Hi! I’m Karen Xu, a third-year triple major at UC Davis in Economics, English, and Chinese. I studied abroad for a full year at Peking University in China through UCEAP, in 2014-2015. This is a long-overdue blog post for future departees, summarizing a few things that I would want to go back to tell myself if I could! Maybe it’ll help someone someday. I hope. Also, everything that I say applies mostly to mainland China, but hey, some lessons can be applied everywhere too.
Disclaimer: Not a substitute for orientation, and definitely not inclusive of everything that you need to know.
Without further ado,
Please skip this section if not attending Peking University.
That said, if you are going to Peking University (PKU), congratulations! PKU, also colloquially known in Chinese as Beida, is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in China, alongside Tsinghua University (THU), which is actually right across the street. You will often hear Chinese people explaining them to you as “the Harvard and MIT of China,” which is not untrue. They’re both located in the Haidian district of Beijing, surrounded by many other universities as well as tech companies. Being slightly farther from the center of Beijing, and equipped with fewer factories, the air quality here is also sometimes a little better. Not by much, but sometimes slightly better.
Beida was first established as the Imperial University of Peking in the late Qing Dynasty, as a successor to the Imperial Academy. (Yes, that one, The Imperial Academy.) It was originally located in central Beijing before it moved in the 1950s to where it is today, to the former address of Yenching University (which was merged into several other universities in Beijing, including PKU). This site was also formerly part of the Qing dynasty imperial gardens, so there's a lot of beautiful scenery and old architecture that has been preserved to this day, especially towards the northern side of campus. Weiming Lake (the “Unnamed Lake”) and Boya Pagoda are two of the most famous sights on campus that tourists will always be taking photos of. (They may also try to take pictures of you, so be warned.) When the lake freezes over in winter, administration will come in to test for safety, and designate a safe area for students to skate. It’s a pretty cool place with tons of history, and I’ll let the university introduce itself once you all get there. Don’t forget to visit the University History Museum--the xiaoshiguan--located near the lake as well.
There is a sense of school pride among Beida students, and it is important to remember that this should be respected. International students, and especially exchange students or temporary scholars, are often a little out of the loop on this and put it off as just more Chinese nationalism being flaunted around. It’s not! It’s much more academic and friendly, and even though you’re technically not a “Beida person”, their culture will easily embrace you if you try to understand it. Study hard, talk to people. The majority of people I have met are actually very humble and very sweet, and mostly they’re also intimidated or alienated in turn by what they see as a kind of “party culture” among international students.
TL;DR: Beida is super cool. Be respectful and work to overcome cultural stereotypes in order to make friends. Which brings me to:
About making friends:
This is probably relevant even if you are not attending PKU.
1. Talk to people! Talk to people! Talk to people! This will be significantly easier among international students, because almost everyone is at least conversational in English. You'll meet lots of amazing people from around the globe. And definitely try to make native student friends--they’re the ones who will take you to sightsee and eat at the best hidden places, go with you to club meetings and teach you all about campus events, and help you understand Chinese culture and walk you home when you get lost. (And, of course, attempt to tutor you in classes when things start getting too hard.) They’re just as curious about you as you are about them, and they’re just as nervous to talk to you, too, especially if you don’t look Asian. A few tips:
-Students, particularly students who don’t know each other that well yet, often address each other as tongxue, which literally translates to "fellow student."
-Asking to borrow a pencil/pen/eraser in class can often be a very good conversation starter.
-You will almost always have better results trying to communicate in Chinese than in English, even if your Chinese isn't completely fluent. Also, people may be able to correct you if your pronunciation is bad, but they're just going to be very confused by bad grammar--so definitely work hard on grammar rules!
-Avoid talking about politics, unless you are already very good friends. It won't necessarily be bad, but it can be very, very awkward. Talking about history, though, or even different versions of history, is ok. (In particular, do not try to label "right" and "wrong", and if pushed into doing so, talk about past events, not current ones.) Try to do this only among students or good friends, not among other people you may meet in society.
-Also, don't just ask anyone to be your language partner out of the blue. Unless you're already friends, or paired up through a club/program, it may have connotations of being/wanting to be romantically involved.
