Three and a half years! When the going gets tough as a foreigner in China, I have to remind myself that I have flourished in a world so far removed from my own for such a long time! I’ve found my time in China thus far to be filled with dozens of challenges but also countless rewarding experiences. No one day here is ever quite the same, and I constantly find myself lost in something that I thought I’d already fully grasped. Whatever the case may be, one thing I am sure of is that since deciding to fully embrace the journey, China has provided me with enough belly laughs and memories to last a lifetime.
What follows are some of the things I wish I could have told a 20-year-old Runako, on her first foray into China back in 2014.
Throw yourself into the experience: Dear younger me, you’ve just landed in Beijing. Leave your British sensibilities at the airport and get stuck right in. You’ll find Beijing to be hugely different to any of the countries you’ve visited before. It will likely take you an entire semester to adapt, but there are many things you can do to hasten the process. Develop a routine as early as possible. In that way, there’ll be something that feels consistent and familiar. Try not to be suspicious of local people that offer to help you, (as you’ve learnt to be in London), many people here relish the opportunity to practice their English and communicate with foreigners. You will likely make some great friends through these situations.
Practice makes perfect: You’ve been obsessed with language for as long as you can remember. So much so, in fact, that you once considered yourself a language hoarder, periodically picking up a new language whenever the feeling would take you, but they’d only hold your interest for a year at max. Chinese will hold your interest for much longer than the others due to its extensive history and challenging nature. Don’t get complacent once you reach conversational level. Local people mean well by encouraging a visibly foreign person trying to speak their language - that doesn’t mean you speak well. Practice is the only way to guarantee steady progress.
Language and culture go hand in hand: So, you have four hours of Chinese lessons each day, but never interact with the local population, nor do you involve yourself in activities with Chinese students. You’re depriving yourself of the best opportunity to learn authentic Chinese, to understand the origins and contemporary uses of the language and most importantly to build genuine friendships.
Remember, too, that learning the culture doesn’t necessarily mean being wholly absorbed by it. Some of the most rewarding experiences you will have will be born of you sharing snippets of your own culture with local people, and bonding over similarities and likeness.
Your foreignness will bring you benefits and hardships: At this stage in life, you will have never been somewhere that your skin color is more often than not the most remarkable thing about you. The realization of this will likely cause you some discomfort, but don’t forget that curiosity and questions often come from a well-meaning place. So humor them at best and tolerate them at worst.
A large part of these experiences that you will have in China will be due to the country being a much more homogenous society than the one you’ve grown up in. Having lived in England for your entire life, you wouldn’t be able to define what a British person should look like, and you have been privileged enough to have opportunities to interact with individuals varying in height, color, religion, size, build and more. Diversity has become the norm for you. Don’t expect everyone to have had such exposure to difference as you’ve had, and temper your responses accordingly.
If you can bear these things in mind, and open yourself up to everything China has to offer, three years later in 2017, you’ll still be here, far from fluent, but not quite as lost as you were when you first touched down.
You’ll head back home after a year with a spring in your step, already formulating plans to head back to Beijing where fond memories, adventures and great friendships remain in wait.
(The writer is a British student studying in Beijing)