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Kavitha Dispatch

People are Strange, When You're a Stranger!
July 22, 2000

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Our friend Lixiao has shown us Xi'an and the life of a college student too.
Most of you probably have a pretty good idea of what college life is like, but do you know what college life in China is like? I didn't think so! That's why I wanted to introduce you to my new friend Lixiao (pronounced: Lee-si-ow). She's 19 years old and is in her second year at the Xi'an Foreign Language University (XFLU). Let's go visit her dorm and find out a little more about the life of a college student here in China...oh but wait, Lixiao wants me to forewarn you, "I'm a bit strange for Chinese students, don't think they are all like me!"

XFLU's campus is pretty similar to universities in America, with students walking down tree-lined walkways in between big buildings of classrooms or dorms. Unlike my university back home though, there are no coed dorms for the students here, at least not the Chinese students. All the foreign exchange students from abroad stay in a separate, nicer, coed dorm, but for Lixiao and her classmates, it's boys on one side and girls on the other. "We stay behind this guarded fence, like a prison, because no boys are allowed in our dorms," explains Lixiao, "but we're allowed in theirs. We think they allow girls to visit the boy's dorms, because that's the only way their dorm gets cleaned! All the girlfriends go and clean up after their boyfriends!"

Lixiao and I walked through the guarded fence and past all the other girls coming to and from classes or the dining halls and started our long walk up to her room. Her dorm is enormous, and she giggled as she told me she lives on the 6th floor (there's no elevator!). The sound of chattering girls echoed through the halls. "How many people live in this building?" I asked. "Ohhhhhhhh so many. At least over a thousand I think!"

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Life of a college kid...can you imagine having 8 roommates?!!!
I didn't really believe her at first....until I saw her room. Lixiao's room is small, probably about the size of my freshman dorm room, the difference is that I only had one roommate, and she has 8! If all of these rooms down these long halls on every floor have 9 girls living in them, there's bound to be well over 2 or 3 thousand girls in this building alone!

I met some of Lixiao's roommates and was amazed to see how each one of them has converted her small space of her bunk bed into her whole room. They've got little bookshelves that hang on the walls, lamps that hook to the bed above, small trays that fold up to become their desks, small radios with headphones for their sound system...the works! There is no electricity in the room until after 11 PM, so if they want to study after dark, they have to go to the library or study in the hallways....but with hundreds of other girls walking around of course!

Lixiao and her roommates are all English majors and spent some time comparing their responses to the exam they had taken that morning. They all seemed pretty bummed, the same way I used to feel after taking a very difficult test. I asked to look at the test and was amazed to find it challenging even to me! Well, if nothing else, at least Lixiao and her roommates felt a little better seeing a native English speaker struggle over the exam too!

After looking through some of her beautiful pictures of all the great places she's traveled to with friends since she's been in college, Lixiao and I left to find somewhere a little more private to talk. "I don't feel very close with any of my roommates," she explained after we left the room. "They all think I'm really strange." I was surprised to hear Lixiao say this since she and her roommates appeared to get along fine, and because I don't see anything strange about Lixiao!

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Abeja and Lixiao enjoy a plate of steamed VEGETARIAN dumplings!
"Ohhhhhh there are so many things.... They don't understand why I'm a vegetarian. They don't understand why I'm a Buddhist. They don't understand why I'm interested in Chinese antiques or traditional medicine. They think I'm a very strange Chinese. I'm interested in the ancient traditions of China and all they care about is American stuff-- yet I'm the one who's not Chinese?" She laughs at how ridiculous it is.

Unfortunately, it seems being unique is not very accepted here in China. The same problem is too true everywhere, where people try to be like everyone else because of peer pressure, but here in China the peer pressure is a bit different. Lixiao gets pressure not only from other students, but also from her teachers and even her parents!

Part of Mao Zedong's brilliant strategy in creating the communist People's Republic of China was making sure that all people young and old were trained to accept the doctrines of the communist party. During the Cultural Revolution the only books allowed in schools were the "little red books" that contained quotes of Chairman Mao. Things have become much more relaxed, and while textbooks and other subjects have returned to the classroom, Communist Party thought is still a major part of the curriculum.

"All students become Young Pioneers when they are in primary school. That's the first step in becoming a party member. The teachers tell you that you have to join, that all good students are Young Pioneers, " explains Lixiao. "I was a young pioneer and then in secondary school I became a League member just like everyone else." The Junior League is the second step, and from there students are expected to become full Communist Party members.

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Even though she doesn't get any scholarships and has to study in such a cramped space, Lixiao is still a top student
Even in University the Communist classes continue. "I decided to stop going to the Communist class. I don't believe in their propaganda that tells you what is right and what is wrong," explains Lixiao. "My teacher kept saying that I have to take the class, but I told him that I am a Buddhist. The class is to make you a party member but to be a party member you are not allowed to follow a religion. Everyone laughs when I say I'm a Buddhist, even my parents, because they've all changed to accept the Communist Party, and now most kids my age are raised without religion." Even though Lixiao's grandmother is a Buddhist, her parents grew up during the Communist revolution when religion was banned, so Lixiao made the choice to become Buddhist on her own. Because she refused to take the communist class, her teacher prevented Lixiao from getting scholarships. Now even though she is a top student in her class, Lixiao does not receive any scholarships and her parents have to pay for her college. Her teacher continued to press Lixiao and asked her why she is friends with so many of the foreign students and why she doesn't get along with her Chinese peers. "He doesn't understand that I'm just not interested in what all the other students talk about. They all talk about the same things...about pop music and shopping and American movies."

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Lixiao's 'strange' friends are all individuals of all different ages. I think I like 'strange' people!
A lot of things about Communist China seem very strange to me. For example, why does your education cost money in a supposedly communist country? Or how it is that students call themselves League members on the way to becoming Communist Party members, but only talk about capitalist things like shopping. But, the major thing that's strange to me is the control the government has over ordinary people's lives. From Young Pioneers, to Junior League, to Party members, most of society is organized in to work groups under the Communist Party regulation. The party sets salaries, approves marriages and even pregnancy, chooses housing, and even assigns employment. No wonder it is so hard for a girl like Lixiao to try to be an individual.

Relevant Links:

Information about the study abroad program at XIAN Foreign Language University

Yes, there may be a lot of things I find strange about Communist China, but Lixiao is not one of them. Abeja and I have had the greatest time hanging out with Lixiao all week long. It's too bad so many of her classmates are too stuck in what they're "supposed" to be thinking and doing to see what a cool girl she is!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Big Toys for Powerful Boys: Visiting the Terracotta Warriors
Jasmine - Taking Time To Remember: The Invasion in Nanjing
Yang-Yang - Conquering Huangshan

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