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Ethnographic postcards: The Smartest Engineer

This text was written in Helsinki in the Unioninkatu University meeting room on October 17 2022, as part of a flash ethnography project. At the time, I was writing a manuscript on multinational engineers based on fieldwork I completed in Israel, where my partner, Teddy, still works as a Chinese engineer at a local hydropower plant. This story came to mind when thinking about the quarrels and cooperations surrounding engineering standards between Chinese and Israeli engineers in their everyday practice.

Location: Jordan Valley, Israel

Teddy and I were invited to Rom’s office on a Friday afternoon in July 2022. It was in a newly built building glistening in the sunlight of southern Israel, with many small office units waiting to be sold or rented to local enterprises. “Rom said that he bought this office with the money he earned from the T project,” Teddy told me when we entered the elevator.

Right after we walked into his office, Rom gave me a huge hug. We hadn’t seen each other since 2019, when I traveled to Israel to complete my fieldwork on the multinational engineering culture in the T project. It’s a pump-storage hydropower plant that has been in construction since 2017 in northern Israel.

Rom then started to show me around his new office. The 50-square-meter room was half occupied by a set of model machines for inspecting underwater fractures in hydro dams and reservoirs. With great passion, Rom showed Teddy and me how the sensor worked by testing the tension of the cables and sending signals back to the monitoring screens. 

“Look at this,” Rom said as he pointed to the signal waves on one of the screens. “This is the next thing we need to work on. I need some smart Chinese guys to work together with me. Give me Ma [a Chinese engineer], Teddy. He’s the smartest.” Teddy replied, “I know he’s the smartest. That’s why we still need him on the T project!” We all laughed.

Back in 2019, Rom had no idea who was the smartest Chinese engineer. In fact, he found it difficult to work with Chinese engineers when he had just started to work on the T project. We first met each other on the construction site of the surge shaft, a structure designed to prevent excessive hydraulic pressure from building up at the downstream end of the pipe as the water flows through the turbines. 

When I asked Rom his feelings about working there with these Chinese engineers, he answered with a frown, “So complicated. We were trained differently and thought differently. And the Chinese always wanted to do the work in their way, consciously or unconsciously. But you know, according to the project contract, we should prioritize Israeli standards and codes and do it our way.”

Indeed, according to the commercial contract between the Israeli project owner and the Chinese construction contractor, the engineers ideally should have applied Israeli engineering standards. In Teddy’s explanation, though, Chinese engineers tried to apply Chinese engineering standards and codes because they were more advanced and had been tested in more hydropower projects built by Chinese companies during the last decade. However, in Rom and his local colleagues’ eyes, the European and American-derived Israeli standards were way more trustworthy.

As engineers from different national and professional backgrounds, they quarreled a lot at first, particularly over which technical standards and codes to apply, Chinese or Israeli. Those technical controversies were entangled with their different institutional culture. “The Chinese engineers have endless internal reporting processes, and we don’t even know who can make a final decision.” “The local engineers need more flexibility in reviewing engineering plans. They are too dogmatic and now doing a Ph.D. instead of a real project.” I heard these complaints quite often from both sides in 2019.

The situation started to change when they discovered that under local geological conditions, none of the published standards could be applied to the construction problem of the surge shaft. Ma, a Chinese hoisting engineer, bypassed the controversies surrounding standard documents and made a test model for the problem on-site, building on his experience in China. 

The model convinced Rom almost immediately, and later, he added suggestions from his experience in Israel and South Africa. Based on this model, they led the Chinese and Israeli engineers to develop a new plan and successfully solved the problems with the T project. In 2020, they applied for Chinese patents for this new engineering method combining Israeli, Chinese, and South African styles.

Rom mentioned this experience again during our dinner, saying, “We completed such innovative work, you know. The Chinese guys could be innovative and creative, too, which really surprised me!”

This experience strongly motivated Rom to expand his collaboration with Chinese engineers on a new dam inspecting project—the one using the machines he proudly showed us in his office. He trusted Chinese engineers’ intelligence while being fully aware of the institutional problems of the Chinese company. That’s why he asked not to collaborate randomly with “some” Chinese engineers but only the “smartest”, Ma.

