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An Insider’s Guide to Studying Abroad in China


Now that we’re on the home stretch of our study abroad programs, Rachel and I are beginning to reflect on our time here, and more specifically, think about the things we wish we had known or done before we came to China. While this list is by no means exhaustive, we hope that these thoughts will lead you in the right direction!


Think long and hard about what you want to spend your time doing.


Are you looking to purely develop your Chinese language skills, or do you want to learn about China? Do you want work experience or do you just want to focus on your studies? There are a wide variety of programs in China that focus on different avenues, and some even offer a mix; our program, for example, offers area studies courses, language immersion, and internship placement. And be honest with yourself: do you want to spend time studying or traveling? Sightseeing or hitting the books? Lots of students like to take it easy while they’re abroad, and there’s really no shame in using your study abroad as a way of experiencing a culture and lifestyle you wouldn’t otherwise encounter – we’re of the opinion that you can learn just as much, if not more, by spending a couple of hours wandering around a hutong as you can in a lecture on global finance. But do your best to figure out your interests before you go, because you don’t want to end up feeling like you’re wasting your time, orstretched way too thin.


If you haven’t yet, try to learn a little bit of the language before you go.


You don’t need to be an expert or spend hundreds of dollars on tutoring, but absolutely grab a phrasebook and pore through some of the absolute must-knows, like “chicken,” “noodles,” “phone number,” “laundry,” etc. Learn how to count from one to ten. If you’re taking a long flight to reach your destination then use this time to learn some of the basics. Spend the time, it’ll pay off.


As you would probably do at home, set a regular budget for yourself, and try to hold yourself to it.


Compared to the United States, living in Beijing is cheap, and you’ll be shocked at how far $50 USD can go at keeping you in diapers. But beware! Because of this, it’s easy to justify more day-to-day purchases, and a few kuai here and a few kuai there can add up to a lot. Many an American abroad student’s bank account has been irrevocably damaged by too many visits to the Pearl Market, so be smart and try to avoid the abroad budget blues.


If possible, consider staying longer than the usual semester.


If you’ve never been, China’s a place unlike anything you’ll have ever encountered, and it’ll likely take a month or two before you really start to feel comfortable. And pretty much right then, you have to go home, which in our minds is super lame. So, while we don’t advocate you sign yourself off for a year in a place you’ve never experienced, see if it’s possible to extend your stay. Keep in touch with your advisers and find out what you would have to do to make up for the extra time spent in China? At what point would you have to decide whether you’re staying in China or returning to your university? Do your best to keep your options open, because if you’re like us, the time may go by far faster than you’d ever have expected. Also, try to have these conversations before you leave, because the time difference alone can make it difficult to keep in touch with people back home.


Beware of the Chinese time capsule – take care of the big things for when you return before you leave.


As many of us have experienced, trying to register for classes, secure internships, or land housing for the following semester while abroad can be a headache. Add in a twelve- or fourteen-hour time difference with China’s rather unreliable internet and your headache might become an all-out nightmare. So, before you leave, ponder the things that you’re going to have to take care of when you return, whether it’s getting in touch with the right people ahead of time, or starting to craft a schedule for next semester. Your sanity in China will thank you for it.


Get a reliable VPN before you arrive.


This is critical if you’re looking to keep in touch with your friends back home on Facebook, or more importantly, make all of them extremely jealous with your epic Great Wall pics. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, but once you’re under the watchful eye of the Great Firewall, it’s quite difficult to get a VPN… without a VPN.


Get the recommended vaccines 4-6 weeks before you plan to travel.


While there are no required vaccinations before traveling to China, the CDC suggests to first get updated on the routine shots. In addition to those, it might be beneficial to get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, and Polio. If you plan to be spending time in rural areas of China, then you should also get the Japanese encephalitis  and rabies vaccines. Some parts of rural China have also seen some outbreaks of Malaria. It would be a good idea to discuss your travel plans with your physician to determine exactly what vaccinations you may need.


