Pros and cons of Chinese studying overseas

Tatiana Gordeeva
An increasing number of Chinese students are studying abroad for more opportunities and new vision of life.
Tatiana Gordeeva

More than three years have passed, but Gao Liming still feels grateful to have been selected as one of the four students in his major at Shanghai Jiao Tong University to travel to the US for a half-year program to study mechanical engineering.

“Although it was only six months, I benefited a lot from the overseas study project,” says Gao, a native of Hohhot, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. “I learned self-discipline and teamwork, which is crucial and helpful even in my current life.”

Gao is one of tens of thousands of Chinese students who are sent every year by the Chinese government or their universities to go abroad and study in academic and cultural exchange programs.

China’s Ministry of Education reported that 523,700 Chinese students went abroad in 2015, and the total number has been around 4 million since China launched the reform and opening-up policy in 1978.

The most popular destinations are the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. And the major subjects chosen to study vary among science and technology, engineering, language and cultural programs.

Going overseas gives Chinese students an opportunity to master a foreign language and a major subject, meet new friends and experience a different culture.

In addition to their major courses, many Chinese students would also like to take classes from other departments to make the program more fulfilling.

“In my third year I went to New York for one semester at Barnard College where there was a wide range of courses on offer. So I selected Japanese, a private piano class and psychology,” says Serina Wang, a fourth-year bachelor’s student majoring in English language and literature at Shanghai International Studies University. “Every class was interesting and inspiring.” 

Based on different programs, the duration of overseas study varies from three months to one year and even longer.

However, with language barrier and cultural differences, Chinese students going abroad often find it not easy to get involved in a new environment and understand a foreign culture.

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Gao Liming (third from right, back row) from Shanghai Jiao Tong University visits a local elementary school for disabled children during his six-month study program in the United States.

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Gao Liming (right) with his American family

Cultural barriers do exist

At the Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, in 2014, Gao Liming chose four courses in robotics and took part in a collaborative project called “Senior Design,” aiming to create and manufacture a novel bike rack storage system.

When asked about the differences of learning robotics in China with that in the US, Gao says, “It’s more about theoretical aspects back home, while in the US it’s more about practicability. In my home university the theories were rather difficult and I memorized them for exams. In America, however, the theory was not so hard but quite useful, which we learned just to solve a certain problem.”

Besides academic study, Gao spent time with a local family every week. One of his favorite memories was a Halloween party, where he wore a spooky costume and taught his American friends how to cook Chinese food.

Gao found American people very friendly and open. However, the language and certain cultural barriers did sometimes make communication difficult.

“At lectures American students and professors often laughed at something that I didn’t get,” he says. “And also, it was really hard for me to share my feelings and thoughts with people from a different cultural background.”

Despite those drawbacks, Gao, impressed by the academic strength in the US, is going to work on his PhD degree in mechanical engineering at the Robotics Institute in the University of Michigan.

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Ning Jiayu (center at back) shares a light moment with his local friends in Casablanca, Morocco.

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The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Adventure in Arabic world

Ning Jiayu is a fourth-year bachelor’s student in Arabic language and literature at Shanghai International Studies University. He believes he’s made the right choice as Arabic is one of the six official languages of United Nations and widely used by 22 Arabic countries.

“In China people don’t pay much attention to Arabic compared with other Indo-European languages like Spanish, French and Russian. Maybe because it’s not so popular and also quite hard to learn. Choosing Arabic, I got less competition and therefore more benefit,” he explains.

Ning, who is from Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, took part in a three-month exchange program in 2016 at University Hassan II Casablanca in Morocco to further his studies in Arabic literature. However, after he arrived there, he found what he’d learned in Shanghai ─ modern standard Arabic ─ was totally different from what he heard in Morocco, which are local dialects Darija and Barbari spoken by ethnic minorities. 

Spanish and French are also widely spoken, with the latter a compulsory language at school and university.

“I didn’t expect people in Casablanca to be more fluent in French than in Arabic,” says Ning.

Among cultural peculiarities, he noticed that the majority of young women, especially those who live on the coastline of Casablanca, didn’t cover their faces while women living in the inland cities did follow the tradition.

“Casablanca is by the sea. People there are more open-minded. I heard that only 20 percent of the women there wear scarves. But if you go inland, it seems that every woman wears a scarf,” he says.

Life in Morocco, however, was not always light and bright; it sometimes prepared for Ning some unexpected situations.

“One day I ordered a taxi to Fez from Meknes. Before we set off, we had already fixed a price. But the driver always asked for more money saying he would take us to more places. I felt so annoyed and ended up adding 50 dirhams (US$13.6) and said, ‘It’s for your service’,” Ning recalls.

But the lack of organization in tourism and service industries in Morocco didn’t hold him back. Ning visited 11 cities, tried wind-surfing and enjoyed the stunning landscapes and ancient mosques. 

After graduation in June, Ning says he will work at the Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd, a supplier of video surveillance products and solutions, which has business in some Arabic countries.

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Song Ke (left) with her local friends in France

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Song Ke poses with the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

France not always romantic

Song Ke, a third-year master’s student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University majoring in industrial engineering, got her double degree in performance and risk management at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes, a high-level engineering school in west France, in 2014-16.

Song says it was really a challenge for her to attend lectures and seminars in French. Due to the language barrier, she couldn’t grasp much information at first.

“Academically speaking, the French language was pretty hard to learn and I couldn’t catch up with the teachers’ speed,” says Song, a native of Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province.

Working experience was a compulsory part of Song’s university program. She found her three-month internship at Faurecia, an international automotive parts manufacturer, very useful and interesting. 

Through working on a bumper project and making control plans to guarantee quality, Song learned how to deal with real engineering problems.

She also learned an unusual way of greeting people, Faire la bise or kiss on the cheeks. “When I arrived at the Faurecia office, I always greeted my colleagues in the French way. Just as the saying goes, ‘Do in Rome as the Romans do,’ although in China we just say nihao (hello) or shake hands, in France you follow this romantic ritual. So lovely,” Song says.

Despite her unforgettable experience in France, Song says she isn’t going to work there in future.

“I see more perspectives for career promotion in China,” she admits. “I feel lucky that I came back because in France I wouldn’t find a suitable job. I definitely don’t have much advantage over local people.”

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