Wednesday 18 December 2002, A level Year 1, Shijiazhuang, China

During the Christmas holiday, I went back to China to see my parents. After living in England for the past year, coming back to China proved to be quite exciting. No wonder those who were here for the first time were often awed. I was in a big city again which was unbelievably busy compared to Warminster or Hurtwood. As I sat in an open market stall and ate my breakfast, I was amazed by how many people would pass in front of me at any moment and its never-ending flow. I guess to everybody else there it was just an ordinary scene and one year ago, I was one of those cycling in the huge crowd as well. But it seemed without me noticing, I had become used to the quiet English countryside setting: I was more comfortable being surrounded by trees than people and I expected cars to stop for me if I tried to cross the road rather than the other way around. Now it was time to recalibrate my expectations.

My parents were very happy to see me, especially given I had lost quite a bit of weight from the past year. I was yet to adjust to English food and incredibly Western fast food was much easier to get in Shijiazhuang than both Warminster and Hurtwood. My mum was also very impressed to see how clean my clothes were. I didn’t dare to tell her I often sat on the ground while I was in England—that was something she totally disapproved—and England was just that clean in general. Then a couple of days in, I found I started to follow her advice closely, “Just don’t touch anything when you are outside.” The pollution problem had seemed to get even worse than what I remembered. The whole city was covered in dirt.

I also visited my high school as China which was still in term time. My high school classmates were in the final year of the high school and the monstrous high school Graduation Exam was just a few months away. The teaching had all wrapped up by the end of second year and the entire last year was devoted to revision and mock exams, just like how it was in middle school. When you stepped into the classroom you could hardly see anyone as the books and papers on people’s desks piled so high they completely blocked the person sitting behind it. That was the case in the middle school and still the case now. Although everyone had grown taller during the high school years, it seemed so did the amount of the revision materials everyone faced.

The whole class and Mr. Liu, our class tutor welcomed me back and I did a Q&A session to satisfy the curiosity about the foreign education system. I was not sure how well I did the job and I possibly ended up fuelling the curiosity even more.  Even as I was writing these down, I was not sure whether they made any sense. I imagined my classmates might find it even bizarre.

I told my classmates that my biggest challenges initially were wearing the right clothes and eating food in the proper manner—not doing them right had serious implications, much more so than missing a homework or two; the length of school and universities were quite a bit shorter in England than China: high school and undergraduate by 1 year each and master degree by two years; additionally there were much more holidays during the year as well: there were three main holidays a year plus half terms and various breaks; the curriculum or at least the difficulty of the exams in Maths and Physics were easier than in China; but all subjects were taken seriously and the strongest department of my school for example was theatre study, something unheard-of in China; there was a middle school graduation exam but it seemed people (me, for example) could still go to high school without doing it; in the high school, no class was compulsory—even though they had to study English in China, I didn’t need to in England; half of my time after class at high school was spent on reading newspapers.

At the end, one classmate asked me that if it didn’t sound English schools were that special, why did they have such a good reputation in the world? That was something I had been thinking as well. In the past year, I had learned how to dress up and eat properly (at least by English standard), answer question with no clear answer and follow what was going on in the world every day. None of them seemed to be that useful to me. They surely would not help me solving all the difficult problem sets my classmates were still facing. On the other hand, solving those mountains of problem sets as I had been doing during the previous decade in China didn’t seem much better. Maybe this was a competition of being less useless rather than being more useful?