Day 20: No Such Thing As a Failed Experiment

Like all of our graduate students, Bobby does experiments. Each daoshi or adviser in the college is responsible for a group of students often according to major, and assigns them to do field work with the intention of collecting results. Some take soil samples to measure for the amount of carbon and nitrogen, others test the medicinal properties of certain local fauna for the prevention of disease, and still more dabble in animal husbandry and crop cultivation.

Though some of the experiments might actually sound interesting, most students here would tell you otherwise. The truth is that many students don't like their majors—experiments are boring and time-consuming, students are called by their advisers at the drop of a hat, and whole weeks might have to be spent doing research in far-flung farming villages. Advisers are notoriously cruel, chastising students who don't get the results they want. What's more, most of what the students do is grunt work that their adviser later takes credit for. The results get tabulated in exhaustive jargon-heavy reports by PhD candidates that we proof-read before they are sent off to scientific journals.

Grad students in lab coats play amateur scientists at the soil analysis and treatment lab in the main teaching building.

One weekend in the fall, Bobby invited me to go with him to his research site about 10 kilometers from the university. Bobby hailed a taxi right outside of the main gate and he, Lynn, and I all piled in, the early afternoon sun bleating through the windows. It took the driver a while to find it—on a tiny village road, muddy and unpaved, that if you hadn't known any better, could have been an irrigation ditch or an inlet to a small family farm.

Bobby explained that daoshi never actually go to the fields themselves. Rather, students work with local farmers in order to coordinate their research. Bobby introduced me to Mr. Zhou, a handsome, though sun-beat man of about 40, with a slight Taigu accent and a long rake. Having noticed his perplexed look, I explained that I was from America and he smiled, sighing a deep sigh of relief, as if to say, Thank god, I haven't gone crazy yet.

Once there, Bobby put us to work. Our task was to comb through the branches of date trees and put small white tags around the dates that were damaged. There were maybe ten or twelve trees planted in neat rows, and almost every branch had at least one or two such dates—warped, pockmarked, swollen, sprouting a tumor-like growth, or otherwise scarred like a victim of chemical warfare. Lynn numbered the tiny white tags 1 through 50 and I looped them around the dates on the branches.

A healthy date tree in the suburbs of Taigu, taken during a date-picking expedition in the fall of 2009.

Bobby meticulously cataloged each of the 50 samples in a small notebook, measuring each one against an informal rubric: one was pretty harmless, two was average, and three meant serious. Most of the dates were either twos or threes. Bobby explained that he did this work every Sunday, the only day each week that the factories get shut down. It was also the one day each week where we could clearly make out the mountains in the distance. Sure enough, not far up the road, a massive cinder-block complex seemed to rise up out of the ground, its brick smokestack casting a shadow across the field.

The goal of the experiment was to test the effects of chemical pesticides on resisting factory pollution over time. It was hard to tell how effective it was—to be sure, many of the dates were rendered inedible, but the rest looked safe enough to eat, at least at a cursory glance. When I asked Bobby why the county didn't just shut down the factory, he turned to me and laughed. He would be back the following weekend to take more tests, just as he was the previous, for as many weeks as his adviser stipulated. As we were leaving, Mr. Zhou handed me and Lynn a bundle of freshly picked corn and thanked us again for coming.

We started hitchhiking for a while to try to get back to town. There were no cabs that passed by and no “black cars” either, private vehicles with a “Taxi” sign affixed to the top of the roof like a beret. After a while, we gave up on that too. As the sun was setting, there was only the black asphalt stretched out in front of us like a tarp. Finally, we spotted an old man puttering down the road in a beng beng che—a three-wheeled cart powered by a generator rigged to a thick white ribbon that pulls the wheels forward like the treads of a tank. Compliantly, we hopped in the open flat bed, my eyes fixed on the smoke pumping out of the tiny gasket in the back, slowly filling the moonless skies.


For the word-counters of the world, this too is of the 800-word variety.