A Day In the Life: What It’s Like Attending a Chinese High-School

A lot of my blog has highlighted the exciting and thrilling adventures that I’ve been on in China. I realized a blog post dedicated to my daily life would be a great way to show what the majority of my days here (that I’m not on the Great Wall or seeing Pandas) consist of. And these days consist of, studying Chinese – 15 hours of it to be exact.


Here is a quick snapshot into my life as a student studying Chinese at Beijing 80 High School. 

Everyday at 5:00 my alarm goes off, and I silently study for an hour and a half before my roommate wakes up. Using my phone flashlight, I use this time for learning vocabulary words, practicing grammar, and reviewing old worksheets and tests. Around 6:30, Alex, Mia, and I eat breakfast together! (Always: a cup of coffee and some banana with peanut butter, 好吃!)


At this time, at about 6:50, we walk over to the classroom. It has been VERY cold lately, morning temperatures well below freezing. We walk down the 6 flight of steps in our dorm (there is no elevator) and make the quick trek to school. 


We are in 语言班, the Chinese learning classes. The rest of the students Beijing 80 are either 1) international students who are already fluent in Chinese and are studying to go to college in China, 2) Chinese citizens who are studying to go to school in the UK/USA, or 3) Chinese citizens studying to go to school in China. All of my classes are in the international building, which also has classes for students in groups 1 and 2 mentioned above. Below is a picture of some of the International students. 


After arriving at school around 7:00, we all go to the classroom to study. During this time a teacher comes in to check our attendance. This is also when students will get in trouble if they aren’t following school rules; wearing the uniform, hair must be tied up, no makeup or nail polish, no phones allowed, no food, no being late etc.

 At 7:30 our classes for the day begin. We have 9 periods in the day, each 45 minutes long, with 10 minute break between each period. Our first two classes of the day are 写作- writing. My writing teacher is one of my favorite teachers, he is easy to understand, very helpful, and always makes us laugh. Here is a picture of him below, along with some of my classmates.


During the break, students from all classes have a chance to talk to their friends, go to the bathroom, take nap, and just relax. Here are some pictures of us during this break.




Everyone in 语言班 has to take the HSK test in January. The HSK is the Chinese version of the TOEFL, with sections on reading, writing, and listening. The goal of the test is to determine your language skills. We have been studying for this test since the beginning of school, with most of our classes focused around this test. Lately, we have been taking practice tests pretty much daily in preparation for this exam. We review our answers, see where we need improvement, and use this to help us study. It is interesting to be in a class so devoted to a test. When I share this with people at home, many mention how the good thing is that it is not graded and probably not as stressful. Ironically enough, I actually feel more stress for the HSK than I ever felt at home for the SAT. The combination of teacher’s expectations and my own self goals has led to me putting a lot of pressure on myself to pass this test. 


After writing and later speaking and listening class it is time for computer class. While my classmates go to a computer lab for this class, I stay back and receive tutoring from teachers. Because I came into the program at a significantly lower level than my classmates, tutoring was implemented to help me review the basics and help me catch up. I am so grateful to have this opportunity, as it gives me a chance to work with a teacher on areas I struggle in. 

Today during tutoring my teacher had a meeting so a new student teacher came to fill in. We began speaking Chinese and were talking about ourselves. She said that last year she spent 9 months teaching at a high school in the states, and when I asked what city, she said Altoona, Pennsylvania. Hearing that she worked in this small town which I know people from, which is 90 minutes East of Pittsburgh, was such a shock to me. I shared with her how I’ve heard a lot about Altoona and how this was such a crazy coincidence. She mentioned how she often went into Pittsburgh, for the colleges, Steelers Games, museums, and more. This *simulation glitch* was so exciting, having coincidentally met someone who has lived in Pittsburgh! Talking about all the things I love about my city, in Chinese, with someone from China who had experienced them, was such a unique opportunity. After exchanging WeChat information – the national messaging platform of China, similar to WhatsApp, we agreed to meet up again sometime in the future.


Fifth period we have a comprehension class, where I have felt myself make most of my gains in. This class is centered around using stories / dialogues to teach us vocabulary, grammar, speaking, and reading. It has been very helpful and one of my most difficult classes. 

Now, lunch! Lunch in China has been a crazy experience! Unlike my high school at home, where there were 4 different lunches to accommodate all the students, Beijing 80 has only one lunch. Thus, 3000 students eat lunch at one time. When the lunch bell rings at noon many students can be seen SPRINTING to the cafeteria, racing to be first in line for the good food. Although this may seem extreme, it makes sense. If you aren’t quick, you might have to wait half a hour in line for dumplings. Everyday the NSLI students eat together in the cafeteria. Due to the large portion sizes, Alex and I share a meal. We normally get just vegetables; but you can find everything from dumplings to fried chicken in that cafeteria!



