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.
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.
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.