On the surface, a two-week study abroad trip to China might sound like a normal vacation tour. I mean, two weeks isn’t very long and our itinerary had most of the attributes of a standard tour package: We had two professors who served as tour guides, our whole schedule was essentially planned out and we had the luxury of staying in hotels. But in all honesty, it was anything but a standard tour.
Studying abroad in China was a very unique experience in itself: We had a lot of freedom to explore Beijing and Shanghai on our own. That forced us to learn more about China’s culture the hard way, through our personal encounters and experiences.
Food and Water
My biggest concern about China was probably what I would eat and drink. I had heard all the horror stories about contracting diseases from eating raw fruits and vegetables and drinking tap water. But I figured, as long as I ate at legitimate restaurants, carried my bottled water everywhere I went and kept my mouth shut tight while showering, I should’ve been fine.
Maybe my paranoia got the best of me: I wasn’t that crazy about the food I had in Beijing.
There’s a big difference between traveling on a tour versus traveling with students: When you’re on a tour, you’re taken to some of the finest and most authentic restaurants. But I found that when studying abroad, you’re not only on a budget, but you’re left to find food on your own.
I don’t feel like I got the true Beijing culinary experience of eating peking duck and zha jiang noodles. Instead, McDonald’s, fast food Chinese and Westernized food seemed like the safest and most convenient options at the time.
I did, however, enjoy the buffet breakfasts at our hotel (the Jade Palace Hotel) — which served up everything from pancakes to dim sum.
Retrospectively, maybe it was a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t that adventurous in my food choices. One of my friends on the trip ended up contracting a parasite from something she ate or drank.
A Cab Experience Gone Wrong
I was pleasantly surprised that our professors encouraged us to catch cabs and subways on our own in a foreign country in which none of us really spoke the language. I didn’t mind catching cabs in Beijing — drivers were cordial, and as long as you had the address of your destination on hand, it was pretty easy to get around the city.
But the thrill of having so much independence quickly diminished once I heard a classmate’s story about a cab ride gone wrong.
On one of the free days that we had to explore Beijing on our own, we all split up to go wherever we wanted. My two friends and I decided to go to the 798 Arts District. Another group of girls went to a theme park. After they were done, they flagged down a cab to take them to the nearest Pizza Hut.
But on the way, the cab driver pulled over in a tunnel, went to his trunk, hopped back into the car and sprayed some kind of suspicious liquid in the car. Suddenly, the girls felt dizzy and nauseated, and as soon as they were taken to their destination, they all ended up vomiting.
After doing some research, they found that in some countries, cab drivers spray toxic chemicals in their cars to drug passengers so that they’re too incoherent to know how much cash they need to pay up. Sometimes they’ll throw the driver everything that’s in their wallets just to get out of the car.
Although this was apparently a rare situation, it’s certainly a story to keep on my radar for future travels, whether I go back to China or anywhere else for that matter.
Shopping in Beijing is almost like a game or art. The idea of bargaining was completely foreign to me, but I found that it’s something every visitor needs to get used to when traveling here. As an American who didn’t do any research on how to bargain with Chinese merchants, I ended up ripping my own self off a lot of the time.
My first shopping experience was at Wangfujing — a long street lined with shops, food vendors and a mall — in the heart of Beijing. Walking down the crowded street was like a tourist’s paradise: There were tables and kiosks covered with Chinese-style souvenirs and trinkets at every turn of the head.
And although the exotic scorpion kebabs — that were still squirming and hanging on for dear life — added to the atmosphere, I wasn’t about to put those anywhere near my teeth.
Not knowing where to begin with buying gifts for my family and friends back home, my friends Sarah and Lily and I approached the nicest looking merchants with the most unique looking souvenirs. I asked one of them how much for a beer bottle opener and she responded with a price.
“OK! Here you go,” I giddily agreed, handing over the exact amount of yuan she proposed.
“Stupid foreigner,” she must’ve thought as she collected the money with a grin on her face.
I looked over at Lily who asked her merchant how much for a little tea cup. When she responded with a price, Lily blurted out a lower price. After the price feud heated up with a frustrated Lily nearly walking away, the merchant called out to her an agreed on Lily’s final offer.
And that’s when I realized that if you want the lowest price for something, you fight for it without being afraid to insult your seller. It’s a business after all.
798 Art District
Sometimes steering away from an itinerary and going on your own adventure can make the most memorable moments of a trip. That’s how I felt about my last day in Beijing.
Our professors gave the students a day off to go wherever we wanted, so Sarah, Lily and I caught a taxi to the popular 798 Art District in the Dashanzi area, located northeast of central Beijing.
As we walked down the street that led to the main attractions of 798, several artists were parked on both sides sketching portraits of random passersby who stopped by.
I had gotten caricatures of me drawn in the past, but nothing as realistic as what these artists were creating. So Lily and I both decided to get ours done.
I was thoroughly impressed with the end result: Although the image looked like a Chinese version of me, I thought it was quite an accurate depiction nonetheless. Lily wasn’t nearly as impressed with hers and tried to bargain down the price of her drawing as much as she could; her artist wasn’t too happy about that.
If I could describe the overall atmosphere of 798 in one word, it would be “innovative.” Just the facades of the shops and restaurants showcased realistic graffiti and abstract sculptures. The shops themselves sold unique handcrafted jewelry and other mementos that made for excellent gifts.
It was easy to spend an entire day perusing all the shops and artwork that 798 offered. We were able to have lunch and dinner there and could’ve even spent another day wandering around.
The Bar Scene
When you travel with other twenty-somethings, you’re bound to check out the city’s nightlife at least once. I never would’ve guessed that one of the most popular drinking destinations in Beijing would be so aesthetically beautiful.
The professors led us to Houhai, a lake in the Xicheng district of central Beijing. The lake is surrounded by bars, clubs and restaurants, and visitors can even go for boat rides on the water.
At night, Houhai is one of the most stunning sights with the business’ colorful lights illuminating the lake.
I’ll never forget the feeling of ending the day relaxing on a lounge chair with friends while overlooking the glimmering lights reflecting off the water.