Singaporean Jaslyn Seah helped to organise the first ever China-ASEAN Youth Summit in Beijing last year. As she prepares to leave China this year, she discusses getting out her comfort zone, making international friends and feeding pandas in Sichuan.
By Duncan Gordon
Jaslyn Seah prefers to take the path less travelled. That’s why in 2013 she decided to study International Relations at Peking Univeristy in Beijing, rather than the more conventional destinations in Western countries for Singaporean students who choose to study abroad. Jaslyn will leave Beijing this summer to begin studying for a Master’s degree in the UK and has been reflecting on her time spent studying in China.
China the place to be
Jaslyn was first exposed to life in China back when she was sixteen. “I spent six weeks in Shanghai and six weeks living in Beijing as part of a bicultural studies program. We had lessons about Chinese history and culture and visited attractions like the Great Wall and Forbidden City. I loved those three months so that’s what made me decide to study in China.”
As Jaslyn spoke Chinese at home with her family and even did a whole A-level subject in Chinese while at school, the language barrier did not daunt her. Nonetheless, it was sometimes still a challenge after she began her international relations degree in Beijing.
“Each professor has their own accent, so it wasn’t necessarily the same Chinese that I was used to. On top of that the teachers sometimes speak very quickly. The majority of the students on my course are Chinese so the teachers will not slow down for the international students that might be struggling. It was definitely hard work to write as fast as they were speaking.”
International relations is undoubtedly an interesting subject to be studying in China right now. Jaslyn says that studying the subject in China satisfied her interest in global affairs but also offers a different perspective on the workings of the international arena.
“I think with the rise of China it’s interesting to see how this country plays an ever bigger role in world affairs and is increasingly able to shape global politics.” Jaslyn notes.
Jaslyn also believes that observers should look at Singapore-China relations optimistically. She cites the government-to-government projects of the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-City and most recently the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative as evidence of the goodwill between the two countries. Of course there will be tensions, like in every relationship, but they are on the right track, she says.
China-ASEAN Youth Summit
Due to her keen interest in international relations, Jaslyn has maintained an important role in Peking University’s Southeast Asian student community through organising a series of events.
“My first experience of getting involved with the ASEAN student community in Beijing arrived when I was secretary of the Singaporean Student Association. I helped organise the Singaporean athletes for the Beijing-ASEAN Student Games,” Jaslyn recounts. That is not such an easy task when there are only about 200 Singaporean students in the city.
“I went on to join the organising committee for the following Games. It was then that I realised there were very few avenues like this for ASEAN students in Beijing to interact with Chinese students.”
That gave Jaslyn an idea. She got together with some friends and talked to their professor, Zhai Kun, about organising the first China-ASEAN Youth Summit. A model-UN conference for both Southeast Asian and Chinese students to come together and discuss the topics that are most important to the region. Zhai Kun liked the idea and used his contacts to get the ball rolling. The three-day event took place in December 2016 and was attended by experts, government representatives and press.
Jaslyn gave an emotional speech at the end of the summit to talk about the event and thank everyone involved. Over a year of hard work had paid off with a really successful three days.
The baton has now been passed over to the newly formed Southeast Asian Association at Peking University, which Jaslyn helped to establish. “Now that the association will run it annually, I am confident that it will be sustainable. I will be in the UK next year, but maybe I will fly back for it,” Jaslyn muses with a smile.
Memories and the future
“The best thing about Beijing is the people I have met and the friendships I have forged. Especially through organising the summit, I made a lot of new friends, people who I probably would not have had the chance to meet if I did not organise this event. For example, I made friends from Cambodia, which is hard as there are not many Cambodians here but through the summit my circle of friends expanded beyond the university. That’s the reason I came to study in China, to make both Chinese friends and meet people from different countries. Collaborating with Chinese and international people, you understand more about how they work. I think the friendships are what I will miss most about China.”
Jaslyn has also had the chance to travel extensively in China and shares one of her best memories. “I went on a school program for international students to a panda reserve for a few days in Sichuan province. The panda is China’s national treasure, so you want to get close to it while you’re here. It’s pretty hard to do but we were really lucky. We cleaned the enclosures, fed the pandas, and talked to the people who look after them on a daily basis. It was pretty cool.”
What are Jaslyn’s plans for life after Peking University? “I will go to study a Master’s degree in the UK later this year. After that I will return to Singapore to work but I am sure I will do something related to China in the future and come back here often.”
“Studying in China is an experience that you cannot get anywhere else. I think when you study in other places where there are a lot of people from your own country, it is very easy to slip into your comfort zone and just be with the people whom you are comfortable with. Here in Beijing there is a comfortable number of Singaporeans but then again you don’t get the feeling you can just stay in a Singaporean circle.”
“There is always something new to discover in China, something that surprises you, from the traffic, to the school, the people you meet. One of the reasons I came was to take a path less travelled, not going for something conventional. To anyone who’s thinking of coming; go for it, but be prepared. If you want to take a course in Chinese – prepare for it, don’t come and then be shocked by the difficulty of it. Find out about it, ask people about China, and then go for it.”