Day 0 (23rd of February, 2016) – Sydney, Australia
The airport was a less emotional experience for me than I had expected. I felt a wave of independence come over me from the second I stepped through customs. Such a great feeling which I always crave – knowing that I am completely responsible for my own wellbeing.
Flights were baby-free and relatively comfortable. I enjoyed using a luggage trolley at Guangzhou airport simply for the opportunity to simultaneously watch TV.
Day 1 (24th of February, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
The flight from Guangzhou to Xuzhou was via a small town called 连云港 (LianYunGang). Whilst approaching the airport, we were told to close all of the windows on the aircraft and to cease all photography since we were flying over a military base. Nothing like a bit of Communism to welcome you to China.
Upon arrival at Xuzhou airport with 20kg of backpacking glory tugging at my back and another 20kg bag in my hand, the university representative promised to me failed to show up. After half an hour of wandering and without a functioning phone, I decided that my Chinese ought to be put to the test, and I began to ask people at the airport if they knew anyone at the university who could contact the International School. Eventually, I found someone who’s mutual friend worked at the university. We got on the phone to the International School who apologised for forgetting to send out a car as promised, and they arrived an hour later. I took the wait as an opportunity to try some new snacks. “Mini eggs” as I call them (peanuts of some kind) and candied cucumber made up my lunch for the day.
As I was brought to my new dorm, it quickly dawned on me the enormity of the challenge posed by this difficult language. All instructions were in Chinese at a speed that was far too fast for me to comprehend, and there were simply no options to have it translated for me. Jumping in the deep end like this is what I wanted all along, after all.
My room has a decent amount of space. It’s a double room and is shared with an American roommate.
Unfortunately heating in here is non-existent, and I have to wear 4 or so layers just to function in my room. To my dismay, I discovered upon sitting on the bed and feeling the wood beneath that the mattress was only 3cm thick.
The university is impressive. I’ve attached some pictures of the campus.
Dinner was the highlight of the day. I found my way down to 南门 (pronounced ‘nan men’, meaning ‘south gate’), which is a hub of student activity and food stalls. I found a tent set up on the corner of a street which had a bunch of skewers which students were handing to the chef who was putting them over a BBQ and adding spices. The ingredients were then put in a 煎饼 (pronounced ‘jian bing’), a Chinese crêpe and Xuzhou specialty. I had beef, tofu, mushrooms and shallots in mine. Since dinner only set me back AU$1, I decided to really stuff myself and buy something else. I bought the Chinese equivalent of a Turkish gozleme which was superb, but I am yet to work out its name. I’ll have to ask next time.
There are hundreds of outlets which I’ll have to try over the coming months. There are still more at 东门 (east gate), university canteens (which are the size of stadiums) and surrounding streets to feed the 25,000 undergrads, all of whom live on campus. Out of all of those people, though, the American and I are the only Westerners. And none of the Chinese students can speak English, unlike in Beijing and Shanghai.
Despite not being one to feel homesick, waves of it have definitely hit me here. Thank god for WeChat and FaceTime (and WordPress, now).
Day 2 (25th of February, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
This morning, I found my way to the International School Office to collect my passport from registration and enquire about a SIM card. It was particularly daunting that important, complex conversations like this didn’t contain a word of English. All I could pick up was that I had to return at 6-7pm to collect the SIM card.
The process ended up being much more complex. When I returned, I again entered into a long and confusing conversation (well, one-way dialogue) about how to get a SIM. I was given directions to a building to be at by 7:20pm to collect it.
After much fuss, I arrive at said building to find a man sitting in the corner of a huge canteen hall who had turned up simply to sell me a SIM card. I pay 100RMB ($20) and hand over my passport, and he gives me a card which isn’t the right size. I am told to return tomorrow to collect the passport and new, smaller SIM.
Other than that debacle, today was spent exploring the surrounding parts of Xuzhou. Only a 10 minute walk away is a 200m-odd pedestrian mall filled with clothing and food shops. I found lunch there.
