What not to do: Tips from a returning scholar

Before sitting down to write this blog piece, I really had to think about what I wanted to say in it. Spending that time looking over this past year, it only makes me realise how amazing this year has been. Being home, China feels like a distant memory, but one that will stick with me forever. Thinking about the mix of feelings I had at the Scholar’s meeting this time last year, I cannot believe that the year is over – or that I made it through it! When I first found out I had received a place on the scholarship, I think I didn’t really grasp what I had signed myself up for. It was only when we landed in Beijing that reality sunk in, and with reality came an overwhelming sense of panic. Spending 10 months in a country half way around the world, with next to no understanding of the language, culture and society is genuinely not easy – but it is what made this scholarship the most extraordinary and memorable experience of my life. To those who will come after us, just know, it is okay to freak out a little. Having made it through to the other side, and now wise – well maybe not wise, but definitely not as clueless as before – to the art of surviving half way around the world, I can see the little errors of judgement and mistakes I made along the way. And so, in an effort to try and prevent others from making the same mistakes as I did, here is a list of what not to do when you arrive in China:

Don’t panic if your Chinese isn’t as good as you thought it was.

I arrived in China with a Higher in Mandarin, and on our first day of college was put in 四班 (Class 4), with a mix of Thai, Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Korean students most of whom had already been studying at the college for a semester. What happened next was absolute carnage. It took me a week to be able to tell when the Thai people were speaking Thai and when they were speaking Chinese; it took me another week to be able to follow a lesson in it’s entirety; and it took me 4 weeks until I managed to successfully answer a question. It was tough at first but once I got used to the Chinese teaching style and the classroom set up I realised the class was just at the right level for me. If I had panicked and moved down class the first week I don’t think my level of Mandarin would have improved as much as it has.

Don’t be embarrassed to say something wrong.

Those first few weeks in 四班 I was terrified to say something wrong or make a mistake, the other students in the class spoke with such fluency it intimidated me. However, the more I got to grips with what they were saying the more I realised that they were also making mistakes – but just didn’t care.

Don’t miss the opportunity to make friends from all around the world.

One of the hardest things about this scholarship quickly coming to an end is knowing that, soon, we are going to have to say goodbye to our friends. However, the long goodbye is definitely worth it. Making friends from all around the world has truly been one of the most enjoyable things about this experience. It has opened my eyes to how, despite different languages and cultures, if you and another person have enough in common friendship will come naturally. I am definitely going to miss persuading our Laos friends to cook for us and having our dancing shown up on nights out with Thai friends.

Don’t forget to travel China.

Travelling around Japan and South East Asia during Spring Festival was one of the best times of my life, but looking back there are still so many places in China I wish I could have gone to. China train tickets are so cheap that weekend trips are a great option. I’ve been lucky enough to go to most of the big cities, but if we had been more organised in the first semester we could have seen a lot more! Studying in China and knowing the language puts you in a unique opportunity to travel the country like a local, a chance you may never get again.

Don’t be scared to get a bike.

A few near death experiences is definitely a good way to wake you up in the morning.

Don’t be worried about making mistakes.

Living apart from our parents for the first time, in China of all places, meant a bit of a shaky start at adulthood. There were points where the responsibility of it all got too much and mistakes were made – whether it was burning your eyelids so badly sunbathing in Thailand that you are partly blinded for 2 days or accidentally booking a fake hostel and arriving in Shanghai on Chinese New Years Eve with no where to stay – but they now make for a good laugh.

In the end, however, no amount of advice can prepare you for the experience of living and studying in China for 10 months. There are hard parts to it, and everybody experienced low points, naturally. However, the high points will prove not to be just the highlights of your year – they will be the highlights of your life.

