By Claire McGregor
For the past two years, I’ve lived in a small town in Northern China. The area is known for coal production, pollution, and particularly delicious vinegar. I lived and worked at Shanxi Agricultural University, the only agricultural university in China actually located in a rural area. My town, Taigu, was so small that most people had never heard of it before and assumed that I lived in and was mispronouncing Thailand.
I taught English classes to mostly graduate students and some undergrads, and had a lot of time on my hands for badminton and majiang.* During the holidays– we had four months off a year– I took overnight trains out of my province and traveled across China as well as other countries in Asia.
Taigu was isolated. It was so small and unimportant that sometimes people tried to prevent me from getting off the train at my stop because they couldn’t imagine I would want to go there. My town had six foreigners, all Oberlin graduates teaching English, and we were all neighbors located in the center of campus. We were actually part of the school tour, and our houses were constantly being photographed for both their traditional architecture as well as the foreign teachers they contained.
I was sent to Taigu on a fellowship from the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, which was founded in 1908 as a direct result of the Boxer Rebellion. My job was to increase understanding between Asia and the US through teaching English, studying Chinese, and blogging about the experience, with the long-term goal of avoiding more Boxer Rebellions. At the time of writing, we have had a complete success in this goal.
You may be wondering to yourself what kind of lab work I did during this time, or how this relates to my interest in neuroscience. It doesn’t, and I didn’t do any lab work, except for one day spent hulling genetically modified millet and another visiting the entomologist lab to ogle the horrific diversity of
monsters insects that had been captured by students (I feel it is important to mention here that students in China do not get to choose their majors, and if I had been saddled with “catching centipedes” as a major, I probably would not have made it through higher education). I also supplemented my $500 a month salary by correcting the grammar of scientific essays about mango peels and speciation of shrubberies.
Before moving to China, I majored in neuroscience at Oberlin College and did research involving estrogen, LH, Alzheimer’s Disease, and schizophrenia. My PI had me in the lab up until graduation day, and she probably would have asked me to come in that day had she been able to find me. Ten days after graduation I was in China, looking forward to seeing what life as a non-scientist was like. One month in and I was ready to be back in lab, and one year after that I was preparing to apply to graduate school.
After two years away from home, all I really wanted in a school was for it to be located next to my grandparents’ house. Emory did not fit that description. In fact, I think I went to the website at least five times before considering applying, immediately exiting out upon seeing the word ‘Atlanta.’ On the sixth time, irritated that my hopes and desires had once again led me to Emory, I idly clicked on the application link. There, at the top, was a little notice saying that the application was free if I submitted it before Halloween.
Did I mention that I was making $500 a month and traveling the world in my spare time? Did you know that taking the GRE abroad costs even more money than in the US? In my head I weighed the two factors, living in Atlanta versus no application fee. Eventually, deciding I had nothing to lose, especially because applying didn’t mean attending and as the first application it was totally just a practice application anyway, I went all in.
Our two month winter break began in January, and I went home for the first time during my fellowship. During that time I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, met my new nephew, celebrated Spring Festival, hung out with my wonderful grandparents, and interviewed at Emory.
It was a beautiful day– perfectly sunny and in the high 40s– and everyone kept apologizing for the weather. The students were suspiciously laid-back and happy, and the faculty actually seemed to know some of their names. The word ‘collaboration’ was thrown around, and people actually meant it. The worst thing I could get people to complain about the program was Atlanta traffic. That’s it– that’s the only downside of being a neuroscientist at Emory. Even the outsides of the buildings were shiny (after living in a city that got regular dust-storms, I notice these things). As I was driven back to the airport, I remember looking at the houses we passed and wondering if I was going to live in one of them someday and how I was going to break the news to my grandparents.
I was accepted two days before returning to China. I didn’t have a phone that worked in the US, so I got the message by email. I decided to play it cool and wait an entire week before accepting my acceptance, during which I looked up the school colors and bought an Emory t-shirt.
Come spring in Taigu, when the dust storms were overtaking the campus and the students had run out of excuses for missing class and were telling me they couldn’t make it because they had “something to do,” I started searching craigslist for my perfect Atlanta apartment and my perfect Atlanta life. I looked up student groups and labs and waited breathlessly to be assigned a neurobuddy (Hi, James!).
I came back to the US on July 24th, and on August 15th I drove my entire life to Atlanta, and I have not looked back. It’s been really wonderful to meet you all.
*Incidentally, if anyone is interested in playing badminton or majiang, please give me a call.