I still spent much of the day feeling very much homesick, but hopefully that passes as my days become busier.
Day 3 (26th of February, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
This morning, I returned to the International Office only to realise that they intended to cut my SIM to size which I had lost. I bailed, fearing embarrassment, and by a complete fluke found the SIM in a gutter along the kilometre walk I’d taken the night before. It must have fallen out of my pocket. I sprinted back and got the SIM cut, ending that episode (finally).
I also enquired about extending my visa to allow for multiple entries and about the presence of any American hospitals, both of which received laughs to my face about how slim my hopes are. Yay!? Regarding the visa, I will likely obtain a new one in Hong Kong when visiting the family.
The rest of my morning was spent doing a practice HSK test (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or 汉语水平考试), which is a state-administered test to determine your Chinese ability. At 2pm, I sat a level 3 (out of 6) HSK test to determine which class I will be in when lectures start next Wednesday. I think I went well (80%ish), and should secure my spot in Level 3. I could push for Level 4, but I think I’d be skipping a few patches of critical information and it would make my gap year more study intensive, which I don’t really want to do.
For my meals, I hopped between university canteens today.
I also found this arcade machine near the university today. It looks to be one of those Disney claw machines you always see at the movies, only the stuffed bears have been replaced with cigarettes.
Where I have been saving money on food, I blew it all on cleaning products.
Tonight, I nuked my bathroom to bring it to Australian hygiene standards. Finally I can sit on my porcelain throne in comfort.
My roommate also moved out today, meaning that I now have my own room. This means that I have upgraded my mattress to a 6cm deluxe.
Day 4 (27th of February, 2016) – 徐州，江苏省，中国
Today, I decided to explore the tourist attractions of Xuzhou. I abandoned my original idea to get an e-bike which is the most popular mode of transport here (see below), since I think it would be suicide on such chaotic Chinese streets.
So, I decided to get the bus to 云龙湖 (YunLong Lake), the biggest lake in Xuzhou. It provides the iconic views seen in all the photos of this city. Making my way there was a challenge, since this is what a typical bus timetable here looks like:
Apparently I was the first Westerner this commuter had ever seen in the flesh. Upon realising that in the initial photo his gold chain wasn’t prominent enough, he quickly adjusted it and tried taking another picture.
As I was waiting for the bus, two chickens walked by on the side of the road. They’ll likely end up in my dinner tomorrow.
The lake was a stunning sight, albeit the air was fairly hazy with pollution. Due to a mistranslation, I paid too much money for a 4 minute speed-boat around the whole lake instead of the cruisy boat I was hoping for.
I then walked to the 徐州艺术馆 (Xuzhou Art Museum), only to find out that it was closed. I took some pictures anyway.
A good way to fend off homesickness is to try and use some of my spare time to find places which I can show to the family and Aimee when they come over. I tested out a teahouse today which was particularly nice, and I was proud that I could keep up with the whole conversation in Chinese. I’m definitely improving at a good rate. Hopefully that will pick up once class starts.
Tone’s advice is difficult to follow when a flask of 60% alcohol goes for AU$1.
Luckily I’m not in the mood for ingesting what can only be described as pure gasoline.
After weighing up catching a train to Shanghai for a 2-night trip to investigate visa issues and get a dose of Westernisation (which I need very badly), I’ve decided against it. Instead, I’m going to try and explore Xuzhou more before class starts. I’ll likely visit Shanghai around the 23rd-25th of April when I can stay at the new house of a Riverview old boy in the French Concession and link up with the Riverview Chinese exchange.
Overall, I can’t help but think that the one word which I seem to want to use to describe this trip so far is ‘lonely’. It’s very tough making new friends, it’s hard to find solace in anything but the occasional call home and a book, and I’m battling the irrational feeling that I’m missing out on the university lives of everyone back at home. The challenge of this trip, I’m beginning to realise, is learning that solitude and being in your own company is hardly ‘lonely’. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer. I’d imagine that this will be a huge growing process in getting to know myself more.
Until next time,