I'm so often asked for advice about studying abroad that I've decided to write it up.


Why study abroad?

Nothing opens your mind like living in a foreign place. Taking classes while living abroad gives you something to structure your time and helps you understand the place you are visiting. And if you are majoring in a hard foreign language such as Chinese, it is not realistic to think that you can learn the language unless you live and practice overseas.

This write-up talks about some basic issues in studying language abroad, specifically Chinese. If you are mainly interested in taking advanced coursework or getting an internship or a job, there will be important issues not covered here. I'm writing for the student who is going abroad to improve his/her Chinese.


Types of program

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of study abroad programs:

True academic programs. These provide a very high level of instruction. Some of them are actually run by U.S. academic institutions, or by foreign universities with substantial connections to U.S. academia.
  • Advantages:
    • A very serious academic learning environment.
    • The majority of your fellow students will be people who will make a career involving command of Chinese, and a side result of your studies will be long-term networking with them.
    • Though this shouldn't be your main motivation, I can't deny that these places will look better on your resume than the others described below.
  • Disadvantages:
    • These places are generally expensive, although good scholarships are sometimes available.
    • Non-academic activities are usually quite limited.
Best programs: The four foreign universities at which these programs are based are among the most important and prestigious in the Chinese-speaking world. (Peking University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong also approach this pinnacle of prestige.)

Many other US institutions have special relationships with overseas programs, and you can get information about them yourself on the Web. Some are truly outstanding. But many of the others grade into the next category, and I don't have the information to specifically recommend one over another.

"Do-it-yourself" programs. Many universities and private language schools operate their own programs nowadays. A significant number of them are designed mainly to earn money and are not very good. However, some are excellent.

  • Advantages:
    • This is likely to be your least expensive option.
    • There is generally little supervision, which means more adventure for you.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Programs (and your fellow students) vary enormously and are hard to evaluate till you get there - their web pages tend to be somewhat rough-looking and you shouldn't judge the programs by them.
    • If something goes wrong, you're going to be on your own.
Best programs: There are far too many of these for me to recommend individually. Let me suggest two ways you can try to evaluate them. One is to talk to several people who have studied there. You can ask the program secretary for some names of past students. A willingness to supply such names is a sign that the program is confident of its own quality. The other way is to see if the school ever offers scholarships to good students within the program. If they are, the chances are that the program is not primarily driven by the desire to make money, and that's a good sign.

The three oldest and most respected "do-it-yourself" Chinese programs date from the 1950's and 60's:

However, there are now countless such programs all over the Chinese-speaking world. If your university has a special relationhip with a foreign institution, it may be much cheaper for you to go there.

"Baby-sitter" programs. These feature a dedicated Resident Director to whom you can turn if you have problems. The Resident Director is supposed to be American or have lived a long time in the United States, and so can help you mediate your interaction with the host country. Such programs are fairly expensive, but you get a lot of individual attention. Most of the "true academic programs" listed above are also of this kind.

  • Advantages:
    • You have someone knowledgeable on-site to guide you.
    • There is typically a well-staffed office in the US to reassure your parents when they get worried.
  • Disadvantage:
    • If the Resident Director is bad, you will find you've paid a lot of money for something that is no different from a "do-it-yourself" program.
Best programs: Some smaller programs also feature American resident directors, but I'm not aware of any that have the solid US-based infrastructure of the two listed here.


When should I go, and for how long?

I don't recommend studying Chinese overseas until you have already had a minimum of two years of solid language training in the U.S. Three years would be better, but two years is enough if the training is solid. You should certainly be comfortable with

before you go. Few if any overseas programs can teach you grammar as well as a good U.S. program, and until you have the grammar under basic control you're probably going to have a lot of trouble learning to speak correctly. Here are three times you might go to the Far East:

  1. During college
    Some people want to go abroad for a whole year, while others want only to go for a semester or a summer. To me, the main issue is whether you're still in school or not. If you are, you should probably try to finish you degree as soon as you can, so I'd recommend spending a short time overseas. A whole year is a long time to be absent from your home campus, and I usually suggest that students still in college go abroad for just a summer or a summer plus a Fall semester.
  2. After graduation
    If you are going after graduation, I'd recommend that you spend at least a full year at a Chinese language program - and preferably two. The year after you graduate is a unique time in your life, and unless you're inextricably encumbered with responsibilities here you should leave and have an adventure. It will probably transform your life utterly, and the year or two after college are probably the freest you will ever be to have adventures of this kind. If you're afraid you can't afford it, I'd even suggest you tell your parents that this is what you want for a graduation present.
  3. Winter break
    Studying Chinese for a few weeks over the winter break is too short a time to gain much. Even if you're in a very intensive program, you are unlikely to retain much of what you've learned without staying abroad a longer stretch of time. It's better than nothing, but not by much.


