China Study Abroad – Changsha

Originally I intended to write more in continuation of my last blog post, as I mentioned I would in said post, however a lot changed shortly after that. Not only was I busy with my summer class at UofL, which included having quizzes every other day, four exams, and a huge 15+ page paper due all within 4 weeks, but I learned that I received a full scholarship from the Chinese government to study abroad in China for a year. Unlike most students studying abroad however, my study abroad is not connected to UofL in any way whatsoever except for the fact that I have to register for a special course to remain a student until I return, and my purpose for going is purely for language, not for business or anything else related to my major. To make a long story short, there was a lot of confusion and work to be done with the short notice that I was given (I had only a month’s notice ahead of time that I received the scholarship), which involved working with several very helpful staff members at UofL (thanks to everyone for that). In the end, things turned out quite a bit differently than I had imagined. Originally I had planned to return to the Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, as I’ve completed two summer study abroads there, and UofL has quite a good relationship with that university. However fate had other things in store for me, and through some confusion with my scholarship application, I was assigned to a different university, far away from Beijing. Instead, I was to attend Central South University (中南大学), located in Changsha, Hunan province. Now, Central South University is also a very good school and very famous in China, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it took some time to get used to the idea. Nevertheless, eventually I decided to accept the scholarship, and on September 3rd I left America for China.

To give a little background information about where exactly I am, Changsha is located in the southern part of China, in Hunan province, while Beijing is located in the northeastern part of the country, roughly 1550 kilometers away. Changsha is in relatively close distance to famous cities such as Guangzhou (Canton), or Hong Kong, with the former being reachable in 7-8 hours by train, or within a mere 3 and a half hours with the new train system that starts operating on December 26th. Changsha is also the capital city of Hunan province, and was once the home of the famous Mao Zedong. That said, Changsha is an important city both in modern times and in recent Chinese history.

When I left for China, I felt really unprepared. I was worried I didn’t pack enough things, and that I may have left something behind. To make matters worse, I was having a difficult time contacting the Overseas Office at CSU, and was unsure whether anyone would be at the airport to help me out when I arrived. Having e-mail as the only method of communication, I had waited several days before leaving to receive a response regarding my request, and at 5:30 the morning of my flight, I had still not received a response and it was time to go. So I took a risk, and got onto the plane and left for China. At this point, a very long adventure began, and things were not as smooth as I had hoped they would be.

While I’ve traveled and flown alone more than a large majority of people my age, this was the first time that I was traveling to another country alone. My previous two trips were with a group of UofL students, with someone in charge to guide us. This time though, I was entirely alone. That being said however, the first part of the trip went fairly well. I went from Louisville to Chicago, and stayed there for a few hours until boarding a flight to Shanghai around 12:45 pm. From there, a long, grueling 14+ hour flight began. I slept quite a bit, having stayed up the entire night before, but I also spent quite a bit of time watching movies, so while it was a very long flight it wasn’t quite as bad as what it may sound like. After I arrived in Shanghai though, the real fun began.

Now, Shanghai has two airports. One mainly used for international flights, and one used for domestic flights. I obviously arrived at the international airport, yet my connecting flight to Changsha was in the other airport. So, it was up to me to figure out a way to get across the city upon arriving in Shanghai. After I got through immigration, I immediately turned on my laptop to check for an e-mail from CSU. Unfortunately, my laptop had no power, and I couldn’t find an outlet nearby. Eventually, I was able to take my laptop to someone at a counter, however I was unable to access the internet without paying. At this point, being in China, I decided to try calling a phone number that came with my admittance letter to CSU, and I had the man at the counter help me out. To our surprise, the number on the letter was partially incorrect, and the call couldn’t be made. Luckily, the man was able to look up the extension for Hunan, and was able to correct the phone number and make the call. I spoke to someone at the Overseas Office who then informed me that he had indeed arranged for his assistant to meet me at the airport to pick me up. When I asked how I would know who they are, he simply said that they would find me, and not to worry. Well, I didn’t recall ever sending them a picture of myself, so I was still a little worried, but I had bigger issues to worry about at the moment, and getting to the other airport in time was crucial. Thankfully, the man at the counter was once again very helpful, and arranged for someone to help me with my bags and to take me to the other airport for a small fee. After about an hour to an hour and a half later, I arrived at the other airport with plenty of time to spare.

