In my fifth semester, I went to the People's Republic of China to start my first semester abroad. Together with my tongxue (Chinese for fellow student) and friend Clara I visited the Yunnan Normal University in Kunming, a city in the south of the Republic. Let me tell you about some of my craziest experiences and about how stressful and nearly experimental a semester can be.
By guest author Annika Graskamp
I always wanted to study linguistics, but since I needed a second major, I spontaneously decided to choose Sinology. China always seemed very interesting to me, but I never assumed I would travel there or even learn the language. After four hard semesters of writing and writing and writing Chinese characters, I realized I must visit that country to finally understand the culture.
When we arrived in Shanghai, we had to organize our registration. That’s because in the first 24 hours, every tourist has to get registered at a police department. So imagine a tiny police department, officers acting like they had never seen a foreigner before (I can’t blame them, they probably really never had), and Clara ,I and a Chinese guy, trying to convince a Chinese Policeman that we REALLY just wanted to get registered and leave.When we could finally leave and go to bed, it was around 4 p.m. I’ve never been that happy to lay in bed, even though there wasn’t a mattress. Two hours later, we had to get up for dinner. I felt braindead, like a zombie. Remember, this was after my first two hours of sleep in almost three days. I couldn’t even hold my chopsticks. What a splendid first day in China.
Suddenly a celebrity
During our first week in Kunming, we soon learned what seemed to be the two Chinese mottos: “mei banfa” and “ni mingtian zai lai”, which translate to “there’s nothing we can do about it” and “just come again tomorrow”. You can assume what our matriculation at the university was like. It took us three days to finally hold a student ID card in our hands. Three days. It ended up in crying and dreaming of returning to Germany. Some older Chinese students organized the matriculation for us foreigners. They wanted us to apply for a new visa without knowing that every European citizen can only enter China with, guess what, a visa in our passports, which we showed them at least 30 times. They didn’t speak English and our Chinese wasn’t good enough to explain that we already had a visa. What can I say, every time someone tells me about their lovely and pleasant first days abroad, I start to laugh. And what did I learn? Stay calm when it comes to German bureaucracy.
It ended up in crying and dreaming of returning to Germany.
But still, my semester was a lot of fun, I promise. Maybe this sounds like a pay-off, but it’s not. I love a lot about China: the people, the culture, the language, the food. Once you stay there, you become calmer; everything starts making sense. I started overthinking everything. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s arrogant to think that Western culture is the norm, but that’s what a lot of people think. And although there are many things I love about the country, there are some aspects, you never get used to.
One of them is being treated like a celebrity by Chinese people. Some days people constantly ask you to have dinner with them, whether they can take a picture of you or whether you’re American. I swear, there were days I totally felt Britney Spears shaving her head. Some people didn’t even ask, they just took photos of you wearing a bikini, while eating noodles, drinking water, pressing a button or simply breathing – literally while doing anything. This was announced with the lovely shouting of the word: LAOWAI!!! which means foreigner, but actually is an insult.
However, making new friends was very easy. One day, we wanted to celebrate my friend’s birthday, and some Italian girls joined us. We were craving for wine, so we went to a wine bar in the city. It was owned by a Frenchman and his Chinese business partner. The owner was so happy to see some Europeans again that at the end we drank about 5 magnum bottles. His business partner invited us to have “lunch with friends” the next day. So the next morning, after drinking 5 magnum bottles of wine and sleeping about 4 hours, he picked us up. In his car there were 6 boxes with each six magnum bottles of wine in them.
When we asked why he brought them he replied: “It’s for the leader”. We suddenly started to think we would meet a mafia boss. After arriving at the restaurant the “lunch with friends” turned out to be a business meal. And the boss, aka the leader, seemed really happy to have some new laowai guests. Every person sitting at the table had to introduce him/herself and after that we had to finish a whole glass of wine, saying “gan bei!” It means “cheers”, but actually it’s more like “chug”. After three glasses of wine, I couldn’t drink anymore, so I pretended to take a sip. But the boss, aka the leader, looked me in the eyes and said: “gan bei!” Trust me, if a Chinese boss tells you to drink, you will drink.
The biggest culture shocks
So that’s was one of my funniest experience in China, next to eating insects, eating fast food with plastic gloves, drinking beer with ice cubes, having to return to the dorm at 12 p.m like a child, seeing adult men with water wings in the sea, waiting for packages and letters like it’s 1770, seeing pandas in real life, discovering beautiful landscapes by moped, crossing a street without looking… The list is virtually endless.
When I came back to Germany, everything and everyone seemed to be stressed out. Everything had to be on point and as soon as something goes wrong, everyone goes crazy – a behavior I wasn’t used to anymore. And the saddest thing of all was to recognize how lonely old people seem to be in Germany. Every time I sat down in a park or shopping street, watching them made me sad. Sometimes they seem lost and as if they don’t understand modern times. In China, there are loads of groups for old people, who meet in the parks to play games or do Tai Chi. One big thing Germany could learn from other cultures. It’s so important to promote cultural exchange.