China is an amazing country! It is very different to South Africa, so you should expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone (a lot!). The exchange to Xiamen University was truly life-changing. After seeing a different side of the world, my way of thinking and the pre-judgments I often make about people, have completely changed.
Preparations for the Trip:
Once we received acceptance letters from the University, we planned our trip to the Visa Centre in Cape Town. The Visa Centre requires quite a few documents for the X2 student visa, so we had to make a second trip before the visa application was sent through.
I would advise anyone to first look at the requirements for an X2 visa on the Chinese Visa Centre’s website (we apply for it here, not at the Embassy) and to ensure that you arrive at the Centre at least 20 minutes before they open, to avoid long queues.
It is of course also important to book the flights as early as possible to get the best deals! Take your time to compare as many airlines as you can. For flights to China Ethiopian Airlines has the cheapest fares, and they go direct from Addis Ababa to quite a number of Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing etc. However, their airport is not very good so I wouldn’t advise a long layover. We flew Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then flew to Xiamen and I found that it was a comfortable and enjoyable experience (although the flight was loooong). Another disadvantage was that we could only pack 30kg max. for an international flight. Other airline options that are worth exploring are Emirates, SAA, Qatar, and Turkish Airlines. I would recommend that you set aside at least two days for this.
Depending on the Chinese city you are going to, you need to pack in advance for the different seasons. Xiamen is in southern China so it has a warm climate. We flew to Xiamen during Autumn, but it was boiling hot and humid! Temperatures ranged between 30 and 35 degrees for the first few weeks after our arrival (imagine how hot their Summer must have been!). So I packed light clothing and sandals (I would also advise packing caps/hats and lots of sunscreen). Xiamen’s winters are just about as cold as Stellenbosch’s except that it gets very windy. You won’t ever need a long winter coat, but I would advise packing a couple of jackets, warm jerseys, scarves and gloves.
Travelling with cash is a must for China, especially if you are going to Xiamen University. Firstly, you will need money (Chinese Renminbi Yuan) for a taxi ride to the University from the airport (although the University provides a free shuttle service usually a day before or on the day of registration). You will also need cash for residence registration and for food for the first few days. After you open a Chinese bank account, there is no need to carry cash. Your bank account is linked to your student card so you just swipe your student card at the canteen and other facilities on campus. Also once you have set up a bank account you can use Alipay or Wechat Pay (mobile payment apps) to pay for everything from supermarket items, vending machines, medicine, train and flight tickets, bike repairs and even informal food stalls along the road! This applies to the whole of mainland China so paying for things is super easy!
It’s China Time:
Arriving in China was an overwhelming experience. We arrived on a hot, rainy day at Xiamen Gaoqi Airport. I travelled with a fellow classmate from Stellenbosch which made things a lot easier and made me feel less stressed. Once we went through customs, our China experience began!
We quickly learnt that English is not a thing in China so we had to mentally change gears and use Mandarin to communicate.
We had to stand in a long queue (with all our baggage) for a taxi but luckily we were shielded from the rain. We chose to arrive two days before registration in order to settle into Xiamen. We stayed at a hotel near our university and bought necessities like food, electrical plugs etc. We also found ATMs where we could withdraw money (Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China accepted our South African cards).
I highly recommend arriving early because registration day was extremely exhausting and very hot and I can’t imagine how we would have felt if we had to go through that after stepping off a long international flight.
We arrived on campus bright and early two days later. I would suggest familiarizing yourself with the map of the campus, it makes finding buildings so much easier. After we handed in forms, signed documents, took pictures, paid registration fees, got our Orientation Week schedules etc. we finally made it into our dorm room and literally fell onto our beds (a big mistake, because the beds were rock hard!). In the days to follow we did our required medical examinations for foreigners (it’s best to do this in China and not before at home), opened bank accounts, attended information sessions and when the opportunity presented itself, we went and bought mattress softeners! The overall experience of Orientation week was a good one. University staff and old students were friendly and always willing to help. We stayed at the Xiang’an campus which is new and so many of the facilities like the library, gym, swimming pool and canteen were of a high standard.
Classes at Xiamen University were amazing! The standard of education is really good and my Chinese improved tremendously during my time there. The lecturers are dedicated and class sizes are small 23 students max. The curriculum is fixed so there are no sudden changes in course material and the tests are always based on work done in class. During class you learn new vocabulary and grammar that you can put to use as soon as you leave class. I enjoyed practicing my Chinese with workers in the canteen; security guards at the residences; and shop attendants. This did wonders for my confidence in speaking Mandarin with native speakers. It also helped me to understand people who speak with different regional accents and to improve my tones (although there is still big room for improvement in that department).
During public holidays we had the opportunity to travel to Guangzhou. We used the sleeper train which was surprisingly good! On the train we made a couple of friends and got many surprised stares from people who realized we could speak Chinese. Guangzhou is a huge city and their transport system is far more developed than Xiamen’s. I enjoyed exploring the city using the subway, and buses. Although I must admit that when it was time to go, I was happy to return to quiet and peaceful Xiamen.
Return to South Africa:
As the days drew nearer and nearer for out return back home, I became more and more excited. China is truly amazing, eye-opening and a feast for the senses, but home is where the heart is, right? I missed little things like hearing people speak my mother tongue, eating biltong and braaivleis. I especially missed seeing people who look like me, and not feeling like I stand out. I missed the familiarity of home.
When I was in China I realized how safe it is there. You can walk down a busy street with your cellphone out, or get on a bus at 9pm without any fear. Car accidents are also quite rare and in the four months that I was there I only spotted one car with dents and a broken bumper, all other cars were in perfect condition. This is quite different to South Africa and it opened my eyes to the fact that it is possible to have safer roads and to implement firmer measures against those who break the rules of the road. It is also possible to decrease crime. It’s not impossible, other countries have done it and if we dedicate ourselves to the task it is achievable.
Tears flowed down my cheeks when the automatic glass doors at the international arrivals section of the O.R. Tambo airport slid open and I caught sight of my family waiting for me. I waved a small South African flag in my right hand and pushed my baggage trolley with my left hand. There is truly nothing like home. There is truly nothing like the warm embrace of a family member and the taste of Steers ribs (my first meal). It is funny how it took me going to another country to truly appreciate mine.
Adjusting back was not easy. Jetlag was definitely the toughest challenge as I found myself wide awake at 3am in the morning and dozing off at noon. My mind and body were very confused. I returned home a week after writing our end-of-term exams in China and so I was happy to have the chance to relax and recuperate. I had a lot to share with people after the trip and I found it frustrating not being able to relay some experiences in a way that would make people fully understand, but that is completely normal I suppose. After a week or so I was back in sync with the environment around me and everything felt normal. I am very grateful for the experience of going on exchange and it has taught me so much about myself and about the world. Stellenbosch University was very supportive throughout the whole process. If the opportunity presents itself again to go on exchange, I wouldn’t think twice before grabbing it with both hands!