China Study Abroad – Part 1

This blog comes a bit late, as I have been back in the United States for about a week now. The reason why I chose to wait until I returned home to write this blog is for a number of reasons, but mainly it is because life in China was quite busy, and I felt that I could organize my thoughts and discuss my experiences much better from the comfort of my own home. With that said, I plan to write a number of blog posts discussing my experiences in China, ranging from topics such as school life, tourist locations, and especially cultural observations and comparisons. It may take some time, but there will definitely be more to follow.

First off, I’d like to thank the College of Business for being so supportive in my study abroad endeavors, as well as the very generous donors Mr. and Mrs. Jones. While many students have the luxury of being financially secure and being able to afford trips like this without any serious issues, I am unfortunately not one of those students, and so their help has been a blessing. It will not be forgotten.

Now, onto China. This was actually my second time being in China, the first time being last summer on pretty much the exact same study abroad program. Both last year and this year I was part of a group of UofL students studying at Beijing Foreign Studies University (北京外国语大学), or Bei Wai for short. Obviously, this was in Beijing, however we had the opportunity to visit several other cities as well, such as Shanghai, Suzhou, and Xi’an. Bei Wai is one of China’s elite universities, and it is the best and most well-known university for foreign languages. Many students that graduate from Bei Wai go on to work for the Chinese government and have very important and well-paying jobs. Anyway, being at Bei Wai provided a particularly unique experience for us, and since it was such an elite foreign language university, most of the students on campus spoke decent English. This made it really easy to make friends around campus, although there were many friendly students from other countries as well.

Life at Bei Wai for a foreigner is pretty good. There are several dorms that foreign students can stay in, and the one that we stayed in was especially nice. To start off with, it wasn’t like a dorm that you would see at UofL or any other university in America, as far as I know. It was actually more like a hotel. You have a single room, a room key, your own bathroom, and there are cleaning ladies that come by every day or so and clean your room, change your bed sheets, and even take out and organize your trash for you. I could go on, but you get the idea. So, dorm life was pretty relaxing, but outside of the dorm there was a lot of other interesting things as well. Our dorm was located at the back of the east side of campus, and so we were very close to the back gate. Outside of the back gate was pretty much stereotypical, authentic Chinese city life. Lots of great restaurants with cheap prices, tons of people walking and riding bikes everywhere, and at night especially there was a ton of trash. Some people might get turned off by the trash and the smells, but to be honest, for me it was kind of nice to get a taste of real, unfiltered China, and it was kind of refreshing to see how laid-back and carefree the people were. I’m not saying I would want to be around that kind of stuff all of the time, but it’s definitely unique and enjoyable in small doses.

Especially at night, things really pick up behind the dorm. They have areas set up outside where anyone can come by and sit down and drink beer and eat food for ridiculously cheap prices. A bottle of beer is around 3 yuan, which is less than 50 cents in American currency. And when I say a bottle of beer, you should know that these bottles are nearly twice the size of what an American bottle of beer is. The catch however is that the beer is a bit weaker than what you may find in the West. One of the popular local beers in Beijing for example is Yanjing, which is around 3.6% by volume. So while you do get a much larger bottle, the beer isn’t quite as strong. But for less than 50 cents a bottle, does that really even matter? The food is even cheaper, and for between 1 – 2 yuan, you can get some meat on a stick (similar to a kebab), such as chicken or squid (as well as other kinds of meat). You have to be careful with these items though and not eat too many, because they aren’t exactly cooked in the cleanest of ways. However, they’re very very delicious and definitely worth having from time to time. So all in all, one can have a great night, end up both full and drunk, and come away having spent less than $5 (unless you’re a regular drinker, in which case you may have to spend another dollar or two). While this may not be the activity of choice for everyone, it’s definitely worth trying.

When studying at Bei Wai though, you don’t always have the time or energy to go out and do things like what I described above. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, you’ll find yourself constantly wishing that you had more time in the day to study and practice. On the UofL summer study abroad program, students are usually in class for 4 hours a day, from 8 in the morning until noon, Monday through Friday. This leaves students with plenty of time after class to go out and explore the city. Some students choose to go shopping, some like to go to tourist areas, and some just like to walk around and see new things. Needless to say, by the time 9 or 10 hits at night, most students are pretty tired. Some still find the energy to go out and have a good time, but it definitely takes a toll on you and it catches up to you pretty quickly. This year however was a bit different for me and two of my classmates, as we were placed into a special classroom and were taught a bit differently than the rest of our UofL classmates. The reason for this was simple: Bei Wai could only guarantee two private classes for UofL, and this year we had three different levels that needed to be taught. Some students were studying at the 200 level, some at the 300 level, and I was at the 400 level (equivalent to second year studies, third year studies, and fourth year studies, respectively). The 200 and 300 level students were given their own private classrooms and were taught on their own with the schedule I described above. My two classmates and I however had the real fun.

