China: Take a bite

 By Jacob Mlynarski

Looking back in time from the perspective of the last four years of my stay in China I cannot help asking myself “How did I manage to survive in this jungle of rules and regulations.”  The stories and moments I went through could be material for a few books at least. However, going back in time to those very first moments I stepped onto Chinese soil it’s hard not to shed a tear of sentiment. I still regard it as the best decision of my life to relocate from Europe to such an exotic country as China. Let’s move back in time to September 2009. Standing at the airport in Shanghai as a fresh graduate of my university, leaving my family back home, I was more scared of the unknown rather than scared of being alone. Luckily, thanks to the help of the local AIESEC committee members, the first steps in China soon changed into leaps and within no time I found myself working at one of the largest universities in Zhejiang province as an exchange student. But what is it like to come to China alone; what should I pay attention to? How to understand the culture which, through 5000 years of its history, maintained its distinctive characteristics while still attracting westerners so often nowadays?

Before going into details it would be worthwhile asking yourself one simple question: “Why am I going to choose China as a place to study?” For some it might be the need of experiencing an exotic culture, while for others the chance to start building connections. China for sure is regarded as the center of the global market and despite the various reason for which we are coming to China or are about to embark on this exciting journey, one thing is sure, it all leads to the same problems and issues which we all have to face no matter what was the reason for coming here.

 

APPLICATION PROCESS

The application process, either for a visa or a university, might seem like a torture at first. However, don’t get discouraged as that seemingly tedious thing in fact can be completed within less than a working week!

CHOOSING A UNIVERSITY

China has plenty of universities willing to accept foreigners but apart from several in Beijing or Shanghai offering undergraduate or postgraduate programmes delivered in English, the vast majority provides only Chinese language courses. There are of course two British Universities operating in China worth investigating, i.e.  University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in Suzhou (XJTLU). Both schools offer an international environment, western quality of education at undergraduate and postgraduate level with British (and also Chinese in case of XJTLU) degrees awarded upon graduation. As a student of one of these schools (XJTLU) I can fully recommend it. The quality of schooling and the facilities are comparable to western standards.

After making up your mind, it’s time to contact the school of your choosing. You can either call them (mind the time differences!!) or send an email. After getting enough information regarding your course or programme, submit a standard or an online application form and wait for the school to contact you. If you are lucky to be admitted by the dream school of your choice you shall be given the JW-201/202 form required in the next step which is the VISA APPLICATION

VISA

The visa requirements at this point are hard to describe as those vary depending on the country of your origin and are usually subject to various changes what can be easily tracked and checked at your local Chinese embassy or consulate’s website.  The documents which are usually required are:

  • Visa application form (can be downloaded from your local Chinese Embassy’s Website)
  • JW-201/202 form (issued by the university and mailed to you in one original copy)

(Make sure you are submitting the original document not a photocopy to the embassy otherwise your application might end up being rejected, also make sure you are returned the same original document not a photocopy)

  • Health report from your GP (the form can be found at your Local Chinese Embassy’s Website)

(Also in this case the document must be original and if the report includes few pages EACH separate sheet must be stamped by the GP and the Hospital or Clinique otherwise the application might be rejected)

  • Financial statement (it varies from country to country as in some places it’s not required to submit financial statement with the visa application )

Apart from the visa application form which is pretty clear as to how to fill in (if you got that far reading this text I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have any problems completing that form) the biggest problem might be the health report. The common practice is that usually the embassies require the report for the visa application process prior to issuing you proper resident permit in China what are two separate processes. What does it mean? Upon completion of your visa application process in your country do not fall into hurray-optimism as the very same process you will have to undergo here on place (luckily schools usually take over the burden of the paperwork from students and help you with the application for the resident permit). What’s important here, make sure the embassy returns you the original copy of your JW-201/201 letter and your health report as this can make your things easier later and save you couple of bucks and hours here.  The nice thing about it is that the embassies usually do not require you to physically submit all the documents yourself but it can be done by your representative or an agency dealing with visa applications professionally. That can save tons of time (and money) especially if the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate is hundreds of miles away from your home.

 

STUDY EXPERIENCE

Assuming you have successfully managed to go through the whole application process you shall be standing now at one of the Chinese airports asking yourself “What next? How do I get to my school?” If you already got that far (taking a few thousand miles getting here), the last few steps should be a piece of cake for you. Make sure you have the address of your school written both in Chinese and English then set off starting the new chapter of your life called “China”.

