Student Life in a Chinese University by Virginia Black

Students here at Heze Teachers’ College range from18-25 years old. Men and women seem equally represented though there are more women than men inthe Foreign Language Department. If you are a student here that probably means you failed to pass the test that would allow you to go directly to a university.
The school is currently a two year college, the lowest in status of China’s higher education system. However, it is college and for each student here, there are dozens who didn’t make it to this level.
The college expects to become a four year college with university status in the very near future. Since we arrived there have been several administrative meetings addressing that issue. There has just been printed a very impressive brochure about the soon-to-be college.

Nearly all the students come from peasant homes. After graduation they will return to their hometowns and become teachers in rural middle schools. Were they not here, most of them would be working in the fields with their parents, and neither they nor their parents want that for them.

10ecc8840Toward the end of their second year they begin to take exams hoping to qualify to go to a university. The exams are endless, it seems, and  I don’t understand how the system works. It is fierce and very competitive.

I recently asked them to describe a day in their lives here at school. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Here is my view of their day and my knowledge of their environment here. There are about 250-300 apartments on campus that are filled with non-students: retired faculty and faculty and college employees. Student body is about 2,500. So there’s quite a little community right here on campus. We have many children of all ages and many elderly grandparents who look after the children.

Each morning we are awakened to the sound of music. The campus loud speakers blast out different musical offerings but the first is always a march. What follows is without reason. This morning a Sousa march was followed by Doe, a deer, a female deer and the Goatherd song from the Sound of Music. Then came Jingle Bells and at last Gaite Parisianne.

10fea8750Before the music begins at six-thirty, the students have followed their early morning routine, which is to dress and wash their faces. No make-up. No bath. They race to the campus and join in exercises, the instructions for which are broadcast over the speakers. Exercises last for about thirty minutes. While this is happening there is a group of old people out in the front park doing Tai Chi.  Some of them are quite impressive with their slow and determined moves. The ceramic tile mural is of Peonies, which got their start in this little town of Herze.

10eea66d0After morning exercises, which do not appear exhaustive, the students go to the canteen or dining hall to get their breakfasts. They love to have porridge for breakfast with a mantou. The porridge is extremely bland and the mantou is just steamed bread, very white. Sometimes they have a boiled egg or some vegetables. They eat rather heartedly at this meal. The majority of them take their breakfast back to their rooms to eat. I see them scurrying out of the canteen, their little clear plastic bags full of vegetables and a mantou in one hand.

10f0a8700By seven-thirty most of them are in their classrooms. Classrooms are self-contained. The student receives all his instruction from this one room, except the very little computer and listening instruction he gets. There are no places for them to study or to keep their books. The tops of their desks are covered with books, sometimes piled four and five high across the top. There are no lockers in the school or library. There are no desks in their dorm rooms.
There are reading rooms in the library which are just big rooms filled with very long tables where they sit quietly and read.

Almost everyone in the building where we teach is an English major, and they have all been instructed to practice their oral English before class begins. And they have been told to read or say their words as loudly as they can!! If we come to class early, which we have now learned is a teacher no-no, the building sounds like a bee hive, working overtime. Just before eight they quieten and sit attentively waiting for us. Often they applaud when we enter.  Many students wear glasses. Many of their glasses are broken.

Classes are over for lunch at 12 and they go to the canteen.  Each has an enameled  pot that they take with them to the canteen for their lunch. The food is all put in this one little pot, and they use their chopsticks, kuaizi, or drink their lunch, which again is hearty. After lunch they rest in their rooms and the loud speakers play soothing and popular music, no rock or anything too stimulating.

By 1:30 they are back in their classrooms for afternoon instruction, which lasts until 4. During this time they are free to go to the library if they have no formal instruction during this afternoon period. If I go back to the building during a time I know they do not have formal instruction, I find nearly every one of them sitting quietly in his desk, studying. No one makes them do it. They just do. You would too if you knew the life of the peasant…which is what they are trying so hard to avoid. Still it is amazing they are so self-disciplined. At four they leave the building and are free until 7:30 when they return for two more hours of study. This time, too, is un-supervised. I see them, each in his desk, head down. A room full, fifty students, all still and quiet for two hours! This night-time study is seven days a week!!

10f285d30One morning I told some of my second year students that I would like to see where they lived. A chorus of sweet and eager voices welcomed me to their dormitory. I met them a few hours later at the college store near their dorm and  about six of them, took me into and through their dorm and to their rooms.

