The moment I heard “Welcome to China” in broken English, I knew my life was going to change.And it did.

Like many foreigners, my motivation to study in China is a story like many others. But the decision to stay to further my bachelors here and the leap of faith that brought me, an American girl thousands of miles from my native home in California, USA or “Mei Guo”(in Chinese) to Chongqing,China is something unique to my own.

After watching Steve Job’s graduation speech on YouTube, I realized that if I’m going to pursue my diplomatic dreams, I might as well take the biggest gamble in my life and do it all the way. No one ever said taking the crooked road was going to be easy. I decided to study in China, not the US with the best universities in the world, not Europe, but China.

Now looking back, 6 months ago: I was just an average high school student of Chinese and Russian ancestry living in the suburbs of Southern California. I finished high school early, was an avid writer and competitive debater, did a lot of humanitarian work in my city, interned at a law firm, participated in local government, sang in a competitive choir, and etc, but in reality: besides
the few cities around my home, and a road trip across the US, I knew nothing of the world outside my backyard.

In truth, the world seemed like a big and far away place outside of my daily orbit.

6 months later: my best friend became a girl from France, I met my other international friends each night in front of Xuelin Hotel(a hotel converted to an international student dormitory) at Chongqing University to decide whether we should eat “mian tian”(noodles) or order the usual, ”gong bao ji ding”, “chao qie zi”, “shi hong shi chao ji dan” at our favorite local restaurant on
campus. And for our break on China’s “National Holiday” we decided to go on a cruise for the week past the infamous Three Gorges.

There were around 102 countries represented out of the 1000+ international students at CQU, the girl who lived across from me came from Syria(a war­torn country in the news but nonetheless she was hear practicing her Mandarin just like me). My next door neighbor was from Ghana, the student below me is from Australia and next to him, Andrea is from Italy. Down the hall, you hear a mix of anything from Brazilian Portuguese to Russian spoken by the girls from Belarus.

We were all here either to study Chinese or were mutually lured by China’s prestige and presence in the 21st century, but it was all beyond my expectation. No one in the brochures or the websites ever told me that China: was going to literally bring the world to my front door. We lived in a quiet, though lively(packed with thousands of Chongqing University’s local Chinese students and professors ) campus in the heart of Shapingba district. Surrounded by many local residents(families of university professors), so much that we often witness the elderly co­exist with the students in their morning jogs. And in the afternoon, the same elderly will bring out their grandchildren to enjoy the fresh air.

It was definitely a culture shock as 4 year­olds and young adults alike populated the university grounds; speaking in coarse Mandarin that is heavily laced with the native Chongqing dialect. Just a 15 minute walk outside of the main gates, we would waltz into The Three Gorges Shopping Mall, the biggest mega­outlet in the district of Shapingba whose size and glamor overshadowed those of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Yet, it is nothing compared to Jiefangbei, the heart of Chongqing(a 25 minute taxi away) whose shopping center can be easily compared to New York City. Yet, this was all just in Chongqing, a city that is merely known to the world, and admittedly at first, us as well.

The international community here is very small compared to that of Beijing(besides the main districts, you would usually never ever see a foreigner around Chongqing), but it’s huge population sends a cornucopia of job opportunities our way. We have more chances of interacting with Chinese locals(instead of seeing Starbucks overflowing with foreign tourists and students), Chongqing residents pay the same Beijing/Shanghai price when it comes to English teachers, yet the cost of living was half or even less of that of Beijing.

To be frank, due to the cost of living in China overall, life can be cheap, but if carefully managed with a teaching job(s) or scholarship or a combination of both, life can also be luxurious. The uniqueness of Chongqing, is that not only is it just as cosmopolitan when compared ti that of other international Chinese cities (despite being lower in the rankings). But the competition among the few foreigners here is also relatively low. Making it the best quality education for the lowest dollar price.

