Living in China
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Chinese Students and their Lives
Daily Life Chinese Students and the Foreign Teacher
All Chinese university and college students live in on-campus dormitories. These are generally large blocks of rooms containing eight beds in two sets of bunks. Between them is a table for the students to work on. There are no cooking facilities and in the south of China they are unheated. The sexes are strictly segregated.
The day begins early, around 6:00 a.m., when everybody is wakened by bells and public address systems playing music at deafening levels. Between distorted renditions of Cantonese pop songs intermingled with the more sugary western hits and Richard Clayderman tunes, come various announcements. These consist of national news, school notices of meetings and blatant propaganda. Occasionally they are brightened up by reminders to pay your phone bill or adhere to the one-child policy. These last two are aimed at the teachers, who also live on campus. The dormitories have pay phones and sexual relations between students are not merely frowned upon, but are actually illegal. Pregnancy while a student leads to automatic expulsion.
Next comes compulsory morning exercise. This is carried out to the same tune at every college in China and every foreign teacher (yes, we live on campus, too) comes to hate it. The exercise consists of jumping up and down for a few minutes, and I seriously doubt if it is of any real physical benefit. But that is not the point. Control is everything.
Following exercise, students head off to breakfast. This is taken in the school canteen or in a number of small privately run places outside the school gates (most of them run by teachers' families). Steamed buns and soya milk seem to be the favourite round here, although deep fried dough sticks come close.
By 7:30 all the students are expected to be in class. Classrooms are laid out with screwed-down desks and chairs and generally each class has its own classroom. The peeling white-wash covered walls may sport a few notices, propaganda slogans and pictures of revolutionary heroes (Mao, Marx, Deng Xiao Ping, Lenin and Stalin), but nothing educational. Windows are broken and flap in the breeze. Most teaching is done in these classrooms. Lectures are much less frequent than in western universities. One student in each class is designated as the class monitor, normally elected by the class. They are responsible for administration of the class, liaising with the department, organising class events etc. There are other students responsible for study matters, living arrangements, sports etc. These are useful people to identify. A message to one of them saves the teacher having to contact each student to pass on information.
In most colleges there are four periods in the morning. These are organised into double periods, so there are two lessons. Each period lasts 45 or 50 minutes with a ten minute break. There is a long lunch break, especially in the south where the break can be three hours in the summer months. In the afternoons there are a further two to four periods, followed by a compulsory activities period. Activities can consist of sports (the Chinese are VERY big on sports) or dance practice or sweeping up the campus.
In the evening, the students return to the classrooms for 'study time.' This means that they all sit in their classrooms memorising textbooks or completing homework assignments. They are generally unsupervised, although there is a teacher on duty each evening who has at least a cursory look-in on each class to make sure that they are all there.
At night, the students have a strict curfew. At ten-thirty or eleven, dormitory doors are locked by the staff employed to 'look after' them. If they fail to beat the deadline, they are locked out for the night.
And, so to bed.
For most foreign teachers, the great joy in the whole China experience comes from the students. In Chinese culture the family is paramount and so family ties are strong. For the average Chinese students the idea of leaving the sanctity of the family, travelling half way across the world and living in a culture where the language, food and daily life are completely alien, is beyond understanding. It would terrify many of them to take on such an undertaking. As a result, they are generally extremely grateful that you have made the journey.
At first contact, you may find that the students are incredibly shy. Certainly, much more so than their western counterparts. They can also seem somewhat immature in comparison with western students of the same age. This, I expect, is a result of the extremely sheltered and controlled upbringing they have. Never make the mistake of talking down to them however. Like students everywhere, they take great exception to being patronised.
In time, the students will thaw out and begin to ask you questions. This can be interesting at first, but can also get tedious. Chinese people in general tend to be very interested in your life and will question you remorselessly. However, they all tend to ask exactly the same questions in the same order. At first, I thought this was a result of their limited language skills, but as I learned more Chinese, I realised they ask the same questions in their own language (and of each other.) I will not list the questions here - you will know them soon enough - other than to say that there are no taboos on asking your age or salary in China.
Before long, you will find that a small self-selected group of students will have become much more confident and will even go so far as to visit you in your apartment, offer to accompany you on shopping trips etc. Most do this quite genuinely out of friendship, but there are a few who may 'use' you as extra language lessons. You quickly learn to differentiate.
As you live on campus, and as most of the teaching staff spend most of their time with their own families, the students can become your main social group.
Many many students have become firm friends. I am still in contact with a number of students who graduated up to eight years ago, and a few have become real friends. That is more than can be said for the teaching staff.
to be continued