I am a third year Electronic Engineering student at Stellenbosch University and went to the Renmin University of China Summer School in July 2016. I primarily want to travel, and specifically wanted go to China, to experience the renowned culture shock to become less ignorant of other cultures. I am certain that I came away from this trip with a great appreciation of people and totally new perspectives on the world. No matter how hard we try, we only know what to believe, think and act within the parameters of what we have been taught. So although we may try to enter into a new culture with what we think is an open mind, we can walk away realising just how closed it actually was. I believe it is our unavoidable responsibility as South Africans living in such a diverse country to develop a cultural sensitivity to our fellow citizens.
If you are considering applying, just do it. The most difficult part of the application was finding the words to express why I wanted to travel. The application process to the PGIO is clear and simple and if you are chosen by Stellenbosch University only small bit of administration of securing your place at Renmin remains. The rest of the application to Renmin got a bit frustrating at a stage as the website was down but they are very quick to respond to e-mails.
China can seem daunting as it is entirely different and you don’t know where to start but I got by without speaking any Chinese and being very bad with directions. I planned to travel and backpack for 2 and a half weeks before I attended the summer school. For accommodation I used booking.com, which is a website that I trust and have used many times before. I stayed in hostels in dorm rooms and they were very cheap. I booked my flights through the Neelsie Travel and found them quite helpful, convenient to pop in at any time and got a very good price, but domestic flights were very expensive and none of the travel agents I approached in South Africa could really help me in getting prices close to what I found on ctrip.com. So I waited to book my internal flights until I was in Hong Kong with a local travel agent and saved about R7000. I also recommend using the railway in China if the journey is not too long, I took 2 overnight sleeper trains, they are very easy to understand, always on time and very cheap. The visa application was very simple, the consulate is in Cape Town, and once you have your acceptance letter from the university the processing time is only 3 days.
I went to the more rural parts of China so English speakers were not as common as in the big cities. Downloading a translating application or even just an offline dictionary was a huge help. I often, however, resorted to elaborate gestures and hand waving. As a safety net I purchased a SIM card and a battery bank of which I only used the SIM a few times as there is wifi everywhere. Before leaving, I highly recommend downloading a VPN so you can still access facebook and more importantly to access google, gmail and use chrome as your browser. I used Cloud VPN from the Play Store which was free and very straightforward to use. It is also important to take note that China operates almost exclusively with cash so I would suggest increasing your cash withdrawal limit keeping in mind that you would have to pay for accommodation and possibly plane tickets in cash. China is very safe, I had no problem walking around alone and asking for directions at 2 in the morning and I left my phone on a table outside a restaurant to find it in the exact place I left it 40 minutes later.
Experience at the Renmin University of China:
China is huge and settling on an itinerary is difficult. My travels before the summer school included Hong Kong for a few days and then I decided to head to the more rural parts of China and some ancient towns in Yangshuo (perhaps my favourite place in China), Lijiang and Shangri-La of which all were spectacular.
As soon as I arrived in Beijing airport there was a group of Renmin University students to get me onto the bus they arrange for the summer school students to get us to the university. They were very helpful with getting me checked in and settled in my room. Each exchange student is also assigned a buddy or partner who had contacted with me a few days before I arrived. My buddy, Connie, was so helpful with showing me around campus and a real asset when it came to finding the best places to eat, see or even just helping with getting laundry done.
I chose to share a room and I got paired up with a really funny Danish guy with whom I am still in contact with. The facilities were great, it was one of the places that had western toilets in China. The food alone in China is a good enough reason for me to want to go back. They have canteens on campus that offer quality cheap food, the most I paid was R20 for a huge meal. There are great sports facilities, I often made use of the basketball and the athletics track. In the mornings you can even join the people practicing Tai Chi in the parks, they are very happy to teach newcomers. The subway is also right next to the university for easy access to almost anywhere in the city.
I took a course in Information Technology Service Management. I also grabbed the opportunity to take a not-engineering-related course and took a class in Confucian philosophy of which I enjoyed every lecture. So I had two courses and had a morning and afternoon class every day for two weeks but I still felt like I had more than enough time to hang around campus, make friends and see the city. I had two fantastic lecturers, both from the United States and my classes were made up of half international students and half local students.
The university arranges culture immersion activities for the international students over the weekends. We went to the Summer Palace with the university but found it to be too crowded. Others, however, said they had amazing experiences on the later trips. A highlight was going to a section of the Great Wall lesser known to tourists. It was easy to see why it is so famed and rightfully called the “Great” Wall.
My favourite aspect of the summer school was the people I met and friends I made over discussions and seeing places together. It was a real treat to hear about and share thoughts and views on politics, leadership, education and ideas with other open minded people from all over the world. Equally, I loved meeting local Chinese people, they are really interested in foreign people and treat them really well and are eager to chat, share their stories and food. One of the most amazing things I experienced was seeing how people can still connect without language.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Traveling China was a great adventure. With this opportunity I got to know an entirely different culture and got totally out of my comfort zone. Finding myself navigating around a new town, unable to speak the language or even read signs, somewhere so unfamiliar in every regard, it was thrilling, one cannot help but feel a sense of fear sometimes but I return with memories I will never forget. China has some of the most beautiful and underrated nature as well as such amazing people and it does not hurt that it is so cheap.
The best way to educate yourself about another culture, religion or another country’s’ way of life, is by putting yourself right there in it. China was truly an amazing experience and I loved every second of it but I was ecstatic to hear some familiar words and accents again. It almost seemed a bit strange to eat with a knife and fork again. Even though I was only there for 4 and a half weeks, traveling China is intense because it is so different and I was almost overwhelmed when the people on the plane on the way back started singing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.
This trip has sparked a strong urge in me to travel, learn and explore the world more and it has awakened an enthusiasm for people that I did not know was possible to have. I will definitely be returning to Asia because it has places with such rich history and culture. This trip has also convinced me to take up Spanish through the university, in the form of evening classes, with the hopes of opening more of the world to travel.