Unlike the regular higher education destinations like USA, UK, Canada where there’s a lot written by masters students and alumni covering their university experiences, very little is known about living and studying in China as an international student.
Georgia Tech MS student from India, Aishwarya Balwani, shares her complete journey from planning for an MS to her internship in a Chinese company. Read on to find out how easy or difficult it is for an international student to deal with Chinese culture, language, food (in case you are a vegetarian) and much more.
Much like thousands of children in India who show an inclination for academics, I knew very early on that if all went according to plan, I would grow up to be an engineer. It was a decision made in equal parts because of my proclivity for logic and analytical thinking, a natural flair for Math and society’s ideas regarding careers that are suitable for an academically “smart” individual.
I’m not complaining though; I’m perhaps one of the members of the minority who would’ve ended up with a degree in engineering even if it wasn’t India’s favorite career option. I enjoyed studying and cruised through school, junior college and university without having to put in too much of an effort. I could’ve of course done better if I’d worked hard, but I did fairly well even otherwise, and graduated in 2016 with a Bachelors in Electronics & Telecommunication Engineering from Mumbai University.
During my second year in college, I realized that most if not all the jobs on offer for a fresh EXTC graduate in India are very IT-ish in nature; None of them would even remotely have me actually use the (albeit little) knowledge that I’d gained in the course of my degree. I was convinced that studying further was the best plan for me, and by the end of my 3rd year, I’d decided to pursue my MS in ECE (or MS in Electrical Engineering) with Digital Signal Processing (DSP), an area of Electrical Engineering that I enjoyed immensely (perhaps due to its highly logical and mathematical nature and also its immense potential for research and application) as my major.
Keeping in mind that I’d be applying for the Fall 2016 intake, I took the GRE in August 2015. My preparations for the same were simple; I did not enroll for classes but studied for 2-3 weeks on my own. I stuck to the official ETS guides, Manhattan 5lb and the Magoosh flashcards mobile app for the most part. You can find a somewhat more in-depth description of my GRE prep here and here, as well as some of my other answers on Quora.
I was aiming for a perfect quant score and managed to get the same; I lost a bunch of marks in the verbal section and ended up with a final score of 332 (170Q+162V), 5 AWA. A month later, I took the TOEFL and scored 119/120 (I lost a mark in the writing section.)
The application process followed soon, where I applied to 8 colleges (GeorgiaTech, UCLA, VirginiaTech, NCSU, University of California-Davis, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Florida and University of Illinois-Chicago) somewhere between 20th November and 20th December 2015.
I got 6 admits – between 15th February and 30th May (all except UIC and UCLA.) I’d kept the first 3 colleges in my slightly-ambitious-but-possible-if-my-stars-align bracket, the last 2 in the safe bracket and the rest in the very-likely-aka-moderate bracket. Now that I think, I feel I could’ve perhaps applied to a couple of really ambitious colleges, but then again I doubt it would’ve changed my final decision.
I found that most well-known universities in the United States had inherently flexible degree requirements and a variety of interesting courses. All the colleges I applied to were public universities, mainly to avoid the steep fee structure many private universities have and to also give myself a better chance at scholarships and assistantships.
Apart from the finances, the most important factors behind my choice of universities were their labs focusing on, and available courses in DSP, general reputation for their MS EE track and how well I’d fit in their environment.At the time of my admit itself, University of Florida had offered me a $4500 scholarship over 3 semesters, while none of the others did.
The biggest surprise though came with my admit from Georgia Tech. I was offered the chance to spend my first 2 semesters in their campus at Shenzhen, China followed by 2 at their campus in Atlanta, Georgia. Another benefit apart from the opportunity to learn from two very diverse cultures and visit two different countries was that the fees at the Shenzhen campus was significantly lower.
After accepting my admit I was also offered Georgia Tech’s merit based scholarship for incoming freshmen called the ECE Coulter MS Fellowship, which further accounted for ~30% of my tuition. On account of good academic performance and having passed the ECE PhD preliminary exam in my first year itself, I was also offered a TA at the Atlanta campus for Spring 2018, which carries a complete tuition waiver for that semester and a monthly stipend.
My time at Georgia Tech was incredibly fun and also taught me immensely not just in the academic sense, but gave me some much-needed perspective. It truly opened my mind to the idea of traveling to foreign countries and living there on my own, and yet within a community of like-minded and interesting individuals. I’ve had a Malaysian roommate and Chinese flat mates; I became really good friends with a guy who was brought up in Botswana, studied in South Africa but holds an Indian passport. I shared classes with people from Qatar, America and China and a whole lot of other places.
Needless to say, I learnt more than just about signals, systems and programming techniques; I learnt how to eat with chopsticks, cook noodles like the Chinese do, and swear at someone in Mandarin. Since Shenzhen is less than 30 minutes away from Hong Kong by metro, I also visited HK thrice during my stay in China.
Speaking of academics, the American education system worked more on continuous evaluation rather than focusing on just a couple of really-important-make-or-break-exams.
This was both a boon and a bane, because while you could afford to mess up once in a while, you also had to be consistent throughout the semester and couldn’t afford to study at the very last minute. The courses I took were much more hands-on than those back in India and the course structure in general varied from professor to professor and course to course, depending on the nature of the subject, with varying importance being given to theoretical homework, programming assignments, midterms, in-class performance, projects, review papers and final exams.
