Uon Thomas Sandiford, 24, became one of the first Guyanese medical students in China when he arrived in 2006. Having earned a degree in pharmacology in the U.S., he pursued an additional three years of medical studies at Sichuan University's Huaxi Campus while also studying the Chinese language. Now specializing in dentistry, he aims to eventually open a dental clinic for foreigners in Chengdu.
So how much Chinese does one have to study before studying medicine in China?
There is a class [in English] for Indian students and Nepalese, Africans and Americans. But I don't see the point for me to study medicine in English in China. I studied [Chinese] for one year. It wasn't enough [to study medicine]. It still poses some problems. But if you study hard, if you really want to achieve this goal, you can do it. Studying for one year [means] you're studying to say, like, nihao. [Then] you go to class, and you hear things like "cell"—xibao; "protein"—danbaizhi; ganzang—"liver." And then during the exam you have to read and write Chinese. The first year I failed math, chemistry, and biology, but after that it became easier.
Would you say it's the biggest challenge of your life?
It's freaking hard. I mean I'm the only foreigner in the class, and then they speak Chuan-Pu [a mix of Sichuan dialect and Mandarin]. Basically I'm studying on my own, I'm reviewing on the Internet, and I brought my books with me.
So why do this in China?
It's something else, it's new. It's just something I want to do. China is like an unknown land, who knows what's going in China? Coming to China for the first time and being exposed to so many things, it's exotic, it's different from the rest of world.
But you could have it easier.
The Chinese say, "Jintian de mafan shi mingtian de fangbian*," right? And then it's gonna open other doors in the future. Afterwards I'm going to be on the top of the world. I'll be the next Obama—that's just crap. [Laughs.]
How is studying in the U.S. different from studying in China?
[In the U.S.] you have a book with 11 chapters, and after three chapters you have a pop quiz, but in China, it's all about reciting. They give you one thick book, and there is one exam at the end of the semester. If you fail, you fail. If you pass, you pass. So the Chinese students just recite, recite, recite. If you ask a student, "What's on page 9?," he can tell you. But if you ask what's the practical use—they can't reply.
Do you also practice in the clinic?
Yes, at Huaxi. It's actually the best dental school in all China. It's supposed to be the biggest in the world. It's just big and everything is just new.
Culturally, was it a shock to come here?
Yes. We have a lot of Chinese in the Caribbean and the Chinese tend to stick together. You would think that these people are not very social, they don't go out, there are no bars. And you come to China; there is Babi, 88, Wild West, Jah Bar, and you're like, "Man, is this China?" And they are wild, drinking, smoking.
Do you ever feel discriminated against?
Sometimes I do. Coming from a multicultural society to a society that has just been opened ... I'm a black guy at the end. And they say, "African, African." I'm not African. And they are touching your skin to see if you're real. Like this one place [I applied at] to teach English was like, "You know, you are not white." And I'm like, "I grew up in the U.S., my mother is from the U.S., and I come from an English-speaking Caribbean country." Still you aren't white enough. I've been to Suining and had a guy actually use a coin to scrub my skin to see if it was real. I've had people asking me if I haven't taken a shower in days. This kind of weird stuff, in curious ways.
What are the sunny sides of being a foreigner in China?
China as a whole is a large population, you are gonna have more patients. This is one of the best things: You are going to see a lot of strange things. I've seen a guy who hasn't brushed his teeth for like six years! He had all kinds of crap in his teeth. You don't see that back in the U.S. And we get to see all that new technology from the U.S. first. The teacher would try to use English to explain stuff—that's kind of cool. Special attention.
Do you ever visit home?
No, it's expensive, about 3,000 USD. I can't afford that. It takes like three days: You first get from Chengdu to Beijing, then to England, England to Barbados and to Guyana. My mum came to visit. Hopefully I've three more years to complete my studies, then I plan for a short visit and then return to start my business.
Do you miss it?
Yes I do. I miss it very much. I miss the food, the life, the music, friends, of course. I miss good Caribbean rum.
*The phrase translates to something like, "Sacrifice today brings rewards tomorrow."
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