An Autumn Day in Washington

Finally it is nice autumn in Washington, neither roasting sunshine nor thundering showers. There are still flowers of mixed colours scattered along the streets, swinging in the wind.

The Seoul-U.S. Forum is held in SAIS. For the whole morning, experts talk extensively about the Korean Peninsula, the U.S., and inevitably, Japan and China. It is more likely to meet leading scholars from Asia in Washington than in Tokyo or Beijing, not only because of the high frequency of events held here, but also because its more relaxed atmosphere and the way people network.

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Lunch looks delicious, with plenty of choices, from which I get a salmon sandwich pack. Food in the U.S. is indeed giant portion and I have to throw away many things with guilt. Exiting the conference room in the middle of the afternoon session, I walk along 18th street towards GWU. In a small park in the middle of the crossroad, some people are training for sports. Washington is wonderful, in the sense that it puts the busy centre of world affairs in a small town instead of a metropolis.

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After an inspiring interview for my PhD project, I have a quick look at the World Bank bookshop. It offers places to sit and read, as well as discounted books.

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Back in SAIS, there is an interesting seminar on Japan-U.S. internet economy dialogues and a reception full of fun. Washington is the ideal location for IR students, and those who are based here since undergraduate are so privileged.

An 110th Birthday Party

During my fieldwork in the U.S., I live in a religious residence. The elder sister here was turning 110. In addition to all residents, many people came to congratulate from various parts of the country. Another sister wrote a poem and read it in front of us. I thought it was beautiful even though I couldn’t understand a word as it was in Spanish. Our birthday girl looked happy, though a little bit sleepy.

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I have been to many birthday parties in my life, but this is the first time I went to celebrate someone’s 110th birthday, and I don’t know whether there will be a second opportunity like this in my life time. What were people thinking during the party, the meaning of life? It was a sunny afternoon. The rustling capital of the world’s superpower seemed so peaceful while people, acquaintance or strangers, randomly exchanged friendly words with each other.

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Famous people like to say it is not the length of the life, but the content of the life that matters. It is right only in the sense that a meaningful life is more meaningful than a meaningless one. If I wouldn’t live until then, how could l experience future progresses of the human society which I can’t even imagine now? Let’s live long, at least long enough to work out a solution for the demographic problem of aging.

Unique Conference Experience

When I applied to the Asian Studies Conference Japan 2014, I had in mind the idea that it would be a nice ending for my half-year fieldwork in Japan. It was, but in a way that I didn’t expect.

It was not the first time that I had problems with my name tag, usually first and last names confused, but this was of its own kind. People who registered for the reception had a yellow spot on their tags, but I didn’t. I spoke to the chair of the conference who happened to be standing nearby. He was very kind and took a pen, quickly drew a random black spot on my tag. Fortunately, it was accepted as “legal” later.

I hurried to a panel as I was late, but the room was empty. A lady told me, it was cancelled because of no-show of the whole panel. Oh, in what chance did that happen…

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For the first time, and hopefully the last, I requested to change to a different panel, the theme of which was closer to my presentation. As a result, I had to start my presentation when there was only 5 minutes left for the time allocated to the session. I shortened a 20-min presentation to 12 minutes, and luckily, got nice comments.

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I enjoyed the conference, in spite of, or because of, the unique experience.

 

Best Answer to Procrastination

It is simply impossible to be 16 / 7 (minus 8 hours’ sleep from 24 each day) focused on research. Not practical even 7 / 5 (subtracting 1 hour’s lunch time from 8 each working day). Especially difficult during fieldwork, as tiredness from commutes to interviews, new friends, tourist attractions, and enthusiasm to learn a new language are all potential distractions. Sometimes I see PhD as “procrastinating hopeless dissertation”, and wonder whether I will ever finish it.

Yet I recently discovered a best solution to procrastination: Japanese style research seminars. These seminars are organised by faculties and involve research students at both the PhD and Master’s levels who are under the same supervisor. Seminars are held once a week, lasting about 1.5 hours if there is one presentation and 2.5 hours if there are two. Each participant usually presents twice each term, making it 4 times each academic year. PhD students usually go to two seminars, led by their first and second supervisors, separately. The flaring difference from seminars I participated in King’s is research seminars are a compulsive module of research degrees in Japan, and the presence of the supervisor is guaranteed. In that case, participants have to think seriously about their thesis and make progress, great or trivial, at least 8 times during one academic year.

Inspired by these seminars, I set deadlines for myself every two months, and announced them to my supervisors. Hopefully my self-esteem (already declining since I started the PhD, though) won’t allow me to procrastinate anymore!

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Flying Cherry Blossoms

I went to Kyoto for interviews when the cherry blossoms there were almost finished. White and pink danced gently in the air, as if every breeze brought along a perfume shower. In fact, I doubted whether Kyoto was a nice environment for IR research, as it bore too much with the past which rendered current issues tiny sparkles in the long river of history.

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Interviews were conducted in Doshisha University and Kyoto University, both of which were located near tourist attractions but remained somewhat isolated from the rustles. I felt a little bit weird to talk about threats and mistrust on such serene days, but my interviewees reminded me that it was the way of life in Kyoto to take advantage of the quiet and calming surroundings and get yourself think deeper. Yes, I thought to myself, I needed to keep unswayed by the environment and think deep all the time, or I would not be able to finish my thesis.

I noticed that there were many Chinese students on both campus. What made Kyoto look more like China was that all temples charged admission fees. Therefore, I went for shrines as they were free, though Kyoto was more famous for Buddhist traditions. The final point to mention about Kyoto was the public transportation was old-style, and most of the time it was more reasonable to take buses than the tube, and I would definitely buy one-day bus passes if I visit again!

