By William Matthews, on 23 November 2011
Settling in to a new environment is never easy. And coming to study in China is no different. Actually, before coming here to study I had visited China four times, to travel, teach English and carry out my dissertation research. When I first came here, I fell in love with the country. The subsequent times I felt glad to be back. This time, however, I was terrified.
Now, I love it here. Studying in Beijing is brilliant and BLCU’s teachers are incredibly good. The campus is beautiful. The people are friendly. It is easy and cheap to get into the city centre. The food is good and very well-priced. There are plenty of opportunities to go sightseeing. And, of course, everyone’s Chinese is progressing incredibly quickly. I wish I had kept all this in mind when I arrived; I hope this post can provide some advice to anyone else who comes to study here on how to get through the difficult phase at the beginning.
The first few days here were an odd mixture of jet lag, loneliness and incomprehensible bureaucracy. What follows is a list, in no particular order, of things to expect when you arrive.
1) There are relatively few Chinese students here, and you may well need to go out of your way to meet them, e.g. by putting up a poster explaining you want to make Chinese friends or find a language partner. DO THIS. Every Chinese student I have met here has been very friendly and eager to introduce China and learn about England. Many of the best friends I have made here are Chinese. If you do not do this then why study here?
2) Most students here are international – this is provides a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I never imagined I would meet people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Peru, Cameroon or North Korea.
3) Do not expect to rely on English when you arrive – though English can get you through the complicated registration process (just about). Learn some Chinese before you get here.
4) Making friends can seem incredibly difficult when you first arrive. Very few international students come from English-speaking countries; with the exception of the odd American or Canadian (and, very, very occasionally, another Brit), Chinese is the common language for me and my classmates. This might sound obvious – but remember how you felt when you started university. And then imagine that but with only around one in every ten people speaking English. It can feel very lonely; for the first few days you may very well not meet another English-speaker, but there will be plenty of Koreans, Japanese and Russians talking happily with each other in their native languages. You will get a very good idea of how it feels for a foreign student in the UK. So, all the more reason to approach people and say “ni hao.”
5) Find things to do in the first week. The first few days do not have lessons, and all you will need to do is the occasional registration procedure. This is the perfect time to explore Beijing; if you are serious about learning Chinese, you will find that your supply of free time rapidly runs dry.
6) The bureaucratic procedures can be extremely frustrating. BLCU’s website offers a helpful list of registration hurdles. Read it. http://www.blcu.edu.cn/lxsc/en/Registration.asp BUT bear in mind that although from reading this you may get the impression this can all be done in a day or two, the process is actually drawn out over about two weeks. I arrived with a day to spare before the official start,thinking I would need it to get all this done. I got to step three by 10.30am on Saturday and was told that I couldn’t continue until Monday. The process itself has a very clear structure in hindsight; what can be frustrating is the fact that this structure is not clear from within (if that makes any sense…). Especially with the visa…
7) Do not book a flight to anywhere (including within China) for the National Day holiday, unless you are absolutely sure your Residence Permit will be ready. Around a month into the term, there is a week’s holiday for National Day. So I booked a plane ticket to Singapore. Little did I know that obtaining one’s Residence Permit (one of the items on the registration list) takes two weeks (not the five days listed on the Beijing police department website) given the amount of traffic from university registration. So I had to cancel the ticket. The visa you get for studying here is only valid for a month, and it is void if you leave China without having upgraded it to a Permit. Getting a Permit means handing in your passport. Your passport is the ONLY valid form of ID you have in China, and you need it to take a domestic flight too. However, if you have Korean or Japanese nationality you may already have your permit by this point; this is because the registration is staggered according tot he number of students from each country.
8 ) You will have a roommate. Luckily my roommate is great and we get on well. If you are used to having your own room at university in England, this is a big change. You will both share a room about the same size as a typical UK dorm room. Also, you will more than likely have to speak to each other in Chinese – the university makes a special effort to pair people with roommate from different countries.
9) The workload (if you genuinely want to improve your Chinese) is huge. You will be learning around 150 new words per week, with homework every day. I will do another post another time about studying. For now, suffice to say that the teaching quality in incredible. And the style is Chinese – this is incredibly effective, because it emphasizes memorization. However, our education system does not prepare you for this; you will be extremely busy.
10) Culture shock. I will probably do another post on this at some point. If, like me, you have been to China before, then you will be used to a lot of the major differences. If you have not, then you must be prepared to immerse yourself into an entirely different culture. From the start you must try to be as objective as possible – this can be very difficult. Living in another country is not at all like travelling through one.
That’s all for now. And I hope it hasn’t put you off. If I can think of any more on this theme I will post it.