It was a national holiday and three-day weekend. Along with a few fellow expats who also lived in China, I decided to travel to Inner Mongolia in the northern part of the country.
After an eight-hour bus ride from Beijing, we were greeted by a cadre of Mongolians singing and drinking rice wine.
We spent the days in Inner Mongolia dancing around a fire, riding camels and horses around the desert and sleeping in a traditional Mongolian yurt.
It was quite a different experience coming from the big, bustling city of Beijing only eight hours away!
A gap year is all about living life to the fullest while experiencing new and exciting things. And China offers no shortage of excitement.
Why Spend a Gap Year in China?
China has one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world and brings with it some incredible adventures. This makes it perfect for gap year travelers who want to understand how the ancient and modern worlds combine to form an entirely unique country.
China’s rich heritage has given it a varied food culture, unique arts scene and world-famous architecture. China is also an increasingly powerful player on the world’s business and technology stage.
Having first-hand experience with this culture is a life-changing experience that few Westerners get to have.
Expanding your horizons in this diverse country will teach you to become a more mature, well-rounded and knowledgeable traveler. And isn’t growing as a person what taking a gap year is all about?
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How to Prepare for a Gap Year in China
- Learn Chinese. Mandarin is the country’s official language. While different spoken dialects exist in many places, everyone uses the same set of characters. Knowing some basic Chinese will be super important when you want to get around.
Check out FluentU to learn to speak and read Chinese by watching movies and TV shows. Watching videos is a fun way to learn a language while simultaneously learning about the culture.
- Pick the right gap year program. Understand what you want to get out of your year in China. Do you want to help with panda conservation or do you want to walk the entire length of the Great Wall? Try to find the best program, and don’t waste your time or money on something that doesn’t seem right for you.
- Understand your visa. Many gap year companies will work out visa arrangements for you. But others won’t. China has some bizarre rules and regulations surrounding visas, so make sure you apply for yours early and clarify any confusion as soon as possible.
You definitely don’t want to accidentally overstay your visa. If you do, you risk hefty fines, deportation and potentially long-term bans from entering China again.
- Stay safe and be smart. In foreign countries, anything can happen! Especially in a drastically different country like China. Make sure you find yourself the most appropriate form of travel insurance. Check out World Nomads for some good travel plans.
5 Epic Ways to Spend Your Gap Year in China
1. Teach English
English teachers are always in demand.
And because China is the country with the largest number of non-English speakers in the world, English teachers are especially in demand here.
English teaching contracts are typically signed for no more than one year at a time, so the commitment levels are perfect for gap year travelers.
This work helps you form bonds with another culture in an intimate and relatable way.
You also get to build credits on your resume, earn money in a foreign land and serve a culture in need of your unique talents.
Honestly, English teaching jobs in China are hit or miss. And there are so many options to choose from that it can get a little overwhelming.
You can work with a placement company or as part of a study program. You can work with a private school or a public school. You can be an independent contractor or a full-time employee. Make sure you understand all the nuances of your job before committing to anything.
Here are a few good resources to check out.
- Gold Star TEFL Recruitment. This British-owned agency places ESL teachers at first- and second-tier Chinese cities, such as Beijing, Shenzhen and Tianjin. With Gold Star, you have a wide range of job options. You can teach at the usual public or private schools, or even universities, international schools, kindergartens or training schools. Their contracts typically last for 12 months, so working through Gold Star is the perfect gap year opportunity.
- Teaching Nomad. This is one of the best placement companies for teaching jobs in China. Teaching Nomad is American-owned and operated, and the employees do all the heavy lifting of finding out which teaching job is the perfect fit for you. They offer some of the highest paying jobs in the business at some of the best schools in the country.
- New Life ESL. Partnering with over 300 schools all over China, New Life ESL is a great recruiter when trying to find the best teaching jobs out there. They talk to all current and former teachers to make sure that the schools are treating them well. They also help you review each contract line-by-line so you don’t find yourself in an awkward situation with an employer trying to take advantage of a foreigner.
