China, China, China.
This country is mentioned constantly in the news, President Trump refers to it on a daily basis. Some of the food I eat is from there. The electronics and many other products I buy are made there too. Also, in my marketing cohort, nearly 70% of my class is Chinese. So China is a pretty big deal, along with having the second largest GDP on earth.
Therefore, in October last year, I decided to take an evening class in Chinese (Mandarin) with the Confucius Institute, 1.5 hours a week. I enjoyed learning the new language at a basic level, but with a demanding postgraduate course I will never be able to dedicate the necessary time to properly learn to read and write it. But when I heard about a study trip happening over Easter, 11 days long, with accommodation, transport (excluding flights) and food provided, I leapt at the chance- it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. All I had to cover was my flights, visa and spending money. So I booked my flight and I left the UK on the 25th March.
Our first stop was Beijing. Beijing is a massive urban sprawl, multi-tiered freeways stacked on top of each other. Buses, cars, trams and even pedestrians jostle for a moment of supremacy on the constantly jammed roads. The air quality certainly isn’t as pure as it is in Lancaster and smoking laws are very relaxed over there. Huge landmarks of the ancient Emperors still dwarf the cityscape: Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square. Each of these are vast in scale, surrounded by excessive empty paving, leaving no option but for onlookers to regard these majestic buildings with slack-jawed awe.
Food- I’m a bit partial to sweet and sour, rice and kung po chicken in UK, so here I could try the food 3 times a day! I discovered new flavours- green beans soaked with garlic, duck, and also confirmed my dislike of tofu. I was shocked to discover rice, traditionally, is served after the meats, which frazzled my western brain! I also had the chance to try dim sum, which is a very elaborate range of sweet and sour dishes accompanied by tea. I also learnt that traditionally, the flavour of the tea is supposed to be quite weak, not strong, which contrasted to my western tradition of murdering my tea bags to get as much tea in my water as possible.
The Great Wall- certainly lives up to its name, perhaps it inspired President Trump? It is a marvel to behold, not only in terms of scale, stretching as far as the eye can see but also in terms of construction and incredible army strategy. It certainly deserves its past accolade of being one of the great wonders of the world. It is 13,000 miles long and took over 2,000 years to build.
I also put my negotiation skills to legendary use at the markets, becoming “The Barternator”. I successfully crushed the price of a fake Armani watch from ¥1650 (around £197) down to just ¥350 (around £40). At time of writing the watch is still working! Top tips: know the exchange rate, stick to your guns no matter what, act disinterested and you will get some genius bargains.
We then went on to Guangzhou, where we were generously hosted by Southern China University of Technology (SCUT), with the most beautiful university campus I have ever seen: palm trees, lakes, tropical climate… I can’t call it a campus, it’s more like a district, it is that big.
Our programme at SCUT took us through language basics, customs of tea drinking (surprisingly intricate), trying dim sum, kung fu, calligraphy and being a guest in a Chinese family home. I particularly admired their use of a rotating table every meal time which really encouraged communal eating; small tea cups prompted regular refills and discussion; even the chopsticks were a great way to really engage with your food by slowing down, taking the time. The lecturers and volunteers made us feel so welcome, and they were keen to educate us on everything Chinese. One lecturer apologized repeatedly and profusely for being late for a class. To us it was an amusing non-issue, to her it jeopardized her concept of honour. Her passion to correct a trivial human error was genuinely touching.
We were also introduced to the most annoyingly catchy Chinese tune of all time. Warning: you will likely hum “Baobei” for days afterwards…
Of course, no trip to China would be complete without karaoke and we had a thoroughly excellent time (mainly) butchering classic songs, but some of us could actually sing. I did a respectable job on Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Pitbull’s International Love. Guangzhou is also home to the spectacular Canton tower, with a mesmerizing night light show, beautiful to watch on a Pearl River Cruise.
At the end of the closing ceremony on the final day, I boarded a train to Hong. Hong Kong is an enhanced version of China with more of an English feel- despite the main language being Cantonese, I found I didn’t need a phrasebook to survive there. I didn’t have a huge amount of time so I squeezed in the harbour, a market and a Bruce Lee statue, with a vow to return for longer at a later date.
As I then boarded my next flight home via a Dubai stopover, I considered grimly what a UK cultural exchange would involve these days: some great landmarks for sure, but I can’t help but think of our long forgotten British pride, an obsession with paralytic drinking, a tendency to trivialize sentimentality and plenty of tracksuits. Whilst I generally don’t wear rose tinted glasses, China’s endearing traditions now suddenly seem a whole galaxy away.
Lee is an OTT postgraduate marketing student who loves travelling. Stalk him on Facebook. For more info on learning Chinese or the trip, please visit www.lancaster.ac.uk/confuciusinstitute or email firstname.lastname@example.org