Spending an extended period of time in China without knowing the language can sound a little daunting. You may be nervous about starting your study adventure with zero Chinese language skills. But don’t worry! Here are some tips for surviving study exchange in China even if you don’t speak a word of Mandarin!
Embrace body language
Let’s start simply. Not being afraid to wave, point, gesture, etc. is important. This includes taxi drivers pointing “right here, or left?” and 7-11 employees signaling “15 yuan”.
If you want to be prepared to gesture like a pro – learn the Chinese hand symbols for numbers. You may be familiar with 1-5, but 6-10 will trip you up! Spend some time practicing not only so you can show people what you want, but also to understand more easily when someone is telling you a price. You’d be surprised what you can communicate with a few simple gestures!
2. Learn some basic chinese phrases, quick!
Your study exchange in China will be much smoother if you practice saying your address and basic words. Learn the characters for your metro stop. Have these things copied in your phone, that way when your pronunciation isn’t great, you can quickly pull up your address, or match the character on your phone to the metro stop!
If there are key phrases you want to know – I don’t eat this, where is the bathroom, etc. – these also can find a special place on your phone (or a notebook if you’re more old-school). Fill your notes with go-to phrases you think you’ll need. As you spend your first couple of days of study exchange in China, that list will quickly grow!
3. Very important: Download the necessary apps
This is the longest, but also the most important section of any good China study abroad survival guide, in my opinion. If you have the best apps in your arsenal, it makes navigating everything from grocery trips to day trips so much easier.
Everyone who sets foot in China should already have WeChat (if you don’t, download it now!), but translators, maps, and ride-share apps are also incredibly valuable. Here are our study in China app recommendations, plus some WeChat tips!
We suggest keeping two translators on your study phone: Google Translate (Android, IOS) and Baidu Translate (Android, IOS) .
If you download Google Translate and download simplified Chinese while on a VPN, or when you’re still outside of China, you don’t need to worry about the firewall. Once the language is downloaded, you can use it whether or not your VPN is on, and even when you don’t have cell service! It’s great for conversation – there’s a feature where you can talk directly into the phone to have a conversation. However, my favorite feature is reverse translate, where you can easily translate your sentence back into English, to figure out if anything got awkwardly twisted along the way. This will help you get a feel for how to word things when you’re translating them for others, which in turn helps you get the feel for Chinese sentence structure!
The reason you should also have Baidu Translate on your phone while staying in China is its picture-taking function. On Google, you can hover over something with your camera, but on Baidu, you can take a picture directly, or pull up an image from your phone. This will help you with all sorts of documents you may have to read/ fill out, but also is really useful, if like me, you have dietary restrictions or preferences! Nutrition label reading is the #1 use for Baidu Translate on my phone.
This may be less of a “what to get” and more of a “what not to get”. Google Maps will not work. Even with a VPN, Google hasn’t been in China for so long that the maps are incredibly out of date and therefore effectively useless.
Apple Maps is better, but I would honestly recommend doing the hard work of using a Chinese map. Baidu, again, is my go-to. It is optimized and developed in China, making it more comprehensive than Apple Maps. Usually, you can type in pinyin and find the characters you’re looking for, but it’s especially easy if you’re heading somewhere and have a Chinese address to copy and paste. This is how you will figure out where you’re going on the metro, and is also a great way to figure out biking and walking routes!
I may have moved to China knowing nothing, but Baidu Maps helped me navigate the streets and metro much better than if I was always looking at pinyin. Sometimes taking the harder route is better in the long run, and recognizing your address in Chinese characters is ultimately incredibly valuable.
If you will be in a major city like Shanghai, there is probably a solid metro system. This takes you most of where you need to go, most of the day. But for late nights, far distances, or time-crunches, Didi is hands down the best way to get around in a pinch.
No worrying about taxi drivers “forgetting” the meter, or taking you the long way for some unknown reason. Yes, this may happen in some places, but it’s not the main reason Didi is a good survival tool.
The App has an English version, meaning you can find your address or intended location more easily, and like Uber or Lyft, the driver knows where you’re going without you having to speak a word! You’ll probably learn your home address quickly, but I’ve had enough experiences where drivers don’t understand my pronunciation that I end up having to take a map out anyway. This will save you so much time!
WeChat is, first and foremost, a messaging app. But it is also a payment app, a gaming app, and a social media app.
WeChat also has a payment function, which I find more useful because you can not only easily pay at restaurants and shops, but you can pay utility bills and even pay your friends back! Showing your WeChat QR code negates the hassle of not understanding the price of something, saving you a lot of confusion. You will need a Chinese bank account in order to use WeChat Pay.
WeChat can also be your translator. If you press and hold any message or post, there’s an option to translate it to your default language. This is a great way to make friends with people who either don’t speak English or who are just much more comfortable in Chinese. You can both type in your own language!
Download Wechat here.
Studying in China without speaking Chinese can be scary, but with the right tools and the right mindset, it can be an incredible adventure! Here are another two helpful articles I would suggest you to read before going for a study exchange in China (Things to take a not before going to study exchange in China, 11 apps you will absolutely need if you study in China).
Good luck studying in China and safe travels!
Shanghai Summer School strives to provide you with a summer experience unlike any other. The summer school is primarily about learning the Chinese language in an immersive way, but it’s also about going out and discovering a new culture and making meaningful connections with its people. We would even go as far as to say that delving headfirst into the bustling metropolis of Shanghai will allow one to adopt a new and expanded worldview, and a deeper understanding of cultures different than our own.
The knowledge of new languages combined with heightened cultural sensitivity and awareness has become ever more important in the global world we live in today.