CAMPUS LIFE

Probably the very first days of your stay in new place will be occupied with getting familiar with the neighbourhood. It’s pretty amazing how Chinese universities usually have everything you need from life located within its area. Starting from barbers through supermarkets to even its own post offices, restaurants or own laundry stores! You can live weeks without even poking your nose out of the school’s premises. It has its drawbacks on the other hand; being cozy at one place makes you lazy and unwilling to explore the surroundings!

CANTEENS

As long as you are fond of Asian cuisine you should find Chinese canteens the right place to go! If one day you get tired of Chinese food and want to try something more home-like you could try one of hundreds of cozy restaurants surrounding each of the universities. They usually offer various types of cuisines ranging from Western to Indian, Thai, Korean and Japanese. The quality of food is good and definitely better than western in terms of healthiness and pricing which is quite reasonable. Most foreigners, however, would find it difficult to feel satiated on Chinese cuisine and seek alternative options such as cooking at home.

DINING OUT

Sooner or later you will end up being invited for dinner by your Chinese friends. How to behave? What should you pay attention to? Probably the first thing you would notice is the difference in the way the food comes served. In contrast to western style where the whole dish is usually given on one plate, you will notice dozens of little plates filled up with various vegetables. Everything would be located in the middle of a turntable popularly referred to as “Lazy Susan”. While in the West talking while eating is considered impolite, in China dinner is the best chance for people to build up their social relations. People are even encouraged to speak while eating (not with full mouth though) and the turntable serves the purpose of making everyone equal. Sitting at the roundtable puts you in a position from which it’s easy to pick up conversation with every person having meal with you.

2012-08-31 19.33.54“Lazy Susan”

 

STUDYING

It’s hard to judge the quality of education as that would require professional expertise especially that the university I currently study at is based on the British system of education. However, if you are willing to embark on one of the Chinese language courses offered by various schools you shouldn’t have any issues with the quality of education. Schools usually take those courses very seriously thus within a couple of weeks you should be able to order Big Mac in the nearest McDonald’s Jand by the end of the semester possibly even have a simple conversation with a stranger on the bus.

 

LIFE EXPERIENCE

To some people, living in such vastly different country as China could be a cultural shock. You have to brace yourself for problems which you had never even dreamed of facing back home. When the excitement of China disappears after a few months you will face the cruel reality of adapting yourself to the society which no matter where you come from WILL be different for you both in terms of thinking and the perception of culture. Living in China requires from you the ability to understand a different culture. The things we may take as offensive or rude are very often in fact… attempts of being polite. Once you understand (and accept) the rules here, you can turn your stay in China into a pleasant experience.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

Chinese people in general are known for being indirect and reserved. What does it mean? It means a lot of “Beating around the bush”. While we are used to dealing with problems directly by going straight from A to B using the shortest way, we very often tend to forget about how much it can hurt people around. In China confronting somebody directly, refusing or simply saying “no” can be taken as lack of tact and bad manners. Thus whenever your Chinese friend throws at you a bunch of lies about the ill brother of the sister of his uncle’s cousin using it as an excuse for not joining you for dinner or simply ignores  your messages or calls, he’s not being rude, he’s simply trying not to offend you by saying no!

I’m sure there are hundreds of things you can’t accept or would like to do your own way what must be irritating or even frustrating. However, remember one thing: We’re not home. This is the way some things are handled here. If the government officer doesn’t want to help you, don’t get angry, be patient and try to explain the thing again politely, if you want a refund for the broken headphones you bought last week, don’t get angry, explain politely without losing your temper what happened and hope for the things to work out. The hands of these people are usually tied and the reason they cannot help you is because of the regulations limiting them. A lot of problems could be solved using common sense thus remember one thing, by getting angry you’re losing your only one chance of getting the issue solved. Aggression quickly escalates and many Chinese people shield it by simply ignoring people losing their temper. Remember, patience is the key.

2013-06-10 14.00.34One of the”intriguing” signs at the Yellow Mountain

 

CONNECTIONS (GUANXI)

China has a very strong concept of connections and social relations. In other words it means “If I do something for you, you do something for me”. The whole Chinese society has revolved around this concept for the past 5000 years and there are no signs of change here. Try to cherish every little Chinese friend you have here. Never refuse help as you may never know when you may need help eventually and how that person can turn out to be helpful to you one day.

