Countdown to Christmas

Two weeks ’til Christmas, which means just one week until I fly back to the UK to spend a month seeing family and friends and gorging myself on as much British food and fresh air as I can get.

Xmas Tree at the Market

Xmas Tree at the Market

It’s been tricky to get into the Christmas spirit here as China is a mostly non-Christian nation and while plenty of people will still celebrate Christmas anyway, it’s only a minor bit of fun as their real celebration comes just over a month later for the Chinese New Year. I did manage to find a German Christmas Market in Shanghai at the weekend though, so we got some glühwein and bratwurst and suddenly feel a lot more Christmassy!

My Facebook friends will have seen my recent posts about the smog levels here at the moment. We’ve been up in the “Hazardous” region of the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Index (AQI) fairly solidly for the past two weeks. The level on the index considered ‘safe’ is around 20 but anything up to 50 is not harmful. London currently sits around 25, whereas Shanghai rocketed to well over 500 and then has been fluctuating around the 400 mark for the last few days. Once levels reach 300 schools are supposed to close and people are advised to stay indoors if possible, flights are cancelled due to lack of visibility and it reaches the point that you can actually taste the acidic pollution in the back of your throat if you’re outdoors for even a short amount of time. So, yeah, looking forward to getting back to Britain for some good fresh air.

View from my friend's balcony showing the change in smog levels from when we first arrived to this week!

View from my friend’s balcony showing the change in smog levels from when we first arrived to this week!


Aside from that though, Shanghai has really started to feel like home and I’m finally starting to make some progress on my new research project so things are going well here. I’m already looking forward to coming back here in the new year as I’ll be moving on to the next stage of my work and I hope to do a bit of travelling around China when I have time throughout the coming semester (most importantly, I want to go to Chengdu and hold a baby panda…it will be the best day of my life).

There was a lot riding on this move to Shanghai for me, the chance to work abroad again was one of the main incentives in my choice to do a PhD even though at the time I didn’t know China would be my destination. The past few months haven’t been easy, packing up your entire life into two suitcases and moving halfway across the world to a country where you know nobody, don’t speak the language and come from an entirely different culture is exciting, yes, but it’s also a constant challenge. I was very ill for a while, missed my friends and family back home and I had such a frustratingly slow start to my research here that I almost lost hope it would ever get back on track.

As with any PhD work though, you keep working and keep pushing at it and eventually it does. My work’s going a lot better now; I’ve made fantastic friends here, seen some truly amazing (and very many truly bizarre) things and I know from my experience of moving to the US for a year that, sure it’s difficult to make such a big change by yourself, but as long you keep persevering at it, things will just keep getting better and the more opportunities you take, the more that will present themselves to you. I’ve been fortunate enough already in my time here to have published a research paper, presented at an international conference, met a Nobel Prize winner and visited places like Hangzhou and Anji (which were gorgeous!).

The amazing view from the top of a mountain in Anji County

The amazing view from the top of a mountain in Anji County

One of the things I really haven’t adjusted to here, though, is the lack of social interaction within the Chemistry Department. You can easily spend the entire day in the Department in complete silence and even when I seek out students to ask a question they will answer shortly and then walk away or go back to their work. There’s never the chance for a conversation over a coffee break to clear your head. The Chinese students are also a lot more secretive about their work, even within my own group I don’t know what most of the other students are researching and so it makes it difficult to have a scientific discussion with anyone. Fortunately, though, in a couple of days I’ll be giving a lecture to the Chemistry Department on my research and will get to hear some of the other students talk about their work, so I should have a clearer picture of what each person specialises in before I head back to the UK.

The lack of social interactions in the Department has been more than made up for by the social life within the international community though.  One of the great things about living in such a big city is that there’s always something to do during the weekend/evenings if you’re bored (as long as the smog’s not so bad you have to stay indoors!) and the international students are keen to take full advantage of that. I think I’ll have reverse culture shock when I eventually move back to St Andrews as I’ll have to transition back to a small, quiet, coastal town from this massive busy city where I’ve started to get used to the noise, smells and constant rush.


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