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A Foreigner in the Middle Kingdom

Living, Working, and Studying in China 

China Confucian Temple

In a Confucian Temple.

It is Chinese New Year’s Eve. The streets are lined with red lanterns, character posters, remnants of fireworks and offerings, and at nearly every corner fireworks are sold next to signs prohibiting their use. People exchange greetings as they run into each other, “新年愉快,恭喜发财!” Happy New Year, wishing you happiness and prosperity! I walk along the street to my house, exchanging greetings with neighbors and strangers, occasionally getting a response, but mostly met with surprised stares. A foreigner! And one who speaks Chinese!

In China I am a 外国人, a "foreigner." I am an obvious one at that: tall, blonde, pale, and with a very “American” sense of style, or so I’ve been told. Living in China this foreignness has proved to be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, people are nice to the foreigner. They don’t want to “lose face” for their country, which means that they are less likely to cut in line, shove, or speak so quickly that I am lost in a cloud of Chinese. However this also means that I can’t leave my apartment without being stared and pointed at with whispers of “foreigner” following me everywhere. My favorite reactions to my foreignness are from children who have no qualms tugging at their mother’s skirts and loudly exclaiming, “mom, mom, look! Foreigner!” I’ve found the best reaction is to turn around and in equal excitement exclaim, “friend, friend, look! Chinese person!”

On city walls

Relaxing on city walls.

Why China?

China is a country with the world’s largest population of over 1.3 billion people, and as the country gains more prominence on the world stage more and more people have begun learning Mandarin. I started learning Chinese in high school and have been studying the language for nine years, but most people I’ve met have either been learning for a year or two or are just beginning their study in China. I think that foreigners who come to China without previously studying the language are very brave because they come here and cannot understand a thing, but through immersion they also learn very quickly living in a Chinese-speaking environment.

I am spending my year abroad in Nanjing, China, the southern capital with a population of around 5 million. For China, this is relatively small, especially compared to Shanghai and Beijing with populations around 20 million. Personally, I am glad that I am here rather than in a larger city. I would feel lost in a city as large as Shanghai with its 11 subway lines (Nanjing only has 2, although it is adding more), and because Nanjing was the capital for six dynasties it is just as saturated in culture as Beijing.

It is also less expensive to live here than in a larger city, but it offers the same amount of foreign food, amenities, and infrastructure that you would expect of a modern city. There is a large expatriate community in addition to a large exchange student population, so if you are missing home or your native language you can easily connect. NanjingExpat.com is the largest website for foreigners in Nanjing, and you can find everything from jobs to restaurant reviews there.

Before You Leave

Before you leave one of the most important things is to try to learn some basic Chinese. Even if you only know how to say, “你好,谢谢,再见” ("hello," " thank you," "goodbye") it shows that you are making an effort to learn the language and not expecting everything to be in English (a mistake that many foreigners make).

Aside from learning some Chinese, you should prepare yourself mentally for your trip to China. China is a large country and is home to a lot of people. It’s one thing to see the numbers on paper and quite another thing to take the subway during rush hour and feel like you’re being swept away by a river of people. Learning when the city is at its busiest (in the mornings from 7 to 9, from 12 to 2 in the afternoon, and at night from 4 to 6) will help you navigate your way around and know when to avoid highly populated areas.

Busy subway in China

The subway during rush hour.

On a practical note, it is important that you bring all of the electronics and medication/western medicine that you will need with you. While Chinese hospitals are pretty up to date, China is still strongly influenced by eastern medicine, and therefore Advil, Pepto-Bismol, and Nyquil will be hard to find. If there are any essential medicines you use or prescriptions that you have, get them filled before you leave, but if you just have the sniffles then don’t worry; there are pharmacies on every other block.

Oregon group

The University of Oregon group from my program.

Choosing a Program

Carefully choosing a program based on what you want to get out of your abroad experience is very important. If you want to travel more than study, don’t take an intensive course. If you want to do an internship, look for a program that specializes in placing students in their field of study. CIEE offers great programs for working and traveling, and Nanjing University, the university that I studied at, has a large and renowned study abroad program run by the Institute for International Students. They have regular programs beginning each semester and short-term summer and winter break programs. Look around; in a city as large as Nanjing there are many opportunities to find a program that fits your needs.

If you’re looking to get university credit for your abroad experience the best method is to talk to your school’s study abroad advisor. Oftentimes a university will be partnered with another school abroad and offer courses that are matched one-to-one for credits, making it an easy transfer. If you choose a program without consulting with your advisor it might not be an approved program, which will make it more difficult to transfer credits.

