6 Tips for Women Working in Rural China
In graduate school I lived and worked in Yunnan Province, China for about three years on and off as a mountain flora botanist. For the research that I conducted, it was necessary to create lasting connections with other researchers, obtain permits and permissions for working in remote border areas, and train numerous field assistants. Much of this I was able to do with minimal help, and frequently, I was the only woman in most situations.
Creating initial relationships proved challenging. Not only a woman, but foreign woman in science, I was initially told (by male scientists), “You can’t study those flowers because you are a woman and can’t climb mountains.” Honestly, it was frustrating in the beginning, but with perseverance, I eventually was introduced to a female scientist who was willing to help me obtain the necessary permits and permissions to conduct a portion of my research.
Not only a woman, but foreign woman in science, I was initially told (by male scientists), “You can’t study those flowers because you are a woman and can’t climb mountains.”
The strong relationships that I eventually built with this female scientist and her students were essential for the completion of a third of my research in Yunnan. I built these strong relationships with her, her colleagues, and her students and built other relationships with local governmental authorities by being genuine, having knowledge of Chinese gifting culture, and through trial and error.
If you plan on working in rural China, follow these tips to ease your experience:
1. Save, give, and earn face (Guan Xi).
Face or guan xi is essentially showing and earning respect through building a relationship. Guan xi is something that is incredibly important in China when it comes to working relationships.
2. Bring gifts from home.
China is very much a gifting culture. It is a kind gesture to bring small gifts from your home to give to people. It shows that you thought ahead and/or thought about them while you were away. Generally, I brought along small soaps to give to women colleagues and pens or t-shirts from my university in the U.S. for male colleagues. Once I got to know my colleagues better, I was able to bring gifts specific for each person. For example, one of my colleagues had recently had a baby so I brought some baby items along.
3. Learn toasts in Chinese.
These toasts include: I wish you good health, I wish you success at work, and I wish you happiness for your whole family. One way to show and earn face in China is to give toasts during banquets. It is generally appropriate for people around the table, which is usually round, to take turns giving toasts and drinking to someone’s health and success.
The appropriate etiquette for giving toasts is for someone to toast the highest ranking person or the guest at the table first. To give a toast you can stand at your seat and reach if next to or walk to the person holding your drinking glass (either a shot glass or a small tea cup depending on the location) and say your toast while holding your glass against theirs.
The toast doesn’t need to be long or in-depth–especially if your Chinese is rough–but it can be simple like: “I wish you good health.” Upon completion of your toast, you drink the entire glass. Be sure that you are always holding the glass with two hands and hold your glass lower than the person you are toasting. Eventually, it is proper to toast everyone sitting at the table, and for everyone to toast you. For more toasting ideas check out this website with toasts in Chinese, Pinyin, and phonetics.
4. Understand the drinking culture.
I hate saying this, but I credit a huge portion of my initial success in the field to my willingness to drink toasts with colleagues. This helped to build guan xi for myself and showed respect for my colleagues and assistants. Expect to drink anything from bai jiu (white liquor), to wine, to qinka jiu (buckwheat liquor) to something homemade. Sometimes it is okay to substitute soda for alcohol, but that is situation dependent.
5. Learn a few popular KTV songs and don’t be shy about belting them out.
Ask anyone from my family–I’m an absolutely horrible singer. But in China, I had to step out of my comfort zone and belt out song after song–in both English and Chinese–at the karaoke hot-spot of KTV. In China, karaoke is incredibly popular and is frequented after banquets for a bit of fun.
At KTV you get your own private room that has a television for you to select the songs you’d like to sing. In larger KTVs that are located in cities you can find popular Western pop music (to save you from having to sing in Chinese), but in rural areas, like where I worked in northwestern Yunnan, the English songs were very limited. I sang a lot of Michael Jackson at that KTV.
6. Use Chinese social media to stay in touch.
During graduate school I spent the winters, springs, and summers in China, but was back in the US during the fall. It was important for me and my research that I keep the relationships strong that I spent so long building. To keep in touch while away, I tapped into Chinese social media, with my favorite being WeChat. I also made some of my best friends while in China, so being able to stay in touch is really important to me.
Photo credit: Miltos Gikas