2. Join clubs. I can’t stress this enough. Some of the best opportunities to meet people are through clubs, and Beida has a weekend every academic term when they hold what the students call "the Battle of a Hundred Clubs" (Baituandazhan, a homophone for the Hundred Regiments Offensive--a major campaign in modern Chinese history). All the clubs will come out for tabling, and you'll be able to walk through and check out which ones you would like to join! Some of my best memories come from being involved with clubs, from volunteering and playing instruments to autumn/spring outings and working as a reporter. You meet so many people and get the opportunity to do tons of amazing things.
3. If you haven’t already, download WeChat. This is so important. WeChat is so tightly integrated into so many aspects of life that I would say it's probably more important than Facebook back home. You can survive without the other social media platforms--Weibo, QQ, whatever, you'll figure those out--but WeChat is important. Some people will pay you through this; everyone will message you through this; clubs create their giant group chats on this; official accounts and organizations release news through this; ofo, the new bicycle-sharing service on campus, also operates through the WeChat platform. Download it. Use it.
On program structure:
1. First, for year programs, you’re required to spend the summer before school starts at Beijing Normal University (BNU, or colloquially known in Chinese as Beishida) learning Chinese. You can opt out by showing them that you're super good at Chinese, but unless you're already fluent to the native level, I wouldn't recommend this. There are a lot of really awesome teachers at BNU, and a lot of equally awesome students from a bunch of universities (notably Princeton and Dartmouth). BNU is actually one of the best and arguably most prestigious places to learn Chinese as a second language--even the PKU department, while perhaps more famous, is not quite as good. If you’re only seeking to learn language in China, I would actually strongly recommend BNU over any of the other programs.
2. Once the summer ends, or, for spring exchanges, once you arrive in China, you will be given a language placement test. These are administered by the university that you are entering. If you score below a certain threshold, you will be placed into a language class. If you score above that threshold, then you are eligible for opting out of language classes, and taking classes with regular Chinese students at the university. Registration is a bit of a hassle if you opt out, but it's totally doable and so worth it.
There's no need to take the HSK at any time--the placement exam will suffice. If you want to take the HSK to test your own ability or to get out of taking the placement test, they do accept that too. But hey, the placement test is free and the HSK makes you pay, so if you feel comfortable enough, I would still recommend going with the free option.
About culture and travel:
1. People outside of universities--regardless of what university you go to--will almost always be ruder, louder, and generally less patient with you. Don't be surprised. It's okay, no one hates you. A lot of this is also born from self-defense, not actual crudeness or xenophobia or anything like that. A lot of people will be very nice to you as well! The actual uneducated, socially graceless population will still be the minority. It just feels like there are a lot of them sometimes because, well, China has a lot of people.
2. However, safety should still always be a top concern. If anyone seems too nice, consider running away. Beijing is a little safer, being the capital and all, but this is still an issue. I may write a post on details later.
3. Travel is super convenient, by air and by railway. I highly recommend visiting Southern China or Southwestern China at least once! (Sichuan, in Southwestern China, is where the famous pandas are. Canton/Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, has my personal vote for best food.) Travel to Hong Kong may depend on your visa, but it's also very convenient. Tibet is nearly off-limits--you have to be registered with a tourism agency, approved by the proper authorities, and go through a bunch of money and paperwork before you'll be allowed to travel to only certain destinations. (These are citizenship limitations; Chinese nationals don't have the same problem.) It's absolutely gorgeous and some people do still go, but do keep in mind that it's a very arduous process. You can travel to provinces near Tibet such as Sichuan and Yunnan for similar experiences.
4. People will stare at you. If you look Asian and don't speak perfect Chinese--even if you are not Chinese--they'll stare. If you're non-Asian and just walking around on the street outside, they'll stare. Generally, if you don't fit in, they'll stare. Modern China is not a very heterogeneous society outside of its own cultural groups, so even though people are quite welcoming, they will also be very curious and often unintentionally rude. This is still improving year by year, and is usually not too much of a problem in universities; but be aware of it out on the streets, and feel free to correct them and explain politely if needed.
This is all that's coming to mind for now, although I may come back to edit this when I have more time. Again, to anyone who might be scanning through this, congratulations again on your decision to study abroad, and don't be afraid to be adventurous! You're going to have an unforgettable time.