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What I Wish I’d Known Before I Went to China

Hi! I’m basically you from the future, and I just wanted to pass down some “wisdom” about how to prepare for what is to come in the next three months. I’m Sam, one of the fall China semester participants. No one prompted me to do this (#unsponsoredpost), but Clara and I actually went to school together, so I wrote a few things down for her, and I figured I’d share it with your whole group.

It became obvious to me very quickly that I was wildly unprepared for the trip (mentally and in terms of materials), and in some ways trying to maneuver that was an adventure in itself. So, if you would like to stumble a little and over-pack and figure this out for yourself- go for it. I did that. But what I wrote below are just some guidelines on packing and what to expect when you arrive in the motherland. Make sure to read to the end for some #real #stuff.

Without further ado, here are the 10 things I wish I had known before I went on this course:

  1. INTERNET ACCESS: There’s a group iPad that you’ll have unrestricted access to the entire trip. Don’t hog it, take advantage of being disconnected from your life at home, however if you have stuff you really need to do, just make the rest of the group aware of that and you’ll be able to spend as much time as you need on it! Most places you go to will have internet access, even the more remote ones. For example, many of us had resumes/emails/other important things to send out to jobs and family members, and everyone managed to get what needed to be done, done, without overspending their time on the device. Also, you can call home whenever from an instructors phone. We usually called home about every two to three weeks.
  1. CLOTHING: You will be spending a month in a city. Think about that. For one third of your course you will be leading a sedentary lifestyle similar to how you live at home. Bring a pair of jeans. Bring a pair of walking shoes. I brought a light pair of nikes that barely added any weight to my bag and didn’t look awful when I was walking around. But you can buy shoes in Kunming- there are plenty of cute, small shops with inexpensive shoes and trendy clothing (and a lot with funny incorrect English sayings) that you can buy there, so don’t be too worried about bringing sneakers. Also sweatpants are a good call- I’m the type of person who lives in sweatpants at home, and a good pair of black sweatpants that you can wear at night or during the day is a good call. I brought hiking boots (which were heavy but worth it for the hikes and the colder areas) but hiking sneakers work too, which is what most people brought as a lighter option. Bring shower shoes (flip flops) and maybe even chacos too, as it may be warmer toward the end of your course. They’re good for walking around too, but don’t feel the need to buy them- I didn’t have a pair but many people did. Gals: bring a pair of leggings if you wear leggings. We did some random yoga classes and they came in handy, and they’re light. I bought 2 pairs of hiking pants which was totally worth the money- I got these great Columbia pairs for $60 from REI. Just make sure that whatever pants you bring are lightweight and comfortable. You can always put thermals underneath your pants (another necessity). A fleece is a must. So is a puffy (uniqlo, Patagonia, I had one from old navy).
  1. PACKING: Don’t worry toooo much about over-packing. You really only have to carry your bag during travel time (transportation) so the longest you’ll have your pack on your back is 1 hour at a time. My group didn’t do any major hiking with our packs. It will be up to you if you want to do major hiking excursions during x-phase, but remember, this isn’t nols :). Regardless, still try to pack on the lighter side – it’ll make you happier. You can survive without your everyday things from home.
  1. LANGUAGE: While in Kunming you have class for 3 hours every week day. The teachers are so nice and competent, but it wasn’t intense. This is cultural immersion, not language immersion, so the classes will be an aid to the level of speaking you choose to do outside of class time. Explore- go to shops, try to order for yourself, do things alone when you can- the only way your Mandarin will improve is if you want it to. Really- just take advantage. Of home-stays especially.
  1. HYGENE/FACTZ: The longest we went without showers was 5 days in Tibet, but it was cold so it didn’t really matter, and looks and smelliness don’t matter on this trip ¯_(ツ)_/¯. That being said, the trip is what you make of it. If you aren’t into participating or are into wearing makeup erryday or want to go off on your own and explore, you can do it. If you really don’t want to do the hikes you don’t have to, but I recommend taking advantage of every single experience given, and spending as much time with the group as possible. You’ll feel more comfortable being stinky together if you do :).
  1. PEOPLE WITH UTERUSES (uteri?) Bring tampons, but it’s not that big of an issue. If you run out, lean on a sister, everyone will have some. But just in case, bring a bunch! It won’t be a big deal because it’s not heavy and, though it’ll take up some space in your pack, you’ll use most of them and have more room for gifts at the end of the trip 🙂
  1. TOILETRIES: China isn’t as devoid of modern products as it may seem. Most cities will have American supplies in their drug stores so you can buy American shampoo/conditioner and pads there. Every pharmacy carries almost the exact same few American products throughout the country- snickers, 5 gum, red bull, heads and shoulders, pantene, and a few other things. So you don’t need to lug products into the country, unless you have a preference. Maybe bring body wash (Dr. bronner’s, or fill a travel size empty bottle). Fun fact: The shower water may change your hair texture- weird, I know. Mine went from thin and stick straight to thick and wavy. This only happened to a few people, but just something to look out for/ know you’re not alone.
  1. IMPORTANT: All the toilets in China are squat toilets (they’re cheaper to make). So they’re basically all holes in the ground. It really takes some getting used to but eventually it becomes normal. Also, the government doesn’t supply any paper products in public restrooms, so ALWAYS have a pack of tissues on you. No need to bring any from home, they have so many cheap brands there that you can buy everywhere. You may have a western toilet during your homestay, but probably nowhere else.
  1. LAST THINGS TO BRING: Bring an iPod (nano, shuffle)! You’ll want the music in Kunming 🙂 honestly it can get a little lonely on the bus rides or at night, and it’s nice to have something familiar to keep you company. Also- if you want your phone on the plane rides, you should definitely just bring it. The instructors will keep them safe. Bring a camera. I brought a huge shmancy one, and I didn’t regret it one bit. I have fantastic pictures from the trip, and I know every person who brought a camera was happy that they did. If you have trouble sleeping, melatonin. I never used the bed sheet that is on the packing list, and it took up a ton of space, though some people did end up using it. Personal preference. Don’t forget a headlamp and a digital watch with an alarm – I got mine from amazon for $19.
  1. FINALLLY—> FOOOOOD! VERY IMPORTANT: Be careful of how much you eat. I gained a lot of weight, fast. Within the first 2 weeks I noticed my body changing, and after that I steadily gained weight over the course of the trip. It’s been hard to lose it since I’ve been back. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I believe that most of the girls experienced the same thing (guys have a faster metabolism so it didn’t affect them as much, I think). The food is amazing and yummy and you’ll want to eat all of it, but it’s full of oil and carbs. Enjoy it- it’s not everyday that you get to eat authentic Chinese food. Eat until you’re full, but try not to go over that. I ate as much as I could at every meal – three fullllll meals a day- with barely any fresh fruit (no fiber) or veggies not soaked in oil to aid in digestion. Carbs for every. Single. Meal. I tried to eat anything and everything because it was all so yummy and I kinda paid for it. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Eat what makes you happy, and know that there will always be more meals to try fun yummy new foods the next day 🙂

GET EXCITED! No spoilers, but signing up for this was the best decision you could have made regarding how to spend your time on your gap year. I know I can speak for everyone when I say that we had an incredible three months as a group. Have an open mind, try new things (chicken feet), be psyched to eat a lot of noodles, and be ready for a wonderful time.