Cross-Cultural Livin’: 2014 Chinese New Year!

Happy Lunar New Year! LUIP (London Universities International Partnership) graciously sponsored tickets for us bloggin’ ambassadors to attend the Chinese New Year Gala at the Institute of Education (IOE) in central London. So this week, my flatmate Mohammed and I set off to central London to join in on the festivities! Here are some of the highlights from the event (with big thanks to Mohammed for documenting this with his super fancy camera!)

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Seeing the Chinese Ambassador to the U.K. speak!
Unfortunately, neither Mohammed nor I spoke even the slightest bit of Mandarin, so really all we were able to observe were Liu Xiaoming’s sharp presentation skills and flawless haircut. Still, his presence alone indicates the profile of this event; with some of the most prestigious universities represented on stage (Oxford, Cambridge, Royal Academy of Music), this event was one of the most highly attended events of the Lunar New Year.

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Watching kids beat each other up!
Okay, that’s a wild underestimation of the talent, skill, practice and incredible amount of effort that went into this performance. This Xianji Dance Team put on a spectacular performance of traditional Chinese martial arts (not sure the specific type and definitely didn’t understand it if they announced it). Mohammad and I were pretty taken aback by the show put on by these little guys- these young students are more talented than I will ever be at kicking @$$! Kids were flipping over the heads of adults, roundhouse kicking them to the face, and at one point wooden sticks were broken over the back and against the stomach of two performers. Epic!

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Chinese Cross-Talk Comedy!
This form of Chinese comedy comes from the Qin Dynasty. I can’t tell you much about what happened, but despite the lack of verbal understanding, these guys’ animation had me cracking up on it’s own! At one point, I’m pretty sure that the performer with the high ponytail and white face powder was actively imitating and mouthing the words of a Geisha (don’t quote me on this because 99.9999% of the jokes got lost in translation) and while the performer standing behind him was actually speaking the lines. Their mannerisms and inflections alone were enough to elicit some chuckles.

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Musical performance that make your jaw drop!
Though there were several musical performances throughout the evening, some of which included traditional dance, these two performances were by far my favourite. The instrumental pianist and cellist performed a snazzy jazz piece that was extremely well-composed, and watching her fingers fly across the keys in a fury was pretty incredible. The second performer, however, was in my opinion one of the most incredible live compositions I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing; Yunbian Zu of the Royal Academy of Music had arranged and composed his own set which he performed with the Erhu, a two-stringed Chinese string instrument. His skill was incredible, and it was an impressive combination of more traditional use of the Erhu mashed with some more experimental, modernized creativity.

Despite the lack of translation, overall this was still an amazing artistic display of Chinese culture and an incredible opportunity to share and celebrate the Lunar New Year. Especially if you bring company that either doesn’t mind giggling uncomfortably during the half-hour indiscernible speeches with you, or can translate at least the funny parts for you. 

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Two Nations, One Language, Zero Unanimity

The funny thing about being a U.S. student in London is the personal discovery that the U.S. and U.K. are, in fact, two nations divided by a common language.

3 blunders to watch out for:

1. Pants. If you spill on your trousers, don’t announce that your pants are wet.

2. Suspenders. What holds up your tights, not your trousers.

3. “You okay?” Don’t have an existential crisis- it’s just British for “How are you?”

Transition to Term 2: Anxiety Overload, the Sequel.

In psychology, something called the Yerkes-Dodson curve gave rise to the theory that humans can reach what they call an “Optimal Level of Anxiety.” The idea is basically that too little anxiety makes you lazy, and too much anxiety hinders you; finding a balance, however, can keep you working effectively. My friends, I am here to tell you that the start of the second term has been a MAJOR BREACH OF THE OPTIMAL LEVEL.

The U.K. system is markedly different from the American university system in several ways, one of which is its exam style. (Note: I say “American” rather than U.S. not to marginalize university systems throughout North and South America, but rather to include “American Universities” across the world, not just in the U.S., that share our learning/teaching styles.) The vast majority of “marks” (or grades) in the U.K. rely heavily (if not entirely) on exams. This can include an in-test essay exam, multiple choice exam, papers, or some combination of the three. The upside to this is that it frees the student from the constraints that having several pointed assignments through the term can have, especially on what the student reads during the term. Here, not only do you have more freedom to navigate yourself through the reading lists, its encouraged– which gives you some valuable ownership over your learning process. The downside to this, on the other hand, is that it places a great deal of pressure on your exam performance. Because the requirements and expectations are different here, this can be a bit rough for international students.

On top of this, exams aren’t necessarily at the end of the term- in fact, many exams happen after a period of holiday. So instead of the atmosphere of fresh starts and new beginning I was accustomed to in my undergrad, the first week of Term 2 has actually been more stressful than the majority of Term 1. After a nice holiday spent forgetting about the pressures of academia (or, if they were wise, still worrying about them but from the comforts of home) suddenly everyone is back to reality and slapped in the face with deadlines and looming exams.
WELL, the first week is over. For better or worse, our exams are finished and our papers are turned in. But that doesn’t mean freedom is at our fingertips- rather, it just means a transference of that optimal anxiety from surviving Term 1, to thriving in Term 2. The second term brings a myriad of new challenges, including new module topics, increased workload, and wave 2 of the exam panic, but above all the forthcoming dreaded DISSERTATION TOPIC.

With only 6 weeks to go, many of us (myself included) are constantly obsessing over what our topic is going to be, and how the hell we’re going to do it. For the wander-lusting daydreamer, buckling down and committing to one topic can be quite overwhelming. There are several factors to consider in choosing a dissertation topic, not least of which will be its impact on your career. Because your dissertation is your first real, solid, practical, living piece of published research to enter the field, it will inevitably have a substantial influence on the direction your academic career will take, the jobs you’ll be able to get, the grants and fellowships you’ll be able to apply for, the programs you’ll get into (if you’re a Master’s student and a PhD is on the horizon). Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots to consider.

But fear not, my panic-stricken companions — stressing early in the game can be exactly what is needed to keep on top of the Yerkes-Dodson’s curve!