My first week of grad school in China has been a crazy, hectic whirlwind of new friends, great experiences and constant thoughts of “why did I decide to move back here??”
Compared to my last year teaching English in the middle of nowhere, my social life has greatly improved. I’m constantly surrounded by other people, and it’s far too easy to make new friends. I have two Russian roommates, and a room full of British and Irish exchange students across the hall. I’ve also become friends with people from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Tanzania, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and China (of course). While my university is only 10% international, I feel like I’ve never been surrounded by such a diverse group of people before. I’ve met a few other Americans too. I think there’s eight of us, but I’ve only met five.
So here it is: the good, the bad and the ugly of my first week of grad school in China!
I can’t stress how much I’ve enjoyed being back at a college campus, surrounded by friends and new people. It feels like I’m studying abroad all over again! Everyone is excited to explore China and try new things, which has really brought me out of my jaded China funk. Leaving China last year, I really wasn’t ready to come back again for another year. To be honest, I was kind of sick of living here. I was tired of the food, annoyed with the constant noise and frustrated by the censorship. Being surrounded by people new to China has made me realize how exciting China really is. They gasp when they see four people on a motorbike, or stare in awe at the street food. They bring new life back into things that seem everyday to me.
I may have alluded to it in a few past posts, but I was extremely lonely last year. While I did have friends (eventually), living in “the middle of nowhere” meant I could only see them on the weekends. I ate most meals alone and spent almost every evening on my computer. It wasn’t exactly what I pictured for my year in China, but there isn’t much to do when you live on a factory-lined highway and everyone goes home at 5pm. After a year of isolation, I can’t tell you how amazing it is to constantly have people around. I almost never have to eat alone, and I have to forcibly isolate myself to get work done. As we speak I’ve got a room full of people nagging me to come drink beer with them. Five more minutes guys!!!
The Nottingham campus in Ningbo is also really cool. There are three cafeterias, multiple restaurants, shops, stores, a travel agency, dry cleaners, post office- basically anything I could possibly ever need. About 10 minutes walking is Sunday Plaza, which contains a small grocery store and tons of restaurants. If I hop on the bus I can be at Wanda Plaza in about 10 minutes. Wanda is a major shopping mall with a movie theater, restaurants and a Walmart! It’s so refreshing to have everything I need right at my fingertips. No more 30 minute e-bike rides to the grocery store, or hour-long bus rides to meet people for dinner! I also don’t have to worry about cab fares anymore, because they’re half the price of what I was used to paying last year and I can split them with other people! The only thing I really wish I had access to is the subway, which is on the other side of town.
I’ve honestly been having such a good time here that I wish my master’s degree was two years instead of one!
Moving back to China is not without its drawbacks. I find myself constantly shocked by how inefficient everything is here. I don’t mean to be ethnocentric, but sometimes I think “Come on China! Really?!!” For example, let’s have a chat about the internet. We all have ethernet cords in our room and must purchase internet at the China Telecom store on campus. Rather than just letting us pay for our internet, we were confronted with two options. Option 1) Pay 200 kuai ($30 USD) for 2G internet for 6 months, Option 2) buy a Coolpad phone for 500 kuai ($80 USD) and receive 6G internet for 60 kuai a month ($10USD). What? Why can’t I just pay for the good internet? I don’t want a phone, I already have one! The best part is that no one speaks English and a lot of foreigners weren’t even told about option 1! Now everyone has these ridiculous phones that they’re only using to connect to the internet. I got the 2G cheap internet and it works fine.
Continuing on with the internet ridiculousness, we’re not allowed to have wifi routers. The idea is that they don’t want us sharing internet with our roommates, rather than paying for it ourselves. I’m completely fine using the ethernet cord for my computer, but I would really like wifi for my phone so I don’t go over my allotted internet for the month. Now there’s a lot of confusion about this whole “no wifi” thing. They told us the cords were configured so that they wouldn’t work with wifi routers, but other people are saying that you can connect your router, but if they catch you using multiple devices they’ll shut your internet off. Apparently some people have found a way to make their wifi routers appear like a computer so that they won’t be caught, but I’m not technologically savvy enough for this. I’m also trying to figure out how to turn my computer into a wifi router, but I think I’m going to have to find someone to teach me.
The best part is that sometimes our internet just randomly stops working and we have to take our computers down to the shop so that they can reconfigure our password.
You know what would be a great idea? Just make us all pay 60 kuai a month for internet as part of our tuition and we wouldn’t have to go through any of this nonsense!! Then if we wanted, we could get a wifi router and connect our phones and iPads (if I had one). That would be especially great for the macbook air people who have to buy special adaptors for the ethernet cords. UGH CHINA! Why you make no sense to meee???
To make matters worse, China has really upped their internet censorship game in the two months I was gone. Google and gmail are now blocked, meaning I can’t check my email without a VPN. Sometimes I can log onto my VPN, but I still can’t get on Facebook or Twitter, due to the internet service provider hacking into the VPN account to shut it down… or something. I’m still confused. When this happens I have to go on my VPN’s help chat and let them remote control my computer to change my DNS settings. So complicated!