The dorm is one of several identical dorms on campus. We entered through the main door which looks no different from the others, and we stepped into the entry hall. It was dark, the floor was concrete and there was a glass top display counter with othing in it on the left. The girls said it was the receiving room. The dirty walls had nothing on them. We came upon the main hall which ran through the center and length of the building. They showed me “the sickroom”. No adult was present, but there was an old wooden desk, two desk chairs and two half/twin beds. In the shadows of the unlighted room, I saw a young girl raise her head to peer at us. Down the hall was a “telephone supermarket”. It was a place where the girls could go to make their out of town calls. It was very “cheap”, they said, but it was locked.

We made our way to their rooms on the third floor. The stair-well looked just like the ones in the foreign language building, dark and dirty, exposed concrete throughout. Once again, the steps were of uneven heights and occasionally gave me an uneasy feeling. On one of the landings and at the bottom of the steps several rag mops stood proped in a corner. The girls do not have to mop these halls and stairs except periodically, but they must always keep their rooms.

The girls could not hide their excitement at having me visit. They chattered softly in Chinese, probably hoping I would not hear. I have told them “only English”. Their English is very halting and it was a strain for them to have a conversation with me.  They had worked so hard to make their room neat and tidy, and it was.
Every room is alike. The room is rectangular with one standard sized window to the outside. Beneath the window is a small table. Beneath the table are 8 large green tall plastic thermos bottles in which hot drinking water is kept. The Chinese always drink hot water, never cold or room temp. There are 8 beds, bunk beds, primitive, old, painted blue, wood, 4 up and 4 down, against the walls. The ceiling is very high, maybe 14′, which helps enlarge the small room. Near the door there is one wardrobe. There is no closet, but there is a chest of drawers.

On the beds there is no mattress or springs but on each bed 2 blue plaid comforters to put over the wood, one to sleep on and one for cover, I guess. There is one pillow. Linens are furnished. Also furnished is an 18″ white enameled basin and a 4″ bowl. All three of these enameled pieces have red letters and numbers spray painted in the bottom and on the side. The basin is for washing clothes and face, the bowl for tooth brush and water, I guess. The P-pot is for food from the canteen.There are no desks or bookshelves in the rooms. All 8 girls use the one wardrobe and one four drawer chest of drawers.

10f484c80On each floor there is a room which is for washing clothes. The floor of this room is white and blue ceramic tile. In the middle is a large drain. On either side is a trough about waist high into which the girls can put their basins while they stand on a raised platform to wash their clothes.
10f66aaa0When the weather is nice the students hang both bed linens on wires to air they string from bush to bush, tree to tree, or anything they can tie rope to.   When the student washes, all by hand of course, he hangs his laundry on a pole from the window of his room. There are always lots of clothes hanging from the windows.

All the students appear happy. In the paragraphs I have asked them to write, they indicate how very nice their lives are. They love being with each other and feel they are very fortunate indeed. They do not know any other life than theirs. Most do not know life outside this province.

10f89b830I asked where they took a bath. “Oh,” they said, “when you want a bath you go to the building near the athletic field.” It seems there is a building there especially for bathing, but I was not permitted to go there.

Boys are not allowed in the girls’ dorm. The girls have very few clothes.  There is no place to put them.

All students live on compus. Even the ones whose home is in town live here, or at least have a room here. I do not understand whether there is “bed check” or not.  I do not know whether there is someone to check on their safety. However, their lives are such that I am sure no girl, or boy either, goes anywhere alone at night.

I do not think they date. I once saw a boy walking hand in hand with a girl. I have seen very little evidence that boys and girls are interested in each other as members of the opposite sex.  Their custom is for girls and boys alike to go around holding hands, the girls a bit more than the boys. There is no public kissing or hugging. No provocative clothing or remarks. Nothing even a teeny bit off color. Not once have I seen anything out of line. Boys and girls alike are extremely shy and retiring.  They seem to do the same things everyday. There is no variety to the Chinese student life that I can see.

10faa1690Their houses all seem to look alike. There seems to be very few social class levels that I can determine by just looking. Their English is so soft and gentle, their own language sounds harsh and accusing, as if they are angry with each other. More often than not they sound so mad. We have learned not to worry.  What often appears to be a huge confrontation ends with laughter!

Students are crying this week, visably. They are sad we are leaving. They say, “We will remember this time forever.” It makes me feel a little guilty to be so ready to come home. Not ready to leave these people, just ready for my own bed and water and friends.