patterns in your behaviors and emotions. So make sure to review your journal once a week or once a month. Do you get depressed every time you have a meeting with your adviser? Do you go through a Netflix binge session every time you talk to your mom on the phone? Noticing these patterns can be helpful for warding off negative behaviors in the future.
  • Call your long-distance besties! This is one of my favorite modes of therapy: calling one of my best friends from high school or college. They’re the best, and they always make me laugh. And they’ve seen me at my worst and witnessed my most embarrassing moments, so I can talk to them about pretty much anything.
  • Laugh! Have a list of your favorite comedic distractions when you’re feeling depressed or lonely. My favorites are anything that will make me laugh out loud from the following mediums: Podcasts (see, Netflix (comedies), and YouTube (especially stand-up comedy bits and/or Jenna Marbles).
  • READ FICTION! As a graduate student, I rarely get to read fiction, but I try to always have a book on hand that I slowly read during the semester, preferably one that is written at a 6th grade level for my fried brain at the end of the day. My favorite books of all the time are the ones I read in middle school anyway.
  • I regularly read the Pearls of Wisdom blog. Dr. Karen has tips on everything from going to academic conferences to mental health issues to preparing for non-academic and academic careers.
  • Take a sick day when you’re not ill! I consider this preventative medicine. Sleep in, eat whatever you want, watch TV all day, don’t do any work, don’t respond to email, and turn off your phone. And if anyone asks, you had a 24-hour stomach bug.
  • Have an emergency plan for moments of crisis. I give myself 3 options when I’m feeling super depressed or anxious about life and can’t think of what to do: call a friend, take a walk, or read. I always feel better after doing one of those things.

That is pretty much how I am surviving graduate school these days. What are your coping strategies? Leave a comment below!

Friday, May 22, 2015

The blog is back!

I’m back in China for the 5th time and so, almost 3 years after my last post, I’ve decided to start up my blog again. Unfortunately because of the IRB (and more importantly common sense morality and research ethics aka protecting the confidentiality and identity of my research participants and informants), I can’t post anything related to my research on here (stay tuned for a publication in 2019 though…). Many of you know that I removed my blog from public access for a few years because I was concerned about the safety and identity of my research participants. As it has been a few years since those events transpired, and I feel confident that my informants are no longer at risk of suffering any political or social consequences, I feel comfortable making my blog public again.

Since being back in China I’ve gotten the itch to start writing and blogging again. I need an English-language intellectual and emotional outlet while I’m here. And so in an effort to stay connected to the academic community, my friends, and family in the US, I’ve decided to write posts focusing on three specific, and sometimes overlapping, topics:

  1. Lessons learned during graduate school and things I wish I would have known earlier. This will include tips and advice for PhD students, specifically focusing on the challenges, struggles, growth, change, and thoughts regarding life as a graduate student. Also includes question and answer advice posts. Post your questions in the comments section!
  2. What I’m reading this week: summaries and thoughts of the books I’m reading, both academic and non-academic stuff. Since I get book ADD, at any one given time I’m usually reading 4 different books on my Kindle: one academic book, one self-help book for academics, one self-help book for neurotic people like myself, and one novel (yes, I occassionally indulge in fiction). I’ll write summaries and reactions to books I find interesting.
  3. Life in China not related to my research and/or general reflections or thoughts about life in general.

I will be posting every Friday!

So a little bit about myself and my life right now (a quick update on events that have transpired since my last post in 2012):

I’m currently working towards getting my PhD in geography. It’s an (approximately) six-year program. I have three years down and three more years to go. The kind of geography that I study is a social science that basically combines political science, anthropology, and sociology. My research interests focus on ethnic studies, urbanization, and migration in China.

I started my graduate degree in geography at University of Colorado-Boulder in 2012. And what an amazingly challenging and exciting ride it has been for me! I engaged full-time in coursework and teaching (TAing) undergraduate students during my first year in Boulder, and returned to Nanjing during the summer of 2013 to finish up the Fulbright research (the stuff I was working on when I was writing in my blog before) for my Master’s thesis. I started my second year of graduate school in August 2013, during which I took classes and taught undergrads. I wrote and defended my Master’s thesis in May 2014. Stay tuned for some publications from that in 2016!

I got some really, really awesome news in spring of 2014. I had recieved a 3-year fellowship from the National Science Foundation that would fund the continuation my graduate studies (the fellowship covers my tuition, books, living expenses, and research costs, such as visas and airplane tickets to and from China). This fellowship meant that 1) I could continue on to the PhD program (up until that point I was seriously considering dropping out because of lack of funding), and 2) I would be able to engage full time in doing research in China because I wouldn’t have to teach on campus during semester, which is what I had been doing to cover my tuition and expenses during my first two years.

