Reflections on two weeks in Beijing

As per the previous post, after Hanoi I headed to China for a two-week stay in Beijing. I was there to participate in the 2015 Summer Institute for Disaster and Risk Reduction at Beijing Normal University, an initiative run by the university’s Hazard and Risk Science Base. The institute had the kind of participants I enjoy working with the most – people from a whole variety of cultural and national backgrounds, working on a diverse range of topics and spanning the breadth of both the physical sciences. Having spent the latter part of my PhD and virtually all of my postdoc sitting in rooms with geologists, oceanographers, economists and policy people, I have come to really enjoy the challenges of finding common ground between disciplines – and also noticing the differences in values that can sometimes exist. (On a purely personal and selfish note, I also love early-career events where I’m the only UK participant, because it means that during the more social parts of proceedings I can have conversations about things other than buying property…)

Benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration - hanging out with engineers and quantitative risk analysts leads to formidable Jenga towers.
Benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration – hanging out with engineers and quantitative risk analysts leads to formidable Jenga towers.

Outside of academia, one of my big loves is rally driving – and my hero Colin McRae once said that the day he didn’t want to go as fast as he could on every stage is the day he would retire (or words to that effect). Well, in much the same way I am adamant that the day I don’t want to learn new things is the day I’ll jack it in and go work in the private sector. I found myself taking copious notes not only in the plenary sessions, but also when hearing about the work the other early-career researchers involved were doing – trying to understand quantitative methods and the logic behind mapping, making notes on my computer along the lines of ‘this is really interesting because…’, ‘this reminds me of…’ and ‘I wonder if this can relate to…’ The trouble with picking up new things, for me at least, is that I always want to try to engage with it somehow and to take my work in new directions…sometimes before I’ve fully developed the ideas and material I already have! Still, following what a supervisor once told me, I firmly believe there is no such thing as wasted thinking, and considering how my own research might fit into the work of others – even in sometimes rather tentative or abstract ways – is I find a great way to open up new avenues of enquiry I may not previously have thought about.

Similarly, I think it can be very helpful to open up one’s work to scrutiny from an audience different to the kind to which one may usually present. At very discipline- or topic-specific conferences and workshops, I sometimes find that a wild consensus breaks out, people extremely strongly and aggressively agreeing with each other to the extent that they start nodding and grunting during each other’s presentations. During Beijing, by contrast, I was able to have discussions on why exactly ‘fairness’ matters in climate change negotiations, how one can ensure the validity of ethnographic and intensive data, and why fossil fuel divestment may be a misguided cause – things that maybe get taken for granted in the circles I usually mix with to the extent that they are no longer opened up to critical scrutiny.

CNOOC HQ in Beijing - remember they now (indirectly) own one of the North Sea's biggest oil fields...
CNOOC HQ in Beijing – remember they now (indirectly) own one of the North Sea’s biggest oil fields…

Speaking of critical scrutiny, working with an almost equal mix of Chinese and international scholars was an interesting reminder of some of the differences in approach to scholarship that can exist across cultures. Whilst I was left with the impression that thinking across disciplines and the love of asking questions are very much things that are commonplace in the education system I was brought up in, at the same time I felt rather humbled and chastised at the depth and quality of knowledge my Chinese counterparts had for such an early career stage, and also the standard of productivity and work-rate. I say this because in the UK at least, people often scoff at the image of ‘rote learning’ they have of education in China, but I found this to be far from the case – with some really impressive work on earthquakes, disasters and climate change.

However, it was outside of the seminar rooms where I gained the most respect for the Chinese-speaking scholars, and – indeed – anyone who can present and discuss their research to a high level despite being a non-native speaker of English. On one of the first nights in Beijing – I think the first night our posse ventured out to get food without a local academic as a ‘guide’ – a misunderstanding with the menus resulted in us first of all getting some unidentified seafood as an entrée. Worse was to follow when some innocuous-looking peppers arrived, which turned out to get spicier the further up the skewer one went to the point at which they became inedible (I of course was first to find this out having taken a massive chomp out the wrong end). I was squarely to blame for this, having confidently stepped up to order the food on account of having done 18 months’ of Chinese classes two years ago and also being able to read about 50% of the menu due to its similarity with Japanese. It turned out that the Chinese I could remember was of the less useful variety, and that the half of the menu I could read was the less important half. All of which is to say that going between two fundamentally different languages is a huge challenge, so I take my hat off to anyone who can present and discuss their work in such an unfamiliar language (or even just order non-spicy peppers).

Same window, different day – effect of smog?
Same window, different day – effect of smog?

The Beijing air also became a major talking point due to its smogginess. I was shown an arresting article upon my return to the UK which claimed Beijing air was as bad for you as smoking, and whilst I can’t verify that claim I can understand why people would think so. I am used to fog in the mornings in Aberdeen because of the haar coming in off the North Sea, but this was something else – the smog levels visibly varied day-on-day to the extent that I started doing a daily survey from my hotel window. Most alarming of all was the clarity that emerged after heavy rain and/or during winds, one day to the extent I was able to see mountains that I did not know even existed for the previous ten days. A stark reminder that quite apart from climate change, industrialisation and energy production can have much more immediate and tangible impacts on the environment around us – which in turn makes me think back to some of Andrew Dobson’s ecological citizenship arguments on the idea that accepting humans may have impacts on the environment as they go about the course of their lives may be a shorter and easier step to environmentalist thinking than complicated climate change arguments. Indeed, the pollution certainly got people talking, and if it helps to open up awareness to the climate costs of energy and industrialisation (not just in China but also overseas) then that may be a metaphorical silver lining to a very literal cloud.

Several iterations of Volkswagen melded together.
Several iterations of Volkswagen melded together.

The propensity of streets to flood after sudden downpours also caught my attention, as did the way in which China’s economic growth may be measured by the quality of Volkswagens offered for sale. China seems to have gone from getting Mark II Jettas (based on a now 30 year-old design) with newer bits stuck on the front and rear to now getting the exact same cars as we do in Europe, and the locally-built Citroens have gone from being rehashed ZXs (again, an over 20 year-old design) or Peugeot 206s with C4 headlights fused on (yuck) to virtually the same ones that roll off the factory in Aubigny. Being a car geek only I would notice this, but it is nonetheless a subtle indicator of how seriously China is now taken by Europe-based companies. Whether this extends to the energy sector or not I need to research more.

It seems that any time I go overseas for research, I benefit just as much if not more from the thinking I do wandering around the city as I do from the formal workshop and seminar sessions. This was certainly true in Calgary last year, and again proved to be the case in Beijing. I may now be at a career stage where I have teaching responsibilities and pressure to publish and secure funding that fits within an established way of thinking, but I am determined to make sure I never stop learning new things or exploring new pathways.


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