Impression of NJU

I landed in a steamy Nanjing September dressed in a ski jacket, having coated up to avoid oversized luggage surcharges. My buddy Dendi, who had contacted me prior, kindly picked me up from the airport and assisted me in finding my hostel, which was wedged into a labyrinthine office complex. I spent my first few nights in a dorm room, meeting the workers from other cities who stayed just a night. Coming just before term began was a good way to warm up my derelict Mandarin skills before selecting a class – I wish I had chosen a higher level as my dormant vocabulary quickly returned.

Hearing that the rooms in Xiyuan (西苑宾馆, the international student dorms) didn’t leave much space between you and your roommate, and that apartments could be obtained for a similar price, I began with a hunt for my temporary home. Several landlords didn’t want the hassle of dealing with foreigners, while others wouldn’t accept such short term leases. Ones that did demanded higher rates – I figure it is hard to beat Xiyuan’s price for a short-term lease in the university area. On the day before classes I succumbed and visited an agent, worried that I would be left stranded without a room for the semester. She took me to a few flats, until I found one with a small courtyard close to the campus. Other friends said agents often take you to the worse options first, hoping to offload them, before relenting and going to nicer stock. I mentioned to the agent that I wanted a roommate, which led to a stream of people being led through the house as she would receive another agent fee. In hindsight, I would have sought out my own roommate first before asking for her matchmaking assistance, as most of them would not have suited.

Although jumping into China it’s expected to seek the ease and comfort of living with someone from your own culture, parts of me wish I had looked for a Chinese roommate so that learning continued after class. In saying that, other foreign classmates will probably be the first people you meet, and my roommate and I got on brilliantly. Fortunately the Overseas Students Society runs events to connect international classmates with local students. One such event involved cooking a dish from your home country in the basement of Zengxianzilou (曾宪梓楼), which despite a shortage of power points proved a fantastic if chaotic bonding experience. These events are great opportunities; a nightlong dinner with local students will help your fluency advance beyond typical greetings and shop check out conversation, as well as bring a raft of new friends.

One of the first things I did in Nanjing was buy a second-hand bike. A group of us bussed to an unremarkable dusty street which was rumoured to be the place for bikes; metal contraptions cluttered the footpath. Many of the bikes were sprayed black to hide flashy logos, which would encourage theft and likely see them swiftly return to the same street. Some of my friends held out, and regretted it. Most of them ended up buying one before the end of semester anyway, having missed out on using it the months prior, and having to walk to lunch while everyone else rode saw them arrive as others finished. Riding among the chaotic flocks of scooters, bikes and meandering pedestrians is an exhilarating experience, and greatly expands the area accessible on a whim.

Regularly we would join the flood of students filling the cavernous cafeteria (食堂) for a subsidised lunch. We were usually the last to leave; the locals didn’t linger. The canteen uses a meal card (campus card) which you can apply for in the Zengxianzilou, and top up on the west side of the fountain roundabout in an office which conveniently closes during lunchtimes. Despite having to sometimes abandon class early to load credit, the jungle of choices always created a compelling lunch amidst the cacophony of students. Vegetable dishes are especially cheap, with special mention to lotus root and curried potatoes. Other favourites included the unassuming den in which you can select your own soup ingredients on Beidongguashi (北东瓜市), or the doupi (豆皮) from Harbin dumplings on Hankou Lu (汉口路). 

In the mid-semester break two friends and I chose a river in Anhui on Baidu maps, hired camping equipment from the Xianlin Campus, and caught a train and cab to this random location. Although camping is uncommon in China, and I believe the club we borrowed the tent from used them solely for picnics (they repeatedly asked if we were sure we meant to hire for five days), in the lush Anhui countryside it was easy to find spot to set up. Villagers were surprised, but permissive, when we asked if we could set up for a night. The air was fresh, the hills verdant and the sounds bursting with life. Our ears grew accustomed to varied accents, and our Chinese was tested in sticky situations. Strangers invited us into their living rooms for tea; their stories gave a broader picture than China’ developed metropolises. Snakes slinking by as you use the toilet may not be for everyone, but I would not leave China without venturing out to the paddy fields and villages skirting the industrial charge. It was possibly my favourite part of exchange.

Although I had experience in China before, there were still a few small aspects of life which differed from the Australian experience. Shop keepers eschewed warm coddling welcomes, and customers generally come second to the TV show illuminating their phone screen. There are uncomfortable times when Westerners are looked upon with admiration or provided with free drinks at bars; discrimination against locals would never sit well back home. Acceptable noise levels in public are also much higher, and you’re bound to be furiously questioning why Candy Crush must be played at full volume on a long-distance train at some point in your stay. But, Chinese hospitality may also catch you off-guard. Many Chinese people, particularly outside of the major cities, will welcome you by generously taking you out for lunch, inviting you to their homes for tea or perhaps treating you to their wedding festivities. Travellers from far away are often viewed as guests, and subsequently privy to intimate cultural activities; the type that would be difficult for newcomers to experience back home.

Although exchange was prefaced with university paperwork and unknowns, I now understand how mainstream Chinese society and everyday life functions in a way that I could not have grasped from the textbooks. You will have the freedom to explore a vast and intricate country, form intercontinental bonds and cement language knowledge which will be hard to forget. There are perhaps easier exchange paths to tread, but few will be so rewarding. (Jonathon)

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