One foreign student's report from Beijing (Peking)

By , Paul Fonoroff is an American graduate student in film and theater at the University of Beijing.

Life for the foreign student in China is full of contradictions: special privileges on the one hand, and a myriad of both official and unofficial restrictions on the other.

The special privileges often come at a monetary price. The foreign student dormitory at Beijing (Peking) University, for instance, places a maximum of two students per room; the Chinese students' dormitories typically house six to eight in a room. The foreign dorm also has the luxury of hot water two hours a day, six days a week; the Chinese dorms have no hot water at all, and students must go to the local bathhouse to bathe.

The fees for foreign student housing, though, are astronomical by Chinese standards: $30 each (US currency) for a double and $60 for a single, per month. The average monthly Chinese salary is $35 a month and, as education is free, students pay no tuition or housing fees whatsoever.

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Special privileges often come as the result of the novelty of foreigners, particularly Chinese-speaking foreigners. Is the restaurant too crowded and you can's find a seat? The staff will sometimes set up a special table for you in the kitchen. Are there no empty seats on the bus? The bus attendant may ask a nearby "comrade" to give us his or her seat for the "foreign friend."

It is up to the individual foreign student's conscience to decide which privileges to accept and which to decline. This is not to say that all restaurant workers and bus attendants are bending over backward to accommodate foreigners -- there seems to be a direct relationship between the decline in the novelty of foreigners and the decline in the quality of service.

American students also reap the benefits of the increasingly close relationship between the United States and China. When one phones for a taxi, the dispatcher never fails to ask the nationality of the caller. It is the consensus of opinion among the foreign students at Beijing University that Americans get the fastest service -- only a 10-minute wait. The Japanese and Europeans are next, with the African students often having up to an hour wait.

Such privileges are more than counterbalanced by various restrictions, the chief result of which seems to be to isolate the foreign students from the Chinese community.Even if a foreigner is more than willing to live six to a room and have no hot water, there is no way that he or she can get permission to live in a Chinese dorm.

Though foreign students can visit Chinese friends in their dorms with no restrictions, Chinese visitors often have to register on visiting foreign students. Chinese students can leave Peking at any time -- all they need is to have the free time and the money to buy a train ticket.

But foreign students must apply in advance for a travel permit. And permission to leave the city is granted only for official nonschool days, i.e., Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, even if one does not attend formal classes, as is the case of several foreign graduate students.

When foreign students travel, it is virtually impossible to get permission to stay in the cheaper hotels and hostels where Chinese students stay. In most cases there is no alternative but to stay in luxury hotels at rates that most foreign students find difficult to afford. In such hotels, of course, the foreigners are totally isolated from Chinese society.

One of the chief factors in the isolation of foreign students is a reluctance on the part of many Chinese students to be seen too much in the company of foreigners. Such fear is often attributed to the "lingering influences of the Gang to Four" or to the "residual poison of the feudalistic system."

The atmosphere on campus is for the most part quite free and open, probably more open than at any time in the last 20 years, and many students are more than willing to be friends with foreign students.

However, there are those who reasons that even though things are relatively open now, they do not know when the pendulum might swing back the other way and everyone who had associations with foreigners will be looked upon with suspicion , as happened during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

There are many examples of this contradiction in Chinese attitudes toward foreigners. One American was told by a Chinese classmate that he enjoyed visiting him in the foreign student dormitory, but outside the dorm he didn't think he was a good idea for them to be seen talking to each other.

Another American student was invited to a friend's house, but was told to come after dark so the neighbors wouldn't notice. He was also told to wear a hat just in case a neighbor saw him in the distance, his blond hair would be covered and it would be less noticeable that he was a foreigner.

This attitude can be put in a better perspective if one remembers that just five years ago if this family dared to have a foreign guest, the visit would first have to be registered with the local police. After the visit the family would have to report to the police on everything that was discussed. Even though such official restrictions no longer exist, the memories of them linger on.

On the other hand, there are many Chinese who are not afraid to have open contract with foreigners. One American has an open invitation to visit his classmate's home, and this Chinese family is totally unconcerned about who might know about the visits. They enjoy having guests and refuse to worry about their guest's nationalities.

(Text omitted from source) titudes and the new openness was best demonstrated at a Peking bathhouse. An American student was talking to two young Chinese workers when the bathhouse attendant, a man in his late 50s, stomped over and angrily told the Chinese not to talk to foreigners. The workers indignantly waved the man away and continued with their conversation.

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