First Week in Dalian

After almost two weeks of being here in Dalian, I’m finally feeling settled enough to sit down and write about it. I’ve wanted to just enjoy being here and give myself some time to see what things are like before trying to put it all into words. The past two weeks seem to have flown by but at the same time I can’t believe I’ve only been in China for two weeks!

Anyway in an attempt at brevity I’ve split the last few weeks into two – settling in to Dalian and getting to know the university. Here is Dalian so far!

Looking out towards Xinghai Square (星海广场)

I arrived in Dalian on Tuesday 27th August after spending two days in Beijing. I enjoyed spending time in Beijing, and was glad that I’d given myself that time to rest up and ready myself. However I hadn’t really had any cause to speak Chinese there so I was looking forward to getting started with the purpose of this year. I had a very early start meaning that it was only 9am when I landed in Dalian. My host family met me in the airport and we got the subway home, dragging my massive suitcase along with us.

In the run up to leaving for China, I had been in contact with my host mum via WeChat (kind of like an all purpose Chinese WhatsApp) which was very reassuring to me, both in being able to get to know her a little and in the fact that my Chinese held up to the task! On meeting her in real life she was just as lovely as she had seemed over text. Her name is Wang Yu (王宇) but she told me to call her Ayi (阿姨) which means aunt. She has a daughter whose name is Wang Jiayin (王嘉音) who is 11. I mostly call her meimei (妹妹) meaning little sister and she calls me jeijie (姐姐) which means older sister. They are so nice and friendly and have been really welcoming to me, despite some initial difficulties with the language.

Meimei and I enjoying some baozi (包子, bao buns)!

Speaking of, actually using Chinese has been very overwhelming and as I expected very different to the little I managed in Beijing. I have never been more aware of the difference between academic, classroom vocab and real, daily life vocab. That is something I discovered I am completely lacking in. On arriving in my new home I couldn’t even verbalise some of my most basic needs like taking a shower or understand what food we were eating. I felt so out of my depth, a feeling I have only ever experienced in Honduras before and the feeling is so much the same that on a few occasions I have opened my mouth and almost (and once or twice actually) come out with Spanish! But in just two weeks I have noticed a difference from constantly being around Chinese. I’m learning the language that I need around the house, common phrases and responses and I am able to understand and pick up more of what I am listening to as well. And this is all before starting classes! At times it can feel discouraging to have no idea what someone is saying to you or how to communicate with them but then I remind myself that I have a whole year, an intense year, ahead of me to get to that point.

On arriving on China one of the first things you have to do as a foreigner is register with the police. For us, this is the first step in getting our residence permit. For now, I’ve got a month to go back with a few things from uni to get the full permit.

My first full day in Dalian was spent exploring a bit of the city with my host family. With my language still on the rocky side my general approach to everything was to smile, say yes and hope for the best! It seemed to work, for the day at least! First we went to the Dalian Natural History Museum (大连自然博物馆) which is right on the waterfront. It was interesting to look at everything inside but again, I was limited because of my language level. Somewhere to go back to!

Dalian Natural History Museum (大连自然博物馆)

I mistakenly thought we were already in the centre of town but we clearly weren’t as we got on the bus again and went to get lunch in a restaurant on Youhao Square (友好广场) which is actually in the centre of town. While I was in the middle of slurping down a bowl of Guizhou noodles, I was asked if I would do an interview for some advertising I think? And in the spirit of the day I warned them that my Chinese is not very good but why not?

On the way home we stopped at the the People’s Square (人民广场) where Dalian’s government is and also went into the Dalian Planning Display Centre which was actually super interesting! Or it would have been had I been able to understand any of it… Another place to go back to. We also made a stop in a bookstore and a library at the request of Meimei – we seem to have a mutual passion for books!

Early morning view from my bedroom window

I’m not the only Edinburgh University student in Dalian. There is also Joe who is staying with a host family just a 10 minute walk away from mine. It’s been great to have someone I know so close by over the past few weeks as we’ve been able to go out and explore together. It also means there’s been someone here going through the same things, a bit of culture shock, maybe a bit of homesickness, just the general turmoil of having moved across the world!

