I sensed that China offered something different, something new, something beautiful: a year of study in China

In 2016 I was one of four Africans selected to attend the first master’s programme in China Studies at the prestigious Yenching Academy of Peking University. My reflections on a year of new experiences and lasting impressions.Alice Fong and Sihle Nontshokweni at Sichuan OperaAlice Fang and Sihle Nontshokweni at Sichuan Opera.

This article was first published on IAPO

Of all the places in the world, why move to China?”

I can’t count the number of times friends, colleagues and family asked me that same question. “Someone like you could gun for the Ivy League,” said my former boss, in an attempt to sway me from what he considered an ill-considered decision. I was stumped: no response was good enough as a justification. I mean, apart from Bruce Lee movies, the ’made in China’ trademark, and, more seriously, China’s rise and growing interest in Africa, what did I know about China? But it was this curiosity and the intrigue of the unknown that sparked a flame and compelled me to explore this vast unknown that is China.

From a distance, I sensed that it offered something different, something new, something beautiful.

Now, a Peking University graduate, I look back on the year spent studying in China and the words exhilarating, enlightening and dynamic are the first to come to mind.

I was one of four Africans in a program of 91 learners from across the world selected in 2015 for the inaugural master’s programme in China Studies at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. The aim of this interdisciplinary programme is to bring together the brightest young minds from all over the globe.

The Yenching Academy has created an intensive learning environment for students to explore the past, present and future role of China in the world. In doing so, the academy aims to stand at the forefront of shaping a new generation of global leaders who have a more nuanced understanding of China and its role in the world. The programme offered an array of interdisciplinary courses on China within broadly defined fields of the humanities and social sciences. The academic support and mentorship, especially by supervisors with the thesis, was impeccable.

Sichuan Opera
Yenching class at Sichuan Opera.

Overall, China leaves a lasting impression on its visitors. Beijing is captivating, if at times smoggy. Nonetheless, the experience can only be described as unique but it is difficult to articulate why this is so. Perhaps it’s the newness of the experience, the cultural and geographical differences, the dissimilarities in the language, not being able to read signposts, altering one’s palate to appreciate a previously unimaginable food taste and texture. The combination of these multiple differences reel you in. They demand that you learn by reflecting on your own lived experience, that you question your known ways of doing things and readapt your world-views.

The feeling of being in a crowded, eclectic city like Beijing is incomparable. There is a synergy amongst the community of curious Africans in China. I shared many enlightening conversations with other curious bodies with a similar penchant for exploring and living. I marvelled at the Chinese’s efficient use of technology through apps like WeChat. There are the small joys of living in a foreign country: like that moment of realising how far your language practice has come when you successfully converse in Mandarin with a cab driver or a shopkeeper. Other simple moments, like standing over a bridge and watching the gridlock of buses, cars and taxis tangled up in evening traffic in the Zhongguancun area, all added to the remarkable experience that is life in China. Travelling around Asia was also a wonderful opportunity; visiting Tibet was undoubtedly my most memorable trip.

To read more about these travel experiences and other exciting China adventures check out a blog, From Africa to China, that I co-founded with the other Africans on the program, Wadeisor Rukato, Thuthukile Mbanjwa and Nothando Khumalo where we explore travels in China and the Africa-China relationship.

Written by Sihle Nontshokweni

Edited by Natalie Simon

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