Journey of a thousand miles

Azam Tariq on the typical Pakistani student's struggle to adapt, learn and prosper in friendly but very different China

Journey of a thousand miles
Chinese cooperation with Pakistan in spheres like infrastructure, energy, general economic development, import and export, international relations and education has intensified over the past few years. In China, the perception is common that Pakistan is an ‘iron friend’ and Pakistan considers China as its principle international partner. This cooperation is manifested powerfully in the field of education: there are hundreds of scholarships offered to Pakistani students in various fields of education. These scholarships are often partially or fully funded by the Chinese government – and there are many university-based scholarships as well. In spite of all these outstanding opportunities to study in China, the journey to getting an education in China is not an easy one for many Pakistani students.

After getting a scholarship from the Chinese government by going the merit-based selection process, a student’s struggle to realise the opportunity begins. The first step is to go through the Higher Education Commission (HEC) attestation procedure in Pakistan: involving the verification of higher education degrees from the HEC, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and a visa process from the Chinese embassy. All of this has to be accomplished in a short timeframe: there is usually just one month to leave for China and only three working hours for the Embassy staff. Students are often approached by ‘agents’ who promise to get things done faster – for a price – during this process. Sometimes brilliant students with good academic credentials have to spend many nights on a footpath to get a visa.
Research work is the main focus. This emphasis on the direct application of knowledge works very well for Pakistani students

After landing in China, the main challenge is that of understanding and speaking the Chinese language (Mandarin). This is also the medium of education as a whole. Even well-qualified people in China are not accustomed to the use of English. Students can find it difficult to communicate with officials of their university. It becomes hard to speak with any Chinese for guidance. Requests for help can often be met with a Chinese ‘sorry’ (bu hao yi si). Buying from a shopkeeper can be difficult. Similarly a student facing problems in their dormitory or accommodation can find it difficult to talk to the management staff. In short, the first experience can often be one of immense alienation for the students.

To overcome the language barrier the students have to attend a basic Chinese language course, which is compulsory for all international students. There are two types of courses: one lasting one and two semesters respectively. Students can choose depending on their priorities in terms of language learning. Thus begins the thrilling struggle to learn Mandarin. It is not without its rewards: having learned the Chinese language you became capable of communicating with one-fifth of the world’s people!

The Chinese climate varies from region to region but it is often unpredictable. Unexpected weather conditions are a significant obstacle to settling in. Temperatures can be treacherous. The rainfall is also unexpected – many students must keep an umbrella with them at all times. In terms of personal health and fitness, it is in a student’s best interest to stay healthy. Seeking medical attention becomes difficult due to the language barrier described earlier: how do you explain to a doctor what your problem is?

The taste of food is very different from Pakistani cuisine. Many students don’t like their introduction to proper Chinese food. Pakistani restaurants are few in number and very expensive. So the students have to cook their own food. Halal food items are rare. An observant student has to spend much time looking for halal food items and then cooking them. Vegetables and fruits are hybrids: good in quantity but often not so good in taste.

The education itself is less theoretical and more practical. All the laboratories are well furnished with equipment for experiments. Research work is the main focus. This emphasis on the direct application of knowledge works very well for Pakistani students. Some professors deliver lectures in Chinese, which foreign students can have trouble following and understanding. But it is common for a professor to give a course outline and assignments to these students which allows them to search out the required material from a library or from internet sources. They can then submit a review paper instead of an exam for evaluation.

The typical Chinese student is quite cooperative. There is no shortage of those willing to help international students. Moreover many universities have volunteer communities of both Chinese and international students organised by their International Student Affairs Office (ISAO). There are also two orientations annually for new students to guide them for better settling in. ISAO is also responsible for arranging festivals like Pakistani cultural shows and international New Year gala.

There are sports activities that everyone can participate in. Senior students from the Pakistani community often remain in contact and, for instance, come to the airport to receive new students. They are known to arrange welcome and farewell parties.

Once settled in, the Pakistani student cannot help but notice that China is modernising with rapid strides and yet there are many traditional traits in everyday life – including the charming practice of camping on the banks of lakes on weekends, for instance.

Before their very eyes, the Pakistani students witness roads, high-rise buildings and even cities being reshaped. They are able to witness the economic rise of the much-vaunted middle-class.

Every day for the Pakistani student in China is to experience or learn something new.

But many of these students are not thinking of returning to Pakistan. The hard work they put in is aimed at obtaining good academic credentials and publications – so that they land good jobs immediately or move to Western countries for further education.

In China, too, Pakistani students are always eyeing greener pastures abroad!

Azam Tariq is based at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Huazhong agricultural university in Wuhan, China