Tag Archives: Student

The Legacy of Qinghuayuan

The trains running through this historic railway station honoured my neighbourhood with 27 traffic jams a day.

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Rails but no trains. Wudaokou, Beijing, 6th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

On 22nd October, expat magazine the Beijinger reported the imminent closure of the Railway station closest to Wudaokou, Beijing’s student district. Qinghuayuan station was built in 1910 as part of the line between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the first ever railway in China.

Until 31st October, two trains stopped at this station every day. One, the #4471, was among the slowest category of trains in China. The 325 kilometer journey between Beijing and Chengde, the location of the Emperor’s summer residence, took 10 hours and cost 25rmb. It stopped at Qinghuayuan for 22 minutes once every day at 9:19am.

The more popular S2 train, between Beijing and two sections of the great wall at Badaling and Yanqing, stopped at Qinghuayuan 26 times daily, costing 7 rmb for the 90 minute journey to one of the country’s largest tourist attractions.

The station was usually empty, as very few passengers chose to catch the train at Qinghuayuan due to its inconvenient location a couple of hundred meters from the North fourth ring road and half way between two distant subway stations. In fact, its existence was rare knowledge among most residents of the area.

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Rails dismantled, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Those who spend time in Wudaokou, however, will have the frequency of those trains engrained upon their memory. Just north of Qinghuayuan, the tracks cross a major road almost directly under the elevated subway platforms, causing serious traffic jams 27 times a day.

Every closure of the level crossing was audible for a mile in any direction. The female announcement voice, siren, and warning bells rang through the surrounding streets, echoing out a cautionary challenge to travellers: can you get past before the barriers close?

A pair of bored police officers stood around, constantly waiting for their moment to shine. With the wave of a flag ahead of the approaching train, they let the world know, ‘I’m helping the world stay safe.’ Cars, buses, and cabs queued up either side of the crossing while bikes and pedestrians crowded the barriers, everyone raring to go and revving motors as soon as the slow, noisy trains came into view.

Crossing the tracks was always a test of how best to time a journey, how to navigate the crowds, how to chose a route through the oncoming traffic and get past the intersection without stopping at the jolt of blaring sirens.

The end of last month saw the closure of this 106-year-old station and redirection of all trains, away from the busy heart of student city.

The speed with which the railway line has been disassembled is testament to the powerful decision-making going on in the city’s heart. There is no reticence here, no public opinion polls, just action. Once the demolition of this small part of Beijing’s history was wished, it was granted. Imagining the obstructing road might be a hindrance to deconstruction, the quick and constant disintegration of this small part of my home has come as a shock, particularly considering the apparent lack of workers involved in this destruction.

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The end of the line, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Where once stood an inconvenient level crossing, which doubled as an unsafe pedestrian walkway, now stand railings dividing foot- and cycle-paths and the busy road. Several meters of metal tracks are still exposed underfoot, embedded in an uneven rubbery surface that pretends to work as a road. The lines of unfettered traffic attest to the improbability of resurfacing. But those tracks lead nowhere, dropping off into piles of rubble at either side of the road, where once-wary hawkers have claimed an extension to their territory.

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No doubt the memory of this old station will soon slip away, lost among disuse and imagination. The building will continue to stand, visible only to those passing above it and watchful enough to actually notice through the steamy windows of the hectic subway. Let the legacy live on.

校园贷: China’s campus loan sharks

There is a phenomenon quietly sweeping through China, aptly named ‘xiàoyuán dài’ or ‘campus loans’, through which university students are falling rapidly into debt with little way out. Young people on university campuses are being targeted by online finance companies who give out loans or brand new iPhones, with no down payment required.

Most of China’s vast student population are supported by their proud parents, and don’t need to worry about tuition fees or spending money. With accommodation fees as low as 600 yuan (£70 or $87) per year, and meals for as little as 5 yuan (58p or 72¢) students can hardly plead the exorbitant costs of life on campus.

That pocket money sent from home, however, is unlikely to cover much beyond the basics. Leaving campus was once an unusual undertaking, a journey of necessity rather than desire or curiosity but these days students are less satisfied with staying put. Wander around the student districts, like Wudaokou in Beijing, and you’ll see streets lined with foreign shops, boutiques, coffee shops, bars, clubs, imported food stores and KTV venues. This is where students manage to drop that cash. For some, spending money is one method of maintaining relationships or saving face.

One report was about a college student in Zhengzhou, Central China’s Henan province, who borrowed 8,000 yuan ($1,214) at first but had to repay about 80,000 yuan in accumulated debt and interest after just six months through a series of repayment borrowings. He finally committed suicide as he couldn’t pay.

