BLOG ENTRY #1
As the last few weeks before my departure approached, I realised that after almost four years my time in Stellenbosch was nearing an end, what a strange thought! The final weeks before my departure went by quickly and were mainly spent packing up my room, and finishing my thesis, I hardly had time to feel sad about not being able to spend another summer in Stellenbosch. Once all my things were packed up, I flew home to Johannesburg to spend the last few days before my departure with my family. I also had to start getting serious about packing my bags, as I have the habit of postponing until the very last minute (which happened again anyway). Packing was difficult because I would arrive in Beijing in the summer with warm temperatures, but soon after it would become winter, and not winter like we know in South Africa, I’m talking about -18 degrees here! It was a tough job, but in the end everything was packed and I was ready to go. Feelings of both nervousness and excitement followed me onto the plane – I was on my way to my home for the next 5 months! Big, long hugs and last words with all my loved ones at the airport, and I was off!
I arrived in Beijing alone, as my classmates had arrived a day or two earlier on different flights, but this was not a big worry for me it wasn’t my first time in China, and my Chinese is good enough to get by with basic things such as getting a taxi. Beijing Language and Culture University, here I come!
I didn’t have any major problems getting to my dormitory building, but getting into my room however was a different story. Upon entering the dorm’s lobby things were very chaotic, there were several queues and it wasn’t clear in which one I had to stand. No one around me seemed to know what was going on either. After more than two hours of waiting, standing in the wrong queue and giving everyone apologetic looks about my current state of hygiene after 24 hours of travelling I was relieved to finally be in the front of the queue. My luck didn’t last very long though as I was told that my name wasn’t on the list of people that booked a room, long story short, I had to wait about another half an hour, and finally I had my room key, and a room on the 11th floor.
When I opened the door my new roommate was already there, a girl from Korea who had studied at BLCU the previous year as well. The room looked pretty good and we had our own bathroom, fridge, TV and AC. There was also a really nice window sill that is broad enough to sit on; it has since become my morning spot for drinking coffee and people watching before class. After putting down all my stuff and settling in a bit I went to look for my classmates that had already arrived and we all went to go and register. The registration also had some difficulties and we could only complete it the next day, but in the end everything worked out, and we were glad that most of the admin had now been dealt with.
Things were looking up as we had a few days off before classes would start, and we spent the time getting to know Beijing a bit better. We went to the World Park, where there are replicas of several world wonders such as the Eiffel Tower and Stone Hedges – there was even a mini Great Wall of China! Furthermore we went to Beijing’s 798 Art District as well as quite a few parks.
After almost a week of exploring Beijing, classes finally started. We have 20 hours class each week, and the classes are divided into four kinds: reading, listening, oral and a general comprehensive class. After the first day of class it was already clear that these people knew what they are doing, and in the ensuing weeks the teachers have not disappointed. I have already learned so many new things in the short amount of time that I have been here. After a week of class we had a two hour long orientation and welcoming ceremony that covered topics such as medical insurance, what to do if you lose your passport, the university’s rules and China’s laws.
I can’t believe that China has already been my home for a month – time really does fly! What is even more unbelievable is how natural it feels to think of this place as my home. I do miss my “South African home” sometimes, but that’s nothing that a Skype session with my family can’t fix. So far living in China has been fantastic! I can’t wait to see what the next few months will hold…
BLOG ENTRY NUMBER #2: HALFWAY BETWEEN CHINA AND SOUTH-AFRICA
It is unbelievable how time flies… I can’t believe we are already half way through this adventure. China has become somewhat of a home to me and it feels so normal to be living here.
So what is going on in my academic life? Classes are truly fulfilling, I learn a lot every day and try to put into practice what I learn in class as much as I can. Since we only have class from early morning to lunch time, apart from doing homework, there is luckily still plenty of time to explore and do other activities. We have four different types of classes: a comprehensive class, which we have every day, and oral, listening and reading classes which we have up to two times a week. Each class is two hours. I think it is smart to divide the classes up like this, so that each class can focus on a specific skill. Otherwise some skills become underdeveloped.
I find the teaching methods at BLCU to be quite effective. Different types of classes are at different levels. For example, vocabulary used in the oral classes are relatively easy, since speaking and formulating your own sentences are often one of the more difficult aspects of learning a new language. On the other hand, the reading class’s vocabulary is more difficult, and often includes words that we don’t know, and this is because you don’t always need to know all of the words in a text in order to understand its main idea. In addition, studying Mandarin at BLCU is different from studying it at Stellenbosch, since Mandarin isn’t just one of our subjects, it is our only subject. We thus devote a lot of time to it. One of the things that I miss from Stellenbosch is that we were only 7 students in our class and when we didn’t understand something our lecturer wouldn’t mind spending some time to make sure that we understood, whereas here, classes have around 20 students, so there is definitely less individual attention. This said, the lecturers provide all students with their email addresses and phone numbers, and encourage students to contact them if they have any difficulties.
BLCU is truly an international hub, just buzzing with students from all over the world. I find that you learn so much more from your own culture when you are exposed to other cultures. Often we don’t even realise that our thoughts, etiquette, mannerisms and actions aren’t the same as everyone else in the world, until we come into contact with people that are different. BLCU is definitely the perfect place to not only be fully emerged in the Chinese culture, but also to be exposed to many other world cultures. In my class alone there are students from Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Mongolia, Italy, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Sudan! And it doesn’t stop there. My dorm is also where most international students live, providing me with Malaysian neighbours on the one side and Turkish neighbours on the other side.
