Interning in Beijing: Tristan Knotts Blog Series
Tristan Knotts graduated from university in Texas and joined Gotoco in China from January to November 2020. After joining a programme in Nanjing, he was training for a second camp internship in Shenzhen when COVID-19 brought China to a standstill and his camp was cancelled. Tristan had been due to intern in Beijing with Gotoco after the camp until May 2020 and, after extremely careful deliberation, decided to stick to his original plan and head to Beijing, while his fellow Gotoco’ers were supported to fly home or continue travels around Asia.
In this blog series, Tristan explores why he came to China in the first place, what life has been like as a newbie in Beijing during the global pandemic, and answers questions that many Gotoco’ers have as they prepare to come to China from his own personal experience and perspective.
N.b. all the views in this blog series are from Tristan’s personal experience and should be very helpful for anyone looking to move to China or join a Gotoco programme. The blogs do not, however, try to give authoritative answers on the questions raised from every perspective and we encourage you to read a range of our blog posts from different Gotoco’ers and our FAQs and pre-departure information (as well as other websites/books’ ideas!) to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for your trip to China with us!
What’s Life Actually Like For An Intern Visiting Beijing For The First Time?
This is the second in a four part series journalling Tristan’s experience on a Gotoco internship in Beijing through all of the craziness around the global pandemic in 2020. This blog aims to answer common questions that Gotoco’er interns have about coming to China and to give you an insight into what life is actually like in the city. If you have any questions for Tristan that aren’t covered below, let us know by submitting a question on our FAQs page.
How is living in China with little to no Mandarin?
I surprised myself and managed to get by in China for almost a year with very limited Mandarin skills. Admittedly, it could be a bit challenging and frustrating at times, but that’s part of the fun of travelling and exploring another country and culture! Now, I will caveat this by saying that I have primarily been based in Beijing and in the city I do meet many more English speakers than I might in more rural areas, but when I’m out running errands or getting food most of my interactions are in Mandarin.
In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, I’ve met people who have gotten by on no Chinese for years. There is a large English-speaking expat community with many restaurants and shops that are geared towards foreigners with English-speaking staff. I’ve found myself going days speaking only English without realising it while still visiting shops, restaurants, and bars. I’ve found navigation to be fairly easy as many of the travel hubs have plenty of signs in English, or at least pinyin (transliteration of Mandarin), to navigate, and apps such as Apple Maps usually work (although local apps are better, including Baidu maps). Eating out is also quite easy as it seems to be common practice for restaurants to include pictures on their menus, and not just for tourists.
Although you can certainly get by without much Mandarin in international cities, I would highly recommend at least attempting to learn a bit of the local language. Not only does this make life easier, but it is highly appreciated by locals, and makes your experience more fun and engaged. Countless times I’ve made a feeble attempt at firing off a sentence, to be greeted with a smile and a compliment about my interest in learning Mandarin. While the compliments may sometimes be a little generous, it does allow you to make a better first impression, perhaps to your a new good friend. There is also the practical aspect of making your day-to-day interactions much smoother—rather than pointing at things or pulling out Google Translate, you can save some time and headaches by knowing how to order food, ask directions, or make a simple self-introduction. Gotoco will provide you with tools and resources for this before you come out so do make use of them!
Outside of large cities, it can be more challenging unless you have some basic Mandarin skills. However, you can still use helpful apps like Google Translate or Pleco to get by. Gotoco also provides participants with lists of some key phrases, and programme staff are always very helpful in making sure you know how to get around when you first arrive in China, at least they were for me in Nanjing and Shenzhen!
Tips from my experience:
- Don’t be overly stressed about Mandarin before you travel, there are people who have gotten by with no Mandarin for years.
- Don’t let the above point be an excuse not to learn some Mandarin—put in some effort to learn a bit of the language if you want to get the most out of your China experience, and simply make your life easier.
- Download some helpful Chinese language apps like Google Translate, and Pleco before arriving, and make the most of the resources that Gotoco provides.
How is adjusting to life in China?
I found adjusting to living in China to be fairly easy compared to what I was anticipating. After not very long, I found myself feeling like a local, as I found myself sleeping on the subway, swimming in the canals, and occasionally wandering around aimlessly throughout the hutongs (small alleyways and one-storey buildings in central Beijing where Gotoco is based and where I lived). Gotoco has certainly been a huge help as I settled into my life here, offering accommodation, recommendations, and contacts to make my transition much easier than if I had attempted it alone. I also came in with an open mind and little expectations of what to expect, and I found this to be one of the most helpful aspects of adjusting to life here.
