This summer, Elaine Shen traveled to Beijing, China to study the stories and lives of people living with diabetes as part of the Radulovacki Global Health Research Fellowship, which helps fund student research. Elaine is a Weinberg senior studying psychology and biological sciences, as well as global health.
Tell us about your project. What inspired your work?
My project was an ethnographic study that focused on the stories of members of the Beijing Diabetes Association (BDA). Specifically, I wanted to see how diabetics communicated to their family members about their condition, and how family members supported such individuals. I conducted interviews, focus groups, and participated in activities with BDA members and their families. Along the way, I learned beginning steps to tai-qi fan exercises, was part of an audience for Beijing’s most popular health TV show, and learned a recipe for the world’s most delicious and diabetic-friendly noodle soup.
I initially became interested in the BDA because the organization was largely driven and led by the patients themselves. The association hosted sophisticated activities such as conferences on diabetes education, exercise groups and partnered with doctors to run classes on diabetes management. I noticed that members sometimes brought their spouses to classes and activities, and thus I wanted to learn more about the sphere of influence that diabetes has on the whole family unit.
How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?
First, I was pleasantly surprised at how willing my interviewees were to share some very personal stories. I expected a lot of me asking questions, and other people answering. I also discovered that the people I interviewed were just as interested in my story as I was in theirs, so I ended up doing a lot of question answering too. People were interested in my major, what life in the U.S. was like, and some even asked for my opinion about American politics.
I also didn’t expect the group to be so plugged into social media. For example, the first week I arrived I was added to six or seven WeChat circles all focused on diabetes management. (Note: WeChat is China’s main social media platform — think of it as a hybrid between GroupMe, Facebook and Instagram.) Educational materials, events and Q&As about diabetes management were frequently posted in these WeChat groups, and I was amazed at the quick responses and encouraging feedback from group members.
What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?
My most meaningful experience is the collection of moments where I got to know the members of the BDA. I have found that one of the most valuable gifts of studying or working abroad is making life-long friends and connections. I still talk to a lot of BDA members on WeChat. As I mentioned earlier, people were interested in my story, too. People wanted to know what college life in America is like, so I occasionally post pictures of things I do at Northwestern. Right now I have several new grandmas, grandpas, aunts and uncles commenting on my WeChat feed. Mainly, I think it’s important to stay connected to these people who have helped me so much on this research project. It’s a way of letting them know that I still think about them and how much they taught me.
What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?
I wouldn’t necessarily call this a singular “challenging moment,” but it took some time getting used to navigating the streets. Crossing the streets of Beijing is basically like playing real-life Frogger. Even when there is a green walk symbol, you want to be constantly checking both sides of the street because cars can still turn when they have a red light. The best way to beat the game of getting to the other side is to cross with a crowd of people. Once you become a well-seasoned street crosser, walking is the best way to get to know the city. Buses and subways are also abundant and come frequently, so there are many different ways to explore.
Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?
Differences in hospital cultures were interesting. First, in order to see a doctor in Beijing, you don’t make an appointment. Instead, you wake up very early in the morning to visit the hospital and receive a number that places you in line to see a specific doctor. It is similar to grabbing a ticket at the deli line to wait to order your sandwich meat, but more intense. Outside the gates of many hospitals, there are people selling earlier numbers, for latecomers who want to buy a shortcut. These numbers are usually legitimate, as the sellers camp out the night before to grab the lower digits before anybody else can.
Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern or after?
I definitely want to do more international global health-related research in the future, and this summer experience has strengthened that desire.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?
Go to a grocery store, or a convenience store. If available, they are great places to gather information about the daily lives of local people. For example, in Beijing grocery stores there is a large area with cubbies and grocery luggage storage spaces. This shows the number of people who walk or take the bus to buy groceries, as they use rolling carts to carry heavier groceries farther distances. At grocery stores, you can also observe what people buy, and thus you can see what decisions people make about their food purchases. This is already preliminary information about their diet and health.
My more general advice would be to try to experience the unfamiliar location the way the locals do. Immerse yourself in the daily lives of the people living there, because if you are studying those people, or the society they live in, the best way to understand them is to feel their lived experiences for yourself.