Tuesday, December 20, 2011

my "testimonials" and advice on exchanges

My uni (University of Queensland) asks that its students write them "testimonials" about their time on exhange. Most of the time the students say the usual things which are true like "it's the best time of your life!" so I tried to say things a little different. My testimonial from semester one wasn't anything breathtaking because I realised that it's difficult not to fall into the usual trap for these things. It really will "change your life" and it really is "the experience of a lifetime". At least the photos were cool. I can't believe they even put up that one of me giving the camera a 'thumbs up' in front of that gross skinned thing on the road... kudos to UQ Abroad. Lol.

So the time rolled around to write the testimonial from this (my second) semester, and this is what I submitted:

"This is my second semester here in China and it’s been super different to the first primarily because Jinan and Shanghai are completely different cities.

I mean, life in the mean city streets of Shanghai is fast and hardcore, and the locals are tough and the teachers are tougher. The other exchange students will all drink you under the table while telling you not-so-tall tales of organ theft, and you’ll feel lucky when you wake up with only your wallet missing. Conversely, Jinan presents you with beautiful lakes and rich philosophical history and friendly local taxi drivers who actually take you where you want to go. The teachers and classes here are wonderful and the other students are far more easy-going than their ‘big-city’ counterparts. All in all, I almost feel like I’ve spent the two semesters in two different countries. The second one being much more… peaceful than the first.

Of course, this might also be because I learnt a lot of life lessons during that tumultuous first semester, all of which I brought with me here to Jinan. I suppose my Mandarin proficiency has also slightly improved and I have come to almost appreciate many little Chinese idiosyncrasies that used to totally freak me out – like loud yelling all the time and people being allowed to smoke everywhere and classes five days a week. My partiality and affection for Jinan and Shandong University is also heightened by my increasing awareness of just how fast the year has gone. Which leads me to a big piece of advice – if you think you’ve got what it takes (and your arts program allows it) then you should without-a-doubt apply to do two semesters in China.

The full year will do wonders for your Mandarin and it really allows you to actually settle into life here. From a travelling perspective too, the full year allowed me to visit a total of 9 provinces as well as a beginning month in Hong Kong, the semester holidays in Beijing and an insane trip over to North Korea. Now that it’s December and my time here is coming to an end, I really feel like I have achieved what I set out to and I’m ready to come home. Most of the kids I talk to who only have one semester end up trying to extend their exchange because they feel like it just isn’t enough. Although maybe that’s a different kind of good thing… I dunno – maybe Jinan is just gettin’ me all philosophical. Anyways, if you can do two semesters (either in two different cities or the same city twice) then DO IT!!!

If you do have to choose between either Fudan (Shanghai) or Shandong (Jinan) then my personal recommendation would be to go for Jinan. Shanghai as a city can be understood from a short visit, but Jinan is a great place to experience Chinese life on a local level for several months. It also places you within a very fast train ride from both Beijing and Shanghai and is a great vantage point from which to undertake national travel. My teachers here are all Care Bears and the old couple who do street food outside the university gates know me by my order. (Tomato and egg stir-fry over steamed rice, in case you were wondering.) Apart from being FREEZING right now, Jinan is a nice home-away-from-home and I really like it here."

This is where I stopped for the university testimonial, because I didn’t want it to be too long or anything, but I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I wanted to. Here are a couple of things I wish people had really told me. Chances are they did actually tell me, but I didn’t listen. I know, I kick myself for something every day, but anyways, here are a few other notes of recommendation I would make to any student going on exchange:

Things to decide before arriving:

