Life as a foreign student in China
Katharine is a Modern Languages (French and Mandarin) with Business student at the University of Birmingham. She spent her first semester in France, studying at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon and her second studying Mandarin at the Beijing Language and Culture University in China.
I studied French throughout my school career and was eager to take up another at university. When I decided to study Chinese, people asked me “why Mandarin?” I replied with “why not?” China has a wealth of history, culture and landmarks so different to our own in the UK. Although, I knew it would certainly be challenging, (and at times it has been), my experience in China has been like no other. Having been here over 6 months now, I could easily write an essay detailing my experiences, however, I hope the following article will give you some helpful advice about what you can expect from life as a foreign student in China, (particularly at the beginning of your journey).
1. Your arrival (What to look out for)
As soon as you step off the plane, you know you are no longer in the UK. It’s either colder or hotter than what you’re used to, (depending on when you arrive). First of all, if you decide to take the metro from the airport in Beijing, there is a direct link from the airport to the rest of the Beijing subway. It’s pretty simple to navigate, but if you have a decent phone (I did not), download a metro map before you arrive. It will make your life a lot easier. If your Chinese is a bit rusty, (as mine certainly was, having been in France for 4 months), brush up on those basic phrases too. “Where is the metro station/taxi rank?” might be a good place to start.
Taxis in China are also a lot cheaper than what we are used to in the UK, so if you’re feeling tired and jet lagged go for this option. Just make sure you have the address written down (in characters, not Pinyin) to show the driver to ensure you arrive at the right place!
Once you have arrived and feel ready to pop out and experience your first “proper” Chinese meal, (it is not the Chicken chow mein like we have at home), just keep an eye out for locals who might invite you to eat with them. It didn’t happen to me, but some of my friends were conned and left sitting alone in a restaurant with the bill.
2. The Culture Shock
Most people are aware that the food, the weather and the language is all very different compared to the UK. This being said, I found there are many small subtleties you perhaps wouldn’t even contemplate before you embark on your journey. For example, the difference in drivers’ etiquette with the endless sound of beeping horns and the fact that mopeds and bicycles can pop out of nowhere!
With respect to food, it’s not just the fact that the Chinese eat enormous quantities of noodles and rice that we westerners aren’t so used to. Salads do not really exist, decent chocolate is hard to come by and even a boiled egg with a “runny yolk” is unheard of! This being said, I have eaten some very nice Chinese dishes, so even a picky eater will find something they can enjoy. Street food is on every corner in Beijing, which can offer a cheap dinner option. With a range of foods available (meat and vegetables), you will encounter some rather strong aromas as you walk down the street. At first, I avoided these at all costs, but once I had settled into my new home, a selection of chuan’r (Chinese kebabs) or jiaozi (dumplings) became some of my favourites.
3. Getting around the city
China is a crowded place, and with 1.3 billion inhabitants it wasn’t much of a surprise when I arrived. The metro is a great way to get around the cities, but personal space does not exist. However, only very occasionally will you be fighting your way to get out of a train. Despite this, trains are always on time, very cheap (equating to about 50p a journey maximum) and incredibly easy to navigate. Make sure you get a metro card too (Oyster card equivalent - 20RMB/about £2 deposit). Even when you are surrounded by people, you will stick out like a sore thumb as a foreigner, so be prepared for people gawping at you. You will soon realise that this is just out of curiosity and nothing sinister is meant by it.
4. Studying in Beijing
My first four months in China were spent in Beijing, studying Chinese at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Although, not as well-known as the famous Tsinghua and Peking universities, (the Cambridge and Oxford equivalents in China), I can vouch from experience that the level of teaching is of a very high standard. With 20 hours a week of reading, listening, comprehension and speaking, you are sure to make enormous progress. Obviously, this means you have to go to class (they started at 8:30 every day for me) and do most of the homework, in order to practice as much as possible. If you can find a language partner whilst you’re there that’s even better. There are loads of Chinese people who will happy to help you with your Chinese, if you can help them with their English or another language in return. Although you are studying, take every opportunity to go out and practice with the locals. Even regular trips to the fruit market will help to reinforce all that you learn in class. (The fruit is good too!)
5. Working the summer in Qingdao
I thought the best way to make the most of my stay in China is to stay a little while longer. So I set myself a task of finding an internship for two months. I came across Sinacon, a company which provides students from all over the world the opportunity to intern in China.
As a recruitment agency, based in Qingdao, (a city located on the coast of China), Sinacon offers internships, demi au programmes, Chinese language courses and visa consultation services. They offer positions in a range of employment sectors, from hospitality to architecture, which last for a minimum of 3 months up to a year. Positions can be paid/unpaid (depending on the partner company), some offering free accommodation and meals included.
I applied for a demi au pair position as well. This meant that I would live with a Chinese family, helping out where I could and teaching the children English. I have been fortunate enough to live with not one but two families, experiencing the heart of the Chinese culture and being very well looked after. (My accommodation and all my meals are included, as well as trips out to beer festivals, tea shops and the seaside). With a full time internship during the working week and small children eager to spend time with the English (外国人 - Wàiguó rén - foreigner), I am incredibly busy, however, I have had the opportunity to improve my language skills and learn about the Chinese culture in ways I could never have envisaged.
So if you are looking for a new beginning in a far off, culturally diverse and a little mad land, then China is the place to go.
Whilst at university, you don’t get an awful lot of holiday time. If you stay a year, you will, however, have a nice long winter break. There are a few long weekends during the main Chinese festivals, such as the Qingming and Dragon boat festivals. As China is such a big place, getting around does take time, but the high speed bullet trains are not too expensive and flying can get you to and from your destination that little bit quicker. Download the Ctrip app. It is the best thing since sliced bread, offering flights, trains, and hotels (all detailed in English) to almost every location in China. You must either have an English MasterCard or Chinese bank account to use it. (It does not accept English debit cards unfortunately). I was lucky enough to go to some of the major cities in China (Shanghai, Xi’an, and Qingdao) as well as Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) where the landscape is outstanding!
My final piece of advice is to get out and do as much as possible. Try something new, challenging and perhaps a little out of your comfort zone. I joined a girl’s rugby team on a whim, (having never played before) and ended up playing for the whole semester! Moreover, travel as much as you can (it’s not too expensive) and spend your weekends visiting the local tourist spots and not lying in bed!