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A Guide to Life and Study in China

Go Slowly

Wuhan, China Cherry Blossom Park.
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 stand 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 too much oil, we're deaf in our small English bubble in the center of the Cultural Revolution's birthplace. Deaf to the constant 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 stood 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 am, what the man said.

She smiles as if she is about to let me in on a secret I am 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 — 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 on the train you take. And while the city's rhythms and flow are 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 from a tiny university.

Still, for anyone searching for an authentic Chinese experience, Nanchang is good. Though the city's development has gotten swept along with the larger cities' movement to modernize, the people 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 undoubtedly true of Nanchang, which has such a small foreign 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 Study Abroad Program

Pick a country you are willing to fight for. Studying abroad is demanding, 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, contact your study abroad coordinator.

An exchange or study abroad experience is too costly and time-consuming, but ultimately worth it to settle for second best. Be firm when choosing a country, yet allow for flexibility in 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 in a city that needs to be better known on the tourist circuit. It is also an incredibly independent option that is genuinely 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 only for some, so contact your home exchange office to find out the programs with which your school is partnered.

On Getting a Visa

You'll need the appropriate visa to visit, live, work, and study in China. The visa application process is relatively easy to wade through. It takes 4 days to a week to process, though expect longer delays during Chinese national holidays. For U.S. citizens, it currently costs $145. 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 holding my visa also knew when my flight left, so that is something to consider.

Also, do not be sure that applying super early is always best. Many visa types have a set amount of time to be used for entry before expiring. Those expiration dates tend to vary from visa type to visa type, so do your research, as they change constantly.

Culture and Culture Shock

So you're in China! And everything is new, exciting, busy, cramped, dirty, and you want to go home!

It's okay. Homesickness happens to the best of us, and even seasoned travelers need a familiar face, bed, and language. China is an entirely different experience that is not to be taken lightly.

If you, like me, have little experience with Mandarin, it may feel like twice as big a beast. Studying in a place with a tiny population of English speakers has been incredibly frustrating. Still, it is 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 your language can be torture for the first few weeks. However, it is an experience I am continually learning to appreciate.

Travel in China

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 or the train station, or if you are proficient in Chinese, online. There are a lot of resources for Train travel in China 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 requires a different visa. For reentry into China, you will need a multiple-entry visa. So, if you dream of seeing Hong Kong or Mongolia while still studying, apply for one before you go. There is nothing like being stranded on the wrong side of the border to put a damper on one's exchange experience.

Food in China

If you are anything like me, the amount of enjoyment you can get from a trip is directly related to what goes into your stomach. If you love spicy, fried, sour, or a mixture of all tastes, then China is 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 staples all across China. Still, 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 surrounding provinces, including Jiangxi, also tend to cook on the spicy side, so keep that in mind when choosing a program.

Consider your dietary restrictions, especially vegetarian ones. Meat of all varieties is commonplace in Chinese dishes. It is also used in many of the sauces they cook, so if you are not for meat consumption, try finding a program in a city with a sizeable Buddhist population specializing in equally delicious vegetarian fare.

Work in China

Planning on working in China to afford all those noodle trips?  Make sure that visa page says “Z” on it.

You'll need a proper work visa for China to be legally hired, which is nearly impossible. At the same time, you are a student in China on 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 is an easy and relatively well-paying means of making a little extra cash during your stay in China. Many of your Chinese teachers may even ask you to give private lessons to their children. Posting around your university or 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 28 U.S. dollars) an hour, but can go up to 80 U.S. dollars in a "Tier 1" city. That is a lot of noodles.

Toilet Matters

It goes without saying that China is going to be different. Sometimes vastly. But if you have never traveled outside the U.S., the small things may come as the biggest surprises.

For example, most Chinese restrooms are equipped with "squat" toilets and not the standard sitting-style toilets of the West. In fact, I have only been in one restroom with a Western-style sitting toilet, and that was in a Western-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, 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 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.

Going Home

Be easy on yourself, and be easy on those who are waiting for you. Not enough time is spent on genuinely preparing yourself for a return journey or accepting that while you have just gotten through perhaps the most life-changing, challenging, 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 country for a while. Much like your homesickness on your arrival, it gets better.

So, 慢慢来 my friend.

The Other Study in China Program 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. She is aiming to apply to graduate school after obtaining her undergraduate degree. Alaska isn't her birthplace, but it's home. She also traveled through Europe during high school and plans to travel to India within the next few years.

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Study Abroad in China
Student-to-Student Reports
Living Abroad in China: The Best Expatriate Resources

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