Is learning Chinese difficult? What kind of experience will I have in China if I can’t speak Chinese yet? What does authentic Chinese food taste like?

If you’re interested in China, you probably have plenty of questions like these. The best answers lie in real stories told by the students, teachers, and scholars who have taken that final step: traveling to China. To help you get the best understanding of life in the Middle Kingdom, CLI introduces its CLI Perspectives blog series, sharing insightful stories from CLI community members.

A big thank you to Teach in China participant Heidi Fowler for submitting the very first CLI Perspectives story!

Chinese Adventure: Avoid the Hard Seats

By Heidi Fowler, CLI Teach in China Participant

I came to China strictly for adventure. You know, live the dream, see the world. However, being the 22-year-old college student that I am, I needed an excuse for that adventure. So for my excuse I chose CLI’s Teach in China program.

I had read a few books about China, eaten some Chinese food and saved up moolah to prepare myself for this little trip – oh, and I also packed snowboard gear – and finally the time had come to board the plane and fly around the world. Me and my crazy ideas were off to China.

 

Snowboarding in Beijing

 

I arrived a few weeks before I started teaching to sort of take some things in, and whoa was there a lot to take in. It was insane, this new planet I had landed on. I was in love. This place of no English (except for the many “Hellos”) had stolen my heart. It was most definitely the adventure I had asked for.

Teaching began and so did a new lifestyle for me – one of responsibility. The early morning classes weren’t my favorite, but the kids were always great. Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds – who knew they were going to be so entertaining? I taught them a little bit of English, they gave me a few laughs, and teaching in China became the way to go.

Let’s not forget my real purpose for being in China though – the adventure, right! I had to find something to do with this snowboard I had hauled with me. So halfway through the semester I began planning my epic “travel around China” trip. I decided to make it simple. I asked myself, “What do you absolutely have to see while you’re in China?” Then I answered myself, “The Great Wall, of course!” There are many things to do in Beijing and they have snow!

I saw the city, met some cool people, partied a bit and took some pictures with the monuments (because that’s what we tourists do). I had it made and I snowboarded – in China!

 

Heidi in Beijing

 

I realized that my big trip was coming to an end as Chinese Spring Festival was beginning. But I thought, I’ll get the ticket later, no biggie. Do you have any idea how many people travel around China during Spring Festival? Neither do I, because my brain doesn’t comprehend numbers that high. Needless to say, getting a train ticket was quite difficult. A friend finally found me a “hard seat” ticket for three days after I wanted to leave. At the time, I thought, Awesome, hard seats are cheaper so I can save money and I get to stay in Beijing longer!

Remember when I said I was teaching in China instead of learning Chinese? I quickly learned that knowing how to teach English – rather than knowing how to speak Chinese – is useless when you’re on a 30-hour hard seat train ride from Beijing to Guilin. I made it on the train with 30 minutes to spare – which is good because it took that long for me to communicate that I needed help getting my snowboarding bag into the overhead compartment.

Then I noticed, Dear God, there are no seats left and everyone is standing. I sort of shimmied through the crowd, holding my ticket up, looking confused. Fortunately, a train worker who was feeling sorry for the foreigner took my ticket and yelled at a woman to get out of my seat. I just put on my best ting bu dong (“don’t understand”) face and sat down. I thought, That worked out – until the same woman decided she needed to lean on me for the remaining 29 hours and 59 minutes of our train ride. So I ignored the elbow in my shoulder and decided to explore the things I had packed for my train ride: a book, a Snickers, and apple juice, whoohoo. I was dying to finish that book. So I did… within the first hour of the trip. With nothing else to do, I ate all the food I brought. 27 hours to go…

I realized early on that when I bought the cheap ticket, I really bought the cheapest. The only people who saved more money than me were those standing in the aisles. When you buy the cheap ticket, you sit in the last car of the train, and by the time the food cart makes it to you, there’s only the junk that no one else wanted to eat. So I didn’t eat; I was done after that Snickers.

But the man sitting next to me was chewing on a whole roasted duck, and boy did it smell good. So I kind of eyed it. I had no idea he would offer me any, and I especially had no idea that I would actually eat it with him. The things you do in China. It was the most amazing duck I had ever eaten on a train. We became instant friends. Of course we didn’t understand a word we were saying to each other, but that didn’t stop us from talking.

 

Heidi’s New Friends

 

I never thought I would be so happy to step out into the Guilin rain with no umbrella and a snowboarding bag. I was glad to be back, not just because I was off that crowded box, and not just because this stop was actually mine (unlike the 1500 other stops we made to squeeze in more people), but because I had eaten duck on a train, and I had successfully taken a 30-hour hard seat train ride in China. I felt like a master traveler. I could do anything. I then went to my comfortable CLI apartment with my American toilet and my AC unit and finally passed out.