COMMUTING

2013-01-01 14.02.19Crowded streets of Chengdu during national holidays

 

While you may notice that taxies are cheap and quite popular means of transportation in China I wouldn’t recommend relying on those too much. I noticed one thing: Whenever you need one taxi, there are none around, but the other time, if they could they would honk you to death offering a lift when you completely do not need it. Travelling by taxi is cheap and convenient however it totally misses the point during rush hours (5:00-7:00pm) when most of the main roads are jammed beyond your imagination. Getting even as far as 1 mile can cost you not only 1 hour of your precious time but probably also important appointment you are going to miss. Avoid taxis at all cost during rush hours!  Probably that’s why most of the taxi drivers choose that particular time to change their shifts making it even more difficult to grab one after 5pm.

The best and most reliable way of getting around your city would be either subway (if your city has one!) or bicycle if the distance is not too big. Especially bicycle should be your priority as you can get a decent quality GIANT for as much as 200 US$ what is low price compared to the time you could waste in horrible rush hour’s traffics!  Public transport is also reliable but most of the names of stations are both written and announced in Chinese what makes it problematic if you can’t speak Mandarin and want to travel.  (Even after 4 years here I still haven’t manage to figure out how does the bus public transportation system works)

RENTING AN APARTMENT

This is the thing I would not recommend you to do on your own. As far as in such big and international cities as Shanghai or Beijing you could take the risk of dealing with the whole process yourself, it’s still better to leave it to your school. All the schools here have the requirement of providing you with the accommodation according to western standards so you shouldn’t worry of ending up in a “cozy” dormitory with 5 strangers. Even if you speak Chinese it’s better to let the school deal with it or ask for help local person who will walk you through the whole process. The rent may vary from 100$ US in smaller cities to as much as 1000$ US per month in 1st tier cities. Each university conducting programmes for international students have foreign students’ dormitories or such facilities within close proximity. Therefore, you should not worry too much about that. Let your school deal with it for you!

TRAVELLING

In general university campuses are located in suburban areas thus you need to take into account the time it usually takes to get downtown. But what if you want to get out of town? Finally we got to the mo st important point here, as what would be going to foreign country without experiencing the culture first hand? If you decide on going out of town it’s better you start planning a few days ahead. Also if your plans collide in any way with some national holidays or festivals it’s even better to consider getting tickets or booking hotel weeks before the departure. In general the only 3 options considered at this point are airplanes, trains and long-distance buses.

AIRPLANES

The most convenient way of getting domestic or even international flights in China is through cTrip.com or Qunar.cn. As far as cTrip provides English support, unfortunately in case of the latter one the website and the whole process of booking is fully Chinese what makes it more complicated for foreigners, however, that could reward you with more reasonable prices of airplane tickets compared to cTrip

TRAINS

gaotieChinese Fastest Bullet Train

 

Train tickets can be obtained either at the nearest train station or what is more convenient online at 12306.cn (unfortunately the website is in Chinese but the process of booking is simple enough for even a novice to handle, tutorial provided at the end of this article). Once you book the ticket online, head to the nearest train station and claim your booked online ticket AT LEAST an hour or even longer before the departure(again, if the trip collides with national holidays or festivals it’s better to claim your booked ticket few days ahead before setting off, just in case). Most common types of trains in China now, depending on your province, are bullet trains G 高铁 (gaotie), D 动车 (dongche) and the other letters (K, Z) which usually stand for slower trains. In case of G and D average speeds oscillate around 250-350km/h what makes journey relatively fast and comfortable (Shanghai-Beijing ~1200km – 5hours). Unfortunately, sometimes the price of the train may exceed the price of an airplane ticket so check both before making a final decision. Also make sure you don’t leave buying your return ticket until the last day of your journey. Spare yourself disappointment and unwilling prolongation of your journey when being stuck in another city waiting for the tickets back home. If possible try to stick more to D trains as the comfort of the journey is relatively the same and the speeds comparable but you can save up as much as 80RMB on the journey from Nanjing to Hangzhou (what will extend your journey only by 20-30 minutes if you chose D train.

