Emma Holifield: Scholarship in Shandong

Name: Emma Holifeld

University: University of Exeter

Programme: Shandong Normal University, Shandong Programme, February 2016

Which city were you based in for your scholarship?

I was based in Jinan city, Shandong. It was an industrial, smoggy, traffic-jammed city, but I’m actually so glad I had the experience of living there. I got a more ‘Chinese’ experience than living in bigger, more Western cities like Beijing or Shanghai. 

In Jinan, I really had to use my Chinese as the locals rarely spoke English. Shandong is known as a friendly province and this was really noticeable and a big bonus to living there. Jinan also had great transport links giving me plenty of opportunities to travel around the country.

How did you hear about the Generation UK-China programme and why did you decide to apply?

I first heard about the programme sitting in the British Council offices in Shanghai. We spent an afternoon there whilst I was participating in the Study China Programme.

I really enjoyed Study China and my experience as an English teacher at Tsinghua University’s summer camp in Beijing a few years before that, so I knew that I wanted to return. 

Having never really taken to languages before, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed learning Mandarin on the Study China programme. 

By the time it came to applying to Generation UK I had a job in London which I was really enjoying. 

But I had always regretted not doing a year abroad during university, so I decided to take the plunge and go for it, thinking that learning one of the world’s most difficult languages would be a great addition to my CV.

What did you think about your scholarship placement and what sort of tasks were you doing on a day-to-day basis?

Class was fairly rigorous. After Study China I continued to take weekly Chinese Language classes in the UK. But one of two hours a week in Britain can’t prepare you for four hours a day of intensive language study in China. 

Every day the classes focused on reading, writing and comprehension, with speaking practice within each of these, not to mention during my daily life and travels around China. 

With my Korean classmates all having minimal English skills, Mandarin was our only shared language. We also had daily dictation practice. Mid-terms and larger exams at the end decided our final grades.

What was the most enjoyable/exciting part of your experience in China?

I was lucky enough to find a group of friends who were just as passionate as me about seeing as much of China as possible. 

Having a student visa is a real privilege in China as, unlike the more restrictive tourist visa, you don’t have to have a pre-planned itinerary of every place you’re going to visit when you apply.

I travelled to Guilin, Yangshuo, Hangzhou, Xi’an, Beijing, Shanghai, Yunnan and Zhangjiajie, as well as lots of other places within Shandong province. 

Sleeper trains across the country were some of my most memorable experiences.

Waking up knowing that you’ve travelled across several provinces is a feeling that can’t be experienced in comparatively tiny England. Waking up with lots of little kids shouting ‘wai guo ren’ (foreigner) at the end of my bunk was certainly different! 

My most exciting trip was probably walking Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Me and a friend set off somewhat unprepared for the steep trek (and were followed by a man with a donkey who was convinced we would give up and let his donkey carry us for most of the way). But sipping a drink with a beautiful mountain view along the way made the long walk worth it. 

Other fantastic trips included celebrating my birthday at an abandoned part of the Great Wall, riding scooters around the fabulous scenery of Yangshuo and braving the rain at Zhangjiajie’s breathtaking ‘Avatar Mountains’. But of course Cocos milk tea will always be the most enjoyable part of China!

WHAT WAS THE MOST SURPRISING THING YOU LEARNT ABOUT CHINA AND YOURSELF?

At first, I was terrible at Chinese. 

Having been reasonably good in my UK class, I thought classes were going to be a breeze. But the total absence of English in the classroom was, at first, overwhelming. I didn’t know which page of the textbook we were on, let alone how to construct the grammar structures we were discussing. 

I was used to being able to revert to English to ask a question or to clarify a point. However, the complete immersion in the language made me push myself. I couldn’t be shy about using Chinese, either in the classroom or in daily life and I learnt how much could be achieved from just having a go. Who cares if you get the tones wrong!

I don’t think it’s very easy to pin down the most surprising thing about China. Everyday something different will happen which will make you feel like you’re in another world. As my friend recently said to me, “sometimes I ask myself if I went to China or whether it was all just a dream.” It’s a very odd place. Make sure you experience it!

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE YOU FINISHED THE PROGRAMME?/DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO RETURN TO CHINA IN FUTURE OR PURSUE CHINESE LANGUAGE STUDY FURTHER?

Since finishing the program I have spent a bit more time travelling in China. I was able to use my improved Chinese to show a friend from the UK around some of my favourite cities (including an obligatory trip to the newly opened Shanghai Disneyland). 

I have since moved to Taiwan to continue improving my Chinese at National Taiwan University in Taipei. The move to traditional characters has been a bit of a jump, but the intense course in Jinan has helped me to keep up with my lessons. 

At the moment I don’t have any immediate plans to return to mainland but I know I will go there in the future. I hope that my Chinese skills will help me to be an attractive prospect to future employers, wherever in the world that may be.

This opportunity is delivered through Generation UK – China in partnership with the Shandong Provincial Education Department.

Find out more about the Generation UK - China Scholarship Programme.