What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

On gluttony

Today, I calculated my body fat ratio. There is a website for it. The result is a factor of your waist, neck and hips circumference in relation to your height. I took out a tape, filled in the blank slots, and was placed in the ‘acceptable’ category.

From there, I fell into an Internet burrow, and discovered a number of facts I didn’t triple check. You burn 350 calories in one hour of exercise. One pound of fat is 3500 calories. Tips to lose weight include, drink more water, eat vegetables, cut sugar, reduce carbs. Sustainable weight loss requires long-term lifestyle adjustment.

When I was growing up, all adult women around me were on rotating diets. Sometimes it was all meat and fish, sometimes it was alternative foods on alternative days, and sometimes it was protein shakes and cold wrapping sessions. Then they put weight back on, and the cycle started again.

We may think of weight loss as a vain pursuit, but I am curious about its odd, contradictory status. Half the magazines currently selling will offer weight loss tips. Meanwhile advertising – and our surrounding urban environment – bombard us with images of desirable food in extreme quantities. Yet one word is absent from the debate between ‘an epidemics of obesity’ and ‘body positive’ movements: gluttony.

Old Medieval Europe identified seven deadly sins, one of which was excessive desire for food, or the pursuit of it as an end in itself. But who would be radical enough now to simply condemn recreational eating? Let us appreciate slim bodies as a token of character strength – only by resisting the pressure of consumerist messages can you maintain one. But let us not develop a transparently moral tone when talking of controlling our appetites. Our economy might collapse.

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.

On strategy

We spend a lot of time looking for ways to reach our goals; but spend remarkably little considering what these goals should be. This applies to people and organisations.

Solving the ‘how’ question is a process most of us have mastered. I want a new phone, which one should I choose? I want to see the latest James Bond, where should I go? I want a partner, how do I get one? But often, even with a brain well-trained to find convenience and a good deal, we procrastinate, ponder options, and never act; or follow a course of action, eventually get what we want, and feel no satisfaction.

Corporate strategy is a sexy domain. It is the black box of executive decision-making: setting direction, asking the big questions. Yet the term and practice blur the distinction between the Big What – why are we together and what is it that we do – and the small what – how do we succeed and what do we do next?

The same applies to personal strategy, we blur these two levels. The Machiavellian quest for power, status, wealth – how do I get to my goal – overlaps with the Socratic, Cartesian, Freudian quest for purpose: what should I want, is it what I want, and do I really want it? And so we believe, because we’re making plans and considering options, that we’re deploying wisdom.

On mess

One of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners opens inside a house, with a woman cleaning, and wondering where all the dust comes from. As I look at the brown fluffy stuff on the pales of my fan, I ask myself the same question.

Cleaning trains our patience, and our sense of wonder. No matter what, dirt always returns, It’s a thin layer of grit in the corner of the shower or at the base of the tap; it’s a spot on the kitchen pavement; it’s crumbs on the table.

I find its younger brother, mess, more perplexing somehow. I put things in the right place, yet the minute I turn around, they’re all over my apartment. Papers, books, pens, glasses and cups seem to take a life of their own, and occupy as much space as they possibly can, like bodies organise themselves inside an elevator according to some personal space algorithm, maximising spread.

It’s even worse on my computer. Folders mingle, files double up, and the desktop image (a cloudy picture of the Nanjing Lake) disappears under layers of pdf, excel and word icons. I spent half a day tidying during the break. But mess has not been vanquished, only tamed for a while. The first creepers are already there.

Why have I not been trained in properly dealing with mess? All I can remember is a moral injunction to ‘just keep things tidy’ and a faux-philosophical invitation to ‘just let it be’. Never, I believe, was I simply trained to accept that things clutter as a part of any process, and that regular sorting, filing, reordering, is no more than good hygiene. That it’s not through some personal failure that my things get messy, nor a sign that I should respect mess as a product of nature. That I can calmly tackle it as it grows, and prune it back, like a weed; and celebrate its appearance as a sure sign that I’ve been standing on fertile soil.

 

On blocks

Sometimes, when we work with our minds, whether it’s writing, research or design, we get stuck.

It’s a recognizable feeling, both mental and physical. The back starts to hurt, the jaw clamps, the shoulders and arms tense up. Ideas no longer flow, but sentences or words, to-dos and cliches, echo like earworms inside the brain. We look for distraction, social media, chats, games, or good old food and drink. Walking or stretching should fix it, but most often, it doesn’t. And the pain continues.

In teams, I’ve seen it happen. Tension grows, aggressivity threatens. The solution is always to name the problem, move bodies around, and seek another way of interacting. Drawing often works, or dancing, singing. Let the dynamic change, make space for new collective patterns to emerge.

But alone, I struggle more. The tension is different, it lacks the urgency of potential aggression – carries no more than a dull sense of annoyance towards the world and the self. And so, it lingers.

I wonder today, whether the work of the mind could be compared to that of polishing wood. As we pass the file on our ideas, sometimes we meet a knot, a solid block hiding in the grain, where things don’t flow. This is where we get stuck. If we keep on pushing, we might hurt ourselves, or ruin the whole work.

So what should we do? We could start by acknowledging that knots are a crucial element in the fabric of our minds. And when we meet one, rather than grudge and grumble, celebrate this encounter with a something solid in the fleeting fabric of our thoughts. Gently caress it with our inner hand, feeling its shape, letting it be. And over time, as we learn about our different knots, decide whether we should circle around it, or forcefully cut through.

