A Guide to Life and Study in China
Cherry Blossom Park, Wuhan, China.
Sitting at a cold noodle stand beneath a circus striped awning that for the first day since my arrival shields the stands patrons from the sun instead of rain, I chat with a fellow exchange student about U.S. politics. Laughing between chopstick-laden bites of spiced rice noodles and cucumber soaked in just a touch too much oil, we’re deaf in our small English bubble in the center of the Cultural Revolution's birthplace. Deaf to the incessant honking of cars and motorbikes whizzing past one another in an extremely dangerous and frequently fatal tango of high speed traffic; deaf to the shouts of other street vendors, bargaining in a mixture of standard Mandarin and a heavy dialect that none but those born here seem to fully grasp; and momentarily blind to the never ending stares of locals surprised to see a 外人, an outsider, let alone two of them, eating just outside of one of the many side alleys that open up to our university and home for the next four months.
Eventually we stand to go, waving goodbye to the noodle man and his wife.
“慢慢来!” He waves back.
Ambling back through the alley smelling of fruit, steaming soup and decay, I cannot help but ask my friend, who after five years of study is far more proficient in Mandarin than I, what the man said.
She smiles as if she is about to let me in on a secret I am just barely beginning to understand.
“He said to, ‘go slowly,’.”
You Are Studying Where Now?
I am an undergraduate student currently on academic exchange through ISEP, studying at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics, in Nanchang, Jiangxi, China. At a little over 5 million people, Nanchang is no Shanghai or Beijing—which is precisely why I chose to study here. Located in Jiangxi province, it’s about a two hour plane ride from Beijing, or an eight hour train ride, depending upon the train you take. And while the city’s rhythms and flow is certainly more laid back than the hustle and bustle of China’s capital, Nanchang is still a thriving, and hyper developing city that can be overwhelming, especially for someone coming from an incredibly small university.
Still, for anyone searching for an authentic Chinese experience, Nanchang does not disappoint. Though the city’s development has gotten swept up along with the larger cities movement to modernize, the people themselves are still incredibly hospitable. Be prepared for unabashed staring however, which is true of most places in China outside of the tourist capitals, Shanghai and Beijing, and certainly true of Nanchang which has such a small foreigner population that I have met quite a few locals who have never spoken to a foreigner before, let alone seen one wander into their shop.
Picking a Program
Pick a country you are willing to fight for. Studying abroad is hard, difficult, tedious work. And that is before you even start thinking about getting on a plane. So do some soul searching and start making a list of places you’re willing to fight tooth and nail to get to. If your first choice is not available till next year, wait. If you want to study in a country that currently doesn’t have any programs offered at your school, get in touch with your study abroad coordinator.
An exchange or study abroad experience is too costly, too time consuming, but ultimately worth it, to settle for second best. Be firm when it comes to choosing a country, yet allow for flexibility when it comes to the city, as many programs have scattered breaks throughout the semester that allow for travel.
ISEP worked for me because it was the most affordable, while offering a program in China that was in a city not well known on the tourist circuit. It is also an incredibly independent option that is truly an “exchange” unlike many more expensive programs that tend to group you with other study abroad students in a very scheduled, usually fast paced set of academics and class tours. But that independence is not for everyone, so get in touch with your home exchange office to find out the programs with which your school is partnered.
On Getting a Visa
To visit, live, work and yes, study in China, you’ll need the appropriate visa. The visa application process is not particularly difficult to wade through, and takes anywhere from 4 days to a week to process, though expect longer delays during Chinese national holidays. For US citizens it currently costs $140. You’ll need to apply in person at the consulate that holds jurisdiction over your state or pay to have a travel agent apply on your behalf, so take shipping or travel time into account when choosing when to apply and how much to budget. I used the same travel agent to book my flight to Nanchang as I did to handle my visa application, which gave me the comfort of knowing that the agent handling my visa also knew exactly when my flight left, so that is something to consider.
Also do not be so certain that applying super early is always best. Many visa types have a set amount of time they need to be used for entry before they expire, and those expiration dates tend to vary from visa type to visa type, so do your research as they change all the time.
Culture and Culture Shock
So you’re in China! And everything is new, exciting, busy, cramped, dirty, and oh God you just want to go home!
It’s okay. Homesickness happens to the best of us, and even seasoned travelers have felt the tug of a need for a familiar face, bed, language. China is a completely different experience--one that is not to be taken lightly.
