ChengDu 成都 – A two-week exchange program to Chinas best kept secret

Published on 25 August 2023

Josh Joshua Clark-Herriot, BAcc Accountancy student, has written a blog about his experience as an exchange student in China.

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Describing the two weeks as an unexpected journey wouldn’t be a lie. When I applied for a position on the trip, I really hadn’t expected to get in. To my surprise, I did. 

I'll admit, for the first two week after finding out I was accepted for the trip I had got the cities mixed up and thought I was going to Chongqing, which will mean nothing to you, the reader, but to my Chinese friends I’m sure this will make them laugh. I did eventually realise that I was going to ChengDu instead. My reaction to finding out where I was being flown off to for two weeks was probably very similar to yours, where is ChengDu? Hence the title Chinas best kept secret because it really is. With a population that dwarfs London ChengDu is one of China’s Megacities that coyly flies under the radar. In 2008 the Sichuan province, the province where ChengDu is located, suffered a devastating earthquake that savagely ruined much of the city. So, when the government decided to rebuild ChengDu the city went through a technological evolution, and a large one at that. Since then, the city has continued its Darwinian approach to becoming the megacity that it is today. 

As impressive as it sounds it isn’t, however, what I want to focus on. You can easily google that. What I want to focus on, and the message of the Blog really is what you can’t google, that’s tasting the food, being part of the atmosphere, visually witnessing hundreds, and hundreds of years of history and most importantly, getting to know, and love, the people.  

Josh and his exchange student companions dressed in traditional Chinese clothing

While currently writing this I’m running on an empty stomach, so if I start to sound a little bit too passionate about the food that’s why. 

Before going to China, my experience of Chinese cuisine was salt and pepper chips, crispy shredded beef, lemon chicken, pot noodles and Chinese style chicken curry which I refuse to believe isn’t classed as a Chinese dish, but my friends might kill me if I say otherwise. So, in my preparation for China, I was mentally preparing myself for the worst. I had also been told that Sichuan was known as the region of spice in China, which wasn’t too scary as I’m quite fond of spice, but this fact did place some doubt in my mind as to whether I was as good with spice as I thought I was. Arriving at class we were instructed that our first culture class would be visiting a Hot Pot Museum where we would try traditional Chinese hot pot. 

Upon arriving we were faced with a whole fish on a hook, a selection of meats that nobody could put a name to and a bubbling pot of what looked like water if it had been scooped up from hell. The picture I’m painting was mine and I think many others initial reaction, but to my surprise the reality was a bright contrast. From tripe to liver, heart to undisclosed parts of a chicken. Everything tasted very normal and extremely delicious. And it was only the beginning, I later went on to try pigs' feet (tasted like extremely soft chicken), ducks' carcass (tasted like…. well spicy bones to be honest), bullfrog (I didn’t get the chance to try this, but the Chinese students wouldn’t shut up about how amazing it is). I went from someone who had never even touched prawns to eating shrimp, octopus, oyster, squid. It might sound unusual, but you would be genuinely surprised by how good the food was. 

Another pleasant surprise is the culture that surrounds eating. I got taken to a restaurant when visiting Dujiangyan dam by three of the Chinese students accompanying us on the trip and I spent about ten minutes trying to figure out what to eat using google translator. When I had found what I wanted I asked if they could help me order and they laughed and told me they had already ordered for the table. Sharing is a big part of how food is consumed there. You don’t order for yourself, you all order as a group. Every meal feels like a family at Christmas dinner passing around all the sprouts, potatoes, turkey, carrots etc only it's not Christmas, and you don’t quite know what you are eating. It’s a very warming experience and was something that we all greatly appreciated. 

Often you would cook your own food as well. One night we decided to explore the nearby food market and found ourselves at an outside barbeque. There was a fridge where you could select the meats, veg, seafood etc you wanted to have and I think recognising that it was our first time The staff, aided us working the hob and cooking our meats. Not only did this allow you to bond over cooking your own meal but it meant you couldn’t dissociate yourself from the fact that an animal has died for you to eat it which I think is something that is really easy to do in western society. Now that being said, I did still frequent the pizza store connected to my hotel (although their yoghurt “pizzas” would have Italians rolling in their graves). A vital lesson I learnt from Chinese cuisine is that food is only as scary as you will it to be. If you open your mind to the possibility of enjoying foods outside your comfort zone then chances are, you will. 


Josh and his exchange student friends eating a traditional Chinese meal

I also wanted to focus on the friendships that I created during the exchange program especially since it was one of the more worrisome thoughts playing in my head up until the point of arrival both in terms of getting along with Dundee university students and Swufe students.

I was repeatedly reassured by friends and family that not only would I make friends but that these friends would be for life. A cheesy sentiment that I was sceptical of - My scepticism was severely misplaced. From the get-go everybody hit it off, but to give a little context we each shared a room in pairs and some of our bathrooms were made from see through glass, so we had to get along. 

The first day of classes we all got to meet our SWUFE students who were there to help and guide us, but they all ended up meaning so much more to us. We had spoken to the students on the Chinese social media app WeChat beforehand, but we had yet to put a name to a face making it very difficult and awkward trying to figure out who we had been speaking to for the past month. We also all had to give introductory presentations which I was fortunate enough to dodge. 

From that moment Every day we spent together we all became closer and closer to each other. Valentina, Xenia and two other students took me to a local bar just outside the university. The alcohol being exceptionally cheap paired with no closing time made time spent their very dangerous. 

Camilia, Logan, and Fiona frequently dragged me to play Badminton at the university gym which was absolutely massive. The gymnasium was pretty much a shrine to the sport of badminton with table tennis courts at the back and billiards up on a balcony. Throughout the campus they had other sport courts scattered around. With the Dundee students we experienced everything together. 

For two weeks it honestly felt like a massive family. For such a new and daunting experience, the group was a warm security blanket. There isn't much else I can say about the relationships created on this journey that will encapsulate how happy I am to have met such amazing people.


Josh and a group of exchange students in China

Finally, I wanted to give some advice for any future students considering this program, going to China, or just travelling anywhere that seems new and scary. 

Try to immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible. Certain aspects that are vastly different can be intimidating, but it improves not only the experience, but you as a person. 

Try to plan well in advance. I made the mistake of not setting up Alipay before going and for the first week if somewhere didn’t accept cash would have to use the baby blues on my friends. 

Try to get a sim card so you are able to access mobile internet. Learn the basics of the language. You'll also probably find that you'll pick up other words along the way. If you are part of the SWUFE program, bring lots of gifts. I made the mistake of thinking I wouldn’t get as close with so many of the students as I did and under packed in terms of bearing gifts. 

Book your tickets in advance and use apps like sky scanner to find the best deal (this isn't a paid advertisement). 

Try to explore as much as possible. One thing I regret was not visiting other Chinese cities. They have an excellent railway system that connects all the cities together and I would heavily recommend taking full advantage of that. Travelling, especially if you are travelling alone, can be really intimidating but you just need to stay calm and you will find that it’s really quite an enjoyable experience. 


Story category Student work/achievement