Since there simply weren’t any available staff to create a third private class, my two classmates and I were thrown into a class that had already been going on for an entire semester. At first, this seemed absolutely ridiculous to us. It was literally the end of the semester at Bei Wai, and we’d missed a minimum of 3 months of material. Needless to say, we were a bit frustrated and overwhelmed at first. Not only this, but our schedule was quite different from the rest of the UofL students. Instead of being in class from 8 -12 everyday, our schedule ranged from Monday – Thursday, and each day was a different schedule. Sometimes we would have class from 8 – 12, sometimes we could sleep in until 10, and sometimes we would even have an afternoon class. We also had two classes, one was called Hanyu and one was called Kouyu. Hanyu focused more on actually teaching you new material and learning to read and write it, as well as grammar. Kouyu on the other hand focused on learning to speak and pronounce words better. At first, it was very difficult to adapt to these classes. Not only were we way behind in material, but it was very hard to understand everything that the teachers were saying. There were many times when we were confused and unsure of what the teachers were telling us, and many other times when we felt unable to answer questions or fully express how we felt. English was very rarely used in class, and so we had to improve our Chinese very quickly if we wanted to keep up with the class. It was tough at first, but over time we got used to things and grew to enjoy it a lot.

We were also in a classroom of students that came from all over the globe. There were students from Canada, France, Spain, Japan, Korea, Russia, Uzbekistan, and other countries as well. So, we were able to meet and make friends with a variety of different people, and that was an interesting experience in itself. I have to say however, that the Canadians were by far the most friendly and helpful, and if it wasn’t for them, life would have been a whole lot more confusing. The Canadians were the ones who told us what our schedule actually was, and were the ones that let us know what material was being covered when we first arrived. They were always very friendly, and were always up for a chat and regularly offered to share their food (they always knew where to get the best snacks too). Everyone was very friendly though, and I only regret that we were unable to spend more time in the classroom getting to know them better.

Each day after class, all of the UofL students would try to meet up and go somewhere for lunch. Usually this ended up being one of the school cafeterias, which were also very very cheap. Although the food wasn’t always the best quality, I found it to be pretty enjoyable for the most part. After lunch, we would usually relax for an hour or two, and then meet in the lobby and go somewhere out in the city. Sometimes this would be to famous areas like the Summer Palace, but many times we would go out and do some shopping. We would usually stay out pretty late, and would often eat dinner while we were out. Sometimes dinner would be at a Chinese restaurant, but a lot of times our cravings for Western food would be too much to resist, and we would go to a McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, or even more often, KFC. These restaurants are a bit different from their Western counterparts though. The buildings are usually much nicer and cleaner, and the menus are slightly different. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were pretty similar to how it is in America, at least for the items that I ordered, but there were some changes to the menus, and Pizza Hut is definitely a lot fancier and more like a real restaurant. KFC on the other hand was probably the most different, as it had a variety of interesting items on its menu. They served chicken nuggets, as well as french fries, ice cream, and even chicken sandwhiches that had things like shrimp packed inside of it. There was also a crunchwrap item similar to what one might find at Taco Bell in the USA, and some of us suspected that it was Yum!’s way of introducing China to food that Taco Bell might serve, as Taco Bell unfortunately has yet to make its way into China. All of these fast food restaurants were pretty good, but we tried to limit ourselves from them so that we could fully enjoy the Chinese cuisine available in Beijing.

After a long day of touring the city, most of us were pretty exhausted and we usually had homework of some sort. So by the time we got back at night, we were more than ready to relax, and for the first week or so, our feet would be aching at the end of the day as our feet were unused to walking so much every day and without much rest. Most days would be similar to what was described above, there were very few days where we actually spent a lot of time relaxing. Of course, it was always worth it. When you’re only in a country for such a short time, you want to see and do everything that you can, even if it means having sore feet for a little while.

In this introductory blog post, hopefully readers will be able to get a feel for what things were like for us at first, and what a typical day might have been like. I didn’t want to go into too much detail as far as specific events or places go just yet, however future blog posts will go much deeper, and I plan to write a lot more about my own thoughts and observations about the country. I have a lot to share from my experiences, and sometimes my thoughts may not appear in the most organized way, but I’ll try my best to articulate them as best as I can. Any comments or questions, or suggestions for topics to discuss, are more than welcome as well. With that said, this will end my first blog post. Look for more to follow (as well as pictures), as soon as I have the time to sit down and organize my thoughts.

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