Listen while reading

In 2015, the governments of the UK and China worked to fortify their relationships. Ties are also strengthened on the long-haul flights between the nations, as Chinese students pursue their studies in the UK. Writer Darren Skelton shares conversations and insights from a recent trip.
Text: Darren Skelton
Country: UK

015 marked a milestone in UK-China relations with the first Year of Cultural Exchange, meant to strengthen ties between the people, governments, and industries of the two countries. China’s President Xi Jinping visited London and Manchester in autumn. He took in a football game in Manchester and raised a pint of English ale and tucked into the traditional fish and chips in a pub in London, according to news reports and photos. Prince William, who is popular in China, visited Beijing and other cities in the summer.

Regular people are doing their part as well, often as passengers on long-haul flights between the UK and China. A direct flight from Beijing to London is a good 11 ½ hours. Many of those flying are students travelling from China to the UK to study in programmes ranging from one to four years.

On a recent flight home to Yorkshire for Christmas break, I spoke to several Chinese passengers to learn more about their lives in the UK. I asked them about their studies, the challenges of living so far from home and their experiences with a new language and culture.

Amongst the backpackers, travelling families, and businesspeople were many students who were eager to talk about their lives. It is generally quite easy to find a Chinese student who is happy to practice their English, in fact.

Weather, English and culture

The first student I chatted with was named Ivy (Chinese name: Xue Shan). She was returning to the University of York from a very short family break in the city of Changchun, China, to continue with her master’s degree in education. She told me that she chose to study in the UK primarily for the well-known high quality of education and because she likes the British accent—she finds it charming. Meeting new people, understanding the complex language in lectures, and writing academic essays are difficult, said Ivy. She also noted a quirk in the UK: how English people always seemed to finish a conversation with the word ‘cheers’. Naturally, I thanked her for speaking to me by saying, ‘cheers’!

I also spoke to Freya (Chinese name: Tian Jian Yu), who was studying at the University of Sheffield, and returning to the UK after attending an extended family member’s wedding. She commented that she loved having her freedom as a foreign student, which, coupled with the responsibility that came with it, gave her great self-confidence. She was worried primarily about the language, and she admitted to having some serious problems understanding the local people, particularly idioms, slang, and the accent.

One good example of misunderstanding occurred when Freya went to the bank shortly after arriving to arrange an appointment to open an account. She met the bank manager to ask for an appointment, and the bank manager replied, “Certainly, 3:15”. She took his response to mean that he wanted her to pay 3 pounds and 15 pence, and so she proceeded to count out some coins. She was a little embarrassed to be corrected (albeit in a friendly way) that it was the time of the appointment later that afternoon.

In addition, Freya was concerned about the weather. The UK is famous—and infamous —for its rain, and Freya has struggled with the windy, rainy days. In fact, she said she’s gone through six umbrellas in four months.

Lastly I spoke with Tony (Chinese name: Li Yue Ming), an extremely confident man who had been studying in London for over five years. He had taken a few months off to return to Xian to work on a PhD project and was returning to London to wrap up his studies. He was particularly interested in the fashion and culture of London life. Furthermore, he really enjoyed using his English and was now highly fluent.

He told me he had many difficulties with interpersonal relationships and with the high cost of living in London. He said that when meeting his new flatmates for the first time, he was completely confused by their different nationalities. His geography was terrible, and he admitted to not knowing anything at all about Portugal, where one flatmate was from. In fact, he later told that flatmate that he thought Portugal was the name of red wine. They both laugh about the mix-up now.

I enjoyed learning about these students’ interesting—and sometimes strange —experiences in the UK. With stronger UK-China relations, I am sure more Chinese students will have similar experiences.

More Information

● In 2015-2016 there were 91,215 Chinese students studying in the UK, making it the number one non-EU country of origin. (UK Council for International Students Affairs)

● Most Chinese immigrants move to the UK searching for a first degree: 60,055 out of 64,560 people. (UK Council for International Students Affairs)

● In the 2015-2016 period 328,547 Chinese students studied in the US (Source: Statista)

● The Chinese Ministry of Education reports that 523,700 Chinese students went abroad to study in 2015 (Source: ICEF Monitor)

● There was a toll on the road until 1936. The cost was 2 shillings and 6 pence for drivers and 1shilling 6 pence for passengers.

● Since 1978 nearly 4 million Chinese citizens have studied abroad.

● Students who return from studying abroad are called “sea turtles” in China. (Source: ICEF Monitor) .


The long-haul between UK and China

2015 was the first Year of Cultural Exchange between China and the UK. The goal of this program is to strengthen ties between the people, governments, and industries of the two countries.

Many people regularly take the long-haul flight between the UK and China. Most of the passengers on these flights are students travelling from China to the UK to study. I recently flew to Yorkshire from China and spoke to several of these Chinese students:

Ivy (Xue Shan) is originally from Changchun, China, but is currently studying for a master's degree in education. She chose the UK because it has a high quality of education and she finds the accent quite charming. She thinks it's funny that people always finish a conversation with the word 'cheers'.

Freya (Tian Jian Yu) is studying at the University of Sheffield. She has some problems understanding the local people, particularly idioms, slang, and the accent; but her time abroad has also given her more self-confidence.

Tony (Li Yue Ming) is currently finishing his PhD. He is very interested in the fashion and culture of London life and his English is now fluent. But when he first arrived he was very confused by the different nationalities and thought Portugal was a red wine!



Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

The long-haul between UK and China



Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Intermediate: Prefix: Im

Advanced, Idiom: Burn the midnight oil



Summary Vocabulary

  • Discover > UK

Discover its sights, sounds, and tastes:

Travel and learn!

If you want to learn English TeaTime-Mag recommends: