An American in Chengdu

Expectations | September 16, 2009

I got my name badge today for work. It has my name in English (actually, “Ms. [first initial]. [last name]”), and underneath, in Chinese, “American teacher.” American is right there in my job title.

There must be some Westerners somewhere in China doing ordinary jobs that a Chinese person might do, but it seems that for the most part we’re employed as either English teachers or “foreign experts,” here to lend our foreign expertise to China’s great leap into the globalized future. I’d been puzzled as to what, exactly, my presence is supposed to add to the school. They went to a lot of trouble getting me here, with endless forms to fill out and take to the proper agencies to get the requisite red seals, which then had to be delivered to other agencies that dole out their own seals. My plane tickets to and from the States, which they’ll reimburse me for, will cost more than two months’ worth of my salary. Yet the only work I’ve done in the last two weeks was to prepare some lectures I’ll give to the Medical English class. The other teachers for the course are a veteran teacher at the college and a couple of doctors; I’ve never so much as taken an anatomy class.

But this week two students asked me for help with papers in English that they’re going to submit for publication. I also met with staff at the medical center’s periodical press, which publishes medical papers in Chinese with the abstracts and tables of contents translated into English. I’ll be working there for a day and a half of every week, and had supposed they’d mainly want me to edit. It turns out, though, that they’re also eager for me to give them suggestions on how to improve the journals. One of them is up for inclusion in the SCI, which I gather is a really big deal. Oh, and could I give a few training seminars for the staff on new trends in editing?

I don’t think it’s overly modest to suppose that no journal editor in the States would pay me to give advice on how to improve his or her medical journal. I don’t have an M.D. or a Ph.D., and I’ve never worked at a journal. I have a B.A. in biochemistry. Sure, I’ve edited papers before submission, but that was more along the lines of fine-tuning; I’ve never pretended to be an arbiter of the conventions of scientific publishing.

As I spent the afternoon flipping through recent copies of the journals, though, I started to feel more confident that I could bring something to the table. Seeing page after bilingual page that appeared never to have been touched by a native English speaker, I actually felt like a bit of a pioneer, a witness to a unique epoch in the global scientific enterprise. I can only think that very soon, scientists are going to come up with a better way of communicating with one another than to slap English titles and abstracts onto otherwise-untranslated Chinese articles.

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1 Comment »

  1. Yay for expertise!

    Comment by Helen — September 17, 2009 @ 5:48 pm


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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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