Experience living in China through the eyes of former TBC students.


At The Beijing Center, we celebrate diversity, and the Student Life staff has even been internationally recognized for their inclusive work. Read what former students have to say about their experience in China.

An American Gay in China

Jackson Gress
TBC Fall 2018

I am an Junior Theater and Psychology double major at Saint Louis University. I'm currently spending a semester with TBC in Beijing studying Mandarin and Chinese culture

In its online ads, The Beijing Center promises to take students to the China they weren’t expecting. That has certainly been true for me as an openly gay man studying abroad in Beijing. Although I was excited to come to China, I was nervous about how my sexuality would be viewed in a country with a vastly different society, culture, and political system from my own. And even though TBC representatives had promised me that queer people had been welcomed into their community in the past, I’d also heard horror stories about queer American students having disastrous and even dangerous experiences studying abroad (albeit not in China). I figured that I would be less open about my sexuality while abroad, to the point where I even considered not coming out to my new community at all.

However, as anyone in my cohort of TBC students call attest, that has not been the case. While I came to China assuming that my personal “Twenty Gay-teen” was over, in truth, it had only just begun. Like, who knew that, less than a week after arriving in Beijing, I’d be dancing the night away at a gay club with dozens of my new friends? Or that I’d meet queer people not only from the U.S. and China, but from Japan, Korea, Cape Verde, and South Africa as well? Or that I’d end up in Seoul’s famous “Homo Hill?” (Okay, that last one wasn’t technically in China, but it still wasn’t something I was expecting to happen.) Furthermore, in TBC I have found one of the most supportive and affirming communities in which I have been included. The faculty, staff, and fellow students I’ve met – many of whom are queer themselves – have not only accepted my queer identity but also allowed me to fully express and explore it, in some ways more fully than I ever got to do so in the United States. The expectations I had about gay and queer life in China were far from what I experienced, especially within TBC.

To be clear, I can’t speak for all queer people in China. I’ve only been in this country for two months, and I’m no expert on queer life in China (the only research I did for this article comes from Wikipedia’s page on LGBT Rights in China). I may be gay, but I am also cisgender, white, and American, and that has affected my experience. The experience of queer Chinese nationals and gender nonbinary folks in China are quite different from mine. Furthermore, don’t want to paint an overly optimistic, unrealistic picture of queer acceptance in China. Certainly, the queer community in China faces challenges, as we do in every country. Some of these challenges stem from a society that places high value on marriage and family life and does not always understand queer identities or issues. Additionally, like other countries including the United States, cities tend to be more liberal than rural areas, while younger generations are more understanding than older ones. Finally, there’s the legal complications facing queer people in China: while homosexuality has been legal for over 20 years, same-sex couples cannot get married, official recognition, or children; and although transgender people can legally change their gender, they can only do so after undergoing a sex change operation, which they must be at least 20 years old to undertake.

Nevertheless, my personal experience as a queer American studying in China has been a uniformly positive one. I have been able to express my queer self in China more than I thought possible, and doing so has pushed me into some of the most memorable and transformative experiences I’ve had abroad. If other LGBTQ+ students are thinking of studying abroad in China or elsewhere, my advice would be to carefully consider the potential risks and challenges they might face but also to recognize that the preconceived notions they might have about queer life in other countries may not necessarily be accurate. China is a country that, for me at least, is full of surprises, some of which now seem so obvious that I cannot believe how shocked I was by them initially. One of the biggest surprises has been that, despite challenges, China has a large and dynamic queer community. Being a part of that community has been one of the most unique joys I’ve experienced in this country.

Women with short hair in China

Roni Lewis
TBC Fall 2017, Spring 2018

I am a East Asian Studies Major with a concentration in Mandarin, planning to graduate in Spring of 2019. I’ve been studying Mandarin for 3 years, the first of which was spent in Shanghai, and the third of which has been with TBC in Beijing.

Having short hair in China

I cannot speak to the experience of all Chinese women with short hair, but from the women that I know, this is what I have discovered. Women with short hair are seen as rebellious; they are seen as women who are going against their parents, who are rule breakers, and who are not “typical.”

A friend of mine told me her parents try to convince her to grow it out, telling her she will never find a husband. She gets comments on the street about the haircut, telling her its too masculine of a look for a woman. Although her head is not shaved, just short, she also occasionally gets misgendered. More frequently though, many Chinese people will assume that she is part of the LGBTQ+ community.

She has told me that although these stereotypes get pushed on her, they don’t bother her too much, because she knows who she is, and she does not encounter issues of this nature so often. The majority of the pressure to keep her hair long comes from her parents and other members of her family.

