My China School Days

When Renee Boyce-Drakes was 18 years old, she stumbled across an article in a newspaper about a Barbadian student who was pursuing her studies in China. Little did Renee know that reading that article would change her life plan forever.

At the time, she was a first-year student at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill campus, studying English Language.

“I was doing my Bachelors in English Language, [but] it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to do geography and had applied to UWI, Mona,” she said.

But after seeing the article, Renee did some research and applied for a scholarship in China. That wasn’t easy, but Renee said she knew it was something she wanted to go after.

“Without that interview in the paper I would never have known anything about it. So I got my transcripts from UWI, my CXCs and sent them in and applied. I got some calls and I was informed that I was successful,” she recalled.

With that scholarship now secured, Renee said the time came for her to make a serious decision about her next move. It was a decision she made carefully and does not regret to this day.

“I did get into Mona, but the same time I got the acceptance letter informing me that I was successful in getting the scholarship for China. The thing with Mona was that while receiving the acceptance, the deadline had gone when I received the letter which I never understood and apart from that, trying to find the money for accommodation in Jamaica was extremely difficult.

“The Chinese scholarship, on the other hand, was covering everything so I was like ‘I’m going to China,’” the now 39-year-old recalled.

Renee said she didn’t really have fears of heading to China to study – her focus was being able to study geography, a lifelong dream of hers. But things didn’t go exactly to plan where that was concerned.

“Studying geography turned out to be a problem when I got to China because they consider geography a science and to do sciences I would have had to do a science exam in Chinese and that was never happening,” she said with a chuckle.

“So just after a year, right around the time for the exam, I had a conversation with the principal at the university and he told me my grades were good, so it wouldn’t make sense losing the scholarship [by not doing the exam] so I changed my major. I went from doing geography to doing International and Economic Law at a different university.”

With a new major in hand, Renee set out to do what she went to China to do - to be great. But once again, she was confronted with some issues.

She summed up her overall experience as ‘a hilarious one.’: “It was difficult, it was hilarious. You only get a year to study the language. In actuality, it was like six months, because I was living in the environment, so I absorbed it more quickly.

“You have to learn the words, there’s no guessing. My first year of class was sitting down listening to the teacher, going back to my room and cramming. There was no internet to the level there is now, so it was just big text books going through word by word to understand what I was reading, then translating to English, then translating my answers back to Chinese. It was a lot,” said Renee.

“That was pretty much year one and year two. However, year three was a little more comfortable and by year four it wasn’t an issue for me anymore,” she recalled.

Renee said the overall experience in China was a learning curve for her which helped to shape her into the woman she is today.

“It made me a bit more of who I am in terms of how I see people. I always tell people, don’t go there with any preconceived notion…whatever you see on TV, that’s not it. The image people have of China, is that people eat rats, dogs, etc. and that’s so far removed from the truth,” she stressed.

Renee, who also taught English while in China, said one thing she enjoyed most, was being able to interact with people from all over the world and learn about their cultures.

“The whole comradery with the foreign students was great. You meet a lot of young people like yourself. Some of them would have had similar experiences and we shared them. For me that was the hub of young people. The common denominator was being in China and learning the culture. To this day I still have friends I met in China,” she added.

Now a logistics administrator here in Barbados, Renee urged young people to take advantage of the opportunities being offered to study in China.

“Not enough people are taking it up. Take the opportunity. Yes, it’s going to be a little different to what you’re accustomed to, but nothing worth having comes easy. It will be an awesome experience and it will change your trajectory of where you’re going,” Renee stressed.