I spent a bit of time waiting for my flight to Changsha, and I even tried napping at one point. There wasn’t much to do, and I didn’t have much Chinese money on me either, so it was pretty boring. Eventually, my flight did come though, and I boarded the plane for a short flight, slightly under two hours long. Unfortunately, my flight had been delayed by about an hour, and to my surprise, when I arrived in Changsha I was in an empty section of the airport, separate from the rest. As you may have guessed, there was not an assistant there waiting for me. There were also no other foreigners or English speakers there to help me, and my Chinese was not that good at the time. At this point I was pretty worried, as it was well after 10 PM, and I had no idea where the school was, let alone how to get there or where I needed to go once I arrived at the school. So, I thought for a moment about what to do, and I came up with the only idea I could. Being that I was the only white person on my flight, and taking a gamble and guessing that I was also the only white person in the airport at that hour, I decided to walk around and let my skin color do the work for me. It turns out that was a wise decision, because after walking around the airport for about half an hour, I finally stumbled into the other section of the airport, and I was very quickly approached by two Chinese, one of which was the assistant that was supposed to be there waiting for me. They had become quite worried when they hadn’t seen me, as my flight had not only been delayed but also moved to a different terminal, and without any way for me to inform them of that ahead of time, they had experienced quite a bit of confusion while waiting for me. Fortunately they hadn’t left yet, and shortly after we met, we got into a car and left for the school.

When I arrived at the school, it was almost midnight, and so I had a tough time getting a good view of the area on the ride over, including the school campus. When I got there, the lady who sits near the doorway of the dormitory and keeps track of who enters helped me get my room and had another foreign student show me where it was. While I won’t go into much detail now, I will say that the building is quite old and a bit different from what most people might expect when they think of a dormitory. But, that’s China, and it is the way it is. Fortunately, the foreign student dorm rooms are decent in size, and include bathrooms. Basically, a typical dorm room is like this: upon entry, there is a big main room, with a large wooden bench and a television. Behind that is another room with a big window and wires hanging across the top where you can hang your laundry (rooms on the other side of the building don’t have this laundry room, but instead have a balcony). Next to that is the bathroom and sink, as well as a bedroom. Back in the main room is an entrance to another bedroom. So, there are typically two students to a dorm room, but each has their own private room, which includes a desk, air conditioning, two dressers, and obviously a bed. Not too bad really, but as I’ve come to learn, there are many, many issues to deal with when living in a dorm in China.

I briefly met my new roommate when I arrived, who turned out to be from Vietnam, but I quickly discovered that he didn’t know any English at all. Or Chinese. So things went pretty well that night, and I unpacked a bit of my stuff and got ready for bed, exhausted after a long day of travel. The assistant that I had met offered to show me around campus and help me buy a phone card in the morning, and so I quickly went to sleep so that I would be awake in time. After this began the start of one of the hardest weeks of my life.

Now, I had traveled to China twice before this, and spent a combined 2 and a half months in Beijing, so being in China was nothing new to me. But for those of you that have been on previous UofL trips to China, and/or have only been to mainly big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, just trust me when I say that you know NOTHING about what China is really like. Beijing and Shanghai, as well as a few other cities, are quite different from most of China, and life there can be very different than in other cities. Things are more international, there are more foreigners, more English, more foods and supplies and other things that you might be used to. The services provided are better, and sometimes the customer service is better too. But mostly, the people are different. Sometimes this can be very advantageous, and in other times it can be the opposite. Regardless, I started a long series of experiences that taught me about what China is truly like.

