Journey to the East: 1. Finding my routine

It’s raining outside. It has been raining on and off since we got here, which makes us feel as if we’ve never really left Belgium. When we first arrived, it was scorching. Sunrays of thirty-something degrees Celsius drilling through our jetlagged skins. It was a pleasant surprise to find an air-conditioning mounted on our hotel room walls. Ironically, some of us ended up having a cold a few days later when the first raindrops fell from the skies. What is a surprise is that only a handful of foreign students, of which I am one, have not suffered under the sudden change in diet. I suspect the lack of camping or music festival experience is the root cause for those who have suffered the odd nausea last week. I must admit that I almost had it coming myself, either because of the ‘instant Karma’ after calling my friend a wimp, because he had to stay in due to his weaker stomach, either because I ignored the simple fact that one shouldn’t eat cold meat on a stick at 9 pm in a Chinese supermarket. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is absolutely delicious, but not for the faintstomached.

But food is not the only thing Chinese that needs getting used to. Language and culture, the capital reasons of our coming here, are to this day still quite a hassle. For the past three years we’ve had Chinese language and culture in school. It seems, however, that learning about the ways of a people in the protected environment of a classroom is one thing and actually moving to the country itself and communicating with those same people is another. Firstly, the language is not entirely the same, or so it feels. I think all of us have fairly good grades for our Chinese classes and we all speak a good amount of Mandarin Chinese, or Putonghua as it is usually called here. Sadly, we are only able to understand and speak textbook Chinese. I was very surprised the moment I asked a waiter for a certain dish and got a waterfall of meaningless sounds as a reply. We were all very much in despair the first few weeks, even more so because we had to converse with these dialect wielding people on a daily basis, as we had to visit virtually every bureaucratic institution in the city of Xi’an before we could finally submit our residence permit request form after two tedious weeks.

When we were assigned to our classes, we feared the worst. To our great relief our ears were once more caressed by the soft music of our teachers’ standard Mandarin Chinese.

I think I have finally found a daily rhythm that suits me at the Northwest University in Xi’an. I taking a shower at the same time, even the strongest Chinese water heater seems to falter. Afterwards, I go to the student restaurant and order something I could only describe as a deep-fried sausage sandwich. After a huge cup of coffee – I do suspect that a small percentage of coffee beans is included in the brown mixture – in the local supermarket on campus, I head for class.  After class, I have lunch and after lunch I usually take a long-anticipated nap – a nap usually takes about thirty minutes, not two hours, because that’s a daytime sleep. The afternoon is usually a bit vague. I either study the entire afternoon and have supper in the evening, or I run about the city, entangled in the web that is Chinese bureaucracy. After supper, I watch Chinese state television, which unintentionally has about the comedic value of Blackadder, but equals in historical accuracy. Then again Chinese people coming to Europe would feel the same way about our documentaries.

And so my first proper article about my life in China has come to an end. Let me know in the comments below which cultural topics you would like me to address in the following articles. I must stress the word cultural, because I’m not interested in politics. The sole purpose of my exchange in China is to learn about its language and culture.


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Journey to the East: Introduction