To Americans unfamiliar with how Chinese college students live, one of the most striking differences must be the living conditions in Chinese dorms and the social necessities that they predicate. The idea of having private space in your college dorm is an un-thought of luxury for Chinese college students. Most of the students that I know live in rooms about the size of the typical American state school freshman dorm, but with two sets of bunk beds and four of desks crammed into into them. At better universities like Beida or Tsingua universities, then, four to a room, though at less well-off universities it’s apparently common to have six if not eight to a room. Furthermore, Chinese students don’t change dorms each year, but rather are stuck with the same three (or five) roommates for all four years. This puts some considerable pressure on one’s relationship with one’s roommates, or, as 博哥 once jokingly referred to it, “room politics.” In most cases that I have heard, certainly, students bond with their roommates over four years and become close friends with whom they have experienced all of the ups and downs of college together. In a worst-case scenario, though, relationships between roommates can be as opaque as a Politburo meeting.
Students learn quickly to maintain good relations at all costs. You have to, for example, compromise on a bedtime that accommodates the students who sleep early. Luckily, universities help this point along by shutting off the electricity in the dorms at 11pm on weeknights–not out of a need to save power, but simply to keep students from staying up too late. Certainly bringing a boy or girlfriend back to your room and “sexiling” three or five other people is right out. Occasionally, I have been told, Chinese couples will get a nearby hotel room for the night instead.
Most importantly, though, students learn maintain amicable relations with their roommates at all costs. You have to overlook spats or disagreements, because you have to keep living with the same kids for another two or thee years. I have asked friends what would happen if they didn’t get along with their roommates, to which they have responded that they don’t let that happen. They have to learn how to paper over conflicts or disagrements.
This can come in the face of considerable differences in backgrounds among roommates, perhaps even greater than those faced by most American college students. Most universities in Beijing bring together studets from all of China’s provinces, with their own cultures and vastly differing dialects (almost all primary and high schools teach mandarin, though, so college classmates communicate in mandarin). Some students come from ethnic minorities which, despite similar physical appearance to Han, may have a vastly different culture and religion. Some students from poorer or more rural areas may have overcome impoverished, defunct education systems, studying around the clock six or seven days a week for three years to pass the 高考 college entrance exam and make it to a good university. In college they live side-by-side with students from better-off areas who benefitted from far superior urban schooling. To a student from a rural area, a simple meal out with roommates away from the cheap university dining hall may represent an exorbitant expense beyond their capability–refusing to go for financial reasons could put an awkward strain on relations with roommates. For students coming from poor areas, furthermore, a good 高考 grade might have been achieved through a relentless, self-abusive study schedule; studying 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week in preparation for the 高考 is not uncommon. Imagine the shock, then, of such a student coming face to face with a more affluent student, who benefitted from a much better high school education and might achieve the same grades in college with many fewer hours of visible effort. Certainly there is no pre-college rooming form for Chinese studets to fill out and indicate desired level of studiousness, of cleanliness, or accepted level of partying. Students are simply placed together with others from their department.
Americans sometimes talk about Chinese culture as being too indirect, as discouraging people from expressing their real opinions or being upfront in their dealings with others. In a case like this, though, it’s easy to see the benefits of avoiding direct confrontation.