Life at PKU

1) My experience doing Economics at PKU

Coming from a bilingual family background, I communicated and learned in Chinese as easily as in English since my early years. This lack of inhibition towards Chinese language made my decision to pursue undergraduate education in China as natural as attending university in the UK or US. Coupled with the fact that I had always wanted to experience a non-western influenced paradigm, China started to look like a realistic option. Since high school, I have been impressed by the explanatory power of Economics which helped me to make much sense of current affairs. As a quantitative social science, Economics offered me exposure to various academic fields including Mathematics as well as the Humanities, and this appealed to me greatly. Hence, when it came to course selection, I found myself leaning towards Economics naturally.

These experiences played a major role in my decision to enrol in the Bachelor of Arts in Economics degree programme in the School of Economics in Peking University. The curriculum is contemporary and modelled after those in US universities. Students are exposed to a broad range of academic disciplines according to university requirements and have opportunities to explore their interests. The only caveat is that all courses and examinations are conducted using Mandarin as the language of instruction and assessment, save for a few classes taught by foreign guest lecturers. I found myself having to “code switch” in order to learn directly through Mandarin rather than translation into English in my thought process.

A defining quality of the programme is the wealth of courses pertaining to China-specific economic issues that it offers. This cannot be found in universities outside China, and even within China, this programme ranks among the best. Professors and lecturers are highly experienced in their specific fields of study in China’s economy and may have differing perspectives from their western counterparts on various issues. This is especially interesting for Singaporeans who are usually exposed to western views and media. The programme also provides access to a substantial amount of academic literature, research and data specific to China’s economy during the course of studies. Almost all of this is in Mandarin and students will be well-trained to gather and interpret such literature upon graduation.

Learning opportunities are aboundin this intellectually stimulating programme. Furthermore, by living in China over an extended period, I was able to relate my study of China’s economy directly with economic events happening in China in real time, an opportunity which I found very useful in practising what I learned. Overall, students who would like to choose this path should be certain of their academic interest in pursuing Economics, including all relevant technical knowledge. They must be prepared to use Mandarin extensively in all aspects of their studies and life in the university. More importantly, they should also have a passion for studying and understanding China’s economy. Such students would benefit most from this programme.


2a) The academic culture at PKU

The joke goes that when a guy asks a girl to self-study with him in the library, it means he’s asking her on a date! This is followed by a mental image of the boyfriend riding a bicycle with his girlfriend on the backseat, reading a copy of the “red ruby”, a famous Graduate Record Examination (GRE) preparation guide. Truth is, students in the university live perfectly normal collegiate lives balancing studies and leisure, and dates do occur in normal places, outside libraries. There is certainly no oppressive atmosphere or pressure to study to extreme levels. Although, there is a perennial interest among Chinese students to practice conversation in English whenever they chance upon a native English speaker, which can be rather amusing. Singaporean Chinese students often pique the interest of local Chinese students due to our Chinese appearance and fluency in English.

Just as in western universities, professors and lecturers are approachable and open to conversation. Some of them can have liberal academic views, especially those who have earned their doctorates from western universities. Local Chinese students are also open to discussions on various issues. However, discretion is still advised on sensitive topics, example Taiwanese independence etc. Still, Peking University is well known for being a relatively liberal institution among Chinese universities. In general, students will not have problems expressing their views freely.


2b) The social culture at PKU

Due to financial reasons, local students stay in subsidized dormitories while international students stay separately in unsubsidized student residences. Otherwise, local students and international students are completely free to interact under almost all circumstances. A wide variety of co-curricular activities are available for students to participate in and international students are free to pursue these activities without restriction. On the “local” front, the Singapore students’ community is strong in Peking University and Singapore students will have no problems maintaining their connection with home. There are frequent gatherings and events to keep the Singaporean identity strong. This tight, close-knit community is an especially strong mutual support group during the tough exam months and cold winter season.

Peking University is located close to Tsinghua University and other universities, creating a vibrant and lively college district where Singapore students will have opportunities to interact with students from other Chinese universities. The area is also littered with smallish restaurants and eateries serving food from all parts of China. The food culture is definitely worth experiencing and typically being foodies, Singaporeans are in for a culinary treat. Local shopping and nightlife venues in the district also cater to student tastes, with distractions abound to tempt and draw one away from their studious duties.

On a larger scale, Beijing itself is a modern metropolis, with many avenues for leisure and entertainment. Students who are into shopping, dining, night life and other recreational activities will be spoilt for choice. A large number of reputable international establishments have set up shop in Beijing and Singapore students will find that opportunities for consumption are just as abundant as or greater than in Singapore. Additionally, Singapore students generally enjoy higher purchasing power due to the favourable exchange rate and are able to take advantage of all the opportunities to enjoy a higher standard of living and independence.

There are excellent opportunities for traveling around China while at the university. The cost is low and travel itineraries can be far more interesting than those offered by commercial tour operators. There are a number of less well-known travel destinations that students will have greater opportunities to visit, compared to international travellers coming from outside China. An interesting suggestion is to cross the Chinese border with North Korea and visit the hermit kingdom. It is a rare opportunity available to students in China, who have VISA re-entry access to China.


3) Any anecdotes and experiences that really stand out in your time in China

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The search for my ancestral hometown is by far my most memorable experience in China. I made the journey by train from modern Beijing, to humble second and third tier cities, before switching to bus and bike, and making my way through the rolling tea hills of the rural south China countryside. It brought me through the Hakka heartlands dotted with “tulous” and a mountain temple enshrining the mummy of the last patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Upon arriving at the birthplace of my grandparents, I could only converse in Teochew dialect with the elderly locals who pointed out the way through the winding alleys and footpaths to the house in which my grandparents once lived. It is especially thought-provoking, seeing for myself the land on which generations of my ancestors had been born and buried on. For all the hardships they endured and the arduous human journey spanning across multiple lifetimes that my collective ancestors had to make, it has brought me to that same spot where they had once stood on, with my deepest respect and admiration for them.