Class sizes at Tech again, varied immensely. I’d been a part of classes as small as 4 students in Shenzhen and classes as large as 100+ students in Atlanta, taken classes on-site as well as on video, finished homework in a single sitting and also stayed up for two days straight while trying to complete a programming assignment. All in all, Georgia Tech and its two campuses prepared me to take the world head-on, all while being extremely helpful, friendly and supportive environment.
Rather than return home for the summer after my first year, I chose to intern for a few months, which is something that many graduate students at Tech do. Most Indian students in the Atlanta campus try to look for internships in the US, while a few look for other opportunities as well.
I went about looking for an internship with Georgia Tech’s Global Internship Program and also took help from the staff at GT Shenzhen. I spoke with multiple companies, with offices in Chile, USA and China. While I would’ve been offered a stipend for the opportunity at Chile, I’d have to bear my own travel expenses. The opportunity in the US again had its own problems, right from the type of visa to the travel expenses.
Having already spent some time in China and having gotten familiar with the city, I decided to stay back in Shenzhen for the summer. I worked for a company called Intellifusion 云天励飞 (which was established by GaTech alumni who’d returned to China from the US, and the interview for which I got through GaTech Shenzhen) where my position was that of a Research & Development Intern for the Algorithms department, specifically in the areas of Digital Image Processing and Machine Learning.
Since I was being paid by my company, I could afford to pay my own rent and other living expenses and also saved some money for my upcoming Fall semester in Atlanta.
Living, studying and working in China comes with its share of ups and downs. The two most important aspects that I find the need to discuss are:
1. The Language Barrier
2. The Culinary Scene (especially for non-non-vegetarians)
The Language Barrier: The people in China are to a large extent intrigued by those who are visibly not Chinese and are more than happy to interact with foreigners. They want to know about you, talk to you and trust me, they really want to help you. However, despite their good intentions, explaining what you need of them can turn into a real problem because a large chunk of the population does not speak English.
In Shenzhen, you’ll find travelling about by public transport is fairly easy, but day-to-day activities like ordering food and directing a cab can turn into an elaborate game of dumb charades. At work, there was a fair splattering of people who spoke very good English, some English, and also no English at all.
Unless you’re in an area that is frequently visited by expats, in a fancy hotel, office or university, or you have a good reason to believe that the person in front of you speaks English, I’d expect a random person you meet on the street to not know too much English. But let it not be told that the Chinese are not a kind and understanding people; They’re without a doubt some of the nicest and most helpful people I’ve ever met.
The Culinary Scene: If you’re a non-vegetarian and eat even one of either chicken, pork or beef, you should be fine and finding yourself some good, cheap food will never be an issue. Likewise if you eat sea-food, but you’ll probably have fewer options. If nothing else, non-vegetarians can always hit the closest KFC or McDonald’s and they should be fine.
However, if you’re a vegetarian, finding strictly veg food is going to be a problem (because the Chinese tend to include a little meat in most dishes just to add some flavour) and your difficulties are only compounded by the language barrier since very often you find menus that are only in Mandarin and waiters/waitresses who don’t speak English. Learning a few phrases like, “Bu yaorou” which translates to “Do not want meat” can help you significantly. If you’re fine with eggs, finding some nice street food like noodles or Jianbing is fairly easy. If you’re the kind who cooks, you’ve nothing to be worried about.Eating out though without someone who speaks Chinese to help you, can be a trauma or an adventure, depending on how it goes.
Contrary to popular belief, you won’t find people eating anything and everything under the sun on a daily basis. However, there are a lot of establishments, both small and big that serve what Indians would call “weird” delicacies. For the adventurous kind, there’s a lot of stuff you can try out and for those who’d rather stick to the food they know, there are plenty more places that cater to “conventional tastes” so you have nothing to fret about. You’ll find that much like India, you have different cuisines from the different provinces in China and that there’s a lot of variety that you can choose from. Also if I ever craved home food, there was a nice Indian restaurant not too far from where I stayed.
Once you get past the two “issues” mentioned above though, you’ll find that China is an incredible place to live in. I found that Shenzhen was incredibly safe no matter the time of day (or night) and wonderfully organized. Working was fun and educational; People have immense respect for time and are punctual to the dot. There is also a lot of respect for rules and authority, be it something as trivial as not breaking the queue or returning a wallet full of money. The Chinese work hard, play hard (most people are into at least one sport and almost everyone seems to enjoy trekking) and then work some more.
An interesting phenomena is the unsaid rule of having “naptime” in all offices over China, where most of the staff finishes their lunch within 30 minutes and then everyone shuts all the lights and takes a nap for the remaining 1 hour of the break.
The pace at which work is done in Shenzhen is quite awe inspiring, (and maybe it’s because they’re allowed to nap at work, God knows.) Roads, metros, buildings and almost everything you can imagine are built and made functional in double quick time. There are also a lot of places you can visit, chill and shop at (and buy some really good knock-offs for friends, family and yourself.) Huaqiang Bei is the electronics capital of China and is a must visit for everyone. Likewise shopping and bargaining at Laojie and Luohu are experiences that really shouldn’t be missed.
All in all, I am more than happy that I had the opportunity to study and work in China; I really do believe that I’ve grown immensely as a person because of my time there and I’d highly recommend the same to anyone who’s interested in visiting the country (or any other country for that matter.)
If you ever have an opportunity to work or study abroad, take it!
Go with an open mind and a willingness to learn from your mistakes. And hopefully like me, you’ll realize that there is a certain kind of joy and self-assurance that only miming your way through an entire conversation with a person who doesn’t look, sound or think like you but yet wants to help you because you’re a guest in their country, can give.