For the first week or so I was in Dalian, other than the big day out, I spent most of my time in the area I live in. However after a while I was ready to get out and explore a few more places. One of the must-see spots in Dalian is Xinghai Square (星海广场). It’s right on the beach so Joe and I even went for a swim! The water was lovely and refreshing, making a nice break from the surprising amount of heat and humidity! It’s been in the high 20s most of the time I’ve been here with humidity reaching up to 90%! My little Scottish body can’t take it!

Xinghai Square (星海广场)
Xinghai Beach (星海海滩)

One of the other errands I wanted to do to set myself up was get a Chinese bank account. To do that however, I had to get a Chinese phone number and to do that I had to wait for the first of the month unless I wanted to pay for the entire month of August with only a few days left. Ayi came with me and Joe to set our phones up (and it might have come with three months free? Or I might have misunderstood that…) and also to the bank which was invaluable support.

On Saturday it was Joe’s birthday! We headed into the centre of the city to one of the other sights, Zhongshan Square (中山广场). It was built by the Russians and is surrounded by buildings that were all built in the period that Dalian was under the control of the Japanese. We walked around for a bit and then found some lunch. We went to a seafood place and ended up with a bit of a lucky dip from the menu, including a big bowl of crayfish, some barbecued skewers, peanuts and rice. I went over to Joe’s for dinner as well and his host mum had gotten a cake!

Zhongshan Sqaure (中山广场)
Ready to dive in!

Anyway, so far so good. Classes start tomorrow and I’m very excited to get going as it feels like that’s all I’ve been waiting for!

Honduras vs. China

Leaving for the other side of the world seems to have become a bit of a pattern with me. It started at 17 and I went to Costa Rica for a month but that clearly wasn’t enough. Once I finished school I took it to the extreme and moved to Honduras to spend a year volunteering with the organisation Project Trust. With those experiences behind me it would be fair to assume I was pretty prepared for moving to China this year right?


Even though I have done this before, the mental preparation felt a little different this time. And to be fair, the situations are more different than they might at first appear.

This year vs. 3 years ago. Look how fresh faced I was!

The anticipation for China was very drawn out while it all happened pretty quickly with Honduras. It went from an idea – hearing about Project Trust for the first time at a school assembly – to a reality – flying away – in just over a year. Meanwhile I have always known I would have a year abroad at university. At first it was just because of the kind of person I am and then because I decided to study languages at uni. I’ve even known I would be going to China since I was 17 so I’ve been waiting to get here for 4 years.

In some ways the long run up was not actually helpful. For so long it was too far away to bother thinking about and there were much more exciting things happening – Honduras and then uni and then BAM! It was time to go! Whereas with Honduras, the year running up to departure was completely devoted to it. I went on Selection, I had to fundraise all year and then go on Training all before even getting to my project.

My project partner, Amy, and I on Training

Expectations are also a big factor in any kind of preparation. I carefully managed my expectations for Honduras. I knew very little about it as a country, not having even heard of it before starting my Project Trust journey and while I learnt the basics during my Training, I tried to keep my mind open and stay away from stereotypes. However I had lots of information when it came to my project. I knew about my host family, the school I would be teaching in, how everything would work. Practically, I was all set but there was still a lot left for me to discover on my own.

With China, things were almost exactly the opposite. I had a lot more information when it came to the country after studying the language at university for two years. Alongside having had to take a Modern East Asian History course, almost all of my tutors were Chinese so I picked up bits and pieces about the culture and life there. In the UK, there is also generally a bit more awareness of China than Honduras as well, though I had to question how much of what I already knew was only stereotypes and preconceived ideas – dangerous things to base anything on.

