College life


Recently, I got a phone call from one of my best friends since high school. She lives in China and attends university in Beijing. After our chat, I started thinking about the differences between college life for a Chinese student here and in China.

Before college:

My friend, Zhuo, represents a large number of traditional university students in China. They take the college-entrance exam (GAOKAO) at the end of the 12th grade. It is highly competitive and can be taken once a year. Only 75 percent of 9 million students can be enrolled in college.

International students such as me usually take one “gap” year to study for the American SAT as well as the language exams TOFEL or IELTS. Then we apply for universities in the United States.

How our lives differ:

Studying: Students in Chinese universities are typically required to study in a monitored study room from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every week night in order to finish their schoolwork. Admittedly, this is kind of a strict policy, but students benefit a lot from this enforced study time, because it teaches time management. In the United States, the studying time could be less or longer, which totally depends on the students. This practice is obviously more flexible and trains us to be self-disciplined.

Majors: In China, students choose a major before entering a university. Students typically do not switch majors, because it makes the process more difficult. This rule forces us to think deeply about choosing the right major. In the United States, we can easily switch between majors in one day or combine two very different majors. I, for instance, study journalism and electrical engineering. This would not be possible in China. So I am quite happy with this system, because it allows me to pursue my interests.

Life: In China, we always play cards with our friends during the weekend. And evening entertainment might include karaoke, going to a movie theater, or hitting the bars. In the United States, I usually end up at a Chinese friend’s house who is hosting a party. Here, lots of Chinese people come together during the weekend and talk about lots of different topics. Most of us look forward to a long weekend, Thanksgiving holiday, or spring break to take a road trip. For instance, last year, I went to the East Coast with my friends to explore.

Transportation: In China, college students rarely have their own cars, so they almost have zero chance to drive. But most universities are in big cities, where people can get around on public transportation. Here in Iowa City, while I don’t have a car, I often rely on my friends who do have cars in order to get around.

Living arrangements: In China, students need to stay in a dormitory during their four years of university. Usually, there are four to six people in a single room, and women are separated from men. Though there’s a lack of privacy, this arrangement will help students to learn how to get along with each other and work through conflicts. Those students also enjoy chatting with each other before going to sleep. In the United States, like so many others, I only spent my freshman year in the dorm, then moved to an apartment. I like the personal space and being able to make food for myself.

As an international student, I love my life in Iowa City and the American opportunities I have to experience. Still, I embrace my Chinese roots. My dream is to help establish a Chinese-American cultural club here in Iowa City in which we can exchange ideas and have fun together.

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