Students are suckered into these schemes by the ease of gaining a ready cash flow. Loans are approved within hours, using basic personal information. The consequences probably seem minor in the shadow of all the possibility that cash could grant. However, there is danger in store for these fickle borrowers.

Part of the deal is weekly repayments and monstrous interest rates of as high as 30%. If students miss repayments they can be in for serious public humiliation. Some companies force borrowers to promote the loan sharks to their friends, tying them into a pyramid scheme. Many companies hold precious collateral: students are required to submit a nude image with his or her national ID card in frame, before the loan can be approved. This image becomes the threat: it will be publicly released online in the event of failure to meet repayment deadlines. Some companies offer larger sums (from two to five times more) to those who send nude images, a deal offered almost exclusively to female students.

One relieved student in this situation said, anonymously:

Fortunately, my family paid the money. The interest is very high. If you wanted to borrow 1,000 yuan, the weekly interest is 300 yuan, which means you have to owe 1,300 yuan within a week.

This issue has been widely reported but no law has yet been successfully enforced. This could be due to the low threshold for establishing lending platforms in China, as some companies masquerade under the e-commerce umbrella. Since there are no strict laws or regulations on campus loans, there’s little hope of management, and colleges are being advised to offer financial awareness training to university students instead.

Read on:

China’s Murky World Where E-Commerce Meets Student Lending [Bloomberg]

 

On Teaching

Education is the most valuable tool we have access to.

I have long believed this. But for a huge portion of my life, I didn’t understand the impact this belief should have on my working life. My own education is my most valuable asset. It anchors me, allows me my freedom and never stops growing. Why did it take me so long to begin sharing that passion with a captive audience?

Undergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and IUndergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and I

Two weeks ago, upon absent-mindedly checking my university emails, I was surprised to see an email with the subject line:

FAIL IN THE FINAL EXAM?!

I was mortified. I had managed to award one of my most promising undergraduate students with a big fat zero for both of her final exams. I burst into tears. Frantically, I riffled through my notes until I discovered how the error had occurred.

Solving the problem was complicated but I managed it before the end of the term, receiving an email just a week later from that unlucky student, who was overjoyed at seeing her true results on the official system. My prompt actions may have improved her chances at changing her major from English to Physics (though I will be sad to see her go).

Beside my frustration at both myself and the chaos that is the university grading system (bearing in mind that frustration is an almost daily emotion while living in China), I felt two things:

A profound sense of responsibility for my students

Overwhelming delight at being a teacher (and an appreciated one at that)!

I never imagined myself as a teacher. The truth is, I always refused the idea. When I was a student, telling new people I was doing a drama degree was often met with an initial reaction something like this:

“Drama? So you want to be an actor?”

“No.”

“Oh, right. You want to be a teacher.”

I reckon the student demographic surrounded with the most (and most often incorrect) stereotypes is Theatre students. (We’re all flamboyant, pretentious, lazy and haven’t a hope in hell of a decent job after graduation… which is why we will all resort to becoming the quintessential eccentric high school drama teacher.) And of course, we were all trying our damnedest to break from those stereotypes and prove we have unique (if theatrical) individual personalities.

Teaching was (and is) so often treated as a cop-out, the easy option. “If you can’t do, teach.” I wanted so badly to ‘do’ something, and do it well. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was so concerned with ‘doing’ something I only ever declared utter detest when it came to teaching.

That detest was only fuelled by meeting ex-pat teachers in Korea who proudly proclaimed they didn’t have any relevant qualifications, didn’t make any effort to learn or speak Korean and didn’t show any concern whatsoever about their students’ education or about doing their job well. I distinctly remember one teacher in her thirties (and possibly a little drunk at the time) declaring that her life in Seoul was like constantly being on Spring Break.

When a good friend announced she would be doing a PGCE after she graduated, I quietly thought it was a cop-out move and that she simply didn’t know what else to do (how very prejudiced of me). I had no idea that teaching had been her ambition since before we met. A year later, listening to her talk about the challenges of teaching 14 year old students in the UK, I wasn’t jealous of the difficulties her job posed, but inspired by her joy at overcoming them. I seem to remember her shedding a tear of determination as she recounted the progress she’d made, and feeling an empathetic lump form in my throat.

Yet another 6 months later, confused that my 40-hour weeks spent staring at a computer screen in a North London office weren’t satisfying me, I finally began to reconsider my position. Having decided that my future lay in East Asia but owning little money to get me there, I applied for my first serious teaching job. I realised I had perhaps seen a less desirable side of ex-pat teachers in Seoul and that I could make the simple choice never to be a teacher like that. I put my priorities straight, got myself a teaching qualification and booked a flight. I would be a “Foreign Expert”, teaching English.

