China is a crazy place. It’s been over two months since I came back, and I have not stopped talking about it. From taking my first international flight to eating fresh durian, everything was a new and exciting (if challenging) experience, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
The first day, I flew out of New Zealand for the first time, alone. Despite worries from family, I wasn’t too phased. The plane ride was a blur, and reality only set in once I got to the Beijing airport. The masses of people, and the train ride from one end of the building to another was quite a shock from what I’m used to. The AFS volunteer was there waiting for me as soon as I got through baggage claim, accompanied by Emma, a girl from the Faroe Islands. We hit it off immediately and not even two hours into my stay in China, I had made a new friend (one that I still keep in touch with).
Soon, we would be joined in our hotel by 1 Canadian, 1 Spanish-Norwegian, 5 Americans, 7 Germans, and 26 Italians! We climbed the Great Wall together the next day in stifling heat, and then were siphoned off into our 3 respective cities: Changzhou, Jiujiang, and my host city, Anshan. I was joined on the 4-hour bullet train ride by 2 German girls, an American boy, 4 Italian girls and 4 Italian boys.
Meeting up with our host families was nerve wracking, but thankfully, mine were absolutely lovely and very well-suited to me. They couldn’t speak English, so our means of communication was most often my base-level mandarin, and if I struggled, a Baidu(Chinese Google) Translator. Despite the small language barrier, we got on fantastically and shared many great memories. My 7-year-old host sister was the cutest, smartest, most well-behaved child I may ever meet, and we went most places together holding hands and/or skipping. One of the first weekends was spent with my host family, climbing Qian Shan(千山, meaning ‘thousand mountains’) for four hours straight. Despite the harsh sun and high temperature, it was one of the best experiences of my whole trip, as I got to see magnificent views, learnt some of the history behind the mountains, and most of all got to bond with my host family.
During my stay, I was able to experience the daily life of my host family firsthand. They live on the 18th floor of a 33-storey apartment building, surrounded by nearly 30 apartment buildings of similar stature. From 8:30am to 4:00pm every weekday, I attended the same school as my host sister, and even got to join in classes with some of her classmates, including calligraphy and dancing. Every evening, we ate dinner together, usually consisting of a bowl of rice each, accompanied with some shared dishes. I went to the supermarket with my host mother and experienced new fruits, drinks, and snacks, as well as the overwhelming brightness and colour of Chinese supermarkets. I sat in on a few of my host sister’s extra-curricular classes, which included Ballet, Robotics, Acting, and English. The children and parents alike found me very interesting and were shocked when I spoke with them in Chinese.
I also made amazing friends on my trip. All of the other kids in my host city were amazing, and it took some time, but we eventually all became very close with each other. We had school together every day, and also met up for a barbecue and a trip to the fairground. In school, we learned conversational mandarin every day, and did a multitude of afternoon activities such as drone flying, drawing with 3D pens, and go-karting. Lunch was provided by school; in the fanciest cafeteria I’ve ever seen. We also got to browse the mini mart next to the cafeteria, and always came away with loads of snacks. My friends and I often discussed differences between our western home countries and China, such as bagged milk, how cheap everything was, the food, and most often, the attitude towards us, because we looked different to the large majority of people in Anshan(We were stared at pretty much everywhere in Anshan, and were asked for pictures on multiple occasions, which was a little strange to us). We also talked about the differences between our own countries, predominantly the disparity between our school systems, which was very eye-opening. I’ve never had any friends that live in a different country to me, and it was really amazing to hear about all the things we did and didn’t have in common.
Leaving was the hardest part. The waterworks started as I had to leave my host family to travel back to Beijing. I hugged my host mother goodbye and held my host sister’s hand for the last time, eyes flooded with tears. I stayed up all night to see our Italian friends off, and the waterworks started again. I hardly stopped crying until well after my best friends from Germany and the Faroe Islands left. I hung out with the Americans until they too had to leave(at which point I started crying again), and then I was by myself for 4 hours until I had to leave to catch my plane. I still keep in touch with the good friends I made there, as well as with my host family, who I speak with on Wechat often. I plan to go back and visit them someday.
I loved staying in China, the crazy, massive place that it is. I loved going to 219 park, that comes alive with music and people at night. I loved eating street food, and going to Chinese barbecue, and Hot Pot. I loved spending time with a family that started out as strangers, but quickly became people that I was comfortable with and happy to be around. I loved meeting and forming connections with people from around the world. I loved going to the Anshan museum, and the Shanyang Imperial palace to learn the history of such a complex place. I loved experiencing a culture and lifestyle that is so exciting and fast pace, one that seems a world away from mine in New Zealand. I loved staying in China, I cherish every moment I spend there, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Thank you so much for helping me go on this trip, it was so amazing and crazy and just unbelievable, I certainly won’t ever forget it.
Ella | Global Prep China | 2019