By Nick Webber
As research postgraduates in the humanities, we all have to live something of a double life. For the most part, we burrow away into books and manuscripts, eking out the odd quotation or historical fact. Our eyeglass prescriptions strengthen, our (stereotypical) elbow patches thicken, our library lending lists lengthen. And the world itself, with all its people and hubbub and chatter and stuff, retreats into a sort of background noise, like whistling tinnitus or a ticking clock.
But then something unexpected happens, and we decide, arrogantly, to fling ourselves across the planet so as to boast about the intrinsic worth of our (obviously) ground-breaking research. We go, as it were, from Alan Bennett to Elton John in just the blinking of an eye.
And this academic year has been no different, with no fewer than nine countries, spanning three continents, playing host to our quivering and erratic egos.
There have been presentations on the subject of trauma in Penang and Lisbon; Integrational linguistics got an airing in Odense; Toronto got a taste of both Chinese-English lexicography and Berthold Brecht’s China; Osaka boned up on Fan Wu’s Beautiful as Yesterday; Oxford and Taipei witnessed a Jean Rhys spectacle or two; Guangzhou got a lesson in the glocalization of English; and Hong Kong itself witnessed a whole bevy of talks, presentations, and seminars on topics as diverse as Malay literature, the ethics of reading and Deleuzian space.
Not that this is to in any way suggest, however, that in suppressing our “inner Bennetts” we completely lost touch with our finely honed social ineptitude or bookish, fish-out-of-water awkwardness. There was still time left over, for example, to gawp slack-jawed at the Hogwarts-themed architecture of Oxford University’s Mansfield College, or to fail, repeatedly, to navigate labyrinthine Toronto; just as others made the time to toady up to academic bigwigs in a bid for special perks, or to bounce around a 24-hour bookshop like a jonesing crack-head.
Because in truth, of course, just as leopards can’t change their spots, and Hong Kong can’t change its Ernest Shackleton-style air-conditioning policy, research postgraduates are unable to hide for long their yearning for the warm embrace of page-turning quietude, the smell of silverfished books, the hushed tones, the suppressed sneezes, the scribbled notes, the clacked keyboards and the sipped coffees. The outside world’s OK—really, it’s fine—but it can wait …
Until, that is, it’s time to start showing off again. Now, where did I leave my passport?