Where should I go?

You should go where you want to go. If you have friends or connections at some university in China or Taiwan, by all means go there. Probably you will learn a great deal just by the fact of living overseas.

But if your goal is to gain command of Chinese, I recommend that you spend some of your time in Taiwan. Taiwan is only a small country with meagre international recognition, and visiting it is not the same as visiting mainland China. If you are serious about studying Chinese, you certainly have to live and travel in the mainland. But Taiwan has one enormous advantage over China for the language learner: It is a completely open society, which mainland China is not. You can talk about any subject you want in Taiwan, without fear of getting into trouble. And if you are gay, or observantly religious, or in some obvious way different (racially, handicapped, etc. etc.) from what local people expect you to be, you will find Taiwan considerably more accomodating than mainland China. China is by all means becoming more open, but it is a huge and complicated place and there is a limit to how quickly such places can change. My personal recommendation is that you start your overseas stay in Taiwan, and go to China later.


What to expect

  • Academic matters
    A short time before classes begin overseas you will probably be given a placement test. In my experience, the great majority of foreign students do badly on these tests, and get placed into Chinese classes that they feel are wrong for them. Although you can often haggle your way into a different level, that's going to be extra work for you. The best thing is to spend at least a couple of weeks before the test reviewing the Chinese you've learned, so that you get placed into the level that's right for you. It would also be a good idea to arrive in the host country at least 7-10 days before the test, so that you're more or less over jet-lag and have begun using the spoken language a little bit.

    If the place you are studying uses a different form of the characters than what you studied in the U.S., you should take some time before the placement test to learn the kind you'll be using at your host school. This can make a huge difference in where you are placed in the host program.

    Teachers vary. If you have a lousy teacher and want to change classes, you must make every effort not to show any disrespect to the teacher you don't like. Remember, even if your teachers are used to teaching Americans (which many aren't), they will still probably expect more deference from you than many US faculty do. You should always arrive in the classroom before the starting time and never cut class. You should dress neatly and speak gently. You should do your homework every day. These things are much more important in Chinese society than in the US, and will have a big effect on what you are able learn while there because people will judge you based on how you present yourself, according to their standards. If you act like a pig (or what local people consider a pig), you can expect to be treated like one.

  • Housing
    I said that nothing opens your mind like living in a foreign place. Actually, that is not true if you isolate yourself in a ghetto of fellow expatriats, as many people unfortunately do. One of the most important things you can do is pick a program that will let you live in Chinese society as normally as possible. Dormitories, while convenient, are unfortunately not always ideal places for learning language. Living in the real world, whether in a home-stay or in an apartment you share with Chinese people, is much better for learning language but of course it's more difficult to arrange. If you're serious about learning Chinese, I urge you to beware of dormitories, especially those that place you with other foreign students or with English-speaking Chinese roommates.
  • Culture shock
    Culture shock is the prime difficulty when you live overseas. It's basically another name for homesickness. You can also think of it as a sort of temporary mental illness that hits you after a few weeks or months. I want to emphasize that everyone experiences culture shock, and there's really no way to avoid it. I've lived many years of my life in China and Taiwan, and I still experience culture shock after a couple of months there. My wife, who was born and raised in Chinese society, still experiences it whenever she goes back. We experience it again when we return to the US after having lived in China or Taiwan for a longish stay. What causes it is the simple fact of living for a significant period of time in an unfamiliar environment. You can get used to all sorts of material lacks and inconveniences, but there will probably come a time when your mind refuses to yield any more.

    Since you can't avoid it, you need to learn to recognize it and deal with it before it paralyzes you. Culture shock manifests itself as discouragement, anger, and many other superficial symptoms, but its basic cause is a failure to adapt fully to new living conditions. When you experience culture shock you usually perceive that something is wrong in your environment (the food, the traffic, the interpersonal dynamics) and focus on that excessively. But the real problem is that you aren't adjusted to how things are around you.

