A Traveller's Journal
So you've stumbled across this blog - welcome! This is all fairly new, and I am fairly new to blogging, but I intend to maintain this blog over the years.
I am a student from the South of England, who studies in the North - this alone has been an interesting experience. But moreso, I am studying the Asia Pacific region, which involves learning Mandarin, and my studies are soon to take me abroad to Hangzhou, China. Meanwhile, my partner is studying Arabic and will soon be away to Jordan.
If there's one thing my studies have shown me, it's that it's amazing the things that people misunderstand, and the prejudices people hold over simple lifestyle choices. So I'm here to provide information, to share my experiences, and to hopefully help people to understand why different cultures act in certain ways. The best way to fight fear and prejudice is with patience, knowledge and an open mind.
The Will Adams Festival
Differences in Asian Culture
One mistake that many people make is the assumption that all Asian cultures are practically the same. The sad thing is, many people don't seem to care about the differences, despite the fact that these differences have a significant impact on international relations and will, eventually, have an impact on countries in the West as well as the East.
For example, many people frequently mix up Chinese and Japanese cultures, completely ignorant of how insulting this would be considered to both.
In the past, China was the strongest country in their known area. Other countries would pay tribute in order to stay safe, political marriages were a common practice, and the Emperor was chosen by heaven to rule over the people.
Japan, however, was a relatively secluded country that mostly kept to itself. They were influenced by China and other countries close by, but to a lesser extent than those on the mainland.
When the Western travellers arrived, Japan chose to open their ports. They knew they wouldn't be able to fight the strangers off. In doing so, Japan held some sovereignty while taking advantage of the opportunity to modernise.
In contrast, China initially viewed the Westerners as barbarians. They would not bow; they felt they should not have to. They were powerful, the most influential country around; why should strangers dictate how they should live and what they must do?
In time, China lost more control to the British, Americans, French, etc. They were forced to hold talks with foreign diplomats in order to maintain some face, but in the end much of their land was taken from them.
Soon Japan began to take advantage of their rapid development and began to invade other countries, so that they too could be seen as main characters on the world stage. They wanted to be on equal footing to Britain, America and France. So they began to invade other countries, including Korea and China.
I'll go into this more on a later date, when I can check the facts in more detail. However, this might help you to better understand the conflict over the islands in the South China Sea, and why relations between China and Japan are often very tense.
Both countries remember their days of glory, and want to bring them about again. And yet, in order to achieve glory they seem doomed to cause each other insult or harm.
Living In China
I have been abroad multiple times, and I find languages to be fascinating. So this year, I am studying in Hangzhou, China! (yes, the site of the G20 summit this year)
Preparing for such an adventure was troublesome enough. You must receive an acceptance letter, and then you must take it to the embassy in order to get the correct kind of visa. For myself, it was a student visa - but it has to be the correct kind of student visa: X1 (long term) or X2 (less than 6 months). You need all of your documents, you need to book an appointment, and if you need it done quickly then you must do it via a travel agency. I chose to do my application via CIBT (a travel agency in the UK, Southwark in London). I had looked at the reviews online and felt somewhat apprehensive, but I was pressed for time and needed the visa. They did a pretty good job too. The only issue was that for some reason communication wasn't working. My mobile never registered that they had tried to call or left voicemails, and my email was working fine for everyone else but not for them...unsurprisingly, this annoyed the already stressed and frustrated me. But the job was done well, and on time.
The next issue was the hassle of booking the flight. For a decent price I had to stop over in Hong Kong, and then go to Hangzhou. Amusing considering that Hong Kong is further away. But what can be done? The plane itself was the nicest plane I had ever been on. Granted, before I'd always gone for the cheaper options of RyanAir or EasyJet, but this was an entirely different level. We had comfier seats, with televisions on the back of the chairs, more room, free food and drink...it was lovely! Unfortunately, it wasn't comfortable enough to sleep. After a 10hour long flight, I arrived exhausted in the early hours of the morning in the busy, vast airport...the fight to stay awake was almost impossible. After what felt like an eternity, but was most likely 3-4 hours, it was time to fly to Hangzhou. I proceeded to fall asleep for the disappointingly short time of 1.5 hours. Thank god that I'd pre-booked a person to take me to the university!
The university is busy and bustling and lively as can be, but so far it's lovely here, despite the long travel and horrors of trying to prepare for all the costs and the paperwork. Just remember folks, if you're travelling, be prepared for a struggle!
Living In China
Shopping in China for the basic essentials can be overwhelming, especially when your language skills aren’t as good as you want them to be.
I have just moved into student accommodation in Hangzhou, and although the university has provided us with some toiletries I felt that I should go out and stock up on some more for when class starts, just in case I run out when the work load gets too much.
The first time I tried to go shopping was strange. I bought some water, without really looking at it, not realising it was flavoured, and for the life of me couldn’t find the deodorant. I was exhausted after travelling, so in the end I gave up and went to bed.
But the next morning, after attempts to sleep comfortably on such a hard mattress failed, I went back to the shop with mobile in hand, ready to translate. I asked multiple people:
“请问, 除臭挤在那儿?” “Excuse me, where is the deodorant?”
Eventually a kind lady pointed me to the air fresheners. Wrong kind of deodorant. I showed her pleco, the app my class in England uses for finding certain words in both English and Chinese, and she looked at the three options on the list.
“你要体香挤.” She said, before walking swiftly to the smallest bottles of personal deodorant I have ever seen.
