PRE DEPARTURE & ARRIVAL:
No preparation for an overseas venture starts calmly, and preparing for our trip to China was no different. The last few weeks before departing consisted of hurriedly ensuring all paper work and funding was accounted for, as well as trying to ensure all essentials could be packed into a suitcase.
And before I had time to triple check my luggage, my plane had landed in Beijing. Upon arrival we met our first enormous problem, South African credit cards are not recognized by the banks of china due to the initials present on the cards, as opposed to one’s full name, and as such we could not go make use of bank tellers and withdraw the large, essential sum of money needed to pay our accommodation. I for one had been lead to believe that a credit card is all that would be accepted in China, so alas I was forced to endure large ATM international charges as I would draw daily from the ATMs, slowly but surely paying off my accommodation.
After some time the accommodation was paid off. The accommodation itself is nicely situated on campus, the room is a nice size, however if one does not have a set of DIY skills then one will struggle – the shower head needs to be cleaned daily and drains are almost consistently blocked. The room could do with a new coat of paint, and the beds are as hard as rocks – but there is a big window with a great (if not smoggy) view.
As classes are only from 8:30am till 12:30pm, one tends to spend a lot of time in one’s dorm. Whilst the campus hosts many fun, and nearby activities they tend to be too expensive to attend on a consistent basis. At least one can buy uncapped Wi-Fi, which is fast enough to watch YouTube or Facebook (assuming you can find a reliable, operational VPN service). Aside from relaxing in the dorm, there are affordable things to do and see, for instance Beijing hosts multiple parks, markets and so on.
Lastly, some advice I can provide, which I wish someone had given me before this trip. Firstly: BRING MEDICINE. Colds, sore throats, etc. will plague you upon arrival in Beijing due to both travel and the smog. I got a really bad chest infection within the first week of being in Beijing and the only medicine I could find was traditional Chinese medicine. Aside from medicine another vital piece of advice would be to get a cash passport and don’t listen to your bank when they assure you your credit card will work in China, because it won’t work – and only some ATMs will accept them.
I’m look forward to seeing what Beijing has in store for me, whilst the start of the trip was problematic I can already sense myself finding a groove and sense of familiarity in this enormous city.
Our classes at BLCU include: 2 hours of reading class a week, 4 hours of spoken class a week, 4 hours of listening class a week, and 10 hours of the comprehensive class (the main class) a week.
The academic approach at BLCU is not so different from the classes we attended in Stellenbosch University, where one goes through the prescribed texts in class, and revision is done in ones own time. The pace at BLCU is obviously slower than that of Stellenbosch, as there are more classes allocated to different aspects of learning Chinese.
There are many cultural adjustments that will need to be made by any student planning on studying in Beijing, much less BLCU. BLCU is an international campus and as such students here are exposed to multiple varying cultures. The dominant cultures experienced in BLCU are Asian (Korean and Chinese, Japanese to a lesser extent) and Russian culture. I have noticed that Korean and Japanese cultures place a heavy importance on punctuality and respect for teachers.
I feel I am learning a lot at BLCU and I really love the pace and structure of the classes. I would say the biggest struggle of my stay here has been the lack of availability of western medicine (currently I have the flu and the only medication offered to me that would be COVERED BY THE MEDICAL INSURANCE was a herbal blend (traditional Chinese medicine) which even included ground water buffalo horn). So far I do not feel any better, and morally I’m against eating animals, this includes using animal products in medicine. So I’m experiencing both dissatisfaction with the quality of TCM and, due to the fact that the medical insurance only covers traditional Chinese medicines, I’m left no choice but to take a medicine I’m uncomfortable with taking.
Again I reiterate the need for future students to be advised on the matter of medicine, and or a different medical insurance plan needs to be put in place.
BACK IN SOUTH AFRICA:
Leaving BLCU was a bittersweet moment, we were all sad to be leaving behind our new friends – yet excited to get home to our old friends, and our families. As far as preparations were concerned, besides packing our bags, we just had to hand over our proof of payment at the building reception on the morning of our departure, upon which our deposit was returned. It was a fairly painless process.
Upon reflection on my time at BLCU, I would say that the overall experience was an incredibly difficult one, yet it still managed to be an incredibly positive experience. Not only did my mandarin improve dramatically, but also I formed new, lasting friendships with fellow students from all corners of the world. I also got to experience a way of life so very different from my life back home in South Africa. Seeing and experiencing the busy, stressful, competitive lifestyle of Beijing made me incredibly grateful for our more relaxed South African lifestyle.
Settling back into the above mentioned relaxed South African lifestyle was a bit strange at first, as it seemed too quiet compared to Beijing. However the fresh air, blue skies and lush surroundings were a welcoming sight. The one thing I miss most is the convenient public transport of Beijing – it may have been cramped (and smelly) but it really made crazy city life bearable.
There are many aspect of China life that I will miss, like the convenience of travel and the efficiency of the people, but it does feel good to be home, to have access to foods, languages and medicines I can understand and am familiar with.
My last comment would be to ensure that future mandarin honours programs have a closer relationship with the PGIO, to avoid the anxiety and stress our year experienced. Perhaps have meetings at the start of the year, half way through, etc to avoid a miscommunication and to have all questions answered.
Thanks again for a wonderful, unforgettable experience.