The first thing I have to mention about the city is that it is HOT. It’s known for being one of the hottest cities in China, and since it was still September, the temperatures were blistering hot still. Not only that, but Changsha is an especially humid city, and so being outside was really not that fun at all. Despite that, the next morning I awoke and met the assistant from the night before. Thankfully, she was an English major, and spoke English very well, so she was able to help me with many of my questions and concerns. One of my immediate questions was regarding the internet, and how and when I might be able to get it. Unfortunately she wasn’t really able to give me much of an answer. She did however take me to an area behind the foreigner dorm called Back Street, where there are tons and tons of little stores and shops with food, supplies, all sorts of things. She took me to a phone store, upon which I was able to buy a phone card, which would enable me to communicate with friends I had previously met in China, as well as anyone else that I might encounter. After that, she showed me around the campus some, and I got a good look at what it was like. However, the campus is humongous, and as someone later commented, it resembles a small city. So as I quickly discovered, I really only saw a small portion of the campus. I also discovered later that there are several other campuses that belong to CSU, making things quite confusing sometimes. That said, the campus is actually really beautiful. It lies on the hills of a mountain, called Yuelu Mountain, and so a simple look outside the window in my dorm reveals a very large and very close mountain. The campus has quite a bit of trees and even a large lake in front of the library, near the front of a campus. Next to that is a large grassy area where students and couples often come to sit and talk, and sometimes people bring guitars and live music is played. Anyway, after quite awhile in the heat, the assistant left me to attend to other business, and I returned to my dorm. At this point it was almost 11 in the morning, and the day was young. So, I went to sleep.

Although I didn’t actually feel that tired, I really had absolutely nothing else to do. I had no internet (and believe me, I tried VERY hard to steal some wireless internet), I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know my way around the surrounding area, and I couldn’t really communicate with my roommate either. So I pretty much went to sleep, and that day was basically wasted away, although the jetlag fortunately helped me sleep very well. The next day I did go out and explore a little, and learned a little bit about the bus system, as well as where the nearest KFC and McDonald’s were, but I really didn’t do much, and I still didn’t really know anyone. So my first weekend in Changsha wasn’t too exciting, but this was really the last of the excessive free time I would have, as things changed very rapidly the next day.

The next day I was supposed to go to the Overseas Office to meet with the staff and receive my textbooks. Well, I woke up early the next morning, and quickly realized that no one had actually told me where the building was or where to go, and as I spent the next 45 minutes or so walking around, I discovered it’s not that easy to find a building like that in a huge campus. Eventually I called the assistant that I had met and asked her if she could help, but she had her own classes to attend and could only tell me the name of the building and the general area that it was in. So, I spent a little while longer walking around, going down every passageway I could find. After getting pretty frustrated, I finally stumbled down a path I hadn’t noticed before, and I found the building. When I arrived and went into the office, I was the only student there, and the staff quickly took my passport and information and gave me my textbooks. I had a look, and what do you know… no less than 16 textbooks. Yes, that’s right, 16 textbooks. How many classes do I have? Only 4. Now, to be fair, not all of those textbooks are intended to be used simultaneously. As it turns out, the 4 classes that I have are: Grammar, Writing/Reading, Listening, and Conversation. Most of the books are a series of books, intended to be used one level at a time. For example, the Grammar class has 6 books. These books are divided into 3 levels, so there are 2 books per level, and within each level is a beginning and an end book (上 and 下 for those of you that can read Chinese). Each book has about 15 chapters, so there’s quite a lot of material to cover for just that one class. Aside from Grammar, the Writing class has 3 books, the Listening class has 4 books, although one is just an answer book, and the Conversation class has 3 books as well, all with roughly around 30 chapters each. So normally, only 4 textbooks are used at a time, which is reasonable. But there’s still a lot of material to cover, and things move very quickly in most classes, so you don’t usually stick with one book for more than about 2 or 3 months.

