Postcards from Abroad - Ningbo, China

China might not be your usual student exchange destination; Rosemarie Gibbons recalls her experiences so far in Ningbo. When I told people I intended to do my college exchange in the University of Nottingham, Ningbo in China, I received a variety of opinions from people. Most were positive, some were negative, all were confused. Why would I want to pack up and move to China, of all places? I had to deal with a number of concerned, but slightly misguided, individuals asking about the Chinese eating dogs, or the political situation, someone even asked why wasn’t I worried about my organs being harvested?So why China? My answers varied then, and still do, but at the core of it I had a need for adventure and doing something on my own. I had a desire to do something that hadn’t been satiated by moving to Dublin and starting college. I had always wanted to travel around Asia, and when the offer to go to an English-speaking college in the middle of Asia came up, I knew opportunities like this were rare. Despite not knowing any Mandarin outside of “N? h?o,” I decided to apply for a full-year exchange.
Despite not knowing any Mandarin outside of “N? h?o,” I decided to apply for a full-year exchange.
You can do as much preparation as you want, but the first few days in an entirely new country as confusing as China all on your own can reduce you to looking like a lost child. I remember being entirely dumbfounded the first time I stepped off the bus at Nottingham Campus, only to be greeted by lashing rain that didn’t let up for days. In classic Irish-person-on-holidays mode, I’d only packed t-shirts and moved my coat from my suitcase in an act of misguided confidence. It turns out Ningbo was experiencing the tail end of a typhoon, so my first souvenir from China was a very hastily purchased umbrella.I had tried many things to mentally prepare me for the move, but everything still came as a shock: the squat toilet situation, the fact that the majority of Chinese people don’t drink cold water making it nearly impossible to find, the really complicated internet situation, etc. One experience I could not have anticipated was experiencing what it means to be a ‘foreigner’ in China. At home, the label ‘foreigner’ has negative connotations. As a foreigner in China, especially outside the safety of the college campus, you are an oddity, something that doesn’t fit into the landscape. People have discreetly (and sometimes, not so discreetly) pointed in my direction and alerted their friend to the “laowai” (foreigner) nearby. You also get used to entire groups of strangers wanting a picture with you, or of you. This has led to many uncomfortable situations, including one unfortunate incident where myself and some friends became trapped in the middle of a sizeable crowd of very nice but very insistent Chinese who all wanted a photo. As a lifelong dodger of photos, this is something I’ll never get used to.China is a large country with a million things to see and experience. There’s the incredible beauty of the country that makes it like no other place I’ve ever seen. Despite not having travelled around as much as I’d have liked to yet, I’ve already seen some of the most breathtaking landscapes and sunsets that a pixelated phone camera could never do justice.All the same, there have been bad days, days when even the simplest of tasks like getting dinner presents a whole wave of challenges such as having to order by pointing, or trying very hard not to look like a fool using chopsticks. There have been days when I’ve started crying and cursing the country when my wifi cuts out for the tenth time in a row when I try to call my family. Minor things like not being able to Google when the post office opens, but not having the Chinese to ask a stranger, can take a toll when they happen so frequently. Those are the times of severe homesickness, when I’m glued to Waterford Whispers and rationing out my last Dairymilk.Even after a string of bad days, the novelties of everyday life in Ningbo continue to make me smile. The unexplained phenomenon of large groups of elderly ladies who occupy street corners most evenings to perform dance routines. The interactions with Chinese people outside the college, especially the street food vendors outside the college gates, who I now count as acquaintances. China is a foodie’s dream: you can get a lot of amazing food for a very cheap price. The devotion to a very Asian past-time called KTV (which is essentially karaoke and drinks, but taken a lot more seriously). The multitude of small dogs in clothes. These are the small, random, uniquely Chinese things that make me want to discover the rest of the country, to learn more of the language and to understand further the traditions that make up such a vast, complicated, exciting country.Hopefully I’ll come home having mastered some Mandarin, or if all else fails, at least I’ll be a master at using chopsticks.