Maeve MacLeod 安小薇



Looking back, looking forward: My year in Tianjin

With only one month left until we pack our bags and get ready to leave China, the realisation that we will shortly be returning to Scotland has become all too real. As excited as I am to go back and see family and friends, I know that I will miss the oddities and quirks of living in such a culturally diverse country as China. It’s hard to believe how quickly time has passed since all the scholars congregated at Edinburgh Airport last September, about to embark on an adventure together in Tianjin. Although tears were shed at the thought of leaving family and friends behind, the initial nerves and worries were soon forgotten as Tianjin became our home. Now that the journey is coming to an end, it is difficult to imagine not participating in such an incredible opportunity.The first couple of weeks in China were the ‘trial and error’ weeks as many of us were complete beginners in terms of our Chinese language ability. Ordering food in local restaurants could be quite a challenge if there were no picture menus, so we would often just point and smile and act as if we knew what we were ordering when, in reality, we had no idea what we were ordering. As we explored different restaurants, we were gradually able to eliminate the places that, let’s just say, did not agree with our digestive systems. However, at the same time, we were learning how to pronounce certain dishes such as 宫保鸡丁 (spicy-diced chicken) which made ordering food much easier. Now that we had a list of good places to eat, we didn’t feel quite like the most clueless foreigners. Beyond food, our other priorities consisted mainly of familiarising ourselves with the city of Tianjin, getting to know our bearings and settling into the Chinese way of life. Shortly after arriving in Tianjin, several of us bought bikes to enable us to explore the city more widely. However, cycling on Chinese roads for the first time was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced but I soon realised that, despite the volume of cars on the roads, the general idea is to cycle wherever there is space (and, yes, that space could be in-between two buses). With more practice, I soon felt at ease as I began to understand how the Chinese road system works.

My experience of learning Mandarin in China has been incredible. Having the opportunity to be completely immersed in the language every day means that I have been able to improve my language skills constantly. Throughout the two semesters of studying, my Mandarin classes have included not only other CISS scholars but also students from Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Laos and Indonesia. I have particularly enjoyed this multicultural learning environment and recognise how supportive and encouraging everyone has been to one another, despite the original language barriers. We have all helped each other to improve whether that has been through teamwork to collate a coherent sentence to express a thought or request, or merely to be understood. However, avoiding the embarrassment of being misunderstood occasionally requires the life-saving help from a Chinese dictionary app called ‘Pleco’! I am sure that this app has helped all of us in many an awkward situation. Regardless, we have all improved our language skills dramatically through our encounters with daily tasks, navigating ourselves around China and communicating with locals.Since transferring to Tianjin Foreign Studies University to continue our studies for the second semester, we have been individually assigned a Chinese language partner who is also a student at the University. Having a language ‘buddy’ has really enhanced what has already been an incredible and memorable year as we are able to meet up with our ‘buddy’ on a regular basis. During these meetings, we are able to have extended conversations that really test our Mandarin skills. Also, our buddies enable us to take part in activities and events that we may not have known about otherwise. When my 语伴 (language partner) told me that she was also studying Spanish, I was able to explain Spanish grammar and new vocabulary to her in Chinese. Unexpected occasions like this made me appreciate how far we have progressed with Mandarin in such a short space of time.

