My exchange program in China


Before the journey

I've always been fascinated with the idea of meeting new people and learning from different cultures from a young age. Having travelled in different parts of Middle East and Africa in my teens and briefly living there during my childhood, I've always been interested in the orient, specifically China. So, as I set my sights further east towards the land of the red dragon, when the opportunity arose to travel there as part of my degree, I took it up without hesitation.

Trip to China

As time was getting closer to the date of my travel to China for my exchange program, I was excited and looking forward to beginning my journey - travelling east to a country and a region of the world I have never been to before. I was looking forward to meeting people, learning the culture, viewing life from their perspective, their work ethic and etiquettes when dealing with others.

My journey started on Sunday morning, 30 June, departing from Manchester Airport departing at 12.45pm on Hainian Airlines. My train ticket was already booked for 7.54am. I got to the train station early that morning waiting at the platform for the train to arrive. As the clock ticked closer to the train departure time, I panicked as the train had not yet arrived. A few minutes past 7.54am I got an announcement saying that all trains to Manchester were cancelled and would resume once they fixed a problem with the train tracks; a problem which could take 10 minutes, one hour, two hours or even six hours to fix!

I couldn't risk waiting and had to arrange a lift to get to the airport. I couldn't have started my trip in a more exciting way! I eventually made it to the airport where I met my supervisor Professor Bill Nimmo. Going to airports and flying can sometimes be exciting and fun, but not when you’re about to board a 10-and-a-half-hour flight.

After landing at Beijing's International Airport, we had to catch another flight to Taiyuan, an hour-and-a-half flight, because a 10-and-a-hour flight wasn't exhausting enough for us.

Arriving at Taiyuan

Finally! We made it to Taiyuan located in Shanxi Province, our flight got there approximately 30 minutes before its estimated arrival time - I couldn't be more relieved as we touched down early. Not wanting to waste a moment to catch a few winks, and as we didn't find our designated airport pickup, we caught a local taxi to Shanxi Hotel, the hotel that we were told would be pre-booked for us.

Upon arrival we were met with slight confusion and ended up having to re-book the rooms. After getting to the hotel, booking the rooms, dropping our luggage in our rooms and letting Professor Qun Yi (our connection at TYUT, my co-supervisor) know that we had arrived, we were hoping to take a recovery nap after that long journey.

A few minutes later we heard a knock on the door. It was Professor Qun with good news and bad news; the good news is we were about to have our first authentic Chinese meal. The bad news was that we were in the wrong hotel and that he had planned to kindly pick us up from the airport, but the plane unexpectedly arrived 25 minutes early, and we were nowhere to be seen.

Apparently, the other hotel is called Shanxi Grand Hotel, which is commonly known by the locals in Taiyuan as Shanxi Hotel. We had lunch at Shanxi Hotel, packed our bags and headed off to where we were supposed to be: the Shanxi Grand Hotel.

Usama at night

First impression

I remember the first week well, as we were welcomed with a lot of hospitality from the university: from the friendly and warm treatment when introducing us to university staff, to taking us on a tour to Ping Yao ancient city and feeding us lunch and dinner at fancy restaurants. It really felt like a red-carpet treatment.

During my first few weeks I attended their weekly meetings which were set up in a format which allowed students to deliver presentations on their project progress to approximately 30 to 40 masters and PhD students. Unfortunately for me they were all presented in Mandarin, with some presentations containing slides written in English.

However, I was able to get the general idea from the pictures and animations on the slides (which I realised were heavily focused on here in China). This emphasis on art is seen through many aspects, from the decorations and lighting on buildings and bridges that light up during the evening.

An interesting point that I also observed during the meeting was the paternalistic relationship between students and their professors. The passion with which the lecturer questioned and grilled the students after their presentations and the time spent giving advice on what needed to be improved and how it should have been done, felt more than just a student-professor relationship. However, their relationship is not consistently formal, which I will elaborate on later.

