Chasing dreams in China | Living Here

By Yu Yichun

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Sixteen Malaysian students participated in the Chinese Bridge Autumn Camp 2016, held at Hainan Normal University in southern China in October 2016.

July once again ushered in graduation season at Peking University in Beijing. Jaslyn Seah, an international student from Singapore, kept herself busy with graduation photos, dinners with friends and classmates and preparations for her return to Singapore. As part of the legacy she will leave behind at Peking University, Seah, along with a number of students from other ASEAN countries, as well as China, co-organized the first China-ASEAN Youth Summit in December 2016. While Seah and her peers are leaving the campus, the prestigious university is ready to welcome new students from ASEAN countries.

In 2016, the total number of international students in China exceeded 440,000, 45,000 more than 2012’s total. China has become the number one destination for university education in Asia, and the number of students from ASEAN countries in China has grown from approximately 50,000 in the year 2010 to more than 80,000 in 2016.

 

Common Aspiration

Wang Klai Kangwon School, a Thai royal private school in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province in south Thailand, enrolls students mostly from poor families. The school provides education as well as free food and accommodation.

A Thai student known in Chinese as Shao Jiawei, who is in his third year at Wang Klai Kangwon School, can write his name in Chinese without difficulty, and plans to attend university in China. In October 2016, Shao and several of his schoolmates took the HSK, a Chinese proficiency exam. Recently, they have submitted the Confucius Institute Scholarship (CIS) application form.

At Wang Klai Kangwon School, each high school student needs to select one out of five available foreign languages as a compulsory course. Nearly 40 percent of students choose Chinese, and this percentage continues to increase. The students who select Chinese as their foreign language share a common aspiration: to learn Chinese and apply for a scholarship to study in China.

In recent years, China has continuously increased the government scholarships it makes available to international students. In 2016, some 49,000 students from 183 countries received Chinese government scholarships, accounting for 11 percent of total overseas students in China. In recent years, preference has been given to students from Belt and Road countries. Therefore, students from poor countries are gaining access to greater opportunity for study in China than ever before.

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Jaslyn Seah (sixth from the left) with other students who co-organized the first China-ASEAN Youth Summit.

Since 2008, more than 20 students at Wang Klai Kangwon School have received CIS and realized their dreams of studying in China. Valee Amatayakul is one such student. She obtained her Master’s Degree in Chinese Language and Culture from Tianjin Normal University in 2016. In February she was recruited as a Chinese language teacher for prospective flight attendants at the Suan Dusit University School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, fulfilling her dream to be a Chinese language teacher.

“My mother works odd jobs at Suan Dusit University, so realizing my dream of becoming a Chinese language teacher would not have been possible without the CIS,” Amatayakul said. Because of the variety of available scholarships in China, stories like Amatayakul’s are now common across Southeast Asia.

 

Degree Programs Become Mainstream

As recently as just a few years ago, most overseas students went to China to study Chinese language. But now, degree programs are the norm. According to China’s Ministry of Education, around 210,000 international students came to China for degree programs in 2016, an increase of 13.6 percent compared to 2015. The pattern focused on learning Chinese has been transformed into a more balanced distribution of disciplines. The number of international students coming to China to simply study the Chinese language accounts for 38.2 percent of the total number of overseas students, down 15.3 percent compared with the year 2012. The most popular disciplines are Western medicine, engineering, economics and management.

Thidathep Leuammany, who was born and grew up in Laos, graduated one year ago from the International Economic and Trade Department at Huaqiao University, located in China’s Fujian Province. Now, she is enrolled in a Master’s Degree Program in International Business at the Guangxi University for Nationalities. When she has time, she advises her parents on expanding their family business.

“Nowadays, Laos and China have conducted exchanges and cooperation in diversified fields, and China is advanced in economics, technology and education,” Leuammany said. “Many people in Laos are eager to come to China, and more and more Chinese businesspeople have traveled to Laos to do business. Therefore, I hope to contribute my part to economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries.”

Leuammany’s parents have sent all four of their children to pursue their studies in China, which Leuammany feels is a testament to their far-sightedness.

With the rise of China’s economic status, many international students come to China to study economics and trade.

Lim Bock Chek, president of the Association of Graduates from Universities and Colleges of China in Malaysia, said that Malaysian students should take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about China, because it can help their personal development.

Twenty-six-year-old Lim Wei Jye, also from Malaysia, is now pursuing an International Master’s Degree in Transportation Engineering at the Institute of Rail Transit at Tongji University, located in Shanghai.

“I am very interested in the rail transportation industry, so five years ago after I graduated from university in Malaysia, I joined CSR Kuala Lumpur Maintenance Sdn Bhd., which has benefited from investment by China’s CRRC Zhuzhou Locomotive Company,” Lim said. “I worked as an engineer.”

In 2016, Lim learned that CRRC was teaming up with Tongji University to jointly launch a training program to cultivate international talents for the rail transportation industry. He submitted his application immediately.

“Even though currently the rail transportation sector in Malaysia is in its early stages, its development prospects are promising,” Lim said. “The courses at Tongji University cover vehicle technology and operational management. I want to learn as much as I can about China’s rail transportation technology and knowledge, and make contributions to my company and the rail transportation industry in Malaysia in the future.”

 

Sowing Seeds of Friendship

Because of the development potential of China’s inland provinces, Chen Zhi Hao, a Chinese Singaporean, chose to study as part of an exchange program at Wuhan University during his fourth year of university. “I was an intern in Shanghai before I headed for Wuhan University,” Chen said.

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Some international students who come to China to study the Chinese language bring their family members with them.

Chen graduated from Singapore Management University (SMU) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management and a second degree in Political Science. SMU has various exchange and cooperation programs with many Chinese universities.

“At that time, most of my classmates chose to take part in exchange programs at universities in China’s coastal areas. However, I think the inland provinces in China have more potential to develop,” Chen said. After returning home from Wuhan University, he was recruited by a government agency in Singapore and dispatched to work in Chongqing in southwest China in 2015.

Malaysians also find China an attractive destination for study. There are currently around 6,000 Malaysian students studying in China. Around half are enrolled in short-term courses, while the remaining 3,000 are pursuing Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree programs.

Malaysian Sim Kah Hui is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Hunan Normal University. Prior to enrolling there, she graduated from the Chinese Language and Culture College of Huaqiao University with a Bachelor’s Degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language.

“I had studied at state schools when I was a kid, and I can tell you that Chinese language education in Malaysia is not easy,” Sim said. “That makes me determined to contribute to the cause of Chinese language education in Malaysia after graduating from university.”

Sim added that she thinks that coming to China to study can help her experience the charm of Chinese culture, and is conducive to a more in-depth understanding of China.

Robin Koh, meanwhile, is a producer at a news website based in Malaysia. His interest in journalism began in China. In 2003, he enrolled in the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, the predecessor to the Communication University of China, and began an undergraduate course in journalism. He learned a lot about new media, including video editing. Some of his projects focused on China’s countryside, which Koh described as an “unforgettable” experience.

The year 2016 marked the China-ASEAN Year of Educational Exchange, which also contributed to a rise in ASEAN students enrolling at universities in China. Over the course of the year, China and ASEAN countries conducted nearly 300 colorful exchange events.

Chea Munyrith, Cambodian Director of the Confucius Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that through Chinese government scholarships, a large number of Cambodian students have gained opportunities to study in China. People-to-people bonds are a key area of focus in cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, and Southeast Asian students studying in China provide great impetus for the growth of such bonds.

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