A Brown girl’s guide to studying abroad in China

16 Aug

By Aiman Zaidi 

Four months in Beijing sound like an incredible adventure. But when you’re a Brown girl, things are a little more complicated.

BrainGain Magazine: A guide to studying abroad in China

The chance to study abroad comes with the dazzling promise of adventure and the hope of doors opening.  For a Pakistani Swiss girl, studying abroad offers opportunities me and, in the future, other Brown girls. Not to mention, there’s the added bonus of photoshoots to make my Instagram page pop.

So, when my Master’s program at the University of Geneva introduced a compulsory semester abroad in Beijing, I stuffed 2 suitcases with clothes, shoes, all the desi spices and trepidation. Nothing I packed prepared me for the emotional and physical challenges I faced in my four months there. Or the growth I experienced. Here is all I learned in the four months I spent in Beijing.

Pollution masks and air purifiers are your friends:

As soon as I landed in the city, I was welcomed by the thick, humid and polluted air. Every day, I would check the Air Quality Index (AQI) like I did the weather forecast in Geneva.

The lowest PM2.5 (particulate matter) level that I personally experienced was 20 μg/m3and the highest was 300 μg/m3, both above the WHO recommended 10 μg/m3. My only weapons against the toxic air were masks and air purifiers. Thankfully, there were plenty of cute options available when it came to pollution masks.

School will give you the biggest culture shock, but you have to roll with it:

The teaching style in China was very different from what I have experienced living in Europe. In Europe, students are always pushed to discuss, argue and question. However, in Beijing, the communist background and censorship forces students to accept what is taught in school as the ultimate truth, especially if it relates to China.

That being said, I really enjoyed speaking to the Chinese students in my classes. Even though we belonged to different parts of the world, we were still able to find common grounds for discussion. For instance, both Desi and Chinese cultures deeply care about welcoming foreigners and making sure they are well looked after. Desi and Chinese households also tend to be very family oriented and show a lot of respect towards elders. Even a love for spicy food is common between Desi and Sichuan cuisine.

The food world is your oyster, which is also very cheap and easy to order in Beijing:

Beijing has a thriving food world. You simply need to name the cuisine and it will be at your doorstep in no time. Chinese delicacies, American fast food, Mexican tapas, even a mouth-watering biryani can be ordered online for a cheaper price than cooking it yourself.

Even within Chinese food, there was so much to explore. Like a typical Desi, I reduced Chinese food to soup, chow mein and fried rice before going to China. But the cuisine is extremely diverse, with distinct delicacies in each province. From noodles, to sticky rice, to stinky tofu, to vegetables I didn’t know existed, I was blown away with the variety of tastes, textures and spices. Instead of playing it safe by eating at the same three restaurants, I forced myself to be adventurous, and did not regret it one bit.

Most people don’t speak English, so brush up on miming or learn the language:

Before moving to China, I assumed that people in major cities like Beijing would speak English. But most of them didn’t, which made me feel very isolated. I couldn’t read the menu, talk to my landlord, order food or use some of the Chinese apps. Initially, I was at the mercy of hand gestures and translation apps. But eventually, I joined Chinese language classes to learn Pinyin—the romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation.

Like Desi languages, Chinese has varying dialects. Two people from different parts of China can pronounce the same word completely differently and misunderstand each other. Still, learning a few basic phrases such as ‘Hi, hello, thank you, no, yes’ and the numbers ended up being life savers. By the end of the trip, I could recognize the server shouting my order number in Chinese at restaurants. It felt pretty great to walk up and grab my order.

The Great Firewall of China means you can’t easily Google everything:

Thanks to ‘The Great Firewall of China’ life is a heavily censored bubble. Most popular apps, like Whatsapp and Twitter as well as big news websites like the BBCand New York times, are banned in China. As a student, the biggest hit was losing access to Google. Like most of my study abroad peers, I became highly dependent on a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

I wondered why the Chinese locals weren’t bothered about banned sites and apps. That is, until I realised that the Chinese equivalents are on par, if not better. Baidu and Baidu maps are good equivalents of Google and Google Maps. Weibo is like Twitter and Youku is like Youtube. WeChat is an amalgamation of Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram and Venmo. Users can create group chats, upload stories, post a status and send or receive money. It’s definitely an app that we need in the rest of the world!

However, while efficient, censorship and government monitoring deeply violates freedom of speech and thought in China. In a few years, the Chinese government will monitor citizens even more closely thanks to the Social Credit System, which will track the movement of every citizen in terms of work, spending, social media and much more.

If you’re Brown and Muslim your living options are limited:

As a student, it was very difficult to find clean, affordable and spacious accommodation near my university. What made matters worse was that most landlords did not want to lease their apartments to a Muslim. My landlord forced me to sign a document admitting I wasn’t a practicing Muslim before allowing me to live in my apartment

During the 4 months I was there, I also got stopped almost every other day to pose for a photo with a stranger. Sometimes, people wouldn’t bother asking and secretly take pictures of me with flash. It made me feel a bit like a zoo animal. The blatant discrimination was disheartening and shocking, but I was persistent, because it was important for me to be comfortable in the space I lived in.

Eventually, I also understood I was the first Brown girl most people had seen, and while people’s curiosity was both impolite and racist, it was ultimately because of a lack of exposure. This realisation didn’t make their actions any less hurtful, but it helped make sense of the daily discrimination I faced.

But you can still form your own community:

I ended up loving the apartment my friends and I finally lived in. It allowed me to venture out and explore the city. I made friends with the local apartment community and my neighbours, most of whom were my course mates. In fact, throughout my time in China, my course mates and I were there for each other during the highs and the lows.

When one of us got homesick, we hosted potluck dinners or lunches. We didn’t want anyone to miss family so we celebrated Christmas together. Living abroad with similar minded people created an unsaid bond, because only they could relate to my situation and support me.

Ultimately, change will push you to be brave:

Studying abroad trained me to go with the flow and be less intimidated by change. I was nervous about moving to a country with a totally different language and culture. But once there, I had to rely mostly on myself and saw how capable I truly was. If I was lost, I had to ask around to find my way. I used the little Chinese I knew to order food at a restaurant. I realised that every problem has a solution, and there is nothing I can’t face with persistence and a VPN.


Aiman Zaidi is a Pakistani born Swiss girl interested in inequality, disparities and sustainability. She has lived and studied abroad in a few different countries and enjoys travelling. Her most recent adventures led her to Beijing, China.

Related articles:
“I wouldn’t change my study abroad experience for any other.” The story of a German student in France.

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