China café: foreign students

Foreign students are descending upon Beijing, but young Chinese still dream of studying abroad
July 21, 2010

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.

West of the tracks, past Google's Chinese HQ, but east of the imperial summer palace (visible on an unsmoggy day) are the country's two top universities: Peking University, known locally as "Beida," and Tsinghua University. Studying here, at the Chinese equivalent of Oxbridge, are the incredibly small percentile of young Chinese who scored high enough on their college entrance exams (gaokao) to get in.

One of them is my friend Cheng Liang, who studied philosophy at Beida. He goes by the English name of Leonidas, chosen after taking a course in ancient Greek (selected because "there was a beauty in the class"). Now a graduate student, he is applying to US universities: his top choice is linguistics with Noam Chomsky at MIT. We got to know each other through a weekly language exchange: half an hour of Chinese, half an hour of English.

While international students cram Chinese characters down the road, Leonidas is studying for the English-proficiency tests he must pass to realise his dream. He's spent months learning difficult vocabulary from a thick book, averaging 40 pages a day. Even as young westerners are descending upon Beijing, the brightest Chinese students still dream of studying abroad.

Leonidas and I are in Happiness Coffee, a small cafe near my flat. We're two blocks east of the Wudaokou tracks, far enough away from the bottleneck to find a little breathing space. This cafe has yang qi (a foreign feel). Wang Xi, the young boss, serves espressos and spaghetti, which he calls "Italian noodles." Some nights he invites a guitarist to play or screens a film. In the summer heat, he's been trying out Paris-style outdoor seating, but it doesn't quite work in the heavy air pollution.

Leonidas looks around him and sips his iced coffee. It's his first time here. He has no other foreign friends in Beijing, no meaningful contact with the whirlpool of western student life next door to his university. "I want to go to see the world for myself," he says, "but I see the world has come to Beijing." On a Friday night in Pyro, a pizza bar in Wudaokou, a western student can feel that they haven't ventured further east than Berlin. The west is in the east, and the east continues to go west, but the two still aren't meeting enough.

Mark Kitto is away