I left Dalian a few days ago to meet a train traveling from Beijing to Nanchang. I learned that — for reasons beyond my understanding — it is impossible to buy a train ticket for a Beijing train from anywhere outside the capital. A friend who happend to be visiting Beijing purchased the ticket for me, but made a mistake when telling me what time it departed the Beijing train station; thus, at 4 PM on the 14th I learned that my 6 PM train had actually left at 2 PM. Luckily for me, some friends have opened their house so I can avoid hotel costs so I’m not totally stranded. In a stroke of good timing, Thompson Rivers University has asked me to represent the school at an education expo in Beijing this weekend where I’ll tell people about my experience and help answer questions about our fantastic university. On the 24th I’ll finally catch a train to Nanchang to renew my visa, find an apartment, and make myself at home for the coming year.
Even though I’ve now been living in China for almost a whole year, my Chinese language skills are painfully limited, because I’ve been studying business classes taught in English instead of learning Mandarin. A year in Nanchang to study Chinese language will bring many challenges and opportunities, but there is a question that I always have to answer: why Nanchang?
I can understand why foreigners might ask me this question when cities like Shanghai and Beijing are famous names even to someone who might not be able to find China on a map; however, Nanchang provokes a surprising reaction from my Chinese friends. Several people have offered me jobs to stay in Tianjin so I don’t learn the “bad pronounciation” in southern China. Other people fear that because the province is the poorest &mash; or at least it’s one of the poorest — in China, I will be terribly uncomfortable and cannot possibly enjoy living there. To these nay sayers I say this: maybe you are right.
However, the partnership between TRU and Nanchang University is brand new so I will be the first representative student from TRU to test it, just as I was the first to participate in the joint program at the Tianjin University of Technolgy (天津理工大学). I guess you could say that, for me, it’s exciting to blaze a new trail for future exchange students to learn about our different cultures so we can understand each other and find common ground.
I too was worried about the strong accent of a southern province affecting my future in China and I spoke to an American friend, Michael, that I met in Tianjin. Michael completed his MBA in Tianjin on an exchange program and now lives in Guangzhou with his wife. They told me about a friend who has studied Mandarin in places far from the capital. We all agree that understanding the official standard pronounciation is vital to communicating across this vast country; however, despite being based on the Beijing accent, every region has their own way of modifying the sound — Beijing included. To communicate effectively in any part of China, one has to learn the official language and the regional changes. I have friends in Tianjin who have been to Nanchang and say they couldn’t understand anyone, so this problem will obviously confront me regardless where I study. I only hope I can learn the standard accent in the classroom, and local accent on the street and one day have the linguistic skills to talk with my friends no matter what part of this very interesting country they hail from.
When it comes to being uncomfortable and living without the amenities from home I would say that it’s true that some foreigners can’t seem to survive without a 5-star hotel. I don’t care — I came here to learn about the real China. One cannot understand the whole of China by experiencing a single city, so I consider this a great opportunity to know a very different part of the country that sounds a bit neglected by everyone except the writers at Newsweek International.
In fact, some of the photos I’ve seen of Nanchang show that it’s a beautiful city with a lot to discover, which makes me surprised when I’m confronted with people telling me to go somewhere else.
So who knows what is in store for me this year. Whatever happens, it’s certain shaping up to be another exciting year.