Which city were you based in?
I was based in Beijing, I have been living there for four years. Beijing is the capital city of China and is located in the northern part of the country. The city is the political, cultural, and educational heart of China. History and modernity meet each other there. In Beijing, you can find everything from heritage monuments like the Forbidden City (紫禁城) and the Temple of Heaven (天坛), to elders in hutongs (胡同) playing mah-jong (麻将), to busy businessmen rushing to their offices or crowds in nightclubs in Sanlitun (三里屯). I loved Beijing for its diversity, its many faces and dimensions. Not to mention that there is no better place to learn Mandarin and to hear erhuayin (儿化音) than Beijing.
Why did you decide to apply?
When I finished high school I only knew that I wanted to learn foreign languages, nothing else. But my applications to different linguistic faculties at domestic universities were rejected, and I had no plan “B”, so I took a gap year. One day I woke up and simply decided to start learning Mandarin to do something challenging. I just knew it was the right decision; it is really hard to explain now where that feeling came from. I enrolled in classes at a private school founded by a Chinese expat in Warsaw, Poland, and soon found out that studying Chinese in Europe was a waste of time, as my teacher at that time said that to do it well I had to go to China. So… I went, a terrified (and thrilled) nineteen-year-old me thinking that I can always go home if something goes wrong. Today I cannot imagine my life taking a different direction. It was the best four years of my life! Sometimes I think that China chose me and not the other way around. When it comes to the school, the Beijing Language and Culture University (北京语言大学) was founded in 1962 as a first school to teach Chinese as a second language for foreigners. Its lecturers have made a huge contribution to the methodology of Chinese teaching. It is also the university with the highest percentage of foreign students in China. The choice of the university was also the right decision.
What was your life like on a day-to-day basis?
My day was usually full of Chinese classes and homework. But apart from learning, Beijing has a lot to offer, especially for foodies like me. Do you want to try Chinese dishes from all of the provinces or international cuisine from Japan, Italy, Mexico, …? You can find them all in that city. I guess trying out different restaurants is an important part of your student life in Beijing. I also used to hang out with my friends in Houhai (后海), where you can enjoy strolling around the hutongs and the Shichahai Lake (什刹海) and have drinks accompanied by good music. There are countless touristic spots around Beijing, perfect for one day trips. It was during these days, when I discovered the joy of mountain climbing. There are a lot of hiking routes in the neighbourhood of Beijing. I have also travelled across the country, especially after my freshman year when I obtained the Chinese Government Scholarship. I have visited 18 Chinese provinces so far and there is still so much to explore in such a huge country! You are never bored there.
What was the most enjoyable/exciting part of your experience in China?
It was definitely the opportunity to meet and mix with people from around the globe. Every year at Beijing Language and Culture University, there are students from more than 100 countries and regions in the world. We lived and learned together, we shared our culture, food, and languages with each other. It will probably take me forever to visit all the places where I have friends who I met in China, but sometimes it feels like I have already been there. The best part of my university life was the annual World Culture Festival. Students represented their own countries, wearing their national costumes, during the parade that inaugurated the day of craziness. Our stadium was full of Chinese visitors from different parts of China. You could listen to music and smell the cuisine from every corner of the planet. When I represented Poland at our booth twice I had never been so tired, but to this day they are my best memories.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about China and/or yourself?
I think that after four years in China, I have surprised myself more than China ever did. When I boarded the plane bound for Beijing in 2016, I was a completely different person. I was shy and making new friends was not easy for me. China made me leave my comfort zone. Suddenly I found myself in a foreign country and a foreign city, without family or friends. And I had to find new ones. I wouldn't have made it in Beijing without many of them, especially in the beginning when my Chinese was poor. I also joined the Student Union. If I had stayed at home I probably would never have done it. Throughout my stay in China I have been a member of the Student Communication Center. The Chinese and foreign members were like family to me, a family that I chose myself.
How did it help you in achieving your goals?
As I have already mentioned, making new contacts is no longer a problem for me. I lived, studied and worked in a multicultural setting, which is a valuable experience on the job market nowadays. I am much more confident as well. I learned how to be my own biggest fan! I think that without the time spent in China I would not have chosen my current MA programme, where mobility is crucial and we move from one country to another every six months. My stay in China has also taught me that it is worth having a back-up plan because it is impossible to predict everything. Not to forget that fluency in Mandarin is now a huge asset. I am curious to see where all this will take me in the future.
Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka is from Poland. In 2020, she graduated with honours from the Beijing Language and Culture University with a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese Language. Currently, she is pursuing Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Euroculture at University of Strasbourg (France) and University of Groningen (the Netherlands). You can find her on Linkedin.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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