Our lunch break is 90 minuses, so students take advantage of this free time. Some students go to their dorm room to get a quick nap in, some play basketball, and some study. Everyday at lunch I have tutoring, so I head back to the classroom early to meet with the teacher. Below are some of my notes, where I go through old tests and worksheets to learn the words I don’t know.


At 1:30 afternoon classes have begun, and we have another period of comprehension class. After this, we have gym! Gym is one of my favorite periods of the day because it’s a chance to unwind, excersize, be outside, and talk to the other students. (If the air allows though — on days that are very polluted gym class is cancelled and we have study hall instead.)  Our gym teacher leads us in a warmup lap around the track and warm up stretches. 




After this we are free to play what we like. I often play soccer. It is always super fun because the other international students play with us, and many of them are incredible players. This has been one of my favorite ways to make new friends at Beijing 80. Below is a picture of Melinda (from the states) Dawei (from Russia) and Nanle (from Thailand) playing goalie together.

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On Thursday’s after gym, we have electives. (This is the only day of the week we have electives – the other days we go back to language classes after gym class.) My elective is ping pong! Featured here is Stacy, a NSLI friend on her ping pong grind.


After class ends, most of the other students have free time from 5-7. Many students use this time to go to club meetings, grab dinner, go off campus, walk to the mall to get some bubble tea, or just relax. I on the other hand, head back to the school for an extra hour of tutoring. 

At 6:00, tutoring is over and I’m able to leave school (11 hours after I arrived!) At this time I head to the gym which is right next to our school. Here I’m able to get a quick workout in. Whether it be a HIIT workout I designed or a core circuit or a run on the treadmill, this workout is one of my favorite parts of my day. Another super cool part is having my friends right along with me. 


Now it is time for mandatory self study time. While for the other Chinese students and international students this means going back to the classroom for a few additional hours, NSLI students have self study time in the dorms. From 7:00-9:00 we must be in our rooms. During this time, I try to finish all my homework for the day and do extra studying for the HSK test. Below is a picture of my dorm! It is small and simple, we aren’t allowed to hang anything on the walls and our room must always be kept clean. 



At 9:00, we are allowed to leave our rooms. This is our final free time of the day. We like to use this time to talk to one another, listen to music, share snacks, get homework help, shower, call our families, etc. Here is a picture of Alex, Mia, and Peppa (a Chinese favorite).


Many nights I can be found doing a workout in the common room, with a few friends joining in on the fitness train. Here is a pic below of us post workout.


At 10:00, we have to be back in our rooms, and if we aren’t, we get yelled at by the dorm moms. (A dorm mom is a woman who lives on our floor, cleans, and enforce the school rules.) I look at it as a more extreme version of a college RA. 

10:10 is lights out – literally. They turn off the electricity for the night so we cannot charge any of our devices or use the lights to keep doing homework. Sometimes at 10:10 I haven’t finished my homework and use my phone flashlight to keep working on it. A handful of times I have gotten yelled at by the dorm mom because of this, she sees the little light through the window, knocks on my door, and starts yelling. At this point you have to go under your covers or in the bathroom under a towel to finish your work… this is not even an exaggeration! These are true stories of things I’ve had to do here at Beijing 80.

Around 11:00, I normally go to sleep. At 5:00 the next day, the same thing repeats all over again.

As you can see, my day to day life is very different than the rest of my blog. Much less glamours, a lot more studying, and a lot more rules. It is interesting because most of my days are like this, probably about 80% of my time here. During the week I rarely leave the school campus and spend my time on things other than studying or working out. It just happens that whenever there is a cool field trip or adventure, I post about it.  This blog post is a more accurate representation of what most of my time here looks like. 

Being part of a Chinese high school has without a doubt be one of the most influential things I’ve ever experienced. Before I arrived in Beijing, I was not really aware of what I had signed up for, and even now, sometimes I can’t believe this is really my life.

My own high school, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12 ( “CAPA” – a very liberal arts school) is a completely different experience than Beijing 80. After attending a place like CAPA, which places such an emphasis on the arts and creativity and curiosity and expression, coming to Chinese high school was a challenge. Some of things I am used to in school were not present. The methods of teaching, relationship between students and authority, and culture around learning is very different from what I’m used to. 

Instead of viewing the differences negatively, I’ve looked at them as a way to grow.  It has been so impactful to be able to truly experience this eduction system, in ways that reading books or watching movies could never allow. Being out of your comfort zone is when we learn most about ourselves, and navigating this new school has been this chance for me. I have been excited to be fully immersed in this environment and try and get an understanding of what kids my age in China go through.


