Warming up to China

"With the breadth and extent of what you learn while living abroad, words will always fall short."

Bethany Gerlach - 04 April 2019

When asked about her trip to Nanjing, China, Erica Baines has a hard time putting her experience into words. She often just makes a joke about how hot it is in Nanjing.

"I've defaulted to humour because it's impossible to convey the magnitude of the experience in day-to-day small talk," she says."With the breadth and extent of what you learn while living abroad, it's easy to see that 'hot, but amazing!' falls infinitely short. Words always will."

Although Erica was initially hesitant about the language barrier, she readily applied to study in China after coming across an opening for IFMSA-China, a month-long exchange for medical students. She had been to Nanjing ten years prior, visiting her grandparents who taught at Nanjing University. With her previous experience in the city, she felt she knew what to expect.

However, the city had changed dramatically throughout the ten years between her visits. For example, the money that she picked up before her flight ended up not being very useful to her. "Everyone was using their phone to pay for things," she says. That made for a difficult adjustment for Erica, as many shops on campus would only accept online payment platforms like Alipay or Wechat pay, and it took a while for her to set up her accounts.

Erica also had to adjust to the summer heat and humidity of Nanjing. "My clothes that fit so comfortably in Canada were now constantly stuck to me, and my makeup was smudging off every time I touched my face," she recalls. But she gradually became more comfortable, and by the third week, she felt she had settled in. Erica had become confident enough to make friends and explore China- travelling to places such as Huangshan mountain, Suzhou, and Zhouzhuang.

As a medical student on exchange, Erica got to see the Chinese medical system first hand, and how it differs from Canadian healthcare. One example that she observed is the sheer difference in the volume of patients that a Chinese doctor sees in a day. Erica describes an afternoon when another student took her to a general practitioner's building which "was so full of people that even moving across the room could be difficult."

It wasn't all just working in her office and labs for Erica, as she got to develop not only as a doctor but as a citizen of the world. She got to take in all the different things that China had to offer, such as sailing down the Qinhuai river, watching a Chinese opera, and hiking to the top of Fangshan mountain and looking at the Nanjing skyline in the sunset. She can talk at length about the breathtaking beauty of the Huangshan mountain and Zhonghuamen gate, or even of the sight of the Nanjing skyline on her evening walks.

Erica especially treasured the food she got to eat in China. Her friends had made a list of all their favourite restaurants in Nanjing, and every night they would go to a different one. Erica tried everything from simple breakfast baozi (buns) to Szechuan hot pot. The only thing that comes to mind that she didn't enjoy were the chicken feet that she ate!

After her month in China came to an end, Erica was wondering where her time had gone. She felt sad to be leaving her friends, her new favourite foods, and the excitement of Nanjing behind. "Walking off the plane in Calgary, I couldn't help but laugh at the at the thought of being cold in 20℃ weather," she writes in her student award commentary. "Everything was so empty, so slow." Going to China had turned Erica's world upside-down but in a good way. Her time in China made her realize all the variety that just one corner of the world has to offer.