Nick Botham - 2015 Program Participant

What led you to sign up for an international program?

I was working in the oil industry as a contractor when the price crashed late in 2014. After a long project in the Arctic, the next contract was cancelled early in 2015. Realising that I was not going to work again for some time, and also knowing what my monthly outgoings were in London, I decided I could do something better with my time and money than just wait.

Hiking in China

On the 11th and final peak in two days!

Rather than simply spend time travelling I decided to do something constructive. Having listened to a number of talks at the 2015 Adventure Travel Show in London on the theme of "challenging yourself," I somehow came up with the idea to learn a language. Which I am terrible at, being a native English speaker. Also I have been lucky to work and travel in lots of countries, but I've never spent time living in one overseas place.

So I came up with two choices: either Spanish in Latin America or Mandarin in China. I had enjoyed learning a little Spanish for travelling in Peru and Ecuador years earlier, but I had also enjoyed a visit to China where even short-term tourist visas used to be difficult to get. Also, Spanish (like the French we learned at school) has object genders. And lots of verb tenses. Whereas, despite all of is other intricacies, Mandarin does not. So China it was.

Why did you choose Hutong School?

I googled a lot (finding a website that was useful, with its reviews and catalogues of courses) and spoke to a few people I knew had worked or studied in China. Then, I narrowed the choice to three schools to take beginner classes with. Eventually, I chose this school because I liked that everything was described on the website- down to the exact course prices and the nearest metro station to where their accommodation was. Out of the three schools I talked with, I got the most straightforward and quickest replies from here.

Selfie sticks in the Bund, Shanghai, China

I spent a lot of the time on and around the Bund dodging selfie sticks!

What did you like most about Shanghai?

Shanghai was chosen over Beijing simply because I hadn't been to Shanghai before! The school is located in a beautiful traditional lane area in the former French Concession area. Old buildings all around, with a view of the skyscrapers in nearby Jing An district visible from the roof terrace.

I chose to live in the apartments the school provide because it is quite difficult to find a place for a short term visit to Shanghai. They are in a real Chinese area where you get chance to practise some of your language skills (and a bit of pointing, of course!). Despite its modernity (particularly along the Pudong side of the river) there are still the old places to visit... plus the colonial architecture near the school and along the Bund. There are traditional places to eat: the morning breakfast places for your bao zi (steamed stuffed buns), some rather swanky bars, and restaurants for a special evening with a view of the riverside night scape.

At street level, it's a surprisingly green city, with plenty of neighbourhood parks, which are great for people-watching (or walking your pet birds). Shanghai has two airports and several railway stations with planes and trains to every corner of the country, so it's easy to get to the nearby water towns... or farther afield for weekends or public holidays away.

What makes Hutong School unique?

The location of the school itself is very unique. The activities organised were very varied, not just standard "tourist cultural activities,” so you could do some painting, go for a local dinner, engage in a nighttime walking tour, make dumplings, watch a film, or try some martial arts on the roof. And, of course: the welcome parties (at different locations) were a great way to meet people.

Another unique aspect was the flexibility with the classes. Despite paying for a beginner’s 4-hour class every day, it was always possible to switch to two-hour private classes when you and your classmates’ objectives diverged.

What type of support did you receive during your time abroad?

Someone has to look after all the people living in the apartments. From getting picked up from the airport on day 1 in April 2015, to getting registered with the police, to looking after the apartments when things go wrong, everything was hassle-free until leaving in February 2016. At school itself, the teachers and support staff were great; everyone was very friendly and professional. Sometimes, they even came out for social activities, such as local dinners!

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Nothing major. I made sure I took opportunities to try lots of different experiences and activities, and to visit many places in China whilst I was there, making some good friends along the way. Maybe I regret trying baijiu; yes, that's one regret!

Ice and Snow World in Harbin, China

Harbin Ice and Snow World - it was minus 27 degrees!

What was an average day like for you in China?

Monday to Friday - After breakfast go over the work from the day before or finish my homework. Depending on the time of class, I might walk to school or go and do something before class. After a coffee in the sitting area or on the roof, it was class time. Group classes (for three months) were four 50 minute sessions, while private one-on-one classes (four months) were two  50 minute sessions.

Content was always varied. Usually, we would start with some conversation practise just to recap some of the previous lessons, which got a bit more interesting as our vocabularies increased. We would follow the lessons in the book, learning new words and grammar, with lots of practise at reading and writing the characters (role playing, etc). At some point, we'd go over homework and correct mistakes.

Before long, the class was over. After lunch with classmates, teachers, or friends, there was time for some sightseeing, exploring, or relaxing. Then came homework, a potential run along Suzhou Creek, and going out for dinner or to an organized cultural activity.

What was your favorite thing to do outside of the classroom?

I took the opportunity to get away from Shanghai at least once a month. Visiting friends in Beijing, going to Harbin for the Ice Festival, heading down to Xiamen or to Hainan Island for Christmas were some of the travel highlights. I did a few hiking trips with a local group and spent some weekends doing cooking classes as well. I also managed to find someone to do a language exchange with, which was not only great for speaking practice, but also a good way to make a Chinese friend (as the language barrier can make that difficult sometimes).

How were your living arrangements in Shanghai? What did you like best about your accommodation?

I stayed in the school's apartments. I was in two different places, both three-bedroom apartments. Although they were fairly basic (student accommodation!), they were comfortable. And, of course, all the bills were included in the fee, so there were no nasty surprises. The balconies were nice for the summer time, too. Staying in them was a good way to meet different people, you have ready made friends to chat with. The  location was good because the housing was close to the metro, the river, various shops, many restaurants, and delicious street food.

Great Wall of China between Gubeikou and Jinshanling

One of my favourite places in China - on the walk from Gubeikou wild wall to Jinshanling

How has your time in China impacted you?

Any positive experience is a good thing to return home with.

Having the basis of a difficult foreign language under your belt is definitely a nice feeling, too! I spend some time everyday trying to do a little reading and to practice my characters on some phone apps. I hope to get back into a routine so that I can pass the HSK Level Three exam next year. With my industry still being in a bad shape, my time away has given me time to think. I am now looking for opportunities in travel, particularly focussing on Asia. Time in China has added to the knowledge I already have of other Asian destinations. The only downside is that I shall always be disappointed by Chinese food in Europe.