In addition to our studies, there have been opportunities to make the most of our holiday periods in China by travelling slightly further afield from Tianjin and to other provinces. Throughout my time here, I have engaged in activities that have taken me out of my comfort zone. I have experienced a variety of local foods although my taste buds have also endured some questionable flavours. I have danced in a park when I thought I was simply going on a leisurely walk and I have stumbled upon various ‘hole in the wall’ street food vendors when feeling slightly peckish. I have also visited countries and places that are breathtakingly beautiful. I have seen the Ice Festival in Harbin, walked with an ethnic hill tribe in Sapa, Vietnam, travelled on a bamboo raft down the Li River in Guilin, spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai and I have marvelled at the view of Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Of course, I have experienced a few mishaps such as language barriers, food-poisoning, an awful 18-hour sleeper train journey and getting lost (and I mean really lost) but these are the memories that I can laugh about and look back on with a smile. When applying to take part in this scholarship, I didn’t realise just how many opportunities were possible from our location in the world and I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to visit such amazing areas of East Asia.Studying abroad immediately after leaving school was something that I had never considered. It wasn’t until I was given the opportunity to take part in the Chinese Bridge Summer Camp in the summer of 2015 that I actually gave some serious consideration to learning Mandarin in China. I was aged sixteen when I first came to China and I instantly fell in love with the country, the language, the people and the experience in general. I enjoyed the challenge of learning such a complex language that was so different to the common European languages that I had studied at school. I was always amazed at how people could read the characters and how each character has a variation of traditional and modern meanings. Chinese is such an aesthetically beautiful language and, during the ten months in which I have lived and studied in China, I have learned to read and write a wide range of characters. I am sure that it is no exaggeration to note that the other scholars and I all feel a huge sense of achievement in our ability to read, write and speak Mandarin Chinese. Our new language skills have enabled us to make friends from all over the world, and notably from other parts of Asia, using Chinese as a common language. Through this common language, we have been able to share our different cultures and this has, without doubt, broadened our knowledge about each other’s country, traditions and practices.

As we approach the end of the scholarship, I know that I am going to miss the routine that I have here. In particular, I will miss living alongside everyone on the same floor of the student accommodation and sitting in class and hearing multiple languages being spoken simultaneously. Also, I will not forget the numerous spontaneous trips that we have enjoyed during an incredible year. This will be a year that, I’m sure, will remain a distinctive part of my life. Discovering what China has to offer has been an ongoing experience since the summer of 2015. Now that I have spent almost a year in China, I want to share my enthusiasm for China and the Chinese language with other young people and I hope that one day they too can appreciate this amazing country. My time in China has been made particularly special by the people with whom I have shared the experience and I wish everyone the best of luck in their next adventure. However, for the last few weeks, it is all about taking everything in, preparing for our final exams and making the most of the time that we have left in China.

Jennifer Anderson

Almost home

In preparation for life in china I deduced a three step plan in order to adapt; ask my grandpa to help me use chopsticks, buy Chinese for dummies on amazon and watch “Mulan” (an undisputed Disney classic). It’s fair to say some aspects of my research proved more useful than others. In retrospect, there is little to be done in perpetration for the transition to a culture as rich and vast as the one that china boasts.Scott international fair
In the nine months past since our arrival in Tianjin we have all had experiences worthy of a Hollywood movie ranging from climbing mountains to caring for pandas. The natural affluence of the Chinese character has lead to friendships that are truly beyond the price of rubies; negotiated, of course, with variant levels of Chinese but none the less sure to last a lifetime.

Learning Chinese in its mother country remains a true privilege that has created opportunities beyond which any of us could’ve imagined.Scott Graduating

Scott Renwick

My time in Tianjin and advice for future scholars

When I first heard that I had been accepted for this scholarship in December 2015 I had no idea what to expect. The prospect of living not only away from home but living halfway around the world was a very daunting one! However, over the months leading up to our departure it became clearer what should be expected from our time here and by the time it came for us to leave we were all very excited.Our first few weeks in Tianjin were full of ups and downs. Initially it was difficult at times not being able to communicate in the way that we would like to be able to. This did however motivate us to concentrate on our studies in order to make our lives here easier and be able to do things more independently. After we began to settle into our lives here things became a lot better, we began exploring the city more and discovering all of the exciting things there are to do here. We found places like the People’s Park (人民公园), Minyuan (民院) where you can buy international produce and eat in various nice restaurants and Binjiangdao (滨江道) which is the main shopping street in Tianjin. Once we started college and our Chinese began to improve to a level where we could travel confidently and easily, the city was really ours to explore.

Over the next few months our Chinese progressed so quickly that I think it surprised even ourselves at times. When you use the language every single day it is sometimes important to take a step back and really appreciate just how far you’ve come. Through the college we had opportunities to visit other universities, meet many other foreign students which whom we could practise our language skills and even to participate in competitions and displays. These ranged from Kung Fu displays to robot building! These things all gave us more chances to use and improve our Chinese in a practical, fun setting.

