China—I can get enough of it, but I do get excited each time I visit. There is just so much to wonder at, so much to try and understand. This week the air in Beijing is so polluted officials have warned people to stay indoors. Last week, when I was there, the sun never dared show up, but the air was relatively free of contaminates and I didn’t bother wearing my facemask. That’s a noun I don’t use in a sentence too often, surely. Shanghai, which you can see above, was just as grey, and the air was clammy, heavy, and even sinister, but the pollution levels were mercifully below alarm bell levels. That miraculously slender column of skyscraper you see above? That’s the Shanghai Tower, under construction, but soon to be the second highest building in the world at 128 floors, most of which will be as shrouded in smog, cloud, or both.
At the annual PhD Workshop, sponsored by the prestigious Chinese Scholarship Council, the brightest students in the land lined up to apply to Memorial. I traveled with the usual university suspects to harvest as many of those potential PhD candidates as possible, pitching our advantages in a highly competitive pool of recruiters. Our tables at the PhD fair were situated behind Laval, where, as happens each year, hordes of Chinese students congregated around their well-known recruiter who speaks Mandarin, as well as French and English, giving him the edge over many of us in the crowded hall. To our right, Melbourne, Australia, hosted a nonstop parade of hopeful, inquiring students. Whatever it is—high world rankings, a long history of welcoming international students, proximity to China—the lines around their table never diminished. You’d think they were giving away free tuition. The Canadian universities in attendance probably each interviewed roughly the same number of potential applicants, somewhere in the range of 150 over a couple of days in Beijing and an afternoon in Shanghai, to where, for the first time, the event extended.
Canada is attractive because Chinese parents consider us safe and affordable and our programs world worthy. But we are distant and cold, and so we have to pitch harder to their smart, skeptical children. Memorial’s low tuition is attractive, to be sure, but, honestly, a number of Chinese students looked at us as if we were pulling their legs, just could not take seriously the figures we were citing. In a room of competitors with annual tuition in the 20-30 thousand dollar range that was not surprising.
This year many of our interviewees wanted to participate in what they call joint programs. In fact, these are opportunities to be registered as visiting students. The Chinese Scholarship Council is pushing Chinese nationals to go abroad and study somewhere else for a semester or two, even for up to two years, as part of their PhD programs. This is a superb initiative but a hard sell for many of us. Our programs are highly structured and we are not in such a flexible groove that we can host nonregistered internationals in our courses or in our labs for that amount of time. But why not? If these students come fully funded, and are not draining resources from our home base envelopes, why shouldn’t we be welcoming them? As with many things, the Chinese are ahead of us, compelling their students to broaden their experience, learn from others, especially Westerners, and return with a deeper, richer sense of the world. This initiative combines on-the-ground academic and experiential learning and can’t help but improve the quality of one’s PhD. Dropping into China for only a week or so every year has greatly enriched my appreciation of the country and its cultural complexity, and helped deepen my appreciation for the culture shock Chinese students must experience when they visit us. At least they have the benefit of hanging around for a while and absorbing so much more than I ever could in their country in a week, no matter how many variations of noodles I devour. I wish we were more flexible, could be more welcoming of these keen visiting student scholars. Let’s host them for a few semesters, learn a few things.
I do wonder what Chinese students make, if anything, of the fuss surrounding our elections. Did the federal ballot boxes on campus last month inspire or confuse them? It is so obvious that China’s economy is operating today as ours does–as capitalism does—and that a middle class is rapidly emerging in the densely populated urban centres we visited. Millionaires are also sprouting as rapidly as KFC outlets in Beijing. The roadways are crammed with expensive cars. High rises loom with bold architectural inventiveness. Just look at that Shanghai skyline! It’s breathtakingly 21st century. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine one is walking the streets of a one-party dictatorship. But as people strive to earn more and improve their situations they are profoundly distanced from any sort of democratic process, from political engagement on any level. And it is virtually impossible to know what sort of social or criminal justice system is in place. That’s all happening on some other stage, far from the official news or newspaper stories. I doubt anyone talks or gossips about political officials around the dinner table. How would one even know what to say?
Each year I visit the censoring of social media gets more intense. Wifi is ubiquitous but barriers far thicker than the Great Wall keep access to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram prohibitive. China is like but so much not like us, all the more reason to expose Chinese students to the differences. This year’s visit to the PhD fair will yield more brilliantly prepared Memorial doctoral candidates, no doubt, and possibly some shorter term visitors. We owe it to them and ourselves to make the most of a deeply privileged situation.