However when it came to the university I would be attending, Dalian University of Technology (大连理工大学), I knew nothing beyond what the names gives away. We had been given vague information on Chinese universities in general – expect it to be intense, be ready for classes to start at 8am – but especially seeing as Dalian is not an extremely popular choice, there was not much specific information available. I did speak to a 4th year student who had spent her year abroad in Dalian but I was really more interested in what life was like there than what her classes had been like.

Dalian University of Technology (DUT)

Another aspect was that when I went to Honduras I was travelling with a big group so we arrived and experienced the initial culture shock together. For the rest of the year I was part of a pair so everything I encountered was faced side by side with someone who is now one of my best friends. I was pretty much never alone, there was always someone to share my highs with and to support me through the lows. China is a lot more of a solo deal. I’m not the only Edinburgh student in Dalian, or China, but it’s just me in my host family and everyone is spread all over China which is a much bigger place than Honduras!

16/17 Honduras volunteers

One of the hardest things I faced before leaving for China was the feeling that I was leaving everyone and everything behind, way more than when I left for Honduras. I was 18 and had just finished high school, a very pivotal time in my life, and for everyone else my age. We were all starting the next chapter of our lives so everyone was moving on at the same time. Everyone was heading off to something new and different so it wasn’t out of place that I was too – even if I had taken it to a bit of an extreme! It was always going to be a time of change which I think made it easier to adjust.

Meanwhile it felt like I was leaving so much behind me this time. My sisters are both heading into a very important year in their lives, Kirsty her Highers and Amy the final year of her university degree. Of my closest group of friends at uni, only one other is going away on a year abroad so the rest will be living their lives as normal and I am definitely going to feel like I’m missing out a bit. It feels like I’m as much in the middle of a chapter as starting a new one and those feelings are difficult to reconcile.

All looking suspiciously happy at the idea of me leaving…

And finally, this just seemed bigger. My overwhelming feeling about Honduras was excitement, so much so that I was never nervous and not even sad until I said goodbye to everyone at the airport. This time I was nervous. Scared, even.

Despite this, I have one very important thing now that I didn’t when I left for Honduras – the knowledge that I can do this. I obviously hoped and believed I could when I went to Honduras but there is something different about the certainty of previous experience. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. I’ll be fine. That mantra was incredibly reassuring when it all felt a little too much. This is something I love to do, experiencing a new way of life, learning a language, and I have every faith in my ability to make it through this year.

All of these things have made leaving a very different experience, not that that’s a bad thing. Honduras was the only thing I had to compare this to but it will be a different experience entirely. And now I’m here and none of that really matters. All I know is that China has a lot to live up to!

First Impressions of Beijing

大家好!I have safely arrived in Beijing and having spent my first two days here so I thought it would be a good idea to take you through them by talking about my first impressions of the city. I would like to preface what is to come by saying that these are only observations and some deductions of mine, I’ve not really had the chance to talk to anyone that knows the city yet so what I say might be completely wrong. Saying that, here’s what I think of Beijing so far…

Public transport is very easy to navigate.

Having arrived into Beijing airport at 5am on Sunday, with my massive suitcase in tow (I’m here for a year alright, forgive me if I didn’t pack light) a taxi proved to be too expensive to justify the ease so I turned to the Airport Express train instead. Seeing as it was still very early I had to wait until the first train at 6.35am but then it was very simple to buy the right ticket (it helped that there was an English option). Once I arrived in Dongzhimen station (东直门站) I changed to Line 2 of the metro and headed for Qianmen station (前门站). To be fair, I didn’t have to use much Chinese but I was still impressed with how easy it was to get myself where I needed to go in a city I had never been to before with a very heavy bag! And all that only cost me about 30 yuan, more or less £4!

Views from the Airport Express

The time difference is already and will probably continue to be difficult.

The whole of China operates under one time zone which is currently 7 hours ahead of the UK and once clocks go back will become 8 hours ahead. After travelling all through Saturday and with the time difference I was understandably disoriented for a lot of yesterday. While it will take some getting used to I think it will be manageable. Basically if you want to talk to me, the morning or early afternoon in the UK is the best time time to get in touch as it will be late afternoon or evening here.

