By罗兰 Roula Tsokalidou,
prof at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece,
Director of CI at AUTh,
Visiting scholar-professor at SISU
One of the best opportunities that working at a University offers is having regular sabbatical leaves to concentrate on doing or writing research or visiting other Universities as a visiting scholar.
As the foreign director of CI at AUTh, for me this sabbatical had to have a Chinese flavour. So with the support of my colleagues in the Greek department of SISU, it did and I was lucky enough to spend three whole months as a SISU visiting scholar and get to know this special country much better, as an insider. What I have experienced and learned all this time cannot fit into a small written account but I feel the need to report a few thoughts as a small tribute to the innumerable feelings and new experiences I had in China.
Apart from my mother country, Greece, I have been lucky to have special ties with several different countries and I have visited more for a short time either for work or as a traveller. Therefore, I can say that by now I have probably developed a relatively adequate cosmopolitan outlook on life. However, for me, after taking up the post of CI director on behalf of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece’s largest University, a few years ago, coming to China has been my biggest goal. In 2020 I started studying Chinese, knowing that this is the only way to understand some of the amazing Chinese culture. This has made all the difference in my life from then on.
Because of my learning of Chinese, my curiosity about China, its colourful traditions, its people, its foods and music grew stronger and I was eager to come here to discover it with my own eyes. This time in China as a visiting professor gave me the golden opportunity to discover some of China’s beautiful places, get to know Chinese students, colleagues and (re)meet Chinese friends under new circumstances.
What can I say about China then as a keen and friendly ‘老外laowai’, that is honest and fair to say, after spending three months in Shanghai and travelling to Beijing and a few other places? Here, I will not talk about the breathtaking places like the Great Wall of China, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City or the impressive Bund in Shanghai and the glorious temples, as all this can be seen in pictures and tourist guides. I prefer to talk about my feelings after sharing precious moments with the local people, moments that will live inside me and keep me company after I return to Greece.
The first thing that I remember feeling when I arrived here is the great sense of security, incomparable to that in any of the countries I have lived in or visited, including my own motherland. I had many Chinese people greeting me or asking me where I was from and many of them had knowledge of Greece and its history. I was happy when some of them wanted to take a picture with me as they have not seen many foreign-looking people or when little children would come to me to practice their English. This reminded me of myself as a child, as my father, who was a hard-working man who had not been anywhere outside his country, would encourage me to speak in English with the one or two English teachers who lived in Xanthi, where I grew up. I would do it and the friendly foreigners would respond. Now it was my turn to be the ‘friendly foreigner’.
I am so happy that the two little boys at a coffee shop near my Shanghai residence, smile when they see me and I ask the older one to show me his English homework to help him practice it. This exchange makes us and the parents very happy. The little baby laughs so heartily when I tell him ‘你很棒’ (you are great) that, at the parents request, I gave him the English name ‘Benny’ that sounds a bit like ‘棒’(bang = great).
I was very lucky to meet a few other Chinese friends who would be happy to take me to places, explain things patiently, praise my ability to speak Chinese (which, by the way, is far from ‘棒’ great), give me different foods to taste, smile at me, even give me a hug (as they know that European people often do this). They all made me feel 宾至如归, a feeling of being at home.
I cannot not mention the care from the personnel at the ‘Shanghai University Building for Experts’. Among them, one of the doormen would wait with me for almost one hour holding his umbrella for me when a taxi was too late to arrive, patiently waiting and smiling at me. He would give me small things that expressed warm feelings of friendship and he would always come to open the door for me, even if he was busy doing something else at the time. The face and look of this man will stay in my heart.
My own colleague-friends gave me a very warm welcome and their deep knowledge of Greek still touches me deeply. While at SISU, I was also invited to give talks about Chinese, Chinese and Greek and about my experience as a CI director to students who next year will travel to Hungary, Morocco, Peru and other places to work as Chinese teachers. The students’ questions and readiness to learn from me also touched me. My own CI colleagues, the closest colleagues and friends I have had since taking up the post of director, were there for me, to take me out to see places, taste food, and even watch Chinese opera. The day I went to watch Chinese Opera with my new friend, Ms Cheng, is definitely a day to remember, despite the fact that I could follow very little of the story. My eyes filled with colours and my ears filled with sounds, so that I almost did not believe that it was actually me being there!
All in all, China is so vast and Chinese people so varied that we can hardly say anything that would be ‘statistically significant’ but, nevertheless, we can say some things that hopefully have some value. The Chinese people I met in China are not closed to foreigners, they are welcoming and eager to ask questions and share their thoughts. They have opinions and express them in a way that does not offend you but makes you feel that there is room for different opinions and ways, 求同存异 or 和而不同. My Chinese friends are appreciative of their own culture and language and are willing to share it with me, teaching me new Chinese expressions and idioms that I like so much, and they are also willing to try Greek and other foods when I invite them to. This cultural exchange is the best place to belong for me, a ‘space of mutual learning and continuous growing’.
All in all, SISU has treated me with great generosity, respect and care that I will never forget! Through the International Relations Office of SISU, foreign professors were often invited to see the city, taste local specialties and appreciate the local beauty. My fellow foreign colleagues were also a special ‘gift’ to me from China. Especially those who spoke or are learning Chinese are colleagues that appreciate the country that has offered them work and a comfortable way of life. I salute and thank them for their company.
My friends in Shanghai and Beijing all welcomed my presence here, took a great interest in my outlook on China, often had to share some WeChat functions with me to help me find my way in this amazing place, so that now I can feel that I have a small Chinese home in Shanghai, one that I am eager to deepen my relationship with in the years to come!
Thankful more than words can say! 感恩不尽!