If you’re considering a semester of exchange studies, Peking University’s not a bad choice. It’s essentially China’s top university, as the proud and continually overloaded local students will tell you (as will any incredulous Chinese who you tell you’re from Beida). For language learning, it’s got a good reputation and a good location in the heart of the Beijing dialect area – the most fashionable and arguably nicest sounding accent and dialect you can pick up. It’s got a campus loaded with cheap places to eat (and eat, and eat, and eat…). And then it’s also in one of the most convenient transport hubs of the country, making domestic travel all too easy.

I took up my semester of learning in the Chinese Language department. They start off the semester with a big exam to grade people into different levels. Although everyone has to go through it, it’s nothing to worry about. If anything, the exam makes it a little too easy to get graded into high level classes. When you get the opportunity to check the textbooks and swap down a class, seriously consider doing so. The amount of homework and assessment that they hand out in Chinese universities is far more than most people are used to in Australia, so it’s worth keeping in mind that one class higher could mean an entire semester of pain, and one class lower could mean a more rewarding experience.

With the way the classes are taught, however, don’t expect too much opportunity to improve your spoken Chinese, or the opportunity to practice with anyone apart from the classful of other foreigners you’re landed with. The best chance to practice is out in the student clubs and with local language partners desperate to practice their English, of which there are plenty. However, the clubs may be a little slack with their mailing lists so, if you want to get involved, pester them continually or you might get left out.

As for food and accommodation, you can get by on a pittance. The canteens on campus can serve up a big meal for less than one Australian dollar and there’s a fair bit of variety. The huge crowds that turn up during lunch hours might be a bit of a shock, but do what you can to eat lunch early or learn to eat standing up. If you get yourself a scholarship, dorm accommodation can be free. Otherwise, you may have to pay 90 RMB per night or find a place of your own. I can’t say for sure how hard that is, but people seemed to manage it, with or without a strong language ability.

If you are in Beijing, take the opportunity to get on the trains and travel of a weekend. The rail network is well developed and a huge chunk of the country is within one night’s train ride. There’s a wealth of culture and eye-opening experiences out there to discover, more so than you could probably expect in Europe or the Americas. There’s great variety in the culture and lifestyles within China, and most are hugely different to what’s typical in Australia, so it’s really a delight to explore.

And a few tips:

  • Try not to get frustrated at things you can’t change. Blocked internet, bureaucracy, pointless inconveniences whenever you want to book into a motel or catch a train or cross a road, arbitrary rules that serve no worthwhile purpose – you’ll have to deal with them all. Remember that it’s not Australia and it’s just the way things are.
  • Take the opportunity to travel. It really is quite easy. The trains go everywhere and public transport is usually quite good. Make use of things like 百度地图’s offline maps feature, the 8684 bus and train timetables and resources like Lonely Planet guidebooks and 百度旅游. Though sometimes flawed, they still help.
  • Be cheap. You can get away with spending less than 20RMB a day on food, catching buses across a city for 1RMB (taxis really aren’t necessary), staying in hostels for 40RMB per night, and buying just about any consumer goods you want online (Check out taobao.com, they can deliver straight to the dorms, and they give a good idea of prices before you go and waste all your money in an overpriced store). And you can catch a train for a tenth of the price of a plane, and without the hassle of transport to and from an airport.


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