On an international scale, most college students(no matter what country they are from) take out loans, or require parental support to fund their education. But as I’ve said before, if managed carefully, you can not only support yourself fully in Chongqing, but also have more then enough left over after covering your basic needs. Most students live on campus, and at ‘CQU’, the majority of us have our own single rooms with personal bathrooms that are styled in a hotel manner(though some scholarship students do get 1 roommate at most). But either way, at times, the rooms can also be very dirty(such as the case as some of my friends) since some of the buildings are actually quite old so some may opt to rent an apartment off campus. However, most of my off­campus friends find clean, affordable housing through word of mouth rather through advertisement.

Either from other international students who have been here for over a year, or from local Chinese students. Despite the natural placement of Chinese language students with other international students: most degree students(bachelor’s, master’s, PHD) study in a normal Chinese classroom with local Chinese degree students. At CQU 98% of the degree classes here are in Chinese. Though, some universities do have programs taught in English. Personally, I chose to live on campus because it was truly like living at the United Nations with the diversity of the students.

However, major­wise, I am thinking of applying to Wuhan University for next year which not only offers bachelor degrees in English (since most Chinese Universities only offer English degrees for Master and PHD students, whilst the majority of universities that offer English bachelor degrees are Beijing universities, and relatively third tier colleges in China whom are trying to attract more foreigners) but it is also a top university in a metropolis with a relatively small foreign population, much like Chongqing.

Personally, like most Americans, I arrived in Beijing back in July when I set eyes on China for the first time due to it’s famous name. However, after vacationing while touring universities in the more “famous” cities of China. I realized I did not like Beijing and Shanghai for 3 personal reasons: the air quality(especially Beijing), cost of living compared to other cities, and the increase of competition from other visiting tourists, researchers, and students made part time teaching jobs much harder to find.

In Chongqing, I had a corporate internship/”job” along with other part time English teaching jobs that provided me with more then enough to support my lifestyle(I have only been in Chongqing for 3 months as of today). I also was able to gain the experience of traveling to a more “authentic” Chinese city, and once again, I decided it was better for me to go somewhere very little foreigners had gone before, even within China.

After my brief arrival, Chongqing University also invited and allowed me to directly study within my Chinese Language and Culture major(for my bachelor degree) with the choice to double with International Economics afterwards. Instead of studying one year of Chinese, before going into a normal 4 year program.

However if I have already graduated or was a part time student and was looking for an international job, I would suggest Beijing, GuangZhou and Shanghai where corporate full time jobs would be much easier since it’s more of an “international” cities encompassing several large western companies. And as for a student seeking only to learn quality Chinese: then again, Beijing dialect would be the most similar to “Putonghua” which is standardized Mandarin, unlike the Chongqing dialect which at times, is somewhat incomprehensible by even local Chinese people from other regions.

But of course, how did I even get here in the first place? You see, since I was 10 years old, my dream was always to work for the United Nations or US Foreign Service, especially with rising global superpowers like China. My spoken and listening Chinese(took it as my foreign language in primary/high school) was proficient, but I knew it was not good enough to be able to read a business contract in Chinese(I was still working on elementary level reading), and I talked with a ”foreign” accent.

I had went to Stanford University last summer to study in a scholarship­ funded gifted youth program as a 15 going on 16 year old and met many students that shared the same dream. But one day, it all hit me. Even if I graduated from a top university, what was going to tell me apart from my highly educated and well rounded classmates? There were also many Chinese students who arrive in the thousands to study in the US and one day, there English would be just as good as mine.

That’s when I decided to apply.I realized want to say that I have the American perspective and mind, but my Chinese was just as good as a native. I wanted to wrought the education and mutual understanding of two of the biggest world players in our lifetime. To fully immerse myself and witness Chinese society, before returning to study my master’s or attend law school in the US. And not just for 1 one year like a study abroad like thousands of other Americans, but a degree.

Luckily around the same time, my father’s company had decided to expand into China, and chose Chongqing as their primary location. An international metropolis that has exploded literally in the middle of central China, and became one of the fastest growing municipalities in the world with a population of 32 million. A pure Chinese city with it’s own dialect and peculiar taste in itself, away from the already internationalized and foreign filled ports of Shanghai and Beijing.