My experience being a woman with a shaved head in China

I absolustely love my shaved head. It requires no effort, I can wear any hat that I want, I do not have to worry about “bed-head” or blow drying my hair. Originally, I did not shave my head for any particular reason other than I am a pretty lazy person. When I came to China, however, my shaved head challenged my identity in the eyes of the people I encountered everyday. Because of my shaved head I am misgendered probably around 60% of the time.

Early on in my time in Beijing, I had no problem with Chinese people touching my head; I was actually pretty entertained by the comments and reactions I would get to my haircut. Once they realized I was a girl, I thought it was funny that they would tell me to grow my hair out. As the semester went on, however, it became more of a chore for me to meet new people. I started becoming uncomfortable with using public bathrooms because I could not use the women’s bathroom without someone telling me I was in the wrong bathroom (I came to hate explaining that in fact, no, I had not made a mistake).

I began to hate traveling outside of Beijing or any instance in which I had to show my passport to anyone, out of fear of being told my passport didn’t look like me (I have since gotten a new passport, but for the first six months or so I had long hair in my passport photo). Sometimes I would get pulled aside at train stations, with the officials laughing at the prospect that this was my passport, and that I was a girl. It really began to take a toll on me, and I considered growing my hair back out just to stop having to deal with these additional issues.

I have sinced realized, however, that all of the comments I have ever recieved have been out of curiosity. They were never malicious, or threatening in any way. I choose to present myself in a certain way, and got frustrated with others when they reacted ethnocentrically. I have regained my ability to laugh along with people who I confuse, besides, it’s quite the conversation starter!

Being Muslim in China

Addison McTague
TBC Spring 2017

As a third-year student from Loyola University Chicago, I came to TBC under a fellowship to research the perception and expression of modesty among Muslim women in China. With majors in Religious Studies and English alongside minors in Arabic and Islamic World Studies, I’ve developed an enormous curiosity for the lived experiences of religion and therefore actively seek out religiously-inclined peers in every one of my environments, including China.

China’s Muslim Population

China is home to two major Muslim populations known as the Hui and Uyghur, both of whom you’ll encounter in Beijing if you proactively search for a native Muslim community. The Hui are widely dispersed, with populations in every province. Their heritage stems from ancient Persian and Arab traders marrying into Chinese populations, courtesy of the Silk Road. The Hui speak Mandarin and, aside from a hijab or cap, often look nearly identical to the Han. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, are Turkic in ethnicity and language, meaning they often must learn Mandarin as a second language if they wish to travel outside of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. If you frequent any mosque in Beijing (which are all gorgeous and built in the style of traditional Chinese architecture, by the way) you will encounter both Hui and Uyghur people.

Every mosque I’ve attended in Beijing boasts impressive sanctuaries for male prayer space with an open courtyard just behind for when the main hall fills up. Thankfully, every mosque I’ve attended in Beijing also has prayer space for women, though such space is often much smaller and always off to the right in either a separate building or curtained-off hall. China also has a centuries-old tradition of women’s mosques, however I have been unable to find one in Beijing.

My Experience as a Muslim Student in China

While I understand there to be nuance in Muslim identity, what follows is merely my experience out of which I claim no authority over any other Muslim experience in China. If anything, I hope you may be able to identify something useful to whatever degree that may help in your experience of China.

I converted to Islam in my freshman year, meaning I was Muslim for about two and a half years when I ventured to Beijing. The narrative we are so accustomed to in the West of Islam innately equating to violence also can be heard in China, though not with the same intensity as at home. Of what opinions concerning this you may come across, they mostly deal with political descent from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the north and westernmost area of China – not the Middle East, Africa, or the West. That said, foreign Muslims experience an enormous degree of immunity in their religious expression and practice, just as long as it is not seen as proselytizing, which is illegal in China.

While you will never see anyone performing salah outside, TBC has enough small areas where, if you are a Muslim who prays multiple times a day, you should have no problem finding a space to pray. If you are out in the city during a prayer time and wish not to miss it, salah is often as nearby as the next 清真 (qing zhen) restaurant.  清真 are the words ascribed to Muslim restaurants, which are about as numerous in China as Chinese restaurants are in America. 清真 in regards to food is a synonym for halal, and halal food for the Chinese is just another type of food – like Chinese, Mexican, or Italian food in America. The university campus that houses TBC also houses a Muslim cafeteria where you’ll not only be able to sample a variety of Uyghur dishes, but also mingle with other Muslim students, be they Hui, Uyghur, or foreign.

