It’s been about three weeks since I’ve landed in China’s largest city, Shanghai.
I flew around 12 hours to get here with two of my friends (who are also BIB students) at the end of August. We were super stoked to get to China! After two years of classes at Carleton, our year abroad was finally upon us! We had such high expectations. We were going to explore together and figure out where all the good restaurants were. We were also excited to make many new friends from all around the world, see historical sights, and better our Mandarin in every way possible!
I would be lying if I said that those expectations weren’t met; however, I would say that some aspects proved to be a bit more challenging than others. For one thing, because my friends and I got here so early there weren’t very many students here yet. We’re living on campus this semester and trying to figure out where to go and what to do on our own was quite difficult and confusing. It’s one thing to speak Mandarin to your teachers at Carleton (who are amazingly helpful and will speak loud and clear for you) but it’s a totally different thing to have strangers speak fluent Mandarin to you and not be able to explain what they mean in English. Mandarin itself is already a difficult language to learn, but on top of that, people in Shanghai have their own dialect/accent here and we’ve only learned the Beijing accent, so it was hard to understand the words we DID know.
Not all hope is lost though! The people who work at the SISU guesthouse (the building we’re residing in for the semester) are very used to having foreigners around. It’s okay if your Mandarin isn’t the best because they are quite helpful when you’re not sure where to go or what to do. Some of them speak English, but even those who don’t are willing to help out however they can. Even the local restaurants around campus are used to having foreigners come in and order food. Most restaurants only have Chinese menus, but we learned to just point to the thing we want. Plus once they understand that you’re a foreigner, they’ll speak to you in the Beijing accent since that’s standard in all of China.
I’ve also never seen so many foreigners in one place studying the same thing before! Chances are a lot of the other students here are just as lost as you, so make friends! I’ve already made friends with people from Russia, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. No other Canadians yet though!
About a week after we settled into Shanghai, we were off again to visit another friend who is studying in Suzhou. Luckily for us, the transportation in China is not only cheap, but fast and usually very reliable and easy to use. We took the bullet train from Shanghai to Suzhou and it only took 30 minutes! It takes 2 hours by car to get there; we were amazed at how fast it goes. Once there, we went to go visit a historical park called Tiger Park. It was beautiful and the scenery was fantastic. There were traditional Chinese houses, some Buddhist temples and ponds full of lotus flowers and lily pads. If you’re into historical sites then I definitely recommend going there. As for Shanghai itself, we went to the downtown core and the city is incredible. There are so many restaurants and markets and things to see, Shanghai is the very definition of a metropolitan city. It’s very modern city infused with its traditional Chinese culture. If you’re into big cities, then you chose the right place to study.
Classes have finally started here at SISU and I’ll wait a little bit before I blog about it, just to get a feel as to what it’s really like. If I could give any advice to those planning to come to SISU:
- Open a bank account. You can use your Canadian debit card to withdraw money from the bank machines here but you have to pay $5 CDN per transaction. It may not seem like much but it all adds up. Opening a bank account with ICBC doesn’t cost any money and it’s really easy to do.
- Download the appropriate apps like Wechat and Pleco. Everyone here uses wechat to communicate and you’re going to wish you downloaded it before you came! (A lot of app stores are blocked in China). Pleco is a Chinese-English dictionary app. I use it every day so be sure to download it before you come.
- If you plan on using your regular phone in China, make sure your phone is unlocked beforehand. That way you can use a Chinese phone card. This includes calling, texting and data.
- China is famously known for censoring a lot of websites we use every day in Canada. If you want access to these sites, such as Facebook or Youtube, I recommend downloading a free VPN or a paid VPN on your computer AND phone. Do some research and choose the one that’s right for you. Free VPNs may or may not work however, China is actively blocking new VPNs, so paid ones might just be your best bet.
- Bring RMB with you before arriving in China. China mostly uses cash so be sure to have some before you depart Canada.
- DON’T be shy to speak Mandarin to locals. Sure your Mandarin probably isn’t the best right now, but trust me when I say that your listening and speaking skills will skyrocket once you open up and actively listen and have a willingness to learn! I’ve only been here for three weeks and I already see a significant improvement in my listening skills.
That’s it for now!
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