Continuing your studies abroad is a big decision to take and not knowing what to expect can make it seem all the more intimidating. Read on to find out the experiences of Glasgow Caledonian University student Dougal Crawford, as he takes the step of studying abroad in China…
As I look up at the hundreds of fireworks in the sky, I hear the bells ringing in a small temple signifying the coming of the Chinese New Year, and, as tradition states, a fresh start for everyone, a chance to reconcile, wish happiness, and welcome new luck and good-fortune into their life. I have been in China three months at this point, still very much at the beginning of my stay here, and though I may not believe in or understand many of the New Year traditions here, the similarities between the coming of this New Year, and the beginning of my new life in China are not lost on me.
In the summer of 2011 I visited China for the first time, and, needless to say, the country left a lasting impression on me. Little did I know I would be returning in just a few months, and this time my stay would be much longer.
I was lucky enough to be chosen to be part of a 20-strong student delegation from Glasgow Caledonian University to visit the University of Jinan in China in June 2011. The universities have forged a partnership to design programmes together and allow students and staff to visit each other’s countries. It’s just one of the ways GCU helps its students experience once-in-a-life-time opportunities. We were the third group of students to make this trip, and I was very aware of the fantastic experiences the last students had on their trips.
We spent most of our 16-day trip in the city of Jinan, visiting the university, meeting its staff and students, as well as seeing the many cultural and tourist attractions in and around the city. We were also fortunate enough to visit other amazing locations, such as the historical town of Qufu, the beautiful coastal city of Qingdao, and the unforgettable capital city, Beijing. Needless to say this trip was incredible, and I’m sure every student on the trip was as blown away as I was.
Later in the summer, a delegation of students from the University of Jinan was to make a similar trip to ours and visit our university in the heart of Glasgow. As the most recent representatives we were keen to help them settle in and make their trip as enjoyable as ours had been. It was while this delegation was visiting that the news of a government-funded scholarship to study in China – particularly at UJN – was communicated throughout Glasgow Caledonian University. Having recently completed my undergraduate honours degree in the BA Journalism course at GCU, I was qualified to apply for the Master’s scholarship, which covered admission and tuition fees for three years (one year dedicated to learning Chinese language, and two years dedicated to the Master’s degree), as well as accommodation, insurance and a monthly living expenses grant.
Immediately after hearing the news I was looking over the admission papers, the visa papers, and pretty much all the general requirements I needed to complete to get me over there. With the UJN delegation in Scotland, I was fortunately able to speak to their group leader, and, coincidentally, the member of staff at UJN who coordinated international admissions and international scholarships. I had all the information I needed; now I just had to get everything ready. Anyone who has ever had to sort out anything other than a tourist visa will know the frustrating bureaucracy that comes with it. It was here that the award-winning International team at GCU particularly helped me out. Without them I would have been lost in a sea of admission forms and visa applications. Whether it was helping me figure out which visa I needed, contacting the Chinese consulate in Edinburgh (where working hours are irregular to put it mildly), putting me in contact with their travel agent, to subsidising my medical fees, their help was incredible and I can’t thank them enough. Fast forward a few weeks and I’ve got everything done and dusted, visa, admission, and a flight to China in October 2011.
My first few days in China were a culture shock to say the least. Having arrived late in the semester, I immediately had to begin my beginners’ Chinese classes, along with the newest class of overseas students to attend UJN. What struck me on my first day was how international the class was. There were students from all over the world. When I’d visited before I hadn’t noticed just how many foreign students there were. Whether they had only arrived and were in the same boat as me, or had been here for a few years and had a wealth of experience of the city and the culture, all were more than eager to welcome me and help me out with the huge learning curve that comes with moving to China. The most humbling experience of it all is that I am the only native English speaker in my class, and one of only two native English speaking students at the university – the other being an American, whose Chinese is impeccable, by the way. Now, that doesn’t seem a big deal, but take into account that our beginners’ Chinese classes are taught in English, and that nearly every student here speaks English incredibly well, as well as their native language, and almost always another. I was quickly realising just how narrow the window through which I viewed the world was, but I was also becoming aware of how much of an eye opener my stay in China would ultimately become.
Being surrounded by a language that is not your own is strange, and it is unbelievably frustrating at first. It doesn’t take long, however, until you at least know enough to get by. Having classes five days a week devoted to learning Chinese, as well as a decent amount of spare time to study – if the mood takes you, that is – doesn’t hurt as well. At first it was very strange walking around the city, or looking out the window of a taxi, and having absolutely no clue what any sign, billboard or poster meant. Combine this with not knowing what anyone is talking about, and it can be a very isolating experience. Due to the pictorial fashion of Chinese writing, or characters as they are known, it’s not like you can wing it and have a guess, or try and work it out through whatever little knowledge you have of other Latin-originated languages. If you don’t know what it says, then that’s it. However, as time has passed I have found myself progressing, painfully slowly, but progressing none the less. The first time you direct a taxi, by yourself, and the driver actually understands where you want to go is hugely rewarding. Still, it is never long until my sheer lack of linguistic skill is exposed and I come crashing back to earth, usually immediately upon leaving the taxi. I am able to get by, but I take real inspiration from the international students who have spent much more time here than I have. To see them speak Chinese with a confidence and fluidity that I can’t imagine ever having gives me hope that I will at least somewhat pick it up eventually.
Gaining a language is a hugely valuable skill and one that I now understand the importance of. I am very thankful for the opportunity to learn Chinese; however it is not the only thing I will gain in China. After this year of learning Chinese I aim to gain my Master’s degree here at UJN. Interestingly, when I first applied to come here, I imagined three years could be too long, but now I actually see it as too short a time here. As far as my ambitions in China go, I really haven’t planned that far ahead. Over my second semester here, while still completing my Chinese language course, I will make a final decision on which Master’s course I will study here for two years. I will also have the opportunity to teach English classes to some of the Chinese students aiming to go abroad on their studies, which I am very much looking forward to. Opportunities do just pop up here rather sporadically: from being offered jobs teaching English at private kindergartens, to being asked to appear on game-shows for Shandong TV (which, I must say, is one of the most surreal experiences of my life). So, for now, I am just looking forward to expanding my cultural horizons and enjoying my time here in China, a country vastly different from my own. Everything takes some time getting used to, but that’s part of the adventure and, most of all, the enjoyment. So, much like the Chinese New Year that I was lucky enough to be part of, I am just looking forward to a fresh start and a new journey in China.
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