What its really like living and studying computer science in China

Clement Venard
May 15, 2016 · 5 min read

Rewind to 9 months ago, it’s 4am local time in Beijing. I’ve arrived with a single item of hand luggage, a large suitcase and an open mind as to what the next two years awaits me. As I collect my luggage and head towards the exit I quickly find a taxi driver, I unfold the map Tsinghua University had given me and point to where I need to go. Luckily my primitive mode of communication and gesticulation is enough to get me where I need to be (I think?).

I was fortunate to be offered a 2 year scholarship to study for the Advanced Computing Masters program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, for those unfamiliar with Tsinghua it is often called the “MIT of China”. The program is designed for students with an engineering background or related disciplines, the first year you take a number of CS subjects and in the final year you are expected to work on your Masters thesis.

“Forget Java, Python, Go …. for a computer science student unsure which language to learn first, the most important one here is Chinese.”

The classes

At Tsinghua, most of the classes are taught by world renowned professors of their respective fields. In other posts online the level of academic rigour is questioned in China but I think it is at an appropriate level comparable with other world renowned institutions. The class sizes are typically around 20ish students, this is unlike my undergraduate degree where we would have over 100+ students to a lecture room. Due to the small class sizes you are able to more freely interact with your professors and ask questions as and when they arise. I generally found that the difficulty of the classes varied widely, which is to be expected as some topics are harder to understand than others.

Whats the most important thing to learn whilst studying in China?

Forget Java, Python, Go or any other programming language (well don’t completely). For a computer science student unsure which language to learn first, the most important one here is Chinese. The vast majority of the population do not speak a word of English. Fortunately there is a large expatriate community in Beijing so you will still be able to find people to speak your native language with. However, not learning Chinese means you miss out on being able to communicate with a large proportion of the population. Without mentioning the added difficulty of being able to accomplish simple everyday tasks.

Recently I left my dormitory without my passport when I needed it for an event I was attending. I was able to successfully tell the taxi driver to turn round and wait for me whilst I go grab it. Sounds simple right? At the start of the year there is no way I could have accomplished that. I probably would have just told the taxi to stop, by shouting 不要 (buyao — don’t want) which is incorrect Chinese in this instance but they would have probably understood. Then I’d have ordered a new taxi back to my dormitory and then hailed another one back to continue my initial journey. Learning even a little bit of Chinese prior to arriving will make those simple things just a little bit easier.

Google? How do you live without it?

I’ll let you in on a little secret, I don’t live without it. As a foreigner in China you have to make sure that you have a high quality VPN set up to be able to get past the “Great Firewall”. There are a number of options available, ExpressVPN, Astrill, PureVPN etc. Without these there is no other way of accessing Google services, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and anything else the Chinese deem unworthy for your eyes. Another important tip is prior to arriving in China ensure you download a working VPN, because to download a VPN whilst in China you need a VPN which you don’t yet have… Once you have this set up, accessing StackOverflow/GitHub is no longer a problem and you can browse the internet just like in the West albeit with slower speeds.

Why do a masters in China?

If like me, you’re awarded a scholarship where your tuition fee is waived and your accomodation is free then by all means do a masters in computer science in China. Even without a scholarship, a university like Tsinghua will look impressive on any CV espescially in China and the tuition fees are not overly expensive. Chinese universities are rising rapidly up the league tables and soon they will be giving the Harvard’s, MITs, Stanford's a run for their money.

“Chinese women are the masters of impracticality”

There are also a whole range of technology companies in China, especially in Beijing. So provided you have a good educational background or relevant experience finding a job shouldn’t be difficult. The level of investment here is astounding, in the next 10 to 15 years I see Beijing being a serious competitor to other technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, London and Berlin. My impression since being in China for the past 9 months is that people here are more open to adopting new technologies compared with in Europe and the West. Everyone here uses mobile phone services such as Alipay, or WeChat wallet to pay for things. By things I mean everything, from restaurants, cafes, cinemas, online shopping to a local street vendor selling fruits. Food delivery is big business here in China, you fancy a cup of tea you can get it delivered to you in 30 mins.

Final words

China isn’t easy. When I arrived in Beijing I was greeted with hundreds upon hundreds of towering skyscrapers, which I was used to having lived in London prior, so I didn’t think the culture shock would be too great. I’ve found that here the culture shocks creeps up on you in small random doses. You will be walking down a street and an old man will be balancing a flower pot on his head whilst trying to jog, you’ll see women at the beach wearing high heels (Chinese women are the masters of impracticality), or you’ll take a taxi and the driver decides he’s too tired and doesn’t want to take you back home as its too far so he just drops you off on the side of the motorway.

Despite these random moments of craziness, China has so much to offer. There is so much to experience here, the key thing is ensuring your grasp of the language improves. Once this happens then everything changes and so many doors open up for you to experience China from a different perspective. I’d wholehartedly reccomend coming to study or live in China, you’ll gain so many new life experiences and discover an exciting part of the world.

Clement Venard

Written by

Full stack engineer @thriva

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