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China: Student Experience

The Student Experience in Beijing

Settling In & Getting Acquainted

Settling in does not come all at once it is actually quite a gradual process. You can only absorb so much in the week of orientation. When you first arrive, there will be so much on your mind. You will be thinking of your room, your roommate, your classes, the language, the food, and maybe even be missing home already.

The orientation week before school was not like registration in the States. Obviously everything was all in Chinese. Depending on your language skills at this point, you may need to ask those around you who have better Chinese to let you know what they are talking about. Many people found dealing with the seemingly pointless paperwork extremely frustrating. For example standing in line for 2 1/2 hours to switch classes. Just look at it as a cultural experience, and try your best to cooperate with local office staff. Some found that becoming visibly outraged could convince staff to change their minds.

You may hear about foreigners getting very sick when they arrive in China. I didn't get sick until about four weeks into the school year. Suddenly I was sick with various symptoms ranging from fever, to diarrhea, to constipation, all within the same week. After 3 days of constipation I went to the school clinic and I was prescribed some pills and told to eat bananas every day. Afterwards I never was sick that seriously again. So, don't worry, once the body gets over the initial shock, you'll be better for it.

During the first weeks, and even into the first three months I was feeling as though culture shock was only in books, and I, being half Chinese, was some how immune. I had the idea that I was not sensitive to all the differences. I was gung ho and ready for anything. The washing of clothes by hand the first month, the excessive smoking and spitting, the people staring at me, the non existence of toilet paper, the standard half inch thick mattress, and the language barrier, didn't seem to bother me for quite some time. Part of the reason being I found an international church early on, which I began attending. The familiarity of the service helped me a lot I believe. Months later I switched over to the local church for a more cultural experience.

Culture shock, for some has a long delay. On Thanksgiving Day, I found my self-unable to pull my mind away from Grandpa's turkey, family, and friends. It was a miserable night. The new friends I made seemed a little far off, and following was a period in which I had doubts of my abilities to learn language, and make relationships. Ultimately I was having second thoughts of my long-term goals of working and living abroad. After the long winter break I was much better though.

On the topic of getting to know some local friends I can think of no better method than joining a club. At present the number of foreigners in school clubs and associations is extremely small, which means you will get plenty of attention. I personally joined PUMA (Peking University Mountaineering Association). Besides helping me stay fit, I also have the benefit of having lots of Chinese friends. That means a lot of Chinese speaking opportunities for me. If you have a hobby or even if you don't there is a club to join. Sports, Music, Philosophy, Astronomy, and even an English corner. Club recruiting happens at the beginning of the semester for about a week, out in front of large auditorium on campus. This is a good way to make friends and find tutors, instead of randomly advertising for one.

Physical Climate (Top)

The weather in Beijing varies from hot to extreme cold. During the summer months, it is humid and hot. Winter can come very suddenly. One day you can wear a t-shirt and short pants, but you will need a sweater and jacket the next day. Winter in Beijing is very, very cold and dry. It will snow, but not very often. There will be a few nice days during spring, but the dust storms can be expected at anytime.

The city of Beijing is very large and affluent. Although Peking University is located away from the inner city, there are many stores, restaurants, and bars within walking or biking distance. The city is very busy during the daytime because the city is overpopulated. There are the usual traffic-jams during rush hour.

Housing (Top)

Housing accommodations are surprisingly flexible for the China Program (Peking campus). Students have the option of living on-campus or off-campus.

On-campus Housing

On-campus housing has 4 price ranges with varying commodities. First and foremost, the cheapest housing is $3.5/day. The accommodations for this price range are very much like a hostel. You share a room with another person and have communal showers/toilets (2 squatters and 1 sitter). The greatest advantage for this price range is that you get the opportunity to meet a lot of other international students (most foreign students stay in this price range). The "middle" class housing accommodation costs about $8/day. You have your own room and you share a suite with 2 other suitemates. The 3 of you share a bathroom. A cleaning maid comes in every day and cleans up the suite. The greatest advantage for a person staying in the "middle" class is that you can have your own washing machine in the suite. The second most expensive housing is $10/day and it is arrange very much like a hotel. You share a room with one other person and the cleaning lady comes in and cleans your room everyday. Basically, you are living in a hotel room with twin beds. Lastly, the most expensive on-campus housing costs $11/day. You have your own room. The major difference between the $11/day and the $8/day room is that for the $11/day room, you have only 1 suitemate (instead of 2). Also, you cannot have your own washing machine (due to the fact that the $11/day suite doesn't have a pipe for the washing machine). The $11/room is slightly bigger, although not by very much. Personally, for those who have problems with communal showers, I say that the $8/day room is the better deal. The worst deal is probably the $10/day room because you don't have your own room and you pay so much for it (except for those who like having a cleaning lady everyday).

