From September 2010 to July 2011, I studied abroad in Shanghai (SH) at Fudan University. I experienced a very different China from my classmates and the experience opened up my eyes and radically changed my perception of the country and culture. Recently, I was asked about my experience by a prospective study abroad student who was planning on going to China. The advice I gave her did not seem to do my experience justice so I was compelled to finish this post that has been on draft for weeks.
This is what I would tell every American student looking to study abroad in China:
Breadth vs. depth
Early on you will have to decide what kind of experience you want from China. The amount of time you have is severely limited meaning that you will have to decide between breadth or depth. China is a large country with many sights to see and at the same time is an incredibly complex society with many layers. It is a zero sum game in that seeing sights will mean understanding fewer layers and vice versa.
After backpacking for a week, I realized I was not much of a backpacker and opted to spend the large majority of my time in SH. I got involved in a nonprofit called Shanghai Young Bakers, as well as joining a local Toastmasters chapter. A lot of my time was spent exploring and trying to understand different parts of the city. I got off the tourist path and started acting like a resident, attending expat networking events, non-profit fundraisers, gallery openings. I even became a recognized regular at a café!
This all came at a cost, as I skipped out on many of the things people expect you to see while you are in China, like the Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, and terracotta warriors just to name a few. I certainly saw the least tourist attractions out of all my classmates, but I do not regret it as I was able to see a China that was not in the tourist books. For instance, as part of Shanghai Young Bakers I was able to travel through AIDS impacted rural China and hear the stories of working class people my own age.
Not understanding Chinese, does not mean that you cannot get off the beaten path. First tier cities, like Beijing and Shanghai have large expat populations that will allow non-Chinese speakers to do unique and non-touristy things, such as partake in the local art scene. However, not understanding Chinese does severely limit your interactions and understanding of the locals.
Learning Chinese is an extremely time consuming process that will cut into your time exploring and experiencing the country. My advice for learning Chinese is to skip the university classes, which are largely impractical and instead hire one of the many student tutors. Also focus solely on learning to speak and pin yin, as these will immediately improve your ability to interact with locals and get around the country. Armed with a smartphone or iPod touch loaded with Chinese-English apps and a rudimentary understanding of Chinese, you will be able to survive 80% of your day to day interactions. For the other 20% just guess and hope for the best, it is more fun that way anyway.
Do things alone
The truth is that no matter how many friends you may have, there will be many instances where due to school, work or just general disinterest, they will not be accompanying you to what you want to do. Many times, I found myself at an event or wandering alone in SH, and though it definitely would have been more fun with some company, I never regretted it. Do not wait upon others to do what you want, or else you will miss out on a lot. Also, one plus of going alone is that it opens you up to making new and unexpected friends.
Hang with non-Americans
Arriving in a foreign land like China where you do not understand the language, the immediate impulse is to attach yourself with the familiar. I saw this happen with my classmates who mainly hung out with each other in large groups. This did not make much sense to me because I had not traveled thousands of miles to interact with more Californians. Due to my insistence on minimizing the amount of time I spent with Americans, I spent my first semester with a very international group of MBA students and then later with Singaporean exchange students. The most valuable thing I walked away with after a year in China was not the experiences or knowledge, but the friends I made that came from all across Asia.
My advice for your first day: Don’t be a robot
This post was first published at the InternMatch Blog and it is my first guest post...