For unknown reasons, my parents insisted my siblings and I study Mandarin throughout our schooling. Growing up in Adelaide, Australia, my older brother, Kyle went on to study Mandarin at Prince Alfred College and my older sister, Natassia did the same at Walford Anglican School for Girls.
Rhys Williams enjoys Shanghai's wonderful skyline on a Bund River Cruise. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
Both high schools conducted biyearly Language Tours to China and I vividly recall the similar way my brother and sister arrived home - with bloated suitcases! On both occasions my family assembled around a suitcase, delicately placed on the coffee table in the centre of the lounge room as my brother and sister would conduct their 'show and tell' presentation. Out would come CD folders filled with hundreds of the latest movies, inexpensive 'designer' jeans and t-shirts, and my brother's best buy - a Gameboy Advance bought for a fraction of the cost of identical Gameboys sold in Australia at the time. Souvenirs and gifts would soon follow; a set of miniature glass bottles painted with pandas eating bamboo from the inside and a boxed set of chiming arthritis balls for Nanna, scrolls of artwork of Chinese blossoms along with small lions and dragons for mum and dad to place around the house for good fortune and finally for me, a traditional Chinese kite with different coloured Peking Opera faces on each rice paper diamond.
In April 2008 I was fifteen and it was my turn to travel to China and put what I had learnt of the language to practice. When leaving Australia, my Mandarin was limited to basic conversations and vocabulary that only went as far as greeting someone, bartering at a clothing market, ordering a meal and asking for directions. The tour began in Beijing and winded through Shandong province with visits to Qufu, Jinan and Qingdao until it concluded in Shanghai.
I visited the famous sites of Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, The Great Wall of China, Mount Tai and Confucius's birthplace and doing so made me come to realise the vibrant and rich culture of the Chinese people. I saw meticulously maintained Chinese gardens, bustling streets filled with food stalls selling exotic dishes, superhighways no less than five lanes in each direction and countless buildings which would dwarf the tallest building in my home city four times over! Much like my brother and sister, I too came back with bags bursting at the seams filled with articles bought during the journey but I also came back with a sense of amazement - that a place only 14 hours of travelling away could be so dissimilar from my country in so many ways.
I returned to Australia with a fascination with China and from then on, I not only studied Mandarin with rigour but also studied China's history during my senior level Modern History classes. I learned about Mao Zedong's rise from a country peasant to leader of the Chinese Communist Party, his determination to protect the Chinese people from the threat of the Japanese during the Second World War and how he ultimately led the success of the Communist revolution over the Nationalist Guomindang/Kuomintang by the Long March to become the great Chairman Mao.
Owing to study, China had come to be so much more to me than dragons, fireworks, prawn crackers and Walt Disney's Mulan. It bared itself to me as a fast paced country, not afraid of being progressive, whilst all the while keeping in touch with its rich tradition.
For my major Independent Assessment piece for Modern History I chose to write an essay on the Nanjing Massacre. I felt by researching such a tender moment in China's modern history I may be able to begin to understand both the moral of the Chinese people and their loyalty to their beliefs, as despite dire circumstances the residents of both Shanghai and Nanjing refused to surrender to the Japanese forces - protecting the livelihood of their country at great cost.
During the final months of my schooling I was lucky in that my father's construction business was planning a follow up business trip to the one my father and brother had made to China whilst I was taking my first school tour, and I was invited this time! The purpose of the trip was to investigate the manufacturing aluminium windows for its projects in China due to the considerably lower cost than using a local manufacturer in Adelaide, but for me it was also practical Mandarin revision for my end of year examination. For the duration of my mid-semester break my father, brother and I flew to Shanghai for a two week trip to tour factories throughout Jiangsu province. As we were visiting a factory in Jintan - a short drive from Danyang, (the home town of my Mandarin teacher in Adelaide) I suggested we travel the Shanghai-Nanjing route all the way to Nanjing to visit the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre and then catch the train back a few stations to Danyang a few hours later.