If you are in your late teens or twenties, and you are studying a degree programme, I personally don’t believe I could ever give you any better advice other than; live in China for at least one year of your life.
Here, in the UK, we live in a country saturated with binge drinking and images of glossy men and women with perfect bodies dipping their toes in the seas of Ibiza and Aiya Napa. My advice to you is; avoid these places, and invest (yes I said invest) in a trip to China. Please allow me to explain why I see it as an investment, by describing my year in China (one of the best years of my life).
When I touched down in China, it seemed quite dark and smoggy, I had been here before, but only for two weeks. This time, I’d arrived in Beijing again, but for a year of my life. Here, I would be studying, and trying my hardest to learn fluent Chinese. Before I had left, I had been prepared by two years of intensive Chinese learning, which I enjoyed thoroughly, as I found learning characters to be enjoyable, and I had confidence in the way in which I was taught, as I had read that UCLan was 7th out of 116 universities for Chinese studies at that time (today it is still 13th for East and South Asian Studies). So upon my arrival at Beijing, I felt nervous, yet confident.
Upon arrival, I was lucky enough to have been able to stay with my teachers parents for a short period, after this, I had found a vendor in the streets who arranged ‘home stays’ on the college campus, her son took me to the home of an elderly couple who I decided to stay with (for a small fee). I also had the daunting task of going to the university to register, which was intimidating, but I found other foreigners who were more than willing to help.
During these first six months, I spent all of my time studying, and working part-time in a Chinese office where I had been lucky enough to find a job. I avoided all contact with English speakers and spent the majority of my time speaking Chinese. There were a mix of nationalities in our class, but my close friends were a Japanese guy, a girl from the Philippines, and Two North Koreans. I was so happy to have been able to meet people from North Korea, and I was surprised at how open they were, the whole class, however, was always careful not to ask questions about their home county (I later learnt that their government didn’t allow them to carry cell phones whilst out in China).
After six months of working extremely hard whilst straining to continuously improve my Chinese, I must admit, I began to flag, most likely suffering from burn-out, but this was the part were China became magical.
During this period, I began to open up to English speakers, which is usually a no-no. I began to go to bars, I moved to my own flat minutes away from the 24/7 coffee shops, books stores, and nightclubs, for a really cheap price. I would spend my days reading in the coffee shop and my evenings drinking in the bars, although I wouldn’t exactly recommend drinking, the aspect of socialising with foreigners and English speakers was absolutely brilliant, I encourage everybody to try it. I would go out most nights, and could walk in to any bar and find a friend. Even if I didn’t, people were so friendly that I could sit at a random table and make friends. During these last six months I met people from the majority of countries around the world, and it was fantastic hearing stories about their own culture and language and their life experiences. I learnt bits of many languages, and found every conversation to be incredibly enriching.
I made a large group of good friends and we really enjoyed China together whilst also studying. We won a Laser Quest competition, we went to a beach party under the moonlight at the end of the Great Wall, we went to an organised party on an abandoned disused Russian aircraft carrier, we visited the far out sections of the Great Wall and landmarks closer to home (Such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace), we sang karaoke together and had surprise parties in one another’s flats, I even joined a football team in an organised league, becoming friends with its owner, all the while enjoying ourselves whilst still grabbing any opportunity to practice Chinese.
These are my experiences, and 1000 words cannot do justice as to why it was the best year of life, but let me summarise why China is so attractive: China is full of things to do for little cost, it is also full of new people to meet who will have a similar mind set to you, people who are brave and adventurous, people interested in new cultures and new languages, people a similar age to you. Everything is cheap, from alcohol to food, and China is such a vibrant place that you really do not need to drink to feel like you’re having the time of your life.
I can only speak for Beijing, but any trip to China will have its unique side. Friends who went to far out areas, such as Gulin, told me that it was so relaxing and amazing sitting in the middle of the country side, taking in the amazing views, whereas friends who went to Shanghai told me about experience were similar to mine in Beijing.
Whatever you do in China, accept that it will be daunting, but also accept you could genuinely be about to experience one of the best years of your life.
Andrew G. Lakin