Abroad, China

On to the next

First semester was exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, the first few months in China were great, but I definitely felt a huge relief after submitting my final essay on 7th January. That said, I also felt (feel) frustrated. It’s bittersweet submitting essays which you know are not using your full potential. I admit that for many reasons, I struggled throughout the semester. Everything was new, every course had weekly reading lists far longer than I could manage, and I had the constant feeling of being an imposter in class (much like in my first semester in Paris). This, combined with the struggle of adapting to Chinese university life, a new social life, a new climate, meant that the semester flew by but I felt like I achieved very little academically. It makes me optimistic, however, to remember that in Paris the second semester was completely different because I had already gone through the settling-in process, I knew what was expected of me, and I was slowly gaining confidence in my own knowledge.

The next step is my thesis, which will occupy the next 5 weeks until the start of the second semester. I do feel quite proud that I got through the stress of finding an advisor, a thesis topic and defending my research proposal without melting down. Although I’m nervous, because I don’t expect writing my thesis to be easy, I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to finally do some original research.

So, overall, I’m optimistic.

Last semester may have been a struggle at times, for academic and personal reasons, but I had a lot of good experiences. In Golden Week (October), my friend and I went to Hong Kong. We ate a lot of dim sum, took a boat out to Sharp Island, went up to Victoria Peak, shopped, melted in the sun, and ate pineapple buns for breakfast. A perfect break.


One very bleak day in November, two of my friends and I went on a day-trip organised by our university department. They took us to Fengjing, one of the ancient water towns near Shanghai. It was a fun little touristy experience, and we even had a short boat ride along the canals. It’s a unique ancient town in that people still live in it, and I suppose they reap the benefits of the bus-loads of tourists coming in every day (though I think relatively few foreigners, since it’s a bit outside of the usual tourist route).



I also got to know a lot of the people who came to Shanghai from the same university as me last year, as well as quite a few new friends. Some of them are coming back for the second semester, some of them aren’t. Either way, I think I’ve made a few friends for life. Oh, and we ate a lot. Often. Especially when it started to get cold and hot pot (steamboat/huoguo) became more appealing.

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Of course we also had a few evenings out in the city centre in restaurants, bars and clubs. It usually takes a good hour to get from my dorms to the centre, but the metro is extremely cheap (50p each way) and taxis are relatively cheap (a 30-40 minute drive usually costs around £7-8), so when we have the time, it’s a nice way to spend an evening.


I went to a few galleries and museums this semester with my Japanese/Austrian friend. This was at the Long museum by the bund, a private collection of modern art and sculptures, as well as old-style paintings by modern artists. That was certainly an odd but interesting collection.


One of our courses even took us on a weekend to Tokyo in December. I stayed in Asakusa (the photo below was taken looking out from Senso-ji temple), and it was lovely to wander around for a couple of days once we had finished the workshop. I ate some great food and drank sake with my friends, walked around a lot on my own taking in the (nostalgic) Japan vibes, and went to Yokohama with a Tokyo-based friend I met in Ehime several years ago.


I certainly had a lot of wonderful experiences with my friends here in Shanghai, in Hong Kong and in Tokyo. Of course it’s not all about the good times: when I received bad news from home, and when I was struggling academically, they were there for me, as were friends and family at home. For that I couldn’t be more thankful, and they made me realise that no matter what, it’s going to be ok.

That said, I need to re-engage my brain and actually start studying now. OK, GO!

Abroad, China

I’d like the red one, please.

When I started my master’s in Paris I already knew that I would be jetting off to Shanghai for the second year. I convinced myself that since the degree was in two parts, I should spend the entire first year focusing on the European part of the course. I therefore decided to polish my French language skills in the first semester (as you can imagine, they had become a little rusty during my time in Japan) rather than taking beginner’s Chinese, much to the displeasure of my course director (I promised her I’d take it in second semester). Unfortunately, the only beginner’s course in the second semester was at the same time as one of my mandatory classes, and I had to hang my head in shame and send her an email to explain myself… Again… To which she bluntly replied that it was a real pity that I couldn’t better prepare for my life in China. Oh, the awful sense of dread – I would surely arrive in Shanghai, lost and confused, unable to express myself.

I therefore made it my mission to learn the basics of Mandarin before moving here. I found myself a tutor through an agency (who charged me the earth and paid her very little). She was the same age as me, from North East China, living in Paris studying for a master’s in History of Art. Every week for around two months she swept into my apartment, a tornado of excitement and enthusiasm, explaining to me in incredible detail the basics of the Chinese language. Every week she made me sweat through character memorisation, rapid-fire questions, dialogues… She made me work, but the best thing was that she made me truly eager to learn Chinese. Back in England in the summer, I sat down and tried to get my head around the grammar and vocabulary she’d thrown at me in that short time.

Despite my efforts, I didn’t expect to be able to communicate when I got here. After all, when I arrived in Japan I confidently reeled off the self-introduction I had learned, only to find that as soon as someone asked me a follow-up question I had NO IDEA what they were asking. One problem in Japan was that when I couldn’t understand something, rather than repeating it, people shied away. In contrast, here in China they seem to just repeat what they’ve said, louder (though not necessarily more slowly). And actually, it generally helps.

[Of course there have been exceptions: on my first day here, the shop assistant at Walmart told me I needed to pay an extra 6 kuai, which I didn’t understand. The lady behind me in the queue started to shout “6 kuai! 6 kuai! 6 kuaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiii!” in my face. My friends thankfully rushed back to help me, although by that point I had pretty much figured out that I needed to pay more but was stuck in a state of shock from the shouting. That was not so helpful.]

In general, I’ve been enjoying using the very basic vocabulary I have to just get by. It’s surprising how much you can say with very few words. I’m generally lucky to have at least one talented friend with me to help with any real requests or issues (thank goodness), however I’ve so far managed to buy two bikes by myself (at different times, I didn’t accidentally buy two), order milk tea without sugar (I’m proud of that one, and glad that I can finally slightly improve my diet and still enjoy the milk tea) and sometimes even ask for things without pointing. I have two examples from today: at the shop this morning I wanted a shopping bag, but couldn’t remember the word for bag. The shopping bags were red, so I decided to be creative and try saying: ‘I’d like one of the … red… ones…?’. By some miracle, the shop assistant understood. Then, this evening, I walked into the kitchen to find boiling water pouring out of the boiler onto the kitchen floor and out into the hallway. I marched downstairs to the front desk, took a deep, calming breath, and said ‘Please. 9th floor. Water.’ The two men furrowed their brows, so I repeated myself. They looked startled and then shouted ‘WATER?! 9th floor?!’ ‘Yes, 9th floor’. One of them leapt out of his chair and ran to the lift. In retrospect, to speed things up, I could perhaps have injected a little more urgency into my voice. I’ll try that next time, but for now I’m quite pleased with my efforts.

Language learning is like a game – it never ceases to entertain me, whether I’m grappling with French poetry or asking ‘…is this beef?’ in Chinese. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself learning a little Chinese each day and the language classes haven’t even started yet! More to come, I suppose.