 

 

Teaching is listening

Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.

When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.

This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.

Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

What changed in 2013?

It has become common, as the new year comes, to publish a list of one’s recent ‘achievements’ – discrete items completed over the last year cycle, that – may – go down in our personal history like a string of baroque pearls. In parallel some will publish a list of goals or resolutions for the year to come – which, when the time come, will become new pearls on a new year-string. I do not much like the productive metaphor that underlies this yearly ritual – but would rather reflect in a more holistic way on how my situation transforms from year to year, and what new changes I expect from the coming cycle. Let’s call it, present consequences of last year’s achievements.

So, this is what changed for me since last year, in no particular order.

My linguistic competence changed, and with it my capacity to talk and engage with people. Last year, I was not confident enough to join in a semi-professional Mandarin discussion. I struggled to read, and could not write a short message or email without an electronic translator and dictionary at hand. I am now able to do all of this – still not with perfect confidence or fluency, but well enough. This means I now think of Chinese people as potential conversation partners, and can start imagining direct interactions with them, face to face, through social media or email.

My relationship to China changed. After spending four months in Nanjing as a resident, after visiting five provinces and twelve different cities, I have a much more intuitive and personal understanding of the size, diversity, and historical depth of this country. By living here, I have developed friendships and trusting relationships with a number of Chinese people from different places and background, and can now confidently contact them for advice or help. Both at the emotional, imaginary, and practical level, I am now more able to project myself into China, and make sense of events or situations involving Chinese people from a range of local perspectives. 

Marco Polo Project changed. We now run a reasonably respectable website, with an established editorial line and a core group of identified authors. We’ve got full models for events, and are ready to grow partnerships. Our operations are now clear, and we’re ready to increase our productivity. My own professional status changed along with Marco Polo Project. I raised 38,000 dollars for two different China-related project, and for the first time, will pay myself a small salary from this sum next year to run them. My public profile also changed. I am now introduced more often as ‘founder and CEO’, and was invited to speak about related topics at a few public events in Australia and France. I am not a solid authority yet – but slowly, I am being recognised as someone worth listening to when it comes to learning languages online, the multilingual internet, and all things China.

My personal situation changed. My partner completed his degree, and will be teaching English at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar from January, in a role that he loves, and with a comfortable enough salary.This means the end of a very tight financial year for both of us, and the excitement of a new profession starting.

My personal networks changed – I made new friends, and deepened older friendships – each of them opening a new window for me to understand the world, potential for joint projects, or the simple pleasure of conversation and company.

My nationality changed. I became an Australian, which means I no longer have to gather documents or engage with the immigration department; which means I can get a visa to China without much hassle; which means I can work for the Australian public service; which means I can legitimately reply ‘I’m Australian’ when people ask me where I come from.

My own psychological balance changed. Last year, I started with a lot of energy , but little experience and understanding of what lay ahead. I’m starting this year more tired – certainly the result of four intense months in China – but better connected, and with significantly stronger systems in place.

I am not sure yet what changes will happen in 2014, but here are a few directions I will work towards. Cosmopolitan short fiction. Personal productivity. Delegation. Mandarin speed and flexibility. Weaving Australia, France and China. Portfolio career. Regular day-breaks.

And we’ll see next year what actually changed.

In country learning

A common trope of language learning advice is that you don’t need in country learning anymore, since you can design your own linguistic environment anywhere. This is both entirely true, and extremely short-sighted.

Indeed, with online news, TV and radio, international communities, and resources like lang8 or skype teachers, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment. But how much effort and willpower does it take to craft and maintain this environment.

I taught myself Chinese, most of it outside China, and passed an HSK 5 last year. I am the living proof that you can self-teach outside China. Yet I am a very strong advocate of in-country learning.

I’ve been in China for just over four months now, skipped about half of my classes at uni, and made more progress than I would ever have in Melbourne. Necessity has a force of its own. I needed Chinese for my everyday life, and I needed Chinese to fix issues at home. More importantly, I needed Chinese to develop a social life – I soon had enough of the local expats, and most of the locals spoke only minimal English. On average, my friends in Shanghai or Beijing don’t speak Chinese as well as those living in second-tier cities. They never properly learnt, because they never had to.

Learning a language is an extremely demanding task, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Suddenly, simple cognitive tasks become significantly harder than they used to be – suddenly, you’re no longer able to perceive or express intellectual subtleties – and you feel exhausted all the time. The temptation to give up is extremely high, no matter what level you’re at. Learning at home is all very well, but by the time you’ve carefully blocked out all English and crafted your Chinese bubble, do you still have the moral strength to stay there and learn, or resist the many temptations of home – the cup of tea, the phonecall, the facebook page, the drinks with friends. That’s not to say you cannot succeed – I managed. But every step requires a double effort – not only learning, but also keeping that artificially constructed second-language environment alive, possibly keeping out friends ad family who will bring you back to your mother tongue. In country, you can just focus on learning, and every step forward is a step towards more social integration.

Language is a social bond, that creates emotional and intellectual communities. And for that reason, I believe the is nothing like in-country learning to build the necessary motivation. For that reason, scholarships sending students in country are extremely valuable – and I am very happy both that I was able to receive one, and that our government was enlightened enough to set them up in the first place.