    The best way to deal with this is to try to get some distance on the situation. Try to take a certain amount of time each day doing something relaxing that removes you from the things that upset you. It really makes a difference. I've even known people to check into a hotel for a day or two to try to calm down, or to bury themselves in English-language books or movies as a way of easing culture shock. There are a lot of concrete little things you can do, too. If dealing with the bus system makes you crazy, pay for a cab. If people spitting on the street disgusts you, try humming so you don't hear it so much. In the end, you are the only person who can help yourself deal with culture shock, and it's going to be up to you to find the proper balm for it.

    Chinese society everywhere is highly structured, and that is one of the main sources of culture shock for the foreign student. A basic part of Chinese culture that is that everyone has a clear shenfèn "identity" or "place". You are defined in Chinese society not primarily as an individual but as a member of a group - your clan, your nationality, your school, your workplace, etc. Americans, especially young ones, often have trouble dealing with this emphasis on shenfèn, which they perceive to be rigidly authoritarian. One of the chief things you need to learn in order to become proficient in Chinese language is how to deal with how Chinese people think, and social strictures are a large part of that.

  • Safety and personal behavior

    It's much wiser to back down and lose face than to get into a fight and lose an eye. If you don't understand that, you're probably not ready to leave home yet.

    Among Chinese people, it is considered seriously wrong to lose your temper in public. Learn to control it, all the time. People in Chinese society are vastly more sensitive than we are to raised voices and impatient gestures. Eliminate them from your behavior.

    Chinese people regard information as an exchangeable commodity, and you may find many details of your private life becoming public knowledge. Be careful what you say to people - you should assume that nothing you say aloud will remain private or secret.

    Expect to be cheated sometimes if people know you're a foreigner, and try not to let it bother you. Yes, it feels lousy, but there's little you can do about it once it happens. You can avoid it by trying to be knowledgeable about prices, and patronizing shopkeepers who seem to treat you fairly.

    If people know you speak English, they may try to pressure you into conversation exchanges or even actual teaching jobs. Feel free to resist this as completely as necessary. There is a long-term personal struggle involved in learning Chinese, and you should take what steps you have to in order to meet this struggle. My opinion is that you have the right to not to speak English while studying Chinese abroad, unless you have no other way to support yourself.

    Pickpocketing is not uncommon in crowded situations, and if you look foreign you are a likely target. A wallet left unattended in a public place will probably disappear in a matter of seconds.

    Although China and Taiwan don't have liquor laws like those in the US, don't take this as a green light to get drunk. Public drunkenness is simply not acceptable in Chinese society. In fact, not knowing when to stop drinking is looked on as a sign of very low moral character.

    If you are a woman, you may find that there is a lower tolerance for revealing clothing than in the US. Dress conservatively. If you take a taxi at night, it's a good idea to let the driver see that a friend has taken down the taxi's number when you get it. If no friend is handy, open your cell phone (real or fake) and let the driver see and hear you telling someone the number of the cab.

    Public display of affection is not as acceptable in Chinese society as in the U.S. Be cautious.

    You can catch every sexually transmitted disease you've ever heard of in Asia. Use a condom. Every time.


Miscellaneous questions

  • Question: Should I try to learn dialect X while I'm studying Mandarin?
    Get your Mandarin up and running first. A little historical phonology would be useful before jumping too deeply into dialect X, but no doubt you'll pick up some by ear/eye as time goes by. Mandarin is not only relatively simple to learn, but there are scads of textbooks and dictionaries. Only Cantonese and Taiwanese can really compete with that, and they're a far cry.
  • Question: So-and-so has invited me to visit, promising to help me get settled. Should I accept?
    Personal connections are the key to everything in the Far East, and especially in Chinese societies, so don't be afraid to make contacts and do favors for people when possible. However, in my experience you should be wary of anyone doing you favors, because you may be asked to repay the favor later in ways that could be inconvenient. I prefer to function as much as possible without relying on favor networks.
  • Question: What can I do to mentally prepare before I leave?
    Back up your data, get your shots, pare down your luggage till there's absolutely as little as possible. Have your teeth done by a good dentist. You can get all the cash you need from ATMs now, so no need to worry about the banking horrors of the past unless you're in a small town. But it wouldn't hurt to have a couple of hundred bucks US stored away just in case you have to get to the airport immediately in some emergency. When you get there and are settled, open a little bank account at the Post Office and keep your funds there. As for mental preparation, practice your Chinese, and visualize yourself getting smoothly out of weird situations
  • Question: Pare down my luggage? How little should I bring?
    You want to be able to move all your stuff (including the massive clot of junk that is going to start adhering to you as soon as you arrive) with relative ease once you decide to change residences. Suitcases with wheels are better than duffel bags - they're usually waterproof and easy to move on the street, and can't be opened quietly if left unattended. I'd certainly bring 8 shirts, but go easy on the books. You can get good dictionaries there easily. Unless you're much larger than most Chinese people, you can surely buy some clothes there. Chinese cities are dirty, and in hot weather you're going to sweat like a roasting camel, and it rains a lot and things mildew easily, so bear all that in mind. You should be prepared to bathe at least once a day and change all your clothes every day.

