15 December 2016
James Lester writes about living and studying in China.

I arrived in Guangzhou in late summer, 2014, the climate was hot and humid and the living conditions a little different to those I was accustomed to in the UK. I was studying at South China University of Technology, located in the Tianhe District. After studying Chinese for around 10 months at Lancaster University Confucius Institute, I had passed my HSK 3 exam and was eager to take my learning to the next level. I wasn't nervous. I had been to China for the first time just a month before at the Silk Road International Summer School and my Chinese had already got to a level where I could get by. I did not understand much of anything anyone said to me, however my speaking was okay, and I recognised most of the basic characters. It was time to take it to the next level. I knew to do that I would need to work hard, and push a little out of my comfort zone at every opportunity. I was excited and ready to get going.

I arrived late due to an internal flight delay, and ended up sleeping in the dorm of some Liverpool students. Whilst we were in different classes, the Liverpool guys were good friends to have around. I was pleasantly surprised by the accommodation, and in terms of furnishings it was better equipped than the dormitory I lived in on a year exchange in America. One single bed, a desk with shelves and drawers, one large cupboard, a table and the shower room. The accommodation was managed by the ‘Uncle’. Perhaps the angriest man you could possibly meet, and he did not speak a word of English. This was brilliant for learning Chinese, although not everyone saw it that way! Some of the other English students would find me to try and tell Uncle something. Whilst it was by no means a fluent easy conversation, it was great practice. Every problem required me to research some new words and then try and get it across to Uncle. I remember how great it was when I explained our toilet had blocked and 5 minutes later Uncle appeared with a mop in hand, which he quickly thrust down the toilet. No nonsense. Although Uncle would never admit it, I think he quite liked me by the end of the year. There was the ‘Auntie’ too. Younger than Uncle, her main role was cleaning and maintaining the upkeep of the building. Everyday she tirelessly mopped every floor (5 in total) and emptied all the bins, although without soap or sanitiser it was difficult to see the point of it.   I shared the room with my flatmate, also from the UK. Although we kept our room fairly basic, some of the other students who were staying there for a year made their rooms very homely after a quick trip to Ikea.  One thing to prepare for are the mosquitos. They seem to bite your ankles whenever they get a chance. Perhaps a small price to pay for 30 degrees heat in October!

I had already been in China two weeks. Chinese friends from Shanghai had warned me Guangzhou didn’t have much to offer, and that a lot of people in Guangzhou come from different parts of China, which for some Chinese can raise questions of safety. I think these views are unsubstantiated. In my experience, Guangzhou and other Asian cities are some of safest places you can go. They are busy, crowded and full of hustle and bustle during the day, then come nightfall they are quiet and unnervingly peaceful. While Guangzhou is infamous for its historic underground economy, the city and demographics have changed dramatically since Deng Xiao Ping opened up new economic freedoms in the region. Now with thriving commerce all around, and one of the best planned central districts of all major cities I have been to, it is a great place to dip your toe into China. 

Living on the university campus protects you a little from the to and fro of the city. It was a fifteen minute walk to get to the subway, however my preference was always the bike. If you are brave enough to try the roads here you can get to the city centre in no time. Not only that, riding my bike allowed me to see and feel more of the city. I regularly made trips to the nearby Tea Mountain and soaked up the city panorama. To put Guangzhou into context, it is at the heart of Guangdong Province, South China, which has the largest provincial economy in the country.   Over 107 million people live in the region, around 14 million in Guangzhou itself. One of the nicest areas is Zhejiang New Town which is lined with skyscrapers, planned incredibly well and a very pleasant area to visit. The beautiful Canton tower stands proud at one end.

Learning

Classes ran from Monday to Friday starting at 8am and finishing at 12 or 4pm depending on whether or not there is an afternoon class. Class pace was quite slow once accustomed, but all useful and interesting as the teachers speak in Chinese. No dozing off!  

The start of term was the most difficult period, as this time was spent adjusting to the content of the textbooks and the teaching methods. I deliberately tried to get into a class slightly higher than my ability. I was aiming for an intermediate or upper-intermediate level class. After a quick conversation with the teacher and a look at the textbook, she asked if I recognised most of the characters which I did, but I didn’t have the foggiest clue about what it meant! I was put in C class, intermediate. Truth be told I still had not grasped the basic grammar structures for my level, but my relatively large vocabulary kept me afloat. I remember the first lesson. There were no other native English speakers in my class. It was incredibly diverse with the majority of students from Russia or the “Stan” countries. There was also a Spaniard, Mexican, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and a Cuban! We all got along great and were forced to use Chinese to communicate with each other. It was a stroke of luck having such a class make up. If I needed or wanted to say anything I had to use Chinese. I remember the nervous atmosphere for our first class with Cheng laoshi, who incidentally was my first Chinese teacher at Lancaster University Confucius Institute.  The class went fine and after seeing everyone give an introduction of themselves using Chinese, I felt confident it was the right class for me. The class would celebrate birthdays and it sounds a clichè but the group, including the teachers, became like a family. Cheng laoshi deserves a special mention. She looked after me incredibly and helped me settle into life in Guangzhou as well as gave me grammar lessons when needed.

We had 4 classes; reading, listening, speaking and general Chinese with a different teacher for each. Each class was around two hours long with a fifteen minute break in the middle. I loved it. At the start I was working incredibly hard just to keep up. My classmates were very talented and some could do work by just turning up to class. In the reading class we did timed reading whereby we were usually given a time in seconds to complete a paragraph of text and answer questions. I remember thinking I couldn’t read English that quick, never mind Chinese! As time went on we all became more accustomed to speaking Chinese. Words I had only listened to from the teacher suddenly began appearing in my vocabulary and the amount of Chinese listening I was exposed to had probably increased around 1000% from the UK (note to those studying in the UK, do more listening early!). The scholarship provided the perfect structure for learning Chinese. I was getting a minimum of 6 hours taught Chinese practice a day, and the most fun thing is I could go home and practice what I had learnt with anybody anywhere!   

