Which city were you based in?
During the autumn semester of 2017 I was on exchange at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in the northeast district of Shaoyaoju, in Beijing. This exchange semester was part of my final year of BSc in International Business, at Copenhagen Business School. Then, I decided to go back to China and studied one year at the Sino-Danish Center for Research and Education (SDC), a collaboration between the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) and the Danish Ministry for Higher Education. The center is located in the Northern district of Huairou, 60 km away from Beijing’s city center and very close to Mutianyu Great Wall.
Why did you decide to apply?
Since before I began studying, I knew I wanted to take a semester abroad, inspired by my older cousin who went on exchange to Poland for one year and had the time of his life. When the application time came, my dream was to go to Seoul, in South Korea. However, the spots that my university offered were already covered. Consequently, I listed any university that had free spots in Asia and got Beijing. While at the time China was not my priority, looking back now I think it was fate, as my time in China has been the most enriching time of my life.
The six-month exchange period went by so fast that, as soon as my flight back landed in Copenhagen, I began researching new ways to go back to China. I was incredibly lucky to find the SDC, and I applied to a full-time master located in Beijing. Moreover, as it is a collaboration between the two countries, we would finally share our classroom with Chinese students – as during exchange, lectures were divided and we, foreigners, had our own courses taught in English. My time at UCAS was life-changing, I learnt more outside the lectures just by living in a Chinese campus in the countryside where you are almost forced to bond with your fellow students – as there is no other alternative than to spend the days at campus.
What did you think about your scholarship placement and what was your life like on a day-to-day basis?
I will focus on my second chapter in China when I was a master student. When I got my acceptance letter, I remember being in a job interview. I wanted to scream, cry… thousands of different emotions went through my body in a matter of minutes. On one hand, I was scared of leaving my comfortable life in Copenhagen where everything is known and safe; on the other, I was going back home. My daily life consisted of lectures in the morning, struggling in the canteen to order food in Chinese, and studying in groups with a nice cup of tea. Later, we would go back to the dorms to shower, relax and meet back at the SDC building for social activities such as board games, Netflix, or just drinking a few beers. The campus was really isolated; just to go to Huairou center we needed to call a taxi and a 20-minute ride. The options were very limited in Huairou too – despite having a population of 600.000, it is a town in Chinese scale. Thus, we 70 foreigners and the 200 Chinese students spent a lot of time bonding.
I went further and organized language exchange buddies, thus I met three times per week with three different Chinese classmates to practice mandarin and learnt from their background. All three came from different places in China: one was from a minority in a town bordering Vietnam and was Muslim; the second was a girl from Inner Mongolia; and the third was a city guy from Chengdu. They all enjoyed learning about Europe and life in Denmark.
What was the most enjoyable/exciting part of your experience in China?
The most exciting part of my experience in China was my self-discovery journey. Getting lost in unknown streets, temples, malls, neon lights… feeling free. No one would judge me so far away from home. For the first time I was myself. I did not have to pretend to like certain fashion trends, TV shows or anything. It was a thrilling experience and the time where I have experienced the fastest personal growth.
The second most exciting part was – in a funny way – the dating life in China. During my time there I was single, and I started dating Chinese guys. I wanted to learn more about the culture and the social norms when it comes to love life. Turns out it’s an opposite world from what I was used to. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a not-so-good way. My friends always suggest that I write a book on it.
Last, the food. Trying new dishes was a constant adventure. Once, we ordered what we thought was chicken – as we recognized the character for chicken – but it turned out it was chicken… feet. So there we were, in front of this plate of chicken feet, with confused looks and a bit reluctant to eat. Nonetheless, my favorite dishes are Chinese: hotpot, dumplings, soups… China was a foodie paradise.
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about China and/or yourself?
After I moved away, the first thing I realized was how China tested all my limits. Life in China was challenging and we had very little control over it. Moreover, I was surprised by the level of censorship. I am aware that China has the ‘great firewall’, governing the internet. However, I was not ready to be censored in my daily life – I almost got expelled for supporting the Hong Kong protests in 2019. That was a true lesson on not taking for granted our freedom of speech in Europe, and to cherish some of the privileges we have here.
Ironically, the second thing I realized was how happy China made me. Every now and then, I’d stop in the middle of whatever I was doing, and I’d think to myself: I can’t believe I live in China. While cohabiting with censorship and authoritarian behavior was not easy for me, China is, up to now, my favorite place. It is hard sometimes to explain to others why I liked it so much, or why I was so happy despite all the inconveniences. Even right now, I am struggling to put it into words. Living in China gave me a feeling of wholesomeness, of being accepted in a place where I couldn’t even speak the language. It gave me inner peace and changed my perspective on things. Suddenly, as an individual, you don’t matter so much anymore. Suddenly you are part of something bigger.
How did it help you in achieving your goals?
To be honest, I don’t have specific goals in life yet. That being said, moving out of my comfort zone to China helped me achieve my dream of exploring Asia, of living in a place where my limits got tested every day. I learnt how to be more patient, overcame the daily challenges, and reinforced my values. Last, while not intended, it has helped me in my short career – I chose my master’s with the sole purpose of moving back to China but found out that my passion lies in Public Policy (I studied Public Management) and not in Business (as my bachelor). Later I became an intern at the United Nations, writing about Asia-Pacific with an emphasis on China, and a trainee at the European Commission writing about China’s SOEs and economic situation.
Luisa González Boa graduated from MSocSc Public Management and Social Development in January 2021, a double degree offered by Copenhagen Business School and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. She lived in Beijing for 18 months between 2017 and 2019. You can find her LinkedIn here.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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