The Life of Foreign Students in Xi’an

Article and Illustrated by Lionel Rakai

Sometimes the difficult memories can be the ones that stick with you in the most detailed way – like trying to cram the most important physical pieces of your life into a 30kg piece of luggage and moving to an unfamiliar new country and city. I still remember walking out of the T2 arrivals terminal at Xianyang airport, rehearsing how to say the address of my university in Chinese over and over again in my head so that a taxi driver wouldn’t get confused by my poor intonation of tones. Fast forward four years later, a bucketful of new memories and experiences, great friendships and some faded acquaintances, we arrive to the present day where I find myself trying to accurately puzzle together my experiences and feelings about life in one of China’s most historical and beautiful cities: Xi’an.

In an attempt to remain unbiased on the subject, I called upon the help of fellow student colleagues and close friends to help describe how adapting to life as a postgraduate student in Xi’an has been like: Arnette Ciapha (a Master’s graduate in Business Administration), Amit Patil (a PhD student in Environmental Science) and Sam Chirwa (a Master’s student in Architecture).

  1. Tell me about yourself (how long you’ve been in china and your area of study)

Arnette: I have been in China for 3 years and I study Business Administration at a Master level.
Amit: It’s been four years now that I have been in Xian. I am a CSC PhD scholar studying river ecology and functioning.
Sam: I have been in China for two years now. I arrived in 2019, mid-September, after what seemed to be a rushed decision to come here. Architecture is my field of study and passion, creating space is something am passionate about.
Lionel: I am currently edging on four years in China and in Xi’an with the opportunity to pursue a doctorate major in information engineering; focussing on intelligent transportation. I still remember my academic research proposal being based on the study of art and traditional relic restoration through the use of artificial intelligence and big data mining. How this translated to vehicle tracking is still a wonder to me.

  1. What factors encouraged you to pursue further studies in China?

Arnette: China has been opening up to foreign students by giving out scholarships to international students. This was the number one factor that encouraged me to come study here, I don’t think anyone would turn down an opportunity to study at a university on a full scholarship.
Amit: I think the most important factor is the scholarship and future career opportunities. I have found China is doing very well in the environmental science field. In addition, the procedure is quite easy. Taking this fact into consideration, I had applied for a Phd program here.
Sam: China currently is leading in conceptual sustainable development. For the past ten years, China has led in the development of high-rise buildings and green buildings. Though this is crucial, my main encouragement was the Traditional Chinese Architecture. How they have managed to preserve the architectural form is truly amazing. My aim was to learn how a modern and contemporary China is able to respect the old and traditional forms without cutting them off.
Lionel: I considered the pursuit for exposure to technological advances that could enhance my research experience would be better realised in a bigger country. Coming from a small island in the South Pacific, I’d sometimes catch myself looking out into the wide ocean view thinking how much of the world I had not yet explored. Keen to further my career in Asia, I had applied for scholarships in Korea and China where I was eventually placed at a university in a city I hadn’t previously heard of; Xi’an.

  1. Has your academic life experience met your expectations from when you first arrived?

Arnette: I came to China like a blank canvas, I didn’t have any expectations. I was excited to learn in a new way. Nothing shocked me, because I didn’t expect things to be done exactly like the way they have been done in other educational institutions I’ve studied.
Amit: Yes definitely! I was not sure I could publish a paper in a well known journal (nature) that is my life time achievement.
Sam: This has been a challenge. I wish I knew how to express myself in Chinese. I believe if I did, I would have experienced and learnt more. However, with just English being my main mode of communication, it’s hard to linkup with my Chinese colleagues or even ask for help when it’s needed. That being said, I have a great supervisor who really tries to help whenever he can. It has been a good study experience but I know it could have been better.
Lionel: To be honest, China was not my first choice of placement so my expectations were controlled. However, I had to start learning from the foundations of my subject since it was all completely new to me. While this was a good lesson in adaptability, I found myself consistently walking this fine line to maintain my enthusiasm in it.

  1. Xi’an is a city that was chosen for us by our scholarship program. What things about this city surprised you the most in terms of what you previously didn’t know about it?

Arnette: What surprised me was how welcoming and curious the locals were as compared to other cities.
Amit: Same thoughts as written below. However, climate is another factor I have experienced far different than my home country. Especially when there is autumn and snow.
Sam: The citizens’ tolerance to foreigners. I mean yeah, it’s not perfect, I still know that this is something I struggle with as an African, but Xi’an is so much better than other places. Maybe because this city receives a lot more tourists and travellers than other places.
Lionel: Though I was sceptical at first about moving to a city I knew very little about at first, it quickly grew on me and I discovered a level of comfort here. Th public transport was not difficult to use, the food was interesting and the city’s geography in general was not difficult to grasp. I also love the autumn and winter.

  1. What have been your favourite aspects about Xi’an?

Arnette: There was a point in time where I wanted to explore Xi’an but that meant biking around town with my friends and not necessarily soaking in the culture. For me, my favorite would be how accessible things are, everything is just right within my range, a walk or a bike ride.
Amit: I like its simplicity and ancient historical architecture. The people are also very approachable and kind. The city as its name says is peaceful.
Sam: I love the food here. Am a huge foodie and trying out new dishes is something I enjoy doing. I had my first bowl of vegetable noodles here in Xi’an and I loved it. I loved the flavour and the process of making it. I enjoy the food a lot here. Now that does not always end well for my stomach – LOL. I have had some pretty nasty stomach reactions to some foods, like Spicy Sichuan Hotpots, but I still loved the food.
Lionel: The history of the city definitely makes it unique and the upkeep of historical landmarks makes me proud to be living in a city that others flock to visit during the holidays. But it’s the people I’ve met and become close to that are the heart of this city. This realisation felt more real when a close friend left to return home after a three year study course and suddenly all those bike rides we would do around the bell tower at three in the morning when we felt like we owned the streets just didn’t feel the same.