Anyway, after I received my books, and while I was still waiting, a large group of new students came in. I started speaking with them, grateful to have someone to speak English with, and discovered that the majority of them came from various countries within Africa, the exception being two girls that came from Jamaica. Two of the students had been there for awhile, and were helping the newer students with what they needed to do. They offered to help me out as well, and so I spent the day tagging along with them. The first stop was the bank, as we needed to set up a bank account so that the school could deposit our scholarship stipends into our accounts each month, which is 1700 RMB, or roughly $255. After that, we went to a street near the dorms called Business Street, where there are also a lot of small shops and stores, and we picked up some supplies before heading back to the dorm. Then, since it was almost time for lunch, one of the Jamaican girls that was an older student offered to take me and the newer Jamaican girl into the city for some lunch and shopping, along with an African guy who was also an older student. Eager to see more of the city, I went along.

Changsha is divided in two by a river, called Xiang Jiang. CSU happens to lie on the western side of the river, while the downtown area happens to lie on the eastern side, with some islands in the middle of the river. So, we took a taxi into downtown, and ended up only spending a little over $2 for the entire ride. Not per person, altogether. The first stop happened to be a place I was very grateful to see: Subway. There’s only one Subway in Changsha, but that’s all I need. The food is almost identical to the way it is back home, in contrast to the KFCs and Pizza Huts in China, which are vastly different. So, naturally I was very grateful to find this place. After lunch, the next stop was yet another familiar place: Wal-Mart. Although the Wal-Mart here is quite different from the Wal-Marts from back home, the idea is the same, and I was able to find many useful things, as well as certain types of food that are difficult to find elsewhere. While I was here, I was approached by a lady who offered me a part-time job teaching English to children. While I was naturally a bit surprised to have been offered a job on my 3rd day in China, at Wal-Mart of all places, I later discovered that the situation was actually not that weird at all, which I’ll get into later.

After this, we left Wal-Mart and came back to the dorm, at which point I was informed that due to the fact that I am on scholarship while my roommate is not, it was advised that I move to a different room to avoid financial complications regarding electricity. Basically, once electricity runs out, students have to pay for more until the school recharges their electricity account every 3 months. This move was in order to prevent any complications that might arise from the situation. So, after relaxing for a little bit and going to get dinner, that evening I started the long process of moving everything in my room from the 5th floor of one building to the 5th floor of another building. Inside of the foreigner dormitory there are a series of buildings very close to each other, each with 6 floors. To get to each building, you have to be on the first floor and walk through a very small outside courtyard. My new building was a few buildings down, so needless to say, transferring everything I owned was not very fun. Eventually I did complete the task however, and I discovered that I didn’t have a roommate, and that my room was larger. It seemed like a pretty good switch to me. However, as I quickly discovered, there were other issues… such as a lack of working air conditioning. Thankfully, some Indonesian students that live in my building were able to help me communicate my problems, and although they did not get fixed, someone was at least aware of the problem.

The rest of the week was a brutal and depressing one. Classes weren’t scheduled to start until the following week, and so I had more free time than I knew what to do with. I had little relief from the sweltering heat (just a ceiling fan), I really didn’t know many people, I still had no internet, and homesickness was starting to set in, with no real way to contact anyone from home. By the end of the week I was more lonely and depressed than I’d ever been in my entire life, and probably ever will be. Without a roommate, the only real people I could talk to were old friends from other places in China, and even then, it was really only through text messages. You might think it would be easy to find people to talk with. In some ways, it is, because most of the foreigners do speak English. However, there is a big difference between the foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai and in the rest of China: the number of foreigners are much lower, and their countries of origin are quite different. Even though I live in a foreigner dormitory, I am the ONLY American around. The closest person to that is a Brazilian guy who happened to live in London for a little while. The majority of students are from Africa or the Middle East, with some from a few places in Asia such as South Korea or Indonesia. But as for Westerners, I am unfortunately very alone, and so the cultures between myself and others are immensely different. So while yes, communication with others was possible, and in fact most of the foreigners are very friendly, most people in the world tend to form cliques and feel more comfortable with people similar to them. Since I was the only one of my kind, it made it difficult to find someone to really talk to and feel comfortable with, and so to put it simply, the week was extremely depressing, without any real way to contact my friends or family. I never felt so alone. I spent a lot of my time taking walks around the campus or other nearby areas, getting familiar with my surroundings. I discovered that there is a lot of beautiful scenery here, and many interesting areas worth exploring. However, I was still alone, and that made things hard sometimes.

