So as soon as I was elected President of Pendle College, I was told about the opportunity to go to china for three weeks with LUSU. Obviously this was great news to me as I am always keen to explore the world, and considering the furthest away from home I had ever been before was Portugal, I was keen to explore further. I felt a bit like Samwise Gamgee leaving The Shire for the first time on his journey to Mordor. But I was definitely looking forward to it beforehand, and I must say that this trip changed the way I think about the world – I hate to use a cliché but – It was a truly life changing experience.
The aim of this trip was to essentially see what it was like being an international student, and to see what initiatives us as JCR members can do to facilitate the integration of international students in JCR activities on campus. The trip was sponsored partly by LUSU overseas and I will be forever grateful for to LUSU for giving me this opportunity.
Now I was slightly apprehensive before getting to the airport because I didn’t know anyone else going. On the trip were representatives of all the college’s JCRs, and most colleges sent their JCR presidents (apart from Fylde and LUGRAD). There were also students there who had signed up to the LUSU overseas programme. The fact I didn’t know anyone else on the trip wasn’t such a big issue, I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of people, and without them, the trip would have been nowhere near as good.
One thing I didn’t realise was just how long 13 hour plane journeys seem to take. After attempting to watch various films with the world’s worst headphones (which did nothing to drown out the engine noise of the plane, I eventually sat reading my newspaper) which I had luckily bought from WHSmith’s before taking off). Another thing was trying to avoid physical contact from the guy sitting next to me as he drooped further down onto my arm as he fell asleep slowly. Oh I can’t wait to fly business class one day.
For some reason our plane went to Hong Kong first and then up towards Beijing, which is why the flight took so much longer than it needed to, especially as we were sat on the runway in Hong Kong for what seemed like an eternity. As a result when we arrived at Beijing Airport, we were all pretty much walking zombies. This very much delighted the party waiting for us outside the arrival gate, who were all happy and smiley students from Beijing Jaotong University. I felt bad because the British students, by this point, didn’t really want to engage in much conversation, despite all of the Chinese students there seeming so happy.
So after the worst and longest journey of my life, we then had to get on a coach with no air conditioning which also smelt of stale cigarette smoke. One particular Chinese student, who we all loved called Harry, started welcoming us to their university on the bus, and then proceeded to sing his favourite song to us. Now it was quite funny how a group of British people react in this situation (imagine for example someone bursting out singing on the 3A). I was dying of embarrassment for the poor lad, but then realised they probably don’t get as embarrassed as us lot. This was a theme running throughout the whole trip, the Chinese students who we met were pretty much unembarrassable, which we found quite surprising. If there’s one thing I will remember about the whole experience, it must be how students and staff from BJTU made us all feel so welcome, from the instant we got there to when we left. One thing which stays with me was how emotional everyone was when we left, the guys at BJTU we so great and we will definitely stay in touch.
We went to the great wall on the first Saturday of the trip, and this was by far the best day. It took roughly three hours to get there by coach, as soon as we navigated the horrendous Beijing traffic. The temperature that day was around 35 degrees Celsius, the sun was beating down and we needed to climb to the top of the wall. Half of the group opted to walk up the many steps to get to the accrual wall, where I and a few others opted to take the chairlift, which (I’m not kidding) was a wooden bench with a bar across the front suspended from a cable about 50 metres from the ground. This wasn’t the most pleasurable of experiences. On the wall itself we were just in awe of how people could build such an amazing structure (oh you can’t see it from space by the way). Every 50 metres or so there is a tower along the wall, which we could climb to the top of to admire the views, which were spectacular, at the same time wondering how many slaves died building the structure we were standing on.
We had the opportunity to drink far more than I imagined, and the beer was so cheap! On the first Monday of the trip we went to a bar where we got unlimited beer for the equivalent of £4. Similarly, a bottle of beer from the supermarket worked out at 25p. On the same day as our great all trip we decided to explore some of the very nice looking clubs in the centre of Beijing. The BJTU students booked taxis for us. When we got there it is clear that China, despite coming to be a communist country, is in fact not a communist county. I had never seen such a display of wealth and extravagance until I got to this one street. On this street were the most extravagantly decorated clubs you can imagine, outside were parked Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys plus any other nice car brand you can think of. These cars were just left there as if their owners didn’t really care if they got damaged/scratched etc.
As we went in, we were given free entry and free unlimited drinks for the whole night. We were shown to a table where they presented us with 5 bottles of spirits, champagne and mixers, which would be replaced if used up. As you can imagine, we all had a fair amount to drink, but at the same time I felt quite melancholy. It is simply unfair how all of us white people strolled into a club and had a night out for free when there are so many poor and homeless people in Beijing. This was a display of capitalism at its worst.
In the third week we departed from Beijing on a bullet train to a coastal area called Wehai, over the sea from North Korea. This was because of a newly opened BJTU campus there called “The Lancaster College”, to recognise the partnership between our two universities. Strictly speaking we were about an hour away from Wehai itself, and the place where we were staying was extremely strange. Basically, in china the central government give huge subsidies to construction companies to build whole towns and cities before the process of counter-urbanisation happens (this is part of an initiative to reduce overcrowding in large cities). As a result we were the only guests in our hotel, in the only inhabited building around it seemed. One night we could see the extent
of this ghost town because we sneaked onto the roof of our hotel tower. We could see for miles and miles, but hardly any lights were on in buildings, roads without cars, streetlight lighting empty streets. It was a really surreal place, which made it even more surprising when we discovered a very busy karaoke bar 2 minutes away from the hotel. It really was a strange experience. The campus followed this same theme, there were only 300 students studying there, and as a result the campus seemed dead. But in 10 years’ time, the whole place will be filled with people I’m sure.
Now the food in china – I really did try to like it, but as a vegetarian it’s very hard to get decent veggie options, especially when you don’t know how to say “is there meat in this” in Chinese. The food on the whole was ok, I ended up getting the same 3 dishes every day.
China really is a great country, and now all the JCR presidents have various initiatives in mind to improve the Lancaster student experience for international students, in line with LUSUs new “We Are Lancaster” campaign. As I’ve said it was a life-changing experience, with so many memories that I cannot mention in this blog post. Special shout out to George Walmsley and Augustine Vega, my fellow pendleites who came on the trip with me. Also all the JCR presidents Kate, Steve, Paul, Jojo, Georgia, Qasim, Fiona, Lauren and everyone else on the trip. And thanks to Ben Harper, Will Hedley and Julia Devaux for making sure we didn’t die.
Sam – Pendle JCR President