For three weeks in March/April I embarked on the University of Manchester’s Study China programme. I was a mix of both nervous and excited energy as I boarded my plane in London. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from China. I spent three weeks studying Mandarin at the University of Zhejiang in Hangzhou.
I met another participant of the programme when I arrived in Shanghai airport and we found the coach to the university together. The three hour journey was full of excitable chatter about what we expected from the next three weeks; from the university, the city, from all the tours that were organised for us, for our free weekends and so on.
Even that first jet-lagged night in China was incredibly fun, our accommodation was far better than I imagined – almost a hotel room! I immediately got on so well with my roommate. We had a tour around our campus, which was so picturesque and full of all sorts of interesting-looking shops, street food, canteens and restaurants. A big group of us went out for dinner with a group of Chinese students, who helpfully ordered us a range of food for us all to share and try. The bill came to around 70p each and we were absolutely stuffed full of delicious authentic Chinese delights.
It’s the most brilliantly bizarre place I’ve ever been to…
Over the next few weeks we had Mandarin class every morning 8:30 til 11:30am (these early starts were particularly hard if you’d decided to go to the local expat bars the night before), I’m biased, but I think that my class was the best class. Our laoshi (teacher) was excellent and our entire class all got on really well. Classes would fly by but we were all surprised by how much we’d learnt in just three short weeks! By the end we were able to make short conversations with people around the city, from ordering food to asking directions.
Our afternoons varied, sometimes we’d have extra classes learning about Chinese business, media and culture, sometimes we’d have excursions out – visiting the gorgeous West Lake (Google it now, it’s stunning), seeing cute little watertowns like Wuzhen, shopping down Hu-Fang ancient street or going to China’s biggest chocolate factory – a definite highlight. Our excursions were particularly interesting, since as Western travellers we got a lot of attention. Getting off the coach at West Lake was bizarre, a huge group of Filipino tourists had a frenzy over us and took a million pictures, we had people handing us babies, posing with their whole family and endless selfies. It was like being a celebrity. When we visited the chocolate factory, we got off the coach to find ourselves being greeted by various Chinese press, very strange wandering around places with cameras constantly in your face.
My favourite excursion was our evening visit to Songcheng, we had no idea what this even was. We boarded the coach and drove out of the city and through some beautiful scenery. When we arrived at the vibrant, colourful entrance we could tell we were in for a serious treat. We wandered around a beautiful area full of market stalls, colourful latterns, street food and art until we found the main square. The main square was alive with energy, music was blaring out and there was a huge mass of people all dancing in a giant circle. An old Chinese man asked for my photo and we proceeded to dance in the centre of it. It’s the most brilliantly bizarre place I’ve ever been to, in every direction there was something new to look at, whether it was a knife throwing challenge or an assault course over a huge pool of water. The show started at 7:30 so I reunited with the group and we found our seats. The show was about the history of Hangzhou and it was absolutely unbelievable. I have never seen anything like it and it would easily rival anything on the West End. Such an epic production, people flying over the audience, battle scenes with real horses, lasers and lights like I’ve never seen before, lanterns emerging from the ceiling, mist being sprayed over the audience as the stage opens up to reveal a lake (!) and absolutely on-point choreography. When the show finished everyone was undeniably astounded.
Other memorable highlights would be our dinners out at Grandma’s kitchen – a Chinese chain of affordable authentic Chinese food. We’d go in huge groups of 15 – 20, everyone would read the extensive menu in groups of 2 or 3 and all order a few dishes which would then be put on the giant lazy-susan in the middle of the table and we would all share all sorts of food – anything from sweet and sour pork to pig intestines (surprisingly good), beef in oyster sauce to chicken feet and so on. The meal would be ridiculously cheap and we would always follow it with karaoke at a nearby KTV or drinks in crazy expat bars or going to some of the ridiculously over the top and insane clubs near campus.
amazing friendships had blossomed in such a small amount of time…
The duration of the trip also gave us a free three-day weekend where we were able to travel if we wanted to. Many people went to Beijing or Yellow Mountains but a few of us decided to go and check out Shanghai. It takes an hour on the bullet train and costs just £7. We were incredibly unlucky with the weather but we still had such a brilliant weekend of wandering around beautiful parts of Shanghai, eating in some delicious restaurants, drinking in cheapo dive bars as well as going to absolutely insane high-end clubs (where, as Westerners we weren’t expected to pay for any drinks), seeing the Bund at night and general silliness.
As our three weeks drew to a close everyone was getting very sentimental, amazing friendships had blossomed in such a small amount of time and everyone felt like they’d known each other for so much longer than we had. I was envious of all the people who studied in Manchester and would continue to see each other after China was over. As people started to leave early during our closing ceremony, I found myself getting quite tearful as I really had met some amazing people out there. We’d shared some incredible, unforgettable experiences in such a beautiful part of China. It almost seems silly to say, but in those three weeks I feel like we all learnt a lot about ourselves, what drives us and what we’re passionate about. A huge group of us already have a big reunion scheduled in Manchester and I can’t wait to see everyone again.
For anyone who has an interest in Chinese language or Chinese culture, who wants to see a new part of the world, and wants a programme that aims to completely immerse you within the real China, look no further than the Study China programme. I would absolutely recommend it.