After two weeks visiting my home in Saigon, Vietnam, one day before my departure for Beijing I had to admit that I was not ready, and even scared. Having spent a summer in Shanghai right before my exchange at Yuanpei College, Peking University (PKU), I thought I wouldn’t feel too nervous, as I was confident that I already knew how most things in China work, from traveling on public transportation, to ordering food in a restaurant, to asking for directions and even having small talks with the locals. However, it came to my realization that whereas everything was already taken care of when I arrived in Shanghai by the staff at summer program, this time in Beijing I had nothing but the landline of my guarantor in China. Being the only student in the entire program, I found out later that I was also to be on my own for the whole semester to come. When I finally got to the campus of PKU, it was already dark. I discovered the program had not prepared me accommodation, so I decided to rent a hotel room and spend the night there. The next day I ventured into the campus looking for my guarantor and finally met her for the first time. She gave me a list of buildings and people I needed to contact for accommodation, beddings, internet, campus card, etc. It was a bit tiring navigating around the huge campus and handling administration on my own, but I convince myself that dealing with everything in Chinese is actually a good way of learning and overall a refreshing experience, so I did not feel too bad about it.
Before the trip, I heard people talking about how bad the air quality in Beijing can get, but I never imagined it could actually affect my health. I got a bad sinus infection within the first week. I had to purchase a Chinese medical insurance and go to a public hospital within walking distance. Luckily class hadn’t started yet, so I had plenty of time to rest and recover. The PM 2.5 index number is what Chinese people refer to when they want to check the air quality. The higher the number is, the more harmful the air is going to be to your respiratory system. Whereas any number lower than 100 would be considered fine, I encountered days when it was over 180, and apparently it may reach 300 when the winter comes.
I share a room with three other Chinese students. One of them is a Beijing local, one is from Shanxi Province and one is from Korea but has been living in China since he was ten, so his Chinese is flawless. They are all very nice, although they seem to not communicate with me or with each other very much unless there is an issue that involves all of us, such as the use of lights and the assignment of our cleaning duties. There are two bunk beds, an air conditioner and a heater in every room. There is a communal bathroom on every floor. The squat toilets took me a few days to get used to.
There was no orientation, so I had to explore the school by myself. I had to find everything from the classroom buildings and bookstores to the dining options, from the school’s post office to the market where I can get amenities and fruits. Registering for classes was not that bad. The procedures were straightforward, and I got into most of the classes I wanted.
I’m taking three Chinese classes this semester along with a few economics classes, two of which are with the domestic students and taught entirely in Chinese. The teachers give very good lectures in my opinion. But at the same time their demands for the students are also high, so I am expecting a tough semester ahead.
The international student body at PKU is very diverse. I have gotten to know some international friends from South Korea, Thailand, Burma, Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and America.
There are roughly 10 dining halls located throughout the school. This is from 学一食堂 Student’s Dining Hall Number One. The food here is famous for being sumptuous and cheap.
Mid Autumn festival is a huge deal in China. Apparently it is the day of the year when the moon is at its fullest, and the fullness of the moon represents the reunion and bonding of family members. The Chinese government has made this a national holiday, so everyone had a day off. This year Mid Autumn festival was on September 15. One of my roommates went back to his home to celebrate with his family. Two of my other roommates also went out with their friends. I was still suffering from sinus infection, so I chose to stay in. Luckily, I had this little gift from the school.
One weekend, I went to 秀水街市场 (Beijing Silk Market)—a place famous for selling quality silk and brand names, mostly 高仿 (high quality + fake) products. Some of the people I hung out with that day were experienced hagglers. They were able to bring the price of some goods down from 380 yuan to 60 yuan and from 650 to 100 yuan. I did a terrible job and walked away with a pair of shoes for 150 yuan from the original price of 330.
It’s been exciting despite my illness. I can’t wait to explore more of Beijing and the local food in the upcoming months.