After my first term as a Professor in China, I see how much of a good choice this was for me. There are daily challenges to this job. There is learning to be done, relationships to build and a tonne of responsibility. What I do five days a week affects the future of 85 students at various points in their university education. I try to be a good role model, provide inspiration and challenge them. I am their primary source of non-Chinese opinions and ideas. My relationship with my students is extremely satisfying. They surprise and delight me in almost every class. In the final weeks of term, I left every single class with a huge grin on my face, declaring to the cold Beijing sky “I love being a teacher!” Between getting cards, emails, requests for help and being given apples on Christmas Eve, I can only guess that they like me, too.

Interview: Chinese Times UK

IMG_2139This is an interview I did in July about the Beijing Student Forum 2013, which was published in the Chinese Times, in Chinese of course.

1. Why were you interested in the UK-China forum and Generation UK Campaign?

I was interested in the UK-China Student Forum in May this year because I have a deep-seated curiosity about other cultures and a desire to meet people from different ways of life to my own. I have lived, worked and studied overseas for two of the past five years, during which I relished familiarizing myself with the culture of my host countries. My experiences in the past have inspired and enthused me to broaden my horizons and learn more about the globalised world around me and my place in it.

2. Who were the business leaders and Chinese policy advisors you met on the forum? What was the conversation with them that impressed you most?

When we met Chinese politician Zhang Xiaojing, his discussion of the Chinese economy helped me get greater insight into the economic climate of Beijing. I was deeply interested and hoped to learn more through my own future research.

We also met two British entrepreneurs based in Beijing. Dominic Johnson-Hill established successful t-shirt business Plastered 8, and Joe Oliver runs the company We Impact, which works to make new businesses environmentally sustainable. Through conversations with Joe and Dominic, I got a sense of what it would be like to start a business there and I gained a greater confidence in my future. As a graduate the future is uncertain for me, but, through these inspirational discussions, I gained the confidence to believe that through hard work and a creative approach, many opportunities will arise in future. This was one of the most important lessons I learnt during my week in Beijing.

3. How did you find your Chinese counterparts at the forum? What were the differences would you say between the British young people and them?

One of the most important things I took away from UK-China Student Forum is my relationship with a large and diverse group of students. Not only did we build academic and diplomatic relationships, we all became very good friends before the week was out. The Student Forum itself encouraged discussion and exchange of ideas across two vastly different cultures. Every member of the group, whether Chinese or British (sixteen students in total), had a different experience of education. However it was surprising how similar our thoughts were on the difficulties facing students wanting to pursue international education. Many of the students involved commented on how similar we all were, despite our expectations that we would be so different.

4. Do you have any previous experience about China or Chinese people that you would like to share

The primary misconception that many of the British students held is that Chinese students are wealthy. This notion arises from the view of international students in UK Universities: many overseas students are believed to be very wealthy because they are paying higher tuition fees than home students in the UK. However, I discovered that this notion is wrong in most cases. Chinese students studying abroad are often funded at great expense to their families at home, which places great responsibility on the student not to disappoint the hopes of the family. I think all sixteen of the students present would call for greater funding opportunities for students who want to undertake study abroad, wherever their home institution.

5. Do you plan to apply for or have you applied for scholarship or internship in China under the UK Generation Campaign scheme? If yes, what would you expect your journey in China to be like?

As yet I have not applied for an internship under the Generation UK scheme, but have recently begun enquiring about details of the opportunities available. I certainly plan to apply for such an internship, with the help of British Council China. My experience of British Council China during and since the 2013 Student Forum, reassures me that, whatever opportunity I undertake, I will be supported and well cared for by the British Council throughout any time I spend in China.

6. What would you hope to gain from the study or internship in China, and how it would benefit your future career?

As with any prolonged international experience, I would hope to gain an insight into Chinese culture and lifestyle, meet a diverse range of people and learn some of the local language. I believe that any long-term work I could do in China would help me understand the workings of an increasingly globalised world and make me a strong competitor for any international career.

7. How do UK young people view the emerging markets such as China?

From my experience, the majority of young people in the UK are uninformed about China and other emerging markets. Young Britons are primarily aware of China’s economic strengths, but few are aware of the opportunities that abound in China. In my view, work and study placements in China could be the ideal chance for young people to enter the international job market.

8. What would you suggest China to improve in order to attract more talented young people to come for study or work?

I would suggest that more partnerships are organised between UK universities and Chinese institutions offering study or work placements. Study and work placements would benefit from the greater promotion and advertisement such a partnership scheme would bring.

