I remember getting my acceptance letter to do my Masters in one of the best universities in Sichuan province and in China while I was still in Europe. Saying I jumped around for joy may perhaps be an understatement. I remember telling my family the big news and getting congratulations since they all knew how much I loved Chinese food, culture, and language. In my case, I was returning to China on my own without family after 5 years away from the country. Returning into a far advanced China compared to the China I left still presented several challenges despite how much I was ready to face it all. Perhaps you are going to China for the very first time to study, returning to China for another degree (because you couldn’t get enough and have acclimated), or are already an international student in one of the esteemed institutions. Here are some challenges you can expect to experience when living and studying in China.
1. Food, Food, Food Challenge
If you are lucky like me and wind up in Sichuan province and perhaps have African or Mexican roots, getting used to the spices used in the area will be a breeze. However, if this is not the case for you and you are residing in any area of China where the food and spices may be totally different from what you are used to growing up, then prepare your heart in advance.
As China is such a large country, each province has a cuisine unique to the area which adds variety but also some difficulty in finding what you like and can adapt to. In most areas, rice is the staple and other dishes just support it. Finding the perfect rice that will be your go to is crucial. When you arrive, get advice from others from your country on the types of foods that have agreed well with them. Personally, I noticed that I gained more weight eating Chinese rice daily. Thus, I recommend ordering some buckwheat (bulgur/tattari) rice and mixing it into your white rice before boiling at a 40-50 ratio (or whatever works for you) for a lighter more fun experience. Also, a rice cooker is a must-buy. You may also get to try out some of the highly acclaimed Asian restaurants in China and the Top 100 dishes in China
2. Everything Moves Online Challenge
From registering for classes, making payments, registering at the library, to buying things, getting groceries, or buying a ticket…etc, everything will be done online.
Thus, get the best phone data package you can afford, and a phone with a solid battery life, plus have a good translation app ready at all times. This is not actually a bad thing since less paper is wasted. However, if it is not your style, then prepare to adapt. You may like the convenience.
3. The Online Language Barrier
Tying to the second challenge, beyond having all things online, the true challenge comes with maneuvering through Chinese only platforms. In all my years in China, I still have not managed to adapt well to this specific reality. There are usually no options for English in most services being offered. As such, you must have a solid translation app and have a phone that takes good translatable screenshots.
I recommend The Baidu Translate app for those inside China who have no access to google services. This app is originally Chinese and makes some of the most perfect translations I have seen. It also translates photos with Chinese text fluidly into English and other languages and can even listen in on meetings for you and give you live translations using AI. This one app has been my best friend almost every day in China. Besides, it shows the pinyin of the translations in case you want to learn how to say it correctly yourself with the right tone.
And if you want to know more translation tools, you can go there: Translation and Language Learning
4. The 身份证号码‘Shen Fen Zheng’ only Struggle
Tying to the second and third struggle, an issue arises when you wish to utilize public services such as e-bikes for instance and are only allowed to input your Chinese ID number also known as (Shen Fen Zheng).
At this moment, you may find yourself trying to explain to the atmosphere and whoever can figure out what you are trying to say; that you were not born Chinese thus cannot own a Chinese ID number and thus can only present a passport ID number. If you are lucky, there may be an option to register for that service with your passport ID…but don’t hold your breath. Find the alternative for that service if there is.
5. The Google/ Tik tok/ Instagram Void
As an international student, you probably cannot picture a life without your savvy and smart ‘Google now’ for android users or a super sharp Siri….sorry to break it to you, but your AI partners are about to get quite dull and give dull responses as they can only access information allowed within China. Your best bet is to utilize a proxy network. For this, you must keep your eyes peeled and find out how those around you are making do.
6. Supervisor-Student Relationship
For students, particularly postgraduate level students, the dynamic of teacher-student relationships that you may be used to from your country may be totally different here. China according to Hofstede’s cultural dynamics has a high index for power distance. This entails that although your supervisor may be an awesome and fun guy, he is not particularly your buddy. The ‘distance’ should be embraced and maneuvered around wisely. Additionally, do not expect him/her to personally show you the ropes. Prepare to learn a lot on your own, from your lab mates, from the greater online family and then present results to your Professor.
7. Say Goodbye to Highly Interactive Classrooms
Tying to the last point, China’s education style is very competitive by nature and syllables are often heavy laden with content to cover. Thus, the teacher may be more interested in teaching through the course syllable that learning about your every thought and opinion on the topic. It isn’t that the teachers are bad, but that the academic style and culture is simply different.
Thus, prepare to study a lot more on your own after classes. Avoid missing a single lecture as it can come back to bite you at the crucial moment. Reviving from one missed lecture isn’t as easy as you may think.
8. Homogenous Thought is the New Norm
One incredible fact about China is that a whopping 92% of its population identify as Han Chinese leaving the remaining 55 ethnic groups to share the 8%. This means that the way of life, seeing the world, and thinking are sometimes scarily similar. One example of this kind of situation is the general glorification of ‘whiter’ skin and the idea of white being good and black being evil. If you are a foreigner and not ‘white’, you perhaps can easily get the gist. Things are gradually changing but culturally, some concepts like this still prevail. It is better to not pay much attention to these nuances and be ready to step up to address misconceptions with grace if it personally comes to involve you.
9. Holidays that Aren’t really Holidays
One of the funniest experiences for me in China is witnessing the ‘Holidays’. For an upcoming one-week holiday, institutions will ensure that their personnel work or study several Saturdays or weekends in advance to make up for the upcoming days away from work. Perhaps you can call their holidays a chance to be off work for a few days back to back for which you have already made up for rather than a holiday per se. The holidays are a highly strings attached matter.
10. The Hospital Maneuver
Lastly, one major challenge for foreigners in China is certainly maneuvering through the hospital systems when ill, discussing with the doctors accurately about your condition can sometimes be a challenge as just a few may be able to communicate in English. As everything is in Chinese, point 2-3 come up as well. Thus, your best bet is once again a solid translation app, or better still a gracious Chinese friend that can tag along.
Studying in China holds similar challenges as studying anywhere else where English is not the first language. One can either capitalize on the negatives or build upon the positives like the availability of resources, cheaper but high-performing gadgets, advanced education, experiencing a new culture, opportunity to learn the Chinese language and get changed. At the end, you may become like many of us who have fallen in love with China despite it all and recognize it as a home away from home.
Written by Dr. Sandra Chukwudumebi Obiora (思言): Founder and Author of Apoetsbrain.