Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne
Exchange in Semester 2, 2005
Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Music
Having studied Chinese for many years before going on exchange, I went to Shantou University hoping to develop native speaker level fluency, and work lots on reading and writing, which has never been as good as my speaking. Beyond that, I had very few expectations, and basically no idea about the place in which I would be spending the next five months.
For those with a genuine interest in languages, China is an amazing place. Mandarin is but one of many languages and dialects spoken in the middle kingdom, often only necessary as a means of communication for people from different regions. Those with a common home town will speak their local dialect to each other, in some cases as close to Mandarin as New Zealand English is to Australian English; in others the difference is greater than that between Spanish and German. In Shantou the local language is called Chaoshan; on campus at Shantou University the most commonly spoken tongue (outside of the classroom) was Cantonese. Around my dormitory was a mixture of Thai, Mandarin and Cantonese; one bloke even spoke Arabic, but nobody else did so he mostly stuck to Chinese. Mandarin was the common language for me and my classmates, so if we went out together local people could understand us chatting but rarely would we have any idea what they saying.
Shantou is a small-average size Chinese city, population 2–4 million, depending on how many outlying areas are included. Typically modern day Chinese, the city is a mass of ugly buildings with a few nice areas that are slowly falling down. Once inside the concrete monoliths, however, many of the interiors are quite nice.
Shantou's traffic is so disorderly that on one in every two or three trips into town I would see an accident. Motorcycle taxis are the fastest way to get around, but make sure you've got a good grip under the seat as you bounce over the bridge.
Fortunately, the University is located about 15km outside of the city, in a beautiful open setting surrounded by forested, rocky hills. It can be very peaceful, though the silence is occasionally disturbed
by dynamite blasts used by the construction industry in the surrounding area. It's a half hour bus ride into the city, but it feels a world away. There are about 7,000 students at the University, all of whom live on the campus, in a semi-self-sufficient community.
As an Arts (Chinese language)/Music student in Melbourne, I wasn't expecting to be doing much music while living in China. One night, however, over a beer and a barbecue (no stubbies or steaks though …), I was introduced to a music teacher, who was later to become one of my best friends in China . He told me of the major musical project that semester: the off-Broadway show, Pippin. Putting on an amateur Broadway production for the first time ever in Shantou, they needed an extra keyboard player as well as a flautist; it just so happens that I could manage both parts. Putting together an English speaking musical (directed by an American), performed by Chinese students, was a pretty remarkable experience.
Aside from myself, the band included natives of both the US and China, so I became the translator for all rehearsals, and also had to take charge of cues, as our Chinese band director had no comprehension of the English dialogue. In Australia I study Chinese and music, and to have the opportunity to work on both of these at the same time, in a practical environment while on exchange, was amazing. The show had no shortage of issues, rehearsals coming down to the wire for the show to be ready by opening night, but somehow when the time came it turned out great. Acting and singing in their third language, the students did a wonderful job, while the band managed to keep the audience's attention focused on the stage, the desired result.
The University's management was so pleased with the performances that they decided to put on additional performances in another city. Last June I was invited back to China, Shantou University covering my air travel, to perform three shows in Guangzhou.
Studying in Shantou was pretty chilled out, really. Although I felt the pressure of the workload a fair bit in the beginning, as I became more busy and less diligent, I discovered that it was actually ok to not be totally up to date. Teachers were pretty understanding, in fact in contrast to my Thai friends with a particular aversion to our regular 8am classes, I appeared to be quite a conscientious student. As with anything, you get out of it what you put in, so I'd work hard on the subjects I found useful, while letting the boring ones slide. The great thing about in country language study is that you're practising all the time, regardless of being in or out of the classroom.
Starting class at 8am every day was something I never really got used to. It meant finishing at midday, however, leaving afternoons free to play basketball, swim in the reservoir, go into town or go walking in the hills around uni.
My exchange experience was not without difficult periods. The first two months were particularly hard, primarily due to not knowing anybody very well. It probably took me longer than I'd expected to fully settle in, but by gradually making more friends I eventually felt like I really did belong there. By the end of semester, I was seriously considering applying to extend the exchange to a year, but in the end decided to travel for two months and come home.
Exchange was the most varied, unpredictable and worthwhile period of my degree to date. I would encourage anybody interested in a challenging, fun overseas experience to apply for as many things as possible; even if you're not accepted first time, there's a good chance that persistence will get you into a program eventually. Go with an open mind, and anything could happen.
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