During my first days in China, I stayed with a college teacher in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia province. He was a friend of a friend of my parents friend (can you still follow?). Except for the fact that it was really interesting to experience life in a Chinese family, I learned a lot about college life in China.
On my first morning, my host took me for breakfast in the university canteen. Nothing like a canteen I ever saw before. The variety and choice of food was incredible. I tried a Chinese hamburger with pork and egg and some sweet milk tea. Pong told me he had to wake up his male students in their dorms… this time of the year, they could not be late for school, because inspectors from Beijing were coming to check if this university was still qualified to be a university (instead of a college). He told me I could join him, if I could handle some half-naked boys. When I came with him I thought he should have asked his students if they could handle seeing a white girl on the male-dorms corridors… I don’t think they see a lot of my ‘kind’ walking around at their campus. It looked like a massive hostel. 6 guys per dorm, all just waking up, with the corresponding smell coming from their rooms. Pong told me that there a 1000 students living on campus and that there is not enough money for more spacious housing for them. Despite the large amount of students, the contact between teacher and student seemed familiar and friendly, not the strict, official way I expected it to be. I already noticed this the night before, because Pong chose two of his students to go with him and eat Hot-pot in a restaurant with me that night. He said he chose them because they were better in speaking English than the other students.
After the wake-up call I joined Pong to his class, computer science. Like at the dorms, here also I noticed a really nice and friendly relationship between student and teacher. Later I talked to some students and they told me that college times are a lot better for them than high school. Although they make long hours and weeks at the university, 5 up to 7 days a week from 8am to 6pm, it is nothing like high school. While they hardly have homework after school now, at secondary school they would be in school the same hours (or longer) but had to work until deep in the night. If they would practice an intensive hobby like sports or playing an instrument (which most parents would like their kids to do to stand out), they would have to do it in the early morning before school. Nights of about 5 hours are standard. Everything in high school is focused on the big final exam. Because their score decides which college or university they can enter, your future depends on it. One student I talked to was from Beijing and had to enter a university in Hohhot because her scores were too low to enter university in her hometown. There is a huge pressure from parents and teachers on their students. But once you’ve entered a college, everything is more relaxed. The college teachers, who have been through the same when they were in high school, seem to have a good relationship with their students.
Later I explored a campus site with two students from another university, Frank and Wendy (most young Chinese choose their own English name, to make it easy for foreigners). Apart from the lake without any water (the Inner Mongolia province is rather dry) the campus looked really nice. There was a really big sports field, because the students still have obligatory sport classes in college, like in high school. Every student has to choose a sport, which, of course, you have to do a test for to get in. At the entrance of the campus I see something that looks like a flea market of post packages. It is the place where the students can pick up their online purchases (or food delivery). Convenience is a keyword in China, I would discover that in many ways during my time here. The app ‘Wechat’ is the best example for this, in my opinion. It is a kind of Whatsapp, but messaging is only a small part of it. You can transfer money to people, you can pay with it in most shops by scanning a QR code (they LOVE them here), it works like a translator (sometimes Wechat was the only way to communicate with the students), it has a kind of news feed like twitter/instagram/snapchat where you can post things and you can even easily hook up with random people because it has an open chat function for people who are nearby.
Frank and Wendy also took me to a Buddhist temple in Hohhot. They learned me something about the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism: how they wish for love, health and good luck by burning incense sticks; the smokes will bring the wishes up to the gods. I also talked with them about their college life. Their major was technology. Without even asking Wendy admitted she didn’t really like her major. She would rather study languages. I asked her why she didn’t. She said she fought about this with her parents a lot. But that in the end, she had to concede, because her parents only wanted the best for her: that she would be able to feed herself. Jobs in China are scarce and competition is fierce… without any social security system choosing for a major with future perspectives is something that most students will do here. Frank told me his dream is to become a journalist… I can’t help but feeling sad about the fact that this young, ambitious students will maybe never be able to follow their dreams, at least not as much as I can do now. I realise how lucky I am I was born in a country with almost infinite possibilities… But how is it still possible I see so many people around me choosing for the safest option instead of following their heart and dreams? I stopped being scared of living almost two years ago. It changed my life and it resulted in me making this trip and telling this story.
As the two students light there sticks and wish for good luck, I wished that some day, students in China like Frank and Wendy will have as much good luck as I have now.