why I came to China

I was planning on writing about something else today, but on the way home from work a friend of mine invited me over to his place and it’s not like I was going to tell him I couldn’t come because I had to go home write a blog entry about all the sex I’m not getting, or something.

I work from 8:30 am until 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday, and I get paid about a thousand dollars a month (after taxes and food). Most people at the Institute work more hours for less money. Because I could afford it, I rented a really nice (but small) 2-bedroom apartment for about $300 a month in Huilongguan, a suburb of Beijing. Most of the people at the Institute live in Huilongguan because it’s relatively cheap and close to where we work; there’s even a dedicated bus to take us to and from the Institute.

This particular friend doesn’t usually take the bus at 7:00, but he caught it today because he’d taken his wife out to dinner, so they hopped on when it passed for a free ride home. This friend is one of the guys I play football with on Fridays, and although we get along great, our conversations are pretty limited because he doesn’t speak much Chinese and I don’t speak much English.

I’m not even sure exactly what he does at the Institute, but I know he’s not a scientist. He’s part of the office/admin staff, I think. And while I’m pretty squarely middle-middle class, he’s closer to lower-middle class, by Chinese standards.

His apartment is on the fifth floor of a dull, listless concrete building; pretty much exactly the kind of stereotypical Communist thing you’d imagine. There’s no elevator, but the lights in the stairwell are sound-activated, which makes sense if you want to save electricity. His apartment is a lot bigger than mine, but that’s because it’s shared by at least eight people. It’s more like what you’d expect in a dormitory; a smallish communal area with an adjoining kitchen, surrounded by various stairs and hallways that lead to the bedrooms. I actually don’t know exactly how many people live there because I was trying to be polite and not gawk.

His room is a little larger than mine, but not by much. There’s a queen-sized bed, a coffee table, a single chair, and that’s it. But at least it has its own private bathroom. I didn’t ask, but I imagine he pays less than $50 a month for this. It’s illegal to subdivide an apartment in this manner, but the owners do it anyway because obviously they can make more money that way.

Sound pretty bleak? Well, it’s actually not as bad as you might think. He’s got a big-screen TV and a laptop, and while he initially complained about how small, rundown, and cheap his place was, he later admitted that he was actually pretty happy with it. He got married last May, and his wife is pregnant. He’s got a good, stable job, and while he’s not exactly rolling in luxury, he’s pretty damn comfortable. He has everything he needs to be happy. And a few things he doesn’t need, but enjoys.

And basically, he’s the reason I came to China. Well, not him specifically, because that would just be kinda weird, but people like him. Essentially, I came to China to see how regular Chinese people live, and to make friends with people who have different backgrounds and experiences.

It’s my personal view that you can’t really understand a culture unless you’ve lived within it for at least a year. I don’t really have any empirical evidence for this, but that’s just been my experience. But think about it; no one talks to a journalist the way they talk to a friend, and no journalist is going to have an easy time of understanding a culture unless they’ve actually lived in that culture as an equal and a participant, rather than merely an observer.

I don’t have a single non-Chinese friend in China. I’ve seen the way some Westerners act here, and frankly I’m not impressed. But hey, who am I to judge.

And yeah, I’m not suddenly an expert on China. At best I can say that I maybe have some small understanding of the life of an American postdoctoral researcher in a Chinese Institute, but that doesn’t mean I automatically understand the country as a whole. Still, I do feel like I have some small insight. For example, when you look at all the protests going on around the world in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin, Yemen, Algeria, and Bahrain, the reason you don’t see anything like that happening in China it twofold: 1) for the middle-class people like my friend, life is actually comparatively good; he has more to lose than to gain by challenging the status quo. 2) the culture of China is such that the general idea is to work hard, keep your head down, don’t make a big fuss or draw attention to yourself, and you’ll be fine. So things would have to be pretty damn bad here indeed for people to riot on a large scale. And it may yet happen if food prices continue to increase the way they have. So who knows.

As I near the end of my 1.5 year misadventure in China, I can’t help but reflect that despite all I’ve done and seen, and all I’ve learned, getting repeatedly felt up by hot female Chinese security guards has definitely been the highlight of my experience here.

Seriously, the TSA could definitely learn a thing or two from China.

the elephant in the room (and me trying to have sex with it)

I’m faced with the nearly inescapable conclusion that there is almost no chance of me finding a girl who just wants to have sex with me any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong, there are actually plenty of girls here in China who would have sex with me, but the sex isn’t really what they’re looking for. No, what they want is a relationship. A relationship leading to marriage, where “marriage” is defined as locking me into taking care of them for the rest of their lives while they gradually devour my soul one criticism at a time.

Such is my understanding of relationships, anyway.

But seriously, the concept of sex for recreation here in China is about as foreign as, well, me, which makes it exceedingly frustrating when I see a cute girl checking me out. Because I know she’s not just interested in sex.

