Arriving like the proverbial early bird, I officially enrolled as a student of Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), last Thursday. Dumping my documents unceremoniously onto the desk, I bade the drudgeon sign me up on pain of death! At least, the much cooler, Shakespearian aristocrat (/Roy from the IT crowd) version of me would have done so. Regular-me just asked politely. After the mild awkwardness of deciding whether or not there would actually be conversation between two perfect strangers who will never see each other again-and coming to the correct conclusion, no there would not-I left to find my recently acquired catholic theologian cum missionary friend. Oh, what a refreshing start!
Nestled in a corner of Russel Square, a stone’s throw from the neoclassical colonnades of the British Museum (大英博物馆), SOAS is a part of the University of London that includes University College London and Birkbeck College in the same campus complex. Like Imperial College, SOAS was founded to advance the interests of the British Empire. The areas of special research interest are covered in the name so I won’t reiterate. However, it is interesting to juxtapose the two institutions, because, as I said, both were founded for very similar end goals. Imperial specialises in the natural sciences and engineering, it is situated in one of the wealthiest boroughs in London, and from personal experience, has a largely conservative student-body. SOAS, by comparison, is widely billed as, to quote a friend, “weed central,” with a studentship comprised of lefty anti-establishment types. First impressions seem to confirm this. I never saw as much “activism” in all my four years at Imperial, and I’ve only been here a week. Polite notices next to the lifts remind people not to judge people taking the lift up one floor, there are many disabilities that don’t come with a wheel chair; emails on protests and good deeds are sent round weekly, I already have multiple emails about the situation in Calais, the movement to protect the Uni’s cleaners and other kinds of action; posters in the student union remind us that silence is not consent; and so on etc. It’s a real breath of fresh air actually. It feels like a “proper university,” the kind depicted in sitcoms and American Pie, I’m starting to wish I’d been here from the very start. (My traumatic experience at the hands of a Communist at fresher’s fayre notwithstanding.)
After rendezvousing in the entrance hall, the Anglo-German alliance launched a brunch-time raid on the library. Once again I was very impressed with the quality of the facilities, many of which were near new and in good nick. The library is a cube that sits in the middle of the main building, it’s a wonderful design, the stacks are arranged on terraces that surround a central square, this allows a good amount of natural light to penetrate from the skylights to the ground floor, it’s a wonderful place to be even without the books. The BOOKS! Books on every place you’ve heard of, and that’s probably just the ground floor, the other 5 floors cover everywhere else. Knowing the kind of person I am, I’ve not taken any books out yet, my course is known to be intense so I’ll probably have little free time to use and abuse the library as much as my raging passions would like. If I’m good from the start, I won’t end up snowed under with reading later on. That’s my best laid plan.
Following a long stint in the library, we made our way to the small room in which the China and Inner Asia department postgrad meeting would take place. I got a good look at my likely classmates for the very first time. It was a good mix of people, old and young, thick and thin. As expected, they were predominantly White and East Asian, the only other black person was a very hip-hop b-boy (sic) styled girl who seemed to be American. Kind of looked like my polar opposite, but very pretty nevertheless. The meeting was called to order by Michel Hoxx in a (I would soon learn) characteristically charming yet soft spoken way. The department staff then gave their speeches and introduced their classes. Not much was new to me, having been over the website with a fine toothed comb. However, the Taiwan studies guy really impressed me. He’s quite a character really, with a pudding basin hair-cut, large spectacles, and a twitchy rapid way of speaking, he’s the the embodiment of the stereotypical academic. Although I have no real interest in Taiwan, he really made me want to take some of the courses and see what all the fuss is about. After the talks were over my friend and I went for a pint to replenish our strength.
At 4pm we met the rest of our course-mates in Michel’s office; we chatted over fresh fruit, tea, and cakes. Just my luck, out of 6 people, 5 are male. There’s only one girl on my course and she has a boyfriend. Great. Still, ulterior motives aside, everyone was really nice. Michel was very amiable and quite charming in fact. I have a very good feeling about this (预感非常好). I’m slightly intimidated by peoples’ credentials: 2 years in China, 4 years in China, 3 years Chinese Studies BA etc. Still, I’m determined to catch up with them no matter what it takes. I’m going to check out all the high level language courses and see if I can sit in and audit a class to supplement the reading seminar I’ll be taking. Class starts tomorrow. Wish me luck! 晚安~