Before leaving for the South China city of Guangzhou, there are a few important things to have written down:
1. What to pack
2. Who to buy gifts for
3. How much money to take
There are also a few important questions to ask yourself:
1. Have I contacted my GP and had the relevant vaccinations before leaving the UK?
2. Have I registered with the FCO via their website so that they know where I am and can pass on any important information to me if there was a natural disaster in the area I am staying in etc?
3. Have I photocopied my passport, visa, flight itinerary and travel documents in case I lose them?
4. Do I know how to use chopsticks? (They’re everywhere, so say ‘zaijian’ [goodbye] to your knife and fork!)
Firstly, I found that a checklist helped me to remember everything I needed; I packed light, summer clothing which turned out to be ideal as it is a hot and humid climate in Guangzhou, as well as an umbrella which became useful as a parasol during the day. Sun lotion with a high SPF/UV is also important, as is plenty of mosquito repellent because, though the malaria risk for Guangzhou is low, you’ll still see the little critters flying about! Also remember to check the website for the airport you’re travelling from and the website for the company responsible for your flights to make sure there are no last minute alterations to your journey and that you’re not carrying anything you shouldn’t in your hand luggage such as liquids, batteries or more than one electronic item.
Secondly, gifts! There were two main shopping areas in Guangzhou which I visited. One was a 20 minute walk from the accommodation, and the other was a short train ride away and was called Beijing Lu. I found loads of different things which I could bring home; from cat figurines to cat key rings, China Dolls, cross-stitches, an array of fans in different sizes, colours, and patterns, chopsticks, ceramics, jewellery, bags, books, and – rather oddly – a LOT of Angry Birds memorabilia! I bought quite a few chopsticks sets which came in decoratively stitched bags to bring home for friends, and at 3 yuan each (the equivalent of about 30p!), they were definitely a bargain. This leads me onto the last, but certainly not the least, point: Money. The currency in mainland China is RMB (in the written language, it’s called yuan but in the spoken language you’ll often hear people call it kuai) and that of Hong Kong is HK dollars. With regards to the currency of mainland China, one British pound is the equivalent of about 10 yuan and with a cold drink and a meal setting you back about 35-40 yuan (£3.50-£4.00) you don’t need to take a heap of money to get by for three weeks! I converted £350 into RMB, and £50 into HK dollars and found that this was sufficient for covering the cost of my transport to/from the airport on arrival/departure from China, my meals, my souvenirs, and day to day costs. If you plan to use your bank card whilst in China, it’s crucial that you notify your bank before you leave the UK and that you use the recommended banks whilst abroad; the names of these were provided to us, along with other important information, in a handbook by South China University of Technology (SCUT).
Saturday 16th July – Chengdu experience
In the pre-departure talk we were given at Edge Hill, we were told to expect some stares from the locals. However, it was at Chengdu airport that we found this out first-hand! Whilst waiting for our connecting flight to Guangzhou, almost everybody that walked past stared, or did a double take when they noticed three Western girls sitting on the airport floor waiting for their connecting flight. Everybody was friendly and just curious as there were very few Western people around; a feature which was commonplace throughout the three weeks, and which made us ourselves stare when we saw other Western-looking people out and about in Guangzhou! Whilst waiting, one group of Chinese women began taking photographs OF us (rather than with us, haha!) which gave us all a laugh.
Sunday 17th July – Arrival
When we arrived at Guangzhou airport, we were met by a representative of the University who took us by car to the accommodation building. One of the first things that hit me (literally) on leaving the airport was the humidity. Within a few minutes, your clothes begin to stick to you and you’re reaching for your bottle of water, reminding you that you should have packed the lightest of clothes you could find! Driving away from the airport, you become aware that words on the roads and the road signs are replaced by Chinese characters; you’re no longer in the UK and are heading for an adventure into a new culture!
