Fitting in at a new school is always difficult. When you’re also coming to terms with a new language and culture, it’s an even bigger challenge. But those who are currently making that journey, from first stepping into the labyrinth of Beijing’s streets and meeting new classmates on the first day of international school, to eventually laughing with friends after calculus, should remember that they are not alone. There have been countless students who have undergone this same process, and have tips to make everything a little bit easier. We talked to a handful of seasoned veterans who were eager to tell their story of adjusting to a new environment, in hopes that it would help other newcomers find the right footing when settling into their new life in Beijing’s international schools.
A Year 13 student, Maisy is originally from Hong Kong, and moved to Beijing in 2000. She loves video games, reading, and her cat, Bira. She also plays sports including football, basketball, and volleyball. Her life goal is to pet every single dog in the entire world.
A Year 13 student, Deborah moved to Beijing in 2014. She is an avid reader, enthusiastic writer, and successful kombucha-maker. She spends her free time trying out random and useless hobbies, including anagram solving, plant growing, and enneagram typing.
A Year 13 student from South Carolina, Chloe moved to Beijing in 2015. In her spare time, she plays classical music on her cello, and enjoys sports including basketball and soccer. She loves to bike and hike with her family, and her life goal is to make a difference in the world.
A university freshman now studying in New York, Liyong came to Beijing from Malaysia in 2008. The High School Musical cast and the Backstreet Boys, his role models, are always on his playlist. He studies graphic design and is also an aspiring meme-maker, so keep an eye out for his work.
A Year 13 student, Kaneda first came to Beijing in August 2018. He enjoys playing basketball and art. He speaks Japanese and English, and is in the process of learning Chinese. New to the city, Kaneda is optimistic and excited as he continues to learn more about Chinese culture and make this country his new home.
1. Adjusting to city life can be hard!
2. Beijing can be overwhelming, so can the start of the semester at international school.
3. Expect a bit of a language barrier between some students at the school for whom English is a second language.
4. Adjusting to school life can be difficult for introverts.
Deborah: I found getting accustomed to the rhythm of Beijing challenging. I came from a relatively small town and being dropped into a busy city with crazy traffic during rush hours and just the large amount of people was a very new experience.
Chloe: The language barrier was difficult for me. I came to Beijing after attending a public middle school in North Carolina. I was almost resistant to making friends and adjusting because I felt like I couldn’t understand anything. I couldn’t understand my classmates and I couldn’t read the street signs or speak to the waiter at restaurants. I was frustrated. So, I sat in the cafeteria and read a book for the first two weeks, refusing to speak to anyone.
Liyong: Adjusting to city life was hard. The streets were crowded, there was an unexpectedly high amount of traffic, and the pollution was horrible. In school, I also had some difficulties. I was not fluent in English, so communication with classmates was a huge challenge for me. It was difficult to participate in class and make friends.
Maisy: Beijing is pretty overwhelming. I am an introvert and don’t go out a lot, and I found it difficult to get somewhere I’m unfamiliar with and figure out transportation.
Kaneda: All of my classmates in my international school speak Chinese or other languages when they aren’t in class, because that’s what’s comfortable for them. I couldn’t understand them and felt like I couldn’t reach them. I was left out in a way I couldn’t change. I’ve moved on a lot, but there is a difference between being an outsider in a way you can overcome with time, and one that just feels like a door that is triple padlocked.
Tips you have for young people first moving to Beijing
1. Keep a positive attitude and start letting go of assumptions.
2. Join clubs and other activities.
3. Learning, or at least trying to learn Chinese is very important!
4. Download WeChat immediately!
Liyong: I learned to embrace the change in lifestyle from my previous home. Instead of focusing on the negatives, I realized the benefits of living in the city: cheap and fast transportation, restaurants being within walking distance, and having a lot of things to do with my friends.
Kaneda: Get rid of all stereotypes and conclusions you came to beforehand. I had nightmares and irrational ideas of a hyper-competitive school environment because of horror stories about the Chinese learning environment. I later found out I was completely wrong. It was unnecessary stress. Just don’t carry those thoughts with you coming in. Keep an open mind!
Maisy: WeChat makes Beijing so efficient. You can use it to pay, buy plane tickets, call a taxi, and even get a masseuse to come to your house. It is crazy versatile.
Deborah: Sports made me feel at home. I remember during a soccer game, at the last kick, I was crying and laughing and hugging teammates that had become so close to me so naturally, even though they were not people I would not have thought I would be close to. Team sports create this environment where we work towards a common goal, which builds strong friendships.
Chloe: I joined stuff within school without prior experience, like the musical. I had a ‘why not try something new?’ attitude and ended up having so many amazing experiences. On opening night, I felt like the entire cast was coming together to produce something we were proud of, and the community was coming together to enjoy it. I felt like I was a part of something.
Maisy: Learning Chinese is so important. When I couldn’t read the street signs or do everyday things like ordering at a restaurant, I felt like I couldn’t relate to Beijingers or feel like one of them. Once you do, you feel much more at home.
What are some advantages of being an international student?
1. You realize that people are fundamentally the same but superficially different.
2. You become more open-minded and accepting of different ideas.
3. Learning a new language in an environment where that is the only language used.
4. It helps in adapting to college life because of the experiences gained by going somewhere new and getting used it.
Deborah: Because you are exposed to people of all backgrounds, you realize that people are fundamentally the same but superficially different. At first, you think you guys can’t connect because of cultural and language differences, but at the end of the day, you still find the same things funny and can laugh together. The stereotypes and misconceptions you had about people are completely broken, and I think that’s so great.
Maisy: My older brother goes to college now and has met people who have only lived in one town their whole lives, and because of that are narrow-minded in some ways. Here, your view of the world is already much broader. Academically speaking, you learn a new language in an environment where that is the only language used. This is so much better than learning a language in a classroom because the only way to really know a language is if you use it.
Chloe: You learn to be more open-minded and accepting of different ideas. You get to see the perspectives of people from everywhere, and that makes you learn to stop and listen to others.
Liyong: I found that my international school background actually helped me a lot in college. I adapted to college much faster because I had experience of going somewhere new and getting used it. I also got used to talking to new groups of people because people leave and come to international schools so often; I was always joined by new students every year. So, establishing new friendships has gotten easier. Being bilingual also lets you connect with a crazy amount of people much easier. I have friends that are all over the world and that’s just crazy. You get a better idea of globalization and realize how small and connected the world can be.
This article first appeared in the beijingkids School Choice Guide 2019-2020
Photos: Adobe Creative Cloud, Uni You, Lydia Qu