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25th November 2013

Study Abroad Report: Beijing

Marina Garvey-Birch is studying abroad in Beijing, learning Chinese in a city of over 20 million people. Now a few months into her exchange, she’s settling into a Chinese lifestyle of early starts, tempting food, and everything done differently…

When I arrived in Beijing at the end of this summer to study Chinese, I had some serious adjustments to make. An average day at uni here begins at 8am. I know – 8am! Despite the early start, there can be no zoning out during class. Chinese is the common language between the English, American, European, Asian, and South American students, and so that’s the language in which we’re taught. No English. Only Chinese. For about four hours straight. It’s hardly surprising that people put their head down in the breaks to snooze.

We’ve all been assigned Chinese language partners, and it’s honestly frustrating how good their English is in comparison to our Chinese. They’re able to discuss their opinions on politics, popular culture, art and food, which is doubly impressive when you realise that most of them have never travelled farther than Beijing. It was pretty nerve-wracking to realise upon arrival that I couldn’t really speak any Chinese. But hey ho, we are definitely progressing: I mean, I had a full-on Chinese phone conversation with the water supplier, and

he turned up to the correct address with the correct amount of water and everything.

The first thing to say in regards to the nightlife here is that no, not everyone goes red when they drink alcohol in China. There’s a huge clubbing scene in Beijing and its definitely not just for the foreigners. Some clubs are packed with merry Chinese crowds grinding on one another, just like in a cheesy club in Manchester. Other clubs are full of desperate westerners who believe that your mutual western-ness means you should spend hours talking to them. I get it – common ground and all that – but sometimes you don’t want to go for dinner just because you both speak English! Speaking of dinner, Chinese food in China is so much better than in the UK. The street food knocks the socks off Kebab King. Top dishes include melt-in-the-mouth steamed dumplings, egg coriander pancakes, tofu to satisfy any steak lover, and street BBQ of anything, from chicken hearts to aubergine to squid. For dessert, there’s ice cream, weird

jellies and bubble tea drinks that can keep me entertained for hours. And when it all costs less than a pound, you’re free to try everything! The low cost of food in Beijing means that it’s possible to live like royalty on a budget of about £25 a week.

The biggest difference between student life in China and the UK is that going to university in China doesn’t seem to symbolise “growing up.” There is a huge lack of emphasis on becoming independent, developing social skills and making your own decisions. The focus of university is simply to study, study, study. This is boosted by the lack of privacy given to the Chinese students: they share a room with up to five other people, and there’s a big lack of communal space and kitchen facilities, supposedly because it’s too “dangerous.” Many students have no choice but to study, because what else are they going to do? Relationships are compromised, too – the courtyard outside our halls is full of Chinese students snogging till midnight because they have nowhere else to go. I’m all for studying, but this is kind of depressing. Come on China, social education is important too.

The district of Gulou is similar to the Northern Quarter: it’s full of Chinese hipsters in black maxi dresses with the sleekest long black hair, boys with high ponytails and leather jackets, and vintage shops that hold some pretty sweet deals. Earlier this week, I spotted a lady who wouldn’t look out of place in Manchester, dressed in a silver and pink ski suit with matching Air Max 90’s. While many a Manchester student might take a liking to this look, I think she might have been an accidental hipster. At night, Gulou is for the quirky and cool of Beijing: it’s a lot less sweaty than Wudaoku, the student area, and the advice is to “wear all black.” On our first night out in Gulou we were ecstatic to hear some Motown and disco tunes that made the Wudaoku’s Miley Cyrus obsession a distant memory.

While you guys in Manchester are gearing up towards a long Christmas holiday, in Beijing we’re in study mode until January. Beijing is adapting itself to the cool northern winds rushing in from Mongolia, and the street food vendors are wrapping themselves up and roasting chestnuts. China is truly different to the UK and constantly surprising: I’m very excited to see what the winter has in store.

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