Monday 18th July – Opening Ceremony
Today was structured in three parts: first, we had the opening ceremony, followed by an examination to test our proficiency in Chinese and lastly the collection of our learning materials. The opening ceremony gave us a chance to see who else was taking part in the international summer programme, and just by looking around the lecture theatre you could see that ‘international’ was the perfect word. Whilst we represented the U.K., there were students from Vietnam, South Korea, Mongolia, Spain, Germany, Japan, America, Canada, Russia, Kenya, Zambia and beyond! All of us, though, were united in our interest in China and our willingness to engage with the Chinese language. This was highlighted in the multiple speeches that were made by representatives from SCUT before one person from each university was handed a large flag, welcoming them to the university and the 2011 summer programme. Afterwards, we began meeting the staff who would support and guide us throughout the three weeks, and were given a purple SCUT t-shirt to wear for the official photographs and to remember the trip by. Next, we were taken to an examination room and given a test paper which was written completely in Chinese characters, a daunting experience given we could just about say ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’; this immediately placed us firmly in Group A for the duration of the programme, enabling us to learn basic Chinese greetings, expressions, and a range of scenarios from ordering food and drink to telling the time and describing ourselves, our families and our work. To support our studies, we were provided with three text books. The first was for our intensive reading classes, and provided sample dialogues in Chinese characters and the Chinese writing system known as pin yin for each topic we were covering, as well as a list of the key words for each session and exercises to help us with grammar. The second and third books were for our speaking and listening classes. One allowed us to learn the four tones and the neutral tone which make up the Chinese language, whilst the second book which we used in the third week enabled us to build upon our pronunciation and move towards recognising the Chinese characters to which the individual sounds are attached. By structuring the lessons in this way, we were able to gradually build up our confidence, from the basic level of knowing how to say a word, to how to write and recognise it as a Chinese character and build grammatically correct sentences, questions, and eventually whole paragraphs.
Week One of Classes: Tuesday 19th July – Sunday 24th July
These classes were from Monday to Friday, 8:30am – 10:10am. An early start! Before we could learn any vocabulary, we firstly had to understand how each letter was pronounced. This was broken down into vowels and consonants, and the teacher demonstrated each sound before we repeated it twice as a whole class, and then individually. This process, which became commonplace in the classroom, enabled our teacher Zheng Yuan to give us individual advice so that we could keep honing our pronunciation to be as accurate as possible. From here, the vocabulary we learnt was structured topic by topic. In the first week, we were taught the rules of spelling, basic greetings and expressions, how to express our nationality, how to question others about theirs and also negation. So, here goes:
“Ni Hao! Wo jiao Jennifer, wo shi Yingguo ren. Wo bu shi Meiguo ren. Ni shi na guo ren?” [Hello! I am called Jennifer, I am British. I am not American (an assertion I found myself making on numerous occasions!). You are from which country?].
Speaking and Listening
These sessions, which took place from 10:20am-noon built upon the vocabulary we were learning in our intensive reading class. However, our speaking and listening classes were a more scenario based approach to learning. We would begin by introducing a topic, for example, food and drink. In our text book, a sample dialogue showed the conversation between a waitress and a customer making their order. The teacher, Yang Mei, would begin by reading the dialogue sentence by sentence, and we would copy her, repeating each sentence twice. This would allow her to continually correct our pronunciation as a class if there was a word we were particularly struggling to pronounce correctly. This was then followed by pair work, with one person from each pair playing the waitress and the other playing the customer. The teacher would walk around the class and listen to each pair as they practiced, providing advice on an individual basis. This allowed us to build up our confidence so that we were speaking clearly and accurately in each lesson, and equipped us with some vocabulary we could use outside of the class room.
Tuesday’s extra-curricular activity was Chinese character writing with He Jijun; a teacher who was full of energy and enthusiasm, and created a fun learning environment. We were given a booklet full of Chinese characters, detailing how to pronounce the characters in pin yin, and the English translation for each character. This booklet was supported by a computer programme, which actually showed the symbols being drawn on a stroke by stroke basis (you have to know the right sequence of strokes by the time He Jijun calls you up to the blackboard, or you’ll be drawing it again, haha!). Although, at first, we didn’t understand why the stroke order was so important, it became clear that symmetry is an important factor in drawing Chinese characters. With this in mind, the sequence of strokes helps you to draw as accurately as possible. This was one of my favourite afternoon activities I attended!
On Thursday, I attended dumpling making. It was lead by the teaching assistants and gave us not only a chance to make some Chinese food, but also a relaxed environment in which we could talk to other students on the programme as we went about the kitchen, preparing equipment and chopping up veg! It was also an early test of my ability using chopsticks (which didn’t go too well!), and the amused teaching assistants helped me to pick up some of the dumplings and put them into my bowl when they were cooked. I definitely improved from week one though!
