March 2010

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Marie goes job hunting

Marie and I are in the same boat: we’re both job hunting.* But for her, the competition is a hundred million strong. Naively, I ask if the job market is tough for soon-to-graduate Chinese students like her. “It’s easy to find a job,” she tells me, “but a good job…”

So why not stay in school, and apply for further study? I’ve observed – anecdotally – that this is what most PKU students I talk to plan to do. It’s what eight out of Marie’s fifteen classmates are doing. And Tony estimates only 20% of his classmates are looking for work after they graduate (Leonidas flips that figure to 80% … but his field – applied linguistics – is more vocational than Tony’s, who studies international relations).

For Marie, the answer is simple: she’s always hated her subject, A.I., which her parents chose for her. Her interests have always lied outside the curriculum: in her street dancing and English-language literature classes (this month’s reading: Milan Kundera). After our last chat, she went off to attend a lecture on flower arrangement by a famous (allegedly) Japanese master of the art from New York. So she wants out of campus; to broaden her horizon. “I want try something new, and choose the right path for me.”

One such path beckoned last Saturday, when Marie interviewed for the Japanese interior decoration company Epco. She was terrified that the interview might be held in English, and asked me for a phrase or two about teamwork to use if so. Put on the spot, I included the cringeworthy ‘there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’ on my list – this confused Marie, who isn’t so confident in her English spelling. But she’s feeling confident in herself, spectacle-less after her eye-correction surgery over the summer (her parents footed the bill).

We can breathe a sigh of relief: the interview was in Chinese, and the questions simple (“why do you want to come to Japan?”). But I myself was interested in the answer to that one. Marie told me she loved Japanese culture, which I got the impression she regarded as romantic – hardly something her grandparents would say. Plus, she’d heard the wages in Japan were high. So it’s a clear front-runner against existing work offers in Beijing, Kunming – capital of her home province, Yunnan – and far-flung Xinjiang.

So does she still see herself under the cherry blossom in five years? Tellingly, her plan is to work for two or three years, then go back to school. True to form, her dream has changed yet again: now it’s economics at Harvard. And on a broader level, it’s a dream which is in line with what I’ve seen across campus at the elite universities of Beida and Tsinghua: that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t work, it’s study abroad.


* I have to ask: does anyone reading this want to hire me?

In the sister post to this one, I tempted the Gods by moaning to heaven about my bus ride from hell through Wudaokou intersection every morning. And sure enough, the Gods had their revenge last evening: in the ugliest traffic jam since the invention of the horn, bus 307 took 45 minutes (I timed it) to travel a hundred or so meters, through three crossroads and over a railway track. Time to dust off my bike.

In a moment, I’ll continue with a few more national stereotypes by Chinese from the ethnic hotpot that is Beijing’s student district. First, two quick comments on the ones I raised before: Koreans and Japanese. First off: I don’t mean that all Chinese in Wudaokou have this bad opinion of all Koreans. But more than once I’ve heard this ‘street wisdom’: the best Koreans go to study in America, the second best go to Europe, the next best stay home, and the rest come to Beijing.

To be honest, I think there’s a little truth in that: it strikes me that a lot of Koreans studying here are enjoying the freedom of being away from their parents, and the ridiculously cheap prices of their beer and fruit compared to home. This goes for most of Wudaokou, of course, but the Koreans seem to enjoy it … louder.

As to the Japanese, it goes without saying that any stereotype in China is rubbing up against the shoulder of a seventy year old, very deep-seated, animosity. This doesn’t mean that young Chinese feel the same hate as their grandparents do: many love Japanese culture, and even want to move there (like Marie). But it’s difficult to grow up in any environment without it rubbing off.

I remember a Japanese classmate last year, who told me he was impressed by the friendliness of the Beida campus towards him, until the time a student came up to him and said (only said) “I want to hit you”. And as ‘Mark’ commented in my last post: “That’s also why Japanese keep to themselves in China. It’s not hard for them to get dragged into a fight just because they’re Japanese.”

Now, onto the juicy stereotypes. First up, America! Also in the comments, Edna writes: “the response I’ve come across all over China is ‘Ah? You’re American? But you don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes…Are you sure?'” The other common stereotype I’ve heard complained about is that Americans are sexually adventurous, and the girls are loose. Yankee readers: any more?

Finally, the question “what about indians?” is posed to me by a commenter with the eyebrow-raising email address awesomearmpit@. Well, awesome armpit, I’ll defer to the Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar, who in her enjoyable book Smoke and Mirrors writes of the knee-jerk reaction of countless Chinese when they see she’s Indian: an assumption born of too many Bollywood bootlegs that all Indian women are prone to burst into song and dance, in a colourful saree.

Please comment with any stereotypes you’ve seen in China of your own motherland – I’m British, remember, so (apparently) I’m too reserved to ask anyone myself.

