Learning across the world: Chinese vs. US college experience

Learning across the world: Chinese vs. US college experience

Tom Hanaway Published 10:59 a.m. ET July 2, 2011

Fu Chenning understood the firm rules of the Chinese classroom while studying at the Zhejiang School of International Studies in Hangzhou, more than 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. There she obeyed the boundaries between professors and students: Professors lecture, students listen.

Only a year ago she was in a different world at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where that boundary isn’t as defined. Professors would often start the class by rehashing highlights from the latest football game or chatting about upcoming weekend plans.

“It is impossible for that to happen in China,” she said. “Impossible.”

Fu, who graduated in June with a degree in English, said most professors at Chinese universities strictly talk about course content and rarely defer from the subject at hand, let alone ask students about their personal lives.

“Whenever the American professors find something they want to talk about, they will drop the current topic and talk,” Fu said, who studied at Washburn University during the 2009-2010 school year. “Professors in China will only talk about the content in the textbooks.”

Fu, who will be an English teacher at an elementary school in Hangzhou, said she quickly realized many aspects of American universities were quite different from the classrooms back home — from the homework to the syllabuses, or lack thereof.

“In China, we don’t have syllabuses,” she said. “It’s really convenient in America because we will know what homework we will have to do, but in China you need to be prepared all the time.”

While Chinese students might not know when exams will be or when homework will be due, they know one thing for sure: They will not have discussions during class.

Some might assume that discussions are strictly banned in classrooms because of the country’s communist ideals, but that is not the case. Zheng Naifeng, a mathematics professor at Ningbo University, said that students just simply don’t know how to participate in class discussions because of a lifetime of sitting in lecture-style classes.

“In China it’s unrealistic to have discussion with this generation,” said Zheng, who would welcome a more interactive form of teaching and learning.

“I try to give students a lot of time to think about the subject matter before I ask them to discuss,” he said. “But they need to start doing discussion in elementary school so they get used to it.”

Not talking in class might seem odd to some American students, but the process of applying to college may sound borderline cruel. Being accepted into college has become exhaustingly competitive due China’s population of 1.3 billion, which is about four times the population of America.

“There are too many people in China and only a few universities,” Fu said.

According to the Want China Times, 9.33 million students took the nationally standardized entrance exam in June, while the Ministry of Education estimates only 6.75 million students will be accepted into college. That means college is not an option for almost one of every three Chinese students who take the exam.

Chang Zhaowei, a junior at Ningbo University, remembers how stressful it was cramming every day for the entrance exams. He said most students spend the last two years of high school preparing nonstop for the grueling three-day test that is only given once a year.

“Most students work extremely hard because everybody wants to go to the best universities in China,” Chang said. “Usually we will get up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at midnight, and during the day, besides lunch and supper, we will use all of that time studying.”

Getting a good score on the entrance exam doesn’t automatically mean students will be accepted into college though. Due to the ever-increasing population, many universities have a quota system that only allows a certain number of students from each city or province into their schools. In addition there is a quota on majors, meaning that students might get accepted but cannot study in the field of their choice.

“On their entrance exam students list the majors they want to study in college and the schools will choose the students based on their grades and preferences,” Chang said. “For example, if Ningbo University will only allow four students from Zhejiang province to study English, but there are six applicants, then the top four with the best marks will be allowed to study English, but the other two have to pick something else to study.”

That is exactly what happened to Chang, who was accepted into Ningbo University, located in the city of Ningbo about 130 miles south of Shanghai. He was permitted to study math, but originally wanted to study English in order to become an interpreter. Later he was able to find a loophole around the system by taking English classes, receiving good grades and convincing the school to allow him to double major in math and English.

But not all students are as lucky at Chang though. Fu said she was able to take a variety of courses while living in America, but didn’t have those same opportunities in China.

“I took public speaking and an acting class and a broadcasting class,” Fu said. “In China if you want to take classes like that you need to be studying the arts. But for me as an English major, I can’t take those classes.”

While course selection can be limited at times in China, so is physical space where universities normally have three to eight students share a single dorm room.

“The same dorm room in America would only have two girls, but in my school they have six girls,” Fu said. “For me, I think it’s enough space. I don’t think American students think it’s enough space though.”

Chang, who has three other roommates, said that while it can feel cramped at times he likes being able to spend time with students from all over China.

“We are all from different provinces,” he said. “Each province has a different culture, so we get to learn about the different parts of China.”

Some of those new cultural experiences include hearing distinctive accents and dialects from China’s 23 provinces and various cities. Chang, who is from the central province of Gansu, said he still has a problem understanding natives from Ningbo and their “Ningbo-ese.”

Despite the contrasts, college in China does share some similarities with college in America, albeit with some unique Chinese twists. Sports are still hugely popular on campuses, but replace football and baseball with basketball and ping-pong. Chinese students still love partying as well, but because most students live on campus they frequently spend time at KTVs, or karaoke bars.

During her time in Kansas, Fu learned a lot about American culture. However, she actually learned things about her own culture and heritage that she never realized before.

She said she noticed how Chinese people exercise quite often, unlike their Western counterparts, and she began to appreciate Chinese food more after being deprived of it for almost a year.

“I see a lot more than I used to,” Fu said. “I found that going to America helped me understand more about China.”

Tom Hanaway is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where he majored in journalism and minored in Japanese. Most recently he worked as a multimedia intern where he documented a three-week study-abroad trip to China. There he took pictures, recorded audio interviews, climbed the Great Wall and got attacked by a man dressed as a goat. He is now looking for a job in journalism, writing, traveling or social media. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

This story originally appeared on the USA TODAY College blog, a news source produced for college students by student journalists. The blog closed in September of 2017.

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