Study China: Learning Mandarin & Chinese Culture in Shanghai | Travel Review
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Hello everyone! You probably know by now how much we love the travel reviews here at Meg's Gap Life, they don't really even need an introduction, but just in case you're new here: Hi! I'm Meg, and this little segment of the blog has become one of both mine and the readers' favourites. In each of these reviews I sit down to speak to a guest about a travel experience they've done in the past, gathering up as much information as possible, in hopes that we can help you out if you ever consider doing said experience yourself! You can check out the previous reviews here, where we've spoken about everything from road-tripping California to volunteering in Chiang Mai.
Today's post is a particularly special one as the questions are being answered by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Miss Natalie Jane Dearden. Nat and I go way back, I'm talking all the way back to sharing tents at Girl Guide camps and then eyeliner during our teenage crisis' years kind of friends, and although I don't see her very much any more she's gone on to achieve great things, both with her graphic design work (follow her Instagram here) and with her adventures around the globe.
Today she's very kindly sat down to discuss her time in Shanghai last year, and so let's have a look at what she got up to...
What was it that you did? I won a scholarship with Study China (managed by the University of Manchester) to spend the summer studying Mandarin and Chinese Culture at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
When was it? August 2019.
Where was it? Shanghai, China.
How long was it for? 3 weeks.
How far in advance did you book it? I won the scholarship in the February and I booked it straight away, so my flights were booked 6 months in advance.
How much did it cost? The scholarship covered my Mandarin tuition, accommodation, and all trips for the full 3 weeks. I then had to pay for was flights, visa and spending money. My flights cost £700 return from Manchester to Shanghai Pudong with China Eastern Airlines. My visa cost around £90 and I took around £400 spending money.
What does that price actually include? The cost of tuition covered 3 full weeks of intensive Mandarin lessons (4 hours a day, Monday-Friday) followed by an exam to complete the course. My accommodation was an on-campus hotel, sharing an apartment with 3 other girls from the programme. All extra-curricular activities such as culture lessons (e.g. Chinese calligraphy and Tai Chi) as well as sight-seeing trips (including a weekend away to Hangzhou) were also included. We were also given a pre-paid Chinese sim card and a pre-paid card for the campus canteen.
Could you have done it cheaper yourself? Definitely not!
Did you need much spending money on top of this? I took around £400 spending money; which was spent on tourist attractions, transport, meals, snacks, drinks and souvenirs.
Did you go by yourself or with others? I went by myself but the programme itself had 140 students from various universities across the UK. We all met each other at an induction and were then placed into groups of 4 to share hotel apartments, and study groups of 10 based on ability for Mandarin lessons.
Did you need a visa? How much was it? How did you get it? Yes, I required a visa for my trip. It cost around £90 and the process to get it was quite difficult and time consuming. I had to fill out a lengthy form online in order to get an appointment at the Chinese Visa Application Centre (UK/ Ireland offices in London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast or view the worldwide locations here). At the appointment I had to provide my form, passport and a photograph for them to send away. It took around a week to find out if I had been approved and then a further week or two to receive my passport and visa back in the post.
How much luggage did you take? I took 1 x 35kg suitcase and a rucksack for the plane, for a 3-week trip. However I did have access to a launderette on campus so I didn’t actually need to take 3 weeks-worth of clothes!
Do you have any must take item recommendations? The top must-have is definitely mosquito spray, accompanied by mosquito relief cream. Sun cream (for the odd day that the sun is out – it gets extremely humid but not necessarily sunny) and an umbrella for the rain!
Were the company/ provider/ school helpful in answering questions and helping you organise bookings/ arrangements? Study China were extremely well organised and efficient with communication both before and during the trip. They organised absolutely everything and we had 3 members of staff from the University of Manchester staying in Shanghai with us too.
Did it involve working/ volunteering/ education or was it purely for pleasure? The trip was purely educational but did allow for sight-seeing and fun. Each day consisted of a 4-hour Mandarin lesson, followed by a trip or lesson in Chinese culture. Each day we were given homework and revision, with some free time to sight-see in the evenings. The itinerary was very full-on, with only 2 free days in the whole 3 weeks, but it was so much fun! Despite not having an abundant amount of free time, the itinerary included so many trips/places that I couldn’t necessarily have done by myself. It also allowed me to see the less ‘touristy’ spots and have a more true-to-life experience of Shanghai.
Sum it up in one sentence? The most rewarding experience of my life to date!
Did it live up to your expectations? Is there anything you wish you’d known before you booked it? The trip exceeded my expectations in every way.
