I'm already excited about soup dumplings
August 6, 2010 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm studying abroad in Beijing in a month! What do I need to bring, and what do I need to know? (I've never even left the US before!)

I'll be living in a dorm with a Chinese roommate for four months, September through December. Visa's taken care of, I have Bank of America so getting ahold of money won't be an issue, I feel like I have the basics down in terms of what to pack (ie, bring all the shoes and deodorant I'll need but buy most of my shirts there), I've read my Lonely Planet and some blogs, I have my travel blog on its own domain so it won't be blocked, and I have a UNC shirt and chocolate bars for my roommate.

But I'm still so nervous! I'm sure there's nothing I can do to FULLY prepare myself, but I'd like to know if the collective Meficonsciousness can help prepare me any more. I knew almost nothing about modern China before I decided to do this, and I've never even traveled west of the Mississippi before. The most alien place I've ever lived is Chicago (I'm from NC). Also, I know no Chinese, but I'm trying to learn some basics before I get there.

So, what else do I need to know? Besides what the guidebooks can tell me, I mean? I have dual goals of not embarrassing myself/my nation, and enjoying the hell out of myself. (My roommate's advice was "spend all your money on food and don't be scared of anything but the dogs." I guess I'm looking for more like that!)
posted by showbiz_liz to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tell BoA that you'll be out of the country. If your debit card is Mastercard, make sure that you have a credit card that you can withdraw from that is Visa (or vice versa) in case something gets screwy and you need money. Don't get money exchanged at the airport. The rates are always bad.

Don't bring too much in terms of tolietries. You can always buy there. Same with clothes.
posted by k8t at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2010

Same advice I always give:

Relax - Don't Panic.

Bring less stuff than you think: 10 days worth of clothes plus winter gear would be fine.

Bring more money than you think: travelling is expensive and you won't want to miss out on weekend trips.

And since you are studying abroad:

Make good use of your university. They have experts on staff who an answer anything important and can tell you fun things to do that you wouldn't find out yourself.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:32 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never been to China, or Asia for that matter, but I have done a fair bit of traveling elsewhere, and if there's one piece of advice I'd give, it's this:

Travel light.

I took a trip once and there were a couple of girls going with us that had never flown before. They all had a huge carry-on, a massive purse, and a pillow. It took them forever to get going, and all of their hands were full, so they had to constantly be setting things down or searching through a bag to find whatever it was the needed. This is no way to be. Sure, tourists stick out everywhere, but the tourist who is festooned with three bags and a fanny-pack sticks out way more than the tourist with a single, small bag. Go hands-free as much as possible.

When you fly to China, keep everything in one bag, two at most, plus a carry-on. You should be able to put everything you're bringing in one of those places. Everything should fit in a bag or on your person with a minimum of hassle. When you're traveling around China, if you can't fit it into a small-to-medium-sized backpack, you don't need it.

Not only does this significantly increase the efficiency with which you'll be able to get around, but you won't look quite as much of a toolbox while doing it.
posted by valkyryn at 11:39 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Toilet paper: Free, available toilet paper is almost the universal default in the USA. I can walk into a gas station and be assured that they'll have some for me, just sitting there. It is not the universal default in China, so if you're headed out, you might want to bring some along.

Also the western style toilet isn't the default either, there are loads of squat toilets, and if you don't do a lot of camping or something, you might find them strange to use.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:50 AM on August 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I disagree with the "travel light" advice. Travelling to a foreign country isn't the same as living in one, and Asia isn't Europe. Carry as much stuff as you'll need because you shouldn't count on being able to get it there. This goes double if you're overweight/obese.

Beijing is a modern city with delicious food, but you might want to bring some comfort food of your own for when homesickness hits. Bring a towel.
posted by smorange at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2010

If you've got your shoes and deodorant, and your banking solved, go and have fun. Bring small souvenirs to give away as gifts, but for heaven's sake avoid giving them anything that says "made in china" :P
posted by lizbunny at 12:10 PM on August 6, 2010

Also disagreeing with those advising to "travel light" -- the OP isn't going as a tourist, she's living as a student, and should bring whatever she needs for four months. Not a TON of clothes, of course, but enough that she doesn't feel self-conscious about wearing the same thing to school all the time.

Personally, I'd make sure to have at least two nice outfits and one VERY nice outfit, in case of being invited to special or formal occasions of one sort or another. Also, unless you're fairly petite don't assume you'll be able to buy clothes or shoes there that will fit you.

If you have a particular weakness for America-only foods (peanut butter is a common one) bring some along with you. I'm not sure what's hard to find in China specifically, but if there's a snack or other comfort food that you can't imagine going four months without, do some research to see if you'll need to bring your own supply. I was in the UK for a month after college, and even after that little time I was DYING for lack of a few hard-to-get foods. My roommate had his mom mail him goldfish crackers in Japan.