There’s more English than I thought.

So far I haven’t actually spoken that much Chinese. It’s kind of understandable as I have so far been confined to very touristy spaces like the airport and my hostel. I have tried to speak Chinese a couple of times, at dinner yesterday and in Tiananmen Square this morning but either somebody speaks English or they don’t understand my Chinese! I have found myself trying to at least figure out how to say things in Chinese in my head which has been good practice. I’m also trying to take in as much as possible. It’s still hard to tune in and understand what people are saying but I try and read as many of the signs and posters that are everywhere as I can.

It can get very hot and also very humid.

I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to weather in Beijing other than knowing that it suffers from high levels of pollution and is nowhere near as humid as it is further south, like in Shanghai. That’s not to say there is no humidity at all though as it was sitting at about 70% today! It was overcast today but yesterday was bright, clear and very hot! I didn’t venture out much yesterday because I was so tired but when I went for a short walk it didn’t take long before I was sweating and regretting not bringing my sunglasses.

I’ve felt very safe wherever I’ve gone so far.

I mean, I’ve not gone far but I’ve never felt uncomfortable or the need to be hyper aware. There is obviously a certain level of vigilance needed when in an unknown city but being here by myself as a woman, I have not felt any extra scrutiny or attention. It’s busy but the crowds are not crushing, traffic is mad but not insane, I get looked at but only with curiosity rather then lewdness. Overall I’ve felt very comfortable, whether that’s while exploring the hutongs (胡同, alleys) or in the middle of Tiananmen Square.

Everything is both totally overwhelming and not as busy as I thought it would be.

I’m sure you can imagine that I was preparing myself for Beijing to be crazy busy and the whole experience of being in China a bit much to deal with. With a population of 21.5 million how could it not be? I will admit that it feels weird to actually be here after years of anticipation but the city itself, or what I’ve seen of it so far, has been a lot calmer than I’d expected.

The streets of Beijing

I’m going to get very frustrated about not being able to drink tap water.

GOD BLESS SCOTTISH TAP WATER. Always a privilege that I take for granted, having clean tap water to drink is not something that you can get everywhere. Here it is definitely not safe to drink so in an effort to save plastic and save me having to go out and buy a new bottle every few hours, I’ve been decanting a 5L bottle into the reusable one I brought with me. Who knows if it actually makes a difference plastic wise but at least it is more economical.

I have underappreciated green tea (绿茶) my whole life.

I’m not much of a tea drinker in general but when I drink it I would never betray my British roots and have anything other than breakfast tea. Last night however I had green tea with my dinner and today had a bottled, cold version and it’s so calming and refreshing at the same time.

And did I mention that the food is amazing?

Chinese menus are notoriously hard to read and are often only navigable through the photos so my strategy so far has been to ask for a recommendation! It’s been a good way to practice even a little bit of Chinese and so far it has not done me wrong! I went for a safe option of sweet and sour chicken last night and had various types of noodles and broth for breakfast and lunch today.

Don’t ask me what it was but it was delicious!

Everyone is up and about very early.

Of course jet lag hit this morning but even after sleeping for 5 hours yesterday afternoon and barely making it to 10pm before calling it a night, I managed to make it to 5am before getting up this morning. I went down to the common room (for wifi, what else) and started talking to an American guy who was also up. I ended up going out for a walk and breakfast with him and his friend and we were not alone. We got to Tiananmen Square, very near to our hostel, at about 6.30am and there were already people everywhere.

This was the Forbidden City at 7am..

People like to have naps outside Tian’anmen (天安门).

On said trip to Tiananmen square, there seemed to be a lot of people lying around right in front of Tiananmen itself (also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace.) I don’t really have anything else to say on the matter, just something I noticed. If anyone can explain, please do.

Pollution makes it hard to take nice photographs.

An unfortunate side effect of the sky high pollution that made more of an appearance today than yesterday was that it really washed out any attempt to take photographs of what I was seeing. Not a big deal but my Instagram will suffer. Or maybe it was just a cloudy day.

