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Anecdotes from China: Student Life

Seldom or at least subconsciously (although perhaps at times deliberately) dismissed are the moments when you are made acutely and somewhat painfully aware of your own ignorance. As Thomas Hobbes points out in his work Leviathan

“Prudence is but experience; which equal time, equally bestows on all men, in those things they equally apply themselves unto”.

In other (modern) words: differences in intelligence or the grasping of a particular subject are based solely on the amount of time you dedicate to the study of that subject. In my case, it turns out I have devoted very little of my time to the study of Chinese culture. This led to precisely one of the aforementioned moments of ignorance when I met the new arrivals at our student dorm. In an attempt to dispel (if only in parts) this ignorance and gain a little more prudence I have since engaged in many conversations with these new acquaintances, one of which I would like to share with you today:

Die Zeitlos: So, Anna, would you like to introduce yourself?

Anna: Hello, I am Anna from China. I will be 20 years old in October and I am a German student from Tong-ji-University in Shanghai. Now I am an exchange student at Innsbruck University where I am taking some of the “Germanistik” courses. 

Why did you pick German as a language to study in China?

Actually, in my first year, when I picked out my bachelor’s degree, I studied sciences: Maths, Physics, Biology, IT- I studied them all. In some Chinese universities it is like the American education system: When you come to university you don’t have a certain subject, you study a lot of courses for one year and in the second year you choose a major. During my first year I realised that science doesn’t interest me but German really did, which is why I chose to major in German. Not only the language, but also the cultural differences between China and other foreign countries (especially German speaking countries) really interests me. At my university there are only three foreign languages available to study: English, Japanese and German. I started learning English in primary school and I knew some Japanese from cartoons and from some of my friends, but I had never learned German before. Germany is very far from China, and I am quite curious about it. I wanted to try it and to learn something new. 

Is English an important language to learn? Is this built into your education system from an early stage? How do the language courses in Austria and China compare, as far as you know? Is there room for improvement?

Unless you go to a private kindergarten, you only get thought some basic English songs there. When I was six, I started primary school and that is when learning English really became a focus. First, we learned the alphabet, as it is usual for any language. Regarding the comparison of language courses, the courses in China are definitely different to the ones I have had in Austria. In China, the language classes are very exam-orientated- we learn to  write and to read in detail but when it comes to listening and oral practice there is definitely room for improvement. “It makes it difficult to apply the language in real life, which is why I want to practice here as much as possible!”

How would you describe schools in China?

In China, the competition is very fierce. From primary school onward the competition increases more and more. In primary school we study mainly Chinese, Maths and English- those are the subjects where we have exams. All the other subjects are secondary. But I saw the news a couple of days ago and the situation seems to have partly changed. The government has made a policy change in order to reduce the stress of the students, so I think maybe it will improve. 

How was your experience in school?

When I was in primary school and middle school everyone cared about grades. The most important thing in school for parents, teachers and ourselves were grades. It’s really not good. We cannot only live for grades. There is really so much more pressure in China than there is here, especially in senior high. I can give you an example. Peking University and Qsinghua are the top two universities in China, and we have 320,000 students in our Province who take part in the university entrance exam. This is not even that many, other provinces have double or triple the number of students, so I was quite lucky. Only, at most, 200 students can go to these top two universities. Everybody is ranked from best to worst. I took this exam in 2019 and my grades are actually not bad. I got into a good university, but when I talked to other students from other better universities, I could feel the difference. I think my university can definitely improve. There is extreme competition between the universities. 

Competition is everywhere. In China, we just have too many people. To survive is a little bit stressful. Of course, people with low grades who are right at the bottom of the ranking also have opportunities, like going to a college, but the well-paid and high-status job opportunities after that are probably limited. And also, the exam is not the same in every province. In some provinces in the south-east, where the education is more advanced, the exam is more difficult. The exam for science students, like me, is made up of six parts: Chinese, English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. The last three will be tested in a comprehensive exam.

Do you have a university ranking system? 

Yes, we have a ranking system. All universities are split into different groups, which have a certain “line” of grades that you need to achieve to attend the university. The line for the first class was 468 points out of 750 in 2019 in my province. If you get a grade below this, you can only go to a second-class university. Even between the first-class universities there is competition. The grade line changes every year depending on the situation. 

How big are your school classes then, if you have 320,000 people graduating from high school in one year?

In my senior high there were 47 students in my class. That’s why I also think family plays a an important role in education because with such a large class,  a teacher cannot dedicate enough time to each student. “I can’t believe you only had 30 people in your class!”

What is university life like in China compared to Austria?

I think the living situation is very different. In China at my university, we live in dormitories which belong to the university, not to a company like here. Also, the dorms are all in one place, not distributed across the city like they are here. For a year of accommodation, including electricity, water, and Wi-Fi we pay the equivalent of 160 Euros. The only thing that is not included is the food: we eat in the canteen every day which is cheap and convenient. We also love to order take-away! We do have one kitchen which the whole building shares. So, we are 1000 people sharing a very small kitchen, but we almost never use it. I only go there when I need to stay up late because I have three room-mates. Another difference here in Austria is that my dorm in China is completely separated by gender- so in my building there are only girls. 

How is the study culture in China? I know you were surprised at the amount of free time when you arrived, why is that? 

Well, it does depend on the studies. In my opinion the medicine students work the most. I have a bit more time, but I also don’t want to waste my time so when I do have free time, I take part in other activities like the choir. I love trying new things, so I am very busy all the time. It is encouraged to do things outside of studies too. It is actually obligatory to do a sports class. Further, we have to take a Chinese history class and a Marxism class, which also covers other Chinese socialist theories. Everybody has to learn it and also has to pass the exam, otherwise you cannot finish your degree. You can fail the exam only twice, otherwise you will be kicked out. For me this is good because I can learn about my country, but at the same time it sometimes takes up a lot of time. 

How is the social life in university in China?

I think the social life is really different. In China if we want to go out, we call the people we know. For example, today I went out for lunch with a friend, and she brought someone I didn’t know. In China that is not really accepted. We don’t really party either, not even for birthdays. Our way to relax is eating a big meal, which is how I would also celebrate my birthday, I would treat my friends to a meal. We dance less and drink less alcohol. That doesn’t mean we don’t go to bars from time to time though, because I really love karaoke!  

To summarise, what would you say is the biggest difference between Chinese and Austrian student culture?

The university life I would say is more similar than high school life. In Chinese high school, we really have so much stress and pressure put on us. I was in boarding school and every day we woke up at 6am and went to sleep at 11pm. We studied almost the entire time when we were awake. The regulations were very strict, we were disciplined very hard. I don’t think this was unique to my school. The competition is so fierce that every school has to be that strict. But of course, we are also students just like any other now: 

“All of us also have travel issues, colourful student lives and love problems!”


Images: Shanghai Univeristy, by Cao Yuxuan