Living abroad – What it’s like to study Chinese in Shanghai

Yasmin left her home in the Netherlands to study Chinese in Shanghai. She shares what it's like to live and study in a Chinese city and tells you what you need to know if you want to do something simular yourself. Find out more..

Arriving in Shanghai felt like arriving in a different world. I felt lost in translation; I couldn’t read or understand anything. This city was so big and hectic, people were everywhere all the time, chaos was all around. In the beginning, it was a little overwhelming. The number of skyscrapers, crazy traffic, the Chinese characters, millions of people. The food tasted so different and you never really knew what you were eating. Pizza with sugar on top, waffles with meat inside, snake in hotpot.

You could walk around the city for hours and watch people walk around shamelessly in hello kitty pyjama’s, playing with their poodles in silly outfits, dancing in big groups in the streets, practising music in parks or different kinds of sports. You can try out street bbq food you’ve never tried before, sing karaoke at KTV, practise your Chinese with the cab drivers while they try to pronounce your name. Enter clubs in skyscrapers with sharks in aquariums, where girls get paid to sit and look pretty and get free alcohol just because you come from ‘the west’. You learn about Chinese superstitions, like how the colour red represents good luck and the number four is considered unlucky as the pronunciation is similar to the word for ‘death’. I felt amazed by all the unusual things and it’s these quirks that made living here such an adventure. Shanghai never sleeps, there is always something to do, see or experience.

Finding a house

When you study at SISU, you have the choice to live on campus, but  I decided to look for an apartment with my friend, a Russian and  Ukrainian girl. It took us two weeks of house hunting, multiple scooter rides, strange apartment without doors, language miscommunications and desperation until we found an old wooden typical Chinese apartment on the 8th floor of a big complex, five minutes walking distance of our university. If you don’t speak Chinese it can be tricky to find a place, because usually, the agents don’t speak English. Only a fraction of the apartments are posted online, so try to find a Chinese friend who can help you and just look for housing agencies in the streets. Make sure you are very clear in what you’re looking for, this will save you a lot of time and don’t sign a contract that’s only in Mandarin Chinese. You also have to register as a temporary residence at the local police station within 24 hours of arrival. If you’d like to use the internet, you can buy a pre-paid SIM card in many small supermarkets. China Mobile and China Unicom are mobile phone service providers for instance.

Learning Chinese

The first day at university, they give you a Chinese name, if you don’t have one already. Someone in my class was called ‘Yifu’ which means clothing piece. So I thought it was better to think of a name for myself and choose ‘Moli’ which means Jasmine and is similar to my Dutch name Yasmin. My friend got the name Bai Xue which means white snow.

I went to class with people from different countries. Some came from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, but there was also a girl from France and one from Italy. In the beginning, it seemed like I was taking vocal lessons, as you start by practising the tones. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, so the meaning of a syllable changes depending on the pronunciation. For instance, the syllable “ma” can mean “horse”, “mother”, “scold” or “hemp” and is also used at the end of a sentence when you ask a question. As you can imagine, this created some funny situations. I can recall a time when I tried to order a cappuccino and it turned out I was asking for a horse.

Once you have learned the tones, you move on to the vocabulary and phrases in Pinyin. This is a way to write Chinese using the western alphabet, this allows you to write Chinese without using Chinese characters. The last step is reading and writing Chinese characters. There are over 50,000 Chinese characters so after 5 months my Chinese was nowhere near fluent, but I could find my way, order food, bargain at the markets and practice every day with people in the streets and with the taxi drivers.

What I’ve learned

I lived in Shanghai for five months and the experience certainly changed me. It changed my perspective on life in my own country and on the world in general. You learn to appreciate things back home that you once took for granted, you see how different life can be on the other side of the globe and you meet people from different backgrounds. I got to know myself in a different way, I learned how to be alone in a city with so many people, I learned how to get around when nobody understood me, I learned how to live with little money and little of anything, I lived together with people from different cultures, made new friends, studied one of the most difficult languages in the world, went on crazy adventures, tried out strange food and was generally amazed by the whole experience. If you’d like to experience a crazy city, unlike any other, visit Shanghai. I can guarantee you will not get bored.

Want to study in Shanghai? This is how you do it!

I studied at ‘SISU’ university. This university is known to be one of the best to learn the Chinese language in Shanghai. They offer different language programmes, check out their website for more information:

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