And it’s pretty confusing from their side as well. They don’t seem to understand that yeah, I can totally be interested in having sex with them, but that doesn’t mean I want to marry them—or even date them.

What’s really annoying is that despite my best efforts, I apparently do still have a conscience, and I just can’t bring myself to try and seduce a girl when I know for a fact that I have no real interest in her beyond sex. Because I know that no matter how honest I tried to be, she would still get the wrong idea.

I’m speaking from experience here, because I did briefly date a Chinese girl. Very briefly. I told her from the beginning that it would be a casual relationship as I was leaving for Australia before too long, and she agreed that this was fine. But almost immediately she started treating me like I was her boyfriend/fiancée and we’d been together for years. It seriously creeped me out. I guess she figured that she could change my mind once she got her claws deep enough into me, or something. And no, I don’t mean that as a criticism of women in general; just this particular one.

But really, when it comes down to it, are there any girls out there who would just have sex with me, and not be secretly wanting something more? No, seriously, this is not a rhetorical question. If they actually exist, where are they and what are their names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Honestly though, every girl I’ve ever had sex with (granted this is not an astronomical number we’re talking about here) wanted something more than just sex. But at the time, I wasn’t fully aware of this. I figured they were feeling the same thing I was feeling, and we were all on the same page.

My first clue that this was not the case came from my housemate in college. He pointed out to me that no, the girl in question did not drive all the way over from Seattle just to have sex with me. In fact, she was hoping that we were actually in the nascent period of a relationship.

Naturally, this came as quite shock to me. After all, I’d travel a hellova lot farther than 1,000 km to have sex with someone I was attracted to. In fact, I think my upper limit of travel for guaranteed sex is, um, well, how far away is Mars?

Regardless, knowing what I know now makes it practically impossible for me to try and find someone to have sex with. Because I’ve been hurt in the past myself, and I never, ever want to make someone else feel the way I’ve felt.

Am I overreacting? Maybe I just have a big mental hang-up on this one, but I feel like a large quantity of guys who go out and seduce women just end up hurting those women (emotionally) because women simply don’t want sex for its own sake as much as men do.

Yeah. I once had a woman tell me that women want sex as much as men, but if that were true the human race would still be living in caves because nothing would ever, ever get done. Seriously, how many great discoveries and accomplishments achieved by men were because they were trying to increase their sex appeal to women? How many great songs, books, movies, and inventions were developed by men because they were thinking, “Yeah, this’ll totally get me laid!”

Pretty much all of them, I bet.

how to fix science

I would love to say that I had all the answers. Because that would be awesome. Seriously, if I could single-handedly usher in a new age of Scientific Enlightenment, that would be pretty much the coolest thing I could ever do. Well, maybe the second coolest, unless it also somehow involved skin-tight black leather outfits, this one girl I know, various pieces of sporting equipment, punk music, the Tianhe-1A supercomputer cluster, a 60-meter rope, and Antarctica.

But I digress.

Random tangents aside, I do think there is one very simple thing scientists could do to promote science in general and to make the process of scientific inquiry more accessible to the public at large. And it’s really as simple as rephrasing the argument.

Take Global Warming for example. In the 20th century, the global temperature increased 0.74 degrees Celsius, according to the 2007 IPCC report. So that means Global Warming is an indisputable fact, right?

Well, no. What it means is that the theory that the earth is getting warmer is the scientific theory that best describes the available evidence. Science doesn’t deal with “facts”. Science isn’t an ideology. Science is simply a process of coming up with theories to explain available evidence, and performing experiments or studies to support or disprove existing theories.

And we look damn sexy in our white labcoats.

The only other criteria for a scientific theory is that it has to be falsifiable. Therefore Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory because we cannot prove that God is not somehow involved in the process of evolution. Evolution on the other hand is falsifiable because we could, theoretically, discover a 65-million-year-old fossil of a human riding a dinosaur.

Which would be pretty damn awesome.

And that’s the thing about science; if we’re confronted with credible evidence that contradicts an existing theory, we modify or replace the theory to accommodate the new evidence. As the creator of the delightful webcomic xkcd put it: SCIENCE. IT WORKS, BITCHES.

Getting back to Global Warming, a 2009 poll found that around 50% of Americans don’t believe that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity. At this point I feel compelled to point out that 50% of Americans also have an IQ of 100 or less, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

So is Global Warming caused by humans? What does science say? Well, that’s just it. Science doesn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer, because that isn’t how science works. What we have is this: The theory that Global Climate Change is due to human action is the theory that best describes the available evidence.

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not “real” “a fact” “true” or anything like that. Not in a scientific sense, anyway. It’s just the theory that best describes the available evidence. That’s it.

And that’s how scientists should present their arguments. Because this is what we’re up against:

“[Pawlenty is] a strong candidate. I worry, however, about the energy policies he has implemented in Minnesota, which involve a lot of government intervention, and mandate the use of renewables – in my view climate change is a complete joke with no scientific backing.”