Eventually I did get a roommate, from Turkey. Exactly 2 weeks later, he disappeared back to his country and has yet to return. But after that week, things did get much better. Classes started, and I was able to make some friends. I was finally able to get the internet after about a week of waiting, and after about 3 weeks my air conditioning did actually get fixed. Once again, for those of you who only know what the big cities are like, things in the rest of China tend to get done very slowly. For spoiled Americans like myself, that takes quite a bit of getting used to. I’ve lived in Beijing for 2 and a half months and have yet to experience anything remotely similar to the slowness in service that I’ve experienced here in just my first few weeks. As the foreigners here often say, “Welcome to China!”

Life improved enormously during that time. Things got fixed, I settled in and got used to things, I made some new friends, and I learned the layout of the city pretty well. Classes were pretty interesting too. However, there were quite a few surprises to get accustomed to when classes started. First of all, I have to explain the system in place for foreign students at CSU. Most foreign students here come with the intention of completing a graduate degree of some sort, not with the intention of learning Chinese. As I’ll say plenty times more, that’s another difference between Beijing and Shanghai and the rest of China. In those big cities, many foreign students are mostly from America or Europe or other similar places, with the intention of studying Chinese. Some do come for a full degree, but there are quite a few that don’t. That’s because those cities are regarded as better for learning Chinese. I’ve come to strongly disagree with that however, which I’ll get into later. In the rest of China, many of the foreign students come from countries that don’t have strong universities, and so they come to China for better education. Therefore, many foreign students that come here don’t know any Chinese at all. The school then requires that foreign students completing a major that is to be taught in Chinese must complete a year-long course in Chinese. This also involves completing an exam called the HSK at the end of the school year, similar to the TOEFL for English. Upon completion of the HSK, and obtaining a satisfactory score, one is granted with a certificate stating that they are able to communicate in Chinese, and are able to obtain a degree that is taught in Chinese (it can also be used for jobs). Some students have majors that are taught in English, and are exempt from this, but many are required to take it.

With that said, since most new students don’t know any Chinese, the classes basically start at the very beginning. I, on the other hand, had studied it at UofL for 3 years prior, as well as two summer study abroads in Beijing. Needless to say, I was not a beginner. I spoke to my teachers and the office about this, and requested to be moved to a higher level class, but I was told that no such thing existed at the school. However, they did mention that the classes move very quickly and that the material covered is quite extensive, and that before long there would be many new things for me to learn. It turns out they were quite right, and although things were very slow and boring at first, they did pick up and after a couple of months, I started learning a lot of new things. In a way, this was actually incredibly beneficial for me, because it forced me to review many things that I had already learned, and so I was able to improve upon the basics tremendously, greatly enhancing my control of tone usage and writing characters especially, things that were only briefly covered at UofL. Had I gone to Beijing as I originally expected, I would not have had this opportunity, and may have struggled to master some of the later parts of Chinese. Looking back, I’m really glad that I had the opportunity, as I think it has and will definitely hlep me in my future studies in Chinese.

Another difference between the classes that I’m in now and the classes that I would have had in Beijing is that, as I mentioned, the students in my class here are here for a real degree, and need to be able to communicate in Chinese very well within just 1 year. The classes in Beijing are designed for students who have the luxury of time, and thus things do not always move as quickly or as efficiently, simply because those students do not have a pressing need to learn the language. If they don’t get to complete the textbook by the end of the semester, or the students don’t learn the language well, it’s really not hurting anyone. But here, if the students can’t communicate well by the end of the year, they have to complete another year-long course of Chinese, and have to delay completing their degree by another year as well. That’s not really good for anyone, and so the classes are taken pretty seriously here and a lot of material is covered in a short amount of time. With the HSK always in mind, many students prepare far in advance for the test to come.

