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A Foreigner in the Middle Kingdom

Living, Working, and Studying in China

China Confucian Temple in China.
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 both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, people are friendly foreigners. 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 at and pointed at with whispers of “foreigner” following me everywhere. My favorite reactions to my foreignness are from children with 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 has the world’s largest population of over 1.4 billion people. As the country has gained prominence on the world stage as an economic superpower, more and more people have begun learning Mandarin. I started learning Chinese in high school and studied the language for nine years. Yet, most people I’ve met have been learning for a year or two or are just beginning their studies in China. I think foreigners who come to China without previously studying the language are very brave because they come here and cannot understand a thing. Through immersion, they also learn very quickly living in a Chinese-speaking environment.

I am spending my year abroad in Nanjing, China's southern capital. With a population of around 5 million, this is relatively small for China, especially compared to Shanghai and Beijing, which have populations of more than 22 and 30 million, respectively, and are still rapidly growing. I am glad I am here rather than in a larger city. I would feel lost in a city as large as Shanghai. Because Nanjing was the capital of six dynasties, it is just as saturated in culture as Beijing.

It is also less expensive to live here than in a larger city. Yet, 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 an extensive exchange student population, so if you are missing home or your native language, you can easily connect. A Facebook group from Nanjing expats is quite busy with all manner of posts about life in the city.

Before You Leave for China

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, it would help if you prepared 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 car at rush hour in China.
The subway during rush hour.

Practically, you must bring all the necessary electronics and Western medications. While Chinese hospitals are up to date, Eastern medicine still strongly influences China. Therefore, Advil, Pepto-Bismol, and Nyquil will take a lot of work to find. If there are any essential medicines you use or prescriptions, get them filled before you leave, but if you have the sniffles, don’t worry; there are pharmacies on every other block.

Oregon group of students in Thailand.
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. Don't take an intensive course if you want to travel more than study. If you're going to do an internship, look for a program specializing in placing students in their field of study. CIEE offers great programs for working and traveling, and Nanjing University, the university where I studied, has a large and renowned study abroad program run by the Institute for International Students. They have regular and short-term summer and winter break programs beginning each semester. Look around; in a city as large as Nanjing, there are many opportunities to find a program that fits your needs.

If you want university credit for your abroad experience, the best method is to talk to your school’s study abroad advisor. Often, a university will partner with another school abroad and offer courses matched one-to-one for credits, making it easy to transfer credits. 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 to and Around China

Once you are in China, getting to Shanghai or Nanjing is 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, which travels up to 430 km/hr (268 mph). 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; if the driver doesn’t turn it on at the beginning of your trip, you should ask to get out of the cab. While most cab drivers are great people and are an excellent chance to practice your language skills and get used to a regional accent, some will see you as easy prey and try to get more out of you in cash than they should.

YMCA class in China where the author taught children.
The class that we taught at the YMCA.

Getting a Job

As a foreigner in China, English is your most valuable skill. Tutoring and teaching jobs are in high demand here, and the starting salary is RMB100 per person per hour (around US$14). 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 can use your credit card. Ensure you have sufficient money in your checking account, and take out money in larger sums to avoid many surcharges (US Bank has a Chinese partner, but most other banks still need to be affiliated). One way to save money is to use your student ID card. Many businesses and attractions have student discounts, so bring your ID! Another great way to save money is by eating at small restaurants, buying food at markets, and making meals at home. International foods can be expensive, and Chinese food is much better than you think (Americanized Chinese food is almost nothing like the real thing)!

China soccer fans.
The fan club at a Jiangsu Sainty game.

Chinese Culture and Language Immersion

There are many ways to enjoy China's culture and language. Trying traditional Chinese medicinal practices is a great way to open your mind and experience the country's culture. 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). Traditional massages are both inexpensive and incredibly relaxing.

Try to make some Chinese friends. Language partners and classmates make great friends; they will show you around the city and take you to places you would never have 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 is 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. Nothing quite like standing on the seats, 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 are 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 amid 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 must be wary of other bikes, cars, and pedestrians when biking around. Traffic laws are not what they are in the US. Red lights are optional for bikes, and people cross when they want to. This means look left, right, and then look left and right again before crossing the street! For longer trips, take the subway, an inexpensive and vast network connecting all of Nanjing.

Food and Water and Everything in Between

When you get to a new country, you will want to try the food. China has so many different regions, all with unique dishes; you should try them. But be a savvy traveler. Only try hot foods (so that the germs are boiled away), and always boil or buy your water (tap water isn’t safe to drink unboiled).

One other practical note: bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer wherever you go. China has public bathrooms everywhere, but they often need toilet paper. All shops will sell little packs of toilet paper, 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 will undoubtedly return as a more enriched and stimulating person than you were before.

中国欢迎你! China welcomes you!

Related Topics
Study Abroad in China
Student-to-Student Reports
Articles and Resources on China

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