When she started reading the seemingly ordinary novel from her friend, Mladenka Kovacevic from Serbia and Montenegro never expected that it would bring her to a country so far from home.
As a first-year-postgraduate in the School of International Studies, at Renmin University in China, Kovacevic doesn't consider herself a stranger. She had been to China four years ago and studied Chinese for one year at public expense in Liaoning Normal University in Dalian, a beautiful seaside city in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, while she was a college senior at the University of Belgrade.
"I love reading, so a friend of mine gave me a book as present one day when I was 14; she said I would like it, and yes I did."
The fiction Till Morning Comes written by Han Suyin, or Elizabeth Zhou, a famous Chinese born British writer, took China's "cultural revolution" (1966-76) as its background.
"I was totally engaged in the love story of the intellectuals and I developed an extreme yearning for China ever since," said Kovacevic. "The fortune of the characters was so miserable that some of my friends were curious as to why I did not hate the country. Well, even I don't know the reason."
Her parents took their daughter's passion for China as temporary enthusiasm, but to their surprise, she chose Chinese language as her major when she entered university.
"I used to compare Chinese speaking to singing, as there are four melodious tones in Chinese pronunciation; and every single Chinese character was like a small work of art."
However, the difficulty of studying Chinese was far beyond her imagination; her throat was sore from long hours of reading and her mind numb from trying to remember the unexpectedly difficult characters.
"I've learned Russian and some other Western languages. They more or less communicate with each other, but Chinese is completely different," she said.
Mladenka Kovacevic enjoys the spring in Beijing when peach flowers blossom everywhere.
Kovacevic was not the only student who was confronting these difficulties: there were more than 80 students in the class at first, but on reaching the fourth year, there were only 20 left.
"I hate giving up halfway; I believe giving up Chinese is equal to giving up on myself," she said.
She has spent most of her spare time reading textbooks, and has seized every chance to speak Chinese. "I was not afraid of making mistakes," she said. At the same time, she spent most of her vacations to work as an interpreter for Chinese tourists.
When Kovacevic became a fourth-year-undergraduate, there was an opportunity of coming to China and studying Chinese. The hard-working student grabbed it and became one of five in the department.
The one-year-experience of studying Chinese in China was a great help. "In my country there wasn't much time and opportunity to speak or think about Chinese; but here in China, I have to use it every minute. All I see, read and hear are related to Chinese so I am learning unconsciously. I think language environment is essential for language study."
After graduation, Kovacevic selected public relations as a postgraduate major. One year later, an opportunity to study at a Chinese university at public expense was made available to public relations students. She gave up her half-done degree without hesitation and started at Renmin University of China in September 2005.
"In my country, there are few people who understand Chinese politics; I am a Chinese major and I am interested in Chinese affairs, so I want to fill that gap," she said.
Although in the eyes of Kovacevic, China as an eastern country is entirely different from her home country, but the cultural difference does not affect her much.
"I didn't change my beliefs, my life style or my character. I think people should always remember who they are, especially those who are living in a foreign country and trying to learn about it."
But Kovacevic did change a little in her diet, "There used to be lots of food I didn't touch at all at home, but when I came to China, I began to eat things people didn't even eat in my country, such as chicken feet. I am not fastidious about my food at all. It is a good change, isn't it?"
(China Daily April 14, 2006)