Tell us the good/best bits? -Immersing yourself in the culture! Shanghai is such a big, bustling, vibrant city; one that you just have to throw yourself into. The metro is chaotic, the food is sometimes unusual and the language barrier is sometimes a struggle, but it’s best to just jump in and it won’t take long to feel at home.
- The food. It’s far from what you get when you order a Chinese takeaway in the UK, but I personally thought it was better (soup dumplings are a must try!). Having said that, do prepare yourself for rice at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s also ridiculously cheap! The average meal was around ¥7 (80p). There are Western options around (plenty of McDonalds etc.) which cost a bit more but are still cheap in comparison to the UK.
Tell us the negatives? -Being stared at a lot got quite tiring! The Chinese are oddly obsessed with Westerners and will stare, point and photograph you (mostly without your permission). It can take some getting used to, but it’s best to just smile and go along with it!
-Public toilets in China are holes in the ground. It’s a toilet seat, but there isn’t actually anywhere to sit, so you have to squat. There’s also no toilet roll, so you have to carry tissues with you at all times. It’s an interesting experience – one that I don’t miss!
Was it worth the money? Despite the majority of the trip being funded and not out of my own pocket; if I had to pay for it all myself I definitely would and I’d say it was worth every penny!
Are you glad you tried it at least once? Yes! Having taken part in a similar scholarship programme in Hong Kong in 2015, I had some prior knowledge and experience of East Asian culture. However, visiting Shanghai allowed me to broaden my horizons and expand my understanding of Chinese culture even further.
Would you do it again? If I had the opportunity, I would most definitely do it again!
Would you recommend it to your family/ close friends? I would encourage all University students to apply! It’s not often that opportunities like this come around, so take it while you can. Study China aside, I would highly recommend Shanghai as a place to visit, either alone or with friends or family. There’s so much to do and see and it’s got great transport links for visiting other areas, such as Beijing.
Any final thoughts? Definitely, here's my top tips for visiting Shanghai:
-China’s tap water isn’t suitable to drink, so you’re best sticking to bottled – it’s super cheap and freely available so it’s best to just buy a gallon bottle to keep in your room.
-The roads in Shanghai are the craziest I’ve ever experienced – mopeds will not stop for pedestrians so you need to have eyes in the back of your head when crossing the road!
-It’s a common occurrence in many bars that women drink for free (and in some, Westerners for free), as well as free entry into expensive nightclubs. Apparently, when Westerners get drunk they make fools of themselves and provide good quality entertainment for the locals!
-If you don’t know any Mandarin, it would be helpful to learn the basics before you go. Failing that, a translation app will help.
-Check up on which vaccines you need to get before travelling to China and make sure you book in to get them done with plenty of time before your trip.
Chinese house rules if you find yourself in company:
-No banging chopsticks on the table or using them to point at things (this is deemed extremely rude).
-Don’t eat all of the food in your bowl – this suggests that the host didn’t make enough food and you are not full (the reverse of how we think in the UK!)
Bonus sightseeing recommendations:
-Zhujiajiao Water Town, known as Little Venice. It’s at the end of the metro line so took a while to get to, but was so worth it!
-People’s Square, a garden in the centre of Shanghai where old people regularly meet to try and set up their sons and daughters on blind dates. They bring a sheet of paper with their child’s details and a photograph to discuss with others whether they would be a potential match. Very interesting to observe!
-The Bund/ Shanghai’s skyline, best seen at night when all the buildings are lit up. To see Shanghai in all its glory, head to the top of Shanghai Tower for a 360 view. Tickets cost around £10 and it’s worth it purely for the elevator experience – it travels at 40mph and takes only 55 seconds to reach the 121st floor. The views at the top are incredible.
-Yuyuan Old Street is the place to go for your classic Chinese souvenirs – fans, lucky cats, magnets, you name it.
-Tianzifang, an arts and craft district in the French Concession area of Shanghai. Filled with small alleyways of shops and snack bars.
-Hangzhou, the capital of China’s Zheijang province, about 2 hours south of Shanghai.
-Disneyland! Shanghai Disneyland was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. It cost around £65 a ticket but was so worth it! And there’s a Disney metro line that takes you straight there.
And that's everything! I hope we've covered everything and anything you may need to know when looking into Study China, but feel free to ask any extra questions if needed. Thank you again to the wonderful Natalie for helping out with this piece and I'll see you again in the next one, Meg x
**All opinions in this post are based on a PERSONAL experience with this specific experience, and cannot guarantee that you will have the same feelings. Any negatives are written with the aim of being as honest as possible and again are purely personal opinion based on a specific experience. No offence or slander is intended**