Advice for students about to spend a year in China – what to prepare and what to expect on arrival
As much as they might try, no one can quite prepare you for spending a long period of time living in a completely unfamiliar country to your own. Whether you study Chinese and a year in China was always part of the plan, or if it was a last minute choice to apply for a sandwich year there, you’ll need similar advice. For most people you’ll initially be out of your comfort zone, but you’ll soon be glad you dared to go so far, because the experience will be life changing. If you haven’t previously studied Chinese or learnt about Chinese culture before going, you may have less knowledge about what to prepare. It’s really not as simple as a trip to Europe, but it’s not impossible if you know what to expect when you arrive. Here are some tips to prepare for a smooth transition!
Here are some recommendations for before you leave; first of all, definitely make sure you leave plenty of time to sort out your visa. For people who are travelling to China, you tend to have to be invited and provide proof of an invitation from a resident. There’s a long screening process about your career and your intentions whilst there. However, student visas tend to be a little more simple as your Chinese University will provide you with an invitation and usually your address (and of course, intentions). However, things can definitely still go wrong. In the summer, it can be difficult to get a quick appointment at the Chinese visa application centre, so make sure all your information is correct before your appointment, in case you can’t book another before you leave. You absolutely can’t get on that flight without at least a temporary visa! Some key things to check is the duration of your stay on your application – make sure it encompasses the full time you’ll be there. It’s very easy to accidentally apply for a 6 month visa instead of 1 year – this isn’t the end of the world, but it will be complicated to apply for another 6 month visa when you’re already in China.
If you’re staying for 1 year or longer, once in China you’ll need to apply for a residence permit. Your university will organise a day when every international student can do this. If you’re at a large university, this will inevitably take a long time, so again, make sure everything is in order before that day. You’ll need a passport photo for this – but pay attention to their regulations! The photo I used both for my visa and my passport was rejected in China for my residence permit because both my ears weren’t visible! It added an extra hour to the process getting a new picture and queuing up again. If you’re staying on your campus dorms, as this application is going through then your university will register you will your local police station. If you’re staying off campus however, then you’ll have to apply yourself. You can only do this after you have a residence permit, and the university should direct you to your local police station. If this is daunting or you don’t speak Chinese, go with a group of international students. Importantly, your university will take your passport for a couple of weeks as your residence permit goes through. So make sure you do everything that requires your passport before you’ve applied (fundamentally – setting up a bank account, and converting money). You will need your passport to do most official things, as it will be your only valid form of ID. So set up a bank account or make sure you have sufficient RMB before you apply for a residence permit!
You’ll need a health check if it’s your first time in China. Even if you’ve had a check in your home country, you’ll most likely need evidence from a Chinese hospital. The university will usually organise for a international students to head to a local hospital in multiple congregations via coaches that will take you there and back. This is the best way to go, especially if your Chinese is a little shaky, as on those days the hospital will be completely set up for international student health tests! Don’t be too worried, you won’t be made to do anything out of the ordinary. One pre-warning is that there is an X-Ray that requires you to strip down to your underwear (behind the privacy of a curtain) so wear something substantial. Before going, I would personally recommend taking a supply of regular painkillers such as Paracetamol or Ibuprofen. You won’t be able to find it in China and may not be brave enough to navigate a Chinese medicine shop for an alternative. Most of their medicines will be herbal and definitely beneficial, but if you’re feeling lowsy you may just want something familiar. I’m sure it goes without saying, but if you’re prescribed any other medication, make sure to take a supply for the year.
Don’t forget – China has a firewall over most foreign social media sites. If you weren’t previously aware of this you might not have realised the gravity of it, but believe me you truly won’t be able to access any of your favourites sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and now even Whatsapp. For those who understandably can’t live without being in contact with their friends and family at home, make sure you download a VPN before you go, it will be a lot tougher to access once you are already under the firewall! There are various free ones but I have heard that as access gets increasingly restricted, paying for a VPN subscription is your only choice. If you’d rather fully immerse yourself in Chinese life, and you don’t feel like technically breaking the law, make sure you have WeChat (also known as WeiXin in Chinese). All your Chinese friends will have it, and it will also become your sole mode of contact with international friends you meet in China. I recommend getting your family members and close friends to use it to contact you too. WeChat actually has many convenient features geared up for life in China, once you’ve set up your Chinese bank account you can connect it to WeChat Pay, accepted almost everywhere, even most street vendors and taxis! The great thing about WeChat Pay is that sometimes you can head out with nothing but your phone. We even got some of our class information and results through Wechat. Trust me, you’ll miss the universality of it when you leave… Finally, you may be surprised that the firewall actually includes Google, and therefore Google maps. You can use your in-phone map application, however sometimes they’re not that accurate, as they haven’t been designed for the ins and outs of a rapidly evolving Chinese city, such as Beijing or Shanghai. If you can read Chinese, I personally would recommend Baidu maps. It’s incredibly accurate for directions and public transport. One feature I really loved was that it told you when you get off the bus – Google 0 Baidu 1…
Everyone faces completely different obstacles over the course of any year abroad, most of them fun but some a little daunting, so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. Arguably however, your arrival will be the most confusing time, so if you’re prepared for that, the stuff that follows will be much less complicated. After a while you’ll settle into the fact that you’re slightly confused by everything, and even start to enjoy it, until 6 months has passed and suddenly things makes sense!