First of all, I need to emphasize that the things that I’m about to rant about concern only students in degree programs (学历生 xuélìshēng), not students who go to China for half-a-year or one-year scholarship or exchange programs (which are usually more pleasant experiences and there is a significantly smaller amount of red tape and issues in those cases, of course not to say that there are none). Anyway, so what are the most annoying things I came across during my studies here in Nanjing?
1. It’s not clear when a semester starts and when it ends.
Yes, that’s right – in the beginning, you know the dates between which you should come and register as a student but that’s all. You will not know when the semester ends until very late into it. And God forbid you wanted to book tickets back to your country for the semester break and know the dates in advance – for some teachers, asking them to specify when their course finishes or when they plan to conduct the final exam is like a red flag to a bull. Because nothing is more important than the course and you should devote your time to it.
2. Other dates and deadlines are also not clearly set.
Later, it just gets more complicated. Deciding on a date on which you have to submit the thesis, required documents, date of the thesis defense, graduation ceremony… They’re always announced at a moment’s notice. Usually, you just have to look out for all sorts of messages sent on Wechat.
3. You never know when a teacher you need to see will be in their office.
Be it one of the teachers in charge of courses you attend or your thesis supervisor, or someone who is supposed to be working in the office full time (administrative staff) – when you go look for them, you’re taking a gamble. They may or may not be there. At my university and in some others I’ve head about, there are no specific office hours for the teachers, and even though the administrative staff has working hours, they’re often out. Asking them beforehand if they’re in the office helps… but only if they reply to your message.
4. everyone assumes you have other people to help you and it forces you to rely on others.
Your thesis supervisor, instead of correcting your thesis, will tell you to ask your friend to help you – both in terms of reading the content and correcting the language. I understand that these people are busy. But first of all, not everyone has such a great network of connections they can rely on (I mean as a foreigner, for Chinese people these connections – 关系 guānxi – are extremely important and they do put effort into maintaining them), and second of all, people are busy with their own stuff! It’s not my friend’s job to correct my thesis. Anyway, in some cases, you just need to spend some money to get the language checked.
5. The university can ask you to do some things you don’t want to do.
And in theory, they ask, not tell you to do them, but it’s unwelcome to decline. For instance, they can ask you to attend an event organized by the university which apparently doesn’t have enough audience. In order to save the performers’ face and make it look like there’s a great interest in the event, they make the students go. Sometimes they are quite interesting (like a performance of Chinese opera or a traditional music concert. Sometimes they’re not. In other cases, you can be asked to organize an event for the kindergarten which the teacher’s child goes to… Which is less fun.
6. Constant buck-passing
Chinese people are masters of shifting the responsibility to other people, all in the efforts of avoiding mafan (麻烦 máfan, hassle). If you want to survive here, you MUST become immune to it, grit your teeth and learn how to wrestle through it. So if you go to your university office, they will probably send you to another office. And there, maybe they will tell you to go somewhere else. I mean, on some level I get this – everyone is responsible for their work and if they answer questions outside of their expertise, they risk giving you wrong information. But it’s not always clear which office has which responsibilities, so you kind of bounce between them. It’s almost certain that the first time you try to get something done, you will fail. Don’t give up, this is the norm here.
7. And the teachers’ attitudes are not always great, either.
Sometimes they might be tired, sometimes you’re asking absurd questions or inquiring about things they already announced before so they get irritated – because they’re human beings. However, it’s not unusual for a teacher to adopt an unpleasant attitude over time just because they have a little authority. Sometimes they act as if telling you what should be done is extremely daunting and try to send you somewhere else even when they are the ones responsible (but you wouldn’t have to as them questions if they clearly said what you should do in the first place). Sometimes, when you ask them something, they give you a very perfunctory answer as if they couldn’t be bothered, so you have to ask again. And then the third time, and then maybe you will get the information you need. And this happens in person, not only through messages. That is why, in many cases, you have to be extremely, extremely polite when talking to teachers because some of them might get irritated faster and just send you away if you don’t. And there’s no institution like a student advocate here (at least I haven’t heard of it) so there’s no way to complain to a higher authority when you think you were wronged in some way. So, watch out.
8. More things that are not clear.
What are the requirements regarding the photograph you need to take, what are the requirements regarding the formatting style (格式 géshi) of your thesis, who’s in charge of which thing… Instead of preparing a clear list in advance with the things you need to do and people you have to see, universities in China like to surprise their students with daily notices about things they need to do. Or, if they do tell you something beforehand, they like to change it last minute. Or they change the requirement and you have to start anew.
Anyways! Studying in China is not always that horrible, there are many fun experiences to counter the bad aspects, but it’s important to remember that there will be a lot of annoying things on the way and it’s better to develop a thick skin. Focus on the long-term perspective and remember that everything will pass away.