Archive for the ‘Student Life’ Category

Beida vs. “Radical Students” and the Difficulty of Objective Reporting on China

April 9, 2011

Last week I wrote about a puzzling new policy announced by Peking University to screen students and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty…” and other supposed difficulties and provide them with some sort of “consultation.” A few China bloggers bemoaned this as yet another example of what’s now being called the “Big Chill,” a sudden ramping-up of censorship, police pressure, and detainments of dissidents and activists.

I have a fair number of friends in Beijing who went to or still go to Beida, and I wrote them this week to ask if they had heard of the policy or if it had affected them at all. Apparently the announcement of this policy did elicit considerable criticism on Weibo微博–the Chinese Twitter.

A good friend of mine graduated from Beida’s prestigious Yuanpei college (the one department at Beida where students get to choose their own majors after entering) and is currently working as a reporter at a major newspaper. She was recently asked to go back to the school and interview teachers in students in preparation for an article about the new policy.

My friend told me that she had a hard time gleaning any substantive knowledge about the program. Faculty members whom she interviewed knew that it was a sensitive topic and were all reluctant to give information. However, she did find out that Yuanpei was apparently selected as a test site for the new policy last November. In five months, though, only three students have been singled out. All three had been identified as suffering academically, but as a result of either “serious illness” or “internet addiction,” both of which are among the other conditions the policy was meant to target. All three, she insisted, had been on the verge of dropping out of school due to poor academic performance, and had since been allowed to continue at the university.

In one of her interviews with a school official my friend discovered that this policy was not quite as new as I had been led to believe. For as long as five years, she found, professors have been obliged to hand in the names of students thought to fall into one of several “problem areas”–including politically radical beliefs, extreme poverty, and possible psychological illness–to the university’s branch of the Communist Youth League. The Communist Youth League, she was then informed, would plan hiking trips, games, and other activities for these students in an attempt to integrate them more socially–and, therefore, help to ensure “stability” on campus.

Surely the idea that Beida is keeping tabs on its “radical” students is troubling–I think perhaps we should be even more troubled by the idea that political beliefs are being considered as a category of mental illness. It’s certainly not a new policy, though, and it certainly isn’t heralding the onset of some Orwellian nightmare at China’s most prestigious (and probably most independent) university–at least not yet.

Learning about this policy has once again gotten me thinking about just how difficult it is for any of us to sort through the competing narratives on China and figure out exactly what is going on. The newspaper my friend works for is not even remotely in the business of challenging government policy. The reporting assignment came with explicit instructions to portray the university in a positive light. On the other hand, there is no denying that Western reporting on China often takes on an exaggerated accusing tone. An anecdote in the New York Times’ story about increasing digital censorship in China several weeks ago left the impression that anyone saying the word “protest” during a phone conversation would be automatically cut off–and set off a wave of Beijing expats yelling “protest” into their cell phones in unsuccessful attempts to duplicate the incident. These kinds of incidents highlight just how hard the current media climate makes it to form a complete and objective picture of what’s going on in China.

Peking University to Start Screening Students for “Radical Thoughts?”

April 1, 2011


PKU's library near the West Gate, which I walked by nearly every day during my stay there last year

I found a link this morning on rudenoon’s China blog to this article in the Guardian about a forthcoming new policy by Peking University to screen and identify “students with radical thoughts, psychological fragility, poverty, registration changes, eccentricity, Internet addiction, job difficulties, serious illnesses, and discipline violations.”


PKU’s official announcement on the program explains that they intend to implement “consultations” with students in these categories regarding problems in academic performance. In essence, the announcement attempts to frame the new policy as a mental health provision. I should point out that mental health services are one of the several aspects of student life, so common on American campuses, which are routinely–if not always–ignored on Chinese campuses. It certainly goes almost completely unaddressed  at Peking University–I had students in my class last year complain to me several times that there was no one whom they could go to on campus to talk about the pressure and stress they were dealing with.

The announcement on the new policy is quite–and probably deliberately–vague. However, I agree with the Guardian that this specific targeting of non-mainstream political opinions is really scary. PKU is known as a particularly liberal and reform-minded university. I would even argue that the school allows more intellectual freedom and forward thinking than nearly any other institution in the country.

