Saturday, July 28, 2012

2012 Summer Fellow: Beijing Roast...Lamb?

First, a little background before getting started. Each of the past three summers, I've had the privilege of helping Professor Bruce Dickson with his ongoing research project, which has been designed and implemented in collaboration with the Research Center for Contemporary China at Peking University. Prof. Dickson and the center's director, Dr. Shen Mingming, were classmates at the University of Michigan during graduate school and have subsequently worked together on various projects, researching Chinese government and modern Chinese society. The center's specialty is survey work, gathering data on public opinion and conditions around the country, and Prof. Dickson has drawn upon this expertise in carrying out his own recent investigations.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my visit to Beijing had something of a dual purpose - both to carry out my own preliminary research and inquiries in preparation for my dissertation work, but also to spend a bit of that time continuing my work as research assistant to Prof. Dickson. This overlap has been extremely helpful, since I’ve been able to draw on my experiences at the RCCC to develop my own work. Dr. Shen and the other staff at the Center, especially Dr. Yan Jie, have given Bruce and I guidance and have pointed us in many useful directions, so it was natural for me to turn to the RCCC on this trip as I began to ask some of my own questions.

In practice, this meant that while other activities at Nankai University and Tsinghua University were more useful in terms for ascertaining Chinese experts’ opinion on my specific questions about popular nationalism and PRC foreign policy, the RCCC was able to provide me with the logistical background necessary for this research. Who has carried out surveys on these questions, and where? What kinds of public opinion research is it feasible for me to carry out as a graduate student in the near future? Will the questions I’m interested in make sense to ordinary Chinese, or am I at risk of a cultural disconnect?

So, I was happy to have a chance to talk shop with our friends in Beijing. But I’d be neglecting half of the story if I only described our academic work. As in most fields, social interactions and connections are an important facet of one’s work, all the more so when it comes to research designs that require the collaboration of multiple individuals and research centers across national boundaries. For that reason, the dinner of roast lamb that we had with Dr. Shen and some of his Chinese friends early in the trip was at least as important as the meetings we had in the RCCC’s conference rooms.

My last post made a point of the “odd” banquet food that one often gets served as a guest in China, and this is just one more instance of why it’s better to visit a long-time friend (or one’s boss’s long-time friend) than it is to be the honored newcomer: old friends can take you to their favorite neighborhood haunts without shame. Dr. Shen can seem a bit idiosyncratic in his culinary tastes by Chinese standards – e.g. he enjoys rare steak, something few Chinese I’ve met have ever even tried, much less enjoyed – but it’s a joy to have someone treat you like a native, especially in a country with as much good food to offer as China. Our final evening at the RCCC before Prof. Dickson left the country, we got in Prof. Shen’s car (he had a new driver this year) and headed out into the far northwest of Beijing, somewhere beyond the 5th ring road. After passing countless low-slung restaurants and local shops, we ended up at an ordinary-looking establishment with a delicious specialty: entire legs of lamb, skewered raw on a spit, and placed over a bin of red-hot coals set into the middle of each table to cook over the course of the evening as each person carved off pieces for him or herself. Along with the most pungent stinky tofu I’ve ever experienced (spread on fried wafers like a cheese) and a batch of baijiu so strong that it’d probably give a Russian pause, it made for a memorable night. By the end of the evening, I’d even been officially “adopted” as a student of the RCCC.

Prof. Shen (center) and friends before dinner

All of this is just to say that it’s important to connect with people on a personal level, especially in China. Not only has doing so smoothed the road for my research, but it’s also shown me some parts of China that I never would have found on my own. My thanks to Prof. Dickson and the Sigur Center for making these experiences possible!

Jackson Woods
Ph.D. Political Science 2015
Sigur Center 2012 Field Research Fellow
Beijing, China

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