Living & Studying in China

I've been getting a lot of questions about my year abroad in China, what I did and why I went there, how is it I travelled so much, did I even study? So I'd thought I'd write a little bit about it for those who's wondering - and perhaps even inspire someone out there to consider a similar experience in the future.

where

The city of Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. It's two hours south of Shanghai by train. Population: 7.6 million people. Duration of study: One full academic year from August 2015 to May 2016.

Why? 

The most common response I used to get when I said I'll be moving to China was why China? What's there to study in China? How are you going to live in China?? I received so much scepticism - the so-called "warnings" for going to China, let alone to live there for almost a year by myself. But I was lucky to have my best friends and family's support from day one so there was never any doubts of going. So to answer the 'why': Since I'm studying international business at Edinburgh uni, it was a mandatory part of my degree to spend my third year abroad as an exchange student. The location of host university was dependent on my first year's performance. I knew that if I wanted to get out of Europe, I had to prove well on my academic performance. It was my greatest motivation to work hard and accomplish certain results.

I landed on China because as a business student I think China will be a great boost for my future career. The advantages are so many considering the Chinese economy and its current relation to the rest of the world. Looking back I think living and studying in China was worth it just for the experience itself. I've learnt so much this past year that I probably would've been without had I decided to go somewhere else. Despite the many challenges, I don't regret it a second. 

Living in china

I lived in student accommodations on campus the whole year. The first semester I shared a flat with three other girls (all international students), while the second semester I decided to go en-suite just to get the feel of them both. I lived in two different student accommodation buildings but they were on the same site just a minute walk away from each other. I didn't live with any local Chinese students, because the university had a weird way of separating locals apart from the international students. It's a shame. 

THIS WAS THE VIEW FROM THE BALCONY OF MY STUDENT ACCOMMODATION BUILDING. THE BUILDINGS IN THE FAR BACK BY THE TREES IS WHERE I HAD ALL MY CLASSES AND LECUTRES; THE OVAL BUILDING WAS ONE OF THREE CANTEENS ON CAMPUS; THE BULDING ON THE LEFT IS ANOTHER STUDENT ACCOMMODATION BUILDING.

HOW and what DID I Study IN CHINA?

The university is the first sino-foreign university in China, so everything except Chinese classes are thought in English via a British education system. The teachers and professors are of mixed nationality, both Chinese and foreigners. The same with the students. Classes and lectures were pretty much similar to Edinburgh, although my timetable had bigger gaps. I strategically chose my courses so that some days I would only have one lecture or one tutorial. Or pack them all in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to get long-weekends every weekend when possible. 

First semester I studied four business courses and Mandarin. Second semester I studied five business courses and Mandarin, so all together 11 courses in a year which was doubled the amount that I was used to from Edinburgh. However the levels were very achievable, except language studies which was more challenging. I dedicated 3x more time and efforts studying Mandarin than I did with any business module. I passed all my courses with 2:1 and 1st but my fourth year still counts a 100%. 

Eating in china

'What did I eat in China' is probably the most frequently asked question because my mom would call and ask me everyday. I'm almost a bit sad to say that I can count how many times I cooked during my year abroad because it's probably less than twenty. There were so many food options on campus. I would walk down the stairs from my flat and get 10 dumplings for 13 RMB ( £1.50), walk fifty steps and have sushi on the right and a Chinese restaurant with hundred different dish offers on the left. Not to mention the three canteens that could put me in a food coma for less than 10 RMB. Basically, my diet was terrible in China. The food is tasty, I'm not gonna lie. But it's super greasy and not very nutritious at all. Yet eating out is much cheaper and time-efficient than cooking so that's what I did unfortunately. I ate a lot of fruit and vegetables but everything was so fertilised that at one point I almost gave up trying to eat healthy and instead I spend extra hours at the gym trying to compensate. 

