欢迎!” The flight attendants welcomed the sleepy hundreds of passengers from San Francisco to our new home: Shanghai, China. Or at least, my home for the next two months. Walking out, I was met with the unique smell of Asia (I swear, the smell is the same in Taiwan and Malaysia) and instantaneous humidity, a welcome break from the dryness of the aircraft. We hailed a cab, and soon were off to the city center, which I soon learned was a very, very hectic place (I wanted to ask the cab driver if Chinese driving tests included “how to play Frogger,” but decided not to distract him from the running pedestrians and blaring motorcycles that raced against red lights).
Shanghai – in the city center – is crazy and reminds me a bit of Times Square, although I haven’t yet experienced the nightlife, which I’ve heard is an exciting part of teenage Chinese life. Instead, I enjoy arriving at lab at 6 A.M. to watch groggy graduate students – or sleeping graduate students – in front of their computers. I was lucky enough to be one of ten Harvard undergrads to work in paid internships at ten labs at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and even luckier (in my opinion) to be assigned to a bioinformatics lab, where coders thrived and pipettes were nowhere in sight. I only have three more days in lab (crazy, that’s it’s already been seven weeks of hard work), but I can only say it’s been a huge learning experience. It was my first time doing “official” research, and my Jiao Tong counterpart, a rising senior at the University, and I worked to uncover genes that displayed a “regained” pattern – genes found in both frogs and human, but not in closer human ancestors such as mice and rats. We succeeded… sort of. It’s a long story that takes an 18-page paper with 22 supplemental tables and diagrams to explain fully (let me know if you'd like to read it!).
Aside from writing Python scripts and C programs, I explored what China had to offer, both on campus and in the city. I visited all the famous sights (had to, as a tourist) such as the Bund, Yu Garden, World Financial center, etc., but the true immersion in Chinese culture happened on the metro (feeling like one giant bruise during rush hour), during mealtimes (experiencing traditional Shanghai foods and dining hall life where food is so cheap it’s hard to eat $10 a day), and visiting ancient water-towns and places of Chinese heritage. My lab partner and I explored random Shanghai museums like the “3D Magic Pictures” museum and watched Transformers 3D with the obvious Chinese advertisement within the movie (at which all the Chinese in the audience openly laughed). And, of course, I practiced violin (Tchaikovsky and China sounded like a great combination to me at the time!). My favorite memory of life on campus is probably when I was practicing, staring out at the red sun that sat above the lake adorned with willow trees; it was in this moment that I realized I represented the merging of three great cultures. I was a Chinese American playing a piece from Russian culture in one of the major centers of Chinese development and growth. I had never felt this connection between the radically different cultures before, and I feel lucky to live in a world where such international communication is possible.
As an aside from all the deep stuff, I’ve definitely become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, as weird as that sounds. I look Chinese (and technically am Chinese, going back several generations), but unfortunately lack the ability to comprehend or express myself in the language of my ancestors, so usually I choose between 1) staring blankly until people walk away thinking I’m a mannequin, 2) nodding and smiling until I figure out “yes” was definitely not an answer choice, or 3) saying my favorite phrase: “wo bu dong zhong wen” (I don’t understand Chinese). Overall, my time here in China has been extremely educational in the Chinese culture, in my research, and also in ways I will probably never be able to put down properly in words. I can’t wait to return back to the United States (and Harvard in only a few weeks!), but I’ll be sad to leave the adventures of China behind. It’s been great, and I can say with certainty: I'll be back.
Lily Tsai '17 is a violinist in the River Charles Ensemble. She is also the new artistic director of the River Charles Ensemble Student Board of Trustees for 2014-2015.