Thursday, January 28, 2010

Foreign and Chinese university students in China: same campus, different world

It was reported in this article in China Daily that the government has just quadrupled the monthly allowances of Chinese PHD students in 35 different universities of Beijing. In 1996 the sum had been frozen at 250 yuan a month, but this year it has been increased to the much more reasonable sum of 1000 yuan a month. Anyone who has the slightest experience of life in Beijing will know that 250 yuan a month is just about enough to eat, and nothing else. Most PHD students have other sources of income, like part time jobs or extra money from their colleges or their families, but they still have much lower incomes than most other Chinese university graduates of their age with jobs.

Foreign students on Chinese government scholarships like me tend to get much higher allowances than the Chinese students do. As a master student I get 1700 yuan a month, and foreign PHD candidates get 2000 (this is not including accomodation, which is paid for). Most of the Chinese university students I know have to subsist on much lower sums, although some lucky ones with well-off families may get a lot of money from their parents.

The dorms for the foreign students in Chinese universities are also much higher quality than the dorms for the Chinese students, and far less overcrowded. In my campus, Chinese undergraduate students share rooms for six people, master students are four to a room and the lucky PHD students share double rooms. On the other hand, foreign students share double rooms if they are doing a master, and enjoy single rooms if they are PHD candidates. What's more, our dorm is incomparably more comfortable than the Chinese students' dorms. Our rooms are of the quality you might find in a good hotel, with a bathroom in every room, and a kitchen on every floor.

On the other hand, the Chinese students have to share common bathrooms, and when they want to have a shower they have to go to a special shower room in a different building. They have to pay for all the hot water they use, including when they shower, as a result of which many of them choose not to shower every day (although the cost of the hot water is tiny, if you have a 5 minute shower every day it might add up to about 60 yuan a month, which is a big sum for some students). There are also no kitchens in the Chinese students' dorms, forcing them to eat in the canteen whether they like it or not. They have no televisions, and no air conditioning for the sweltering Beijing summer, whereas in my dorm we have both.

The Chinese students also live in dorms which are separated by sex, and it is hard if not impossible for someone to visit a dorm of the students of the opposite sex (as far as I know, boys are only allowed into the girls' dorms in exceptional circumstances). The foreign students, on the other hand, all share the same dorm. What is really surprising to Westeners is that in the dorm for the Chinese undergraduate students (who may be in their twenties) the lights are turned off automatically at 11 pm, forcing them to bed. After all, you wouldn't want them staying up all night playing computer games, and the idea that adults have a right to make their own decisions doesn't seem to hold much ground here. I have heard of even more repressive university campuses in other parts of China, where the students are forced to wake up in the morning and go outside to do their morning exercises, and receive lower grades if they don't do so. However I have never witnessed such things myself.

The only thing that my dorm has in common with the Chinese students' dorms is the lack of lifts. Most of the dorms are around six floors high, including my one, and even if you live on the sixth floor like I do, you still have to walk up the stairs every time. Good for your health I suppose. In all other respects, we are much better off.

Given the disparity in our living conditions, I sometimes feel a bit embarassed about inviting Chinese students I know to come and see me in my dorm. Every time one of them does, they always comment on how nice my room is, no doubt with some envy. Luckily this situation does not seem to generate any general resentment against the foreign students.

I understand the reason for giving foreign students nicer dorms than the local students have. It would be very difficult to find foreigners, let alone Westeners, prepared to accept living in rooms for four people, having to go to a different building to have a shower, and in general putting up with such uncomfortable conditions. Before I came I was rather shocked to realize I would have to share a room with one other person, let alone three, although I have got completely used to it by now. When I tell Chinese students that in British universities even undergraduates have single rooms, they are usually quite surprised. They don't necessarily envy it though. In fact they often ask if it isn't lonely to live in a room all by yourself. Privacy is not as highly valued in China as it is in the West, and other people's company is usually considered to be an enjoyment rather than an annoyance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Biggest snowfall in 60 years and freezing cold in Beijing

The whole of the Northern Hemisphere is currently in the grip of particularly cold weather, from North America through Europe and Asia. Here in Beijing, the winters are usually extremely cold anyway by most people's standards, with the average temperature in January being -1. But this winter is definitely colder than usual, and the last few days have been particularly bad. On sunday Beijing saw the heaviest snowfall since 1951, with 3 inches falling on the city (and this time the snowfall was entirely natural) . Since then it has been unusually frigid even by Beijing's standards, with the temperatures constantly below -10 and falling as low as -16 in the night. The heavy snow and the freezing cold have disrupted the traffic and daily life up to a point. Most flights from Beijing were cancelled on sunday, and on monday all of the city's schools were closed because of the cold and the snow, an unusal event in the city. Fortunately the authorities have prepared some warm shelters for the homeless to ensure they don't freeze to death. 300,000 snowshovellers worked for hours in the open yesterday to clear the streets from the snow.

Personally it is the first time I have the experience of going out and doing things in temperatures below -10. As long as I make sure I wear warm clothing I find I don't have too much trouble, although of course I try not to stay in the open longer than necessary. However, at least the snow is pretty, and it makes a change from the usual dry and windy barreness of Beijing in the winter.

I really have to sympathize with the migrant workers living in the poorer neighbourhoods of Beijing, since many of them have quite inadequate heating. They often have no central heating, but perhaps just an electric heater in one room. I also can't help empathizing with some of the foreign students in my dorm, coming from places like Africa or Vietnam or Indonesia, who have never experienced temperatures below freezing before. Most of them are doing their best not to go out at all.