Biggest challenges

  • The culture shock in the beginning because China felt like a different world. Read blog posts from my first weeks in China here.
  • The language barriers.
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Being so far away from my loved ones & the time zone differences. 
  • Seeing stray dogs and cats everywhere without being able to do anything about it.
  • The Great Firewall of China (Google, Facebook, Instagram etc: all blocked). I never had 3G on my phone during my whole time in Ningbo and the Internet connection was constantly slow when connected to Wi-fi.
  • Being an overseas Asian in China. Watch the story of my life:

Communication

I can get around with very basic Mandarin (survival Mandarin). I think I'd be able to travel around China comfortably by myself. I can also recognise about 300 Chinese characters, but yeah that's about it. I studied six hours of Mandarin per week in first semester and three hours in second semester. Additionally I did at least one hour individual study every day.

Making friends

I didn't befriend as many Chinese people at university as I hoped I would due to the lack of integration between locals and international students. But I made a few really good friends through a group project and my attendance at a singing contest. And I'm also super lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know quite a few local families in Ningbo who invited me to their homes and dine-outs twice every week. I still keep in touch with them today!

Do I recommend travelling to China?

I never oppose anyone going anywhere because I think all places needs to be experienced first-hand first. Someone's bad opinion about a country shouldn't prevent you from going because you might like it. Except when your health and safety are actually at great risk (e.g.: civil unrest etc). But yes, go to China! It's a wilderness at first, but go.  Just be prepared on the culture shock - it's going to happen if you're not used to it.

Since this post is getting pretty long so I'll answer more questions on a separate Part 2. I'll get into more details about my thoughts on China, and the topics of travelling. 

Librairie Avant-Garde

- Turn something rotten into a miracle -

Librairie Avant-Garde is a vast underground parking lot that was once used as a bomb shelter, now turned into a church-looking bookstore.

I didn’t have many places on my itinerary for Nanjing since I wanted to keep it spontaneous. However, Librairie Avant-Garde was a must-go from the start. It took me nearly an hour of walking/ getting lost, and a few metro rides to get there, since it was a true hidden gem. But it was well worth it and I ended up spending almost an hour just roaming around, flipping pages. It was a happy moment in my favourite bookstore in the world. 

Although most of the books were in Chinese, I found and bought the ‘Little Prince’. It's written in English, Chinese and French all in one and I can’t wait to re-read it during my travels. Last time I read it was in middle school for an English class assignment, and I don't think I understood the true meaning of it back then. It's going to be interesting to see what impact it will make this time around.

So to anyone who will be travelling to Nanjing in the future, I highly recommend to check out Librairie Avant-Garde. It's different and I loved it.

A photo posted by Martha Huynh (@marthahuynh) on

Next stop, Nanjing!

- Say yes to new adventures -

A short hour has passed since I finished my first exam for this semester, and I’m currently on the train on my way to Nanjing. I’m not sure how smart of a decision this is considering my next and final exam is in two days. But at the same time I feel very relaxed and confident that I’ll be OK. Speaking of taking full advantage of this rare situation and the opportunity to explore a new city during my remaining four days in China. 

It’s a funny feeling of wanderlust and desperation, I think, mixed with a dash of “Yolo”-attitude as I try to squeeze in another travel at this period of time where everyone are stressing about exams. But I can’t help but ask if not now, when? Nanjing has always been on my bucket list and on top of that I’ve been craving a solo-experience outside of Ningbo as of late. This is the perfect mid-week get-away to destress and recharge the batteries if you ask me! We should all do this more often. I should’ve done this more often.

I got a few things on the agenda in Nanjing, other than that I'm just going to do spontaneous sightseeing. Regardless, I'm excited!

Last Week in China

- When you want something all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it -

 

"It feels like yesterday..." would be an exaggeration, but it certainly doesn't feel like it's been eight months since I first set foot in China. Eight months ago I dragged my overweight luggage through the university campus looking for my new dormitory. And today it's exactly eight days left till it's time to drag it all out again - in excess amount, unsurprisingly. The mixed emotions are back as my one way ticket home is approaching. 

No doubt it's been one hell of a journey. I don't even know where to start. Unfortunately, the Chinese Internet combined with my constant 'speechlessness' haven't made it very ideal to keep up with the updates on a regular basis. But I will tell you all about it eventually. I have a journal filled with thoughts of China, travel stories and personal experiences. But until then I have two more exams to focus on and a very limited time left in this country before it's zàijiàn. And I really want to make the best out of it.