Whether this month’s protests have really been wide enough in scale to merit being called China’s own “Jasmine Revolution,” the scope of the government’s paranoid reaction to them seems to be expanding. Harassment and detainment of journalists is now being supplemented by preemtive screening and singling out of students thought to be politically dissatisfied. Though I argued earlier this week that Beijing has effectively kept a tight leash on political dissent thus far, the leadership is clearly scared of what’s been happening in the last month. It’s anyone’s guess, however, how much they’ll be willing to tighten the noose this time.

Can the Number of American Students Studying in China Ever Catch Up to Chinese Students in the US?

March 30, 2011

The front gate of Peking University. Chinese students studying in the US dwarf the number of American students studying in China

My work with the US-China Education Trust has sent me digging for statistics again, this time to prepare an acceptance speech for Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, who is receiving an award this spring from NAFSA: The Association of International Educators. I spent part of this morning looking up statistics about the numbers of international students studying abroad in the US and China. Certainly it’s no surprise to anyone that the number of Chinese students studying in the US dwarfs the number of Americans going to China. I think it’s sobering (and, hopefully, somewhat inspiring), though, to be reminded just how wide the gap is:

In the 2009-2010 academic year nearly 128,000 Chinese students studied in the United States. Again, no surprise at how big this number is. It’s also probably not surprising to many people that Chinese students outnumbered international students from any other country, and together represented 19% of the international student population in the US last year.

What was somewhat more startling to me was to discover that the top three countries of origin for international students–China, India, and South Korea–together represent nearly half, 44%, of the total international student population in the United States.

While Asians make up the lion’s share of students studying in the United States, American students still overwhelmingly prefer to hang out in Europe. China ranked only fifth among international destinations for American students. American students studying in China last year, numbering some 13,600, were less than half as numerous as students studying in the United Kingdom. The other top three most popular destinations were Italy, Spain, and France.

To anyone who cares as much about US-China relations as I do, it’s certainly frustrating to see how many fewer American students are bothering to learn about China than Chinese students are learning about America. As with any cache of statistics, though, it is just as possible to find room for optimism:

China was by far the most popular destination for American students in Asia, and more than twice as many students went to China as went to the next most popular Asian destination, Japan. Also, China was the only one of the top-5 destination to see an increase in student travel from the previous year. American students studying in China last year were up 4% from the 2008-2009 academic year. Of course, a massive upswing in Chinese students to the US–who were up 30% from 2008-2009–dwarfs this figure.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that student interest in China is measurably increasing.  In my own anecdotal experience, I feel as if I am becoming increasingly aware of a much greater number of programs that offer exposure to China and to Chinese language for students at even younger ages. On a recent trip to visit my parents, who both work at the University of Kentucky, I found out that some of the high schools there even offer Chinese language classes. With Confucius Centers and other similar programs increasing in number, this phenomenon is certainly becoming more common. I had never even heard of a person studying Chinese when I was in high school (and, honestly, I’m a little jealous of the kids who, by virtue of being born later, will have the advantage of being able to start tackling the language at an earlier age).

The Institute for International Education, which is based in Washington, D.C., publishes a comprehensive report each year on statistics relating to American study abroad and international students studying in the United States.

Dating and Romance in Rural China, Part 1

January 23, 2011

A bridal car 婚车 of the sort that carries off the bride and groom after a wedding

In coming to Yilong I was particularly eager to learn whether or not the rapid changes in romantic attitudes in urban China had made any headway into rural China. What I observed first and foremost, however, was that the lonely heart in rural China faces a much bleaker landscape than one would in a big city. Even without having to deal with more conservative social norms, the severe drain of young people to the cities to work leaves few options. Out of the few young people I met who had stayed behind in Yilong to work, many of them were already married, even those close to my age; I could probably count on my fingers the number of young single people I met in my whole three months there.

