This is college?!

Trip Start Jun 14, 2012
Trip End Jul 02, 2012

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Flag of China  ,
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Today, we're making the first visit to
a Chinese college in NIU history. We'll be visiting three in total,
the first was Beijing Normal University, typically known as BNU. This
is not the most prestigious college in China, but it was selected for
our trip because of some rather interesting features.
-It has a student body of over twenty
thousand students.

-They were originally founded as a
female-only teaching college.
-Their students are known for public
activism and dynamic leadership.
-They have a sprawling campus with an
odd blend of architecture.

-Their colors are red and black.

...Yes, this is basically the Chinese
NIU. Schools such as this one are not the top-ranked universities,
but still rank heavily above the vocational colleges and teaching
schools. Likewise, Northern is not Ivy League, but we're one of the
best public universities in the region with untold history and
competitive programs. It's about twice the size of Northern, in the
heart of the city with nearly all of its student body and faculty
living on-campus in their own community. They're primarily known for
their graduate programs, but undergrads are reasonably represented.
Our visit was planned and executed by one of their departments, which
immediately became obvious as we noticed the amount of polish and
planning throughout our visit.

We were immediately welcomed in a
formal conference room and given refreshment and information packets
as we were briefed on the history of the college by a department
head. Sitting across from us sat ten college students who were
visibly from a wide variety of backgrounds and fields with outfits
ranging from formal business to that 'I wore a shirt with a collar
just for you' look engineers seem to have around the world. They
introduced themselves with their English names, and appeared to be
hand-picked to represent the many departments. The faculty speaker
then casually explained that these were the top ten students in the
college and they would be hosting us for the day when they weren't
taking their final exams.! Out of twenty
thousand? And these people had exams to take while we were wandering
their campus taking pictures of recycling bins that looked
interesting? This extreme show of dedication was so impressive it was
almost overwhelming. NIU certainly cuts no corners when it comes to
presenting ourselves, but gathering the top students for an all-day
presentation during finals week, while speaking and translating a
foreign language? Wow.

After a walking tour of the college, we
settled into the athletic park of the college. I immediately spotted
a platoon of army cadets practicing hand-to-hand on the soccer field
while most of the students seemed to be playing basketball. Like many
areas in Beijing, this area featured a collection of brightly painted
weight lifting machines left out in the open for anyone walking by to
pump out a few low-weight repetitions. I noticed that these weight
machines had a fixed weight of about forty pounds on each exercise.
Talking to our guides about this, they seemed confused at the idea of
lifting large amounts of weight for exercise. Coincidentally, we have
not run into any Chinese with the extremely muscular body type you
find on male gym rats back home. Even the soldiers and the cadets on
the training field were lean and wiry. If I had to guess, this is a
result of the local diet and their disdain for heavy weight lifting.
Back home, I've known Chinese Americans who were incredibly muscular
and competed in bodybuilding, but they ate and train like typical
American athletes. I'm personally a fierce one hundred and twenty
seven pounds with a physique comparable to Bill Gates in his prime

To break the ice and get the groups
talking, we went through a series of leadership building activities
that brought back nostalgia for many of us. Anyone deeper in student
organizations has been through a number of these games before, our
hosts seemed shocked at how quickly we took to them once we
remembered the games from past conferences and training sessions.
Three legged races, hula hoop passing, arm knots, jumping rope...It
was a lot of fun, getting people laughing and tripping over each
other is one of the old stand-bys when it comes to getting college
students to work together.

After the games, we had a break period
where we had a chance to kill some time. The males of the group made
a beeline for the basketball court, eventually we had to pull them
away from it when we had to head out for lunch. We ate in one of the
university restaurants, since our food choices took extra time to
prepare we made small talk with the students for the better part of
an hour. I cannot say enough good things about these BNU students. I
thoughtlessly replied to a question in my weak Mandarin and they
practically applauded how natural it sounded. My Chinese is truly
terrible, yet they seemed just elated that I was attempting it. Most
of them admitted to having chosen their names from American pop
culture, explaining that many Chinese choose 'Jackie' if their last
name sounds even remotely similar to 'Chan' for obvious reasons. One
new friend of ours goes by 'Jack' after the main character in

When my meal was finally brought
out...the table clapped. This is a lighthearted tradition in Chinese
culture, the last meal or person to be served is treated as a grand
event. While waiting for the food to cool, one of the quieter group
members was nudged to ask me something that required some courage.

“You seem rather long
have you been divorced?”
No, it wasn't a long weekend in Las
Vegas. They had noticed I was wearing a silver ring on the little
finger of my right hand, in China a male wearing a ring in this
manner is displaying his ex-wife's wedding band to declare that he is
back on the market. As far as I knew rings were still uncommon in
Chinese culture, this tidbit is truly surprising.

After lunch, the groups migrated to a
local bar and played some of the most intense foosball I have seen in
my life. We had to play with a tennis ball on a tilted table, but it
was more emotional than the last Olympic Games to us. The pre-planned
leadership games were a nice touch...but when it comes down to it,
the games found in the typical college bar are where true
friendships, rivalries, and international connections are made. I
forged new friendships shooting pool in Africa, proved myself with
foosball in Beijing, next year I'm challenging Germany to air hockey.
I appreciate the effort to induce bonding, but they could have
welcomed us and pointed to the foosball table to save time.

For our tour of the eight-story library
complex, things became oddly high-tech. Noise policies are strongly
enforced, so we were each given a wireless earpiece so the tour guide
could whisper into a microphone while we were shown around. It was
indeed completely silent, which was bizarre seeing as nearly every
chair, desk, and flat surface was occupied by a student bent over a
book or laptop. Every single chair for eight floors, all silent and
immersed in whatever they were reading. This is what a Chinese
library looks like seven days a week. Following eight hours of class
(You heard me), students find a space to study and go through their
homework and readings until about midnight. If you're an engineer or
a chemist, you're going to be at it until one or two in the morning.
On weekends, you study every free second you have when you're not
working, tutoring, or volunteering.

