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Attend a Chinese University

Learning Through Year-Long Travels and Study

By Sarah Bivins

Street scene in Beijing, China
Street scene in Beijing, China.

One of the most rewarding ways to live overseas is to attend a foreign university. A course of study usually includes living arrangements and the expenses for students are minimal.

I received a grant to study at China’s Nan Kai University for a year through an exchange program at the university I attended in Florida. American students go to China to study the language, while professors at that university came to the States to teach classes in their field. Dormitory rooms were provided, plus a small cash stipend at the end of each month in Chinese Yuan. The stipend, along with the money I made from private tutoring of English in my spare time, allowed me to live well in China and to travel the country during breaks from classes. I was able to extend my stay through the grant for another year.

Getting Around

To get around any city in China, you first need to purchase a used bicycle. Then find a Chinese friend to show you the city until you become familiar with the streets. If you get lost, it will be difficult to communicate in sign language, though it is possible.

It is also difficult to buy train tickets without a good working knowledge of written Chinese. I had taken a year of Chinese language before I went to China, but found I was lost when it came to deciphering street signs and ticket destinations posted at crowded railway stations. The fact that Chinese don’t follow the Western practice of queuing in lines means there will be hundreds of people pushing their way to the ticket windows during working hours. But it is easy to find helpful Chinese friends since many young Chinese are eager to practice their English and want to meet Americans.


American Chinese restaurants cater to American tastes, and you won’t find anything that resembles those tastes unless you are in a tourist area. It is, however, easy to buy rice, tofu, and fresh vegetables in a street market, and cook in your room with a portable electric burner. If you don’t want to cook, you can also buy from the vending carts. Local delicacies available seasonally include fresh steamed corn-on-the-cob, baked sweet potatoes, grilled meat on a stick, pastries, fresh-roasted chestnuts, and omelet-like concoctions that can all be eaten while riding a bike or walking around. All these delicious foods are cheap and widely available in any area where there is pedestrian and bicycle traffic.


The climate in northern China is very hot in the summer, cool in spring and fall, and very cold in the winter. Dress like the locals and wear layers; you will be riding your bicycle to get around even on the coldest winter days. I wore two pairs of pants, three or four layers on top, a heavy woolen hat, gloves, and a surgical-style facemask to keep the coal dust out of my lungs when riding my bike in the winter. All these clothing items are cheap and readily available locally.


The great thing about winter in China is the long spring break, which generally starts around the end of January, at the time of the lunar new year, and lasts for a full month. Universities and businesses close and many people travel within China, so trains and buses will be even more crowded than usual. If possible, get a sleeper car or soft-seat ticket for the train. The hard seat class will be extremely crowded, with people sitting on top of one another. Expect many people to be smoking, coughing, and spitting on the floor. I wanted to get a taste of what ordinary Chinese experience as they ride the train, so I took an overnight trip in hard-seat class. It was one of the worst experiences of my years in China. A hard and tiny seat in a closed smoke-filled car crammed with people and their various smells for 48 hours was enough for me to highly recommend forgoing this taste of China.

I do highly recommend getting off the beaten path. One trip I made included leaving the train at a tiny village, walking for miles on a dirt road until a tiny open vehicle appeared and gave us a bumpy ride up a 10,000-foot mountain to a little-visited Buddhist village. I rented a room for a few nights from a family which offered me vegetables, dry seafood, and rice balls. (They ate thin and watery rice gruel three times a day since their yearly harvest did not provide enough for them to eat the “delicacies” they offered guests.) I slept on a heated “kang” or giant wooden bed-platform that covered half the room. It had a coal-burning stove built under it to heat the house. The entire family huddled together on the floor in their other room. The “bathroom” outside was a hole in the ground.

The ancient stone temples, stupas, fortune tellers, and friendly smiles made this sidetrip memorable in a way that Tiannanmen Square will never match.

Another stop included a mineral hot spring that poured out of a pipe into an ancient, enclosed stone pit where locals took their weekly (or monthly) shower before visiting temples. We then climbed for over eight hours up ancient stone steps to the top of Huang Shan (yellow mountain) where a hotel is built into the stone. In the morning, after climbing more steps, we visited temples where monks still live and practice. While visiting the Great Wall and Tien Tan are essential tourist destinations, it is important to get off the beaten track to find the true China.

Living in a foreign country will change your life, so find a grant and attend a university in a foreign country to study the language and culture. The experience is invaluable.

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