In this interview, Dr. Coley and Yian discuss their recent trip to China. They tell us about their project with our current collaborators, and they comment on their favorite things about the most populated country in the world.

What did you do in China?

Dr. Coley: We spent a lot of time looking at interesting sites, but primarily we spent time meeting with current and potential collaborators. We met with someone at NYU Shanghai whom we are currently collaborating with, and we might build new collaborations as well, and we met with a team of researchers at Central China Normal University that we are also collaborating with and seeking to build potentially more collaborators.

Could you tell me more about your collaboration with NYU Shanghai and Central China Normal University?

Dr. Coley: There is a team at Central China Normal: a young professor named Fang Fang Wen, who spent a year here visiting in the lab, and her mentor and principal investigator of the lab, Zho Bin. We are working with them on a number of projects around cultural difference in social categorization. We are looking at whether different kinds of category cues are more or less salient to children and adults in China and in the US and how that might relate to essentialist thinking about social categorization.

Yian: Our collaborator at NYU Shanghai, Dr. Xuan Li, is my college classmate and a good friend who has recently  started her faculty job there. We are collaborating on a project that looks at how experience of living cross-culturally shapes the way we think about people, particularly how we essentialize social groups. One exciting part about this project is that we are able to recruit participants from both the Northeastern site and NYU-Shanghai site, which allows us to compare students originally from China and  the US, both with and without the experience of studying in a different country. Our plan is to compare these four groups both cross-sectionally, and longitudinally. We plan on collecting data at different time points to see, for example, whether one year after they first started their study abroad experience, there might be any change over time at the individual level.

Why is that important?

Yian: Theoretically speaking, we are interested in social essentialism (essentialist thinking of social groups), and we are interested in what kind of factors might lead to individual differences in terms of how essentialist you are. Doing that project can tell us something about, for example, whether the experience of living some time abroad can make some difference in terms of essentialist thinking. Practically speaking, we have many students who are studying abroad, and it would be interesting to see whether those kinds of multicultural experiences bring people any benefits or changes in the way they see the world and others.

What was your favorite thing about China?

Dr. Coley: China is a vast and complicated place. Everywhere we went it seemed like there was this kind of energy. Lots and lots of people. The city that we spent most of our time in was Wuhan. No one in America has ever heard of Wuhan, and yet it’s considerably larger than NYC in terms of its population. China has a lot of people, and it’s just a huge diverse place, and we only saw a tiny bit of it, but the energy was just incredible. People work really hard, so the energy is something that really struck me.

Yian: I like the food and how many people are there, and everyone sort of has their own thinking so that we borrow lots of interesting ideas.

Dr. Coley:  We spent a lot of time with graduate students from central China. We spent a lot of time with a number of different students, and I was really struck with their interest in what they were doing and the intensity and also their willingness to be open to different ways of thinking about things. I was struck with the next generation.

The other thing that we did, we finalized an agreement between Northeastern and Central China Normal University about something called a Memorandum of Understanding that says that we officially intend to have our universities develop some sort of relations. This can mean that we will have more visiting scholars like Fang Fang or visiting graduate students, and the opportunity for our graduate students and undergrads to go there, and fostering more faculty collaborations.  

Yian: It’s an important step towards collaboration at the university level!