Friday’s afternoon activity was Chinese calligraphy, another class which proved to be a personal favourite. We were shown how to correctly hold a calligraphy pen, and again the importance of symmetry within Chinese character drawing was emphasised. A few spills of ink later, and we were off drawing some basic Chinese characters, with the guidance of He Jijun and his character strokes fresh in our minds! Our Chinese calligraphy teacher, Chen Chaoying, came around the class room and circled the characters we’d drawn well, gesturing to the strokes on un-circled characters which needed to be improved. Through this process of trial and error, our ability got stronger and at the end of the class, the teaching assistant and the calligraphy teacher drew words which we requested. I had my name written in Chinese calligraphy which is something I’m definitely going to keep for a long time to come!
Sunday – Free time!
After a week of early mornings, Sunday had finally arrived and that meant one thing: a day off! With our cameras at the ready, we went to see what we could find in our local area and we were not disappointed! The architecture of the university buildings we passed, with their traditional roofs and passageways lit by lanterns, was beautiful. Added to that were bodies of water which seemed to run the length of our area of campus, with a bridge that crossed onto an island with trees, stone tables and chairs were we spent a brief time. With plenty of locals shops were we could buy day to day items, restaurants we could dine at and a multitude of souvenir shops, everything we needed was close by. However, with Chinese characters and humid weather in every direction, the fact we were no longer at home was reinforced. This was no longer a daunting prospect though, as we now had our support network at SCUT established and the campus was certainly a pleasant place to spend the remaining two weeks!
Week Two Classes: 25th July – 31st July
This week, we were taught a range of new topics. These were how to ask questions, or turn statements into questions, using the word ‘ma’. Apart from such grammatical points, we also added to our vocabulary as we learnt a range of words relating to school and asking for / giving directions. Dictations and homework tasks have also become a regular occurrence. At the start of each lesson, our teacher will read words from the key words we have learnt in the previous lessons and we will have to write the pin yin for that word and, if we can remember it, the Chinese character. It’s certainly a lot to remember but the more practice we get, the stronger our written Chinese will be. When the dictation is over, our sheets are collected in and the following day we will receive them back on an individual basis so that our tutor can give us feedback on how to improve if there is an error we keep making throughout the dictation, for example with identifying tones. Our homework tasks consist of around five different tasks from our text book and they range from choosing the right word to turn statements into questions, completing dialogues, and writing paragraphs about different subjects. The advice we’ve been given is to continually practice drawing the Chinese characters so that we do not have to rely so heavily on reading the pin yin that is also provided in the text book and we have been given guidance of what other books we can purchase off campus to help us with drawing Chinese characters accurately. The word which is continually used by our teacher is ‘practice’, and its certainly something I’ve been doing as I really want to get to grips with the Chinese language. Practice is also important because, outside of the dictations and the homework exercises, our teacher will ask questions in Chinese to different members of the class and you need to be keeping up to date with the work load in order to understand what is being asked and to know how to respond correctly. If you struggle, the tutor will repeat the question, or will give you an example of how you could answer, so that you always feel supported in your studies and aren’t being left behind.
Speaking and Listening
As well as practicing different scenarios, and learning the vocabulary associated with each one, we have also been tested on our ability to recognise tones, finals and initials. Again, this is guided by exercises in the text books we were provided with. With regards to tones, a word will appear in pin yin but will have no tone marks over any of the vowels; the teacher will read the word and we have to place tone marks over the vowels and at the end of the exercise she will tell us which tones she was using so that we can mark our own work. With regards to initials, the first sound of a word will be missing in the text book, and we have to fill it in based on what we hear the teacher saying and vice versa for the finals; the first sound will be given, and we will have to fill in the last sound we hear. This was challenging at first, with some sounds seeming to be exactly the same as others. However, as we continued to practice these sorts of exercises, I felt that my ability to differentiate between different sounds got more accurate and my marks improved over time. Chinese characters also became a more prominent feature of the lessons, as opposed to pin yin. More sentences would appear in Chinese characters on the blackboard and, as in our intensive reading, we had to keep practicing independently if we wanted to get to grips with Chinese. This mix of tasks in which I had to speak Chinese and tasks in which I had to listen to the language being spoken definitely helped me to improve my spoken Chinese and went hand-in-hand with the written Chinese I was developing in intensive reading classes.
Monday’s afternoon activity was a trip to the Brewery of Pearl River. It began with a presentation on the history of beer brewing, and then a tour of the building and of the workers bottling the beer. What was striking was the layout of some of the building, with the lids from kegs of beer being used to make massive pictures on the walls, large scale beer bottle sculptures scaling from the ground floor to the top of the first floor, and floors made of glass with beer bottles underneath the glass. There was also an area you could walk through which was off-balance and made you feel like you were drunk as you tried to stumble out of the other side which made everybody laugh as they took pictures and tried to walk! Pictures documented the history of the company and at the end we were able to sample some of the beer. Also, the location of the brewery right alongside the Pearl River meant we got to take some lovely photos from the windows!