So I returned to China in June 2014 to start research on my PhD dissertation. This involved preliminary fieldwork for my dissertation and learning the local dialect of a new field site. I returned to Boulder in January 2015 to finish up my coursework (took classes on ethnographic theory and statistics), work on some publications, prepare for my comprehensive exams, and analyze and present data from my preliminary fieldwork at conferences. Now I’m back in China doing more preliminary fieldwork for my dissertation. I’m focusing on migration, urban development, territorialization, and citizenship in northwest China. I plan to take my comprehensive exams in February 2016.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Chinese Version of the Immigrant "Problem"

I wrote an alum guest post on Chinese migrants on the GWU Sigur Center's blog and invite all of you to take a look:

Click here!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Geography is Beautiful

I can't tell you how many people give me weird looks when I tell them I'm getting my Master's degree in geography. "Whaaattt.....???" they ask.

I introduced my students (all 60 of them) to the discipline of geography this week and explained why geography is a required course for graduation at the university (and in all public high schools in Colorado as well). I did my best to explain why the skills they will learn in geography are important and even relevant to their everyday lives, and maybe even their careers. Here's a long-winded version of what I said.

A common misconception is that geography is limited to facts, such as names of states and their capitals, when really these are only the basic building blocks of geography. 

Geography is the study of the world in which we live. Geography is the study of where earth’s landscapes, peoples, places, and environments are located, why and how they have changed, why and how they have come to be, and why and how they are related to one another.  

Some people study physical geography, such as climate change or soil composition, but we are studying human geography in this class. Oftentimes physical and human geography overlap, like in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not only a fight over power and space, but also over water resources.  

Human geography focuses on the built environment (as opposed to the natural environment) and how humans create, view, manage, and influence space.  Human geography focuses on the study of patterns and processes that shape the human society. Human geographers make observations about human society, such as the cultures, transportation, and migrations of people. Some examples include: red states versus blue states, the Rwandan genocide, South African apartheid, Mexican immigration, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in China, Taiwan, Indian reservations, the European Union, and homelessness. These are all real examples of what human geographers are studying today.   

My hope is that in this class you will understand more about the world around you. Location, space, and place affect everything, including politics, culture, and economics. 

Who we are as people is determined by our environment. We are all products of our environment. By understanding our own place--where we came from and where we live--as well as understanding others' environments, we can cultivate pride in our own places, as well as a respect and understanding for others' environments and origins, and therefore a respect for other ways of life. 

Understanding geography and understanding the world around us helps all of us to be more socially and environmentally sensitive and more informed and responsible citizens. 

Geography is the foundation of society-- the foundation of our city, our state, our country, and our world. Our environment and how we interact with that environment matters. Our personal experiences in our environments-- growing up, moving, traveling-- makes us who we are as a people, as a family, as a society, as a culture, as a country, as a region, and as a world. Where we are located and where things are located in relation to us matters; it matters for our politics, culture, and economics.

Everybody likes to hear about practical applications to geography. So here are some examples of geography in action in the real world. 

Geography teaches us to think critically about… 

  • Political conflict- how does the fight over space and power in this place affect this war?
  • Natural hazards and disaster relief
  • Food, water, and oil shortages
  • Inequality and segregation
  • Refugees
  • Migration and immigration
  • Homelessness and poverty

Some jobs that are available for those skilled in the study of human geography:


I got this next part from this website

Geography informs us about...
  • The places and communities in which we live and work
  • Our natural environments and the pressures they face
  • The interconnectedness of the world and our communities within it
  • How and why the world is changing, globally and locally
  • How our individual and societal actions contribute to those changes
  • The choices that exist in managing our world for the future
  • The importance of location in business and decision-making

And that is why, friends and family, I am studying human geography. My specialization within the sub-field of human geography is political and cultural geography. I study demolition, displacement, and redevelopment in urban China, ethnic minorities in China, Chinese political autonomous and borderland regions, and Chinese-Central Asian relations.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Chinese Girl Would Never Do What You're Doing

As seen in the Trib:

Click here to read the article I wrote!

Fitness experience differs in China

Published: Monday, August 13, 2012, 8:57 p.m.Updated: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 