There are many things that you have to adapt to whether it be the food, social behaviour, language barrier, making new friends, etc., so rather than resisting these changes, I found it best to approach them with flexibility and curiosity. For example, with my lack of Mandarin skills, I was nervous about making Chinese friends before arriving, as I thought many people would be quickly frustrated with me. Yet, I have found that this is generally not the case, and many of my Chinese friends and I enjoy speaking and spending time together even if we can’t verbally communicate in-depth—we often exchange memes, spend time outdoors, enjoy food or practice our language skills together.
Probably the most challenging adjustment for me was getting accustomed to the traffic norms here. As a conservative driver on the road, I was appalled by the seeming complete lack of adherence to traffic rules, it felt like complete chaos. Cars, bikes, scooters, and pedestrians all share the road; I’ve only seen blinkers used a handful of times; apparently looking both ways before crossing is too burdensome; and the scooters and rickshaw drivers simply do whatever they want. Over time, I’ve adjusted and come to realise it’s not complete chaos, but a bit more like controlled chaos. Sure, most motorists and pedestrians don’t follow many codified traffic laws, but after a while you realise that most people on the road behave in a similar manner (usually very assertively), and you begin to anticipate these things and I’ve found I’m much more attentive when I’m on the road now. Driving is also generally slower than I’m used to back home and people react to events on the road very quickly, so I wouldn’t say it’s any less safe overall from what I’ve seen.
Tips from my experience:
- Use the support provided by Gotoco, they are experts and have experience dealing with just about any situation you can imagine—I mean they helped me survive the covid-19 outbreak in China, so yes, they can help you with train tickets.
- Approach the entire experience with an open mind. This is probably some of the best advice I could give as you’re certain to encounter many different cultural aspects, and I’ve found it is best to embrace these.
How is the food in China?
Roasted chicken feet, spicy intestine noodles, and fish head soup, China has all of your favourites from back home!
Jokes aside, China has some truly wonderful food, most of which doesn’t consist of eating a part of an animal that we don’t usually eat back home (although I have enjoyed all three of the previously mentioned dishes). I’ve had food such as the famous Peking Duck, authentic spicy Sichuan dishes, the best fried dumplings in the world, jianbing (think of them as savoury Chinese crepes), crawfish and many more excellent dishes, and, yes, you can find Starbucks/McDonalds/KFC if you really need a taste of home. Check out Gotoco’s Instagram (@gotocochina) for more photos of tasty dishes in China.
Two of my roommates are vegetarian and I’ve come to find a new appreciation for vegetables, as China seems to make vegetables 10 times better than back home. Eggplant is one of my personal favourites here, and it’s nothing like aubergine back in the US. Whether you’re interested in trying exotic dishes, Chinese favourites from back home, or western-style food I’ve found it easy to find great options in Beijing for any mood, taste, or diet.
Tips from my experience:
- Chicken feet are as appetising as they sound.
- Try some things you wouldn’t eat back home. While you can certainly eat within your comfort zone with the many familiar dishes, it’s guaranteed you’ll come across some dishes that you will have never imagined, give them a try if you’re adventurous enough.
How were your relationships with people in China?
In Beijing, I’ve met people from all over China and all over the world, from Western Europe and Central Asia to South America and Southeast Asia. With such a diverse community you can really get involved in any social circle you want to, as everyone seems to be just a WeChat connection away. Many of the people here, both Chinese and foreign, have moved here from different parts of the country or world and can generally empathise with you in adjusting to life in a new city. Many of my friends come from all over, and many have been quick to offer advice or a helping hand as I was getting settled in Beijing.
When I’ve traveled to smaller cities, ones with smaller international communities, you may occasionally find yourself being at the centre of attention for some locals. I’ve had people come up and ask for pictures, offer me food and drinks, and plenty of people come up to ask questions. I find it often is out of curiosity, and many people are quite polite about approaching you.
Now there are some general social behaviours that took some getting used to. There will be things such as people’s lack of adherence to road laws, not queuing, bumping shoulders, spitting, or talking loudly on the phone; a personal favourite, that we dub the “Beijing Bikini”, is when men pull their shirts up over their protruding belly to cool off during the summer months in Beijing. Although they can be quite surprising at first, they are normal aspects of life here and I find myself noticing these behaviours less and less.
Overall, people in Beijing are extremely welcoming and helpful, and, in my experience, very genuine. I’ve made lots of great friends here and can’t wait to visit again (hopefully very soon!).
Tips from my experience:
- Make an effort to get to know people.
- Don’t be afraid to ask people questions, most people are quite approachable.
