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


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

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 Development 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.

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.

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.