- Ameson Year in China. Ameson is a unique and highly-rated program for gap year travelers. Their flexible positions provide participants with 20 hours per week of teaching, 10 hours of time in the office and 10 hours dedicated to focusing on individual pursuits and passions, from learning the local language to exploring the culture.
Volunteering on a gap year is one of the best ways to work and travel in China.
Spend time volunteering with various social and environmental projects. Give yourself rewarding experiences by helping out people in need.
Volunteering not only nurtures the soul, it can help spruce up a resume. Employers love seeing that you’re a caring individual willing to devote time to needy communities around the world.
Since China is a developing country, there are lots of places where you can lend your services as a volunteer.
Granted, many volunteer opportunities in China are just glorified teach English positions. But there are still plenty of openings in all sectors, from helping with medical research to working with pandas. But if you’re a skilled teacher, definitely don’t rule out a volunteer teaching position.
Here are some good volunteer placement companies to look into.
- Tru Experience Travel. Tru Experience is a reliable placement company for wildlife and animal lovers. Their China experiences range from turtle and dolphin conservation in the south of China to panda conservation in Chengdu. They provide the standard amenities: Accommodation, airport pick-up, meals and 24/7 support.
- International Volunteer HQ. This is one of the largest providers of volunteer opportunities in the world. Specific to China, they have two kinds of positions available: Teaching and special needs care. Based in Xi’an, you’ll have weekends free to explore the rich history of the city and surrounding area. Their lower-than-average program fees allow participants to save some money for cultural excursions.
- Projects Abroad. Projects Abroad has something for everyone—volunteer positions in sectors like law, medicine, animal care, journalism and business. You can choose to spend your time in either Chengdu or Shanghai, and they’ll help you develop the perfect program for your gap year. Projects Abroad makes sure you’re well cared for, providing you with travel and medical insurance during your program.
3. Study Chinese
Whether you want to go into global business or you’re just a fan of Chinese culture, knowing how to speak Mandarin is a useful skill.
If you study hard, it’s entirely possible to go from absolutely no Mandarin skills to upper intermediate Mandarin skills in only one year.
And if you’re supplementing your studies with FluentU, you’ll be on the fast track to Chinese fluency!
When formally studying Chinese in China, you have two main options: Study at a university or at a private language school.
Universities are typically pretty cheap and offer a lot of student resources. Private schools are usually more expensive and compensate for fewer student resources with highly personalized language instruction.
Here are some great universities to study Chinese.
- Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). BLCU is the most famous and arguably the best university for teaching Chinese to foreigners. They have top-notch teachers from all over China, and their teaching materials are widely used in Chinese language classrooms around the world. Their diverse student body ranges from general college students to high-level global dignitaries. Being in the heart of the college district in Beijing, BLCU is an ideal place to spend a gap year.
- Fudan University. This Shanghai university is one of the most prestigious and highly regarded universities in the world. It’s seen in China as rivaling the big two universities in Beijing—Tsinghua and Peking University—but they offer the advantage of being in the business and financial metropolis of Shanghai. And having Mandarin training on your resume from one of the best schools in the world is nothing to sneeze at!
- Guangxi Normal University. Located in beautiful Guilin in southern China, Guangxi Normal’s mission as a university is to train their students to become the best teachers in the country. That’s why their Chinese teachers are second to none. Couple that with the fact that the scenery in and around Guilin is some of the best in China, and Guangxi Normal makes for a great place to spend a gap year.
Here are some quality private schools for studying Chinese.
- Live The Language (LTL) Mandarin. LTL offers students a wide range of options to help them get out and learn the language. Their three locations— Beijing, Shanghai and Chengde—offer students a range of experiences. From one-day workshops to summer sessions hiking along the Great Wall, LTL provides fun ways to truly immerse yourself in the language.
