I am on my year abroad in Beijing, and let me tell you, it’s quite nuts. I’m attending Beijing Language and Culture University, which to be fair has a really cool campus, and has lots to do in the surrounding area. However, all the stuff you have to do to register and actually be able to attend the uni is stressful to say the least.
Fees and payments:
There is so much to pay for for a start. There’s extra health insurance which is compulsory for students attending the uni (800 yuan for the year), on top of the travel insurance I’ve already paid for, then the compulsory health check (which includes blood tests, which has left me with a big bruise, and an x-ray) which can only be to make sure we aren’t carrying any contagious diseases I assume (400 yuan), then accommodation which is a shared room with bathroom, but sadly the TV and fridge currently don’t work (600 yuan deposit and 10,640 yuan per semester), then wifi (120 yuan per month), and that’s not including the money to get stuff for your room to make it more comfortable, and to put credit on your campus card for food and such. That’s about £1,600 I’ve spent in total since I got here, not including flights and anything bought at airports. So my advice is be prepared to pay for everything if you go on a year abroad to China, it’s a necessary evil for the adventure of a lifetime.
Going back to the health check, it was pretty… I want to say violating but it wasn’t quite that severe. There isn’t much bedside manner is what I mean, they are more concerned with getting through the queue than if you feel uncomfortable that they just pulled your top up to do an ECG… The bruise I got from them taking blood is currently bright purple and probably is 1.5 inches in diameter, luckily it’s not too sore. Once it’s over though, it’s over and you don’t have to think about it again. Unless you fail it that is, in which case: bye bye China, time to go home.
Registering is a bit of a faff, you have to have all the correct documents, a Chinese phone number, 3 passport photos and only once they’ve checked it all do you finally get sent to have a proficiency test to see what level you should be studying at. Then you get sent for books, and get your goody bag. That bit is quite pleasant actually. You get a t-shirt and a badge and all the welcome books you could need. Once you’ve got all this out the way all you have left to do is pay for your wifi, and you’re pretty much sorted. It’s all stressful at the time, and in the heat you will just want to lie down and not get up again until it’s all sorted, but you just have to power through so you can head back to your air conditioned room and try to get your VPN online to Skype your parents and ask them how long it will take to mail over some Dairy Milk from the UK (the answer is approximately a month, and it is far too long to wait, just nip to the nearest shop, they seem to have a large supply of Kit kats and Toblerone which will just have to do).
Settling in and the first night:
I’d say if you’re going to go exploring, try and go in a group, not just for safety but for comfort too. I was on my own when I arrived, it was the worst 12 hours of my life, probably. Didn’t know the area, hadn’t bought any water or toilet roll, so was stuck dehydrated and having to put aside tissues for the bathroom, and keep some because I was crying my eyes out pretty much till morning. My parents stayed on the phone with me for the most of the night and kept me from going completely mad, they were pretty much the only thing keeping me grounded. Making sure you have a guaranteed way of contacting home will be a major comfort. Most phone companies will do some sort of travel contract fee. For Vodafone it’s £5 a day to use your normal contract in a foreign country, which for the first couple of weeks while settling in for me is totally worth it. So I managed to get about 4 hours sleep the first night, then headed down to reception in at 9am to find a shop in the accommodation selling refrigerated water amongst many other strange and wonderful things. Then I met up with the rest of the girls who arrived the next morning, and from there on everything got better. (Though lesson learned, always carry a spare bottle of water and loo roll when traveling to a foreign country!)
I’d say for your first night, just try not to panic. You will panic of course, and that’s completely fine. It’s scary, and it’s stressful. You’ll be tired and not sure how you feel. You might be excited and terrified, or just plain terrified. However, I promise it will get better. And if it doesn’t, you can go home. If it’s not right for you, it’s not, and that’s okay. Just give it a couple weeks. Try not to make any rash decisions, cause once you’ve got your bearings and made some friends, it’ll all get a bit easier.
I will warn you now though, it is very likely you will get a bed that looks comfy but is actually hard as a rock. I have spent roughly £30 on duvets from a small vendor across the road to try and pad it. So far this is not proving to work too well as I am still waking up with major back ache, but I saw a mattress in a shop today for about £50 which I feel I may have to invest in if I want to get a good night’s sleep. I am greatly missing my memory foam mattress back home right now. Never underestimate the wonderfulness of home comforts, they make all the difference.
Everyone, and I mean practically every person you meet in Beijing, will have WeChat if they have a mobile phone. Which is great, cause you just get them to scan your WeChat QR code, add you, and there you are with a brand new friend. You just have to download it on the app store and it uses internet to message people. Get your family and friends to download it back home too, that way you don’t have to always have your VPN on to keep in contact. Just set up your group chats and off you go, almost like normal! You can send photos and stickers, and even use it to call and video chat. Though I’d recommend using wifi if you are going to do that to stop you eating up data. It’s so useful though, and a great way of keeping in touch with everyone you meet.
