2. Work and Play

I have many coworkers. There is Sun Laoshi – the original founder of this organization – Huang Laoshi, the current boss; Zhu Laoshi, a professor in her 30s who is the one I talk to the most; and Duan Laoshi, a recent graduate. There is also an array of younger recent college graduates who run the trips to eldercare homes and health centers for the training center.

The array of different life experiences is interesting. Sun Laoshi is one of the most amazing people I’ve met: Originally from Nanjing, he focused on population research in his studies and rose to found this entire program. Though he retired last year, he still is heavily involved in coordinating research projects for the organization. He’s an older man in his late sixties with the energy of someone much younger. He shows up at the office often to check on the workers, whom he knows by name, and to make sure that I’m fine.

us pre-radicalization

An excursion with Sun Laoshi and family

I’ve experienced incredible generosity at the training center. Every worker in the complex knows who I am now. Many of them, even the staff,  have introduced themselves to me and offered their help just in case they needed anything. The people I work with are willing to pause in their work to teach me a new Chinese phrase or answer my questions. And Sun Laoshi comes every weekend to take me somewhere. I really feel that I am among friends.

At the same time, though, I find it difficult to live here, not just because I have a lot of work. A life in a combined hotel/office complex is by nature transitory and chaotic – because people are in and out over the course of a few days, I can’t make connections with them. And though the other workers are extraordinarily kind, the office setting doesn’t allow for much time to socialize. There are also the physical conditions. The office itself is lit with fluorescents and all water is hot since it’s freshly boiled. I have little time to get up and move around because the work goes from eight until five with only a break for lunch. There seems to be a social pressure on the workers to stay at their desks for this whole time.

I say this not to complain, but to reflect on the incredible disparity in quality of work-life between the US and China. In my experience working in China, bosses were able to set contracts to pay their employees for 40-hour workweeks, then require them to stay late whenever they wanted, without overtime. I saw the worst example of this in a previous experience working in Guangzhou. Luckily, this time around was better. I did not witness any wage stealing, though my coworkers did stay late (one person, a woman seven months pregnant, would regularly arrive at seven and leave at 6 that afternoon). Though this was her choice, I wonder what influenced her to make that decision. She was a new worker who had only been there a year. She might have wanted to prove herself. I remember her deference to the other employees and her tendency to stay to work during lunch.

The social interactions I did have were stilted. Conversations with my closest coworkers were like games of charades. When my boss asked me about my work progress, I was only able to smile and nod. I realized over and over again that as adequate as I thought my Chinese was for the every day, it was not even half sufficient for a workplace. And academic writing is almost completely out of my grasp.

However, it is getting better, little by little. I’m becoming more used to the social atmosphere of this place. I’ve learned how to be helpful around the office when I can’t be talkative. And I know more words to describe what I’m doing. Time can only tell if it gets less awkward or stressful.

fun with sun


Nanjing: Arrival and First Few Days

I am interning at the Nanjing “Population Statistics Training Center” – aka, an organization that trains professors, researchers and graduate students in new population statistics, ostensibly to do translation work on population statistics, but the reality is much different than what I expected. I’m only a week into my internship, and I am pretty sure that this will be the most important thing that I will learn in my time here. China and Chinese culture has a way of constantly defying my expectations, even though I consider myself an insider. And if it has done so in only a few days of working here, I should expect and prepare myself to be continually surprised.

The trip down here was very easy: it was a half-day’s train ride to Nanjing from Changsha, and my contact, Dr. Sun (the retired former director of my program) picked us up there. We went immediately from the train station to the hotel and then to a feast. That’s what happens here when there are “honored guests,”and I’ve been to China many times before, so I was unsurprised – but it was still awkward being one of them.

At first, the professors around me had no idea that my Chinese wasn’t as good as theirs, and were talking very rapidly about specific issues in population aging with me. This kind of talk fell into a complete gap in my vocabulary, since I had never used most of those words before! And when they talked quickly, it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d been using words I knew: I just didn’t understand. I had to ask them to slow down, which made things a little better, but then led to a common question: “If you are half Chinese, why don’t you speak Chinese?” I pulled out the old reasoning: that children growing up in a two-culture home tend to gravitate toward the culture that they are immersed in outside of the home – it just has more power over them. I joked that Chinese just wasn’t popular. The current boss, Dr. Huang, said this in response: “可是中文现在非常popular!”and I thought that was funny and couldn’t disagree. But she was also making a statement on the growth of China’s economy and power on the world stage, and this made me think a little (I’ll talk about this more in my final reflection).

