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Cheer and challenge, far from home
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Christine Platt, now studing at Peking University, visits the Great Wall while absorbing the culture. 

By He Shan
China.org.cn staff reporter

Christine Platt, a Cambridge University student has been studying at Peking University since April on a self-financed program, weaving an eight-month period studying abroad into her master's curriculum at Cambridge.

Focusing her research on China's modern art market, Christine's study also includes soaking up Chinese culture and attempting to master a new language that is totally different from her own.

"The first few months were like a honeymoon period as I was getting to know the place. After that, I had to get down to real life and deal with problems," said Christine, a blond, good-looking Canadian girl in her twenties.

Although she has been studying Chinese since last November the language is still a daunting challenge. "When we arrived at the airport and hopped into a cab, we couldn't tell the driver how to get to the university," she said, recalling the day she arrived in Beijing. "Fortunately the driver was smart and figured it out from our broken English and broken Chinese."

Christine spent her first few weeks at Peking University, one of the country's most prestigious colleges, dealing with culture shock. "At home, we are not used to carrying around our own toilet paper. When we came here, nobody told us to. So the first time I went to a public restroom I found there was no toilet paper," she said, laughing. "I thought, Oh my god, what should I do?"

The other thing she is not used to is shopping, Chinese-style. "We never bargain at home. The price is the price," the girl said. "Here, bargaining is common. But I don't know how much I should bargain, and I end up wondering if I have been cheated."

Bu such little annoyances never put her in a bad mood, but rather spice up her life abroad and lead her into the fabric of the local culture.

One thing she learned early on is that gift-giving is important in China as a way of showing appreciation and establishing connections. "In western countries, there is a lot less gift giving, a lot more of just verbal thank yous. In China, friends will do you favors, invite you to dinner, and always insist on paying. They are very hospitable."

Nostalgia for her hometown is something Christine is not immune to. "I miss my friends, and miss home-made food," she said. But her trip, while short, has provided her with a unique opportunity to mix with students who are not from Canada.

She loves cooking, which makes her feel closer to home. She has bought an oven and most of the ingredients needed to make a home-style meal. Although some ingredients are hard to come by in Beijing, she still manages to put together some home cooking in her off-campus apartment far from home.

Near her apartment there is a teahouse which she loves because the quiet there reminds her of her spacious and peaceful hometown. She often spends hours there drinking tea and reading in silence.

This is not the first time Christine has been to China. A couple of years ago, she traveled around China with friends, taking in some of the country's most beautiful places such as Tibet and Yunnan.

Compared with her last trip, Christine feels that China is very different. "In general, the changes are for the better. Living standards are higher; the streets are cleaner. Yet it is changing so fast that it has lost parts of its history along the way," She said. "Something is happening, and you start learning and understanding it, but the next day, something new is there, so you don't have time to fully grasp it."

To build in experiences outside the classroom, Christine often visits museums and art galleries across Beijing. She likes most of them, but her favorite is a private sandalwood museum in Chaoyang District.

She takes extracurricular courses to hone her language skills. She believes that only through language can she start to understand why people say certain things and how they communicate and how they think. "It is like opening a new door that allows us to think in another way. It brings a whole new perspective," she said.

For students covering their own room and board expenses, the sinking dollar has hurt a lot. But Christine said she has not been that badly affected because she doesn't spend a lot and she is going home next month.

As for her vision about the future after graduation, Christine said she wants to work in a public museum, rather than auction houses or private galleries that pay better, because she thinks it is more important to educate the public.

For information about studying at Peking University, check here.

(China.org.cn November 25, 2008)

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