In addition to internet problems, I also had a lot of issues with my phone. At first I was using my old China Mobile SIM from last year, which has extremely slow internet. Instead of saying “3G” or “4G”, it just says “E”. Last year I could send Wechat messages, or check my email, but god forbid I want to actually load an email or a webpage or post something on Instagram- not going to happen. Last year that wasn’t really a problem because I spent most of my time in my room with wifi. But guess what? This year I don’t have wifi!! Bye bye Instagram and checking email on my phone. I eventually heard through word of mouth that China Moble’s internet frequency doesn’t work with foreign phones, making the internet super slow, but China Unicom was able to work fine.
So after a week of suffering through no Instagram, I finally decided to switch to China Unicom. The only problem? The place was never open. Every time I went it was closed! I finally caught her in the evening a few nights ago, and purchased my SIM, which she told me would be activated the next morning. “That’s weird” I thought, “Normally you put them in and they just work.” The next morning came and went, and still I had no phone. Around 11am I went into the office again. I was informed that she could not activate my SIM card, and that her partner was taking the morning off, so I’d have to wait until 1:00. She refused to give me a straight answer as to why she could not activate my SIM, or why no one else in the giant company of China Unicom could do it. One o’clock came and went and I still didn’t have a phone. I went to the store again at 4 and she explained to me that her partner was sick and I’d have to wait until tomorrow. Are you kidding me??! To top it off I was super sick and had no way to get ahold of anyone. I tried arguing with her, but her hands were tied. Eventually my phone started working around noon the next day.
After a twelve-hour flight, I embarked on a five-hour trek from Pudong airport in Shanghai to the Nottingham campus in Ningbo. A lot of times I choose to fly in and out of Shanghai rather than Ningbo because it’s much cheaper. It’s only a 2.5 hour bus ride between the two cities, so it’s not too inconvenient. The problem is that Pudong airport is really far from the city center. While Nottingham did arrange pickups at the Pudong airport, I wasn’t arriving until 6, so I had to make my own way. My only worry was that they told me I’d have to be in before 11 or I wouldn’t have a place to sleep. I trekked across the whole airport with all of my bags, thinking I would take the bus from the airport to the long distance bus station, but when I boarded the bus I learned that it would take almost an hour to get into the city. What? I had only budgeted a half hour! I then disembarked the bus, and made my way to the taxi queue… which was a mile long. Great. The taxi was about 5X the price of the bus, of course.
The worst part was that my supposedly “unlocked” phone wasn’t registering my Chinese SIM card, so I had no way to look up the late registration instructions or call the school to tell them I might be a bit late. Apparently I didn’t need to worry. There were a ton of people milling about, and the 11 o’clock deadline was more of a guideline. So basically I gave myself near heart failure over nothing.
The best part was that when I arrived at my dorm, I was told that there were no rooms available for me. The dorm that I had been guaranteed for months and had already paid for was somehow unavailable now. Apparently there were a few postgraduate students that requested to stay for an extra month while finishing their dissertations, and the university told them it was no problem, not thinking about the new students they would be displacing. They told me I could move into a different building and then move again in a month. After not sleeping for almost two days, and the most stressful journey of my life, I was not happy. I’m not proud to admit it, but I actually started crying. I’m a baby, what can I say.
Eventually I learned that the dorm they wanted me to move into is exactly the same as my previous dorm, but without a kitchen. At first I was planning on moving back to my old dorm after the first month, but after meeting my awesome roommates and neighbors I don’t want to move anymore. We’re going to rent a mini fridge from the school and leave the cooking to the school cafeterias, which are amazing and super cheap anyway.
After a week of orientation and a stressful arrival, we all hit the bars on the weekend. A new bar opened up called Lucas, which is part of the same chain as “Helen’s” and “Perry’s”, for those of you who have lived in China. Lucas gave out free drinks to announce their opening, so of course we went both friday and saturday night. Let’s just say those late nights combined with a 4-hour Walmart apartment shopping extravaganza left me a little exhausted. So exhausted that on Monday morning I woke up at 6am with tonsils the size of golf balls. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, so I made my way down to the health clinic, which provided me with antibiotics. Monday and Tuesday were rough. I slept all day, and suffered through a pretty nasty fever. What a great way to start off my year in China!
Overall I’ve had a great first week here in Nottingham, and minus the swollen tonsils, I’m doing pretty well. I’m definitely glad I made the decision to come back here, especially with how incredibly cheap it is to get a grad degree here! I just had my first introductory classes, so there will definitely be more on my opinion of the British education system later. Right now I’m about to check out the free salsa lessons hosted every Friday night in the gym. Let’s hope I can find some good dancers!
Do you miss college or study abroad? Have you ever experienced anything ridiculously impractical while traveling? Let me know below!