My Summer in China: Nicholas Dinan

Wing Yip Travel Grant Report 2014

I began my travels in Hong Kong. Having spent six years of my childhood in Hong Kong, this gave me an opportunity to revisit some of my favourite places and sample local delicacies once again. This included a trip to Stanley Pier, as well as a visit to the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world. Hong Kong was a familiar stepping-stone for my next month in China.

Teaching English

On the 4th of August I departed from Hong Kong International Airport and arrived in Beijing, full of anticipation for the month to come.

My Beijing journey began in Houshayu. Lesson plans in hand, I prepared with other Cambridge students for the Cambridge Youth Summer Camp, held at the New Jinghua Experimental School. The lesson plans took hours upon hours to create, but I learnt that no amount of planning could rid me of the worry that the students wouldn’t quite take to me. I sat in fear that my life drawing classes would be boring, or that my lesson on packing a suitcase wouldn’t stretch through to an hour long.

On the first day of the camp, we interviewed the students and placed them into ability-based classes. We also had mixed-ability Cambridge College groups, and each college was assigned a leader; these were the groups that competed against one another in activities, which included recycled-material fashion show. My lessons were based on different aspects of travel and holiday planning, which allowed me to engage the kids in a wide range of hands-on activities that taught them relevant vocabulary and sentence structures. These included making paper airplanes and designing and branding their own hotel, while the more advanced classes engaged in debates such as the use of public transport over private transport. The lessons opened them up to expressing issues present in their everyday lives in China, such as pollution, in English. Many of them had an excellent standard of English, and whilst some struggled with more basic sentences, the camp ultimately helped them use their toolkit of English with more confidence and bravado.

Nicholas Dinan with his pupils at his English School in Beijing

The most challenging aspect of teaching was adjusting for unexpected variables, including students finishing your activity 10 minutes too quickly. Thinking on the spot to think of new tasks without losing their interest was a daily facet of the job. What made teaching easiest was my students’ unparalleled fervor to learn. The staff of the school, and the students, had such great expectations from the Cambridge students; sometimes I felt undeserving of the pedestal I was placed on, but it gave me a huge amount of motivation to live up to their expectations for me.

My college, Churchill College, was filled with an enigmatic set of students, all eager to learn. I was shocked and touched by team spirit they all showed, and the commitment and competitive edge that they brought to all the activities. We won several contests, but our proudest victory was the song contest. I noticed an overwhelming adoration for Taylor Swift from the children on the camp during my time there, so I felt extremely excited when we received “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as our randomly selected song choice. It was a once in a lifetime experience to throw myself into a performance with these driven, eternally appreciative students and more than anything, these activities formed a cultural understanding and bond between us that will last a lifetime. The pride when my college won the overall “College Cup” welcomed unprecedented joy from the students in my college—I was moved by how happy they were to win, and the sense of belonging that they had gotten from the team. The Wing Yip Travel Fund gave me the opportunity to participate in a camp that has given me an unmatched level of personal development that can only be gained by spending so much time intensively with members of another culture.

Exploring Beijing

Nicholas Dinan and friend in front of a temple in Beijing

My departure from Houshayu was followed by another journey: the opportunity to truly see Beijing with 16 days of adventure and sightseeing connected by several long and crowded subway journeys (admittedly on which I felt like the main tourist attraction). The Wing Yip Travel Fund gave me the opportunity to leave no tourist site untapped. The adventures began with the Forbidden City with some other members of the camp, where I was not only in awe of the sheer size of the city, but also by beautiful intricacy of its architecture and the precious historical artifacts that lie within the city walls.

Nicholas Dinan with the Great Wall of China in the background

Persevering under Beijing’s summer heat, we embarked on a trip to the Summer Palace, exploring all its corridors and terraces—even taking a man-powered boat around the surrounding lake, which was as scenic as it was exhausting. The Temple of Heaven also fell on our itinerary, walking map-aided through the incredible structures situated in open and spacious terraces. What was truly astounding was the sheer scale of these dynastic buildings; I was mesmerised by the regal prowess of these buildings, and stood in awe wishing I could see how its beauty changes form in the shifting panels of Beijing’s seasons. The pinnacle of sightseeing was the Great Wall of China, surpassing all my expectations. I felt as if I was standing on top of the world, which meant it was equally exhilarating when I got to toboggan down it.

Nicholas Dinan in front of a Chinese temple (left) Chinese Zoo panda (right)

Some of the more modern wonders we saw included Beijing Zoo. As a Biology student, I was incredibly excited to see the range and diversity of wildlife there, and was impressed by the conditions that some of the animals lived in, far outstripping some of the more unethical zoos worldwide. The highlight was the Giant Pandas, and moving through the chaos of the crowds to catch a glimpse of one eating bamboo was worth every push and squeeze. Moving from the wonders of the animal kingdom to the talents of the Chinese people, I also had the opportunity to witness a Chinese acrobatic show. I was completely astounded by the talent, skill and bravery that the acrobats carried through every stunt and performance—it was a reflection of the resilience and determination of the Chinese people that I keenly observed in my time there.

Food was a huge aspect of my time in Beijing. From the 8 Beijing Xiao Long Baos I’d have every morning before teaching, to eating Peking Duck by Tiananmen Square and sampling the dumplings at the famous Goubuli. Every turn lead us into an avenue into new tastes and smells, as well as to some more questionable national treasures such as fried scorpion. Having only really been exposed to Southern Chinese delicacies, it was a pleasant surprise to experience the culinary diversity in China first-hand.

Language

For most of the last academic year, I attended a Mandarin Language Course at the University’s Language Centre. The 15 classes built up skills in basic Mandarin, and being in China for a month built on a bank on useful phrases for general navigation. More than anything however, it built up confidence in speaking Chinese—I don’t feel as afraid to make mistakes and to ask questions. My limited Chinese, and the wonderful dictionary app ‘Pleco’, was some aid in getting us around, and I did have moments where I felt my pronunciation of certain useful phrases, such as menu, was (nearly) spot on!

Nicholas Dinan and friend on a ceremonial Chinese seat

I spent the last week of Beijing with a Chinese Studies student from Churchill College, Alexandra Hamilton. It was a relief to have a skilled Chinese speaker with me to navigate. Together, we navigated through the Gulou hutongs, visiting local haunts such as the cat café. Alex was a huge help in helping me refine my language skills. The Wing Yip Travel Fund was essential in actualizing my classroom efforts—the trip to China has reaffirmed the relevance and importance in learning the Chinese language; it’s not just another language, but a way of opening up communication with a huge number of Chinese speakers in China and worldwide.

I would like to extend my sincerest thanks for the Wing Yip Travel Fund. Not only has the travel fund given me the opportunity to see China, but also has pushed me to continue my relationship with the Country. This year, I will be attending another University Language Program, continuing my studies in Mandarin. Next year, I intend to return to Beijing to attend a yearlong language course.

Wing Yip Travel Grants