Academic events and conferences in China are an interesting challenge for both young and experienced scholars and provide an international window on the world. Chinese universities and institutions spare no effort in the organisation of such events and usually manage to bring together an assortment of foreign and Chinese experts, sometimes including a few famous names in academia. Whether you are a PhD student, a visiting scholar or a foreign expert in a Chinese University, you are likely to be invited by your department to take part in such events, either as a speaker or as part of the audience.
As with many things in life, the first time can be quite overwhelming, especially if you are new to the country and don’t have a good grasp of the language. Don’t let anxiety hold you back from this experience, but do keep a few things in mind.
Don’t forget your business card:
Academic events, like business events, are the perfect place to increase your portfolio of guanxi (relationships) and usually provide a good selection of local and foreign experts in a specific field. During these events in China, people are traditionally expected to exchange business cards. Pay attention to local etiquette and present your business card with both hands, fingers and thumbs on each edge, and be sure to study any you are given before tucking them in a business card holder or wallet. This habit might seem a bit pointless and more ceremonial than creating a new contact on your smartphone, but it will make you look professional and “culturally aware”. If your university has not provided you with cards, consider getting a few Chinese–English mingpian (name cards) printed. One language on either side is the common approach. This might also be a good excuse to get yourself a Chinese name, which will be easier to remember – and to pronounce, for most of the crowd.
Throw in a few sentences in Chinese:
If you happened to see the video of Mark Zuckerberg’s speech in Chinese at Qinghua University last year, you probably won’t need further persuasion on this one. Chinese people warm quickly to foreigners who try to speak their language, which is believed to be one of the hardest to learn and reward efforts with cheers and compliments. Although the spoken language at most scientific, medical or financial events is most likely to be English, do not hesitate to throw in a few comments or jokes in Chinese. Learn them beforehand and try not to worry too much about pronunciation or perfection, even a greeting and signoff will do. This will help you to build a connection with your peers and get credit from your audience, whether you are delivering an academic speech or just trying to make a few contacts at academic events.
These are just a couple of tips that might help soften the cultural barrier and thrive in this new environment. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you are ready to move to stage two: lecturing an auditorium of students or delivering a speech at an international conference. Here are a few suggestions you might find helpful:
Handouts might be… handy!
If most of the audience at academic events in China is made up of non–native speakers, it might be worth spending some time extra to prepare handouts. These will help you summarise the main topics of your speech. They are also a useful resource for students and your fellow academics to give an overview of the topic you are introducing. Handouts break down the technical vocabulary you are likely to be using but do not necessarily need to be translated into Chinese, although it can help. Most of the scholars who attend international conferences usually have a decent grasp of English – however, they are likely to feel more comfortable to have some written material at hand. The extra hour of preparation it will take you will be rewarded by more lively feedback and less puzzled faces among your audience.
To Powerpoint or not to Powerpoint?
Powerpoints are a dilemma that many speakers have to deal with, especially considering how much time they take to make, which sometimes you just don’t have. However, keep in mind that the Chinese members of your audience might be expecting it, as it has become a staple of standard university classes. To tell the truth, it is not unusual for old-school Chinese academics to deliver their speech by rote, reading straight from sheet (something that’s sometimes connected with their lack of confidence in English!), but there are benefits to summing up your topic on a powerpoint. First of all, it will facilitate and improve your interaction with the audience, as the constant eye contact should prevent your listeners from fidgeting or staring at their phone. Also, it will help you to organise your thoughts, keep a fluid and consistent narrative and avoid losing your place.
Questions and comments are welcome, but need to be encouraged.
Asian students are known to be quite introvert and indirect. If they make up most of your audience, do not expect them to come forward and ask questions, especially if they are not confident with the language spoken at the event. On the other hand, scholars who share your field of expertise will probably be more inclined to share their insights and judgements on your topic, either at the end of the speech or in a more private setting. If your aim is to get students involved in a discussion, try to engage with those who have showed particular interest or that you know might have something to say and could just be too shy to share an opinion. Sometimes it’s just a matter of breaking down barriers to self-confidence or language skills.