Why pick a city other than Beijing or Shanghai for your year abroad in China?
Kate is a student studying Natural Sciences, majoring in Chemistry, at the University of Cambridge. She is currently doing a year abroad studying Chinese at the Harbin Institute of Technology through the British Council Generation UK-China scholarship programme, where she is blogging about her experiences. In summer 2014, she attended a summer school at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. Here is her advice about why you should pick a city other than Beijing or Shanghai for your year abroad in China.
Most foreign students coming to China choose to study in Beijing or Shanghai – the expat hubs of China. Yes, this does have many advantages, for example the abundance of English speakers and easy international transport links, but here are five good reasons why you should consider a different city for your year abroad in China:
1. Language immersion
The relative lack of English speakers in other Chinese cities will enable you to really immerse yourself in the Chinese language. You won't find yourself sticking with that same restrictive group of English speaking friends, because you're the only native English speaker there! Using the language outside of class will really improve your spoken Chinese and help all that new vocabulary stick in your brain.
Don't worry though – the international student centre of your university will have at least one English speaking staff member, so if you do run into any language related problems there will be someone there to help translate!
2. Experience the 'real' China
Although Beijing can give you a tourist's view of traditional Chinese history and culture, other cities will give you a less restored/ glossy view of ancient sites as well as enable you to experience the life of everyday Chinese people. Additionally, different regions of China have very different cultures, food, and dialects – making your experience all the more exciting.
A good example is the famous Great Wall – there are several popular sites around Beijing where tourists can go to just tick it off their list, but these tend to be highly restored and busy. However, less touristy cities at other points along the wall will give you access to its genuine, unrestored beauty without the hoards of selfie-taking tourists filling your photos.
3. Save some cash!
Beijing and Shanghai are the most expensive cities in China to live in – so although prices still compare favourably with London you could save even more by heading off the beaten track a bit more. Universities outside of these two cities tend to have cheaper tuition fees and accommodation bills, while food and transport costs will also be less.
Another important factor to check out is whether or not there are any location/ university-specific scholarships available. In my case, I was awarded a university-specific scholarship to study at HIT which covered all my essential costs – something that was not available for similar courses in Beijing or Shanghai. There are also many non-specific scholarships available, for example from the China Scholarship Council, which give the same amount of money regardless of location – so by going to a cheaper city you'll have some cash left over to travel!
Bear in mind though that at first travelling to other cities will cost a bit more – most flights from the UK will fly into Beijing or Shanghai, so you'll have to factor in the cost of another plane/train journey.
4. Open up opportunities to travel to other regions of China
During term time, your schedule will be pretty busy – so you'll mostly be limited to travelling anywhere you can get to by overnight train on the weekends. Of course, Beijing and Shanghai have very good train links to nearby cities – but you're not going to make it much further than Xi'an. However, if you pick a city in central China, you can travel to Inner Mongolia, XinJiang province (far west China), as well as Beijing/Shanghai if you wish.
You can then spend your Spring Festival vacation doing the standard tourist route from Harbin down to Hong Kong, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Guilin en route – cities which line up very well along the train lines for a single long trip rather than individual weekend tours. Overall, potentially a much more efficient use of your time, as well as enabling you to visit exciting Chinese cities and provinces less frequented by western tourists.
5. Stand out from the crowd
With all the new scholarship and exchange programs available, every man and his dog seems to be going to Beijing or Shanghai for a summer school, internship or year abroad nowadays. Although experience in Asia can help your CV stand out, having experience in a different city will enable you to really be head and shoulders above the rest. It says that you are adventurous and confident, think outside the box, and have experience of the other, less westernised, side of China.