At the end of my freshman year of college in the U.S., I went on a 4-week Chinese language and culture summer study abroad program in Guangzhou, China. I learned about study abroad opportunities almost by chance. My good friend was spending a semester in Portugal taking classes and loving every moment. That prompted me to check out study abroad opportunities available through my university.
China sounded intriguing. I didn’t know any Chinese language nor how to pronounce the name of the city where I was going to spend the beginning of my summer. Classes through the program would transfer on a pass/fail basis, I received a scholarship that covered most of my trip, and climbing the Great Wall of China was one of the items on my bucket list. I was hooked!
Guangzhou is the fourth-largest city in China and not very touristy which means communicating in English is rather difficult. I spent three weeks in Guangzhou studying Mandarin language and Chinese culture at Sun Yat Sen University. Then, I practiced my Mandarin with Cantonese people. Even though Mandarin is an official Chinese language, there are many dialects. Southern China uses the Cantonese dialect.
Table of Contents
Study Abroad in China: School Life
Intense study schedule
The class portion of my study abroad program was only three weeks, so my class schedule was rather intense, sometimes including weekend days. The fourth week was dedicated to travel, and we could also participate in culture activities in and out of Guangzhou when we had a day or two off classes.
On a usual school day, we had language classes from 8 a.m. until noon. Then we would have a 2-hour break for lunch and a nap before Chinese culture classes in the afternoon. I really enjoyed the variety of hands-on cultural activities ranging in difficulty level. It could be anything from calligraphy to tai chi (a form of exercise originating from Chinese martial arts) to interacting with Chinese students. I have to say that calligraphy is an art that it takes time to become good at, but it was sure fun to try.
New Chinese name
We were all given Chinese names. As much difficulty as westerners have with Chinese names, Chinese people have the same difficulty with western names. Our new names were based on how our names were already pronounced, just a bit different. This slight adaptation made it easier for Chinese people to pronounce our names. I cannot say that speaking Mandarin ever got easier for me – there are four tones of pronunciation that each give words different meanings!
I happened to set off on my study abroad experience with about 20 students from my university. I met some of them at the airport and the rest on campus in Guangzhou. We were a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from various majors. We were also quite a diverse group in terms of race, ethnic group, country of origin, and religion. As you can imagine, we were quite the sight out and about in China.
At least half of our group had no prior knowledge of Mandarin, so some of us were more successful at interactions with Chinese students than others. Students with prior Chinese language experience had more benefits, as they were assigned to language classes with students from outside our group.
Slow pace of life
Despite the intensity of a compressed study schedule during my summer study abroad, I found life in Guangzhou to be nicely slow-paced. Everyone was chill, walking slowly, taking 2-hour lunch breaks. I was particularly shocked by those long lunch breaks! In the U.S. I would always be in a hurry, crossing things off a long to-do list and feeling guilty about “wasting time” if I wasn’t doing anything productive. I loved the slow pace of life in China and fully embraced the culture.
Immersion in Chinese culture
This was anything from using chopsticks to squatting in the bathrooms, speaking Mandarin, bargaining with street vendors, and being best friends with your umbrella during the humid, rainy summer months. Being in a place that isn’t very touristy, you have to adapt to get by. I learned how to use chopsticks and how to bargain in order to function daily. On free days, I ventured out with my new friends in the city or surrounding areas, always running away from mosquitos, with umbrella in hand and hair double its usual volume due to the humidity. With stores open until 11 p.m. I practiced my newly-acquired bargaining skills and Mandarin language, attempting to properly pronounce words using the right tone. I loved to walk through our beautiful campus, especially admiring the old trees along the road.
I go into more depth about the culture in this article.
Dancing with the locals
One of the cool things I discovered on one of my evening walks by the Pearl River was the Chinese peoples’ love for outdoor fitness activities, specifically dancing outdoors. In Guangzhou, there are a few parks around the river for outdoor activities, and the biggest park was right by the north gate of my university! I was impressed with the number of locals from different age groups who showed up to dance or work out together in small groups. It is a great community event, and anyone can participate. Just hop in, tune in to the music, and follow others!
