I wrote this article back in April 2016 for an adoption magazine which will be published shortly. I really enjoyed writing it and I thought I’d share it with you all. Some of the things in the article I want to expand upon (an adoptee’s view on going back to China for one) but otherwise enjoy. Just remember that this was written when I was still on my travels!
Three countries, seven months and two girls.
I don’t remember the moment I decided I would take a gap year but I do remember that I always knew I would take one. I love to travel and the idea of taking a year out before university to do just that seemed wonderful; I knew I wouldn’t have an opportunity like this again: a time where I wasn’t bound by any constraints, a time where I didn’t have any pressures of a career or a family. It was perfect. As A Level study began to take its toll I knew that I had made the right choice. I needed and wanted a break from studying before university and, though I was already fairly independent, I wanted to learn how to really cope.
I’ve been a close friend of Alice’s (my travel buddy) for over thirteen years at an annual Chinese Summer School. It was there that I discovered Alice also intended to take a gap year and we began to plan one together. Naturally, given our background (we’re both adopted – I plan on doing a post more about it soon), we both wanted to spend some time in China. Having completed a Mandarin GCSE, I was eager to improve my Chinese as I would love to become fluent one day. I also wanted to experience living in China instead of merely visiting as this would give me a real insight into Chinese culture. I wouldn’t just be observing it as I have done previously; I would actually be living it. We decided to volunteer as teachers for a couple of months along with spending time learning Mandarin.
As a travel blogger I had been following another blogger’s adventures around Australia’s East Coast which inspired me to go. I wanted to experience a completely different country and Alice particularly wanted to experience marine life as she plans on studying Marine Biology. Having agreed on China and Australia we chose Bali, Indonesia as a stop-off between the two countries.
We had just over five months to raise the funds. Over the summer I had three jobs: a Senior Mentor at ‘NCS’, a ‘Reserve’n’Rides’ worker at Thorpe Park and a worker in the Rugby Shop during the Rugby World Cup. It was hard work: I remember working fifteen days in a row once. I could barely spend any of the money I earned: I slaved away for five months and felt penniless.
The plan was to backpack up Australia’s East Coast for two months (Melbourne-Cairns), spend two weeks in Bali, a month at an intensive Mandarin school in Shijiazhuang (an hour outside of Beijing) and finally spend three months volunteering as teachers.
And so the adventure began. My final day passed in a blur and before I knew it I was at the airport saying goodbye to my mother and my boyfriend. Though I was extremely excited, the day seemed to have arrived too quickly. After passing through security, it dawned on me that our gap year was finally here. It was overwhelming; it didn’t feel real. But it was.
In Australia I had two of the best months of my life. Was I homesick? Of course there were times where I missed my family a lot but the great thing about technology is that they’re only a phone call away. Alice and I had packed in a lot of things to do and the days flew by. I have certainly experienced much more of the ‘real world’ and have been faced with several difficulties throughout my trip. The most memorable one is the night Alice and I found ourselves completely and utterly homeless in Hervey Bay.
Bali was another experience altogether. I had a love-hate relationship with Bali but in the end it did grow on me. The humidity mixed with the tropical rainstorms weren’t the best combination as the rain in particular prevented us from sightseeing. Nevertheless, we visited four different areas around the island: Kuta, Ubud, Seminyak and Uluwatu. We joined in with the Galungan celebrations with our homestay family and we visited Tanah Lot Temple and the Ubud Monkey Forest. We also walked through famous rice fields and went to an aerial yoga class at the world-famous yoga studio Radiantly Alive. Bali was also quite difficult because barely anyone spoke English but, despite this, we still managed to get around and barter with the taxi drivers! I hope to go back to Bali at some point.