Beyond this general scarcity of potential mates, I was fascinated to observe the contradictory forces at work in the dating scene in rural Sichuan, which I imagine are even more extreme than those operating on romantic conventions in more cosmopolitan parts of the country. On one end, arranged marriages, or at least extreme family involvement in the orchestration of matches, are still quite common. I met several couples in their late 20’s and early 30’s who, when I asked how they had met one another, replied that they had been “jieshao” 介绍–“introduced,” or essentially set up, by family members. On the other hand, the practice of dating in high school, still controversial in urban China, has already started to percolate into the countryside. High school couples can occasionally be spotted discreetly holding hands leaving the school. I once walked by a pair of high school kids who had found a secluded corner besides the old MiG fighter plane on display at the memorial to the civil war hero and Yilong native Zhu De 朱德 and were using it to practice some aggressive PDA.

Chinese Gothic: My roommate's aunt and uncle had had an arranged marriage

This collision of traditional values with evolving attitudes was even more vividly brought home to me by the experience of my roommate and fellow volunteer at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. In many ways, Li (names omitted to protect the innocent) personally embodies this dichotomy of traditional and modern. A native to Yilong and the son of local officials, he was one of few of his classmates able to attend college, in the northern city of Dalian. After graduating, he spent several years working and volunteering in various NGOs in different parts of the country before returning to Yilong to work at ARDY. While proud of his roots and staunchly traditional in some respects, his views have also been inevitably changed by prolonged exposure to Western colleagues in various NGOs. Over the course of two months I observed his surprising and rather increasingly conflicted courtship of a local girl, Jin. Jin had studied at a teacher’s college in Chengdu and returned that year to teach English at a local middle school in the nearby town of Ma An 马鞍.

The two’s meeting had been a classic case of old-school match-making. Li’s great aunt had invited the two of us over for dinner on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. It was only after we arrived for dinner that the aunt informed Li that she had invited a potential suitor as well, much to his embarrassment. The two barely spoke to one another for the whole course of the evening; however, Jin had procured Li’s cell phone number from the aunt and called him the next afternoon, and the two ended up chatting for over an hour. These hour-long phone conversations soon became a nightly ritual, though it was over a week before Jin was able to get a reprieve from teaching and take the 40-minute bus from Ma An back to Jincheng and see Li in person again.

I was utterly shocked how soon it was after this second “date” that the two began to talk about marriage–somewhat jokingly, of course, but nonetheless with definite intent behind it. I went to pay a visit to Jin’s classroom the week after they had started dating. Over lunch, she told me that although she had barely spoken to Liu Yi at their first meeting, she had felt an instant connection with him, “as if we had been married in the previous life.” She had already begun to weigh the possibilities for their future life together; would Li commit to stay in Yilong with her, or would she have to come with him if he went to work for an NGO in Chengdu which had previously employed him? I was utterly baffled at the speed with which their relationship had progressed to this planning stage, and skeptical that Li, who had worked with a different NGO in a different city each of his four years since graduating from college, would agree to settle down so soon.

I realize I’m already over the conventional length limit for a blog post, so you’ll have to stay tuned for the shocking conclusion later this week.

A Day in the Life of a Rural Chinese School Teacher

September 26, 2010

I spent the day following around He Na, a friend of mine who works as an English teacher at a school in the nearby town of Ma An. As I expected, the sudden appearance of a foreigner was something of a momentous event at the school. Her class of 5th-graders erupted in excitement as I entered the classroom, and at least a dozen children escaped from neighboring classrooms to peer in at me through the doorway. After listening to He Na drill her class on pronunciation of various English words for most of the class, she finally indulged their curiosity and allowed them to spend the last few minutes of class asking me questions about the United States. Many of them were the same standard questions I have gotten throughout the past year that I lived

in China: “What do people eat in America?” “Can Americans use chopsticks?” “Do all Americans own guns?” Upon pulling out an American dollar bill which I happened to have in my wallet, the entire class burst from their seats and rushed to the front of the classroom, pushing both me and He Na back up against the blackboard in their effort to see. Only by repeatedly pounding on the front podium with a ruler was she able to get them to settle down and return to their seats.

The main teaching building of the school where He Na teaches

Though He Na’s parents also live in Yilong, she and most of the other teachers live in a dormitory across a courtyard from the actual classroom building. Over three hundred students also live in dormitories on campus as well, which is common for middle school and high school students from surrounding towns.