Traveling is all about taking advantage of opportunities that are presented to you and immersing yourself in the culture. These are the memories you are going to remember later and stories you’re going to tell, so don’t hesitate.
Study Abroad in China: Sightseeing
There was more to my study abroad program in China than just school life. We got quite a few opportunities to sightsee and enjoy local attractions. Here are some of the highlights.
Temples & Buddhas
I am fascinated by Eastern philosophies and truly enjoyed visiting temples. A unique aspect of eastern religions is the lack of the monotheistic god figure that is dominant in major western religions. In fact, eastern religions are often referred to as eastern philosophies. Buddhism is one of major eastern philosophies you’ll find in China, and temples are one of the main tourist attractions.
Buddhists, unlike practitioners of western religions, do not believe in eternal life but rather in reaching the state of nirvana where our selves return to the universe. Buddhism is based on the teachings and life of Buddha, a human born into a noble family who became a prominent figure and an example to follow in Buddhism. A typical temple features one or more Buddha statues.
You’ll also pass guardian statues by the door that are meant to protect the temple. There is room to worship, make offerings, and burn incense sticks. There are no special rules for visitors to follow, just be mindful and considerate, as there is no set time to worship and individuals visit as they like.
Most of the places you’ll visit will have a gate that marks an entrance to the complex of buildings, such as a temple or a palace, and the gates can be quite spectacular. They serve as a reminder that you are entering a historic location. Check for yourself.
The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China, a Chinese icon, had long been on my list of places to see. I have always been fascinated with its history and length. The purpose of the wall was to protect borders and the Silk Road trade. The Great Wall of China is a collection of walls, watchtowers, and fortresses. Its origin dates to 2,300 years ago when the work first started, but it really wasn’t until the Ming dynasty (14-17 c.) that this manmade structure became the form we know today. It is over 13,000 m (21,000 km) long and 16-26 feet (5-8 m) tall.
I got to walk on the Badaling Section of the wall as a part of my Beijing tour. About 30% of the Great Wall is actually now in bad shape, but the Badaling Section is well-preserved, making it easier for tourists to navigate. It is quite impressive to witness in person. The whole experience exceeded my expectations. As you keep climbing, you wonder how far it goes. You need to experience it for yourself!
Exploring surrounding areas during study abroad in China
During my summer study abroad in China not only I got a chance to get accustomed to Chinese culture and experience local attractions, but I also took opportunities to explore the surrounding areas.
The last five days of my stay in China was an organized five-day tour of the capital city. It was a low-key tour with quite a few destinations and plenty of time to eat. Chinese culture revolves around food, and we had plenty of time to experience just that.
I enjoyed the main attractions such as the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. But one of my favorite memories is of taking a boat ride at Beihai Park and wandering through the Prince Gong Mansion. A rickshaw ride was also very fun, and being chased by merchants trying to sell us chopsticks made it quite the experience.
I took a bus ride to Guilin with a small group of my more adventurous classmates and one of our Chinese teachers. We were a bit worried after being told about bus robberies targeting Western tourists. To this day, I don’t know whether that was true or a joke to freak us out. At no point during my entire stay in China was I ever scared.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to explore the stunning hills in Guilin. We spent a couple days admiring the beauty of this place by taking boat rides and biking in the area. Don’t be fooled by the clouds – I got sunburned, and my face was red for a week!
Although most of my classmates were interested in exploring Hong Kong, I was the only one to realize ahead of time that I needed a double-entry tourist visa in order to return to mainland China, as Hong Kong is not a part of China and you have to cross the border to enter it. After taking a two-hour train ride from Guangzhou, I only had 8 hours left to explore the city.
Hong Kong is a big city spread across several islands. I loved taking boats around the city. I split my time between visiting the Victoria Peak and the Big Buddha and barely caught the last train back to Guangzhou. I wish I’d had more time in Hong Kong, as there’s so much to see there.
Are you interested in visiting China? Check out my tips for visiting China. Happy exploring!