Where did you study and why did you choose these places?
For my first international experience, I chose to leave for the Yunnan University in Kunming, in the south-western part of China. I did my research and learnt this place is called “the city of spring”, and although I suffer from allergies, I decided the warm climate would please my soul. The province is also full of natural resources and interesting touristic areas, so I thought I wouldn't get bored. And I was right!
During my master's degree, I wanted to try something completely different, even though Kunming stayed in my memory and tried to persuade me to come back. Therefore, I chose to go to the north-eastern part of the country, to the province of Liaoning and the city is called Dalian (大连). It is by the sea and the population is (at least for Chinese standards) not that high, so I thought there would be fewer foreigners and I could practice my Chinese more. I was wrong.
Why did you decide to study in China?
Chinese was my major, so it made sense, as it is said that you learn swimming by jumping into the water. Even our professors said they could try really hard teaching us Chinese, but going there would improve us unbelievably. And going to the other side of the world to study for almost free? Sounds great!
Can you tell us about the universities themselves? Were there any differences when learning Chinese?
Yunnan University has many majors and is not solely oriented towards languages, the university in Dalian is called “The University of Foreign Languages”, so you can see there might be a difference concerning this. At Yunnan University I had amazing teachers and classmates, but the school building and dorms were a bit old, my bed consisted of wooden planks and that was it. However, the campus for Chinese was right in the middle of the city and that was really convenient, as the famous Jade Lake (翠湖) was on the footsteps of our University and we could enjoy all its pleasures.
In Dalian, the school was specialized in languages and famous for teaching Chinese, so my expectations for meeting few foreigners were destroyed. As I was in my master degree then, I joined the top class with only 6 people and that was great for improving my level. However, some of the teachers' methods were not as progressive as they could be (for example, we had to memorize texts by heart). I was really lucky to have an amazing dorm, which looked like an apartment for 6 people, with 2 bathrooms, living room, kitchen and even a TV. The students were also more focused on learning fast and well, so with my roommates we spoke Chinese.
Could you see differences between the southern and northern mentality within China?
I am sure this applies to all the world: the southerners were more open, friendly, helpful and out in the streets. Sure, they also have a strong accent so the communication sometimes caused funny incidents, but they were resolved with smiles and nods of understanding. As the weather was warmer, you could see them riding on diandongche (electric scooters) all the time, they were everywhere and the city was not as polluted.
Unfortunately, the campus in Dalian is on the outskirts of the city, so the meeting possibilities with locals were scarcer. However, it needs to be said that to me, they were always helpful and pleasant. Their Chinese was also influenced by regional dialects, but it was much closer to putonghua ( 普通话)，the standard Chinese.
What were the possible activities outside school or traveling options like in both places?
The Dalian Uni offered many opportunities to join after school hours, as the campus could get a bit lonely, and students, bored. We had competitions in sports, dancing, speeches, etc. It is close to the seaside, so you could go watch the waves and fishing boats all the time. As I was in Dalian only for one semester, I did not have too much time to visit many places. I got really lucky by getting on the trip to the Gobi desert, where we could watch the stars and the Milky way far from civilization and meet other foreigners from Dalian. You could also travel to the borders of North Korea, the beginning (or the end) of the Great Wall in Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛) and the Heilongjiang (黑龙江) with its ice festival was just around the corner.
Yunnan province is amazing for traveling and meeting ethnical minorities: rice fields of Yuanyang, old cities of Dali and Lijiang, tropical and almost Thailand-like Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), hot springs and volcanoes in Tengchong. I wish I had more time to discover even more places. Within the campus, you could also join speech contests, dancing performances or reading groups.
Can you tell us about some shocking moments you experienced?
One time I felt like I was being tossed around when my friend and I met a group of tourists in Tengchong (腾冲). As I am blond, I was used to being asked to take pictures with people. This experience, however, was different: I was like a bone that dogs play with. The tourists kept throwing me here and there, grabbing me and squeezing me for group or individual pictures. It was awful and afterwards I put on a scarf to cover my hair and face. Other times, I learnt that Europe is really far away, as some guys proposed that I have one Czech boyfriend and one Chinese. I was also really shocked that Chinese people smoke in a hospital and do not consider it unhealthy (or at least in the hospital I stayed in).
What were the most pleasant experiences you had in both places?
There are so many, it is hard to choose. I believe great experiences are connected with amazing people and the conversations you exchange after the first moments of embarrassment. Watching sunsets over a valley full of colourful rice fields or over the desert is something magical and at the time you cannot believe how lucky you are to witness it. Speaking to locals while understanding their jokes and responding with yours, eating such spicy food that you cannot feel your tongue for many hours after, or overcoming your fears of expressing yourself and actually doing it.
How did it help you in achieving your goals?
It is safe to say my Chinese improved 110%. However, if it was only about studying the language, I could have taken a summer intensive course. Going abroad without any friends or family by your side is tough, but it will give you so much. You will learn about yourself, about the world, about different mentalities, ways to do things. I would not be the person I am if I didn't go and just stayed home. I am enriched with my friends' stories and struggles, with knowledge about the countries beyond my own and difficulties I can overcome. I miss my friend and hope I will rejoice with them someday, remember our great adventures, and create some more. And that's what I think studies like this should be about.
Lucie Tongelova majored in Chinese and English in Palacky University. She is currently living in Turin (Italy) and follows the path of communicating in Chinese within an italian company Getimpressed. You can connect with 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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