| Sipikriva Girl | Edited
BRAUN, MOROBE – I recently got to talk to Papua New Guinean writer and educator Betty Gabriel Wakia about her experiences living in China.
Betty, 33, from Papua New Guinea’s Hela Province, was born at Ramu in Madang Province and grew up living between her village and Port Moresby.
After a short stint in Grade 4 in her Hela village, she had to return to Port Moresby for school due to tribal fighting.
How Betty got to go to China in the first place is a roundabout tale.
She had applied no less than six times for a Chinese government scholarship throughout her high school and college years.
She studied for one year at Sonoma Adventist College in Rabaul got a diploma in primary teaching, but, as is a common plight, high tuition fees saw her withdraw from studies.
In 2010, however, Betty managed to get a diploma in vocational education training at the PNG Education Institute while working part time at Airways Hotel in Port Moresby.
And, on her seventh attempt at applying for a Chinese scholarship, a determined Betty finally made it.
“I went to China in August 2011. It was my seventh application and I was in the process of giving up,” she told me.
“We all met in Beijing and were dispatched to various universities in different cities. Some travelled by air and others by train.
“I was asked to study the Chinese language for a year at East China Normal University in Wuhan, Hubei Province.”
Yes Wuhan, now famed for being the city of origin of Covid-19, a commercial centre divided by the Yangtze and Han rivers.
In 2011 not many overseas students were studying in China, but they had a warm reception.
“Three PNG students met us at Wuhan at the train station. We were lucky.”
Betty did not have it smooth, language-wise. But she learnt enough to get by.
“I was surprised that classes began the next day and communication was a big problem.”
To write in Chinese, Betty had to study Shufa, Chinese calligraphy, so she could write good Chinese characters.
It was Betty’s first time in a country where English was not the first or second language. However she loved that a common language united China.
After a year in Wuhan, Betty moved to Tianjin to study for her degree in education.
Tianjin, one of China’s main cities and a major port, lies on the shore of the Bohai Sea in north-eastern China.
“At the Tianjin University of Technology and Education I studied for a bachelor’s degree in education – basically I was studying the Chinese education system,” she said.
Betty described the laboratoriess, dining halls and sports facilities as far removed from the ones university students experience in PNG.
Student behaviour is also markedly different.
“Students show respect to teachers or the elderly by bowing their heads,” Betty said.
“They are quieter and very respectful. When they hand in a paper, they always use both hands, as if making a gift presentation. They often use terminology such as ‘our dear teacher’.”
My burning question: are the Chinese friendly?
Betty describes them as not friendly but respectful. Students are very disciplined. Betty puts this down to their military training.
“Military training was introduced in 1955. It became compulsory for all high school and university students in 2001.”
Military training is believed to encourage a more disciplined community, goodwill and to improve the country’s level of defence.
Winter was Betty’s favourite season because she got to do a lot of travelling.
“Not a lot of people travel in winter and ticket prices drop.
“I travelled to 14 of China’s 34 provinces and I discovered that, even if you cannot speak the dialect, you can write it down.”
Matters of the tummy are another thing Betty loved about China. “One of the best things about living in China is the food experience.”
Betty described the food as almost anything that swam, walked or grew.
Chinese dishes are famous for their colour, aroma, taste, meaning and appearance. Food is cheap, tasty, diverse and easily available at your doorstep.
Her favourite dishes included dumplings or jiqozi, chow-mein and Peking roasted duck amongst others.
Some dishes were more of an acquired taste which Betty did not take a liking to, including ma po tofu which was too spicy and hot.
Chinese food aside, Betty still missed mumu and coconut creamed vegetables. Nobody ever outgrows these.
Summer and winter vacations were also times Betty jumped at the opportunity to travel. The must sees included the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
Travelling by train is the easiest way to get around. However, it has downfalls. On one occasion, she had to stand for 16 hours travelling from Tianjin to Zhijing Province.
So what has China thought Betty?
- Do more, talk less - a wisdom all Papua New Guineans need.
- Start from scratch and climb your way up.
Will Betty be returning to China given the chance? Not surprisingly, she is keen to return.
“I’m planning to go back to pursue a doctorate,” she tells me.
We wish Betty the best of everything she aspires to.
If you are planning to travel to China, maybe this will be helpful.