As a child, the Far East always fascinated me. I attended a karate class for my whole childhood, watched old martial arts films many times over and had my bedroom painted with Chinese characters and a Taijitu – the Ying and Yang symbol. Whether it was influenced by my love of the food, or the fact that some say I look East-Asian, my search for the opportunity to actually go there and explore never stopped.
The opportunity came when I started university. With a large Asian community (especially in Electronic Engineering), Imperial College offered me the perfect language immersion, second only to actually living in China. I took evening classes in Mandarin and thoroughly enjoyed them, which really gave me the drive to take this chance and get to grips with perhaps the most notoriously difficult language in the world. This is when I decided to go to China in the summer.
Whilst booking the flight tickets to Beijing, I felt an intense sense of excitement and adventure. Spending 2 months in a country so different from my own was a very daunting prospect, but with the encouragement from friends and family I closed my eyes and clicked “place order”. That was it. As the next month of revision and exams passed, the departure date quickly approached.
The first interesting thing happened before I even left England. On the train to London, a Chinese man sat opposite to me. One hour of hesitating later, I plucked up the courage to break the ice. “Ni hao?” I said. After his initial shock, he replied and conversation continued, although in a somewhat broken manner since my vocabulary didn’t stretch further than introducing people and giving directions. Just the fact that I could have a simple conversation with him imbued me with confidence for the rest of my trip.
14 hours in a plane later, and I had arrived. The weather was hot, the city was crowded and, despite the long flight, I felt energised! Instead of taking a taxi from the tube station to the hotel, I decided to walk, taking in the sights of this unfamiliar place. Tall, high-tech buildings adorned with huge TV screens cast shadows on the people selling fruit from wooden carts below. The contrast was astonishing.
I soon started at my school: 3 hours of intense 1-1 lessons per day. Talking for such a long time was exhausting, but the rapid improvement in my spoken Chinese, and my teachers’ funny stories gave me the motivation to continue. Soon outings became much easier, and I visited some of the sights of Beijing. For me, the must-sees are Yong He Gong Lama Temple, which has an absolutely huge and beautiful statue of the buddha carved from a single sandalwood tree, the beautiful Hou Hai and its vibrant nightlife, and obviously the Great Wall.
For 2 weeks of my time in Beijing I stayed in a youth hostel, sharing a room with 7 other people, which surprisingly was perhaps the best part of the whole trip. Living in close quarters with so many Chinese around my age was a great way to experience their culture and I learnt many new things, particularly about hospitality. The many friends I made their were, after overcoming an initial shyness, extremely thoughtful and good fun!
Originally I planned to travel across the east coast after my studies finished, but a great opportunity came my way. I was invited to teach English to a university student from Hunan, a central Chinese province. While we talked English, we traveled around this beautiful mountainous and lake-ridden part of China. After lots of fun, fishing, boating and rafting, it was almost time to return home. But there was one last stop, Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was perhaps the most inspiring place to me. As an electronic engineer, to look across to the island from Kowloon, and seeing the big company’s names in lights was exciting. I was in a place where I felt I could easily live, the bustle, weather and culture all suited me perfectly. My favourite places were the fantastic planetarium in the Hong Kong Space museum, Hong Kong park with its turtle filled lakes, and Lantau island.
Normally, when people talk about Lantau Island, they mention the big Buddha statue, the Po Lin Monastery, and the cable cars, but the afternoon I spent on the island didn’t contain any of those, despite a plan to go and visit them all. Instead I rented a bike and got lost! But it turned out to be my favourite and most enjoyable time in Hong Kong. Cycling off the beaten track, there were many interesting and untouched-by-tourist places, one of which is a great waterfall. After the business of HongKong island, this day was a breath of fresh air and it was astonishing to me that two such very different places were linked by only a 20 minute ferry ride.
Returning home, the 12 hour flight gave me time to reflect on the whole experience. I loved China – its busy cities and beautiful countryside, the shy yet immensely hostipitable friends, and the many memories i brought back. Yet I still felt relieved when stepping off the plane, back on British ground. Not only did the trip fuel my passion to travel more, to China again and other places, but it also made me realise how much I take for granted in my own country.
My trip to China has matured me greatly, in terms of character, and in my Mandarin fluency. Through meeting so many people, with backgrounds vastly different from mine, I have learnt many things and I suspect others have learnt from me. I hope to return to China in the near future, but next time more focussed on voluntary work. And finally, I’d like to thank the Ogden Trust for their generosity in helping me.