That's me on the far right.
I first started studying Chinese in 2002, but it wasn't until 2010 that I actually visited China for the first time.
I had briefly looked into going on exchange while I was at university, but this never eventuated. There were a few complications back then - SARS was a big thing, I had a long-term girlfriend at the time, and I wasn't keen on pushing my eventual graduation out by a year.
So I set that idea aside and kept on with my normal studies, finishing my Chinese course in 2004. After graduating from university in 2007 and working at the same unfulfilling office job for a few years, I decided that change was necessary. In 2009, I successfully applied for a job at Australia's signals intelligence agency, and after receiving my security clearance in January 2010, I was ready for greener pastures.
The good thing? Since the job didn't start until August, I had a perfect opportunity to take a productive holiday - namely, an intensive language course in China! So I did what any aspiring Chinese language student would do. I punched "china intensive chinese language course" into Google, and started clicking.
I had no real idea what to look for, or how to choose between literally dozens of universities and private schools, all with various durations, cost and locations across China. I ended up settling on Beijing Language & Culture University (BLCU), mainly because:
- I hadn't come across any red flags during my research
- 3 months was the perfect length of time
- a few people had commented favourably on Chinese Forums (probably the most popular forum for Chinese language learners at the time).
So I bit the bullet, transferred the money, and finally March came around. I boarded the plane and made myself comfortable for the 12-hour, two-hop flight from Adelaide to Beijing via Singapore.
I slept through most of the flight, but woke up a few hours away from Beijing and started chatting with a friendly Danish fellow sitting in the same row. He was about to start backpacking through China solo but didn't speak a lick of Chinese, so he was hoping I could help him find his way to his hotel. I was more than happy to, as long as I could find my way to the university first.
We shook on it, jumped on the subway and started our journey towards the university suburb of Wudaokou in Beijing's north-west.
Arriving in Beijing
Now, there's one thing you need to understand about Beijing. It's big. Like, enormous.
Coming from a small town like Adelaide, Australia, I had visited "big" cities before - think Seoul, Berlin, London, and so on. But Beijing is another beast entirely. You won't really appreciate this fact until you're actually walking the streets.
To get from the airport to Wudaokou station, you need to change subway lines a couple of times. The last change was just one stop, though, and given it seemed like a nice (if not brisk) March day, I figured we could walk it. After all, it's pretty close on the map - how far could a single stop be?
Walking one stop from 知春路 to 五道口 station. How far could it be?
Turns out, it's an hour and a half walk. For a single stop. Like I said, Beijing is big.
One lengthy walk later, I trudged my way through Wudakou, with 3 months' worth of luggage and a Danish compatriot in tow, to arrive at the university. Success!
You quickly get used to the Soviet aesthetic.
At this point in time, I had only paid a deposit for the university fees. I wouldn't be able to register a dorm room until I had settled the full amount and confirmed my enrolment.
I was itching to dump my luggage, take a shower and set off to help my Danish friend, so first order of business was formalizing my registration with the university.
After a few wrong turns - and confusedly walking past the "Propaganda Department" a number of times - I managed to find the Enrolment office.
As with many experiences in China, enrolment did not go smoothly. I had assumed that a bank card would be enough to settle the course fees, but in China at that time, cash was king (this has since been superseded by 支付宝 and others). Since I didn't have tens of thousands of RMB stashed away in my suitcase, a trip to the bank was in order.
Now, banking in China is one of the most difficult obstacles for foreigners to navigate. Technically, all ATMs should accept all foreign Visa cards (though subject to an annual withdrawal limit), so this should have been a straightforward task.
Unfortunately, reality isn't as smooth as that. A good hour was spent on the phone, going back-and-forth between the Chinese bank and my Australian bank, with my Danish friend waiting patiently outside all the while.
Finally, the wire transfer came through and the cashier handed over an envelope of crisp, red RMB notes. Cash in hand, we made our way back to the Enrolment office, where the clerk grudgingly stamped my student ID card and shooed me out of the office.
Officially a university student for the second time in my life, I set my sights on my next stop - the dormitory.
Foreign students dormitory
BLCU isn't just a school for foreign Chinese-language students, it's actually a proper university with all the usual faculties.
Most students are in fact domestic Chinese, but the off-campus dormitory (where I was staying) was reserved for foreign students. While it wasn't premium accommodation, it was clearly a notch higher than the dorms for domestic students.
In the northern/colder areas of China (like Beijing), heating is controlled by the central city authorities. In the foreign dormitory, though, our heating was turned on 3 weeks earlier, and turned off 3 weeks later, than our domestic compatriots. I'm guessing this was part of the PRC's strategy to ensure foreigners came away with a positive view of China.
Thankfully, registration was straightforward, and 15 minutes later I was in the lift, heading towards my new room.
I knew I'd be sharing with another male student. Each room was a double, but thankfully had its own toilet and shower. Domestic students were restricted to 4- or 8- person dorms with shared facilities in completely separate buildings.
Walking down the corridor, I was only moments away from a hot shower, and soon I'd be able to repay my Danish acquaintance for his eternal patience.
I turned the key, opened the door, only to be greeted by a thick Russian voice barking at me.
To be continued...