If you are vegetarian, I warn you now, you’re in for a tough time. I’m pollo-pescetarian, which means I only eat poultry and fish. I usually just say I don’t eat red meat, but that can often become ambiguous. That in itself is a food challenge, especially as I can be quite picky about what I do and don’t like. I am up for trying new things, but if I don’t like it, I cannot stand it, so sometimes it can be challenging to find something I know I’ll like. The canteen on campus has a wide range of food options, but the cross contamination standards are no where near the level of that in the UK, which is not so fun. Once you’ve found something you like though, it usually tastes amazing and you can stop worrying a little bit more. There is an international restaurant hidden away on campus called Hope, it serves chips, and that was honestly all I needed to know before going in and making myself comfortable. They do pizza too, but the cheese is… hard to describe. Some say sweet, I think it was kinda milkier than normal cheese… In any case, it wasn’t quite right on a pizza, but if I was hungry I wouldn’t turn it down, after all it’s the closest we’ll likely get to food from home here.
If you’re up for trying anything and don’t have allergies, you’ll be totally fine. Just be careful if not though, servers aren’t too happy if you take ages to figure out what you want, or how to say “can you not put *insert ingredient here* in please?”, speed seems to be everything here.
So far I’ve only used taxis to actually get from A to B if I couldn’t walk it. Some have seat belts, some don’t. People will peep their horns constantly, and even sometimes drive as if there were five lanes when there are only four. Scooters and bike are to be both feared and faced off confidently. If you are walking anywhere you will encounter motor-scooters. They will drive at you at incredible speeds, and likely play chicken with you. Move out the way, but don’t be intimidated. Just do what everyone else does. I tend to have the mentality to keep going and just make sure to not get hit, but not be over cautious. If you keep jumping out the way, you’ll likely end up jumping into the way of some other traffic.
Metro and buses have not been tackled yet. After everything I’ve seen of them, the overcrowded pushing and lack of personal space makes me want to avoid it. It would be quite the experience, but I’m not sure I’m up for it quite yet.
Pack light clothes, but also think about if you will be there for winter. For some reason I expected winter to come sooner than it has, and I have only brought jeans to a country which is currently 29 degrees Celsius during the day. It’s bearable, but not exactly pleasant. Also trying to find anything here in my size is not easy. I have seen nothing yet that is above a size 10, and even then it would be tight. So try and think ahead about all that when packing, cause average sizes for shoes and clothing is a lot smaller here.
Bring stuff to decorate your room with. I brought a pack of photos and some bluetac so I could make a nice collage on my wall and feel a little closer to home. Little things like this make all the difference. There’s lots of stuff you can just get when you get here, however the sense that you’re not as far away from home as you actually are is not so easy to find. Things from home make the white walls and the empty desk seem a little less foreign.
Get stuff to share. Nothing says friendship like sharing a pack of chocolate or cookies with those people you’ve just met, who turns out are also from your home country, and are trying just like you to form some sort of group that makes the rest of the city seem less frightening.
Classes start on Monday. 8:30am-11:40am Monday to Friday, so I’ll have to get up earlier than I’m used to but at least it’s afternoons off. Gives me plenty of time to study and work on uni assignments that have to be sent back home, and time to relax of course.
The next four months will be hard. Then I get to go home in January, and yes it will be my first Christmas not at home, and that will be a difficult day to get through, but it’s something I can look back on and say I became stronger for it. I’ll be home in January though for Chinese New Year, and be able to enjoy that time with family and friends before I have to come back for the second semester. I don’t want to wish away this time here, it’s an amazing opportunity, not only for improving my Mandarin but also for opening my mind, helping me learn that the world isn’t just what I see out my front door. We know it’s different out in the world, but we don’t understand it, we don’t really see it, and it stops us from fully appreciating what we have at home. This is an opportunity to push myself, to work on projects that inspire me and help myself realise what I’m capable of. I know that sounds cliche and soppy, but it is true. And I know I won’t always make the most of it, but I’ll try. Yes, there will be days where I cry my eyes out and beg to go home, but that’s just being human. You can’t be hard on yourself for not always having perspective, but you still have to try to every moment that you can.
Year abroads are for learning, of course, but they are also for adventure. They are for finding yourself, even if you thought you knew exactly who you were before, because surprise, surprise: people change. I will grow and change and mature this year. I’ll make mistakes and make amazing decisions, and hopefully come out the other end so glad I went to Beijing for a year and wonder why I was ever so terrified of it all. All I have to do is remember that how things look at night on your own isn’t an accurate view of how things actually are. There is always a way to get through the hard times, you just have to keep going and fight for you want. If you do that, it’ll all work out in the end, one way or another.