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Experience report from Nanjing

Marcel Loewert, who is studying bioengineering (M. Sc.) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), was awarded a China scholarship from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts to spend five months at the College of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering in Nanjing, capital and communications centre in China’s Jiangsu Province. Here Marcel reports about the experiences he made during his five-month stay in China.

China – Nanjing city centre, Hunan Road. © Marcel Loewert

I learnt something new every day right up until the very last day of my five-month stay in China, either about the Chinese culture, the people or Chinese work ethics. Every new experience was a challenge and every conversation with Chinese people brought me one step closer to my goal of doing my utmost to understand this exotic country and its complex structures. 

A five-month stay in China is just about enough time to scratch the surface and start to understand how the Chinese people and state function in harmony with each other. The first thing I noticed was that the dynamics between people and state are very particular to China and unlike anywhere else.

The way the Chinese work in biotechnological settings was very different from what I was used to. I did not expect such a big difference. Although I knew quite a lot, I still had to learn how to do things the Chinese way. I had to get used to how experiments are done here, and the very different procedures. Above all, it meant that I had to spend a lot more time on an experiment than I would have done back home. Nevertheless, the work done by my colleagues at the College of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering in Professor Jiang Min’s business-oriented research group was very inspiring. The quality of the work was high considering they only had limited financial funds available, and morale was good. They came up with many new ideas, partly helped by the effective pressure from their industrial clients.

The work is varied and interesting and everybody is given the opportunity to present their acquired knowledge. My special work area focused on Clostridium beijerinckii and on increasing the yield of extracellular bulk chemical concentrations using fermentation methods. 

The unknown giant

Unfortunately, western media in Europe and Germany do not give a great deal of insight into China, its enormous potential and its undoubted charm. This leads to uncertainty and timidity on both sides. The purpose of the stay was to overcome this regrettable fact through communication and working together and enable me to see China as it really is. The Chinese are very helpful, but in a quite different way to Europeans. They believe in values and are acting with a good intention, and of course like to hear that from their country's visitors. Things like that have to be kept in mind, especially in situations in which one feels insecure. The ability to think outside the box and patience were key, character-forming aspects of my trip. But there are certain things in China which can and must not be whitewashed. However, this is part of the overall experience and important for understanding the situation the country is currently in.

Who is such an adventure suited to?

I would recommend a stay like this to people who are not frightened of hard and unusual work. The rewards are enormous. There are many things to be learnt from one of the largest but least known countries in the world. I have to admit that this was the most valuable experience I had in China. The country is extremely interesting, that’s how I would describe my stay in China in a nutshell. I have seen things that I now count among the most beautiful experiences in my life. I am therefore immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to spend some months in China. I think that applying for the scholarship and spending some time abroad was one of the best decisions of my life so far. 

I would recommend anybody going to China to read some books about the Chinese culture and also learn some Chinese. I also think that’s how the Chinese see it: why would 1.3 billion people want to learn how to speak English fluently when individual visitors can learn Chinese? 

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