Preparing for the exchange
After being accepted as an exchange student in Tsinghua university by Aalto university, I had to fill the official application from the receiving university. Some questions in the application were unclear and I needed to fill it two times before succeeding. Also, the official admission letter and information, such as the academic calendar, were send quite late (in July). I booked flight tickets before being officially accepted to the university or knowing when the semester actually begins. Luckily, this did not cause any problems and the flights I bought were suitable.
After receiving the official admission notice, I was able to apply for the visa. Visa application was easy, and I was granted a visa for 180 days with two entries. As I was only staying for one semester, I did not need to apply for a residence permit and therefore I did not need to go trough a medical examination. Some vaccinations need to be taken several months before the trip and therefore I contacted YTHS already before receiving the admission letter.
Tsinghua university has dormitories for international students and I was informed how to apply for an apartment. There are not enough apartments at the campus and therefore some international students had to find a place outside. However, I had luck and I was chosen to live in ‘AYC -building’ where international and local student share the building.
There were several small things to do before leaving for Beijing. Terminating or changing all contracts and subscriptions (phone, electricity, gym etc), taking a proper insurance and packing. Because of my life situation I did not need to find a tenant to my apartment in Finland. I did not stress about packing too much and I only left with one larger backpack. Beijing is a huge city and it is easy to find things that you forgot to take with you.
I arrived Beijing one day before I was able to check in to my student dorm and therefore I had to stay one night in a hostel. This was actually a good choice because I was really tired after the long flight. Checking in to the student dorm was relatively easy but I had to queue for a while. Also, most of the people working at the campus do not speak much English and therefore communication is not always easy. The dorm and the deposit fee must be paid when checking in. Most of the international credit card do not work but luckily, I had enough cash with me. I was able to withdraw money from local ATMs but there are limitations for the amount of cash you can rise during a day.
Accessing the university wifi is only possible after the official registration day and as I arrived earlier, I needed to get a local sim card to communicate with people. It took me a whole day to success but eventually I got a working sim card. Also, opening a local bank account was surprisingly complicated. These tasks would have been much easier if I had someone with better Chinese skills with me. However, people were really helpful and with enough patience, all went well eventually.
As mentioned before, I shared an apartment with a local student. I met my roommate couple of days after moving in and she was really nice and helped me a lot with practicalities. Basic furniture and bedsheets were provided but I needed to buy some equipment, such as hangers and cleaning products.
For me it was easy to find new friends right after arriving. Almost all exchange students are in the same situation and it felt normal to start a conversation with new people. I was happy about arriving early before the semester officially started so I had already settled down and found new friends before the lectures started.
I had chosen courses beforehand according to course lists from previous years, but I had to change my plans after receiving the list for my semester. There are limitations for exchange students and most of the credits need to be chosen from that department which you have been accepted into. In my case, most of my courses were organised by the school of environment.
I had studied only one course of Chinese before the exchange and therefore all my courses were in in English. The school of environment had several courses taught in English and it was easy for me to choose enough courses. Exchange students from some other school had less options, and they had to contact teachers to ask if it is possible to have more courses in English.
I felt that courses I chose were interesting and the quality of teaching was good. Local students study extremely hard and students are assumed to participate in all lectures. Compared to my studies in Aalto, courses I had in Tsinghua had less assignments and the evaluation was mainly based on exam or a larger project work in the end of the semester. Also, timetables were different as I had lectures also in evenings and during weekends.
I was happy about the fact that all courses I had, except language courses, had both international and local students participating. I felt that I learned a lot, not only about topics of courses I had, but also about different cultures. Environmental issues are currently a hot topic in China and that made the discussion during lectures extremely interesting.
Student life and the campus
Tsinghua campus is huge, and it has all services needed for a daily life. Therefore, during normal weekdays I rarely left the campus. Student dormitories have a shared kitchen but do not have for example fridges unless you buy one. Most of the time I ate all my meals in canteens at the campus. The food served for students was extremely good and cheap. There are many different options and it is possible to try food from different regions of China and other Asian countries. For myself, the food was one of the best things at the campus.
