Should I Study in China?

Should I study in China?

This is a question many university students are asking themselves, particularly following the stabbing of four American instructors in the northeastern city of Jinan. While students considering studies in China need to be aware of certain risks, the question is not one that lends itself to a straightforward answer.

Whether it makes sense to study in China depends on the circumstances of the student, in particular what they hope to get out of their studies. Consider the following sophomores looking at study-abroad choices offered by their university, including a program in Shanghai:

  • Robert really wants to spend at least part of his junior year somewhere “not as boring” as his college town, but he does not have strong feelings about a particular destination. He does want to go somewhere with a “solid party scene,” reflecting his “work hard, play harder” ethos. He does not enjoy studying foreign languages (though he’s had to study Spanish for a few years, due to his faculty’s foreign-language requirement) and is hoping that won’t be an issue.
  • Sandra is passionate about world affairs and is keen on joining the Foreign Service after graduation. While in college, she has always sought out friendships with students from other countries, and something she really wants to get out of her studies abroad is developing real friendships with locals. Sandra speaks French fluently and has studied Arabic but has not studied Chinese (though she’s open to it).
  • Pablo is fascinated by the Chinese language and has been studying it since high school. He wants to take his language skills to the next level. At the same time, he is not keen on “roughing it.”

To be sure, Robert might end up having a wonderful time in Shanghai. The fact that he doesn’t speak Chinese might not be that much of an issue, particularly if he’s mostly spending time with his classmates (both foreigners and English-speaking locals). And there is plenty of partying going on in the Pearl of the Orient.

At the same time, to the extent that the language barrier does become an issue (and there’s a good chance it will), Robert does not appear to be the best-equipped for the challenge, which could lead him to sour on the experience. Along the same lines, someone who is indifferent about China might have a harder time dealing with some of the issues that inevitably come up for foreigners in the country.

For Robert, one of the programs his university offers in the UK and the Nordic countries is likely a better fit. There are also programs in Spain and in Mexico City, where his existing level of Spanish will allow him to at least engage in basic conversations with locals.

As for Sandra, in some ways China is a perfect choice. The business case for studying Chinese may not be as strong as it was a few years ago, with economic ties between China and the West strained. But for a diplomat, China expertise may in fact be becoming an even more valuable asset. Check out my colleague Jonathan Bench’s thoughts on this subject, in his post Mentoring the Next Generation of China Experts.

At the same time, the study-abroad experience is not just about its impact on a student’s career trajectory, but also about the enjoyment of the time abroad. And Sandra is clear about wanting to make local friends. In general, it is not that easy for foreigners to develop friendships in China. The language barrier is a part of that and, unfortunately, the fact that Sandra does not speak Chinese will work against her in that sense.

Though Sandra would surely benefit professionally from China exposure, she might want to consider programs in countries where the language barrier will be less of an issue (or none at all). Her college has a program near Delhi, which would be a solid choice in terms of experiencing life in another key global player. There is also a program in English-speaking Botswana, which would undoubtedly give an aspiring diplomat a valuable perspective.

Finally, Pablo appears to be a compelling candidate for the Shanghai program. He already speaks Chinese and wants to improve his skills. That said, China is not the only country in the world where Chinese is widely spoken. And as it turns out, his faculty has a program in Taipei, which is a “kinder, gentler” city than Shanghai.

This all said, to the extent that one day Pablo wants to leverage his Chinese professionally, chances are that China exposure will also help. From a linguistic perspective, there are certainly arguments in favor of studying traditional Chinese characters (used in Taiwan), as opposed to the simplified ones used in China. Odds are, however, that a foreigner who uses Chinese in a work setting is likelier to encounter simplified characters.


Studying in China can be a rewarding experience, but it depends on the individual’s goals and circumstances. Evaluating personal preferences, risk tolerance, professional aspirations, and language skills are crucial in making this decision.

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