Having majored in English at the Sichuan Foreign Languages University in Chengdu, He Na is only a month into her first job out of college. “It was my father who originally wanted me to be a teacher, with this job I can easily stay close to my parents,” she explained when we first met. As a graduate of a four-year bachelor’s program, He Na is rare among a teaching staff comprised mostly of graduates of three-year “professional” programs. However, she explained to me that her options for different teaching positions were still quite limited without any previous experience.

A short way down the road from the private middle school where she teaches is a public middle school. Teachers at the private school, however, are under considerably more pressure for considerably less pay. He Na complained to me that teachers at the public school make over 1,200 RMB a month, and are not subject to any sort of regular teacher performance evaluation. “If their students do poorly on tests, it’s not their problem, but if my students do poorly on exams then they can take it out of my salary.” At 700 RMB a month, He Na’s salary is already quite low.

The students were quite eager to get their picture taken

After lunch, I sat in on another class of fourth-graders who were also practicing English pronunciation. He Na singled out a student in a corner who had not been paying attention, asking him to read the words on the board for the whole class. After he failed to repeat the words again, she scolded him, switching from Mandarin into Sichuanese in her frustration. After asking the class how many of the words he had said incorrectly—six—she came over to his desk and rapped his wrist six times with a ruler. As she walked me back to the school gate she complained how that class always consistently had lower grades than her other classes. “If their grades are low then the headmaster will take it up with me.”

Students crowded in through the doorway to get a look at me as I took a picture of He Na's class

Students crowded in through the doorway to get a look at me as I took a picture of He Na's class

Phys Ed

June 20, 2010

I apologize for the academically self-indulgent entry last week, and am hoping to make up for it with something a little bit lighter this time. One of the more surprising cultural differences that I’ve become increasingly aware of from hanging out with Chinese students is the incredibly different set of rules for physical contact. In many ways, the rules for physical contact among people of different genders are completely reversed from the common norms for Americans. I know a lot of Chinese students who were quite surprised at the amount of physical contact that college-age Americans are accustomed to. The fact that male and female friends often hug every time they greet or say goodbye to each other is quite outside the comfort zone of a lot of my friends. On a trip to China two years ago through Project IMUSE a number of Chinese friends saw me and several American companions off at the airport. I remember quite clearly moving to hug one of the Chinese girls who I had become good friends with on the trip and the look of astonishment on her face. I was told later that that amount of physical contact is often only considered appropriate between boyfriend and girlfriend, and she refused a hug from a Chinese American friend who was also flying back with me for fear that he would be perceived as her boyfriend. While a good deal of PDA is common between boyfriends and girlfriends here, physical contact between genders outside of a romantic relationship is quite spare.

On the other hand, there is a good deal more physical contact between people of the same gender than Americans are accustomed to. Chinese girls often hold hands with one another as they walk down the street in a casual display of friendly affection. The rules are also different between male friends here. I have male Chinese friends that are into gripping my bicep or throwing an arm around my shoulder as we walk down the street, or slap one another’s bellies as a joke. The one thing that completely caught me by surprise, though, and which I’ve had the most difficulty getting used to, is the amount of ass-slapping among male friends. Not that hanging out with Chinese guys is like constantly hanging out in a football locker room, but it’s used every once and a while to accentuate a point during conversation–and even infrequent ass-slapping was more than I was used to.

At this point, though, I’ve been here long enough that I’ve gotten used to the physical contact besides the ass-slapping, to the point that I had forgotten how different the rules were until an American friend came to visit last week and balked at the amount of physical contact-which led to a panicked discussion with 博哥, who is transferring to Ohio State next semester, and who demanded that we explain to him exactly what would be acceptable among his American male friends.

Dorm Life

May 20, 2010

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.

