Written by Brooke Fisher, (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) Student Correspondent CET Beijing: Intensive Language, Spring 2017
“Where are you two headed?” the stranger asked us as we made our way through the Ming Tombs parking lot to get to the bus stop.
We told him politely we were headed towards another part of the tombs.
“I can take you there,” he offered, saying it’ll only be 15 RMB for the ride there. We knew it wasn’t necessary, because the bus would be arriving soon, but he persisted. “It’s the weekend, you know, and it’ll be another forty-five minutes until another one comes. Just hop in!”
My friend and I, both CET students studying Chinese, obviously knew waiting for the bus was the best option, but we did hesitate for a moment to contemplate if his offer was actually worth it. We eventually told him his services wouldn’t be necessary, and thankfully the bus arrived just in time to save us from his advances.
Even though it’s safe to assume most people would likely turn down his offer, being exchange students puts this whole scenario into a different perspective.
Firstly, we knew what he was saying, and we weren’t really buying his excuses. Other tourists with no Chinese language skills might have agreed, simply because they didn’t know what he was saying, or they weren’t actually sure how to use the buses to get from tomb to tomb.
Secondly, further into the semester, Beijing starts to feel more like home and less like a destination. Navigating the subway becomes second nature, and finding your way back is just a matter of locating the nearest station. You become so immersed in the daily lives of the Chinese, that you can immediately spot foreigner territory. Suddenly, everything becomes a little more commercialized, and a little less authentic.
To be honest, it’s super easy to get swept away by the tourism aspect of studying abroad. Most major cities, including Beijing, are teeming with tourist traps and ex-pat hangouts. They’re also where foreigners are most likely to get pickpocketed, given fake cash, or cheated out of hundreds of dollars. While many of these touristy areas, such as the Forbidden City and Lama Temple, should be enjoyed at least once while visiting Beijing, there are a bunch of other, much less crowded places that are just as fun to visit; it’s just a matter of seeking out those places.
Being an exchange student is so much more than merely being a tourist. In many aspects, exchange students have the ability to actively participate in parts of genuine Chinese culture. This can be as simple as waking up early to stroll through a park and watch senior citizens perform tai chi, or the ability to join a student organization on campus and make connections with Chinese college students, bonding over shared interests.
As a tourist, you’re often only exposed to the most famous and popular sites, with little time else to go exploring off the beaten path, but as a student, the world is your oyster. Whether it’s a summer term or a whole semester, between classes, homework, and CET-led activities, there’s a good amount of time to explore on your own. Travel to that rooftop garden you heard was amazing, or lose yourself in a museum. Walk through a historic district with no plan but to sample new and bizarre foods. Go to a fresh market and ask one of the stall owners for a recipe, then buy the ingredients and try to recreate it. Don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never done before.
As your language ability grows, so will your comfort with navigating around the city. You’ll have a more intimate knowledge of the people and the culture than you ever would have on a two-week guided tour. So, go out and dance with the old people in the park, explore every nook and cranny of the city to find the best study spots, and actively seek out the unknown. Take the road less traveled, because you’re so much more than just a tourist.