Updated: Mar 10
In which city were you based?
After finishing my second year at university in the Czech Republic, I decided I want to experience living and studying abroad. China was the first country that came to mind, as I was majoring in Chinese philology at the time. So, after tons of paperwork and months of waiting I found myself at the airport in Prague waiting for my nine-hour flight to Beijing, from where I would transfer to Tianjin. I studied Chinese in Tianjin for more than eight months and it really was a great life experience. Why? Keep reading!
Why did you decide to apply?
In Czechia we have a saying, “you live a new life for every new language you speak”, and these words motivated me many times, this time to go for it and try something completely different from the life I was used to in Europe. Also, Tianjin Normal University has a partnership with the university where I did my undergraduate studies, so applying was not that hard. One big plus was that I received many good recommendations about different teachers at TNU, I have to say I really learned a lot. Another reason I chose to apply was that when you’re a language student, you really must immerse yourself into the society you’re trying to understand, and learning Chinese without experiencing the chaotic and fast-paced environment, culture, and everyday life in China is just like eating gongbao (kung pao) chicken without peanuts – it just doesn’t feel right.
What did you think about your scholarship placement and what was your life like on a day-to-day basis?
To be honest, if I had to choose again, I’d go for a different scholarship, probably in a “smaller” city (that’s what I did during my second stay in China some years later). The school was alright, but Tianjin didn’t have much to offer, it felt more like a street foodconcrete jungle, although that feeling challenged me to discover China even more and I got the best out of it.
All foreign students lived in a hotel, where we also had classes, I was disappointed at first that we were not living on campus, but the accommodation was nice and clean in comparison with other dormitories. There were many students from all around the world, my class was especially full of the nicest Thai people, the most energetic and ever-dancing Kenyans, and the sweetest Koreans. All of us communicated in Chinese and genuinely tried to avoid using English, which helped us improve our speaking skills a lot. As with other language programmes in China, we had four hours of class every weekday and optional extra classes of Taiji (Tai chi), calligraphy, paper cutting and business Chinese.
Every day at noon we met in the lobby and went to our favourite restaurant across the street. Ayi already knew us and she also noticed our transition from pointing fingers saying wo lai zhege, hai yao zhege (我来这个，还要这个) to actually saying the Chinese name of a dish (wow, victory!). It really was about the food all the time, we would go for street food in the evening, a guy we knew had the best chuan (BBQ sticks) that might have made us sick couple of times (but hey when you’re a foreigner in China it’s normal). When I was in Tianjin, there was a boom of sharing yellow bicycles, so we were riding day and night all around the city, enjoying the scenery along the Hai River. Some days we could not even leave the hotel because the pollution was too bad, so on those occasions we decided to do our homework on time (for once).
What was the most enjoyable/exciting part of your experience in China?
Before I left for China, my professor told me to go out as much as I could, to travel around China for as long as I could afford, and to chat with as many locals as possible, and he was right, it wasn’t about what I’ve learnt at school, but about what I’ve learnt on the streets when skipping classes and traveling (I could afford to skip five weeks per semester, so of course I did). So, I booked a flight to Harbin and experienced the spine-chilling nights, watched the beauty of the snow festival, crossed the frozen Songhua River while watching local children play with donkeys. I even climbed the 7000 steps of Mount Tai and couldn’t move for the next few days because my legs weren’t working. I got lost and walked in circles in a foggy park in Hong Kong, I watched the sunrise over the rice fields in Yunnan while trying not to step in cow’s poop, and I hiked one of the finest treks in southwest China where my lungs were on fire but the views were just breath-taking and rewarding. I did all of that and more, most importantly I had to count on myself to communicate with people, which gave me real self-confidence at that time.
Travelling gave me more than roleplay conversations in classroom environments and memories for a lifetime. When someone who is going to China for the first time asks me about any advice, I tell them to book the flight, take the 24-hour train, eat that frog, and leave your comfort zone (except during Golden Week, take my word for it and stay at home).
What was the most surprising thing you learnt about China and/or yourself?
Some of my friends were in China a year before me, so they kind of prepared me for what to expect, so I didn’t suffer a big cultural shock. However, I was always surprised that so many people wanted to take pictures of me (or with me). It can be scary to imagine how many people might have me in their family photo books. It was fun at the beginning but after some time it became a little annoying. Also, since coming back home from China, I cannot stop using the victory sign while taking pictures (it’s contagious, right?!). So many mothers wanted to set me up with their sons, never have I imagined that I would be proposed to daily like that.
The most surprising thing I learnt about myself was the fact that I became more outgoing. I always considered myself very shy, but during that time I changed a lot. Suddenly I wasn’t afraid to speak in languages beyond my mother tongue, I became more open-minded and more respectful towards other cultures. My first time in China turned out to be a great life lesson (facts!).
How did it help you in achieving your goals?
Thanks to my ability to speak Chinese and understanding of the cultural background, I have had several interpreting jobs while still attending my master’s programme. I have met with a couple of Chinese companies and a group of Chinese businessmen in Prague and I was lucky enough to create new guanxi. Thanks to these contacts I was offered a job in Asia too. While the global pandemic has changed and postponed my career plans for now, I believe that when one door closes another opens. Also, it really looks cool on your CV.
Kateřina Bortlová, Tianjin Normal University scholarship 2016-2017 & Chinese Government scholarship 2018-2019.
Photos by Kateřina Bortlová/CC-BY.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
Do you have an article you would like to share? Write for us.