After a few months attending this school, I have developed an immense appreciation and admiration for the work ethic that the students at this school have. Because of the hard work culture, I have seen myself grow more disciplined with my studying, putting in more hours and time in my classes. I have developed better study habits and been working extremely hard to meet the challenge here. I often think about this education style versus the one in the states. I ponder what is better: devoting all your free time and energy to learning, and becoming an ultimate master of the content, or spending less time on school work and more on exploring and experiencing different things. I realize how one is not better than the other – but finding the correct balance is essential to a good education and to happiness. I think this discovery is powerful because when contrasting  Chinese and Western culture, it is critical to not compare which is “better,” but rather how they are different, and why. This has been an important realization to make and has helped with the transition to this school, rather than thinking if it is worse or better than my own previous schooling experience, realizing that it is just different. 


I am excited for when I return home and go to college because I will be able to use my experience both at CAPA and Beijing 80 to best benefit my education. Being here, I have a better idea of what I believe is a healthy balance of work and play to lead to my ultimate success and happiness. Attending a Chinese high school made me realize I can be putting in more time in my studies and work than I previously believed was an adequate amount. After only four months I have already developed stronger study skills and the will to put extra time in. It is the norm for me to be up on Friday or Saturday nights until midnight studying, on the weekends putting in on average at least 4 or 5 hours a day studying. This mindset, where it is normal to dedicate this much time to a subject, is so valuable! I already can see how these lessons will allow me to be a much better student in college. 

The truth about my life in Beijing is that, it has it’s ups and downs. Some days are amazing! Traveling to cool places, eating delicious food, and having great conversations with the new people I’ve met here. Sharing jokes with friends from different countries, understanding a difficult lesson in class, bonding with my host sister, eating delicious dumplings, are a few of the many things that make this trip so incredibly special. On the other hand, some days aren’t so great. The school grind can feel monotonous, class can feel never ending, homesicknesses can make you feel down, the pollution can be terrible, the cold is so cold, and the language/culture barrier can feel too huge.

(Below is a picture of my friends sporting their masks during a very polluted day – a day we semi joked that we felt was similar to an apocalypse, where the pollution was so thick you could taste it with every breath and feel it sting your eyes.)


Along with this, the structure of the program is very different from I expected. Between the rules of the high school and the rules of the program, I have struggled with feeling a lack of independence. On weekdays I only have on hour of free time (which is always devoted to working out) and on weekends there is a strict 10 PM curfew. Being in this position, after having turned 19 and having gradated high school, is a challenge! It has been difficult adjusting to this lifestyle, and having such strict regulations is frustrating. 

At times, all of this combined can feel so overwhelming! It can feel like these challenges are so big and so hard to get through. It’s during these moments that I always take a step back, and remember what I’m doing here. (I also always play “Best Day of My Life” and “On Top of the World” – the ultimate feel good songs to help me boost my mood.) 


I sometimes find myself comparing this to my NSLI Summer trip to Xi’an, China a year ago, which was nothing short of the most exciting, fast paced, fun six weeks I have ever had. This time around, my experience in China has been very very different. My friend Stacy, who went to Xi’an last summer and is now in Beijing too, (and even going to UPenn also!!) summed it up perfectly in a blog post she wrote. Instead of it being non stop adventures and fun ,“going about my daily routine is itself a more muted happiness, like the small joys of a more permanent life rather than the emotional high of an extended trip.” I think that is a beautiful way to view our lives here!


Continuing on the idea of what I think about when I’m struggling- I think about the things I’m learning and the value of this experience. I reflect on how I’ve already been able to get a deeper understanding of Chinese culture in a way many people never have a chance to. Thinking about how much my Chinese will have improved by the end is also always something that gives me hope. I think back to when I first arrived in China this year, and had no idea what was happening in class and could not read or write at all. Now, I am able to have conversations about more complex issues and understand the class material. I also am able to read complicated texts, and write stories and paragraphs on topics ranging from an informational essay on Chengdu to a made up story about my friend surviving the apocalypse. It’s crazy how many language gains I’ve made, and that I’m going to continue to make.


Along with this, just the thought of how this experience will impact my future is so exciting to think about! I know that finding a way to overcome the challenges I face now is a very essential skill to carry with me always. I believe this is one of those experiences that while it is happening it is maybe not always fun, but is something so valuable once removed from the situation. I know being here, in such a unique situation and so far from what I know and am used to, is an incredible way to grow as a person.


When asked if I regret coming to China, the answer is no, no way. No matter how hard things are, I know I made the right choice to be a part of this program. I am so grateful to have the chance to be learning these things at a young age, and figuring out important things to who I am as a person. I know when I leave Beijing 80 I will be a different person than who I was when I entered, and I believe I will be someone better. When thinking about how much I have already learned these past 4 months, ranging from the language to the culture to about myself, I get excited. Excited to think about what I’ve done so far, and what I’m going to continue to do. Excited for what other opportunities lie in my future, and how my experience here will allow me to be in the best position possible to go after these things. Excited to keep learning and growing. Excited because I can’t wait for what the next 5 months have in store.


4 thoughts on “A Day In the Life: What It’s Like Attending a Chinese High-School

  1. Hang in there G. You’ll have some great stories to share w/ all your cousins when you get back. We love you and miss you.


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