On Friday, I attended an afternoon class in traditional Chinese paper cutting. This class was lead by the teaching assistants, who had prepared a slide show of different patterns which could be cut into the paper. We were given a sheet with three different designs on, and numerous pieces of red paper to cut our designs into. The sheets we were given gave us a step-by-step guide of how to fold, mark, and finally cut the paper to produce a desired effect, though some of our end results left a lot to be desired! From flowers and birds to good luck symbols, there was a design for everybody to try and it was certainly a lot of fun trying to cut them correctly! I’ve kept the designs I made and plan to store them with the products of my Chinese calligraphy so that I have plenty of things to remind me of my time at SCUT!
Saturday – Visiting Bruce Lee’s Ancestor’s home and a meal with SCUT staff
We began our day by touring a temple and were able to see reconstructions of what the area would have looked like many years ago. We also watched a woman making pottery, and a man who then painted the intricate details onto the pottery. They were very talented! We were able to look in the many souvenir shops, and found buddhas of all different sizes and a number of different ceramic pieces (although some were quite pricey!). Afterwards, we went for a meal with some of the staff from SCUT and it gave us an opportunity to talk about the different areas of the world we were from amongst ourselves. During the meal, I was sat with a 16 year old Chinese girl called Bridget whose parents had sent her to the summer programme to mix with international students. She was able to practice her spoken English with me and the other UK students, and she also helped us to practice our spoken Chinese. Here we saw the differences in the way meals are served in China.. a large number of different dishes were served, including chicken, fish, rice, and a whole host of different vegetables! The most striking difference was the way in which both the fish and the chicken were served.. both still had their heads on!! This, along with the plate of ducks’ toes, made some people squeamish but we thought “Whilst in China..” and gave everything a go. Or at least.. we attempted to! Haha! In the afternoon, we travelled to an area of China called Foshan Province and it was here that we were given a short tour of Bruce Lee’s ancestor’s home. Although it was only small, it was covered in pictures of Bruce Lee and his family, and the tour guide provided us with information about his career and his family life. Afterwards, due to bad weather, we had to cut our trip around the area short but it was an interesting day overall.
Week Three Classes: 1st August – 5th August
This week we had a lot of preparation to do as Wednesday’s class means one thing: an examination. Thus, I’ve been practicing my ‘shui’ from my ‘shu’ and my ‘na’ from my ‘nar’. I certainly feel like I’ve learnt a lot in the last three weeks and I think being immersed in the Chinese language in this way has helped me to pick things up pretty quickly! It’s certainly a lot different from learning a language in a classroom were you leave at the end of class only to speak / hear English again. We continue to learn new topics such as time, money, more numbers and transport, as well as having our knowledge continually tested through homework tasks and dictations so that we can be as accurate with our Chinese writing as possible.
Speaking and Listening
This week I have definitely seen a step up in the level we have been working at. We finished our first speaking and listening book and the second one we have moved onto has reinforced why practice in the first two weeks was so important. Now, we are greeted by the same sorts of vocabulary we dealt with in previous weeks but the level of pin yin has dramatically decreased and so our ability to read and draw Chinese characters has really been tested. Even the activities and explanations written on the blackboard by our teacher are heavily in Chinese characters which immerses you in this aspect of the language. By keeping up with the homework exercises in the intensive reading classes, I felt that I was somewhat prepared for this increase in difficulty, and if I struggled or got something wrong, my teacher was clear in her explanations of what I’d done wrong and how I could continue to improve.
On Monday, we had our third session of Chinese Characters, and a focus was placed on connecting the different characters we were learning to draw so that we could write full, descriptive sentences.
On Tuesday afternoon, we had more free time so a group of us travelled by train to a shopping area called Beijing Lu. Here, there were many souvenirs on offer including Chinese dolls, ceramic cats and plenty of jewellery. We also went into a local temple which had large, gold statues of buddhas, aisles in which people prayed and the lighting of incense. It was a very peaceful place to enter and the architecture inside the buildings was on a scale which had by now come to characterise China.