- Don’t be offended by cultural differences. Most people aren’t being rude to you when they push by you at the metro, it’s just more normal here than you might be used to at home.
How is maintaining relationships with friends and family back home while in China?
Moving halfway across the world from all my friends and family back in the US was a bit daunting for me. I knew I would miss spending time with them, and there was also a 12-hour time difference that can be a huge obstacle for communicating. But it was actually all much easier than I expected, I still communicated with my family quite frequently and often chatted with my friends back in Texas.
For the first few months, I found myself communicating with people back home far more often than I normally would because, due to covid, Beijing didn’t have anything going on at the time and it was a way to avoid isolation and boredom. Speaking with people in the US isn’t terribly difficult as you can schedule times to talk at the beginning or end of the day. I typically spoke to family members most days of the week via WeChat. It was also quite fun to Facetime with my friends and to show each other what’s going on on opposite sides of the world.
Now I’m back in Texas and more interested to keep in contact with friends in China!
Tips from my experience:
- Download WeChat before you come to China. You can learn more about WeChat here and here.
- Get your family and close friends to download WeChat. This will make communicating much smoother.
- Download a VPN for your phone so you can use Whatsapp and for your computer for FB, Instagram, etc.
How is it using Chinese apps in China? How is getting a Chinese sim card?
There are some Chinese apps that in my opinion are quite essential here. First and foremost, Wechat. Wechat is an all in one app, which is kind of a combination of text, Instagram, and mobile pay. You will probably use it every day, primarily for messaging, and I highly recommend downloading it before arriving. There is an English version and it’s very easy to use once you get your account registered. You can learn more about WeChat here and here.
Now, not all of the Chinese apps have an English version, and that does make things a bit harder. I set mine up in probably the most inconvenient and frustrating way possible which basically consisted of me clicking random pages, taking a screenshot, and then translating the screenshot or simply clicking around and typing things in until it worked. If you’re a less patient person and happen to have a friend who speaks Chinese then I would recommend asking for some help to set them up. Apps I would consider useful are Meituan (bike rental, food delivery, and other stuff), a local public transport app (book subway and bus tickets), Alipay (online and mobile payments).
I went in blind to get a Chinese sim card with no friends or research. Don’t do that. I attempted to get my SIM card in the city of Guilin, near Gotoco’s base in Yangshuo, and there weren’t any English-speaking employees to assist me. It is actually a fairly straightforward process if you go to the correct mobile provider, and bring your passport, but I somehow managed to draw it out over an hour and upset a few waiting customers. On your Gotoco programme, Gotoco will also help you with sorting out your sim card so do follow their advice and don’t go it alone like I did!
Tips from my experience:
- Download your VPN before arriving
- Get Chinese friends or your Gotoco project manager to help you download Meituan (bike rental, food delivery, and other stuff), a local public transport app (book subway and bus tickets), Alipay (online and mobile payments), and other local apps
How is the weather in China/Beijing? Is there much nature in Beijing?
Part of my experience with Beijing weather was rather unique, as I witnessed Beijing at historically low pollution levels at the peak of the pandemic. After a few months, economic activity picked back up and I quickly realised that clear blue skies were not normal. While bluebird skies are not all that common, I have not found the pollution levels to be overwhelming, and, from talking to friends here, the pollution has definitely been getting better year-on-year.
Being here during the transition into spring was spectacular, as Beijing transformed right in front of my eyes. It was incredible to see the wondrous Cherry Blossoms bloom across the city and in the mountains, although they only lasted a week. The barren trees lining the hutongs bloomed into much welcomed lush coverage, sparkling in the sun. Spring was full of beautiful, cool weather, and lush scenery. Summer came quickly and brought with it long days with some sweltering heat, which I was not expecting. Although the early summer mornings and evenings offered respite from the heat and were the perfect times to enjoy a walk around the hutongs or grab a beer with friends on the patio. Autumn was also gorgeous and it was surprising to see how quickly the temperature dropped into a very cold winter.
Gotoco’s note: If you’re interested in learning more about nature and wildlife in Beijing, then we recommend the Birding Beijing website!
Tips from my experience:
- There’s not a lot of rain in Beijing, but when it does rain, it pours. Bring a rain jacket for those days.
- In summer, be prepared for very warm weather. If you need to wear more formal clothes for your programme, try to make it as lightweight and breathable as possible.
- Spring and Autumn in Beijing are stunning.
Overall, I have loved my experience in Beijing and highly recommend visiting the city to everyone and anyone, especially on a programme that allows you to immerse yourself in it and get to know what life is really like here.
If you have any questions for Tristan that aren’t covered above, let us know by submitting a question on our FAQs page.