Beyond the Great Wall: How To Immerse Yourself In China

by Kristen Mankosa

When it comes to choosing where to study abroad, Europe has a classic appeal but on the other side of the world, lies a road less traveled and an adventure less explored. China is roughly the size of the USA with four times the population and is a haven for international exchange. High school history classes might throw the names of a few dynasties into a lesson or two, but the country is too often overlooked. Rich with history, steeped in tradition, and just emerging into the global market, China is growing in popularity as an exciting destination for tourism, travel, and study abroad.

Chinese street food
A few tasty Chinese treats waiting to be coated with spices and fried. These snacks are best split with friends while studying in China. Photo Courtesy of Kristen Mankosa

A Nation of Change & Tradition

“The Middle Kingdom” offers a variety of good reasons to choose to study in Beijing, Shanghai, or any of its other major cities. It is still playing with the idea of a capitalist economy, and the balance of blending modern ideas with old ways. Political Science majors can study firsthand how emerging world powers become strategic negotiators and political players on the world stage.

Finance and Economics majors can learn what makes an economy grow, and decide for themselves what policies are working and which ones are not. Fashion majors can explore the “Paris of the East,” and uncover China’s fashion capital, in Shanghai. It is an exciting time for the country. China can seem a daunting mission: a difficult language with a completely alien alphabet, unheard of foods, and mysterious customs.

But, the point of study abroad trips is to expand horizons past the conventional classroom and to grow in ways that professors or books can’t teach. There’s going to be plenty of questionable food, language barriers, and lots of culture shock, but the skills learned to navigate through those problems end up becoming the most important lessons learned. Or, at least the most interesting blog posts!

If China still seems like a Herculean task to undertake, then ease into it by participating in the culture. There’s hundreds of things to do in China, but five make the list for the top things to try while studying abroad in order to truly immerse yourself in Chinese culture.

Try New Foods

A popular Chinese snack, chòu dòufu or Stinky Tofu, is fermented tofu, fried to a deep golden brown. The wretched smell, similar to sulfur, can keep tourists from getting near the stuff, but one taste will prove that it is all worth it! One of the best places to try Stinky Tofu is in the Yu Gardens in Shanghai, where xiaolongbao (dumplings with hot soup inside) can help wash down a plate of chòu dòufu.

If tofu doesn’t sound appetizing, then maybe something from Beijing’s Donghuamen Night Market will hit the spot. It is marked by a line of vendors under bright red tents, selling everything from bug-kabobs to fried noodles and chefs call out specialty dishes and prices to the passersby. This market is a must for any foodie. Try some fried scorpion—it tastes like a spicy potato chip!

Cook Chinese Dumplings

Dumplings are a staple to many families and learning to cook them is a great souvenir to share with family and friends back home. Sign up for dumpling making courses, some places will even pair students up with local families. Spend a day cooking some of China’s most popular food then bring the knowledge back with you for a lifetime of creating your own.

Bamboo Raft Rides

Bamboo raft rides are a popular way to sightsee, but the most famous is from Guilin to Yangshuo on the Li River. The ride lasts about an hour and winds through the famous limestone mountains; a keen eye can spot the mountain formation that is seen on the back of the 20 Yuan bill. The river cuts through the rock and passes small riverside villages and farms, ending in a quaint village just outside Yangshuo, where Mao Zedong era propaganda remains, fading away, on the sides of buildings.

Chinese temple

Temple Stays

Spend a few nights, or even just a meal, with Buddhist monks in their monasteries. Some of these stays cost nothing at all, though a small donation is appreciated, and includes a vegetarian meal and accommodation. Stay in temples hand carved in the sides of mountains, or stay after hours in popular shrines located in the city center.

Attend a Tea Ceremony

No trip to China is complete without a true tea ceremony. Tea culture has long since been a part of China’s history, and nothing tastes better than a fresh, piping hot cup of tea. Some tea masters will work in large teahouses and walk tasters through the proper steps (yes, steps) of tea drinking. Other ceremonies are held in small tea shops where shoppers can taste tea before buying. No two ceremonies are exactly alike, but each one guarantees a fantastic cup of tea steeped with tradition.

With a bit of daring appetite for adventure, China will open up a new world of learning for you, so leave the olive groves and baguettes of Europe behind and discover what China has to teach you.