When the Cambridge-educated scientist Babak Javid applied for a position at Tsinghua University in Beijing he felt certain he would, at least, get an interview. But weeks turned into months and the British-Iranian academic heard nothing.
Eventually, he decided to contact the university and received a blunt email in return asking him: why China, why not the US or Britain? Javid replied simply: “China is the country of the future.”
The next day Javid, a specialist in infectious diseases, was invited for an interview. He got the job, becoming the first non-Chinese member of the School of Life Sciences. “I just think they thought I was a wacko who had no other prospects,” says the professor with a warm self-deprecating smile, speaking over green tea at his Tsinghua office. “They did not know what to do with me.”
Javid’s move was a surprise to his peers in the west. It not only involved a significant pay cut (he had been a research fellow at Harvard) but, more surprising still, he had turned down a coveted faculty position at Cambridge university for Tsinghua. In China, science has become a top priority for the government as it aims to shift the country from a labour to an innovation-based economy (spending on research and development could overtake the US by the early 2020s). Professionally, Javid was tempted by generous research funds of almost $2m over five years – by far the most he had ever received. “There is an excitement in investment in science that isn’t anywhere else in the world right now,” he says.
His main motivation, however, was wanderlust. Javid and his Iranian wife Salumeh, a piano teacher, wanted to live in Africa or Asia. But most countries that interested them did not have universities capable of facilitating high-level research. China fitted the bill perfectly.
“It is still developing socially and economically, [it has] a very different culture, a dynamic environment but it still has that established university system and high educational values,” says Javid. When he saw the advert for Tsinghua, “I mentioned it to my wife and she immediately pounced on it and said ‘this is exactly right’”.
The 2011 move proved easier than Javid’s previous upheaval, when he left England for the US in 2007. “Ironically, my first six months in America were much tougher because I did not expect to experience culture shock, but I did,” he says. Javid found himself set apart by a British sense of humour. “Jokes I thought were innocent were frowned upon. I just felt like I was stepping on minefield after minefield,” he recalls. He also disliked the “very tribal” political polarisation of Democrats and Republicans.
When the shock subsided, however, it was easy to fit in. “There was a very painful initial adjustment but, by the end of it, my life was indistinguishable from my American colleagues – except for a propensity to like chocolate Hobnobs [biscuits],” he jokes. In China, by contrast, “you will never stop feeling like an expat”. While Beijing is becoming more international, there are still relatively few expats. The language is also isolating. “We’ll never be able to randomly pick up a newspaper and know what is going on.”
Yet the family has made an effort to stay outside the expat bubble. They rent an apartment in a gated compound, about a 10-minute cycle ride from Tsinghua, in an area of town where few westerners live. The couple’s four-year-old daughter, Taranom Chloe, attends the local kindergarten, where she is the only non-Chinese child. They spend their weekends socialising with colleagues, cooking at home, or wandering around the picturesque ruins of the Old Summer Palace, which is “on our doorstep”.
Javid, 40, is used to embracing new cultures. Born in Iran, his family left for England before the Iranian revolution of 1979 when he was five years old. His civil servant father went from having “a big house and a prestigious job to living in a one-bedroom flat in Derby”. Javid’s own situation is more comfortable, but he still draws parallels. “I remember making fun of my parents’ awful English growing up – but at least they can speak English. My Chinese is ridiculously basic and my daughter is fluent already.”
Javid’s Iranian identity (he speaks both Farsi and English at home) has proved an advantage in China – but not always in ways that he is comfortable with. Many of his local friends are pro-Iranian “for the total opposite reasons [to me],” says Javid. “I love my country – it’s my homeland – but I have no love for the current regime at all. It’s corrupt and terrible. But many Chinese like Iran because they feel that it stands up to America.”
Challenges also persist in the workplace. Javid is researching how to speed-up treatment for tuberculosis. Yet, two-and-a-half years after arriving in Beijing, he still does not have a secure lab for experiments, a process stalled by excessive red tape. So, he is sending one of his students to South Africa for a year to conduct experiments there instead. “We can’t wait to do that experiment,” he says, exasperation creeping into his voice. “Science is a competitive thing. Someone else will beat you to it.”
Rigid hierarchy is another frustration. Javid notes that students in China can be treated like “lab horses working 10 hours a day, seven days a week”. But he wants his students to learn to operate independently and to take risks – traits not often encouraged. “The attitudes to science and education in Chinese culture are incredibly laudable and praiseworthy – the cool kids in schools are the clever ones, not the ones who are skiving off,” he says. And yet often “Chinese students try to prove their boss right. They are terrified of making mistakes. Making mistakes is part and parcel of learning. My students have learnt to question me, and that’s what I like.”
Such issues have made Javid debate whether China is a healthy place to stay when his own daughter reaches secondary school age – and whether, when the time comes, that might push the family back to the UK. Pressure is even prevalent in kindergarten where many children attend after-school lessons five days a week. “That’s not a childhood,” says Javid. Yet, for now, he believes it is worth it to watch Taranom growing up trilingual in one of the most stimulating countries in the world.
Scrawled in red letters on Javid’s whiteboard is his lab motto: “Science should be Fun, Open, Challenging, Full of Surprises.” The scientist wrote it during his first week at Tsinghua and has never wiped it off. It is a reminder of his ambition to unleash creativity and push Chinese research to the edge. China is “exciting but also frustrating”, he says. “That is part of being in a pioneering place.”
Photograph: Adam Dean