Life Abroad
10 min

What To Keep in Mind When Going To Study in China

Polina has been living in China for three years now. She is studying international economics at Zhejiang University. Here, she is telling StudyFree about her life in this unusual country and what international students should be prepared for.

How I Got to China

Even at school, I realized that I wanted to study abroad and work in international relations. China is a promising and rapidly developing country. Over the past 40 years, China has seen an "economic miracle", transforming from a poor agrarian country into a power with a strong economy. China is an important player in international politics and a place where you can learn a lot. That is why I decided to study here.

In my first year, I lived in Nanhai, Shandong Province, and was taking courses to prepare for university. I worked hard on my language skills and pursued to improve my knowledge of economics in Chinese to make my life a little easier in my first year. I chose the top Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. It's a business hub west of Shanghai and the headquarters of Alibaba.

The Chinese government seeks to have international students, so it’s a little easier for them to get enrolled than for Chinese. Still, the admission was a challenge. To get into International Economics & Trade, I had to take exams in general and business Chinese, economics, and math. In all cases, Chinese was the exam language.


I had never been to China before I moved here and didn't speak Chinese at all when I arrived. My ideas about what kind of country it is were based on what I had read and seen in books, media, and movies. All of this turned out to be very far from reality.

The Chinese’ mentality, culture, and way of life are radically different from what we are used to. There are a lot of students from Asia among my group mates, including the Malaysian Chinese and Koreans. They find it much easier to adjust than guys from Europe because their culture of origin and Chinese culture have much in common.

So, it took me longer to adjust to a new environment. I studied hard and communicated a lot with locals and foreigners. Over time, I started to understand Chinese traditions and mentality pretty well. After three years here, I speak Chinese fluently.

Public Attitudes Towards Foreigners

In China, you might feel like you’re in a zoo. You are the one surrounded by a fence, and the Chinese are staring at you. Don't get offended though — it's just out of curiosity. A person of non-Asian origin stands out among the locals. In big cities, it’s not such a big deal because they are used to seeing foreigners there. However, in smaller places, get ready to draw a lot of attention to yourself.

The Chinese have a tradition of "inviting guests" (请客). It means that a Chinese friend invites you to go somewhere to eat and have fun, and it’s all on them. You can return the favor by inviting them back, although many Chinese just won't let you pay for them.


Be aware of local traditions. For example, you can't leave your chopsticks stuck vertically in your food because that’s what they do when the food is being used in rituals to honor the dead.

During a traditional Chinese dinner (when the guests sit at a round table with the center part rotating) it is rude to take a serving dish in your hands and put some food into your bowl the way we normally do. You have to manage to do it using chopsticks while the central part of the table is rotating. Besides, you cannot touch the plate with the dish.

The Chinese are believed to talk loudly. However, if you speak Chinese and are surrounded by the language, you don't really notice it because many people talk like that here. One may speak Chinese at different volumes and even in whispers. In the end, it depends on the voice of a specific person.

Education and Local Students

Chinese kids have a tough time at school. Workloads are overwhelming, especially in high school. Students have to work extremely hard, get up early, and go to bed late. When I happened to take a look at a school schedule, I was shocked. Chinese kids have to stay at school from morning until late at night.

One would think that with such a workload, Chinese students can boast a much higher level of knowledge than students abroad. However, that’s not generally the case. In China, there is a different approach to teaching, with the focus being put on rote learning. 

Working and Living in China as a Foreigner

It is difficult for a foreigner to find an official job in China. You can work off the books as an English teacher, a model, or even a hired guest since the participation of a foreigner raises the prestige of the event. However, lately, the authorities have tightened control over illegal labor. So, working as an unreported employee may result in heavy fines or even deportation from the country.

Besides, it is not easy to find an official job, which can be credited as an internship at the university. It’s a major problem for the local market. Chinese companies are interested in intercultural specialists, while students need jobs. The problem is, though, that there are few opportunities for employers and interns to find each other. Platforms like LinkedIn are either unavailable or not popular. If a "match" does happen, it is usually either through people you know or by chance.

Foreigners hardly ever stay in China for long. The exceptions are those married to Chinese citizens. It doesn’t make financial sense for expats in China to get a residence permit, buy a car or an apartment. Most international students stay here for a few years to obtain work and life experience and then leave.


There are lots of jokes about the so-called Chinglish. Although most of the Chinese do not speak English, they invariably greet a foreigner with a friendly “Hello” to see their reaction and then go on their way. After you hear this "hello" a dozen times, it starts making your eye twitch. At the same time, many young Chinese speak excellent English.

You can't do without a minimum knowledge of the language here. In large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, where there are many foreigners, it's possible, even though difficult, to survive only with English. In other cities, you need to know Chinese to feel comfortable because all the signs are in it and vendors don’t speak English at all.

How does Chinese sound to foreigners? Now that I'm fluent in Chinese, I find it hard to answer that question. I hear words and not just a range of sounds. There are four tones in Chinese that affect the meaning of words and phrases radically. On the other hand, it could be worse: for example, in Vietnamese, there are six tones.

Chinese is first of all about images. The meaning of a character can often be understood or guessed by looking at how it is written, but it is not always possible to read it. This works with basic words and expressions, but not with professional terminology. It’s different with European languages, where even a long, incomprehensible word can be read but you won't guess the translation by looking at it.