Since my roommate is Korean, for me every day is a cultural experience in itself. There are good times but there are definitely challenges as well. My roommate has the habit of going to sleep really late, thus leaving on the light (nothing that an eye mask can’t fix!), and then sleeping until the afternoon. I think that the weirdest thing for me was that she doesn’t like to open the curtains. If I come home in the middle of the day she will always have the curtains drawn and the lights on. This is something that my South African brain struggles to come to terms with. I definitely love the sun too much! If I can’t open the curtains in the morning, it’s really difficult for me to get excited about a new day. We have reached a compromise though, and what I’ve learned from this is to speak your mind about culture differences such as these, since she would never know that something like that would bother me unless I told her, and it all ended quite well. There are also many good times, and I’ve picked up quite a few cute Korean words from listening in on my roommate’s Korean phone calls.
Since this is my fourth time in China, I feel that I’ve already become quite used to the Chinese culture, and things that might have shocked me on my first visit, I barely lift in eyebrow for now. But China is always full of wonderfully weird surprises. I think it is just the most interesting country, and it is these “surprises” that keep me interested!
PERSONAL GROWTH AND STRUGGLES
I recently took a solo trip to Suzhou, a city in the East of China, also referred to as Venice of the East, since the city and its surrounding towns are water towns filled with canals and boats. It’s a very romantic city! I had an unbelievable time and was glad about my decision to travel alone, because although it was daunting, I found that I had much more of a “China experience” than I did when travelling to Guilin with some friends a few weeks earlier. I had some truly heart warming interactions with Chinese people, and connected with them in a way in which I definitely wouldn’t have if I was travelling with people. It’s definitely fun to travel with friends, but it also sometimes closes you off to other people and certain experiences, and makes you less approachable. On this trip I continuously pushed myself to try and make meaningful connections with Chinese people and I was also happy about being able to use this opportunity to practice my Mandarin.
Since I come from Johannesburg, but study in Stellenbosch, being away from home is something that I am relatively used to, but of course there are times when I miss South Africa and all my family and friends. This past week I pulled a calf muscle and was (actually I still am) unable to walk. This created a few challenging situations for me. Firstly, I had to go to the hospital here, which is luckily just down the road from my dorm. It wasn’t the easiest hospital visit ever, since I had to explain what was wrong in Chinese and then try to understand what the doctor was saying in Chinese as well. The medicine that the doctor prescribed was Chinese Traditional Medicine, but I luckily had some pills from good old South Africa that also helped things along. Secondly, I had to get crutches. I never thought that my first time on crutches would be in China, but here I was! The curious stares were no longer only because I was a foreigner, now I was a wonky looking four-legged-foreigner walking at the speed and in the manner of a baby taking its first steps. Turns out I’m not that skilled at “crutch-ing” it. It is in times like these that I definitely miss home and familiarity (and South African comfort food!).
That’s it for live in China for now. Things are pretty good! Although Beijing is getting colder, not all is doomed and dreary… I’m hoping for a white Christmas!
BLOG ENTRY #3
There really wasn’t much to do when it came to checking out. I just had to pack up my stuff and hand in my key. I handed in my key at reception got back my deposit of 600 yuan. After that someone checked my room to see if I had left anything behind (or perhaps broken anything), and then it was time to go. I also left my big suitcase and laptop in a friend’s room while I was travelling. When I came back after two weeks I got a taxi to the airport and then I was on my way home!
EXPERIENCE, LESSONS LEARNT AND BEING HOME
After my last examination (on my birthday!), I spent one last weekend in Beijing before leaving for two weeks of travelling around China. But before I could leave, there was of course the small matter of packing up. The packing up of not just my suitcase and things, but also of my thoughts and memories.
My roommate from Korea had already pushed and shoved her many belongings into various bags and containers and left a few days ago, and with all her stuff gone the room felt overwhelmingly big and strange in its emptiness. Sadly, we hadn’t shared a very deep and special bond, yet her presence was missed, such as we miss the things that we become used to.
While packing up I had a lot of time to reminisce and reflect on my time here… In these past few months, I met so many wonderful people, people from many different cultures, with varying views and opinions, people I learned valuable things from, people that inspired me, but there were also people whose close mindedness and self-centeredness frustrated me. I couldn’t and still can’t understand how someone could find themselves in a situation where they study or live in a foreign country, yet doesn’t embrace this once in a lifetime opportunity, doesn’t try to experience the culture or understand the people, but instead moans about, disrespects and criticises the country and culture just because it is different from their own.
While in China, I stayed up to date with the latest news in South Africa, and the rising racial tension burdened my heart. This is a universal problem, it seems. We South Africans don’t need to travel over the deep blue sea to be faced with different cultures, this is our reality. In a country with so many different cultures, it is of the utmost importance that we try and understand each other, and not allow ourselves to be so stubbornly influenced by our preconceptions of others that it becomes the only way that we can define the world. If we don’t use the experiences that we go through to alter, break down or rebuild our world views, then there is no hope for this country. Our views can’t remain stagnant or rooted in the past. And of course in trying to achieve this, we can’t only use experiences that will reinforce our own world view. We have to really try to understand each other and place ourselves in all different kinds of situations that will enable this, and even then we have to realise that there will still be things that we won’t be able to understand, but in trying we will also learn that this is okay, and that we can respect without always fully comprehending.
Upon my return to South African soil, I was looking for signs of the things that I had read about, signs of the tension and the hate, yet I didn’t find any, not that day. That day I was met with warm smiles that welcomed me back to my mother country, our mother country. And I found myself thinking that this really is home. I found myself hopeful.
Being home is a strange feeling. It is comforting and effortless and every time I come back after an adventure in a foreign land, I become more and more certain that this is where I truly belong. Yet the unknown is pulling me again, and I know that it won’t be long before I am on the road again, for I am not ready to take off my travelling shoes just yet.