What It’s Like Being a Foreign University Student

Now that summer is officially over, I find myself back in the same place as university students all over the world – the classroom.


The two textbooks I’m going through this semester.

Five years ago, I officially graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree. At that point, I figured my academic career was over. I could check “attend university” off my list of Things Every Normal Person Should Do.

If you want to get technical, I didn’t take the “normal person” path to complete my undergraduate degree. I actually did all my courses via the distance learning method, where all I got all my books sent to my home and submitted assignments online.

Back then people would always ask me if I missed the university life of attending classes and making new friends. I usually gave a very Asian-like response.

“Oh, no! I like being able to focus on my studies!”

“I don’t need to attend a school to make friends!”

Though I don’t regret taking the unconventional path to education, I do admit that I missed out on a few things. Now that I’m back in school taking classes at a physical campus, I’m discovering so many great aspects of attending school in person. The fact that I’m a foreign student makes the experience that much more unique.

Being confused for a zhong guo ren (a person born in China) is probably the most consistent thing I experience on a week-to-week basis. Whether it’s a student, teacher, or security guard, everyone who sees me for the first time thinks I’m a local person. I usually have to tell Chinese people that I’m a liu xue sheng (foreign student) to help them understand the mystery that I am to them.

I can’t wait until the day that my Chinese is good enough that I can pretend to be a zhong guo ren who speaks really good English!

Making new friends is one of the best things about being a foreign student. Chinese students love being able to practice their English with foreigners. And even if you’ve only hung out with them a couple times, many of them will invite you to come visit them in their hometowns (which is typically anywhere from 1-2 hours away).

Another thing I love about being on campus every day is the accessibility to really tasty and inexpensive food. Cafeteria meals start around 10 RMB, which is less than 2 USD. There’s also a really great food street just outside the campus, where you have no end of selections to choose from! One of my personal favourites is this Muslim restaurant where they serve la mian (hand-pulled noodles).

Because I’m a foreigner, I don’t have to live on campus with the rest of the students. Instead, my wife and I live in an apartment complex about fifteen minutes away from the school. I’m especially grateful that we have our own place that’s spacious and clean. University dorm rooms in China usually pack anywhere from 4-6 students per room!

Studying abroad has taught me what a privilege it is to have this experience of learning Chinese in China.  Though many university students here learn English, most cannot speak it very well because they don’t have native English-speakers with whom they can practice. Several students have told me that I have such a huge advantage over them because I get to study in a place where I’m forced to use my Chinese.

While I was working on my undergrad degree, I was definitely more concerned about my grades. But as a foreign student, I’m thinking way more about the culture here, and all the reasons why people do things the way they do it. I’m not only a student of the language, but also a student of the culture.

Ultimately, I love being a foreign student because I constantly get to be involved in the exchange of thoughts and ideas. I really value the relationships I’ve been able to form with students. In some ways we are so similar, and yet in other ways so different.

Have you ever studied while living abroad? What are some of your favorite things about being a foreign university student? Have there been any surprises along the way?

23 thoughts on “What It’s Like Being a Foreign University Student

  1. I was a liu xue sheng in Beijing for 3 years. I loved it! I wish I could go back to school haha.
    Have you been “invited” to perform in any university event yet? 😀

  2. I think about you every time I hear an advertisement on the radio about Regent. 🙂 Oh, how I wish I’d been able to study abroad! I’m glad that you have the opportunity and are having such a good time over there!

  3. I studied in Finland for 4 years but I can’t really say (yet) if it helped me in any way or if studies would have been much different in my home country Germany. But this might be also because many middle EUropean and Northern European countriea are rather similar 🙂

    • What did you study in Finland? Is it common for Europeans to study outside of their country, but still within Europe? As a Canadian, studying abroad typically means outside of our continent. Haha. But that’s probably because the Canadian/American education systems are pretty similar.

      • I studied international business in Helsinki and now I am planning to do my master in Hamburg, well let’s see how it will work out.
        In Europe many students are going abroad for one or two semesters. But thie destinations are all over the world, not only focused onEurope 🙂

  4. What? You like uni campus food? My uni campus food was terrible. Dry sandwiches and msg-laden colourful Chinese food. One of the pizza stores on campus were nice, though. The surrounding off-campus cafes were a bit better but they were pricey. And not surprising to see international students gravitating towards the on-campus food and local students to the surrounding cafes.

    Although I was an Australian student, I felt very much like an international student on campus during my undergrad years. I think it was mainly because I wasn’t into campus culture – the parties, booze, late nights. I hung out mainly with students from Malaysia and China, studying and swopping study notes. In my postgrad years, student life got more lonely: contact hours were much less and if we all weren’t studying, we would be working or doing our own things.