Chinese New Year in Beijing

- Peking City -

The last two days in Beijing I spent on my own, wandering among millions of people in a new, unfamiliar city. A déjà vu from my first time solo travelling in Shanghai, except this time it was in the midst of the biggest Chinese celebration of the year and everywhere was packed with people. I felt a bit nervous staying an extra couple of days after my travel partner left, and I considered to just book my flights straight back to campus and get comfortable there until uni started again. But I'm so glad I didn't, because I had an unforgettable Chinese New Year's Eve with the coolest people that I met during my stay. On the 7th we went for dumplings, which I learnt is a very common dish in North China during CNY. It is believed to bring prosperity to the new year. And because I was in a feast-mode as usual, I introduced them to my absolute favorite roasted peking duck the same evening, which is Beijing's signature dish. I'm shameless to say that that was my third duck in three days.

Sleepwalking in a food coma, we then went to Hou Hai Lake to watch the fireworks and ring in the New Year of the Monkey. We ended up on a rooftop bar where we got a great panorama view. Despite getting loads of fireworks ashes on our heads because we were a bit too high up, the night was such a bliss! Sharing moments like these with people who I've literally just got to know was such a memorable experience and it makes me feel proud of the receptive person that I've become since I moved away from home. I think growing up in Norway got me so used to being reserved and shy/ sceptical to 'the unknown' that now I'm just rebelling - and loving it. It's been great to meet and talk to people regardless of where they're from, what languages they speak or whether we've met before or not. For me, every person I've met on the travelling road has taught me something new about their culture, inspired me in one way or another and contributed to my increasingly open mindset. 

Here's a quick video I put together to show you some of the scenes from the night. I have so much footage from all my travels that I don't know what to do with them all. Hopefully you'll enjoy little clips like these, because I've got much more in store.

Cheers for a Happy New Year!

The Great Wall of China

- Photo diary: Beijing pt. 2 -

The Great Wall of China

What an experience. The feeling of hiking the Great Wall of China felt surreal that day with clear blue skies, fresh air and no signs of a human traffic jam. We were blessed with amazing weather during our whole stay in Beijing, considering these were the conditions in Beijing just a couple of days after we left. 

The Forbidden City

Located in the heart of Beijing, The Forbidden City is known as the former imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. To be honest I didn't expect the palace complex to be so insanely huge. It felt like we were walking for an eternity before even nearing the end, in which we eventually never got to because we were running out of time.

Summer Palace

Our final stop together was to the Summer Palace, located about a 50-minutes metro ride outside the city centre. I had heard so much about it so it was definitely a place that I've been wanting to visit. This place was huge as well, and we kept getting lost and ending up at different directions. Nevertheless it was a beautiful and well-preserved attraction even during the winter despite its name. The lakes were frozen, the sun was shining and 'Reflections' by Mulan kept playing in my head. Good day, good company and epic adventures overall!

北京 Beijing

- Photo diary: Beijing pt. 1 -

After almost five months in China it was about time to check out the capital city. I spent altogether six days in Beijing, in which four of them I spent with Alexandra and two of them were spent solo. During this time I got to see so many new places, meet new people, practise my Mandarin with locals, and best of all - eat till my jeans ripped. Yes, that literally happened and now I have to budget for a new outfit damn it.


In Beijing we had a very flexible daily itinerary, and most of the places we went were spontaneous. While everywhere and everyone around us seemed to be extremely busy with the Chinese New Year preparations, it felt good to have the freedom to just relax and take things slowly as they came. I really enjoyed it! Coming up are some of the places we went: 

Zhengyangmen (Qianmen street)

Qianmen, also known as Zhengyangmen, means 'front gate' in Chinese which is exactly what this was build as during the Ming Dynasty. Leading from the gate is what we know of as Qianmen Dajie, the famous pedestrian street. The street was filled with small boutiques, coffee shops and restaurant offering all kinds of traditional Chinese treats. It was not as crowded as I expected it to be, but wherever it was a mass of people they would usually be at the same places. I find that very intersting though, especially here in China where I've had to ask myself why so many Chinese people love to queue so much? Maybe it's a culture of strong herd mentality. 

