Challenges of Conducting Research in a Foreign Environment

Challenges of Conducting Research in a Foreign Environment

Conducting research is a demanding process in and of itself, from data collection to critical analysis, and the challenges that arise during this process increase greatly when the research setting is in a foreign country. While it would be ideal for researchers to be able to focus a majority of his or her time and energy on the actual research and its implications, in a foreign environment, lots of time is spent adjusting to the new physical environment and the cultural differences. These differences can come in very obvious forms, such as different time zones, weather, language, and food, or more subtle forms, such as different social norms or customs. Furthermore, a foreign researcher may arrive at different conclusions than a native born researcher, due to either differences in how they are perceived by interviewees or differences in how they perceive their data.

This past summer, I went to the Takau English School (TES) in Taiwan for three weeks as a member of a research team with Professor Howard. For the first week, we accompanied the seniors from TES to aboriginal communities in the mountains of Kaohsiung. The TES students were tasked with teaching English to the young aboriginal children over the course of the week, while my task was to engage in conversations with the TES students regarding their privilege and understanding of global citizenship. During the second and third weeks of our trip, we remained at TES and interviewed administrators, teachers, students, and parents about their experiences at TES regarding the school’s place within the larger elite global context, among other things. We also ran a basketball camp for the middle and high schools at TES, we gave seminars on college life in the US, and we helped administrators with the coordination and supervision of the end of the year activities for the seniors. In the time since this trip, I have written an article about the constructive learning environment our group was able to create for the TES students to develop meaningful self-understandings.

My time in Taiwan meant a lot to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every aspect of the trip, but it was certainly not without its challenges. First, I had to adjust to the drastic 12-hour time difference, which took about a week for me to fully adapt to. In an effort to adjust as quickly as possible, once I arrived in Taiwan, I immediately kept with the Taiwanese schedule as much as I could. This meant that I was exhausted during the day for much of my first week in Taiwan. Additionally, the differences in climate between the New England and Southern Taiwan also became a distraction. During the first week in particular, while I was in the aboriginal community in the mountains, temperatures reached triple digits, and with very high humidity, I was uncomfortable for much of the day. Both the time difference and the weather made it difficult to focus on the research, as I had never experienced such a drastically different environment. Given that these simple logistical differences between the United States and Taiwan were easily foreseeable, they presented surprisingly large challenges. After some time though, the effects of the time difference wore off, and I became more accustomed to the weather, so these challenges were temporary.

In addition to the time differences and the weather, there were some obvious challenges that had more lasting effects, particularly the language difference and the food. While the TES faculty and students all spoke English, although to varying degrees, very few people outside of the school spoke more than a few words of English. I have taken Chinese for nine years, so although it was still a shock to be in a full immersion environment, I could handle myself well. On the other hand, one of the other members of our research team knew no Chinese at all. This language barrier was very problematic for him throughout the trip, from being unable to speak at all to the aboriginal children, to having difficulty getting around the city alone. This also hindered his ability to conduct research, as he was unable to get a complete understanding of the context within which the TES students existed. He also couldn’t interview parents of students in as comprehensive a manner as he would’ve wanted, as he was limited to those who spoke English. In interviews with TES students who didn’t speak strong English, he couldn’t code switch between languages to help them understand questions or express themselves more clearly. Another student in our group was gluten-free, something which is much less common in Taiwan than in the United States, so his food options were very limited. Due to the different food culture, he ended up getting sick often and lost nearly 15 pounds in 20 days. The language barrier and the different food culture of Taiwan was problematic for some members of our group, and led to increased attention being focused away from our research.

Finally, I also experienced some more subtle challenges that arose during our time in Taiwan. We encountered many social norms present in Taiwan that are very different from in the United States. For example, in Taiwan, controversial subjects such as politics are taboo to talk openly about, while in America, many people take to social media to let their controversial opinions be heard by millions. We had to be careful in our research not to offend anyone by being too direct with our questions, and some questions that could’ve possibly helped our research were off limits. Additionally, since we did not fully understand the social norms and subtleties of Taiwanese culture, it was clear that we were outsiders in Taiwan. This identity could have led to skewed results, as we may have received different answers to our questions than if a Taiwanese person had been asking, or we may have even misinterpreted results that we did obtain.

First, some cultures may not trust outsiders entering their society, and may not want to involve themselves fully in the research being conducted in their community. Many cultures are weary of outsiders coming to their society and trying to impose differing values upon them. Although I do not believe that I experienced this in Taiwan, it is a challenge in other cultures. Additionally, Native Taiwanese may have an implicit understanding about  in a way that I, as an outsider, do not have. This means that if a native Taiwanese person were analyzing our data, they could accurately draw comparisons between TES and more traditional Taiwanese schools, for example. As an outsider, I can read about the traditional schools, but I will never truly understand what it is like to attend one for a large period of my life.

Overall, my research team and I experienced many challenges in Taiwan, many of which were a direct result of the foreign environment. While the depth of these challenges were eased by the extreme friendliness and openness of most Taiwanese people we met, they still hindered our ability to get the most out of our time abroad. With that being said, I loved conducting research in Taiwan, and I believe that everyone should take advantage of international opportunities to broaden their perspectives and experience new cultures. I plan return to Taiwan this summer, and utilize my improved understandings of the challenges of researching in foreign environments to make the trip as successful as possible.