In November we had the incredible opportunity to attend the St Andrews Day Ball in Beijing. I took this opportunity to spend some time in the capital and explore various famous sites which was brilliant. Being able to just decide to go to the Summer Palace, one of the most famous places in China, and then just get on a train and go for the day is something I couldn’t have imagined myself doing before I came here. The ball itself was something that we had all been very much looking forward to and it most certainly did not disappoint. There we had the opportunity to meet people from various different countries and positions including the representative for Scotland in the British embassy in Beijing. This was truly an incredible night and gave us the chance to really act as ambassadors for Scotland.

A few months into our scholarship we celebrated what, for many of us, was our first Christmas away from home. The thought of this made many of us feel quite homesick leading up to it but in reality I think that many of us felt that it was one of our best Christmases ever. We may not have been able to celebrate with our real families but having spent all of our time together in the first few months it really felt as though we were celebrating with a different kind of family. In one of the days leading up to the 25th we all pulled out mattresses into one room and sat together watching Elf together. This is most certainly one of the days that stands out most to me in my time here.After Christmas and exams were over for the first term it was time for us to have our two months holiday for Spring Festival (春节)and we all set off on our travels. Some scholars travelled around south east Asia, many went to Japan, some travelled as far as Australia and other returned home to see family and friends. The chance to visit Japan is one which I will never forget. It was made especially memorable because our Japanese friends whom we had met in China came to Tokyo to meet us and show us around. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without studying Chinese as many of them don’t speak much, if any, English.

In our second term we started studying at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, where we also been living the previously. This was a very positive change as we already had many international friends from the university and knew the area well. We also had the added bonus of having most our international friends from college join us here. Although classes are very different at the university they are equally as enjoyable. Every day we have classes from 8am until 11:40am and then have the option to take afternoon cultural classes or use our time however we want. Often this is occupied with seeing friends, travelling around the city or studying.

The opportunity to study Chinese in China is one for which I am incredibly grateful for many reasons. Our Chinese has improved more than I had even imagined it would and as well as becoming more confident using the language we have all become so much more independent as individuals this year. Following this year two of us will continue on to study Chinese at University in Edinburgh and a few others hope to return to study in China over the next few years. To the scholars future scholars I would say this:

  • Go out and see the city
  • Use your Chinese as much as you can to make new friends
  • Travel as much as possible
  • And don’t be worried, you’ll have an incredible year, 加油!



Seeing Asia.