Students in China

Settling in and the social life

I have been eager to go around and explore the city since I first got here. As soon as I settled down in my accommodation, I started roaming around the city. The first couple of days I would explore in a straight line, so that I could remember my way back home. But on the third day my curiosity kicked in and got me taking lefts and rights. It was exciting exploring the city around the campus until, the more I explored and encountered people I realised that to explore further you need be able to speak their local language, Mandarin.

A handy shortcut for the future would be to make friends with people who can speak the language and are willing to travel around with you. When I got there, I thought that I wouldn't get the chance to meet people that could speak English or even Arabic, another language I can speak.

However, it didn't take that long for me to make friends with people from different ethnicities, from Africa to Asia. When they first arrived in China, they could not speak any Chinese, so they were able to sympathise with some of the struggles that I was going through. They showed tremendous hospitality, more than I was asking for. They invited me for home-cooked meals at their accommodation, went out to show me parts of the city that I wouldn't be able to explore on my own and kept contacting me every now and then to check if I needed any help.

I've been in China for just more than a month and until now, whenever I went out for a meal with anyone - literally anyone - whatever their ethnicity, Chinese or non-Chinese, they would never let me pay for my meal. I am truly appreciative and have fond memories of my treatment as a guest and traveller.

One of the funny things I have experienced, especially when going around exploring the city, is when kids stop and stare and look at me with amusement. To the point where I've been stopped a countless amount of times by strangers asking me if I can take a picture with them. I felt like a celebrity. Sometimes I would get slightly overexcited and ask if they wanted my signature as well.

I was told that the frequent attention was because I looked physically different from the people in China, but I'd rather believe that my good looks are the reason!

Table filled with Chinese food

Dalian city trip

During my third week I was told to prepare a presentation to be presented at a research exchange conference in Dalian city between Dalian University of Technology and Taiyuan University of Technology. It was an amazing experience which allowed me gel nicely with the rest of the group and I got to know them a bit better as we travelled and spent more time together.

We were welcomed and fed well by the hosts from Dalian University of Technology; one of the things I enjoyed on the trip was their seafood-focused cuisine as Dalian is located on the shore. This is when I realised that the relationship between students and their supervisors was more relaxed as they were conversing, joking around and laughing. Sadly, they were all in Mandarin so I can't entertain you with some of them.

My presence initiated a few jokes, as I would randomly hear my name in the middle of a conversation in Mandarin, then a few seconds later I'd hear everyone laughing. I would squint my eyes, look at each and every one of them with precaution, prepared for anything.

On the first day in Dalian we were taken on a tour around the city which is located near the sea. We got to see the beach, the beautiful mountainous scenery and the city layout. During our four-day visit, the host university took us out for lunch and dinner and as expected, the main cuisine was seafood which felt expensive but delicious at the same time.

At the conference, again all the presentations were delivered in mandarin - except for mine and a postdoc called Antony from India. When sitting through those presentations, it gets to a point where you start appreciating how knowledge is exchanged between people, and how literally 'sound' can be useless to you but of much value and meaning to some else. This really motivated me to want to learn more languages.

During the presentations I tried my best to focus and to at least try and develop a general understanding of the presenters' research area. However, it was slightly challenging. It was then time for Antony to present his research. At that point I thought to myself 'at least you'll be able to understand what's being said now'.

Then I delivered my presentation, realising that the audience was focusing more on trying to understand what I was saying instead of focusing on my interesting research area or my amazing audience engaging presentation skills! But it was more likely because I was only one of two students that presented in English.

After the conference concluded, we were given a tour around the university research facility where they had mini-pilot plants focused on liquifying coal and laboratory equipment to create catalysis materials and analysis including gas heated ovens, HPLCs, XRDs and others.

Next: Guangzhou trip and plan

I am currently working on a paper that I will be submitting in the next few days; after which I will be travelling to Guangzhou, where they have the pilot plant that I will be using to conduct a few experiments for my project. This will take place in Guangzhoa Institute of Energy Conversion, Chinese Academy of Science.

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