This may seem superhuman or
obsessive-compulsive to most Americans reading this. In China, it's
simply what college means. Any student from any walk of life can end
up going to a top college with subsidized tuition and scholarships,
it simply entails spending their entire childhood studying and
preparing themselves for the major exams that decide their futures.
Once they qualify, they carry this work ethic until graduation
because they believe their fate relies on not only staying in school,
but excelling. Chinese college students almost always graduate in
four years except in certain programs, and the scarce few who do drop
out do so because of financial or personal reasons. They simply do
not relax until they have graduated with a degree and are employed.

While Americans are now attending
college in record numbers, going to college is not the elite
challenge that the Chinese have made it into. Nearly half the
students who enroll in higher education in America do not return for
their second year, final graduation rates vary. While this includes
people who transfer schools or have financial problems, the dropout
rate is a very real problem throughout the United States that
everyone casually accepts. My job with the college primarily deals
with freshmen and I've lost count of how many I've seen drop out
because they weren't ready for higher education or couldn't handle
their new independence. Some students are very aware of their
struggle and switch to community college to improve their GPA so they
can transfer back later. Other times, students simply keep on
partying until I get an email explaining that they've been
academically dismissed and have to immediately pack their things and

Americans consider college the last
stretch of childhood and students are allowed or even encouraged to
have as much fun as possible before they graduate and start working.
This can include parties that make the film 'Animal House' look
family friendly, road trips to the city to dance in clubs, or
attending conventions where you can dress up like a superhero and
play with Pokemon cards. Don't judge me. Whatever your preferences
are, just live it up while you can. Go to class, get your homework
and papers done, but find yourself and have a good time. This is the
period where most students experiment with alcohol for the first
time. A 'college town' naturally includes a variety of bars, and most
convenience stores keep packages of ping pong balls next to the cash
register for some reason. Even renowned CEOs and scholars are known
to make jokes about their antics 'back in college'.

Meanwhile, China has their college
students memorizing textbooks, treating every test like we treat the
SAT, and scheduling their lives around their ideal study habits. They
haven't had free time since early childhood, they function without
it. These are not the supernerds from the hard sciences, this is
every warm body walking around campus. I could throw a hardcover book
into the middle of this library and it would bounce off three people
who could ace the GRE. Saying you're a college student in this
country earns respect and admiration, and quite honestly it's

By the time the day ended, we'd grown
quite fond of our hosts and saying goodbye was a rather painful
affair. According to Chinese tradition, we exchange small gifts to
commemorate the day. We presented them with various bits of NIU
memorabilia while we received gorgeous porcelain pens engraved with
the school's logo. I'm proud to wear red and black and am glad we
shared those gifts, but I'm a tad particular when it comes to showing
appreciation. Before the day was over, I made a point to shake hands
with the student who'd made the deepest impression with me and
presented him with a Zippo lighter I'd brought from back home. Why a
Zippo? The same reason I carry one every day, it's a simple and
timeless design that is known around the world as an American icon.
Coincidentally, there is a massive market for them throughout China
due to the country's heavy smoking habit. Seeing as they're
American-made, they're sold with an extremely high import tax that
makes them a rare luxury item. My new friend was incredibly grateful,
he felt compelled to remove his name tag, write a meaningful message
on the back and presented it to me as an improvised gift. That's one
souvenir I'm keeping on my shelf.

Following our excursion with BNU, we
headed back to Golden Street for some window shopping. This time,
however, we headed down a side street that advertised video games.
All the males of the trip, myself included, have been trying to
locate one of the infamous arcades since before we left. Halfway down
the alley, I looked to my left and saw the wall open up into a dingy,
faded, but crowded and very chaotic arcade. We spent nearly half an
hour simply marveling at the foreign games which included oddities
such as playing the drums or imitating a hula hoop motion, and of
course tried our luck against the locals in classics such as Tekken
and Street Fighter. Eventually, we owed the females some time
wandering through the alley looking at clothes, trinkets, and
scarves. We've started to grasp bargaining with locals. Never bother
looking at the price tag, ask the seller personally. If it's in
English, they'll give you a lower price and act like it's an amazing
deal. This deal will halve itself when you walk away looking
disinterested. If you know Mandarin, they seem to back off the usual
sales pitch and simply bring out a calculator to propose their price.
Every single stand keeps a large calculator around just for when
foreigners show up, you usually hand it back and forth arguing prices
with it. Whenever they notice me speaking Mandarin, there seems to be
a silent double-take but they jump back to selling their wares. A
foreigner that speaks the language is just a foreigner that's harder
to make money off of.

Waiting for the bus back to the hotel,
we noticed a Haagen Daaz ice cream restaurant off the main strip. We
simply had to. We missed American cuisine, we had a long day, and
these stores are such a rarity in the States that it was worth
stopping by. They gouged us with paying nearly ten American dollars
for a cup with two scoops, but it was at least high quality. In the
past, I've considered 'going native' to be an important part of
international travel. Out here, I have this odd feeling that I
shouldn't try it this time around. We attract crowds and
photographers, the city is designed to herd us around as sources of
income, and even after years of studying it I'm a tad overwhelmed
with the radical changes in lifestyle.

Yes, if this were a proper immersion
study I should be eating nothing but rice and crucified tarantulas.
I've considered what the toll would be on my physical and mental
health, and quite frankly I don't regret eating Haagen Daaz in
downtown Beijing.

Tomorrow, we're visiting another
college. I'm told it's one of the most elite universities in China.
Should I bring some ping pong balls?  
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