·         Find your focus/niche.
Mine was blogging and I’m so glad I did it. Now I have a complete record of the entire year of exchange. I took photos everywhere and wrote everything down and it forced me to really think about everything I was seeing and doing. It also compelled me to try and make my experiences more awesome. Some people focus on who they meet during exchange and aim to make new lifetime friends. Other people have a target locked on travelling to certain places, and many make their exchange about the language. Think about what you want to focus on during your time away, then get pro at it.
·         Decide how hardcore you want to be about the language proficiency thing.
I got really uneasy a few months after I had arrived and my Mandarin wasn’t progressing like I thought it would. I was travelling a lot and meeting so many new people and doing interesting things every day, and it took me a long time to realise that I valued these experiences more so than I did my Mandarin ability. I wish I had of been aware of those priorities before I arrived because it would have saved me a lot of questioning and guilt over lack-of-study. I’m not saying that it isn’t important, I’m saying that you should decide how important it is to you personally, before you embark upon your exchange and get swept away in everything.
·         If you want to travel, plan your ideal destinations.
I had a few destinations within China that I desperately wanted to go to before I went home, and I think the only reason I managed to get to them was because I was sure of them before I even arrived in China. Xinjiang is the perfect example, and it taught me that the kids you meet are usually open to suggestions. If you know of a place you think would be great to visit, then chances are someone will want to go with you when you tell them about it. It’s good to know a bit about these places early on so that you don’t miss out on any travel opportunities.
·         Skype is your best friend. It’s also your mum’s best friend.
I can’t speak for long-distance romantic relationships (thank god I’ve been spared from that particular hell for all this time) but keeping in touch with family and friends is super easy and it’s wonderful. A good Skype chat makes you a million times less homesick and your parents love it too. You’re in a crazy country on the other side of the world, for christs’ sake!!! Call your mum!!!

Things to remember whilst on exchange:

·         Home is right where you left it, and apparently just as boring as you left it.
I kept worrying about missing out on things back home, but everyone kept telling me that ‘nothing interesting was happening’ and that ‘everything will be exactly the same’ when I got back. (Well, apart from that time that Brisbane flooded… but that’s unlikely to be repeated.) And let’s face it, nobody actually sees each other in person these days, so if you just keep your Facebook and Twitter accounts active then you’ll get all the goss. It will be like you never left. Don’t worry about it.
·         You’re not the only one who thought you’d getter better at this language faster.
EVERYBODY thinks they’ll be fluent after a couple of months and they are ALL wrong. I have not met a single person on exchange who wasn’t slightly disappointed in their rate-of-improvement – so try not to let it get you down. Sometimes you don’t even realise how much you’ve progressed until you get home. You know, until you get home and loose most of it again…
·         No, sweetie, you’re not immune to culture shock. It’s lame but it’s real.
I always thought ‘culture shock’ was something that only lame or wussy douchebags got because they couldn’t handle the spitting. I was wrong, it goes way deeper than that and it affects all people differently. I know happy-go-lucky kids on exchange who seem to be immune to culture shock simply because they don’t think too deeply about what they see around them. If you’re the kind of person who observes and reflects, though, then brace yourself for impact especially if you’re heading to a developing country.
It’s going to hit you in obvious and rather shallow ways during that first week, but it creeps in slowly over the months and you’ll find yourself feeling alone and totally confounded. Usually this ‘deeper’ kind of culture shock comes when you begin to really understand the differences in attitudes and subtle ways-of-life that sit in such stark contrast to your own. I found it help to write it out, but during these times it’s good to keep in more-regular contact with home, or people from your country who are also overseas. I have found that the only cures for culture shock are perspective and acceptance – neither of which are always easy.
The great thing is that working through culture shock teaches you a lot about yourself as well as the world around you. It really is one of those trial-by-fire experiences in life and accepting it and working through it is the best way to get the most out of it.
·         Skype can be set to “appear offline”.
The inverse of the awesomeness of Skype and Facebook, is that sometimes you can really gain a lot by just cutting off from home for a while and actually immersing yourself in your location. I did this a lot whilst on my various trips to other places in China, and it was enough for me. I see a lot of kids who seem to stay too attached to their home lives so that they treat the exchange like a trip instead of a way-of-life. Of course, everybody has their own approach, but it’s good to try and keep yourself grounded in the place where you’re actually living. Make the most of being away from home. Really away.
·         This is the trip of a lifetime – but only if you want it to be.
Exchange is exactly what you make of it. Be awesome and be badass and do the most you can and enjoy everything about it! The fact that you’re planning it at all tells me that you’re a cool kid, and no matter your destination you can make it intensely great. Make yourself proud.

But feel free to not listen to (read: read) any of this and run into it all and make your own mistakes and have the craziest time ever and come out battered and bruised but a totally improved human being. I think that's kind of what I did. But I guess I won't know for sure until I get back. Which is really very soon.

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