Tian'anmen

We went to Tian'anmen Square and I'm glad we did despite my mixed opinions about it. It's been written everywhere that this place is a must-see in Beijing, but honestly I found it a bit overrated. Compared to many of the buildings and cultural sights I've seen around Beijing this was not one of my favorites. The thought of all the political tensions that's been going here wasn't adding to the good vibes either to say the least. But it was interesting! And freezing cold.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

The resting place of China's former chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedang. As much as I'm intrigued by the history and respect that Chinese people still pay his tributes, I couldn't help but be reminded of North Korea. You figure out the rest. 

The Temple of Heaven

I still remember the first time I saw the Temple of Heaven. It was portrayed on a quilt inside the Parliament House in Canberra in Australia, randomly enough. At that time I didn't even know what or where it was but I've always remembered it since because it's such a unique construction. Thus seeing it in real life was extra special for me and definitely one of my highlights of this trip. 

上海 Shanghai

- Three days in Shanghai -

I’m back in Shanghai! This is my go-to place whenever I need a Ningbo city escape. After contemplating about where to spend the Chinese New Year, I’m happy I decided to stay in China. My friend Alexandra from Norway joined up and we explored Shanghai and Beijing together for a week during the CNY festives. As this was my fourth time in Shanghai since last September, I feel more or less familiarised with the city. I enjoyed showing her around some of my favourite spots, introduce the best Shanghainese dishes and be a Chinese translator with my Level -1 Mandarin skills during her virgin trip to the mainland. 

Day one 第一天: It took me the longest time to get from Ningbo to Shanghai. The travel conditions during Chinese New Year were crazy and the weather was freezing, hence why my train broke down and stood still for four hours. A journey that would've otherwise taken me merely two hours ended up as a six hours nightmare. I thought I was cursed or something considering all the delays and the emergency landing I had just encountered the week before. But looking at the bright side I’m safe and sound, and the rest of that evening was spent wandering around Nanjing Road, having good dumplings for dinner and catching up with Alex who had just arrived from Hong Kong (credits to her for most of the upcoming pictures since I barely used my camera in Shanghai.)

Day two 2天: Starting a full day of sight-seeing with ¥1.5 baozi for breakfast, yes please! If there’s anything that gets me rolling out of bed in the morning (literally) it’s this. With baozi in one hand and egg tarts in the other, we made our way to YuYuan Garden where we had more Xiao Long Baos, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings. After feast we made a quick stop to visit the Jing’an Temple before going to Tianzifang in the French Concession area. 

I then figured that we might as well could check out the Bird and Cricket Market, because I was curious after hearing talks about it. It's a little market hidden inside a street corner that sells everything from birds, dogs, cats, fish, turtles and insects such as crickets, which symbolises good luck in the Chinese culture.  

However the sights of puppies and kittens cramped inside small cages, and crickets locked inside little glass jars was very upsetting and frustrating. Believe me, I could rant for days about animal rights although now is not the time.

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
— Mahatma Gandhi

Later that evening we strolled along the Bund before going to my favorite restaurant for dinner, Lost Heavens. I try to avoid going to the same places twice, but I’ve been making exceptions as this was my third time dining here. The food is so good and I love the relaxed ambiance! After dinner we took a cab to Pudong area where we went skyline viewing from the 100 Century Avenue at Park Hyatt.

Day three 3天: We roamed around People’s Square and went café crawling around Anfu Lu. First we went to café Foamka, which does really cute 3D coffee (overpriced), followed by a nice evening at Drawing Room's beautiful rooftop café. For dinner we met up with two lovely girls near Jing’an Temple for some local Chinese food. They introduced us to Speak Low hidden bar, located in another French concession area in Luwan district. This place had some serious good vibes and as a diehard National Treasure-fan I can’t help but love the concept of hidden bars. I must say I've had a very enjoyable time overall.

Next stop, Beijing!