There are three words that strike fear into my heart like no others:


I hear wang li zou – “move inwards” – every morning on bus 307 from my flat to my school at Tsinghua. It’s the anthem of the bus attendants – typically middle-aged woman – whose job it is to ensure everyone swipes their card to pay for the ride and moves inwards to allow space for the next batch.

So why so fearsome? Because my flat is, so to speak, ‘the wrong side of the tracks’: to get to Tsinghua I have to cross, at rush hour, the railway tracks at Wudaokou – front-runner in my books for the title of ‘most poorly thought-out intersection in China’. Schizophrenic traffic lights, endless tides of pedestrians, and death-wish drivers combine in a perfect storm.

My company during this half hour traffic bottleneck? A fresh elbow at every turn. Five minutes before my stop, I have to start shouting xia che! xia che! – “I’m getting off!” – and jostle through a crowd viscous enough to make Marmite jealous. I have actual bruises from the bus doors closing on me. If an electric clock displays 3:07, I start shaking uncontrollably.

Wudaokou is the centre of Beijing’s student district. As such, it has representatives of every corner of the world: Europe, Latin America, the Slavic world, the US of A – Beijing has attracted young graduates from them all, come to be immersed in a new language and culture. The result, of course, is that if you choose to live in noisy Wudaokou, you end up learning more about international than Chinese culture.

Another result is that for the Chinese student population of the area – students at Beida and Tsinghua, for instance – impressions of certain nationalities invariably form. As a Brit, I strike lucky: it’s common knowledge in China that all English are perfectly mannered gentlemen, refined and polite if a little aloof – in short, Hugh Grant.

Koreans are less fortunate. Even if – or so I’m informed – Chinese girls think Korean guys are ‘cool’, the main impression seems to run: Koreans are noisy, boisterous, drink too much and generally piss Chinese off. It’s certainly true that every Korean guy in a two mile vicinity of Wudaokou intersection wears the same affectedly bended baseball cap and drives the same ‘look at me’ electric bike.

Over dinner with Tony, William and Leonidas the other night, I heard another one which doesn’t come as too big a surprise either: Japanese all keep to themselves. The Japanese student population of Beijing, it seems, are reticent to the point of hermeticism – fixing a stereotype of their nation in this particular corner of China. And here’s another gem from Tony: “all students from a country ending in -stan claim they are a Prince.”

The list goes on – but I won’t, as my laptop is going to run out of battery at any moment. I’ll return to this theme later – if you’re a foreign student in Beijing and have come across the same first response to your nationality time and time again, please post a comment.


如果你看得懂中文, here’s a quick link to this Chinese translation of my interview with Daniel A. Bell on the film ‘Confucius’. The translation is by Professor Wu Wanwei of Wuhan University, and appears on the website Confucius 2000 (as if one Confucius wasn’t enough…). My thanks once more to Professors Wu and Bell.

In a desperate, last-bid attempt to offset the destruction inflicted on my body by Beijing air, I swim two or three times a week. In this respect, my move from Beida to Tsinghua campus was welcome: the latter’s swimming pool is where China’s Olympic athletes trained, and I enjoy it’s palacial feel, unnecessarily big clock and actually hot showers.

Sectioned off a the other end from the pool is a diving area, including some terrifyingly high platforms – off which terrifyingly young Olympic divers of the future jump, during their daily training. So my pitiful doggy paddle is to the sound of the (non)splash of 5-year olds hitting the water after perfectly executed backwards-double-tuck-twist-turns.

I took my camera in last time, thinking of sharing this impressive sight with you. But the powers that be thought otherwise: as soon as I took the lens cap off, a friendly if insistent old man emerged from his poolside office to mumble ‘eh! … eh! … eh!’ at me, putting his hand in front of the lens. “You can’t take photos here”, he frowned.

I asked to see where this rule was written down, whereupon he led me out the back-door of his office and down the corridor. I gave up after the third turning when I realised he was likely taking me to the administrative centre of Tsinghua in my swimming trunks, but I’ll take his enthusiasm as a sign that this rule really is written down.

Which begs the question: why is it forbidden to document diving practice? Is it another ‘state secret’? Are these kids in fact simulating dive bombing, for military application? Or did this man simply fear I was going to post a mocking video online with the caption “look at that 5-year-old’s lame third somersault – China sucks ass!”.*

As a petty act of rebellion, I went back later on, with my camera hidden under my swimming cap, and took this quick video before the man could stop me. Rage against the machine! These are older divers, but that first jump still scares me silly:


* pretty much every foreigner in China has a story about being stopped from taking a picture somewhere or other – it seems ingrained into the psyche of the Chinese security guard that every foreign devil with a camera wants to humiliate China on YouTube.