Party at the All Girl’s School

April 24, 2010

好久不见, I know I haven’t been as good about keeping this thing up as I originally intended, hopefully I’ll get my act together more at some point in this semester.  Today’s story is rather entertaining, though.  Last week, 博哥and I were dragged by another friend to a party held at 中华女子学院: “Chinese Women’s University.” As 博哥’s friend explained it, the women’s university threw parties every once in a while, and the students who had male friends in Beijing would badger them to bring as many additional male friends as they could to even out the ratio.  Now, before any of you get any ideas: “party at the women’s university” may have a certain ring to it in the American context, the Chinese version doesn’t have quite the same meaning. Chinese Women's University

The Women’s university, Wikipedia informs me, was founded in 1949 and has an undergrad body of around 3,000—all female, except, I am told, a special major for future news broadcasters and television hosts which admits around twenty male students.  We probed our female hosts for information about these lucky few, but they appeared to be quite mysterious characters who our hosts didn’t know well.  Our hosts were from the accounting major—like Beida and other Chinese universities, departments are much more tight-knit, with all of the students from one major living together, taking most of their classes together, and, apparently, throwing parties together.

The party in question started at 4 in the afternoon; the three of us showed up by bus at the gate, where we were heavily scrutinized by the university security guards until our female escorts emerged and signed us in, leaving their meal cards as collateral.  Beida does have its own version of border patrol, and sometimes requires students to flash an ID card before going in, but nothing nearly as severe: apparently male visitors without an enrolled student as escort are forbidden.  We were led through the campus, the entirety of which looked as if it had been built within a month from the same sterile while tile, and into a large room on the third floor of a building, where two rows of chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around a stage.  Before entering, each of us was obliged to draw a small folded slip of paper from a plastic bag. The number on the paper, we were soon informed, was our seating assignment; each male guest of honor was partnered with a girl from the accounting department.  We would soon discover that our randomly selected female partner was to be our teammate in the various games to be played that afternoon.  The start of the festivities was first delayed a half hour, as the last batch of male students arrived late.  I was partnered with a short, wide-eyed girl from Xinjiang 新疆 province (ethnically Han, though), who at first seemed utterly flabbergasted at being paired with the only foreigner in the room, and could only be coaxed into talking to me with some effort.

The event started off with a dance performance—suddenly, the lights in the room dimmed and a tangled maze of spotlights and those

One of these thigns

One of these things

spinning rainbow disco balls, heretofore unnoticed, burst into life.  Four or five girls nervously walked into the middle of the semicircle and nervously pantomimed some dance moves to a short mash-up of “Bad Romance,” “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It,” and that Britney Spears song “Circus.” Following the dance number’s hesitant conclusion another couple of girls approached the middle—my partner informed me, the best singers in the class—and sang a Chinese pop song that I didn’t recognize.  Then followed the games—all thought up, I was told, by the party’s planning committee.  First was a contest to see which male partner could blow up and pop as many balloons in a time limit, while their female partners stood by and handed them more balloons.  Next was a game where the male partner stood and spun in a circle while bouncing  a ping-pong ball on a paddle, following which their female partner would try to guess a number written on the ping-pong ball in Sharpie marker.  If the girl guessed wrong, the guy would have to complete the ritual until she guessed right.  My partner guessed my number on the first try.  There was also a three-legged race (which , despite our considerable height difference, my partner and I cleaned up on), and something like twenty questions, where the female partner stood facing away from a Powerpoint slide showing successive images of animals, Chinese popstars, or capital cities, which the male partner then tried to make them guess through clues.  With each of these games, the losing teams was accorded a “punishment”—usually, to sing a karaoke duet in front of the group, or sometimes to act out a pre-written script where both sides confessed their love to one another.  The game that by far elicited the most excitement from the Chinese students, though, was the last, where the blindfolded female student would attempt to put lipstick on the male partner—the team with the most neatly applied lipstick was spared from punishment.  The party ended with another dance performance and a karaoke song.

博哥 informs me that this is without a doubt the most “Chinese” party he has taken me to—apparently most Chinese universities, not just the particularly sheltered ones like Women’s University, frequently throw parties like this, which from an American standpoint would look less out of place in a middle school than among college-age kids.  Figuring out the social lives of Chinese university students has been one of the most puzzling experiences of this year so far.  This post is already way longer than, I’ve been told, a blog post is supposed to be, so I’m gonna leave it at that for now, but expect more on this, because I’m still a long way from figuring this out…