Life as a foreign student: cherished memories


In this issue’s “Expats at ECNU”, Nashaa Naseem from Maldives, shares her life experience in China and offers a surprisingly different approach to understanding the cultural challenge and adaptation. Let’s bend an ear for her story.

I arrived in Shanghai six months ago, with a mixed set of emotions and a thirst for new experiences and knowledge. Being awarded a scholarship to study at the prestigious ECNU had made me ecstatic beyond belief, as I have always wanted to visit China for its rich culture and history. However, in the midst of the late-night ride from the airport to the university, the reality that I had arrived in a new city with twenty-four million people hit me. Coming from Maldives, a country with a population of less than four hundred thousand, it was hard to comprehend.By the time I was in my dorm room on theMinhang Campus, I was anxious, perplexed and fearful about how I could adjust without being able to utter a single word of Mandarin. Would I be able to explore Chinese culture and everyday life while studying? How was I going to figure out the metro? What would I eat, if I can’t ask what’s on the menu or read the words myself? A hundred more questions kept me up the whole night.

Armed with a helpful orientation book provided by ECNU, I embarked on a journey to explore the campus and study the layout. After a long and tiresome walk, I realized that a bicycle was of the utmost importance. The campus was huge with beautiful gardens and little bridges, walkways, student facilities, canteens and small restaurants and shopping malls outside the university; this was the university I had dreamed of attending.

The second life lesson I learned was to always carry a note or a picture with the ECNU address, as it is easy to get lost in such a huge city or miss the bus stop. However, getting lost was exactly how I met my closest Chinese friend, Sheng Ruizhi (George), an undergraduate student at ECNU. He not only assisted me in finding my way back to the university, but he also taught me how to order pizza online and many things that may seem little, but helped me better adjust to life in a foreign environment. The key to adapting to a new place is to make friends. Rather than waiting for people to talk to you, approaching them and conversing is far more rewarding, and is the best way to gain new knowledge or a friend.

Gradually I began to lose the apprehension of eating out, with the aid of a translator application on my phone and a list of my favorite types of food. After a few weeks, I started to get a hang of how to do things; I was becoming more familiar with the surroundings. However, survival was my top priority, not enjoying the experience of the wonderful opportunity that I have been given to experience China.

Within a month of my arrival to Shanghai, I was lucky enough to visit Qufu on a trip organized by ECNU and UNESCO. Attending the International Confucius Culture Festival and visiting the Confucius Temple opened my eyes; I was in a country with one of the earliest civilizations and some of the richest histories and cultures, and it is moving towards becoming the new powerhouse of the world. And what do I do? Limit myself within my comfort zone and explore like a tortoise, when I had less than a year to stay and experience everything that I could.

“Life is really simple, but we insist on mapking it complicated” – wise words from Confucius. I decided to drop all the negative thoughts I had associated with limiting my travel and exploration. The main factor that limits anyone while traveling is the budget; however I was able to mi‍p‍nimize the costs by traveling to the cities where friends and acquaintances resided. This way, the accommodation costs would be exceedingly low, if not free, and who knows the culture better than someone residing there?

The next months I challenged myself to find time between my studies and promised myself to explore China.

Dalian:It was during the National Holidays in October, and all the flights were full. Forging ahead, three friends and I decided to travel to Dalian on a 24-hour train with no seats.None of us could speak Chinese; however we managed to enjoy the whole trip by making new friends on the train. People were amazingly helpful after seeing that we were using our phones for translation. A young couple who turned out to be English teachers assisted us, and we still keep in contact.

Hong Kong:It is a beautiful city and truly a must-explore place. The most memorable experience in Hong Kong for me was Disneyland, a childhood dream come true.

Shenzhen:It was the perfect city combined with nature and modern day architecture, but the most memorable thing for me was the two Chinese friends I made, and the best food I had in my life. I would simply revisit the city for its cuisine.  


 Nashaa and her Chinese friend. 

Before I realized, the Spring Festival was upon us and I was set to travel back to Maldives. I was elated to meet my family and friends, and happy also due to the feeling of achieving a little bit of what I set out to accomplish. Surprisingly,by my second week in Maldives, I missed Shanghai more than I would have thought possible.It had become a second home without me even realizing it. The crowdedness of the metro that once used to make me nervous now made me miss the rushing feeling of being in a mega city, like a part of a bigger puzzle. The hard times I had communicating with food venders made me miss the challenge and diverse food choices. The shopping malls that took me hours and hours to decide what to buy, however now not having that option seemed dreadful. The chopsticks that used to make me feel clumsy now made me feel like I conquered the world by being able to eat using them properly.I would miss my family and friends dearly, but Shanghai seemed like a part of me after such a short time, and I was happy to board the plane again. It somehow felt like I was returning back home from vacation, instead of vice versa. 

The most precious life lesson I gained since moving to China is to create a positive attitude and not to limit yourself based on attitude, finances and dreams. Dream big, get creative with a small budget and have a positive attitude, and it will make studying abroad memorable. My time in China has made me realize my passion for learning about other cultures, taught me not just the importance of learning in the classroom, but also of learning from every single person you meet. I look forward to the remaining five months in Shanghai, and hope to visit the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Terracotta Army,among other sites, and create beautiful memories and friendships that I will cherish for the rest of my life.


Written by: Nashaa Naseem 




East China Normal University