Differences in university dorms for Chinese and foreign students rattle netizens

"One Country / Two Dorms," a short video by foreign student Futura Costaglione, interviewed 12 university students in China, half Chinese and half foreigners.

A video that aimed to show the disparity between university dorms for Chinese students and overseas students in China recently went viral on Chinese social media. It was shared thousands of times, with many claiming the current arrangements favor foreign students over locals.

“One Country / Two Dorms,” a short video done by foreign student Futura Costaglione, interviewed 12 university students in Beijing and Lanzhou, Gansu Province, half of whom are Chinese and half foreigners.

In case you have never studied in China before, foreigners attending Chinese universities are usually housed in separate dorms with rooms for two, which are basically very similar to hotel rooms with two single beds, a TV, a desk, WiFi and a bathroom.

Chinese students, on the other hand, have rooms that are a bit more cramped, with four, six or eight students in a room similar to that of backpackers’ lodgings. There are often bunk beds, and each student will have a small area to study. In many cases, students need to use communal showers and bathrooms. 

Of course there are variations, but that’s generally how it goes.

Naturally, the video kicked up a bit of a storm — that was clearly the intention — although I’m not sure how, since Chinese students have known that foreigners’ dorms are slightly better since ever.

I’ve studied at four Chinese universities in my time, and at each one I made sure to have a single occupancy room with its own bathroom. And I paid through my teeth for the privilege.

For me, it comes down to mathematics: There are tens of millions of Chinese university students studying at any one time, while foreign students make up just a small fraction of any school’s student population.

There is only limited space, so the majority of Chinese students, under the current infrastructure, need to share resources with others. That’s just a necessity if you happen to be born in the world’s most populous nation. On the other hand, most foreign students expect international standards, so providing that is a necessity if China wishes to attract students from around the world, which it does.

Differences in university dorms for Chinese and foreign students rattle netizens

Dorms for Chinese students, like this one above in Chongqing, are usually designed for four, six or eight people with bunk beds, while foreign students are often housed in dorms for two (below), which are very similar to hotel rooms, like this one in Shenyang, Liaoning Province.

Differences in university dorms for Chinese and foreign students rattle netizens

The mathematics of the situation also extends to money: What the video failed to address is that having your own room, or sharing with just one other, comes with a hefty price tag. My room at Fudan University (I only stayed for a semester, actually) was 2,400 yuan (US$363.60) per month, while a good friend who currently studies at Shanghai University pays 1,400 yuan per year for his room with three others. That’s 116 yuan per month!

What the video also doesn’t mention is that plenty of foreigners would absolutely jump at the chance to spend the same amount Chinese students do and live in similar conditions, but it is not allowed. On the flip side, Chinese students who want better living conditions can and do pay extra to live off campus. In this regard, Chinese students actually have more freedom, if they also have the money.

Another interesting part for me was how one foreign student mentioned that a cleaner comes into their room every day, while Chinese students need to clean up themselves. That’s news to me, to be honest, because none of the universities I’ve studied at provided cleaning services.

The video concluded with a plea to the Chinese government to “improve the living conditions” of Chinese students, banking heavily on this notion that somehow the rules for Chinese are super strict and unfair. Again, that's not my experience and maybe just reflects the standards at the two universities featured in the video.

At Fudan University, for example, Chinese students are free to come and go as they please. But foreign students need to show identification each time they enter the international dorm area, and friends need to leave identification at the gate. One time two friends from New Zealand came to visit me and were not allowed in to see my room because they refused to leave their passports with the security guard.

I felt quite restricted there, to be honest (that wasn’t helped by the all-encompassing electric fences around our building), which is why after the first semester I found a place outside of campus.

I think the video probably touches on some salient issues, but the makers need to add a sharp dash of reality and think about the situation with more of an analytical mind.

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