For those who don't have their own washing machines, Shao-Yuan #8 and #9 offers washing machine rooms. It costs 5 Yuan for washing one load and 10 Yuan for drying one load.

Off-campus Housing
Off-campus housing is possible. People usually go through a real estate agent (to handle the contracts). The major thing that foreign students have to worry about is to make sure that they are not responsible for the tax on their housing (otherwise, the Chinese government might charge them with tax fraud). The most popular place to live off-campus for PKU international student is Hua Qing Jia Yuan. This place is about a 15-20 minutes walk away from PKU and it is located in front of the light rail station (very convenient for going to other places). It is relatively expensive, a studio for about $400-500, two bedrooms for about $700 and three bedrooms for about $800 per month.

Classes (Top)

There are two different scenarios for picking classes which are determined by your mastery of the Chinese Language. In the beginning of a semester all international students are required to take a Chinese language proficiency test. Based on the test results students are placed into different classes in the Chinese language department. For those students who achieve high scores on the test, they have the option of taking classes offered to local Peking University students.

Students studying in the Chinese language department are required to take two classes. Oral Chinese (ăSí<) and Chinese (Ilí<). There are four different levels for each category; beginner, intermediate, advanced part 1 and advanced part 2. Elective classes are offered one week into the semester those classes are grouped into different categories. Which electives a student can choose to take is based on their Chinese level (Ilí<). Some of the electives that were offered last semester are reading, essays writing, movie watching, Chinese history, Chinese characters and listening ability. In addition to these credited electives classes, additional leisure classes such as Chinese painting and calligraphy are also offered with an additional tuition fee approximate 500RMB.

If you test out of the Chinese language department, the first thing you have to do is decide on which major's department you want to study in. Once you have that figured out, then it comes to choosing classes. There are two types of classes that you can choose from. 1. All university classes, those are the General education classes in the California State University System. Students may choose to take any of those classes. 2. Major classes can only be taken, if you choose to enroll in that department. There are no regulations on which classes you can take, but be prepared if you decide to jump into upper division classes. All university class lists are posted online. Major class lists are posted in their department. Registering for classes is done in individual departments. Regulation on the amount of classes that international students are allowed to take each semester varies by department.

Any student who wishes to sit in on any of the lectures conducted by a Peking University professor is allowed.

Good luck with picking classes.

Social Life (Top)

It is extremely easy to meet a lot of international students. Thus, socializing is very easy to do at PKU. The major thing to do when you want to meet people and/or find out the latest news is to hang around Shao-Yuan#2. Foreign students have classes there and it is the usual meeting spot for most people. Most people are very sociable and it is very easy to make friends. Social life in PKU is more of a matter of how social do you want to be? In fact, the most popular expression at Shao-Yuan is that, "There are no secrets at Shao-Yuan". Everyone knows everyone (to a certain extent).

However, PKU is located quite far from the center of the city and so to go to places usually takes planning. Lots of PKU international students usually hang out at WuDaoKou, about 15-20 minutes walk (also where Hua Qing Jia Yuan is located). There are limited bars and clubs within PKU walking distances and it is quite common for international students to go farther in order to enjoy a night out in the town.

Foreign students are familiar with American customs (American media has very far-reaching effect). Thus, among foreign students, it is okay to act natural. Local PKU students are a different matter. They know of American customs but lack familiarity with it and so international students should make sure they wouldn't do anything to offend them.

Getting Around (Top)

One word:

  • Bicycle. Quite frankly it is the most convenient way to get around. If you want to travel long distances then you can ride the bicycle to where you can transfer to the more appropriate mode of transportation: i.e. bike to the subway station to go downtown.
  • A caution: There is a saying that a Beida student has at least six bikes stolen while attending the school. So just accept it when your bike gets stolen and buy another one. I suggest asking about second hand bikes. New shiny ones will only get stolen faster. If you want a nice bike think about bringing a quality lock from the states.

Keep your receipt! You may need to register your bike, or if it is stolen you may be able to use it to "claim" another used bicycle (if not your own) from the gigantic caches of recovered bicycles Beida displays periodically.

You may have visions of everybody on bicycles. Beijing is pretty big, though, and because of the influx of cars, biking has gotten more dangerous. Bikes are almost a necessity for local travel, but out on the town you may be doing more buses, taxis and subways than you thought. The bus system is convenient but you should know the name of the destination orally as well as the characters. There is also a subway system that connects Beida to Central Beijing.

