Another aspect of student life that struck me was the complete non-existence of a drinking culture as we know it. I asked a lot of students what they did in the evenings, where they went to socialise, what they were going to do to celebrate the end of their exams and so forth. The reply would always be surprising even though I had a strong feeling before I asked that the answers would be really quite different to ones I would be sure to hear in the UK. Although the response would sometimes be drinking beer with friends, more often I heard responses like watching a movie on their computer, playing basketball or chatting on ‘QQ’ or MSN. The same question in Guildford at least, would precipitate an average response of something along the lines of ‘big night’. ‘Being cool’ comes into this too. It marks out going out in the UK as far too distinctive for its patent mission to be seen out and certainly the social emphasis and widespread hubris, if you like, in getting drunk is an absolute departure from the drinking culture in China. Of course, if you head into Beijing or Shanghai there will increasingly be a set of young trendy twenty-somethings who probably take drinking and partying to a whole new level that would certainly put the Guildford folk in Spoons on a rowdy and potentially violent Saturday night at least, to shame. A world away within the University in Qingdao, there was a greater and very apparent hard-working mentality and refreshingly bars less pressure to be seen out doing ‘cool’ things.
Having said this and in fear of undermining everything so far, I saw and heard a lot over the two months which reinforced my view that all humans around the world are more or less the same. Broadly speaking, a harsher and more turbulent national history especially in the modern era, a considerably larger population leading to higher competition for jobs and undeniably stricter parenting for the great majority fuelled by the fight for University places, has injected into the average chinese student psyche a desire to perferm well that seriously belittles my very average efforts at George Abbot school. For many, they are the first generation accessing higher education, and although this is the case for many in the UK too, myself included, it seems that this has a greater significance in China where a substantially more profound dichotomy between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in society can be seen. Generally speaking, this reflects in more diligent attitudes to work and also, I think, in more respect for teachers. This most probably stems tenuously down from confucius teachings of respect for one’s elders too, but even in cosmopolitan Shanghai where the word ‘modern’ sometimes seems an understatement, teachers are held in no less regard. This is demonstrated by placing ‘lao shi’ after their family name, rather than their given name.
Having barely scratched the surface of eastern and western distinctions, it is probably most wise to end here and wait until next time when I hope to be able to come at this mammoth task with greater maturity and with a greater confidence in my observations. For now, it is safe to say that my eight weeks on the other side of the world have been an unmissable opportunity and without doubt, a welcome reminder of what technically makes up half my world.
As I listened to the presentations, I picked out the popular mispronunciations that I spent the following fortnight trying to correct. A programme of oral english tuition was drawn up and I actually had a lot of fun while correcting deep-rooted pronunciation errors, playing english language games and generally getting to know the lovely group of students better. With no exceptions, they were all extremely keen to learn and to improve with a native english speaker. Common errors involved difficulties with the ‘th’ and ‘v’ sounds. Although I cannot boast complete success in transforming my students and new friends into more modest-nosed Stephen Frys, I at least made the vital step of making them aware of how they were saying things wrong and hopefully gave them lasting ways of remembering how certain words should sound. Unfortunately for me, a significant number of words were new to me too and so whilst a whole new world of lipids, CCR3 and outlandish proteins was opened up to me, I had to quickly decide how some of the more specialised terms were pronounced myself before taking on the role of the omniscient teacher.
Upon hearing that no students were available for teaching as they were all busy amidst an exam period that I had not been previously made aware of, and having a two-week gap to fill until they were over, I left Qingdao to spend ten days in with my family in Shanghai. I continued my educational summer there, surrounded by great company, great food and the Shanghainese dialect. I found my understanding of the dialect to be better than that of my mandarin but, as in the past, I felt more comfortable speaking the latter.
A special occasion gave me the benefit of increasing my religious education when my family and I attended Buddhist prayers for the ten-year anniversary of my Grandmother’s death. I found the affair to be quite a surreal experience but undeniably interesting, as the kind of ceremony was a complete departure from anything I was formerly familiar or comfortable with. To be completely honest, I felt a little too removed from the protocol for it to be spiritually advantageous on a personal level, but despite my discreet mutterings about it being ‘a bit bizarre’, I developed a strong sense of respect for the Buddhist nuns; for their endurance whilst chanting, their kind-heartedness and most of all for their unmitigated devotion and fidelity to their faith. More importantly, I strengthened my personal proclivity for remembrance on an individual and private basis. Although the offering of apples and bananas to an immanent Will adhered to the principles of the Buddhist religion and was pleasing in its simplicity, it was unsettling in its fundamental theory and did not align with my belief that remembrance will always be more significant in individual hearts and minds on a day-to-day premise.
I returned to Qingdao and the University of Petroleum and was soon invited to an enjoyable dinner with Ms Wu, Professor Zhang of the National Cheng Kung University of Taiwan, Ms Liu from the University of Beijing and my friend Zhao Yuming. Conversation was wide-ranging and it was very interesting to listen to the views of such a range of ages, experiences and places. The next day I was met by the news that there wouldn’t be any students to teach as they have now, exams completed, gone on to start internships away from the university. This was very disappointing given my preparation and the time I had spent here, which suddenly it seemed, without purpose. I realised though, that I had come primarily to improve my Chinese and it has, I believe, come on well, through good immersion in many aspects of Chinese life. I have made friends who I really became sad to say goodbye to as they finished their year at university here and will certainly hope to keep in touch with. I have stuck with and have enjoyed my diary-writing and have learnt a lot, even through the tasks of buying train-tickets, doing much navigation around Chinese airports and asking lots of questions with only my Guildford-cultivated wits to depend on, I have definitely grown up a little more and have learnt a great deal about China, about my family and myself in the last month here by the sea at Qingdao.
Watching the recently-made film about Margaret Thatcher, ‘The Iron Lady’, on board a Virgin Atlantic A340-600 was the educational starting point to my summer in China. Whilst staying at the China University of Petroleum, my chief aim was to improve my Chinese speaking and listening. ‘Sub-aims’ were firstly to make friends who I hope to be able to keep in contact with for a long time and secondly, to start a diary. This diary will be my primary source and first aid to writing this report.