Other than that: just make sure not to let yourself turn into a hermit. Don't push yourself too hard to the point of getting burnt out, but make sure you take advantage of being in such a diverse and interesting country. Go on day trips, shop in the local stores and supermarkets, eat the local food, explore your neighborhood, visit museums, and if possible, make friends with people who aren't also American.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:10 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

To follow up on what k8t said, if you have a credit card through a different bank than your savings/checking, call both to let them know you're going out of the country. That way when they start getting charges from overseas, they won't shut down your card, thinking it's been stolen.

I've never read the one for China, but I've found the Culture Shock series interesting (almost TOO MUCH information about cultural norms, so you do have to take it with a grain of "not EVERYONE in a culture does everything the same" salt). It helps you prepare for all those little cultural differences you might not have thought about yet, which might be especially useful for roommate-interaction.

One of the best packing recommendations I've gotten is to pack everything you think you'll need into your bags, take them for a walk around the block (you might feel stupid, especially in a residential area, but it's worth it), then come back and repack. Usually when you're packing at home, you're more concerned with "Can I lift this?" than with "Is this going to break my arm off after I've been dragging it for 5 minutes?" When you realize the reality of carrying/dragging things over distances, you'll be more discriminating in your packing.

You might also want to call your study abroad office/program office and see if they can connect you with an alum of the program who can give you very specific advice that's based on the activities on that particular program.
posted by srah at 12:16 PM on August 6, 2010

With your Bank of America debit card if you withdraw from China Construction Bank ATMs, you won't be charged any fee for going out of the network, because they have some kind of partnership.

Shopping in China is strange- the super cheap stuff are all of dubious quality while if you try to buy items of international branding it's way more expensive than if you bought it back home in the US... thus if you're female, and thrifty like I, you'll spend practically nothing on the usual girly purchases and instead blow it all on food.

Although I must note if you can get yourself down to the Beijing Zoo Wholesale market, that place is a must see if you're female. I've lived in Beijing for over a year so if you have any specific questions... :)
posted by peachtree at 12:23 PM on August 6, 2010

Beware Chinese students studying english, who want to practice with you. Most of the time they're trying to get you involved in a tea or "student art" scam. Google "Beijing street scams", but otherwise don't worry about it too much.

Other than that, I don't think you have too much to worry about. I remember a "Western grocery store" of sorts in Shanghai that sold a lot of American and European foods and the like. I imagine there is similar in Beijing. I think one of the great things about being abroad is not having your home comforts at hand - and being forced to try some new things.

If you think they're comfortable with it, get your Chinese roommate to buy you things, or at least to give you a rough idea of what you should be spending on things at markets. They'll get a far better deal than you.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:36 PM on August 6, 2010

My wife calls the China she loves, "a non-stop assault on all five senses." She was right. Beijing was a swirl of people, cars, bikes, sounds, smells, pushing, moving, bright lights, spitting, CARS, old ladies grabbing your arm to sell you socks, bikes, PEOPLE, stink...etc.

It was also awesome and the food is incredible. I miss many things about my time there. Enjoy it.

That said, watch out for cars.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:57 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I studied abroad in China a few years back. In Beijing at UBE.

You will be fine - the Chinese were great.

One thing I wish I had done was brought less clothes - and planned to buy some clothes while I was there. Because you can get great, cheap clothing in China.

And make sure you go eat at Quan Jude one night, and the Peking Duck. It is perhaps the most expensive restaurant in China - but not too bad by American standards. But it is absolutely worth the experience.
posted by Flood at 1:05 PM on August 6, 2010

I was in Beijing for a study-abroad program over a summer. I found that the jar of peanut butter and the packet of Ritz crackers I took was one of the best things I packed. It wasn't homesickness that got me down - it was an illness from some food or water I had. During those two days, yum, peanut butter to the rescue!

Beijing has an US-expat population. I forget exactly where in the city it was, but around that area, I found all sorts of "American" things (think: Friday's restaurant, HagenDaaz ice cream store). Since I wasn't looking for touristy things and was too far from my home base, I don't know if there were clothing or grocery shops there.

Also, McDonald's BigMacs are so much better in Beijing, but maybe that was because I'd had only local-based foods for three weeks and was dying for something familiar. Seriously, that BigMac was the *best* one I've ever had. Probably the most expensive, too.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 1:05 PM on August 6, 2010

If you prefer your tampons with applicators, bring them with you from home. You will not find any such tampax at any price anywhere in Beijing. It's either OB or an astounding variety of pads. Seriously, even WalMart only had about 3 boxes each of regular and super OBs.
posted by elizardbits at 1:16 PM on August 6, 2010

Also, Beijing is wicked cold in the winter. Temperatures that seemed perfectly comfortable to me in NYC were bitter and whimper-inducing in Beijing.