Admittedly, I found it easier to practice Islam in China than in America. My Chinese roommate was both gracious and curious about Islam, and the foreign Muslims here are both numerous and welcoming. If you are able to secure friendships with native Chinese Muslims, which I encourage, do be mindful if they are of the politically-sensitive Uyghur ethnicity. Phrases you may be accustomed to integrating in your conversations – alhamdullilah, inshallah, mashallah, subhanallah, allahu alam – may need to be kept minimal over WeChat conversations. Besides this though, such friendships will prove abundantly fruitful if only in helping to bring a multitude of faces into the frame of what we mean when we say ummah.

Africans and African Americans Living in China

Joshua Webb
TBC Fall 2016

I was a third-year student at Loyola University Chicago studying Human Services and Psychology when I studied at TBC. I came to China to explore a world that was completely foreign and mysterious to me, and was able to leave with a genuine appreciate for the country, its people, and its culture. Studying abroad in China truly was an awakening experience.

Africans and African Americans Living in China

China presents certain challenges that are unique to Africans and African Americans. As a homogenous society, most Chinese have had limited contact with Black people and therefore have allowed stereotypes to affect their opinions and interactions. Nevertheless, Africans and African Americans are developing stronger ties with China as shown by their rising numbers in the country, willingness to learn Chinese language, and to trade and establish businesses in China.

In recent years, China has opened up to foreigners and many African Americans and Africans have responded to this opportunity to benefit from China’s large trading, manufacturing, and educational possibilities. Foreigners of all races have reported that they have experienced stares, questions, and requests for photos, especially in rural areas. As the native Chinese population experiences more direct contact and social interaction with foreigners, particularly Africans and African Americans, stares and awkward questions will likely fade away as they have already in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

My Experience As an African American Student in China

Before coming to Beijing, a friend of mine warned me that people would stare, take pictures, and maybe even touch my hair. I knew that this had made a strong impression on him if he was taking the time to talk to me about it, but what was equally surprising was that he did not come away with a negative feeling of those people who stared and raved about his experiences in China. His simultaneous holding of these two feelings pushed me to enter China with my defenses down and an open-mindedness of what I would experience. China is not a diverse country, seeing people of different races is still a novelty, especially in the more rural areas. While on the Silk Road Excursion, I often felt like a celebrity as I was asked to be in numerous photos. I felt that their curiosity came from a place of genuine interest and innocence. I felt extremely safe, perhaps even safer than I do in my own hometown. I encourage other Black people to come with an open-mind and not use experiences from your own home country to influence your reactions here. I have found Chinese people to meet my smile with smiles when I catch their stares, and I never felt any type of malicious intent. My advice, cut the country some slack and don’t react too quickly. 

Being a Student with Asian Heritage

Lillian Nguyen
TBC Fall 2016

I was a junior from Loyola Chicago majoring in International Business and Minoring in Chinese Language Studies when I studied at TBC. I came to China for a number of reasons. One of these reasons included gaining a new perspective on how Business in China is done. While interning at the American Chamber of Commerce I was able to expand my knowledge on what I sought to do in the very diverse city of Beijing. I have learned so much from experiencing daily life and starting my career from studying at TBC.

Living in China as a person with Asian Heritage 

People with Asian heritage face very different challenges than other expats with different heritages. Internally people with Asian heritage often feel much of the same cultural adjustments or so-called “culture shock” as other foreigners living in China for the first time, but externally are often treated very differently by Chinese locals than people of different races.

Asian heritage people walk the streets without the uncomfortable stares. While this is often positive, it can also seem that they are missing out on the “celebrity status” that is sometimes given to foreigners, and may feel left out when their friends are asked to take pictures with locals just for looking a certain way.

Chinese locals often put extra pressure on those with Asian heritage, expecting a higher language ability and familiarity with Chinese culture. While many foreigners are celebrated for having even the most basic Chinese language skills, people with Asian heritage may be given funny looks for not speaking Chinese fluently whether they are of Chinese heritage or not.

Although sometimes it may lead to a feeling of being “stuck between two worlds,” it can also have an effect of greater assimilation to daily living in China that many foreigners struggle to achieve. There are many people with Asian heritage living in China, especially in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai which has led to a tight-knit community of Asian heritage expats. As more and more people with Asian heritage move to China, a greater understanding and acceptance is shown by Chinese locals.