Next I’ll talk about my classmates a little bit. If I had to pick one word to describe my classmates, it would be: doctors. Just about every single one of them is a doctor or studying medicine of some kind. Therefore, most of them are highly intelligent and well-educated, and thankfully for me, most of them can speak English pretty well. Some of them are a bit older, with many of the women being married and having kids. The men range in age, with the youngest being around 19, and the oldest being in his 40’s. Also, most of them are from the Middle East, with quite a few being from Yemen, but there are also students from various countries in Africa, as well as Mauritius, and there’s even an Indian guy and my old Vietnamese roommate. There’s another class for students learning Chinese as well, and they also consist of a similar group of students, although they have greater variety, including my Brazilian friend, the Jamaican girl I met, several Koreans, students from other parts of Asia, some Africans, and a few guys from Turkmenistan. As I said before though, I am the only American around, and also one of the only white people in the area, and so I stick out like a sore thumb in these classes.

As for friends, I have a core group of guys that I spend a lot of time with. The Brazilian guy is naturally one of my closest friends, as he is one of the few Westerners around and one of the only people that I can speak English with freely. With him, I can communicate just like I would back home. With anyone else, I have to be more careful with my English and often times I have to explain some things that I say, or slow down when I speak. His roommate is from Bangladesh, and although he speaks English very well, he doesn’t know all of the slang or cultural references that the Brazilian guy and I speak about. He is one of the students studying a major taught in English, therefore he knows no Chinese and isn’t learning any either. Many humorous situations occur as a result of this. The last guy is a classmate of mine from Egypt, and due to his doctor status, we like to call him Doctor. He is by far one of the most unique people I’ve ever met, but he is also one of the most polite and genuinely nicest guys I’ve ever met as well. I have quite a few hilarious stories thanks to this guy, but now is not the time to share those. Altogether, we have a pretty diverse group of guys.

There were several other differences to get used to here in Changsha. One of the biggest differences is the food. Anyone who knows much about China will tell you that two provinces in particular are famous for spicy food: Sichuan, and Hunan. Here’s a little bit of trivia for most of you: while both provinces are famous for exceptionally spicy food, Hunan’s food is generally considered to be spicier and hotter in temperature, due to their liberal use of chili peppers in cooking, whereas Sichuan’s food uses peppers that have a more mouth-numbing effect. So, getting used to spicy food has been quite a task. Thankfully, you can usually tell them not to use peppers, and the food is still basically the same. But part of the experience of being in a foreign country is trying the food the way the locals cook it, and so I’ve spent a lot of time eating spicy food too. While I’m not particularly fond of spicy food, I have begun to grow a taste for it. Aside from spicy food, there are tons of other dishes to try. The food differs quite a lot depending on the region of China, and so food that I got used to in Beijing isn’t as common here, and vice versa. And of course if I ever get sick of that stuff, there are more McDonald’s and KFCs around than I’ve ever seen in America, as well as Subway and a few other places. All in all, the food is one of the more enjoyable experiences of being in China.

