Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Language and Research

After that whirlwind of a busride, I arrived at CICAMS ready for my first full day of work. At 11:00 am, a famous Italian epidemiologist presented his university’s research to begin a collaboration with CICAMS. When he was introduced by a Chinese epidemiologist with a thick accent and started his presentation with a thick, Italian accent, I immediately started chuckling to myself about how ridiculous the whole situation of speaking in 2nd languages was. But as the presentation continued, my perspective changed. It is supercheesy to say, but I think it’s so cool how small the world has become…both with the normalcy of international research and with my own life (living in CHINA and being able to communicate constantly via blog, email, phone, and videochat).

We then went to the weekly meeting of the epidemiology department, which was held entirely in Chinese, which, to be honest, continues to boggle my mind that everyone can understand the random assortment of syllables. We introduced ourselves, and Sarah and I both said basic things in English, but I also mentioned being excited to learn Mandarin, and everyone laughed (not the response I was expecting). Dr. Qiao, the Fogarty head, responded to my introduction by saying that it would be impossible to learn Mandarin in 10 months. Of course, I agree with him (my goal is to learn enough to get by while here and conduct a medical interview in Mandarin on my return at the same level as the hackneyed Spanish medical interviews I heard last year), but I think the response to my innocuous goal crystallized a thought that's been bubbling under the surface of my mind the last few days. Granted, I’ve only been here for a week, so you have to take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I think that the complexity of spoken and especially written Chinese language is a tremendous source of pride to the Chinese people. It seems as though they believe Mandarin is a bastion grounding them firmly in Chinese tradition while preventing Western culture, or any foreign influence, from influencing their daily life on any level but the most superficial. So, when Sarah, who started learning in earnest a few weeks ago says some words and phrases in Chinese, all of our superbusy officemates stop what they’re doing to repeat and say, good job if she’s right or help her pronounce it better if she spoke incorrectly. Part of me thinks it’s a really nice gesture (especially because our officemates are AWESOME—more on them later), but the more cynical part of me wonders if it’s more of a wow-I-can’t-believe-she-learned-how-to-say-is-it-lunch-time-what-trick-will-she-pull-out-of-her-tophat-next type thing. Either way, I’m really excited to start my own Mandarin studies in the next few days because I think it’ll be fun to try to turn this gibberish-sounding language into words that have meaning to me...and maybe no one else haha.

Most importantly, today I have a much better idea of what I’ll be doing here. It seems that my main projects will be nestled into an enormous 5-year project of ending cervical cancer in rural provinces in China. So, assuming everything goes smoothly, I will be comparing the effectiveness of intervention techniques for HPV vaccination to see which public health strategy works best and also do a baseline survey of knowledge and attitudes about HPV, HPV vaccine, and cervical cancer. I’m excited!


  1. Awesome post and incredible project!

  2. I think you're right - it is a small world that we live in. I also agree, the Chinese are very proud of their language and culture so they may enjoy keeping foreigners "in the dark". It will be a great challenge for you to learn enough Mandarin to get by or at least enough to order beef without mooing. I'm glad you're excited about your research it sounds interesting. Keep the blogs coming!