You should pack light, but make sure to bring things that you can’t find in China.


I am a classic over-packer, but I tried really hard for China to leave things behind. I was told countless times before I left that I could find almost anything I might need in China. Here are the few exceptions to that rule I have discovered. 1) Deodorant. China has it, but there’s no guarantee of when or where. When you do find it, there won’t be many choices, and it will be incredibly expensive. 2) Dental floss. I’ve seen the strange flossing sticks in convenient stores. But if you’re looking for good, old-fashioned floss, you’re going to run into some trouble. 3) Good shoes. I wish, more than anything, that I had brought my rain boots. I can’t tell you how many days I have walked around Beijing with wet feet. I’ve also gone through two pairs of boots since August. We’re supposed to go to Tibet at the end of the semester, and I’m afraid I won’t come back with all of my toes. I’m now scrambling to find warm, dry shoes that will last more than a week, but all I can think about are those wonderful rain boots I left at home. On the topic of shoes, my taller friends have had a good bit of trouble finding clothes and shoes that fit them. The biggest size shoe I have seen in China has been a U.S. men’s size 11, and that was a miracle. If you’re in desperate need of larger sizes, the Silk or Pearl Markets usually have slightly larger sizes to cater to foreigners.


Make sure to get your prescriptions filled for the time you’ll be abroad prior to you departure.


Getting a foreign prescription filled in China is a long and arduous process, if it’s even possible at all. It’s best to bring a supply that will last you until you head back home. China also uses a different scale for measuring vision. While you can get contacts in China, it might be easier to just bring some from home. Or if you’re looking for a new look, China is known for having considerably cheaper glasses. One of my fellow classmates got a new pair for under $20 USD. She got her vision measured and received her new glasses all in one trip. Like deodorant, it’s also difficult to find foreign, over-the-counter medicines in China, so I suggest you stock up on your cold and sinus remedies as well.


Bring gifts from your home country.


It’s the end of your trip, and you want to give your host family/teachers/friends something to remember you by. You could buy them something from China that they could get anytime they want, OR you could give them a piece of your home country that they may never have been able to get otherwise. For instance, I am from Louisiana which is renowned for its Crystal Hot Sauce. Try to pick something small that will travel well. If you can’t think of anything specific to your hometown, why not buy some chocolate or other candy not commonly found in China. If you’re looking for more inspiration, how about some DVDs or movie memorabilia? If you want to give them something they can actually use, then try vitamins. Vitamins are surprisingly cheaper in other countries, like the United States. So pack the Flintstones Chewables to impress your new Chinese friends.


Check your airline’s baggage policy.


Now that we’ve told you what and what not to bring, you’re probably wondering what to do with it all. As an over-packer, I am very familiar with overweight charges on my luggage. However, it may be a more frugal idea to pay for an extra bag. Before leaving, check your airline’s prices on overweight luggage and extra bags. You might find bringing several lighter bags to be cheaper than over-stuffing one or two.


To bring or not to bring your smart phone?


If you decide you absolutely need to bring your smart phone with you, you’ll need to get it unlocked. Having gone through the ordeal of battling with my service provider and all the other nonsense involved, I don’t think it’s worth it. However, data plans are available for purchase in China. If you’re not planning on dealing with a Chinese data plan, then you’re better off just buying a pay-as-you-go phone in China. With this option you buy a basic phone and SIM card to put in it. To add minutes you can buy a calling card. The process is very simple, and I personally think this is the best option. However, if you have helpful apps for learning Chinese or something equally useful in a foreign country, then you may want to consider bringing your smart phone along anyway.


Choosing to study abroad is not an easy decision. We hope these tips make your preparation a little less stressful. Remember why you’re studying abroad in the first place: to immerse yourself in a new and exciting culture. Don’t sweat the little things. Everything will work itself out in the end. If you start to feel yourself getting overwhelmed, just think about how lucky you are to be exploring the mysterious land of China.



BY Christian Allen from CHINA WORLD