Rachel - Zhejiang University

B Arts
Semester 2, 2018
I met some of the loveliest people who were always curious and wanted to know more about our countries or cultures despite how similar we looked.

Academic experience

I participated in the Language and Culture program, I was enrolled in the following classes: Extensive Reading, Intensive Reading, Speaking and Writing.

Personal experience

When I first arrived at ZJU, I felt lost and confused because while we received instructions on how to check in, they were vague. I quickly realised that this was a recurring theme when it came to administration matters at the university and that it was always better to plan ahead and clarify before doing anything.

If your main goal is to improve your Mandarin, Mainland China is an ideal environment for an immersive experience as it is almost impossible to get things done without Mandarin. I was surprised at how much my Mandarin skills improved by the end of my semester here.

My classes were informative, but rather bland. The classes may seem boring and repetitive to anyone who has never been through an Asian education as information is consistently and methodically being drilled into us. On the bright side, this made exams easier as pretty much everything we were tested on, we could be sure we have been through in class. 

Finding a gym with complete sets of equipment for heavy-lifting/powerlifting that was affordable and clean was almost impossible. My friends and I made a huge mistake when we thought we finally found a good one and quickly signed up for a 3-month membership. It turned out to be a scam because about a month and a half into it, we were on our way to our usual workout session when we realised that the whole gym had just disappeared. Every single piece of equipment was gone and there wasn't a note in sight. Apparently this is quite common so do your research right.

Since my semester in ZJU was September to the end of January, I got to experience summer, autumn, and winter in Hangzhou. The air quality gets worse as the weather gets colder, on some days it would even go up to >400 on the Air Pollution Index. It took about a month for my lungs to clear up again after my semester there.

While some of my other foreign friends have not experienced this, my fellow Southeast Asian foreigners and I were subjected to some pretty interesting treatment. There was a lot of subtle racism towards other Asians. We were constantly mistaken for Chinese people, and sometimes, even after clarification, some of the people will insist that we must be Chinese because we look so much like them. It is also quite a strange feeling when they turn around and give your non-Asian friends friendly/polite customer service right after they were rude to you. I was also often mistaken to be my friends’ tour guide/interpreter (they would only speak to me and expect me to translate even though my friends were perfectly capable of speaking Mandarin). This does not mean that they are all the same though; I met some of the loveliest people who were always curious and wanted to know more about our countries or cultures despite how similar we looked.

I also took this chance to explore different parts of China. The bullet train is a convenient and affordable way of traveling between cities. I managed to visit Shanghai, Suzhou, Xiamen, Huangshan and more. Exploring and seeing different parts of China was exciting and an overall wonderful experience but I did also encounter a lot of rude and unsavoury characters along the way.

Accommodation

I lived in the university dorms. I did not get to choose which dorm or the type of room I was put in. While my room, which I shared with a roommate, cost 40RMB/day, some of my friends who were put in the other dorm were paying 80RMB/day even though they still had to share the room with another person. While our room was not the most spacious or inviting, we managed to live quite comfortably for a semester.

Chinese dorms are very strict and they even impose “visiting hours” on the students living there. Visiting hours are usually around 9am-9: 30pm, but the person in charge at the front desk often changes her mind about whether or not the hours have ended. At one point, they even changed the hours to 9am-5pm and tried to control the students from having guests of the opposite sex even though this was a co-ed dorm in a large university. 

The staff does not speak any English and at times are not the most helpful or friendly people around, it is best if you are able to speak Mandarin or bring along someone who does to help get things done.

Costs

As a whole, everything is cheaper in China. I spent roughly 50RMB/day on food. I was able to get meals for 6-20RMB at the university canteen. Eating out or delivered takeaways (which are extremely popular) is usually only slightly more expensive unless you find yourself in expat areas. Transport is cheap; you can get on public buses for 1-2RMB and hire a bike from one of the many bike-share companies for 1-3RMB (depending on how long the bike is used). I also set aside some money for travelling, it cost 70-100RMB for a one-way ticket on the bullet train to Shanghai but a lot more to Xiamen, which is obviously a lot further, so do your research and plan well if you intend to travel.

Challenge

I found it difficult to meet local students just by being in the Language and Culture program. So I joined clubs and activities like the badminton or table tennis clubs. There's also English Corner, where most attendees are Chinese, and Chinese Corner, where most attendees are foreign. There are a lot of clubs and activities offered by ZJU but a most of their activities are held on the other campus so do be aware of that.

Professional Development

My Mandarin skills improved vastly in my semester at ZJU as being fully immersed in that environment pushed me to practice speaking Mandarin everyday because barely anyone in Hangzhou was able to speak much English.

I also gained better international relations skills. The program is full of people from around the world. Other than the locals, I was able to meet and befriend people from all over Europe, the Americas and so on. So of course, I was able to practice some of the other languages I am currently learning as well!

Aside from that, I also acquired better people and problem-solving skills. While there are a lot of nice people, I also met quite a few unsavory characters. I had to be quick on my feet to find solutions for situations before they escalated.

Highlight

I got to meet a lot of people from around the world, most of which turned out to become among some of my best friends now! Other than improving on my Mandarin, I also got to practice speaking my other languages with these new friends! Being able to explore more of China was also definitely one of the best parts of studying abroad here.

Top tips

•    Download VPNs BEFORE you enter China! Save yourself the frustration and do it while you can.
•    Familiarise yourself with common Chinese Apps like WeChat, Alipay and so on. WeChat will be the primary chat platform used in China and a lot of information (from teachers, the dorm or university) will be passed on through WeChat. WeChat Pay and Alipay are also going to be your new best friends when it comes to paying for things. 
•    Download bike-sharing apps like MoBike, HelloBike, Ofo, etc. This makes travelling and sightseeing easy, affordable and eco-friendly.
•    Download Didi, the Chinese version of Uber to avoid getting scammed by taxi drivers. 
•    Check the air quality frequently. Wear a mask that filters out the PM2.5 particles when it gets bad. Your lungs will thank you later.
•    When in doubt, ask questions! Even when not in doubt, ask questions! 
•    Don’t just stay inside the international student bubble; befriend some locals. A lot of the local students are super friendly and would love any chance they get to practice their English. In return, they could help you practice your Mandarin too!
•    If (when) offered free alcohol at clubs, just be aware that fake alcohol will likely be served so drink responsibly.
•    Take this chance to travel. China offers a multitude of landscapes just waiting to be explored.
•    Do your research before joining anything. Be it a gym or an offer you get on the street that sounds too good to be true. There are scams everywhere.