After that eventual success, I decided to go and get myself some breakfast. Something smelled good nearby, so I had a look at the outside menu of the nearest place. It was all cakes! Some were quite…unusual to say the least. On the last page were the designs of a cheeky soul, with the torso of a woman in her bikini with one breast bare. And I had been warned of the modesty here!
The designs were beautiful, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to eat here if all they did was extravagant cakes, so I popped into the smaller place next door, which also turned out to be a bakery. The food was a lot smaller and simpler, and a lot more appealing. There was fresh bread, miniature hot-dog like buns, fruit buns, etc. I went for something called 蓝颜芝心. Although 芝心 translates as stuffed crust, it isn’t the kind of cheese you would think from reading that. It’s more of a cream cheese, like one would use in a puffed pastry stack. It was really nice, but incredibly filling. The man at the counter asked if I would like a drink, and I quickly apologized to him as I bumbled my way through asking for two orange juices. I was really thirsty, it’s hot over here.
I’d forgotten the word for orange juice: 橙汁 (chengzhi). He said it a few times, so I could parrot it until I got it correct. Chinese really is an intimidating language at times; if I say橙汁 wrong, I risk saying 橙剂 (chengji): Agent Orange.
It turns out that the two places I’d looked at for food were connected. When I bought the food at the smaller one, the guy said I need to collect the drinks at the other place and I could sit in there to eat. It turns out they had freshly made orange juice, and the seating was lovely.
They also do salad and other foods! The cakes were just their main pride. Definitely going back there again to try their bacon salad out next time.
Living In China
I’ve only been here a mere 3 days now, and yet I’ve already seen some significant differences in social attitudes.
In attempts to improve my health, I have taken to jogging in the mornings. Despite my attempts being quite feeble, I find it has already had a positive impact in more ways in one. By venturing out early in the day, around 6AM, I have seen a completely different side to the campus, a side where the vast crowds of students are still fast asleep, dreading the inevitable screech of the alarm.
Early morning Hangzhou has people already wide awake, clearing the streets of any mess and preparing their daily businesses. It has people tending to the public areas of the community, areas which, had they been in the UK, would only have been cared for with local council funding. These people work in a uniquely self-confident way, without worry of ridicule or showing any signs of being self conscious. Seeing the locals working so hard surprised me at first; in the UK I know many people who would not even venture out to garden their own land for fear of being seen by others.
This reminds me of an article I read on the flight from Hong Kong, regarding the high levels of narcissism in Western culture and the distinct lack of it in many Asian societies. Scenarios like this do seem to strengthen that view; there is a strong community spirit here, almost like a level of trust between the people. You can see it in the way in which they interact with others too. In my daily morning jog I see others out jogging too, smiling encouragingly, and even some people who have cheered us on while we do so. On a regular day around town, if you are looking for something in particular the locals will help you to the best of their ability. If you don’t understand their responses to your queries, they’ll often even go out of the way and lead you to where you want to go, or find someone who can help you better than they.
On a quick side note, purchasing dinner last night was an interesting experience. I popped in the local student supermarket, and in the hot-food section found something that looked like tentacles on a stick…I did not try it…
Living In China
Being a new foreign student at the university here, I had to take some class placement tests so the teachers could see what level my skills were at. The first test was fairly easy, but the second was horrific.
However, in the waiting time between tests I managed to make a friend. A girl from Germany who is studying here for 6 months. For this blog I'll just call her T. She introduced me to some more friends, and now I can say that I actually socialise enough to be considered normal (yay!). My social group now includes T, a girl called S from the same university as her, a French girl called E, a Korean girl called A, and an Indonesian girl called F (whom we all met today).
Yesterday we decided to venture out into the great big world that is Hangzhou, and we inevitably decided to visit the West Lake 西湖. It is stunning. Simply put, it's stunning. There's so much history, and the views are amazing. The architecture is to die for, and the information all around the place tells you of important Chinese people and historic events. You can get food, you can dress in traditional clothing, you can get your portrait drawn...it's just lovely, and I'm planning on returning often over this year. And I promise to get photos for this blog!
The only problem when we went out was that people pay a lot of attention to foreigners here. People left, right and centre were taking photos of us. When it started to rain, we took shelter in this beautiful stone building, with a few Chinese people joining us when the weather turned worse. Two of the ladies began to take photos of us, so we politely asked them in Chinese to please stop. One lady agreed. The other one pretended to agree, but suddenly shifted seats and began to video instead. When we asked her to stop, she refused and feigned innocence, until some of the girls grew so uncomfortable with it that she stopped and walked off into the rain. This was a common occurence throughout the day, until we returned home to our dormitories.
While we were out on the town, we did notice something that struck us as being a tad...off. Naturally, certain social interactions will seem rude to us that would be normal to them and vice versa. We tend to see this in restaurants and the international students' cafeteria. The people tend to be very direct, with a no-nonsense attitude. So if you're asking for a table for 5 in our busy cafeteria you will be yelled at to go join a table with a bunch of other students who have no interest in talking to you, nor you to them. When we went to the restaurant at the West Lake, we were told multiple times that our rice was not ready yet...but when people at the table next to us asked for rice after we had, and received it sooner, we were annoyed to say the least. We had to ask 3 times before one of us grew angry enough to get their attention.
And yet, the people can be incredibly kind too. If you ever find yourself lost or in need of finding something, many will go out of their way to help you. If you can make yourself understood at least!