- That’s Mandarin. That’s Mandarin is one of the most well-known private schools for Chinese language training in China. Their reputation comes from repeated excellence in training high numbers of students for over a decade. Learn with private instruction or small groups in one of their three schools in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen.
- Keats School. This Kunming Chinese language school offers students a unique private education option. It’s markedly cheaper than a lot of private schools and even some public universities! It functions as a highly capable and well-rounded school that’s laser focused on ensuring foreigners leave speaking Chinese confidently.
Some travelers fresh out of school are happy to intern, while others seeking this path might be taking a year off from college or going on an exchange program. Regardless of your situation, interning during a gap year is a great way to keep the momentum of your career path going while still taking a break.
Specifically, interning in China provides you with first-hand experience of what the international business world is like.
With the booming Chinese economy, having work experience in China is an impressive credit on a resume.
Spending time abroad shows future employers that you are a multi-faceted, driven individual who has fostered international business contacts. And with China rapidly becoming a major business player, having a working relationship with a Chinese business looks really good.
You can always send a letter of inquiry with your resume to a business in China. Or you can go through an internship program.
Here are some internship programs to check out.
- CRCC Asia. This London-based internship company is one of the leading providers of internship placements in China. Their program provides interns with pre-departure training, accommodation, visa assistance, 24/7 on-location support, Mandarin language training and networking events. They offer programs in a wide range of sectors, from real estate to pharmaceuticals.
- Hutong School. These guys offer gap year programs that can be custom designed to fit the needs of each participant. Their programs are organized into “blocks.” You can spend one block in intensive language training and the other blocks completing an internship somewhere in China. This is a great way to maximize the time spent on your gap year, with a couple blocks being an internship and the others focusing on language learning or travel.
- ImmerQi. This multi-faceted company helps people secure internships in a variety of fields. One of the most intriguing is the “Entrepreneur Internship,” in which participants are placed at a Chinese startup company in Beijing or Shanghai. Many of their internships offer stipends and housing allotments, and ImmerQi is always there to help in case you need assistance with anything.
China is one of the oldest and most culturally rich countries in the world. There are so many things to explore, from traditional Chinese tea, to different regions’ cuisines, to the everyday life of Chinese people.
Spending your gap year traveling China will allow you to experience different facets of Chinese culture so you can get a well-rounded picture of life in the Middle Kingdom.
When you think of China, you probably think of big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But did you know the country is filled with diverse mountain ranges? The wide array of geographical features gives China an edge in outdoor activities like hiking, camping and rock climbing.
You can travel by yourself or go with a tour company that specializes in filling your gap year with the best Chinese adventures possible.
Here are some interesting tour companies focused on gap year expeditions.
- Where There Be Dragons. Live with yak herders on the Tibetan plateau or trek down the length of the Mekong River. Do all this while learning Mandarin with a trip organized by Where There Be Dragons. This unique tour company offers adventurers the opportunity to explore China in an off-the-beaten-path way to maximize cultural immersion.
- Gap 360. This global gap year program company offers amazing adventures for those looking to explore China. Backpack from Beijing down to Shanghai, then take a boat ride along the Li River in Guilin. With hundreds of programs to choose from, you’ll be sure to find one that fits your personality.
- Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). This is one of the best study abroad companies in the world. While “studying” may not sound much like “traveling,” with CIEE you can design your own program and include as much exploration as you like. They’re notable for offering prospective students a lot of financial aid options, from low-income scholarships to semester-long blogging grants.
If you’re trying to decide where to spend your gap year, look no further. With China’s diverse offerings, you’re sure to find the right fit!
Take this opportunity to explore one of the most unique civilizations in the world.
Eric Michelson is a nomadic, philosophizing, peace-minded pluralist. He hopes to help bridge the divide between the diverse factions of the world by exploring various perspectives brought on by personal experience. You can follow Perspective Earth to learn more about him and his work.
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