Getting There and Getting Around

Getting to China through Shanghai or Nanjing is pretty easy. Customs don’t take long, and thanks to the high-speed railway systems throughout China, going from Shanghai to Nanjing takes an hour and a half. Shanghai also has the Maglev train; the world’s fastest commercial train traveling at speeds up to 430 km/hr. This makes an hour-long trip by taxi to the airport take about 7 minutes.

One note about traveling in China: don’t take unlicensed taxis. They will always charge you too much, and the safety factor shouldn’t be ignored. Always look for the fare counter, and if the driver doesn’t turn it on at the beginning of your trip then you should ask to get out of the cab. While most cabdrivers are great people and are a wonderful chance to practice your language skills and get used to a regional accent, some of them will see you as easy prey and try to get more out of you in cash than they should.

Chna YMCA class

The class at the YMCA that we taught.

Getting a Job

As a foreigner in China, English is your most valuable skill. Tutoring and teaching jobs are in high demand here, and starting salary is RMB100 per person per hour (around US$15). Teaching experience is preferred if you are teaching a class, however most individuals just want to practice their spoken English because many Chinese schools emphasize reading and writing over speaking and listening. Offering to be a conversation partner is also a great way to practice your Chinese and make some friends!

Saving Money

In Nanjing, cash is king. Most stores only accept cash and it will only be at international stores like IKEA that you will be able to use your credit card. Make sure that you have sufficient money in your checking account, and take out money in larger sums to avoid lots of surcharges (US Bank has a Chinese partner, but most other banks do not). One way to save money is to use your student ID card. Many businesses and attractions have discounts for students, so be sure to carry your ID on you! Another great way to save money is by eating at small restaurants or buying food at markets and making meals at home. Foreign food can be expensive and Chinese food is so much better than what you think it is (Americanized Chinese food is almost nothing like the real thing)!

China soccer fans

The fan club at a Jiangsu Sainty game.

Culture and Language Immersion

There are many ways to enjoy the culture and language of China. Trying traditional Chinese medicinal practices is a great way to open your mind and experience the culture of the country. 刮痧 scraping, 拔火罐 cupping, and 针灸 acupuncture can help cure ailments such as headaches and stomach issues (which almost everyone encounters), and traditional massages are both inexpensive and incredibly relaxing.

You should also try to make some Chinese friends. Language partners and classmates make great friends, and they will show you around the city and take you to places you never would have gone to otherwise. When you get to China you should sign up for a QQ account, the Chinese version of instant messaging. Everyone here has one.

Go to local sporting events and cheer along with the crowd. The Jiangsu Sainty are the local soccer team in Nanjing and they have games every fall and spring. They also have a fan club that goes to every game and cheers in the stands. There is nothing quite like standing on the seats and jumping and chanting with hundreds of Chinese people.

Another way to experience Chinese culture is to be here for holidays, especially the New Year. Reading about the 15-day celebration is nothing like being in the middle of it, and the fireworks that go off, while making you feel like you’re in a war zone, is also magical. The skies light up, children run around in the empty streets, and you get a sense of how community-oriented China continues to be in the midst of its modernization.

Know Your City

The best way to get to know Nanjing (and any city) is to walk it. When you take taxis you don’t get a sense of where you are or how you got there, but when you walk you get to explore, take random turns, and find unexpected gems. Bikes are also a great way to explore, although you need to be wary of other bikes, cars, and pedestrians when you start biking around. Traffic laws are not what they are in the US. For bikes, red lights are optional, and people just cross when they want to. What this means is look left, right, and then look left and right again before crossing the street! For longer trips take the subway: it is an inexpensive and vast network connecting all of Nanjing together.

Food and Water and Everything in Between

When you get to a new country of course you’re going to want to try the food. China has so many different regions all with their special dishes, and you should try every one. But be a smart traveler. Only try foods that are hot (so that the germs are boiled away), and always boil or buy your water (the tap water isn’t safe to drink un-boiled).

One other practical note: bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer wherever you go. China has public bathrooms all over the place, but none of them have toilet paper or soap. All shops will sell little packs of toilet paper though; so don’t worry about bringing your own from the States.

With these tips you should be ready to have a great experience abroad in China. Stay open minded and try new things and you are sure to come back a more enriched and interesting person than you were before. 中国欢迎你! China welcomes you!

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