Seemingly simple choice of colleges can make all the difference for Chinese students

The World

Christy Chan graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Christy Chan.)

Story by Angela Sun

Dunkin Donuts large iced teas, MacBook Pros, and fraternity and sorority parties were the staples of my American college life.

But every time I dial country code 86, I am reminded that I am connected to something vastly different.

My extended family lives in China.

Although my cousin and I have the same hazelnut eyes and call the same man ah-gong, — grandpa — we have been swapping contrasting stories throughout our college years.

When I was 17, I mourned over a spring break lost to studying for the SATs. But meanwhile, my cousin Christy had dedicated her entire senior year to preparing for the Gao Kao, or China's national higher education entrance exam.

The Gao Kao is so comprehensive and difficult that instead of teaching new material senior year, high schools across China hold only review sessions.

So it was quite a feat when my cousin Christy was able to rise to the top among nine million other Chinese students and secure a spot at the coveted Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Among people in mainland China, the reputation of Hong Kong universities is just shy of the American Ivy League schools.

“It’s like the highest university between mainland China and the international level,” Christy said. “When you graduate from a University of Hong Kong, you will get higher pay when you come back to the mainland to work and higher reputation. People will think that you are higher educated.”

And this reputation will cost students just $10,000 a year in tuition.

Christy says her tuition in Hong Kong is 10 times more expensive than tuition at mainland universities, and two times more expensive what's charged to local Hong Kong students.

But it's still a far cry from what's charged in the United States.

My school, Tufts University, just hit me with a $43,000 tuition bill for the coming school year. Hello student loans, and goodbye financial freedom.

Christy laughs, because either way, for her it was worth it. She is on her dream career path, working at a major international advertising agency in Hong Kong.

Students like Christy, who go from the mainland to Hong Kong, are highly competitive in the job market because of their language and multicultural skills. Most of mainland China speaks Mandarin, while Hong Kong is made up of people who primarily speak Cantonese and English.

So each year, hundreds of thousands of mainland students push and shove for a spot on this elite school bus — but Christy doubts that a Hong Kong education is everyone’s calling.

“More and more people come here for a better future. But they didn’t really consider whether or not their characters are suitable for here,” she said. “If they have language barriers, things can be very difficult. They must be independent and open-minded to make local friends. If they only want to stay in their own circle, only study hard, they can feel very lonely and helpless here.”

Her narrative is familiar to me. I moved around a lot growing up, drifting between continents — I was always the new kid in the cafeteria. Freshman year of college, I moved from Beijing to Boston, and still got my regular dose of culture shock.

It was the first time in a while that I had been an ethnic minority at school, and it still took me a good couple of semesters to come out of my shell and mingle with people of different backgrounds.

But Christy said being a mainlander in Hong Kong can be a little more complicated. Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years, and so the culture in Hong Kong is in some ways more western than Chinese.

“In Hong Kong, such a small city, most of the news happening in mainland that they can get is negative,” Christy said. “And they don’t really like tourists from mainland, who may not understand the culture in Hong Kong.”

She cites an incident a few months back in which a mainland tourist was eating food on the subway, an act prohibited in Hong Kong. She said that this incident drew heated criticism from the Hong Kong people.

People in Guangdong, the mainland province Christy is from, speaks Cantonese. So Christy didn’t have the language barrier during her transition.

But she still felt the tension between Hong Kong and mainland people seep its way onto campus.

"Hong Kong students think that the mainland students are taking resources form them, like hostels, scholarships, and all the As," she said. “Because I don’t have the language problem, Hong Kong students often see me as a local. And they may judge mainland students in front of me, just face to face. They know that I can understand, but they forget that I am from mainland."

Angeline Yuen, vice president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says bringing more mainland students to Hong Kong allows both sides to gain a deeper understanding of the other.

So in a way, Christy is a trailblazer. But she says Hong Kong University life has had just as much to offer her.

“We have a lot more freedom on student’s life. We can leave the classroom at any time ... we don’t have to go back to the hostel before twelve,” she said.

Going into my fourth year of college, I can’t imagine a curfew anymore. But then again, not much is open past midnight — besides a local pizza joint.

But going to Hong Kong from the mainland, Christy has found liberty to do more than just spontaneously crave for a greasy slice of dough.

“There were political issues in China, they have to take courses related to political ideology. You can’t touch on some sensitive topics. But in Hong Kong, we can say whatever we like. We can speak to our professors in a comparatively equal way," she said.

Now Christy is settled in Hong Kong. I haven’t seen my cousin in a while, but I do get a updates on her life.

“You have more freedom. You can log into Facebook,” she laughed.

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