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Upon arrival at Guangzhou Airport, we were met by two taxi drivers who offered to take us to Sun Yat Sen University (SYSU) for 650 RMB –which equates to around £70. We decided to try and use our Chinese language skills that we had picked up over the past year to negotiate – however, we quickly noticed that between us our knowledge of the Chinese language was laughable. 10 minutes of comical and confusing conversation later, we decided that we would wait 5 HOURS, I repeat 5 HOURS for the free lift provided by the university. This moment was my first experience of a language barrier; but over the month spent in Guangzhou the language barrier began to wither away, and other obstacles that I would have to overcome became more apparent –such as the cultural one.
Living in the UK we are constantly surrounded by different cultures and we sometimes forget that other countries don’t benefit from the same wealth of people that we do. However, upon arrival in China the latter could not have been forgotten. Walking down the street, eyes constantly met mine and I kept thinking “Do I have something on my face?” Not until a woman came up to me and said “I like your tan” and another said “Why, is your skin like this why?” did I realise what I had in store for me. Being in China I felt like a celebrity , everywhere I went people constantly kept asking for my picture which caused me to be known amongst peers as 明星 (Míngxīng)- which means “star”. The cultural barrier is one that I had never really considered, and it was an interesting experience that I will always remember. Guangzhou taught me to not take the little things like multiculturalism for granted.
Another hurdle that we had to face was the change in diet. The first week proved to be very difficult because I did not know how to use chopsticks and it would seem that in China there was no readily available supply of knives and forks for foreigners. For 7 days I ate a bare minimum – but my slow pace was not the only reason for this. Amongst my friends at home, I am the one who constantly eats chicken, but in the Western world when we say “chicken”, we think of the meat on the bones and not the chicken’s head or any other part of its body that would not be classified as flesh. The latter is apparently what they called “chicken” in China- and I for one was appalled! At home if someone put a chicken head on my plate I’m sure that it would warrant a complaint to some kind of governing restaurant body; but in China anything goes. If it is a part of an animal, then it’s edible; and that includes the oesophagus! After a week of running to the nearest McDonalds or Pizza Hut for some “normal” food, we found a little place next to the university that sold dumplings for 30 RMB a plate- they were small pieces of heaven, and I ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner! This obsession was soon noticed amongst friends and they challenged me to eat 100 of them in a day. At first I hesitated, but then I remembered you only live once so, CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! I completed the dare and haven’t eaten a dumpling since; the very sight of them now turns my stomach!
Apart from eating, the best part of China had to be the shopping experience. The bargaining power we had was limitless; it was like an episode of The Apprentice! A typical conversation would go:
Me: 这个多少钱？ (How much is this?)
This is me flaunting my Chinese and “this” probably referred to some of kind of fake designer bag
Sales person: 1000 RMB
This is them not accepting my attempt at Chinese and speaking English.
Me: 太贵了! 一百 (Too expensive, I’ll give you 100 RMB)
This is my refusal to speak English
SP: No way miss, you are killing me!
Apparently she doesn’t want to speak Chinese, at this point I’m questioning if she even can speak Chinese.
Me: Okay, 150 RMB
To help her I speak English, but only for her sake!
SP: No, miss! You are not nice miss.
I then would walk out of the shop- this was purely a tactical move, one that I wasn’t sure would work.
SP: Miss come back I give you the bag for 300
This was normally said whilst running down the street chasing me
I would walk back to the shop and pay them
SP: Thank you Miss.
The sales people were always so polite once you had given them your money!
Me: I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT WORKED!!!!
Said whilst walking away
Shopping in China was hilarious and for anyone that loves bargaining, the streets of China are the place for you.
All the aforementioned things were during the time spent outside the classroom, nevertheless the language lessons that I took part in were among my favourite parts about the month’s stay in China. We were able to ask our teacher questions that would enable us to survive on the streets of China, and then walk out of class and put what we had learnt into practice- alongside the knowledge that I had learnt in university. We even learnt kung-fu and went on various trips where I was made to sing to a bus full of people. This was highly embarrassing.
During my stay in SYSU I learnt more about Chinese and China than I ever thought I would. I met wonderful people from all around the world, who have now become dear friends, and it also gave me an insight to what my year abroad in China would be like. Guangzhou is somewhere I would like to return to in the future and my experience there is one that will never be forgotten.
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham