Stuart Aitken

Stuart Aitken
First year Theoretical Physics
Having completed one year of my undergraduate study, I was lucky enough to be selected for a newly offered Chinese government scholarship to study in China. This means I'm now taking a year out from Queen Mary to go into something completely new - a year of learning the Chinese language - at Sichuan University in Chengdu, central-southern China. I'm a lover of travel and new experiences, usually in the way of adventure and 'things happening which I didn't expect to happen'. My current idea of fun is to go in one direction by any means and see where the day takes me.

Campus life at Sichuan University

Campus life here – or quite possibly in all of China – is far more vibrant than what I’ve seen of campuses at least in the UK. There’s a much greater willingness to just go and do something. In the afternoons and evenings all the sports pitches are teeming with people. There isn’t any set of rules or required conformities for anyone who wants to make use of the areas. Some people will just turn up and do laps of the running track in the jeans they’ve been wearing all day! And if you want to get into any team sports, just find a suitable game and ask if you can join in. There are of course the official clubs and tournaments, but in terms of unplanned day-to-day activities, it really is as simple as just going there and getting started, which I think is fantastic, even if I’m not much of a sports person myself.

The university campus is a large enclosed area within four main gates  (north, east, south and west). The layout can be seen in the map image I uploaded in the previous blog post. Even though the campus is a contained and guarded area, it is also a very normal community with everyday apartments and everyday people going about their everyday lives alongside the thousands of students who of course also exist here. So, as well as the educational buildings, sports fields and other typical university things, there are also standard shops, apartments and open areas where seemingly anyone can spend their time. There are little convenience stores and fruit stalls, often with little plastic picnic benches to allow customers to sit down and relax with whatever snacks or drinks they’ve just bought – great places to sink a few cheap beers on a Friday evening before moving on to somewhere else! And plenty of old people relax in the park areas during the afternoon, playing cards or mahjong or chatting wildly about whatever old people chat about.

Another facility worth mentioning is the campus canteens. There are several and they’re all cheap, tasty and very efficient. Students are issued with a canteen card which they the top up with their own money and can use on a ‘touch-pay’ system to order food. It’s as easy as telling the servers what you want on your plate, then paying for it by touching your card on a little device above the serving window. The food choice is fairly diverse with a huge range of vegetable and meat options with rice or noodles and also various types of dumplings. After eating you put your plates on a conveyor belt which magics everything away to be washed by a crew in the back. It’s cheap, efficient and the food is pretty good! Also I think this kind of canteen system is great for bringing people together and maintaining a good, thriving social hub. This, alongside the natural tendency for people to go outside and use the sports fields and park areas, leads me to conclude that Asian culture is very social indeed, much more-so than that of what I’ve seen in the UK. Personally I think this is a good thing. It may be because everyone here lives in a shared room. The overseas students here, such as myself, mostly have to stay in rooms of two, but local Chinese students on campus will be in bunk bed rooms with up to six people! This may be why everyone prefers to go outside…

Classes here aren’t too bad either. All the overseas students do their language classes in one designated building near to the dorm we’re staying in, only a couple of minutes’ walk away. We have a class from 8:30 to 10:00, then a half hour break and another class until 12, and are then free all day, Monday to Friday, apart from Thursdays where we have one other compulsory class at 14:00. Some students on different programmes have other necessary modules or are taking optional modules in areas such as Tai Chi, Chinese culture, Japanese language, Tibetan studies, etc.


Old guys playing ping pong.

Basketball courts

Football pitches and running track.

Everyday apartments for everyday people.

Student dorms. Everyone has a bike here!

One of the little park areas on campus.

One of the many little seat things that are actually seen in most parks in the city, or presumably in the whole country. At certain times of the day these tables are swarming with old people, and at other times there are students here.

Casually fishing in one of the lily ponds. You can do whatever you want here, within reason.

One of the campus canteens.

One of the many shops on campus.

And here’s where I currently live. My roomate’s side is the orderly side, my side is the ridiculously messy side. Yin and Yang? Heh!

Arriving at Sichuan University, China.

Firstly, the amount of people who can speak English in Chengdu is fantastically small, which is great because I didn’t want locals attempting English with me when I’m here specifically to speak their own language with them. However it certainly made things difficult when I arrived!

To get from the airport to the university I had to simply show the taxi driver my student acceptance letter with the university address on it – all in Chinese of course. I was dropped off at what I now know is the west gate of the biggest campus I’ve ever been on, with the added downside of there not being a reception or entrance area in sight! Luckily after a short wander I spotted a sign for their IELTS test centre, which meant there would surely be some English-speaking people to help me, and I was right.

Soon after I was guided to the overseas students office, where I was given various bits of paperwork and taken to the overseas students dormitory which, although just a place to live, was a new experience in itself too. I’m sharing a room with someone else, which is certainly new to me, and the communal washing/kitchen/shower area has only squat toilets, which is something I happen to have experienced before while travelling but I’m sure it might take a bit of getting used to for some people!

Aside from the room-sharing and squat toilets (not actually that bad really but I thought it worth mentioning as it would surely be a new thing for most future students coming here), the dormitory living is very good indeed as there are a good hundred or so students from all other parts of the world. It’s probably the most multi-cultural experience I’ll ever have in my life and it’s just brilliant. I have friends from all over the world now. Most here speak English so there are plenty of people I can communicate with, and a lot are already quite advanced with their Chinese language studies so there’s always chance to ask them questions and get help from them for my own studies.

One of my worries when arriving here was that I’d not really settle in too well as I’m now classed as a mature student, being 26 years old currently. However it turns out the other students here are all totally varied in terms of age, interests and motivations for coming here. Some are on scholarships, some on exchange programs, and plenty are here of their own accord simply to learn the language for work or personal reasons, meaning the variety of people is huge and there hasn’t been any problem at all with finding a good social circle.

The campus is huge with a lot of traditional-looking buildings, photos of which I’ve added below. The past week has been unusually sunny, but unfortunately the clouds rolled back in on the day I took my camera out so the images, although a little grey, at least show a more accurate image of how things normally are here. Chengdu is rated as one of the least sunny cities in China, with 90% of the year being mostly overcast. Although, having said that, it’s also said to have much cleaner air than other parts of the country, so I don’t know if the lack of sun is caused by smog or just an unlucky amount of clouds getting trapped in the plain that Chengdu sits in.

I’ve been here a bit over a month now and have plenty to say about university life and life outside in Chengdu, but I’ll save that for another post. Overall verdict so far: Very good!

North gate of campus (I entered through the slightly smaller and not-at-all-traditional-looking west gate). This is clearly the main entrance to the place, yet there's still not a reception area in sight!

North gate of campus (I entered through the smaller and not-at-all-traditional-looking west gate). This is clearly the main entrance to the place, yet there’s still not a reception area in sight!

Had a quick look inside there at one point and it seemed to only be used for offices and other official things.

Main building. Had a quick look inside there at one point and it seemed to only be used for offices and other official things.

Closer angle.

Main building – Closer angle.

The north gate is on the upper left corner where the red star is. The main building in the previous picture is the red one just after the blue pond bits by the red star. Hopefully the map gives some scale for understanding how huge the campus is.

Campus map – The north gate is on the upper left corner where the red star is. Hopefully this gives some scale for understanding how huge the campus is.

One of the more residential-looking streets on campus.

One of the more residential-looking streets on campus.

Lily pond on campus near the east gate.

Lily pond on campus near the east gate.

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