Because being abroad in Beijing is a bit different
I’ve previously written, both on TSAB and studyabroad.com, about advice for acclimating to your abroad location – things like buying a cell phone, learning transportation routes, and finding supermarkets. While all of that is very practical, there’s other information and advice that’s bit more general, but also probably more helpful to know, especially in a city like Beijing.
Regardless of whether you’re studying abroad through a U.S. study abroad program, directly enrolling at a University in Shanghai, or attending a Beijing international high school, my hope is that this is helpful for anyone and everyone making the trip to the Mainland.
Beijing is a melting pot of different world cuisines
While Beijing is known for its roast duck, if it’s edible (and sometimes not), you can find it in Beijing. There are restaurants with dishes representing the flavors from the distant regions of China, the four corners of the globe, and everywhere in between. For something spicy, hit a Sichuan restaurant, for seafood a Guangzhou restaurant, and my all-around favorite, Mongolian-style hotpot. I’m not a culinary expert, but I’ve heard you can find great examples of French, Italian, Indian, and Mexican inspired cooking as well.
Western medicine and up-to-date medical technology is available
Although Chinese clinics can be found in every part of the city, Western style medical facilities with international staff (usually from the U.S. and Europe) are available in Beijing as well as in other major Chinese cities. Hospitals and clinics range in both size and quality, but there are multiple international hospitals, and many of the Chinese hospitals have a foreigner/international wing with doctors who can speak English. I’ve always gone to Beijing United Family Hospital for medical care, and I know many others who have gone to the Beijing International SOS clinic and Peking Union Medical College Hospital.
-Note: Don’t forget to sort out your study abroad insurance coverage before you leave home.
China is officially Atheist but practicing religion isn’t illegal
Although the Chinese government has been officially been atheist since it came to power in 1949, practicing religion has been permitted since the 1980’s. Buddhism is widely practiced in China, and Beijing has a good number of temples that organize programs, activities, and rituals. There are a few churches and mosques for people who practice Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and don’t forget to check your local embassy when looking for masses as they may hold services themselves.
-Note: Religion is a sort of gray are here, so it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. While it can be practiced, it can’t be promoted. Under Chinese law, “nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”
Everything is paid for in bulk and with cash
The banking system in Beijing and the rest of China isn’t quite on par with banking in the West yet. Cash, not plastic, is the preferred payment method, and in many places you still can’t use a foreign debit or credit card. You can withdraw money from just about any ATM, but take a quick flip through your money before you leave the machine as counterfeiting hasn’t died out here. If you have a Bank of America account, you can use your ATM card at any China Construction Bank without any ATM or bank charges.
There are still some major cultural differences between the East and West
You’ll experience culture shock to some degree no matter what country you’re studying abroad in, but I’d bet that most students experience it to a greater degree in Eastern countries. I’d say China is in its own class, and the way of life here may confuse you, frustrate you, and even anger you. The fact is that people live their lives according to a different cultural logic, and the key to understanding another culture is to view it without the influence of Western ideas. Here are a few tips for handling different issues:
- Personal space: Personal space is pretty much non-existent in China, and especially in Beijing. If you have a Chinese roommate, even one who has lived abroad or studied at an international school in China, be aware that they’ll probably look over your shoulder quite a bit and won’t hesitate to ask personal questions.
- Conflict: Most Chinese won’t directly disagree, and try to dodge conflict at all costs. In order to maintain good relationships and avoid insulting other people, they won’t be as direct or as blunt as you’re probably used to, and methods of solving problems can be elaborate/complicated/difficult.
- Modesty: Humility is still practiced heavily in China, probably as a means of avoiding an imbalance in relationships (i.e. not wanting to make someone looks worse than you by accepting a compliment). While there are different responses according to individual situations, keep in mind that they involve deflecting the compliment, and saying thank you isn’t the right response.
It may be a little weird at first, but the longer you stay in Beijing, the more natural acting according to Eastern cultural logic becomes.
China doesn’t resemble it’s Imperial past
I didn’t have many expectations about Beijing before I came. Even having studied China in college, most of what I had learned was from pre-1990, so trying to conceive of what it would look today was pretty hard. I will admit that when I first came to China I was slightly disappointed by the lack of “culture” and shocked by the excess chaos and confusion that this city operates under.
The truth is, China is modernizing at an unbelievable rate, and it’s an exciting time to be here. You will rarely see dancing dragons on the streets, but vivid examples of China’s past can be found even in the biggest cities. In China, history and modernity exist side by side and it’s definitely a site to see.
If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!
This post was sponsored by Yew Chung International School of Beijing, which instructs students using a bilingual and bi-cultural teaching model, and offers unique travel immersion trips through their World Classroom and Experiencing China Outside the Classroom programs.