  1. Have you discovered new hobbies while living in Xian? How have they developed?

Arnette: I’ve never been a coffee person, but this has been something I picked up thanks to my best friend. It is sitting at a top-floor restaurant or café and having coffee or drinks with friends while looking at the beautiful skylines in the evening.
Amit: I am developing interest toward landscape and cityscape photography.
Sam: I love walking and exploring architecture now more than ever and because of this, photography has become something I love to do. As an architectural major, photography is meant to be part of my daily routine on seeking inspiration and new design content, but looking at life through the lens of a camera has a unique experience. It’s like freezing and capturing movements in time and having to relive them for as many times as you desire. Images are beautiful tools, and the camera is an amazing companion to have around.
Lionel: I was never practically artistic in terms of painting. I remember trying to wrap my head around how to make a stick figure alone look accurate. But life away from home and the emotional roller coaster of adjusting to a different place while understanding different people can awaken that creativity and I learnt to paint with watercolours. This past year alone helped my skills develop rapidly and being able to pair it with personal stories for the magazine has inspired me to keep going.

  1. How have local people affected the way you meet new people or approach the idea of making friends?

Arnette: I don’t like making new friends, most of the friends I make are made when we are in a good setting and having a conversation and I connect with the person on another level and then we become friends. I rarely hang out with locals the two local friends I have were introduced by a mutual friend.

Amit: I think they are very friendly and easy to communicate with, though sometimes I faced a language barrier issue where they try to understand my meaning. The young friends and colleagues are also very generous with a welcoming nature.

Sam: I think finding friends is always especially difficult when you cannot communicate in their language. I really wish I could but Chinese requires time to learn and honestly, its hard to find that time. However, I have met friends, it’s just that the concept of friendship in China is very different. I found it very interesting that girls hate it when you are overly polite. If you are friends, you can throw out the formalities and just be free to talk. That was strange, but it did help me rethink how friendships are experienced here.

Lionel: In a small island country, the default setting is to be friendly to everyone. Here was different in a way where people can understandably be scrupulous in the friendship connections they make. I eventually discovered this observation and kept my circle of friends small.

  1. Outside of school, where do you find yourself visiting the most?

Arnette: Restaurants or coffee shops.
Amit: City wall (Xian), I think this place has both an ancient as well as modern vibe. During the day time you can enjoy the scenic beauty of the city wall and ancient history. While in the evening you can see the modern version of Xi’an by its light displays and performances. And definitely the nightlife!
Sam: I love parks, café’s and art places. The parks because they are a great space for relaxing and escaping the daily hustles of life. Café’s because they provide good quiet spaces for a good read or writing which I both love to do. And art because it acts as a stimulus for my mind to create and develop my skills.
Lionel: Exploring new back ally coffee shops with vintage decorations, discovering different types of food and then sometimes heading up to the mountains to connect with nature.

  1. From an introspective point of view, has this city changed you as a person in anyway since you first arrived?

Arnette: I wouldn’t say the city has changed me, the people I’ve met have changed me. I’ve learned a new way to enjoy my short life here on earth and these are memories I will cherish forever.
Amit: I think so, I have learned about many cultures by meeting different nations’ students as well as other people. The lifestyle has totally changed as I used to stay with my family but here I have to be on my own. It taught me how to be patient and how to be polite with others while talking.
Sam: Maybe it has. Am not really sure if the change has been significant. I will however concede to the fact that due to Covid-19; the city became more like a prison than a place I enjoyed when I just arrived. Xi’an is a fairly big city, but due to Covid restriction, travelling has been hard. I would say that I would have explored more of the city, but that has not happened, yet. So, I do not think this city changed me at all. The pandemic did, I think it’s safe to say it changed us all. The longing for community, the desire for human interaction, the sense of belonging, it has been rough.
Lionel: When I think about this city, I consider the physical surrounding and the people I’ve met here. It has changed me in some ways; I’ve become sceptical, sometimes quieter and I’ve also grown mentally and emotionally stronger over the past few years. The fast growing development of this city has also reminded me how things can change so quickly.

  1. If you could give advice to a new student starting their academic journey in Xian, what would it be?

Arnette: I would say, take your studies seriously and graduate in time, be proactive, and don’t wait for your supervisor to tell you what to do. Connect with other students and have fun!
Amit: At present, there is no advice but I can say that people can think about Xi’an as a historical city. The fact is Xi’an is changing very fast towards development.
Sam: Learn Chinese!!!! Then you will experience Xi’an and China more.
Lionel: Some knowledge of the local language helps, discuss and formulate a long term study plan early so it will be easier to see when you start falling behind and once in a while, don’t be afraid to meet new people (a concept I’ve lost touch with recently) and embrace the rich culture that’s so unique here.
Though this may not necessarily resemble the thoughts of all foreign students in Xi’an, my intention is to give a glimpse into the way people I know well have adapted to life in this city and offer a small idea to what future foreign students can expect when deciding to reside here. A special thanks to Arnette, Amit and Sam for taking some time out to put their thoughts into words for me.