Observations on Chinese student life 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — University life for students in China mixes the regimentation of a secondary boarding school with the freedom of young adulthood. After five months here, I still find the combination baffling.

In a similar vein, I have learned that Chinese parents and secondary schools are generally far less liberal about their children’s social connections, especially dating, than most Western parents. This parental control can extend into the child’s university years, as well, to an extent that would drive most Western students batty.

Whether the added supervision of teenagers and young adults is a good thing, I cannot and should not say. It’s not my culture, after all. On one level, I can understand the motivation for such tight control of youngsters. A child here is a precious investment in a family’s future, and because of national birth-control laws, an extremely limited resource.

Most Chinese families can legally have only one child; if they live in a rural area, they can legally have two. There can be dire consequences for couples who have a little oopsie, and produce an additional child above the legal limit. Those consequences include hefty fines, additional taxes and job demotions or barriers.

Chinese culture is more conservative than Western culture, so there is already a cultural reluctance to grant young people a lot of freedom. If you also consider that any child is a one-time-only gift to a couple, parents probably want to protect their children from harm and from potentially dishonoring the family. Thus, parents keep a close, draconian eye on their teenagers’ social life.

The emphasis on education is another big factor in sheltering children from what most Westerners consider normal rites of passage into adulthood. Middle- and high-school students spend their time in a pressure cooker of study, study, study, test, study, study, study, test, culminating in the critical college entrance examination. The scores on that examination determine a student’s future; poor scores doom the student to a life without a college education or perhaps a decent income. In China, children are expected to support, even house, their parents until they die. So, the results of the Chinese college entrance examination have far-reaching consequences, much more than shoddy scores on the SAT or ACT might have.

My evidence is pretty anecdotal, but I am living in a socially more conservative area than say, the cosmopolitan cities of Beijing or Shanghai, so I am reasonably sure that the generalizations that follow are accurate. My students will see this post on my Qzone page, so I hope they will comment on it.

It is fair to say that Chinese children stay children longer than in the USA. That is to say, parents and society prevent them from interacting with the outside world in the ways American teens can. They cannot drive a car until age 18, so their mobility (and privacy) is restricted. There are really no part-time jobs available for them to work, so they have no real opportunity to work alongside other youngsters or adults, apart from their own family members.

Parents and schools tightly constrain youngsters’ leisure time. Students have lessons on weekends, and free time at home (or in the dormitory for boarders)is usually for doing sports, homework and further study. If the child is allowed TV access, Chinese TV is nowhere near as racy or provocative as even American network TV (not to mention US cable or European TV) is, so there is less chance for them to see the adult (mis)behaviors American parents dread their children seeing on the tube.

[The Internet, despite the Great Firewall of China, is a mitigating factor, however. Like teens everywhere, Chinese students are tech-savvy, and manage to watch what they want when they want either on their computers, or on their MP4 devices. So, some of my students have acquired American ways of thinking that sometimes puts them at loggerheads with their parents.]

Most parents actively discourage (and prevent) their high school age children from dating or even from having boy- or girlfriends. For the majority of students, then, their first real opportunity to have relationships — sexual or romantic — usually has to wait until they enter university. Even there, their free time is restricted in many ways.

One college senior told me her mother still periodically checks the girl’s cellphone message and Internet email queues to see if there is evidence of any boyfriends in her life. Her mother has kept this vigilance up since the girl was in middle school. A freshmen confided in me recently that she has fallen in love with a classmate, but fears telling her mother since mom has strictly forbidden the girl from having a boyfriend in college, so that her grades do not suffer. (Honestly, even as a parent, I cannot see how anyone can realistically expect to enforce such a ban. Chinese hormones are the same as American hormones. Love is universal.)

At this university, and I suppose elsewhere in China, the dormitories lock up for the night at 10:30, or sometimes at 11 pm. Spending time with students in the evening requires us all to keep a careful eye on the time, as students may not be able to re-enter their dorms if we stay out too late. (Though, of course there are “secret” methods of re-entering after curfew — another universal human behavior.) Dormitories are single-sex only; girls may visit the boys’ dormitories, but boys are not permitted entry to the girl’s dorms, or even to their quads. With as many as 10 students to a room, the chances for couples to have some private time together in a dorm room are virtually non-existent in any event.

Unescorted visits to members of the opposite sex seem to be frowned upon, anyway. They are Just Not Done. This is a poor generalization, however. One of my student female friends, aged 20, is notably reluctant to visit my apartment without someone else in tow, despite our spending time alone together shopping and eating elsewhere. On the other hand, another girl the same age cheerfully visits with me, sometimes for an entire afternoon, with no supervision. [At this point, I hasten to add that there is a stipulation in my contract that I have no “love relationships” with students. I confess to being a little hazy as to what that exactly means, and whether it applies to all students or just the ones I teach. So, in some ways I appreciate the caution of my female guests, not to get rumours floating around. I rather like my job here, thank you.]

