It is fair to say that life in a Chinese university seems a wee bit more regimented than it was at Cambridge. Classes are convened with school bells, albeit gentle ones in our International students faculty, and punctuality contributes to one’s end of term result. My BA was slightly exceptional in that we couldn’t really afford to skip sessions: if we missed a lecture we might learn how to talk our way into a train station but be stuck without the language to buy a ticket; or worse never learn to distinguish the difference between hemp and horse. Classmates taking more familiar subjects could easily skive off for a term as long as they handed in their essays and read enough to pass their exams. Attendance and respect remain integral in Tsinghua’s system.
Today I walked back from our first formal schoolday across the snow-sprinkled plastic football grass. Two rows of students stood on the halfway line with slightly bowed heads and their hands behind their backs while a coach gave them the start of term pep talk. The football sat some distance away from the group and it didn’t look like they were going to get anywhere near it for a while. I thought this was a one off but my route takes me between the basketball and tennis courts and as I approached I noticed more of the same formations. I didn’t get close enough to hear whether or not it was a universal spiel but each coach was in full flow as I stopped to take photos and still going when I looked back 5 minutes later.
Our University spirit is Actions Speak Louder than Words, our vice chancellor (or some such official) told us at our three hour induction on Saturday. As well as the big cheese we had presentations from the International Students Office, the Head Librarian, the student rep from the Buddy System, the Psychological Counselling rep – excellent English but that he struggled a bit with “psychological” – and a lady who took us through the system to choose elective courses online in painstaking detail. A number of the systems are only in Chinese characters and around the room I heard the electronic click of smartphones taking “notes”. I was one of the few dinosaurs with a pen and paper and I couldn’t keep up; how on earth can you write down all the menus and information contained in a screenshot anyway?
The hall of some 500 foreign students had been called to order with a loud bark of “attention please!” from a mild looking girl. Probably not the way you would hush a room where most of the students came from but it worked as a shock tactic. There followed a mishmash of University cheerleading and basic survival skills; from the glory of our school and its alumni to a warning not to open the door to strangers.
This was delivered by the head of safety and security, a slim and gently spoken man with a beautifully dry delivery, from whom we got a good half an hour of similar top tips. He talked us through everything from visa transgressions and dire warnings about drugs and the death penalty to an admonishment not to smoke in bed “because it is a bad habit” and not to fight with a drunken man “because it is pointless”. Although the Chinese have “a long tradition of drinking alcohol” the school authorities must have learned from experience that we foreigners aren’t too good at it. He was at pains to put distance between the university and our behaviour should we be stupored enough to climb into the Ministry of Affairs, as one student did last year the night before he was due to fly home. Said student obviously missed his flight and our safety guide concluded, apparently without irony, “I don’t know what happened [to him] in the end.” The younger students laughed uncertainly.
I bought some incense the other day and am most disappointed that along with cigarettes we are forbidden to light anything in our rooms even when not in bed. Sensible I suppose given the weather here is so dry that your room could go up like a tinderbox. It feels a little unfair though that throughout the city they were allowed to set off several tonnes of gunpowder over the weekend and I can’t even mask the smoke with a tiny bit of my own.