If you, like me, have not even the slightest experience with Mandarin, it may feel like twice as big a beast. Studying in a place with an incredibly small population of English speakers has been incredibly frustrating, but a decision that I would not change. While I do not begrudge anyone if their dream is to study in Beijing or Shanghai, where you are liable to find a good deal of foreigners, and therefore a good deal of Chinese people who speak English, if your goal is to learn a new language, new culture, and new way of life, then find a program off the typical tourist path.
But be careful what you wish for. Living outside of your own country can be rough. Living outside of your own language can be torture for the first few weeks, though it is an experience I am continually learning to appreciate.
China is huge, and while I highly encourage you to thoroughly explore your home city which, if it is anything like Nanchang, will take at least a year to fully grasp with all its innate complexities, you cannot come all the way to China without getting out and actually seeing China.
Domestic travel by train is relatively inexpensive, and can be a quick and convenient way to get around. China has an extensive train system regardless of where you’re located, and tickets are easily purchased at local train ticket offices, the train station, or if you are proficient in Chinese, online. There are a lot of resources online that I have found useful, and chances are your international office can also be a reliable resource if you have any questions.
Also be aware of your visa type, as entry into places like Tibet need a different visa. For reentry into China you will need a multiple entry visa. So if you have dreams of seeing Hong Kong or Mongolia while you are still studying, be sure to apply for one before you go. Nothing like being stranded on the wrong side of the border to put a damper on one's exchange experience.
If you are anything like me, the amount of enjoyment you are liable to get out of a trip is directly related to what goes into your stomach. So if you happen to be in love with spicy, fried, sour, or a mixture of them all, then China might just be the place for you.
It is important to note that because China is so vast, cuisine varies from region to region, with the north tending to eat more noodles, while the south supplements meals with more rice. Of course rice and noodles are general stables all across China, but the amount you will see them does vary accordingly. The south and south central part of China also tends to have spicier food, with Sichuan being arguably the most famous for its fiery flavors. Many of the surrounding provinces including Jiangxi also tend to cook on the spicy side, so keep that in mind when choosing a program.
You should also take your own personal dietary restrictions into consideration, especially if you’re vegetarian. Meat of all varieties is commonplace in Chinese dishes and is also used in much of the sauces they cook, so if you do happen to be anti meat consumption, try finding a program in a city with a large Buddhist population that specializes in equally delicious vegetarian fare.
Planning on working in China to afford all those noodle trips? Make sure that visa page says “Z” on it.
To be legally hired in China, you’ll need a proper work visa, which is near impossible to obtain while you are a student in China under a student visa, so finding work at a high end restaurant or hotel might be an issue.
Working under the table however as a private English tutor however is an easy and relatively well paying means of making a little extra cash during your stay in China, and many of your Chinese teachers may even ask you to give private lessons to their children. Posting around your university, or even just asking some of your Chinese friends if they know anyone looking for English lessons usually brings immediate results, and can pay as much as 200 yuan (about 32 US dollars) an hour. That is a lot of noodles.
It goes without saying that China is going to be different. Sometimes vastly. But if you have never traveled outside of the U.S. before, it is the small things that may come as the biggest surprises.
Take for example that most Chinese restrooms are equip with “squat” toilets and not the standard sitting style toilets of the west. In fact, I have only been in one restroom that had a western style sitting toilet, and that was in a westerner owned bar. Even higher-end clubs and bars tend to have squat toilets, so keep that in mind if you happen to have a disability that makes squatting difficult or impossible.
Also be sure to carry a pack of napkins with you, as very few restrooms stock their own toilet paper. It only takes a time or two to be stranded without toilet paper before you start remembering to carry a pack with you constantly, let me tell you.
And for the women, if you happen to be attached to a favorite feminine hygiene product, be sure to bring your own supply, as chances are you will not find any tampax in your local Chinese supermarket. I have yet to find a pack of tampons at all, in fact, so if you cannot live without them, bring your own.
Be easy on yourself, and be easy on those who are waiting for you. Not enough time is spent on truly preparing yourself for a return journey, or accepting that while you have just gotten through perhaps the most life-changing, difficult, but ultimately fulfilling chapter in your life, life back home has not stopped either. People change, you have changed, and it is alright to feel like a foreigner in your own country for awhile. Much like your homesickness on your arrival, it gets better.
So, 慢慢来 my friend.
Other Programs I Considered
Heather Dawn Burge is a Bachelor of Liberal Arts major at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, Alaska, focusing on Alaska Native culture, language, and creative writing, with aims of applying to graduate school after obtaining my undergraduate degree. Alaska isn't my birthplace, but it's home. She has also traveled through Europe during high-school, and has plans to travel to India within the next few years. For more, check out her blog.