It's that time of year when some students are about to head out on their year abroad, and when other students, like me, are soon to return to their home universities in the UK. I will be swapping the needle cold and soupy smog of Beijing for the soggy streets of Manchester.
Whether you're going out or coming back there is a certain amount of excitement and also a kind of dull dread, perhaps more for returning to the “normal” than going off on the adventure. Nevertheless, as I become overly reflective about my year abroad ( it is nearly a full year since I left for China ), I think back on my time in the People's Republic and how I tried to make the most of it. I did the backpacking thing and saw more than just my corner of Beijing, but to really crack China you have to become involved where you're at. On the whole I feel that I did quite a good job of mucking in, but there are still one or two things I regret not having done more of.
It can be quite difficult getting to know the Chinese. You may expect the language barrier to get in the way, but there is also a huge cultural barrier, which is not to be underestimated. Making local friends can be tricky, but is ultimately worth it. If you're at a university, then with a little effort you can get a lot out of what's available. One thing I regret is that I didn't carry on with the university societies. I began with inline skating and Kungfu, but tailed off on both. One of my social-butterfly type friends wrote for the university magazine and always seemed to be meeting up with native Chinese. Joining societies and being involved in university events provides the opportunity to meet the domestic students, and is less awkward than meeting people one-to-one, because you have a reason to interact. You won't have best buddies straight away, but if you stick with it there will be a pay-off.
Another way to make local friends at university, and something I did stick with, is arranging language exchanges. At the start I wasn't too bothered, but eventually pulled my act together, stuck up a notice in a cafe, responded to a few on the board, and found myself a language buddy or two. I've written a whole post about language exchanges on this blog, and the truth is that doing a language exchange gives you a lot, not just language practice, but local friends and the feeling of being an insider. Even if you're not in China specifically to learn Chinese, it can still be worth pushing through the awkwardness and getting to know Chinese people in this way. China, after all, is full of people who speak Chinese and quite a lot of them want to learn English. You'll get a lot from a language exchange, or your money back.
Throughout the year, a friend and I frequented one restaurant in particular on many a day when we were sick of the canteen food or just fed up with Chinese life. It was known affectionately among us foreigners as the “family restaurant”, and felt like sitting in someone's kitchen with drinks piled up in the corner and the dumpling steamer piping out white clouds by the door, and was run by a couple and their 5 year-old daughter. By the end of year they knew where we were from, would ask us about uni, talk about learning Chinese, and they knew our regular orders, and where to deliver when we phoned. At the end of the year we bought them cigarettes, a bottle of Chinese spirit called Baijiu, flowers, and some jelly beans for their girl, and they gave us the bill for free as well as several dishes which we hadn't ordered ( liver and peppers, anyone? ). We drank beer and talked at length in Chinese about our future plans and the English premiership and what China is like compared to Britain. In short, we were getting down with the locals. It's worth playing the long game and becoming a regular. That final meal in a tiny kitchen eatery was one of the best moments of my year abroad.
As a foreigner in China, you'll probably find that people ask you for your photo, or want to talk with you, or often they'll talk about you. I'd often feel all British when someone approached me, but towards the end of my year, I decided to embrace it and seized the opportunities to speak Chinese. The Chinese will lose their minds if you say anything remotely resembling Mandarin. You won't always feel like or have the time to, but if you have a couple of minutes, then speak to strangers.
Of course there's classic tourist China, like the Great Wall, the Bund, the Terracotta Warriors, Yunnan, Tibet, temples galore and enough street meat squid to make your stomach turn. All those things are worth doing. In fact if you don't do at least one of them, did you even go to China? However, if you really want to get the most from this country, then you have to face the cultural barrier, persist with the locals, get to know the Chinese, and make friends that don't speak English. When I left China, I didn't feel like a foreigner who had been living in Beijing, I felt like I knew what was going on, and that I was leaving more than just sites behind. I was something more than a tourist, something like a local.
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