Taxis are relatively cheap (compared to the States) and generally reliable. You should have a pretty good idea of where you are going, so consult a map in advance. Most of the time they will not "take you for a ride," and keep in mind that one-way streets and construction can mean that they take a different route than you would have picked. But every once in a while you'll get a new or unscrupulous driver. If you get a sense this trip is not working out, simply ask the driver to stop and pay the fare. ALWAYS get the receipt when taking a taxi. If you forgot something in the car, or if you think you have been cheated there will be no way of tracking the driver otherwise. If your taxi gets into an accident, but you are fine and not needed as a witness, you can pay the fare and leave. (The negotiations may be interesting to watch, though. On rare occasion a fight may break out. You will probably not be at risk, but watch out! And watch your pockets, they get picked during diversions.)

Money and Banking (Top)

You will be paying fees for room, incidentals and travel as well as your own food. Traveler's checks are the best way to bring money with you to China. They get a better rate than cash does. Be aware that ANY other kind of check, personal, bank check, even a money order, can take MONTHS to cash there. Bring a fair amount of ready money with you, or have ways to transfer it to you early in your stay. The amount you need will depend upon your housing situation. Off campus housing in particular often requires putting up a sizable deposit, or six or even nine months of rent up front. You also need to make sure you can pay for small medical needs up front, as the health insurance works mostly on a reimbursement system (except in cases of emergency, when you may go to a hospital that does accept American insurance, or the CSUIP office may be able to help you cover or put off costs until the insurance can pay it back).

You can open a combined foreign/local currency account at major branches of the Bank of China or other banks available in Haidian, our University district neighborhood (there is a branch office on campus, but it only deals in RMB, local currency). Although you can keep two different currencies in the same account, you will have to withdraw and convert foreign currency before using it as local currency. Save your conversion receipts! If you should have local currency near the end of your stay and need to change the money back into US dollars you will need the receipts. The idea is that they will not let you take out money you may have earned illegally in China. You can also wire, Western Union, or telegraph transfer (TT) foreign currency to China, each with its own fee, if you have someone in the States who can send it to you. You can write a personal check on your own U.S. account, but it takes 40 work-days (two months!) for this to clear. There are often limits on how much you can cash per month (this figure changes periodically and from bank to bank). One other way to access money quickly is to take a visa check card with you from your own U.S. bank. Beijing does have several banks where you can access your money with some of these cards (usually they display VISA and PLUS logos). Do be sure to check with your bank about availability in Beijing. Some banks can do this easily, and some cannot, and it seems to have little to do with bank size or international pretensions! My bank limits me to US$200 per day and charges $3 per transaction, for example. Make sure you check with your bank for daily or monthly limits and charges.

Cell Phones

One can bring a cell phone from the US as long as it meets international standards (your US cell phone company,local store, or product guidewill have this information). Once you get to China, you need to purchase a SIM card (which gets you a cell phone number, plan, and some basic minutes to use). After this, you purchase "recharge cards" (chongzhi ka) as needed. These are sold all over, mostly for China's large telecommunications giant: China Mobile. A typical purchaseis for a SIM card (phone number) at 60 RMB, plus 50 yuan worth oftalking and texting minutes--total 110 RMB. Most people easily go through 100 RMB per month.

There are ways to keep expenses low, such as paying 10 RMB per month for free incoming calls and low-cost texting (China Mobile deducts this from your phone balance on the 1st of the month). There is also a code (12593) you can dial in front of most numbers you call, for a discount. Finally, you can shop around for a plan that suits you, such as one with international access or a certain number of free text messages. Go to a China Mobile store or look for cell phone plan sales people on the PKU campus at the start of the school year.

As for buying a cell phone in China, it might be a good idea. A basic phone costsas little as200 RMB and it will have Chinese as well as English texting features. US phones usually don't have Chinese character capability. (But, if you are willing to take the risk, you can perhaps get a software upgrade for your US phone for about 100 RMB.) Chinese character capability is good for texting Chinese friends, teachers, etc.; anda cell phone with Chinese can be used to see how you would write a certain Chinese character, if you know its pronunciation. However, be careful that you get a cell phone that has "smart" (congming) text entering systems for English as well as Chinese. Don't buy a phone without testing the English texting system yourself; and don't let anyone put new software on your phone that will leave you withprimitive Enlish texting.