My Experience As an Asian Heritage Student in China

I feel that as a student who identifies with Asian heritage I had a different experience in China. Many of the people that I met assumed that I was Chinese so they would introduce themselves to me in Chinese I would answer in Chinese and explain to them that I was Vietnamese. They would become confused but continue the conversation but I would be slow in understanding or keeping up with translating. In certain situations, being labeled as a Chinese national made things easier on me because then they treated me a different way than they would treat non-Asian foreigners. And in other situations, it would be difficult to get work done because at work some of my supervisors would assign me a task in Chinese assuming I was Chinese and able to complete it. I would have to give up that job, other times my supervisors would have to explain tasks to me in English and to the other interns in Chinese which became time consuming at points. At stores and restaurants, I am efficient enough with ordering or paying, but the clerk or server would get impatient with me because I could not reply if they asked me specific questions.  It also was also somewhat a burden for me to travel in a group with my friends because I would always be pegged as the translator, therefore I always had to be the one answering questions or dealing with situations if they came up. Even if I had no clue as to what was going on.

In dealing with culture shock, I feel that I had an easier time than my counterparts. I grew up learning about many different cultures because of my multi-cultural upbringing and my many friends who hail from all over the world. I was used to a few shocks coming to China, but I feel that I understood why something was done differently because I was exposed to different norms all my life. Overall, being assumed as a Chinese national was a good experience for me because I was forced to practice my Chinese studies more than just in the classroom.

China's LGBTQ population

Kyle Geissler
TBC Spring 2012

I graduated from Loyola University Chicago in May 2013 and attended The Beijing Center in the spring of 2012. While in Beijing, I conducted research for a project for which I studied the gay and lesbian population of China. Through this research, I gained a wide perspective on attitudes toward homosexuality in China.

China’s LGBTQ Population

Until 1999, the Chinese government had outlawed homosexual behaviors, and homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in 2001. What I found through my research project is that attitudes towards LGBTQ identity vary greatly from person to person. Young people in China (especially in urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai) are understanding and largely accepting of queer culture, while others, as one Beijinger I interviewed in 2012 explained, “don’t even know the word gay…[we] don’t know of its existence.” At this point in time, queer identity is not widely discussed in China, though many urban-dwelling Chinese are becoming more aware of topics of minority-sexuality.

In a climate that does not receive homosexuality openly, it can be difficult for Chinese gays and lesbians to build supportive communities. The act of coming out can be a major difficulty for young Chinese, and few choose to reveal their sexuality to anybody outside of a circle of close friends, who are typically gay themselves. This leaves family members, especially parents, completely in the dark and oftentimes concerned when their child becomes a certain age and has not expressed any interest in marrying, for example.

My Experience As a Gay Student in China

As much of my semester was focused on my research project, studying the gay and lesbian population in China, I was probably more aware of the issue than many other international LGB students. Although a gay or lesbian student interested in studying at TBC may be concerned with how their sexual identity will be received in another culture, it might be relieving to know that even same-sex friends tend to be visibly affectionate. Several organizations in Beijing serve the LGBTQ population. Perhaps the most accessible is the Beijing LGBT Center, and more information can be found on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/bjlgbtcenter. The Beijing Center faculty and staff are also great allies, and the Division of Student Life has even been recognized with international awards for their work to support the LGBTQ student community at TBC.

The View of Women in China

Jamie Martines
TBC 2011-2012

I graduated from Georgetown University in May 2013 with a degree in Culture and Politics from the School of Foreign Service. I started studying Mandarin my first year at Georgetown and ultimately made the study of Chinese domestic politics the focus of my major.

The View of Women in China

In China, women have historically been perceived as the subservient gender. For example, the practice of foot binding dates back to the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), during which time the painful procedure was viewed as a status symbol and sign of beauty. Some scholars argue this practice furthered female subjugation by making women more dependent on men (their crippled state prevented them from working and providing for themselves) and objectifying their appearance.

In addition, Chinese cultural traditions surrounding marriage have also influenced the status of women in Chinese society. Traditionally, when a man and woman get married, the woman leaves her family and marries into her husband’s family. This practice has perpetuated a culture of favoring male children, because they are guaranteed to stay in the family and provide for their parents and grandparents throughout adulthood.

Today, these customs have largely faded out of practice; however, the repercussions are still felt. While recent studies state that Chinese businesses rank highest in the world for employing women in senior management roles, women are still not completely equal to men professionally or socially. Generally, women are pressured to settle down early and tend to the home, while men are encouraged to pursue careers and higher education.

My Experience As a Female Student in China

Over the course of the ten months I lived in Beijing and traveling in China, I generally felt comfortable and safe. That being said, I also feel that my sense of security as a woman in China stems from the precautions I took ahead of time. By educating myself about the cultural norms in China, I was able to avoid any potentially awkward or uncomfortable situation before they arose.