One of the other major differences that I’ve had to get used to in living here, and is something that I never experienced when I studied in Beijing, is the importance of religion to the foreign students. Most people know that China is considered an atheist nation, and most people don’t practice any religion in particular. Despite that, at least in Changsha, there are quite a large number of Muslims, and that is without a doubt the dominant religion of the foreign students in Changsha. Being here, I have learned far more about Islam than I ever thought I would know. My Egyptian and Bangladeshi friend are both very religious Muslims, as well as most of my classmates. Thus, when I spend time with them, I learn quite a bit about their habits and many times have to be accepting of them as they differ from my own. Most people know that Muslims don’t eat pork. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. As I’ve come to learn, food is a very particular issue for many Muslims. Not only do they not eat pork, but with any other meat that they eat, the animal MUST have been killed in the Muslim way, or you cannot eat it. If there is any sort of pork or alcohol used in any of the ingredients, or even if a pot or pan that cooked something with pork in it earlier is used, Muslims will not eat it. I’ve actually witnessed my friend ask a worker at a cake shop if there was any pork in the cake. Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for there to be pork in the cake, but I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing. That just goes to show you how careful some are willing to be. Most of my Muslim friends are very particular about food, and generally eat from only Muslim restaurants. Which means in a typical schoolweek, they eat the same food twice a day, every day. Not all of the Muslim students are this particular, and in fact some will even drink alcohol, but my friends at least are fairly devoted to their beliefs. Food is not the only issue however, there are many social habits that my friends have that neither I nor the Chinese are familiar with, however to go into detail with that would take far more time than I am willing to at this time. I’ll simply say that in many situations, I feel far more relaxed with Chinese friends than I do around my Muslim friends.

Finally, one of the biggest differences between life in Changsha and the rest of China as opposed to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai is the way the people treat you. In Beijing and Shanghai, as many of my fellow classmates will agree with, you do get stares, and you do get people coming up to you wanting to be your friend or just speak with you because you look foreign and speak English. But outside of those cities, you might as well multiply that by 10 or 20. Foreigners are much more rare in other parts of China, and so the people are not nearly as used to them. Changsha for example is a very large city (with around 6 million inhabitants in its adminsitrative area), and is even the capital of its province, yet walking in the streets people will still stare at you regularly, and young people especially will come up and speak with you. The attention that one receives here is beyond anything that I have ever come close to experiencing in my life, even in Beijing. Many times, just walking in the street makes you feel like a celebrity, and in my case this is especially true. As I mentioned several times already, I am one of the only Americans around. There are even very few white people around, as most foreigners here come from Africa or the Middle East. Those that are American or white are all English teachers, and most are a bit older. There are very, very few young, white Americans around here. So when I’m out and walking around, I really stand out, and people take advantage of that. This has really helped me to see how people outside of America, specifically those in China, really view us. I have no idea why they like us so much, but I will say that the Chinese people in China are some of the friendliest people that I have ever met. I specify that they’re in China because naturally, most Chinese elsewhere have been influenced by their environment and are vastly different from Chinese people within China, to the point that in many ways it’s pointless to compare the two, they’re just so different. That’s not a jab at overseas Chinese however, as I’m very fond of them and they are also very friendly, but there’s simply no denying that there are enormous differences between them.

Anytime I leave the dorm, even if it’s just walking around campus, people will look at me, and even though they’re often very shy and try to hide it, it’s usually not very difficult to notice. Anywhere I go, people will randomly come up and talk to me, ranging from the more common young, attractive girls to even older men and women. Most of the time the people that approach me are young students, bewildered at the fact that there’s actually a native English speaker around their age in the city. Most Chinese are fascinated by English, and the students are forced to learn a great deal of it, and so naturally they’re very excited to make friends with someone their age who can really help them with it. The downside to this is that I’ve met far more people and received more phone numbers than I can keep track of, and while I love meeting new people and practicing English with them, there is simply not enough time to spend with them all, and sometimes it’s even difficult to remember the person if you only met them briefly one time. What’s even funnier is that when you meet one person, especially if it’s a girl, it’s not uncommon for them to give several of their friends your contact information as well. So it’s really not uncommon at all to recieve phone calls or text messages from people you don’t know. Chinese also use a program for instant messaging called QQ, which is pretty similar to MSN. There have been many times where I’ll meet a person, exchange QQ numbers, and then later on that night I’ll receive 5+ requests on QQ for permission to add me to someone’s friends list, usually friends of the person I met. However it’s also very common for completely random people to add you on QQ as well, as there is a function for searching for people by age and location. This is always a humorous experience, as the person that sends me a message starts asking why I’m speaking in English, and is then amazed and surprised that I’m American, and even more surprised that out of all the people they could have added, they found me. Of course I know enough Chinese to communicate with them in Chinese, and often times I do, but I have to admit that a lot of times it’s really fun to use English initially and to see their excitement and surprise. It’s a really fun experience getting to meet all of these new people, and I’ve made some amazing friends out of it. Unfortunately, every now and then it can be a little overwhelming and even a little annoying, as there’s only so much of me to go around, and sometimes I really do have things of my own to worry about. But, being that I am one of the only young Americans around, I have to accept that I am a bit of a diamond in the rough here, and these things will happen whether I like it or not. Fortunately, for the most part I really do like it, and I truly do enjoy meeting and helping people as much as I can.

