Studying abroad in China

Studying abroad in China

In China, I studied as a regular exchange student for a full semester. I enrolled at the Beijing Institute of Technology for the winter term 2012 from September to December. At the BIT, I attended an Artificial Intelligence lecture, a Computer Graphics lecture as well as an intensive chinese course.

Campus and Accomodation

The BIT is a campus university as well, so everything you need is is reachable with a 15-minute walk. In fact, the campus is rather small (Wikipedia tells me there are some satellite campuses further away from the city center, but I didn't visit those), and a 20 minute walk takes you from one end to the other. In the center of the campus, there's the gymnasium with lots of volleyball fields, football fields and the like. The gymnasium was in fact used for the 2008 summer olympics and the paralympics (only volleyball and goalball, but still). I however didn't use the gymnasium, so I can't provide any insight on their quality.


Figure 1: The BIT campus seen from the main building

Again, food is good at the campus and very cheap, if you stick to the official canteens. I'm talking about 4 cents for 400g of rice cheap, so you can eat to your heart's content. However, there's a little problem: The dining hall's opening hours are relatively short (most people we talked to had dinner at 17:00, or 17:30 at the latest), and when you come late, there's only table scraps left. Also, the mass of students arriving for lunch and dinner was enormous. Since there was only a short time for eating, it was very crowded. For these reasons, I mostly at at one of the many other restaurants on campus, which also provided very good food for a bit of a higher price.

My accomodation was sufficiently nice. It was a relatively small, shared room, maybe about 15 m² (always had nice roommates though, so it wasn't a problem) in the exchange student building, and 3 rooms shared a bathroom. The bathrooms were mostly a mess (which is to be expected with university students, I guess), and I had difficulties adapting to Squat Toilets. But everything was acceptable, so I really can't complain. Several of my fellow students took to searching for apartments outside the campus, but apartments in Beijing are also relatively expensive, and the process seemed to be rather laborious (including registering at the police, finding a real-estate agent etc.). That said, I paid about 7500 yuan (800 €) for three months, so rent was still a bit expensive. On the other hand, the chinese students slept 6 people in the same size room, and did not have a bathroom in their apartment at all. In the mornings and evenings, people were walking around in bath slippers and pyjamas to take a shower, and that at -10°C. I should probably be glad that I was able to take a nice warm shower in the apartment instead of having to walk around first.

Also, we paid for both heating and internet. There was a heating element in our room, but it never got warm enough, so I turned on the aircondioning additionally, which added up to a fee of maybe about 200 CNY in toto. Internet was a bit more frustrating: It was slow, cost 200 CNY per month, and additionally, the Great Firewall rather diminished the usefulness of internet access.

Everything on the campus was rather grubby too, but I think that is a cultural difference. We Germans are known as neat freaks anyway, so this wouldn't surprise me. However, functionally, the campus was good too, as the library was rather nice, and the rooms were sufficient (but rather cold).


I was unable to ascertain whether the BIT provided any lectures in English before the end of September, which was rather stressful. The BIT prides itself on providing many courses of study in English (see the of programs here), but we found just two computer science lectures that were mostly in English. Artificial Intelligence was held in Chinese, with English materials (as a book, we used Artificial Intelligence, a Modern Approach). The lecture was possible to follow, but we would have spent less time just learning from the book.


Figure 2: The exchange student building at the left

Computer graphics was actually held in English (we used the book Computer Graphics and Virtual Environments: From Realism to Real-Time), and the Professor made an effort to integrate us two exchange students.

Lectures were just two hours a week, and at the end we wrote an exam in both subjects. The exam was mostly reproductive, asking questions that had been answered in the last lecture before the exam. Most other exchange students studied subjects related to business, and there seemed to be a larger amount of English lectures for those subjects. Howeve, from what I heard, didactic quality wasn't too high either.

Finally, I also participated in a Chinese language course. The Chinese language course was about 16 hours a week, and thus, a rather intensive course. The lessons were held by three teachers that were themselves students at other Universities. They were motivated and made an effort to teach us, although the didactic structure of the lessons was strongly focused on memorising, and relatively light on grammar. However, I believe that this is due to the Chinese language, which simply doesn't have easy rules of grammar, so often the only way to learn is memorisation (for example, there is no useful way to memorise Chinese characters, except some very broad classifications that harm more often than they help).

I believe that didactically, China is still a bit behind other countries. We even spoke to some Chinese education students that wanted to go to Germany in order to learn how to teach better, and import German didactic methods to Germany.

While the process lifelong learning seems to be helped by the peculiarities of the Chinese language, I believe that these peculiarities also harm in another department. Namely, the development of rules and study of principles that explain more than memorised facts. However, since I don't speak Chinese that well, and only attended English lectures and a Chinese course, this impression may be entirely false.

Seeing China

While the quality of life for an exchange student in Singapore was slightly better than in China, China has much more to offer from a cultural standpoint. While Singapore's culture is a mix of Western, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian influences, China is authentically Chinese. The culture was fun to explore (even accidentally ordering tripe soup), and Beijing has lots of sights that are fun to explore.

The university is next to a subway station, and about 15 minutes walking takes you from the exchange student's building to the subway station Weigongcun. From there, most places in Beijing can be reached within about an hour of subway riding, including the Forbidden City, the Olympic Stadion, Temple of Heaven, Confucius Temple and innumerable other sights. Entrance fees are relatively cheap and there's lots to see. I was never bored in Beijing, because there was always somewhere to go.


Figure 3: A park on the BIT campus

Also, Beijing has a vibrant nightlife and several "party" districts that cater to Chinese and Expats. Of particular mention is Sanlitun and Ghost street, where there is Food and Drink galore (but expensive). For students, Wudaokou seems to be the preferred nightspot, with lots of clubs having open every day. Of course, try not to get in any trouble, as the police generally doesn't speak English, and the tourist police isn't open at night.

All in all, Beijing is the magnificent capital of a magnificent country, and you'd do well to do a bit of travelling in China after having finished your exchange semester.


Having said all that, would I visit Beijing as an exchange student again? Yes, but not at the BIT. BIT seemed a bit overwhelmed having to deal with English-speaking exchange students, and academically, my stay was a bust. The intensive chinese course was nice, and if you can afford it academically, maybe go to BIT only for the Chinese course. So the "student" part of exchange student wasn't that great.

However, I enjoyed living in China for a period of time. While the language was rather difficult to learn and employ, the great sights and friendly people made my stay worth the frustration that sometimes came with it.

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Author: Jan Seeger