“You know, if you do too many power squats, your legs are going 
to get big and you won’t look good in a skirt.”
Frustrated to be interrupted in the middle of a set, I looked up at 
the sound of a familiar voice speaking to me in Chinese. The 
gym’s manager and an amateur bodybuilder was staring at me 
with concern. “Aren’t you afraid of that happening? You are 
trying to lose weight, aren’t you?” he asked. I laughed, because 
I actually was trying to gain a couple of pounds of muscle.
“Well, I guess I won’t be able to wear skirts anymore,” was all I 
could muster in reply.
This past year, while studying sociology at Nanjing University as 
a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grantee, I participated in 
fitness activities to gain insight into Chinese society and culture. 
Encouraged by the U.S. Department of State-funded Fulbright 
Program to seek opportunities in facilitating cross-cultural 
exchange, I turned to sports during my free time: running, 
weightlifting and training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Considering China’s consistently impressive showing at the 
Olympic Games — Chinese nabbed 87 gold medals, second only 
to the United States’ 104 — one might assume that the Chinese 
are especially supportive of athletic programs. The Chinese 
showing at the events in the just-concluded Olympics, however, is 
not representative of activities that are accessible to the average 
Chinese person. Badminton and table tennis are two notable 
exceptions; they are two of the most widely practiced and popular 
sports in China.
Young Chinese are generally discouraged from participating in 
sports, unless they are good enough to make a career out of it.
“Chinese people just want to focus on one thing in their life, and 
they put all their time and resources into getting good at that one 
thing,” explained my classmate Zhou Lijuan.
While most students are generally discouraged from any 
activities that distract them from preparation for the high 
school- and college-entrance exams, the exceptionally talented 
athletes are sent at a young age to special physical-education 
academies where they spend all day training.
Li Hua, 19, one of the more athletic members at the Frontier Asia 
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club in Nanjing, told me that when he was 
younger, his parents thought he would go to the Olympics in 
swimming. “I put all my time and effort into swimming,” he said. 
”By the time we realized I wasn’t good enough to go to the Olympics, 
it was too late. I failed the college entrance exam, and now have 
limited options for a career path. The only reason my parents let 
me continue to train Jiu-Jitsu is because it gives me an opportunity 
to practice English with my foreign teammates.”
While I never did understand why the Chinese were so fond of 
working out in jeans and dress shoes — and they could not 
accept my insistence on wearing barefoot running shoes or my 
aversion to synchronized dance — I engaged in insightful 
cultural exchange with my fellow athletes that revealed 
contemporary Chinese attitudes toward gender and athletics. 
In China, I felt that my identity as a woman had huge 
implications for the way I should be exercising. As I female, 
I should be trying to lose weight — and nothing else.
Working out in China was always an interesting experience. 
Frequently, when doing pull-ups in the adult playgrounds, 
which are equipped with pull-up and dip bars and various 
apparatuses, or weightlifting at the gym, I was stopped by 
men, who would stare, give me the thumbs-up, give me 
advice, or tell me that I am lihai, super strong. They almost 
always made a point to add, “You know, a Chinese girl 
would never do what you’re doing.”
I only ever saw one other woman in the gym, and I never 
saw any Chinese females doing pull-ups, but I still had to 
wonder how the Chinese female Olympic athletes would 
feel about that comment.
My feeble attempts at a single pull-up and 80-pound 
clean and jerks were nothing compared to Wang Mingjuan, 
who nabbed gold for China in weightlifting with a 250-pound 
clean and jerk. Li Xueying won gold with a 300-pound clean 
and jerk. And they are both lighter than me by over 
10 pounds of body weight. That is not even to mention the 
world record that gold medalist Zhou Lulu set this year at the 
London Olympics with a clean and jerk of over 412 pounds. 
In other words, there are Chinese girls that could destroy me 
at what I was doing.
Despite my internal protestations at what were nothing more 
than well-intentioned attempts to give me face (make me look good), 
I knew that their comments were less about what I was doing 
and more about the fact that I was a tall, big-nosed, blue-eyed 
female foreigner working out in China. I was seen as an anomaly, 
an alien in a sea of familiar faces. I challenged my expected 
identity as an American female, and by doing so, my activities 
brought stares and raised eyebrows. And they had not even 
seen me train Jiu-Jitsu.
The Chinese word for different is synonymous with the 
word for weird. My classmate Zhou Lijuan said to me once: 
“In China, everyone just does what everyone else is doing. 
People will say to you, ‘Well, everyone is doing X-Y-Z, why 
aren’t you doing X-Y-Z?’ I’m so jealous of the colorful life 
full of variety that you Americans lead.” She told me later 
that I had changed her life when I introduced her to an 
exercise routine — 30 minutes of walking or running a day — 
telling me she had never thought she could combine exercise 
with time for her studies.
In China’s overwhelmingly conformist culture, it is notable when 
anyone breaks out of the mold. Weirdness arouses curiosity. 
As a foreigner, you are weird just by existing in China. Then, 
you try talking or walking or eating or exercising, and the eyeballs 
practically jump out of their sockets. It is difficult for them to 
comprehend why I was doing something so unexpected and 
atypical. My experiences in China showed me that China is a 
conformist and collectivist, but not exclusive, culture. After all, 
older Chinese would gather in the parks to practice tai chi or 
dance or stretch or play basketball while chatting together. 
Gathering in the park was always a social activity, especially for 
the retired.
One day in the sociology course “Chinese Behavioral Analysis” 
at Nanjing University, we discussed Western individualism versus 
Chinese collectivism. The class roared with laughter as the 
professor described how, in China, “You don’t have possession
of your own body or your own thinking, but instead, your entire family 
owns your body and your thinking.” Someone else usually gets to 
decide whether you are full or hungry and cold or warm.
I laughed, too. 

As a Westerner, I had found it particularly jarring when Chinese 
people insisted that I eat more because I could not possibly be 
full yet, or wear more because I could not possibly be warm.
That habit manifested itself during workouts in comments like, 
“You must be tired, especially because you’re a girl!” I slowly
learned, however, that their comments of “Aren’t you cold? 
Tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Crazy?” were attempts to take on 
my concerns as their own. They expressed genuine concern 
over my well-being, because they saw me as a new member 
of their collectivist society. I eventually embraced it and, 
gradually, felt like I truly belonged.