Things I Wish I Knew Before I Studied in China…part 1

WangfujingStudying abroad in China is not an experience to be taken lightly. You’ve already done a ton of research, selected the language program that fits your academic goals and needs, invested in a sweet new suitcase/backpack/all of the above and purchased your very first solo-plane ticket (to Asia, no less!).The build up before your trip is an exciting time – you’re getting each of your ducks in a row, saying final “good bye’s” to family and friends, sneaking in Chopsticks practice so you don’t look like such a loser when you’re actually trying to eat in China (note: we all look like losers, it might be a lost cause).

But amidst all the excitement, joy, and packing fervor, it is important that you take some time to sit down and think critically about what you hope to accomplish while you are studying abroad in China. Are you there to experience? Are you there to learn? Are you there to make friends? No matter your intentions, identifying them early on will help you have a successful time while abroad. I studied abroad in China three different times in three different cities – each experience more deeply rich than the last. I have picked up a thing or two along the way, and for those coming to China for the first time for studying abroad, I am here to offer my two-kuai of advice. Here’s a list of things I wish I had known before I studied in China. Read on and, for those who feel like China pro’s, feel free to chime in in the comments and share your own perspectives!

1. Chinese friends are hard to make

There are 1.3 billion Chinese people on the planet – you’d *think* the odds are stacked in our favor to become friends with at least 1 or 2 of them! The reality is, it is very difficult to find, develop, and keep relationships with Chinese people. This might be for a variety of reasons – language barriers, schedules that don’t align, an inability to connect on the deeper level that friendship requires. I should note that it is not IMPOSSIBLE to make Chinese friends and it is well worth the effort. An easy first step is to find a Chinese boy or girl who would like to be “language partners” with you. In this way, you can make friends AND improve your Chinese AND get unique insight to China’s youth culture. Win, win, win!

2. Not speaking in English regularly takes great discipline

Turns out that it is extremely difficult to avoid speaking English when other English speakers surround you. No matter what my initial goals for pledging to only use the Chinese language were, it was inevitably a HUGE hurdle to maintain my language commitments. There are excuses-a-plenty for slipping back into my native tongue, but none of them genuinely contribute to my overall learning and cultural experience. It may mean being awkward and ignoring friends from your university, or striking out on your own to only hang out with Chinese people – either way, if you are serious about learning Mandarin, you seriously need to consider the people you surround yourself with and evaluate your commitment to language learning.

chinese bathroom3. Your shower will probably be above the toilet

I would’ve never guessed that my family camper had a nicer shower system than most Chinese apartments. If you decide not to live in a campus dorm or a western-style apartment, you can expect full well that the “bathroom” is really more like a “wet room.” Rock out to that compact shower space!

4. You don't have to physically remove your pants before using a squat toilet

Maybe it was the fear of wetting my pants, maybe it was the lack of knowledge of what angle it comes out, maybe it was just plain stress, but I for the life of me could not figure out the squat toilet (as a woman) when I first arrived to China. Pro tip: you can leave your pants on.

5. Restaurants are like pet stores

Don’t be alarmed if you walk into a Chinese restaurant and are greeted by many tanks filled with fish, frogs, turtles, etc. No, it’s not a pet store. No, you shouldn’t ask to hold one. It’s just fresh meat for the delicious meal ahead.

6. One “block” can mean half a mile

Damn, these streets are LONG.

public toilets7. Avoid public restrooms

Think of the most horrific bathroom possible. Welcome to China! Avoid using public restrooms WHENEVER possible – get in the habit of scouting out decent restroom situations as you go about your day. McDonalds and KFC are always a good back up. Honestly, the only thing worse I can think of than a public Chinese restroom is being locked in a porter-potty and flung down a hill.


8. Always carry reserve toilet paper

Nothing is more awkward than racing to the toilet to relieve yourself only to realize there isn’t a square of toilet paper anywhere. Instead of air drying / pulling your pants up regretfully, bring emergency reserves of toilet paper in your pockets or bag. You’ll thank me later, I promise.

9. Stay longer

When you choose which CSA program you will study abroad in China with, ignore that little voice creeping into the back of your mind saying “Sheesh, a month seems like a long time!” or “A 2-week program should suffice.” When I planned on moving to Beijing for a year, my mind could hardly grasp the concept of not seeing my Indiana home for all of the seasons, the holidays, the family ups and downs. It felt like an eternity. I thought I would rock a year abroad and come back a full-fledged Chinese speaker. How wrong I was. Turns out… 1 year isn’t as long as I thought… … and it certainly isn’t long enough to master Chinese Do yourself a favor and plan to stay in China for as long as your schedule allows. Studying Chinese is not a magic skill that develops with intensive study for 1 year. It certainly helps, and definitely benefited my language skills overall. But it still wasn’t enough. When it comes to Chinese, quick fixes are a no-go.

Stay tuned for part 2 of the things I wish I knew before studying in China!



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