Often times I look at my life now, and think about what it would have been like had I gone back to Beijing, like I had planned and as just about every other UofL student that comes to China does. I can say without a doubt in my mind, I am glad and grateful that I did not return there. While I love Beijing, and it’s definitely one of my favorite cities, life in the rest of China is so much different and so rich in new experiences. Had I returned to Beijing, I likely would not have had a chance to see the southern part of China anytime soon. Coming to China and not seeing the southern part is a sad experience, because there is a lot of history and a lot of unique things to be found here. I’ve already had the pleasure of visiting Guangzhou and and a smaller city called Yueyang, and I plan to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong, and I can’t wait for more. Not only the amazing cities and different foods and different kinds of people to meet, but also my experiences learning Chinese are quite different than what they would have been in Beijing. While it’s true that those in Beijing speak “proper” Mandarin (the dialect of Chinese that most people speak, and what I’m learning), which is largely why it’s considered to be the best place to learn Chinese, there are also a lot of foreigners, and a lot of English there, in stores and shops as well as with the people that you meet. In other places in China, not nearly as many people speak English, and thus you’re forced to use Chinese quite a bit more. In Beijing I could get by with English surprisingly easy, but in Changsha, unless it’s with foreign friends or Chinese English majors, I’m not so lucky. I’m a shy person when it comes to speaking Chinese, and this kind of environment is perfect for forcing me to use what I know. I can say that I’ve improved tremendously because of it. Many will say though that those in other places in China, particularly the south, don’t speak proper Mandarin, and most places have their own dialect. This is definitely true, and I’ve had many painful experiences trying to decipher Changshahua, the local dialect here. But the truth is, most people do speak Mandarin pretty well, and once you get used to deciphering the differences in pronounciation (such as the southern part of China’s very liberal mispronunciation of their sh and zh sounds), everything is smooth. And, the teachers and students in universities usually speak Mandarin very well (it’s required for students to learn and use Mandarin in schools all the way from the beginning, so they get quite good at it), and so the environment for learning it inside of the university is really no different than it would be in Beijing or elsewhere. Most young people speak Mandarin fine, just without the goofy pirate-like accent that Beijingers often use. As well as this, foreign students learning Chinese in China use pretty much the same textbooks, as they all tend to come from the Beijing Language and Culture Univeristy. Therefore, the lessons and types of learning methods are generally the same regardless of which university you’re in. Rather, it’s the environment around you that makes the most difference. These reasons are why I strongly disagree with the idea that Beijing or Shanghai are the best places for learning Chinese. For me, a place like this is much better, because it’s far more immersive and I HAVE to use Chinese. If I don’t, I don’t get to eat. I don’t get the things that I need. In Beijing, this might occasionally be a problem, but as I said before, getting by with English there is surprisingly easy. This is a good environment, both for learning Chinese, and experiencing a world that is entirely new and exciting to me.

While things were rough at first, I’ve really come to enjoy my time here, and I’m truly glad that I had the opportunity to come. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for everyone though, only for those that truly have a passion for Chinese language and culture, and are alright with giving up many of the luxuries that we’re used to in the West. This is a really great place, and there’s still a long way to go for me.

Leave a Reply