But I had no clue. Like most foreigners, I only knew 4 cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tianjing(actually I had idea where it was geographically located at first either). I heard of the icy winters in Harbin but that was about it. Then(around the beginning of Spring 2013), I applied directly to the websites of Beijing University, Fudan(Shanghai) University, and Chongqing University(after researching that it was the best college in Chongqing) as an Chinese language student. However, at the time, I had not heard of CUCAS(due to my busy schedule at home and limited research) so I submitted everything electronically directed to the universities, unaware of rankings, and etc. If I had, I would have been able to easily identify the programs at each university.

I received the admission notices, my visa JW202 applications and etc. in the mail around 1 month later, before taking them for my visa application to my local Chinese embassy in Los Angeles, California. I then waited a total of 2 weeks for my newly engraved passport to arrive.

However, word of caution, because this was where my documentation troubles began. Because this would be my first time in China, I was wrongly misled with the notion that once I arrived in China with a student or a work visa, I had 6 months to change it to a resident permit(this privilege is only granted to F/vacation visa holders) but by law, I had only 30 days starting from the moment I entered China.

My embassy back home made an error and did not give me a warning brochure, and unluckily I had arrived in Beijing around 4 am, so the official that stamped my passport was literally asleep until I woke him up. Both did not warn me, and since I knew that Chongqing University was going to help me acquire my resident permit upon my arrival(however the university had did no knowledge that I was going arrive 2 months before registration since most students arrive the week of registration in China), I did not know that to change my visa and went over the limit by a month.

Now, months later after my first troubles, such as forgetting to always bring hand sanitizer and tissues with me(public restrooms always lack soap and other necessities), using public squatting toilets(only very expensive private places in China outside of your own dorm room have normal western toilets), and speaking enough Chinese for a taxi driver to understand you, I am slowly adapting to the surroundings around me. However, on a side note, referring to the restrooms in China, most homes have “western toilets” but due to Chinese tradition, the large population of China, and other factors, the majority of restrooms have only squatting toilets. But besides this, I have a couple tips to all prospective Chinese students.

First of all, the very foundation of Chinese education(but it is similar to that of Korea’s, Thailand’s, etc according to those students here) is very different to that of western countries. Here, the main method of learning is through repetitive memorization. Chinese student only have one highly pressured entrance exam for college, so they spend their entire academic careers focusing on memorizing thousands of characters to thousands of facts. Thus, as terms of the quality of education, the majority of classroom material would be for you to endlessly practice Chinese characters for reading and writing, and to do the same for the four basic tones of Chinese in order to improve your spoken Chinese.

My personal studying method has been to watch nonstop Chinese television shows and movies(Chinese movies are all broadcast­ed in standardized Mandarin) without subtitles and pausing it at times, in order to repeat certain sentences and phrases. Youku, the Chinese alternative to Youtube, is an amazing site which not only updates our favorite American, British tv
shows each week with new episodes, and newly uploaded English music videos straight from Youtube(the Chinese up­loaders are truly miracle workers) but also has thousands of popular Chinese series and music.

My personal problem is that I have an unique memory that remembers phrases and words with the correct tones. Which enables me to easily regurgitate Chinese terms with the correct pronunciation while memorizing the meaning of the word. However, I have a hard time recognizing characters. For example, I cannot read certain sentences but if read to me, I will be able to understand it’s meaning. But like everything else in this world, especially when it comes to learning a foreign language, it takes time, effort, and patience to slowly digest new materials. But I can full­heartedly say, that with great sacrifice, there is always great reward. An experience I had currently encountered was when I walked down ShanYin Road last week: I looked up and realized that I can now read the majority of the signs, or at­least be able to grasp what each store was selling.

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Author Details:

Name:  Elizabeth L.

Country: USA (American born and raised to an American mother of Russian and Chinese blood, and a Chinese father)

University: ChongQing University

Major: Chinese Language and Culture & International Economy and Trade(second major for next year)