The second day went better, thankfully. A trip was organized to a community healthcare center in the south of the city – a new model based on providing care from the beginning to end of life, including prevention, physical therapy, and psychotherapy, to people who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. It was newly built – it had only opened in 2015 – and was the first of its kind. The facilities were better than any hospital in the US, but I also think that this concept of including preventative care hasn’t caught on in many countries, so this was something I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, it was the first of its kind and the only one in the area; there were plans to expand similar community health centers to all around Jiangsu province. I was very impressed, but it brought up questions of access and exclusivity for me, ones that I unfortunately didn’t have the language skills to ask. I still don’t know if people from other communities are allowed to use this center. Hopefully though, this program expands to the rest of the province soon. Here are some pictures from the health center!

The health center check-in. After paying a very small fee to be included in the system, people can use it continually.

*and a hidden toilet!

A hospital bed with remote camera and swiveling functions


On the third day, I finally got situated in my room – there was a hassle over this at first, because the first option would have been sharing a four-bunk-bed dorm with four people. I was reminded of the way that service workers live in China: not well. I felt a bit spoiled asking for other options, but I also needed more privacy to be comfortable and sleep properly. I ended up booking a stay in the hotel for a month at a discounted rate (fun fact, the office where I work is also located in the hotel building). Now I live a floor above the office, which couldn’t be more convenient. It’s honestly a bit ridiculous how easy everything is.

The environment outside of the hotel/office building is beautiful. Nanjing is one of the prettiest Chinese cities I’ve ever been to, and my neighborhood has lots of food options and plenty of places to shop. I am also staying across the street from Xuanwuhu – a beautiful lake which is a great place to run. I go walking through the park around the lake as often as I can.

I thought the lake was smaller than it was and ended up running around it for two hours. Don't be like me

玄武湖 aka Xuanwu Lake


Sun Yat-Sen is basically the father of modern China. China's Dad.

The forest at 中山陵 aka the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum. It’s a beautiful park.


All in all, I’ve settled in – and I’m enjoying the work, the slow and calm pace of life here, and the chance to learn Chinese in such a peaceful setting.

Reflection: An Ending that I Did Not Plan For or Hope For

My internship experience was cut short by 2 weeks due to a medical issue that occurred during my sixth week in Shanghai. It was a sad ending that I did not want, and it resulted in me scrambling around at the last minute to wrap things up at my internship and buy gifts that I planned on buying during the rest of my time in Shanghai. My last full day in Shanghai was an unforgettable one. From being able to go to the Muslim market and try lamb skewers and highly addictive cake (I don’t know what it was made from, but it was really good). I also bought gifts, and I even bargained a little at Tian Zi Fang. My last dinner in Shanghai was full of laughter. We ate Dim Sum, and we all ordered tea and got our own tea pots. We stayed for a while to finish up our tea, and then an employee came around and took away our tea pots. We all thought he was taking them away because we were done, but a minute later our tea pots were back and filled with water. We then proceeded to drink that tea pot while laughing at the fact that we might end up staying the whole night in the restaurant because they kept refilling our tea pots. 

The front of the ACME Biopharmaceutical company building

The addictive cake from the Muslim market. The cake in the back was the best one











My never ending tea pot from the Dim Sum restaurant. I had Jasmine tea.












