Visiting China made me sure I wanted to go into journalism. A bit of a sudden and unpredictable judgement, some might say, but after viewing all that China had to offer, I felt like the only thing I wanted to do was to tell people about it.
It only took me three weeks in Jinan, a vibrant city about 200 miles south of Beijing that until last week no one had every heard of. But what with essays and exams… you know how it is. You might have heard of Jinan recently though – it’s the capital of Shandong Province in which apparently lie a few computer servers which allegedly tried to steal the email addresses of a range of activists, politicians and journalists.
It’s quite a shame it had to be this recent revelation that is dictating the world’s current view of Jinan, as it really is a breathtaking city; nothing beats the feeling of your heart leaping into your chest as you sail through the city at night on the back of a moped… before suddenly you’re almost hit by a bus coming the other way, beeping furiously at you, but the sound is somewhat lost amongst the hundreds of other honking vehicles surrounding you. This was my first experience of the true Jinan on my first evening in China; loud, breathtakingly stunning and absolutely packed.
But honestly, it really is stunning; the campus filled with trees, park benches, flowers and monuments, the city lights twinkling amongst towering skyscrapers as you walk downtown at night. It was even a little bit like Warwick; a beautiful rural campus in the middle of the urban capital of the province.
This was the first reason that made me confirm my career path – the travelling. Despite a 28 hour journey there and a 36 hour trip home where a number of people lose their luggage and the choice of films available on Air France was appalling, I loved the experience. Flying halfway across the world wasn’t just exciting, it was thrilling, scary, and the only time I’d ever flown alone. Give me that anyday. I know, I know, journalism isn’t always about flying all over the world, but it could be; foreign correspondents are literally everywhere. I mean, I didn’t even mind the plane food. Even missing my second connecting flight and running around Guangzhou airport at 2am was pretty interesting now I think about it, and I’ll never forget the group of us huddled around our laptops in a ridiculously overpriced internet café on our return, watching the Royal Wedding on BBC News.
Whilst staying at Shandong University in the heart of Jinan, I spent three weeks learning Mandarin, which was the second experience which confirmed my career commitment. Teachers, parents, the government… everyone’s always telling you that studying a language is a really worthwhile thing to do, and I know a bit of French still from good ole’ GCSE days, so I’m usually inclined to ignore them. However, the experience of spending every day learning how to string some small phrases together in a language spoken by over 1.2 million people really was worthwhile, and who knows, if I keep it up, could be my way into journalism.
Admittedly Mandarin was a difficult challenge; the Chinese have multiple tones and a completely different alphabet which obviously made it harder than anything I’d ever learnt before. Yet, by the end of the trip, even though the furthest our skills had developed was being able to order tofu and rice in a restaurant or tell the taxi driver to go straight on was a massive achievement for the sixty or so students and I who took part in the programme.
But what really made my trip was when I finally met someone who wanted to talk to me about politics. As a student of politics, this was pretty important to me. The first man, I asked, a third-year Law student clearly was interested but felt unsure of how much to tell me. It was my first night and I was pretty jetlagged, maybe I was pushing it a little. The three female journalism students I asked after that simply giggled and plainly told me “we don’t talk about that…”
When would you ever find that in Britain? Journalism students who don’t want to talk about politics? Obviously with China’s record on human rights, news censoring and general uncertainty about the government, I was expecting some of this. But was no-one going to talk to me about it, at all?
It was two weeks into when I finally met a History and Politics student who had recently travelled abroad to the USA and was willing to tell me everything he knew whilst a friend and I scribbled furiously, listening in such awe.
Everything is very different; the government, the voting systems, the officials, but there were a few small comparisons to be made. Even the journalism students who were listening to the conversation appeared interested at the man’s extensive knowledge, which made me wonder how much they really knew about it. I bounded back to the hotel grinning with the knowledge and experience I’d gained in that half an hour seminar with the Chinese students.
Despite my excitement, I was slightly apprehensive about sending emails home for fear of the words being flagged up on some watch system leaning to my arrest, being hauled into some high security prison with lights flashing in my face until I admitted to using the word “democracy”, which apparently is banned from being used in text messages in China. The second night after I arrived, my friend Young met me for breakfast to nervously announce that two human rights activists had gone missing – presumed arrested – the previous day.
The fact that the group of girls knew so little about what was happening in their own country made me sure that it was journalism that I wanted to pursue. The travelling, the new culture and the language was all an incredible experience, but it is only when I was finally reunited with my beloved newspapers, daily dose of local news and Twitter feed that I realised just how strongly I felt about freedom of information. I honestly couldn’t cope without them; it was only through a daily dose of media updates from those back home and the BBC News website that I think got me through.
If you ever get the chance to visit China, do not hesitate for a second. It’s the largest growing superpower in the world, is the second largest exporter after the USA and is the world’s leading power in global technology and business. They are even trying to incorporate renewable energy into their economy and reduce their carbon footprint, and there are some who say that democracy really is coming to China, slowly but surely. The culture is incredible, the food, albeit nothing like a takeaway in England is magnificent and the people some of the most friendly, intelligent and engaging I’ve met.