Friday 5th August – The Closing Ceremony
This was certainly a good end to the summer programme. Members from the three different teaching classes formed groups and each showed a different talent. Some sang, others danced, some gave readings, and there was even a bit of martial arts. The five of us who had travelled from England decided to write a poem and each read a verse from it documenting our time and experiences in China. It seemed pretty daunting at first, sat in the lecture theatre waiting for the ceremony to begin with our paper in our hands. However, as each group got up in turn, the atmosphere was really fun and relaxed, with people cheering on their classmates and clapping so going last suddenly didn’t seem so bad. Our poem was titled ‘Yingguo meets Zhongguo’ [which translates as ‘Britain meets China’] and we had piano music playing from a computer in the background as we read. After the closing ceremony, we went to a local restaurant with all of the staff who had taken part in the summer programme, and we toasted our experiences before being given certificates written in both English and Chinese to show that we’d attended. Another item which I will be keeping as a memory of my time in the East! We also took photographs with members of staff and other students to remember each other by when we left to our different homelands. On Saturday, we will bid a fond ‘zaijian’ [goodbye!] to the city of Guangzhou and will be spending a weekend in Hong Kong. Exciting!
Saturday 6th August – A Tour of Hong Kong
After a series of immigration checks and numerous journeys by coach and shuttle bus, we finally arrived in Hong Kong! Our tour guides took us by coach to a number of areas in Hong Kong but the one that stood out for me was travelling to ‘The Peak’. This involved ascending a hill which allowed you to look down on the buildings of Hong Kong which were themselves tall enough! Although I don’t like heights, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I took a few peaks from the window as we ascended. We were then able to shop at a shopping complex at the peak of the hill, which also afforded great views of Hong Kong’s landscape. Here, I bought a large black fan for my brother which had gold dragons sprawled across it on one side, and Chinese writing all over the back. It was beautiful and I considered keeping it for myself for a time! I also bought postcards of Hong Kong, mirrors with Chinese women drawn on the covers, gold pens with dragons climbing them reading ‘Hong Kong’ and I saw many traditional Chinese dresses and other clothing! We were only able to spend around an hour here before we had to go back to the coach, which was a shame, but the evening certainly made up for it as we went on a boat ride at night and saw the buildings of Hong Kong lit up. Breathtaking is a word which springs immediately to mind. The scale of the buildings and the vibrant, neon lights which shine from the coastline as you pass are not something you see back home in the UK, and I certainly made the most of it, standing at the front of the boat (though I did get a little wet!) recording videos and taking photographs to remember the experience by. Tomorrow: Hong Kong Disneyland! The perfect end to my time in China!
Sunday 7th August– Hong Kong Disneyland!
With my map and my HK dollars at the ready, I entered Hong Kong Disneyland. It was certainly a day to remember! Wandering from area to area, there were ample opportunities to have your photograph taken with Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Buzz Lightyear (if you fancied standing in the queues for a bit!). We began by entering into Fantasy Land and watched Donald Duck in 4D as he met different Disney characters and interrupted their performances. With the help of our glasses, we saw Aladdin float across the audience on his carpet, Ariel blowing bubbles out of the screen towards us (and as the bubbles popped, the audience was sprayed with real water!), and had an array of orchestral instruments flying past our heads which made us flinch more than once. It was all very realistic! Afterwards, we went on a Jungle cruise and saw a live performance of the Lion King. That was definitely one of the highlights of the day, seeing the large scale props of Simba, Timone and Pumba. After refuelling with a drink and Mickey Mouse shaped sushi, we were ready to catch the train which toured the different areas of Disneyland but, waiting on the balcony of the train station, we watched something more spectacular: the parade of Disney characters! A procession of characters and floats representing the different creations of Disney passed by, with music blaring, and characters waving to us from our vantage point above the crowds. I recorded all of it on my camera, so I can watch it all back and remind myself of the scale on which it all played out as I endure my sixteen hours of flying to get back to cold, old England and reality tomorrow! No more ducks’ toes, cucumber / sushi flavoured crisps, or eel fried rice for me! Zaijian Zhongguo!
Monday 8th August – Arriving back in the U.K.
After three weeks of learning Mandarin, I would definitely recommend such trips to other Edge Hill students. It not only gives you the opportunity to begin learning a language, it also gives you the opportunity to meet like-minded people from all over the world and allows you to experience a new culture first-hand, rather than hearing about it in a British class room. I’m going to continue learning Mandarin now that I’m back home, and have already found a beginner’s course which starts in October. I am definitely looking forward to learning more!