In this series we interview PhD researchers across the arts and humanities in Scotland, and throughout the month of March we’re putting a special focus on women-identifying researchers. In this post, we hear from Ann Gillian Chu, who is a PhD researcher at the University of St Andrews. You can follow her on Twitter @agillianchu and on her research website http://gillianchu.com.
What year of your PhD are you currently in? And at what school?
I am in the third year of my PhD with the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. As a Hong Kong Canadian, this is the second time I have moved to Scotland – for my undergraduate degree, I completed a Master of Arts with honours in English Language at the University of Edinburgh. Pursuing both my first degree and my final degree in Scotland feels like coming full circle.
What’s the working title of your thesis?
‘Christian Perspectives of Civic Action under Non-Democratic Governments Based on Church Discussions in Post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong.’
For my research, I conducted fieldwork in Hong Kong, which presented both challenges and opportunities. I used ethnographic methods, which include field observation and interviews. Many unexpected events popped up during my field research, such as the US-China trade war, recent protests regarding the Anti-Extradition Legislation Amendment Bill, COVID-19, the National Security Law, and now an electoral reform. For someone like me, who likes everything to be neat and tidy, it can be a frustrating experience. However, this is precisely what makes human participant research exciting: life goes on, and every surprise adds a new layer of data for analysis.
How would you describe your thesis to someone you just met?
I am using Hong Kong’s recent resistance as a case study to examine how Christians under a non-democratic regime handle civic engagement. I have discovered that people often have preconceived ideas of other people’s convictions and are not in a genuine dialogue with each other. Instead, they are just beating down the straw man they set others up to be. I propose that, amid the animosities, Christians can attempt to see each other as humans and respect each other’s dignity, like Jesus, who was incarnated in human form to redeem humanity.
But if you are not from Hong Kong, why would this be of interest to you? There is a new world order forming with the rise of China and India versus the decolonisation of European power in our current historical moment. These changes raise questions about ‘universal’ ideals regarding citizenship, engagement, politics, and religion. Everyone needs to consider religion’s engagement with the world alongside non-democratic versions of power. Even for those who are not religious, the world we live in has many areas shaped or challenged by religious convictions. Without this understanding, we will not have adequate tools to understand current political events.
What do you like best about your PhD experience thus far?
My PhD experience has changed how I observe and analyse what is happening around me, because I now think more widely and deeply about daily topics. As someone who grew up with many privileges, I used to be oblivious to what was happening around me, since I was sheltered from social injustices. I am now much more aware of the way people perceive and present ideas, and how that is bounded by the way they understand the world. I am also better able to understand how the history of colonialism and imperialism, especially in Hong Kong, pervasively and fundamentally influences how people perceive themselves and their relationship with the world.
For example, at a Cantonese-speaking church, I got angry at their advertising an event as bringing ‘diverse voices’ but only featuring Caucasians teaching, and using English as the teaching medium. How are Caucasians instructing Chinese people in Hong Kong, a former colony of Britain, considered ‘diverse voices’? When can we stop bringing Caucasians into a predominantly Chinese community to tell us what to do and how to think? While I appreciate how my doctoral studies have widened my perspectives, the constant struggle with colonial narratives and systemic injustices is mentally exhausting. But it is kind of like those Magic Eye pictures – once you see the image, you cannot unsee it.
What do you wish you’d known going into your PhD programme?
For those who are thinking of undertaking a PhD degree, make sure you are passionate about your proposed project. Do not just go into it for the funding, or because you do not know what job you want yet, or because you want to be called “Dr”. If you only want to be a doctor or professor, this is a difficult path, but if you are going into this because you are passionate about the topic, then you will be able to survive the many adversities that academia promises.
I am writing up my thesis remotely in the midst of the pandemic, and the struggle is real. But the reason I started this doctoral research was because I am a Hong Kong Christian, and I wanted to reconcile what it means to be an ethnically Chinese person from Hong Kong with Christian convictions. If I were not as passionate about and dedicated to my project, I do not think I would have the drive to push myself to persevere.
What do you do for fun outside of academia?
I have been taking lessons in horse riding and clarinet since I was pursuing my master’s degree in Vancouver, Canada, and St Andrews is also an excellent place to continue these hobbies. St Andrews is a small town with very little nightlife, so it is a great place for developing cultural interests. I am by no means good at either—I just enjoy the process. These activities, very different from my doctoral work, allow me to use my mental capacity in different ways and build a support network outside academia. A doctoral degree takes several years to complete, and it cannot be all-consuming—doctoral candidates still need a life outside of their research. This builds healthy habits for a balanced lifelong journey in academia.