I, much like the sun, tried my best here

Police are everywhere.

There are several subsections of the police in China, as far as I know, so that might explain it but I can’t tell the difference so to me it just looks like there’s a policeman (and it is all men) every 50m or so. It’s not actually as intimidating as you might think, they are mostly just observing.

There’s no litter!!! Anywhere!!!

Maybe Chinese people are just house proud, maybe it’s a part of the national conscience, maybe the street cleaners that are wandering around have something to do with it. Either way it was something that I didn’t notice until I noticed it but then I could not notice it!

They keep inexplicably closing the underpasses that are the only way to cross the very busy 8-lane roads.

This is what turned my stroll with the Americans this morning into a full blown treasure hunt for the hostel. All we needed to do was cross one (albeit very busy) road, walk down the side of Tiananmen Square again and we’d be back on the road that would take us to our hostel. Instead, all the underpasses you could use had been shut for our direction of traffic since we had come through them 10 minutes before. It did mean a lovely detour via the National Centre for Preforming Arts which is an insane building but also meant that by the time we got back to where we needed to be it was almost 8.30 and we were starving, having left the hostel two hours earlier in search of breakfast.

The National Centre for Performing Arts (国家大剧院)

Everything is shut on a Monday.

I was having a think about what to do with the rest of my day and I thought about going to the National Museum of China, on one side of Tiananmen. Closed on Mondays. Ok, what about an afternoon in the Forbidden City. Open Tuesday-Sunday. A temple? Closed, closed, closed. Note to future self.

Peking roast duck (北京烤鸭) is worth the hype.

After an accidental 4 hour nap, I woke up at 8.30pm in need of some dinner so decided to seek out some quick and easy street food – I didn’t feel like tackling a whole restaurant experience. As I walked along a street I hadn’t been down before I noticed lots of windows selling the roast duck that the city is known for. I had been wanting to try some while here but I had found it hard to find a cheapish restaurant that sells it in one person portions so this was perfect. Having attempted to order in Chinese again, I got what I wanted but not quite how I wanted it… Instead of getting prewrapped ones I was given little bags with all the bits and pieces I would need, the duck, the hoisin sauce, some sliced cucumber and spring onion and the tortilla things (that is clearly what they are officially known as). It might have been easier to get it the other way but this was definitely more fun.

Two days is just not enough.

Especially when you have been up for 26 hours on one of those days and suffering from jet lag on the other! Honestly, I’m not mad that I actually haven’t gotten up to much while here. I knew I would be tired and I already have plans to come back. To be honest I don’t think there would ever be enough time to see all of Beijing – have you seen the size of it?!


This blog is brought to you from the depths of hell, manifested in the form of my half packed suitcase. There are clothes everywhere, a couple of pairs of shoes in the corner where they had been hiding so well that I forgot to pack them and photos, books and toiletries littering the floor. But packing is only the last thing on a long list of preparations for moving to China TOMORROW!

The first thing I obviously had to do was apply. That was done during the uni year but much later than all the other year abroad applications. It was fairly easy, after I actually decided where to go, just filling in a few forms and thankfully none in Chinese yet.

That was the first step but the last for a while because exams became much more important. Exams in themselves could actually be considered as part of the preparations. In order to go to China on a year abroad, all students have to achieve at least 50% in their degree courses and exams so that they can continue to honours. You’ll all be glad to hear (but probably not surprised considering this blog is happening) that I managed to do that so all was good!

First up during the summer was to book flights and get myself a Chinese visa. Flights were not complicated to find, I’m flying from Edinburgh to Manchester and then direct to Beijing. I decided that I wanted to have a few nights in Beijing before flying to Dalian to give myself some time to acclimatise a little, rest up and explore seeing as this will not just be my first time in China but also Asia!

The visa process was a little more complicated though not as much of a nightmare as I’ve heard it was for others. Fortunately for me there is a Chinese visa application centre in Edinburgh so I didn’t have to go far to get it all sorted. The only bump on the road was that I was told I had to get my university in Dalian to send my JW202 form to the Chinese consulate before the visa process could be started . A little annoying and meant a few extra trips in but not a big deal in the end.

