Foreign students are descending upon Beijing, but young Chinese still dream of studying abroadby Alec Ash / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
At rush hour, it can take 40 minutes for bus 307 to cross three sets of traffic lights and a railway track at Wudaokou intersection in northwest Beijing. Pedestrians cut across the path of our driver as we stutter another metre forward. Cyclists mount the kerb to cross the tracks before a train passes. Street vendors on three-wheeled carts hawk stationery and bootleg get-rich-quick books, getting in everyone’s way.
These crossroads are a candidate for the worst-designed in the country, yet Wudaokou is at the hub of Beijing’s foreign student population. As China rises as a global power, more and more people want to learn Mandarin. The Communist party is fostering this surge of interest, subsidising foreign students with scholarships. Many Chinese universities now offer language courses for overseas students, often with a business focus; private schools have also sprung up. Together with the Confucius Institutes in foreign cities, which promote Chinese culture and language, making international students welcome is key to the government’s soft power drive.
Last year, President Obama pledged to increase the number of American students in China from 13,165 to 100,000 over the next four years, to match the number of Chinese students going to the US each year. Joining the Americans are students from across the world: Ukraine, Uzbekistan, South and North Korea—a Sichuan-style hotpot of nationalities. There are more than 230,000 foreign students in total; over 2,000 are British. In this square mile of Beijing, one can learn more about the world’s cultures than about China’s.
But these students, like me, came here to learn Chinese. Mastering Mandarin is a process that can be compared to bashing your head very slowly with an ancient and beautiful brick. Over 3,000 characters need to be memorised before you can read a newspaper. The four different tones of speech blend into a drunken slur by evening. Next morning, class is at 8am sharp, but not everyone turns up. For many foreign students, a year in Beijing—too short a time to get a grip on a language that takes about three years for conversational fluency—is merely time away from the pressures of home, spent in western-style bars and cheap restaurants.