Tips for balanced mental and physical health in China

By Astrid Montuclard*


Mental health remains a difficult topic to discuss in China. In Zhejiang University, Zijingang campus’ mental health center is unknown to most international students.

Although both the Chinese government and public are increasingly aware of China’s high prevalence of depression, burnout, and milder mental health concerns, the topic is not commonly discussed on local campuses. Chinese students often do not divulge their mental health status to close friends and family, and from what I have observed, the newly-arrived international students who are eager to integrate, do not either. 

The silence surrounding mental health is a hurdle for foreign students seeking mental health resources. Although some Chinese campuses like Zijingang campus offer mental health centers, their location remains unknown to many. And even when their services are advertised, I heard that cultural differences can make the relationship between foreigners and local counselors difficult. Considering the scarcity of resources, international students should try to proactively protect both their mental and physical well-being right from the beginning of their stay.

Emotionally-speaking, studying abroad is comparable to riding a roller-coaster. Enthusiastic globe-trotters should be aware that adapting to a new country requires four phases (see reference at the end of the article):

  1. the exciting “honey moon” or “everything-is-awesome” phase
  2. the frightening “negotiating” or “actually-everything-sucks” phase
  3. the calming “adjustment” or “let’s-compromise” phase
  4.  the happy “mastery” or “feeling-safe-again” phase.

The first phase can be a mental health trap to the over-achievers embracing a “I-will-sleep-when-I-die” type of lifestyle. China is crowded, making Chinese campuses endless lands of opportunities for networking and involvement, presuming that one speaks some Chinese. Being constantly surrounded by people and adapting to China’s flexible lifestyle (see October’s post) while wanting to keep a busy, American-like lifestyle can be exhausting after a few weeks. Enthusiastic students may be tempted to get involved in research, volunteer, join student organizations, visit famous scenic spots, and hang out with both international and local students on top of attending classes. Such students should make sure to get enough rest and avoid reaching sky-rocketing levels of physical and mental fatigue which could exacerbate the feelings provoked by the “negotiating” phase.


Hangzhou offers many opportunities to discover the local culture. Last month, I started volunteering at the Pediatric Hospital of Zhejiang University after being warmly welcomed by the staff.

During the “negotiating phase,” feeling moderately tired due to cultural shock is a good sign that one has stepped outside their comfort zone. However, if exhaustion reaches to an overwhelming level, checking whether basic physiological needs are met and reviewing one’s goals can help alleviate the burden of heavy thoughts, loneliness, and homesickness. Here are a couple questions to ask oneself in such situations.

“Am I sleeping enough and taking enough time to relax alone?”

Mental fatigue can arise from international students’ living situation. In China, undergraduate and master students are generally assigned a double room and shared bathrooms in dormitories. Like any place in China, the latter are crowded. In order to rest mentally, I personally enjoy walking in my campus gardens and around the ponds. I also try to schedule at least monthly trips to get fresh air and new perspectives.


Zijingang Campus at Zhejiang University offers beautiful gardens and a pond, a haven of nature for ones in search of peace.

“Am I turning my phone off long enough each day to let my mind rest?”

In Iowa, texting is often informational and people are expected to answer when they can.  In China, the texting frequency seems higher. My Chinese friends often reply almost right away to messages, engaging in conversation over texting. At night, if they are tired when they receive my messages, they usually answer: “You should get rest, we will talk tomorrow,” instead of answering the following day. Embracing Chinese texting habits can be wearying; therefore, unplugging every day and practicing mindfulness is essential to avoid living constantly phone in hand.

“Am I getting enough water, protein, dairy and fruit every day?”

Panda Express fanatics need to keep their expectations low when moving to China. While Americanized Chinese dishes include substantial amounts of meat, the local cuisine is mainly composed of oily vegetables and rice, with proteins only composing 10% of the dishes. Tap water being unfit for drinking, cafeterias often only offer sodas and hot water.  I personally noticed that keeping an eye on their my daily caloric and water intakes improved my self-confidence, my mood, and avoided me unnecessary fatigue.

“Am I exercising enough?”

Exercising is far from being Chinese students’ number one priority; student-athletes are often believed to have failed their academic career early in life, which is the reason why they practice intensive sports. Put simply, gym facilities on Chinese campuses look nothing like American ones. The pollution has also been a deterrent to me running outside, so I sought gyms outside of campus in order to keep a good exercise schedule.   

“Am I efficiently working towards the goals I made before leaving? Do I need to adapt those goals?”

Sometimes, the goals made before departing are too ambitious or cannot be fulfilled due to unexpected local conditions. Being persistent can pay off, but staying mindful of one’s limits can prevent burnouts. The “negotiation” phase may be a strategic moment to put some goals on the side until better days come to fulfill them. Like most students, here, I have also been tempted to give up important activities and even to go home, but remembered that such thoughts are normal during times of suffering. Acknowledging the feelings without resisting or acting on them is the best strategy to adopt until the “adjustment” of phase 3; a clearer mind will give you a better perspective on whether an activity or goal is worth keeping or quitting.

All in all, moving abroad is a fulfilling experience when one truly makes efforts to integrate into the culture. Such efforts, however, can also bring mental fatigue to newly-arrived students. Considering the atmosphere surrounding mental health in China, international students should pay close attention to stay both mentally and physically healthy. New-comers should resist the urge to try and do everything from the get-go, and should make time for reflection and self-care while focusing on their goals. Cultural adaptation is a beautiful accomplishment in one’s life. Therefore, carefully managing its down-sides is the best gift that international students can give to themselves when moving to China.

*Astrid Montuclard is a guest blogger studying Chinese and Pre-medicine at the University of Iowa. An international student born in France and raised in Tahiti, she came to the UI to run track. As a Senator for Student Government last year,  she spearheaded the new mental health awareness campaign True@TheU, launched this fall on campus.

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.

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