Other than that there’s been little bits and pieces like buying insurance, contacting my host family and more. While I was dealing with all these things though, I was still wrapping my head around the idea of actually leaving and the mental preparation proved to be the hardest part.

Even though I have done this before, leaving for a year to the other side of the world, the mental preparation has felt a little different this time (I’m planning a blog post talking about some comparisons between leaving for Honduras and leaving for China soon so there will be more on that there). I found the idea of leaving a lot harder this time and it also felt like leaving crept up on me a lot faster. I was focusing on exams and then I was working and then it was August and suddenly I was leaving at the end of the month! This meant that my excitement about going also crept up on me but was very quickly joined by nerves and even terror.

Part of this was just due to not feeling prepared or organised so that was easily remedied but the rest was just at the magnitude of what I was about to do. Everything about China seems a lot more daunting – the fact that I’m studying not teaching, a harder language, a more distant culture. I know I can do it, because I already have once before, but it was something I, and everyone around me, had to remind me almost constantly over the summer. I know I can, I know I will and I know I’ll love it. I think I’ve said it enough times now that I actually believe it.

Why Dalian?

When it came time to choose where I wanted to spend my time studying in China, it seemed like lots of things pointed to Dalian.

One of the first ways I was able to pick out Dalian was through a process of elimination. The Chinese department at Edinburgh University give students five choices for where they can go for their year abroad – Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Dalian and Taiwan. I was able to get rid of a few options immediately. My personal tutor had told me that if I went to Shanghai I’d probably end up speaking more French than Chinese. He might have been joking but I still felt like Shanghai wasn’t for me and for some reason I didn’t really fancy Hangzhou either, probably because I’d heard that it’s a fairly expensive city. I ruled out Taiwan because they use traditional characters there, also know as complex characters, and I had a feeling that this was going to be hard enough so why make it more difficult for myself?

So then there were two. Beijing appealed to me because of the university. Peking University is one of the best in the world and the more I heard about the classes, the more I knew it would be intense and challenging – just what I wanted. I also began to hear what electives are available – think calligraphy, tai chi and the sort. Beijing is also the capital city and so in some ways could be seen as the heart or centre of the country and it was very tempting to become part of that and to make it my home.

On the other side there was Dalian. A completely different city from Beijing, on the coast, with a population of ‘only’ 6.7 million people compared to Beijing’s 21.5 million. There were some little things that drew me to Dalian over Beijing, one being that its a lesser known place and I’m always drawn to the more off the beaten track options. Living in Dalian seemed like an opportunity that might not present itself to me again in the same way that Beijing might in the future. I also learned from a 4th year Chinese student who had just gotten back from studying in Dalian that most of the other international students come from Japan, Russian and South Korea. This means that a lot of communication, even outside of the classroom, is done in Chinese as that is the language that everyone shares.

When it comes down to it though, the main reason I chose Dalian, the reason that swung everything to its favour and the reason that Beijing never really stood a chance was this – in Dalian you can live with a host family. While its definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, its most definitely mine.

I lived with a host family while I was in Honduras and got so much out of it. It was obviously a massive help when it came to improving my Spanish and was probably the main reason I came away fluent. Being forced to communicate in Spanish at all times, whether I needed something or was just chatting, was exhausting but also gave me more than just new vocab. It opened my mind to the thinking going on behind the language and revealed parts of the culture to me that would otherwise have been hidden.

These are all reasons that I wanted to live with a host family again while living in China. I know that its the best way to force myself into complete immersion in Chinese, which to be honest is exactly what I need. It’s also nice to know that I will have the support and guidance of the family behind me.

At the end of the day my choice came down to wanting to get the absolute most out of this experience that I can. I haven’t been learning Chinese for very long so this is the ideal opportunity to improve my ability level and I felt Dalian was the place I could best do that.