Although my experience was cut short by an unforeseen event, it was an extremely interesting and fantastic summer experience. I learned a lot about working in a laboratory and it helped me realize that I might want to work in a lab in the future. I also gained confidence in the laboratory. I felt myself improve my skills every day, and I perfected the skills that I already had. I made a lot of memories and I got to travel to Hangzhou and Suzhou. I also met people walking around the city and I realized that people in China are very nice and the reason they stand far away and stare is because they are afraid and shy of foreigners. They would stare at me, but if I stared back and smiled then they would either quickly look away with a shy expression on their face or they would smile right back. Once they knew that I had basic Chinese skills they would try to have conversations with me. I left in a rush on Saturday. I was packing up my apartment and getting my things together when one of my co-workers stopped by to say goodbye. She was not my mentor, but she worked in my lab and her English was by far the best of the group. We talked more together than anyone and I helped her with her pronunciation. We had a long conversation and she also said that after I left she would not have anyone else to practice English with, so I suggested that we keep in contact using Wechat to continue to practice her English and my Chinese. I gained a lot of confidence while abroad and the memories, people, and things that I saw I will never forget.

Window in a building on the island of Three Pools Mirroring the moon in Hangzhou. The “three pools” are not actual pools, but pedestals in the Lake.

Temple of Soul Retreat in Hangzhou has carved statues in cliffs near the temple



Food Stall in Zhujiaojiao. Zhujiajiao is called the Venice of Shanghai. It is about 30 minutes outside of Shanghai by metro.

Soft Serve waffle from Qibao. Another water city in Shanghai.

The Bund in Shanghai.

Bronze knife heads on display in the Shanghai Museum. The knife heads are over 3,000 years old.






ACME Biopharamaceutical Internship

I was super nervous the first day, I found out that the people I was assigned to work with did not speak English. My mentor was not there the first day, so I shadowed the head of our group, I just nodded my head and followed him around that day. The following day, I was introduced to my mentor and lab mates. I really like my lab group and our small research group as well. They are very fun to talk to and they are very casual. They do not wear business clothing.  They wear jeans and sweatpants, and they also wear t-shirts with funny English words that they do not know. They joke around and play on there phones when they are on break. For the first four weeks, I mainly observed my mentor and helped out with smaller tasks like, getting dry ice and ice, holding things, taking TLC plates out, and running errands for her. Every day I got to try a new skill that she would try her best to explain to me by repeating herself and motioning with her hands. I usually failed to completely understand her instructions, and I relied on observing her doing the same skill before to perform the skill myself.  I am understanding Mandarin a bit more here and there, and they help me with my speaking and tones when we have breaks. These past two weeks, I have started my own experiments. I set up the reaction, monitor the reaction, perform a work-up, and finally purify to the final product. Although I am doing my own reactions, my mentor usually does most of the set up and some other things during the experiment. This is because my Chinese language listening skills are rather slow, so whenever she asks me to do anything it would take me a few seconds to respond, and she would eventually get annoyed that I was not doing it fast enough and she would take over for me. My response time is slowly getting better and my mentor has been gradually letting me do more of the experimental set-up, but there is still a language gap that prevents me from fully understanding what she wants me to do. The internship experience, so far, has been incredible. I work Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 5 PM (usually 5:30 PM because no one is ever done on time). I live within walking distance of my internship, so I walk back with my lab mates and have dinner and relax before heading to sleep. The weeks are long and the A/C in the lab does not really work that well (temperatures are high 80s and in the 90s), but I have learned a lot, and I have improved my Chinese listening skills. There have also been downs. Since I am a bit slow responding to commands and I have a difficult time understanding commands, I am often spoke down to and they like to make jokes, but after the day is done they still laugh with me and talk with me just the same. 

My mentor,  Lu Wei Li (鲁伟丽) (right) and I (left) in our lab

Jason Zhang, president of the company (left) and I (right) standing in front of the front desk at the company












Last Friday was the company’s anniversary in Shanghai, and we all stopped our work to decorate a cake and make cookies (top left). I also had dinner at one of my lab mate’s house with people from the company (top right). We ate dinner and chatted for 4 hours, and I talked about my life and family, which they were very curious about. At the company, we get lunch every day provide to us. We get to choose four dishes from the many that are available. I try to avoid the fish because I dislike spitting out the bones onto my tray in front of other people, and I am also very slow at eating the fish as well. Every Thursday we have a dessert. The dessert changes every week, but they are not that sweet to me, but to my co-workers they are very sweet (bottom). 

Birthday cake that people made. I helped put the marshmallows on the cake. It had Oreos and mangos on the inside. It was a vanilla cake with whipped cream topping.