This was from a commentator at the Conservative Political Action Conference held recently in Washington, D.C. Now my first instinct is to suggest that this woman suffers from profound mental retardation, but that really isn’t fair. Because if nothing else, she seems quite blissful in her willful ignorance. But the fact is, a lot of people who deny climate change are perfectly intelligent people, but they’ve decided on an emotional level that Global Warming is false.

There’s a lot of talk about scientific consensus and scientific opinion, like it should matter. For example, the consensus among scientists is that Global Warming is real, and it’s caused by people. But so what? That’s just, like, their opinion. Or something. And who cares about some asshole’s opinion? Or even the opinion of a bunch of really smart assholes?

Look at me. I’m a scientist. I’m quite brilliant. Handsome too. I have a PhD in Computational Biochemistry, which is without a doubt one of the most complicated and difficult subjects known to mankind. Probably to some alien species too. But that does not mean that you should trust my opinion. About anything. Because I’m just as capable of being irrational as anyone else. Probably more so, in my case. In fact, I have a well-documented history of doing extremely stupid things. So unless I have credible evidence to back up my arguments, don’t just take my word for it.

Trust me.

Oh, wait….

If you’re smart, you’ve probably realized that all this is just my opinion on how scientists should present themselves and their work, but here’s a “fact”: a scientist cannot prove to the satisfaction of everyone that Global Warming is “real” or “true” or whatever, but they can prove quite easily that the theory that the climate is changing due to human action is the theory that best describes the available evidence. Then the argument becomes about what other evidence might be out there, or what experiments or studies we could perform to disprove or modify the theory. And that’s where the argument should be.

At least in my opinion.



I’m feeling kind of discouraged right now.

It’s currently the Chinese New Year/Spring Festival, and technically I’m supposed to be on vacation, but instead I’m at my cubicle. The lone person in my office.

Lucky me.

There were three main things I wanted to accomplish during the break: 1) find an agent for my book 2) finish writing the paper on my most recent research 3) find a solution to my anxiety problems.

I failed at all three of these things.

Last Thursday I wrote 17 query emails to literary agents. Friday morning I had three responses—all rejections. Basically, no one is interested in a “Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa” story because it’s been done to death. And even if I think I have a new and unique and interesting take on it, that’s not enough to excite an agent.

I was pretty disappointed, but I did have one tiny ray of hope: one of the agents mentioned that he noticed my credentials, and told me if I had any ideas for a book about science or specifically biology, I should contact him. Well, as a matter of fact I have been thinking about writing a novel about my experience as the only non-Chinese researcher at the top biological institute in China. So I wrote to the agent and asked if this was something he’d be interested in. He responded right away. To tell me that this might be a good topic for a magazine article, but not for a full book.


Alright, on to the next thing: finishing my paper.

I woke up early Saturday morning, fixed myself a pot of coffee, booted up my laptops (yes, plural), and…nothing. I couldn’t even get started. I just couldn’t get my mind to focus. And the harder I tried to motivate myself, the worse I felt.

So I decided to move on to the next thing.

I have been in more or less constant pain since I was 17. It started as a dull burning sensation in my shoulders, then spread to my back when I was in college. When I was in Africa, it spread to my throat and lower abdomen, increasing in intensity as it went along. At first I didn’t even know what it was, until someone pointed out how tense the muscles in my back were.

And yeah, that’s all it is. It’s just muscle tension induced by stress and anxiety. But there is not a God damn thing I can do to make it go away, and it causes me CONSTANT pain. The worst is when it’s in my throat, because it feels like I’m being choked by an invisible hand. That’s where it is right now, as I write this. And the most frustrating thing is the more frustrated I get about it, the worse it gets, and then I get frustrated because I can’t make myself stop being frustrated. And so on.

So I decided to spend the rest of the weekend meditating. I’d read a bunch of stuff on the internet about meditation techniques, and I was cautiously optimistic.

Turns out this optimism was rather unfounded.

Because every time I started to relax a little, my heart started racing, pumping adrenaline into my system. It’s like my body has decided I need to remain at a certain level of alertness at all times, and as soon as I do anything to reduce this level, my body compensates by increasing my anxiety until I’m back where I started. Basically, I spent the whole weekend meditating, and by Sunday night I felt exactly the same as I did Saturday morning.

Fuck me.

So yeah, I’m feeling pretty discouraged right now. And no, I’m not looking for sympathy or anything, but I set myself a goal of writing one blog entry per week, and I don’t have the energy or motivation to write about anything else, so this is it.

But I’ll get over it. I’m moving to Australia in 3 months, and I’m going to visit a good friend in Japan next month. Plus, the cute Chinese girl I met a couple weeks ago called me on Saturday, and she wants to get together with me later this week. She said we could “go play”. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I’m really hoping it’s a euphemism for sex.

So yeah, things aren’t all bad.