Shopping (Top)

State run department stores have fixed prices printed on tags, and there is rarely any bargaining. But private shops and street stalls are pretty much like a traditional market bazaar, you will be expected to bargain. Vegetables are very cheap, "jimao qian" per "jin," generally. Fruit is much more expensive, and may run several "kuai" per jin. Meat can vary around a few kuai per jin. Other products.well, what's it worth to you? The opening bid from the vender might well be high because you are a foreigner. Offer a small percentage, much lower than you would expect or want to pay, and then have fun! Remember, if you name a price and they agree, it constitutes an oral contract, and they have every right to be angry if you then try to drop the deal.

Almost anything can be bought in Beijing's various shopping malls and small stores. Large stores and shopping malls usually do not allow bargaining, but it is an expected occurrence everywhere else. When bargaining, you can cut the originally quoted price down by at least half, depending on how well you bargain. The key is not to show too much interest and walk away when the salesperson does not meet your price. He or she will most likely call you back and sell at the price you offer. If not, you can always find what you want to buy someplace else.

Health Preparations (Top)

Immunizations: Check with your doctor, of course, but there are no required shots. Hepatitis is probably a good idea. There is no immunization yet for SARS. We will all be on the lookout for its possible resurgence next winter. I feel quite confident that it will not be so severely disruptive next time around, even if it does reappear. We've had plenty of practice in dealing with it now! In any case, you will be briefed on this or any other emerging risks periodically.

Medicine: Make sure you have a year's supply of needed prescriptions. It is likely that you will NOT be able to find exactly what you use in the United States. There may be treatments that work well available to you there, but it may be a time consuming and anxiety provoking process to find out about them.

Common illness: In all my years of traveling to China I have seen two students down with hepatitis and one with chickenpox (not fun as an adult), countless "flu" like viruses (though I've never seen SARS), and many bouts of diarrhea and asthma, to varying degrees. Asthma deserves special mention because of the pollution. Most of China suffers from this problem. Beijing is a bit better than it has been in the past, but winter is dusty, even prone to the occasional sand storm, and summer can have short spells of sultry smog. On the other hand, it is usually dry, so that while I suffer a bit myself, I never have had a problem in Beijing. The wet south is much worse for me, and many parts of North China are much more polluted, so prepare yourself when traveling. It seems that students often get bad colds in their first months. This too, will pass.

Toilets and toilet paper: Be aware that you'll need to carry toilet paper with you wherever you go in China. Public toilets usually do not supply it. Also, watch for the waste receptacles with Western style toilets in public or in people's homes. Often, toilet paper cannot go in the toilet and must be thrown in the adjacent basket. "Chinese" style toilets would be "squatters," ranging from a long trough to fancy ceramic jobs. Some public toilets are extremely dirty and you may be glad they are not built for sitting upon.

Air: If you have trouble with dust buy a mask and wear it. SARS brought these items back into fashion, and you can buy an amazing variety of them from the super effective N95 to bright colored swaths with cartoon characters. The good news is that you can actually get used to it. The streets are clogged with dirty cars, and I found that unless I was in a hurry, riding in tall buses was preferable to the cheap and always available cabs, because it gets you out of the worst of the street muck.

Specific concerns for women only: Besides the trouble of having to occasionally use squat toilets and the hassle of bringing tissue around, Beijing is a large developed city and has a wide choice for consumers. It will be quite difficult to find a particular American brand, but there are certainly many other Chinese brands available. For sunscreen, beauty creams, tampons, maxi pads, and other feminine hygiene products, visit Watson, Carrefour or the Kerry Center. Shiseido, Clinique, Estee Lauder and other beauty products can be found in big shopping malls. Deodorant and certain kinds of lotion are the hardest items to be found in Beijing.

In terms of social limits or awkwardness there may be less issues than you might imagine for women, at least in Beijing. Many women dress fashionably, and not particularly conservatively, though bare shoulders and a plunging neckline may raise eyebrows or invite unwanted attention. Crimes against women are also not particularly visible here; although you should pay attention to where you are and have companions when out at night. More remote areas of China are significantly more conservative than the big urban areas.

Food (Top)

There are six cafeterias on campus, which mainly serve cheap Chinese food. Although a variety of Chinese food is offered, the cafeterias are very crowded during lunch and dinner time. Jia Yuan is the only cafeteria open all day long. The others are only open a few hours at meal times. Along with these canteens, there are a couple of restaurants near the Shao Yuan dorms. Many students choose to order food over the phone from nearby restaurants. Although it is a bit more expensive than cafeteria food, it is more convenient since the food is delivered to your building. Many complain that Beijing food is too oily, salty and spicy and may have stomach troubles in the beginning. Some people may need time to adjust to the particular style and taste of northern foods. The city offers a variety of cuisines from Beijing duck to Pizza. Directories for restaurants and cafes can be found in many free magazines i.e. ?What - Beijing, City Weekend, Metrozine.

