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



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