“I know you [Chinese engineers]. Some of you work in quite a bureaucratic way, but you also have very innovative people. They are the people I want,” Rom said as he again explained his ideal collaborators to Teddy during dinner. “You know our culture so well now,” Teddy laughed and toasted, “This new project will definitely bring you money to buy a second office!” Rom drank his wine happily. “Only if you give me Ma, the smartest engineer. Then we could do something as incredible as what we’ve done for the T project!”

When driving home after dinner, I asked Teddy if they had as deep and long-lasting collaborations with other local engineers as they had with Rom. “No,” Teddy smiled, “He is the only one who fully trusts our professional skills while knowing exactly how to collaborate with Chinese companies most efficiently. It is not Ma, but Rom, who is the smartest among all of us.” 

The dynamics between the Chinese and Israeli engineers in the T project were initially fraught with disagreements over which technical standards and codes to apply. However, in the process, some engineers were able to overcome their differences and incorporate diverse perspectives and experiences to develop new engineering knowledge. This collaboration across technical, cultural, professional, and institutional differences took a lot of time and effort, but once it succeeded the potential outcomes were extraordinary–albeit sometimes mundane–such as the new Chinese patent or Rom’s new office.

What are Ethnographic Postcards?

‘Ethnographic Postcards’ began on the small island of Vallisaari as part of a writing workshop during a University of Helsinki anthropology discipline outing held in May 2022. 

The workshop was inspired by anthropologist Alisse Waterston, who prior to the outing on Vallisaari had just visited Helsinki to present at the Anthropology Visiting Seminar.

Her paper, ‘Making Knowledge Accessible’, explores how anthropologists can take on more experimental formats and efforts to communicate the work we do. To apply what she taught us, we walked along Vallisaari’s coastal trails and shared our experiences and emotions associated with writing. 

Ethnographic writing can be very personal and ignite unexpected feelings when diving into stories and experiences that have been gathered from the field.

Writing makes visible what we do know, but it also sheds light on the possible wrongdoings of the ethnographer – making the writing process a daunting task to start with. 

Writing groups are a space where one can share feelings of joy and success, but also of fear and procrastination – all things related to the process of (ethnographic) writing. 

We met once a month with the aim of writing a standalone piece of no more than 1000 words within forty-five minutes. Also inspired by Professor Waterston, we used Carole McGranahan’s online series of Flash Ethnography in American Ethnologist as a prompt. 

Everyone who participated in the sessions usually came to the collective writing sessions with an idea about what they were going to write about – a person, scene, conversation, place or subject based on each person’s fieldwork. 

As works in progress, the purpose of these writing sessions was to turn these ideas into life; to see how they catch the light. 

This series of anthropological stories is the outcome of our writing sessions. We take postcards as a metaphor to share personalised events. 

Similar to the postcards mailed as souvenirs from another place that showcase an iconic city landscape or monumental site, our postcards evoke memories from the anthropologists’ field sites. 

AntroBlogi in English

AntroBlogi has always been adamant about promoting the use of the Finnish language in sharing academic viewpoints and knowledge produced within Finnish anthropology. With this series, AntroBlogi has opened the door to experimenting with other languages too. 

Finnish anthropology hosts researchers from all over the world – and AntroBlogi should be a virtual space for everybody making a difference in the local community. 

This does not mean that there will be less Finnish language content on the site nor that we will try to pivot to a global audience. Similar to the ‘Ethnographic Postcards’ series, we want to keep an open-endedness in our publishing work so that it keeps evolving together with the discipline and the local academic community.

Editorial team

  • Writers (What are Ethnographic Postcards): Suvi Rautio & Emmi Holm
  • Editor: Emmi Holm & Suvi Rautio
  • Proofreading: Maija Sequeira
  • Podcaster: Eemi Nordström
  • Layout: Taru Äkräs
  • Featured image: (Pixabay License)
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Zhuo Chen

Zhuo Chen is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki. She employs an STS and anthropology approach to examine engineers, engineering culture, and engineering expertise in the infrastructure sector of renewable energy and smart city domains. Her fieldwork sites include Israel and China.Katso kirjoittajan artikkelit

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