By Divya Ghelani
This article was a last request from my former dissertation supervisor, who asked me to write something ‘short and snappy’ about my experience as an M.Phil student at HKU. He probably expected that, having completed a 50,000 word dissertation, I might find it easy. But I’ve been agonizing over this article just as I agonize and struggle over everything I write. I think it’s because it would be quite acceptable in a forum such as this for me to portray my experience as an M.Phil in a certain light: I could tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed my journey, that I have no regrets, that I didn’t persistently struggle through the writing of my thesis, that I wish I was still doing it. I could leave you, perhaps, with a list of handy bite-sized tips, some easy magazine-style ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts.’ But it wouldn’t be true to my experience. So rather than pretend I’m some sort of expert or ‘star’ pupil, I think it’s best to take this last chance to speak to you and to be honest.
Being honest means telling you straight off the bat that, by and large, I fumbled inelegantly through two years of university life in Hong Kong. At HKU, I doubted myself, annoyed myself and others with missed deadlines, thought people were sometimes talking pretentious twaddle in seminars, felt awkward and self-conscious going for drinks with them afterwards, loved the library, loved all the books at my disposal, loved the true friends I made and the boyfriend I explored the city with, went off on research tangents, took surreptitious trips abroad, spent my office time ‘high’ on coffee, struggled and failed with my work, tried again, failed again, struggled,
failed better and, somehow, made it to the end.
I think universities are wonderful places but that they are not innocent. They can also be deeply unhealthy, particularly for graduate students who work in isolation on a single project for a number of years. I arrived at HKU from London as an overseas student so for me, learning how to research and write a graduate thesis was concomitant with learning a new city and a new culture. I remember feeling overwhelmed, anxious and sometimes teary in my first few months, as unsure about protocol and procedures as I was about navigating my way through Hong Kong. Prior to my move overseas, I had spent one unhappy year at a London-based brand consultancy and my time in the world of business had encouraged me, perhaps, to idealize life in the Academy. On arrival at HKU, I found that the Academy was as tainted as the world outside; it contained the same factions and coteries as Industry, gave birth to the same status anxiety, social climbing and networking, the same craving for success, saving face, jargon, accolades and money. Rather than feeling confused and disillusioned, I should have realized that I could make an active choice to reject that aspect of university life, that I could find grace, hope, truth and refuge in my work.
I arrived at HKU with a First Class BA in English Studies and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Despite my qualifications, I felt intimidated by the standard of research my supervisor seemed to want me to produce. Each student has a very particular relationship with their supervisor and the tone and tempo of their university experience can be coloured by the dynamics of it. My own supervisor initially felt to me to be too rigid, formal and firm. Seated across a giant desk in his big office, he rarely congratulated me on my efforts and typed comments and corrections all over my essays, a pattern I grew familiar and even comfortable with throughout my two years. Rather than hearing that much sought-after ‘Well done!’ I heard ‘It’s shaping up,’ ‘You’re getting there’ and ‘You need to work faster.’ Though the denial of praise stung, it taught me that in the end, success was about learning to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. It encouraged me to work alone with good grace and not for praise, it taught me that it was always only about the truth and the integrity of the work and that the work should add to knowledge.
I don’t know a graduate student who hasn’t gone through a personal problem or two during their time at University. I’ve known of students falling foul to insomnia or bouts of depression, students with family members who have passed away, students struggling with bad supervisors, troublesome neighbours, demanding second jobs, housing and relationship issues. My own personal tragedy was somewhat off the beaten path. I had high hopes to finish and publish a fiction novel I had been working on since my Writing MA. But part-way through my first year, I discovered that the book wasn’t working, it just wasn’t working, and I was forced to kill it. I carried the heaviness and guilt of this abortion for many months, wishing my thesis didn’t occupy so much brain time and effort, wishing for another story to write.
Do I feel sad about finishing my thesis? No. Nope. No way. I have my brain, my soul and my life back. You see there were times, many times, when my thesis felt like a giant bug crawling across my face. It was a Hong Kong cockroach, stroking me with its antennae each time I tried to write my own fiction, read a novel of my own choosing, visit friends or book a holiday. On other occasions (most certainly in my first year) my thesis was my tormentor, my jailor. It cackled at my attempts of self-liberation, refused them. Even today it hasn’t made me money or promoted me to superstar academic status. I have yet to publish an academic article and the examiner corrections I have just finished won’t get me extra marks. I doubt that the average person entering through the doors of Hong Kong University library in years will do so with the intention of reading a thesis entitled, “The ‘radical’ in the classroom in British school stories from the 1950s to the present day.”
Still, my finished thesis, which I believe addresses a major research gap in the study of modern British fiction, is the longest and most important piece of research I have published and completed to date. It is both odd and wonderful to think
that the particular circumstances of my life flung me towards Hong Kong where I took a weird childhood curiosity, an odd niggling supposition about British education and British school stories and turned it into an M.Phil Literary Studies thesis. As arduous as it sometimes was and as futile as it sometimes felt, I read around my preconceptions and prejudices. I explored and interrogated them, laid them bare, wrote through them and beyond them and in doing so, I reconstituted myself anew.
My two years as a graduate student in Hong Kong weren’t all happy not were they all about my thesis and being a ‘star’ pupil. You see, I’m a firm believer in the old adage that there are no limits to what you can accomplish when you are supposed to be doing something else. In Hong Kong amidst thesis chapters, lectures, seminars and teaching duties, I learnt yoga, Cantonese, helped a seven-year-old French boy to read in English, I saw parts of South East Asia, got
engaged, wrote three short stories (published one) and began work on a screenplay with my partner. Though the death of my aborted novel is forever lodged in my memory, I also managed the impossible in Hong Kong. While completing a 50,000 word dissertation, I found a new story, a better one, one I really believe in, and finished two 60,000 word drafts of it. Now when life gets tough, I do what I taught myself to do in Hong Kong: I find grace, hope, truth and refuge in my work.