The path less traveled
By Andrea Rafai  ·  2024-03-04  ·   Source: NO.10 MARCH 7, 2024
Andrea Rafai poses in traditional Chinese clothing at the Shanghai Textile and Clothing Museum in May 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

As a big country, China's economic and political influence is felt around the world. And, in recent years, its influence in the realms of education and culture has been growing too. The Confucius Institute, offering free language classes, has gained increasing popularity in both Hungary and Serbia. By offering opportunities to learn Chinese language and traditional arts such as painting, and hosting events to celebrate China's holidays, like the Lantern Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, Confucius institutes bring Chinese culture closer to interested learners, serving as bridges between nations. My own interest in China grew through participation in these classes and events.

During my childhood, I held an unspoken fascination for Asian culture, a passion subtly cultivated through watching historical or comedy dramas such as those depicting the adventures of the Monkey King. At the time, the idea of studying or exploring this captivating region didn't occupy my mind, but it lingered as something perhaps worth exploring and understanding in the future.

My turning point came when the desire to challenge myself led me to choose China for further education. It was a decision not only for academic growth, but also to experience the responsibility of looking after myself. Opting to study international relations in English, I embarked on this journey with the intention of gaining a broader perspective. Visiting the place that I had so long longed for is one thing, but living in a foreign land has provided the entirely different perspective I was seeking. This experience has become a valuable lesson that has guided me to this present moment.

Undertaking Chinese language training presented a remarkable opportunity for many compelling reasons. I firmly believe that acquiring proficiency in the language of the culture in which one resides is not merely useful, but is also the most effective means to truly understand that culture. The combination of learning the language in a classroom setting and applying it in everyday life offers an enriching and immersive experience.

Even before formally embarking on Chinese language lessons in China, I participated as a helper during the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations held by my local Confucius Institute in Hungary. Engaging in activities that demanded skill, such as using chopsticks to transfer balls from one bowl to another or trying my hand at Chinese crafts, provided me with a firsthand experience of the culture's intricacies. The aesthetic allure of Chinese decorative knotting is incomparable and plays a vital role in the realm of Chinese decorative arts. The elaborate designs and diverse patterns of Chinese knots are full of cultural symbolism.

Despite the initial, perhaps shallow, reasons that prompted my application to study in China, I was confident that decision would be one I wouldn't regret. Having spent a semester in the country of my dreams, in the vibrant city of Shanghai that never sleeps, I have truly begun to grasp the essence of being international while upholding the traditions of a 5,000-year-old civilization.

Even after facing three years of online classes in Hungary due to the pandemic, my determination to return remained unshaken. I made a personal commitment that if given another chance, I would delve even deeper into the rich cultural tapestry that surrounds me. Exploring renowned landmarks like the Yuyuan Garden and the Oriental Pearl Tower, previously unvisited, felt like embarking on a new journey of discovery—a new beginning in a Shanghai I hadn't known before. I can say that along this path, I am gradually learning that valuable lessons unfold step by step. 

The author is a Hungarian student at East China Normal University in Shanghai

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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