Learning to Grow as a Student in China

by Kristen Mankosa

The word “student” in Chinese, xuéshēng (schway-shung), is comprised of two characters: Xué, to study or learn; and Shēng, meaning raw, to live or grow. Someone who is a xuéshēng is literally a person who is learning to live and grow. Studying abroad in China is a chance to step outside comfort zones and learn about a completely new culture that, in many ways, varies drastically from American culture.

Get used to seeing bare-bottomed-babes while studying in China. The split pants of toddlers and infants are a common sight.
Get used to seeing bare-bottomed-babes while studying in China. The split pants of toddlers and infants are a common sight around the countryside and in cities. Photo Courtesy of Kristen Mankosa

While the idea of studying in China has the allure of excitement and adventure, many students succumb to some major culture shock. The best way to become a successful student is by preparing for the “shock” in advance—doing a little homework before heading over will help ease you into the Chinese culture.  

Learn the Language

 Learning a little bit of the language, even if it’s just how to count to ten, can help start to break down the language barriers. Numbers and other basic phrases will help with gaining familiarity on how the language sounds and soon other phrases, and even conversation, will come a lot easier. Also, try learning to count with just one hand! Many Chinese use and will recognize this method, and it makes haggling a lot more fun!

Stay Healthy: What to Eat and Drink?

If it hasn’t been boiled or bottled — don’t drink it. Even if others are drinking from the faucet in the kitchen, it is better to be safe than sick. Avoid tap water and pick bottled water to drink, cook with, and even brushing your teeth. China’s water supply often contains bacteria that Americans and other foreigners aren’t used to, and that can be all the difference needed to leave you feeling as though Buddha has personally sought you out for some sort of tough lesson.

Be Polite: Chinese Etiquette

 At mealtimes, it’s rude to flat out refuse a dish, so try a little of everything. If the food is a little too saucy or spicy, wipe the excess off on top of the rice. Then, when the meal is finished, the rice will have lots of flavor. The other problem that arises around the dinner table is proper chopstick use. Grab a pair of chopsticks from the nearest Chinese restaurant, a bag of shelled peanuts, and practice. Often times, peanuts are served as an appetizer before a meal. So practicing your chopsticks skills on boiled peanuts will come in handy.

Staying Connected

China blocks access to sites like Facebook and Twitter, so if you’re prone to homesickness be prepared. Start looking into Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that can be accessed while abroad, a VPN will make a computer think that it is accessing the internet from Seattle instead of Shanghai, and then Facebooking with friends won’t be a problem. There are many ways to keep in touch with family and friends: apps for messaging without fees, Skype calls, and web chats allow you to keep in touch with everyone. Test it all before leaving to make sure it works and then the distance won’t seem quite so long.


There are dozens of books on Chinese etiquette and plenty of blogs across the internet. A little reading before departing will acquaint you with some of the more bizarre sights of China. For example, bare-bottomed-babies are not an usual site. The more learned beforehand means the less shock upon an arrival. Be prepared to witness behaviors that Americans would consider A-typical, even rude. Chinese have an entirely different way of living in some places, but soon the seemingly odd will become an everyday sight. Being familiar with some of the formalities will make meeting new friends much easier.

And finally…

Be Daring

Studying abroad takes a bit of gut, especially in China. It takes courage to head overseas and spend a semester (or longer) in a new country. An adventurous spirit goes a long way, so don’t rule out trying something out of the ordinary. The greatest lessons learned in China won’t come from math or language classes, they’ll come from learning to be a part of the culture. The way to be a great student in China is to learn about the people there, participate in the festivals and activities, make friends, and to spend each day learning as much outside of the classroom as inside it.  

As the Chinese proverb goes, “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”