Blog | Acquaintance with the Netherlands of a Chinese PhD student

20 mei, 2021

The beginning
Which of the following action requires the greatest courage: 
1) starting an averagely four-year PhD study
2) moving alone to a completely unfamiliar country, or 
3) taking an intercontinental trip amid a dreadful global pandemic? 

If it is difficult to arrive at a precise answer, how about doing them at once? “This must be the craziest decision I have ever made.” Such a thought kept crossing my mind when I was sitting on a rigid chair in the departure lounge of Beijing Capital International Airport at a cold December midnight in 2020, half stubbornly trying to sleep, half anxiously waiting for the boarding announcement of KLM.

Five months have passed since that night. Walking in Leiden is no longer an adventure. Visiting the Hague has become a weekly routine. Having a meeting at LUMC feels more like an academic brainstorm rather than an expedition in a jungle of concrete. Here, I would like to briefly introduce my first acquaintance with a beautiful country called the Netherlands, and how it feels like to be a researcher in a vigorous organization called National eHealth Living Lab (NeLL).

Acquaintance with the Netherlands
Coronavirus and lockdown
It is impossible to ignore the coronavirus pandemic, an event which unprecedentedly delayed the Olympic Games. To be honest, I did have a somewhat unpleasant acquaintance with the Netherlands, given that my arrival was immediately succeeded by a total lockdown and a strict curfew. My Dutch friend recommended me to make a trade-off between personal and academic life. However, such a balance was, and still is, hard to achieve. All museums seem to be indefinitely closed, whatever the size. All restaurants are open only to delivery and take-away, whatever the taste. As a result, even if you manage to take a stroll and explore a new city, it is difficult to find a toilet, wherever you are.

Dutch people
As a self-styled fluent English speaker and a novice at Dutch, in a country famous for its citizens’ proficiency in English, communicating with Dutch people has never been a trouble to me. After one week or two, I realized that some rumors about this country are wrong. Dutch people are not distant at all. You could feel the antonym of distant when a man walked out of his office just to show you the way, or when the owner of a bicycle store insisted that he had to witness you being able to ride with ease before letting you pay and leave. As time goes by, I get used to saying hi whenever eye contacts are made with a stranger on the street, and become super fluent in dank u wel, alstublieft, and dag.

Research in NeLL
You are your own boss, and we are the helpers
I was introduced to cultural shock when my co-supervisor said this to me one day. Although it must be true in every country that only self-motivated people are eligible to become a PhD, there is nevertheless a clear distinction between self-motivation and being your own boss. To qualify as a boss, I have to proactively take care of every aspect of my project and make plans beforehand for my entire PhD period. A long-term plan means many interim milestones. Milestones mean deadlines, and deadlines keep us productive.

Bottom-up approach
The first time I attended the NeLL onderzoekersoverleg, it shocked me that not everybody was there. The second time shocked me more because even Niels was not there. Based on my research experience in China, when there is a department meeting, everybody should be present. If the chair/director is not available that day, the meeting will be postponed or cancelled. From my point of view, the idea of NeLL onderzoekersoverleg is to create an online space for all colleagues to share important issues regarding their research and the whole team. No one is obliged to come, but everyone is welcomed to join. That is why the attendees change each time, and the presence of director is not a prerequisite of the meeting. This, I guess, is another good example of cultural shock.

Collaboration and straightforwardness
Rumors are correct this time. Dutch people are straightforward. I love it, especially when collaborating on projects with others, because this greatly facilitates communications and helps prevent possible awkwardness caused by implicitness. I used to have a Zoom meeting with a professor for the first time. In the end of it, he said, “I wish to know my order in the authorship of your article, so that I can contribute and help you accordingly.” Bear in mind, that was only my first month in the Netherlands, and I was still struggling with my furniture! It may be too early to talk about authorship, but it can never be too early to make clear one of the most important things researchers care about. That is why I love being straightforward as well.

The outlook
“Why did you choose the Netherlands to finish your PhD? We are a small country. You have never been here, and we can be unfriendly.” Another co-supervisor of mine asked me this the first time we met in person. As a country with half the area of China’s largest city, it is true that the Netherlands is not the most popular study-abroad destination in China. However, I did choose this country deliberately, and I am glad that things are going even beyond my expectation. Life in a foreign country is no stranger to uncertainties. One thing I am certain though, is that more stories await.

Over de auteur: Zhixun Yang is een van de NeLL onderzoekers. Zijn onderzoek richt zich op het voorspellen en voorkomen van hart- en vaatziekten bij zwangere vrouwen.

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