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China - experiencing something new every single day

The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts finances a scholarship scheme called “Research stay for application-oriented bioscientists and biotechnologists in Shanghai and Jiangsu/China”. A recent winner of this scholarship, Felix Wertek, spent six months at the Chinese Academy of Science in Shanghai and collected first-hand impressions of Chinese laboratory practice. Here, Felix reports about his exciting time in the Chinese metropolis.

Immunology research group led by Prof. Chenqi XU at the Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Chinese Academy of Science in Shanghai. © Felix Wertek

When I was looking for an internship abroad, I discovered this outstanding scholarship programme, and immediately asked myself: “China? Well, why not?” Back then, I had just discovered my passion for green tea and Chinese food; but other than that and some newspaper articles featuring China’s vast economic growth, I knew very little about the Middle Kingdom. After I had successfully applied for the scholarship, which, fortunately, is a simple process, organised a visa, health insurance and credit card, I suddenly found myself in the middle of Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world, and at the beginning of an exciting adventure.

Shanghai is a colourful mixture of traditional and modern worlds and is home to many foreigners. This makes it easy to find a shared flat. However, I would suggest taking a whole week for this and also to get to know the city. There are many restaurants to try, skyscrapers to visit, beautiful gardens to admire and always a lot to see and buy in the street markets. 

A two-week, intensive Chinese language course back in Germany sparked my love for the language, and I never got tired of trying whatever words I knew on pedestrians, waiters, vendors and taxi drivers. Although it is actually possible to survive six months in Shanghai without ever speaking a word of Chinese, this will make you miss out on all the smiles you’ll put on many Chinese faces with the few sentences you know. In addition, China is an amazing country to travel in, and the number of English speakers among the Chinese population falls rapidly as you leave the larger cities.

Cycling through Shanghai to the Chinese Academy of Science

The Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Chinese Academy of Science is located on a wonderful, small campus right in the city centre and despite the heavy Chinese traffic, I soon dared to ride my bike to work. The hospitality of Prof. Chenqi Xu’s immunology research work group was enormous and I received a warm welcome, making me feel comfortable from the start. 

I learned that the Chinese work long hours, but that these often include a nap after lunch and, towards the evening, card games and TV series. The laboratory was very well equipped and stocks of laboratory supplies were regularly replenished. Instead of a Bunsen burner, things were kept sterile with an oil lamp, but other than that and a few machines with vintage flair, it was very similar to European standards. 

The Chinese accent makes communication challenging at times; but I had a lot of fun answering questions related to English grammar and being taught new Chinese phrases in return. As I was the only foreigner in the group, I could immerse myself fully into the Chinese way of working as well as try all kinds of unfamiliar though amazing kinds of food. This situation made me talk and think a lot about Germany and the Western world in general and I can confidently say that living in China definitely provides an intriguing new perspective on one’s own way of life. Experiencing China, a country rich in high culture, being confronted with communism, poverty and the long history of European colonisation, I began to see the strengths and weaknesses of Western values more clearly. 

My trip to China has been the most exciting and rewarding thing I have done so far, personally and professionally. I am deeply grateful for having been able to taste the food of Shanghai’s street kitchens, for the possibility to join one of my colleagues on a visit to his hometown during the spring festival and for being able to stand in the middle of old rice field terraces. Coming to China, I think it is important to be curious and ready to experience something new every single day. If foreigners are able to adapt to the city’s pace, they will be treated to drinks in night clubs, they can enjoy skylines, visit breathtaking places and cool events and, above all, they can take home unique personal experiences from the most populous country in the world.

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