On the 7th of January, it was time to say goodbye to our friends from college and set off on our travels. With 20 scholars, we were all over the place! Over the two months, there were scholars in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Australia and various cities and villages in China. Some went home to see family, and some instead took the opportunity to see a little more of Asia.
Sorcha 5I started off my travels in Harbin, to see the Snow and Ice Festival, which was so incredible we had to go twice! I was lucky enough to have my sister and friends from home visit me, and it was so much fun to take them to see such a beautiful place. After staying in Tianjin for a few days, I went with my sister and Scott to travel around the Shandong Province, which is the province south of Tianjin. We visited Jinan and saw the BaoTu Hot Springs and the Thousand Buddha Mountain, we climbed Mount Tai, one of China’s most sacred mountains situated in Taian, visited the famous Librarie Avant-Garde in university city Nanjing, and we ended in Shanghai, where we celebrated Chinese New Year with Molly, Sophie and Maeve.Sorcha 1 I said goodbye to my sister and Scott and left with the others to travel South East Asia for a month. First stop was South Thailand- we spent five days island hopping and visited Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. Ko Phi Phi was an unexpected stopover, as we missed our ferry to Koh Lanta, but it was hardly a disaster to be stranded on a tropical island with no cars and a lively atmosphere! On both islands it is required to pay a ‘clean-up’ fee, which is only 20p and helps the islanders ensure the conservation of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We went on to Bangkok, the country’s capital. The Thai king died on the 13th of October 2016, which is something we were already aware of because of our friends at college- the entire country was in mourning, they told us, and people were very upset. This was very evident when we got to Thailand, and nowhere more than Bangkok. There were shrines to the king everywhere and black banners decorating the gates of schools and official buildings. When we visited the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, there were two separate queues. One was for tourists and took a matter of minutes to get through. The second was for Thai citizens who had come to pay their respects to the king, who’s body had been laid to rest at the palace. Clad in black clothing, they waited 5 hours in blistering 35 degree temperatures and were there as part of family, school or friendship groups. It was impressive to see, but we did our best not to intrude! Sorcha 3
From Bangkok we went on to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is the location of the largest religious grounds in the world, the Angkor Wat. We visited six different temples and had the full day to explore. You are free to roam around as you like, and climb up and down various temples. It was most definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been. We then went on to Phnom Penh and explored Cambodia’s capital. It was here that we visited the killing fields. The atrocities that took place there are unspeakable- we learnt a lot and have even more respect for the Cambodian people, who were some of the nicest we met and who have suffered a lot in relatively recent years. Before going to Vietnam, we sought out the south again and went to Kampot, a tranquil little village on a river. Our best evening was spent doing a boat cruise, which included swimming, watching the sunset and looking for fireflies!
Sorcha 4
Next stop was Vietnam, and we took a 10 hour bus to Ho Chi Minh City. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds! In Ho Chi Minh we went to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were underground routes created by the Vietnamese in the war with America. The Vietnamese employed ingenious methods to win the war; for example, they used to turn the soles on their shoes the wrong way around when it rained to give the Americans the impression that they had travelled in the opposite direction. We visited the War Museum (yes, the one in the Top Gear episode) which also taught us so much. From there it was on to Da Nang and Hoi An, which were costal/riverside towns. Hoi An has an ancient village and you can visit the homes of vietnamese residents, as well as going into any of the local restaurants to try some of the traditional food which is famous for all the right reasons! From Hoi An, we travelled to Halong Bay which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We went spent the day on a boat here, and had lunch, went kayaking and swam to a secluded beach, as well as visiting a floating fish market. Top tip- don’t forget your towels and wear warm clothes. The boat doesn’t have spare, as we discovered the hard way! Next it was time for our last stop, and we spent 4 days in the capital Hanoi. Here we were lucky enough to meet up with one of our friends from college, who brought her friend and showed us around the city. Meeting Lan Phuong forced us to dust our Chinese brains off as our common language is Mandarin, not English! We spent the last few days seeing as much of Hanoi as we could, and enjoying the last few days of our adventure.
Sorcha 2
Meeting Lan Phuong eased us back into studying when we got back to Tianjin, because it had been a matter of days since speaking Chinese instead of a matter of weeks! Classes start on the 9th of March and we have an exciting new start, as we are transferring from our college to Tianjin Foreign Studies University where we live. As much fun as it was travelling South East Asia, it is nice to have clean socks and some form of routine again! That’s not to say I won’t go back; South East Asia was the best month of my life, and has made an already incredible year even better. Yeah.

Sorcha Kennedy

Recent travels

I can’t believe it’s been over 5 months since we first arrived in China! 5 months ago we all arrived a little shy with very limited mandarin skills and now as we prepare to celebrate Chinese New Year, the progress amongst all the scholars is outstanding. We are all able to hold a conversation in Chinese which to me is incredible as personally all I could say when I arrived was 你好(hello).

We have all grown up so much in the past 5 months as we have had to learn to do things on our own and fend for ourselves! We have learned what is important and what is not in daily life – for example, ironing is not important but waking up at 3:45am to watch the football games are a must! In Scotland my mum basically packed my school bag for me, and now I’m buying my own toilet roll, preparing my own meals and looking after myself (which is something I can’t say I did before).

