When I was 20 years old (2005) my mother decided that she wanted to take us on an adventure. She packed up our house and moved us to Shanghai. She had accepted a position as a special needs teacher at an international school in Shanghai. It came at a really good time as I was really lacking in direction and was feeling a bit lost.
I attended a local school on the Gold Coast and graduated in 2003 and had enrolled in a Bachelor of Business at Griffith University. It wasn’t what I really wanted to do, the truth is I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I thought studying business would give me some options after graduation. I had great fun, made new friends and really enjoyed the ‘university lifestyle’. However, studying business wasn’t really for me and after a semester I deferred. I said to myself that I would earn some money and then return to study the following year. It turned into one year, and then two and I still had no idea what I wanted to do or any intentions on returning back to study. So moving to Shanghai came at a really good time in my life. To be honest, I had never thought about China before. I had this vision in my head we would be living in a village and riding around on bicycles all day. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
My mum insisted that I enrol in one of the local universities and study Mandarin. I didn’t even know how to say hello in Mandarin, I was very scared and reluctant to attend the classes. I am not going to lie, studying Mandarin at a Chinese university is one of the most overwhelming experiences I have ever had. Not only did my teachers not speak any English, but neither did any of the other students. I was the only Australian in the class. The other students were from around the world and had limited or no English language ability. I had no idea what the teachers were saying. I felt like a young child learning how to speak for the first time. I was in a full immersion environment. For the first few weeks I found it really hard, I used to come home crying every night. My mum was at work all day, so I would spend a lot of time at home alone. I was incredibly home sick.
Back in those days we used to communicate with friends using MSN messenger. The internet wasn’t connected in our apartment yet, so every day after class I would walk an hour to speak to my friends. Once the internet was connected and I started to understand more Mandarin, I began to fall in love with Shanghai. Once I had grasped some basic conversational skills I felt more confident going out an exploring the city myself.
After my classes I roamed the streets and explored the city. China is so different to Australia, the people, the culture, landscape and the food. The food is amazing, it would have to be the best part of going to China. It definitely does not taste like Australian Chinese food, it is fresh, full of flavour and tells a story. In China, different regions specialise in different foods. Shanghai is known for its sweet food, Beijing is known for salty food and Sichuan is known for spicy food. When you travel around China the local guide will always talk at length about the food of that particular region and allow you to try all the speciality dishes.
After a few months living in Shanghai, I had visited some amazing places. I was very fortunate to go to Sichuan to see the pandas. This was a few years before the Sichuan Earthquake. We travelled to the world’s largest panda reserve and I actually got to cuddle a real live teenage panda. It was actually one of the scariest experiences of my life. Pandas may look cute, but up close they are very intimidating. The panda was huge, its fur was very coarse and it was starting to get agitated. The keeper was trying to settle her with bamboo while I stood behind her trying to get close. Once I got my photo taken, I quickly escaped. I will certainly remember that experience for the rest of my life.
During the trip, we were taken to a monastery; it was run by all female Buddhists. We were told that during the Cultural Revolution the locals did their best to hide the monastery. It was amazing. I met a female Buddhist who would have been close to 90, we couldn’t communicate but we were both very fascinated by each other. A tour bus full of tourists came and they all wanted to take pictures of her, she got really frightened and grabbed my arm. She led me to the back of one of the buildings and we quietly waited there until everyone disappeared. She was so scared but somehow felt comforted by my presence. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had, and I still think about it often, now 10 years later. I had really fallen in love with China.
University was starting to get really hard and I was starting to find it really hard to keep up. If you missed a day of classes, it was almost impossible to catch up. My teachers were very kind to me and would give me a lot of support. But verbal communication with them was limited. I was starting to get very home sick again and missed my friends too much. I decided to cut my stay short and I returned to Australia.
I returned to live on the Gold Coast and started a relationship with my best friend, now my husband. I lived with my Grandmother and completed a full time business administration traineeship. I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that China would always play a major part in it; I just needed to work out how.
To be continued…
Alexis is a Griffith University Alumnus with a passion for cross cultural communication, Australia/China relationship building and desire to help improve Asian literacies in Australia.