I would love to go into detail about each class and the kind of things we did, but I am scared this may become a book, rather than a short piece. If you do have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

Food

I have a nut allergy which makes eating a very dangerous activity, especially in Guangzhou where I knew peanut oil is commonly used! Luckily (unluckily?) peanut oil is expensive which means only upmarket restaurants use it.  Chinese people love showing you their culture and food. The common question “have you eaten yet?” is used as often as “how are you?” in English. Needless to say “I am allergic to nuts” was one of the first things I learnt to say. I found some regular restaurants to go to. After trying them cautiously for the first few times and constantly reminding the chefs I had a nut allergy, I developed good relationships with them and looking back this was one of the most satisfying memories I have. The first one was a dumpling shop just off campus. It was run by two old women. I would arrive just before the dinner time rush and sit in the corner so I could overlook the whole shop. There was no air conditioning, just fans. Whilst waiting for my food I would pull out an Oxford English grammar book designed for Chinese students studying English. I would read the English sentences, whilst covering the Chinese and in my head try to put together the correct Chinese. As time went by I often got larger portions than the usual customer and I always tried to crack a joke with the “Aunties” whenever I could. I was their number one customer for 5 months. My second favourite place was on campus. It was called the power station if I remember correctly. They do great food, admittedly at a slightly higher price. I used to get the chicken fried rice and chips which was delicious!

Fruit was the new chocolate - tasty, healthy, light, filling, cheap and quick! I ate over a kilogram of bananas everyday along with oranges, melon and others depending on the situation. I ate fruit like a smoker smokes cigarettes, and I developed a habit of going to the balcony to eat my bananas and oranges in-between study sessions.

Work

did some English teaching to top up my £100 a month scholarship.  Although this meant fewer hours in the day to practice Chinese, it allowed me to meet more Chinese people and get a glimpse at life beyond the campus. I was lucky to be introduced to a great company called Readstart who delivered exceptional education and treated me very well.

Exercise

To study hard also requires your body to be in good shape.  Although sports facilities were convenient, I didn't go enough. The only exercise I got was riding my bike, or needing to run because I was late for something (daily occurrence!). The campus has a number of lakes you could run around and I used to love the peacefulness of the campus at night, with the hum of mosquitos and the city in the background.

Fun

Being a student in Guangzhou is fun! There was the odd bar you could go to get western food but some of the best times are spent drinking cheap beer over cheap BBQ food. The fun agenda really depended on who you were going with. I ate out with friends, went to check out the historic parts of Guangzhou or maybe just climbed to the roof of our classrooms and had some beers on top overlooking the city. There was always something to do and always someone to go with. I tried whenever possible to interact with as many local people as possible. I knew my time there was short, so I wanted to make the most of it and practice Chinese as much as possible.  Near the end of the trip and as my finances grew through teaching, I took my family to Guilin and Yangshuo. It was a great feeling being able to look after them in what was to them an incredibly alien world. After this I went to Lijiang in Yunnan. The scenery in these two places whilst so different, they were both beautiful. I would perhaps pick Yangshuo as the best at that time of year.

My experience

The people I have met here have been welcoming, caring and kind. They say people in Guangzhou don't care for politics, or fashion, they simply enjoy their food. Having lived in Beijing and been to Shanghai numerous times, there is a difference. Guangzhou people are business people, always looking to make a buck here and there. I made good friends with the fruit vendors who must earn a surprising amount of money selling fruit at night near the student dorms. They have no problem working in big groups and teams whether exercising, working or being creative in their spare time. Since Guangzhou I have lived in Beijing and the people there are more sharp and brisk. They have a wicked sense of humour but come across grumpy and stern to the outsider. Shanghai has fashion, style and eccentricity in abundance.  Guangzhou in my eyes competes with Beijing and Shanghai, but they don't feel the need to tell you about it.

Although eating wasn’t difficult, the air and streets are dirty, and people rarely show courtesy to people they don't know. My Guangzhou experience was a brilliant one. My life was simple and the daily experiences unique. I loved and still love learning Chinese. I often joke that when I was in Gaungzhou I spoke so much Chinese I forgot how to speak English. Certainly when I returned to the UK, I was dying to speak Chinese with someone. By the end of the semester my Chinese had progressed to HSK 5 level and I had the confidence to hold conversations and express myself in Chinese.  I was lucky to meet many great people in the form of classmates, teachers and work colleagues all of whom I still communicate with on Wechat.

I am incredibly grateful to Lancaster University Confucius Institute who gave me great support learning Chinese alongside my geography degree. Especially Professor Zhang and Colette Webb. I am also grateful to all the teachers and people who helped me along this wonderful journey of learning Chinese. The teachers prepared each class tirelessly, responded to questions at all hours and went above and beyond what was expected to give us a greater understanding of the language and culture. For that I am incredibly grateful.China is growing rapidly, especially when compared with my home town in the North West of England. It is a great feeling being surrounded by the buzz of a growing city. It fills you with confidence, hope and excitement. Learning Chinese has enabled me to get behind the scenes and has opened up opportunities beyond my imagination. For me some of the greatest moments are seeing the surprise on peoples’ faces when I speak Chinese. Whether it be in a McDonalds cafe in Fort William discussing the Scottish Highlands or at a restaurant surrounded by old Chinese guys drinking Bai Jiu (50% rice liquor) discussing Chinese politics. Learning Chinese has been a great adventure, and there is still so much more to explore.