The majority of the travels have started with some of us returning home and others travelling Asia! In the past month I have been to Harbin, a stunning ice city in the north of China and Japan, and I plan to spend the next month travelling to Shanghai, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I’m so excited, and can’t wait for the adventures to begin.  I am also really looking forward to meeting our friends from college in their home countries.mmexport1485519893165We’ve had a few mishaps so far but nothing too major.  We booked the wrong train ticket to Harbin and had to buy new ones but I mean these things happen (sometimes). The extra ticket -and extra stress- was completely worth it, even though at times I felt I was going to lose my fingers from the cold in Harbin.mmexport1485519876486Japan went very smoothly, although we did board a few wrong trains and spoke in Chinese when we should have been trying Japanese.  We very much enjoyed our time there! We travelled from Tokyo to Hiroshima so we could see the Miyajima shrine and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.  We travelled from Hiroshima to Kyoto and we visited the Bamboo Forest and Iwatayama Monkey Park (where I felt most myself – I think I might have been a monkey in a past life). Then we travelled to Osaka and spent the day at Universal Studios, which was one of the highlights! Harry Potter world was incredible (I think I might also have been Ron Weasley in a past life). We, then, travelled back to Tokyo where we went to Disneyland which was probably my favourite as I am the biggest child to grace the earth.

The last 5 months have been the best of my life, and I cannot wait for the next 5 months! Happy Chinese New Year to all. 新年快乐🎆


Christmas in China

There’s two weeks left until the Spring Festival break and we are all preparing for our finals before we all venture on our travels. December has been an exciting month as we had a surprise visit from Fhiona Fisher, Katie Hawkins and Fan Lin. We were given the opportunity to talk about our experience in China so far and showcase some of our Mandarin skills. We were also very grateful for the shortbread that they brought with them – it was nice to have a home comfort.

We also celebrated our first Christmas away from home and although Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in China, we all had lots of fun organising Secret Santa, decorating our rooms and watching lots of Christmas films. As different as Christmas was this year, it was definitely one to remember.

The time is fast approaching before we all set off on our travels. Many of us are travelling around Asia, some heading back to Scotland and some even heading down under. It’s scary to think that 4 months ago, the majority of us had very limited Mandarin and couldn’t imagine travelling around China but now we are all a lot more confident using our Mandarin skills and navigating ourselves around the public transport systems. We are excited to try new food and explore new areas of China.

I hope that everyone had a lovely Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!  圣诞节快乐! 新年快乐!

Ellise Bailey

The St Andrews Ball

It’s odd to think that we’ve all already been here for three months, some days it feels like we have only just gotten off the plane and on others it’s difficult to imagine a time when we weren’t living here. Three months in and it is amazing how all of the Chinese that we have been learning is really starting to click in our minds. Now we can actually use it to communicate in our daily lives. The point at which our skills in spoken Chinese goes from single word responses to full coherent sentences is has been such a nice change. (Even if some of us are still hopeless with tones!)

November was a particularly exciting month as we had the St Andrews ball to look forward to, and I can say that it definitely didn’t disappoint. We travelled to Beijing in groups of two to four – over here just travelling is quite an adventure! The train stations in China all seem to be huge and beautifully designed. Tianjin station is really amazing, even more so because it sits right next to the river and so is surrounded by historic, spectacularly designed bridges. The bullet train means that the journey between Tianjin and Beijing only takes about 35 minutes, but still lets you appreciate the amazing Chinese scenery that you are passing through. Once you’re in Beijing it’s really easy to find a taxi (or the subway if you are particularly adventurous/skint). After spreading out to our various hotels scattered across the city we got all dolled up and then met up in the Beijing World Centre Hotel. Despite it only being November the hotel had already broken out the Christmas decorations so the whole event seemed very festive. We had an amazing meal. After stuffing ourselves full of delicious food the ceilidh band started up and we all got to practice our traditional Scottish dancing, with varying levels of expertise. We all danced until late at night, or should I say early in the morning? Some of us even made it to the survivor’s breakfast. It really was an amazing opportunity and became a night that I’m sure all of us will remember for a long time to come. A truly great way to wrap up our 3rd month in China!

Katy Lumsden