The meal with my coworkers. There is stir fried tomates and egg (top right), leafy vegetable (top left), pork ribs (middle), okra (bottom left) and fresh fish that was caught that day (bottom right). Also a packet of milk, which I though was interesting












Dessert at my company’s lunch. This is a bun filled with egg custard and decorated to look like a pig.

我在上海到了!I’m living the first 12 days all by myself… O_O

It’s crazy to believe I’ve made it to Shanghai on my own! I’ve traveled to breathtaking countries like Australia, the Philippines, and Germany, but never have I gone to China and never have I gone somewhere far and ALONE. I think that’s what scared me the most about flying here. I’ve always been one to try and show my family I’m mature and able to be on my own, but this was one of the rare times where I had so many doubts.

When I sat next to this Chinese lady on the flight from Toronto to Shanghai she asked me something in Chinese and I immediately defaulted to saying “对不起,我说中文一点”. I wasn’t even proud of myself for speaking Chinese because one: I had no idea what she said and two: I was way too wrapped up in my thoughts thinking “What am I doing?” and “Why am I here?” I spent the next 13.5 hours on that Air Canada flight distracting myself with movies, music, and games. I was doing anything to not think too much about the flight and how long I’m about to be away from home. I barely got any sleep and in the several 10-15 minute episodes of air turbulence, I found myself grimacing and barely breathing. Not a fun plane trip.

But upon arrival, I began to feel that excitement I always felt whenever I landed somewhere new. I got through security and immigration smoothly and once I found my friend, Jason, I felt better. Riding to my apartment with Jason, I was already so curious, so much that Jason laughed at me and said “Look at you being a tourist already” because I kept craning my head to look at the huge skyscrapers and the river.

When Jason dropped me off near my apartment, the stench of the streets, the sight of grime, and the people staring at me, the new laowai in this community all hit me, but I was quick to accept it (maybe I just ignored it). When I managed to drag in my two huge suitcases and my backpack into the apartment, my first reaction was “Wow I am dumb”. I had no idea what logic I was going with, but when I had first booked this Airbnb with Siân and Katie I thought it was going to be fairly big and spacious, with multiple rooms, and zero neighbors. It was such wishful thinking that didn’t take into consideration that this is one of the most populated cities in the world and so something like a house is a rarity. Instead here are pictures of the actual size of my apartment that exists on the 12th floor of a 15 story building stuck in the middle of a community filled with hundreds of other residents! It all matches the pictures on Airbnb, it just happens to be that everything is crammed into three rooms.

The door leads right into the small kitchen, bathroom, and door out of the apartment

After unpacking my belongings and trying to get some sense of organization in this already chaotic journey, I figured I needed food. Because I lacked unlimited data and I had zero confidence in my Chinese speaking abilities, I went to the nearest Family Mart and purchased snacks, sugary drinks, and already prepared meals. For the first week, I either ate fast food or American food, the one real Chinese dish I had was pork wonton soup. I was eating nothing that I wanted to and getting zero experience of the food culture or any culture at all.

I barely did anything either. Besides playing tennis with Jason or tagging along whenever he offered, I hardly went anywhere by myself unless it was less than three minutes from my apartment. I brought my professional camera and I would glance at it ever so often wondering if I would actually use it.  One night after going straight home after my internship, I took a snapchat of the Papa John’s pizza that I proudly ordered in Chinese and one of my friends deservingly gave me crap for it. If I didn’t have that or the encouragement from my travel-expert brother, I might still be too hesitant to really go out there and really travel.

That’s definitely not the case now.

Dragon structure inside the Yuyuan Garden

Some of the food I’ve been having.

Kangjian Park

Since the first week, I’ve settled in and gotten used to navigating on my own. I think I just needed the time and the reassurance that I’m out here to explore a whole new world. I am so grateful for every little thing I’m seeing, trying, or doing. I’ve already gone all over Shanghai visiting gardens, temples, and its city views. I’ve eaten at/tried street vendors, restaurants, and many of their little dessert or drink shops. Whether I’m out solo or with Siân and/or Katie there is something new I learn about Shanghai every day and each day I grow to love this city a little more.

 At Jing’an Temple