For those of you in the parts of the world who celebrate Chinese New Year, you would know that it can be an excruciating event. This is the time of the year when all your relatives judge every aspect your person and your life choices. It’s like entering into a thesis defence panel, but on your life choices.
“Wahhh! You gain so much weight ah?!”
“Aiyo! How come so skinny now?”
“Have you heard? Ah Boy’s wife now expecting number two. How? When are you going to come back and settle down?”
“Huh? Still studying ah? How many years already? Time to get a real job lah.”
“You’re studying what again? What kind of job can you get with that?”
If you are still in the early years of your PhD, you may find some consolation in the fact that it does stop at some point. I’ve now been an academic long enough that my relatives no longer ask me those dreaded questions. They’ve come to accept I’m an odd ball in the family who has a lot of opinions, is very good at arguing with them, and will probably (because of that), never find a husband.
But I also have relatives who have come to appreciate that they can have interesting conversations with me about things other than the stock market or Korean drama. Conversely, I’ve come to learn that it is important to listen to these mundane conversations about daily life because these conversations are the artefacts of real life that keep me grounded.
So, like prepping for your thesis defence, it can be helpful to prep yourself for the scrutinising questions that will come your way when you’re back for Chinese New Year. Here are some points you might find helpful.
What exactly is it you do? When I think back on the countless awkward conversations I had with some of my relatives and friends, I realised that in my eagerness to defend my career choice against their more conventional world view, I’d come across as arrogant and condescending. This doesn’t help them to appreciate my occupation or my work better. If this is what an academic is to them, god forbid their own daughter or grandchildren dare think of pursuing a career as one in the future.
So it is important to bite your lip and resist the first impulse to defend yourself. Instead, ask them what they think it is that you do. And then use that to start a conversation about what it is that you really do.
Tell stories not facts. One thing I’ve come to realise is that the things that engage my friends and families the most are my stories and anecdotes. Like that time when I had to sit in a taxi without air-conditioning for three hours in the middle of summer in Mumbai, with food poisoning and puking my guts out the whole way, just to have a 30-minute interview.
This helps them appreciate how difficult and challenging my job is. It also shows them how exciting and different my job is and why a doctorate is hard earned from pushing the boundaries of your mind and your body.
My experiences in India, South Africa, China, etc. are what interests them. And my reflections on these experiences are what provides them with an appreciation of how difficult it is to be a researcher. As a Sociologist, I notice things that they won’t. Conversely, some of the most mundane things to a sociologist, like how culture matters, can be the most interesting to them.
You have to realise that it is not often that people get to talk about things like how women or people from a lower caste or class are treated differently. And they probably don’t have someone they can ask about climate change without sounding like an illiterate. You are that opportunity for them to talk about such topics without being judged. You are the safe space because you are also on the journey of acquiring more knowledge. These are the conversations that stick in their minds. And these are the things that can help your family and friends understand you and your work better.
Why it matters. It’s often not obvious to lay people why your research matters, or why Sociology matters. When you communicate to your friends and family about your work, it is not about what your research question is, but about why your mom who’s a housewife or your friend who’s a banker should care.
Let me give you and example. My PhD was on risk governance in nuclear energy in India. Why on earth would anyone in Singapore care about that stuff? India is so far away and Singapore doesn’t have nuclear energy. I’ve found that it’s not the topic of nuclear that matters most to my friends and family in Singapore, but what nuclear energy in India allows me to investigate. It’s the topics of colonialism in Asia, environmental injustice and structural inequalities that most resonate with them. This is because we have a shared history of colonialism and many of my relatives have shared experiences of structural inequalities and discrimination. This is why my work matters to them.
Coming back after a number of years away from your home country can also be very disorienting within your friendship circle. You’ve been living in a completely different world — you have changed. Your friends stayed behind, found jobs, started climbing the corporate ladder, and have started families — their lives have also changed.
So when you come back, some of the most unexpected points of tension can actually come from your closest friends, friends whom you’ve grown up with and known all your life. In many ways, you moving away left a gap in their lives, and it can be a painful realisation when you realise that you’ve grown apart.
Especially for Asians who’ve relocated to the US or Europe or Australia (and I may be overstating here), there is a sense of abandonment in the family and among your friends because you left your own culture to be a second-class citizen in the land of people who’d previously colonised us. And when you come back, you’re considered to have lost your cultural identity and have become “white on the inside”. So every conversation can become an argument that ends in “you’ve just become too Westernised”.
You may also find yourself being disappointed at how little effort your friends put in to meet up with you after badgering you to come back the whole time you are away. It is easier to send a text message in a group chat than to actually make time to meet up in person and hang out.
One thing I’ve learnt since moving back to my home country is that my friendship group changes. And while I still hold dear the friends I spent so many hungover weekends and hotpot dinners with, the shared life that bind us together got broken.
All the shared experiences that are needed to maintain a friendship could no longer be maintained when I left. I do have to acknowledge that I can’t just jump back into their lives and pick up where I left off. It doesn’t mean that that friendship is no longer valued, it just means that it’s changed. Acknowledging this can help you manage your expectations when you go back to your home country.
Breathe. Smile. And tell a story.
So as you prepare to head home or log onto the family Zoom chat for Chinese New Year, don’t stress. Preparing yourself mentally for how you would like to direct the CNY conversations can give you some sense of control. When those questions come, breathe, smile and tell a story. And if the conversation still descends into a cycle of negativity, then breathe, smile, and walk away or log off.