Thursday, June 01, 2006

International Research

International travel demands a certain willingness to set aside the customs and practices of one's culture. And we ought not to have a problem with this. It's part of being a good guest. I have no problem with leaving my fork at home, if my hosts will excuse my awkwardness with chopsticks. I am prepared to eat unusual food.

But are some cultural practices harder to discard than our discomfort with the prospect of eating pig face or insects? Do some practices cut to the core of who we are as Americans? Might some even have the force of law?

I was presented with one such situation when I sought permission to conduct a small study of the way reading is taught in China. American universities have specific and complex rules and procedures designed to protect the subjects of research. American academics must submit to a rigorous procedure to have their studies approved. Informed consent documents must clearly and specifically
delineate subjects' rights and possible recourse should problems occur. An institutional review board (IRB) examines resesearch proposals to insure compliance with Federal guidelines.

But how do you explain to a group of Chinese school teachers that, as research subjects, they enjoy certain rights under American law? And why should the subjects feel these rights are relevant when these subjects live in China? While we may agree to suspend our use of the fork, we will not give over our manner of protecting the people we study. In an increasingly global arena, researchers may expect to encounter similar situations, which necessitate translating our cultural practices into terms understandable in another culture.

We may not always be successful, but it is essential that we try. The following is from an information sheet I'll be giving study participants:

It is an American custom that we tell people who take part in research many things about the study and their rights. My university and the American government require me to do this. The purpose of this study is to learn about the way reading is taught at the elementary and secondary levels in Chinese schools. I would like to give a small group of written questions to teachers ... who wish to take part... I will meet with you privately... If you wish to have some other person with us when we talk, this is O.K. I shall read the questions to you; then you can write down your answers yourself, or I can do the writing if you prefer...

I hope it works. When I say this, I mean I hope the teachers feel respected, valued, and do not feel coerced. That's the standard we set for ourselves as American researchers. It is a cultural value we cannot compromise.

I have sometimes resented the exacting review which the IRB requires. Organizational procedures carry with them a certain bureaucratic heaviness and may sometimes even seem silly. But, as I have gone through the procedures in preparation for working in China, I am enormously proud of the care Americans take when conducting human research. It is one more reason why I am proud of my country.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

How much time do you need?

Years ago, when I worked for the Hamilton County Welfare Department, I learned that the easiest way to get on the good side of my supervisors was to show up early for work. I acquired the habit of doing things way before I really had to so I'd avoid missing deadlines. But how much extra time is enough?

Today, I received a Fed Ex package from the University of Shandong at Weihai. Inside was an invitation to apply for a Type F Chinese Visa. This is the type I ought to have, because I'm classified as a "foreign expert." I hoped for this material much earlier, but Shandong University did not send it until now, two weeks before my first trip. Did this give me sufficient time? Of course it did! The turnaround time with a visa agent is four days, or less. But rationality is not what this is about. I'd already gone ahead and gotten a type L or tourist visa, because I was anxious about being unprepared.

The issue is probably cultural. People vary in their perception of how much advance time is "enough." And I'm starting to realize that I, as an American, may be just a little uptight in this regard.

Monday, May 29, 2006

tian di

My husband Joe says I'm working very hard at learning Chinese. "Not hard enough," I grumble to myself. I was never really good at memorizing vocabulary for foreign language, and it's harder at 57, especially with an ideographic writing system where it's necessary to memorize characters as well as words.
These days, I do best learning things connected to what I know. I happen to have a Chinese Bible. I looked at verse 1, chapter 1. It was generally incomprehensible; rather like a densely worded menu in a Chinese restaurant. But at the end of verse 1 were the two symbols you see above. I seemed to remember that the first was 'heaven'-- da or big with a line on top. Could the second one mean earth? With a little web research, I learned that it was: tian di-- heaven and earth. Phrases are much easier to remember when connected to familiar text.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Comments Welcome!

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Note: Postings drop off after awhile. To see the old ones, look in Archives at the bottom of the blog.

A simple phonecall?

I thought it would be a good idea to phone the people I'd be working for this summer, since my trip is only two weeks away. Consulting the Johnson City Phone Directory, I learned that in addition to the local number, I'd need to dial the long distance code, the country code, and the city code. The long distance and country codes were no problem. But how do you find the code for Nanning China when you live in Johnson City? So I dialed the operator. Now as we all know, the human phone operator is obsolescent. She has been replaced by a series of recordings which direct you to press different numbers. Took me about ten minutes to locate an operator from the genus homo sapiens who could answer could answer my question. She was really polite. But is all this automation progress?

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...