Jetlag and sleep deprivation are both powerful forces of slumber, but neither could make me sleep through the combination on lantern festival of firecrackers marking the 15th day of the new year, and my cat’s equally loud excitement at my return to Beijing. (My picture of this – the lantern festival, that is – up on China Beat tomorrow today.)

Now I’m back in class, and as before I will fill the cracks in my wall of homework with blogging on the Chinese youth on and around the campuses of Peking and Tsinghua universities – following six stories from the generation that will change China.

It seems an appropriate preface on both study and blogging fronts to translate an essay I read recently in my Chinese textbook: “University students’ sense of responsibility” (大学生的责任感), a 1978 essay by Zhang Yifan, taken from Man and Society (人与社会) magazine.

I’m doing this, to be clear from the outset, because I think it’s a load of utter tosh.

Here’s Zhang’s opening (after a lame apology that his isn’t an “objective” study):

I find that at present many university students lack a sense of responsibility, can’t be certain of their own part to play in society, and consequently lack the strength to make progress.

For the majority of students, he goes on, their “attitude to study is for the most part extremely passive”; those with a positive study attitude are truly rare (凤毛麟角 – as rare as a phoenix feather or unicorn horn). Or to be specific:

They study not because of their own interest, nor to improve themselves, but only to get academic credit and eventually a diploma … their only concern is to find a relatively good career.

That’s a criticism of Chinese students by older generations (this is an assumption – I think a pretty safe one – that Zhang is older) that I also hear today. Students are irresponsible: they don’t care about their studies, they only think about their CV.

That may be well and true for many (and not only in China, by the way). But can we stick with ‘many’, in that case, and leave the pronoun ‘they’ out of it? Please don’t go moaning about the ‘quality’ of Chinese students (their suzhi ç´ è´¨ – a word I’ve never liked), as Zhang does, as if you can sum up a generation in an adjective.

What Zhang does have going for his diatribe is that the system gets an earful too:

education is almost entirely aimed at [getting students through] the two narrow doors of gaokao and zhongkao [middle and high school exams].

The education students receive before college, Zhang writes, is all about ‘cramming’ (填鸭式 – a wonderful phrase, literally ‘force-feeding a duck’). And the prevailing atmosphere is of 升学主义 – a more clumsy to translate ‘philosophy of advancing up the education ladder’. Zhang goes on:

Once they’ve gotten into university, there’s no need for another gaokao, all their pressure suddenly eases, and the only goal which attracted them before and encouraged their effort disappears with it.

Students are equally mindless, we gather, when they come out of college:

To many graduates who intend to continue studying abroad, I ask them what their career aims are? Why are they taking graduate study abroad? The majority are at a loss, they don’t know how to answer, they only know they must get a PhD or master’s degree and then think again.

Again, there’s a grain of truth in this. When I showed Tony this essay, he said that the above rings a bell when it comes to many of his classmates. But Tony himself is an example of a soon-to-graduate student with a very clear goal for study abroad. In my experience (albeit at two elite universities), there are as many exceptions as ‘rules’. And … dare I say it … are young people not allowed to be uncertain about their future?

My objection to Zhang isn’t that he’s all wrong: it’s that it’s all too easy to lump Chinese youth into one category, blaming the suzhi of “irresponsible” students without any sympathy, and with only a cursory look at the root education environment. (This said, Zhang does blame schools for neglecting moral education – deyu 德育 – and family heads for only wanting their kids to get into a famous school.)

For me, the final straw was this bitter beauty of a whine:

[Students are] extremely self-centered. You only need to observe carefully, and it isn’t hard to discover that among those chatting loudly in public places, or cutting queues, many are university students. … [they] constantly raise requests, but infrequently express gratitude. … [they] are only concerned with their own interests, and don’t know how to respect and thank others.

Quite frankly, when I read that shopping-list of complaints, my mind leapt to older generations of Chinese: the loud businessman with his mobile on the subway, the taxi-driver spitting out the window, that kind of thing. I also think of the film Grumpy Old Men, and the phrase “kids these days…”. I guess: each to his own stereotype.

Of course, this post is a little spurious: it’s a 1978 essay, after all. (Which begs the question: on what basis what Zhang writing this thing, anyway? Universities only just opened again in 1978, after the college wastelands of the Cultural Revolution.)

So forgive me for falling into the same trap as Zhang did, and mouthing off. But I hear it all too often: Chinese students today only care about themselves. That’s why I enjoyed this reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun – or at least that past generations grumbling about the irresponsible youth of today certainly isn’t.

Exhibit A: here’s a member of more-or-less exactly the generation Zhang is talking about – also, to polish off the irony, surnamed Zhang – who has grown up only to complain in turn about the next generation (for those behind the firewall: Zhang Shihe, 56, quoted calling students today “the stupid generation”), thirty years on.