Mount Tiantai

- Taizhou, Zhejiang province -

It's been a few weeks since my last update, but life in China has been very enjoyable so far. As I mentioned in my previous post I went travelling during the Chinese national holiday, also known as the 'Golden Week'. It's an annual celebration in memorial of the Republic of China's founding that begins on the 1st of October and goes on for a good seven days. Seven days of 人山人海 "rén shān rén hǎi", figuratively meaning 'mountains and seas of people', but more or less literally describing the population of China. Chinese people get time off work during this holiday and more than 750 million people are thought to go travelling. That's approximately 150 x the population of Norway just to put it into perspective.
The main attraction sites in China wasn't an appealing option after hearing horror stories about overcrowding, so my friends and I decided to go for the road less traveled. Anything but getting stuck in a human traffic jam on the Great Wall of China or anywhere else I would potentially be crushed to death really. 

Our first stop was Taizhou, another beautiful city in Zhejiang province known for its natural sceneries. The province in general, I believe, is not the most popular destination for foreign tourists because during our time there we only bumped into one other group of Westerners - and coincidentally they were also students at my university. Although we couldn't agree more that we had chosen the perfect destination for a truly Chinese local experience, I'd lie if I say that it wasn't mentally, as well as physically exhausting (hiking the Great wall of Jiangnan, Mt. Tiantai and Yandang mountain to name a few). But the sceneries were extraordinary; turquoise lakes, big waterfalls and Buddhist monasteries high up in the mountains really made it worthwhile... A nice little get-away from the chaotic city life of crazy road traffic and heavy air pollution.

However, mentally it felt like I got struck by one culture shock after another. I think I've experienced 'real China' now! Additionally the struggle of language barriers has never felt so real. Especially because I was the only Asian-looking person in a group of seven foreigners. At first it was quite hilarious to be the one that always got approached by local people and then see their faces when they realised my Latvian friend spoke better Chinese than I did. Simultaneously it was also one of the biggest frustrations, because there were so many misassumptions that I was the group's spokesperson just because I was Asian too. Using my limited mandarin skills to argue with taxi drivers that kept ripping us off was nothing but a fruitless battle. Every conversation would more or less end up with me saying "wo bu shi zhong guo ren, wo tingbudong!!" (I'm not Chinese, I don't understand). "Bye bye." 

But every day is a learning experience. Overcoming challenges like these forces me out of my comfort zone big time, and that's good. If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you and as I've said before, China is all about change.

And as usual I took a lot of photos, as well as doing a little bit of filming - so heads up for another potential videoblog in the (distant) future. Meanwhile check out my video from Shanghai if you haven't already done so. Zàijiàn!

China: A New Chapter Begins

- I have arrived in Ningbo, China -

Exactly one month has past since I dragged my overweight luggage through High Street of the university campus drenched in sweat, mixed emotions and jet lag. I arrived one week before induction week, and campus was so empty I had to ask myself if this was China. I solo travelled around Shanghai for four days prior and I was beginning to get used to overcrowding. It was one of the most revitalising experiences of my life by the way, but I'll save that story for later. Anyway, it was an interesting phase I went through those first few days living alone in my new flat while waiting for my flatmates to arrive. I was excited and ready to start my new life in China, but at the same time I felt homesick, slightly lonely and more than anything - a thousand miles away from my comfort zone. Language barriers certainly wasn't making the situation any better.

It took me a couple of weeks to get used to the environment; to hear Chinese language everywhere I went; to learn how to say 'I don't eat pork' in Mandarin and then get it served anyway; or to simply realise that crossing the streets on green light is considered a safety risk. Culture shock is a matter of course, and eventually I'll be able to embrace it all. Embrace those squat toilets; embrace that people spits on the streets wherever I go (this is a hard one); embrace the smell of stinky tofu; embrace the air quality in China; embrace the fact that my grandma runs faster than the Internet.. The list is as long as the river I'll cry if I think about them all. But don't get me wrong. I believe that every little thing offers something unique and valuable, even if the signs are not so clear (or totally mis-translated like most English signs around here). Quoting a poster at the mall: "You are my love, my angel. Don't treat me like potato."