Also also, a bunch of people above mentioned peanut butter. You can get this at WalMart in nifty little single-serving packets, like string cheese. I ate them all up and down the Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai. Trufax: I have never been inside a WalMart anywhere else on earth aside from in China.
posted by elizardbits at 1:21 PM on August 6, 2010

Aside from the above cars message, yes, feminine products. Also, bring lotion unless you don't mind lotion with skin whiteners. Cinnamon flavored gum, if you are into that, is hard to come by. Everything else is obtainable from Wal-Mart or Carrefour (aka French Wal-Mart).
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:22 PM on August 6, 2010

Some of the students on one of our programs had some suits and coats and things hand-made by tailors, which is actually more affordable than it would probably be to buy those things off the rack in the US, plus they're made just for you! Bring along your director or your roommate or someone to do the bargaining until you're more comfortable with your Chinese skills.
posted by srah at 1:28 PM on August 6, 2010

Contact lens solution is often more expensive outside of the US, so bring that.

Take digital photos/scans of your passport and all of your credit/debit cards and have them stored in a place that you can access from the web. Also find out the non-1-800 number for all of them in case they are stolen,
posted by k8t at 2:07 PM on August 6, 2010

"Beware Chinese students studying english, who want to practice with you. Most of the time they're trying to get you involved in a tea or "student art" scam."

Sometimes - but some of the students who want to practice English really do want to practice English, and you can strike up the most amazing conversations and friendships. Be cautious, but open yourself up to the experience.

Please, please be very careful about saying negative things about China or making unfavorable comparisons between the US and China when you think people don't understand. Almost every student you meet will have had some English. I've heard people say ridiculous, rude, hurtful, thoughtless things that they never would have said if they'd realized people were listening.
posted by clarkstonian at 2:51 PM on August 6, 2010

Like everyone else already said, relax. Beijing is a large, cosmopolitan, chaotic city which has people from all over the world (including untold depth of China's countryside) join its population every day. You aren't the first, and you won't be the last. Everyone gets along.

Life in China - even in Beijing - is pretty cheap. Lugging stuff there and back is a chore, expensive and the utility of whatever you bring is somewhat unpredictable. So I would err on the side of leaving things you aren't sure you will need at home. You will be able to buy just about anything in Beijing if you really need it - either for cheap in local markers, for mid-price in large supermarkets (Carrefour, Walmart, etc) or for somewhat ridiculous but still not bank-breaking sums at special stores targeted at foreigners (e.g. Jenny Lou's).

Here is what I would do. Put away your lonely planet, which is a fine guide for China travel, not so much for living there, and get this book: http://www.immersionguides.com/products/20/Insiders-Guide-to-Beijing-2009. It is written by people who live in Beijing for other people who live (or want to live) there. It's not a perfect volume by any means - the writing is far too hip for me - but it is literally a treasure trove of practical information. Read it here in US, or get a copy in the wangfujing international bookstore in Beijing.

Have a great time! Private mail me if you have specific questions about living in Beijing (I spent about 9 months there - not enough to be a seasoned ex-pat which may be a minus or a plus).

One more thing. Beijing is fantastic in Fall (September, October) and unbelievably shitty starting around end of November. Expect the days to get really cold - there is this piercing wind that comes all the way from Mongolia and is not stopping for anything - and the air to get really dirty when the coal heating kicks in. You deal with the former with a big coat, and with the latter by - well, honestly, not going outside a lot on bad days. If you don't already have a really warm coat, you can buy a puffy down jacket (fake mountain hardware or whatever) starting at RMB 200 with good bargaining. Find a seasoned ex-pat or local friend to show you how hard-core bargaining is done - this will be a very new thing for someone who's never left US, and great fun for everyone involed.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 2:58 PM on August 6, 2010

Yeah, the air quality probably deserves a highlight. It's better now than it has been, but it's still very bad, much worse than anywhere in Korea or Japan, which are already worse than what you're used to. If you have asthma or breathing problems, bring what you need to get through it. Just know that you will get used to it to some extent, but it can be a shock to the system at first. Honestly, as much as I love Beijing, I wouldn't want to live there for any longer than half a year or so. The air quality is a huge problem, even by East Asian mega-city standards.
posted by smorange at 3:48 PM on August 6, 2010

You will undoubtedly encounter people in markets or just on the street who want to sell you something. The best thing to do is just walk on past. If you stop to say even a word to them it means you've opened the door and you'll probably wind up buying something. It can be hard, just totally ignoring someone who's grabbing at you and pleading with you to buy something, but you can't buy something from everyone.

