This blog post was actually written on a train on the way from Harbin back to Dalian. Writing blogs on trains – or buses as I’m more accustomed to – is something I like to do and this one came out very easily. Seeing as it was almost completely finished, I thought it would be a shame for it to languish in the archives for all of time.
With the whole point of this year being to learn Chinese, I spent the majority of my time working with that in mind. I’ve spoken already about how we often got given homework for the next day and had vocabulary tests a couple of times a week so my afternoons and evenings were usually filled with that. If homework was light, I had a couple of other ways to work on my Chinese, like trying to read a simple news article or story and learning vocab for the HSK tests.
But what did I do when I wasn’t studying? Everyone needs a break and I think it’s important to balance out the work with some time off.
To start with, I went swimming roughly three times a week. There’s a pool on campus and it only costs 10 yuan (just over £1) per visit. For me, it was an important opportunity to relax, stretch out my body and get some exercise, in that order. At my most stressed, swimming becomes like a form of meditation. The pool is 50m long and I aimed for 24 lengths each time I went. This usually took me 30-40 minutes, depending on how busy it was and how much dodging around people I had to do. It’s not too long but any more and I start to get a bit bored so it worked for me.
Anyone that knows me will be expecting this next one. Reading is obviously another way that I filled my time. While I was in China, I went through periods of reading all the time and then not picking a book up for a few weeks. It’s something I experience at uni in Edinburgh too. In busy times where my workload is heavy, sometimes the last thing I want to do is read more words, even if they’re my choice. Saying that, I did have some great reads while away, the best being ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah, an insightful memoir about growing up in apartheid era South Africa, and ‘Dracula’ was great too.
A common way to spend time in the evening was catching up with people at home. With the time difference, the evening was the best time to talk to people back in the UK because it was early afternoon there. If I had any more spare time before going to bed I would while it away playing some cards or writing in my journal. My host family was often doing their own thing in the evenings, with Meimei finishing off homework and other stuff, but sometimes we would sit together and practise English or Chinese together.
I also wasted a lot of time watching Netflix, though maybe slightly less than at home because of the hassle of it. Most people will know that China censors a lot of internet access. If I wanted to check Facebook, send some messages, scroll through Instagram, watch Netflix or even update this blog, I had to connect to a VPN. This essentially makes it look like I’m somewhere else so I can access all the things I want to (or that’s my understanding of it at least). Annoyingly, Netflix only worked on certain locations when using a VPN. I found that it worked best when connected to nearby places like Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, though I am partial to some of the American Netflix choices. Shout out to my favourites that I’ve watched while away, When They See Us, Unbelievable and The Good Wife.
At the weekends I would still spend a lot of time studying, mostly at my favourite coffee shop on campus because I was more productive there than in my room. Apart from studying, I would hang out with friends or go to one of the shopping centres that sit on every corner of the city. Sometimes I would book a badminton court with a group of friends and spend a couple of hours playing together. I also liked going out and exploring new areas of Dalian, though there is a lot that I still want to see after having to leave early. It got very cold during winter so it was much more tempting to go to the cinema or have a movie night than walk around the city, go to a beach or for a hike. I had a lot of plans for the spring when things started to get warmer that I never got to see through.
An evening at the weekend might see me out having a few drinks with friends too. The dorm at DUT had a curfew of 11.30pm so unless you were willing to stick out until 5.30am when it reopened, it was an early night for the people who lived there. Luckily, I had a key to my host family’s apartment and some friends doing masters at the neighbouring university to mine who all lived off campus so I had a bit more freedom.
So that was how I spent my spare time while in Dalian. It was quite different to being a student in Edinburgh but I enjoyed the slower tempo. Even though I missed having things like a job or sports team, especially at the beginning, having less commitments made it felt like my free time was more my own.