Couples do manage to acquire some quality time. The trees around Fengyu Lake provide excellent cover for kissing and whatnot; and there are several hotels near the university that willingly rent out rooms, no questions asked. Some couples go so far as renting apartments in town, to facilitate their trysts. While there are cultural taboos against premarital sex, and potential problems for would-be brides who are not virgins, sexual mores are changing here, albeit slowly.

Other social activities remind me of the images we have of the quintessential American high school of the 1950s. We don’t have sockhops here, but group activities — like the end-of-term college parties I attended — are just as chaste and alcohol free. The games at the parties were just clean fun, but for someone accustomed to the often drunken mayhem of American university life, they were more like the activities at an American pre-teen’s birthday party than games for 20-somethings.

Which, I must say, is not a bad thing. American uni students seem bent on spending as much time as feasibly possible in chemically altered states, despite being under less academic pressure — typically — than Chinese kids are. There is no apparent restriction on alcohol sales here; the campus supermarket sells (admittedly watery) beer and the more potent rice wine, but there are cultural taboos against public drunkenness. Men are more likely to drink (and smoke) than women, so an American-style coeducational kegger would be a pretty unlikely event.

On the academic side, class schedules for most students resemble American high school than American university schedules. On some days of the week, students might have six to eight hours of classes. They might also have required study sessions early in the mornings, or late in the evenings, and additional meeting times on weekends. Attendance is monitored, though not to the degree that it is in secondary schools. Teaching for most subjects depends almost exclusively on lecture and recitation, with little of the give-and-take class discussion even US middle school students enjoy. And there are the ever-present examinations (with attendant long-term consequences) looming in the not-to-distant future: finals, English mastery tests, postgraduate exams, etc., etc.

That their behavior seems more innocent than American university students’ does not imply Chinese students are childish in mind or beliefs. While most seem to possess an infectious, childlike optimism, the students I have spent time with are thoughtful, mature young adults, with serious concerns both for their futures and for the future of their homeland. They — especially the older students — recognize the corruption and foot-dragging of the central government, and chafe under the infuriatingly conservative restrictions of home and school. The younger students seem more “westernized” in some ways than even the seniors, a tendency that one of my senior friends has also noted, which leads me to suspect that China’s “opening up” thirty years ago will in another two or three decades result in a China that will be in many ways unrecognizable to people now.

Perhaps my students’ children then will enjoy freedoms their parents now only wish for.

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2 thoughts on “Observations on Chinese student life

  1. Reply eljefe Feb 13,2009 9:06 am

    This comment was left by one of my seniors on my Qzone page:

    Completely agree with it, my life is the example…you know it.

    The reason for Chinese children stay children longer than in the USA is that chinese parents always think their children are kids no matter how old they are; they want daughters and sons stay with them until they leave this world, that is what we call xiaoshun in chinese — mandarins [little emperors], however,they might not know what their children want is more than [that]. It could be lived in an independent life or form a family by themselves.

    Westernized also could be considered as both with advantages and disadvantages. For the good sides, they know how to deal with their life and their own friends circles, new political ideas and views about the situation of the world, creative and confident enough. What is more, they know how to be a people by themselves. However, the disadvantages are, they try to keep distance from each other, tend to be a cool person, and look down upon those people who earn money by their own hand and [are] in a low position, such as people do clean jobs and collecting dumps etc… They ask [their] parents for the money, but want to live an independent life which seems little out of reality.

    hinese children are little conservative. The main reason is the influence of the long history tradition, from ancient time chinese children are required to be obedient kids, to cherish family and work hard. It can not be changed [quickly], but as we can see the changes in USA for the past 50 years, the same might happen to China. It is just a matter of time.

    i still have many comments, but I am too tired to type, take a rest~lol

    Anyway, good essay, I like it.
    And today is the lantern festival, wish u have a good day, and enjoy the yummy food tangyuan in China with friends.

  2. Reply lucius brundage (bi shen) Apr 25,2012 11:54 pm


    i am an American College student currently enrolled in a zhongwen zhuanye – Chinese major. i needed this page to do a paper on my Chinese Sociology class. after reading it, i can say that i am blown away by your country’s ‘addiction’ to education. this essay was exactly what i needed. i already had an idea on what the life was like for a Chinese student, but this blows it out of the water. i personally weep for the future of America both educationaly and sociologically (and in its current state, financially as well). this essay will definetly help me in my paper and subsequent presentation. this makes me ever more interested when i go to China for my study abroad program next summer.

    bi shen (Lucius Brundage)

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