And yes, avoid the "student art" scams.

For a weird experience, see if you can get some Chinese people to take you to a restaurant called Red Classics. Communist dinner theatre.

I would also recommend NOT bringing anything formal to wear. If you need something fancy at some point you can get it tailor made incredibly cheaply.
posted by fso at 4:11 PM on August 6, 2010

You will find a lot of information about learning Chinese as well as living in China here: chinese-forums.com. Click on the Forums tab at the top of the page. The members are very friendly and everyone is either currently working/ living/ studying language in China, or heading there to do those things. There is specifically a sub-forum about Beijing too which you will find very helpful.

Good luck! Beijing can be stressful but I loved it during the year I lived there (pre-Olympics in 2005-2006) and can't wait to return at some point in the future.
posted by kitkatcathy at 4:13 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I live in Beijing.
Definitely make sure you check in with BoA about going out of the country. There's the possibility that if you don't, they'll freeze your card thinking it's fraud.
Not sure where you are living, but if you are worried about 'item/food quality' in the Chinese supermarkets, we have some 'western-imitation' markets such as Carrefour, Walmart, etc, if that's more comfortable for you.
Try not to eat any street/small vendor food, at least not without a native Chinese's recommendations.
Lastly, keep an open mind. :)

Enjoy your time in Beijing, it's a wonderful city that's full of life.
posted by oracle bone at 6:41 PM on August 6, 2010

Learn how to bargain and always ask for a discount. You won't be able to bargain at supermarkets and such, but you'll need to do so if you go anywhere where prices aren't written down.

Bring a towel - their towels suck.

Make sure your ATM card has a 6-digit PIN on it.
posted by Xany at 7:17 PM on August 6, 2010

Try not to eat any street/small vendor food

Sorry, I have to disagree. This is one of my favorite things about living in China, and after six years I've never had a problem beyond the occasional upset (which is inevitable no matter where you eat, if you are a newcomer to China).

I mean, yeah, obviously avoid street food that looks sketchy or dirty, and has no patrons. But unless you have a particularly weak stomach, go to the places with long lines (a sign that they're good) and enjoy!
posted by bearette at 10:42 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Beijing has an US-expat population. I forget exactly where in the city it was, but around that area, I found all sorts of "American" things (think: Friday's restaurant, HagenDaaz ice cream store).

Beijing has a large expat population, period, and these days there are American things all around, not just in that area (I believe you are thinking of Jianguomen, near Silk Street). Beijing has American ice cream chains, American restaurant chains, as well as lots of independent restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. These things are all over the city, not just in one place (although certain outlying areas of the city are less Westernized).

You WILL experience cultura shock, and this is something to watch out for. I lived in Beijing for three years. It's a fascinating city which is endlessly entertaining, and Chinese people are for the most part friendly. However, it's a crowded city, the traffic is INSANE, the crowds are insane, and it's very polluted. There will probably be days when you swear you are going to have a panic attack, or get violent, if one more person pushes past you into an unimaginably crowded subway car. But then, you will come off the subway and have a sweet interaction with your favorite street food vendor [;)]. Living in Beijing, and China generally, is just like that.

Be tolerant, be patient, have an open mind. These things help you deal with culture shock. People will behave in ways that confound you and getting fussy and angry will not help your case, in China.

You're off for an eye-opening experience. Good luck! Feel free to memail me if you have any specific questions.
posted by bearette at 10:51 PM on August 6, 2010

To practice your Chinese, use an flash-card-type program to run through the most common/useful phrases and signs you're likely to see (push/pull, open/closed, numbers...). I use Anki (free!) to practice/remember Polish and it works brilliantly - it uses a strategy called spaced repetition. I've also started using Smart.fm, which is much the same thing.
posted by mdonley at 12:08 AM on August 7, 2010

Be aware that Beijing is a huge, spread out city, so you won't typically be able to walk to most places. Lucky the taxis, subway and buses are very cheap. If you don't speak Mandarin, it can be hard to make yourself understood, even if you know the pinyin syllables, because your tones will be all wrong. So initially, get a friend or your roommate to write down 5-10 common destinations in Beijing in Chinese on a slip of paper and keep it in your wallet to show the cab driver.
posted by dave99 at 3:59 AM on August 7, 2010

I know someone already said it, but seriously, watch out for cars (and bikes, too). Don't take it for granted that they stop at red lights and they definitely don't give the right of way to pedestrians, and there seems to be a different traffic law that allows cars to turn when you think they aren't supposed to. Oddly, no was ever seemed upset about getting cut off or near accidents. It's just the way of life. Interesting!
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 9:31 AM on August 7, 2010

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