I followed Ji through the dark wooden double doors and into the conference room. There was a long oak table in the middle, surrounded by ergonomic black leather chairs. There was a projector on the table and a large screen at the far end of the room. There was an outer ring of chairs surrounding the table, pressed tightly against the walls. Every chair at the table and around the walls was filled with a student or a professor. As we walked in, fifty eyes turned to take in the foreign guests. I was the only caucasian and the only non-Chinese speaker in the room.
One by one, the professors got up to explain their research, using the projector to show visual aids. Ji and I each made short presentations, and then a freeform discussion began to flow. WHOI has a cooperative research initiative with the Ocean University of China, so we were discussing ways to work together in the future.
It was actually really interesting to me to observe the dynamic among Chinese scientists. Academia in China is much more hierarchical than in the U.S., and everyone is referred to by their title, either Doctor or Professor. The students only spoke at the beginning of the meeting to introduce themselves, and even experienced researchers seemed hesitant to share their thoughts. I think the language barrier was a big factor, but even when the conversation switched to Mandarin, it didn't flow as naturally as it might have in the U.S. or Europe. I think researchers in China are taught to be very humble and respectful, but it seems this culture may also cause some scientists to not trust their own ideas.
A few hours in, the conversation started to pick up, and we actually ended the meeting in a very good place. We all agreed to review the minutes and continue discussing ideas over the coming days and weeks. WHOI and OUC scientists have many complementary research interests, so I'm excited to see how the collaboration will develop.