Tokyo Governor Election during the Snow

On a normal Thursday afternoon in January, I went to Shibuya for shopping. It was my first visit to Japan, so I planned to take a photo of the famous Faithful Dog Hachiko statue as well.

To my surprise, the small square near the tube station was so crowded that it was impossible to approach the statue. More surprisingly, it was the election campaign of the former P.M. Hosogawa! As a student who has been majoring in International Relations for 8 years, I was excited and immediately changed my plan to “a photo of the former P.M.” Unfortunately, I was too far away and didn’t bring a professional camera. I was thinking of trying once more, when I finished shopping, either with Hachiko or Mr. Hosogawa, but the place was filled with another candidate and his supporters then.

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Shortly before the voting day, there was very heavy snow—the heaviest in 13 years. I was lucky to have stored enough food in the fridge and didn’t need to go out, but I was a little bit worried about the constituency who had to vote despite the weather. It turned out fine, though. I learned earlier from a TV show that they would draw lots to decide if two or more candidates got same votes—at least not necessary for this election.

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PhD Supervision: Western or Chinese Style?

During my fieldwork in Beijing, King’s held a joint seminar with Peking University. I got the chance to present my interview findings in the PhD panel, together with one colleague from King’s and two from PKU.

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The audiences, mainly Chinese scholars from PKU and RUC who specialised on East Asian security, were so critical that it made me feel like rehearsing my PhD thesis defense. They provided inspiring comments on literature review, thesis structure, and research methods, but in a quite serious way, so serious that after the panel my second supervisor, who was also participating in the seminar, asked me whether I was OK. I was absolutely fine because I was educated in China, used to the academic environment, and fully aware that they were trying to help when they sounded harsh.

It is just a cultural difference. While the role of supervisors to students is paternal in Chinese tradition, it is more like team leader in the western context: both have their own merits. So far, my PhD study benefited a lot from the western way of supervising and skills training, of course including King’s Partnership Grant which supported my visit to Renmin University of China (RUC).

King’s Partnership Grant  http://www.kcl.ac.uk/study/abroad/discover/money/partnergrant.aspx

IR: A Painful Subject to Study?

I participated in the European Japanese Studies Seminar 2013, which was held in Alsace, France. It was an interdisciplinary seminar for early-stage scholars, and speakers’ topics covered many aspects of Japanese studies including politics, economy, history, society, literature, theatre, and art.

I presented about the Relative Weakening of the Post-Cold War Japan-U.S. alliance on the first day of the seminar, during which all presentations were on relatively serious topics like politics and economy. On the second day, however, researchers talked about social phenomenon, novels, movies, and animation. When the host asked each of us to give a short closing comment, I joked and said I would consider changing my research area to literature or animation, if I had a second chance to do my undergraduate or masters, as IR seemed to be a very painful subject to study, and everybody seemed serious and concerned on the first day of the seminar.

After the intense seminar, I spent one day in Paris, sightseeing. As I walked across exhibition rooms of the Louvre, an idea suddenly came to me that maybe researchers who study various subjects were trying to answer similar questions about the man kind and the world from different perspectives, and there must be serious and pressured moments as long as they thought and had hopes.

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Nottingham’s Focus on East Asia

The East Asia Studies Conference jointly organised by British Associations of Chinese, Japanese and Korean Studies were held in the University of Nottingham in early September. King’s School of Arts & Humanities small grant supported my attendance.

It was a very successful conference. Parallel panels were thus arranged that no painful choices should be made, while in each session there was one or two panels of my interest. As the conference was spread in three days, people got a nice change to communicate with each other, and PhD students could talk to famous professors. It was also exciting that it was a region-specific conference, so people got at least basic knowledge of my topic and provided useful comments on my research. Hearing Europeans speaking fluent Asian languages was quite pressuring experience, which felt like an inaudible voice urging me to become more multilingual. By the way, the organiser managed to offer delicious Chinese buffet for lunches.

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Nottingham was also a beautiful city, though a little bit boring because I didn’t get the time to visit the home of Robin Hood. The whole city took on a nostalgic colour, with trams running on the main roads. It was a pity that the Central Square was under construction, but the St. Mary’s Church didn’t disappoint me.

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School of Arts & Humanities small grant    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/graduate/funding/database/index.php?action=view&id=111

“School Trip” to BISA

Towards the end of June, I attended the annual conference of British International Studies Association. It turned out to be both fruitful and fun, because my supervisor acted as the chair of my panel, making it feel like a school trip to Birmingham.

Most participants, including myself, only discovered that there was no projector at the spot, which meant our PPT slides could not work as planned. And I got quite nervous before the panel started, for it was my first presentation at such big conferences. My supervisor smiled and said, “You shouldn’t be nervous, since you’ll be doing presentations all your life!” Oops, I hope so, which means I can get my PhD in due time and become a scholar afterwards.

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Themes of panels were quite scattered as it was a two-day conference. But it was interesting to notice that those who attended the same panels with me were actually the same group of people. I was lucky to get the chance to speak to them about their presentations and my own, also introducing my PhD project and asking for advice from the experienced scholars.

And I should not forget to thank my department, which reimbursed the registration fee as postgraduate research allowance. Though BISA was so expensive (100 pounds!) and didn’t even provide lunch, I still think it worth trying.

BISA    http://www.bisa.ac.uk/

Department of European & International Studies    http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/europeanstudies/index.aspx