The university has a long history and there are many interesting places to visit inside the campus area. I felt that the campus was quite beautiful and also calm as there were restrictions for driving a car. The campus area is large and therefore I bought myself a used bicycle. Buying the bike was easy as they are sold in several locations at the campus. There are also rental bikes which are easy and cheap to use.
There are many organisations and clubs for students in Tsinghua. Most of them are mainly advertised for local students but I joined some of the clubs. For example, in equestrian club I was the only exchange student but those who spoke English always helped me and translated what I didn’t understand. It was a good way to get to know local students as many events were only for international students. I also bought a membership to the gym at the campus and joined several different sport classes. Instructions were always in Chinese, but I felt that classes were easy to follow even without understanding the language.
Student dormitories are strict with visitors and no guests are allowed after 11 pm. There is not much night life at the campus but there are several places nearby were students can go to spend the evenings. Also, Beijing has a great number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs to visit so missing these opportunities at the campus was not a problem.
I lived in AYC in a ‘AB-room’, which means that I had my own bedroom but a shared bathroom and living room. Our apartment was in good condition (despite some water leakage issues in the bathroom) and I enjoyed my stay in there. Hot water is available only for certain hours and there were some blackouts during my stay. The tap water is not drinkable without being boiled but all dorms provide boiled water for drinking and cooking. It is also possible to order a water dispenser to your room.
Climate and the air quality
When I arrived Beijing in September, temperatures were around 30°C degree and the humidity was high. The strongest rain season had already ended but a heavy rainfall did occur occasionally. However, during the winter temperatures dropped relatively low, even down to -10°C degree during the night. The wind was also strong sometimes but there is almost no rain during the winter season. Coming from Finland, the winter was not extreme, but I was happy that I packed a warmer jacket with me. China is a long country and the climate varies a lot in different parts of the country and therefore, packing clothing for different weather conditions was a good idea as I did travel a lot.
Only thing I was worried about Beijing was the air quality. Beijing has had serious problems with the air pollution and there have been occasions when moving outside has been dangerous because of the air. I had luck and the air quality was decent most of the times. I did wear masks, which were easy to buy in Beijing, and I also bought an air purifier to my room. It was easier to manage with the air quality than I thought but it did limit some activities. In Finland I am used to checking the weather when making plans but in Beijing it is more important to check the forecast for the air quality. Heavy outdoor activities and doing sports were not recommended during the most polluted seasons. Several actions have been taken in Beijing to improve the air quality and the situation seems to be improving.
Beijing itself has interesting history and there are many places to visit. I felt that even after half a year there was still a lot to see and do in Beijing. Moving in Beijing was easy, the subway network covers most of the city and worked well. Busses were also working well but of course harder to use without knowing the city or the language. Avoiding rush hours is recommended as the amount of people makes travelling difficult.
I travelled after and during the semester as much as possible without disturbing the studies. Train connections are working well in China which made travelling easy and not too expensive. I travelled often with night trains which saved time and made weekend trips possible. I felt that China is a safe country to travel, even for a woman alone. Heavy traffic was the only thing I felt unsecure about.
For me, exchange was one of the best experiences of my life and I highly recommended it for everyone. Moving alone to a new country where you do not know anyone, and surviving, gives a lot of confidence. As other international students were in the same situation, I got to know amazing new people that I have been in contact also after the exchange. I also got confidence in my skills as I performed well in classes and survived only by speaking foreign languages. I think after this experience it will be even easier for me to work in international environment.
One of the best things about the exchange was to live in a new country long enough to learn how local people live. I had good luck with having a local student as my roommate and therefore I got to know also locals, not only other exchange students. This helped me to get to know and understand Chinese culture in the way I think would have been impossible without these connections.