China is completely different from back home. During my month of Mandarin I had four hours of one-to-one tuition Monday-Friday and I drastically improved upon my GCSE level. I lived with a Chinese family during this time. There were two girls: one aged fifteen (Angel) and a baby aged two (Amy). The mother didn’t work and the father was an investment banker. Angel was always very busy with her homework but she still had time to play with her sister and talk with me. She wants to go to Harvard University and she would like to visit England. The Chinese like to eat a lot of congee for dinner and I had this almost every day along with various other dishes, for example pork with peppers or pork meatballs in a sweet sauce. There was also a lot of steamed bread. The family eat very little compared with us back home. On weekends, Angel would mainly do her homework and often I would be left alone to do my own thing. I didn’t like this much as I felt isolated from the family: they would leave me in the flat all alone for hours at a time. I told the school about this and they resolved the problem but I soon realised that the family were just very busy at the time I was staying. I did make good friends with them though and I managed to communicate with them using small bits of Chinese. The rest of the time the daughter translated or they used a translator app on their phones.
Our original Chinese visa was only valid for a month so we were worried about how to keep renewing it for our planned four month stay. While we were learning Mandarin we discovered that there was a new visa available in the UK: a multiple-entry visa with each visit being 90 days, so we made a big decision to fly back to the UK to get this new visa. We had to go to Edinburgh as there weren’t any visa appointments in London but this gave us a week to explore a new city. Armed with our shiny new visas, we headed back to China to begin our volunteering.
I have been in No. 2 Middle School in Chengdu for three weeks now and I’m really enjoying it. I teach sixteen forty-minute lessons a week to sixteen different classes. It can get confusing at times but the students are incredibly enthusiastic. I love helping them improve their English and I enjoy talking with them. I have another five weeks here and then I plan on going back to the Mandarin school in Shijiazhuang for another month to further improve my Mandarin. I hope that I will be able to take the HSK 5 examination soon (an international Mandarin proficiency exam).
Being in China has made me realise that I am really British and less Chinese; in some ways I feel I can never fully belong in this country. Chinese adoptees are prevented from a real sense of belonging the moment Chinese people realise we cannot speak the language. Learning Mandarin is my only way in and it is for this reason that I hope to become fluent. Being able to communicate basic things and explain my background to people in Chinese makes me so happy. I don’t know why but I love having the ability to communicate with my own people – it is an ability that all adoptees have lost. If an adoptee finds it hard to think through their past history then I would advise learning Mandarin as a start. Living in China is amazing as I’m learning about what my life may have been like but if you know no Mandarin then you can feel very isolated and treated more like a foreigner.
I have learnt a great deal during my gap year. I have learnt how to be completely independent and I have had to deal with many difficulties on my own. It can be tough and demoralising at times but it has made me a stronger person. Travelling halfway across the world, without my family physically being there to guide me, has taught me a lot and I think that university life and any challenges I may face while there will be a breeze in comparison.
I wish this year out would never end but I have a lot more to look forward to when I get back at the end of June. I will go to Paris, Greece and Italy with friends and family; I will attend a Latin summer camp; I will work as a Senior Mentor on ‘NCS’ again and I will prepare for university in October where I will study Classics at New College, Oxford. I would recommend taking a gap year to anyone. This year I have worked in the real world and I have learnt the true value of money. I have had to earn every single penny to fund my travels and I have had to budget every activity. I have travelled across the world for five months so far (and I have another two to go!) and it has been absolutely amazing. I have fed kangaroos, held a koala, spent Christmas Day on the famous Bondi Beach, sailed the Whitsunday islands, scuba-dived on the Great Barrier Reef and jumped out of an aeroplane! I’ve experienced Indonesian cuisine and culture and I have learnt enough Mandarin to communicate with others. It may seem impossible for you to earn enough money to travel and to do all of these things but I assure you, with hard work and determination, anyone can do it. My mother didn’t pay for me to do this. I paid for all of this and so can you.
I hope you enjoyed this article & I will be writing a more updated one since I’ve now been back for two months. If you have any questions or comments then feel free to ask away! 🙂
Peace and love,