    “…not only a student of the language, but also a student of the culture.” Well said 🙂 We understand language better if we learn the culture.

    • I was going to say the same thing… you liked the campus food?? From what I remember of Chinese canteen food, it was cheap (win) but completely oily and MSG-filled. Still… that meant tasty! I loved the dumplings just off campus too.

      I think there are many privileges to being a foreign student in China. For one, you can generalise and say that people LIKE to talk to you and ask to be your friend. That’s a bit strange to a European, who are so much more ‘cool’ in the way they make friends. I don’t think that’s always the case in other countries, whether international students feel more like outsiders and it’s difficult to connect with locals.

      I loved my time in China, too! Being a student is always fun, so thanks for reminding me of the perks! =)

      • Like I mentioned to Mabel, the food that I typically go for is technically off-campus. There’s a food street just outside one of the campus gates and tons of students will hang out and eat along this street. The cafeteria food on campus is cheaper, both in price and in quality. I’ve only ever eaten at one of their cafeterias once. 😛

        That’s a great point you raised. It’s true that many Chinese students are super excited whenever they see international students, and they really WANT to be your friend. I have several non-Asian friends who have traveled to China and they were treated like celebrities. Did you ever get that?

      • No I look like one of them, though one of them thought I looked like a Korean pop singer – the ultimate compliment. 😉

        Someone else told me that they thought I had plastic surgery because I had double eyelids and my nose was so ‘high’ =D Only in Asia, hey? hehe

    • Haha, is there a rule against liking campus food? 😉

      The food that I’m referring to is the kind served by the restaurants just outside our university campus. So technically it doesn’t count as on-campus food. 😛

      I still prefer eating cooked meals at home, but the convenience of eating out at the what we call the “university food street” is sometimes too great to pass up on. Plus if you’re hanging out with fellow students, there’s not really better options.

      When you were in university, did you feel you were treated like an international student? Or did you felt like the other local students considered you “one of them”?

      • On-campus food is cooked and made with the intention to feed a hungry horde, a hungry horde of students that don’t mind eating junk food. That’s my perception of on-campus food courts at uni here in Melbourne. Quick, easy and big portions of rice, noodles or bread. All the bad stuff 😀

        Eating on campus can’t be too bad of a thing – a chance for you to hang out with your uni friends at a convenient location you all know.

        To answer your last questions, I will direct you to the first blog post I’ve written:


  5. I really enjoyed being a student in China too. I missed out on a lot of normal college experiences in undergrad because I went to a very strict private college that didn’t allow for partying, leaving campus very often or even interaction between students in different years. However, I am wondering if I’m the only one who gets kind of annoyed by being constantly approached by people who want to practice their English. I suspect that you get approached far less frequently than I did (rarely happens now that I’m living in Shanghai). Some days I would have 5 or more people try to get me to teach them English and some of them were very aggressive about it. One time, a girl even tried to get me to write her PhD dissertation in English for her.

    • I think a lot of Chinese students are motivated to make friends with foreigners because they want to improve their English. It make sense, since many have never had a native English speaking friend. But I can understand how you might feel a little bit “used.”

      That’s why it’s so important to build relationships where there’s a little more give and take, so that it’s mutually beneficial and not you just giving them English lessons. Unless that’s what you really want to do, of course!

      Yes, you’re right that I don’t get approach super often. Being Asian kinda has that affect on me…and them. I blend in really easily. 😛

      • I have found it rather difficult to build relationships with Chinese people that aren’t based on trying to get something. I’ve had “friends” who suddenly fell off the face of the planet after they realized I wasn’t interested in being a full time free English teacher, or after I rejected their request to find them a job in America or help them get a visa. I don’t generally mind the idea of a language exchange as long as both sides hold up their end of the bargain, but I really don’t have time for that sort of thing anymore.
        I think that many Chinese would not be super open to actually making friends with a foreigner who has nothing to offer aside from friendship because my feeling is that they have a bit of a tendency to focus a lot on perceived differences and assume that those differences would make a real friendship too difficult or impossible. I do however have a handful of really amazing Chinese friends where our relationship functions as one would expect and there’s a lot of give and take on both sides. None of them have ever tried to make me teach them English!

      • “They have a bit of a tendency to focus a lot on perceived differences and assume that those differences would make a real friendship too difficult or impossible.” That’s a good point you raise. It can also sometimes be a stumbling block for US when we’re first making friends with Chinese people.

        My experience has largely been positive, and I’m constantly blown away by how generous some of my friends have been (not necessarily with gifts, but with their time).

        I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to discover some great Chinese friends where there’s some give and take in the relationship!

  6. I liked being a university student back home, but studying abroad was an even better experience. I loved sitting in a classroom filled with people from all over the world with the common language being Chinese, not English.

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