My YCA Story | Dita Toska (Belgium)

Why did you decide to study in China?

I unexpectedly took an interest in China as a country and research field. During my Master of Laws in the Corporate and Financial Law track, my International Economic Law professor introduced me to the Belt and Road Initiative. I had not anticipated myself to become as instantly fascinated with the topic of China and its massive infrastructure initiative the way I did. But my unfamiliarity with the country and the field of international economic law thrilled me. This fascination led me to write my master thesis on the Belt and Road courts (better known as the China International Commercial Courts) as potential competitors in the field of dispute resolution. A new world had opened up to me, an entirely new region to research. After graduating from law school, I decided to enroll for a Master in European Studies to further explore Europe-Asia relations from a more interdisciplinary perspective. But the more I learned, the more questions I had. It quickly became apparent that if I wanted to really understand China, I would have to learn about it as close to the source as possible. Yenching Academy proved to be the ideal opportunity.

Did you have any China experience before the decision to study at YCA?

I had never visited China before, neither for leisure nor academic purposes. So, when I conceived the idea of studying in China, I hoped I would be forced out of my comfort zone. I had so many views I wanted to see challenged and wanted answers to so many questions. Many of my classmates have had previous experiences with China before the program, but I was a tabula rasa in many aspects of Chinese society. I guess I wanted, above all, to have an academic experience that was vastly different from the one I had at the (three) other universities I had studied at. My education previously had been very euro-centric and liberal. To discover and research alternative models and theories was an exciting prospect to have.

I was also looking forward to being in Beijing—immersing myself in the language and experiencing the culture firsthand. I feel like many current-day misunderstandings (fueled by a tense political climate, no less) are mostly rooted in ignorance. To overcome those barriers, one must experience China firsthand. Unfortunately, I cannot resume my studies on the Peking University campus yet because of the pandemic-related travel restrictions. However, it has been a great learning experience, and I remain hopeful I will still do so someday.

When did you learn about the Yenching Academy?

The KU Leuven is a partner university of Yenching Academy, but there was very little advertising despite this relationship. There were no info sessions, no alumni to contact, no real contact persons to reach. I ended up learning about Yenching Academy entirely by chance through a classmate who was also applying. I discovered Yenching very close to the deadline. Although finishing my application in time was a challenge of its own, I was already captivated with what the Academy had to offer, and I felt it was worth pulling through. To be fair, I did not think I would have been selected when I sent my application—the Yenching application procedure looked daunting. Being accepted was a moment of tearful relief.

How is life like at the Academy currently?

Life at the Academy mainly progresses online since the current pandemic makes it impossible for me to get into China. It has not been easy; the time zone difference means most of my classes are in the middle of the night here in Brussels, and the language courses are a challenge since I do not have the opportunity to fully immerse myself in the language and society. Nonetheless, the Academy does its best to give students a truly profound online studying experience. At the very least, it is comforting I am not alone in this. Despite the distance, I have managed to befriend many of my classmates. And I try to organize online social events whenever I can. We have had truth or drink events and even a “single mingle”. These informal zoom sessions allow us all to blow off some steam and get to know each other better. I also try to meet Yenching Scholars in real life whenever possible. Earlier this semester, I met two Chinese Scholars from the 6th cohort and traveled to the Netherlands to meet with a German Scholar from my cohort, Simon. I am also lucky enough to have one of this year’s Scholars, John, living in the same city as me. We meet up every week at a coffee shop to get some work done—though we mostly just end up having long debates on our readings (despite taking different courses). It is comforting to have another Scholar living through the same experience nearby. Next semester, I am looking forward to meeting many more Scholars from other continents; we plan to take Yenching to a new, international level and gather in Bangkok, Thailand.

What are you busy with these days?

My life consisted of writing term papers towards the end of last semester. Luckily, someone had set up a study Zoom where all Yenchingers can log onto if they wished to study with someone. This community feeling is what keeps me going. The time zone difference and workload made it hard to take on a job or internship throughout the semester. Instead, I decided to use the opportunity to work on one of my personal projects. Last summer, I decided to fulfill my childhood dream of publishing a fiction novel. I am currently busy working on the manuscript in-between deadlines and social engagements. The goal is to finish it by the end of the academic year, so I hope my professors go easy on me in terms of workload next semester. I love that the program is interdisciplinary; I can share my passion for writing and reading with the Scholars from the Literature track, despite being a Law major myself.

What would you like to do when you finally arrive on campus anytime in the future?

I really want to visit the Weiming Lake. It is all over PKU’s social media, and this pandemic has been so everlasting that China, at times, seems like a long, lost dream. I feel like only when I am standing at the edge of the Weiming Lake, watching the sunset, everything else will feel possible enough to overcome. Also, Peking University has a Stray Cat Association that takes care of stray cats on campus. So far, I have been making the Chinese Scholars on campus send me cat pictures. But once I make it to PKU, I would love to join the association. I think above all, I would love to see my Chinese professor, Qian laoshi, and give her my most sincere thanks. She has been incredibly patient teaching Chinese to an absolute beginner like me in a challenging, online setting. I would love to see her in real life and express my appreciation for her patience and hard work.

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