Campus life in China: crowded, cheap and calm

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and is spending the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.

The muddy roads through campus at The Harbin Institute of Technology are under construction. Men push tractors that look like they were used during the Japan-China war in the 1930s, while 20 people swing pickaxes and shovels to finish laying pipes before the ground freezes at night. I’ve just woken up and stumble through their worksite while flipping through flashcards, trying to memorize new Chinese characters. Like many things in China, the campus at HIT is a little hectic.

This atmosphere is undoubtedly influenced by the constricting boundaries of the surrounding city. Year by year, university enrollment increases and China’s universities become more and more crowded. As I’ve said before, HIT’s Number One Apartment is the largest dormitory in Asia, housing over 4,000 students.

Up the hill toward the academic building are the two main cafeterias, which feed the vast majority of HIT’s 20,000 students.

Cafeterias serve food for three hours every day – one hour each for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner is only served from 5 to 6 p.m. Students file in, eat in five minutes, and have all left by 6 p.m. Eating is not a social event, and the less time it takes out of their day, the better.

These two cafeterias prepare something near 20,000 meals three times daily, which are eaten within an hour. If you arrive at 6:15 the cafeteria is empty, food is cold and fuwuyuan (cleaning ladies) are waiting for you to finish.

The food moves as fast as it is cheap. Students can eat a meal of rice and meat dish for as little as 25 cents. I usually go a little extravagant, buy a Coke and extra cold dish and spend about 75 cents. But typical university students are operating in a different economy. If you can believe it, one month of Thurston’s rent covers the typical Chinese college student’s tuition, room and board for a year.

In the cafeteria, the tops of a sea of black heads are looking down, slurping up noodles or holding a bowl of rice in hand while chop sticks make a kind of twirling movement sending rice flying into their mouths. In Chinese there’s a saying, “heiyaya,” which literally means endless and dense black. Colloquially it’s translated as black heads for as far as you can see. It’s a fitting phrase for the scene at the cafeteria.

The other connotation for “heiyaya” is that males far outnumber females. At HIT, this is certainly the case – the ratio of male to female students is 7 to 1. After my roommate told me this, I asked, what do the other six boys do?

The majority of these students spend substantial amounts of free time online, playing Internet games such as Warcraft and Counterstrike or chatting with friends. At HIT, students seldom go out to parties or bars. The most common social activity is going out to dinner with friends or going strolling through the city center. On campus on a weekend night, any student on the street is almost assuredly a foreigner. The campus dorms have their lights out at 11 p.m. and are locked by midnight.

After studying in Harbin for a month, I have realized U.S. college students lead a pampered life. We eat Au Bon Pain bagels for breakfast and exercise on ellipticals after class. In China, college life is a little more basic. And thus, Chinese college students seem to feel a little less self-important than we do in the U.S.

Even though I’m a foreigner, and have plenty of money to spend, walking through the dusty construction sites in the morning and sitting down amongst a sea of black heads to slurp on a bowl of noodles, I too am starting to feel a bit like a Chinese college student.

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