© 2018 by Ilaria Vigilante.

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  • Ilaria Vigilante

How hard is it moving to China

As a full-scolarship student, in 2013 I lived in China for a year, here's my first impact with the "Middle Kingdom"!


中山广场 - Zhongshan Square

As a student of Chinese language, I was really motivated to move to China; I knew it would have been very hard, because it was so far form Europe (6 to 7 hours of time gap and 9 hours of flight) and it was also my very first experience of living abroad, on my own, for a long period of time.

But, how did I manage it in the first place? Thanks to the Confucius Institute scholarship, in 2013, while I was finishing my last year of Bachelor Degree, I finally grasped my chance to spend a whole year in #Dalian, a modern, #seaside city located in the North-Eastern province of #Liaoning. It's a big city, with an interesting history due to the last century's presence of Russia and Japan, and with an atmosphere less polluted thanks to the winds blowing from the sea.

Getting used to Chinese costumes, anyway, was a bit harder and took more time. But, oh, it was worth it!


Step 1: burocracy

I entered in China with a X-Visa, which gave me a month to get the residence permit, but, because of my complicated travel plans, I only got in Dalian a week before the deadline.

I left Italy on the 1st of August, to go and visit China with a group of friends and my kungfu teacher (indeed, we had also a week of hard training in Dengfeng) before my solo-adventure in the Middle Kingdom. We parted on the 23rd in Beijing, and while they left the hotel for the airport, I took the train to get to Dalian. Seven hours later, I set foot on the city where I'd lived for a whole year.


Landscape from the train Beijing-Dalian

The first days were intense: I needed a residence permit and in order to obtain it I had to have a Phisical Examination Record from the Liaoning Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau of Dalian, and the university which hosted me, the Liaoning Normal University, had to prepare all the documents I needed in a week's time.

About the Phisical Examination Record: some universities require it as document to bring with you from your country, but, as I discovered later, there's a rough 90% probability that you'll have to do it again in China.

Some of my fellow students had to, despite being told their documentation was fine only a few days before. My funny impression was that some Chinese rules like to change, much like the stairs at Hogwarts.

The cultural shock was unavoidable there: beside my very low affection to needles and such, I had the feeling that nurses and doctors had no time to waste, so, as soon as they finished checking one patient, they moved quickly to the next one without a second glance.

Hard as it was, though, everything went smoothly, even if I had to deal with all the procedures on my own (since the university's office wasn't officially open until September). Chinese offices might be a bit of a mess, but the employees never want to let down a foreigner girl desperate to have her documents.


Step 2: life in the campus & new eating habits

辽宁师范大学 - Liaoning Normal University

The campus of Liaoning Normal University is beautiful, with a small park that links the main road to the various dorms. It has a few basket fields scattered among the dorms, several canteens of chinese food, a small shop and a cafeteria, and lots of even smaller shops. There's a huge athletic field, where every Chinese freshman must attend sport classes the first months of the semester. The field, and the campus in general, are open to the public, and many citizens may be found strolling among the trees, playing basketball, badminton or jianzi, a national sport consisting in kicking a shuttlecock.


Playing badminton

The dorm I was assigned to was the number six, and it hosted only exchange students from various countries - Italy, for instance, but also Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, Russia, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, USA, Canada, Costa Rica and Argentina... It had six floors, I was luckily at the first one, because there was no lift or elevator. Every floor had one kitchen and two bathrooms, one for gentlemen and one for ladies. There were also two rooms with the showers for each floor (again, one for men and one for women), and the kitchen included a small laundry room with a couple of washing machines. Despite having only two electric cookers, the other Italian students and me often had the kitchen to ourselves, being us the ones having a "late" dinner - ok, 8 p.m. might be late for some people, but come on, the canteens closed at 6 p.m.!

Chinese people have indeed a habit of eating an early dinner, around five, six in the evening; this habit is in step with their motto for an healthy life, that's to say, “早饭吃好,午饭吃饱,晚饭吃少” ("Eat plenty at breakfast, eat till you're full at lunch, eat less at dinner").

That was one of the most difficult things to get used to, for me. The food, however, was never a problem, since I love Chinese food and, having lunch in the same canteens as the Chinese students, I had the opportunity to eat their "real" everyday food. Every country, indeed, has its own version of foreign food, but it seldom represents truly the original cuisine. In China, I tasted dishes I could never find in Italy, and had to adapt to very different habits. For instance, there is not a order like the one Italians are used to (first course, second course and vegetables, fruits and dessert) but everything is brought roughly at the same time. In restaurants, it is expected to share food, so it's pretty common to order a bowl of white rice for everyone and a couple of meat and vegetable courses. Prepare yourself to use chopsticks: you'll rarely find cutlery outside five/four stars restaurants.

Again, the cultural shock hit me: the most delicious restaurants I ate in where the ones I'd have avoided in Italy; but, as a dear friend of mine used to say, "The dirtiest the tastiest!" ( 最脏,最好吃!).

Near the campus, right outside one of the gates, there was a long street, packed with food stalls, some selling groceries, some serving fried rice (炒饭 chaofan), some cooking fried noodles (炒面 chaomian), some selling Japanese onigiri. There were also some stalls selling meat skewer, but, feeling that the hygiene level was really under the line with that, I never bought them.


Step 3: 1.33 billion people


Dalian Xinghai Square

One of the other major obstacles, for me, was realising that I could never be completely alone. There was always someone on the street, at any time of the day and night (once I spotted a twenty-year-old guy jogging in the campus at 4 a.m.).

Despite the great presence of foreigners in Dalian - there is an entire Russian neighbourhood - the people always show surprised looks when meeting a 老外 laowai (foreigner), let alone one who speaks their own language! The youth are generally braver and venture to start a conversation, usually in English in order to practise, and some ask to take a picture, too. One of the funniest moment happened on the first week, while I was in the Auchan supermarket in Xi'an road to buy some tools like sponge, basin and stuff: after helping me to find my tools, one employee did a double back and, shyly, asked me to take a picture of me. The elders are nice as well, but they rarely speak any English, and are genuinely delighted to speak with a foreigner in their own language.

Only, don't be fooled: even if everyone, and I say everyone, will tell you "how good your Chinese is!" ( “你说中文说得很好!“), never believe them, they are just trying to be nice and "give you the face" (给面).

This is a very strong cultural trait, linked with their concept of honour, respectability and social status. Losing the face would be one of the worst thing that could ever happen, so you have to be careful and understand what is polite and what is not.

Blowing your nose in public, for instance, is considered unpolite; but you can see loads of people spitting on the street, and no one pulls a face, because it's a normal habit for expelling bad qi. Especially for the cabbies.

Taking a cab in china is an experience that I strongly recommend - to everyone who has not a delicate heart.

That's everything for today, but now you tell me: what was your first experience of living abroad for a long period? What habits did you find the most difficult to adapt to?

Let me know in the comments!

Also, have you ever thought of learning Mandarin? Check out the Rocket Languages Course!