Student Blogs/Jessica in China

My exchange is now a third done. Exams are now over and the semester is now finally done. I still have another semester to go, but before the semester starts, we have a break until March for Chinese New Year (more about that later). It’s been a very busy semester filled with school and travels. Over the past five months, I have definitely learned a lot and would like to share a few tips regarding the lifestyle and culture in Shanghai.

A mitten with Canadian leaf pattern with a sunrise in the background


Attend Classes!

For BIB Mandarin, it is mandatory to take Mandarin classes in the first semester to fulfill our language component. Although it is very tempting to skip class (Mandarin classes at 8 AM from Monday to Friday?… nooooo thank you!) it is important to attend. SISU takes attendance for the Mandarin classes, one student can miss up to 120 times per semester but each day skipped counts twice because each day is composed of two classes. The language classes here moves fairly fast so it can be hard to catch up. There are two tests per semester; one midterm and one final and each exam is based on a different textbook. Attending Mandarin classes would also help in learning more Mandarin thus leading to better communication with locals.

Apply for scholarships!

SISU offers a lot of scholarships for their international students especially those studying for a full academic year. Take time to research and apply online during the summer. It’s an easy way to help offset the costs of exchange.

Practice Mandarin

Before arriving in Shanghai, make sure to keep practicing Mandarin! Majority of the locals and even some university staff do not speak English. Everything will be done in Mandarin such as paying for your room fee, ordering food, going through the visa requirements, negotiating a cell phone contract, etc. Although apps like Pleco (a Chinese-English dictionary) help with communicating, it is better to practice Mandarin in the summer.

Try to Meet Local Students

Unfortunately, it can become quite difficult to meet a local student here at SISU. Exchange students other known as “foreigners” or “老外” (lǎo wà) are kept separated from the local students. It’s not Carleton, where exchange students are put in the same classes and placed in the same residence, so it can be very hard to integrate with local students. It is very easy to be trapped in an exchange student bubble!


Travel Around China

A yurt (mongolian tent) on the left with a sunrise in the background

Sunrise over a yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent, in the grasslands in Inner Mongolia.

As exciting as it is in exploring Southeast Asia, make sure to take time and explore China. The local lifestyle, cuisine and even dialect vary from each province and city.  It could be as easy as taking a high speed train for 20 minutes to neighbouring Suzhou in Jiangsu province for 40 RMB ($8 CDN) or taking a three-hour flight to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Extended weekend trips around China provide an easy getaway and it is relatively inexpensive to travel. With high speed trains and LCC (low cost carriers), traveling within China is very convenient and easy.

Book Early

Needless to say, booking early means saving more money. But this is especially true during 寒假 (hán jià) winter vacation, also known as Chinese New Year. Exchange students begin their 寒假 earlier but closer to Chinese New Year, almost all of China is traveling. People are either heading home or going on vacation. Everything fills up pretty fast so booking at least two to three months in advance provides cheap flights and accommodations. You can find flights as cheap as $20 CDN if you look hard/early enough!

Explore Shanghai!

The front facade of the China Art museum

The China Art Museum, located next to the Shanghai Expo.

As much as I have “lived” in Shanghai the past five months, I realized that there are a lot of places that I have not yet visited. Sure, you can do a few of the “touristy” things during September, but there are a lot of hidden gems that you can visit right in Shanghai. There are many cultural sites asides from the French Concession and the Bund, in which, many sites have free admittance or a nominal fee. For example, the China Art Museum has free entrance whereas the Shanghai Expo’s country exhibitions are only 35-45 RMB ($7 – 8 CDN). It can be very easy to adopt  a procrastinating mindset of  “I will visit/see this place next weekend” but before you know it, the semester will be over. Since Mandarin classes are in the morning, it provides a lot of free time to explore the city.



Before arriving in Shanghai, I would laugh when people tell me that Shanghai’s winter are very cold. How can Shanghai be colder than Ottawa’s -40 winter?!?! Truth is, Shanghai’s winter is not cold. The winter temperatures range from -2 to 13 degrees but it often feels a lot colder than it really is. It’s also because many places do not have sufficient heating systems such as restaurants and classrooms.  The combination of bad air quality, walking around a lot and insufficient heating leads to higher possibility of catching a cold. Bring your winter jacket! Also, bring medicine from home – medicine here can be expensive and ineffective.

Avoid Public Transportation During Rush Hour

A map of the Shanghai metro system

Shanghai Metro

Shanghai is a city of 25 million and during rush hour, it often feels like there is 10 million people all trying to get home at once. Shanghai boasts a good (and complex) subway system but it is still extremely overcrowded during peak hours. Unfortunately, pushing and shoving exists due to the amount of people trying to get onto the subway. Be prepared to deal with massive crowds if you are traveling during these hours.

Everything is Dealt in Cash

Cash is the way to go in China – everything from restaurants to clothes but this also means paying for a semester’s worth of rent in cash upon arrival. Before arriving in Shanghai, opening a China bank account in Canada would be the best option to ensure enough cash is on hand to pay for the infinite expenses for school.

Exams Vary Year to Year

In China, significance is placed on Chinese New Year rather than Christmas. This means that instead of a break in December, we get an extended break during Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, this also comes with an expectation of attending school during Christmas. However, since Chinese New Year (CNY) varies from year to year, our holidays and exams also vary. This year, CNY falls on February 19, so exams were held in middle of January and we were able to relax during December. Vacation typically starts a few weeks before Chinese New Year and lasts until a few weeks after. Now that exams are over, we have seven weeks of vacation! I will be spending the next few weeks in Southeast Asia before returning to Hong Kong to spend Chinese New Year with my family and friends.

With all these tips, I probably missed a few things, so if you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask. 🙂

Monday, January 19, 2015 in , ,
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