Every 'bad' experience is just a way for me to gain new perspectives and appreciate cultural differences even more. Since I don't always have VPN to access social media, I've become more social and outgoing in real life. When I'm forced to use antibac ten times a day, it makes me question basic hygiene. Here in China I have witnessed parents let their kids wee in the middle of the street; a chef spitting on the kitchen floor; a Golden Retriever running around the restaurant while I was having dinner.. Yesterday me and my friends even saw a women throwing up in the bus and then throw the bag of puke out of the window without even closing the bag!? As much as it was traumatising for all us other passengers, imagine the trauma of the person who had the bag landed on. Imagine casually riding your bicycle, life is beautiful - flowers & rainbows - and then out of nowhere, bam! a flying bag of puke in the face.

So how come some things so freakin' strange be considered a normality here? Or rather, why am I reacting to it while others are not? Isn't it just so interesting that we are all human beings only separated by geographical borders, yet it's like we come from two separate worlds. I'm getting too philosophical, but my point is... The contrast between Norway and China is enormous and so for me, the privileges of my life becomes so much more apparent. Edinburgh certainly was a life-changing experience, but I think that China will change me in a totally different way and I'm excited. 

I know a blog post can only give so much insight of what has actually been going on in my life this past month. My effort to stay active on social media lately hasn't been great either, so I might have a bit of catch-up to do. At the same time I really enjoy the time 'offline' with good friends, doing new things every day and truly live in the moment. I've been a shameless phone addict for way too long, so to no longer feel the need to constantly check my phone has been a great personal achievement. I hope to keep it up, but I'll make sure to take some good photos along the way to post on Instagram every now and then.

Meanwhile I'm just going to take each day as it comes. The most amazing places and people that I've met so far have all been serendipitous surprises and I've got a feeling that the best is yet to come. Stay tuned for another update after the Chinese national holiday! Tomorrow I'm off on a backpacking trip to Taizhou to explore more of Zhejiang province. This week is supposed to be the peak time for travel in China, so fingers crossed that everything goes well.

Welcome to China!

- My first days in 上海 Shanghai -

In September 2015 I spent four days alone in Shanghai before starting university. It was a revitalising experience and it took me a long time to gather all my thoughts and put them into words. I started this post in September, but I never finished and I've postponed it since so here we go.


After rather emotional farewelll with my parents at the airport in Oslo, a cancelled flight in London, a layover in Amsterdam, a 14-hours long flight journey and an acute feeling of homesickness, I finally touched ground in Shanghai. And what better way to be greeted at the airport in a far foreign country where no one spoke English, than by two Chinese taxi drivers literally fist-fighting each other over who could rip me off the most. Ironically, both were illegal black cabs that I had just read about before in an article "Top 5 Biggest Tourist Scams in China". So obviously I didn't go with neither of them, which saved me 500RMB and the potential scenario of ending up in someone's back truck.

Warm, exhausted and jet-lagged, I couldn't wait to arrive at Kingtown Riverside Hotel - my home for the next four days. It had merely gone ten hours since I landed but yet I'd been heavily struck by culture shock. I spent the first night in bed recovering from all of the new impressions and the water poison, while simultaneously crying out of loneliness in-between. With no functional sim-card, a lagging Wi-Fi and no VPN, I had discovered the recipe to complete isolation. But since I have an appetite that needs to be fed every second hour, I was eventually forced out of bed and into the wilderness: the street food markets. I'm not gonna lie, Shanghai was so far out of my comfort zone that I have ever been in my life. To the extent that buying my first meal out was so nerve-wracking in terms of communication that I just pointed at something randomly and hoped for the best. 

The next days got better though. I was slowly familiarising myself with the environment around me. The sound of shouting street vendors, the non-stop car honking, the spitting... Mmm, like music to my ears by now. Jokes. But I slowly learnt to enjoy the crazy new experiences, and being in my own company. I got confident enough to take the metro around the city and see different places. I even approached another solo-traveller from South Korea that was my age, and we spent a whole day together being tourists and eating good food. Thanks to her I went places I wouldn't have gone otherwise! 

My first time Shanghai was much more than just another travel. It was four days filled with new perspectives, new cultures and experiences, and the start of a new beginning. But it was also the moment I could finally say I had accomplished one of my biggest dreams that I've worked so hard for! And although leaving everyone and everything to move across the world by myself hasn't always been easy, I know it will be worth it. So let the adventures begin!