"Street Food:" I myself have never suffered more than the occasional slight case of traveler's "trots." I do "eat on the street," but not every meal every day. The Chinese student cafeterias are generally clean (and truly very cheap), and when you bring your own bowl/utensils, or use single-use chopsticks, there is little risk of getting sick. The foreign student dormitory cafeteria is singularly unexciting most of the time, but if your intestines are suffering, it is clean and convenient and will do in a pinch.

Water: The quality of tap water is not dependable in China (and since the custom is to not drink cold water this is a low priority). Drink tea or readily available bottled water, or cool boiled water in a sturdy container. Boilers are ubiquitous. Do drink plenty of water, Beijing is dry and dusty. If you want hot/cold drinkable water on hand, you can purchase a dispenser and have those big jugs of water (15rmb) delivered to your room. Very nice in summer time.

Vegetarians: Eating vegetarian is technically easy, but socially difficult. When people eat out together or at home, they share from the main dishes, and many of those dishes will have at least small bits of meat, so dietary restrictions can cause social awkwardness. You cannot expect to special order everyplace you go (hold the lard, make mine without meat). Students have gotten into trouble for demanding that a restaurant modify their dishes to accommodate, American-style. It's your responsibility to find places that serve some vegetarian food, and there are plenty. Still, vegetables, tofu, fruit, milk, yogurt and breads are plentiful and delicious.

Traveling (Top)

Always inform your Resident Director when you go away for a short trip, telling them where you are going and when you will be back. Do not miss regular classes unless you have made special arrangements with me AND your teachers. Always travel with a reliable companion. Travel very light, watch your pocket and things at all times; understand that trains and buses can make for very dirty crowded and exhausting travels. Having said all this, though, travel in China is worth nearly every pain! You will see things you never thought you'd ever see.

Sports (Top)

Extracurricular sports are readily available in China. There are many facilities available to students. There are some gyms near campus that have ample facilities for those concerned with their personal fitness. The only thing I have to say about playing with local Chinese is: rules are different. The concept of the game is understood but there are some technical rules that are played differently than in the states. Otherwise those with an active sports life can have ample opportunity to play in China.

Things to Bring (Top)

What to bring to Beijing? You may be pondering this question right now. Before you think of all the things that you want to bring, asking yourself these questions would make making this decision a lot easier.

  1. How many times am I planning on flying back to the States during this year abroad?
  2. Do I like shopping?
  3. Am I willing to abandon things that I can't take back?

The reason to ask yourself these questions is because Beijing pretty much has everything that you need at a really cheap price. In this long year abroad you are definitely going to pick up a few things here and there. There is no way you will be able to take them all back with you in one trip, unless you are wiling to pay for the high priced shipping fee.

No matter what your answers are to the questions above, coming to Beijing with as few things as possible is highly recommended. You can buy everything here and decide on which ones you would like to take back at year-end. A few things that you should consider bringing;

  1. A laptop computer, Beida has a pretty advanced intranet system. Most local students use internet to communicate, search for events, and meet new people.
  2. A map of Beijing, this article would help you familiarized with the city that you will be staying in for the year to come.
  3. A travel guidebook on China, this would help you get to know the local scenery, places to see and watch for.
  4. A small pocket sized dictionary for you to get around in the first few weeks here in China. You will find many better dictionaries here in Beijing at a really affordable price.

A few hygiene items that you may consider bringing, because we were unable to find them here in Beijing: floss, mouthwash and deodorant.

If there are any additional personal needs, such as health related issues, you should plan accordingly. Pack light, have fun, and enjoy your year abroad.

Miscellaneous (Top)

  • I suggest skip hand washing of clothes. Find the laundry mat next to Wu Mei supermarket. It's 4rmb a load and has redeemed hours of my life.
  • Laundry still has to be dried on a clothesline. No dryers on campus. You can either put a line up in your room or hang it up on the line on the balcony.
  • Just about anything you need is available on campus. Wu Mei supermarket has everything except a butcher. On the other hand many things might be cheaper elsewhere.
  • There is a Bank of China (most reliable bank in China) just outside of the South West gate.
  • The Library at the center of campus has a computer lab and internet access.
  • Outgoing and Incoming Student mail is all handled at the post office in Shao Yuan building #7.
  • A wonderful tool for study is an electronic dictionary. Various kinds are available for around 500rmb. You will want one that has a stylus to write in characters. This will save you countless hours of flipping through the dictionary.

2007-08 Wang Family Scholarship Essays (.pdf)

2008-09 Wang Family Scholarship Essays (.doc)