COACHES (Long-distance buses)

Long-distance buses are more useful for getting around the neighbouring cities within the same province rather than travelling long distance as the name would suggest. Before buying ticket you’d better find out which bus station offers connections to the city you are travelling to. In general even smaller cities have a couple of separate bus stations connecting various locations (even small Shaoxing where I spent the last 4 years of my life had 4 different bus stations!) Also in case of bus tickets everything can be handled online within 5 minutes without the need of queuing up for hours.

At this point my good advice would be to avoid travelling during festivals and national holidays at all cost. Chinese people in general work very hard and usually avoid taking days off just for travelling thus each time national holiday or festival strikes, China turns into a travel nightmare! Either stay away from the main tourist places at that time or choose another day without 1.6 bln people travelling together with you around the country. Also take note you cannot book the tickets more than 20 days ahead prior to your departure both for trains and buses therefore include that in your planning as well!

HOTELS

According to Chinese regulations foreigners are not allowed to lodge in certain hotels below 3 stars. While most hostels tend to accept foreigners, many cheaper hotels turn people down. Before going for a trip make sure you have a room booked and confirmed that foreigner are allowed to stay there. Spare yourself frustration and take your time making sure you are allowed to lodge, rather than ending up in a cold street at midnight without place to stay what happened to me once in Hangzhou.

SAVING MONEY

If you still perceive China as a developing country where life costs pennies and generally things are almost free, I will spare you the surprise of saying that dozens of Chinese cities are listed among the most expensive places to live. As far as the cost of living is relatively lower in some areas compared to the western countries there are still plenty of ways for saving a couple of bucks which you can easily spend on travelling:

  • Get a bike as soon as possible, not only will you save a lot of money by not taking taxies but you will find yourself getting familiar with the city and your neighbourhood.
  • If you have no choice and need to take a taxi make sure it’s a certified one (green blue or red, depending on the city) as private cars can cheat you easily or you can end up being dropped off at completely wrong place being charged for that handsomely at the same time.
  • If the taxi driver refuses to drive you to the designated location, pretend you are taking picture of his license usually located near the taxi meter right below the windscreen. That usually solves the problem.
  • If you like and can cook, try to find a grocery market within your area. Usually there are a couple of such markets within each city. The vegetables and fruits provided there are not only more fresh and better quality than those in the supermarket but also much cheaper.
  • Make sure you have a proper cellular plan 套餐 (taocan) which you can adjust to your needs accordingly. It would be smart to get your university short number which can save you hundreds of RMBs monthly!
  • Try to avoid traveling outside your town during national holidays. The prices of either hotels or even restaurants may rise in tourist locations during holidays and festivals double of even triple fold.
  • Try getting a Youth hostel card either in China or back home. Staying at any youth hostel in China it can save you up to even 30RMB per night on a single bed room!
  • Avoid travelling using G trains unless necessary. The standard is merely the same as D train but price almost doubled

Example:       G-train Nanjing-Hangzhou 2h ~ 155RMB

D-train Nanjing-Hangzhou 2h30min ~ 85RMB

  • Bargain hard whenever buying in the street or night markets. It’s possible to cut the price even by more than 50%!
  • Get familiar with Taobao.com; it’s an ultimate source of various kinds of products starting from books ending on mobile phones (equivalent of eBay but much cheaper!)  Once you have some Chinese friends they will help you with ordering things safely as you must be aware of scams and counterfeit products which Taobao.com is full of.
  • Try to explore your campus’ surroundings, quite often the prices at your university might be intentionally increased and you may pay even half of the price for the same thing one or two blocks away.

 

GENERAL SET OF ADVICE

BE PATIENT; NEVER GET ANGRY, IT’S EASY FOR THE CONFLICT TO ESCALATE.

USE YOUR TONGUE AS YOUR GUIDE, ASK AROUND IF YOU GET LOST, MOST YOUNG PEOPLE SPEAK ENGLISH.

INDIRECTNESS IS A WAY OF BEING POLITE, ACCEPT IT.

AVOID TRAVELLING BY TAXI DURING RUSH HOURS.

BOOK TRAIN TICKETS AT LEAST 20 DAYS IN ADVANCE

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED J

GUIDE TO BUYING TICKET ONLINE http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/01/how-to-buy-train-tickets-online/

 

Author Details:

Name: Jacob Mlynarski

Nationality: Polish

University: Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University

Major: MA TESOL