The opportunities available could be more successful in attracting young people by offering financial support of some kind. This may come in the form of supplying accommodation or waiving tuition fees, or providing support with medical insurance, visa fees and other living costs during studentships and internships.

9. UK and China both see increasing unemployment in recent years. Does it worry you and what would you expect the government to do to solve the problem, especially for college graduates and young people?

As a graduand my future is uncertain. I am one of many UK students looking overseas for work, internships or study opportunities as an alternative to finding work in a difficult job market in my home country. I believe that searching for work and study opportunities overseas could solve the problem of unemployment, both on a small and larger scale. As individual citizens, we should not restrict ourselves to working and studying in only our home nation, as we are highly likely to gain a broader range of skills and experiences by working or studying overseas. I believe that governments should encourage work and study partnership opportunities, to enable the international exchange of skills and knowledge.

British Council Student Forum 2013

At the university lake!When I set off from London on my way to the 2013 Student Forum in Beijing I didn’t know what to expect. I had a Chinese visa in my passport and a few pages of information about the itinerary of the week; it all seemed very formal and businesslike, and I wasn’t sure I even owned the right clothing for this type of event! Nonetheless, I left the UK with an open mind, hoping I’d meet some like-minded students, and by the time we left the airport in Beijing, all eight of the British students had begun to get along. Despite the jetlag, we managed to have a wonderful afternoon sightseeing in Beijing with Rob and Adon, who were determined to keep us awake! Looking out over the Forbidden City, through the smog, I felt very intrigued by Beijing and all it’s intricacies, and really wanted to learn more about the city. Our evening meal with Jazreel was the first taste of genuine Chinese food I had ever had, and gave me a wonderful first impression of delicious Chinese cuisine. Jazreel welcomed us warmly to Beijing and made me feel very comfortable; any lingering anxiety was replaced by my excitement about meeting the Chinese students and working together with the group for the rest of the week.

The Student Forum was really successful in putting British and Chinese students in dialogue with one another. The eight students from each country came together in a situation that facilitated discussion and exchange, while enabling a strong friendship to build in the group as a whole. A scavenger hunt in the Hutongs of Beijing on our first day together got us working in our teams and helped us get to know one another. I feel I learnt a lot about China and Chinese culture that morning, constantly asking questions of my peers and answering their questions in turn. That evening, after working on our presentations, the whole group went to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag being lowered. The crowds of Chinese people there astounded me. Only then did I realise the vast size of China; scores of Chinese tourists from all over the country must come to Beijing everyday to see this spectacle. Eating Jajang noodles together in a small restaurant and walking around the area, the group was very amiable and curious to get to know one another. Opportunities for sightseeing and socialising with our Chinese counterparts throughout the week, accumulating in a trip to the Great Wall, was one of the most important things about the experience. I came away from the week with a strong relationship with a large and diverse group of students. Not only did we build academic and diplomatic relationships, we all became very good friends before the week was out.

The Student Forum itself was held at Peking University on Tuesday 7th May, our seconds day in Beijing. In three groups, we presented our ideas about International education; the use of technology in education; and the future of education. This encouraged discussion and exchange of ideas across two vastly different cultures. Every group member had a different experience of education. However it was surprising how similar our thoughts were on the difficulties facing students wanting to pursue international education. We came up with various innovative ways of solving the problems we put forward, which I hope will help the British Council’s work in international education. For example, one of the major challenges to a student hoping to study overseas is a lack of financial support. In the UK, student loans often do not cover a year abroad, and in China, students must rely on their parents to pay the high international fees. We suggested that university institutions could provide information to students about alternative funding opportunities, such as corporate sponsorship or support from educational charities. This might encourage a greater number of students to undertake international study, a valuable part of education. Our education has a big influence over our future, and I believe a global outlook and international perspective is one of the greatest skills a graduate can possess.

On day three, we met a Chinese economist and two British entrepreneurs who have established businesses in Beijing. I got a greater insight into the economic climate of Beijing and a sense of what it would be like to start a business there. For me, the highlight of the fourth day was the evening reception, where I met British people living and working in Beijing, and Chinese people who have studied or worked in the UK in the past. I spoke about my experiences, impressions and highlights of the week. This event allowed us to reflect on the benefits of our experiences and to network with and gain contacts among those people present. Over these two days I gained a greater confidence in my future. Though the future is increasingly uncertain and job prospects are unsure, I gained the confidence to rely on the unexpected opportunities life presents. The British Council say that, “to keep the UK competitive our brightest and best people need to leave the country.” My week in Beijing with the British Council has confirmed my desire to live, study and work overseas in future.