It's useful to have one nice set of clothes/shoes, light-weight if possible, in case you get invited somewhere really fancy like a formal embassy party or something. Keep it well aired so it doesn't grow green fuzz.

  • Question: What's your favorite kind of place to eat?
    Cheap but clean. Peptobismol tablets are useful to bring along in quantity (they coat your stomach before you eat in a grubby place and prevent disease). I've found Zantac useful against chronic indigestion. Most other Western needs can be accomodated in cities. I'd advise bringing adequate supplies of a fluoride rinse, because water is unfluoridated and sometimes acidic, and also because living in a new place always makes the bacteria grow like mad.
  • Question: Any advice in terms of places to avoid or that require a visit?
    See everything, go everywhere. I strongly believe in exploring on your own, getting into "situations" and then getting yourself out again. When I first arrived I didn't even know where I was going to spend the first night, but I met a friendly stewardess and a Christian family on the plane who gave me a few pointers, and then I found a Dutch kid who knew a few places in town but could speak no Chinese. The stewardess and Christians got me into a cab with the other fellow, and around midnight we were banging on the door of a hostel and were grudgingly granted a place to sleep. I used to like to just grab a bus and take it to the end of the line and then try to figure out how to get back again on my own.
  • I have a very low tolerance for tourist sites. "Enjoy" them at your own risk.

  • Question: What else?
    There are extremely light, portable umbrellas for sale around in many cities - buy several, and never be without one. Never be without notebook and writing implement. Cell phones are inexpensive. Mid-day is bloody hot in the southern Chinese summer, so drink plenty of fluids.
  • Don't expect your friends and acquaintances to like each other. You should assume that every Chinese friendship of yours is absolutely compartmentalized, unless you can prove otherwise. Don't cross those borders unless absolutely necessary! Some people you know may be carrying out long feuds, but are still happy to know you.

    You should get your own name cards printed, in English and Chinese, once you get there. Be sure the printer doesn't mess up the Chinese - I've found they sometimes do that to see if you can really read it yourself, so watch out. Don't write on people's name cards, but do find a way to review them regularly so that you retain the names and don't embarrass yourself. Also, try to pay attention to the names of the stores and bus-stops you visit, since otherwise it's very very hard to communicate with people about where you went, where to meet, etc.

    Young gentlemen; If an attractive young woman asks if she can sit at your table in a restaurant, be prepared for the possibility that you may have to end up paying a huge amount of money for her company, I mean just for having her sit there and sipping a drink, no more.

    I advise letting the other people talk politics and not expressing any opinions of your own until you know people quite well. In the long run this makes for a much happier visit to their country. You may think their country stinks, but that's their problem. If they tell you your country stinks, I suggest you smile and refuse calmly to be drawn in.

    Watch your own mind. Culture shock is your number one enemy. Feel it coming, get out of the way. It's not the Chinese who have something wrong with them, it's you! Smile, you knucklehead! The process of adjustment is gradual but punctuated, so there will be plateaux of good and of bad.

    I advise avoiding late-night drinking situations in bad places. The year I ran a study abroad program I had a number of male students hospitalized from bar fights. One was almost killed - he came within about half a minute of having his head smashed in with a fire extinguisher as he lay bleeding and unconscious on the street. He was in the hospital for 3 weeks. Avoid gangsters at all costs. Avoid foreigners who spend all their time together and speak mostly English.

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