A cost-efficient, immersive and culturally fascinating program

Ratings
Overall
10
Academics: 10
Support: 10
Fun: 10
Housing: 10
Safety: 10
Review

I've spent two months in late 2016 studying Chinese in KCE while living with a host family. In short, I've found it to be a very cost-efficient way of improving one's (especially spoken) Mandarin Chinese. Accordingly, I believe it would be useful to mention several general points about the program:

First of all, as to why I chose this school in the first place, there are several notable reasons (in no particular order):
1. Comparatively low costs - both in terms of tuition fee and in terms of other expenses, it would be rather difficult to find a more cost-efficient option.
2. Flexibility - while despite the mentioned costs being rather low, they are naturally higher than what one would pay for a similar period in an average Chinese university. However, as I only had a very specific time period during which I could study, the fact that one can begin to study whenever one wants, and to study for as long as one finds suitable, is a most valuable thing. Hence, if you aren't very flexible in terms of time, KCE is a very good option.
3. Private one-on-one lessons - which is the reason to said flexibility, as you do not need to wait for others, with a similar level of Chinese to enroll for the program. Yet, more importantly, that means that you get to choose what and how to study, not having to depend on other students, as the teacher's attention doesn't need to be divided among several students. Thus, the progress is much more significant compared to studying in groups, let alone in university classes.
4. The option to live with a host family (almost for free) - as I have been interested in Chinese culture for quite a while, I found this to be a rare opportunity to experience it at first-hand, away from the history books, university classes, (pseudo-)historical films, and the things one sees as a tourist. What's more, this option could save one quite a lot of money, as it is provided for a rather small one-time fee, in addition to teaching the family some English. Of course, it's also a good way to practice your Chinese.
5. Shijiazhuang is one of the (few) places where standard Mandarin is spoken. While it is safe to assume that teachers in other schools do also speak standard Mandarin, yet in case you wish to practice it on the street, you may not find it quite as easy, given the local accent and/or dialect. Hence it is easier to actually start using your Chinese in such an environment (the standard tones and pronunciation are difficult enough as it is). Yet I must note, that it is true mostly for Shijiazhuang city, and less for the adjacent towns and cities (which are also considered to be part of greater Shijiazhuang), it might also not be true for people of the older generation and to migrants from other places.
6. There are very few foreigners in Shijiazhuang, hence it contributes to one's immersion in Chinese language and culture, and locals are more curious about foreigners, thus it is easier to enter into conversations with them, unlike Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou.

Secondly, the application process (if one is to call it so) went rather smoothly, and the school staff was always ready to answer my numerous questions, and help me (to the extent that they could) with the visa application process. Upon arrival, they also dealt with the different bureaucratic formalities. Generally speaking, the staff was very friendly and helpful, and to the best of my knowledge they can also help with daily things, such as shopping, getting a SIM card, going to the bank etc., but I didn't require their help with that.

As for the program itself, it included four hours a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. The curriculum, by and large, depends on the student - accordingly, apart from spoken Chinese, I also asked to study some classical Chinese and Chinese literature. Quite frankly, I was surprised that they agreed to that, since it is not their field of expertise, and yet they did what they could to help me with that as well. The program, as its name suggests, is indeed rather intensive, and yet each student can balance it according to his or her abilities. Basically, it seems to me that one's progress depends to a great extent on one's willingness to learn and be proactive, hence I do believe that the intensity is not a bad thing, as it encourages one to try harder. I believe that I've made good progress during my stay there (although maintaining it is not easy once one leaves China), perhaps most importantly it allowed me to really start speaking (albeit with various mistakes), thanks to the immersive environment - both in school and at home, something that I was not able to achieve after more than four years of studying Chinese on my own and in the university (although, truth be told, these years made it much easier to achieve said progress).

Regarding the homestay, I lived with a pair in their 30s and their small child, not far from the school. I had my own room and ate with the host family (except lunch on weekdays - it's served in school). Occasionally, I helped them a bit with English, but I still had to speak Chinese all the time, which helped to further advance my Chinese. The host family was very nice and helpful, and I had quite a few fascinating conversations with them, getting to know the realities of life in China. It was truly a remarkable experience, and I recommend it to anyone willing to learn about "real" China.

Finally, as for the city itself, I've found it to be a very nice city and life there is both cheap and convenient. Prices are low compared to the major Chinese cities, and definitely compared to "the West", and public transportation is both cheap and efficient (well, except rush hour). I didn't care much about entertainment, but I know that it is rather abundant, but it is indeed, very "Chinese" in nature - KTVs, restaurants, bars, film theaters, shopping malls etc. For those interested in shopping, apart from the (rather pricey) malls, there are a few markets and even a retail market, where one can buy just about everything (just don't forget to bargain).
However, there is an unfortunate factor one should consider - the pollution in the city is one of the worst in China (and in the world), but in most cases, appropriate respirators can help.

And some general tips for conclusion:
1. Figure out what your study goals are before going to China, it will help you to progress much faster and much more efficiently.
2. Be proactive, it will make the lessons much more interesting and productive than just studying from the textbook. Find materials you would like to study - be it internet videos, stories, articles, poems, songs or any other thing.
3. Come open minded, especially if you decide to live with a host family. Don't insist on judging things based on "Western" principles and standards, just accept things as they are and try to treat it as an anthropological experience. It's not that you shouldn't express your opinion, just do it with tact, avoiding preaching and excessive criticism - this way you can both avoid unpleasant situations and talk about interesting, even controversial, topics (I was actually surprised by it to an extent).
4. Get appropriate respirators ("masks") before coming to China (especially if you plan on going in Winter), although you can get them in pharmacies - they do tend to sell out. Make sure that the respirator matches the N95 or FFP3 standards. If you have respiratory problems, I would also suggest consulting your physician before going.
5. Get a VPN (preferably, before actually coming to China) - although it won't help your immersion, it will potentially save you a lot of trouble.
6. If possible, study some Chinese before coming to China, I think that the environment might be a bit too immersive for absolute beginners, but there is no harm in trying.
7. Try to avoid using English unless absolutely necessary.

tl;dr -
A most recommended program. It's cost-efficient, flexible, immersive and offers the option of staying with a host family. The staff is helpful and friendly, the program is intensive but helps achieve significant progress in a short time. The homestay is a great way to practice Chinese, to learn about "real" China and to save money. The prices in the city are low and life there is convenient, but it's very polluted. If you decide to go, figure out your study goals in advance, be proactive during the lessons, be open minded about things, get respirators in advance, get a VPN in advance, try to study some Chinese before going and avoid using English while in China.

Would you recommend this program?
Yes, I would
Year Completed
2016